Serving God above all else

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 22, 2019

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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 our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus said: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s a pretty bald statement, and fits very well with other of Jesus’ statements about money elsewhere in the Gospels.  Jesus spent more time talking about money more than about any other topic except the kingdom of God, and Jesus tended to be very critical of wealthy people.  Moreover, this statement that you cannot serve God and wealth fits very well with many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, where wealth and poverty and economics are central themes.

Our first reading is a prime example of this.  Amos was a prophet known for his thundering denunciations of sin, and he focused on the sin of economic injustice.  In our first reading he rails against the business owners and traders who use treachery and deceit, cooking the books and falsifying measurements so that they can cheat both the people they’re buying from and the people they’re selling to.  That’s what “making the ephah small and the shekel great” means.  It’s like if a grocery store sold 2lbs of meat as being 2¼ lbs.  Obviously, lying is wrong, but the thing that makes this kind of lying even worse than regular lies is that it preys on the most vulnerable.  Sure, it’s not good for anybody; but the poorest people in the community are the ones for whom it is the heaviest burden.  The powerful people in Amos’ day were quite willing to cause poverty and enslavement among the most vulnerable people in the community, as long as they got paid for it.  In a straight-up decision between higher profit margins for themselves personally, and doing the right thing, they would always choose profit.  They believed themselves model citizens and good people, but they destroyed lives and communities for their own profit.  And Amos was appalled.  Amos warned them: The lord God almighty saw what they were doing, and God was not going to forget.  All the good things about them—how much they went to worship, how they respected their own parents and treated their spouses and kids well, all the money they donated to good works—was not enough to make up for the evil that they did in impoverishing others for their own gain.  They were going to have to answer for their actions.

You cannot serve God and wealth.  It’s like a servant trying to serve two employers.  For a while, it looks like it works.  But what happens when both of them want the servant working at the same time?  He can’t be in two places at once, he’s got to choose between them.  In the same way, there are times when our allegiance to God will conflict with our allegiance to money.  Because sometimes doing the right thing is not always the most profitable thing.  Generosity is the most obvious: it is more profitable to keep your money for your own things instead of giving to those in need, but God calls us to be generous.  But it’s more than that, as the reading from Amos shows.  Bad business practices gain wealth, but they are exploitative.  But there are even business practices that are perfectly legal and above-board that are still very likely to disproportionately penalize poor and working-class people.  You make more money if you don’t pay your employees well than if you pay them a good wage.  You make more money if you use unpaid interns instead of paid employees.  You make more money if you treat employees like interchangeable machines rather than accommodating any disabilities or special needs they might have.  But all of these things result in poverty and vulnerability and peoples’ lives being measurably worse.  And God values people more than money, and God expects us to do the same.  It’s not that money is bad, it’s that when it comes down to a choice between doing what God wants and doing what is most profitable, we have to choose.

Which brings us to the parable.  It’s so weird.  Jesus praising dishonesty?  That’s not something you find much of in the Bible.  And we tend to assume that the master or landlord in a parable is an allegory for God, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  Let’s look at a little bit of Roman economics to see if we can shed some light on this parable.  In the Roman Empire, landowners were pretty much all absentee landlords.  They lived in the city and owned lots of land all around, which was worked by slaves and tenant farmers.  The tenant farmers were like sharecroppers, and the whole system was designed to benefit the landlords at the expense of the people who actually did the work.  You had to plant mostly olive trees and grape vines, because olives and olive oil and wine were profitable and that’s what the landowner wanted.  But that meant that you weren’t growing the wheat and barley to feed yourself and your family.  Which meant you had to buy food, which meant you were always in debt.  And if you got into too much debt, the only recourse was to sell yourself or your children into slavery.  A good year was one in which you and your family got enough to eat and only went a little bit into debt.  A bad year, well.  It was a great system for the major landlords, very profitable.  But it was awful for the vast majority of people, resulting in hunger and grinding poverty in the midst of a world filled with abundance.  There were the super-rich, and there were the people living in grinding poverty, and in between there were the managers who made sure that the wealthy landowners got every shred of profit they could squeeze out of their land and their tenants.

The manager in our parable had probably spent his life sucking up to the wealthy people he worked for.  Of course he did; how else was he going to advance?  The landowners controlled the purse strings; they controlled everything.  If he didn’t want to have the same dire straits as most of the people of the community, he needed the wealthy people to like him and employ him.  He probably aspired to join their ranks some day, the ranks of the people who had it all and pulled all the strings.  And if that meant carrying out their orders and turning the screws on the workers he managed, well.  It was better than being a laborer himself.

