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.

 

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.

Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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

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

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

 

My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there.  Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that.  So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show.  I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot.  It just did not make sense to me.  It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.

This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful.  There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous.  Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need.  Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.  But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.

That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it.  True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is.  I mean, what does Jesus need oil for?  It serves no practical purpose.  It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die.  And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one.  The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God.  So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come.  But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant.  Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever?  It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.

The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John.  In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness.  Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana.  In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough.  God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness.  The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly.  If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess.  God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.

And this anointing is abundant.  It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house.  Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often.  Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross.  It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act.  When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her.  And that extravagance is kind of the point.  Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions.  That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt.  The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service.  It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence.  Sometimes, it’s about abundant love.  Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.

Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor.  But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need.  The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need.  The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it.  We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives.  That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel.  That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us.  That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions.  That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives.  That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins.  That love is what heals us and makes us whole.  That love is what brings us here today.  And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world.  As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.

The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week.  The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet.  This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit.  To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root.  You cannot have one without the other.  You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God.  If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness.  Mary knew how to love beyond measure.  Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her.  Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed.  And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.

I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that.  If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom.  If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack.  If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God.  If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality.  I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.

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.

Facing the Truth

Advent 1C, 2018, December 2, 2018

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

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.

At last, it is December.  Christmas is less than a month away!  Cheery holiday songs are on the radio, Christmas trees are going up, presents are being bought, parties are being hosted, charitable donations are being made … even the Grinchiest person concedes that it’s finally time to start thinking Christmas.  For those of us who are Christian, it’s time to start contemplating the reason for the season, Jesus Christ, born in a manger, come to save us from our sins and bring forth the reign of God.  And, in church, it’s time to hear about the apocalypse!  Every year, regular as clockwork, on the first Sunday of Advent we read Jesus’ words about the end days.  It’s quite a contrast from the sweet, pretty

Why?  Why do we do this?  It is such a bummer!  I don’t know about you but I am ready for holiday goodies and peace on earth, goodwill among mortals.  Especially after the last couple of years.  Last year, hate crimes in America increased by twelve percent, and it was the fourth year in a row of hate crime increases.  This should not be a surprise since hate speech has increased even more than that, and just general nastiness seems to be pretty common in the world today.  So are fear and anxiety.  If there was ever a time we desperately needed peace on earth, good will among humans, it is now, because there seems to be precious little to go around.  There is enough darkness in the world; what we need is light.  So why, then do we start preparing for Christmas by hearing Jesus talk about everything being shaken and people being afraid?

I think it has to do with acknowledging reality, and facing it directly.  Because we human beings aren’t that great about acknowledging the deepest problems we face and facing them.  Either we fiddle while Rome burns, pretending things are great while they’re not, or we don’t do anything, becoming cynical and apathetic.

December is a time when we do a lot of papering over deep problems with superficial fixes.  For example.  A lot of people have long-standing problems with family members which they just sort of ignore in the spirit of Christmas for a bit.  But it’s not a genuine attempt at reconciliation.  They don’t actually heal the wounds or try to forgive, they just sweep things under the rug.  It’s like the first Christmas in World War I, when the two sides stopped fighting on Christmas Day and sang Christmas carols together, played games, and shared their food.  And then, the next day, they went right back to killing one another by the millions.  The ceasefire was a good thing, but actual peace would have been so much better.  Another example.  Charities get a boost this month!  There are so many donations to food pantries and homeless shelters and all manner of other charities that do good work.  But then most people don’t do much the rest of the year.  The need still exists—the problems those charities address are still there—but the generosity is not.  We drop that change in the Salvation Army kettles, and think warm thoughts about how generous we are, and then we go about our business and forget about it.  As a society, we do just enough to make ourselves feel nice and Christmassy, but don’t put in the hard work of dealing with our society’s deepest needs on a regular basis.

And all too often, when we actually do take a good, hard look at just how messed up the world is, how close our lives are to falling apart, how deep the wounds in our society, our community, our family, ourselves?  All too often, we let it make us cynical.  The problems are big, and we can’t fix them, so we might as well just ignore it.  Or we let our fears and anxieties control us, and we either end up paralyzed in indecision, or turning to anger to cover up our fears.  We attack the ones we blame for our problems, even if they didn’t actually do anything.  We give in to knee-jerk reactions that do more harm than good.  Or we turn back to ignorance, drowning our fears and anxieties in activities, or we blame people for their own misfortunes to try and convince ourselves it could never happen to us, or we try to numb ourselves with booze and drugs, anything to keep us from feeling so badly.  It is no coincidence that as the levels of hate and fear and fighting in our country have grown, so have the levels of addiction and mental health problems.

Jesus’ words to us today are a reminder that even in the worst the world has to offer, redemption is near.  “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” Jesus says.  “As soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  When there is evil in the world, God’s reign is near.  Where there is darkness, God is working to bring light.  When things are terrible, God is present, breaking in to the world to make things better.  We may think that the world—or some parts of it—are a God-forsaken mess, but there is no place or person that God is not working to heal, to save, and to bring into God’s kingdom.

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Fred Rogers had a lot of really good advice.  One of them was this: Whenever there are disasters or problems in the world, look for the people who are helping.  Because there are always people who are helping.  Every time something goes wrong, even in the darkest places, some people are working to make things better and help those who need it.  In the same way, even in the darkest places, God is always present and at work.  Often through those helpers Mr. Rogers talked about.  And God is calling us to be those helpers.  Sure, we can’t fix all the world’s problems, but we can make things just a little bit better.  But in order to do that, we need to be paying attention, we need to see what the problems are, and we have to face them.

There will come a day when God’s kingdom will be made manifest in the world, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the world will be healed and made whole, and heaven will come to Earth.  There will come a day when there will be no pain, and no need for fear or sorrow.  There will be a day when hope will be fulfilled and love will win and all creation will be as good as God created it to be.  We don’t know when that will be because frankly we are terrible at reading the signs, and have been continually getting that wrong since before Jesus told us to be on the lookout for them.

The thing is, we don’t have to know when Christ will come again.  We just have to trust that he will.  As surely as Christ once came at Christmas, Christ will come again in glory.  And in the meantime, we have to stay alert.  Keep watch.  And not be discouraged by the world’s problems.  We know that Christ will come again, and we know that Christ is present now.  We know that God is at work in the world, and that God’s kingdom is near.  “Be on guard,” Jesus said, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength.”  We pray, and we wait for that day of Jesus’ return.  We pray that we may have the strength to face reality and open our hearts and minds to the light of Christ, and carry that light forth into the world, to shine that light into all the places that it needs to be.  So that all may know the love and joy of God.

Amen.

