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.

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Listen and Follow

Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’  Even as a kid I thought it was funny.  I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other.  Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not.  I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.

That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where.  In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity.  Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough.  Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor.  After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way.  You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught.  If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry.  But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!

We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell.  We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should.  We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.

There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though.  One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything.  No, really, you can’t.  You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts.  Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else.  And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does.  And people can’t stay afraid forever.  It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness.  So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors.  Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.

And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath.  Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today.  Jesus and the Father are one.  They’re not separate.  It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people.  No.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.  They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified.  They have the same goals and desires.  They are acting together, and always have, and always will.  That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.

Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us.  But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath.  God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved.  God loves the world.  God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved.  God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock.  God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved.  Yes, we can turn away.  Yes, we can ignore God’s call.  Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to.  But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation.  God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.

God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life.  God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come.  And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either.  God wants us to have life now, too.  We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world.  And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.

And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it.  Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation.  They are safe and protected in God’s care.  You know what’s going on around them?  The opening of the seals.  Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest.  And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection.  It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.

And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either.  They have been made holy by God.  That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb.  All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior.  They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And that blood that redeems?  It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it.  The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes.  We don’t have to earn it.  We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized.  We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.

Amen.

It’s About Trust

Lent 1, Year C, March 20, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

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.

Ever since paganism died out in the West, most Christians have not really paid attention to the First Commandment, “you shall have no other gods besides me.”  After all, there aren’t exactly any temples to Ba’al or Zeus or whoever around.  If you’re going to worship, the main choice is which branch of Christianity you’re going to follow.  But Martin Luther didn’t think that first commandment was obsolete.  On the contrary, Martin Luther saw idolatry everywhere.  Luther put it this way: whatever you say on Sunday morning during worship, your true God is the thing in which you put your trust.  The thing you rely on to keep things going well, the thing you look to to get you out of any problems.  And for a lot of people, even for devout Christians, we may say we trust God, but we don’t necessarily actually do that.  We put our trust in ourselves, our money, our political ideology, our leaders, in a lot of things, but not in God.  We focus so hard on the things we are doing, the things we can affect, that we don’t always see the other things around us that go into making our efforts possible.

Say you have a group of people go to play Monopoly together.  And one of them—decided at random—has different rules than the rest.  Rules that make the game much easier.  They start with more money and collect twice as much money when passing Go, for example, and get out of jail freely every time.  Chances are, they’re going to win.  Not because they’re such awesome players, but because the rules are slanted in their favor.  But if you ask them why they won, what factors contributed, nine times out of ten they start talking about what a great player they are: how they made sure to buy up all the real estate they could get their hands on, for example, and managed to avoid having to mortgage anything.  Even when it’s perfectly obvious that they won because the rules were slanted in their favor, they won’t notice it, trusting instead in their own abilities and talents.

Which is why, in our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to remember just where their harvest comes from every year.  First of all, the land is not theirs.  The land—all of creation—belongs to God.  God lets them use it, but it’s God’s land.  Their ancestors were nomads, people with no land and few possessions.  Then they became slaves in Egypt, which was pretty horrible.  The only reason they escaped was because God heard their cry and freed them.  And then God brought them to a land where they could live and farm and become prosperous.  I’m sure that especially after the first generation or so, when there was nobody left who remembered anything other than living in the Promised Land, it was tempting to believe that they had that land because they had earned it, because they were strong enough to defend it from other tribes, because they deserved it.  I’m sure it was tempting to believe that the crops they grew and the wealth they amassed were because of their own hard work, because they were good farmers.  I bet it was hard to remember that without the seed and sun and rain, their hard work would be absolutely useless.  I bet it was even harder to remember that the only reason they were able to do that hard work in the first place was because God gave them healthy bodies.

