Being Part of the Community

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Power and Equality

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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.

Philemon is my favorite book of the Bible.  We get such a clear view of Paul’s personality, here, as he guilt-trips Philemon into doing the right thing.  I can imagine the scene so clearly: Philemon’s church gathered to hear the letter, all of them knowing all the dirty gossip about the fight between Philemon and Onesimus, and waiting to hear what Paul’s take on it is.  All of them knowing that Roman law and custom was firmly on Philemon’s side.  Philemon’s pride at the first section, as Paul buttered him up, only to become chagrined and flustered as Paul pulls the rug right out from under him, but not being able to respond.

Then there’s the connection with American history.  Like the early United States, the Roman Empire was a slave state, whose entire economy depended on the enslavement of a huge percentage of its population.  This year marks the 400th Anniversary of slavery in America; the first African slaves arrived in August of 1619.  Slavery was legal in America for longer than it was forbidden.  And the effects linger on, in policies and community standards that seem innocent on the surface.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the Civil Rights Era had fixed all the racial problems in America.  We teach our children a history in which the evils of slavery are minimized and excused, and so is all the discrimination and oppression that followed it, and yet that’s not true.  Our criminal justice system treats people of color far differently than it does white people.  For example, average illegal drug use is the same in both the White and Black communities, and yet Black drug users are seven times more likely to be arrested and put in prison than White drug users.  And convicted prisoners are the one group of people that it is legal to force to work for little or no pay; they are specifically exempted from the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.  Thousands of companies across America contract with prisons to use their prisoners—mostly people of color—as slave labor.  In states that still have the death penalty, the most crucial factor deciding whether you will be sentenced to death or to life in prison is not the severity of your crime, but the color of your skin.

And it’s not just the legal system, it’s our whole society.  About a decade ago, a documentary on race in America staged an experiment.  They found two average, nice, ordinary, mostly-white suburbs in areas not known for being especially racist.  And then they had two groups of teens—one White, one Black—purposefully vandalize and destroy a parked car.  And they waited to see how many people called the cops.  Nobody called the police on the White kids, but there were many calls to the police about the Black kids.  More than that, the Black kids had some friends of theirs waiting a few streets away for them to be done, and concerned White citizens called the cops on those kids who were quietly sitting in a parked car and talking to one another.  They believed Black kids sitting and talking quietly is more threatening and criminal than White kids actively vandalizing things.  I could go on and on with story after story, but I would never come to the end of such stories.  We may ignore the question of slavery and our nation’s history with it, but it is baked into our nation’s bones.

None of us were alive when that terrible institution was outlawed, and yet we are all affected by its legacy, despite the ways we as a society have chosen to ignore it.  And the ELCA is the whitest Christian denomination in the US—that is, we have the lowest percentage of people of color in our membership of any denomination.  The legacy of slavery and racism is not something we can or should ignore.  It’s easy to look back at the crimes of our ancestors and think, “if I were alive back then, surely I would have been an abolitionist.  Surely I would have spoken up about slavery and worked to bring it down.”  But that’s not a very relevant question, is it?  The question is, when we look at the world around us and see the ways in which slavery’s ugly legacy still holds sway, when we see how racism affects so many things in our society and in our community, what will we do now?  What will guide our response?  Will we shrug and say, well, it’s not that bad, surely, and it’s always been this way?  Will we go with the trendiest response and follow the crowd, whichever way the crowd happens to be going at any particular time?  Or will we ask what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do?

That’s a question Paul was wondering about, as he wrote this letter.  The Roman Empire had no anti-slavery advocates.  Slavery was part of the way the universe worked: some people were rich, and some people were slaves.  Like people today, people in the ancient world accepted the world they knew as normal, the way things should be.  And then God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus and Paul saw the grace and mercy of Christ, the Good News of the Gospel, and all Paul’s old certainties turned upside down and inside out.  Paul had learned that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  How do you reconcile that with a world that values some people more than others?  If we are all siblings in Christ—if that identity trumps and subsumes all the other identities human beings make for one another—how do you deal with the realities of a world which gives some people every advantage at the expense of degrading and oppressing others?  And what do you do when you turn around and look at all the things around you that you’ve always thought were normal … and realize that they are contrary to the Gospel?

That’s what Paul’s dealing with, in this letter, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot like the world we live in today.  In the last couple of decades, a lot of our old comfortable certainties about how the world works and how the world should work have been challenged, leaving Christians scrambling to figure out what a faithful response is.  Not just on race, but in other areas, too.  Gender, sexuality, so many old certainties are in question.  We have been very comfortable ignoring anything we didn’t like, and the voices of those who have been at the bottom of the social ladder.  But now we can’t do that anymore.  Those voices we’ve hushed up or ignored for so long are louder than ever, and we as faithful Christians have to figure out how to respond.  And, as faithful Christians, the first place we should turn should be the words of Scripture.  So how did Paul handle it?

Paul focused on the people involved, the one who had been enslaved and the one who had enslaved him, and responded to both with love and encouragement.  At the time, Christianity was just a tiny portion of society; Paul had no influence over the larger world.  He couldn’t work for the overturning of the whole institution, but he could take action in the little world of the Christian community.  He told Philemon to free Onesimus, but that in itself wasn’t enough.  Roman society had a whole system for how to treat freed slaves: they still were legally subordinate to their former master.  No, Paul said, Onesimus should be your brother.  No matter what society says you should do, no matter what your friends think of you for doing something different, your former slave should be your brother, your equal, not your subordinate.  Whatever the disagreements between the two, whatever Philemon thought about Onesimus, however Philemon had treated Onesimus up until that point, whatever had been the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted Onesimus to flee, that was over.  Done.

And it wasn’t up to Onesimus to bridge the gap, it was up to Philemon.  Philemon was to welcome him back as a brother.  Family.  An equal.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions and experiences mattered.  That was to be the basis of their relationship going forward, and that was the basis on which Onesimus was to return.  Not as a subordinate, or charity case, or someone to be condescended to.  An equal.  A beloved brother.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions mattered.  And Paul was willing to use every rhetorical trick and every ounce of manipulation and pressure he could pull out to see that it happened.  It was hard, it was difficult, it went against everything the world around them would have taught them to do—and it was also essential to the health and life of the community of faith.  Because otherwise, all Paul’s words about the Gospel, about the love and grace of God, would be just that: words.  Pretty words, but empty rhetoric.

Like Paul we believe that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  Our world is better on all those issues than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, but still falls far short—and it’s easy for people who aren’t at the bottom to close our eyes to just how much we still fall short.  Christianity has more power than it did in Paul’s day, but far less than we did a few decades ago.  We can’t fix society single-handed, but we can work to make our community reflect the mutual love and respect and equality of the Gospel.  We can work to treat all people like brothers and sisters worthy of respect … including the people our culture would tell us to treat as less than we are.  This is what God calls us to do: may we treat all of God’s children, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, with the love and equality God calls us to.