And then he got accused of wasting his employer’s money or property.  Taking advantage of poor people and forcing them into greater poverty and possibly even enslavement was business as usual; wasting a rich person’s wealth was a crime.  And this manager, who’s built his entire life on sucking up to the rich and exploiting the poor, all of a sudden he’s terrified.  Most people really don’t like him, for good cause.  He is the embodiment of a system that has made their lives hell.  Nobody’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  If his employer fires him for cause, nobody else is going to hire him to be a manager … and then he will be well and truly up the creek without a paddle.

So he cheats.  We don’t know if he’d actually wasted his employer’s money before this or if he was falsely accused, but we know that at this point, he absolutely cheated his employer.  He went to the people who owed the landowner money—the same people that, up to this point, the manager and landowner have been doing their level best to chisel and gouge and exploit—and cancels some of their debts.  He’s doing it for purely selfish reasons: he hasn’t had some miraculous change of heart, he hasn’t decided to turn and undo the whole system, he just wants to have people willing to take him in and help him once he gets fired.

But do you think it matters?  The people whose debts he forgave, do you think they care whether he did it for selfish reasons or out of the goodness of his heart?  The people whose burden was relieved, who didn’t have to worry about being sold into slavery because of their debt, do you think it mattered to them why he did it?  The whole system was messed up.  The whole economy was based on degradation and exploitation and putting profits above people.  Is there any such thing, in that system, as honest wealth?  And that manager who cheated his employer by relieving peoples’ debts, he may have been cheating his manager but he might have been faithful in that moment to what God wanted, even if he didn’t know it.

And that’s the real question for us as Christians, isn’t it?  When it comes to a conflict between God and money, who are we faithful to?  Will we serve money—the profits, the market, the corporation, the bottom line—or God?  Our economy is a lot better than the Roman one, it’s far less exploitative, far fairer.  But it’s not perfect, and we still have to make choices sometimes: will we serve God, or money?  Will we be faithful to God, or faithful to money?  Which master will we serve?  Which will have the greatest place in our hearts?  Money is very useful, but if we are to call ourselves Christian, we have to serve God above all else.  May we learn to care more about God’s call and command than about what the world teaches us about money.

Amen.

Rejoice

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 15, 2019

Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

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.

 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” … and Jesus said, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  You know what struck me about this reading, when was studying the texts for this Sunday?  It’s the contrast between God’s reaction to sin, and the religious leaders’ reaction to sin.  In our reading from Exodus, God sees the Hebrew people sin and becomes furious.  He knows the harm they are doing to themselves and one another.  And, like anyone who sees someone they love being hurt, God gets angry.  Meanwhile, the religious leaders see people who have committed sin, and grumble that Jesus talks to them.  Their reaction is not about punishing sin; it’s not about hating the brokenness and destruction that sin leaves in its wake; it’s certainly not about trying to heal that brokenness or help people turn away from sin.  No, their grumbling is about dividing people into good people and bad people, people who deserve good things and people who don’t—and then making sure that everybody knows who’s supposed to be on what side of that equation.

For most people in the world, there are two kinds of sinners: the ones they can sympathize with, and the ones they can’t.  There are some people, and some sins, where we can put ourselves in the sinner’s shoes.  “If I were in their position, I might have done something similar.”  We feel compassion.  And, very often, we begin to excuse the sin, to minimize it.  It’s not that big a deal!  Anyone might have done that, in that situation!  We believe ourselves to be good people, and we can see why they did it, therefore they must be good people too, and therefore the sin must not really be that bad.  Or maybe the sinner is so nice, and they seem so much like us, so surely they can’t be that bad.  Therefore, the thing they did can’t have been that bad, either.  We close our eyes to the hurt their sin caused, the damage, and sweep any consequences neatly under the rug.  This is what happens every time a man known to harass women keeps getting invited to parties, or someone gets mad that their friend was called a racist for saying and doing racist stuff.  If we sympathize with the sinner, we are very likely to excuse the sin.  If there’s a way to sweep things under the rug and prevent them from facing any consequences, we’ll do that.  We may even convince ourselves that their actions were good.

