Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 12, June 25, 2017

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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 our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about one of the things Christians like to talk about least.  Conflict.  Disagreement.  Division.  The hardship that comes from following Christ.    But whether or not we like to think about it, the sad reality is that it happens all too often.  When there is conflict or disagreement, Christians tend to respond theologically in one of two ways.  That is, if you ask us what God thinks about conflict and how that should affect us, all too often you’ll get one of two answers.  One is to say, well, God is love, therefore God doesn’t want us to fight, therefore we should just be nice.  The other reaction is to say, well, I know what God wants and therefore anything I do is following God’s will.  I don’t think Jesus likes either option.

The belief in the niceness as the central Christian virtue leads us to try to paper over problems or ignore them, because they feel threatening, like a sign that our community isn’t Christian enough.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for healing or growth.  Problems fester and grow instead of being dealt with.  The loudest voices get heard, and the others are shut up because they threaten the status quo.  Which is great if you’re one of the loudest voices, but not great if you aren’t.  Some people’s needs get met, while others get trampled on in the name of unity and community.  The least powerful people are forced to sacrifice so that the most powerful will be comfortable.

The belief in self-righteousness, on the other hand, leads to really nasty fights because of course if God is on your side than whatever you do is justified, and your enemies are evil, horrible people.  So you can be just as much of a jerk as you want, and it’s justified.  You can be as nasty as you want, and you are in the right because God is on your side.  There are a couple of problems with this one.  First, sometimes we’re wrong.  It’s actually pretty easy to convince yourself that God thinks the same way you do, instead of conforming your heart and mind to God.  I’ve seen far too many people—from a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and political orientations—use the Bible and God’s will to back up and support what they already think, instead of truly following Jesus.  The second problem with this kind of self-righteousness is that the God who commanded us to love our enemies is probably not going to look too fondly on the sort of scorched-earth tactics this kind of belief tends to lead to.

Conflict can happen for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad.  Sometimes everybody is just being a selfish jerk, or refusing to listen and think about anything other than themselves and the way their community sees the world.  Sometimes conflict happens because petty disagreements and old grudges keep getting brought out in new forms.  In these cases everybody just needs to take a step back and learn to listen to other people and be reconciled.  But sometimes conflict happens because of a deep conflict between God’s ways and the ways of the world.  In our Gospel reading Jesus says that we’re going to go through some of the same things that happened to him.  Just as Jesus got into conflicts with a wide variety of people, if we are truly his disciples, we’re going to have conflict too.  So what was Jesus doing that got people to react?  Why did some of them hate him and plot against him?  Why was this a concern here, in the tenth chapter of Matthew?  Let’s back up and see what Jesus has been doing.

Matthew chapters five through seven is the sermon on the mount, one of Jesus’ greatest times of teaching.  He starts off by saying that God especially loves the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, all the ones who get trampled on by the world.  In other words, God loves the ones that society would rather ignore or shut out.  Then Jesus talks about relationships, friendships and familial relationships and marital relationships, and how important reconciliation and forgiveness are.  Then he talks about loving your enemies.  Then he talks about doing good and religious works in private, so no one can see you doing them.  And Jesus finishes up by reminding us that we should always be relying on God, not on our own ability to make things turn out the way we want.

This is all really difficult stuff.  He’s telling anyone who will listen that what you look like in public—what the world thinks of you—is irrelevant.  God doesn’t care about who has power and who doesn’t.  God cares about people, even the least important and most despised people.  God loves everyone, good and bad alike.  God cares about how we treat one another.  Especially when we have nothing to gain by doing the right thing.  Especially when we will suffer for doing the right thing.  Because there are always people and forces in society who like to divide people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t.  The ones who deserve good things and the ones who don’t.  The saints and the sinners.  And when you start building bridges with the people that society doesn’t like, well, society generally doesn’t take it very well.  It’s a recipe for conflict.  And when you truly trust in God’s abundant blessings to provide, you’re a lot less likely to buy in to the rat race that tells us that to get ahead we have to keep others behind.  That’s a threat to all the people who profit on the rat race.  In order to follow Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, you have to pretty much ignore everything the world teaches about power and weakness, about love and hate, about money, about religion, about what matters and what doesn’t.

