Holiness

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19th, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 32-37, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

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

 

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

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

In our first reading from Leviticus, God tells us to be holy, as God is holy, and in our second reading Paul tells us that we are God’s holy temple, and in our Gospel reading Jesus tells us to be perfect, as God is perfect.  So, then, I think we need to take some time to ask the question: what does it mean to be holy and perfect?  And immediately, we run into a problem.  When we hear the Scriptures tell us to be holy and perfect, what do we all start thinking about?  Our own moral status.  Am I, personally, holy, or am I sinful?  Am I perfect, or am I flawed?  Have I, personally, done everything I should have done and refrained from doing what I should not?  It’s a very individual way of looking at things.  And it’s no wonder, because the larger religious culture tells us that what we should most be worried about is our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The problem is: the phrase “personal relationship” is not found anywhere in Scripture.  Most of the Bible doesn’t care about our individual relationships with God; it is much more focused on our communal relationship with God.  And today’s readings are a perfect example.  Each one of them is not aimed at individuals, but at the community.  In Leviticus, God does not say “you should be holy on a personal level,” God says “you should all be holy together.”  In Corinthians, Paul does not say “you personally are God’s temple,” he says “all of you are God’s temple.”  And Jesus doesn’t say “you individually should be perfect,” but rather “all of you collectively should be perfect.”

We know this because most languages, including Greek and Hebrew, have two words for “you,” while English only has one.  In most languages, if you are talking to a group, the pronoun to address the group as a whole is different from the pronoun to address a single person.  It’s like in English, if you go to the south, there’s a difference between “you” and “all y’all.”  In the rest of the country you might say “you guys” instead of “you” if you were talking to a group.  But in English translations of the Bible, they just use the word “you” for both one person and groups of people.  So it’s easy to miss that God or Paul or Jesus or whoever isn’t just talking to individuals but to a whole group of people.  And while a lot of times it doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.  Holiness and perfection are not primarily about our individual moral state.  They are about what kind of community we create together by the grace of God and in God’s image.

So, then, what does a holy community look like?  What does a perfect community look like?  I should point out that the word “perfect” is sort of misleading; the Greek word is something like complete or whole, and it comes from a word that means “the end.”  Perfection is about becoming what you will ultimately be like, and what will the community of believers ultimately be like?  Where will we end?  In heaven, in God’s kingdom, in the place that has no end.  So the point Jesus is making is that we should be creating communities that are striving to become like the community we will be when all our wounds and brokenness have been healed and all our tears have been dried and there is nothing but light and joy and love and peace.

Leviticus is one of the books of the Law designed to guide God’s people into being this kind of holy community.  We Christians do not follow these laws because of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts.  Many of these laws either don’t really apply to the modern world or are specific to Jewish religious rituals or are these odd things that appear in one or two verses and don’t really seem to connect with much of anything else.  But there are some overarching themes, certain types of things that get emphasized over and over and over, and these tell us a lot about what God desires of the community of believers.  Our first lesson today was drawn from some passages that deal with these overarching themes.

Note that when Jesus told his followers to love their neighbor, he wasn’t saying something new.  He was quoting from the ancient laws given by God.  You shall love your neighbor.  And, in the same chapter, you shall treat everyone—even foreigners—as your neighbor.  You shall specifically love your foreign neighbors as yourself.  How does this love show itself?  In a lot of ways.  Respect the elderly.  Point it out when people in the community do bad things.  Act with justice, so that the rich important people don’t get special treatment and the poor don’t get ignored.  In business, make sure that all your dealings are honest so that everyone gets treated fairly and your employees get paid a good wage, but if that isn’t enough and there are some people going hungry, make sure they are fed.

Now, human nature, when faced with these passages, is to find some way to squirrel out of it.  Surely God didn’t mean we need to make sure everyone gets fed?  What if we don’t have enough money?  What if they’re addicts or lazy or bad people who don’t deserve it?  But the command to make sure everyone has enough to eat is repeated many places in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is never limited to the deserving.  I guarantee you that there were alcoholics in the ancient world, and lazy people, and bad people.  But none of these are excuses.  The whole community has a responsibility to make sure that everyone gets food.  Everyone with a field must leave some crops in the field for any hungry person to take.  Now, today when farmers are a tiny percentage of the population and most people live in cities, the type of gleaning Leviticus describes wouldn’t work.  But we still have the obligation as God’s holy people to make sure that nobody is going hungry.

