The Lion and the Lamb

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans , 5:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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

 

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

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

 

The thing most people don’t understand about the Pharisees is that the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people who were genuinely trying their best to follow God.  It’s understandable; they clashed with Jesus a lot.  In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and a prophet in his own right, calls the Pharisees ‘a brood of vipers.’  So we assume that they must have been really terrible people.  But the thing is, in the entire Bible, if you’re looking for a group similar to most modern American Christians, the Pharisees are it.  There are no people in the Bible as much like us as the Pharisees are.

The Pharisees were, by and large, middle-class people.  They were the ones very concerned with reading the Scriptures, and teaching people about God, and genuinely trying to follow God’s will.  They were the ones who created and ran the local places of worship, the synagogue.  They were the ones who took the most active role in local charity, feeding the hungry and tending the sick and so forth.  They were faithful, moral, reliable people.  They were the pillars of their communities.  They were genuinely committed to following God.  That’s why they show up all over the Gospels.  They heard there was a new and exciting religious teacher who was bringing people to God, and they wanted to know more.  Just like we would if we heard of a new and exciting religious teacher.  So why did they have conflicts with Jesus?  And why does John the Baptist call them a brood of vipers?

The problem is judgment.  Not God’s judgment of humanity, but the human capacity for judgment.  More specifically, the human capacity to get judgment wrong.  This is something I struggle with a lot as a pastor, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time this year wrestling with it.  You see, judgment is one of the main themes of Matthew.  God’s judgment of humanity, and the ways in which we judge and misjudge one another and ourselves.  God is the righteous judge, and humans consistently judge wrongly.  Our Gospel reading is one example of this: the Pharisees would have been shocked to hear themselves condemned by a prophet.  They wanted to see sinners repent, of course, but they would not have believed that they themselves needed much repentance.  After all, they were the good people!  Not like those sinners they condemned!

Judgment is necessary.  Some things are simply wrong.  Some things are completely incompatible with God’s good gifts of life and love, and need to be pointed out and condemned whenever they occur.  Some things simply are not compatible with God’s will for the world.  The problem is, humans are terrible at figuring out what deserves condemnation and what doesn’t, who deserves judgment and who don’t.  People who are mentally healthy almost always judge themselves far more leniently than they deserve.  “I’m a good person, I had good reasons for anything I’ve done wrong and all my sins are only tiny ones, I’m fine,” we think to ourselves.  “It’s those people over there that I don’t like who need to be judged!”  Meanwhile, people with mental illness or who are abuse survivors almost always judge themselves far more harshly than they deserve.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely believe they are evil, that they could never be a good person, that they deserve damnation, that God hates them and they deserve it.  And these are not bad people, by and large.  They are ordinary people, no better or worse than average.  This is why it’s so hard to preach about judgment: I know that most people listening will fall into two camps.  One group will assume that they don’t need to examine themselves, and that the only people in need of judgment are the people they don’t like.  The other group will assume that I am talking about them, and that they are uniquely sinful and deserve only condemnation.  Every person has both good and bad inside them, but we don’t do a very good job of recognizing that.  We do a terrible job of acknowledging both the good and bad in a person, and judging it accurately.  Very few people actually have a healthy balance where they can judge themselves—or anybody else—accurately.  We either judge too harshly or not at all.

The same is true of our view of the world around us.  We tend to judge not based on God’s plan for the world, but rather on what is comfortable and familiar to us.  If it is comfortable and familiar, if we think it is normal, if it’s just the way the world works, then it must be good.  And if it’s not good, then it can’t be that bad, can it?  And if it’s strange to us, if it’s different, if it takes what we think we know about the world and turns it on its head, then it must be bad.  And the truth is, neither of those are accurate guidelines for whether something is good or not.  Sometimes what is normal is good, and sometimes what is normal is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is comfortable is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is new is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  And most of the time, there are both good and bad aspects to it.  It’s not as simple as we would like to make it.  And so we judge wrongly.

