Healing and Grace

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 23, 2019

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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

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

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

The man possessed by the demon had two problems: First and most obviously, the demon.  The demon—or legion of demons—who tormented him and possessed him and led him to hurt himself and prevented him from living any kind of life.  The second problem was the community of people around him, who were more interested in trying to control him and avoid him than they were in trying to help him.

People are afraid of those who are different, especially those who are mentally ill.  This was true in Bible times, and it is still true today.  People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crime, but still when we hear of a terrible crime like a mass shooting, we assume the perpetrator must have had a mental illness despite the fact that they’re almost always perfectly sane.  We turn old insane asylums into haunted houses and horror tours, scaring ourselves with stories of the creepy people who were confined there in days past, despite the fact that virtually all of the horrors in such places were done by the doctors and nurses and guards, not the patients themselves.  But it’s easier to lock up or shun people who are different or mentally ill than it is to love and support them.  In general, it’s easier to use other people as scapegoats than to face the dark things in us and our society.

So it should not surprise us that the man possessed by demons in our Gospel reading had lived with a terrible choice: he could be chained up, or he could be homeless, living outside society in the cemetery.  His own people didn’t want to give him any kindness or help.  Either he was bound up like a prisoner, despite having done nothing wrong but be sick, or he was shunned and excluded and left to fend for himself in the graveyard.  Those were his only two options, and both were pretty terrible.  As far as we know, he had never hurt anybody, or done any damage besides breaking the chains they put on him.  And the demon possession would have been horrible enough on its own, but the only things his community did were to make his life more painful than it had to be.

And then Jesus came.  You know, it’s funny, but in the Gospels the people who are most likely to know who Jesus is are the demons?  The religious leaders in society didn’t; even his own disciples only occasionally showed any awareness of who Jesus really was.  But the demons knew, and were terrified.  They were terrified because they knew Jesus would not leave them alone.  They knew Jesus came to heal the people they tormented.  They knew they could not continue on hurting people if Jesus came near.  And so too, this demon was afraid.  And it was right to be afraid of Jesus.

Jesus asked the man’s name and healed him, cast out the demons so that for the first time in years the man’s mind was his own.  He took a bath and got dressed.  He could talk without the demon speaking for him.  He was saved.  Not because he was anything special or good or unique, but because that’s what Jesus does: Jesus saves people from the things that torment us, whether that is demons or sin or illness or injury or hunger or any other force.  Jesus came to bring good news, to release those held captive, to liberate those oppressed, no matter who or what is holding them down.

And the people of the town, the man’s family and neighbors, came and saw what had happened.  They saw him safe, and sane, and whole, and free.  And they did not rejoice.  No, they were afraid.  They were happier with him sick than healthy.  They were afraid of change.  They were afraid to welcome him back among them.  I am sure that at least some of them loved him and were happy, but most of them were not.  Like an alcoholic’s friends who would rather he continues to party than get sober and recover, they liked the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns they were used to better than a new and better way of living.

In this story, the demons of the Legion are afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast them out.  The people of the town are also afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast demons out.  It’s not that they like the demons, but rather that they’re used to them.  They’re used to fearing and being suspicious of the man who had been possessed.  They’re used to being able to do terrible things to him and telling themselves that he deserves it.  They’ve spent years locking him up and abusing him and ignoring him and his needs whenever possible.  They don’t want to have to look him in the eye and account for how they’ve treated him.  They don’t want to welcome him back and make him part of the community.  They don’t want to change.  And so instead of letting Jesus cast out their sins as he cast out the demons, instead of allowing him to heal them of their pride and fear and resentment and selfishness as he healed the man of his demon, they attack Jesus.  They cast him out.  They don’t want to change, even if that change is for the better.  They are more comfortable with their sins and their demons than they are with being healed and saved.  And so they try to kill Jesus.

This is another thing that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day.  We still do not want to change even when that change would be better for us.  We would, by and large, rather stay in familiar-but-unhealthy patterns than open ourselves to the saving and healing power of Christ in our lives.  And most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.  Do you think the people of that village were honest with themselves about why they drove Jesus out?  I don’t.  I bet they made up all kinds of reasons.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus was an evil magician, and that’s why he had power over the demon.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves they were mad about the money lost by the pigs’ owners.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus came to town to destroy their crops and livestock and getting rid of the demon was just a side effect.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves of other reasons I haven’t thought of.  But the fact is, it was seeing the man—their relative, their neighbor, a man whom they should have loved and cared for but chained up instead—that made them fear Jesus.  And so they cast Jesus out rather than letting him heal them, too.

