Torah, Torah, Torah

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

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.

Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  Which is a very interesting thing to say, considering that in just a few verses Jesus is going to start changing the law.  If you read just a little further, the next part of the Sermon on the Mount (and by next part I mean literally starting the verse after our reading for today ends) is Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ … but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment …”  And he goes on to talk about the commandments and give much more stringent interpretations of them than the letter of the law.  Jesus says the law can’t be changed right before he goes … to change it.  What the heck is up with that?

Here’s the thing.  There is a huge gap between how Jewish people understand the concept of law, and how Christians understand the concept of law.  Jesus was Jewish, and he’s using the Jewish perspectives on law, not Christian ones that developed long after he was dead.  So let’s explore what Jesus—or anyone else in the Bible—means when they talk about the law.  We’ll start by defining terms.  First of all, the Hebrew word for “law” is “torah.”  And it means a lot of things, because the Jewish concept of “law” is a lot broader than the Christian concept.  Torah also means teaching, or instruction.  Torah is the thing that teaches you how to be a good person, how to be a child of God.  In a broader sense, “Torah” is also what Jewish people call the first five books of the Bible.  The laws in Leviticus?  Torah.  The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants?  Torah.  Adam and Eve in the Garden?  Torah.  It’s all Torah.  Teachings, instructions, laws, given from God to God’s people.  When a Jewish person talks about “the law and the prophets” they mean Scripture.  Because the Hebrew Bible—what we Christians call the Old Testament—is made up mostly of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets.

So on one level, when Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” he is telling us that the Hebrew Bible is just as important to him and anyone who wants to follow him as it has always been to all Jewish people.  We can’t just take Jesus and the New Testament and throw out the rest of the Bible.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry and death and resurrection is based squarely on his position as the same God who created Adam and Eve, the same God who called Abraham and Sarah, the same God who freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the same God who chose them for God’s own people and gave them instruction and commandments on how to live and was with them in good times and bad.  Christians and Jewish people interpret many of those stories and teachings differently, but they are still the same stories and teachings.  And they are important.  If you have ever heard someone talk about the Old Testament God vs. the New Testament God, or anything that implied that Christians didn’t need to pay attention to the Old Testament because we have Jesus, or anything like that, they were being unfaithful to Jesus and his teachings.  The God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Christ Jesus.

But when Jesus is talking about how important the Law is, and how it can’t be changed, he meant more than that.  And, again, it goes back to the word Law, and how we don’t really understand it.  See, when we think of law, we think of modern legal codes.  Things written down in books, or, these days, posted on official websites.  They’re big, and complicated, and no one person could possibly know them all, which is why we have specialist lawyers who focus on, say, tax law, or corporate law, or criminal law, or family law, or whatever.  And when you want to know what law applies to whatever situation, you look it up in a big book, and that tells you.  And if there is a gap between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, well, you go with the letter of the law.  Because in most cases, it doesn’t matter what the people who made the law wanted it to do, if that’s different from what the law itself says.  If they wrote the law badly and the letter doesn’t match the spirit … that’s unfortunate, but nine times out of ten we go with what the letter of the law says.  The law is a settled thing, for the most part.

