Fishing for People

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

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.

Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church.  And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years).  “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.”  Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t.  There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades.  And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do.  Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off.  Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?

No, the research is quite clear.  In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust.  In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual.  A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat.  That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world.  When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.

I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion.  How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith?  And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in?  And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them.  That’s something which has a very good track record!  The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well.  My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off.  That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time.  I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard.  There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.

We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism.  We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God.  Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God.  In many and various ways.  God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together.  Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend.  Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be.  And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways.  And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians.  Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives.  When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith.  When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well.  And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith.  Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.

In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena.  That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked.  It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once.  But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking.  Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith.  When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well.  It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people.  It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference.  Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?”  We’re talking tens of millions of people!  And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years.  You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs.  You just need a handful of new people every few years.  And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life.  That’s it.  That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.”  The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.

Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote.  If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people.  Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell.  If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did.  Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others.  Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.

The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life.  You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice.  And it’s not hard.  It just takes practice.  All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking.  Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day.  Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see.  If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before.  And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family.  And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people.  May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.

Amen.

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Love is an Action

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

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

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

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

 

So how many of you are sitting there thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about our second lesson from Corinthians?  It is one of the most often quoted passages of the entire Bible, and usually for feel-good purposes.  It is also used frequently at weddings.  Everyone loves this passage.  Even people who aren’t Christian love it, quoting it often.  And, you know what, sometimes we all just need a warm and fuzzy feel-good message about love.  That can be very important.  But especially in today’s climate, I think it’s really important to realize that this is not a warm-and-fuzzy passage designed to make people feel good.  This passage is a condemnation, a challenge, and a call to action.

See, the thing is, this passage was written to the church in Corinth.  And it was not written as a reflection on how loving that congregation was.  Quite the opposite.  This passage was designed to point out everything the Corinthians were not.  See, the Corinthians were pretty messed up.  Paul wrote more to the Corinthians than to any other church he founded, and it wasn’t because he loved them so much.  I mean, he did love them, but he wrote to them because they were the worst.  If there was a way to get something wrong, they would do it.  If there was a way to screw up worship, or theology, or the working of the Holy Spirit, or community, or anything else, the Corinthians would find that way.  They were a bunch of arrogant, selfish, prideful jerks who would find any excuse to attack and belittle their fellow Christians.  As much as we mourn for how divided and unloving modern American churches can be, the Corinthians were at least that bad and quite possibly worse.

They created divisions based on gender, race, and class, treating some people better than others based on the social distinctions of the world around them.  They judged people based on how flashy and flamboyant their spiritual gifts were.  And from Paul’s words, it’s quite clear that they were not judging those gifts based on how useful they were in spreading God’s Word and God’s mission.  No.  They treated the gifts of the Holy Spirit as personal playthings for self-aggrandizement, and then tried to shame and belittle those whose gifts were less publicly visible.  That’s why, in last week’s lesson, Paul was trying to get them to see that no gift is more important than another and that the important part is how we work together as one Body in Christ.  Right?  Paul’s been talking about this for a while, by the time we get to the love chapter which is today’s lesson.  Nobody is better than anybody else, and all are needed together.  As Christians, we are not supposed to see through the eyes of the world, but through God’s eyes, and remember that we are all children of God and members of Christ’s body together.  It’s not about individual heroic Christians, it’s about all Christians coming together and being made one in Christ.

And then, after talking about how we all need each other as members of the body and no person or spiritual gift is more important than any other person or spiritual gift, that’s when Paul talks about love directly.  And it’s a continuation of everything that he’s been saying.  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels,” he says.  Well, speaking in tongues is one of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians have been fighting about.  Prophetic powers—that’s another gift the Corinthians have been fighting about.  But Paul says that all those awesome gifts of the Holy Spirit that they are so keen to fight over and use as an excuse to snub and humiliate others are useless without love.  The more they fight, the more they scheme, the more they puff themselves up and try to cut others down, the further away from Christ they go.  All of those powers are useless without love.

And when Paul talks about love, he’s not talking about love as a state of emotion.  Oh, no.  That’s a modern delusion, to think about love as being mostly about how you feel about someone or something.  No, in Paul’s day love was a verb.  It was an action.  And it might be truer to the Greek original text to translate this passage in a way that makes that more clear: “Love acts with patience, love acts with kindness, love does not act jealous.”  The love that Paul is talking about is not about sitting around thinking nice thoughts.  And it is certainly not about mouthing platitudes about how of course you love someone while stabbing them in the back or ignoring their needs.  No.  For Paul, love is about actively working for the good of others.  Love is about actively choosing to do something that will help others even if you receive no benefit from it.  Love is about actively choosing what kind of a person you are going to be and how you are going to treat the people around you.  And then actually following through and doing something about it.

