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

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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.

Following the Word of Life

Lectionary 21B, August 26, 2018

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-71

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.

It’s one of the great verses of the Bible, often-quoted and used in worship: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  And it’s true!  Jesus’ words bring life to all.  Moreover, Jesus is the living Word of God made flesh, all the things God wants to say to us wrapped up in flesh and blood and sent out into the world for all to see.  The life that Jesus brings is eternal, everlasting, extending from now and lasting past the end times and into the reign of God.  The life that Jesus brings is more powerful than death itself.  The life that Jesus brings is abundant, meant for all of creation and all people, meant to transform the world and our lives and our hearts and minds and bodies and all that is, seen and unseen.  There is no one else that has such life, no other source of it.  Peter knows this and is absolutely right about it.

Of course, the fact that Peter knows that Jesus is the only source of the words of eternal life doesn’t stop him from deserting Jesus in his hour of need, a couple of years later when Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and executed for blasphemy by the civil and religious authorities.  Peter didn’t just abandon Jesus, he denied knowing him.

And, let’s look at the rest of the people around Jesus now, the crowds and students and disciples and such.  Jesus brings the words of eternal life; Jesus brings himself.  Jesus feeds them both physically and spiritually.  Jesus overflows with food for their bodies and souls.  And what do they do with this gift of life?  They leave.  The physical food is great, but they don’t like the message that goes with it.  It’s too hard.  Too confusing.  Too weird.  People like Jesus as long as he’s predictable and giving them what they want.  But as soon as he’s asking them to think deeper, to challenge the way they see the world, they start leaving because his words are too hard for them.  And even the ones who stay with Jesus at this point aren’t going to stay with him forever.  Judas is there, and Peter, and both of them are going to betray Jesus in different ways.  Jesus is the Word of eternal life, but even the disciples who know that repeatedly choose to turn away.  Peter can say “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  But he can’t live up to that knowledge, or at least not consistently.

Why do we do that?  Even when we know better?  Even when we know all that God has done for us?  Even when we know that life comes from God through Jesus Christ, why do we still turn away?  Well, when the disciples say “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they’re right.  Jesus’ teachings are often hard.  I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard in my life where the preacher has devoted themselves to explaining how Jesus doesn’t really mean what it sounds like he means.  And sometimes they’re right; sometimes, there’s a difference in culture or context or language between then and now means that we hear things very differently from how Jesus meant them.  But a lot of the time, that’s not the case.  A lot of the time, the preacher just didn’t like what Jesus was saying, and so decided that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant it.  And religious professionals aren’t the only ones guilty warping Biblical texts to something that they like better.  Most Christians do it at least some of the time.  This is true regardless of denomination, of training, of political convictions—knowing that the words of eternal life come from God through Jesus Christ does not stop us from turning away from those words, or leaving them behind, or turning them into something that we like better.

For example, we’ve spent the last several weeks going through John 6.  Jesus has been talking about drinking his blood and eating his flesh.  Okay, we know he’s talking about the bread and wine of communion, not literal cannibalism, but we can understand how his original hearers would be confused since it really only makes sense when you know about Jesus’ Last Supper and his crucifixion and resurrection, none of which have happened yet.  So the body and blood stuff would have been hard to hear for his original listeners in a way it isn’t for us.

But that’s not the only thing that’s hard to hear about this chapter.  Jesus fed people and then compared it—and himself—to the manna in the wilderness.  Remember that, from the book of Exodus?  Every morning, the people would go out and find a mysterious bread-like food covering the ground.  They could gather only as much as they needed for that day, no more, or it would go bad.  The lesson of the manna, which they forgot as soon as they came into the Promised Land, was to trust God.  To depend on God.  To trust that no matter how dire things were, God would be there, every day, fulfilling God’s promises.  The people of Israel had to learn to trust God and not their own abilities.  They had to trust God more than their resources, more than their intelligence, more than their health and wealth, more than politics or economics or experience, more than anything else in the universe.  That’s what Jesus is telling people to do in this passage.  Trust God’s gifts of life, more than anything else, no matter what.