That’s not how laws worked back when the Bible was being written.  First of all, most law wasn’t written down.  It was about custom, about what the society thought was right.  And even when the law was written down, it wasn’t as inflexible as modern law is.  It was a guideline, a level, a way of thinking about right and wrong and how people should live their lives.  Education consisted of copying down the wisdom and laws and stories of your people, and discussing them with others, and figuring out the heart of what they meant.  The purpose of writing down laws was not to make a reference book to look things up in when you need to and forget about the rest of the time.  The purpose of writing down laws was so that you could have a whole class of people copying them down, discussing them, meditating on them, debating the finer points of how they would be applied in various circumstances, being shaped and molded by the ethical norms enshrined in those laws.  Listen to how the Psalms talk about God’s law: “their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”  “The law of the LORD gives wisdom to the foolish.” And there are a ton of psalms that talk about how the law of the LORD—the teaching, the instruction, the torah—are written on the heart.  If you want to know how people in Jesus’ day looked at the law, read Psalm 119.  It is a hundred and seventy six verses long, and it is all about how awesome God’s law is and what it means.  God’s law isn’t about dead words on a page that are a straightjacket for all time.  God’s law is about shaping us in God’s image, and making our moral view of the world conform to God’s will, instead of to whatever the society around us happens to think.  It’s not about the letter of the law.  It’s about the spirit of the law.  It’s about getting the spirit of the law so deeply ingrained in your mind and heart that it shapes everything you say, do, and think.  And what’s the spirit of the law?  Well, according to Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, all the rest of the law depends on that central truth.  All the rest of God’s Law are merely ways of organizing people to live out that law in their life and society.  If you ever read through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the question you always have to have in your mind as you read through is “how does this help me love God and my neighbor?”  Because no matter how weird or harsh any given commandment may sound, that’s what it was designed to do.  And even though we don’t live according to the letter of the laws as written down in the Old Testament, we absolutely still live by the spirit of those laws, or at least we’re supposed to.  What it looks like to love God and your neighbor sometimes changes, as the world we live in changes.  How we live out the command to love God and our neighbor may change.  But the core of the law, that doesn’t change.  And the core of the law is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

May we learn to keep this law always in our hearts and minds.

Amen.

What’s Your Call Story?

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 26, 2020

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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 get a group of seminary students together for the first time, one of the first questions is always “describe your call story.”  At official events, it’s an icebreaker question designed to help people get to know one another.  At unofficial events, people ask one another: Where were you when you felt God calling you to ministry?  What was it like?  My call story is that I felt like God was nudging me towards ministry from the time I was in middle school—a nudge that I resisted because I didn’t want to be a pastor at the time.  One of my classmates felt the call when he heard a particular sermon—and he wasn’t even a Christian at the time, just tagging along to church with his girlfriend.  Another felt the call while she was scrubbing toilets.  Sometimes the call came from the outside—family, friends, teachers, and pastors, who saw the gifts of ministry in that person, and told them they ought to consider being a pastor or deacon.  Sometimes the call came from the inside—an internal sense (sometimes vague, sometimes pointed, sometimes even in the form of audible words) that God wanted them to become a pastor or deacon.  Some calls happened in appropriately churchy and reverent circumstances.  Some calls happened in really weird or irreverent circumstances.  Sometimes people take the call right away.  Sometimes people run as far away as they can for as long as they can.  There are as many call stories as there are people called.  So the call story in our Gospel lesson—Jesus saying “hey, come with me and let’s fish for people”—is not even CLOSE to the weirdest or most far-out call story I’ve heard.

Of course, part of the reason that seminary students are obsessed with call stories is that we kind of have to be.  In order to get into seminary as a Lutheran you have to share your call story with your pastor, your bishop, and a committee of pastors and lay people from your synod, and convince them that God is calling you to ministry while they examine your history, your relationship with God, your mental health, your debt load, and many other factors.  And most other Christian denominations that require seminary training have similar processes.  In the ELCA, during this entrance into candidacy for ministry, you have to write a six-page paper about how and why you feel God is calling you and what is the core of your personal relationship with God.

Now, I’ve written many long papers in my life.  I was a history major and English minor in college.  My senior thesis was 25 pages long, and while it took a while to get done, I didn’t find it especially challenging.  Give me a topic I care about and I can give you six pages in a couple hours, no sweat.  But that six-page paper about my own experiences was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life.  It was so frustrating.  It had me in tears.  I could have written an abstract theological treatise, no sweat.  My own personal relationship with God?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.  I felt naked, vulnerable, like I was exposing something deeply private.  My parents were not very comforting, pointing out that if I was going to be a pastor I was going to have to talk about Jesus in concrete and personal ways, and so I might as well start now.

