What’s Your Call Story?

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 26, 2020

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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.

When you get a group of seminary students together for the first time, one of the first questions is always “describe your call story.”  At official events, it’s an icebreaker question designed to help people get to know one another.  At unofficial events, people ask one another: Where were you when you felt God calling you to ministry?  What was it like?  My call story is that I felt like God was nudging me towards ministry from the time I was in middle school—a nudge that I resisted because I didn’t want to be a pastor at the time.  One of my classmates felt the call when he heard a particular sermon—and he wasn’t even a Christian at the time, just tagging along to church with his girlfriend.  Another felt the call while she was scrubbing toilets.  Sometimes the call came from the outside—family, friends, teachers, and pastors, who saw the gifts of ministry in that person, and told them they ought to consider being a pastor or deacon.  Sometimes the call came from the inside—an internal sense (sometimes vague, sometimes pointed, sometimes even in the form of audible words) that God wanted them to become a pastor or deacon.  Some calls happened in appropriately churchy and reverent circumstances.  Some calls happened in really weird or irreverent circumstances.  Sometimes people take the call right away.  Sometimes people run as far away as they can for as long as they can.  There are as many call stories as there are people called.  So the call story in our Gospel lesson—Jesus saying “hey, come with me and let’s fish for people”—is not even CLOSE to the weirdest or most far-out call story I’ve heard.

Of course, part of the reason that seminary students are obsessed with call stories is that we kind of have to be.  In order to get into seminary as a Lutheran you have to share your call story with your pastor, your bishop, and a committee of pastors and lay people from your synod, and convince them that God is calling you to ministry while they examine your history, your relationship with God, your mental health, your debt load, and many other factors.  And most other Christian denominations that require seminary training have similar processes.  In the ELCA, during this entrance into candidacy for ministry, you have to write a six-page paper about how and why you feel God is calling you and what is the core of your personal relationship with God.

Now, I’ve written many long papers in my life.  I was a history major and English minor in college.  My senior thesis was 25 pages long, and while it took a while to get done, I didn’t find it especially challenging.  Give me a topic I care about and I can give you six pages in a couple hours, no sweat.  But that six-page paper about my own experiences was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life.  It was so frustrating.  It had me in tears.  I could have written an abstract theological treatise, no sweat.  My own personal relationship with God?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.  I felt naked, vulnerable, like I was exposing something deeply private.  My parents were not very comforting, pointing out that if I was going to be a pastor I was going to have to talk about Jesus in concrete and personal ways, and so I might as well start now.

But the question is, why did I feel that way?  What made it so hard for me?  Part of that comes from growing up in a church where there was a lot of deep theological discussion, but nothing was ever put in personal terms.  Nobody ever said they saw God in something, or talked about how a piece of scripture impacted them on a personal level, or anything like that.  On the extremely rare occasions someone stood up to give a temple talk, it was usually a lecture on why you should give the church money or something like that, nothing like a personal testimonial.  There were edifying stories in the sermons, but those were about people I didn’t know, and usually fictional anyway.  I was very well equipped by this upbringing to expound upon Lutheran theology and Biblical interpretation at the drop of a hat.  I was completely unprepared to talk about—or even think about—what any of it meant for me, personally, or any community I was a part of.  I was really good at explaining how one should feel or think about any particular Bible passage.  But I was almost incapable of making the connection between theory and reality.  And, unfortunately, this is not unusual in modern American Lutheranism.  We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to sound like some of the more conservative churches we have theological disagreements with, and we don’t want to scare off any lay people by asking them to do something they might find too scary like speaking in public, and we want to make sure that everything said in worship or at a church event is theologically sound, and so despite our talk of a priesthood of all believers, the average Lutheran just doesn’t get the kind of support and help to be able to talk about the place of God in their life.

This is a problem for many, many reasons, but I’m going to focus on vocation today.  Vocation, from the Latin word for “calling.”  In the modern world, we use it in two circumstances: when we talk about people becoming church professionals such as pastors or deacons, and when we talk about “vocational training,” i.e. job training for blue-collar jobs like welding or computer repair.  The thing is, both of these things are firmly within the Lutheran theological understanding of the word “vocation.”  Vocation was actually a core part of Luther’s theology.  At the time, “vocation” only meant things that church professionals—priests, monks, nuns, etc.—did on behalf of the church.  Luther vehemently disagreed with this.  Luther believed and taught that God had calls for everybody.  Every job necessary to society could be a calling from God, because God was the ultimate creator of both humans and the societies we live in, no matter how marred by sin those societies are.

As Luther put it, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”  Or, as Luther put it another way, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.”  A farmer may be called by God to grow food for people, just as a contractor may be called by God to make and repair safe housing for people, just as an insurance agent may be called by God to help people through disasters.  Relationships can be vocations, too: some people are called to be parents, or to be friends, or spouses, and those vocations can be more important than any vocation we have career-wise.  Vocations can change throughout our lives as our circumstances change, and we can have more than one vocation at a time.  Vocation is—or should be!—the foundation of everything we do, not just in church and not just if we’re religious professionals, but for everyone.  But in order for that to be true, we have to be listening for God’s call.  We have to be praying about it, and thinking about it as we study scripture, and talking about it with people of faith whose opinions and judgment we trust.  Not all calls are the same.  For example, in the call story in our Gospel, the fishermen are called to leave their nets and follow him.  In many other call stories in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he’s calling to stay in their communities and do ministry there.  Figuring out calls can be complicated.  But if we’re serious about being people of God, it’s not optional.

And vocations aren’t just for individuals.  Vocations are for congregations and communities, too.  Because God is calling us, just like God called Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John the son of Zebedee.  As we make decisions for our congregation today, we need to think about what God is calling us to do in the coming year.  But it doesn’t stop at the congregational meeting.  It’s a question that should always be in our thoughts, prayers, and discussions.  May God be with us, and may we hear and respond to God’s call.

Amen.

The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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.

Our reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?

Amen.

The Lion and the Lamb

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans , 5:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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

 

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

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

 

The thing most people don’t understand about the Pharisees is that the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people who were genuinely trying their best to follow God.  It’s understandable; they clashed with Jesus a lot.  In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and a prophet in his own right, calls the Pharisees ‘a brood of vipers.’  So we assume that they must have been really terrible people.  But the thing is, in the entire Bible, if you’re looking for a group similar to most modern American Christians, the Pharisees are it.  There are no people in the Bible as much like us as the Pharisees are.