I bet if I asked you, most of you would say you trusted God.  But.  Could you live like that?  Could you live every day knowing that God’s gifts were a literal life-and-death difference in your life?  Could you trust that God would provide more than you trusted your own ability to figure out a way to get what you needed?  Could you trust God more than your own ability to work hard, more than your ability to think and figure, more than your assumptions of how the world works, more than anything else in the world?  Most people can’t, or at least, we can’t for long.  We tell ourselves that we’re trusting God, but really we’re trusting ourselves and telling ourselves what we want to hear.  And so we go astray.  Just like the people did in our Gospel reading.  Just like Peter did, after Jesus’ arrest.  But you know what?  Even when we go astray, even when we betray Jesus, even when we forget that Jesus is the only true Word, God does not turn God’s back on us.  God’s grace and forgiveness are lavished on us no matter what, and Jesus the Word keeps speaking to us until we hear him again and turn to him once more.

Consider our reading from Joshua.  That, too, contains one of the great classic lines of the faith.  “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  You see it embroidered on pillowcases, printed on bumper stickers, calligraphed on wall hangings.  It’s a beautiful statement of faithfulness to God.  God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God has led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and here Joshua their leader brings them together after all they’ve been through and reminds them of all that God has done for them, the freedom and new life he is giving them, and asks them to choose to serve God.  And the people give a resounding yes!  “It is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

Problem is, they failed.  They were sincere when they made the promise; they just weren’t sincere for very long.  They failed repeatedly and consistently.  That’s the story of the rest of the Old Testament.  The people promise to serve God and live as God’s people.  They fail.  Sometimes by explicitly worshipping other gods, but sometimes by allowing injustice and oppression to take root among them while still giving lip service to God’s commandments.  God sends a judge or a prophet, the people don’t listen, things get worse, God allows their enemies to invade and conquer, the people repent, God saves them, but it doesn’t last.  People turn away from God, again.  It doesn’t matter what promises we make or what words God gives us: we turn away.

Jesus’ words and teachings are hard, if we really take them seriously.  This is just one of many that sound simple on the surface but are almost impossible to truly live out.  Thank God for God’s forgiveness and love, lavished on us even when we choose to go astray.  Thank God for the Word of eternal and abundant life present in Jesus Christ our Lord, who keeps speaking even when we turn away.  May we hear that Word, and may we always come back when we turn away.

Amen.

A Rebellious People

Lectionary 14B, July 8, 2018

Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

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 I read the Ezekiel reading right next to the Mark reading, a question occurred to me.  God tells the Ezekiel that the people of Israel are a rebellious people, that they probably won’t listen, but to go there and prophesy anyway.  And in Mark, Jesus goes to his hometown—to the people who know him best—but they don’t see him as anything special.  They don’t see him as a prophet, or a teacher sent from God, and they certainly don’t see him as God’s Son.  They’ve known him his whole life, they take him for granted, and that knowledge gets in the way of seeing him for who he truly is, and it gets in the way of hearing his message of forgiveness and grace and healing.  They are so sure they know who he is that they are offended when he steps out of the neat little box they’ve put him in.  By refusing to see God when he steps out in front of them, they are rebelling against God.  But if you had told them that, if you had explained that their ideas about Jesus and about God were mistaken, they would have been even more offended.  They believed themselves to be faithful followers of God who were doing exactly what God had called and commanded them to do, and that belief was so strong that when God stood in front of them in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, they did not believe it, and they were offended by it.

So my question is, what about the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day?  Did they know they were rebellious?  Did they believe it when God’s prophets told them?  Or did they honestly believe that they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do?  Did they have an idea of who God was and what God wanted that was so inflexible that when God called them to something different they disregarded it?  Had they convinced themselves that their own ideas and desires came from God?  Did they twist God’s word to fit their own prejudices and assumptions, and then assume that everything they did was according to God’s Word?  Is that why they are so stubborn, because they have convinced themselves that God could only say things to them that fit their preconceived ideas about God?