But the question is, why did I feel that way?  What made it so hard for me?  Part of that comes from growing up in a church where there was a lot of deep theological discussion, but nothing was ever put in personal terms.  Nobody ever said they saw God in something, or talked about how a piece of scripture impacted them on a personal level, or anything like that.  On the extremely rare occasions someone stood up to give a temple talk, it was usually a lecture on why you should give the church money or something like that, nothing like a personal testimonial.  There were edifying stories in the sermons, but those were about people I didn’t know, and usually fictional anyway.  I was very well equipped by this upbringing to expound upon Lutheran theology and Biblical interpretation at the drop of a hat.  I was completely unprepared to talk about—or even think about—what any of it meant for me, personally, or any community I was a part of.  I was really good at explaining how one should feel or think about any particular Bible passage.  But I was almost incapable of making the connection between theory and reality.  And, unfortunately, this is not unusual in modern American Lutheranism.  We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to sound like some of the more conservative churches we have theological disagreements with, and we don’t want to scare off any lay people by asking them to do something they might find too scary like speaking in public, and we want to make sure that everything said in worship or at a church event is theologically sound, and so despite our talk of a priesthood of all believers, the average Lutheran just doesn’t get the kind of support and help to be able to talk about the place of God in their life.

This is a problem for many, many reasons, but I’m going to focus on vocation today.  Vocation, from the Latin word for “calling.”  In the modern world, we use it in two circumstances: when we talk about people becoming church professionals such as pastors or deacons, and when we talk about “vocational training,” i.e. job training for blue-collar jobs like welding or computer repair.  The thing is, both of these things are firmly within the Lutheran theological understanding of the word “vocation.”  Vocation was actually a core part of Luther’s theology.  At the time, “vocation” only meant things that church professionals—priests, monks, nuns, etc.—did on behalf of the church.  Luther vehemently disagreed with this.  Luther believed and taught that God had calls for everybody.  Every job necessary to society could be a calling from God, because God was the ultimate creator of both humans and the societies we live in, no matter how marred by sin those societies are.

As Luther put it, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”  Or, as Luther put it another way, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.”  A farmer may be called by God to grow food for people, just as a contractor may be called by God to make and repair safe housing for people, just as an insurance agent may be called by God to help people through disasters.  Relationships can be vocations, too: some people are called to be parents, or to be friends, or spouses, and those vocations can be more important than any vocation we have career-wise.  Vocations can change throughout our lives as our circumstances change, and we can have more than one vocation at a time.  Vocation is—or should be!—the foundation of everything we do, not just in church and not just if we’re religious professionals, but for everyone.  But in order for that to be true, we have to be listening for God’s call.  We have to be praying about it, and thinking about it as we study scripture, and talking about it with people of faith whose opinions and judgment we trust.  Not all calls are the same.  For example, in the call story in our Gospel, the fishermen are called to leave their nets and follow him.  In many other call stories in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he’s calling to stay in their communities and do ministry there.  Figuring out calls can be complicated.  But if we’re serious about being people of God, it’s not optional.

And vocations aren’t just for individuals.  Vocations are for congregations and communities, too.  Because God is calling us, just like God called Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John the son of Zebedee.  As we make decisions for our congregation today, we need to think about what God is calling us to do in the coming year.  But it doesn’t stop at the congregational meeting.  It’s a question that should always be in our thoughts, prayers, and discussions.  May God be with us, and may we hear and respond to God’s call.

Amen.

The God of Small Things

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

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

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.