The Pharisees were, by and large, middle-class people.  They were the ones very concerned with reading the Scriptures, and teaching people about God, and genuinely trying to follow God’s will.  They were the ones who created and ran the local places of worship, the synagogue.  They were the ones who took the most active role in local charity, feeding the hungry and tending the sick and so forth.  They were faithful, moral, reliable people.  They were the pillars of their communities.  They were genuinely committed to following God.  That’s why they show up all over the Gospels.  They heard there was a new and exciting religious teacher who was bringing people to God, and they wanted to know more.  Just like we would if we heard of a new and exciting religious teacher.  So why did they have conflicts with Jesus?  And why does John the Baptist call them a brood of vipers?

The problem is judgment.  Not God’s judgment of humanity, but the human capacity for judgment.  More specifically, the human capacity to get judgment wrong.  This is something I struggle with a lot as a pastor, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time this year wrestling with it.  You see, judgment is one of the main themes of Matthew.  God’s judgment of humanity, and the ways in which we judge and misjudge one another and ourselves.  God is the righteous judge, and humans consistently judge wrongly.  Our Gospel reading is one example of this: the Pharisees would have been shocked to hear themselves condemned by a prophet.  They wanted to see sinners repent, of course, but they would not have believed that they themselves needed much repentance.  After all, they were the good people!  Not like those sinners they condemned!

Judgment is necessary.  Some things are simply wrong.  Some things are completely incompatible with God’s good gifts of life and love, and need to be pointed out and condemned whenever they occur.  Some things simply are not compatible with God’s will for the world.  The problem is, humans are terrible at figuring out what deserves condemnation and what doesn’t, who deserves judgment and who don’t.  People who are mentally healthy almost always judge themselves far more leniently than they deserve.  “I’m a good person, I had good reasons for anything I’ve done wrong and all my sins are only tiny ones, I’m fine,” we think to ourselves.  “It’s those people over there that I don’t like who need to be judged!”  Meanwhile, people with mental illness or who are abuse survivors almost always judge themselves far more harshly than they deserve.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely believe they are evil, that they could never be a good person, that they deserve damnation, that God hates them and they deserve it.  And these are not bad people, by and large.  They are ordinary people, no better or worse than average.  This is why it’s so hard to preach about judgment: I know that most people listening will fall into two camps.  One group will assume that they don’t need to examine themselves, and that the only people in need of judgment are the people they don’t like.  The other group will assume that I am talking about them, and that they are uniquely sinful and deserve only condemnation.  Every person has both good and bad inside them, but we don’t do a very good job of recognizing that.  We do a terrible job of acknowledging both the good and bad in a person, and judging it accurately.  Very few people actually have a healthy balance where they can judge themselves—or anybody else—accurately.  We either judge too harshly or not at all.

The same is true of our view of the world around us.  We tend to judge not based on God’s plan for the world, but rather on what is comfortable and familiar to us.  If it is comfortable and familiar, if we think it is normal, if it’s just the way the world works, then it must be good.  And if it’s not good, then it can’t be that bad, can it?  And if it’s strange to us, if it’s different, if it takes what we think we know about the world and turns it on its head, then it must be bad.  And the truth is, neither of those are accurate guidelines for whether something is good or not.  Sometimes what is normal is good, and sometimes what is normal is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is comfortable is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is new is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  And most of the time, there are both good and bad aspects to it.  It’s not as simple as we would like to make it.  And so we judge wrongly.

In order to judge rightly, we need to see the world through God’s eyes.  We need to be able to recognize what God wants of the world, and what God is working to create.  And our reading from Isaiah is one of many places in the Bible that shows us what it looks like when God’s will is done.  ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’  In other words, he’s not going to be judging by the things the world judges by.  ‘But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’  In other words, God doesn’t share all the prejudices that we have about poverty, and God cares deeply about people that our society ignores and abuses and lets fall through the cracks.  It’s not that God loves poor people more than God loves anyone else.  Rather, it’s that the poor are more in need of God’s love and support than most people.  They’ve had harder lives, and have often had to face really terrible times when there are no good choices, and are more likely to have been chewed up and spit out by life than the rest of us.  And God is going to take that into account in God’s judgment.  And going forward in God’s kingdom, there will be no more injustice.  There will be no more abuse.  There will be no more people falling through the cracks and getting chewed up and spit out by life.  All people will receive what they need to live good and full and happy lives, both their material needs and their emotional and spiritual needs.

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’  Notice that he doesn’t say that the wolves and the leopards will become lambs.  They’ll still be themselves.  But they won’t prey on others.  The parts of the world that are based on the strong preying on the weak  and creatures devouring one another for their own profit will no longer work that way.  In no part of creation will anyone or anything take advantage of another or use them for their own benefit.  All people and all creatures will live together in peace and harmony—harmony not based on being the same, but based on mutual respect and seeing that everyone gets what they need without hurting someone else.

And obviously there are parts of that that we can work towards in the here and now and parts of that that are going to have to wait for God’s coming.  And that’s what God judges us and the world based on: how closely do we conform our lives and our hearts to God’s coming kingdom, and how much do we just go along with what the world tells us is normal.  How much do we work so that all people and all of creation are treated fairly and get what they need to thrive, and how much do we buy into the dog-eat-dog mentality where you just have to look out for #1 and the people like you and if people you don’t like are suffering, it’s not your problem.

We are called to follow Christ.  We are called to live into the coming reality of God’s kingdom.  And within each of us, and within every human being and every social institution, there are good parts and there are bad parts.  There are weeds that need to be pulled out, and there is good grain that needs to be nurtured and grow so that it can bear good fruit.  Judgment is based on whether we take out the weeds and fertilize the wheat, or whether we just accept the weeds as normal.  We will fall short sometimes.  We will sin.  We will have times when we make terrible judgments.  But the point is not perfection, because that’s God’s job.  Our job is to do the best with what we can, and trust that Christ is coming and that God’s judgment will prevail.  Our job is to live in the light of that coming kingdom, where all people will receive peace and joy and love and support.  We pray that that kingdom comes quickly, and we pray that we can do our part in helping it take root in this world.

Amen.

 

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.

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.

You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

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 grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.

