Awe of the Lord

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

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

Video of sermon on Facebook

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

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

There is a verse in scripture that is usually translated into English like this: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  And I hate it when it’s translated that way, because when we think of fearing someone, it’s usually because they are bad or abusive, and God is most certainly not bad or abusive.  The Hebrew word “יראת” means fear, but it can also mean reverence, respect, awe.  Like the reverence and awe the Psalmist feels in Psalm 8, when they go out into and look up at the night sky and contemplate the incredible universe God has created.  We put such an emphasis on God as our friend and father that sometimes we forget just how incredibly great God is compared to us, and how little we know of God.  God is beyond human understanding, greater and larger and deeper than anything we can imagine, and we only know God because God has chosen to come among us and be with us and tell us about God’s own self, and it is incredible that we sometimes take that for granted.

We human beings are so small, compared to the universe.  We think we have everything figured out, and yet there is so much we don’t know.  No matter how much we study and research, there will always be things we don’t even know we don’t know.  One of my favorite television shows is called Babylon 5, a sci-fi television show from the 90s.  In one episode, the captain of an exploration ship gets a vague warning about danger at her next stop.  She goes anyway, and when she gets there something happens.  Something is there, something powerful and mysterious that her sensors just can’t figure out.  It doesn’t even notice her, but the wake from its passing almost destroys her ship.  After she gets rescued, the captain goes to the person who gave her the warning and asks him what it was.  He shrugs, and tries to explain it this way: he picks up an ant crawling on some flowers in a display next to them.  He shows it to her, and then puts it back on the flower.  “If that ant were to point to the sky and ask another ant, “what was that?”” he asks, “what could it say?  How could that ant explain what happened to it?  I can’t explain what happened to you any more than that ant can explain what happened to it.  There are some things out there greater than us that we just don’t understand.”

Compared to God, we aren’t even ants.  We don’t understand God much more than ants can understand us.  And yet God created us, God loves us, God made Godself one of us, God saves us from our own sinfulness and heals our wounds, and God inspires us and calls us with God’s own spirit.  Everything we know about God, we know because God chose to show it to us.  And there’s a lot we don’t understand, a lot we can’t understand.  God is a mystery, but not in the way we think of mysteries today: puzzles that can be solved if we just have all the facts.  No, God is a mystery in the older sense.  Mystery comes from the same root as mystic.  A mystic is someone who contemplates mysteries.  Mysteries can’t be understood, and the more time you spend contemplating a mystery the more you realize you don’t understand.  Contemplating a mystery, in the old sense, is like diving into a bottomless well.  No matter how deep you go, no matter how much you explore, it is always deeper than you can go, and there is always more to explore.  You never come to the end of it.  In the same way, no matter how much we learn about God, there is always more to explore, more to learn.

One of the things that has puzzled Christians since the very beginning is the idea that we today call the Trinity.  From the very beginning of Scripture, God was adamant that God’s people were to worship only one God.  “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”  And again, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one.”  And then along came Jesus.  Jesus called God his father, and called himself God’s Son.  Sometimes he talked about the Father as if the Father were a different person; and sometimes Jesus insisted that he and the Father were one.  And then there was the Spirit of God that Jesus talked about, that was part of God and yet somehow distinct from both Jesus and the Father.  And the earliest Christians took all of these pieces and studied Scripture, and found that while God had always been adamant that there was only one God, but sometimes God referred to God’s self in the plural: “we.”  And God was usually referred to using masculine pronouns and imagery, but sometimes God used feminine or neuter pronouns and imagery.  And even from the very beginning of Scripture, the Spirit, the breath of God, was present in creation.  And there are places like our reading from Proverbs where that Spirit of God is personified and given a voice of its own as the Wise Woman.  God is One and yet God is more than one.  God is masculine and feminine and neither.  God is creation and wind and fire and salvation.  God is greater than we can imagine, and God is intimately present with us in Christ Jesus.  And they tried to fit all the pieces together into a logical explanation, and every analogy or explanation they tried failed in one way or another.  Finally they threw up their hands and realized that they couldn’t explain God; God is a mystery.  God is one God, and God is three people.  The Father, Son, and Spirit are all God together, and though there are three of them, there are not three Gods but one God together.  And that understanding of God—one in three, and three in one—is what we call trinity.

We can’t explain God, but we can explore God.  We can love God, and we can experience God’s love for us.  God is a three-person dance, God is a family, God is a puzzle ring or a Celtic knot, made up of three parts and yet still one ineffable whole.  That relationship is built on love and joy.  When we say that God is love, that love is at the core of God’s very nature, that is what we mean: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one because they love one another, and that love overflows into all of creation.  They love one another as a healthy family does, respecting and delighting in their differences, united in love and a common goal.