And that’s why they had a whole litany to remind them just where all the good things came from, and how much they depended on God’s good gifts.  Even when they had nothing, they had God.  When they were slaves, used and abused so that others might grow wealthy, God was with them.  It was God who saved them, it was God who brought them to their new homeland, and in their new prosperity there, it was still God who gave them every good thing they had.  Their lives, their health, their land, the sun and rain—everything was a gift from God.  Their own hard work mattered, but it was only a tiny part of the reason for the good things in their lives.  But that’s hard to remember when everything’s going well.  We blame God when things go wrong, but seldom give credit when they go right.  I don’t believe that God causes all the things that go wrong—for example, there’s no hint that the Israelites time of slavery was any sort of punishment; in the Bible, it’s not something God wanted, it happened because of Pharaoh’s fears and greed.  And even though everything was going wrong the Israelites were terribly oppressed, God was with them and God heard their cry and freed them.  God didn’t cause the evil that befell them, but God saved them from it and brought them to a place where they could grow and prosper and gave them every good thing they had.  They needed to remember that.  They needed to put their trust in God, rather than in themselves or their kings or their land or anything else.

Then we come to our Gospel reading.  When I was a kid, the story of Jesus’ temptation confused me.  Not the temptations to power in exchange for worshipping the Devil; the bit about food.  Because God wants people to be fed!  God spends a lot of time, in the Old and New Testaments, providing food for people through various miracles!  We as Christians are supposed to feed hungry people as part of our ministry.  That’s why we have food pantries and things, that’s why there are so many Christian ministries that provide food.  Jesus was hungry, and God doesn’t want people to go hungry.  So what would have been the problem with turning those stones into bread?

But the problem is, who was asking Jesus to do that?  The devil.  If Jesus had done it, he would not have been trusting God to provide for his needs.  He would have been listening to the voice that says “well, you know, the consequences of doing something wrong won’t be that bad.  After all, your goal is a good one, and what can it hurt?  Jesus would have been putting his trust in that voice, and not in his Father who was with him, supporting him and providing for him in good times and bad.  And we do that too, you know?  We have something we need, or that we think we need, and the only way we think we can get it, well, it’s not what we should be doing, but it’s not that bad, is it?  And so we do things that we think are small, but the whole point is that we’re not trusting God.  We’re not trusting God to provide, and both as individuals and as communities we go for expediency, the easy way, instead of doing the right thing.  Instead of doing the right thing and trusting that God will be with us even if there are consequences, we do things we shouldn’t—or we don’t do the things we should, because we put our faith in our own abilities instead.  Or we put our trust in our money, in our political parties, or in our leaders and bosses, or anywhere other than where it should be.

Where do we put our trust?  What is our god?  Is our trust in the Lord our God whom we come here to worship on Sunday?  Or is our trust in ourselves, or in our money, or in all the other things in the world that come to us and say “hey, I can solve all your problems, if you’ll just put me first.”

May we always put our trust and hope in the Lord where it belongs.

Amen.

Grace and the Golden Rule

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 24, 2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

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.

Ah, the Golden Rule.  Treat other people the way you would want to be treated.  It’s such a basic idea that you find a version of it in most cultures and ethical systems.  This ethical teaching is practically universal.  Jesus’ commands to love one another, forgive, and not be judgmental are more unique to Christianity, and are fundamental to the Christian life.  They are the bedrock of how God calls us to live.  Because they are so foundational, we obviously understand what these precepts mean, and act accordingly, right?  We always follow the Golden rule, love others, and forgive as we have been forgiven, right?

Oh, if only that were true.  Alas, Christians are not much better at doing these things than non-Christians are, in my experience.  And sometimes, it seems to me, we don’t even understand what these commands from Jesus mean.  Or we interpret them too narrowly so that we can follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit.  We tend to want things nice and neat and easy, tit-for-tat.  You do something good and you get rewarded.  You lend money and you receive back with interest.  You help someone and they help you.  You treat someone well, and they treat you well.  Simple, easy, rewarding.  But the thing is, these commandments aren’t about narrowly following the rules, they are about love and grace.  And by interpreting them too narrowly, by turning them into a quid-pro-quo, we miss the whole point.

