Devouring Widows’ Houses

Lectionary 32B, November 11, 2018

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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.

There is a problem in our Gospel reading.  It is the hypocrisy and selfishness of the scribes, who like to show themselves off as good, righteous, pious pillars of the community, while at the same time, according to Jesus, ‘devouring widows’ houses’.  They make a show of being great people, full of religious devotion and moral uprightness, and yet underneath it they are rotten to the core: selfish, hypocritical, throwing the most vulnerable members of society under the bus for their own benefit.  They, Jesus says, will be condemned.  Even though they’re respected now, it won’t last.  Because while society may be fooled by their wealth and the appearances they maintain, the excuses they make for their behavior, God sees who they truly are, and what they’re actually doing underneath the mask of piety.

Then there is the widow.  The generous widow, who has literally less than a penny to her name, and yet gives that penny to the Temple, trusting that the priests and Temple authorities will use that money well.  Jesus says that she is more generous than all the rich people who give lots of money, because she is giving more than they can afford, while the rich give only a tiny fraction of their wealth.  For almost two thousand years, Christians have been holding up this widow and her generosity, and encouraging one another to be just as generous as she is, to give everything we have to God.  And it is good to be generous; throughout the Bible, God asks us to be generous with our time, our money, our attention, and our love.

But the thing is, when we focus on praising the widow for her generosity, we miss a crucial question, one which connects her sacrifice with the problem of the hypocritical scribes.  And the question is this: why is this widow destitute in the first place?  Because, you see, if this society were truly following the laws handed down to Moses and recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, she shouldn’t be.  I don’t mean that she wouldn’t be poor; poverty won’t be eradicated until the kingdom of God is truly established on earth.  But there’s a difference between being poor and being destitute.  This woman has nothing.  Her entire wealth is two coins worth less than a penny.  Even back in those days, you couldn’t live on that.  It’s commendable that she is generous with that pittance that is all she has, but why is ‘all she has’ that small?

If you look through the ancient laws recorded in the Bible, they cover a wide variety of things, and some of them seem strange to us, and a lot of them don’t seem to apply to modern life.  But if you look at the overarching themes to those laws, there are some that are just as relevant today as they were back then.  And one of those themes is taking care of the vulnerable.  See, in any society, there are some people who are more likely to slip through the cracks than others.  Some people who are more likely to go hungry, some people who are more likely to be cheated, some people who are more likely to lose everything, some people who are more likely to be abused.  In the Bible, the standard way to refer to such people is as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”  (That last is translated in a lot of different ways; sometimes it’s ‘alien,’ sometimes it’s ‘foreigner,’ but it’s always someone not-from-here, an outsider.)  See, in those days, if you didn’t have an adult male member of the community advocating for you, you would find it hard to do business, own property, farm, buy or sell anything.  If you didn’t have an adult man of the tribe speaking up for you, things could get pretty dire pretty fast.  So widows and orphans pretty often had bad things happen to them.  So did people who didn’t have family ties in the area.

And this extra vulnerability is wrong.  Nobody should be abused; nobody should be abandoned; nobody should go hungry; nobody should be treated badly or exploited.  So the laws God gave Moses spend a lot of time talking about vulnerable people, and how we should always be careful to see that they are treated well and get what they need to live.  It’s not that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the stranger more than he loves rich people with big families.  It’s that rich people with big families are a lot less likely to need help and support.  Or, at least, when they need that help and support, rich people with big families can usually either buy it or get it from their family.  A poor widow, or an orphan, or a stranger with few ties to the community?  They slip through the cracks really easily.  So, God says, we need to be careful to see that they don’t.  We need to be careful to see that they have what they need and are taken care of even if it costs us time and money.  We should always be on the lookout to see if vulnerable people need to be helped or protected, God tells us again and again in the laws of Moses.  And it’s not just about individuals choosing to be generous.  God tells us to set up our society in such a way that there are systems in place to take care of these vulnerable people.  The details of those systems in the Laws of Moses wouldn’t work for us today, because our society is so different.  But the basic principle remains.  We need to take care of vulnerable people.

