Torah, Torah, Torah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What’s Your Call Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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 reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?

Amen.

The Lion and the Lamb

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans , 5:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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 thing most people don’t understand about the Pharisees is that the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people who were genuinely trying their best to follow God.  It’s understandable; they clashed with Jesus a lot.  In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and a prophet in his own right, calls the Pharisees ‘a brood of vipers.’  So we assume that they must have been really terrible people.  But the thing is, in the entire Bible, if you’re looking for a group similar to most modern American Christians, the Pharisees are it.  There are no people in the Bible as much like us as the Pharisees are.

The Pharisees were, by and large, middle-class people.  They were the ones very concerned with reading the Scriptures, and teaching people about God, and genuinely trying to follow God’s will.  They were the ones who created and ran the local places of worship, the synagogue.  They were the ones who took the most active role in local charity, feeding the hungry and tending the sick and so forth.  They were faithful, moral, reliable people.  They were the pillars of their communities.  They were genuinely committed to following God.  That’s why they show up all over the Gospels.  They heard there was a new and exciting religious teacher who was bringing people to God, and they wanted to know more.  Just like we would if we heard of a new and exciting religious teacher.  So why did they have conflicts with Jesus?  And why does John the Baptist call them a brood of vipers?

The problem is judgment.  Not God’s judgment of humanity, but the human capacity for judgment.  More specifically, the human capacity to get judgment wrong.  This is something I struggle with a lot as a pastor, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time this year wrestling with it.  You see, judgment is one of the main themes of Matthew.  God’s judgment of humanity, and the ways in which we judge and misjudge one another and ourselves.  God is the righteous judge, and humans consistently judge wrongly.  Our Gospel reading is one example of this: the Pharisees would have been shocked to hear themselves condemned by a prophet.  They wanted to see sinners repent, of course, but they would not have believed that they themselves needed much repentance.  After all, they were the good people!  Not like those sinners they condemned!

Judgment is necessary.  Some things are simply wrong.  Some things are completely incompatible with God’s good gifts of life and love, and need to be pointed out and condemned whenever they occur.  Some things simply are not compatible with God’s will for the world.  The problem is, humans are terrible at figuring out what deserves condemnation and what doesn’t, who deserves judgment and who don’t.  People who are mentally healthy almost always judge themselves far more leniently than they deserve.  “I’m a good person, I had good reasons for anything I’ve done wrong and all my sins are only tiny ones, I’m fine,” we think to ourselves.  “It’s those people over there that I don’t like who need to be judged!”  Meanwhile, people with mental illness or who are abuse survivors almost always judge themselves far more harshly than they deserve.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely believe they are evil, that they could never be a good person, that they deserve damnation, that God hates them and they deserve it.  And these are not bad people, by and large.  They are ordinary people, no better or worse than average.  This is why it’s so hard to preach about judgment: I know that most people listening will fall into two camps.  One group will assume that they don’t need to examine themselves, and that the only people in need of judgment are the people they don’t like.  The other group will assume that I am talking about them, and that they are uniquely sinful and deserve only condemnation.  Every person has both good and bad inside them, but we don’t do a very good job of recognizing that.  We do a terrible job of acknowledging both the good and bad in a person, and judging it accurately.  Very few people actually have a healthy balance where they can judge themselves—or anybody else—accurately.  We either judge too harshly or not at all.

The same is true of our view of the world around us.  We tend to judge not based on God’s plan for the world, but rather on what is comfortable and familiar to us.  If it is comfortable and familiar, if we think it is normal, if it’s just the way the world works, then it must be good.  And if it’s not good, then it can’t be that bad, can it?  And if it’s strange to us, if it’s different, if it takes what we think we know about the world and turns it on its head, then it must be bad.  And the truth is, neither of those are accurate guidelines for whether something is good or not.  Sometimes what is normal is good, and sometimes what is normal is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is comfortable is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is new is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  And most of the time, there are both good and bad aspects to it.  It’s not as simple as we would like to make it.  And so we judge wrongly.

In order to judge rightly, we need to see the world through God’s eyes.  We need to be able to recognize what God wants of the world, and what God is working to create.  And our reading from Isaiah is one of many places in the Bible that shows us what it looks like when God’s will is done.  ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’  In other words, he’s not going to be judging by the things the world judges by.  ‘But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’  In other words, God doesn’t share all the prejudices that we have about poverty, and God cares deeply about people that our society ignores and abuses and lets fall through the cracks.  It’s not that God loves poor people more than God loves anyone else.  Rather, it’s that the poor are more in need of God’s love and support than most people.  They’ve had harder lives, and have often had to face really terrible times when there are no good choices, and are more likely to have been chewed up and spit out by life than the rest of us.  And God is going to take that into account in God’s judgment.  And going forward in God’s kingdom, there will be no more injustice.  There will be no more abuse.  There will be no more people falling through the cracks and getting chewed up and spit out by life.  All people will receive what they need to live good and full and happy lives, both their material needs and their emotional and spiritual needs.

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’  Notice that he doesn’t say that the wolves and the leopards will become lambs.  They’ll still be themselves.  But they won’t prey on others.  The parts of the world that are based on the strong preying on the weak  and creatures devouring one another for their own profit will no longer work that way.  In no part of creation will anyone or anything take advantage of another or use them for their own benefit.  All people and all creatures will live together in peace and harmony—harmony not based on being the same, but based on mutual respect and seeing that everyone gets what they need without hurting someone else.

And obviously there are parts of that that we can work towards in the here and now and parts of that that are going to have to wait for God’s coming.  And that’s what God judges us and the world based on: how closely do we conform our lives and our hearts to God’s coming kingdom, and how much do we just go along with what the world tells us is normal.  How much do we work so that all people and all of creation are treated fairly and get what they need to thrive, and how much do we buy into the dog-eat-dog mentality where you just have to look out for #1 and the people like you and if people you don’t like are suffering, it’s not your problem.

We are called to follow Christ.  We are called to live into the coming reality of God’s kingdom.  And within each of us, and within every human being and every social institution, there are good parts and there are bad parts.  There are weeds that need to be pulled out, and there is good grain that needs to be nurtured and grow so that it can bear good fruit.  Judgment is based on whether we take out the weeds and fertilize the wheat, or whether we just accept the weeds as normal.  We will fall short sometimes.  We will sin.  We will have times when we make terrible judgments.  But the point is not perfection, because that’s God’s job.  Our job is to do the best with what we can, and trust that Christ is coming and that God’s judgment will prevail.  Our job is to live in the light of that coming kingdom, where all people will receive peace and joy and love and support.  We pray that that kingdom comes quickly, and we pray that we can do our part in helping it take root in this world.

Amen.

 

The Frog and the Crab

First Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 1, 2019

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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 read an article about Russian online trolls and how they work to interfere in and steer US public opinion and make things more dysfunctional—and thus easier to manipulate.  The interesting thing was, how little the trolls look like what most people (including me) expect them to look.  On the surface, they look ordinary.  They’re designed to make people think they are interesting and have important things to say.  They don’t generally spread lies, or at least, not big ones.  They take the cares and concerns and legitimate issues facing each target demographic, and then they spin like crazy.

Their goal is to make their followers disgusted with the world and with other demographics.  They don’t want to make people angry; angry people take action.  They want people to roll their eyes at people who aren’t like them.  They want people to assume that anyone outside their own group is stupid and selfish.  They want liberals to think all conservatives are bigots, and they want conservatives to think all liberals are hypocritical elitists.  They want centrists to think people left or right of them are fringe nutcases, and they want people on the left and right to think that centrists are panderers with no principles.  They want Black people to think all White people are actively and consciously racist, and they want White people to think that any Black people who point out racial injustice are exaggerating or just like to be victims.  They want young people to think all old people are irrelevant and incapable of understanding the modern world, and they want old people to think all young people are selfish egotists who don’t understand how the world actually works.  They want urban and suburban people to think rural people are ignorant hicks, and they want rural people to think urban and suburban people are snobbish elitists.  They want to ensure that the last thing anybody ever thinks, when faced with someone different than they are, is “maybe we can find common ground or any kind of understanding.”