That common goal is the creation and redemption of the world.  That common goal is for the love that they have for one another to overflow into all the universe so that every part of it is shaped and guided by God’s love.  That love is what caused them to create the universe to begin with.  God rejoices in the goodness of all that God has made, and God has from the very beginning.  God rejoices in us.  As tiny and miniscule and insignificant as we are, God loves us.  And when the world was broken by sin and death—when we human beings broke creation with our rebellion—God still loved us.  God was angry and hurt at what we had done, but that anger did not stop God from loving us.  Even in the depths of our sin, even as we kept hurting ourselves and others and the good world that God made, God kept reaching out to us, through the Spirit and through Jesus Christ.  We keep rebelling, and God keeps making peace with us through Jesus Christ.  God keeps pouring God’s love into us through the Spirit.  There is nothing—not our own sinful actions, not the actions of others, not powers nor principalities nor life nor death nor anything in the whole universe that can stop God from loving us and reaching out to us and trying to save us and all of creation.  We know this not because we’re smart enough to understand everything about God, but because God has told us this.

God is not only greater than we are, God is greater than we can imagine.  God is vast beyond human understanding, and we will never be able to comprehend all of who and what God is.  But we know what God has told us: that God created the world, that God loves us, that God is our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit which calls and inspires us.  God loves us, and is always with us, and will never forsake us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Fruits of the Spirit: Communication

Pentecost, Year C, June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17

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

Video of sermon on Facebook

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.

One of the cool things I’ve seen done at Pentecost is to have the Acts reading read by people in different languages.  After all, that’s what the story is about: the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues, which here means the ability to speak new languages they’d never learned.  A bunch of hicks from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic and a smattering of Hebrew and barely enough Greek to ask for directions suddenly found themselves speaking not only fluent Greek, but also Latin, Farsi, Arabic, Luri, Akkadian, Luwian, Hittite, Berber, and possibly a few other languages as well.  Because they spoke all of these languages, they were able to spread the Good News of Jesus by telling all these different people about him and what his life, death, and resurrection meant for all of creation.  It was a great miracle that brought many people to Jesus.  And, so, we commemorate and re-enact it by reading the story in many different languages, whatever languages people in the congregation speak, often multiple readers in multiple languages at the same time.  I’ve heard this passage read in Greek, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Asante, Swahili, and others, whatever language they could find someone to speak.

They don’t even have to speak the language well!  Sometimes you can get someone fluent in a particular language, but a lot of the time it’s somebody who hasn’t spoken that language since college, or since their grandparents died.  As long as they can read aloud in that language, they’re good, even if they don’t remember the language well enough to understand what they are reading.  Nor do they have to be understood by the congregation: I’ve most often seen this done in congregations where most of the members spoke only English, or maybe had a little bit of another language but not enough to understand the reading.  Even when a large portion of the congregation is fluent enough in a particular language to understand the reading in that language, there are often multiple languages being read, so that nobody can understand any of them.  It was always fun, and memorable, and cool.  And it can be a good way of lifting up the gifts and heritages of many people in the congregation.  And it’s a reminder that no matter what language you speak or where you are from, the Gospel is the same for everyone and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ no matter where we’re from, what language we speak, or what culture we’re from.

Those are all good messages, but unfortunately they miss the point of the story.  See, the story is not about the languages themselves, the story is about communication.  In order to tell people about the love of God in Christ Jesus, you have to speak their language.  You have to communicate.  You have to be able to tell the story and its meaning in ways that people can understand.  And it’s not enough to just get the bare bones of the story across; you have to be able to tell the story in a way that they can connect to it.  This is not about people stumbling through a language they barely know; this is about being fluent enough to really connect with people.  This is not a story about lifting up a few languages from the sidelines and giving ourselves a pat on the back for how diverse we are.  This is a story about God’s people learning to communicate with those who are different from them, and being sent out into the world to do so.

After Jesus’ resurrection, his followers were doing basically the same thing they’d done between his death and resurrection: staying within their own group, often indoors, where it was safe and everybody knew and loved Jesus.  They stayed with places and people they were familiar with, comfortable with.  People like them, people who didn’t need the whole story explained to them, people who understood what they’d been through.  They went back to fishing.  They stayed in the upper room.  Despite Jesus telling them repeatedly to go out into the world and spread the Good News, they stayed where they were and shared the Good News with people who already knew and appreciated it.  It was safer, and it was easier.  If it had been up to them, they would have stayed right where they were, and their group would never have grown, and eventually they would have died off.  Maybe they would have succeeded in passing it on to their kids, and it would have become one more minor sect of Judaism.  Who knows.