Which brings me to my next question: what about us, here, now, today?  Because we do that, too.  We all have ideas about God, and all too often I see people ignore the work of God in their midst because it doesn’t fit with what they expect God to be doing.  We let our prejudices and our pre-conceived ideas blind us to God’s Word, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to Christ.  We are formed by the world, and then fit God into the spaces the world leaves, and think that tiny box we’ve shoved God into truly reflects our Lord and Savior.  We create God in our own image, instead of the other way around.   That may be most obvious with the “cultural Christians,” the ones who only show up Christmas and Easter and never crack their Bibles open, but I have seen committed, faithful people who are in church every Sunday do it, too.  And I know you have all seen people do this, too, although you may not always recognize it for what it is.  I bet most of us here have done it at least once, because it is very tempting, quick and easy, requiring no growth or change on our part.  And, you know, it’s a lot easier to see when other people are doing it than when we ourselves are.  Liberals notice it right away when conservatives do it, and conservatives notice it right away when liberals do it, but almost nobody notices when they themselves do it.  And when we see people we disagree with doing this, it is really easy to point it out, or even to attack them.  Our society encourages us to attack people we disagree with.  And when other people point out that we ourselves might be wrong, all too often we respond by treating it as an attack and hitting back, instead of stopping and asking, prayerfully and with an open heart and mind, if we are wrong.

Which then brings me to the next question: how do we stop doing it?  How do we stop being rebellious and impudent and offended by a God who doesn’t do what we expect?  Because if there is one thing we can learn from the Bible, God is constantly surprising people.  God surprised Abraham and Sarah when God called them out of their comfortable life back home in Ur and told them to wander, and God would give them a child in their own age and land to their descendants.  God surprised them so much that Sarah laughed at him when God told them.  God surprised Moses when he spoke to him out of the burning bush and told him to go back to the land he had fled from and set the Israelites free from slavery.  God surprised Samuel when God told him to anoint David the shepherd boy as the next king of Israel.  God surprised Israel when God punished them for their sins by allowing the Babylonians to conquer them, and God surprised the Jewish people again when God set them free to return home again from the exile.  God surprised Mary when God chose her to bear God’s Son, and God surprised the disciples when God raised Jesus from the dead.  God surprised the disciples again when God gave them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and sent them out to speak in new languages to spread the Good News, and God surprised Paul when God called him to stop persecuting Christians and become one.  God surprised Peter when God told him that the new Gentile followers of Jesus didn’t have to become Jewish in order to be Christians.

In fact, I can’t think of a single time in the Bible when God did something and it was exactly what everyone expected.  Even if some people had anticipated it, usually most people hadn’t, and even the people who did anticipate it usually got things wrong somewhere along the line.  So maybe that’s a good place to start.  When we think that you understand God, when we only see God doing things that we expect God to do … we are probably missing something, at the very least.  We know that God is present, at work in the world.  We know God is working for justice, peace, mercy, freedom from oppression, salvation, and reconciliation, because God has told us this many times throughout scripture.  What we don’t know is what that’s going to look like.  And the other thing we know from Scripture is that we are going to find it surprising, sometimes even shocking, at least some of the time.  And sometimes God’s actions will be so far outside what we expect of God that we are going to want to deny that it could possibly be God.  We’re going to want to be rebellious, impudent, stubborn, and offended.

Here’s some rough guidelines to follow: the most common description of God in the Old Testament is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  In the New Testament, we are told repeatedly that God is love, that love is the core of God’s very nature.  We’re also told repeatedly that God’s desire is for salvation, healing, for reconciliation—not just reconciling people to God, but reconciling people to one another.  Healing the wounds between people so that we can live together in harmony.  God gets angry, of course, but when you look at what makes God angry it’s pretty much always that human beings are hurting one another.  Just like any loving parent would get upset if one of their children hurt another.