No.  Trolls want us to be isolated into every little clique, and they also want us to be apathetic.  They want us to look at the world around us and say, “well, yeah, things suck, but there’s no point in trying to fix anything because nothing’s ever going to get better, and so we might as well just sit here sniping at one another and patting ourselves on the back for being right.”  They want us to accept dysfunction and cruelty and indifference and greed and violence as normal.  Something to complain about on social media, but not something anything can do anything about.

And as I was reading this article, it reminded me of two things: first, some analogies I recently learned for how dysfunctional societies work, and second, this week’s Scripture theme of keeping awake.  The analogies are the frog in the pot, and the crab bucket.

If you put one crab in a bucket, it will climb out.  If you put several crabs in a bucket, then each time one of them tries to climb out, the others will pull it down and then none of them will escape.  Each of them are individually capable of escaping, and certainly if they worked together they could all escape, but instead they actively work to bring each other down.  You find crab buckets in online communities and offline face-to-face communities.  You find them in major organizations and in small groups.  Russian trolls encourage such crab-bucket groups, but they also form just fine without any Russian help at all.  And they are toxic.  Crab buckets prevent healing, they prevent growth, they prevent love, they prevent every good thing.  And they are the absolute opposite of God’s kingdom.

Our reading from Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom.  And the thing this passage emphasizes is how people will come together.  All different types of people, every nation and tribe, will come together in peace and harmony.  We will all learn the ways of the Lord; we will all learn to do things that nurture and help things grow.  We will turn all the weapons we use to hurt people into things to help nurture growth.  And obviously that’s talking about physical weapons, but the thing is, it’s also talking about spiritual weapons, all the words and attitudes and social tactics and attitudes we use to hurt and demean one another will be changed into ways to heal and respect one another.  Instead of being a bucket full of crabs trying to tear each other down, we will be actively using our God-given gifts to help build one another up.

And while we can’t make God’s kingdom come any faster than it will, and we can’t know when it will come, if we’re alert we can look around and see the places where we can make this world a little more like God’s kingdom to come, even if only small ways.  We can look for ways to help and heal, instead of hurt; we can look for ways to connect, instead of drive people apart.  Very few people end up in metaphorical crab buckets because they actively want to be in that kind of environment, just like few people end up following and sharing the posts of Russian trolls on purpose.  But it’s so easy to slip into.  It’s easier to judge people than to understand them, especially when they’re people we don’t know.  It’s easier to argue about whose fault things are than it is to fix them.  And once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, it’s really hard to stop.

That’s why we have to pay attention.  We have to pay attention to God, who is working for the salvation of the world, and who will come with a judgment far more just—and far more merciful—than any judgment we could make.  And we have to pay attention to the things we are doing and saying.  Do our words and actions show Christ’s redeeming love to the world?  Do we give witness to the kingdom which is to come?  And no, we aren’t perfect and we mess up and we fail, and sometimes we find ourselves creating crab buckets, and we cling to Jesus’ promise of forgiveness when that happens.  But the thing is, the fact that Jesus forgives us doesn’t mean we can just shrug and give up.  Even when we can’t make things better—even when we can’t heal the broken and terrible places in ourselves and in the world—we at least need to acknowledge the reality of that brokenness.  Once you’re in a crab bucket, you may not be able to climb out.  But at least you can be aware that it’s not a good place to be, and that God desires a better life for you and everyone else in that crab bucket, and that the day will come when Christ will come to destroy the crab bucket and put something better in its place.

Here we come to the second metaphor, of the frog in boiling water.  See, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out again.  But if you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice that things are getting hot and will stay there until it’s boiled to death.  It thinks things are normal until it’s boiled to death.  Just the same way, it’s so easy for us to look out at the world and think that the way things are is normal.  That all the terrible things that people do to one another are just the way things are, and hey, it could be worse.  And that’s just not true.  God did not create the world to be this way.  God did not create human beings to treat one another like this.  God’s desire is that all God’s children might have life, and have it abundantly.  God’s desire is that all God’s children should have lives overflowing with love and every good thing.  And God was born in human flesh in order to make that happen.  God came to earth in the form of Jesus to show us that way, to call us to God, to wake us up so that we can see both the problems in the world and in ourselves, and so that we can see what God is doing to make things better.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived, taught, died, and rose from the grave, and he is coming back some day.  And when he comes back, all the seeds that he planted will burst into flower.  All the wounds we create in ourselves and in one another will be healed.  The dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and all people will flock to God, and the world will be made new.  And our job, as we wait for that to happen, is to keep awake.  To keep alert.  To see the crab buckets and the trolls for what they are: dangers to be dealt with.  Our job is to notice when things are bad, when the water is heating up around us.  And if we can do something, if we can put God’s love into action, we should; but even when there is nothing we can do to change things, we can at least bear witness to the fact that a better world is possible, and Christ Jesus is bringing it.

Amen.

 

Being Part of the Community

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

Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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.

 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture.  On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped.  On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes.  On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.

First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture.  The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end.  We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live.  And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten.  Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens.  This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that.  Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity?  Of course there are.  But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it.  And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need.  If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing.  If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting.  They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.

Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time.  Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city.  Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like.  They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.

And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.  They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged.  Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen.  And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community.  Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons.  First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work.  Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle.  Jesus gave us work to do.  We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way.  We’re called to put that love into action.  And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus.  They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.

But it gets worse.  They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work.  They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way.  It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do.  This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever.  This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community.  Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either.  And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime.  Work that God has called us to do in the here and now.  The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things.  The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world.  We have work to do.

But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important.  And that’s especially true when it comes to work.  Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work.  Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods.  People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens.  They have less value.  And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up.  We see people with price tags.  If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more.  And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is.  I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing.  Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die.  Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help.  One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that.  It causes so much unnecessary suffering.

God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance.  The work is not the point.  The love and grace and abundance are the point.  The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance.  And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that.  God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter.  Love is one of the deepest needs we have.  Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have.  And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone.  You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.

If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you.  But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy.  If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too.  And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God.  You are not a burden.  Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do.  It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world.  That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another.  May we all share in that.

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.

#Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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.

In the popular imagination, saints are especially holy people.  People who are righteous and good beyond what ordinary people can hope to be, or who do some great miraculous thing.  In this view of things, saintliness is a quality some people possess and others don’t.  In this view of things, being a saint is something you do, or something you achieve through your own merit.

But the thing is, that’s not how the Bible talks about being a saint.  For example, when Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,” he’s not talking about how the Ephesians love a few especially holy people.  To Paul, a “saint” is anyone who has received the grace of God.  Being a saint is not something you do or achieve, it’s a gift from God.  No human being can ever be truly holy or truly righteous on our own merit alone; we are all, even the best of us, sinners who fall short of God’s call for us.  And yet God saves us anyway.  God calls us, forgives us, renews us, claims us as God’s own, and makes us holy; and that is what it means to be a saint.  We are all, every single one of us, sinners who fall short of the glory of God and hurt ourselves and other people; we are all, every single one of us, saints made holy by God.  Sainthood is not about any internal resources or abilities we have; sainthood is about being forgiven, redeemed and made holy by God.

When we remember the saints who have gone before us, we’re not just remembering the really nice ones that everyone loved.  And we’re not just remembering the good parts of people and sweeping the bad parts under the rug.  So often when people die, we feel we have to pretend they were perfect even if we still bear the scars and wounds and grudges they gave us.  But acknowledging the saints doesn’t mean pretending they were perfect, because they weren’t.  Even the best of them were still sinners.  And when we call them saints, we aren’t forgetting the truth of their behavior and choices.  We are lifting up the work of God to save and redeem and make holy, even in this broken, sinful world.  We remember the saints, all of them, the good parts and the bad alike, and remembering that they are in the hands of Jesus Christ, just as we ourselves will some day be.  For those who helped us grow in the faith and loved us, we give thanks.  For those we had quarrels with, for those who hurt us, we pray that our wounds and scars will heal, and we pray that they will receive the forgiveness we ourselves hope to receive.  No one is holy on their own merits.  But God does not measure out grace and forgiveness by the teaspoon.  God pours out forgiveness and grace and mercy and salvation and blessing in overflowing cups for all who will receive it.