Devouring Widows’ Houses

Lectionary 32B, November 11, 2018

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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

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

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

There is a problem in our Gospel reading.  It is the hypocrisy and selfishness of the scribes, who like to show themselves off as good, righteous, pious pillars of the community, while at the same time, according to Jesus, ‘devouring widows’ houses’.  They make a show of being great people, full of religious devotion and moral uprightness, and yet underneath it they are rotten to the core: selfish, hypocritical, throwing the most vulnerable members of society under the bus for their own benefit.  They, Jesus says, will be condemned.  Even though they’re respected now, it won’t last.  Because while society may be fooled by their wealth and the appearances they maintain, the excuses they make for their behavior, God sees who they truly are, and what they’re actually doing underneath the mask of piety.

Then there is the widow.  The generous widow, who has literally less than a penny to her name, and yet gives that penny to the Temple, trusting that the priests and Temple authorities will use that money well.  Jesus says that she is more generous than all the rich people who give lots of money, because she is giving more than they can afford, while the rich give only a tiny fraction of their wealth.  For almost two thousand years, Christians have been holding up this widow and her generosity, and encouraging one another to be just as generous as she is, to give everything we have to God.  And it is good to be generous; throughout the Bible, God asks us to be generous with our time, our money, our attention, and our love.

But the thing is, when we focus on praising the widow for her generosity, we miss a crucial question, one which connects her sacrifice with the problem of the hypocritical scribes.  And the question is this: why is this widow destitute in the first place?  Because, you see, if this society were truly following the laws handed down to Moses and recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, she shouldn’t be.  I don’t mean that she wouldn’t be poor; poverty won’t be eradicated until the kingdom of God is truly established on earth.  But there’s a difference between being poor and being destitute.  This woman has nothing.  Her entire wealth is two coins worth less than a penny.  Even back in those days, you couldn’t live on that.  It’s commendable that she is generous with that pittance that is all she has, but why is ‘all she has’ that small?

If you look through the ancient laws recorded in the Bible, they cover a wide variety of things, and some of them seem strange to us, and a lot of them don’t seem to apply to modern life.  But if you look at the overarching themes to those laws, there are some that are just as relevant today as they were back then.  And one of those themes is taking care of the vulnerable.  See, in any society, there are some people who are more likely to slip through the cracks than others.  Some people who are more likely to go hungry, some people who are more likely to be cheated, some people who are more likely to lose everything, some people who are more likely to be abused.  In the Bible, the standard way to refer to such people is as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”  (That last is translated in a lot of different ways; sometimes it’s ‘alien,’ sometimes it’s ‘foreigner,’ but it’s always someone not-from-here, an outsider.)  See, in those days, if you didn’t have an adult male member of the community advocating for you, you would find it hard to do business, own property, farm, buy or sell anything.  If you didn’t have an adult man of the tribe speaking up for you, things could get pretty dire pretty fast.  So widows and orphans pretty often had bad things happen to them.  So did people who didn’t have family ties in the area.

And this extra vulnerability is wrong.  Nobody should be abused; nobody should be abandoned; nobody should go hungry; nobody should be treated badly or exploited.  So the laws God gave Moses spend a lot of time talking about vulnerable people, and how we should always be careful to see that they are treated well and get what they need to live.  It’s not that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the stranger more than he loves rich people with big families.  It’s that rich people with big families are a lot less likely to need help and support.  Or, at least, when they need that help and support, rich people with big families can usually either buy it or get it from their family.  A poor widow, or an orphan, or a stranger with few ties to the community?  They slip through the cracks really easily.  So, God says, we need to be careful to see that they don’t.  We need to be careful to see that they have what they need and are taken care of even if it costs us time and money.  We should always be on the lookout to see if vulnerable people need to be helped or protected, God tells us again and again in the laws of Moses.  And it’s not just about individuals choosing to be generous.  God tells us to set up our society in such a way that there are systems in place to take care of these vulnerable people.  The details of those systems in the Laws of Moses wouldn’t work for us today, because our society is so different.  But the basic principle remains.  We need to take care of vulnerable people.

Back to the vulnerable person in our Gospel reading, the widow who has nothing but two coins worth less than a penny, who is so generous with the pittance that she has.  Jesus sees her.  But nobody else seems to.  All those prominent scribes, who make such a show of piety and devotion to God?  All the rich people giving to the Temple?  None of them notice her.  Not one.  The laws of Moses say they should be looking for such people and making sure they receive the help they need.  I’m sure everyone there gave lip service to helping those in need.  After all, they’re at the Temple!  They are the Biblical equivalent of good, faithful, churchgoing people.  They are the ones who read Scripture and pray a lot and give to support God’s ministry.  If anyone in their society is going to know God’s law and put it into practice, it should be them.  If anyone in their city is going to see someone who has slipped through society’s cracks as this widow has, it should be them.  And they don’t see her.  They ignore her.  They may even be judging her for having such a paltry gift instead of their large donations.

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”  And what does he see next, but a widow in dire, desperate poverty.  We don’t know why she is in such straits.  We don’t know how family bonds and social structures failed that she is left with so little.  We don’t know what the scribes might have done—or failed to do—that contributed to her situation.  We don’t know if the scribes ‘devoured her house’ as Jesus condemns them for doing just a few verses earlier, or if it was just a run of bad luck, or even bad decisions on her part.  We know two things: first, she has a spirit of grace and generosity that is boundless and stunning.  And second, the people of God who should be looking out for people like her, are failing.

Like the scribes and others Jesus saw that day, we are good, faithful, churchgoing people.  And, like the scribes and others at the Temple, we live in a society where sometimes people fall through the cracks.  Where some people go hungry even though we have more than enough food.  Where some people are homeless even though we have more than enough buildings to house them in.  Where some people are sick or disabled and can’t afford medical care.  Where some people are abused or exploited.  Where some people are alone and friendless even in the midst of a crowd.  And, like those scribes and others, it is really easy to do nothing.  It’s easy to give just enough to make ourselves feel good, even when we are capable of so much more.  It’s easy to stand back and let the system and greedy people take advantage of those with little power and few connections.  It’s easy to ignore vulnerable people, and let them slip through the cracks, and shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way the world works.  But that’s not what God calls us to do.  That’s not the kind of society God calls us to create.  May we see the vulnerable in our midst, and work to create a society where nobody is forgotten or destitute.  And thanks be to God for all the people who give of their time and money to help those in need.