Back to the vulnerable person in our Gospel reading, the widow who has nothing but two coins worth less than a penny, who is so generous with the pittance that she has.  Jesus sees her.  But nobody else seems to.  All those prominent scribes, who make such a show of piety and devotion to God?  All the rich people giving to the Temple?  None of them notice her.  Not one.  The laws of Moses say they should be looking for such people and making sure they receive the help they need.  I’m sure everyone there gave lip service to helping those in need.  After all, they’re at the Temple!  They are the Biblical equivalent of good, faithful, churchgoing people.  They are the ones who read Scripture and pray a lot and give to support God’s ministry.  If anyone in their society is going to know God’s law and put it into practice, it should be them.  If anyone in their city is going to see someone who has slipped through society’s cracks as this widow has, it should be them.  And they don’t see her.  They ignore her.  They may even be judging her for having such a paltry gift instead of their large donations.

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”  And what does he see next, but a widow in dire, desperate poverty.  We don’t know why she is in such straits.  We don’t know how family bonds and social structures failed that she is left with so little.  We don’t know what the scribes might have done—or failed to do—that contributed to her situation.  We don’t know if the scribes ‘devoured her house’ as Jesus condemns them for doing just a few verses earlier, or if it was just a run of bad luck, or even bad decisions on her part.  We know two things: first, she has a spirit of grace and generosity that is boundless and stunning.  And second, the people of God who should be looking out for people like her, are failing.

Like the scribes and others Jesus saw that day, we are good, faithful, churchgoing people.  And, like the scribes and others at the Temple, we live in a society where sometimes people fall through the cracks.  Where some people go hungry even though we have more than enough food.  Where some people are homeless even though we have more than enough buildings to house them in.  Where some people are sick or disabled and can’t afford medical care.  Where some people are abused or exploited.  Where some people are alone and friendless even in the midst of a crowd.  And, like those scribes and others, it is really easy to do nothing.  It’s easy to give just enough to make ourselves feel good, even when we are capable of so much more.  It’s easy to stand back and let the system and greedy people take advantage of those with little power and few connections.  It’s easy to ignore vulnerable people, and let them slip through the cracks, and shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way the world works.  But that’s not what God calls us to do.  That’s not the kind of society God calls us to create.  May we see the vulnerable in our midst, and work to create a society where nobody is forgotten or destitute.  And thanks be to God for all the people who give of their time and money to help those in need.

Amen

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Living Faith

Lectionary 23B, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

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

 

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

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

When I was a teenager, an old, homeless, mentally ill woman lived for some time on the outside stairs down to the basement of my home church.  If I ever learned her name, I’ve long since forgotten it.  This was in downtown Salem, Oregon, and that stairwell was off the road and sheltered from the elements, and not much used.  She was pretty clearly not all there, mentally, and sometimes she was hostile.  And it’s hard enough for homeless people to keep clean when their brains are working well; like many people who are both homeless and mentally ill, she stank of sour, unwashed misery.  I don’t recall that she ever came to worship, but when we had a potluck or a meal or something, she would come in and eat.

I dreaded that.  I have a very sensitive sense of smell, and being anywhere near her made me gag.  So, probably about the second time that old homeless woman came in to a potluck, I complained to our associate pastor.  Wasn’t there anything she could do?  I mean, I didn’t have anything against homeless people or mentally ill people, but I would enjoy the potluck a lot more if that smelly person just wasn’t there.

Our pastor heard me out, and said she was sorry that I was having such a problem.  But, you know, they’d tried to help the woman, and failed.  They’d tried to connect her with every service available for homeless or mentally ill people in Salem, and nothing worked.  Either she didn’t quite qualify for services in one way or another, or the service decided she was too difficult to deal with, or getting services required a degree of organization and mental togetherness that she simply was not capable of.  She just fell through the cracks, and if she had any family or friends who might be able to help, nobody had been able to find them.