When we can’t sympathize with the sinner or the sin, however, things are exactly the opposite.  Then there is no excuse for their behavior or their words.  Why, they must be pure evil to have said or done such a thing.  No punishment is too much for their offenses.  And anyone who can have compassion or sympathy for them must be just as bad.  Even minor sins, done by people we dislike or have no sympathy for, loom large in our eyes.  We want the book thrown at them, and we are quite happy to exclude them and demean them and treat them badly, because obviously they deserve it.  If terrible things happen to them, that’s okay, because they don’t deserve compassion or humane treatment because they’re bad.

How much harm the sin caused is less important than how we feel about the sinner.  If we like the sinner, we think there is nothing to forgive.  If we don’t like the sinner, we think forgiveness is not—or shouldn’t be—possible.  And neither of these is healthy, good, or godly.  In God’s eyes, no sin can or should be swept under the rug or minimized.  God sees all the hurt and pain that sin causes.  God knows exactly how bad each sin is, even when we humans blind ourselves to the real consequences of our thoughts and actions.  But at the same time, God truly loves sinners and can and will forgive anything if we give God half a chance.  And God rejoices every time someone can be saved, every time someone can be turned to a more life-giving path.

Consider God’s words in our reading from Exodus.  We see how angry God is at the Hebrew people for breaking their promises and going astray.  It’s not just that they’ve started to make themselves idols, it’s that God knew where that was going to lead.  Once you’ve decided that one of the ten greatest commandments can be broken, and that everybody should just go along with it, where does it stop?  This isn’t just a minor thing like jaywalking.  Idolatry is creating God in your own image, a god you’re comfortable with who will only ever tell you what you want to hear and confirm what you already believe.  Once you have taken that step—once you have stopped listening to the actual God who created the universe and saves people from slaver and sin and death, once you have started substituting your own preconceptions and  prejudices and ideologies and telling yourself that’s what God wants you to do—then any other evil becomes excusable.  Because it’s just a matter of finding the right justification.  And if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding justifications.

The gods of our own creation like all the same people we like, and hate all the same people we hate.  The idols of our ideology tell us that we are righteous when we do the things we want to do, whatever that may be and no matter who gets hurt.  After all, if our actions or inactions hurt people we don’t care about, the gods we make in our own image don’t care about them, either.  Murder, rape, torture, theft, adultery, abuse, exploitation … all of them can be justified.  If we work hard enough, we can even find a way to explain them as a good thing.

And that’s why God is so mad about the Hebrew’s idolatry.  God knows where it will lead.  God knows that they will use the idol they have created to justify the worst parts of human nature.  They will hurt one another, and do evil, and they will use their idol to excuse it all.  If your children whom you loved and had tried to teach good to were hurting one another, and convincing themselves that their cruelty and selfishness was good and right, wouldn’t you be angry?  Every single human being ever born is God’s beloved child, whom God created in God’s own image.  Every bit of the universe was created by God, and made good.  Every time we hurt another human being, we hurt someone God loves.  Every time we hurt ourselves, we hurt someone God loves.  Every time we ignore another human being’s pain, we ignore the pain of someone God loves.  Every time we hurt the world, we are hurting God’s good creation.  God cares about everyone, even the people we don’t.  Even the people we actively hate or despise.  That’s why God hates sin, because it hurts people God loves.  That’s why sin makes God angry.

And that’s also why God forgives.  Because God loves.  God loves both the sinner and the sinned-against.  God loves both the one who is hurt, and the one who caused their pain.  God hates the things we do that hurt ourselves and others and creation, but God still loves us.  And no matter what we have done, or failed to do, God will always seek us out and work to turn our lives around.  No matter what others have done or failed to, God will always seek them out and work to turn their lives around.  And when it works—when someone is saved, when someone is put on a better path, God and all heaven throws a party and rejoices.  Wouldn’t you, if it were your child?

The Pharisees saw sin as a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s worth caring about and who’s disposable.  And so when they saw Jesus spending time with people they thought were sinners, they grumbled.  Because God should care about the nice people like us, not the bad people like them.  All too often, that’s the way we think about sin and sinners, too.  But that’s not the way God sees it.  To God, sin is the tragedy that causes his beloved children to hurt one another and God’s good creation.  Sin is the thing that breaks the world and separates us from God and one another.  But no matter how great our sin is, God’s love is greater still.  And sometimes, sometimes people choose to be better.  Sometimes people choose to stop contributing to the cycle of pain and violence.  Sometimes people who have gotten lost are found and put on a better path.  And when that happens, God and all heaven rejoices.  Shouldn’t we rejoice, too?

Amen.

Power and Equality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.