Torah, Torah, Torah

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

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.

Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  Which is a very interesting thing to say, considering that in just a few verses Jesus is going to start changing the law.  If you read just a little further, the next part of the Sermon on the Mount (and by next part I mean literally starting the verse after our reading for today ends) is Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ … but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment …”  And he goes on to talk about the commandments and give much more stringent interpretations of them than the letter of the law.  Jesus says the law can’t be changed right before he goes … to change it.  What the heck is up with that?

Here’s the thing.  There is a huge gap between how Jewish people understand the concept of law, and how Christians understand the concept of law.  Jesus was Jewish, and he’s using the Jewish perspectives on law, not Christian ones that developed long after he was dead.  So let’s explore what Jesus—or anyone else in the Bible—means when they talk about the law.  We’ll start by defining terms.  First of all, the Hebrew word for “law” is “torah.”  And it means a lot of things, because the Jewish concept of “law” is a lot broader than the Christian concept.  Torah also means teaching, or instruction.  Torah is the thing that teaches you how to be a good person, how to be a child of God.  In a broader sense, “Torah” is also what Jewish people call the first five books of the Bible.  The laws in Leviticus?  Torah.  The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants?  Torah.  Adam and Eve in the Garden?  Torah.  It’s all Torah.  Teachings, instructions, laws, given from God to God’s people.  When a Jewish person talks about “the law and the prophets” they mean Scripture.  Because the Hebrew Bible—what we Christians call the Old Testament—is made up mostly of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets.

So on one level, when Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” he is telling us that the Hebrew Bible is just as important to him and anyone who wants to follow him as it has always been to all Jewish people.  We can’t just take Jesus and the New Testament and throw out the rest of the Bible.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry and death and resurrection is based squarely on his position as the same God who created Adam and Eve, the same God who called Abraham and Sarah, the same God who freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the same God who chose them for God’s own people and gave them instruction and commandments on how to live and was with them in good times and bad.  Christians and Jewish people interpret many of those stories and teachings differently, but they are still the same stories and teachings.  And they are important.  If you have ever heard someone talk about the Old Testament God vs. the New Testament God, or anything that implied that Christians didn’t need to pay attention to the Old Testament because we have Jesus, or anything like that, they were being unfaithful to Jesus and his teachings.  The God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Christ Jesus.

But when Jesus is talking about how important the Law is, and how it can’t be changed, he meant more than that.  And, again, it goes back to the word Law, and how we don’t really understand it.  See, when we think of law, we think of modern legal codes.  Things written down in books, or, these days, posted on official websites.  They’re big, and complicated, and no one person could possibly know them all, which is why we have specialist lawyers who focus on, say, tax law, or corporate law, or criminal law, or family law, or whatever.  And when you want to know what law applies to whatever situation, you look it up in a big book, and that tells you.  And if there is a gap between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, well, you go with the letter of the law.  Because in most cases, it doesn’t matter what the people who made the law wanted it to do, if that’s different from what the law itself says.  If they wrote the law badly and the letter doesn’t match the spirit … that’s unfortunate, but nine times out of ten we go with what the letter of the law says.  The law is a settled thing, for the most part.

That’s not how laws worked back when the Bible was being written.  First of all, most law wasn’t written down.  It was about custom, about what the society thought was right.  And even when the law was written down, it wasn’t as inflexible as modern law is.  It was a guideline, a level, a way of thinking about right and wrong and how people should live their lives.  Education consisted of copying down the wisdom and laws and stories of your people, and discussing them with others, and figuring out the heart of what they meant.  The purpose of writing down laws was not to make a reference book to look things up in when you need to and forget about the rest of the time.  The purpose of writing down laws was so that you could have a whole class of people copying them down, discussing them, meditating on them, debating the finer points of how they would be applied in various circumstances, being shaped and molded by the ethical norms enshrined in those laws.  Listen to how the Psalms talk about God’s law: “their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”  “The law of the LORD gives wisdom to the foolish.” And there are a ton of psalms that talk about how the law of the LORD—the teaching, the instruction, the torah—are written on the heart.  If you want to know how people in Jesus’ day looked at the law, read Psalm 119.  It is a hundred and seventy six verses long, and it is all about how awesome God’s law is and what it means.  God’s law isn’t about dead words on a page that are a straightjacket for all time.  God’s law is about shaping us in God’s image, and making our moral view of the world conform to God’s will, instead of to whatever the society around us happens to think.  It’s not about the letter of the law.  It’s about the spirit of the law.  It’s about getting the spirit of the law so deeply ingrained in your mind and heart that it shapes everything you say, do, and think.  And what’s the spirit of the law?  Well, according to Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, all the rest of the law depends on that central truth.  All the rest of God’s Law are merely ways of organizing people to live out that law in their life and society.  If you ever read through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the question you always have to have in your mind as you read through is “how does this help me love God and my neighbor?”  Because no matter how weird or harsh any given commandment may sound, that’s what it was designed to do.  And even though we don’t live according to the letter of the laws as written down in the Old Testament, we absolutely still live by the spirit of those laws, or at least we’re supposed to.  What it looks like to love God and your neighbor sometimes changes, as the world we live in changes.  How we live out the command to love God and our neighbor may change.  But the core of the law, that doesn’t change.  And the core of the law is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

May we learn to keep this law always in our hearts and minds.