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Lamb Who Was Slain

Easter 3, Year C, May 5, 2019

Acts 6:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

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

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

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

I have had music going through my brain all week.  And it’s all the fault of our Revelation reading.  First there’s the Handel: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.  Then is the Hymn of Praise from setting ten: Come, let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne; ten thousand thousand are their tongues, but all their joys are one.  But then again, the Hymn of Praise in most liturgies quote this passage: Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.  Not to mention the hymns and songs.  Did you know that Revelation is one of the most popular books of Scripture for Christian songwriters to draw on?  The only books that are used in more hymns are the Gospels and the Psalms.  In the ELW, there are 91 hymns that quote or reference the book of Revelation.  And this passage is one of the more popular.

Remember how I talked last week about how Revelation is actually a book of great hope, a book designed to give comfort in times of trouble?  A book designed to encourage Christians who live in troubled or dangerous times, that no matter how scary or dangerous or sinful or broken or evil the world seems, God will triumph and destroy evil and purify sin and re-create the whole world.  Well, hymn-writers and song-writers have known that for a long time.  The book keeps circling around through the evils of the world that God is working to fight, and then returning to God’s kingdom to show us a foretaste of the joy and hope that God brings.  This does two things: first, it is a foretaste of the feast to come, and second, it shows us how to rejoice and worship God and trust in God’s power and mercy even in the midst of turbulent and difficult times.  Because no matter how troubling things get, God is always with us.

That’s true of this particular passage and many others in Revelation, some of which we’ll be reading over the next few weeks.  But this particular passage has a message all its own about the one whom we worship.  The thing about this passage that we don’t notice that people back when it was written would have spotted immediately is that it’s intensely political.  See, in those days whenever some great leader—the Emperor, a noted general, whoever—came to a major city they’d have a big celebration like this.  Especially if they’d just won some battle or other.  The celebration was called a triumph.  And everyone in the city and outlying areas would gather around the one being honored, and they’d bow low in homage, and they’d sing songs of praise to the great leader, and they’d wish them blessing and honor and wealth and power and wisdom, and they’d say how worthy they were of all the honors and accolades being heaped on their heads.  It was the ultimate in ego-stroking, but it was also a power-move for the one being honored: if you were given a triumph, you were one of the absolute cream of the crop, the most important people in the Empire.  You were a force to be reckoned with.  Emperors and victorious generals got triumphs; and many generals throughout Roman history used a triumph as the springboard to overthrow the Emperor and place themselves on the throne.  They were serious business.

And notice that the one receiving the triumph in our reading is not the Emperor, and he is not a general.  He never fought a battle in his life.  In fact, the one time he came face-to-face with any serious violence, he died.  He died an agonizing and humiliating death.  He was not a brave, cunning warrior who slaughtered his enemies and brought wealth and glory back to the empire.  He was a nobody, a victim.  By the standards of the world, he was absolutely worthless.  And this passage doesn’t try to hide that.  In fact, it revels in that fact.  It doesn’t refer to Jesus by name, but calls him “the lamb that was slain.”  Most people of the day would have been deeply offended, because a slaughtered lamb is not what power looks like.  A minor traveling preacher from a poor backwater, who got on the wrong side of powerful people and got himself killed because of it, is not what power looks like.  At least, not according to the world’s standards.

And yet, it is part of the Christian mystery that the power of God does not look like what we expect.  The power of God is not found in the might of empires or emperors or armies or generals or political leaders or rich people or industry or beautiful buildings.  The power of God is not found in the bright, shiny, perfect-looking people we take as our role-models and idolize.  The power of God is not found in imposing buildings or mighty armies or huge bank accounts.  The power of God is not found in winners.

The power of God is found in the victim.  The lamb that was slain.  The one who was tortured and suffered and died.  The power of God is found in the loser.  And that is a truth that we give lip service to today, but deep down even most Christians find it offensive.  We are more like the ancient Romans than we would like to admit.  We still look at worldly power and might—at the ability and resources and willingness to make other people to do what you want—and assume that that’s the goal, that’s the right.  Luther called that a theology of glory.  We look at the world’s glory, at the people who win by the world’s standards, and assume that it’s good.  After all, it’s got so much going for it!  If it looks good, it must be good.  If it’s winning, it must be right.  If it brings power and wealth, it must be the way God wants the world to be.  And therefore if people suffer—if people are poor, or sick, or abused, or oppressed—it must be their own fault and they must deserve it.

Problem is, that’s not what the Bible shows us.  The Bible shows us a God who repeatedly hears and saves those who are weakest, those who are lost, those whom the world has chewed up and spit out.  The Bible shows us a God who is most truly present in Jesus Christ, who was not born to wealth and power but born in poverty and obscurity, who suffered and died on the cross to save the world.  That’s the most powerful act in the whole Bible.  That’s the thing that turns the whole universe on its head.  That’s the reason we are here today: God took the thing we humans thought was the weakest, most disgusting, most shameful thing imaginable, and used it as an instrument of his power to save the world.  God took death itself and turned it into life.  When we recognize this, we have what Luther called a theology of the cross: if God works through the despised, the wretched, the disgusting, the shameful, the painful, and the horrifying, then we should look for God in the places today that we find shameful, or horrifying, or painful, or weak.  Because we know God will be there.  God will be there giving strength and bringing life and healing even in the midst of death itself.  If God can work through the cross, if God can use God’s own death and resurrection to transform the world, then there is no place too shady or too sinful or too broken for God to work in.

We do not see with the world’s eyes.  We do not see God’s power in physical might or worldly power, but rather in the Lamb who was Slain.  We see God’s power at work in the cross, in every place where people suffer, working to bring healing and life even in a world filled with death and destruction.   And it is that self-sacrifice that we honor, that great love that makes Jesus worthy to receive honor and glory and power and might.  Wars and politics and wealth don’t make anyone truly great, in the eyes of God; only love and service can do that.  And that is why we worship Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, who sacrificed himself for the salvation and healing of the universe.  Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever.

Amen.

 

Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Marriage and Hard Hearts

Lectionary 27B, October 7, 2018

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

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.

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  The thing about this verse is that there are at least two things that don’t translate very well into English, or are misleading.  First is the word “helper.”  In English, that word gives us the impression that the helper is a subordinate.  Think of children helping their parents, or an aide helping their superior.  But in Hebrew, the word doesn’t have that connotation.  In the Bible, “helper” is most often used to describe God.  God is our helper.  The word implies that the one who helps is a powerful person, not an underling or a subordinate.

Second is the word “partner.”  Partner, in English, is a word that is very businesslike and limited.  A business partnership is a contract between two or more people to accomplish a specific goal, like running a law firm together.  Outside of that one goal, the partners may not have anything to do with one another or care about one another.  But the Hebrew phrase implies a much deeper relationship, one that goes beyond than contracts and obligations.  If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one whom you just clicked with, who understood you on the deepest level, who would drop anything for you if you needed them and who you would do the same for, that’s what this verse means.  Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”

One thing the Bible is very clear on, from the beginning to the end, is that being human means being in relationship with others.  When we read this passage, we tend to focus on what it means for gender relations or for marriages, but the first thing we should remember is that it is not good for humans to be alone.  This is still in the garden of Eden, before the fall; sin has not yet entered the world.  Everything so far has been “good.”  The human’s aloneness is the first thing that is not good.  We were created in God’s image, and God is a relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three together.  In the same way, human beings were created to be in relationships.  And that’s why God split that first human being in two and created Adam and Eve.  And by “relationships” I don’t just mean romantic relationships, either.  Parent-child relationships.  Friendships.  Sibling relationships.  Neighborly relationships.  Mentorships.  These are all incredibly important to our spiritual well-being.  Good relationships help us grow and sustain us even in our darkest times.  But when sin intervenes—when our relationships are twisted or bad—they are incredibly damaging and make our lives measurably worse.  The Bible spends more time focusing on our relationships with other human beings, in all their variety, than it does focusing on our relationship with God.  Why?  Because God created us to be in relationship with other people.  And those relationships can do either great harm or great good.