But blessing is another one of those words that is very different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible.  The most common thing people use “blessed” to mean is lucky.  Christians on social media will point out something good that happened to them, and tag it #Blessed along with a picture of themselves looking happy and perfect.  And if that’s what blessing truly means, then our Gospel reading makes absolutely no sense.  Jesus says the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the despised are blessed.  All the people whose lives are terrible, the people that society alternately ignores, exploits, pities, shames, and abuses—Jesus says they’re blessed.

You see, blessing in Biblical days didn’t just mean lucky or happy.  It could mean that good things had happened to you, and certainly if you blessed someone you wished for good things to happen to them, but that was only part of what it meant.  On a larger level, to be blessed was to be satisfied, at peace, unburdened.  To be blessed was to be respected and given honor.  Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor and despised because they are the ones who need it, and because God doesn’t just want to save the nice happy comfortable people.  God is at work in even the darkest places, among the people we would rather forget about.

Blessed are the poor and the hungry, because God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to give them the resources they need to survive and thrive.  God’s will is for all people to share in the abundance of God’s creation, and God is at work to see that it happens.  If human inaction and callousness prevent them from sharing God’s abundance in this world, they will certainly share in God’s abundance in the world to come.  If human sinfulness—both their own and other peoples’—works to prevent them from experiencing peace and satisfaction in this life, they will certainly receive it in the world to come.  Blessed are those who weep, for God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to provide them the support they need as they grieve.  And if human sinfulness and indifference work to isolate them so they don’t receive the support they need here and now, they will certainly receive that support in the world to come.  Blessed are the people society despises, because God sees them and God cares about them and God loves them, and God is at work in them and among them to help them heal from all the hurt they have received in this life.  And if their wounds are too deep to heal in this life, they shall certainly be healed in the next.

And note that this isn’t just the deserving poor, the ones who have done everything right their entire lives and never made any mistakes.  This isn’t just the people who are persecuted or hated for something they can’t change and are otherwise perfect and innocent.  This is all the poor, all the hungry,  all the people who are despised, and that includes the ones who are poor or hungry or despised because of their own sinfulness and brokenness and bad choices.  Because God sees with the eyes of a loving parent.  God knows all their potential, all the wounds and illness that twist them, all the terrible things in their life that have made them who they are, and God knows that healing for them and the world can only come from a place of compassion.  And God’s desire is that all people and all of creation be healed and saved and made knew.  So God blesses those who don’t deserve it.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that what God sees as blessing is not what human society sees is blessing, Jesus pronounces woe on those whom society thinks are blessed.  Woe to the rich and those who eat their fill, Jesus says.  And it’s not that wealth is evil or wrong, but God created a world of abundance with more than enough resources for everyone to have enough.  If some people are hungry and poor, that’s not because God hasn’t provided enough, it’s because we humans haven’t used God’s gifts for the good of all, only the good of some.  And if we can sit and enjoy God’s good gifts while others are being denied those same gifts, and do nothing to help them, well, that says a lot about us and none of it good.  If we can ignore and dismiss the suffering of others because things are going well for us, that’s pretty callous.  And sometimes when everyone speaks well of someone it’s because they’re really that good and deserve all the praise … but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s because the only people we’ve hurt are the ones nobody cares about.  Sometimes it’s just because we’re really good at playing the social game and putting on a good face—how often does someone commit a horrible crime, and the people around them are shocked because he was such a nice guy?  The eyes of the world see only the surface of things.  Our view of blessings and woes isn’t the same as God’s view.  And as Christians, we are called to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, not to the world.

As we remember those saints who have gone before us, let us

Amen.

The Problem of Pain

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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 prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain?  Why does evil happen?  Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world?  Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people?  Where is God in all the brokenness of the world?  From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it.  Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain.  Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless.  Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why.  Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom.  Other books have different perspectives.  And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time.  Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’

The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful.  Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it.  “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse.  First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle.  People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to.  Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context.  “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.

We Christians really don’t like that idea.  We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you.  I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control.  We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens.  Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time.  And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God.  They questioned God all the time.  They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind.  Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers.  The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical.  When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.

The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us.  If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer.  If you are good, you don’t have to worry.  You can pray your way out of any problem.  If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure.  You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.

The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that.  While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life.  Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is.  And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone.  Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now.  Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it.  It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better.  It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.

And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it.  When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet.  There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained.  Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them.  And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time.  And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned.  The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.

Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what.  Faith is about living with God.  It’s about a relationship.  And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship.  Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to?  Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure.  Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe.  It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it.  And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay.  Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay.  God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions.  God has been there.  God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand.  There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work.  I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.

And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease.  One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed.  One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged.  One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer.  We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.

Amen.

Power and Equality

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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.

Philemon is my favorite book of the Bible.  We get such a clear view of Paul’s personality, here, as he guilt-trips Philemon into doing the right thing.  I can imagine the scene so clearly: Philemon’s church gathered to hear the letter, all of them knowing all the dirty gossip about the fight between Philemon and Onesimus, and waiting to hear what Paul’s take on it is.  All of them knowing that Roman law and custom was firmly on Philemon’s side.  Philemon’s pride at the first section, as Paul buttered him up, only to become chagrined and flustered as Paul pulls the rug right out from under him, but not being able to respond.

Then there’s the connection with American history.  Like the early United States, the Roman Empire was a slave state, whose entire economy depended on the enslavement of a huge percentage of its population.  This year marks the 400th Anniversary of slavery in America; the first African slaves arrived in August of 1619.  Slavery was legal in America for longer than it was forbidden.  And the effects linger on, in policies and community standards that seem innocent on the surface.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the Civil Rights Era had fixed all the racial problems in America.  We teach our children a history in which the evils of slavery are minimized and excused, and so is all the discrimination and oppression that followed it, and yet that’s not true.  Our criminal justice system treats people of color far differently than it does white people.  For example, average illegal drug use is the same in both the White and Black communities, and yet Black drug users are seven times more likely to be arrested and put in prison than White drug users.  And convicted prisoners are the one group of people that it is legal to force to work for little or no pay; they are specifically exempted from the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.  Thousands of companies across America contract with prisons to use their prisoners—mostly people of color—as slave labor.  In states that still have the death penalty, the most crucial factor deciding whether you will be sentenced to death or to life in prison is not the severity of your crime, but the color of your skin.

And it’s not just the legal system, it’s our whole society.  About a decade ago, a documentary on race in America staged an experiment.  They found two average, nice, ordinary, mostly-white suburbs in areas not known for being especially racist.  And then they had two groups of teens—one White, one Black—purposefully vandalize and destroy a parked car.  And they waited to see how many people called the cops.  Nobody called the police on the White kids, but there were many calls to the police about the Black kids.  More than that, the Black kids had some friends of theirs waiting a few streets away for them to be done, and concerned White citizens called the cops on those kids who were quietly sitting in a parked car and talking to one another.  They believed Black kids sitting and talking quietly is more threatening and criminal than White kids actively vandalizing things.  I could go on and on with story after story, but I would never come to the end of such stories.  We may ignore the question of slavery and our nation’s history with it, but it is baked into our nation’s bones.

None of us were alive when that terrible institution was outlawed, and yet we are all affected by its legacy, despite the ways we as a society have chosen to ignore it.  And the ELCA is the whitest Christian denomination in the US—that is, we have the lowest percentage of people of color in our membership of any denomination.  The legacy of slavery and racism is not something we can or should ignore.  It’s easy to look back at the crimes of our ancestors and think, “if I were alive back then, surely I would have been an abolitionist.  Surely I would have spoken up about slavery and worked to bring it down.”  But that’s not a very relevant question, is it?  The question is, when we look at the world around us and see the ways in which slavery’s ugly legacy still holds sway, when we see how racism affects so many things in our society and in our community, what will we do now?  What will guide our response?  Will we shrug and say, well, it’s not that bad, surely, and it’s always been this way?  Will we go with the trendiest response and follow the crowd, whichever way the crowd happens to be going at any particular time?  Or will we ask what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do?