Luke’s account of Jesus birth begins with power and might—worldly power, that is.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  The Roman Empire ruled as much of the world as it could conquer, and exercised influence through threat of military reprisals on an even larger area.  To Romans, anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen was a barbarian … and they made a distinction between being a citizen, who had rights, and merely being a subject, someone who lived in the Roman Empire, but didn’t have rights, and this latter category was the majority of the population.  Rome prided itself on having brought peace, but it was the peace of a sword.  They called the Emperor the Prince of Peace, but it was a peace based on killing anyone who disagreed, and selling their children into slavery.  It was a peace based on the idea might was right.  There were no checks and balances, no pretense of neutral courts.  Parents had a right to do whatever they wanted to their children, up to and including killing them.  Husbands had a right to do whatever they wanted to their wives and concubines, up to and including killing them.  Slaveoners had the same rights over slaves, and slaves made up a large and ever-growing proportion of the Roman population.  Things that we would consider horrific abuses were believed to be right and good.  And over it all, the Emperor reigned, oppressing the poor so that he and his favorites might be enriched.  This was all seen as inevitable and good.  Goodness, for the Roman Empire, lay in the exercise of power, and obedience to authority.

So when the Emperor to be sure he was squeezing every last bit of taxes possible out of the poorest and most marginalized people, he declared a census of the entire world—or, at least, the part of it he controlled, which to him was the same thing.  And so it was, that a two newlyweds–the wife heavily pregnant–had to leave home and go to a distant town called Bethlehem, because that was where the husband’s family was from.  They had to travel knowing that Mary was heavily pregnant and could give birth at any time.  They had to travel to a place where they had only distant family, family that might not take them in because Mary had been pregnant already when she and Joseph got married.  And they got there, tired and sore, and found that there was no room for them, no room except a stable filled with animals.  And so it was, that in a humble stable, in a backwater region, in poverty and disgrace, the God of all creation was born in human flesh.  The greatest power in all the universe came not in pomp and splendor, but in weakness, in hardship, in humility, thousands of miles away from any power or authority that humans recognized.

This is not an accident.  It is not a coincidence.  God chose that poor couple to bear and raise his son.  God chose that stable for his son to be born in.  God could have arranged for Jesus to be born the son of a great emperor; God could have arranged for Jesus to have all the wealth and prestige and worldly power that the world has to offer.  But God didn’t do that, because God sees things very differently than we humans do.  God doesn’t care about wealth and human power; God cares about every human being from the smallest to the greatest.  God cares about justice for all people, not just the ones on top; God cares about joy and hope and love and life and light, and God wants these things for all people, not just the ones fortunate enough to be born in palaces.  When we spend too much time chasing worldly power, we let it shape our views of who matters and who doesn’t, who deserves good things and who can be ignored.  But the truth is, nobody gets ignored by God.  Nobody gets forgotten.  There is no place too small or too humble or too poor for God to be present in, and no human being too wretched or sinful or despised for God to love.  And God sent God’s only Son, Jesus, to be born in a stable as a sign for us of what really matters.

I’m going to close with a poem by Ana Lisa de Jon that says this better than I could:

My God is the God of small things.
Seeds….
Newborn babies.
Nutshells that contain multiple truths
in humble small containers.

My God is the God of small beginnings.
Like breathing
or opening eyelids.
If we but move today
we can accomplish what he asks.

God, my God of swaddled babes
that fumble for the breast
He teaches us the worth of
lying still in trust.

My God is the God of humble things.
Caves.
Beds of straw.
Lives that don’t amount to much
if judged upon their origins.

My God is the God of silent things.
Wombs.
Passages in the dark.
Quiet incubators, within which cells divide
and muscles stretch towards the light.

God, my God of birth pangs
and pain that finds release
He teaches us that the dark
often precedes new life.

My God is the god of honed things
Parred down.
Simplified.
A carpenter sanding back the wood
to reveal the grain beneath.

My God is the God of beloved things.
Neglected.
Abandoned.
Rescued for nothing they have done,
but because of a plan of redemption.

God, my God of Christmas coming
somehow the wonder of Advent
is knowing we need do nothing
but let new life be birthed in us.

Amen.

Life After Death

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

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.

 

Let’s talk about death in the Bible.  Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the concept of resurrection in the Bible is almost completely absent from the Old Testament.  The last few books of the Old Testament to be written have a few vague references to it, most notably Daniel; many other books have passages that we can insert the resurrection into.  But God’s people didn’t even start talking about the possibility of the dead being raised until a few centuries before Jesus was born.