And after explaining all that, my pastor looked at me and said, “The thing is, Anna, she’s a child of God.  Just like you and me.  God loves her even though she’s smelly and mean, and not living in the same reality as the rest of us.  And God doesn’t want her to be hungry, or cold, or sick, or homeless, but she is.  So if the only thing we can do to help her is to see that she gets a good hot meal once in a while at a potluck, well, that’s quite literally the least we can do.  And, Anna, our basement is pretty big.  If you sit on the other side of the room, you won’t be able to smell her while you’re eating.  And even if you can’t eat with her in the room, you have lots of food at home.  You won’t go hungry.  If she doesn’t eat here with us, she will be going hungry.  God calls us to love all people, and welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry.  She needs a place to be welcomed, and she’s definitely strange, and she’s hungry.  So if it comes down to a choice between following the Gospel and your comfort level, I’m sorry, but we have to put the Gospel first.”

I was mortified.  I was so embarrassed.  My pastor hadn’t spoken in a condemning or judgmental way.  She had been very compassionate to me.  But I, of all people, should not have needed to have that explained.  Being a Christian and being faithful to God has always been very important to me.  As a kid, I not only listened to the main sermon, I sometimes took a printed out copy of it home with me to read later and think about.  I paid attention to Sunday School, I went to adult Bible study as a teenager, being a Christian wasn’t just something I did because my family was Christian.  I was really proud of my devotion.  If some issue in my life had a connection to Jesus’ teachings, I should have been able to spot it a mile away.  And yet, I hadn’t.  Even at that age, if you’d asked me to give a temple talk on Jesus’ words to love the stranger, I probably could have done a decent job of it.  But when I saw someone who definitely, genuinely needed compassion and help, my only thought was “holy cow, she is so gross, can we get her out of here so I don’t have to deal with her?”

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? … have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  Paul, too, in his letters, says that he firmly believes that God shows no partiality to one person or group over another.  The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about how to care for the poor and outcast, and the prophets regularly condemned those who did not care for the needy.  And Jesus spent lots of time welcoming people of every description from every race and tribe and walk of life.  The story of the Syrophoenician Woman is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus ever hesitates to help anyone in need, and even then, all it takes is a few words from her, and he changes his mind and helps.  (I wonder if Jesus felt as embarrassed as I did, after having someone point out that lack of godly compassion and generosity.)

God is impartial.  God doesn’t play favorites.  But boy howdy, humans do.  We do it all the time, make biased and unfair judgments based on every human criterion imaginable.  But we usually don’t recognize when we’re doing it.  Scientists have actually done research on this.  See, the way human brains work most of the time is not based on logic, even when we think it is.  We respond based on our gut feelings, and then come up with logical reasons why our guts were right.  And our gut feelings are shaped by a lot of things: our own experiences, the common culture around us, the stories and jokes we hear and tell.  We empathize a lot with people who are like us, whom we admire, or people who have attributes our culture promotes, whether that’s money or a large social media following or a thin, beautiful body or the right ethnic background.  We don’t generally empathize with people who aren’t like us, or who don’t have attributes our culture values, or whose lives we’ve never imagined ourselves in.  And how much we empathize or don’t empathize with someone has a huge impact.  When someone we empathize with needs anything, we are willing to help, and think that they should receive what they need.  When people we don’t empathize with need anything, we find excuses not to help.  And when people we don’t like need anything, we actively look for reasons why their needs are unreasonable and bad.  Sometimes, as was the case with me and that homeless woman, we can’t even conceive of them as people.  Just obstacles to be gotten rid of, or judged, or ignored.  We don’t see people through God’s eyes, but with human eyes.  And sometimes, we don’t see them at all.

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? …. have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”  Unfortunately, there isn’t any way I know of to truly be impartial.  There’s no way to stop our guts from pre-judging people and caring about some more than others.  But we can be better than we are.  We can choose to show compassion even to people we don’t like or wouldn’t otherwise care about.  We can choose to stop and think twice instead of letting knee-jerk assessments lead us into injustice. We can focus on remembering that people who aren’t like us are still God’s children … and we can put that knowledge into practice by choosing to reach out to those who are different and treat them with mercy and justice.  We can choose to see the world through God’s eyes, remembering that all people are God’s beloved children, just like you and me and that homeless woman.  And we can let God’s love guide our actions, instead of our own snap judgments.