Amen.

What’s Your Call Story?

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 26, 2020

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

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.

When you get a group of seminary students together for the first time, one of the first questions is always “describe your call story.”  At official events, it’s an icebreaker question designed to help people get to know one another.  At unofficial events, people ask one another: Where were you when you felt God calling you to ministry?  What was it like?  My call story is that I felt like God was nudging me towards ministry from the time I was in middle school—a nudge that I resisted because I didn’t want to be a pastor at the time.  One of my classmates felt the call when he heard a particular sermon—and he wasn’t even a Christian at the time, just tagging along to church with his girlfriend.  Another felt the call while she was scrubbing toilets.  Sometimes the call came from the outside—family, friends, teachers, and pastors, who saw the gifts of ministry in that person, and told them they ought to consider being a pastor or deacon.  Sometimes the call came from the inside—an internal sense (sometimes vague, sometimes pointed, sometimes even in the form of audible words) that God wanted them to become a pastor or deacon.  Some calls happened in appropriately churchy and reverent circumstances.  Some calls happened in really weird or irreverent circumstances.  Sometimes people take the call right away.  Sometimes people run as far away as they can for as long as they can.  There are as many call stories as there are people called.  So the call story in our Gospel lesson—Jesus saying “hey, come with me and let’s fish for people”—is not even CLOSE to the weirdest or most far-out call story I’ve heard.

Of course, part of the reason that seminary students are obsessed with call stories is that we kind of have to be.  In order to get into seminary as a Lutheran you have to share your call story with your pastor, your bishop, and a committee of pastors and lay people from your synod, and convince them that God is calling you to ministry while they examine your history, your relationship with God, your mental health, your debt load, and many other factors.  And most other Christian denominations that require seminary training have similar processes.  In the ELCA, during this entrance into candidacy for ministry, you have to write a six-page paper about how and why you feel God is calling you and what is the core of your personal relationship with God.

Now, I’ve written many long papers in my life.  I was a history major and English minor in college.  My senior thesis was 25 pages long, and while it took a while to get done, I didn’t find it especially challenging.  Give me a topic I care about and I can give you six pages in a couple hours, no sweat.  But that six-page paper about my own experiences was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life.  It was so frustrating.  It had me in tears.  I could have written an abstract theological treatise, no sweat.  My own personal relationship with God?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.  I felt naked, vulnerable, like I was exposing something deeply private.  My parents were not very comforting, pointing out that if I was going to be a pastor I was going to have to talk about Jesus in concrete and personal ways, and so I might as well start now.

But the question is, why did I feel that way?  What made it so hard for me?  Part of that comes from growing up in a church where there was a lot of deep theological discussion, but nothing was ever put in personal terms.  Nobody ever said they saw God in something, or talked about how a piece of scripture impacted them on a personal level, or anything like that.  On the extremely rare occasions someone stood up to give a temple talk, it was usually a lecture on why you should give the church money or something like that, nothing like a personal testimonial.  There were edifying stories in the sermons, but those were about people I didn’t know, and usually fictional anyway.  I was very well equipped by this upbringing to expound upon Lutheran theology and Biblical interpretation at the drop of a hat.  I was completely unprepared to talk about—or even think about—what any of it meant for me, personally, or any community I was a part of.  I was really good at explaining how one should feel or think about any particular Bible passage.  But I was almost incapable of making the connection between theory and reality.  And, unfortunately, this is not unusual in modern American Lutheranism.  We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to sound like some of the more conservative churches we have theological disagreements with, and we don’t want to scare off any lay people by asking them to do something they might find too scary like speaking in public, and we want to make sure that everything said in worship or at a church event is theologically sound, and so despite our talk of a priesthood of all believers, the average Lutheran just doesn’t get the kind of support and help to be able to talk about the place of God in their life.

This is a problem for many, many reasons, but I’m going to focus on vocation today.  Vocation, from the Latin word for “calling.”  In the modern world, we use it in two circumstances: when we talk about people becoming church professionals such as pastors or deacons, and when we talk about “vocational training,” i.e. job training for blue-collar jobs like welding or computer repair.  The thing is, both of these things are firmly within the Lutheran theological understanding of the word “vocation.”  Vocation was actually a core part of Luther’s theology.  At the time, “vocation” only meant things that church professionals—priests, monks, nuns, etc.—did on behalf of the church.  Luther vehemently disagreed with this.  Luther believed and taught that God had calls for everybody.  Every job necessary to society could be a calling from God, because God was the ultimate creator of both humans and the societies we live in, no matter how marred by sin those societies are.