But God didn’t leave it up to them.  God sent the Holy Spirit to them roaring like a freight train, and he literally set them on fire for Jesus.  And God gave them the ability to speak to all of the people in the crowd outside their doors.  God drove them outside their comfort zone and gave them everything they needed to tell their story—God’s story—in whatever way their audience could hear it best.  And because they were speaking the languages people knew, because they were not just speaking but communicating, other people heard the Good News and turned to Jesus.  That miracle—evangelists knowing the language of the people they’re trying to reach without having to study—has never been repeated.  But it was the foundation of the Christian church as more than just a handful of Palestinian Jews.

This story asks us two questions: who are the people right outside our doors that we should be reaching out to, but aren’t?  And second, what do we need to learn to be able to communicate with them?  Like those first Christians, we are awfully comfortable inside our own walls, talking with the people who already know and love the Good News of the Gospel.  We are very comfortable talking with the people who already speak our language.  We are very comfortable talking with the people we already know, the people who are like us, the people that we understand and who understand us.  But God did not give us the Holy Spirit just so we could stay comfortably inside our doors talking with people who already believe.  God sent us the Holy Spirit so that we could go out into the world, so that God would be with us always, everywhere, so that we can have courage and participate in God’s work in the world.  God called us to love all people, not just the people like us; and it’s hard to love people you don’t know and never spend any time with.

As we reach out and build new relationships with the people outside our doors, a new problem crops up: communication.  Unlike at the first Pentecost, most of them know at least the bare bones of Jesus’ story, but they’ve never seen how that story connects with their own lives.  We may speak the same language, but we use it differently.  Words like sin, salvation, redemption, justification, grace, righteousness—all those nice churchy words that mean so much to us, are not part of their vocabulary.  To a lot of non-churchgoers today, the word “sin” doesn’t mean much besides “a word that self-righteous jerks use to bash people they don’t like.”  But sin hasn’t disappeared just because the word isn’t used by the general public.  If you translate the concept of sin into words they’re more familiar with—brokenness, selfishness, violence, being twisted—people get what you’re talking about, even if they’ve never been to church in their lives.  Because they’ve seen all those things, and the damage they do.  The Holy Spirit led the first followers of Jesus to speak other languages so that they could spread the Good News; it’s calling us to find new ways to communicate with people in our community who share our language but have never connected with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  May we, like the people at that first Pentecost, follow the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

The True Meaning of Christian Unity

Easter 7, Year C, June 2, 2019

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Ascension

Easter 6, Year C, May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5, John 14:23-29

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.

This Thursday is Ascension Day.  Historically, it’s a very important Christian holiday.  Here in America we’ve mostly forgotten about it, but in other places—Germany, for example—it’s still celebrated enough that they get the day off.  Whether we remember it or not, it’s still part of our confession of faith.  “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  The Creed gives a very bare-bones version of Jesus’ life: it doesn’t list any of his miracles, or any of his teachings, or any of his parables.  He was born, he was crucified, he was raised, he ascended to heaven, he will come again.  All the stuff that got left out, but the ascension was left in.

So, what is the ascension?  Let’s take a look at the big picture here, what the end of Jesus’ time on Earth was like.  Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, and spent the next forty days appearing to various of his followers.  The women in the garden, Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus, Thomas in the upper room, Peter and the rest of the disciples on the beach for a fish fry.  All the various stories—and there aren’t many of them, but they are all significant—of Jesus being with various people after he rose from the grave take place in a span of forty days.  Then, after forty days, Jesus returned to heaven.  The Bible stories describe this as Jesus literally rising up from the ground and flying up into the air.  That may be why we don’t talk about the ascension much; it seems a little weird and magical and superstitious to modern science-minded people who know that while heaven exists it’s not a literal, physical kingdom sitting up there in the sky somewhere.  Ten days after Jesus ascended—which makes it fifty days after he rose from the grave—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost and sent them out into the world.  And, as Christians, we believe that Christ will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the dead will be raised, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and heaven will be part of earth.

Forty days after Easter is this Thursday, so that’s the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, when he went back to heaven after his resurrection.  And I thought about using the readings for Ascension Day today, the passages where the Bible actually recounts Jesus’ return to the Father’s side, but then I read the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday and realized it does a better job of explaining why the ascension is important than the readings actually about the ascension itself do.