Then after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends chapters eight and nine putting his words into practice.  He heals people, casts out demons, forgives sins, and eats with all the people society wants to exclude.  And the Pharisees are outraged!  The Pharisees, by the way, are the local leaders of society.  They’re the movers and shakers in each little town, they’re the deeply faithful people who go to worship every week and study the Scriptures and spend lots of time and effort trying to be as faithful as possible.  They deeply hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and mercy … but only on their terms.  They want God’s healing and forgiveness to overflow … but only for the people they believe deserve it.  They want society to be healed and reconciled … but only the parts of society they approve of.  They want to experience God’s miracles … but only in the times and places that fit their ideas of when and where God should act.

When Jesus doesn’t fit into their nice, neat, orderly lives, they get angry.  When Jesus doesn’t fit into their expectations, when he teaches about loving everyone—and then goes out and actually does it, forgiving sinners and eating with them!—they can’t stand it.  When Jesus casts out demons, therefore, they say it’s a trick, and he does it because he’s a demon.  We don’t like to remember it, but the deepest resistance to Jesus came from the people who should have been his most ardent followers, the ones who had spent their lives honestly seeking God but who balked when he didn’t look like what they expected.  And if people balked at following Jesus when they saw what it was really like 2,000 years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have conflict today when we try to follow Jesus.  And some of that conflict is going to come even from deeply faithful people who disagree about what it means to put God’s word into action.

But let’s notice what Jesus is doing and what he’s not doing.  He’s preaching the Gospel, but he’s pairing it with actions.  He talks about God blessing the poor and meek, and then he goes and heals and feeds them, giving them tangible blessings.  He talks about forgiving people, and then he goes out and forgives sinners and eats with them.  He talks about the importance of right relationships, and then he goes out and builds relationships with people that society tries to exclude.  This is not about proving his point or rubbing his opponent’s noses in all the ways they’re wrong.  This is about putting God’s love into action.  The haters are gonna hate, but we don’t have to become haters in response.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  The same God who sees each sparrow is watching over us, too.

We have a mission.  That mission is not to attack people we don’t like, or to prove how great of a Christian we are, or to preserve the political power of Christianity, or to be nice no matter what.  That mission is neither to give unity through superficial niceness nor to self-righteously destroy those who disagree with us.  That mission is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  It’s to tell people that God loves them and forgives them, that God brings life and healing and freedom, and then show them what that love and forgiveness look like.  And sometimes showing people love and forgiveness is going to bring us into conflict.  And that’s not going to be fun.  But that is the mission Christ calls us to.  That is the mission Christ died for.  That’s the mission of the cross, the mission that brings salvation and the only life truly worth living.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.  May we find the life that truly matters in Jesus.

Amen.

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An Autism-Friendly Church Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

I just wrote a piece on autistics and the church for ClergyStuff.com‘s Exceptional People blog.

I’m a pastor and autistic. In my spare time I go around giving presentations to people about autism. When people learn this, they often want tips for their own congregation: what can they do to make it welcoming to autistics? They’re looking for something simple: maybe a quiet room, or stim toys in the pews. Some physical change they can make to the building that will make the space more autistic-friendly. Or maybe even a change to the service itself—something small, that will make a big difference.

Problem is, there’s no one thing—or even two, or five, or ten—that they can change about their worship space that will have the effect they want.

In the Presence of God

Transfiguration A, February 26th, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

When I was a kid, I believed in God.  I believed that he existed, and I believed that he had created everything, and I believed that he had sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for our sins and save us.  I was quite clear on that.  I just didn’t see what any of that had to do with me.  Because while I believed everything that the Bible says about what God had done, thousands of years ago, I was pretty sure that God wasn’t involved in the world any more today.  I mean, not really.  Sure, I believed that faith in God dictated where you went where you died, but I found the idea of UFOs and aliens more plausible than God actually being active in the world in the then-20th Century.  And part of the reason for that was Bible stories like today’s Gospel and first readings.  You see, I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody being transfigured in glowing array on a mountaintop, and I didn’t see any burning bushes, or arks, or food for five thousand people appearing out of thin air, or any of those spectacular miracles and wonders the Bible describes.

It’s easy to read stories like the ones in today’s Gospel and first reading, and get caught up in the glamor of it.  God reveals God’s power in a tangible way.  Yes, we know that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God come to save the world, but it’s a little easier to believe when he’s lit up like a Christmas tree with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, on either side and a booming voice from heaven proclaiming him THE BELOVED SON OF GOD and telling us to listen to him.  They’re beautiful.  Wondrous.  I can just picture them as dramatic scenes in a movie, with lots of special effects.  But eventually, you have to ask the question: if that’s what God’s actions are like—if such dramatic, obvious miracles are the way God works in the world, why haven’t I ever seen anything like it?