A God Who Listens

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (Lectionary 17), July 28, 2019

Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15[16-19], Luke 11:1-13

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 ourFather, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke’s recounting of the Lord’s Prayer.  Now, we all know the Lord’s Prayer; both Matthew and Luke recount Jesus teaching it to his disciples, and the version we all know by heart is an amalgamation of the two versions.  One of the interesting things about Luke’s recount of how Jesus taught this prayer, however, is how little time Jesus spends talking about the prayer, and how much time Jesus spends talking about what God is like.  The prayer itself takes up three verses of our reading.  The other ten verses are about God, and how God responds to prayer.  To Jesus, how we pray matters less than the fact that we do pray, and that we know the God we’re praying to.

And the thing about God is that God listens and responds.  God is awesome and great and mighty beyond our understanding … and God listens to us.  God takes our wishes and will into account.  God doesn’t always give us what we think we want, just like a good parent doesn’t always give a child what they want when the parent knows it’s not good for the child, or has some other reason.  But just like a good parent always listens to their child and responds, God is always listening and responding to us.

Jesus gives an example of human behavior to show us what this is like.  Humans can be pretty terrible to one another.  We don’t always listen; we don’t always respond.  Like someone already in bed for the night, we don’t want to respond even to emergencies when they are not convenient for us.  But God is not like that.  God listens.  God responds.  God is working in and through us even when God’s response is not what we want.  Notice that in this passage, all the examples Jesus gives are examples of relationships.  A friend in need, or a child and their parent.  Part of a healthy relationship is communication; if you can’t be honest, and ask for help when you need it, it’s not much of a relationship, is it?  But we have a relationship with God that is always open.  God will welcome every call for help, every shout of joy, every question and thanksgiving and hope and fear.  And we are invited to be persistent—to be shameless in our demands—even when we disagree with God.

Take the example of God and Abraham from our Gospel lesson.  God had seen how much evil there was in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Now, I want to caution you; modern readers hear “Sodom” and think “homosexuality,” even though the Bible itself has a different view of Sodom’s sin.  It’s very convenient for heterosexual people; we can hear sermons on the Bible’s main example of sin all day and never wonder about our own sins.  But the various Biblical texts that mention Sodom don’t focus on the sex at all.  The clearest and most concise summation of Sodom’s sin comes from Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  The people of Sodom, the Bible tells us, worshipped power for the sake of power.  They believed that might made right and that people with power and wealth could take anything they wanted, heap any abuse they cared for on those who had nothing.  They humiliated and degraded those beneath them for sport.  And that included rape of all kinds.  In the Biblical account, the sex is a manifestation of the evil of Sodom, not the cause of it.  It wasn’t until the tenth century that the word “sodomy” came to mean only homosexual encounters.  Before that, “sodomy” meant any great sin.

So when God comes to Abraham talking about Sodom’s sin, God is not just talking about what they do in bed.  God is talking about the whole shebang: how their society is structured, how they treat one another, what character traits they value and what they treat as trash.  And the thing is, God doesn’t have to ask Abraham’s permission to smite Sodom and Gomorrah.  God knows just how bad it is, just how terribly the residents treat one another, how people there prey on one another and manipulate and cheat and hurt one another.  God’s judgment does not depend on what Abraham thinks of them.  But still, God listens to Abraham.

And Abraham disagrees with God.  Abraham thinks God is wrong, that God is being unjust in wanting to destroy Sodom.  Not because Abraham thinks Sodom is such a great place; Abraham knows just how much injustice and exploitation and evil goes on in that city.  No, Abraham is convinced that surely, there must be some good people there, and it’s not fair for them to be condemned along with the bad people.  And if God could condemn the good along with the bad, then God would not be good.

And God lets Abraham argue with him.  God doesn’t shut him up or ignore him or say “how dare you challenge me.”  Most humans, when someone argues with them, respond with hostility or dismissal, especially when the person arguing with them has less power or status.  But God is not like that.  God takes Abraham’s concerns seriously.  God says, “yeah, you’re right.  Destroying good people along with bad would be wrong.  How many good people do you think are enough to redeem that horrific place?”  Abraham bargains, coming back shamelessly, again and again, until finally they agree on a number: ten.  Ten good people, and Sodom will be saved.

Now, God knows what is in the heart of every human being.  God sees all our thoughts and all our actions, the good and the bad alike.  God knows that every person in Sodom has been infected with selfishness and cruelty and malice, but he still listens to Abraham’s concerns, acknowledges when Abraham has a good point, and takes his perspective into account.

This is not the only time people in the Bible argue with God.  It happens all over the place.  Moses argues with God multiple times, so does Job, so do most of the prophets and some of the kings.  Jesus’ mother Mary argues with Jesus at Cana.  The psalms are full of people arguing with God, or complaining about God, and bringing every care and concern to God—even when that means accusing God of not doing the right thing.  Even when we have a bone to pick with God, God would rather we brought that concern to God than shoved it under the rug and let it fester.

This is the kind of God we have.  This is what Jesus wants us to know about God when we pray.  The important thing is not the formal structure of prayer, or the wording, or any of that.  Sometimes having a formal structure and memorized words for prayer is helpful, sometimes it’s not.  The important thing is that we know that God is listening.  That God cares about us, and God cares what we think and feel, and listens whether we’re happy or sad, thankful or protesting, whether we agree or disagree, whether we are safe or in danger, whether things are going well or poorly, God is listening, and God is working to give us what we need.  No matter what we are thinking or feeling, God loves us, and God desires an open and honest relationship with us.

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  Why God became human and lived among us, to know us more intimately.  God joined us to God’s own self through baptism, through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.  We worship a God who would literally rather die than be separated from us, or abandon us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Love is an Action

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

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

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

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

 

So how many of you are sitting there thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about our second lesson from Corinthians?  It is one of the most often quoted passages of the entire Bible, and usually for feel-good purposes.  It is also used frequently at weddings.  Everyone loves this passage.  Even people who aren’t Christian love it, quoting it often.  And, you know what, sometimes we all just need a warm and fuzzy feel-good message about love.  That can be very important.  But especially in today’s climate, I think it’s really important to realize that this is not a warm-and-fuzzy passage designed to make people feel good.  This passage is a condemnation, a challenge, and a call to action.

