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.

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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.