I mean, there are healings that people call miracles, where doctors can’t explain them.  But most of those don’t happen because a faith healer lays hands on someone, and there is no dramatic moment of healing where everything is magically all better.  And people sometimes experience the light at the end of the tunnel when they die and are brought back to life by medical science, but all that proves is that God is waiting for us when we die.  It doesn’t show that God is active in the world.  And there are movies, and TV shows like Touched by an Angel, and stories of miracles, but nothing that I, as a young Christian, had experienced personally, or had been experienced by any of the faithful Christians I knew.  And so I believed in God, but went about my daily life without paying God any attention whatsoever.

And then I got a little bit older, and had to figure out how to deal with the fact that not only was God active in the world, God was active in my life, and was calling me to ministry.  This was a rude shock.  And, at first, I didn’t want to believe it.  After all, there still weren’t any burning bushes or glowing lights.  Just a nudge, a tug on my soul that got ever more insistent as I grew older, until finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and went off to seminary.  God’s activity in my life is not and has never been a constant thing, but I find the more that I pay attention, the more I see things that speak to me of God’s hands at work.  Often through indirect means, like other peoples words, or things that look like random coincidences except for the way something deep inside me says otherwise.  There are times that the presence of God feels overwhelming to me, even if nothing looks like it is happening on the surface.  The handful of times I have felt God’s presence so strongly it was hard to keep from falling on my knees, nobody else noticed anything.  But on the other hand, there are times when I feel nothing spiritually but dryness and emptiness and even with what I have experienced it is still hard to believe that God is really, truly present in this world, in my life or anywhere.  In my years of ministry, here and in Pennsylvania, I’ve talked with a lot of people, and while not all Christians feel the presence of God on a conscious level, those that do feel God’s presence only feel him some of the time.  We have all gone through dark and weary times when we feel abandoned even by God.

So the question I have now is, why do such moments of God’s presence only come to some, and only some of the time?  Why don’t we all feel God’s presence, all the time?  Why is the mountaintop experience so rare?  I have to tell you if it wasn’t rare, not only would faith be a lot easier, but doing the right thing would also be a lot easier.  We all get times of temptation, times when we don’t want to do the right thing we know we should.  If we could feel God’s presence, God’s loving arms wrapped around us, at those moments, I think we would be a lot less likely to sin.  An intellectual knowledge that God is with us seems like a poor substitute to his tangible power and glory.

Let’s look at our lessons.  Moses experienced the power and glory of God … but the rest of the Israelites mostly just saw the storm up at the top of the mountain.  Peter and James saw Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appearing with him, but the rest of the disciples didn’t.  Most of the people who appear in the Bible never hear, directly, God’s voice.  Instead, God’s presence and God’s message is told to them by others.  Nobody gets God’s tangible presence all the time, but there is always someone experiencing God.  God’s people are never abandoned, but God is present to different people at different times.

This is one of the reasons we need one another.  This is one of the reasons we have to come together as the Body of Christ.  Sure, like Moses, we might be able to go experience God on a mountain-top by ourselves, but we can’t sustain it.  The experience ends, and we come back down the mountaintop.  And in those times when we ourselves can’t feel God, it’s not our own intellectual knowledge of God’s presence that sustains us, and it’s usually not the memories of those mountaintop experiences.  The love and support and witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what sustains us through the dark times.  We witness to others, and in our need they witness to us.  Sometimes in words, sometimes in deeds, sometimes by just being there with us when we desperately need them.

And there are times when we desperately need them.  Times when sin and death and pain and all the brokenness of this world grabs us by the throat.  Nobody, in this life, gets God’s presence perfectly forever.  That gift is not given to us until Christ comes again and we stand in God’s kingdom.  In this fallen world, pain and brokenness and sin keep fighting back against the light of God’s presence.  And sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere.  Even where God’s light shines brightest, sin creeps in.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the people, who made a covenant with God.  And then Moses went up the mountain and experienced the glory of God’s presence in the giving of God’s moral teachings, while down below the people got so scared and bored they made a golden calf to worship and threw a party in which they broke the covenant and almost all of the Commandments at once.  If you had told Moses, up there on the mountain in the light of God’s presence, that something like that was going to happen, he probably would not have believed you.