And then there’s the thing about foreigners.  This is something we talk a lot about, today.  Why should we let foreigners in?  Especially ones who are different than we are?  What if they’re criminals?  What if they’re terrorists?  Surely God would not want us to take such a risk.  And yet, we should remember that the ancient Israelites were far more vulnerable than we are.  We have a rich, powerful nation with extensive security apparatus and a strong army to protect us.  Israel and Judah were small, relatively poor countries trapped between larger and richer countries.  They got invaded regularly, and conquered several times throughout the Bible.  But this is not an excuse God allows.  You shall not oppress the foreigner, and you shall love them as yourself.

We modern American Christians, when we think of holiness and perfection, tend to focus on believing the right things.  And, certainly, what we believe is very important.  But what we’re supposed to believe isn’t included in the holiness code of Leviticus and it isn’t included in the Sermon on the Mount.  See, “faith” is a verb.  Faith isn’t something we are, it’s something we do, a way of life.  Faith is not passive.  If our faith in God is true and good, it will lead us to act in the world.  It will lead us to act with justice and love.  Not just on an individual level, either.  Not just in our own immediate circle of friends and family.  But in our whole society, for everybody.

I look at this holy code, this way of life that God calls us to live together, and it is very easy to get discouraged.  Because the world doesn’t look like that holy community.  The Christian community doesn’t look like that holy community that God wants us to be.  Instead of loving our neighbors, we get suspicious; instead of loving the foreigners among us as ourselves, we hate them and send government agents to harass and deport them.  And in our nation, thirteen percent of households are food insecure, so that while they aren’t starving they don’t always have enough for everyone to eat.  Thirteen million American children live in those households where there is not enough food.

And I’m a historian.  I know that humanity has never lived up to the holy society God calls us to be.  Never.  The ancient countries of Israel and Judah didn’t live up to it; that’s why the prophets kept having to call them to account.  And no Christian society has ever managed it either.  Even in the best times and places, there has always been injustice, hunger, hate, and evil lurking in the background, no matter how nice and pretty it looked on the surface.  And so it is easy to despair.

Sin warps our best efforts, and yet God loves us still.  We fall short of the holy lives and holy community that is God’s desire and will for us, and yet God loves us still.  We let the worst parts of ourselves dictate too much of what we do as individuals and as a society, and yet God loves us still and sent his only son Jesus Christ to save us.  We fall short; we cannot achieve that holy life God calls us to.  And yet, there is still hope.  Not in ourselves, but in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

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

 

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

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

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.

The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

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

 

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

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

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Work to be done.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 33C), November 13th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12:2-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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

 

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

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

I have a book called the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse.  It has two chapters giving a timeline of every time a large number of people thought the world was about to end, from 2,000 BC to 2005, when the book was published.  The first chapter—2,000 BC to 1900—is eighteen pages long.  The second chapter, covering only the last hundred years, is thirty pages long. We are obsessed with the end times: how is it coming, when is it coming, and what should we do to make sure we come through it.  And yet, you will note that we are still here.  Every time we humans have thought surely, the end must be nigh, we have been wrong.  This world will end one day—and be replaced by God’s kingdom—but we are terrible at predicting it.  The disciples wanted to know when it would happen, too; but the closest Jesus ever came to a direct answer was in Mark 13, when he said he didn’t know.  He was a lot more concerned about teaching us how to face difficult times.

“Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” the disciples asked.  When is the world going to end?  Let us know, so that we can prepare!  And Jesus was very insistent that we needed to be prepared, that we needed to be waiting; but he didn’t tell us what the signs were that we should be looking for.