Humans are not good at loving.  Or rather, we’re not good at loving people who are different than us.  We make up little groups of who is in and who is out, who matters and who doesn’t, and we treat those on the inside well and those on the outside badly.  In Corinth, that manifested as cliques within the church, and fighting between different cliques.  In other places, that manifests as prejudices about class, race, gender, ability, politics, nationality, sports teams, food choices, music preferences, and just about anything else you care to name, big and small.  We love those who are close to us, those on the inside, and not those who are different from us.  But Paul tells us that no matter what the divisions among us are, we are all one body together in Christ, and that nothing else matters if we do not act with love.  If we choose to act with love, we are acting as part of the great body of Christ and those actions will resonate throughout time until Christ comes again.  If we choose not to act with love, if we mouth platitudes about loving others while acting with jealousy and resentment and fear and arrogance and selfishness, we are useless.  Noisy gongs, clanging cymbals.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That’s not easy to hear.  I wonder how the Corinthians reacted.  Did they take Paul’s words to heart?  Did they change their behavior?  Did they start loving people outside their own cliques and building up the body of Christ?  Or did they give lip service to following Paul’s words and keep on acting badly, hurting the whole community?  The Bible doesn’t tell us how they reacted.  However, the Gospel reading today reminds us of what often happens when people get told things they don’t want to hear—especially when that thing includes opening up to outsiders.  Jesus was preaching in his hometown, after having done some miracles elsewhere, and people loved him!  They loved him right up until he pointed out that God’s gifts were not reserved only for them.  Those people he names from the Old Testament are all from the surrounding nations.  The Widow of Zarephath was a Philistine, who lived in what we today call Lebanon.  Naaman was a Syrian, and not just any Syrian, a general!  Jesus’ neighbors loved what he was saying until he pointed out that his words and his power were for everyone including the people they did not like, and then they drove him out.  I can imagine the Corinthians hearing Paul’s words of love and nodding and explaining how they only applied to some people—the ones they already loved—and not the people they were feuding with.  And then getting angry when Paul makes it clear that his words apply to how they treat everyone.

It’s not easy to put godly love into action.  It’s a lot easier to come up with reasons why it doesn’t apply to the people we don’t like.  And it’s even easier to claim that we love people while letting our actions reflect what we really think and feel about them.  But we are not called to do the easy thing, we are called to do the right thing.  We are called to live lives of love and service, putting that love into action in every word and deed.  Because only through love—the love God shows us in Christ Jesus, the love God calls us to spread throughout the world—do our actions have any meaning.  May we love as Christ calls us.

Amen.

Advent 4C, 2018, December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

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 Christmas song that is very popular these days.  I’m sure that you’ve all heard it, and enjoyed it, because it is beautiful and, (unlike most modern Christmas songs) actually talks about Christ and what he means.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

If you’ve ever heard this song and wondered if Mary knew, well, the Gospel of Luke is quite clear.  She did.  The angel spelled out for her who and what her infant son was going to be, and then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and confirmed that the baby was going to be special, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, the Song of Praise, which we used as a psalm today.  And then even after Jesus was born, when they took him to the temple, two separate people, Anna and Simeon, prophesied about the baby Jesus and what he was going to grow up to do.  So, yes, Mary knew.  She might not have had everything spelled out with each individual miracle listed, but she knew the general gist of what Jesus was going to come to do.  She knew that Jesus was going to continue God’s saving actions.  She knew he was going to scatter the proud, the greedy rich who let others starve, the powerful who gained power by oppressing others, while at the same time lifting up the lowly, the downtrodden, the hungry, caring for them and making sure they had what they needed to live abundant lives.  She might not have known specifically that he was going to walk on water, but she knew that he was going to save the world by turning it upside down and doing incredible things.

But a lot of the time, simply knowing isn’t enough.  We may know the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it.  We may know that something hard and difficult is going to be worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about the hard and difficult bits.  How often do we put off or try to avoid something because, much as we might desire the end result, we really do NOT want to have to go through the process of getting there?  Mary knew who Jesus was going to be and what he was going to do, because the angel told her; but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it or looking forward to it.  I don’t know how she felt about it, but I imagine she was in a lot of shock.  And also, she was probably worried, considering that she wasn’t married and having a child out of wedlock was a huge deal that would change her life and probably make it measurably worse.  And, sure, she probably trusted that God would take care of her and provide what she needed to do the task he had given her … but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it, or looking forward to it.  Knowing isn’t enough.  Most of the time, we need something further to help put knowledge into action.