Amen

Sell all you have and give it to the poor

Lectionary 28B, October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-3, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

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

Most sermons I’ve heard on this topic have spent more time trying to explain away Jesus words than to explore them.  If you want a Bible passage guaranteed to bring out justifications of how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or he meant it, but it doesn’t apply to us, this is it.  There are several things in this passage that I suspect most of us—myself included—don’t really want to hear.  The first and most obvious is Jesus’ command to give up our property.  We like our wealth!  And even the poorest of us here today is probably wealthier than the rich guy in the Gospel was.  We have far more possessions than anyone in Jesus’ day would ever have dreamt of owning.  We may not be rich by the standards of the modern world, but we are rich compared to Jesus and most of his listeners—including the disciples.  Property is wonderful.  Our homes keep us warm and dry, give us safe places to store our stuff.  We have all these wonderful devices like stoves and washing machines and vacuums that make our lives easier and we also have things like televisions and computers that provide entertainment.  We have cars that allow us to go where we want.  Money and possessions can’t buy happiness—but they can sure fix a lot of the things that make us unhappy.  Money can buy safety and stability.  Money can buy help when we need it.  Money can buy anything from basic physical needs like food, water, and shelter to more ____ desires like “interesting things to do.”  Nobody wants to be poor.  Nobody wants to give up what they have.  Most people, given a chance, would MUCH rather have MORE stuff than we have now, rather than less.

Now, granted, money can do bad things.  Money can corrupt.  Money can be used to bribe.  People sometimes do terrible things to get money, or let their desire for money influence them to treat people badly.  People make decisions based on profit or cost rather than on ethics.  For example, after some recent exposes about just how bad things are on many cocoa plantations, Nestle announced that they couldn’t possibly stop buying cocoa beans from plantations that used slave labor because it would cost too much and they’d have to raise their prices.  And people judge others based more on how much money they have than by what sort of person they are, which is why poor families where the parents genuinely are trying to do their best for their children are more likely to have those children placed in foster care than rich families where the parents actively abuse their children.  Money can be used as a status symbol, to decide who matters and who doesn’t.  Money—or rather, a love of money allowed to dominate our thinking—can and does do a lot of evil.  All you have to do is read our Old Testament reading from Amos to hear just how the love of money can corrupt a society, and how dire and devastating it is when that happens.

The thing is, there’s no evidence that the guy with lots of possessions in our Gospel reading has been doing any of that.  He seems to be a faithful guy who genuinely wants to get closer to God, and has done his best to live a good life.  Society was small in those days, and there weren’t many rich people around.  If he were, say, using his power and wealth to cheat people or profit off of injustice, there’s a good chance the disciples would have known.  Jesus certainly would.  And it’s not mentioned.  This man with many possessions was probably not a bad person.  He says he’s been faithful all his life and tried to follow God’s commandments, and asks what else he needs to do.  Jesus looks at him, loves him, and tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.  And the guy goes away grieving, because he’s got a lot of possessions and he doesn’t want to sell them, any more than you or I would.  And Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved.

The disciples are shocked.  Absolutely SHOCKED.  Then, as now, people tend to take material wealth and success as measures of God’s love and blessing.  If you are rich, we think, you must be doing something right.  If you are successful, you must be doing something right.  Conversely, if you are poor, we often assume that you must be doing something wrong.  And if you were a good person, if you were doing everything you were supposed to, you wouldn’t be poor because you would have lifted yourself up with your own bootstraps and God would have rewarded you.  If you are rich, it’s because you deserve it, you’ve earned it, and God has blessed you for deserving it.  If you’re poor, it must be your own fault.  In this way of thinking, it’s not that a person can buy their way into heaven … but if they’ve got money, it’s usually a sign that they’re already in God’s good books and have earned salvation in some way.  Because no matter how many sermons we’ve heard on how salvation is a free gift of God, we still think of salvation as something we can earn, as something we can work hard enough to deserve.

Which is why, when Jesus says how hard it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, the disciples’ response—our response—is disbelief.  But the thing is, we can’t do anything to earn our way into God’s good books, and even if we could, it would have nothing to do with material possessions.  Money—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with how good a person you are.  Some people earn great wealth while being genuinely good people.  Some people get wealth through sheer luck, by being born into a family with money, or being exceptionally good at sports or music or something.  Some people get wealth by cheating and exploiting others.  And some people are poor because they make bad choices, but others are poor through sheer luck, by being born into a poor family in a bad area, or being disabled and unable to work, or only able to get jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.  And some people are poor because they’re being exploited or cheated.  The amount of money a person has tells you absolutely NOTHING about their character.

You know what money tells you?  How dependent someone is.  If you have enough money, you don’t need other people.  Or, at least, you don’t have to depend on them.  You can buy anything you need.  Food, shelter, a plane ticket to a better place, healthcare, a housekeeper or assistant to take care of all the little stuff, a lawyer to get you out of legal trouble, you name it, money can buy it.  And when you can get yourself out of most problems without outside help, you start to believe that everything good that happens in your life is because you earned it.  Even the stuff you didn’t earn, like your health, is because you deserve it, right?  And if you’re exploiting people or taking advantage of them, it’s not really wrong, because if they were smart they’d have managed to do as well as you did.  The more money you have, the easier it is not to care about other people.  The more money you have, the less important kindness seems: it’s easy to be kind, and it probably won’t cost you much, and it’s easy not to be kind, and if someone is not kind to you, it probably isn’t going to make a huge difference.  The more money you have, the less you have to depend on anybody but yourself.  The less you have to depend on God.

Poor people, by and large, don’t have the delusion of independence.  They know that their survival and well-being depend on the generosity of others.  They know that it’s possible to work hard and do everything right and still not be able to make it on your own.  They know what it’s like to depend on others for their daily bread.  They know how important that daily bread is, because they can’t always take it for granted that they’ll have it.  And they know just how incredibly important kindness is.  A kind person—whether a neighbor or a stranger—can literally make the difference between eating and going hungry.  When you can’t pay for hardly anything, you depend on others.  Being poor doesn’t guarantee that a person will be a Christian, of course, but Christians who are poor, whether here or across the world, understand that we all depend on God far more clearly than those of us with many possessions.

Here’s the thing.  Salvation is a gift from God.  Forgiveness, abundant life in God’s kingdom, these are all things that no human being could ever hope to earn.  There’s just no way.  Our sins are too great, our failures too many.  There is no good deed, or series of good deeds, or perfect behavior, that can buy God’s love.  We can’t earn it, and we absolutely, positively, do not deserve it.  On our own, salvation is impossible.  Rich or poor, we cannot be saved by our own merits.  Money and possessions can buy a good life in this world, but they are worth exactly jack in the kingdom to come.  And the more security you have in this world, the harder it is to believe that none of it matters in the long run.