Up until then, the standard Jewish belief was that you were born, you lived, and you died.  And that was the end.  There was no heaven, no hell, only Sheol, where all the dead went, a place of nothingness.  If God wanted to reward you, God did it during your lifetime.  They looked forward to a day when God would come and set to right all the things that were wrong with the world and make creation perfect again, and if you were a good person living at that time things would be awesome for you, but if you died before that point you would just miss out on it.  As things got worse and worse for the Jewish people, as they got conquered and enslaved and sent into exile and returned from exile and got conquered again and again, this belief got less and less satisfying.  If you didn’t get rewarded for being a good follower in life, then you had to get rewarded in some other way.  Since they didn’t believe in a separation between body and soul, that meant that you had to come bodily back to life.  That’s what resurrection is.  It’s not about disembodied souls floating on clouds somewhere, it’s about the whole person, body and soul together, coming back to life in the most physical way possible.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of resurrection was highly controversial.  The Saducees, who were the high-level priests who controlled the Temple and had awesome lives, thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd.  And why shouldn’t they?  They had lots of money and power and influence, and their lives were pretty good.  Ordinary Jewish people from the Pharisees on down, on the other hand, loved the idea of Resurrection.  Because their lives were terrible.  They were horribly oppressed by the Romans, and the idea of a resurrection into a new life (one that the pagan Romans couldn’t share) sounded pretty good to them.

So when Jesus came to Jerusalem, preaching about a coming resurrection, the Saducees wanted to discredit both him and the idea of the resurrection.  To show just how absolutely absurd the whole concept was, they asked a question designed to stump him, about a woman who’d married a series of brothers.  Now, we think it’s an odd scenario, but it was actually fairly common back in those days.  Women had very few rights and very little ability to support themselves.  For protection and to make sure they didn’t starve, women needed to have either husbands or sons, preferably both.  And women who weren’t under the control of a man were seen as an unstable force, a threat to society.  So a woman whose husband died without sons was expected to marry his brother and have kids with him.  That way she’d be taken care of, and she would be kept out of trouble.  It was the law.  This happening seven times in a row was a bit unlikely, but hey, why let probability get in the way of a good straw-man argument.  So the Pharisees tell this story about a woman who married a series of seven brothers, all of whom died on her, and then they turn to Jesus, sure they’ve got the example that will point out just how absurd this whole idea of life after death is.  She’s got to belong to a man, and she can’t belong to more than one.  That’s how patriarchy works.  So which one is she going to belong to?

Of course, as Jesus points out, the problem is that they’re expecting life after resurrection to be just like life before resurrection.  And what would be the point of that?  If resurrection exists because there is terrible injustice in the world and people suffer, being resurrected to a life with just as much injustice and suffering would be nothing more than an invitation to more suffering.  The whole point of the resurrection is that God will fix things.  God will heal people.  God will make things better.  All the injustice and sin and evil in the world—and in all of us—will be gone.  Things will be made new.

As for marriage, well, we’re still going to have loving and life-giving relationships.  In fact, we’ll have better relationships because all the sin and brokenness that distort us and our friends and family will have been healed.  What we won’t have is all the legal and social frameworks based on economics and power and prejudice.  The Saducees asked the question assuming that a woman had to belong to a man, and that was the basis of marriage, so the question was which man she was going to belong to in the Resurrection.  But God didn’t institute marriage for economic reasons or as a way of controlling people.  God gave us marriage because it’s not good for human beings to be alone.  Because we need companionship and affection and mutual respect and support.  That’s what God has always wanted marriage to look like, and that’s what relationships of all kinds are going to look like after the resurrection.  Which man is she going to belong to?  Nobody’s going to belong to anybody in that way.  Nobody’s going to be a piece of property to be handed around as convenient for society.  She’s not going to belong to anyone but herself and God.  If she wants to form a relationship of mutual love and respect, that’s great, but it won’t be anything like the Saducees thought marriage should be.