Let’s take some examples.  “Treat people in the same way you want them to treat you.”  The Golden Rule!  The world would be a much better place if everyone acted according to this basic rule of thumb.  And yet, even when people follow the letter of this, they can miss the spirit of it.  I have a colleague who serves a church where the surrounding community has changed a lot in the last fifty years.  What used to be a mostly white working-class neighborhood now has very few white people living there, and the economic spectrum ranges from very poor to upper-middle-class professional.  The church, however, is still mostly made up of white people—they moved to other neighborhoods, but keep commuting to church.  They have several ministries in the neighborhood, including a food pantry.  Problem is, the congregation has a habit of donating the things they would like to eat.  Peanut butter.  Potatoes.  Standard American fare, because when they give to the food pantry, they ask themselves “what would I like to eat?”  Golden rule, right?  If you had kids you struggled to feed, you’d want someone to give you lots of peanut butter.  So you should give peanut butter.

Problem is, the people who now live in the neighborhood eat different foods.  A lot of standard American fare, they either don’t like or don’t know how to cook.  So what good does it do them?  When the food pantry volunteers told the congregation this and asked for them to donate things their clients could actually use, a lot of members got huffy.  Those poor people should be grateful for that food, and they should learn to cook it and like it!  They never stopped to think about what they would want, really want, if they were hungry.  Obviously, they’d want people to help give them food.  But would they prefer that food to be stuff they didn’t like and would struggle to figure out what to do with, or food they loved and that they already knew tons of ways to use?  The congregation was interpreting the golden rule very narrowly.  “If I needed food, I would want peanut butter, so I’ll give peanut butter,” they thought.  A more grace-filled response would have been, “If I needed food, I would want food I liked and knew how to cook.  So I will give food they like and know how to cook.”  Fulfilling the Golden Rule is easy when everybody is pretty much the same and likes and wants the same things.  It’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with people who are different.  But somehow, I don’t think Jesus meant it only to apply to people who are like us, or only when it was easy.  Jesus gave us the command to help us love one another, and it’s not very loving to ignore peoples’ actual wants and needs because you think they should want or need different things.

Then there’s forgiveness.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world in which people hurt one another through actions and through inaction.  There is so much pain and evil in the world, and most of it is caused by humans.  We can ignore the problems around us and become apathetic, or we can strike back an eye for an eye and add to the pain in the world.  Or, we can choose to forgive and love our enemies, working for healing and reconciliation and the possibility of peace.  And guess which one Jesus wants us to do?  Jesus wants us to work for healing and reconciliation through forgiveness and love.

But when we talk about forgiveness, too often we make it superficial.  Instead of a tool for healing and reconciliation, we make forgiveness a tool for maintaining the status quo.  We pair forgiveness with forgetting, so that the ones who have done the hurting face no consequences or accountability for their actions.  So often, when our society tells people that they should forgive, what they really mean is “you should stop talking about what they did so we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.”  Instead of healing, more injury is done.  Instead of healing, the wound festers.  Instead of love and grace, there is only more resentment as the one who hurt people continues to hurt them.

That is not what God’s forgiveness looks like, and it isn’t what our forgiveness should look like, either.  Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat.  Sometimes, the issue has to come out into the open so that everyone can see and address it.  The normal human instinct for how to address an injury is to fight back, to try and inflict the same hurt on the one who hurt you.  But Jesus calls for accountability without violence and revenge.  For instance, giving someone who sues you your tunic as well as your coat is a way of bringing the issue out in the open without responding in kind.  Most people in those days only had one outfit, which is why the law prohibited taking both coat and tunic.  If they did, you would be naked and the whole community would be shamed.  So if someone takes your coat and you give them your tunic as well and walk out of there buck naked, it’s a problem for the whole community.  Everyone has to reckon with the actions of the one who sued you.  Everyone has to ask, was it justified?  What are the consequences?  It’s not just business as usual.  The community has to stop and deal with what has happened.  And in that process, there is a possibility for change.  There is a possibility of new life.  There is a possibility of grace.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting, or about sweeping things under the rug.  It’s not about pretending things never happened, or forcing a smile onto your face when all you want to do is scream.  It’s a way of dealing with the hurt that was done without hurting back.  And it doesn’t mean you have to let them keep doing the hurtful thing.  In seminary, one of my classmates was pastor of a church where two parents had abused their child so terribly that they had gone to jail for it.  When the mother got out, the child was still a member of the church, and they had to figure out what to do.  Obviously, as Christians we are called to forgive, but they were also called to protect the vulnerable—including the child.  They forgave the mother, but knew they couldn’t allow her to worship where the child she had brutalized would have to see her.  So they found her another church in the area, and worked with that congregation to provide her spiritual support and community without letting her near children.  She received grace, and was welcomed back into a community of faith, but with clear and open eyes so that she could not repeat her terrible deeds.  And her child was given a safe space to grow, knowing the family of God cared for them and protected them.  It was not easy or simple or quick, but there was grace and healing for both victim and perpetrator.