That’s a question Paul was wondering about, as he wrote this letter.  The Roman Empire had no anti-slavery advocates.  Slavery was part of the way the universe worked: some people were rich, and some people were slaves.  Like people today, people in the ancient world accepted the world they knew as normal, the way things should be.  And then God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus and Paul saw the grace and mercy of Christ, the Good News of the Gospel, and all Paul’s old certainties turned upside down and inside out.  Paul had learned that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  How do you reconcile that with a world that values some people more than others?  If we are all siblings in Christ—if that identity trumps and subsumes all the other identities human beings make for one another—how do you deal with the realities of a world which gives some people every advantage at the expense of degrading and oppressing others?  And what do you do when you turn around and look at all the things around you that you’ve always thought were normal … and realize that they are contrary to the Gospel?

That’s what Paul’s dealing with, in this letter, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot like the world we live in today.  In the last couple of decades, a lot of our old comfortable certainties about how the world works and how the world should work have been challenged, leaving Christians scrambling to figure out what a faithful response is.  Not just on race, but in other areas, too.  Gender, sexuality, so many old certainties are in question.  We have been very comfortable ignoring anything we didn’t like, and the voices of those who have been at the bottom of the social ladder.  But now we can’t do that anymore.  Those voices we’ve hushed up or ignored for so long are louder than ever, and we as faithful Christians have to figure out how to respond.  And, as faithful Christians, the first place we should turn should be the words of Scripture.  So how did Paul handle it?

Paul focused on the people involved, the one who had been enslaved and the one who had enslaved him, and responded to both with love and encouragement.  At the time, Christianity was just a tiny portion of society; Paul had no influence over the larger world.  He couldn’t work for the overturning of the whole institution, but he could take action in the little world of the Christian community.  He told Philemon to free Onesimus, but that in itself wasn’t enough.  Roman society had a whole system for how to treat freed slaves: they still were legally subordinate to their former master.  No, Paul said, Onesimus should be your brother.  No matter what society says you should do, no matter what your friends think of you for doing something different, your former slave should be your brother, your equal, not your subordinate.  Whatever the disagreements between the two, whatever Philemon thought about Onesimus, however Philemon had treated Onesimus up until that point, whatever had been the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted Onesimus to flee, that was over.  Done.

And it wasn’t up to Onesimus to bridge the gap, it was up to Philemon.  Philemon was to welcome him back as a brother.  Family.  An equal.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions and experiences mattered.  That was to be the basis of their relationship going forward, and that was the basis on which Onesimus was to return.  Not as a subordinate, or charity case, or someone to be condescended to.  An equal.  A beloved brother.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions mattered.  And Paul was willing to use every rhetorical trick and every ounce of manipulation and pressure he could pull out to see that it happened.  It was hard, it was difficult, it went against everything the world around them would have taught them to do—and it was also essential to the health and life of the community of faith.  Because otherwise, all Paul’s words about the Gospel, about the love and grace of God, would be just that: words.  Pretty words, but empty rhetoric.

Like Paul we believe that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  Our world is better on all those issues than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, but still falls far short—and it’s easy for people who aren’t at the bottom to close our eyes to just how much we still fall short.  Christianity has more power than it did in Paul’s day, but far less than we did a few decades ago.  We can’t fix society single-handed, but we can work to make our community reflect the mutual love and respect and equality of the Gospel.  We can work to treat all people like brothers and sisters worthy of respect … including the people our culture would tell us to treat as less than we are.  This is what God calls us to do: may we treat all of God’s children, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, with the love and equality God calls us to.

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 25, 2019

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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.

 

Barna Research Group did a study of American Christians of all denominations, trying to see what the average level of theological understanding was among church-going people.  The vast majority of regularly-worshipping Christians knew almost nothing about their faith.  Most of them believed only in a vague sort of wishy-washy feel-good spirituality which Barna labelled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  Which basically means that you believe there is a God out there somewhere, but God isn’t really involved in your life or the world, and God wants you to be a good person and be happy.  That’s it.  That’s the sum total of what most American Christians knew or believed about God and their faith.  And it’s not that that’s wrong; after all, there is a God, and God does want us to be good people who are happy.  But it’s also only a tiny part of who God is and what God does in the world, and it’s only a tiny part of what God desires for us.  It’s a child-like faith in the bad sense, shallow and vague.

Our God created the universe to be good, to be filled with life and joy and abundant good things, and then God saw human sin break and twist and sicken that good creation.  But God has not been sitting idly by since that happened; God has not turned away, nor left us to our own devices, nor shrugged and said we get what we deserve.  God has been active in creation and in our lives, working to heal and re-create and redeem.  As our passage from Hebrews reminds us, God has been working to heal and purge since the days when Cain committed the first murder in human history, killing his brother Abel.  God has been creating covenant after covenant, promise after promise, and asking us in return to live just and merciful lives, and create just and merciful societies based on loving God and loving our neighbor.

That redemption, that re-creation, that healing, it doesn’t happen simply or easily.  It required nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to set it in motion; and it will re-shape the entire cosmos.  In the words of our reading from Hebrews, it will “shake the heavens and the earth” and God will be a consuming fire, burning out all impurities and refining the good to make it even better.  The things of this world, even the things we think are certain and right and good, will need to be purified and made better.  And there are so many things we take for granted as normal that will turn out to be incompatible with the new kingdom God is building which God is planting in and around us, which will grow to fullness when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.

So the question is, knowing all of this, how should we respond?  Knowing that the world is broken by sin and death, knowing that God is at work to redeem and re-create the world and us, knowing that God is the only one in the entire universe that cannot be shaken, knowing that Christ will come again and bring God’s good kingdom with him, how should we live?  How should we respond to all of this?  What does God want of us?  In the words of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as quoted by Jesus, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or in the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

This is about morality, but it’s not about being good for the sake of being good.  It’s not about following the right rules just because they’re rules.  God’s law exists to help guide us into the ways to live that will grow towards God’s kingdom.  It’s not about following the letter of the law, it’s about being guided by the Spirit of that law so that our lives reflect the unshakeable kingdom that is to come.  And some of that is about personal morality, but a lot of that is about communal morality.  It’s about creating societies that reflect God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Given all of that, let’s turn to the discussion of the Sabbath which is at the heart of both our Gospel and our first reading.  Why does God command us to take time for rest and worship?  Most people today think Sabbath is just about going to church.  But it’s not.  The reason for the Sabbath is explained in several places in the Bible, most notably Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In Genesis and Exodus, the command to rest on the Sabbath is connected to creation.  God created the universe, and then God rested.  As God rests, so should we; no human or animal was created to work unceasingly.  We were created for a balance of work and rest.  Worship is a part of sabbath, but worship is not the only reason for setting the day aside and it’s only part of making the Sabbath holy.  Deuteronomy expands on this, commanding us to remember being enslaved in Egypt.  It’s not enough for us to choose, as individual moral choices, to respect the Sabbath.  It’s easy for people with resources to choose to take time off; it’s a lot harder for poor people.  And it may not be a choice for people who are being exploited.  So keeping the Sabbath means not just resting ourselves, but also creating a society where everyone, including the lowest and poorest and most vulnerable people on the totem pole, have time to rest.  Personal piety and personal time off are only part of the commandment.  It’s also about justice.  It’s about protecting those who are weak.  It’s about building a society where all creation can experience God’s good gift of Sabbath time.  Where all people have time and space and freedom not only to worship, but to rest and enjoy God’s good creation.  This is how we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Because Sabbath about more than just taking a day for worship, there are things that the law says we are supposed to do on the Sabbath.  Most notably acts of mercy.  If you see a person or animal in need of help on the Sabbath, and you can help them, you’re supposed to do it, even if that means working on the Sabbath.  This doesn’t mean that we should give over all our Sabbath time to working at a charity instead of resting and worshipping, but rather, we should not use the Sabbath as an excuse not to help.  Which the religious leader in our Gospel reading seems to have forgotten.  When he criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’ response about oxen and donkeys isn’t just random.  Jesus is referring to Scripture passages which set out the sorts of things you can and should do on the Sabbath.  Making sure animals don’t suffer is one.  Making sure humans don’t suffer is another.