Marriage is one of the most fundamental of those relationships.  It is the foundation, not just for the relationship between spouses but of a life together which may include children and which will affect every other relationship we have.  God wants that marriage to be a partnership in the Biblical sense, one that nourishes both spouses, in which both receive what they need and work together for their common good.  God intends that marriage should be faithful, that both spouses should be committed to one another in not just body but mind and heart, too.  There’s a reason that adultery is the only sexual sin mentioned in the Ten Commandments.  It’s a betrayal of the relationship and of the faith the spouses place in one another.  God intends marriage to be a thing that gives joy and helps both spouses to grow in faith and love, which gives support in time of trouble.

And that’s not an easy thing to maintain!  We don’t live in the garden of Eden anymore.  Even in the best marriage, there are going to be times when things don’t work right.  Times when one or both spouses is selfish or self-centered, times when they do things that hurt their spouse, times when anger or fear or jealousy or indifference lead to words or actions that break down the relationship, or hurt one another.  Or sometimes they take it for granted that the help should only be going one way, and what should be mutual support and partnership turns into one taking advantage of the other.  None of these things are what God intends marriage to be.  And they all hurt.  And it’s a hard thing to recover from; it’s hard to fix the problems and build a good and life-giving relationship back up.  I’ve never been married myself, but I’ve seen it in friends and family and parishioners.  It is hard work, but can be so rewarding if both spouses are willing to honestly do their best to build a better relationship.

But sometimes, one or both spouses isn’t willing to put in the hard work to build a better relationship.  Sometimes they like taking advantage of their spouse.  Sometimes they like hurting their spouse.  Sometimes they don’t like hurting their spouse, but don’t care enough about it to change the things in them that lead them to hurt their spouse.  Sometimes they like using their spouse as an emotional or physical punching bag, someone to blame and attack when things go wrong.  Sometimes they decide that desiring someone else means it’s okay to be unfaithful.  Sometimes they want to trade their spouse in for a younger model.  Sometimes there are other problems.  All these things are caused by a hardness of heart.  And, if they go on long enough, they can cause SERIOUS damage, not just to the relationship, but the people in it.  And when that happens, it is a perversion of God’s good gift of marriage.

Every society throughout history has struggled with this problem.  What do you do when human hard-heartedness pervert’s God’s good gift of marriage?  What do you do when a relationship that is supposed to be life-giving and supportive turns destructive?  What do you do when one or both spouses either can’t or won’t put in the work to get the relationship to a healthier state?  If you make divorce hard, you trap people in destructive mockeries of what marriage is supposed to be.  If you make divorce easy, then people in destructive or abusive relationships can escape them … but some people who could heal the problems in their marriage if they put in the effort will decide they simply don’t want to do the hard work, and walk away from their marriage.  Where do you draw the line?  What about relationships where it’s not abusive, but it’s not the mutually supportive relationship God intended?  What about when there are children?  What about when one spouse—usually the wife—has no resources to live on if they divorce?  Human beings, and human relationships, are complicated.  These are not easy calls to make, and there is no hard-and-fast one-size-fits-all rule that everyone can agree on.

Which is why the Pharisees asked about divorce when they were looking to test Jesus.  They don’t like him and they’re looking for a way to discredit him.  So they choose a topic which has lots of debate about it, which has far-reaching implications.  No matter what he says, somebody’s going to be offended.  If he says divorce is legal, they can crow about how he’s not following God’s law.  If he says divorce is illegal, they can crow about how he’s not following Moses’ law, and has no compassion to boot.

Jesus responds by pointing out the flaw in their argument.  If a relationship is to a point where divorce is being thought of, it’s already a violation of God’s good gift.  God gave marriage to be a support and a help and a partnership, a nurturing relationship in which a couple can depend on each other and trust one another to be there for them and help them grow.  If one or both spouses is contemplating divorce … there’s already a problem, whether or not a divorce actually results.  And if they want a divorce not because their relationship is damaging, but simply because the grass is greener on the other side, well, they’re going to leave a lot of damage in their wake.  But whatever the reasons, the ultimate problem is not the divorce itself, but the hard-heartedness that leads to it.  Divorce is one of the things that can happen when human sin and hardness of heart corrupt a marriage.

God gave marriage for a reason.  To be a supporting relationship that will help people grow strong and healthy.  Marriage—a good, healthy, mutually-supporting relationship—can be a great gift from God, one that takes hard work to maintain.  But we humans are hard of heart, and sometimes we turn marriage into something unhealthy, something that is nothing like what God created marriage to be.  We give thanks to God for all good and life-giving relationships.  And where heard-heartedness breaks or corrupts relationships, we pray for the safety, the healing, and the recovery of those who have been hurt by it.

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.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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.

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross, October 22, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, Psalm 9:7-18, Mark 15:33-39

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 there was this centurion, a Roman soldier, one of many occupying Jerusalem.  Like all the Roman soldiers, he was there to do what the Romans called “maintaining order,” but which really mean keeping the boot on the neck of the Jews so that they would never get any funny ideas about freedom or anything like that.  His job was to protect Roman interests, keep their puppet Herod on the throne despite how much his own people hated him, and kill anyone who protested the established order.

One of the people he killed, or helped to kill, was a guy named Jesus of Nazareth.  Now, Jesus had the rare distinction of being counted a threat to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities.  And he was crucified, which was about the cruelest way the Roman Empire knew how to kill someone.  It was gruesome, bloody, and horrifying, and it took a long time.  Days, sometimes, if the so-called criminal was really healthy to begin with.  Jesus died in just a few hours.  And the centurion was there for every bloody, agonizing minute of it.  Just as he’d been there for the executions of other bandits, freedom-fighters, protestors, and anyone else who dared to oppose Rome.  And the centurion, he looks up at the mutilated corpse of this backwater preacher who was executed for the crime of daring to speak out against the way the world works, and this centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son!”

Really?  We know he was right, of course, but be honest with yourself: if you didn’t already know that that’s how Jesus died, if you had been there on that day two thousand years ago and been told “somewhere in this crowd is God made flesh and come to live among us,” would you pick the criminal who was brutally executed for disturbing the peace as the one?  Really?  I don’t think so.  Very few people, then or now, agreed with him.  I mean, the vast majority of both Jews and Gentiles for the next several centuries looked at Christians and said, “you want me to believe that God came to earth and suffered?  He died?  How weak is that.”  It makes no sense.  The cross of Christ was a stumbling block and a foolishness to most people.  And even after Christianity became the dominant religion, most Christians never stop to think what it really means that Jesus died on a cross.  We talk about the power of God, the might of God, but not the weakness of God.  Not the pain of God.