So here’s my rule of thumb: if we see something happening and there is reconciliation happening, or a deep and pure love winning out over hatred and fear, God is probably involved somewhere.  If we see healing going on, or mercy, God is probably involved somewhere.  Even if it’s weird and strange to me, not somewhere I would ever expect to find God, I know there is a good chance he’s there somewhere.  If, on the other hand, there is hate and abuse, God is probably not involved.  If there are growing divisions and fears, if people are becoming more isolated or cruel or aggressive, then God is probably not present, even if people are using Bible quotes to justify themselves or claiming it’s God’s will.

Because of this, I try my hardest to work for healing, for reconciliation, and for understanding between people.  I try to spread love instead of fear or anxiety.  I try to point out the places in the world where there is abuse or injustice, and work for justice, equality, and healing.  This is not to say that I always succeed, or even that I always figure out the right thing.  But I do try, because I know that God will probably be there somewhere.  And I know that it’s not always going to be obvious, that sometimes it’s going to be surprising.  I know that I’m going to get things wrong sometimes, because we all get things wrong sometimes.  But I also know that the God who created us loves us still, even when we are rebellious and stubborn and impudent and offended.  God’s love is so deep that it will never let us go.  God forgives us even when we fall short, even when we can’t see—or don’t allow ourselves to see—what God is doing.  Thanks be to God for that love and forgiveness.

Amen.

Generosity, Charity, and Justice

Lectionary 13B, July 1, 2018

Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

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.

Our second lesson is a fundraising passage, where Paul is urging the Corinthians to give generously to the church in Jerusalem which was in deep need.  Corinth was a wealthy town with lots of industry and trade, whereas Jerusalem was a backwater where the followers of Jesus were being persecuted.  The Christians in Corinth weren’t exactly rich, but neither were they in serious trouble.  The Christians in Jerusalem, however, were in great need.  But Corinth is a long ways away from Jerusalem, and the Corinthian Christians had never met the Jerusalem Christians, and they had nothing in common besides a shared worship of Jesus Christ.  They spoke different languages, ate different foods, and were of different ethnic groups.  In fact, we think from clues elsewhere in the letter that the Corinthian Christians may have actually been in some sort of conflict with the Jerusalem Christians.  And now Paul wants them to send them money?  It was a pretty hard sell.  Most human beings are very generous when people we know are in trouble, and a lot less generous the further away you get.  Which is why Paul has to devote a couple of chapters here to fundraising.  Because then, as now, it’s hard to get people to give.

But as I read this passage, I wasn’t thinking just about Jerusalem, and Corinth, and fundraising campaigns.  I remembered an article my brother just sent me.  He was assigned to read in a religion class at his college.  The paper pointed out something which I knew from seminary but had never quite put together in that way.  You see, the Bible doesn’t think about charity in the same way we do today.  In fact, according to the Bible, most of what we call “charity” isn’t really charity at all.  It’s justice.

You see, according to God’s plan for the world, everybody should receive what they need to live their life.  In the Biblical laws, God commands God’s people to arrange their society to see to it.  In his fundraising appeal to the Corinthians, Paul quotes an Old Testament description of what society should be like: “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”  In other words, while there are still rich people and poor people, the rich people aren’t exploiting others or hoarding resources to get richer at the expense of others, and the poor people have enough to live a decent life.  No one is going hungry or naked, no one is homeless, no one is sick and left without care.  There is, as Paul puts it, a fair balance.  You help those who are in need when you are able; then, when you need help, others help you.  It’s not a few people doing everything, it’s everyone participating in mutual support and ministry to ensure that all people receive what they need and are treated fairly.  This is what a just world looks like, according to God.  That is how the world is created to be.