In order to judge rightly, we need to see the world through God’s eyes.  We need to be able to recognize what God wants of the world, and what God is working to create.  And our reading from Isaiah is one of many places in the Bible that shows us what it looks like when God’s will is done.  ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’  In other words, he’s not going to be judging by the things the world judges by.  ‘But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’  In other words, God doesn’t share all the prejudices that we have about poverty, and God cares deeply about people that our society ignores and abuses and lets fall through the cracks.  It’s not that God loves poor people more than God loves anyone else.  Rather, it’s that the poor are more in need of God’s love and support than most people.  They’ve had harder lives, and have often had to face really terrible times when there are no good choices, and are more likely to have been chewed up and spit out by life than the rest of us.  And God is going to take that into account in God’s judgment.  And going forward in God’s kingdom, there will be no more injustice.  There will be no more abuse.  There will be no more people falling through the cracks and getting chewed up and spit out by life.  All people will receive what they need to live good and full and happy lives, both their material needs and their emotional and spiritual needs.

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’  Notice that he doesn’t say that the wolves and the leopards will become lambs.  They’ll still be themselves.  But they won’t prey on others.  The parts of the world that are based on the strong preying on the weak  and creatures devouring one another for their own profit will no longer work that way.  In no part of creation will anyone or anything take advantage of another or use them for their own benefit.  All people and all creatures will live together in peace and harmony—harmony not based on being the same, but based on mutual respect and seeing that everyone gets what they need without hurting someone else.

And obviously there are parts of that that we can work towards in the here and now and parts of that that are going to have to wait for God’s coming.  And that’s what God judges us and the world based on: how closely do we conform our lives and our hearts to God’s coming kingdom, and how much do we just go along with what the world tells us is normal.  How much do we work so that all people and all of creation are treated fairly and get what they need to thrive, and how much do we buy into the dog-eat-dog mentality where you just have to look out for #1 and the people like you and if people you don’t like are suffering, it’s not your problem.

We are called to follow Christ.  We are called to live into the coming reality of God’s kingdom.  And within each of us, and within every human being and every social institution, there are good parts and there are bad parts.  There are weeds that need to be pulled out, and there is good grain that needs to be nurtured and grow so that it can bear good fruit.  Judgment is based on whether we take out the weeds and fertilize the wheat, or whether we just accept the weeds as normal.  We will fall short sometimes.  We will sin.  We will have times when we make terrible judgments.  But the point is not perfection, because that’s God’s job.  Our job is to do the best with what we can, and trust that Christ is coming and that God’s judgment will prevail.  Our job is to live in the light of that coming kingdom, where all people will receive peace and joy and love and support.  We pray that that kingdom comes quickly, and we pray that we can do our part in helping it take root in this world.

Amen.

 

The Frog and the Crab

First Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 1, 2019

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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

 

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

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

I read an article about Russian online trolls and how they work to interfere in and steer US public opinion and make things more dysfunctional—and thus easier to manipulate.  The interesting thing was, how little the trolls look like what most people (including me) expect them to look.  On the surface, they look ordinary.  They’re designed to make people think they are interesting and have important things to say.  They don’t generally spread lies, or at least, not big ones.  They take the cares and concerns and legitimate issues facing each target demographic, and then they spin like crazy.

Their goal is to make their followers disgusted with the world and with other demographics.  They don’t want to make people angry; angry people take action.  They want people to roll their eyes at people who aren’t like them.  They want people to assume that anyone outside their own group is stupid and selfish.  They want liberals to think all conservatives are bigots, and they want conservatives to think all liberals are hypocritical elitists.  They want centrists to think people left or right of them are fringe nutcases, and they want people on the left and right to think that centrists are panderers with no principles.  They want Black people to think all White people are actively and consciously racist, and they want White people to think that any Black people who point out racial injustice are exaggerating or just like to be victims.  They want young people to think all old people are irrelevant and incapable of understanding the modern world, and they want old people to think all young people are selfish egotists who don’t understand how the world actually works.  They want urban and suburban people to think rural people are ignorant hicks, and they want rural people to think urban and suburban people are snobbish elitists.  They want to ensure that the last thing anybody ever thinks, when faced with someone different than they are, is “maybe we can find common ground or any kind of understanding.”