The religious leader’s response to Jesus is a perfect example of the limits of thinking of God’s commands as personal morality and piety.  We’re supposed to rest and worship, so the leader wants everyone to rest and worship.  The law commands exceptions for acts of mercy, but the leader is so zealous to follow the letter of the law that he doesn’t see that Jesus healing the woman follows the spirit of the law.  Sure, Jesus could have waited and told her to come back the next day, and she wouldn’t have died … but she was suffering.  Jesus could heal her with a touch and end her suffering right then and there, and so he did.  Jesus showed the kind of compassion and love and mercy that God desires of us.  The religious leader, on the other hand, was so focused on following the letter of the law that he had no room for the love and mercy and compassion the law is supposed to help us live out.  He’s so focused on the letter of the law, there’s no room for the Spirit.  He’s so focused on trying to be faithful and pious that he is blind to the suffering of others in his community, and complains when they are healed.  He’s not the one suffering, he’s not the one in need, and so he prefers pious legalism and judgmentalism to compassion.

And the thing is, we Christians today can be just as narrowly focused, just as willfully oblivious, as the religious leader was.  We think of morality as a series of personal choices, instead of as a way of participating in God’s building up of the coming kingdom.  We see morality as individual rather than communal, a way of sorting out good people from bad people, instead of as a way of building up communities in which God’s love and justice and mercy guide our lives.  For example, the only time I ever hear Christians talk about keeping the Sabbath, it’s in the context of shaming people who aren’t in church enough.  It’s never about trying to make a better and more just society in which all people (including the working poor) have reliable and regular time to rest.  And yet, the Bible spends a lot of time teaching us about the necessity and God-given right to rest and how society should be set up to promote that.

Isaiah puts it this way: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God is at work in the world.  God is at work to heal the sick, to redeem the sinful, to re-create the broken, refine what is good and purge what is harmful.  God is at work shaking the foundations of that which is selfish, sinful, hateful, greedy, fearful, jealous, and any other kind of wrong, so that God can create a new and better world.  And we are called to participate in God’s work in the world.  May we live our lives in the light of that coming kingdom.

Amen.

You Can’t Take It With You

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A God Who Listens

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Lectionary 17), July 28, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15[16-19], Luke 11:1-13

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 ourFather, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke’s recounting of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, we all know the Lord’s Prayer; both Matthew and Luke recount Jesus teaching it to his disciples, and the version we all know by heart is an amalgamation of the two versions.  One of the interesting things about Luke’s recount of how Jesus taught this prayer, however, is how little time Jesus spends talking about the prayer, and how much time Jesus spends talking about what God is like.  The prayer itself takes up three verses of our reading.  The other ten verses are about God, and how God responds to prayer.  To Jesus, how we pray matters less than the fact that we do pray, and that we know the God we’re praying to.

And the thing about God is that God listens and responds.  God is awesome and great and mighty beyond our understanding … and God listens to us.  God takes our wishes and will into account.  God doesn’t always give us what we think we want, just like a good parent doesn’t always give a child what they want when the parent knows it’s not good for the child, or has some other reason.  But just like a good parent always listens to their child and responds, God is always listening and responding to us.

Jesus gives an example of human behavior to show us what this is like.  Humans can be pretty terrible to one another.  We don’t always listen; we don’t always respond.  Like someone already in bed for the night, we don’t want to respond even to emergencies when they are not convenient for us.  But God is not like that.  God listens.  God responds.  God is working in and through us even when God’s response is not what we want.  Notice that in this passage, all the examples Jesus gives are examples of relationships.  A friend in need, or a child and their parent.  Part of a healthy relationship is communication; if you can’t be honest, and ask for help when you need it, it’s not much of a relationship, is it?  But we have a relationship with God that is always open.  God will welcome every call for help, every shout of joy, every question and thanksgiving and hope and fear.  And we are invited to be persistent—to be shameless in our demands—even when we disagree with God.

Take the example of God and Abraham from our Gospel lesson.  God had seen how much evil there was in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Now, I want to caution you; modern readers hear “Sodom” and think “homosexuality,” even though the Bible itself has a different view of Sodom’s sin.  It’s very convenient for heterosexual people; we can hear sermons on the Bible’s main example of sin all day and never wonder about our own sins.  But the various Biblical texts that mention Sodom don’t focus on the sex at all.  The clearest and most concise summation of Sodom’s sin comes from Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The people of Sodom, the Bible tells us, worshipped power for the sake of power.  They believed that might made right and that people with power and wealth could take anything they wanted, heap any abuse they cared for on those who had nothing.  They humiliated and degraded those beneath them for sport.  And that included rape of all kinds.  In the Biblical account, the sex is a manifestation of the evil of Sodom, not the cause of it.  It wasn’t until the tenth century that the word “sodomy” came to mean only homosexual encounters.  Before that, “sodomy” meant any great sin.

So when God comes to Abraham talking about Sodom’s sin, God is not just talking about what they do in bed.  God is talking about the whole shebang: how their society is structured, how they treat one another, what character traits they value and what they treat as trash.  And the thing is, God doesn’t have to ask Abraham’s permission to smite Sodom and Gomorrah.  God knows just how bad it is, just how terribly the residents treat one another, how people there prey on one another and manipulate and cheat and hurt one another.  God’s judgment does not depend on what Abraham thinks of them.  But still, God listens to Abraham.

And Abraham disagrees with God.  Abraham thinks God is wrong, that God is being unjust in wanting to destroy Sodom.  Not because Abraham thinks Sodom is such a great place; Abraham knows just how much injustice and exploitation and evil goes on in that city.  No, Abraham is convinced that surely, there must be some good people there, and it’s not fair for them to be condemned along with the bad people.  And if God could condemn the good along with the bad, then God would not be good.

And God lets Abraham argue with him.  God doesn’t shut him up or ignore him or say “how dare you challenge me.”  Most humans, when someone argues with them, respond with hostility or dismissal, especially when the person arguing with them has less power or status.  But God is not like that.  God takes Abraham’s concerns seriously.  God says, “yeah, you’re right.  Destroying good people along with bad would be wrong.  How many good people do you think are enough to redeem that horrific place?”  Abraham bargains, coming back shamelessly, again and again, until finally they agree on a number: ten.  Ten good people, and Sodom will be saved.

Now, God knows what is in the heart of every human being.  God sees all our thoughts and all our actions, the good and the bad alike.  God knows that every person in Sodom has been infected with selfishness and cruelty and malice, but he still listens to Abraham’s concerns, acknowledges when Abraham has a good point, and takes his perspective into account.

This is not the only time people in the Bible argue with God.  It happens all over the place.  Moses argues with God multiple times, so does Job, so do most of the prophets and some of the kings.  Jesus’ mother Mary argues with Jesus at Cana.  The psalms are full of people arguing with God, or complaining about God, and bringing every care and concern to God—even when that means accusing God of not doing the right thing.  Even when we have a bone to pick with God, God would rather we brought that concern to God than shoved it under the rug and let it fester.

This is the kind of God we have.  This is what Jesus wants us to know about God when we pray.  The important thing is not the formal structure of prayer, or the wording, or any of that.  Sometimes having a formal structure and memorized words for prayer is helpful, sometimes it’s not.  The important thing is that we know that God is listening.  That God cares about us, and God cares what we think and feel, and listens whether we’re happy or sad, thankful or protesting, whether we agree or disagree, whether we are safe or in danger, whether things are going well or poorly, God is listening, and God is working to give us what we need.  No matter what we are thinking or feeling, God loves us, and God desires an open and honest relationship with us.

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  Why God became human and lived among us, to know us more intimately.  God joined us to God’s own self through baptism, through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  We worship a God who would literally rather die than be separated from us, or abandon us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Laboring for Shalom

Lectionary 14, Year C, July 7, 2019

Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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.

“After this the Lord appointed sevent others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the Harvest to send laborers out into his harvest.” Believe it or not, this is one of the ways in which our world is similar to Jesus’ day.  There is a great harvest—a lot of people who are hungry for God, for some deeper meaning to their lives—but not that many laborers to bring in the harvest, to give the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who are most hungry for it.