I don’t believe in works righteousness.  God doesn’t choose to save us because we earn it through good deeds.  But at the same time, if we truly believe in the love and grace of God poured out to all the world through Christ Jesus, shouldn’t we act like it?  If we have been transformed by the good news of God in Christ Jesus, shouldn’t that transform the way we see the world, and how we treat others?  If we want our faith to live and breathe and grow, we have to actually put that faith into action, so that faith is not just something we think about sometimes, but something we do.  May God’s vision and God’s love guide our hearts, minds, and hands.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

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

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

What It Means To Be The Body: On Sex, Ethics, and Community

Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

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

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

When Christians in America today talk about sex, we tend to talk about it in terms of individual moral behavior.  And we also tend to talk about sex from the perspective of sex being inherently bad or shameful unless it’s done the right way.  The problem with talking about it as an individual moral issue is that the Bible says very little about individual moral issues, focusing instead on the ethics of the community as a whole.  So, for example, in our lesson from Corinthians, Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the whole Corinthian community.  We know this because Greek language is different when you’re talking to one person or to a group.  And the problem with talking about sex as if it’s inherently bad or shameful is that what the Bible has to say about sex is a lot more complicated than can fit into the standard purity jargon.  And I think it’s important to think about this a little bit more deeply in a time when sex scandals are in the news.  So let’s look at our reading from Corinthians.

Before we talk about sex, though, we have to talk about community in Christ Jesus.  Because that community of all believers is, for Paul, the absolute bedrock foundation for morality.  All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, a metaphor Paul uses repeatedly throughout his writings, and especially in his letters to the Corinthians.  We are members, one of another.  Nobody can stand alone, and how we act affects others.  If our actions hurt others, they are bad.  If our actions build up the body, make it stronger or more unified or more healthy, they are good.  We don’t have to worry about our eternal salvation because Jesus has forgiven and freed us from our sins.  Therefore, we are free to pay attention to how our behavior affects our brothers and sisters in the here and now.  If we hurt one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we abuse one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we ignore the needs of others for our own selfish gain, we hurt the body of Christ.  And Paul explicitly addresses this message to the stronger, more powerful members of the community.  The more power you have, the stronger your faith is, the greater your responsibility to take care of the weaker, poorer, more marginalized members of the community.

Paul’s morals have nothing to do with legalism, and everything to do with relationship.  It doesn’t matter whether something is legal or not.  It doesn’t matter whether something is normal or not.  If it hurts people, especially if it hurts your brothers and sisters in Christ, you shouldn’t do it.  And if there are people in the community who are more vulnerable than you are, it is your job to look out for them, as it is the job of the whole community.  There’s an exchange from a book by Terry Pratchett that describes it well: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things,” said Granny Weatherwax.  “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” said the young man.  “But they starts with thinking about people as things,” Granny responds.  I think Paul would agree.  If you think about people as things—as commodities, as obstacles, as enemies, as burdens, as freaks—it’s a lot easier to hurt them.  Because their needs and wishes and feelings are irrelevant, because they’re not really people.  They don’t matter.  But when you see people as siblings in Christ, instead, as members of the same body of which you yourself are a part, you act differently.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, everything.  If you start with the assumption that other people are objects for your gratification, then prostitution, sexual harassment, and sexual assault become no big deal.  If other people are there for your gratification, if they’re not really people, or at least not people worth caring about, then their wishes don’t matter and you can use and abuse them without a second thought.  Instead of a mutual intimacy to build a relationship, sex becomes a means of domination.  It becomes selfish and ugly, instead of a God-given gift.

In Paul’s day, prostitution was both legal and commonplace.  In Corinth, people would hire prostitutes for their parties as a matter of course.  Nobody thought much about it.  Paul’s objection to prostitution was not that sex is inherently sinful.  No, Paul’s objection to prostitution is what it does to the body, the Body of Christ.  Say you were a Corinthian man, and you went to a party for your guild, and there were a bunch of prostitutes there for anyone who wanted one.  They’re party favors.  And it’s legal, and it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it, so why not?  But in order to use a prostitute, you have to think of them as a commodity to be bought and sold, objects who exist for your personal gratification.  You have to think of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So then you leave the party, and go back to your house.  But you bring that attitude, that mindset with you; it lingers.  The idea that women exist for your gratification, as commodities, instead of as people.  It would affect the whole body of Christ, because it would affect how you thought of, spoke to, and treated the other women you knew.  And that sort of thinking, that other people are not really people, it spreads.  Pretty soon, it’s not just women.  It’s men with less social or economic standing.  It’s people of a different race or culture.  It’s anyone who’s inconvenient.  And thinking leads to actions, to all kinds of mistreatment.  Once you stop thinking of people as people, any kind of mistreatment becomes justifiable.  It affects you and everyone around you.  It damages the body of Christ.

