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

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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.