No.  Trolls want us to be isolated into every little clique, and they also want us to be apathetic.  They want us to look at the world around us and say, “well, yeah, things suck, but there’s no point in trying to fix anything because nothing’s ever going to get better, and so we might as well just sit here sniping at one another and patting ourselves on the back for being right.”  They want us to accept dysfunction and cruelty and indifference and greed and violence as normal.  Something to complain about on social media, but not something anything can do anything about.

And as I was reading this article, it reminded me of two things: first, some analogies I recently learned for how dysfunctional societies work, and second, this week’s Scripture theme of keeping awake.  The analogies are the frog in the pot, and the crab bucket.

If you put one crab in a bucket, it will climb out.  If you put several crabs in a bucket, then each time one of them tries to climb out, the others will pull it down and then none of them will escape.  Each of them are individually capable of escaping, and certainly if they worked together they could all escape, but instead they actively work to bring each other down.  You find crab buckets in online communities and offline face-to-face communities.  You find them in major organizations and in small groups.  Russian trolls encourage such crab-bucket groups, but they also form just fine without any Russian help at all.  And they are toxic.  Crab buckets prevent healing, they prevent growth, they prevent love, they prevent every good thing.  And they are the absolute opposite of God’s kingdom.

Our reading from Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom.  And the thing this passage emphasizes is how people will come together.  All different types of people, every nation and tribe, will come together in peace and harmony.  We will all learn the ways of the Lord; we will all learn to do things that nurture and help things grow.  We will turn all the weapons we use to hurt people into things to help nurture growth.  And obviously that’s talking about physical weapons, but the thing is, it’s also talking about spiritual weapons, all the words and attitudes and social tactics and attitudes we use to hurt and demean one another will be changed into ways to heal and respect one another.  Instead of being a bucket full of crabs trying to tear each other down, we will be actively using our God-given gifts to help build one another up.

And while we can’t make God’s kingdom come any faster than it will, and we can’t know when it will come, if we’re alert we can look around and see the places where we can make this world a little more like God’s kingdom to come, even if only small ways.  We can look for ways to help and heal, instead of hurt; we can look for ways to connect, instead of drive people apart.  Very few people end up in metaphorical crab buckets because they actively want to be in that kind of environment, just like few people end up following and sharing the posts of Russian trolls on purpose.  But it’s so easy to slip into.  It’s easier to judge people than to understand them, especially when they’re people we don’t know.  It’s easier to argue about whose fault things are than it is to fix them.  And once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, it’s really hard to stop.

That’s why we have to pay attention.  We have to pay attention to God, who is working for the salvation of the world, and who will come with a judgment far more just—and far more merciful—than any judgment we could make.  And we have to pay attention to the things we are doing and saying.  Do our words and actions show Christ’s redeeming love to the world?  Do we give witness to the kingdom which is to come?  And no, we aren’t perfect and we mess up and we fail, and sometimes we find ourselves creating crab buckets, and we cling to Jesus’ promise of forgiveness when that happens.  But the thing is, the fact that Jesus forgives us doesn’t mean we can just shrug and give up.  Even when we can’t make things better—even when we can’t heal the broken and terrible places in ourselves and in the world—we at least need to acknowledge the reality of that brokenness.  Once you’re in a crab bucket, you may not be able to climb out.  But at least you can be aware that it’s not a good place to be, and that God desires a better life for you and everyone else in that crab bucket, and that the day will come when Christ will come to destroy the crab bucket and put something better in its place.

Here we come to the second metaphor, of the frog in boiling water.  See, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out again.  But if you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice that things are getting hot and will stay there until it’s boiled to death.  It thinks things are normal until it’s boiled to death.  Just the same way, it’s so easy for us to look out at the world and think that the way things are is normal.  That all the terrible things that people do to one another are just the way things are, and hey, it could be worse.  And that’s just not true.  God did not create the world to be this way.  God did not create human beings to treat one another like this.  God’s desire is that all God’s children might have life, and have it abundantly.  God’s desire is that all God’s children should have lives overflowing with love and every good thing.  And God was born in human flesh in order to make that happen.  God came to earth in the form of Jesus to show us that way, to call us to God, to wake us up so that we can see both the problems in the world and in ourselves, and so that we can see what God is doing to make things better.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived, taught, died, and rose from the grave, and he is coming back some day.  And when he comes back, all the seeds that he planted will burst into flower.  All the wounds we create in ourselves and in one another will be healed.  The dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and all people will flock to God, and the world will be made new.  And our job, as we wait for that to happen, is to keep awake.  To keep alert.  To see the crab buckets and the trolls for what they are: dangers to be dealt with.  Our job is to notice when things are bad, when the water is heating up around us.  And if we can do something, if we can put God’s love into action, we should; but even when there is nothing we can do to change things, we can at least bear witness to the fact that a better world is possible, and Christ Jesus is bringing it.