Prostitution isn’t legal today, but it exists right here in North Dakota.  Girls and boys are kidnapped, raped, sold, beaten, and kept moving around to prevent them from finding help.  It happens because some people think the pain and degradation of those young people is less important than the money to be made from them, or than their own gratification.  Prostitution continues because there are too many people who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get pleasure or profit.  And it’s not the only sin or injustice that begins that way.  When something bad happens, when people hear about someone doing something terrible, they often come to me and ask how someone could do something like that.  And the answer is, because they don’t see other people as people.  They don’t see other people as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They see them as things, as commodities, as obstacles.

Then we turn to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been so public in the last few months.  Here, too, is sexual misconduct that stems from treating people like things.  And it’s not just Hollywood, or politics, or something that happens to a certain kind of women.  There are far more cases than will ever be reported in the news, simply because most of the victims and perpetrators aren’t powerful enough or well-known enough for people to care about.  I was in middle school the first time a pickup truck full of college boys yelled sexual things at me.  These sorts of things aren’t new.  I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why it happens, and how to stop it, and what are the right punishments for it, and what consequences for it are too much and what consequences are too little, and what about men who might say things they shouldn’t but don’t know it’s wrong?

This is actually something psychologists and sociologists have been studying since the 70s.  In the vast majority of cases, the men who do things like this know perfectly well where the line is, they just don’t care.  Or, if they don’t know where the line is, it’s because they don’t want to know.  They don’t care about where the line is because they don’t care about their victim as a person; all they see is something they can use for their own pleasure.  When harassers claim that they didn’t know any better, it’s a lie because either they did know better, or they chose not to know better.  They chose not to see anything but their own personal gratification.

So how do we as Christians respond to all of this?  How should we respond?  Obviously, we should condemn the behaviors that hurt and injure people or take advantage of them, whether in a sexual sense or any other.  But I think we need to go back to the basics, to the foundation of Christian ethics.  And that foundation is the knowledge that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are all children of God, created by him, named by him, and claimed by him.  We are, each and every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves us and all of creation.  From the least of us to the greatest, every human being is a person who matters, a person for whom Christ died.  When we forget that, we leave ourselves and our world open for all kinds of evil.  When we remember that, everything else falls into place.  May we always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and one body together, and may that knowledge guide our thoughts and actions.

Amen.

Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

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

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

Have you ever noticed just how weird the story of the Three Wise Men is?  It is seriously strange.  Let’s start with the so-called ‘wise men’ themselves.  There’s a lot of folklore about them, but the Bible actually tells us very little.  It doesn’t even tell us how many there were.  We assume there were three because they brought three gifts, but there could have been two or ten or a hundred.  And they weren’t kings, they were magi—a word which could describe anything from street magicians to court entertainers to astrologers.  And it’s worth noting that every other time someone is described as “magi” in the Bible, it’s not a compliment.  Magi are hucksters, manipulators, people who use unearthly powers—or claims of unearthly powers—to manipulate people and cheat them out of money.  They don’t tend to respond well to the power of God in Christ Jesus, which they usually regard either as a threat or a way to prop up their own act.  That’s the case every time magi show up in the Bible—except for here, when they come seeking Jesus, and worship him.

These guys were probably astrologers, not street magicians, because no street magician could have afforded the gifts they brought, and because they were watching the stars.  Somehow, they have figured out from watching the skies that a new Jewish king has been born, and they come to Jerusalem figuring that the palace of the king is the right place to find him.  Except King Herod hasn’t had a child or grandchild born recently.  So Herod is both surprised and dismayed.  (Also, I would point out that while we tend to assume that the magi were following a single extraordinarily bright star, if that were the case, surely SOMEONE else in all of Judea would have noticed it and Herod wouldn’t have been caught by surprise, which is why I tend to think they saw a conjunction of stars or a comet or something that they interpreted to have symbolic meaning.  But it doesn’t really matter, in the end.  They saw something, and it brought them to Herod, and, eventually, to the young Jesus and his family.)