There’s a saying that Americans love an underdog, but that’s only partially true.  We like winners.  If an underdog wins, great!  That makes their victory all the sweeter.  But it’s a general human trait to be attracted to power, to justify power, to assume that power and glory and beauty means goodness.  We want stories in which the good guys win.  We want stories in which bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people … and so, in real life, when bad things happen to someone we try and find some reason they deserved it.  Especially if they’re poor, or different than us.  We want to believe that what happened to them could never happen to us because we are good people and we don’t deserve bad things.  We want to rejoice in the star quarterback’s skills, we don’t want to hear about how he beats his girlfriend.  We want to look up to that prosperous businessman, we don’t want to hear about how he cheated his partners or his customers or his contractors, and we don’t want to hear how he abused his employees.  We want to support and honor our police officers, not hear about the bad apples who use their power to bully and hurt people.  We want to hear stories in which everybody sees evil for what it is, good triumphs over evil, and evil gets its just deserts.  We don’t want stories where the bad guys lose, and we especially don’t want stories where most people don’t even recognize evil for what it is.  Yet that’s the story of Jesus’ death: a good man challenges evil where he finds it, and gets roundly condemned by most people around him, and gets killed, and the empire that put him to death goes on about its way unchanged and victorious for centuries afterwards.

As Christians, this is something that’s very hard to come to terms with.  Our savior—God made flesh—was not a hero.  He didn’t have a heroic Hollywood victory.  He died in pain and agony.  And that’s what God came to earth to do.  He came to earth in the last place anybody would think to look.  He didn’t choose to be born as a prince, and he didn’t choose to amass earthly power or wealth.  In fact, when he talked about power or wealth, he was pretty much always critical of it and of the people who had it.  He didn’t raise an army, he didn’t create a new government, he didn’t make a big splash—only a handful of people in the entire world remembered him when he was gone, although he transformed their lives and their telling of his story transformed others.  All the glory, all the wealth and power and control of society, all of that came later.  What came first, was death.  Death on the cross.

Our God comes to us in the form of a crucified man, a man who suffered and died.  God could have become human anywhere in any place and time, and he chose to be born as a poor man and get killed?  What does that tell us about God?

Well, it tells us that the best place to find God is in the last place a sane person would look.  In pain and suffering.  The cross is God saying “no” to power, “no” to wealth, “no” to greed, “no” to ambition.  The cross is God saying “you know all those things you humans care about and worship?  All the glory and feel-good self-justification?  They’re all wrong.”  The cross is God taking the established order, the way we think the world is meant to be, and turning everything on its head.

The cross is God saying “yes” to all those who are abandoned and abused.  God says yes to the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion, and so God says yes to those who are suffering now.  God will be present when you suffer.  God goes to places of hell on earth, the places where we are afraid to go, even the hells we create for ourselves, and sets us free.  And if, in that moment, freedom or physical salvation is not possible, God stays there, in the midst of suffering and evil.  It’s not that it’s okay that people suffer, but that God will not abandon those who do.

When we focus on the cross, when we remember that God is always with those who suffer, those whom the world abandons, it changes our perspective on God, and it changes our perspective on the world.  When you focus on the cross, on the God who is present even in the most hellish experiences the world has to offer, we call that a theology of the cross.  When you forget that, when you focus on power and glory and miracles and all the nice lies we tell ourselves about bad things only happening to bad people, that’s called a theology of glory.  And Martin Luther used to say that the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross is that a theology of glory calls evil ‘good’ and it good ‘evil.’  A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Let me give you an example of the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and what they look like in practice.  Let’s go back to that centurion at the beginning.  The Roman Empire had a theology of glory.  See, the Roman Empire was big and powerful and mighty, and the Roman Empire enforced a peace across its boundaries, the Pax Romana.  It was prosperous: it built great buildings and great engineering products, it brought water to cities in the desert, it did so many great and wonderful things.  The Emperor was called the “savior of the world.”  They put that on their money: Caesar, Savior.  That’s a theology of glory, to look at all the wonderful things they did and focus only on the good.  A theology of the cross looks at that and asks the question: how did they accomplish all of it?  And they answer is death and destruction and slavery.  They established peace by slaughtering anyone who disagreed with them, and they built all of that stuff with slave labor.  They had more slaves per capita than any society in the world until the 19th Century of the American South.  A theology of Glory looks at the peace and the beautiful surface and goes “wow, isn’t that great.”  A Theology of the Cross looks at the cost, all the lives shattered and destroyed to build that empire.

Or how about Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and 40s, most Christians in Germany supported Hitler.  Sure, he had a lot of hate-filled rhetoric, and sure, he established concentration camps where millions of people were slaughtered, but at the same time he was in favor of good, old-fashioned family values.  Honoring your parents, women staying at home.  He was very hard on people of different sexualities.  So Christians looked at him and said, “he’s a great guy, it doesn’t matter all the people who are dying because of his policies.  It doesn’t matter, the people getting marched away to concentration camps, because look at the nice society he is building.”  That’s a theology of glory.  A theology of the cross says all of those “family values” are worth nothing if they are built on the bones of the slaughtered.

Or how about the American Civil Rights era?  Many white people, including many white Christians, were absolutely against the Civil Rights marchers.  They were too disruptive, too much of a threat to the established civil society.  Even those who said “but they’ve got a good point!  They’ve been treated unjustly,” said “but they’re too militant about it, they’re too loud, they’re disrupting things.  They should be quiet and ask nicely and politely for the rights and privileges that have been denied them for centuries.”

Or how about the movie last year called Birth of a Nation, about an enslaved Baptist preacher named Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in the early 1800s.  Now, if you watch many movies about the antebellum South or listen to people today talk about the Confederacy or Southern history, you will probably hear a lot about their proud heritage, the valiant and brave fighters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and states’ rights.  You probably will not hear much about the so-called ‘right’ they fought to protect, which was the right to own their fellow human beings.  Or they’ll admit it, but dance around it, or try and mitigate how bad it was.  This is a theology of glory, focusing on the glamour while ignoring the cost.  A theology of the cross reminds us that you can’t just ignore evil because it’s accomplishing things or done by people you otherwise admire.  In contrast to these other stories we tell of a glorious south, the 2016 movie Birth of a Nation shows in graphic detail just what slavery was like, how degrading and evil it was to black people, how it twisted and warped even good white people.  You cannot watch that movie and keep any illusions about slave-owning society.

And there is a question that keeps getting asked throughout that movie, at each horror.  Each time a black woman is raped by her owner, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slaves are tortured in horrifying ways to force them to work or to keep them from running away, people ask: “Where is God?”  When Nat is punished for baptizing a white man, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slave-owning Christians use the Christian faith to try and convince their slaves that God wants them to quietly accept as good all the evil that their masters do to them, people ask: “Where is God?”  And the movie’s answer to this question is twofold: first, that what happens is absolutely not God’s will.  None of the suffering, none of the pain, none of the horrors, none of the slavery.  These things are evil, and they are absolutely not God’s will.  And second, where is God in all of this?  God is with those who are suffering.  Even though their cause is hopeless, even though they all die in the end, even though the bad guys win, God is with Nat and his family and friends every step of the way.