The guy asked Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life.  He’s spent his life doing good works as if that will earn salvation.  But there’s nothing he can do.  There’s nothing we can do.  If he sells everything and gives it to the poor, maybe he’ll be vulnerable enough to learn to depend on God.  But even if he doesn’t, giving all that to the poor would mean a lot of hungry people fed, a lot of sick people healed.  That generosity will have a big impact on this world; but nothing we say or do has much impact on the next.  We do good things in this life because we should do good things, but we can’t earn our way into heaven.  We depend on God for that.  And with God, all things are possible.

Amen

Welcome the Children

Lectionary 25B, September 23, 2018

Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:8a, Mark 9:30-37

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

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

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

We did not spend much time studying Jesus’ welcoming of children in seminary, despite the fact that it is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark.  Nor were we encouraged to preach on those passages.  You see, people now—since the Victorian era, basically—have a much different view of children and childhood than people did in Jesus’ day.  In Jesus’ day, children were the most vulnerable members of society, and the least valued.  Half of all children died before the age of ten; if you survived to reach adulthood, then you were worth paying attention to.  It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but rather that many of them kept emotional distance until they knew whether the child would live or not.  And society as a whole really did not care about children.  The basic strategy was, have as many kids as possible, work them hard so their labor benefits the family as much as possible, and hope enough of them survived to take care of you in your old age.  Parents loved their children, but the overall culture still believed that children should be seen and not heard, that children should be worked hard, that children were not valuable.  Families cared for their own children, and the children of their friends, but not other children.  And society as a whole didn’t care.  If a child’s family couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, or were abusive, there was little help available.  There was no concept of children as special, or innocent, or to be protected.  Childhood was a dangerous, hard, ignored part of life that you escaped as soon as you could.

In that context, when Jesus spends several chapters repeatedly chastising his followers for their power-hungry squabbling and telling them to be more like children, it was something surprising, shocking.  You want us to be like children, Jesus?  Some of the most vulnerable, ignored, unimportant people in town?  No thank you!  The disciples wanted power, riches, glory—they wanted to be important.  They wanted to matter.  They wanted, in short, everything the children in their community didn’t have.  But unlike the disciples we live in a society that values and cares about children, in which “think of the children!” is one of the most effective calls to action there is.  So, a professor told me, sermons preached on Jesus’ words about children usually aren’t very effective, because they just turn into maudlin sentimentality about how wonderful children are.

The United States is currently locking up hundreds of children for the crime of coming to this country from someplace else.  Many of them were ripped from their parents’ arms, and despite court orders, many of them have still not been reunited with their parents.  In Flint, Michigan, it has been over four years since their water became unsafe, and yet most children do not have access to safe water for washing and drinking in their own homes.  Nationwide, American schools now employ more guards than counselors.  We would rather lock children up than help them mature and grow healthier.  America is the richest nation in the world, yet over 20% of American children today live in poverty, and 40% of American children today will spend at least a year in poverty sometime before they turn 18.  Despite sharply rising child poverty rates, we have spent the last several decades making steady cuts to kids’ education, nutrition, social services, and healthcare.  As a nation, we have decided that such programs are too expensive.  We have decided that taking care of our children is too expensive.  The picture gets even bleaker when you look specifically at the reality faced by children who are not white, or children with disabilities.  Rates of poverty are even higher, and resources are even scarcer, and discrimination is sadly all too common.

So as I was reading this text this week, I found myself asking: how different are we, from people in the disciples’ day?  Do we really love and value children more than they did?  And if so, which children do we care about?  We care a lot about children who are middle-class, white, normal, and photogenic.  The further away from that they are, the less attention we pay, and the less we care.  The church is sometimes better than the rest of America, but not always.  I read an article in Christian Century magazine a while back, in which the writer—a nationally-known church speaker—recounted a story of doing a seminar in a large church.  Sunday morning, after worship, one of the Sunday School teachers came up to her with a dilemma: there was a Latina girl in her Sunday School class that she didn’t recognize.  The child might be an undocumented immigrant.  Should the teacher call the cops?  No, the speaker had to explain.  The job of the church is not to enforce immigration policy, but to spread the good news of Jesus.  You know, the guy who said to welcome children?  It’s amazing, but even good, committed Christians often need to be reminded of Jesus’ words.

When Jesus told us to welcome children, he didn’t mean to just welcome the ones from families like ours, the ones we’re most comfortable with, the ones we would naturally be caring about anyway.  Because there’s absolutely no need to tell people to welcome people they already want to welcome!  Even in those days, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles loved their kids, and most adults probably kept an eye out for the children of people in their social circle just like we do today.  Jesus meant all children, but especially the ones we wouldn’t choose to welcome normally.  The ones we might not care about as much.  The ones who look different, or speak different languages or come from the wrong side of the tracks or have bad backgrounds.  The ones our society tells us are bad, or wrong, or dangerous, or inconvenient, or just plain worthless.  The ones we might be tempted to shove aside, as the disciples repeatedly did.  Those are the ones we need to welcome.  Those are the ones we have to care for.  Because those are the ones in greatest danger, the ones in deepest need.  If we welcome them, Jesus says, it’s the same as welcoming Jesus.  If we don’t welcome them … we are not welcoming Jesus.  The way we care for those who are most vulnerable is directly tied to the way we care for Jesus.  If we do not serve those in need, we do not serve Jesus.  This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching.  And yet it’s one we often forget.

The disciples were arguing among themselves about who was going to be the most important of Jesus’ followers.  They dreamed of the day he would overthrow the Roman government and set himself up as God’s Anointed King, just like his ancestor David.  No matter how often he told them that he was building a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom based on sacrifice instead of power, they did not listen.  They repeatedly fought over who would be the greatest and who would have the most power and influence.  They ignored Jesus’ teachings that he would be betrayed and die; they ignored his teachings to welcome the children and others who were vulnerable.  They put their own pride and ambition above serving those who needed help.  That’s why Jesus had to keep repeating those teachings.

Are we any different?  We live in a society that worships power, in which we love winners and hate losers.  That was one of the worst insults you could call someone in my school as a kid—that they were a “loser.”  We love underdog stories … but only if the underdogs win in the end, triumphing against all odds.  We want to win, and we quickly turn on those who don’t win.  Often, unfortunately, we make “winning” more important than “doing the right thing.”  And Christians do this to, despite all of Jesus’ teachings to the contrary.

Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  We as Christians are not called to power and glory, but to service and sacrifice.  Especially the service of those who cannot help themselves, the ones society ignores or shoves aside or lets fall through the cracks or abuses.  We as Christians follow the one who submitted himself to the most humiliatingly painful death imaginable in order to save sinners.  If we want to follow him, if we want to serve him, we have to be willing to serve others as he did.  Especially the most vulnerable.  And I pray that God will work within us here, now, today, and send us out into the community to work for a society in which all children are safe, and valued, and loved.  Not just some children, but all children.