For Mary, that something was a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When the Angel told Mary what was going to happen, she accepted it, but that’s all.  The angel gave its message, Mary said okay, the angel left.  Then she went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child under unusual circumstances.  Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both elderly, and they’d been unable to have children.  Now, past the age of childbearing, they had given up hope.  But an angel had come to Zechariah and told them that they would have a child, who would grow up to become a prophet—you know him as John the Baptist.  That’s who Elizabeth was pregnant with when Mary came to visit.

Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was blessed with knowledge of who Mary was going to be, and who her child was going to become.  And Elizabeth was thrilled.  She affirmed what the angel had said, and blessed Mary.  And here is where we get Mary’s reaction, her song of praise, in response to the news the angel brought.  Here.  Not while the angel was there, not when she received her call to become the mother of God.  Here, with her cousin.  Who had just finished showering her with love and support.

Human beings aren’t created to be alone.  God did not make us to be solitary creatures.  That’s one of the first things we learn about humans in the Bible … God creates the first human, calls it very good, and then says, “but it is not good for the human to be alone.”  And then God creates the second human being.  Because humans need companionship, and support, and love.  And we get that from God, but we also need it from our fellow human beings.

God was asking Mary to do a hard thing, by asking her to bear and raise Jesus Christ, God-become-flesh.  Partly, that was hard because pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are hard.  But a lot of it was that people would gossip about her, and shame her, and treat her badly for bearing a child out of wedlock.  It doesn’t matter how much she told them the child was God’s Son and God’s will, they would not have believed her.  If someone told you that God was the father of their baby, would you believe them?  Probably not.  So Mary would be ostracized and alienated from her community because of this thing God was asking her to do.

But God provided her with people to support her, even so.  By giving a child to her cousin Elizabeth, and then giving Elizabeth enough insight to realize what was really going on, God ensured that Mary would not be alone.  No matter what anyone else said, she would have someone in her court, someone who would give her love and support and understanding, which are things all human beings need.  And it is at that point, when Mary knows that despite what society is going to think about her, she is going to have at least one person loving her and not judging her, that‘s when the knowledge of what was going to happen overflowed into praise.  That’s when she began to sing.

None of us are Mary or Elizabeth.  None of us are going to have mystical pregnancies that catapult us into the center of God’s work in the world and redirect our lives with one fell swoop.  But we all have callings from God; we all have a place in God’s work in the world, both individuals and as a community of faith.  Our callings may be smaller than Mary’s call, but they are still important, and still part of God’s work.  Knowing what God is calling us to do is the first step, and without an angelic messenger it usually involves a lot of prayer and study and contemplation.  But the second step is not one we can do alone.  It’s not private.  It’s about coming together as a community to support and encourage one another.  As Elizabeth encouraged Mary, so we too are called to encourage one another, to name God’s gifts when we see them and bless one another.  And that’s especially important when, as in the case of Mary, God calls us to do things that don’t necessarily fit in well with the larger society.  And sometimes what God is calling us to do isn’t necessarily to do the work ourselves, but to support those who do it.  To be there for the people who need us.  To be the arms of God wrapped in love around those who would otherwise be alone or neglected.  May we answer God’s call with joy; may we always have the love and support God desires for us; and may we always share that love and support with those who need it.

Amen

Preparing the Way

Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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

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

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

 

 

My Mom’s family is really outdoorsy, so when I was younger, the big yearly family event was a three-day backpacking trip into the woods on Labor Day weekend.  We’d all gather at the trailhead, strap on our packs, and go.  And by “all” I mean Granddad Huck, all the aunts and uncles, and all my cousins.  Down to babies in arms—one year, my aunt and uncle came along with their six month old baby, which added some unique challenges.  Everyone meant everyone … except Grandma Kitty, whose health was just not up to scrambling up and down narrow, twisty, up-and-down trails with several days worth of supplies on her back.  The rough terrain was too much of a barrier to her.  She stayed behind, at home by herself, while her husband and kids and grandkids went off together.  And it never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder how she felt about being left behind like that.  How she felt about not being able to do what everyone she loved was doing.  And it never occurred to me to ask if maybe we should change our traditional family event to something she could participate in.  When your brain and body are able to do pretty much anything you want to do, you don’t think very much about the people who have it harder.  Whose bodies and brains just don’t always work.  Who need help or accommodations to do things.  You just don’t tend to notice the barriers that keep some people out.