As Luther put it, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”  Or, as Luther put it another way, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.”  A farmer may be called by God to grow food for people, just as a contractor may be called by God to make and repair safe housing for people, just as an insurance agent may be called by God to help people through disasters.  Relationships can be vocations, too: some people are called to be parents, or to be friends, or spouses, and those vocations can be more important than any vocation we have career-wise.  Vocations can change throughout our lives as our circumstances change, and we can have more than one vocation at a time.  Vocation is—or should be!—the foundation of everything we do, not just in church and not just if we’re religious professionals, but for everyone.  But in order for that to be true, we have to be listening for God’s call.  We have to be praying about it, and thinking about it as we study scripture, and talking about it with people of faith whose opinions and judgment we trust.  Not all calls are the same.  For example, in the call story in our Gospel, the fishermen are called to leave their nets and follow him.  In many other call stories in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he’s calling to stay in their communities and do ministry there.  Figuring out calls can be complicated.  But if we’re serious about being people of God, it’s not optional.

And vocations aren’t just for individuals.  Vocations are for congregations and communities, too.  Because God is calling us, just like God called Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John the son of Zebedee.  As we make decisions for our congregation today, we need to think about what God is calling us to do in the coming year.  But it doesn’t stop at the congregational meeting.  It’s a question that should always be in our thoughts, prayers, and discussions.  May God be with us, and may we hear and respond to God’s call.

Amen.

The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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 reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?

Amen.

The Lion and the Lamb

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Being Part of the Community

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Problem of Pain

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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

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

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

 

The prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain?  Why does evil happen?  Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world?  Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people?  Where is God in all the brokenness of the world?  From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it.  Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain.  Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless.  Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why.  Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom.  Other books have different perspectives.  And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time.  Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’

The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful.  Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it.  “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse.  First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle.  People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to.  Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context.  “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.

We Christians really don’t like that idea.  We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you.  I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control.  We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens.  Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time.  And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God.  They questioned God all the time.  They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind.  Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers.  The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical.  When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.

The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us.  If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer.  If you are good, you don’t have to worry.  You can pray your way out of any problem.  If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure.  You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.

The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that.  While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life.  Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is.  And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone.  Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now.  Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it.  It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better.  It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.

And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it.  When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet.  There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained.  Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them.  And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time.  And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned.  The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.

Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what.  Faith is about living with God.  It’s about a relationship.  And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship.  Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to?  Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure.  Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe.  It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it.  And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay.  Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay.  God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions.  God has been there.  God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand.  There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work.  I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.

And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease.  One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed.  One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged.  One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer.  We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 25, 2019

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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.

 

Barna Research Group did a study of American Christians of all denominations, trying to see what the average level of theological understanding was among church-going people.  The vast majority of regularly-worshipping Christians knew almost nothing about their faith.  Most of them believed only in a vague sort of wishy-washy feel-good spirituality which Barna labelled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  Which basically means that you believe there is a God out there somewhere, but God isn’t really involved in your life or the world, and God wants you to be a good person and be happy.  That’s it.  That’s the sum total of what most American Christians knew or believed about God and their faith.  And it’s not that that’s wrong; after all, there is a God, and God does want us to be good people who are happy.  But it’s also only a tiny part of who God is and what God does in the world, and it’s only a tiny part of what God desires for us.  It’s a child-like faith in the bad sense, shallow and vague.

Our God created the universe to be good, to be filled with life and joy and abundant good things, and then God saw human sin break and twist and sicken that good creation.  But God has not been sitting idly by since that happened; God has not turned away, nor left us to our own devices, nor shrugged and said we get what we deserve.  God has been active in creation and in our lives, working to heal and re-create and redeem.  As our passage from Hebrews reminds us, God has been working to heal and purge since the days when Cain committed the first murder in human history, killing his brother Abel.  God has been creating covenant after covenant, promise after promise, and asking us in return to live just and merciful lives, and create just and merciful societies based on loving God and loving our neighbor.

That redemption, that re-creation, that healing, it doesn’t happen simply or easily.  It required nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to set it in motion; and it will re-shape the entire cosmos.  In the words of our reading from Hebrews, it will “shake the heavens and the earth” and God will be a consuming fire, burning out all impurities and refining the good to make it even better.  The things of this world, even the things we think are certain and right and good, will need to be purified and made better.  And there are so many things we take for granted as normal that will turn out to be incompatible with the new kingdom God is building which God is planting in and around us, which will grow to fullness when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.