Anyway, when the magi appear, Herod calls up the Temple and asks them where the promised king given by God was supposed to show up—not because he wants to worship him or give up his throne but because he wants to kill his rival.  The magi take the information, and that plus the star leads them right to the house where the baby Jesus and his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph are living.  (If you’re wondering what happened to the inn, the magi didn’t show up the night of Jesus birth, but some time later, possibly not until Jesus was around two years old.)  They were living in a house by this point, but it couldn’t have been a very nice house because they were fairly poor.  And on finding this small, poor house, inhabited by peasants, completely the opposite of what they thought they were seeking, the magi are overjoyed!  (Which may be the strangest part of the whole story.  Think about it: how often are you overjoyed to find out you’re completely wrong?)  They come in and paid homage to Jesus—they may have worshipped him, or they may knelt and kissed his feet as some countries required when people met their king, the Bible is unclear.  They open their treasure chests and bring out fine, costly gifts worth a king’s ransom.  And then they leave.  And nobody ever hears anything about them ever again.

Imagine you are Mary and Joseph.  While Jesus’ birth was kind of wild—in a stable, with shepherds and angels coming to see the baby—you’ve had some time to get into your new routine.  You have a house, presumably a job, you’re getting used to being parents.  Then, one day, out of the blue, a group of weird foreigners show up with gifts worth a king’s ransom.  They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you or dress like you, and they are pagans who worship other gods and practice magic.  They say they got here by following a star.  Now, God has never used astrology.  Sometimes the stars respond to things God does, but God doesn’t use stars to communicate with humans, and the actions of the stars don’t control human destiny.  Astrology is something humans make up, just like every idol in the world.  Yet somehow God has used the stars to draw these foreign weirdos to his son—your son.  They kneel before the baby, like a person would kneel before their king, and then they give you the gifts, and then they leave as suddenly as they arrived and you never hear from them again.  Bet they told that story around the dinner table a lot.

I wonder why the magi came.  They weren’t looking for a religious revelation; if they were, they would have asked for Jesus in the Temple, not in a palace.  They were looking for a new political leader, which is why they went to Herod in the first place.  But Judea was a backwater.  An insignificant territory of the great Roman Empire, which maintained its own king only so long as that king spent enough time and money sucking up to the Roman Emperor.  To most of the world, which person was King of Israel was pretty irrelevant.  The neighboring kingdoms and provinces might send a small gift and congratulations on hearing a new prince was born, but nobody else would bother.  And the magi probably weren’t sent by one of the neighboring kingdoms, because they would have said so.  Given the mercenary nature of most magi in the Bible, I wonder if they intended their journey as a sort of job hunt.  “Hey, see how good we are at astrology, we learned that you had an heir born through the stars!”  And then they show up and the king hasn’t had a child or grandchild born after all—how embarrassing to be wrong.  There’s no way to know why they went to find the new king whose birth they saw heralded in the stars, but come they did.  And they didn’t let getting things wrong the first time discourage them, either; they went on to Bethlehem where Jesus actually was.

They get to Bethlehem and what they find is nothing like they were expecting.  Instead of riches, they find poverty.  Instead of power, they find weakness.  And instead of politics, they find the son of God, who will bring light to the whole world.  What they found was the opposite of what they thought they were looking for … and yet they were overjoyed.  Think about your own life.  I’m sure there have been times when you have gone looking for one thing and found something completely different instead.  I’m sure there have been times when you realized that you were absolutely, completely, and totally wrong about something big.  It happens to all of us sooner or later.  But very few of us react with joy to learning that we’re wrong.  Even if we learn something better, even if it’s a positive change, we find some reason to be upset about it.  Shame of being wrong, or fear of the unknown, or resentment at looking foolish—we find some reason to be mad.  But when the magi found out they were wrong—when they found out God had been leading them somewhere stranger and better than they had imagined—they were overjoyed.  They kept following even when they weren’t sure where they were going, and they rejoiced when God led them someplace new.