The Saducees couldn’t imagine a life different from the one they were living.  So when they imagined a resurrection, they imagined it looking just like the life they already knew.  We have the opposite problem; we tend to think of the resurrection as not being anything like the life we already know.  Ask someone what heaven looks like and they imagine people in white robes sitting on clouds and strumming harps.  The thing is, both ideas are wrong.  The resurrection will be something like the life we know because it is life.  Soul and body together, filled with eating and drinking and enjoying God’s good creation and loving God and one another.  But at the same time, the resurrection is utterly different from this life because we and all of creation will be saved and forgiven and healed and made new.  All the things that hurt people will be gone.  All the things that distort or corrupt our hearts and minds and bodies and souls will be gone.  All the things that bring fear or pain or jealousy or worry or anger will be gone.  And all those emotions shape us and our society in this life so much that we can’t even begin to imagine what life would be life without them.

God is god not of the dead, but of the living.  The life we will have in the resurrection is the life that God wants all people and all of creation to have, the life that was the plan from the very beginning and was only prevented by human sinfulness.  God isn’t waiting to destroy this world and all but a few people in it, God is working to make this world into the world to come.  We can’t construct God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now, but we can look to that world as the guide for what God wants life to be like.  The point of being a faithful Christian is not to escape this life and try to make it into the next one, but to try and live our lives now in the light of that life to come.

Amen.

Living In God’s Word

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 146, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5, John 8:31-36

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 Martin Luther set out to reform Christianity and fix the things that he saw were broken in the church, one of the problems that was most important to him was how little ordinary Christians knew about the Bible.  At the time, it was a crime to translate the Bible into the language people actually spoke in their day-to-day lives.  When the Bible was read, it was usually read in a Latin translation called the Vulgate.  Only scholars and the wealthy elites were fluent in Latin; not even all parish priests could read it.  And the church liked it that way: if ordinary people couldn’t read the Bible, then they couldn’t form opinions of their own.  They would have to believe Scripture said and meant whatever the church hierarchy said it did.

You see, Peter was neither the first nor the last person to notice that human beings often have itchy ears and turn to teachers who suit their own desires.  We human beings are masters at manipulating the truth to make it say what we want to hear.  We are very, very good at finding ways to interpret Scripture, the law, and reality itself so that it fits whatever we want to believe, even if that means twisting ourselves into a pretzel.  We take things out of context.  We make mountains out of molehills.  We flat-out ignore things we don’t like.  And there is no person or group of people immune to the desire to do this.  If you are sitting here thinking self-righteously about all the people you disagree with or dislike who creatively interpret everything from Scripture to science to current events in order to make it fit the way they want it to be, I have bad news for you: you almost certainly do it to.  Knowing this about human nature, the medieval church tried to prevent misinterpretation of God’s Word by restricting it to only a few.  If you couldn’t read Scripture for yourselves, you would have to accept what the church leaders told you it said and what it meant.

That strategy has two major flaws: first, it drastically underestimates how good humans are at creatively misinterpreting things.  The less you know about something, the easier it is to twist it to suit your own ideas, so restricting the reading of Scripture led to more misinterpretation, not less.  And second, this strategy assumed that the church leadership and hierarchy would not themselves fall prey to the temptation to interpret Scripture to their own benefit.  And, as it turned out, when they did fall prey to that temptation, since few people outside their ranks could read Scripture, few people could point out the problems with their teachings.  The more familiar people are with Scripture, the easier it is to see when someone’s interpreting it for their own benefit.

Today we put lots of effort into translating the Bible into the common language.  There are hundreds of translations into English, and there are multiple organizations dedicated to translating the Bible into every language on Earth.  The house I grew up in, like most Christian households, had many Bibles which I could choose to read whenever I wanted to.  Unfortunately, I very rarely chose to do so.  And I’m not alone in that.  For every funeral I do where the deceased had a beloved Bible with creased and dog-eared pages and helpfully underlined or highlighted passages, I do probably ten or twenty where neither the deceased nor anyone else in the family has spent enough time studying Scripture to have any preferences.  I’m not saying this to shame anyone, I’m just saying that this is the reality we live in.  If, as Peter says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” what does it say about us that we so seldom turn to Scripture except on Sunday mornings?