I think the reason Jesus didn’t tell us the specific signs was that if we knew them, we’d be paying too much attention to the signs themselves and not enough to how we’re supposed to be waiting.  Let me give you an example.  In the days of Paul, a decade or two after Jesus died and rose again, people were sure that Jesus was going to come back within their lifetimes.  They were sure that the end of this world and the beginning of the kingdom of God was just right around the corner.  You know what some of them did?  They quit their jobs, spent all day every day praying and waiting passively for Jesus to show up, and they expected the rest of the community to support them while they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Thessalonians: yes, Jesus Christ is coming back, and yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and yes, we are supposed to wait faithfully for him.  But you know what?  We’re all waiting.  While we wait, there is work to be done.  Nobody gets to say “well, I’m waiting for Jesus, so I’m just going to sit around all day waiting—the community can pay for everything I need in the meantime.”  Everyone is waiting for Jesus, and nobody gets to use that as a reason to expect other people to pay their way.  This was not a case of people being disabled and not able to work, or willing to work and not able to find jobs; this was a case of people not thinking they had to work because Jesus was coming back soon.

And those early Christians were not alone.  Every time people think the world is going to end soon, they do things like this: quit their jobs, sell their stuff, and go out to a mountain or a field somewhere to wait for the second coming.  People have done it twice that I know of in the last decade!  And each time, of course, they were wrong about the date, and then they had to figure out how start over again.  Dropping everything to wait is obviously not the answer.  Which is why, when Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, was asked if Jesus was coming back soon and what they should do to prepare, answered this way.  “If I knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow,” he said, “I would plant a tree today.”  In other words, go on with your lives, living faithfully as Jesus taught us.  That’s how we’re supposed to respond to troubled times; that’s how we’re supposed to deal with the knowledge that the world will eventually end.  Trust in God, and live your life faithfully.

If you find that hard, if you think “there has to be more to it than that!”, let’s remember what we know about God’s kingdom.  Isaiah describes it like this: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

In God’s kingdom, there is still work to be done.  In God’s kingdom, there are houses to be built and gardens and farms and vineyards to be tended.  Except better.  No need to worry about rent or mortgages or foreclosure; no need to worry about crops failing or hail or bad prices or any other problem.  No need to worry about failure at all.  Good communities, where people love and support one another, where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place and everyone has joy, and everyone has work to do that suits them.  No violence, no destruction, no calamity, no cheating, no fear, no anger—because no fear or anger is needed.  Only love, and joy.

And while we wait for God’s kingdom, we are called to work.  No passive waiting for us; the waiting of a Christian is active waiting.  It’s like waiting for Christmas.  We don’t just sit around, November and December; we get busy.  We bake cookies, sing carols, decorate.  We serve our neighbor.  We wait for Christmas by doing things, and in just the same way, we are called to wait for God’s kingdom by doing things.  To work for that world described in Isaiah’s vision.  We can’t create God’s kingdom ourselves, but we can make little pieces of our world a little bit more like it.  In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, so we work to feed those who are hungry.  In God’s kingdom, everything is full of love and joy, so we work to spread love and joy.  In God’s kingdom, there is work for all and all enjoy the benefits of their labors, and so we work towards the goal of just and good employment for everyone who can work.  In God’s kingdom, there is peace, and so we work for peace.  In God’s kingdom, all are healed, and so we work to heal those we can and support those we can’t.  We are called to act with justice and mercy.  We are called to love God and our neighbor.  We can’t fix everything that is broken and wrong in this world, but we can make things better, bit by bit.

That is counter-cultural.  You see, working to make the world more like God’s kingdom, is working to make the world a better place.  It’s working to change the world.  And the world doesn’t want to be changed.  Change is scary.  Change upsets the applecart.  Change means that people who are comfortable with the way things are become uncomfortable, and change means that the people in power might not be powerful any longer.  And so the world tries to prevent change.  The world wants us to be apathetic.  The world wants us to not even notice the injustices in the world, the pain and hurt we cause each other.  The world wants us to think that hurting people is normal, that pain is just the way things are, that there are winners and losers and that nothing we do matters.  If we don’t notice or care, we certainly won’t bother to do the hard work of waiting for God’s kingdom.