Amen.

 

Being Part of the Community

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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

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

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

 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture.  On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped.  On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes.  On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.

First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture.  The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end.  We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live.  And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten.  Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens.  This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that.  Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity?  Of course there are.  But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it.  And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need.  If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing.  If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting.  They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.

Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time.  Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city.  Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like.  They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.

And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.  They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged.  Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen.  And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community.  Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons.  First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work.  Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle.  Jesus gave us work to do.  We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way.  We’re called to put that love into action.  And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus.  They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.

But it gets worse.  They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work.  They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way.  It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do.  This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever.  This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community.  Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either.  And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime.  Work that God has called us to do in the here and now.  The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things.  The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world.  We have work to do.

But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important.  And that’s especially true when it comes to work.  Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work.  Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods.  People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens.  They have less value.  And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up.  We see people with price tags.  If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more.  And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is.  I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing.  Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die.  Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help.  One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that.  It causes so much unnecessary suffering.

God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance.  The work is not the point.  The love and grace and abundance are the point.  The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance.  And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that.  God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter.  Love is one of the deepest needs we have.  Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have.  And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone.  You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.

If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you.  But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy.  If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too.  And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God.  You are not a burden.  Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do.  It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world.  That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another.  May we all share in that.

Amen.

#Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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

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

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

In the popular imagination, saints are especially holy people.  People who are righteous and good beyond what ordinary people can hope to be, or who do some great miraculous thing.  In this view of things, saintliness is a quality some people possess and others don’t.  In this view of things, being a saint is something you do, or something you achieve through your own merit.

But the thing is, that’s not how the Bible talks about being a saint.  For example, when Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,” he’s not talking about how the Ephesians love a few especially holy people.  To Paul, a “saint” is anyone who has received the grace of God.  Being a saint is not something you do or achieve, it’s a gift from God.  No human being can ever be truly holy or truly righteous on our own merit alone; we are all, even the best of us, sinners who fall short of God’s call for us.  And yet God saves us anyway.  God calls us, forgives us, renews us, claims us as God’s own, and makes us holy; and that is what it means to be a saint.  We are all, every single one of us, sinners who fall short of the glory of God and hurt ourselves and other people; we are all, every single one of us, saints made holy by God.  Sainthood is not about any internal resources or abilities we have; sainthood is about being forgiven, redeemed and made holy by God.

When we remember the saints who have gone before us, we’re not just remembering the really nice ones that everyone loved.  And we’re not just remembering the good parts of people and sweeping the bad parts under the rug.  So often when people die, we feel we have to pretend they were perfect even if we still bear the scars and wounds and grudges they gave us.  But acknowledging the saints doesn’t mean pretending they were perfect, because they weren’t.  Even the best of them were still sinners.  And when we call them saints, we aren’t forgetting the truth of their behavior and choices.  We are lifting up the work of God to save and redeem and make holy, even in this broken, sinful world.  We remember the saints, all of them, the good parts and the bad alike, and remembering that they are in the hands of Jesus Christ, just as we ourselves will some day be.  For those who helped us grow in the faith and loved us, we give thanks.  For those we had quarrels with, for those who hurt us, we pray that our wounds and scars will heal, and we pray that they will receive the forgiveness we ourselves hope to receive.  No one is holy on their own merits.  But God does not measure out grace and forgiveness by the teaspoon.  God pours out forgiveness and grace and mercy and salvation and blessing in overflowing cups for all who will receive it.