Some people, reading Bible stories like this one, argue about whether the demon was a literal evil spirit or just some form of mental illness.  I don’t know that it matters.  What matters is this: there are things in us that hurt, there are things that destroy the good life God meant for us.  And sometimes those things are present in individual people, like in that man, and sometimes those things are present in communities, like in the community that did not want him to be healed.  And whether those things that hurt us are demons or illness or social forces or our own habits, God has power over them and can heal them.

Some of that healing takes place in the here-and-now.  Sometimes miracles happen; sometimes God works through medical professionals and therapists and medication.  Sometimes forgiveness and spiritual healing take place even where we think nothing good is possible.  But sometimes we have to wait.  Miracles don’t happen on command; they don’t happen every time we want them.  If so, the community would have been healed of their fear and anger instead of casting Jesus out.  I don’t know why God doesn’t heal every wound in this world right now with a snap of his fingers.  But I do know this: there will come a time when Christ will come again, and the dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and everyone and everything will be healed and made whole, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.

I don’t know when that will happen, but I have faith that it will happen.  I have faith that even when healing is not possible in this life, it will come in the next, and God’s power will triumph even where hope seems futile.  And I also have faith that God put us here for a reason.  I have faith that God is working in us here and now, that even though there are times when healing is not possible now, God is at work.  Even though there are times when we reject Jesus, God is still at work.  Even though we turn away from God’s gift of healing, even though we so often prefer the fearful life we are used to over the grace-filled life of freedom God offers, God keeps coming to us and offering healing and forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

The True Meaning of Christian Unity

Easter 7, Year C, June 2, 2019

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

I was an odd kid.  I got on great with adults, but not so much with kids my own age.  I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.  So I never had very many friends, and I was different from most of the kids in my class.  This made me an easy target for bullies, and if I hadn’t had such great loving support from my family and people at church and what friends I did have, my life would have been pretty grim.  The thing is, though, that none of my teachers liked or approved of bullies.  They did not want any of the children in their care to be hurt or afraid anywhere, but especially at school.  They just … weren’t very good at making that happen.  They were very good at keeping things looking like everything was good, but not so good at actually preventing bullying.

They told us to get along, a lot.  But mostly what that meant was that the bullies learned to only strike when the teacher’s attention was elsewhere.  Or they learned to be subtle about it, so they could play the innocent when I complained and say that it was my fault because I couldn’t take a joke, or I was just too sensitive.  They knew they were trying to hurt me, and I knew they were trying to hurt me, but they had enough plausible deniability to get away with it.  When the teachers did do something, they rarely tried to stop the bullying.  They’d try to get me to forgive the ongoing harassment without requiring the bullies to stop harassing me or apologize for what they’d done.  Or they’d try to reinterpret things so that the bullying wasn’t actually bullying, like the time someone wrote an anonymous note that I smelled and the teacher tried to convince me they were saying I smelled good and it was a compliment.  I never asked the teachers why they focused on trying to change me instead of on stopping the bullies, but I bet I know why: it seemed easier.  If I wasn’t complaining, they could assume that everything was okay and we were all getting along fine.  I was the squeaky wheel, so I got the grease, even if the problem wasn’t me but the people who were hurting me.

That’s why I get suspicious when people start talking about unity, and togetherness, and getting along.  Because the easiest way to make people unified is to ignore the people who are getting stepped on or trampled on.  It’s easier to ignore the people being hurt than to challenge and resist the people doing the hurting.  And this happens even in Christian circles.  For example, in the 19th Century, there were calls for Christian unity in America to heal regional divisions between the South and the rest of America.  And what that usually looked like was White northerners embracing White southerners and ignoring the horrific way white southerners were using and abusing black people, first with slavery and then with sharecropping and Jim Crow laws and the KKK.  For White northern Christians, getting along with White southern Christians was more important than Black suffering.