And if the world can’t make us apathetic, well, the next best thing is if we’re frightened and angry.  Because when we get scared, we tend to stop looking outside of ourselves.  We focus on ourselves, instead of on the plight of our neighbors.  And worse, instead of waiting and listening for God we chase after anyone who claims they can protect us.  We get angry, and we see people as threats instead of as fellow children of God.  It’s no wonder that when the disciples asked for signs of the end times, Jesus responded by telling them not to be led astray and not to fear.  Fear gets in the way of active waiting.  Fear gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbor; we can’t love, if we’re afraid.  We can’t think if we’re afraid.  And we are called to love God, to love our neighbor, and to put that love into action.  That’s what the life of a Christian is; that’s what waiting for God’s kingdom is like.

There is destruction in this world.  There is confusion, and pain, and chaos.  There is evil.  But we hope and trust in a God who will take care of us even if this world kills us.  We hope and trust in a God who is creating a kingdom where there is no longer any death, or pain, or destruction, or evil, or fear, or hate.  Only love and joy.  That kingdom isn’t here yet, but it is coming.  May we trust in God, and wait actively for it.

Amen.

On community, society, and self-definition: An Autistic Perspective

Yesterday, in a private (but large) Facebook group I belong to, the mother of an autistic child “got up on her soapbox” to explain that we should never call anyone “autistic,” but rather say that they “have autism.”  Because, she said, “Autism is not his primary identifier. The same is true for all who live with autism.”

This is MANIFESTLY, COMPLETELY, TOTALLY UNTRUE.  The two largest autistic advocacy groups in the US–that is, the two largest run by autistics themselves, rather than by parents of “children with autism”–are the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autism Women’s Network.  The communities of autistics that form both groups STRONGLY prefer identity-first language, that is, “autistic” instead of “person with autism.”  Many autistics (including myself) greatly prefer identity-first language, for a variety of reasons; the ASAN website has a nice post on why, and quite a number of us (although not myself) have blogged about it.

So I got up on my soapbox, and commented to the Facebook post, explaining why I and many other autistics strongly prefer identity-first instead of person-first language.  She and another lady tried to argue me out of it, or at least claim that by doing so I was denying other people the right to be called what they preferred.  When they couldn’t get me to back down and admit I was wrong, the OP said this:  “To be honest, it makes me feel sad that you self-identify primarily as autistic.…”

It was like a punch to the gut.  Half an hour later, my hands were still trembling; an hour later, I was still occasionally fighting back tears.  Let me explain why … and why the OP thought she could speak for autistics in the first place.

(The rest of this post is not about her; I know very little about her, beyond my interactions with her in the comments on that post, and I’m not trying to claim or imply that she’s like some of the people I talk about.  This post is about the experiences in my life that made her words strike such a strong chord in me.)

There are two autism communities in the US.  One, by far the most vocal, is made up primarily of therapists, parents, and teachers.  They’re the ones who run Autism Speaks, which is probably the only autism “charity” you’ve ever heard of.  (Here’s a good rundown of why AS is pretty terrible.)  This community started back in the 40s and 50s when Kanner et al were first diagnosing all these “abnormal” children, spinning all kinds of theories about what was wrong with them and experimenting with how to make them “normal” with very little (sometimes no) ethical oversight.  Then Lovaas came along, the father of behaviorism, claiming that autistics weren’t really people, just people-shaped animals, and that only when we became more “normal” would we really be people.  The autism community was joined by parents eager to make their child “normal,” or as “normal” as possible (without ever stopping to consider whether there might be a difference between “normal” and “healthy”).