One in every five Americans today calls themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  They believe there is something greater than the material world; they believe that they are better off if they pay attention to their spiritual life; they are curious about God; but they don’t go to church or read the Bible or look to Christianity for guidance or community.  Some of them grew up Christian but have left the faith; some of them were never Christian to begin with.  Many are wary or skeptical of institutional religion and churches, because they have seen too many abuses, too many hypocrites, too many people using the Bible as a club to beat people over the head with, too much use of the Bible simply as a trump card in political arguments.  Or they can’t imagine that someone like them could ever be welcome in church: they just don’t fit the standard mold of the churchgoer, and think they will only be welcome if they pretend to be someone they’re not.  Or, like a cousin of mine, they long for some deeper spiritual experience, but found the church more interested in maintaining the status quo and the traditions than in exploring discipleship and spirituality.

Whatever the reason, whatever their experiences, these people will never walk in a church’s doors on their own.  They will never seek to be baptized or to come to Bible study without being invited.  And they will probably be suspicious, at least at first, of invitations, because so many of them have been burned by Christians and Christian churches before.  And yet, despite all of this they are deeply hungry for a closer connection with God, and this is something we can help them find through our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are ripe for the harvest; but there aren’t many of us to go out and do it, and most of us are afraid of being sent out, because it’s hard to talk about important things with people who disagree with us.

So let’s talk about the seventy who were sent out, and how they were sent out, and what they were sent to do, because it’s not what we think of when we think of mission work.  In some ways, it’s a lot easier than what we think of; in others, it is so much harder.  We think of missionaries as people who know their Bibles cover to cover and who know all the right arguments to make to “prove” they are right and the people they are trying to convert are wrong.  But you can’t argue someone into faith; it just doesn’t work that way.  Faith can’t be taught, it has to be caught.  You absorb it from the people around you, from the way they interpret their experience of God.  Learning doctrines and theology, that comes later; if you have faith, it adds great richness and depth.  If you don’t have faith, the doctrines are useless.    And so often in the last few centuries, missionaries have brought as much cultural imperialism as they did religion.  When they entered a community, instead of seeing what the Christian life might look like in that culture, they tried to change the culture to be more like mainstream White middle-class culture, as if Jesus could only love you if you wore the right clothes and spoke the right way and sang the right songs.

But if you notice, when Jesus gave the seventy their marching orders, they were nothing like our stereotypes of what missionaries should be.  First, he doesn’t give them a list of doctrines or beliefs that people have to be taught and convinced to believe.  The seventy were people who had followed Jesus for months, who had heard him preach and talked with him and knew his message, but the teachings were not part of this first missionary journey.  The first thing they’re supposed to do—the beginning of their ministry—is not to preach, but to spread peace.

Now, in Jewish thought, peace is a lot deeper than what we think of today.  Peace was not merely the absence of conflict, although that was part of it; peace was part of shalom, which means peace but which also means wholeness, healing, harmony, completeness, prosperity, welfare.  This is the first thing they are to do: they are to bring shalom with them and bless those they meet with it.  This is for two reasons.  First, it is God’s desire that everyone experience that healing, that wholeness, that harmony within themselves and within their community, whether or not they believe in God.  And second, once you have experienced that shalom, even if only in part, it becomes so much easier for the Good News of Jesus Christ to take root.  Where fears, anxieties, angers, resentment, jealousy, and other things like them hold sway, the Word of God finds rocky soil in our hearts.  Shalom is the basis for every good thing.

And the seventy don’t get to take the easy way out.  They don’t get to discriminate and only go to places where there is already shalom, because God’s peace is beyond understanding and it is.  Everyone needs peace and wholeness; so the seventy are sent to be agents of shalom everywhere they go.  Not everyone will accept shalom; not everyone is willing to open themselves up to the possibility of healing and harmony.  And not everyone who experiences shalom will then be willing to hear God’s Word.  But the ones Jesus sends are to proclaim it anyway, and if that shalom is rejected, the laborers are not to retaliate or judge, but simply shake the dust from their feet and move on.

There are people today, in our own community, who are in desperate need of healing, wholeness, harmony, prosperity, and peace.  Sometimes that need is personal; sometimes, it is families who need it; sometimes, it is whole large groups.  Some of them will welcome that when it comes; others will not.  But as Jesus’ followers we are called and commanded by God to be instruments of that peace, and just as the seventy were sent out to bring that shalom to the communities along Jesus’ path, we are called to bring it to those in our own community.  We are called to do this both for the sake of God’s shalom, and because people who have experienced that shalom are far more likely to listen to the Good News of Jesus.  So here’s a question: where are the places in need of shalom among us, and what can we do to bring it?  How can we, as individuals and as a congregation, be instruments of God’s peace, healing, and wholeness?

But spreading shalom is only the first step for the seventy.  Once they have begun to spread that shalom, they have to stay with the people they are evangelizing.  They don’t get to retreat back into the familiar culture and surroundings of what they’re used to.  No, they stay with the people they are evangelizing, they keep promoting shalom through word and deed.  This is hard; it means they are not in control.  They are guests.  They don’t get to impose their cultural expectations as part of evangelism; they have to listen and adapt to the culture of their hosts.  They are to bring the Gospel, not their culture.  How can we, as we interact with others in our community, bring that same grace and openness to other ways of living?

And then, once they have brought peace and healing and wholeness, then they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.  But it’s still not about doctrine or Biblical knowledge or the right argument.  It’s about pointing out where God is in their midst.  It’s about pointing out God moments, places where God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and shalom break into the world.  It’s about seeing God in action.  And once you have that—once you have God’s shalom, and can see where God is around you, that is when faith comes.  That is when spirituality deepens from something vague into something concrete.  That is when people start to become disciples, start to become part of the community of faith and learn its stories and its beliefs.  And that is when we see, as the seventy did, the work of the Holy Spirit.  May we learn to spread shalom as they did.  May we learn to be good guests, as they did.  And may we always point out the kingdom of God in our midst.

Amen.

 

Healing and Grace

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 23, 2019

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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 man possessed by the demon had two problems: First and most obviously, the demon.  The demon—or legion of demons—who tormented him and possessed him and led him to hurt himself and prevented him from living any kind of life.  The second problem was the community of people around him, who were more interested in trying to control him and avoid him than they were in trying to help him.

People are afraid of those who are different, especially those who are mentally ill.  This was true in Bible times, and it is still true today.  People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crime, but still when we hear of a terrible crime like a mass shooting, we assume the perpetrator must have had a mental illness despite the fact that they’re almost always perfectly sane.  We turn old insane asylums into haunted houses and horror tours, scaring ourselves with stories of the creepy people who were confined there in days past, despite the fact that virtually all of the horrors in such places were done by the doctors and nurses and guards, not the patients themselves.  But it’s easier to lock up or shun people who are different or mentally ill than it is to love and support them.  In general, it’s easier to use other people as scapegoats than to face the dark things in us and our society.

So it should not surprise us that the man possessed by demons in our Gospel reading had lived with a terrible choice: he could be chained up, or he could be homeless, living outside society in the cemetery.  His own people didn’t want to give him any kindness or help.  Either he was bound up like a prisoner, despite having done nothing wrong but be sick, or he was shunned and excluded and left to fend for himself in the graveyard.  Those were his only two options, and both were pretty terrible.  As far as we know, he had never hurt anybody, or done any damage besides breaking the chains they put on him.  And the demon possession would have been horrible enough on its own, but the only things his community did were to make his life more painful than it had to be.

And then Jesus came.  You know, it’s funny, but in the Gospels the people who are most likely to know who Jesus is are the demons?  The religious leaders in society didn’t; even his own disciples only occasionally showed any awareness of who Jesus really was.  But the demons knew, and were terrified.  They were terrified because they knew Jesus would not leave them alone.  They knew Jesus came to heal the people they tormented.  They knew they could not continue on hurting people if Jesus came near.  And so too, this demon was afraid.  And it was right to be afraid of Jesus.

Jesus asked the man’s name and healed him, cast out the demons so that for the first time in years the man’s mind was his own.  He took a bath and got dressed.  He could talk without the demon speaking for him.  He was saved.  Not because he was anything special or good or unique, but because that’s what Jesus does: Jesus saves people from the things that torment us, whether that is demons or sin or illness or injury or hunger or any other force.  Jesus came to bring good news, to release those held captive, to liberate those oppressed, no matter who or what is holding them down.

