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.

#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.

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.

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.