But blessing is another one of those words that is very different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible.  The most common thing people use “blessed” to mean is lucky.  Christians on social media will point out something good that happened to them, and tag it #Blessed along with a picture of themselves looking happy and perfect.  And if that’s what blessing truly means, then our Gospel reading makes absolutely no sense.  Jesus says the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the despised are blessed.  All the people whose lives are terrible, the people that society alternately ignores, exploits, pities, shames, and abuses—Jesus says they’re blessed.

You see, blessing in Biblical days didn’t just mean lucky or happy.  It could mean that good things had happened to you, and certainly if you blessed someone you wished for good things to happen to them, but that was only part of what it meant.  On a larger level, to be blessed was to be satisfied, at peace, unburdened.  To be blessed was to be respected and given honor.  Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor and despised because they are the ones who need it, and because God doesn’t just want to save the nice happy comfortable people.  God is at work in even the darkest places, among the people we would rather forget about.

Blessed are the poor and the hungry, because God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to give them the resources they need to survive and thrive.  God’s will is for all people to share in the abundance of God’s creation, and God is at work to see that it happens.  If human inaction and callousness prevent them from sharing God’s abundance in this world, they will certainly share in God’s abundance in the world to come.  If human sinfulness—both their own and other peoples’—works to prevent them from experiencing peace and satisfaction in this life, they will certainly receive it in the world to come.  Blessed are those who weep, for God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to provide them the support they need as they grieve.  And if human sinfulness and indifference work to isolate them so they don’t receive the support they need here and now, they will certainly receive that support in the world to come.  Blessed are the people society despises, because God sees them and God cares about them and God loves them, and God is at work in them and among them to help them heal from all the hurt they have received in this life.  And if their wounds are too deep to heal in this life, they shall certainly be healed in the next.

And note that this isn’t just the deserving poor, the ones who have done everything right their entire lives and never made any mistakes.  This isn’t just the people who are persecuted or hated for something they can’t change and are otherwise perfect and innocent.  This is all the poor, all the hungry,  all the people who are despised, and that includes the ones who are poor or hungry or despised because of their own sinfulness and brokenness and bad choices.  Because God sees with the eyes of a loving parent.  God knows all their potential, all the wounds and illness that twist them, all the terrible things in their life that have made them who they are, and God knows that healing for them and the world can only come from a place of compassion.  And God’s desire is that all people and all of creation be healed and saved and made knew.  So God blesses those who don’t deserve it.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that what God sees as blessing is not what human society sees is blessing, Jesus pronounces woe on those whom society thinks are blessed.  Woe to the rich and those who eat their fill, Jesus says.  And it’s not that wealth is evil or wrong, but God created a world of abundance with more than enough resources for everyone to have enough.  If some people are hungry and poor, that’s not because God hasn’t provided enough, it’s because we humans haven’t used God’s gifts for the good of all, only the good of some.  And if we can sit and enjoy God’s good gifts while others are being denied those same gifts, and do nothing to help them, well, that says a lot about us and none of it good.  If we can ignore and dismiss the suffering of others because things are going well for us, that’s pretty callous.  And sometimes when everyone speaks well of someone it’s because they’re really that good and deserve all the praise … but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s because the only people we’ve hurt are the ones nobody cares about.  Sometimes it’s just because we’re really good at playing the social game and putting on a good face—how often does someone commit a horrible crime, and the people around them are shocked because he was such a nice guy?  The eyes of the world see only the surface of things.  Our view of blessings and woes isn’t the same as God’s view.  And as Christians, we are called to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, not to the world.

As we remember those saints who have gone before us, let us

Amen.

Power and Equality

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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

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

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

Philemon is my favorite book of the Bible.  We get such a clear view of Paul’s personality, here, as he guilt-trips Philemon into doing the right thing.  I can imagine the scene so clearly: Philemon’s church gathered to hear the letter, all of them knowing all the dirty gossip about the fight between Philemon and Onesimus, and waiting to hear what Paul’s take on it is.  All of them knowing that Roman law and custom was firmly on Philemon’s side.  Philemon’s pride at the first section, as Paul buttered him up, only to become chagrined and flustered as Paul pulls the rug right out from under him, but not being able to respond.