Now that I’m older, I notice these things more.  The more I learn about my autism, the more I realize I just can’t do some of the things other people do, or I can’t do them in the same way, or I can do them but it takes a lot more out of me than it does most people.  And I have friends with physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges.  There are so many things I take for granted that they can’t do, and sometimes things they take for granted that I can’t do.  And our world is built for people who are able-bodied, people whose brains work on a normal model.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require businesses and organizations to take the needs of disabled people into account, all too often people with disabilities are left out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  And most people don’t even notice.  And when we do notice, as a society, there are a lot of people who think things are fine the way they are.  That it’s unreasonable to expect people to do things differently so that all are welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist talks about the coming of the Lord.  And he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  Now, when the prophet Isaiah spoke those words, the Jewish people were captives in Babylon.  They had been enslaved and carried off and now lived almost a thousand miles from their homeland.  They dreamed of the day when they could return to Judea, but the road home was long, and treacherous, crossing deserts and mountains and wilderness.  It was an arduous journey in the days before modern highways and cars, one that only the young and healthy could successfully complete.  Isaiah’s words told them two things: first, that God would free them from their captivity and bring them home, and second, that God would make the journey as easy as possible, one with broad, flat roads that went straight to their destination.  A road that would be easy to travel, with as few barriers as possible.  No force on Earth in those days could have made a level, straight, flat road from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But God could.

For Isaiah, that’s what redemption looked like: a road home that anyone could travel easily.  No matter how infirm you were, no matter what you struggled with, God could and would redeem you out of the hand of the enemy and bring you safely home.  And when John the Baptist thought about what God’s kingdom coming would look like, when John the Baptist thought about God reaching into the world to redeem it, that’s what it looked like: God reaching into the world to make a path that anyone could travel.  All barriers removed.  All living things welcome.

And I wonder what barriers we face?  What are the things in our lives, in our communities, and in our world that prevent us from seeing and responding to God?  Even worse, what are the barriers we put up that prevent others from seeing and responding to God’s salvation?  Sometimes the barriers are easy to see: like churches that have steps but no elevators, so that only people who can climb stairs can attend.  But sometimes we don’t even notice the barriers.  For example, there are about 1 million deaf people in the US.  Almost none of them go to church, because churches with sign language interpreters or closed captioning are vanishingly rare, and even in churches like ours where everything is printed in the bulletin, the sermon generally isn’t.  And what about disabilities that are less visible?  Things that affect the brain, or behavior, or make people just a little bit different than what we think of as “normal”?  Our society—including all too many churches—are quick to judge.  I know a woman with a disabled child who stopped going to church because too many people disapproval of how her child behaved.  “I know Jesus loves me and my son,” she said, “but our church sure didn’t.”

Then there’s all the other barriers we put up.  Barriers based on race, on class, gender, sexuality, politics.  People like creating barriers.  We like dividing the world up into “us” and “them.”  And of course people like “us” are good, and people who are not like us can’t be trusted.  I think that’s what sin looks like, a lot of the time.  All people, every single human being who ever lived, was created by God in God’s own image.  Every single human being is beloved by God.  And Christ died to save every single human being who’s ever lived.  Yes, even the bad ones.  Yes, even the ones who reject him.  Our response doesn’t change the fact that God reached out to us, first, and continues to reach out, continues to act for the redemption and salvation of all the world.  No matter how many obstacles we create, as individuals and as a society, God is always at work to make the rough places level and the crooked straight.

We live in a world with a lot of barriers.  Physical barriers, like the ones I’ve been talking about, that keep disabled people from participating; but also barriers of prejudice, or ignorance, or just plain not caring about those who are different from us.  And sometimes we notice those barriers, but a lot of time we take them for granted.  We assume that, like the mountains and deserts and wilderness that separated the ancient captives from their homeland, they are simply facts of life that can’t be changed, only accepted.  But that’s not the way God created the world to work.  God created the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that all people might love one another and build communities together, communities in which no one is forgotten or left behind or excluded.  Communities in which all people might live in the light of God.  That’s the way God created us to be, and it is sin that has broken us apart and put barriers between us.  But you know what?  The Lord is coming.  Christ Jesus, who was born in a manger two thousand years ago, is coming again.  The Messiah, God-with-us, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace.  He is coming.  And we’ve put up so many obstacles, between ourselves and between us and God.  So it’s time to get ready.   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Amen

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

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.