On the Road

Lectionary 15, Year C, July 14, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:25-37

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.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous route.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of road travel through the wilderness in an era without heavy equipment to make and maintain high-quality roads.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of wildlife that might attack travelers who would not, after all, be safe in a metal, glass, and fiberglass vehicle.  But a lot of it was due to the consequences of human sin, and human choices: bandits.

There were a LOT of bandits in those days.  After all, there are always some humans in every group who would rather hurt people and steal than do honest work.  But this was more than that.  You see, the Roman Empire was very unjust, especially when it came to economics.  God created the world to have enough abundance for everyone in it, but the Romans wanted all of that abundance in the hands of the Roman elite.  The whole system was set up to divide people into haves and have-nots, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Taxes.  Inheritance laws.  Labor laws.  Everything was set up to enrich those who already had everything, and take from those who had little to nothing.  The Roman system preferred landless day-laborers and slaves who could be easily used and abused to prosperous middle and working class people who were harder to push around.  In a good year, a poor resident of the Empire barely scraped by.  In a bad year, they might find their only legal option to avoid starvation was to sell themselves or their children into slavery.  Faced with that horrifying choice, a lot of them turned to banditry as if they were first-century Robin Hoods.  Barabbas, the guy the crowd asked Pontius Pilate to release instead of Jesus, was just such a bandit.  These bandits mostly focused their attacks on the estates of the wealthy who benefited from the system that had impoverished them, but when it came right down to it they were not above attacking anyone they saw who might have something worth taking.

And the road to Jericho was on a border.  No man’s land.  Still firmly within the Roman Empire, but not near enough to any rich estates that the Roman Army would bother to clear out the bandits.  As long as nobody wealthy enough to matter got hurt, the Romans did not care what happened in the backwaters of their empire.  And the locals along one part of the road were Samaritan, and on the other part of the road they were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Jews and Samaritans did not speak with one another unless they had to.  They did not even drink out of the same wells if they could avoid it.  So there probably was not much cooperation between the two groups to clear out the bandits.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous one.  All of that sin—the sin of the Romans in creating a system that used and abused people until they snapped, the sin of the bandits themselves, the sin of the army that didn’t protect ordinary people, the sin of the local communities too caught up in their mutual dislike to work for the safety of all people in the region.  God created the world to be good, and yet, there was so much pain and suffering.  This was a huge problem.  It probably felt overwhelming and really scary.  The Roman Empire had existed for centuries and was really powerful.  A handful of local people couldn’t change it much.  The systems that created the problem were big and complicated, and there were so many other problems to deal with.

So when Jesus told a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, it would have come as no surprise to the listeners that he got robbed and beaten and left for dead.  It was an all-too-common problem.  Someone should do something about that.  The exchange that started the parable would also have been no surprise.  Judaism has a long and rich history of questioning and debating important religious topics such as which commandments are most important, and Jesus’ answer quoted from Scripture.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18.  Telling a story or parable to help explore an issue would also have been expected.

The shocking thing would have been twofold: first, that in the story, the religious people—the ones who should have been the heroes—walked past and did not help the man beaten and left for dead.  God’s people are supposed to help when we see someone who needs help, and that man obviously did.  Jesus doesn’t tell us why the characters of the priest and the Levite walked by without helping.  Maybe they thought he was dead already.  Maybe they were scared the bandits who assaulted him were still in the area and might attack if they stayed too long.  Maybe they thought he was a bandit, and his suffering the result of a falling-out among thieves.  Maybe they thought that God had allowed him to be assaulted as punishment for some sin or other.  Maybe they didn’t want to have to undergo the purification rituals necessary for people who have touched blood.  Maybe they’d seen enough people beaten and left for dead over the last few years that they were just overwhelmed and had hardened their hearts.  Maybe they didn’t think their first-aid skills were good enough to make a difference.  Maybe they couldn’t have carried the guy to safety without putting down their pack and letting robbers steal it, too.  Maybe they were on their way to an important meeting of a group trying to figure out how to make the Jericho road safer, and thought preventing future bandit attacks was far more important than helping the current victims of attack.