Then there’s the connection with American history.  Like the early United States, the Roman Empire was a slave state, whose entire economy depended on the enslavement of a huge percentage of its population.  This year marks the 400th Anniversary of slavery in America; the first African slaves arrived in August of 1619.  Slavery was legal in America for longer than it was forbidden.  And the effects linger on, in policies and community standards that seem innocent on the surface.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the Civil Rights Era had fixed all the racial problems in America.  We teach our children a history in which the evils of slavery are minimized and excused, and so is all the discrimination and oppression that followed it, and yet that’s not true.  Our criminal justice system treats people of color far differently than it does white people.  For example, average illegal drug use is the same in both the White and Black communities, and yet Black drug users are seven times more likely to be arrested and put in prison than White drug users.  And convicted prisoners are the one group of people that it is legal to force to work for little or no pay; they are specifically exempted from the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.  Thousands of companies across America contract with prisons to use their prisoners—mostly people of color—as slave labor.  In states that still have the death penalty, the most crucial factor deciding whether you will be sentenced to death or to life in prison is not the severity of your crime, but the color of your skin.

And it’s not just the legal system, it’s our whole society.  About a decade ago, a documentary on race in America staged an experiment.  They found two average, nice, ordinary, mostly-white suburbs in areas not known for being especially racist.  And then they had two groups of teens—one White, one Black—purposefully vandalize and destroy a parked car.  And they waited to see how many people called the cops.  Nobody called the police on the White kids, but there were many calls to the police about the Black kids.  More than that, the Black kids had some friends of theirs waiting a few streets away for them to be done, and concerned White citizens called the cops on those kids who were quietly sitting in a parked car and talking to one another.  They believed Black kids sitting and talking quietly is more threatening and criminal than White kids actively vandalizing things.  I could go on and on with story after story, but I would never come to the end of such stories.  We may ignore the question of slavery and our nation’s history with it, but it is baked into our nation’s bones.

None of us were alive when that terrible institution was outlawed, and yet we are all affected by its legacy, despite the ways we as a society have chosen to ignore it.  And the ELCA is the whitest Christian denomination in the US—that is, we have the lowest percentage of people of color in our membership of any denomination.  The legacy of slavery and racism is not something we can or should ignore.  It’s easy to look back at the crimes of our ancestors and think, “if I were alive back then, surely I would have been an abolitionist.  Surely I would have spoken up about slavery and worked to bring it down.”  But that’s not a very relevant question, is it?  The question is, when we look at the world around us and see the ways in which slavery’s ugly legacy still holds sway, when we see how racism affects so many things in our society and in our community, what will we do now?  What will guide our response?  Will we shrug and say, well, it’s not that bad, surely, and it’s always been this way?  Will we go with the trendiest response and follow the crowd, whichever way the crowd happens to be going at any particular time?  Or will we ask what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do?

That’s a question Paul was wondering about, as he wrote this letter.  The Roman Empire had no anti-slavery advocates.  Slavery was part of the way the universe worked: some people were rich, and some people were slaves.  Like people today, people in the ancient world accepted the world they knew as normal, the way things should be.  And then God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus and Paul saw the grace and mercy of Christ, the Good News of the Gospel, and all Paul’s old certainties turned upside down and inside out.  Paul had learned that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  How do you reconcile that with a world that values some people more than others?  If we are all siblings in Christ—if that identity trumps and subsumes all the other identities human beings make for one another—how do you deal with the realities of a world which gives some people every advantage at the expense of degrading and oppressing others?  And what do you do when you turn around and look at all the things around you that you’ve always thought were normal … and realize that they are contrary to the Gospel?

That’s what Paul’s dealing with, in this letter, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot like the world we live in today.  In the last couple of decades, a lot of our old comfortable certainties about how the world works and how the world should work have been challenged, leaving Christians scrambling to figure out what a faithful response is.  Not just on race, but in other areas, too.  Gender, sexuality, so many old certainties are in question.  We have been very comfortable ignoring anything we didn’t like, and the voices of those who have been at the bottom of the social ladder.  But now we can’t do that anymore.  Those voices we’ve hushed up or ignored for so long are louder than ever, and we as faithful Christians have to figure out how to respond.  And, as faithful Christians, the first place we should turn should be the words of Scripture.  So how did Paul handle it?