And the people of the town, the man’s family and neighbors, came and saw what had happened.  They saw him safe, and sane, and whole, and free.  And they did not rejoice.  No, they were afraid.  They were happier with him sick than healthy.  They were afraid of change.  They were afraid to welcome him back among them.  I am sure that at least some of them loved him and were happy, but most of them were not.  Like an alcoholic’s friends who would rather he continues to party than get sober and recover, they liked the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns they were used to better than a new and better way of living.

In this story, the demons of the Legion are afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast them out.  The people of the town are also afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast demons out.  It’s not that they like the demons, but rather that they’re used to them.  They’re used to fearing and being suspicious of the man who had been possessed.  They’re used to being able to do terrible things to him and telling themselves that he deserves it.  They’ve spent years locking him up and abusing him and ignoring him and his needs whenever possible.  They don’t want to have to look him in the eye and account for how they’ve treated him.  They don’t want to welcome him back and make him part of the community.  They don’t want to change.  And so instead of letting Jesus cast out their sins as he cast out the demons, instead of allowing him to heal them of their pride and fear and resentment and selfishness as he healed the man of his demon, they attack Jesus.  They cast him out.  They don’t want to change, even if that change is for the better.  They are more comfortable with their sins and their demons than they are with being healed and saved.  And so they try to kill Jesus.

This is another thing that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day.  We still do not want to change even when that change would be better for us.  We would, by and large, rather stay in familiar-but-unhealthy patterns than open ourselves to the saving and healing power of Christ in our lives.  And most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.  Do you think the people of that village were honest with themselves about why they drove Jesus out?  I don’t.  I bet they made up all kinds of reasons.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus was an evil magician, and that’s why he had power over the demon.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves they were mad about the money lost by the pigs’ owners.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus came to town to destroy their crops and livestock and getting rid of the demon was just a side effect.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves of other reasons I haven’t thought of.  But the fact is, it was seeing the man—their relative, their neighbor, a man whom they should have loved and cared for but chained up instead—that made them fear Jesus.  And so they cast Jesus out rather than letting him heal them, too.

Some people, reading Bible stories like this one, argue about whether the demon was a literal evil spirit or just some form of mental illness.  I don’t know that it matters.  What matters is this: there are things in us that hurt, there are things that destroy the good life God meant for us.  And sometimes those things are present in individual people, like in that man, and sometimes those things are present in communities, like in the community that did not want him to be healed.  And whether those things that hurt us are demons or illness or social forces or our own habits, God has power over them and can heal them.

Some of that healing takes place in the here-and-now.  Sometimes miracles happen; sometimes God works through medical professionals and therapists and medication.  Sometimes forgiveness and spiritual healing take place even where we think nothing good is possible.  But sometimes we have to wait.  Miracles don’t happen on command; they don’t happen every time we want them.  If so, the community would have been healed of their fear and anger instead of casting Jesus out.  I don’t know why God doesn’t heal every wound in this world right now with a snap of his fingers.  But I do know this: there will come a time when Christ will come again, and the dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and everyone and everything will be healed and made whole, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.

I don’t know when that will happen, but I have faith that it will happen.  I have faith that even when healing is not possible in this life, it will come in the next, and God’s power will triumph even where hope seems futile.  And I also have faith that God put us here for a reason.  I have faith that God is working in us here and now, that even though there are times when healing is not possible now, God is at work.  Even though there are times when we reject Jesus, God is still at work.  Even though we turn away from God’s gift of healing, even though we so often prefer the fearful life we are used to over the grace-filled life of freedom God offers, God keeps coming to us and offering healing and forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Fruits of the Spirit: Communication

Pentecost, Year C, June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17

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

Video of sermon on Facebook

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.

One of the cool things I’ve seen done at Pentecost is to have the Acts reading read by people in different languages.  After all, that’s what the story is about: the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues, which here means the ability to speak new languages they’d never learned.  A bunch of hicks from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic and a smattering of Hebrew and barely enough Greek to ask for directions suddenly found themselves speaking not only fluent Greek, but also Latin, Farsi, Arabic, Luri, Akkadian, Luwian, Hittite, Berber, and possibly a few other languages as well.  Because they spoke all of these languages, they were able to spread the Good News of Jesus by telling all these different people about him and what his life, death, and resurrection meant for all of creation.  It was a great miracle that brought many people to Jesus.  And, so, we commemorate and re-enact it by reading the story in many different languages, whatever languages people in the congregation speak, often multiple readers in multiple languages at the same time.  I’ve heard this passage read in Greek, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Asante, Swahili, and others, whatever language they could find someone to speak.

They don’t even have to speak the language well!  Sometimes you can get someone fluent in a particular language, but a lot of the time it’s somebody who hasn’t spoken that language since college, or since their grandparents died.  As long as they can read aloud in that language, they’re good, even if they don’t remember the language well enough to understand what they are reading.  Nor do they have to be understood by the congregation: I’ve most often seen this done in congregations where most of the members spoke only English, or maybe had a little bit of another language but not enough to understand the reading.  Even when a large portion of the congregation is fluent enough in a particular language to understand the reading in that language, there are often multiple languages being read, so that nobody can understand any of them.  It was always fun, and memorable, and cool.  And it can be a good way of lifting up the gifts and heritages of many people in the congregation.  And it’s a reminder that no matter what language you speak or where you are from, the Gospel is the same for everyone and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ no matter where we’re from, what language we speak, or what culture we’re from.

Those are all good messages, but unfortunately they miss the point of the story.  See, the story is not about the languages themselves, the story is about communication.  In order to tell people about the love of God in Christ Jesus, you have to speak their language.  You have to communicate.  You have to be able to tell the story and its meaning in ways that people can understand.  And it’s not enough to just get the bare bones of the story across; you have to be able to tell the story in a way that they can connect to it.  This is not about people stumbling through a language they barely know; this is about being fluent enough to really connect with people.  This is not a story about lifting up a few languages from the sidelines and giving ourselves a pat on the back for how diverse we are.  This is a story about God’s people learning to communicate with those who are different from them, and being sent out into the world to do so.

After Jesus’ resurrection, his followers were doing basically the same thing they’d done between his death and resurrection: staying within their own group, often indoors, where it was safe and everybody knew and loved Jesus.  They stayed with places and people they were familiar with, comfortable with.  People like them, people who didn’t need the whole story explained to them, people who understood what they’d been through.  They went back to fishing.  They stayed in the upper room.  Despite Jesus telling them repeatedly to go out into the world and spread the Good News, they stayed where they were and shared the Good News with people who already knew and appreciated it.  It was safer, and it was easier.  If it had been up to them, they would have stayed right where they were, and their group would never have grown, and eventually they would have died off.  Maybe they would have succeeded in passing it on to their kids, and it would have become one more minor sect of Judaism.  Who knows.

But God didn’t leave it up to them.  God sent the Holy Spirit to them roaring like a freight train, and he literally set them on fire for Jesus.  And God gave them the ability to speak to all of the people in the crowd outside their doors.  God drove them outside their comfort zone and gave them everything they needed to tell their story—God’s story—in whatever way their audience could hear it best.  And because they were speaking the languages people knew, because they were not just speaking but communicating, other people heard the Good News and turned to Jesus.  That miracle—evangelists knowing the language of the people they’re trying to reach without having to study—has never been repeated.  But it was the foundation of the Christian church as more than just a handful of Palestinian Jews.

This story asks us two questions: who are the people right outside our doors that we should be reaching out to, but aren’t?  And second, what do we need to learn to be able to communicate with them?  Like those first Christians, we are awfully comfortable inside our own walls, talking with the people who already know and love the Good News of the Gospel.  We are very comfortable talking with the people who already speak our language.  We are very comfortable talking with the people we already know, the people who are like us, the people that we understand and who understand us.  But God did not give us the Holy Spirit just so we could stay comfortably inside our doors talking with people who already believe.  God sent us the Holy Spirit so that we could go out into the world, so that God would be with us always, everywhere, so that we can have courage and participate in God’s work in the world.  God called us to love all people, not just the people like us; and it’s hard to love people you don’t know and never spend any time with.

