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.

 

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.

United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Discomforting Guest

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table.  We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation.  Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests.  And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest.  In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus.  Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.

Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world.  First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it.  I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it.  There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events.  They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere.  You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you.  They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house.  Both business and pleasure went on at the same time.  If there was a court case coming up that affected you?  The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before.  If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods?  You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties.  Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.

At the party, there was a strict social order observed.  The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table.  Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme.  Did you ever watch Downton Abbey?  Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where?  It was a little bit like that.  Where you sat at the table mattered.  It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life.  We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots.  You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot.  You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner.  Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.

If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch.  So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests.  And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table.  (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.)  So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.

Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are.  Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat.  Go and take the lowest seat, instead.  The one that’s beneath you.  Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot.  Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth.  I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot?  What if you’re stuck there?  And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them.  Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to!  That was the way the system worked!  Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs.  Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong?  Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?

Then Jesus turns to the host.  “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned.  Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with.  Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list.  Don’t worry about being a laughingstock.  Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things.  Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”

What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth.  Here on earth, we have hierarchies.  And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful.  Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society.  Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t.  Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’?  Yeah.  That’s a nasty metaphor.  It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.  Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it?  A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior.  The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life.  And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months.  Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way.  In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way.  “All animals are equal.  But some animals are more equal than others.”  We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons.  We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us.  And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.

That is not what God’s kindom is like.  God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people.  Not just pretend equality, but real equality.  Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us.  Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God.  And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love.  In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality.  In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true.  And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom.  And we are excluding people whom God is working through today.  As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice.  Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?

I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words.  They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society.  They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too.  And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God.  But that’s true of all people, then and now.  We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world.  We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway.  No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom.  We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth.  But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom.  We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table.  May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

When Love is Most Needed

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 31st, 2016

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

 

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

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

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

This passage from First Corinthians is one of the favorite and most famous passages of the Bible—and rightly so! Not only is it the heart of Paul’s message in this letter—and in many other letters—it also sums up the theme of much of Jesus’ teachings and several other New Testament writers. Jesus’ last commandment to us, for example, is to love one another. And in the letters of John we are told, repeatedly, that God is love, that God’s very core is love, that love is the center of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s people. So this passage, as Paul talks about what love is and what love looks like, is extremely important theologically. But that’s not all! It’s also beautifully written so that it is easy to understand and beautiful to listen to. It sounds like poetry. It’s important, and it’s gorgeous.

We use it in a lot of different contexts, and that’s a good thing! Most commonly these days, it’s used at weddings. I’ve preached on it at weddings myself! It’s such a rich text for a wedding sermon. The problem though, is that we tend to pull this text out only on happy occasions. At weddings, for example, we can normally assume that there’s a lot of love going around, and that everyone is happy. The couple is coming together in love for their spouse, and the community is coming together in love for the couple getting married. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s joyful, and it’s really easy to love. But what happens next? Is married love always that easy? Throughout the years you are together, does your heart always overflow with love for your spouse? I’ve never been married, but in even the happiest and most loving of marriages, things aren’t always that easy. Like any relationship, there is conflict. There is disagreement. There are times when you don’t feel the love, and you don’t want to feel the love. And that’s true of marriages, but it’s also true of other kinds of relationships—parent and child, friendships, congregations, community relationships. There are times when it is easy to love, and there are times when it is not.

And this passage was not written for the easy times. It was written for the hard times. The congregation in Corinth that Paul was writing to was terrible. They had all kinds of factions. They fought like cats and dogs. They had incredible spiritual gifts, and they wasted them. They played power games. They played status games. They played holier-than-thou. They used the language of the Gospel to advance their own selfish agenda. They let the richer and more powerful members dominate the poorer and less-well-connected members. And they had genuine theological disagreements, and disagreements about worship, that threatened to tear their congregation apart. They were a mess. There were a lot of gifts, but there was also a lot of selfishness, a lot of manipulation, a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of things that shouldn’t ever happen in the body of Christ. I don’t know why they treated one another that way. Maybe it was selfishness; maybe it was fear lashing out; maybe it was some other reason. They did not love one another, and they had a lot of reasons why not. Some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were petty and selfish—hurt feelings and the like—but some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were actually pretty good reasons. Because let’s face it, most of them weren’t very lovable. I’ve seen congregations fight—I could tell you stories about congregations I’ve known and some I’ve worked at that would curl your hair—but I’ve never seen a congregation as screwed up and un-loving as the congregation at Corinth apparently was. And for that I thank God.