See, the thing is, this passage was written to the church in Corinth.  And it was not written as a reflection on how loving that congregation was.  Quite the opposite.  This passage was designed to point out everything the Corinthians were not.  See, the Corinthians were pretty messed up.  Paul wrote more to the Corinthians than to any other church he founded, and it wasn’t because he loved them so much.  I mean, he did love them, but he wrote to them because they were the worst.  If there was a way to get something wrong, they would do it.  If there was a way to screw up worship, or theology, or the working of the Holy Spirit, or community, or anything else, the Corinthians would find that way.  They were a bunch of arrogant, selfish, prideful jerks who would find any excuse to attack and belittle their fellow Christians.  As much as we mourn for how divided and unloving modern American churches can be, the Corinthians were at least that bad and quite possibly worse.

They created divisions based on gender, race, and class, treating some people better than others based on the social distinctions of the world around them.  They judged people based on how flashy and flamboyant their spiritual gifts were.  And from Paul’s words, it’s quite clear that they were not judging those gifts based on how useful they were in spreading God’s Word and God’s mission.  No.  They treated the gifts of the Holy Spirit as personal playthings for self-aggrandizement, and then tried to shame and belittle those whose gifts were less publicly visible.  That’s why, in last week’s lesson, Paul was trying to get them to see that no gift is more important than another and that the important part is how we work together as one Body in Christ.  Right?  Paul’s been talking about this for a while, by the time we get to the love chapter which is today’s lesson.  Nobody is better than anybody else, and all are needed together.  As Christians, we are not supposed to see through the eyes of the world, but through God’s eyes, and remember that we are all children of God and members of Christ’s body together.  It’s not about individual heroic Christians, it’s about all Christians coming together and being made one in Christ.

And then, after talking about how we all need each other as members of the body and no person or spiritual gift is more important than any other person or spiritual gift, that’s when Paul talks about love directly.  And it’s a continuation of everything that he’s been saying.  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels,” he says.  Well, speaking in tongues is one of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians have been fighting about.  Prophetic powers—that’s another gift the Corinthians have been fighting about.  But Paul says that all those awesome gifts of the Holy Spirit that they are so keen to fight over and use as an excuse to snub and humiliate others are useless without love.  The more they fight, the more they scheme, the more they puff themselves up and try to cut others down, the further away from Christ they go.  All of those powers are useless without love.

And when Paul talks about love, he’s not talking about love as a state of emotion.  Oh, no.  That’s a modern delusion, to think about love as being mostly about how you feel about someone or something.  No, in Paul’s day love was a verb.  It was an action.  And it might be truer to the Greek original text to translate this passage in a way that makes that more clear: “Love acts with patience, love acts with kindness, love does not act jealous.”  The love that Paul is talking about is not about sitting around thinking nice thoughts.  And it is certainly not about mouthing platitudes about how of course you love someone while stabbing them in the back or ignoring their needs.  No.  For Paul, love is about actively working for the good of others.  Love is about actively choosing to do something that will help others even if you receive no benefit from it.  Love is about actively choosing what kind of a person you are going to be and how you are going to treat the people around you.  And then actually following through and doing something about it.

Humans are not good at loving.  Or rather, we’re not good at loving people who are different than us.  We make up little groups of who is in and who is out, who matters and who doesn’t, and we treat those on the inside well and those on the outside badly.  In Corinth, that manifested as cliques within the church, and fighting between different cliques.  In other places, that manifests as prejudices about class, race, gender, ability, politics, nationality, sports teams, food choices, music preferences, and just about anything else you care to name, big and small.  We love those who are close to us, those on the inside, and not those who are different from us.  But Paul tells us that no matter what the divisions among us are, we are all one body together in Christ, and that nothing else matters if we do not act with love.  If we choose to act with love, we are acting as part of the great body of Christ and those actions will resonate throughout time until Christ comes again.  If we choose not to act with love, if we mouth platitudes about loving others while acting with jealousy and resentment and fear and arrogance and selfishness, we are useless.  Noisy gongs, clanging cymbals.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That’s not easy to hear.  I wonder how the Corinthians reacted.  Did they take Paul’s words to heart?  Did they change their behavior?  Did they start loving people outside their own cliques and building up the body of Christ?  Or did they give lip service to following Paul’s words and keep on acting badly, hurting the whole community?  The Bible doesn’t tell us how they reacted.  However, the Gospel reading today reminds us of what often happens when people get told things they don’t want to hear—especially when that thing includes opening up to outsiders.  Jesus was preaching in his hometown, after having done some miracles elsewhere, and people loved him!  They loved him right up until he pointed out that God’s gifts were not reserved only for them.  Those people he names from the Old Testament are all from the surrounding nations.  The Widow of Zarephath was a Philistine, who lived in what we today call Lebanon.  Naaman was a Syrian, and not just any Syrian, a general!  Jesus’ neighbors loved what he was saying until he pointed out that his words and his power were for everyone including the people they did not like, and then they drove him out.  I can imagine the Corinthians hearing Paul’s words of love and nodding and explaining how they only applied to some people—the ones they already loved—and not the people they were feuding with.  And then getting angry when Paul makes it clear that his words apply to how they treat everyone.

It’s not easy to put godly love into action.  It’s a lot easier to come up with reasons why it doesn’t apply to the people we don’t like.  And it’s even easier to claim that we love people while letting our actions reflect what we really think and feel about them.  But we are not called to do the easy thing, we are called to do the right thing.  We are called to live lives of love and service, putting that love into action in every word and deed.  Because only through love—the love God shows us in Christ Jesus, the love God calls us to spread throughout the world—do our actions have any meaning.  May we love as Christ calls us.

Amen.

Living Faith

Lectionary 23B, September 9, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Generosity, Charity, and Justice

Lectionary 13B, July 1, 2018

Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

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 second lesson is a fundraising passage, where Paul is urging the Corinthians to give generously to the church in Jerusalem which was in deep need.  Corinth was a wealthy town with lots of industry and trade, whereas Jerusalem was a backwater where the followers of Jesus were being persecuted.  The Christians in Corinth weren’t exactly rich, but neither were they in serious trouble.  The Christians in Jerusalem, however, were in great need.  But Corinth is a long ways away from Jerusalem, and the Corinthian Christians had never met the Jerusalem Christians, and they had nothing in common besides a shared worship of Jesus Christ.  They spoke different languages, ate different foods, and were of different ethnic groups.  In fact, we think from clues elsewhere in the letter that the Corinthian Christians may have actually been in some sort of conflict with the Jerusalem Christians.  And now Paul wants them to send them money?  It was a pretty hard sell.  Most human beings are very generous when people we know are in trouble, and a lot less generous the further away you get.  Which is why Paul has to devote a couple of chapters here to fundraising.  Because then, as now, it’s hard to get people to give.