Paul focused on the people involved, the one who had been enslaved and the one who had enslaved him, and responded to both with love and encouragement.  At the time, Christianity was just a tiny portion of society; Paul had no influence over the larger world.  He couldn’t work for the overturning of the whole institution, but he could take action in the little world of the Christian community.  He told Philemon to free Onesimus, but that in itself wasn’t enough.  Roman society had a whole system for how to treat freed slaves: they still were legally subordinate to their former master.  No, Paul said, Onesimus should be your brother.  No matter what society says you should do, no matter what your friends think of you for doing something different, your former slave should be your brother, your equal, not your subordinate.  Whatever the disagreements between the two, whatever Philemon thought about Onesimus, however Philemon had treated Onesimus up until that point, whatever had been the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted Onesimus to flee, that was over.  Done.

And it wasn’t up to Onesimus to bridge the gap, it was up to Philemon.  Philemon was to welcome him back as a brother.  Family.  An equal.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions and experiences mattered.  That was to be the basis of their relationship going forward, and that was the basis on which Onesimus was to return.  Not as a subordinate, or charity case, or someone to be condescended to.  An equal.  A beloved brother.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions mattered.  And Paul was willing to use every rhetorical trick and every ounce of manipulation and pressure he could pull out to see that it happened.  It was hard, it was difficult, it went against everything the world around them would have taught them to do—and it was also essential to the health and life of the community of faith.  Because otherwise, all Paul’s words about the Gospel, about the love and grace of God, would be just that: words.  Pretty words, but empty rhetoric.

Like Paul we believe that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  Our world is better on all those issues than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, but still falls far short—and it’s easy for people who aren’t at the bottom to close our eyes to just how much we still fall short.  Christianity has more power than it did in Paul’s day, but far less than we did a few decades ago.  We can’t fix society single-handed, but we can work to make our community reflect the mutual love and respect and equality of the Gospel.  We can work to treat all people like brothers and sisters worthy of respect … including the people our culture would tell us to treat as less than we are.  This is what God calls us to do: may we treat all of God’s children, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, with the love and equality God calls us to.

Amen.

You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

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

 

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

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

My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.

The True Meaning of Christian Unity

Easter 7, Year C, June 2, 2019

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

I was an odd kid.  I got on great with adults, but not so much with kids my own age.  I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.  So I never had very many friends, and I was different from most of the kids in my class.  This made me an easy target for bullies, and if I hadn’t had such great loving support from my family and people at church and what friends I did have, my life would have been pretty grim.  The thing is, though, that none of my teachers liked or approved of bullies.  They did not want any of the children in their care to be hurt or afraid anywhere, but especially at school.  They just … weren’t very good at making that happen.  They were very good at keeping things looking like everything was good, but not so good at actually preventing bullying.

They told us to get along, a lot.  But mostly what that meant was that the bullies learned to only strike when the teacher’s attention was elsewhere.  Or they learned to be subtle about it, so they could play the innocent when I complained and say that it was my fault because I couldn’t take a joke, or I was just too sensitive.  They knew they were trying to hurt me, and I knew they were trying to hurt me, but they had enough plausible deniability to get away with it.  When the teachers did do something, they rarely tried to stop the bullying.  They’d try to get me to forgive the ongoing harassment without requiring the bullies to stop harassing me or apologize for what they’d done.  Or they’d try to reinterpret things so that the bullying wasn’t actually bullying, like the time someone wrote an anonymous note that I smelled and the teacher tried to convince me they were saying I smelled good and it was a compliment.  I never asked the teachers why they focused on trying to change me instead of on stopping the bullies, but I bet I know why: it seemed easier.  If I wasn’t complaining, they could assume that everything was okay and we were all getting along fine.  I was the squeaky wheel, so I got the grease, even if the problem wasn’t me but the people who were hurting me.

That’s why I get suspicious when people start talking about unity, and togetherness, and getting along.  Because the easiest way to make people unified is to ignore the people who are getting stepped on or trampled on.  It’s easier to ignore the people being hurt than to challenge and resist the people doing the hurting.  And this happens even in Christian circles.  For example, in the 19th Century, there were calls for Christian unity in America to heal regional divisions between the South and the rest of America.  And what that usually looked like was White northerners embracing White southerners and ignoring the horrific way white southerners were using and abusing black people, first with slavery and then with sharecropping and Jim Crow laws and the KKK.  For White northern Christians, getting along with White southern Christians was more important than Black suffering.