And it’s to that congregation, that mess, that pile of unloving and unlovable manipulative jerks, that Paul writes this great ode to love. Jesus told us to love one another, John the Elder told us that God is love, but here Paul explains exactly what that love should look like. I suppose it’s because everyone else knew what it meant. The Corinthians didn’t. They needed to hear it more than anyone else.

Here’s a question for you: is love a noun or a verb? I mean, is love a thing—a feeling—or is it an action, something you do, a choice you make? We tend to think of love as a feeling, a noun. But in this passage Paul talks about love like it’s a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are or feel. Love is how you act. It’s how you treat people—even those who don’t necessarily deserve it. Love is choosing to be patient, even when you don’t want to be. Love is choosing to say the kind thing instead of the cutting remark. Love is choosing to be happy for someone rather than envious of their good fortune. Love is choosing to forgive instead of cherishing up every resentment and waiting for an opportunity to strike back. And sometimes you may feel like doing all those things, and it will be easy. But sometimes you won’t, and that’s when love—the action of it—is most important of all.

Because when you get right down to it, nothing else matters. Love was Jesus’ commandment to us, and love is God’s very nature. We can have everything else going for us—all the spiritual gifts (which the Corinthians had, remember!), a huge membership, a beautiful building, huge amounts of charity, and if we don’t treat one another with love, none of the rest of it matters. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but don’t have love, I’m just tooting my own horn. If I have prophetic powers and can speak God’s word and a faith deep enough to move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything, but don’t have love, that gift is worthless. And I’m sure you know people who are like that. People who have never done anything seriously wrong in their whole lives, who give big amounts of money and time to a lot of good causes, who are smart and do all the things they should, and are still miserable to be around because they’re acting out of self-righteousness or obligation instead of love. I know a man like that, and I am so incredibly glad I now live half a continent away from him, because underneath all those pious good-works, he was one of the most resentful, malevolent people I’ve ever known in my life. He had everything going for him, and he did all the things he should do, and on paper he looked like a great guy.  But he had no love in his heart and he never acted out of love, either, and so he was miserable and made everyone around him miserable, too.

In my time here at Birka Lutheran Church, one of the things I’ve been most impressed by is the community you have formed, the way you love one another and the way love isn’t just a word or a feeling, it’s the way you treat one another. I’ve seen it in the way you choose to be understanding rather than judgmental of one another. I’ve seen it in the way you come together to do things, and help one another out whenever there’s a problem. I’ve seen that love in a hundred different ways, not just from one or two people but from many. It has made worshiping with you and ministering to and with you and participating in your events a joy and a pleasure for me, and I think it’s the reason why visitors often come away feeling like Birka is a special place. It’s not just the beauty of this place, it is the love found in the community of faith here.

Over the last two months, however, that love has been a little scarcer than usual. And I think it’s because of fear; fear of what will happen to Birka, fear of what will happen to this community that we love and this place that we love if we close, fear of what will happen if we don’t. People have said unkind things; they’ve assumed the worst possible motivations—I’ve been guilty of that myself, a time or two—they’ve lashed out at those who think differently; they’ve circled the wagons into a kind of “us vs. them” mentality. Not all the time; there has also been understanding and kindness and patience even in the midst of disagreement. There have been times that love flowed freely, but there have also been times that love was awful thin on the ground. And I understand, because this is a huge thing we’re going to be deciding today, something that will deeply affect each and every one of us no matter what the outcome is. When you’re making such huge decisions with people you don’t agree with, when other peoples’ actions can have such a huge effect on your own life, it’s hard to love them. It’s hard to show that love, it’s hard to be patient, it’s hard to be kind. It’s one of the hardest things I can imagine. And yet, in times of trouble and crisis and division, that’s when Paul’s words are most needed. That’s when love is most needed.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease. People die. Congregations die. Countries die. Communities die. Whether Birka closes next year or fifty years from now or a thousand years into the future, it will die eventually. So will Augustana and every other congregation in the world. The one thing that will never die, the one thing that saves us, that calls us, that brings us together, is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love will never end. Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you called us by name and made us your own. You called us here to the prairie together for over a century, and you have given us your love in all that time. Your love has flourished in us and among us. As we discuss this and make this decision today, help us to feel your love. Help us to remember that we are all here because we love Birka, and help us to speak and act in love even in the midst of our disagreements. Guide us in your truth and in your love, and abide with us, now and forever.