In fact, Jesus actually uses the word “χάρις” in this passage, which is the word we usually translate as grace.  Where our translation reads “What credit is that to you?” another way to translate it might be “What grace is that in you?”  If you only give so that you may receive, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  If you only love those it’s easy to love, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  What grace is that in you?  The Golden Rule, the command to forgive, these are not balance sheets.  They’re not coldblooded rules to follow by the letter.  They are means by which the love and grace of God can overflow in the world.  They are means by which we can be a part of that love and grace.

The world has enough violence and hate and narrowness.  It doesn’t need more.  It doesn’t need people lashing out in anger and fear and jealousy, it doesn’t need revenge even when it seems justified.  What the world needs, what God’s good creation needs, is more graced, and more love, and more healing.  May we act according to God’s grace, acting for forgiveness and reconciliation, and when we fall short, may God forgive us.

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.

In the Midst of Change

Third Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:13-31a, Luke 4:14-24

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.

Nehemiah is one of the books of the Bible we don’t talk much about.  In fact, this is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Nehemiah.  And it’s companion book, Ezra, doesn’t get read in worship at all.  So I think we should take a little time to explore the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, to explain why reading the books of Moses aloud in public was such a big deal.  And to do that, we need to take a look at the big picture of Judah’s history.

After the Exodus from Egypt and forty years wandering in the wilderness, God led the Israelites into the Promised Land and gave them a set of instructions to live by.  Some of those instructions were what we think of as religious things—having to do with faith, worship practice, etc.  But most of them were general rules for society.  Don’t cheat people.  Make sure that even the poorest people in your lands have access to things they need.  Make sure that rich and powerful people can’t run roughshod over everybody or get out of punishment when they do evil.  Make sure that people who fall into debt have a way out of it.  Make sure that justice and mercy apply to everyone.  Because God cares about more than just the religious stuff.  God wants justice and mercy for all people.  You cannot have a good and godly society where some people are exploited and some people get away with murder.  You just can’t.

The thing is, the Israelites did not live up to those instructions.  They kept failing.  Sometimes by ignoring the religious stuff—worshipping other gods, and the like—and sometimes by ignoring the social stuff.  Instead of a nation ruled by fairness and equity, they kept tipping further and further over into a society where the rich lived idle and opulent lives, and the poor got poorer and poorer and their lives got worse and worse.  And they didn’t want to admit that they were not living up to the good and just and merciful society God wanted for them.  And so they came up with all sorts of justifications for their unjust and unloving behavior.  God sent prophet after prophet, and sometimes they listened and reformed things for a little bit, but a lot of the time they just … ignored the prophets.  They ignored God’s word in their midst.  And then, finally, in 587 BC, God stepped aside and let the Babylonians conquer them as punishment for their sins.

The Babylonians destroyed all the cities, leaving nothing but rubble and taking everything of value.  They carried off most of the population—including all of the religious and civil leadership, and most of the wealthy people—to be slaves back in Babylon.  They brought people from other parts of the Babylonian Empire to settle in Judah among the remnant of the Israelites left behind, so that it would be harder to rebel.  And this was really hard.  Some people lost their faith, but for the rest—both those in captivity in Babylon and those living in the ruins of their homeland surrounded by foreign strangers—they had to figure out what it meant to be the faithful people of God in exile.  Did God not love them any more?  What had they done to deserve this?  Was God ever going to have mercy on them and rescue them?  And through all of this, they clung to their faith, but they also clung to their memories of the good old days.  They told and retold the stories of what life had been like back in Jerusalem, except they told them through rose-tinted glasses that ignored most of the problems that had led to God removing God’s protection and allowing the Babylonians to conquer them.  If they could just turn back the clock—if they could just restore things as they had been—everything would be perfect.