There are many reasons for this, of course, but one of the main ones is that the Bible is a big, complicated story full of lots of smaller stories.  It’s messy.  It contradicts itself.  There are parts of it that are hard to understand, and parts that are boring, and parts that are gross and disturbing.  It’s really easy to open your Bible, find a passage that you either don’t understand or that is really nasty, think “what the heck am I supposed to learn from THIS?” close your Bible again, and go away feeling guilty for not being a good enough Christian.  It’s also really easy to be afraid of reading the Bible and taking away the wrong message, or interpreting it badly, so we don’t even try.

I think part of this problem is that most people—even most Christians—don’t really understand what the Bible is.  It’s not a textbook.  It’s not a history textbook, or a science textbook, or even a religion textbook.  It’s not a list of facts to memorize so that you can pass a test.  It’s not a law book; it’s not a set of rules to follow blindly.  It’s more like sitting in the living room with the family scrapbook, with your grandparents and all your aunts and uncles gathered around, hearing the family stories about where you come from and how you all came to be here, and what happened along the way.  They tell you why things are the way they are.  And some of the stories are funny and some are sad and some you just had to be there for, and sometimes grandma and grandpa argue about how exactly it all happened, but even if the details are fuzzy sometimes, the stories they tell are true and real.  And if you listen to those stories enough, if you ask questions and think about the answers and come back to those stories day after day, you’ll find that they shape how you see the world.  Not just how you see the past, but how you see the present and the future, as well.  Those stories will shape how you see yourself and how you see those around you.  And listening to those stories and responding to them will build your relationship with the people telling them.

The Bible is a little like that.  The Bible is the story of God at work in the world, from creation to the end times.  And the Bible is the story of God at work in the world, working to heal and safe and re-form the world, even in the midst of human sin and brokenness and evil.  These stories tell us truths about who we are and who God is, and about the world, and the more we read Scripture the more we are shaped by it.  The more time we spend reading our Bibles, and praying about what we read, and thinking about it, and talking about it with others, the more likely we are to conform our hearts and minds to God’s Word, instead of twisting it to suit what we want to believe.  And in the process of studying Scripture, we strengthen our relationship with God.

The Bible is big, and messy, and complicated, because life is big, and messy, and complicated.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t have a clear answer to a particular question; sometimes the Bible has multiple conflicting answers to a particular question.  And that’s because sometimes life doesn’t have one clear answer that is correct and everything else is wrong.  But like I said, the point of reading Scripture isn’t to memorize the right answer to any particular question.  The point is to wrestle with the stories and be shaped by them, and to build our relationship with God in the process.  Even the weirdest, darkest, hardest-to-understand parts of scripture have truths to teach us.  Sometimes that truth is simply that human beings can do terrible things, even when we believe in God and are trying our best to follow him.  Sometimes that truth is that even when human beings screw up, God is still present in us and with us.

I encourage you to set time aside regularly to read your Bible, whether by yourself or with your family, and pray about what you read.  Don’t start from the beginning and try to read everything in order if that’s not working for you; it’s better to stick to things you can make sense of than get bogged down and give up.  But as you’re reading, and praying, ask yourself questions about the story.  What truths might God be trying to teach through the story?  How does that particular story fit with other Bible stories you know?  Is there anything in the story you agree with, or disagree with, and why?  Is the message easy or hard to hear or live out?  Does anything remind you of things in your life or in the world around you?  Don’t be afraid to ask questions you don’t know the answer to, and if things come up you’re not sure of I would be overjoyed to talk about it with you.  If you do this regularly, you will find your faith life getting stronger.  You will find your relationship with God getting deeper, and you will find yourself understanding more and more about Scripture.

Amen.

You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

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 grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.