Amen.

Which Commandment?

Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, Matthew 22:34-40

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

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

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

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Of all the many things that we believe, teach, and do, what’s the core? What’s the guiding principle we should live our lives by? What is the absolute most important thing God calls us to be and do? This was a question in Jesus’ day, because as any good Jew knew, there were over six hundred commands and teachings, and so a guiding principle was important to help keep you on the right track. And sometimes we Christians shake our heads at how legalistic the Jews were—couldn’t they see that faith was more important than works? And yet, we can be pretty legalistic ourselves. Just think of all the things that we argue about, things that various Christian churches hold up as the most important, guiding principles they hold. Issues about sexuality and marriage and divorce are pretty common. So are ideas about hell—as in, if you don’t believe the same way we believe, that’s where you’re going. Then there are all sorts of rules, spoken and unspoken, about gender and race and class and birth control and education and economics and political beliefs. And sometimes, Christians in this country act as if those rules are the most important thing about being a Christian.

Even if you try and say, “Forget about the nitpicking, all that matters is that you have faith,” you’re probably going to run into problems. How do you define faith, how much is “enough,” and how do you get saved and what does it mean to be saved? Do you need to be born again, do you need to have the right kind of faith with the right kinds of Bible interpretation? Should you be baptized as an infant or as an adult? These are all things that Christians in America think are important, but we don’t agree on how we interpret them, let alone which ones are the most important. We spend an awful lot of time arguing about these sorts of things. So, although we have differences in what we count as commandments in the law, this is still an issue we face today: which of the teachings is the greatest? What is the guiding principle we should be living our lives by?

In Martin Luther’s day, this, too, was an issue. The Christian church of his day had oodles and oodles of traditional teachings, laws, and regulations that they said you had to follow. In order to be a Christian, in order to be saved, you had to do certain types of good works, and confess your sin, and do penance to make up for all the things you did wrong, and if you didn’t think you were worthy of praying directly to God you could pray to a saint who would then supposedly talk to God on your behalf, and there was this whole huge list of things you had to do to be a good Christian. And Martin Luther tried so hard to follow every teaching to do everything right, to be perfect, and the harder he tried the more he realized that there was just no way he could possibly do everything right, and so he spent a lot of time looking through his Bible trying to figure out what to do. What’s the center? What’s the core? Which commandment is the greatest?

After reading his Bible cover to cover many times, and spending many hours in prayer and in discussion with other monks, Martin Luther found was that it wasn’t about the law at all. It wasn’t about legalism, or doing the right thing, or figuring out how to be perfect. Because, in point of fact, humans aren’t perfect. We’re mortal. We mess up all the time. As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we base our faith, our relationship with God, on trying to be perfect and follow all the rules perfectly … we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own. All of our arguing, all of the rules we think are so important, well, even when we’re right those rules won’t keep us from straying. And we’re not always right. Sometimes we interpret God’s will wrongly, and then all our rules do nothing but lead us further from God.

Martin Luther, like so many people of his day, was deeply afraid of Hell. He was afraid of not measuring up to God’s goodness, of being found unworthy and being condemned because of his sin. In the 1500s, when Martin Luther lived, people had a much deeper and more visceral fear of Hell than most Americans do today. The Church had spent centuries teaching people an elaborate system for earning their way into God’s good books, with dire threats of Hell for anyone who didn’t measure up … except there was no way to really know whether you measured up or not, so a whole lot of people lived their lives with a kind of general anxiety about whether they’d done enough. So when Martin Luther read today’s passage from Romans and realized what it meant, he was stunned. The Church was wrong. If God’s forgiveness is a gift, if God’s gift of forgiveness is given to everyone regardless of what they’ve done or haven’t done to deserve it, then the whole system the Church taught was wrong. Nobody needs to earn God’s forgiveness. It’s a gift, given out of love. People were trying to earn what God had already given them for free. This was a revolutionary idea, and it led to changes in Christianity and in Europe that Martin Luther could never have guessed at. Holding on to that central idea of forgiveness and grace helped lead people from confusion and fear into a deeper relationship with God. It led to the Reformation—a re-forming of peoples’ hearts, minds, faiths, and lives.