A theology of glory gets blinded by power and wealth and beauty and glory.  A theology of the cross looks at the world from the point of view of those who suffer, and sees the consequences of human sin.  A theology of glory calls good ‘evil’ and evil ‘good,’ while a theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.  A theology of glory accepts Human justifications, while a theology of the cross sees the world from God’s point of view.  In every society, in every age, there is always a temptation to a theology of glory.  It makes sense to us.  It’s easier.  But it ignores God’s wisdom and presence in the world.  It ignores God’s will, and it ignores those who suffer.  A theology of the cross looks for God even in the darkest places.  A theology of the cross acknowledges the evil that humans do to one another, even when it’s people we otherwise might look up to.  A theology of the cross knows that God is there even when people suffer.  May we always see the world through God’s eyes, and through the perspective of the cross.  May we reach out to those who suffer, to see their pain and heal their wounds.

Amen.

Reformation 3: Saint and Sinner

Reformation 3, Saint and Sinner, October 8, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Psalm 51:1-12, John 20:19-23

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.

Martin Marty once said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Martin Luther would definitely have agreed.  And the main way God’s Word does this, in Luther’s view, is by reminding us that we are both saint and sinner.

We tend to want to divide the world up into good people and bad people.  In the common American world view, there are some people who are worthy and some people who aren’t.  Some people who deserve attention and praise and help when things go wrong, and others who don’t.  From a Christian point of view, we label these categories as “righteous” and “sinners.”  People who have lived good lives, chosen the right things, and been generally good, and those who haven’t.  Except things are a bit more complicated than that.  Nobody is purely good or purely bad; nobody is all one or all the other.  We are all saints—and we are all sinners.

Let’s define our terms here.  A “saint,” in the way the Bible uses the word, is someone who is holy in the eyes of God.  And a sinner is someone who has fallen short of what God expects of us.  And every single one of us has fallen short of what God expects of us.  We have all failed to be the good people he created us to be.  The only reason any of us are holy in the eyes of God is because of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.

There are some people who know just how screwed up they are.  There are some people who know just how much they fail.  There are some people who know they are sinners.  There are some people who know that they have hurt themselves and others.  There are some people who know that they are broken.  There are some people who know that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t measure up to where they should be.  All too often these people are not in church because they do not believe they are worthy.  I’ve talked to so many people who said, “well, if I came to church pastor, there’d be a lightning bolt before I got through the door.”  And they mean it as a joke, but there’s a core of truth to it: they believe that they are too broken, too much a sinner, for God to love.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is a comfort.  God loves you anyway, as broken as you are, and you are forgiven and loved and saved.  You are a saint of God.  And in that forgiveness, God is working to heal you and make you whole.  You don’t have to be afraid, you can leave your guilt and anxiety and fear and all your burdens, for Christ is working to reconcile you and all of creation.

But there are people who don’t need to hear that.  People who don’t need to hear the message of forgiveness, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven.  They believe they’re good, nice people, and that sin is always something other people do.  They hear of God’s judgment and they don’t quake in their boots, and it’s not because they trust in God’s mercy: it’s because they don’t believe they’ve done anything to need forgiveness in the first place.  Or, if they have, they count it as so minor as not to matter.  Because they’re good, nice, Christian people, so by definition anything they do is good, nice, and Christian.  I was once in a Bible study with a woman—a devout Christian, there every Sunday—who was really upset that we started each worship service with confession, because she didn’t think she had anything to confess.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is not supposed to be a comfort.  Because you are already too comfortable.  So comfortable that you cannot see your own flaws, your own sins, the way your own actions—and inactions—harm yourself, those around you, and the world.  This is, by the way, the sin of the Pharisees.  The sin of people who think they already have everything figured out, and so miss the very presence of God in their midst even as they claim to worship him.

If you are sitting there thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, then let’s stop for a bit and take a good hard look at what “sin” means in the lives of good, hardworking, ordinary people who’ve never killed anybody, never had an affair, and so on and so forth.  Let’s start with the Ten Commandments, shall we?  The first is that we are supposed to worship God alone, and nothing and no one else.  God is supposed to be the one in whom we put our trust.  God is supposed to be the one guiding our lives—not our co-pilot, but the pilot.  How many of us actually do that?  Not many.  A lot of good, Christian people put their trust in their money, or their ability to work hard, or their political party, or their own views of what is right and wrong, and then just assume that God approves of whatever they want him to.  And I’ve seen this happen on both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative both.  It’s really easy to see when people we disagree with do it; it’s a lot harder to recognize when we do it ourselves.  We create God in our own image, instead of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives to God.  And that’s sin.

Then there’s the commandment about adultery.  It is, by the way, the only commandment having to do with sex.  So you’d think we would count it as the most serious sexual sin, but how many people just shrug and say, “well, cheating isn’t so bad, everyone does it.”  Not to mention, when Jesus talked about adultery he talked about our own responsibility for how we look at other people sexually.  When you look at someone with lust, the proper response is to discipline your own heart and mind, not tell them what they should or shouldn’t wear.  It’s not about outer selves, it’s about how we think about others and how we treat them.  Sex should not be a commodity or a weapon or a toy, it should be about honest and healthy relationships of mutual trust and love.  And yet we splash sex all over the place, use it to sell things, treat people like nothing more than objects for our titillation.  Or we use the things people say or wear as justification for anything that happens to them.  “What did she expect, wearing a skirt that short?”  We treat others as things instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ.  And that’s sin.

How about “thou shalt not kill”?  Martin Luther had a lot to say about this commandment.  It’s not just about the actual act of murder, it’s about a lot more than that.  “God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and a refuge around our neighbors,” Luther said.  So we shouldn’t kill, and we shouldn’t allow others to kill.  But we also shouldn’t physically attack people, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so.  And we shouldn’t say things that encourage people to attack or to seek violent solutions, and we should speak up when others do so.  To quote Martin Luther again, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so.  If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death.  If you see anyone who is suffering hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve.”

As a society, we are doing a horrifyingly bad job of fulfilling this commandment.  And remember that in the Old Testament, God often does judge societies and communities as a whole.  Sin is about our individual actions, but it’s also about what we as a community accept as normal.  How do we, as a community and as a larger society, respond to challenges and needs?  Do we ensure that all people in our community are cared for and provided for, or do we allow others to slip through the cracks?  As a society, America is wealthier than it ever has been.  Yet over the last fifty years, as the total productivity and wealth of the nation have grown by leaps and bounds, the number of people who are not merely working class but really poor has also grown by leaps and bounds.  The percentage of people who are homeless in America has grown.  The percentage of people who are hungry in America has grown.  The percentage of people who lack medical care in America has grown.  We live in a land of plenty the likes of which the world has never seen before, and simply accept that people being sick and hungry and homeless is normal when we as a society have the resources to do something about it.  People die who did not have to, and none of us pulled the trigger, but we allowed the circumstances that caused it.  And that is sin.

Then there is the violence in our homes and schools and churches and public places.  We teach our young boys that crying is for girls, that real men aren’t afraid or nervous or shy or uncertain.  We teach our boys that the only manly emotion is anger.  And then we’re surprised when they grow up and take that anger out on their girlfriends, wives, and children.  And then we’re surprised when some of them take their anger out on crowds.  And we send our thoughts and prayers, and we rehash the same old tired arguments, and we don’t actually change anything, so that it keeps on happening.  And that is sin.