But as I read this passage, I wasn’t thinking just about Jerusalem, and Corinth, and fundraising campaigns.  I remembered an article my brother just sent me.  He was assigned to read in a religion class at his college.  The paper pointed out something which I knew from seminary but had never quite put together in that way.  You see, the Bible doesn’t think about charity in the same way we do today.  In fact, according to the Bible, most of what we call “charity” isn’t really charity at all.  It’s justice.

You see, according to God’s plan for the world, everybody should receive what they need to live their life.  In the Biblical laws, God commands God’s people to arrange their society to see to it.  In his fundraising appeal to the Corinthians, Paul quotes an Old Testament description of what society should be like: “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”  In other words, while there are still rich people and poor people, the rich people aren’t exploiting others or hoarding resources to get richer at the expense of others, and the poor people have enough to live a decent life.  No one is going hungry or naked, no one is homeless, no one is sick and left without care.  There is, as Paul puts it, a fair balance.  You help those who are in need when you are able; then, when you need help, others help you.  It’s not a few people doing everything, it’s everyone participating in mutual support and ministry to ensure that all people receive what they need and are treated fairly.  This is what a just world looks like, according to God.  That is how the world is created to be.

Therefore, if someone is hungry and you feed them, you are not doing an act of charity; you are doing an act of justice.  Feeding the hungry is not a sign that you are a particularly generous or good person; it is the minimum required to be faithful to God.  It is the minimum required for justice.  Now, you may notice that this sort of justice is not the sort of thing we can do as individuals.  One person feeding the hungry isn’t going to solve the problem of hunger.  But when you get a lot of people together working on the problem, whether as a faith community or a nongovernmental organization or a government, together the group can really achieve a lot.  On the other hand, if society as a whole is ignoring the problem and letting the poor and vulnerable people be exploited or fall through the cracks, it doesn’t matter if the individual members of that society are nice people, the society is broken and wrong.  Justice matters.  Money matters.  Community matters.  And, all too often, they are entwined.  The way we set up our businesses, and our government, and our taxes, and our economy, and our nonprofit organizations, all of it matters.  We have responsibilities both to act as individuals and as part of the community to see that God’s will for our society is done, and that all people receive what they need to live.  We do this not so that we will perpetually give and others perpetually take, but so that there is a fair balance.  If we help others in their time of need, they will be able to help us in our time of need.

So then where does all this leave charity and generosity?  If feeding the poor isn’t charity, it’s justice, what is charity?  Well, according to the Bible, charity or generosity is the stuff you do above and beyond the call of justice.  Making sure poor people always have enough nutritious and good food to eat is justice.  Giving them a pizza party in addition to that is charity.  Making sure sick people have healthcare is justice.  Flying a sick kid to Disney World is charity.  And charity is meaningless if you don’t have a foundation of justice underneath it.  If people are struggling to meet basic needs, all charity does is put a bandaid on a gaping wound.  God created ample resources in this world for everyone living here, so that there would be a fair balance.  God expects us all to use our resources to help one another, so that everyone has at least enough to get by, and everyone takes turns helping others and being helped.

We modern American Christians don’t like to talk about money, and especially not in a faith context.  In the church I grew up in, the pastor talked about money exactly twice a year: the two weeks before pledge cards were due.  And some American Christians today argue loudly that we as a society have no obligation to see that all people receive the resources they need, that such things should be the sole province of charities and churches, as if society has no moral obligation to its most vulnerable members.  But the thing is, money and economics are one of the topics the Bible talks about more than any other.  The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about economic justice, and the prophets constantly condemn God’s people for failing to live up to those laws.  In the New Testament, the two topics Jesus talks the most about are money and forgiveness.  If we are to be faithful to Jesus’ teachings and the words God has given us in the Scripture, we need to take money seriously and consider the impact of what we do as individuals and as a society.

I’m not telling you this to raise money for any cause.  I’m not fundraising.  I’m not telling you who or what to vote for—that’s not my job as pastor.  But it is every Christian’s job to faithfully and prayerfully consider how we spend our money, as individuals and as a society.  It is every Christian’s job to look out for those who are suffering or impoverished or just need a little bit of help, and work to see that they get what they need.  It is every Christian’s job to look seriously at what impact our government’s policies will have on the most vulnerable, and take that into account in the voting booth.  It is every Christian’s job to be generous to those in need, constantly and consistently, remembering and following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can’t fix the world; we can’t single-handedly bring God’s kingdom to earth.  But every time we make the world a little fairer, every time we help those in need or allow others to help us in our need, every time we make sure nobody’s slipping through society’s cracks, we get a foretaste of what that kingdom will be like.  We make that kingdom just a little bit more real.

It’s easy to be just and fair to the people we know, the people who are like us, the people we see every day.  It is easy to be generous and open-hearted when the people in need are those we love.  But it’s harder to care about injustice and need happening to other people far away, who are not like us.  We see this all the time in our own contemporary society.  And we see it in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Remember, Paul was asking them to support the needs of people whom they’d never met, who were from a completely different ethnic group and culture, and with whom they’d had some arguments.  God created the world to be full of abundance, enough for all, with a just and fair balance where nobody has too much and nobody has too little.  And God calls us to participate in that abundance, to be generous to others and receive generosity in return.  May we live our lives according to the justice and generosity God calls us to.

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.

On Unclean Spirits

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What We Do With God’s Blessings

Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Labor Day sermon on power, kingdoms, and crosses

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 22, September 3, 2017

Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

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

 

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

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

 

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, one of the things he taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom might come to earth, and that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Christians around the world pray that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, regularly. At least once a week on Sunday, and a lot of people pray it at least once a day.  I do; maybe some of you do, as well.  But here’s the question I have, each and every time I read a Bible passage about God’s kingdom, or discipleship, or what it means to follow Jesus: do we really mean it?  Do we really want to be disciples?  Do we really want God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Or are we like Peter, who, when he heard the cost, said “God forbid it, Lord!”  Because there is a cost.  And that cost is the cross.