This may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t see Reformation as a one-time thing. They knew that humans would continue to go astray, that we would sometimes put our own priorities in place of God’s priorities, that we would follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. So the church should always be re-forming, always striving to renew itself, always asking “Is this what God is calling us to be and do?” And I think that we live in a world with as much need to ask that question as people in the 1500s. We live in a time of change. Whether you are for it or against it, the world is not the same as it used to be. And change comes more slowly here in North Dakota than it does other places, but it’s coming even here. Some of the change is good, and some of it is bad, and all of it affects the world we live in, that our children will live in a generation from now. How we react will shape that world. Which rules and traditions and ways of life will we keep? Which ones will we modify, and how? Which ones will fall by the wayside? Which of the commandments and teachings we live our lives by is the greatest? What’s the core guiding principle that God wants us to use as our compass point on the journey of faith? What is God trying to re-form us around?

A lawyer asked Jesus this question: “Which commandment in the tradition is the greatest?” And Jesus replied: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Love God, and love your neighbor. All of the commandments, all of the teachings and traditions, all of them grow from this root. So everything we do, everything we teach, and everything we are should be centered around these two principles. Love God, and love your neighbor. If you hold to that in your heart and in your actions, you can’t go too far wrong. No matter what the issue is—sex, divorce, gender, race, oil, poverty, foreign policy, human trafficking—if we let our love for God and for our neighbor come second to our opinions, we have broken the commandments. If we let our interpretation of God’s Words hurt our neighbors and cause us to dislike or fear them, then we have broken the commandments. But if we act in love, love of God and love of our neighbors, then we are faithful to God. That’s the great litmus test. That’s the standard by which we are judged. May we always live according to the love God has given us.

Amen.

Where’s Jesus?

Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension, (Year A), June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

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

 

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

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

Have you ever listened to the Creed that we say each week and thought, “Huh. Jesus ‘ascended into Heaven’? What’s that?” The other events the Creed mentions are all really big ones: Jesus’ birth, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, his resurrection, and the fact that he will come again. We talk about them all the time. But Jesus’ ascension into Heaven doesn’t. Here’s the short version: to “ascend” means to “go up.” As we heard in today’s first lesson from Acts, forty days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to heaven. Now, one would think that was the end of the Jesus story, at least until he comes again. Born, taught, died, raised, taught a little more, went back to heaven where, as the Creed says, he is with the father. Jesus isn’t on Earth, so that should be the end of things, right? But you’ll notice that here we are, in chapter one of Acts. The beginning of the book! And Jesus is present throughout the rest of the book, appearing or being mentioned more than a hundred times. Jesus wasn’t physically present with the disciples anymore. They couldn’t touch his hands and side. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

Here are some of the ways Jesus was present. Most obviously, several times people had dreams and visions of Jesus at various points throughout the book of Acts. Paul’s dramatic conversion when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and turned him from a persecutor to a believer is described in Acts, for example. Then there are all the times people preach about Jesus, his life and death, and his ministry. There’s a lot of preaching in Acts, and all of it centered around Jesus’ words and actions. But most often, we know Jesus was present because the community saw him. They knew that even if Jesus wasn’t physically sitting next to them, Jesus was with them, guiding them and helping them along their path, through awesome highs and terrible lows, as they struggled with what it all meant, what impact Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had on their lives.

And it was a struggle. Our text sums up what happens next in just two verses: All the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with others including many women. If you read through the book of Acts, though, it doesn’t take long to learn that things weren’t always so nice and simple as that makes it sound. There were disagreements and fights—huge ones! Disagreements over just about everything. Money, food, worship, how to deal with outsiders, how to reach out to the community, how best to teach new believers about Jesus, which rules were important to keep exactly as-is and which ones should bend to changing circumstances, how to react in times of trouble and persecution, who should be leaders in the Christian community and what to do when some clique holds all the power in the congregation. It’s easy to read and focus on the miracles, the crowds—thousands of converts at a time, wow! Wish we could do that, fill every pew! But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it didn’t always come easily.