And Peter and James, up with Jesus and Moses and Elijah on that mountaintop, if you had asked them whether or not Jesus was going to die within two months, they would definitely have said absolutely not.  Even after he told them three times he was going to die, even up to the actual arrest itself, they didn’t believe it was going to happen.  They didn’t believe that the sin and brokenness of the world was going to break in so devastatingly.  They experienced the highs, the power, the glory, and thought it would last forever.  They thought that Jesus would drive out the Romans and set himself up as king of a new Jewish kingdom that would last forever.

But the highs can’t last in this lifetime.  In this fallen world, sin and death and brokenness keep sticking their noses in.  And so God keeps breaking in to our world with his light and his presence, and sin and death and brokenness keep trying to make the world darker.  There will come a day when that is no longer true; there will come a day when Christ will come again and there will be nothing but light and life everlasting.  There will come a day when the last broken remnants of pain and grief and death and sin will be healed and wiped away.  But until that day, we have to deal with them.  But we don’t have to deal with them alone.  God keeps sending God’s light into the midst of our darkness; God keeps showing us God’s power and love and grace, in many and various ways.  And God gives us communities so that we can share the light and the love he gives us, and support one another in faith and love.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.

United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

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

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Exile

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 28C, October 9th, 2016

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Last week we focused on the reading from the book of Lamentations.  If you recall, it was written in response to the destruction of Judah in 587 BC.  The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah, destroyed its capital city of Jerusalem, and carried off many Judeans into exile, where they would be forced to serve the Babylonian Empire.  Still others had fled for safety, knowing that if they stayed in Judah they, too, would only be killed or captured.  They lived as refugees in Egypt.  Few remained in Judah, and they lived in a climate of fear as their new overlords crushed their communities and their ways of life.

And so they lamented.  They grieved.  They got angry at their oppressors, the Babylonians.  Last week’s reading comes from the book of Lamentations; today’s Psalm is also a lament, this time from the people who were carried into exile and captivity in Babylon.  “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”  You can feel their grief, their confusion, their anger.  What are they supposed to do now?  How are they supposed to live?  Are they supposed to live?  Was God still with them, even in this foreign place?  What do they do now?  How can they be God’s people if they’re not in God’s land, not with their own people, if they’re a minority and can’t arrange their own laws the way they believe God is calling them to live?  Will it all be over soon?  Should they keep all their arrangements temporary, hoping they’ll be able to go home soon?  And you can be sure the people in exile in Egypt were thinking those same questions, too.

Throughout the world today, millions of people are asking the same questions.  There are about 65.3 million displaced people in the world.  About one out of every 113 people in the world can’t go home, for one reason or another.  Some of them are fleeing violence; some the disastrous effects of climate change on their farms; some the actions of their own governments.  Many are internally displaced, that is, they have left home but stayed within the borders of their own country.  21.3 million of them are refugees, who have had to leave not only their own homes but their entire countries in the search for safety.  Of those 21.3 million refugees in the world, over half are under the age of 18.  To those people, these words from the Bible don’t tell a story about strange people long ago and far away.  To refugees, the stories of the Babylonian Exile are their stories, the stories they live every day.  How can they live in a foreign land, knowing their homes have been destroyed?

The Babylonian Exile is far from the only story about refugees in the Bible.  God’s people have spent a lot of time on the move, for one reason or another.  Some, like Abraham and Sarah, were drawn forward by God’s promises to leave their homeland behind and move to a new place, a place where they would always be strangers in a strange land.  Some, like the Babylonian Captives, like Joseph, were carried off by force.  Some, like Jeremiah and the exiles who followed him to Egypt, were fleeing persecution and violence.  Some, like Ruth and Naomi, were fleeing economic and environmental devastation.  Some, like the Hebrews in Exodus, were escaping into freedom.  Even Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus fled from Judea to Egypt while Herod the Great was searching for Jesus to kill him.  In all these cases, they left their homes behind, going into an uncertain future, trusting that God would take care of them.  Sometimes that trust in God was all they had.

Maybe that’s why the ancient laws given by God in the first five books of the Bible repeatedly insist that God’s people take special care of foreigners, strangers living among them.  For example, Leviticus 19 says “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  And again, in Exodus 20: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  And throughout the law and the prophets is a constant drumbeat telling God’s people to take special care of widows, orphans, and foreigners.