Today’s Gospel reading is part of the Farewell Discourses.  The Gospel of John records Jesus’ long night of teaching during the Last Supper, all of the things he told his disciples in his last night with them before his death.  Some of those teachings are instructions—the great command to love one another, for example—and some are explaining what’s going to happen and why, not only at his death but after it.  Jesus tells them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.'”

Now, that’s all kind of complicated.  But the thing is, when he talks about going away, he’s not just talking about his resurrection.  When Jesus died, he only spent three days in the grave and then he rose again and came back.  But forty days after he rose, he ascended, and fifty days after he rose, the Holy Spirit came.  And the night before he died, Jesus spent a lot of time telling his disciples that it was important that he leave them, that he would send the Holy Spirit to them.  And later in this speech, he tells them that it’s better for them if he goes, because then he can send the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life that I would have dearly loved to have Jesus’ physical presence with me.  Times when I would have given anything for concrete, firm proof of God’s love for me, or times when I would have liked a simple, clear, direct statement from Jesus’ own mouth, so I would know exactly what God was trying to tell me without having to pray or discern or interpret anything.  And I’m sure many of you would love that too.  It’s great to have spiritual assurance; in a lot of ways, it would be even better to have physical, tangible, connection with God.  The thing is, though, that when Jesus was physically present in human form, he could only be in one place at once.  The Spirit, on the other hand, is like the wind.  It can be everywhere at once.  With everyone at once, not just one at a time.  God can work on a much larger scale through the Holy Spirit than through the Son.  So, yes, it is better for us to have the Spirit than if Jesus had stuck around in the flesh.

But as I was reading this passage, I wondered if it wasn’t also about something deeper.  I thought about what it was that Jesus did when he died on the cross and rose again, I thought about the kingdom of God, and how Jesus always said it was near.  I thought about how he’s coming again, to judge the living and the dead.  I thought about how all the writers of the New Testament talk about how in Jesus, God was uniting us to Godself.  I thought about how we become part of Christ, his body in the world.  I thought about how we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptisms.  I thought about how Jesus was so insistent that he had to ascend back to heaven, that it would be better for us if he did than if he stayed here on Earth.  I visualized the course of his life and actions in my head.  He started out in heaven, then he came to earth and was born, then he died and rose from the grave, then he ascended back into heaven, and he’s coming back one day, and then heaven and earth will be united, made one.  And I realized that it looked like a needle and thread sewing two pieces of cloth together.  If you’re sewing, you take two pieces of cloth.  You push the needle down through both, and then up through both, and then down again.  Through this process, the two pieces of fabric become one whole piece.

Isn’t that what Jesus does?  He travels between heaven and earth, bringing the two together, and uniting them.  The kingdom of God is near because Jesus is near, because Jesus brings the two together.  God and humans are united because we connected with Christ in our baptisms, and the Son and the Father and the Spirit are one.  In Christ, God was reconciling us to God’s self.  In Christ, the world is redeemed and made new.  In Christ, heaven and earth are close and will one day be united.  If heaven and earth used to be separate, Jesus Christ is the thread bringing us together and making us one.

Amen.

Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

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

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 first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

Listen and Follow

Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019

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

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.

It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’  Even as a kid I thought it was funny.  I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other.  Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not.  I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.

That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where.  In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity.  Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough.  Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor.  After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way.  You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught.  If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry.  But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!

We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell.  We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should.  We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.

There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though.  One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything.  No, really, you can’t.  You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts.  Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else.  And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does.  And people can’t stay afraid forever.  It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness.  So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors.  Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.

And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath.  Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today.  Jesus and the Father are one.  They’re not separate.  It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people.  No.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.  They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified.  They have the same goals and desires.  They are acting together, and always have, and always will.  That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.

Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us.  But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath.  God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved.  God loves the world.  God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved.  God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock.  God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved.  Yes, we can turn away.  Yes, we can ignore God’s call.  Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to.  But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation.  God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.

God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life.  God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come.  And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either.  God wants us to have life now, too.  We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world.  And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.

And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it.  Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation.  They are safe and protected in God’s care.  You know what’s going on around them?  The opening of the seals.  Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest.  And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection.  It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.

And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either.  They have been made holy by God.  That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb.  All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior.  They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And that blood that redeems?  It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it.  The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes.  We don’t have to earn it.  We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized.  We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.

Amen.

The Lamb Who Was Slain

Easter 3, Year C, May 5, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.