If you were the priest or the Levite, what would your excuse have been?  We human beings sure do make up a lot of excuses to get out of things we don’t want to do.  Children do it to get out of chores; adults do it to get out of much greater things.  I bet you that priest and Levite had great reasons why they couldn’t possibly have helped.  I bet that when they told their story later to their friends, it was a really convincing reason, and I bet most of their friends nodded solemnly and congratulated them for doing the right thing.  When we screw up, when we fail to do things we should, we are really good at convincing ourselves and others that we were doing the right thing.  It may be a transparent self-serving lie to outsiders, but that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enough to make us feel better.  And religious people are no better about it than anybody else.  God sees what we do, and what we fail to do, and knows just how often we fall short of what God wants, but we are experts at using pious phrases to excuse our failures.  We think ourselves blameless, but God knows the truth.  So do the people we leave bleeding and naked on the road.  Can you imagine how the victim felt, in agony and fear and pain, watching those two walk past and not even meet his eyes?  Can you imagine how people today feel, when they suffer and need help and the whole community ignores them?

The second thing that would have shocked people would have been that the person who did help was a Samaritan.  An enemy.  An outsider.  One of those people, the people you would cross the street to avoid and not talk to unless you had no choice whatsoever.  Jesus doesn’t say whether the victim was Jewish or Samaritan or Gentile, but his listeners would probably have assumed he was Jewish.  So the Samaritan would have known he was an enemy, from a rival tribe.  He helped anyway.  Many of Jesus’ followers would probably have denied that it was possible for a Samaritan to be good.  You’ll notice that when Jesus asks the lawyer which one acted as a neighbor, the lawyer can’t quite admit that the hero of the story was a Samaritan.  “The one who showed mercy” is true, but it strips away the hero’s identity.

Taken together, it’s a one-two punch.  The people who should help don’t; the person you don’t like is the one to do the right thing.  Loving God and loving your neighbor aren’t about whether or not you think nice thoughts about them, or pray about them.  (Want to bet the priest and the Levite kept the guy in their thoughts and prayers as they walked on by?)  I mean, you should think nice thoughts, and you should pray.  But for love to mean anything, we have to put it into action.  Even when it’s hard.  Even when we have every reason not to.  Even when it’s easier to walk on by.  Even when we’re tired, even when the problem seems so much bigger than we can fix.  We may not be able to solve the world’s big problems, but we can help the people in front of us who need help.  We can be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We can love our neighbor as ourselves.  And, who knows?  If enough people choose to step up instead of walking by on the other side, maybe we’ll even make a dent in the larger problems.  May we always follow God’s commands to love God and love one another.

Amen.

Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Lamb Who Was Slain

Easter 3, Year C, May 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

Easter 2, Year C, April 28, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

In the Midst of Change

Third Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:13-31a, Luke 4:14-24

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.

Nehemiah is one of the books of the Bible we don’t talk much about.  In fact, this is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Nehemiah.  And it’s companion book, Ezra, doesn’t get read in worship at all.  So I think we should take a little time to explore the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, to explain why reading the books of Moses aloud in public was such a big deal.  And to do that, we need to take a look at the big picture of Judah’s history.

After the Exodus from Egypt and forty years wandering in the wilderness, God led the Israelites into the Promised Land and gave them a set of instructions to live by.  Some of those instructions were what we think of as religious things—having to do with faith, worship practice, etc.  But most of them were general rules for society.  Don’t cheat people.  Make sure that even the poorest people in your lands have access to things they need.  Make sure that rich and powerful people can’t run roughshod over everybody or get out of punishment when they do evil.  Make sure that people who fall into debt have a way out of it.  Make sure that justice and mercy apply to everyone.  Because God cares about more than just the religious stuff.  God wants justice and mercy for all people.  You cannot have a good and godly society where some people are exploited and some people get away with murder.  You just can’t.

The thing is, the Israelites did not live up to those instructions.  They kept failing.  Sometimes by ignoring the religious stuff—worshipping other gods, and the like—and sometimes by ignoring the social stuff.  Instead of a nation ruled by fairness and equity, they kept tipping further and further over into a society where the rich lived idle and opulent lives, and the poor got poorer and poorer and their lives got worse and worse.  And they didn’t want to admit that they were not living up to the good and just and merciful society God wanted for them.  And so they came up with all sorts of justifications for their unjust and unloving behavior.  God sent prophet after prophet, and sometimes they listened and reformed things for a little bit, but a lot of the time they just … ignored the prophets.  They ignored God’s word in their midst.  And then, finally, in 587 BC, God stepped aside and let the Babylonians conquer them as punishment for their sins.