I think there’s something to be learned from that.  God does new things.  God does things we’re not expecting, things we could never have imagined.  God has plans for us and for the world that we’re not aware of.  And sometimes, while we’re headed off to do our own thing, God radically redirects us to someplace new.  Even when we think we know what’s going on, and even when we think we’re going where God wants us to go, we may be wrong.  We may be clueless.  We may be headed somewhere else entirely.  And when God shows up in our lives to put us on a new path or reveal things to us that we don’t expect, we should respond to it with joy, and adjust our plans accordingly, instead of trying to force things back to the way we think they should be going.  Even if it means admitting we were wrong.  And that light they followed is here, with us; even on the darkest night, even when shadows creep in, that light continues to guide.  Even when we it takes us places we wouldn’t have imagined.

And the other thing to remember about this story is that all people are God’s people.  The magi were foreigners.  We don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we do know they were from someplace far away.  Throughout the Old Testament, in many places such as our first reading today, God promises that his light will shine for all people, and all people will come.  Not just those who already know him, not just the people already gathered around his table, but all people of every tribe and race and nation.  The magi were the first example of that promise being fulfilled in Christ Jesus, but they weren’t the last.  We are here today because that light they followed kept spreading throughout not just Judea, but throughout all lands, just as it keeps spreading today.  Mary and Joseph were probably surprised by those weird foreigners, but they accepted them as people sent by God.  May we also follow the light of God as the magi did, and accept those whom God’s light brings to us, as Mary and Joseph did.

Amen.

A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

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

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

In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God.  By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky.  If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies.  Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded.  But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you.  This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too.  Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.

The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one.  That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships.  God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people.  God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.

And not just individual relationships, either.  Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior.  But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships.  Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another.  Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense.  After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another?  If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully.  If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset.  If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share.  Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet.  Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.

You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible.  It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected.  It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out.  The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor.  The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing.  And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together?  The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too.  The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else.  You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers.  You just can’t.

Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost.  Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you.  And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them.  And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means.  So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.

So, there they were.  With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said.  And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed.  And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great.  They thought they had a wonderful connection with God!  They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.

God had a much, much different perspective.  God thought things were going horribly.  God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care.  That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them.  And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in.  First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive.  “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”  They’re all going to be disgraced.  They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.

Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor.  Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering.  When people starve to death, it’s their fault.  The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track.  “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  …  12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”  They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain.  And they’re going to pay for it.  God is not going to protect them from their enemies.  God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children.  And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering.  You just can’t.

We keep forgetting this, though.  We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough.  But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites.  If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.  And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do.  May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 21, August 27, 2017

Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

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

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

Paul talked about spiritual gifts a lot.  Three times in three different letters, including our second reading from Romans, he talks about the gifts of the Spirit, and how each person in the community of faith has different gifts, and all are needed.  And each place he lists off the gifts of the Spirit, it’s different.  No two lists are the same.  This is because the Spirit gives lots of different gifts to lots of different people, depending on who they are and what the needs around them are.  There is no way that anybody could ever put together a list with EVERY gift the Spirit gives, because the Spirit gives a lot of gifts.  And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “oh, that must be wonderful to have a spiritual gift, but I don’t have any, I’m too ordinary,” or “too boring,” or “too sinful,” I have news for you.  God has given you spiritual gifts.  You may not recognize them; you may not be aware of them; you may not be using them.  But you have been given a spiritual gift just the same.

I think this is the reason Paul starts this section by talking about being transformed by God, instead of conforming to the world.  Because the world tells an awful lot of lies about gifts of every kind, but especially about spiritual gifts.  The world tries to tell us things that aren’t true about God, about ourselves, and about each other.  And if we believe these lies, we can’t possibly know what God is doing in us and in the world around us, because we can’t see anything or anyone clearly.  In order to know what is good and right, in order to know who we are and who God is, we have to let God transform us from who the world wants us to be, to who we were created to be.