As we reach out and build new relationships with the people outside our doors, a new problem crops up: communication.  Unlike at the first Pentecost, most of them know at least the bare bones of Jesus’ story, but they’ve never seen how that story connects with their own lives.  We may speak the same language, but we use it differently.  Words like sin, salvation, redemption, justification, grace, righteousness—all those nice churchy words that mean so much to us, are not part of their vocabulary.  To a lot of non-churchgoers today, the word “sin” doesn’t mean much besides “a word that self-righteous jerks use to bash people they don’t like.”  But sin hasn’t disappeared just because the word isn’t used by the general public.  If you translate the concept of sin into words they’re more familiar with—brokenness, selfishness, violence, being twisted—people get what you’re talking about, even if they’ve never been to church in their lives.  Because they’ve seen all those things, and the damage they do.  The Holy Spirit led the first followers of Jesus to speak other languages so that they could spread the Good News; it’s calling us to find new ways to communicate with people in our community who share our language but have never connected with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  May we, like the people at that first Pentecost, follow the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

The True Meaning of Christian Unity

Easter 7, Year C, June 2, 2019

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

I was an odd kid.  I got on great with adults, but not so much with kids my own age.  I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.  So I never had very many friends, and I was different from most of the kids in my class.  This made me an easy target for bullies, and if I hadn’t had such great loving support from my family and people at church and what friends I did have, my life would have been pretty grim.  The thing is, though, that none of my teachers liked or approved of bullies.  They did not want any of the children in their care to be hurt or afraid anywhere, but especially at school.  They just … weren’t very good at making that happen.  They were very good at keeping things looking like everything was good, but not so good at actually preventing bullying.

They told us to get along, a lot.  But mostly what that meant was that the bullies learned to only strike when the teacher’s attention was elsewhere.  Or they learned to be subtle about it, so they could play the innocent when I complained and say that it was my fault because I couldn’t take a joke, or I was just too sensitive.  They knew they were trying to hurt me, and I knew they were trying to hurt me, but they had enough plausible deniability to get away with it.  When the teachers did do something, they rarely tried to stop the bullying.  They’d try to get me to forgive the ongoing harassment without requiring the bullies to stop harassing me or apologize for what they’d done.  Or they’d try to reinterpret things so that the bullying wasn’t actually bullying, like the time someone wrote an anonymous note that I smelled and the teacher tried to convince me they were saying I smelled good and it was a compliment.  I never asked the teachers why they focused on trying to change me instead of on stopping the bullies, but I bet I know why: it seemed easier.  If I wasn’t complaining, they could assume that everything was okay and we were all getting along fine.  I was the squeaky wheel, so I got the grease, even if the problem wasn’t me but the people who were hurting me.

That’s why I get suspicious when people start talking about unity, and togetherness, and getting along.  Because the easiest way to make people unified is to ignore the people who are getting stepped on or trampled on.  It’s easier to ignore the people being hurt than to challenge and resist the people doing the hurting.  And this happens even in Christian circles.  For example, in the 19th Century, there were calls for Christian unity in America to heal regional divisions between the South and the rest of America.  And what that usually looked like was White northerners embracing White southerners and ignoring the horrific way white southerners were using and abusing black people, first with slavery and then with sharecropping and Jim Crow laws and the KKK.  For White northern Christians, getting along with White southern Christians was more important than Black suffering.

We still see this all the time today, on issues of race and gender and class and sexuality and nationality and religion and disability and every category I can think of.  It is easier to silence the victims than it is to confront and stop the abusers.  Nine times out of ten, that is what we try to do.  It’s easier to put a superficial face of niceness on things and pretend we’re all getting along than it is to address the deep and abiding wounds that so many of us bear.  It is easier to paper over the cracks than to fix the foundations.  So when I hear calls for unity and togetherness, I tend to get suspicious.  Unity on whose terms?  Who’s benefiting, and who’s getting thrown under the bus?  Whose sins are getting ignored or minimized, and whose wounds are getting salt rubbed in them?

Sometimes, of course, the people calling for unity are focused on deeper issues than just trying to make things look nice.  But all too often, those deeper issues are used as an excuse for scuttling the very idea of unity.  And they still don’t care about holding people accountable for their actions.  “We have the perfect interpretation of scripture and Christian tradition,” they claim, “so in order to do anything with anyone else, they have to agree with our every belief, even the smallest ones, because we’re right and they’re wrong.”  They want to look like they’re in favor of the kind of Christian unity Jesus wants, without actually having to do the hard work of bridging the gaps between people, so they focus on every difference they can find and make mountains out of molehills.

The unity that Christ is praying for in our Gospel reading takes work.  It’s hard, and it isn’t based on superficial niceness and togetherness.  Nor is it based on absolute uniformity of doctrine and practice.  The unity Christ is praying for is rawer, and deeper.  It’s not about making things look nice, or even about feeling good about togetherness, it’s about genuine love and putting that love into action.  This reading comes from the end of the Farewell Discourse.  For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading parts of Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night before he was arrested and executed.  We read these words in Easter because it’s actually a very good guide to what Easter living is supposed to look like.  What life in the light of the cross and resurrection is supposed to look like.  Over and over again, we are told to love.  The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God because they love one another.  They are unified in their love, in the strength of their relationship.  In the same way, God loves us, and we are united with God through that love, which is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And as we have seen the example of God’s love, so we are supposed to live that love out, and love one another, and be unified in that love.

And this love is not just a surface-level platitude.  No.  It’s something much deeper than that.  This is a love based on knowing people, warts and all, and loving them and still holding them accountable for their actions.  Jesus loved and forgave everyone … but he never swept anybody’s sins under the table or pretended they didn’t matter.  Jesus’ love transformed people, it didn’t pretend they were already perfect.  This is a love based on service and self-sacrifice.  Jesus demonstrated that love on the night before his death by washing his disciples’ feet, and he demonstrated that love again when he sacrificed himself to save the whole world.  And that sacrifice wasn’t designed to cover up the sins of the world.  No; it was designed to expose them so that transformation and new life might be possible.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, that great sacrifice of love, was what made possible the new creation that Revelation talks about.

In that new creation, all are welcome and all are one.  There is unity, but it is based on love and healing, not on sweeping problems under the rug.  All are welcome, and all are called, but you have to admit your sins and let Christ make you clean before you can eat of the fruit of the tree of life and experience its healing.  There is no test to see if you have the correct understanding; nobody is thrown under the bus so that other people can pretend everything is fine.  Instead, there is honesty and cooperation and healing.  Most of all, there is love.  God’s love for God’s own self, and God’s love for all people and all creation, and all peoples’ love of God, and all peoples’ love of each other.

If we are truly living according to God’s love in the here and now, unity will come.  Not easily, and not quickly.  Christ’s unity will come because we are working together to heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable and feed the hungry and free the prisoner and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  Christ’s unity will come because we will find that the love of God is stronger than any of the forces that tear us apart.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn how to be honest with one another, repenting our own faults and holding others accountable to do the same.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn to respect honest and good people even when they are different from us and disagree with us.  And if that unity does not come in this world despite our best efforts, we know that it will come in the next.  Thanks be to God.

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.

Listen and Follow

Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’  Even as a kid I thought it was funny.  I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other.  Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not.  I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.

That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where.  In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity.  Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough.  Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor.  After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way.  You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught.  If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry.  But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!

We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell.  We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should.  We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.

There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though.  One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything.  No, really, you can’t.  You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts.  Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else.  And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does.  And people can’t stay afraid forever.  It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness.  So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors.  Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.

And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath.  Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today.  Jesus and the Father are one.  They’re not separate.  It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people.  No.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.  They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified.  They have the same goals and desires.  They are acting together, and always have, and always will.  That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.

Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us.  But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath.  God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved.  God loves the world.  God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved.  God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock.  God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved.  Yes, we can turn away.  Yes, we can ignore God’s call.  Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to.  But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation.  God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.

God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life.  God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come.  And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either.  God wants us to have life now, too.  We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world.  And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.

And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it.  Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation.  They are safe and protected in God’s care.  You know what’s going on around them?  The opening of the seals.  Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest.  And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection.  It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.

And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either.  They have been made holy by God.  That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb.  All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior.  They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And that blood that redeems?  It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it.  The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes.  We don’t have to earn it.  We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized.  We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.

Amen.