Therefore, if someone is hungry and you feed them, you are not doing an act of charity; you are doing an act of justice.  Feeding the hungry is not a sign that you are a particularly generous or good person; it is the minimum required to be faithful to God.  It is the minimum required for justice.  Now, you may notice that this sort of justice is not the sort of thing we can do as individuals.  One person feeding the hungry isn’t going to solve the problem of hunger.  But when you get a lot of people together working on the problem, whether as a faith community or a nongovernmental organization or a government, together the group can really achieve a lot.  On the other hand, if society as a whole is ignoring the problem and letting the poor and vulnerable people be exploited or fall through the cracks, it doesn’t matter if the individual members of that society are nice people, the society is broken and wrong.  Justice matters.  Money matters.  Community matters.  And, all too often, they are entwined.  The way we set up our businesses, and our government, and our taxes, and our economy, and our nonprofit organizations, all of it matters.  We have responsibilities both to act as individuals and as part of the community to see that God’s will for our society is done, and that all people receive what they need to live.  We do this not so that we will perpetually give and others perpetually take, but so that there is a fair balance.  If we help others in their time of need, they will be able to help us in our time of need.

So then where does all this leave charity and generosity?  If feeding the poor isn’t charity, it’s justice, what is charity?  Well, according to the Bible, charity or generosity is the stuff you do above and beyond the call of justice.  Making sure poor people always have enough nutritious and good food to eat is justice.  Giving them a pizza party in addition to that is charity.  Making sure sick people have healthcare is justice.  Flying a sick kid to Disney World is charity.  And charity is meaningless if you don’t have a foundation of justice underneath it.  If people are struggling to meet basic needs, all charity does is put a bandaid on a gaping wound.  God created ample resources in this world for everyone living here, so that there would be a fair balance.  God expects us all to use our resources to help one another, so that everyone has at least enough to get by, and everyone takes turns helping others and being helped.

We modern American Christians don’t like to talk about money, and especially not in a faith context.  In the church I grew up in, the pastor talked about money exactly twice a year: the two weeks before pledge cards were due.  And some American Christians today argue loudly that we as a society have no obligation to see that all people receive the resources they need, that such things should be the sole province of charities and churches, as if society has no moral obligation to its most vulnerable members.  But the thing is, money and economics are one of the topics the Bible talks about more than any other.  The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about economic justice, and the prophets constantly condemn God’s people for failing to live up to those laws.  In the New Testament, the two topics Jesus talks the most about are money and forgiveness.  If we are to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings and the words God has given us in the Scripture, we need to take money seriously and consider the impact of what we do as individuals and as a society.

I’m not telling you this to raise money for any cause.  I’m not fundraising.  I’m not telling you who or what to vote for—that’s not my job as pastor.  But it is every Christian’s job to faithfully and prayerfully consider how we spend our money, as individuals and as a society.  It is every Christian’s job to look out for those who are suffering or impoverished or just need a little bit of help, and work to see that they get what they need.  It is every Christian’s job to look seriously at what impact our government’s policies will have on the most vulnerable, and take that into account in the voting booth.  It is every Christian’s job to be generous to those in need, constantly and consistently, remembering and following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can’t fix the world; we can’t single-handedly bring God’s kingdom to earth.  But every time we make the world a little fairer, every time we help those in need or allow others to help us in our need, every time we make sure nobody’s slipping through society’s cracks, we get a foretaste of what that kingdom will be like.  We make that kingdom just a little bit more real.

It’s easy to be just and fair to the people we know, the people who are like us, the people we see every day.  It is easy to be generous and open-hearted when the people in need are those we love.  But it’s harder to care about injustice and need happening to other people far away, who are not like us.  We see this all the time in our own contemporary society.  And we see it in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Remember, Paul was asking them to support the needs of people whom they’d never met, who were from a completely different ethnic group and culture, and with whom they’d had some arguments.  God created the world to be full of abundance, enough for all, with a just and fair balance where nobody has too much and nobody has too little.  And God calls us to participate in that abundance, to be generous to others and receive generosity in return.  May we live our lives according to the justice and generosity God calls us to.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.