We still see this all the time today, on issues of race and gender and class and sexuality and nationality and religion and disability and every category I can think of.  It is easier to silence the victims than it is to confront and stop the abusers.  Nine times out of ten, that is what we try to do.  It’s easier to put a superficial face of niceness on things and pretend we’re all getting along than it is to address the deep and abiding wounds that so many of us bear.  It is easier to paper over the cracks than to fix the foundations.  So when I hear calls for unity and togetherness, I tend to get suspicious.  Unity on whose terms?  Who’s benefiting, and who’s getting thrown under the bus?  Whose sins are getting ignored or minimized, and whose wounds are getting salt rubbed in them?

Sometimes, of course, the people calling for unity are focused on deeper issues than just trying to make things look nice.  But all too often, those deeper issues are used as an excuse for scuttling the very idea of unity.  And they still don’t care about holding people accountable for their actions.  “We have the perfect interpretation of scripture and Christian tradition,” they claim, “so in order to do anything with anyone else, they have to agree with our every belief, even the smallest ones, because we’re right and they’re wrong.”  They want to look like they’re in favor of the kind of Christian unity Jesus wants, without actually having to do the hard work of bridging the gaps between people, so they focus on every difference they can find and make mountains out of molehills.

The unity that Christ is praying for in our Gospel reading takes work.  It’s hard, and it isn’t based on superficial niceness and togetherness.  Nor is it based on absolute uniformity of doctrine and practice.  The unity Christ is praying for is rawer, and deeper.  It’s not about making things look nice, or even about feeling good about togetherness, it’s about genuine love and putting that love into action.  This reading comes from the end of the Farewell Discourse.  For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading parts of Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night before he was arrested and executed.  We read these words in Easter because it’s actually a very good guide to what Easter living is supposed to look like.  What life in the light of the cross and resurrection is supposed to look like.  Over and over again, we are told to love.  The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God because they love one another.  They are unified in their love, in the strength of their relationship.  In the same way, God loves us, and we are united with God through that love, which is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And as we have seen the example of God’s love, so we are supposed to live that love out, and love one another, and be unified in that love.

And this love is not just a surface-level platitude.  No.  It’s something much deeper than that.  This is a love based on knowing people, warts and all, and loving them and still holding them accountable for their actions.  Jesus loved and forgave everyone … but he never swept anybody’s sins under the table or pretended they didn’t matter.  Jesus’ love transformed people, it didn’t pretend they were already perfect.  This is a love based on service and self-sacrifice.  Jesus demonstrated that love on the night before his death by washing his disciples’ feet, and he demonstrated that love again when he sacrificed himself to save the whole world.  And that sacrifice wasn’t designed to cover up the sins of the world.  No; it was designed to expose them so that transformation and new life might be possible.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, that great sacrifice of love, was what made possible the new creation that Revelation talks about.

In that new creation, all are welcome and all are one.  There is unity, but it is based on love and healing, not on sweeping problems under the rug.  All are welcome, and all are called, but you have to admit your sins and let Christ make you clean before you can eat of the fruit of the tree of life and experience its healing.  There is no test to see if you have the correct understanding; nobody is thrown under the bus so that other people can pretend everything is fine.  Instead, there is honesty and cooperation and healing.  Most of all, there is love.  God’s love for God’s own self, and God’s love for all people and all creation, and all peoples’ love of God, and all peoples’ love of each other.

If we are truly living according to God’s love in the here and now, unity will come.  Not easily, and not quickly.  Christ’s unity will come because we are working together to heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable and feed the hungry and free the prisoner and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  Christ’s unity will come because we will find that the love of God is stronger than any of the forces that tear us apart.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn how to be honest with one another, repenting our own faults and holding others accountable to do the same.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn to respect honest and good people even when they are different from us and disagree with us.  And if that unity does not come in this world despite our best efforts, we know that it will come in the next.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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.

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

Amen.

On Unclean Spirits

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28

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.

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism.  Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism.  Nobody here has seen one.  Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit.  And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon.  I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life.  And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead.  No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends.  That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them.  Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.

There’s two problems with that.  The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons.  And, I mean, we believe in spirits.  It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity.  That is absolutely not up for debate.  And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too.  Un-holy ones.  Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones.  Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.