We still see this all the time today, on issues of race and gender and class and sexuality and nationality and religion and disability and every category I can think of.  It is easier to silence the victims than it is to confront and stop the abusers.  Nine times out of ten, that is what we try to do.  It’s easier to put a superficial face of niceness on things and pretend we’re all getting along than it is to address the deep and abiding wounds that so many of us bear.  It is easier to paper over the cracks than to fix the foundations.  So when I hear calls for unity and togetherness, I tend to get suspicious.  Unity on whose terms?  Who’s benefiting, and who’s getting thrown under the bus?  Whose sins are getting ignored or minimized, and whose wounds are getting salt rubbed in them?

Sometimes, of course, the people calling for unity are focused on deeper issues than just trying to make things look nice.  But all too often, those deeper issues are used as an excuse for scuttling the very idea of unity.  And they still don’t care about holding people accountable for their actions.  “We have the perfect interpretation of scripture and Christian tradition,” they claim, “so in order to do anything with anyone else, they have to agree with our every belief, even the smallest ones, because we’re right and they’re wrong.”  They want to look like they’re in favor of the kind of Christian unity Jesus wants, without actually having to do the hard work of bridging the gaps between people, so they focus on every difference they can find and make mountains out of molehills.

The unity that Christ is praying for in our Gospel reading takes work.  It’s hard, and it isn’t based on superficial niceness and togetherness.  Nor is it based on absolute uniformity of doctrine and practice.  The unity Christ is praying for is rawer, and deeper.  It’s not about making things look nice, or even about feeling good about togetherness, it’s about genuine love and putting that love into action.  This reading comes from the end of the Farewell Discourse.  For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading parts of Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night before he was arrested and executed.  We read these words in Easter because it’s actually a very good guide to what Easter living is supposed to look like.  What life in the light of the cross and resurrection is supposed to look like.  Over and over again, we are told to love.  The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God because they love one another.  They are unified in their love, in the strength of their relationship.  In the same way, God loves us, and we are united with God through that love, which is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And as we have seen the example of God’s love, so we are supposed to live that love out, and love one another, and be unified in that love.

And this love is not just a surface-level platitude.  No.  It’s something much deeper than that.  This is a love based on knowing people, warts and all, and loving them and still holding them accountable for their actions.  Jesus loved and forgave everyone … but he never swept anybody’s sins under the table or pretended they didn’t matter.  Jesus’ love transformed people, it didn’t pretend they were already perfect.  This is a love based on service and self-sacrifice.  Jesus demonstrated that love on the night before his death by washing his disciples’ feet, and he demonstrated that love again when he sacrificed himself to save the whole world.  And that sacrifice wasn’t designed to cover up the sins of the world.  No; it was designed to expose them so that transformation and new life might be possible.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, that great sacrifice of love, was what made possible the new creation that Revelation talks about.

In that new creation, all are welcome and all are one.  There is unity, but it is based on love and healing, not on sweeping problems under the rug.  All are welcome, and all are called, but you have to admit your sins and let Christ make you clean before you can eat of the fruit of the tree of life and experience its healing.  There is no test to see if you have the correct understanding; nobody is thrown under the bus so that other people can pretend everything is fine.  Instead, there is honesty and cooperation and healing.  Most of all, there is love.  God’s love for God’s own self, and God’s love for all people and all creation, and all peoples’ love of God, and all peoples’ love of each other.

If we are truly living according to God’s love in the here and now, unity will come.  Not easily, and not quickly.  Christ’s unity will come because we are working together to heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable and feed the hungry and free the prisoner and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  Christ’s unity will come because we will find that the love of God is stronger than any of the forces that tear us apart.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn how to be honest with one another, repenting our own faults and holding others accountable to do the same.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn to respect honest and good people even when they are different from us and disagree with us.  And if that unity does not come in this world despite our best efforts, we know that it will come in the next.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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.

Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.