We are good, Christian people.  And we are sinners.  Hypocrites.  No matter how we justify ourselves, no matter how we close our eyes to the consequences of our actions and inactions, we are guilty.  God loves us, God saves us, God forgives us and makes us whole and holy, and yet while we live we keep messing up, we keep sinning, we keep mistaking our own prejudices and blindness for God’s will.  We are saints, and we are sinners.  Both at the same time.  When we are complacent, or blind, or hypocritical, then we need the law and judgment of God to show us the depths of our error, to afflict our consciences and drive us to God.  And when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the consequences of what we have done or allowed to happen, we need the comfort of God’s promise, the good news that God loves us and saves us and is reconciling the world.  We cannot pretend to be innocent, but we can never forget that we are forgiven.  The world is not divided into some people who are good and some people who are bad.  We are, all of us, both saint and sinner.  May we always recognize our sins, but trust in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness.

Amen.

Charlottesville: what comes out of a person

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 20

August 20, 2017

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-20

 

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

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

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

Most Jewish people, in ancient times and today, follow religiously-mandated dietary laws called kosher.  Kosher laws can be complicated, but they were also strict, and they set Jewish people apart from their neighbors.  These dietary regulations were commanded by God in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Some of them have to do with humane slaughter of animals.  Some have to do with avoiding foods that would spoil easily without refrigerators and thermometers.  Some are about cleanliness.  Some of them are cultural.  But all of them were and are important to Jewish people.  First, because God commanded them, and second, because they are a part of their culture.  Scandinavians eat Lutefisk.  Latinos eat tacos.  Italians eat pasta.  Jewish people eat kosher foods.

In Jesus’ day, this was especially important, because they had been conquered by a series of empires (the Roman Empire, most recently) that wanted them to stop being Jewish and become just like everyone else.  Keeping kosher was a way of saying to the oppressive Roman government that they were most certainly NOT going to give up their own ways just because the Emperor wanted to.  They were NOT going to stop eating kosher, and they were NOT going to stop circumcising their baby boys, and they ABSOLUTELY were NOT going to start worshipping Roman gods.  Period, end of story.  They were going to stay faithful to the one true God, no matter WHAT the larger culture tried to get them to do.  And part of that meant eating right.

It’s no wonder that a lot of people got mad when Jesus said that there were some things more important than keeping kosher.  He never says that it’s BAD, but that if you’re looking at what things are important parts of being faithful to God and living how God wants you to, the things you say and do are more important than the things you eat.  The things you put in your mouth—the things you eat and drink—aren’t as important as the things that come out of your mouth—the things you say, the things you think, the things you do.  If your heart and mind are corrupted, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating all the right things.  And if your heart and mind—and your words and actions—are in the right place, then how important is it, really, if you’re not eating right?  He never says that dietary concerns are bad or wrong, just that instead of policing what people eat, we should be paying attention to the sorts of things we ourselves are thinking, saying, and doing.  And people got mad at Jesus because of it.

Now, I bet some of you are sitting there shaking your heads over how crazy those Pharisees were to care so much about some silly dietary laws.  But have you considered modern gentile dietary rules?  Seriously?  All the different rules and diets and fads and things?  Organic, whole foods, raw foods, gluten-free, Vegetarian or vegan, GMO-free or GMO-laden, free-range vs. factory farms, low sodium, low fat, calorie counting, the whole shebang?  Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, detoxing cleanses, I could go on and on.  Some of them have good science or medical necessity behind them.  Some of them, like gluten free, are necessary for some people and not harmful for others.  Some of them have significant points both in their favor and against them.  Some of them can actually damage your health if you do them too long.  People defend their chosen food theory with religious fervor.  And there are often ugly racist or classist undertones to it, too.  For example, there are a LOT of articles and think pieces and blog posts out there about how OF COURSE poor people could afford to eat organic, or whole foods, or whatever other diet of choice the author recommends, if only they weren’t lazy.  A quick look at the prices of different foods in any grocery store will show just how wrong this is, but that doesn’t prevent people who’ve never been poor from spouting off about it.

When you compare them to our modern American gentile wackiness about food, Jewish kosher rules start to sound pretty reasonable.  I mean, at least their rules come from God and not from some quack trying to sell a product or get famous or set trends!  But at the same time, thinking about all of this makes Jesus’ point even clearer.  We spend A LOT of time and effort thinking about the right things to eat, and the things to avoid eating, and angsting over the right things to eat.  What would we be like if, instead, we put that time and effort and consideration into the things we say, or don’t say, and figuring out the right thing to say?  What if we stopped judging people by superficial things like what they eat, and started paying attention instead to what kind of a person their words and actions show them to be?

A week ago, Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville.  They waved torches and chanted Nazi slogans calling for the death of Jewish people, Black people, and any other people they didn’t like.  They did kill people, both cops and a counter-protestor.  Anybody who’s been paying attention for the last decade should not have been shocked.  White terrorism—where white supremacists use violence to try and intimidate or control people of color—has been on the rise.  White supremacist groups have gotten very good at recruiting people through internet forums and websites, indoctrinating them into their violent and evil beliefs.  And, for the most part, people have excused them.  “I’ve known him all my life, he’s a good person, he doesn’t really mean it,” they say.  Or, “well, maybe they shouldn’t have said that, they went too far, but maybe there was a little bit of truth hidden in there somewhere.”  It started out as talk, and ended with people dead.  And after members of their group murdered people, the leaders of the movement celebrated it!  They told their followers that it was a good thing, and that those who disagree are cowards and enemies!  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

With many of them, it probably started out half-joking, or just to shock people, or they didn’t really mean it and were only saying it because they joined a community where other people said it.  But when you say something long enough—when you listen to other people saying it long enough—you start to believe it, even when you know it’s not true.  This is how propaganda works.  They chose to listen to hate.  They chose to believe that other people were silent or making excuses for them because those other people agreed with them.  They chose to speak hate to one another and to others.  They chose to let it seep into their hearts and defile them.  And then they chose to act on it, and kill people.  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

I’ve heard other people say that the other side is just as bad.  But this is a false equivalence.  The Nazis and the Klansmen and the White Supremacists and all the other members of the so-called alt-right believe some people should be killed simply because they exist.  They believe, teach, and say, that Jewish people and Black people and others are not people and should not be allowed to exist.  There is a HUGE difference between saying that some people should be murdered simply for existing, and someone else responding that it is utterly unacceptable to say that.  And there’s also a HUGE difference between attacking anyone who is different, and standing up to those who attack others.  In legal terms, we have a right to free speech—but that right does not cover inciting violence.  And attacking someone as the Nazis did is illegal, but defending yourself or others is not.

On a moral and religious level, no one who spreads hate can call themselves a Christian.  In the creation story we learn that all people—of all races and tribes, male and female, every single human being who ever existed—is created in the image of God.  In the Old Testament laws, we are repeatedly commanded to ensure that the most vulnerable people—especially those who are different from us—are protected and receive just treatment, and failing to do that is the thing the Prophets were most often sent to chastise people for.  Jonah was sent to preach to a people he hated, but God reminded him that even Jonah’s enemies were God’s beloved people, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus healed all people, regardless of ethnicity; he preached to all, he ate with all, he loved all, he died for all.  And he told his disciples that the truest mark of a Christian is love.  Saint Paul tells us that all human divisions are irrelevant to God, and that without love, everything else is irrelevant.  Saint John tells us that love is the core of God’s nature, and that if we cannot love people we cannot love God.