The Babylonians destroyed all the cities, leaving nothing but rubble and taking everything of value.  They carried off most of the population—including all of the religious and civil leadership, and most of the wealthy people—to be slaves back in Babylon.  They brought people from other parts of the Babylonian Empire to settle in Judah among the remnant of the Israelites left behind, so that it would be harder to rebel.  And this was really hard.  Some people lost their faith, but for the rest—both those in captivity in Babylon and those living in the ruins of their homeland surrounded by foreign strangers—they had to figure out what it meant to be the faithful people of God in exile.  Did God not love them any more?  What had they done to deserve this?  Was God ever going to have mercy on them and rescue them?  And through all of this, they clung to their faith, but they also clung to their memories of the good old days.  They told and retold the stories of what life had been like back in Jerusalem, except they told them through rose-tinted glasses that ignored most of the problems that had led to God removing God’s protection and allowing the Babylonians to conquer them.  If they could just turn back the clock—if they could just restore things as they had been—everything would be perfect.

And through this time, God still loved them and kept sending prophets to them, to reassure them and give them hope that this time of exile and slavery would not last forever.  And, after about a century, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and everybody could go home!  The first two waves of Israelites to return home to Judah were led by Ezra and Nehemiah.  And when they got back to the land they’d spent a century idealizing, they were shocked.  And horrified.

For one thing, all the cities were still in ruins, because the Babylonians hadn’t allowed any rebuilding.  For another, there were people living in the land they’d once owned, who’d been farming it for a century and had no intention of giving it back to strangers who hadn’t been there in generations.  Both those who had been taken and those who had remained had kept their faith and adapted it to their new lives … but they hadn’t adapted in the same way.  The ones who had stayed had intermarried with the new tribes the Babylonians had settled among them.  The ones who had been taken had adapted to life among the Babylonians and spoke with Babylonian accents and wore Babylonian-style clothes.  The ones who had been taken thought the ones who had been left behind were mongrel half-breeds who’d thrown away the purity of Israeliteness and ought to bow before their betters.  The ones who had been left behind thought the ones who had been taken were elitist, xenophobic thieves who were entirely too cozy with the empires that had conquered and oppressed them.  And both sides thought the other side was unfaithful to God’s commands.  And so, instead of coming together as God’s people reunited in God’s land, they fought.  They built walls.

The ones who had been in exile in Babylon had had this beautiful vision of how perfect everything used to be, and they’d thought that if they could just get back to Judah, they could make everything perfect and beautiful as it used to be.  But they were wrong.  The past was gone, and there was nothing they could do to bring it back, and the more time they spent trying to force things to be the way they used to be, the harder things got.  And again, they asked, “where is God?  Has God abandoned us?”  Because they were so focused on the vision of the way things had been that they could only see God’s work among them if God was doing the same things God had done before.  But the thing was, God did love them, and God was working among them, and doing wonderful things.  Life was never going to be the way they’d imagined it.  The old kingdom that had been destroyed was never coming back.  But they were still God’s people and God was still their God, and God would be with them and their descendants.  The old kingdom of Judah was gone, but the Jewish people remained, God’s chosen people.

And that’s what’s going on in our Gospel reading.  The exiles have returned, but to a place that is radically different than they were expecting or hoping.  And they are just beginning to grasp that life is never going to be the way it was, that they’re going to have to face the reality of a life radically different than they had hoped or imagined.  They’re going to have to do the hard work of figuring out what God is calling them to do now in this new world they’ve found themselves in.  So there’s a lot of grief.

But also, they know that God is with them.  And here is the story of how God had been with their ancestors, and promised to be their God, and live among them.  And they’re hearing it read aloud in public for maybe the first time, because while the Babylonians didn’t forbid worship of God they didn’t allow it in the public square, either.  And so even amidst their grief for what was lost, they have hope and joy because they know that they are not alone, they know that God is with them, and they know that these words they’re listening to bring life.  So there’s a lot of hope and joy, too.  It’s no wonder they cried.

Unlike those ancient people in our reading, we’ve never been exiled.  We’ve never had our entire nation destroyed and turned into rubble.  But we do have two things in common with them.  First, we live in a world that has changed radically in the last fifty years or so, and is still changing around us.  Things aren’t like they used to be, and it’s really easy for churches to look back in longing to the days when the pews were filled and churches had power and influence in society, and long for those days.  It is really easy to think, “if we could just get back to those days—if we could make things like they were—everything would be great and all our problems would be solved!”  But the thing is, we can’t turn back the calendar.  We can’t make things the way they were, we have to deal with things the way they are now.

The second thing we have in common with the people of Nehemiah is that we are God’s people and God is with us and God’s Word is among us.  No matter what happens, no matter what changes come, we are not alone.  God loves us, and God is working in us and among us.  Our job is to listen for God’s voice, and follow where God leads.

Amen.

Welcome the Children

Lectionary 25B, September 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.