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.