All too often, people say things they know they shouldn’t, because everybody around is saying or doing it.  Or we stay silent when somebody else says or does something wrong.  It’s hard to speak up, particularly when it’s someone you know.  And we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter, because it’s just words.  But when we stay silent while others spread hate or violence, we are complicit in what they do.  We allow their hate to shape us.  We allow it to seep in to our hearts and minds, and then sometimes we start to believe.  And even when that doesn’t happen, when we stay silent or make excuses, other people think the hateful words that have been said are okay.  That hate is normal, or even good.

Words are important.  Words shape the way we think, which in turn shapes how we act and how we live. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  So watch your words.  Spread love.  Stand up when others spread hate.  Let the love of God that is in Christ Jesus live in your heart and mind.

Amen.

Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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.

This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season where we prepare for the coming of Christ among us.  On the most obvious level, we are preparing for Christmas, the day Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.  And so we sing Christmas carols and decorate the church and put on Christmas pageants.  But we are also preparing for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  As Christians, we live between the promise made with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fulfilling of that promise when Christ comes again.  Which is why our readings for this first Sunday of Advent  are about the adult Jesus telling his followers to be ready for him to come again, and the prophet Isaiah telling us what God’s kingdom to come will look like.

As I was reading and studying the texts for this Sunday, and listening to the news, I kept coming back to the first reading, and the image of the nations streaming up to the Lord’s house—all people from across the world coming to it and walking in God’s paths.  It’s such a beautiful image of what God’s kingdom will be like.  In fact, every time the Bible discusses who will be there, the various writers make the point that it will be all people, from every nation and tribe.  In other words, not just “us,” whoever “us” happens to be.  And that’s a crucial point: humans by nature like to divide people into categories and exclude those who aren’t like us.  We tell ourselves stories to justify why we’re good and they’re bad.  And then we only notice the things that fit those stories.  We are hyper-aware of differences, and those differences can’t just be differences—they are signs that we are better because there is a right way and a wrong way and obviously, we’re right and they are wrong.  This is something all humans of every continent, race, religion, and ethnicity are prone to do.  It comes and goes in waves, and right now there is a wave of racist thoughts and actions sweeping our country.  In the last few months, some North Dakotans have used the conflict over the pipeline as an excuse to harass and attack Native Americans.  In the last few months, some Americans have painted swastikas on Jewish homes and businesses.  In the last few months, the number of hate crimes against blacks and Latinos have escalated in this country have escalated.  In the last few weeks, neo-Nazis have held open rallies in American cities and an alt-right spokesman went on CNN to debate whether Jews were really people.  All of this traces back to the idea that some people matter more than others, that some people are better than others because of the group they were born into.  This is something humans do, in this broken, fallen, sinful world.  We look for reasons to hate and divide ourselves up and attack one another.

But it’s not something God does.  In fact, God spends significant time throughout the Bible combating that type of thought whenever it creeps up.  It starts out in the first chapter of Genesis when we are taught that all people—of all nations, all genders, everyone—was created in God’s image.  White, Black, Native American, Asian, Latino, everyone is a beloved child of God created in God’s own image.  And when God gave the law to Moses, God repeated many times throughout the law that outsiders should be protected, not condemned or ostracized.  And when the Israelites strayed from that teaching and discriminated against outsiders, God reacted.  For example, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites made laws forbidding their people from marrying non-Israelites, forcing divorces where such marriages already occurred, and throwing out any mixed-race children.  There were also laws forbidding non-Israelite participation in society.  But in that same period, two books were added to the Bible directly criticizing that.  The first, Ruth, tells the story of a foreigner—a pagan—who came to God and married an Israelite and became the grandmother of the great King David.  In the middle of prejudice and xenophobia, God sent God’s Word to tell a true story of a foreigner as an example of faithfulness, and to remind God’s people that David, their great hero of the faith, was himself of mixed-race.  The second book is Jonah, which tells the story of a prophet who was sent to proclaim God’s word Israel’s enemy, the city of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t want to go, but God forces him to.  The point of the story is that Israel’s enemies are just as much God’s children—just as beloved to God—as Israel was.

Jesus spent most of his time ministering among the Jews, but he also went to the Greeks and all the other ethnic groups in his area, and held no distinctions between them.  When his disciples tried to impose their society’s ethnic boundaries, Jesus rebuked them.  And when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, the first thing it did was give them the ability to preach to all sorts of different people in their own native tongues.  Why?  Because God loves all people of every land, and they are all God’s children, and they all need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, who became truly human, who is coming back to judge the world and to save it.

And in the early Christian church, too, people started to try to discriminate: they based worship practices on separating out rich people from poor people, Jews from Greeks, and women from men.  Paul wrote to condemn such things, because in Christ there is no distinction between ethnic groups, genders, or economic class.  All are one in Christ.  And when we try to separate people out and discriminate against some, we deny that.  We exclude and hurt people that Christ died to save.

In Revelation, there are many images of what God’s kingdom will be like, and Revelation, just like Isaiah, tells us that all people, from every tribe and nation, will be there in God’s kingdom, and that there will be no distinction between them, for all will be united in Christ.  So if you ask me “what the kingdom of God looks like,” and ask me to put together a picture from all the different images and visions of God’s kingdom in the Bible, I can tell you a few things.  1) it’s going to be a great party where there is no suffering or pain or grief, and 2) it’s going to be intensely multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, the Greek word usually translated as “nation” is “eqhnos”, which is where the word “ethnic” comes from.  All nations—and all ethnic groups—are equally beloved of God, and all will be part of God’s kingdom.

But we human beings, we keep coming up with reasons to hate, reasons to fear, reasons to discriminate.  We tell ourselves stories about how terrible other groups are, and then we tell ourselves it’s not really bad to discriminate against them because they really are like that.  We take every bad example of other groups as the norm for them, while pretending our own bad apples don’t exist.  An example of this is the police department of Fergusson, Missouri.  That police department focused most of its attention on investigating and harassing black people.  When accused of racial bias, they said they focused on black people because black people committed more crimes.  After the protests in 2014 the Federal Government launched an investigation.  They found that the police were wrong: black people in Ferguson were no more likely to commit crimes than white people were.  But the police of Ferguson believed that blacks were criminals.  So when a black person committed a crime, they took it as evidence that black people were all prone to criminality.  When a white person committed a crime, however, they thought he was just a bad apple.  Everything they saw and experienced was twisted to fit into the story they told themselves: that black people were criminals and white people were good people.  The story wasn’t true, but they genuinely believed it.  And so they acted unjustly, harassing innocent citizens because of the color of their skin.  They broke up and separated their city, and hurt a lot of people—black and white—in the process.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about race that aren’t true.  We tell stories about Black criminals and thugs, when black people are no more likely to commit crimes than whites are.  We tell stories about immigrants who steal American jobs, when immigrants actually are far more likely to start their own businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens are.  We tell ourselves that other races are lazy, they’re bad, they’re wrong.  And then we look for things around us that confirm those stories.  But those stories are not reality.  And, most crucially, those stories are not God’s story.  God’s story is that every person of every race was created in God’s own image.  God’s story is that each and every human being is equally valuable and beloved, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, or any other category.  God’s story is that when God’s kingdom comes, all violence and conflict between groups will cease, and all people of every tribe and nation and group will come streaming to God, and all people will love one another instead of finding excuses to hate and fear and discriminate.