Amen.

Living Faith

Lectionary 23B, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

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

 

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

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

When I was a teenager, an old, homeless, mentally ill woman lived for some time on the outside stairs down to the basement of my home church.  If I ever learned her name, I’ve long since forgotten it.  This was in downtown Salem, Oregon, and that stairwell was off the road and sheltered from the elements, and not much used.  She was pretty clearly not all there, mentally, and sometimes she was hostile.  And it’s hard enough for homeless people to keep clean when their brains are working well; like many people who are both homeless and mentally ill, she stank of sour, unwashed misery.  I don’t recall that she ever came to worship, but when we had a potluck or a meal or something, she would come in and eat.

I dreaded that.  I have a very sensitive sense of smell, and being anywhere near her made me gag.  So, probably about the second time that old homeless woman came in to a potluck, I complained to our associate pastor.  Wasn’t there anything she could do?  I mean, I didn’t have anything against homeless people or mentally ill people, but I would enjoy the potluck a lot more if that smelly person just wasn’t there.

Our pastor heard me out, and said she was sorry that I was having such a problem.  But, you know, they’d tried to help the woman, and failed.  They’d tried to connect her with every service available for homeless or mentally ill people in Salem, and nothing worked.  Either she didn’t quite qualify for services in one way or another, or the service decided she was too difficult to deal with, or getting services required a degree of organization and mental togetherness that she simply was not capable of.  She just fell through the cracks, and if she had any family or friends who might be able to help, nobody had been able to find them.

And after explaining all that, my pastor looked at me and said, “The thing is, Anna, she’s a child of God.  Just like you and me.  God loves her even though she’s smelly and mean, and not living in the same reality as the rest of us.  And God doesn’t want her to be hungry, or cold, or sick, or homeless, but she is.  So if the only thing we can do to help her is to see that she gets a good hot meal once in a while at a potluck, well, that’s quite literally the least we can do.  And, Anna, our basement is pretty big.  If you sit on the other side of the room, you won’t be able to smell her while you’re eating.  And even if you can’t eat with her in the room, you have lots of food at home.  You won’t go hungry.  If she doesn’t eat here with us, she will be going hungry.  God calls us to love all people, and welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry.  She needs a place to be welcomed, and she’s definitely strange, and she’s hungry.  So if it comes down to a choice between following the Gospel and your comfort level, I’m sorry, but we have to put the Gospel first.”

I was mortified.  I was so embarrassed.  My pastor hadn’t spoken in a condemning or judgmental way.  She had been very compassionate to me.  But I, of all people, should not have needed to have that explained.  Being a Christian and being faithful to God has always been very important to me.  As a kid, I not only listened to the main sermon, I sometimes took a printed out copy of it home with me to read later and think about.  I paid attention to Sunday School, I went to adult Bible study as a teenager, being a Christian wasn’t just something I did because my family was Christian.  I was really proud of my devotion.  If some issue in my life had a connection to Jesus’ teachings, I should have been able to spot it a mile away.  And yet, I hadn’t.  Even at that age, if you’d asked me to give a temple talk on Jesus’ words to love the stranger, I probably could have done a decent job of it.  But when I saw someone who definitely, genuinely needed compassion and help, my only thought was “holy cow, she is so gross, can we get her out of here so I don’t have to deal with her?”

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? … have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  Paul, too, in his letters, says that he firmly believes that God shows no partiality to one person or group over another.  The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about how to care for the poor and outcast, and the prophets regularly condemned those who did not care for the needy.  And Jesus spent lots of time welcoming people of every description from every race and tribe and walk of life.  The story of the Syrophoenician Woman is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus ever hesitates to help anyone in need, and even then, all it takes is a few words from her, and he changes his mind and helps.  (I wonder if Jesus felt as embarrassed as I did, after having someone point out that lack of godly compassion and generosity.)

God is impartial.  God doesn’t play favorites.  But boy howdy, humans do.  We do it all the time, make biased and unfair judgments based on every human criterion imaginable.  But we usually don’t recognize when we’re doing it.  Scientists have actually done research on this.  See, the way human brains work most of the time is not based on logic, even when we think it is.  We respond based on our gut feelings, and then come up with logical reasons why our guts were right.  And our gut feelings are shaped by a lot of things: our own experiences, the common culture around us, the stories and jokes we hear and tell.  We empathize a lot with people who are like us, whom we admire, or people who have attributes our culture promotes, whether that’s money or a large social media following or a thin, beautiful body or the right ethnic background.  We don’t generally empathize with people who aren’t like us, or who don’t have attributes our culture values, or whose lives we’ve never imagined ourselves in.  And how much we empathize or don’t empathize with someone has a huge impact.  When someone we empathize with needs anything, we are willing to help, and think that they should receive what they need.  When people we don’t empathize with need anything, we find excuses not to help.  And when people we don’t like need anything, we actively look for reasons why their needs are unreasonable and bad.  Sometimes, as was the case with me and that homeless woman, we can’t even conceive of them as people.  Just obstacles to be gotten rid of, or judged, or ignored.  We don’t see people through God’s eyes, but with human eyes.  And sometimes, we don’t see them at all.

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? …. have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”  Unfortunately, there isn’t any way I know of to truly be impartial.  There’s no way to stop our guts from pre-judging people and caring about some more than others.  But we can be better than we are.  We can choose to show compassion even to people we don’t like or wouldn’t otherwise care about.  We can choose to stop and think twice instead of letting knee-jerk assessments lead us into injustice. We can focus on remembering that people who aren’t like us are still God’s children … and we can put that knowledge into practice by choosing to reach out to those who are different and treat them with mercy and justice.  We can choose to see the world through God’s eyes, remembering that all people are God’s beloved children, just like you and me and that homeless woman.  And we can let God’s love guide our actions, instead of our own snap judgments.

I don’t believe in works righteousness.  God doesn’t choose to save us because we earn it through good deeds.  But at the same time, if we truly believe in the love and grace of God poured out to all the world through Christ Jesus, shouldn’t we act like it?  If we have been transformed by the good news of God in Christ Jesus, shouldn’t that transform the way we see the world, and how we treat others?  If we want our faith to live and breathe and grow, we have to actually put that faith into action, so that faith is not just something we think about sometimes, but something we do.  May God’s vision and God’s love guide our hearts, minds, and hands.

Amen.