Jesus was there, with them, throughout it. The reason he gets mentioned so many times is because Jesus was at the very center of their life together as a community of faith, and they never forgot it. Whenever there was a conflict, no matter how huge or how trivial, they always stepped back and asked where Jesus was in the issue. Which course of action, which idea, showed Christ to the world most clearly? Jesus said that his followers were one and united, but that didn’t mean that they always agreed on everything; it didn’t mean that they were always in perfect lockstep. What it meant was that they were one in mission, in their goals. They shared the same ultimate vision of what the world and the community should look like. The community should always, always be focused on Jesus and the love he showed to the world. If a beloved tradition and way of living got in the way of showing Christ to their neighbors, it should be discarded or modified. If sharing Christ’s love meant welcoming people they didn’t like, people who weren’t like them—and not just welcoming them, but giving them a place at the table and a true voice in the discussion—then they would do it, no matter how uncomfortable it made them at first. If sharing Christ’s love meant putting their own life on the line, they did it. If sharing Christ’s love meant some people in their community turned their back on them, they didn’t let that turn them away from the path. It was not easy, and it was not smooth. But they did it.

Being a follower in the Way of Jesus Christ meant letting Christ be in the center of everything. We tend to put our own desires first, as if we don’t trust God to know what’s best for us. I know too many Christians who only ask what God might want if they’re pretty sure he would agree with what they want—God’s will is good for justifying their own will, and not much else. Or, worse, have you ever noticed that sometimes people assume that God wants the same things they do? The reasoning goes like this: “I’m a good Christian, therefore God must want the same things I do, and want me to live the way I do, and anyone who’s different from me must not be a Christian.” It’s a comfortable system. You never have to ask the hard questions; you never have to take the risk of God leading you in a direction you wouldn’t choose to go yourself. You never have to truly give your life over to Christ, because you can tell yourself that you already have. It’s easy. Daring to truly ask the question, “What does Jesus want me to be and do? How can I show Jesus’ love to the world?” takes courage. It takes a willingness to be open to change. It takes a willingness to let go and let God take the reins.

So how did the early church do this? How is it that they were able to see and follow Jesus even though he was no longer physically present with them? Remember, our reading from Acts tells the story of Jesus leaving this world and going to be with the Father in heaven. Two things: Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit. He promised he would several times before he left. He would no longer be physically present, but God’s Spirit would still be with his people. We will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost.

Second, they were listening. When the Holy Spirit moved them, when Jesus sent dreams and visions, when God was working in their lives, they paid attention. They prayed all the time. About everything. As Acts says, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They were asking God what God wanted them to do. And when they got an answer, they did it, even if it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or hoping for. Prayer was not just a two-minute rote thing tacked on to the beginning and end of their day. It was a conversation which lifted up their needs and hopes and fears, and asked for guidance. They prayed about everything, even when they thought they already knew what God wanted—and they found out that sometimes, their ideas had been wrong!

This was not a smooth process. They did not always agree with one another. They sometimes hurt one another. There were factions and cliques, and different groups interpreted Jesus’ teachings in different ways. The unity that Jesus had prayed for, the unity that Jesus had given them, didn’t mean there was no disagreement. Being one in Christ Jesus meant that they would respect one another even when they disagreed. Being one in Christ meant that they would do the hard work necessary to reconcile their differences, to forgive one another for hurts and injuries, to come together and love one another even when love was the last thing they wanted to do.

And you know what? People saw that. People saw that they were living a better way. People saw the love of God poured out in and through them. People saw that they weren’t just talking the talk, they were walking the walk. People saw Jesus through their words and actions. The early Christians were great at sending people out to talk about Jesus, and bring people to the faith that way. But they were also great about showing people what Jesus was like in their actions, the way they treated one another, the way they treated others outside their group. Being a witness for Christ wasn’t just something they did once in a while: their whole life was a witness for Christ, a witness to each other and to the world. They loved God, and they loved one another, and they loved the world as Jesus had taught them to do. In good times and bad, in harmony and conflict, in times of change and times of hope and times of fear and doubt, they followed Jesus’ example and showed him to the world in their love. May we, too, be such witnesses for Christ.