So when we break down ethnic or racial barriers, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we challenge ethnic or racial biases, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we make the world a little bit more equal, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  On the other hand, when we allow racism and bigotry to flourish, when we see it and do nothing, when we pretend it isn’t there, we are working against God’s kingdom.  When we see discrimination and prejudice and shrug and walk on by, we become complicit in a system that is directly opposed to God’s wishes.  We allow things to get less and less like the good and just kingdom that God is trying to create.  It doesn’t mean we’re horrible people—like I said, this is something all humans do—but it does mean we are not being faithful to God.  It means we are seeing through the eyes of the world, not through God’s eyes.  It’s not easy to challenge bias and racism; it’s not easy to challenge something that so many people believe.  Yet to be faithful to the vision of God’s kingdom, we have to do it.  May we have the courage and the wisdom to see the world through God’s eyes, and God’s story, and not the human stories that divide us.

Amen.

The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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 trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.

Amen.

Faith across cultures

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24th, 2016

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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.

The disciples and believers in Judea heard that Peter was converting the Gentiles, and they had a problem with him.  A BIG problem.  Not with the conversion itself.  No, they thought it only right and good that everyone of every tribe and nation should worship God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  So Peter preaching to the Gentiles, that was good, and them responding was even better.  It was exactly what the risen Jesus had commanded them to do—go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That part was great!

It was how he did it that was the problem.  You see, the Gentiles were … different.  They spoke different languages, they sang different songs, they ate different foods, they had different customs, and in every way imaginable they were … different.  And when Peter went to live among them and preach, God commanded him in a dream to just kinda go with the flow.  To accept their hospitality and speak their language and eat their food and, basically, live like a Gentile while he was among them.  And the Jewish Christians were shocked and horrified.  Worship with them, yes, good!  Share the Gospel with them, wonderful, awesome!  Eat with them?  Their food?  In their home?  Ew, gross, that’s a step too far.

And this is a tendency that Christians have struggled with ever since.  Actually, most times since, we haven’t even been as flexible and open-minded as those early Jewish disciples.  We tend to mix up our culture and the Gospel way too much.  Take 19th Century missionaries as an example: they went across the globe with the best of intentions to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it … and they hamstrung themselves by insisting that in order to be Christian you had to swallow European culture lock, stock, and barrel.  European names, European-style-houses and family arrangements, European language in worship, European-style hymns, European-style art, European-style clothing.  Consequently, most of those 19th-Century missionaries weren’t very successful at all.  Sure, they got a few converts, and more people who would come to church if it was a requirement for getting some kind of help but not really convert in their hearts.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century and missionaries started working within local culture that missionaries started relaxing and working within the local culture, using local music styles and art and names.  Even lifestyles and family arrangements and other things like that.  Instead of assuming that obviously European/American ways of doing everything were better and more Christian, they evaluated each part of the local culture for whether or not it was compatible with a Christian faith.  And some things weren’t—but a lot was, or could be adapted.  And along the way, many of the missionaries found their own lives and culture changed, too.  They saw the Spirit moving in new and different ways.  And it was at that point—when people could keep their own culture and adapt it to the Christian life, when long-term Christians and new converts could change and grow together—that Christianity took off in Africa and parts of Asia.  Christianity is booming and growing in large parts of Africa, Asia, and India.  It’s flourishing and spreading, because the missionaries learned to listen and be part of the local culture, instead of just preaching and lecturing about all the ways they were wrong.

It makes sense.  Put yourself in their shoes—you’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  But they turn their nose up at everything you do—they don’t like your food, or the way you talk, or how you dress, or anything about you.  And sometimes they have a point, but sometimes they’re wrong.  Sure, they’ve got this great message … but what they seem to want most is to turn you into a carbon copy of themselves.  Would you listen, or would you write them off as arrogant jerks and go on about your business?  You’d probably ignore them.  Most people would.

But change the scenario a bit.  You’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  And they listen to what you think is holding you down.  They listen to what your fears and hopes and dreams are, and they sit at your table and eat with you and are great friends—not just somebody nice to talk to or shoot the breeze with, but there when you need help.  Not because they have an agenda, but because they respect you and care about you.  And sometimes, they point out when something you take for granted is wrong … but they’re also willing to listen when you point out something that they do is wrong.  Would you be willing to listen then?  Would you be willing to open your heart and your mind to the message of good news that they brought?  Probably you would!  And so the Gospel spreads.

That was what was at stake in our reading from Acts.  When you’re spreading the Gospel as Jesus commanded, how are you going to go about it?  Are you going to assume that your own culture, you own ways of doing things, are as important as the Gospel?  Are you going to insist that everything goes your own way from the get-go, or are you going to meet people where they are?  Are you going to insist everyone does things your way, or are you willing to adapt and learn from the people you are bringing the Gospel to?  It’s not just a question of whether or not you’ll welcome them when they show up at your church, though that’s important too—it’s a question of whether or not you’ll allow them to welcome you.  Will you eat with them, even if it’s something you would never eat otherwise?  Will you open yourself to them just as you ask them to open themselves up to the Gospel?  Will you respect them as you want them to respect you?

It sounds so simple.  Yet it’s really hard!  And it’s particularly important in our world today, because there is a big cultural gap between practicing Christians and the rest of America.  The gap is smaller in North Dakota than it is elsewhere, but it’s growing every year.  We can’t assume that the people outside our doors—the people we are called to bring the love of God to—share the same assumptions and habits that we do.  Often, they don’t … and often, it’s those things that keep them away.  Because here, as in most churches, we don’t like change.  We’d love to have all those unchurched people out there come in and join us … as long as they looked, acted, thought, dressed, and ate just like us.  As long as they just fit nicely into all the things we have going here already.  As long as any change was all on their part.  As long as everything happens in our way and on our terms.

God sent Peter to the Gentiles in Caesaria, to preach the Gospel to them, and the Holy Spirit was at work in them, and so they became Christian.  But it wasn’t enough for Peter to preach; he had to listen, too, and he had to accept them as the Gentiles they were and eat with them.  This horrified his fellow Jewish Christians, because they thought the Gentiles should give up their own culture and become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus.  Yet the Spirit was at work in the Gentiles, and God himself gave Peter a vision to tell him to accept the Gentiles’ hospitality.  It took courage to follow that vision, because Peter knew how his fellows would react.  And it took courage for the rest of the disciples to recognize the work of the Spirit, and set in motion the actions that would begin the conversion of the Gentiles.  It took courage because change is hard, even when it helps us grow.  They had to have faith that God would lead them, that God would help them keep the core of their faith strong even as parts of how they lived it out changed.

So what about us?  How do we treat the people outside our doors?  How do we respond to the people who are different, who are not like us?  Do we open ourselves up to building relationships with them?  Do we accept their hospitality and meet them where we are?  Do we open doors that may lead to ministry and a sharing of God’s love?  Or do we close those doors, and welcome them only if they fill the roles we have pre-selected for them?  May God send us the courage and vision of Peter, so that God’s love and God’s Spirit may be poured out on all people.

Amen.

What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

Amen

Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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

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

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

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.