A Rebellious People

Lectionary 14B, July 8, 2018

Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13

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

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

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

When I read the Ezekiel reading right next to the Mark reading, a question occurred to me.  God tells the Ezekiel that the people of Israel are a rebellious people, that they probably won’t listen, but to go there and prophesy anyway.  And in Mark, Jesus goes to his hometown—to the people who know him best—but they don’t see him as anything special.  They don’t see him as a prophet, or a teacher sent from God, and they certainly don’t see him as God’s Son.  They’ve known him his whole life, they take him for granted, and that knowledge gets in the way of seeing him for who he truly is, and it gets in the way of hearing his message of forgiveness and grace and healing.  They are so sure they know who he is that they are offended when he steps out of the neat little box they’ve put him in.  By refusing to see God when he steps out in front of them, they are rebelling against God.  But if you had told them that, if you had explained that their ideas about Jesus and about God were mistaken, they would have been even more offended.  They believed themselves to be faithful followers of God who were doing exactly what God had called and commanded them to do, and that belief was so strong that when God stood in front of them in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, they did not believe it, and they were offended by it.

So my question is, what about the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s day?  Did they know they were rebellious?  Did they believe it when God’s prophets told them?  Or did they honestly believe that they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do?  Did they have an idea of who God was and what God wanted that was so inflexible that when God called them to something different they disregarded it?  Had they convinced themselves that their own ideas and desires came from God?  Did they twist God’s word to fit their own prejudices and assumptions, and then assume that everything they did was according to God’s Word?  Is that why they are so stubborn, because they have convinced themselves that God could only say things to them that fit their preconceived ideas about God?

Which brings me to my next question: what about us, here, now, today?  Because we do that, too.  We all have ideas about God, and all too often I see people ignore the work of God in their midst because it doesn’t fit with what they expect God to be doing.  We let our prejudices and our pre-conceived ideas blind us to God’s Word, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to Christ.  We are formed by the world, and then fit God into the spaces the world leaves, and think that tiny box we’ve shoved God into truly reflects our Lord and Savior.  We create God in our own image, instead of the other way around.   That may be most obvious with the “cultural Christians,” the ones who only show up Christmas and Easter and never crack their Bibles open, but I have seen committed, faithful people who are in church every Sunday do it, too.  And I know you have all seen people do this, too, although you may not always recognize it for what it is.  I bet most of us here have done it at least once, because it is very tempting, quick and easy, requiring no growth or change on our part.  And, you know, it’s a lot easier to see when other people are doing it than when we ourselves are.  Liberals notice it right away when conservatives do it, and conservatives notice it right away when liberals do it, but almost nobody notices when they themselves do it.  And when we see people we disagree with doing this, it is really easy to point it out, or even to attack them.  Our society encourages us to attack people we disagree with.  And when other people point out that we ourselves might be wrong, all too often we respond by treating it as an attack and hitting back, instead of stopping and asking, prayerfully and with an open heart and mind, if we are wrong.

Which then brings me to the next question: how do we stop doing it?  How do we stop being rebellious and impudent and offended by a God who doesn’t do what we expect?  Because if there is one thing we can learn from the Bible, God is constantly surprising people.  God surprised Abraham and Sarah when God called them out of their comfortable life back home in Ur and told them to wander, and God would give them a child in their own age and land to their descendants.  God surprised them so much that Sarah laughed at him when God told them.  God surprised Moses when he spoke to him out of the burning bush and told him to go back to the land he had fled from and set the Israelites free from slavery.  God surprised Samuel when God told him to anoint David the shepherd boy as the next king of Israel.  God surprised Israel when God punished them for their sins by allowing the Babylonians to conquer them, and God surprised the Jewish people again when God set them free to return home again from the exile.  God surprised Mary when God chose her to bear God’s Son, and God surprised the disciples when God raised Jesus from the dead.  God surprised the disciples again when God gave them the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and sent them out to speak in new languages to spread the Good News, and God surprised Paul when God called him to stop persecuting Christians and become one.  God surprised Peter when God told him that the new Gentile followers of Jesus didn’t have to become Jewish in order to be Christians.

In fact, I can’t think of a single time in the Bible when God did something and it was exactly what everyone expected.  Even if some people had anticipated it, usually most people hadn’t, and even the people who did anticipate it usually got things wrong somewhere along the line.  So maybe that’s a good place to start.  When we think that you understand God, when we only see God doing things that we expect God to do … we are probably missing something, at the very least.  We know that God is present, at work in the world.  We know God is working for justice, peace, mercy, freedom from oppression, salvation, and reconciliation, because God has told us this many times throughout scripture.  What we don’t know is what that’s going to look like.  And the other thing we know from Scripture is that we are going to find it surprising, sometimes even shocking, at least some of the time.  And sometimes God’s actions will be so far outside what we expect of God that we are going to want to deny that it could possibly be God.  We’re going to want to be rebellious, impudent, stubborn, and offended.

Here’s some rough guidelines to follow: the most common description of God in the Old Testament is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  In the New Testament, we are told repeatedly that God is love, that love is the core of God’s very nature.  We’re also told repeatedly that God’s desire is for salvation, healing, for reconciliation—not just reconciling people to God, but reconciling people to one another.  Healing the wounds between people so that we can live together in harmony.  God gets angry, of course, but when you look at what makes God angry it’s pretty much always that human beings are hurting one another.  Just like any loving parent would get upset if one of their children hurt another.

So here’s my rule of thumb: if we see something happening and there is reconciliation happening, or a deep and pure love winning out over hatred and fear, God is probably involved somewhere.  If we see healing going on, or mercy, God is probably involved somewhere.  Even if it’s weird and strange to me, not somewhere I would ever expect to find God, I know there is a good chance he’s there somewhere.  If, on the other hand, there is hate and abuse, God is probably not involved.  If there are growing divisions and fears, if people are becoming more isolated or cruel or aggressive, then God is probably not present, even if people are using Bible quotes to justify themselves or claiming it’s God’s will.

Because of this, I try my hardest to work for healing, for reconciliation, and for understanding between people.  I try to spread love instead of fear or anxiety.  I try to point out the places in the world where there is abuse or injustice, and work for justice, equality, and healing.  This is not to say that I always succeed, or even that I always figure out the right thing.  But I do try, because I know that God will probably be there somewhere.  And I know that it’s not always going to be obvious, that sometimes it’s going to be surprising.  I know that I’m going to get things wrong sometimes, because we all get things wrong sometimes.  But I also know that the God who created us loves us still, even when we are rebellious and stubborn and impudent and offended.  God’s love is so deep that it will never let us go.  God forgives us even when we fall short, even when we can’t see—or don’t allow ourselves to see—what God is doing.  Thanks be to God for that love and forgiveness.

Amen.

Love in Action

Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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

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

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

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Thus begins our reading from First John.  And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  This is sacrifice of the greatest nature.  Being willing to die in order to save someone else.  Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example.  It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.

On the surface, it does.  There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love.  Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service.  Jesus gave everything, so we should too.  But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?

Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds.  It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject.  Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing.  Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you.  Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from.  Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.

And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements.  But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving.  That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together.  In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people.  But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either.  It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another.  Niceness puts wallpaper over problems.  Love puts in the hard work of healing.  But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing.  So we Christians choose niceness too often.

Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea.  Which, at its heart, is a good idea.  Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back.  As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus.  But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”?  Buying coffee for others is great.  But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial.  It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

Christian love is transformative.  Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God.  Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.

Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India.  Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew.  Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it.  In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died.  Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital.  He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel.  It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region.  It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region.  His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything.  And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this.  How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped?  If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?

Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa.  Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war.  She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace.  They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended.  After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives.  Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both.  They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it.  They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.

Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse.  They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe.  When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more.  It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal.  They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.

Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood.  Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community.  But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were.  How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families.  But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it.  And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone.  But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood.  Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.

Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction.  Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness.  Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism.  The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.

Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world.  He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us.  And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money.  And sometimes it’s hard.  But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously.  If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love.  May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.

Amen.

Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

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

 

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

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

When I read our first lesson for today, my first thought was: “Really, Peter?  You, of all people, are criticizing what others did during the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution?  Does the word hypocrisy mean nothing to you?”  Peter criticizes the crowd of Jerusalem residents for what they did: for first praising Jesus, and then turning on him when he didn’t do what they expected, and listening to the religious and political leaders who saw Jesus as a threat.  And then, when Pilate offered to release a criminal, they chose the one who’d been imprisoned for leading a rebellion against the hated Roman conquerors, instead of Jesus, who taught about peace and healing and love.  None of this is good.  But let’s look at what Peter was doing, during that time.  First, in the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he consistently misunderstood what Jesus meant and tried to stop him talking about the upcoming crucifixion.  Then he repeatedly fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch in the garden.  Then, after Jesus’ arrest, he watched the trial but not only did he fail to come to Jesus’ defense and point out the lies the witnesses were telling, he denied that he even KNEW Jesus!  There is no point in this sequence of events where Peter does the right thing.  Not one.  He didn’t call for Jesus’ death, but he did not say a word to prevent it.  And here he is, criticizing what OTHER people did?  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And when you get right down to it, all human beings live in glass houses where sin is concerned.  Christ Jesus died because of the world’s sins, and that includes our sin, here and now.  And, unfortunately, a lot of that sin is the exact same sin of that crowd who first welcomed Jesus and then turned against him.  They wanted to be saved, but on their own terms, in ways that were familiar to them.  And then they listened to the voices of anger and fear telling them that Jesus was a way of threat to their faith and their way of life.  And they swallowed all the lies about Jesus that anybody could come up with.  When Jesus seemed like a winner, they were on his side.  When Jesus seemed like a loser, they abandoned him and even cheered for his death and destruction.  And given a choice between Jesus, whose promise of peace and salvation required them to change their hearts and minds, and Barabbas, whose promise of salvation was a bloody crusade against their enemies, they chose the violent one.

If you look around our society today, you will see exactly those same types of sin today, committed by good, Christian people.  We get this idea in our heads that we already know what life in God’s kingdom is going to look like, and it’s going to look like things we’re familiar and comfortable with.  Better than what we’ve got now, of course, but still pretty similar.  After all, we’re already God’s chosen people, right?  So we might still need God’s salvation, but we think it’ll fit neatly into our lives and society the way it is, just like those people of Jerusalem who called for Jesus to save them on Palm Sunday.  Which means we may not recognize God’s salvation, God’s call, when it’s right here among us.

And there are a lot of voices speaking and shouting in anger and fear, right now.  Fear about Americans of different races.  Fear of Americans of different political parties.  Fear of foreigners.  Fear of anyone who is different.  And while we are quick to see the flaws of people we count our enemies, we blindly follow the nastiest voices on our own side.  We follow people who seem like winners, and attack those who seem like losers, with little regard for what is right or wrong.  And we look for violent solutions, assuming that peace, security, and a just world can be created through violence and destruction.  Even when we know this is wrong, we fail to speak out against it, or even deny what we know to be true.  Every sin and flaw that led the crowds to call for Jesus’ death, and to Peter’s denial, is still within us here today.  And that desire to blame others while hiding our own sins, as Peter did in our first lesson?  That’s also still a part of us today.  In the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.  I crucified thee.”  You and I and every person living today are just as guilty of Jesus’ death as the people who stood in the crowd shouting “Crucify!”

So the question is, if we’re still plagued by all the sins and flaws that have plagued the world since the very beginning of the world, what does Jesus’ death and resurrection matter?  What difference does it make, to you and I and our world, that Jesus died for us, and rose from the grave?  Is it just pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by?  Sure, we keep screwing up and hurting ourselves and others now, but when we die it will be okay because we’ll go to heaven?  I mean, that’s true, but it’s also a little limited.  Yes, Jesus’ resurrection means we will go to heaven, but Jesus also promised us new life in the here-and-now.  Jesus repeatedly said that God’s kingdom was all around us, if we only knew how to see it.

We are full of sin, but we are also full of the Holy Spirit, and full of God’s love.  For all that the world around us is calling for cynicism, hate, fear, and violence, God is working in us and around us to soften our hard hearts and purify us.  God keeps calling us to see that there is a different way, a better way, a way of reconciliation that leads to mercy and justice and peace.  Every time a bully stops hurting people, God is there.  Every time people stand up to a bully and protect the victim, God is there.  Every time people stop their knee-jerk reactions and choose to be kind and generous, God is there.  Every time people stop a cycle of violence and destruction, God is there.  Every time we give so that the hungry may be fed, the sick healed, homeless housed, refugees saved, God is there at work.  God is working towards a day when love and peace will be everywhere and sin will be defeated for good.

And God is calling us, you and me, to be a part of that work.  God is calling us to repent, to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in ourselves and turn to God for healing and forgiveness.  The world is full of sin but we don’t have to let it rule us anymore.  We can open our hearts and minds to Jesus, and let him change us.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when it will not win us friends or popularity.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it costs us.  May we always confess our sins, and strive to act in love as God calls us to do.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

Our culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that?  We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love.  And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy.  And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts.  It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is.  And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.

As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God.  We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love.  We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love.  We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend.  God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.

What does that mean?  ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it.  Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant.  Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.

You can see that in Joel’s words.  In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God.  They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed.  Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered.  People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer.  In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by.  And how does God react?  He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.

More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony.  God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity.  All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us.  God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.

When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love.  We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways.  We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it.  We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right.  We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim.  We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive.  We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it.  And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too.  We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be.  We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.