And through this time, God still loved them and kept sending prophets to them, to reassure them and give them hope that this time of exile and slavery would not last forever.  And, after about a century, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and everybody could go home!  The first two waves of Israelites to return home to Judah were led by Ezra and Nehemiah.  And when they got back to the land they’d spent a century idealizing, they were shocked.  And horrified.

For one thing, all the cities were still in ruins, because the Babylonians hadn’t allowed any rebuilding.  For another, there were people living in the land they’d once owned, who’d been farming it for a century and had no intention of giving it back to strangers who hadn’t been there in generations.  Both those who had been taken and those who had remained had kept their faith and adapted it to their new lives … but they hadn’t adapted in the same way.  The ones who had stayed had intermarried with the new tribes the Babylonians had settled among them.  The ones who had been taken had adapted to life among the Babylonians and spoke with Babylonian accents and wore Babylonian-style clothes.  The ones who had been taken thought the ones who had been left behind were mongrel half-breeds who’d thrown away the purity of Israeliteness and ought to bow before their betters.  The ones who had been left behind thought the ones who had been taken were elitist, xenophobic thieves who were entirely too cozy with the empires that had conquered and oppressed them.  And both sides thought the other side was unfaithful to God’s commands.  And so, instead of coming together as God’s people reunited in God’s land, they fought.  They built walls.

The ones who had been in exile in Babylon had had this beautiful vision of how perfect everything used to be, and they’d thought that if they could just get back to Judah, they could make everything perfect and beautiful as it used to be.  But they were wrong.  The past was gone, and there was nothing they could do to bring it back, and the more time they spent trying to force things to be the way they used to be, the harder things got.  And again, they asked, “where is God?  Has God abandoned us?”  Because they were so focused on the vision of the way things had been that they could only see God’s work among them if God was doing the same things God had done before.  But the thing was, God did love them, and God was working among them, and doing wonderful things.  Life was never going to be the way they’d imagined it.  The old kingdom that had been destroyed was never coming back.  But they were still God’s people and God was still their God, and God would be with them and their descendants.  The old kingdom of Judah was gone, but the Jewish people remained, God’s chosen people.

And that’s what’s going on in our Gospel reading.  The exiles have returned, but to a place that is radically different than they were expecting or hoping.  And they are just beginning to grasp that life is never going to be the way it was, that they’re going to have to face the reality of a life radically different than they had hoped or imagined.  They’re going to have to do the hard work of figuring out what God is calling them to do now in this new world they’ve found themselves in.  So there’s a lot of grief.

But also, they know that God is with them.  And here is the story of how God had been with their ancestors, and promised to be their God, and live among them.  And they’re hearing it read aloud in public for maybe the first time, because while the Babylonians didn’t forbid worship of God they didn’t allow it in the public square, either.  And so even amidst their grief for what was lost, they have hope and joy because they know that they are not alone, they know that God is with them, and they know that these words they’re listening to bring life.  So there’s a lot of hope and joy, too.  It’s no wonder they cried.

Unlike those ancient people in our reading, we’ve never been exiled.  We’ve never had our entire nation destroyed and turned into rubble.  But we do have two things in common with them.  First, we live in a world that has changed radically in the last fifty years or so, and is still changing around us.  Things aren’t like they used to be, and it’s really easy for churches to look back in longing to the days when the pews were filled and churches had power and influence in society, and long for those days.  It is really easy to think, “if we could just get back to those days—if we could make things like they were—everything would be great and all our problems would be solved!”  But the thing is, we can’t turn back the calendar.  We can’t make things the way they were, we have to deal with things the way they are now.

The second thing we have in common with the people of Nehemiah is that we are God’s people and God is with us and God’s Word is among us.  No matter what happens, no matter what changes come, we are not alone.  God loves us, and God is working in us and among us.  Our job is to listen for God’s voice, and follow where God leads.

Amen.