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.