But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go.  God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live.  This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds.  May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What We Do With God’s Blessings

Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

 

Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, and it takes place just before the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River to settle into the land that God had promised their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.  Let’s review, a little bit.  God had called Abraham and Sarah out of their home country, promising them that he would give to their descendants a good land for their very own.  Abraham and Sarah lived in that land, but as foreigners, resident aliens.  Their great-grandchildren went as refugees to Egypt, fleeing a bitter famine, and after a time the Egyptians enslaved them.  Generations later, God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness back to the land that he had promised their ancestors.

And now, in the reading from Deuteronomy, there they are, standing just outside it.  And God is giving them a whole bunch of instructions for what kind of life they’re supposed to live once they have this land.  How should they act?  What should they do?  When they are no longer slaves, but free people, safe in their own land?  And one of the things they must do every year is gather the first fruits of the harvest.  The first, and the best, and take it to the Temple and give it to God.  This passage doesn’t give the amount, but in other places it’s specified that it is supposed to be a tithe: ten percent of the harvest.  You take that tithe to the priest, and you remember your heritage.  You remember how God called your ancestors and promised them a good land, how God promised he would always be with your people.  You remember how God was with your people in good times and bad, even when they were enslaved in Egypt.  God was always with them, guiding them, protecting them, and working for their good.  And God freed them from slavery and brought them to this new land.  Everything that they have and everything that they are is a gift from God.  The fact that they are free is a gift from God.  The land is a gift from God.  The rain and the sun is a gift from God.  The physical ability to work is a gift from God.  The growth of their crops is a gift from God.  And they are to remember that by taking the first and the best of it to the Temple.

What does the Temple do with it, you may ask?  10% of every farmer’s crops.  That’s a lot.  First and most obvious, they use it to pay their priests and scribes and take care of the temple itself.  But they also used a chunk of it to throw a big party, for everyone in the community.  Not just the nice, religious, prosperous people.  Everyone, rich and poor alike.  The scum of the community as well as the pillars of the community.  The people who’ve been there all their lives as well as the strangers nobody knows and everyone thinks are weird.  Everyone in the region.  All are welcome and invited.  No exceptions.  They would come, give thanks to God for the harvest, and then have a feast.  Good food, good friends, good time for all.  And the rest of the tithe—the bulk of it, actually—was used charitably.  The temple used it to feed the hungry, buy clothes for the naked, take care of the sick and the orphan, and in general to help anyone who needed help.

These are actually some of the most common themes in the Old Testament.  We owe everything to God, blessings are meant to be shared, God’s presence is like a feast or a party, and when we see someone in need we are supposed to be generous and make sure that their needs are taken care of.  That last bit is crucial.  When someone is in need, it is our responsibility to make sure that need is taken care of.  If we are truly followers of God, if we are truly taking God’s commands seriously, there should never be anyone hungry among us, because we should take care of them as individuals and as a community.

With that in mind, what are we here to do today?  Well, we’re here to give thanks to God for the harvest.  It’s a Harvest Fest!  And we’re here to have a good time, to enjoy the music and eat a lot of good food.  And we’re here to raise money for the poor.  The world is incredibly different now than it was thousands of years ago when Moses and the Hebrew people stood outside the Promised Land and heard these words for the first time, but these core values remain: we praise God for the blessings God gives us, especially the harvest.  We rejoice in God’s presence and in the community, and have fun together.  And we raise money for those in need.

I have a challenge for you, though.  Consider the tithe.  That’s still, to this day, supposed to be the minimum that faithful people give.  Ten percent of everything that we earn, both to remind us that everything we earn or have is a gift from God, but also to fund ministry needs and help take care of those less fortunate than us.  Go home this afternoon and count up how much money you give to charity and to your church in a typical month.  Then compare it with your monthly take-home pay.  I bet that most of you will find that it is nowhere near ten percent.  For those of you who aren’t good at math, ten percent of 1,000 is 100.  So if you take home $1,000 a month from your work, ideally you would be giving $100 a month to your church and to the charities you support.  If you take home $2,000 a month, ideally it would be $200.  Now, we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s not always possible.  But if you’re not giving a full tithe, consider increasing your giving just a little bit.  One percent, maybe, or even half a percent.  There are so many good causes that need help right now.  The McLean Family Resource Center, for one, or Camp of the Cross, which we are supporting with today’s offering.  But there’s also your home church, or the Harbor Angels in Coleharbor which raise money for local people with high medical bills.  There’s the Community Cupboard of Underwood and other local food pantries that feed hungry people here in North Dakota, and the Great Plains Food Bank that is the backbone of hunger relief in North Dakota.  There are relief efforts for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, the US Virgin Islands, and other places hit by the horrifying hurricanes of the last few months.  There are relief efforts for the earthquakes in Mexico and the fires in California.  I have to put in a plug for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response, which are both excellent charities.  We tend to be the first to arrive at a disaster, and we’re some of the last to leave.

We have been given so many blessings by God.  It’s true that this wasn’t a perfect year.  Bad thing happened this year, both locally and nationally and internationally.  People got sick, people died, there were natural disasters, and the weather round here wasn’t very good for farmers.  But still, in the midst of all that, babies were born.  People healed from injuries and illnesses both physical and mental.  People came together to help and support one another.  People loved one another.  People chose to help when it would have been easier to do nothing.  And in each of those blessings, God has been present.

It’s not always easy to see that.  We ask God why he doesn’t send rain when we want it, but we don’t thank God when the rain comes.  We ask God where he was when hurricanes and earthquakes hit, but we don’t see his presence in all the people who help rescue others and work to rebuild afterwards.  We ask God where he was when a hate-filled man spews bullets at a crowd, but we don’t see God’s presence in all the people who tried to influence that man onto a different path throughout his life.  And where was God, as that man was shooting?  God was with people like Jonathan Smith, who saved thirty people before he himself was shot, and God was with all the people who performed first aid or covered other people with their own bodies.  We ask God where he is when people get sick, and don’t thank God enough when people heal.  We live in a world that focuses on horror and fear instead of on hope and love.  We live in a world that focuses on the negative and ignores the positive.  We live in a world that cannot see blessings when they come in the midst of pain.

But every breath we take is a gift from God, who made us.  Every smile we share with a friend is a gift from God, who gave us the capacity to love and be loved in return.  Every crop we grow, every job we get, is a gift from God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in it, seen and unseen.  We have a lot of blessings that we take for granted, and we should celebrate both them and the God who gave them to us.  But more than that, we need to remember that when God gives blessings, he doesn’t give them so we can hoard them for ourselves.  God gives blessings to be shared, with all the world.  As we thank God this day and always, may we share generously the blessings God gives.

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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

 

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

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

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

Amen.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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

 

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

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

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.