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.

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.

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.