But the foreigners themselves—the strangers, the refugees, the exiles—how were they supposed to live?  Jeremiah’s words in our first lesson were written specifically to them: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  In other words, don’t just stay in temporary camps waiting to come home.  The Exile would be a long one, generations long.  And even after the Babylonian Empire was itself destroyed by the Persians and the Jews could return home, many stayed in the places they had put down roots.  It was the beginning of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world.  God had given them new homes in what had once been a foreign land.  And they had built houses and gardens and businesses and multiplied and worked for the good of their new communities, and they had prospered.

Refugees today face that same choice, except most of them don’t have the benefit of a prophet telling them how long their exile will be.  Most refugees don’t want to be resettled; like the Judeans in the Exile, they hoped to return home soon.  They want their homeland to be safe so they can rebuild their communities, and so they wait and hope that the conflict that drove them out will cease soon.  The average refugee lives in a refugee camp for a few years and returns home as soon as peace comes.  The small percentage who are permanently resettled in other countries stay in refugee camps for an average of twenty years before being resettled in a new land.

And what are they like, these strangers who come to their new homes grieving and destitute, with nothing but the clothes on their back?  We hear a lot about immigrants and refugees, in the news and through the rumor mill, and most of it is completely wrong.  For example, immigrants (whether refugees or legal immigrants or illegal immigrants) commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born citizen.  They are less likely to steal, start fights, vandalize, cheat, do drugs, or hurt people than the average American is.  And they’re not burdens on the system.  If they get help right at the start to learn our language and find homes and get jobs, they are less likely to need social services from government or charity than the average American is over the long haul.  They don’t take jobs away from Americans, because they are significantly more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans.  Immigrants and refugees create jobs.  In fact, the five cities in the country with the fastest-growing economies are also the five cities with the largest percentage of immigrants.  There are a few bad apples—every group has them—but they are only a tiny part of the whole.

God told the Exiles to build communities and seek the welfare of their new home.  Immigrants and exiles and refugees today do that too.  The question we face today is, how are we going to respond to them?  How are we going to respond to the strangers in our midst?  The Bible is quite clear: whenever it talks about strangers, it says we are to ensure they receive both justice and mercy.  The Hebrews were a nation of immigrants, people who travelled and found new homes in the places God led them.  And because of that, God said, it was especially important that when they had a homeland, they remember and respect those who didn’t.  America is also a nation of immigrants: every one of us is descended from people who came here from somewhere else.  My own great-grandfather homesteaded in 1916.  Our own ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, not speaking the language or knowing the customs, trying to start a new life in a safe and prosperous place.

There is a lot of fear in America today.  Fear of people who are different, mostly, whether they are our fellow Americans from different walks of life or different political beliefs, or people who come here from different lands hoping to build a new life.  And there are a lot of people, particularly politicians and news media, who have a lot to gain by keeping us afraid and nervous.  But we as Christians are called to put aside our fear, to trust that God will be faithful no matter what.  Just as God was with the Exiles in Babylon; just as God was with our own ancestors who first settled this prairie; just as God is with those today who have no choice but to flee their homes.

Amen.

Faithful Money

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 25C, September 18th, 2016

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

 

If you listened closely to today’s Gospel reading, you probably got confused.  If so, you are not alone.  There are few passages that have as many different interpretations as this one, and few Bible passages where so many commentators just throw up their hands and admit they haven’t got a clue.  Because first Jesus commends dishonest wealth, and a guy who cheats his boss, and then he tells us to be faithful with our money.  And then Jesus says that money and God don’t mix.

So.  Where do we start with all of this?  When we talk about money and the Bible, one of the most things people do is remember that old quote which says that money is the root of all evil.  That’s actually a Bible verse, or a fragment of it, 1 Timothy 6:10.  Except that’s only part of what it says—that old saying isn’t even the whole sentence.  It says that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  Not money itself, but the love of it.  And the full verse is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  In other words, when you’re focused on money, when your main concern is wealth and getting more of it, you wander away from God and take yourself down some nasty paths which hurt you and those around you.  It’s not the wealth itself that’s the problem: it’s how you got it, what you’ll do to get more of it, and what you do with it when you have it.  Which is pretty much what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson in verse 13.  It’s not that the wealth itself is the problem, it’s that when wealth becomes a thing you serve, that gets in the way of serving God.