It is important to remember that this life, this world, is NOT God’s kingdom yet.  God’s will is NOT done here on earth the way it is in heaven … yet.  When you’ve got a comfortable life, it can be easy to forget that.  When you’ve got a nice house, a nice job, a nice family, a nice life, when you and the people you love are generally safe, it’s really easy to look around at the world and go, “yes, heaven must be pretty much like this—there are a few improvements that could be made, here and there, and oh, won’t it be nice when I can see my dead grandparents again, but on the whole, things are great.”  It’s easy to get contented with the world as it is, instead of yearning for and working for God’s kingdom to come.

Even when our lives aren’t that great, when things go wrong one after the other, when no matter how hard we work, things just go wrong, it’s easy to get in a rut.  To tell ourselves, “yeah, there’s a lot of problems with the world, but things could be worse, and anyway I’m too busy and there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”  Particularly when we realize how much it can hurt to try to change things—when we see whistleblowers go to jail or lose friends and jobs for trying to do the right thing, when we see good people standing up for what’s right and getting attacked verbally and physically, when we see all the ways the world and our society work to break those who try to make a difference for the better, it’s easy to say, “you know, the world is what it is, and things could be worse, and trying to make a difference is awfully hard.”  And so we just kind of accept things as they are, or see the problems but don’t actually do anything about them because we know how hard it is going to be.

Even Jesus was tempted not to act for God’s kingdom.  Three times, he was temped.  The devil came to him just after his baptism, offering him the world on a plate if he would just follow Satan instead of God.  It would have been a heck of a lot easier to change things than dying on a cross.  Then, here, Peter hears what’s coming, the suffering and death, and tries to convince Jesus not to go down that road.  And Jesus says, “Get behind me, tempter!”  That’s what “satan” means, by the way, “tempter.”  If Jesus wasn’t tempted, if it didn’t look really good to just … not go down that road God set before him, he wouldn’t have had any reason to get upset here.  But he does.  Then, again, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays to God to ask him for some other way.  Any other way.  Even right up to the night before his death, Jesus felt that temptation to take the easy path.  To walk away.  Jesus knows how hard it’s going to be, he knows it’s going to be worth it in the end, and if there were an easier way to bring God’s kingdom here to earth he would have taken it in a heartbeat.  Even knowing there is no other way, Jesus is tempted to turn aside.  Because God’s kingdom is a wonderful, awesome, perfect, holy place … and the only way to transform the world into a place that God’s kingdom can come to involves a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice.

The problem is power.  Who gets it, and who doesn’t.  See, a lot of human beings love power, and wealth.  We are always trying to tip the world in our own favor … even if that means cheating someone else.  And once we’ve rigged the rules in our own favor, we don’t even see that we’ve done it.  They’ve done this experiment where they have people play board games, and one player in each game will be randomly assigned to have different rules that only apply to them which make it easier to win.  Nine times out of ten, by the end of the game, those randomly selected people will be explaining why it is good and fair and right that they get those special rules, and how their win was because of their skill and hard work and not the special rules, and why anyone who says otherwise is just a bad loser.  And if you then take away that special rule favoring them, they’ll be absolutely sure that they have been cheated out of something they deserve, even when all that’s happened is that the playing field is now level.  In real life, thousands of studies show that even today, black people in America get treated far worse than white people, on average.  Yet there are a lot of white people who will point to any black person who manages to succeed anyway and say that they are proof that it’s black people who have the advantage.  It’s the same with money.  The more of it you have, the easier it is to get more … and the less likely you are to see how much of your success came from the fact that you had more to start with.

We take things that are fair and try to tilt them in our favor.  Take Labor Day.  It used to be that poor people worked sunup to sundown every day but Sunday—and a lot of them worked Sundays, too, with only enough time off to go to church.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the labor movement set up a day where everything would be closed so that the poorest Americans could relax and spend a day with their families.  Yet today, a lot of stores and hotels and places are open on Labor Day, so that people can go on vacation.  And who does most of the work on labor day?  The janitors, hotel maids, and retail workers, the poorest laborers in America.  The day that was set aside so that even they could take time off is now a day they almost always have to work, so that other people who are more likely to get vacations can enjoy another one.  Our world is deeply unfair.  Even here in America, where we work hard for freedom and equality, race and class and money rig the world so that some people have more resources and opportunity than other people will ever have.

And this has consequences.  Who gets stuck in an abusive relationship because they don’t have the money to escape?  Who goes to jail because they can’t afford bail, and who gets off with a slap on the wrist?  Who dies from a preventable disease because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and who tries to make sure their taxes get lowered even if it means others die from lack of health care?  Who gets hated because of their race, class, religion, or sexuality, and who uses that hate to get elected?  These are all human things.  The desire for power, the desire for wealth, the desire for popularity, the desire to be the king of the hill.  The desire to gain the world.  These are all human things, not divine things.

God sees the world very differently.  God loves each and every one of us, of every class and tribe and race and religion and gender and sexuality.  No matter what we do, no matter how we hurt ourselves and one another, God loves us.  But God also sees through all of our self-justifications.  We may hurt or marginalize others for the sake of our own gain and convince ourselves that we are right to do so, but God sees the truth.  We may harden our hearts to the pain and suffering of others, but God does not.  And in God’s kingdom, the only one who has power and glory and might is the one person guaranteed never to misuse that power: God himself.  In God’s kingdom, there is no one who is rich at another’s expense, and there is no one who is poor.  In God’s kingdom, the rules never favor one person over another, one class over another, one race over another, one gender over another.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever exploited or abused.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever hurt.

God’s kingdom is a wonderful place.  But if God’s kingdom is going to come here, as Jesus taught us to pray that it will, the first thing that has to happen is that we have to put power where it belongs: with God.  Not with governments, or Wall Street, or corporations, or groups of people, or even with churches.  With God.  For God’s kingdom to come, people are going to have to stand up wherever we see power being abused, wherever we see the playing field being tilted, wherever injustice or hate or fear or pain creep in, and say something about it.

This is why a lot of people didn’t like Jesus.  He was a threat to the established religious order of things, but he was also a threat to the established social order of things, a threat to the established economic and political orders, too.  Jesus welcomed everyone and ate with everyone and healed everyone and taught everyone—but he also pointed out every bit of hypocrisy and injustice he saw, especially in those with power.  That made him a threat, and they killed him for it.  And people haven’t gotten any fonder of that sort of thing now than they were in Jesus’ day.