Consider the liturgy we use in baptism.  It’s ancient.  Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity.  Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same.  Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does.  And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits.  “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”  If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it.  If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite.  There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around.  We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.

There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it.  But before you start meditating, you pray.  And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by.  You want to open to the Holy Spirit.  Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is.  I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.

The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible.  See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him.  This guy seems like a normal guy.  He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He’s a member of the congregation.  Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside.  This guy isn’t.  So his friends and family probably think he’s fine.  They probably think he’s normal, ordinary.  He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed.  Except Jesus.

I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.  I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed.  But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires.  For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another.  But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves.  Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all.  Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot.  You know the type.  The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts.  Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly.  If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.

I wonder what the man who was possessed thought.  I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting.  But even more, I wonder if he even knew.  If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.”  And that may be the scariest thing of all.

Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit.  But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today?  I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more.  He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave.  And yet, we are not alone.  We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us.  In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives.  Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior.  We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage.  But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own.  I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them.  But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What Forgiveness Looks Like

Lent Wednesday Worship 2017

 

Ezekiel 18:25-32, Psalm 103:6-14, Ephesians 4:25-32

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

 

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

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

Of course we all know that Christians should forgive, and we all know that God forgives.  This is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.  But when you start looking at what that looks like in practice, well, then things get a little murky.  Because in practice, we don’t always agree on what that looks like.  Is there something special you have to do or say to be forgiven?  Do you have to stop doing the sin?  And what if it’s an addiction or caused by a mental illness, and you can’t stop?  Or what if people don’t believe you’ve stopped?  Or what if you are sincere in your desire to change, and backslide anyway?  Some people would say that everything can be forgiven and there are no requirements.  Take that too far, and you get kind of a loosey-goosey nothing matters anything goes world.  Nothing matters because anything can and will get forgiven and swept under the rug.  On the other hand, some people would say that there are things that can’t be forgiven, and that there are pre-requisites to being forgiven, which quickly sets us up as judge, jury, and executioner.  Forgiveness becomes something you earn, instead of a gift given from God, and the world is divided up into “good” people who deserve forgiveness and “bad” people who don’t, and then you can do anything to the “bad” people because after all, they deserve whatever they get.  Forgiveness is a great principle, but in practice it gets very messy.

Part of the problem comes with the phrase “forgive and forget,” where once something is forgiven you’re supposed pretend it never happened.  But no matter how hard you pretend, it still happened.  Hurt was done.  Pretending doesn’t make it not have happened.  For example, if someone gets drunk and then gets behind the wheel of a car and hits someone on their way home, and kills them and totals their car, forgiving them doesn’t mean it never happened.  The victim is still dead.  The car is still totaled.  The consequences still exist—not just consequences for the person who drove drunk, but for a lot of other people.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean the consequences go away.  So what does it mean?

I think the first thing to remember is that we are not God, and this is not heaven.  We forgive because we have ourselves been forgiven and we have the example in Jesus’ love, but we don’t forgive in the same way God does.  God removes our sins from us—but we can’t remove other peoples’ sins from them.  God heals us and heals the world, and when Christ comes again all the things in ourselves and in the universe that are broken now will be healed and made better than they ever have been before.  That’s what God’s kingdom is: a place where everything and everyone is healed and whole and there is no pain or suffering.  And God’s forgiveness is an important part of what heals the world.  But we don’t live there yet, and while we can make this world better than it is we can’t make it as good as it will be when Christ comes again.  Our forgiveness and our capacity for healing are, in this world, finite.  So what does it mean to forgive in this world where consequences continue even after forgiveness, and healing can only go so far?

We forgive because God has forgiven us.  We love because God loves us, and taught us what true love really means through the life, death, and resurrection of his son.  God’s goal for us—for each one of us as individuals, for us as a community, for humanity as a whole, and for the entire cosmos—is to be made whole and life full and abundant lives.  God does not want us to be broken.  God does not want us to be in pain.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  But we turn away.  We hurt ourselves and others.  We break things, and people, and communities, and the fractures spread further than we know.  The easy thing to do is to respond in kind: to return pain for pain, evil for evil, hurt for hurt.  And if we can’t get back at the one who hurt us, well, surely we can find someone else to dump our pain on, until it becomes routine.  Until anger and fear and hate and resentment and malice and selfishness guide how we see the world, and each step takes us and our community further away from God’s love and abundant life.