So the question is, knowing all of this, how should we respond?  Knowing that the world is broken by sin and death, knowing that God is at work to redeem and re-create the world and us, knowing that God is the only one in the entire universe that cannot be shaken, knowing that Christ will come again and bring God’s good kingdom with him, how should we live?  How should we respond to all of this?  What does God want of us?  In the words of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as quoted by Jesus, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or in the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

This is about morality, but it’s not about being good for the sake of being good.  It’s not about following the right rules just because they’re rules.  God’s law exists to help guide us into the ways to live that will grow towards God’s kingdom.  It’s not about following the letter of the law, it’s about being guided by the Spirit of that law so that our lives reflect the unshakeable kingdom that is to come.  And some of that is about personal morality, but a lot of that is about communal morality.  It’s about creating societies that reflect God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Given all of that, let’s turn to the discussion of the Sabbath which is at the heart of both our Gospel and our first reading.  Why does God command us to take time for rest and worship?  Most people today think Sabbath is just about going to church.  But it’s not.  The reason for the Sabbath is explained in several places in the Bible, most notably Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In Genesis and Exodus, the command to rest on the Sabbath is connected to creation.  God created the universe, and then God rested.  As God rests, so should we; no human or animal was created to work unceasingly.  We were created for a balance of work and rest.  Worship is a part of sabbath, but worship is not the only reason for setting the day aside and it’s only part of making the Sabbath holy.  Deuteronomy expands on this, commanding us to remember being enslaved in Egypt.  It’s not enough for us to choose, as individual moral choices, to respect the Sabbath.  It’s easy for people with resources to choose to take time off; it’s a lot harder for poor people.  And it may not be a choice for people who are being exploited.  So keeping the Sabbath means not just resting ourselves, but also creating a society where everyone, including the lowest and poorest and most vulnerable people on the totem pole, have time to rest.  Personal piety and personal time off are only part of the commandment.  It’s also about justice.  It’s about protecting those who are weak.  It’s about building a society where all creation can experience God’s good gift of Sabbath time.  Where all people have time and space and freedom not only to worship, but to rest and enjoy God’s good creation.  This is how we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Because Sabbath about more than just taking a day for worship, there are things that the law says we are supposed to do on the Sabbath.  Most notably acts of mercy.  If you see a person or animal in need of help on the Sabbath, and you can help them, you’re supposed to do it, even if that means working on the Sabbath.  This doesn’t mean that we should give over all our Sabbath time to working at a charity instead of resting and worshipping, but rather, we should not use the Sabbath as an excuse not to help.  Which the religious leader in our Gospel reading seems to have forgotten.  When he criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’ response about oxen and donkeys isn’t just random.  Jesus is referring to Scripture passages which set out the sorts of things you can and should do on the Sabbath.  Making sure animals don’t suffer is one.  Making sure humans don’t suffer is another.

The religious leader’s response to Jesus is a perfect example of the limits of thinking of God’s commands as personal morality and piety.  We’re supposed to rest and worship, so the leader wants everyone to rest and worship.  The law commands exceptions for acts of mercy, but the leader is so zealous to follow the letter of the law that he doesn’t see that Jesus healing the woman follows the spirit of the law.  Sure, Jesus could have waited and told her to come back the next day, and she wouldn’t have died … but she was suffering.  Jesus could heal her with a touch and end her suffering right then and there, and so he did.  Jesus showed the kind of compassion and love and mercy that God desires of us.  The religious leader, on the other hand, was so focused on following the letter of the law that he had no room for the love and mercy and compassion the law is supposed to help us live out.  He’s so focused on the letter of the law, there’s no room for the Spirit.  He’s so focused on trying to be faithful and pious that he is blind to the suffering of others in his community, and complains when they are healed.  He’s not the one suffering, he’s not the one in need, and so he prefers pious legalism and judgmentalism to compassion.

And the thing is, we Christians today can be just as narrowly focused, just as willfully oblivious, as the religious leader was.  We think of morality as a series of personal choices, instead of as a way of participating in God’s building up of the coming kingdom.  We see morality as individual rather than communal, a way of sorting out good people from bad people, instead of as a way of building up communities in which God’s love and justice and mercy guide our lives.  For example, the only time I ever hear Christians talk about keeping the Sabbath, it’s in the context of shaming people who aren’t in church enough.  It’s never about trying to make a better and more just society in which all people (including the working poor) have reliable and regular time to rest.  And yet, the Bible spends a lot of time teaching us about the necessity and God-given right to rest and how society should be set up to promote that.

Isaiah puts it this way: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God is at work in the world.  God is at work to heal the sick, to redeem the sinful, to re-create the broken, refine what is good and purge what is harmful.  God is at work shaking the foundations of that which is selfish, sinful, hateful, greedy, fearful, jealous, and any other kind of wrong, so that God can create a new and better world.  And we are called to participate in God’s work in the world.  May we live our lives in the light of that coming kingdom.

Amen.