That’s part of what following Jesus means.  It’s part of what taking up your cross means.  It means doing the things that aren’t fun or easy, the things that may get you into trouble, if that is what God calls you to do.  It means pointing out the injustices in the world, the places where power and greed have warped things.  May we pick up our crosses, and follow God’s call wherever it leads.

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Baptism and Discipleship

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1—2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

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.

Every year at the end of Confirmation, we play Confirmation Jeopardy.  One of the questions is a trick question: why do we baptize?  And the kids usually come up with some really good and true answers.  We baptize because it saves us!  We baptize because it connects us to Jesus!  We baptize because it washes us free from sin!  And all of these are correct.  But they’re not the simplest answer, the answer I’m looking for, which is that we baptize because Jesus commands us to.  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is a sacrament, a holy rite which washes us clean of our sins and connects us to the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death.  Just as Christ died, so we too will one day die—and just as Christ rose from the grave, so we, too, will rise from the grave when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.  We are born children of a fallen, sinful human race.  In baptism, the old, sinful self is drowned and we are reborn as children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of God’s promise.  In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we are made part of the body of Christ in the world, which is the community of all believers.  Baptism does many things, and it is an extremely important part of the life of a Christian.  It only happens once, but it changes who we are and who we belong to on a fundamental level.  And we don’t do it because we think it’s nice, we do it because Jesus commands us to do it.

But notice that baptism isn’t alone.  It’s not the sum total of Jesus’ command.  It is sandwiched in the middle of other stuff.  Jesus does not just say “Baptize your children and anybody who wants to join your church.”  Jesus’ command has three parts.  The first is this: go and make disciples of all nations.  In other words, baptism is intimately connected with discipleship.  Baptism depends on discipleship.  So what is discipleship?  We talk about it a lot, but don’t always stop to define it.  Discipleship comes from the same root word as “discipline.”  A disciple is someone who is disciplined about their faith.  Someone who puts it into action and practices it regularly.  It’s not just an accident, and it’s not an afterthought.  Faith is an action, a verb, something a disciple does.  They work at it, through prayer and study and worship and trusting God even when they have doubts and letting the love of God guide their actions and their words.  That’s what a disciple does.

And that’s why Jesus connects baptism and discipleship.  Baptism makes us children of God and unites us with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship is living that out.  Discipleship is when we don’t just say we love Jesus, we actually put that love into action.  Baptism matters, but if we aren’t willing to follow that up and live like we mean it, how important is it?  It’s kind of like me being a fan of the Seattle Mariners.  Yes, if I’m going to watch baseball, they’re my team.  But I haven’t watched a game of theirs in years, and I don’t even know who’s on the team now, or how they’re doing.  So, while I am still a fan, I’m not much of one.  There’s no inspection or test to see if I’m worthy of being called a fan, there’s no chance that I’d be kicked out of a game for not being enthusiastic enough, but if I were really a fan, well, I’d have figured out a way to follow my team even though I’m half a continent away.  In the same way, you only need to be baptized once and even if you fall away from the faith, that baptism never loses its power … but at the same time, it’s not quite as meaningful if you don’t live a life of discipleship.

So, then, how do we make disciples?  Most crucially today, how do we as a community raise this child baptized here today and all children baptized here so that the promises of their baptism will be completed in their discipleship?  Faith isn’t something you learn in a classroom, it’s something you experience.  Faith isn’t taught, it’s caught.  And to catch it, it really helps to be around people who live out their faith in discipleship.  Who pray regularly, who worship regularly, who study their Bibles, who listen and watch for God in everything that they do, and who put that faith into action.  We become disciples through contact with other disciples.  We learn faith by doing, by acting it out.  We learn faith by choosing to love and trust God and let that love and trust guide our actions … and we learn faith by seeing how other people love and trust God.

The parents are the most important in this.  Children absorb faith from their parents, whether that faith is strong or weak.  When parents are disciples, children usually become disciples, too.  If children pray with their parents, if they read Bible stories with their parents, if they talk about how their faith impacts their daily life with their parents, chances are they will continue on in the faith to the rest of their lives.  But parents are not the only role models children have.  Their grandparents, godparents, Sunday School teachers, and others in the community also guide and shape their faith and help them grow.  The most important thing about Sunday School, for example, is not the curriculum or the funny videos.  The most important way Sunday School shapes a child’s faith is how it connects them to faithful role models in the congregation.

And discipleship is not just for the few, the chosen, the ones who are like us.  We are not sent to make disciples only among our own children, but among the whole world.  And the same methods that work for raising children in the faith work for making disciples out in the world, too.  When people we know, people we have a relationship with, see us living and acting out our faith, when they see it make a difference in our lives, they are drawn to the Gospel and are more likely to become disciples themselves.  If you look at places where Christianity is spreading rapidly—in Africa and Asia—it’s because they are serious about discipleship, both among those who are already Christian and among those who are coming to the faith.  They live their faith, and allow God to make a difference in their lives, and all who see them are drawn to them.  They don’t just say they love God and their neighbor, they put that love into action.  And when their neighbors experience that love, they want to become a part of it, too.

The first part of the command is to make disciples, which means we have to be disciples.  The second part of the command is to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And the third part is to remember that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.  You see, the heart of the Christian life is about relationship, because God is about relationship.  God comes to us in three ways—as our creator and father, as the Son our savior, and as the Spirit that inspires and moves us.  When it says in 1 John 4 that God is love, that’s what it means.  The very heart of God is a relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit, and God’s work in the world is reaching out to extend that loving relationship to us.  We are never alone because once we become children of God in baptism, that bond of relationship will never break.  God loves us no matter what.  Discipleship isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about loving God and experiencing the love God has for us, and letting that love flow out through us to the world.

When we let God work in us and through us, God’s reconciling love fills us and spreads out into the world, breaking down barriers, lifting up those who are poor and brokenhearted, healing all who need it.  The living water of God, in which we are baptized, rises up in us and flows out for all the world.  When we are united with Christ in baptism, when we follow the Spirit in discipleship, the love of God is always with us, and we are called to spread that love to all the world.

That’s why we baptize.  That’s why discipleship is important.  Because the God who created us, who gave his life to save us, who comes to us and inspires us and nourishes our souls, loves us, and loves all the world.  We want to be a part of that great love, and share it with all: our children, our community, our world.

Amen.