The only way to turn away from that path—the only way to turn back towards the abundant life God gives—is forgiveness.  Not as a way of pretending the evil didn’t happen, not as a way of sweeping things under the rug, but as a way of guiding our own actions.  We can’t control other people.  All we can do is guide how we respond.  Are we going to be cruel, or kind?  Are we going to add to the pain in the world or, so far as it depends on us, bring healing?  Are we going to tear down or build up?

I know a number of people who were abused as children.  In some cases it was simple neglect.  In others, complex emotional manipulation.  In others, physical abuse.  There are a lot of reasons for it: some of the abusers had been abused as children themselves and just didn’t know healthy ways of treating their children.  Other abusive parents just didn’t want children in the first place and probably should never have had them.  Other abusers were just plain cruel, or self-centered, or in a few cases had untreated mental illness.  And our society hates to admit that sometimes people abuse or neglect children in their care.  We assume it can’t be true unless there is incredibly blatant evidence hitting us in the face that can’t possibly be explained away any other way.  And so, most of the time, we blame the victim.  They must just be a bad kid.  And how ungrateful they are that they don’t want to spend time with their parents!

The abuse survivors have to live with the consequences of others’ actions: not just the actions of the abusers, but of everyone around who looked away or assumed that everything was fine.  Years of trauma that have caused anxiety, PTSD, and a variety of psychological problems.  Many of them—quite justifiably—hate and fear the ones who harmed them so deeply.    People say, “oh, you should forgive them and mend your relationship!”  But if the abuser continues the same behaviors, there is no way to mend the relationship without opening the door to further abuse.  Even when the abuser really has changed, the damage done may be great enough that no relationship in this life could ever be healthy.  So the most loving thing to do may be to say “I forgive that person.  I don’t hold any bitterness about their actions in my heart, I’m not brooding over what they did to me, but I can’t be around them.”  The most loving and forgiving thing may be a clean break that allows people new space to grow in.  It’s not necessarily “nice,” and it certainly isn’t forgetting what has been done.  But it is a way that opens space for building up new lives, new hopes, new grace.

God loves us always, unconditionally.  But God hates the way we hurt ourselves and each other.  Through our actions and inactions, we add to the pain in the world, the suffering, the malice, the grief.  There will come a day when all that is broken will be made whole, when all pain and suffering will be healed, when all tears are wiped away.  That day will come when Christ comes again.  Until that time, we are called to live in love and forgiveness.  We can’t fix all the broken things, but we can open up space for love and kindness to grow.  Even when a relationship can’t be repaired, we don’t have to carry the bitterness with us in our hearts.  Sometimes forgiveness means trying again; sometimes forgiveness means learning to move on.

Amen.

 

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The People We Don’t See

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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

 

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

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

There are a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely.  But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities.  Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.

One of the reasons for this is obvious.  After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer.  Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing?  Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them?  We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life.  Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be.  And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now.  And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.

But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community.  Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!”  Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!”  As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure.  And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us.  Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs.  Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault.  If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen.  If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured.  If, if, if.

One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind.  He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured.  The professor agreed.  And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed.  But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed.  Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps.  But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith.  In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer.  The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else.  He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.

In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading.  He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be.  He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem.  No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it.  She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath.  The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  He looked at her and saw a problem.

But you know what?  I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either.  Eighteen years.  That’s a long time.  In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her?  Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened?  Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her?  Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life?  Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life?  Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences?  Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in?  Had he ever been a friend to her and her family?  Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult?  And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her?  Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity?  I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.

Too often, we act like the Pharisee.  We don’t see people with disabilities, not really.  They’re problems to be solved.  Or, better yet, ignored.  If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help?  How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it?  How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives?  How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God?  There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved.  It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing.  It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.

And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer.  We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God.  We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family.  We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie.  And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.

This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.”  But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder.  Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough.  My disability is often invisible.  It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t.  But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges.  It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God!  We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not.  We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others.  And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He knew her.  And when he saw her, he healed her.  We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly.  And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change.  But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome.  We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children.  May we learn to do so.

Amen.