The first lie the world tells us is about money.  And the lie is, that money determines how important or good something is.  Think about it: we judge things—even moral things!—by their worth.  We talk about our “values”—that’s an economic term.  Now, there’s a lot of problems with letting money determine how important or good things are, but when it comes to spiritual gifts it’s a huge problem because it tells us that gifts are only important if we can profit off of them.  Have you ever noticed that?  Gifts that you can make money off are valued; gifts that you can’t exploit for profit aren’t.  We spend a lot of time these days helping young people figure out what their gifts are, but not for spiritual purposes, for career planning.  So we know all about how to build a career off of peoples’ gifts, but not much about identifying spiritual gifts for use as Christians.  And if you have a gift and choose to use it in ways other than making money, people shake their heads.  For example, I enjoy writing.  I do it as a hobby.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if I’m not trying to get published—if I’m just doing it for my own enjoyment and my friends’ enjoyment—that I’m wasting my time and talents.

But a lot of the gifts God gives can’t be monetized.  They can’t be profited from.  And those are some of the most necessary gifts of all.  You’ll notice that compassion is one of the gifts that Paul names in our passage.  So is generosity.  You can’t make money off of either of those, but think how terrible the world would be if there was no compassion, no generosity.  It would be a pretty dark, grim place.  These are only two of the gift that are absolutely vital to both the Christian community and the world in general, that no one can put a price on or profit from.  If you’re only looking for things that society values, things that will help make money or build a career, chances are, you’re not going to see the gifts that God has given you.

The second lie that the world tells us is that gifts are extraordinary, and that only some people get them.  That most people are boring and normal, and if you don’t have the kind of special talent that makes someone sit up and take notice, you have nothing to offer.  The world divides people into winners and losers, the beautiful few who have what it takes and make it to extraordinary heights, and the ordinary schmucks who just don’t make the grade.  Some people succeed, and others are failures.  Some people matter, and some don’t, and you want to be one of the ones who matter, don’t you?  So work hard, and maybe you’ll be one of the winners instead of one of the losers.  And if you don’t have what it takes to be one of the winners, well, then you just don’t matter.

But that is a lie, because everyone matters, to God.  God does not see winners and losers, important people and schmucks.  God does not care whether anybody wins or loses, whether anybody succeeds or fails.  God loves each and every one of us.  God cares for each and every one of us.  And God gives gifts to everybody, including the people the world labels as failures or losers or just too ordinary to pay much attention to.  And so a lot of God’s gifts get overlooked because they’re too ordinary.  And yet, all of those ordinary things: building lives, and homes, and taking care of people, and seeing that the necessary work gets done, sometimes that too is a spiritual gift, just making sure that the people who need to get taken care of get taken care of.  Seeing that when work needs to be done there are people to pitch in to do it.  That, too, is a gift from God to make the world a better place.

And the third lie the world tells is that gifts should be used for the individual.  If one person has a gift, it should be used for their own betterment.  It’s all about individual growth, individual prosperity.  But if you’ll notice the gifts Paul lists, none of them can be used for just one person.  Teaching, ministering, generosity, leading, giving, being compassionate—these are all gifts that require relationships.  You can’t teach if there’s no one to learn.  You can’t lead if there’s no one to follow.  You can’t minister if there’s no one to minister to.  These are all gifts that require relationships.  And Paul talks about these gifts in at the same time as he uses the metaphor of the body to describe the Christian community.  When God gives us anything—spiritual gifts, wealth, health, anything—he doesn’t give it to us to hoard.  God gives us gifts to share, to spread around, so that all people may experience God’s blessings in many and various ways.

We all have gifts from God.  Some of them are obvious, and some are not.  Some are valued by the world, and some are not.  Teaching is a gift—and not just one given to professional educators, either.  Being generous is a gift.  Being compassionate is a gift.  Encouraging people is a gift.  Persistence is a gift—just being able to put one foot in front of the other, doing the job God puts in front of us, that’s incredibly important.  A willingness to help others is a gift.  The ability to build relationships and communities is a gift.  But as long as we’re listening to the world’s lies, and seeing with the world’s eyes, we won’t see God’s gifts for what they are.  We’ll ignore them, or devalue them, or just plain not see them.  And our world will be a darker and a colder place because of it.  God gives gifts to each one of us.  Every single one of us has gifts from God.  The trick is learning how to see them, to use them, for the good of all God’s people.  And to do that, we have to listen to God, and not the world.  May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can see God’s gifts for what they truly are, and put them to use as God calls us to do, for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Amen.