In his Large Catechism, when he was talking about the First Commandment, Martin Luther described idolatry in an interesting way.  He said that your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  What do you trust to save you when you get in trouble?  What do you trust to make your life better?  What do you trust to fix your problems?  If you put your trust in anything other than in God—for example, if you put your trust in your wealth and property—then you have a problem, because that is idolatry.  Or as Jesus put it, you can’t serve two masters.  If you serve wealth, if money and property are your master, then God is not your master.

Consider our society.  In politics, how often are decisions made based on what’s cheapest rather than on what’s right?  Schools, hospitals, the VA, police departments, critical systems get starved of the money and resources needed to do their job properly, and the community suffers.  In business, how often are decisions made based on what’s most profitable rather than what’s right?  Cleaning up oil spills and properly disposing of hazardous materials is expensive, so oil companies sweep it under the rug instead whenever they get away with it.  Large corporations know that labor is the most expensive part of their organization, so they try and keep wages low even when corporate profits are high, even when it means their employees have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.  And in our personal lives, we are often no better.  Too often, when making our decisions, we rank money concerns higher than anything else, even if that means our health and our relationships suffer.  In all of these cases, it’s not the money that’s the problem: the problem is what—and who—we’re willing to sacrifice to get and keep money.

In the Bible, money or wealth is never supposed to be an end in and of itself.  Money is not the goal; money is a tool to achieve goals.  God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the one we serve, not money.  And the question is, how then do we do that?  When Jesus was asked what was expected of us as God’s people, he said this: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s what serving God means.  Love God, and love our neighbors.  That should be what our lives are built around.  You will notice that it’s all about relationships.  It’s not about knowing enough or being wealthy enough or doing enough spectacular good deeds, it’s about loving.  It’s about relationship.

And money is a tool that can be used to build relationships.  When we make financial decisions, those relationships should be our first concern.  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with God, or does it break down that relationship?  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with our neighbors here and across the world, or does it break down those relationships?  Does this use of money reflect our love for God and for our neighbor, or does it reflect hate, fear, or indifference?  What will it do to our relationships, to our faith, to our community, to our world, and to God’s kingdom?

Back to the parable.  The steward starts out wasting his master’s wealth.  We’re not told how or why; he may have been dishonest, or it may have been he just wasn’t very good at his job.  All we’re told is that he squandered it—he wasted it.  But then he becomes dishonest: he uses his last time with authority to reduce the debts people owed to his master so they would like him and see that he was taken care of after he lost his job.  He was purposefully reducing the money his master got in order to benefit himself.  This was dishonest, and Jesus is perfectly clear on that.  But you will notice that this use of his master’s resources, while dishonest, is not called wasteful.  This is dishonest, but it’s not squandering.  Why?  Maybe because the money is being used to build relationships.  When the steward was focusing on the money itself, on building his master’s wealth, he was wasting money.  When the steward was focused on building relationships, he was not wasting money.  He was being dishonest and selfish, sure.  But it was still a better use of the money than when building profit was the steward’s highest goal.

Jesus talks about honesty and dishonesty, and whether or not people are faithful.  But here’s the thing: he doesn’t seem to think being honest is the same as being faithful.  To Jesus, playing by the rules the world has set up is not the same as being faithful.  Not only that, he doesn’t seem to care about whether or not people are honest or dishonest, as long as they’re faithful with whatever they have.  Not faithful to money and power and the system, but faithful to God and to their neighbor.  Financial smarts don’t rank very highly with Jesus.  Accumulating wealth is not something he cared about at all … and often criticized.  Not because wealth and financial smarts are bad, but because when we focus on them, we miss out on the real point of life.  When we have money and power in this life, the “honest” thing to do may be to work to get more of them, managing them and investing them and working the system and so forth.  But that may not always be the faithful thing to do with them.

One of the ways to be faithful with our money is to be generous in our giving.  Indeed, Scripture tells us that ideally, we should be giving ten percent of everything we earn to God, plus being generous to those in need around us.  But that’s only one part of it—what we do with the other 90% matters, too.  And how we earn our money matters as much as how we spend it.  Is our first priority faithfulness to God and to our neighbor?  Then we’re on the right track, whether we’re rich or poor, respectable or disrespected, honest or dishonest.  May we always choose to serve God and our neighbor, rather than the riches of this world.

Amen.