Preparing the way

Second Sunday after Advent, December 6th, 2015

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 1:8-25

 

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 Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally about John the Baptist, the guy who was the voice calling out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist was the guy who got people all fired up about God and repentance so that when Jesus started his ministry, people were ready to listen. But as I was thinking about John the Baptist this week, about preparing the way for God, I started to ask myself, “so who prepared the way for John? Who helped make him who he was, who helped get him started on his journey of faith so that he might lead others to God?”

As it happens, Luke tells us a little bit about John’s heritage. His parents were fairly ordinary Jews from a priestly family; his father was a priest named Zechariah, and his mother’s name was Elizabeth. And Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, and they had no children—which in those days, meant there was something seriously wrong. They believed that children were the way God showed his favor—if you didn’t have children, God must be punishing you. And they always assumed it was the woman’s fault, that she must have something wrong with her. Not just physically wrong, but morally wrong. So there Zechariah and Elizabeth were, old and childless.

And then it was Zechariah’s turn to serve at the Temple and enter the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary that only priests could enter and then only on certain days, while the congregation waited outside. And at that time, the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him not to be afraid, that God had heard their prayers, and that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child. And Zechariah didn’t believe him.

Can you blame him? I mean, they were past the point when you normally have kids. And sure, there were times in the Bible when God gave children to an infertile couple—even an elderly infertile couple, most notably Sarah and Abraham—but it still doesn’t happen every day. If an angel appeared to you at the age of sixty and said you were going to have a child, would you leap to believe that right away? I wouldn’t! Twice in three thousand years isn’t much of a precedent. I’d be more likely to wonder if I’d fallen and hit my head and was hallucinating, or something. So I don’t blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical. He asked for a sign, some way to know that God’s messenger was really there, and really meant he and Elizabeth would have a child. I don’t think he wanted the sign he got, though. Which was that he couldn’t talk at all until the baby was born.

But while Zechariah and the Angel were talking, the congregation was waiting outside, wondering what was taking so long. I bet they were surprised when Zechariah came out, unable to talk, unable to tell them what had happened! I bet they were even more surprised, later, to hear that old Elizabeth was pregnant.

Time passed. Elizabeth spent a lot of time thinking about what was happening to her and her husband. She spent a lot of time praying and asking God what to do. Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel came to Mary, to let her know that she, too, was going to have a surprising pregnancy—the Messiah, the Son of God. And the first thing that Mary did when she heard the news was to go visit her cousin Elizabeth. And even though everybody else treated Mary badly because she was pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth welcomed her and supported her and believed that God was at work in Mary and Mary’s child, just as God was at work with Elizabeth and her child. I wonder, if Elizabeth hadn’t been there to support her, how much harder would it have been for Mary? If Elizabeth hadn’t been there to say, “you’re not crazy, God really has chosen you to do something special”, would Mary have been able to boldly proclaim what God had done to her and for her in the beautiful words of the Magnificat, her Song of Praise? Imagine how much harder it would have been for Mary, to do what God had called her to do, if she’d had to do it all alone. She already had a call from God that would make her life a lot harder and turn a lot of people against her—but at least she had the support of her beloved cousin.

So Mary went home, relieved, supported, affirmed, to try and patch things up with Joseph, her fiancé, who thought that she’d been stepping out on him. Elizabeth and Zechariah went on through the rest of her pregnancy, and she gave birth to a son, and she named him John, which means “God is Gracious.” Now, throughout all this time, remember, Zechariah had been unable to speak. And all their family and friends thought that of course Zechariah would want to name the long-anticipated son after himself! But John asked for something to write with, and confirmed that the baby’s name should be John. Because John was a gift from God, freely given. And when he wrote that, Zechariah’s mouth was open and he was able to speak for the first time in nine months. For nine months, he hadn’t been able to talk. For nine months, he had been forced to listen, and to think. For nine months, he had been contemplating God’s gift, and the angel’s words, and the ways in which God had been with the people of Israel throughout history, and when his mouth opened he began to praise God, in the words that we spoke together as our Psalm.

He spoke of all the things God had done for them: setting them free from slavery, delivering them from their enemies, bringing peace, saving them from death, showing them compassion and mercy and forgiving their sins, and always, always, always remembering the promises he had made to them. Zechariah remembered how faithful God had been to those old promises, and he saw that God was beginning to make new promises, too, and that his and Elizabeth’s son John, this gift of a gracious God, was going to have a part in that salvation.

Quite a change from the guy who looked at an angel and said, “no offense, but how do I know you’re telling the truth?” And I wonder. Without the angel’s visit, without those months to think it over in silence, would Zechariah have been able to sing that song? Would he have been able to be the kind of father who could raise John to be who he needed to be? And Elizabeth, she didn’t have an angel’s visit, but she didn’t need one. She spent the months before John’s birth thinking, too, rejoicing in God’s gift and seeing what God was doing in and through her cousin Mary. That certainty in God’s promises, in God’s forgiveness, in God’s presence—John was going to need that in order to become John the Baptist, a man like one of the prophets of old, out in the desert proclaiming that God’s reign was near, calling all people to repentance and forgiveness, calling them to prepare themselves for God’s coming, insisting that everyone would see God’s salvation.

John got his faith from somewhere, and I think that somewhere was his parents’ experiences in the months before his birth. Though his parents probably didn’t live long enough to see it, John took that faith and he listened for God’s call and he went out into the world and did what God wanted him to do, and in so doing he prepared the way for the Messiah to come. Jesus, only six months younger than John, started his ministry probably a couple of years after him, a few years of people who had gotten used to thinking about forgiveness and repentance, of salvation, of God present and active in the world around them. And because of John the Baptist, they were ready to listen to Jesus; and John the Baptist was ready because of his parents, and ordinary Jewish couple whose story is only recorded in one of the four Gospels.

It makes me wonder, how God is working through us, here and now? Because we, too, are getting ready for Christ’s coming. Not just at Christmas, but his coming again in glory at the end of the age. We, too, are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, to follow God’s call, to tell the stories of what God has done, to use our hands to do God’s work in the world. Elizabeth and Zechariah probably never saw the fruits of their labors; I doubt they understood what the Son of God was truly going to do, what it meant that their son was going to follow in a prophet’s footsteps. Just like we don’t often understand the consequences of what God calls us to do. And yet, through their witness, through their daily actions in raising their son, God’s will was done, and God’s presence in the world grew. May we, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John, do our part to prepare for the coming of our Lord.

Amen.

We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.

Amen.