Today its leading lights are psychologists who talk about our “lack of emotions” and say we’re wrong when we insist we have them, therapists who advocate 40+ hours a week of therapy designed to force us into compliance, and parents who blog about all the worst things their child does and how terrible autism is, in order to get sympathy and money.  It rallies around Autism Speaks, which spreads lies about autism “stealing your child” (we’re not gone, were here–we’re just different) and “destroying marriages” (studies in both Canada and the US have shown that the divorce rate is no higher for parents of autistic kids than for any other married couple).  Most of the parents and therapists aren’t bad people; they’ve just … never questioned any of these basic assumptions.  And there’s only a place for someone who actually has autism in this community if they completely agree with all of it.  (Which is why AS can occasionally get an autistic person to work with them on a high level, such as John Eldar Robinson, but can’t keep them.)  This is the autism community that largely shapes public discourse about autism, controls what programs and services are available to autistics and their families, and insists on person-first language (“person with/having autism”).

Let me tell you what life is like as an autistic in a world where this community shapes the public dialogue and perception.  It’s pitying looks, because obviously, autism has destroyed my life (it hasn’t) and I must be miserable and lonely (I’m not).  It’s listening to people explain why they absolutely won’t vaccinate their kids, because in a choice between their child (and others) dying of a preventable disease or becoming autistic, they would rather their child died.  (Think about it.  They would literally rather their child died.  People can and do die of things like rubella, mumps, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases.  Vaccines don’t cause autism, this has been proven many times over, but they believe it does and, believing that, they would rather risk their child dying than risk them turning out like me or my dad or my baby brother.)

It’s taking care of my baby brother when he was nonverbal or barely-verbal, and hearing people talk about what a shame it was and what a tragedy it was and what a burden he was, right next to us, as if him not talking meant he couldn’t hear.   I’m lucky; our parents would never have said anything like that to either of us.  I have too many autistic friends whose parents would say the same things, and then say, “of course I love my child, I just don’t love their autism.”  Leaving them, at age three and seven and ten and fifteen, wondering what about themselves was so terrible even their own mother and father couldn’t love them.

It’s years spent terrified of people finding out, because I knew how they treated and talked about my baby brother.  Years of feeling like I was drowning, years of social anxiety building up and up, years spent without reaching for help because I was afraid of being labelled and knew how cruel and thoughtless the world can be.  (But I don’t for a second regret “coming out” with my disability.  Yes, some people have been really nasty or condescending about it … but let’s be real, most of them would have been able to tell I was different/weird anyway, and would still have treated me badly because of it.  What coming out really did was open up the possibility of honesty and real connection with people willing to learn and hear my story.)

It’s hearing people talk about how they’d never let their daughter date an autistic boy, because everyone knows autistics have no emotions and so couldn’t really love her, would just be using her for sex.  (That’s actually the good version.  Once, it was because “all autistics are sociopaths.”)

It’s being only listened to when I talk about the bad parts of autism.  Problems, sure, everyone wants to hear about my struggles (and how “inspiring” I am for overcoming them).  But dare to talk about anything positive outside a select community, and I get jumped on.  Everything bad about me must be caused by my autism; anything good about me must be completely unrelated.  And anything that is neither good nor bad, merely different, must be bad if it’s related to my autism.  Example: I struggle with executive dysfunction, and get really focused on things such that I have trouble stopping doing one thing and starting another.  If that autistic focus prevents me from doing things that are more important, it’s terrible how my autism hinders me.  If that autistic focus helps me do a lot of work in a short time, however, it’s wonderful how much I have accomplished despite my autism!  Because nothing good can ever come from autism.

I also have very sensitive hearing.  This makes some things (events in large, echoing spaces, for example) very difficult, but it also makes me very musical.  If my auditory issues give me problems at a high school basketball game, isn’t autism terrible.  But if I dare to talk about how my autistic sensory issues with hearing gives me pleasure in listening to music or has made singing and playing instruments easier, well, there’s a good chance any autism parent, therapist, or teacher in the vicinity is going to jump all over me.  Because how dare I suggest that autism has any positives.

It’s people not believing me when I tell them how my autism affects me.  You see, I’m “high functioning,” which means that in many situation I can pass for “normal.”  (Basically, it means I’m a decent actress, because that’s what passing for “normal” is–acting.)  Therefore, if ever I slip and do or say something that isn’t “normal,” it’s because I’m deliberately trying to be a jerk.  If I’m trying my absolute best to act “normal” and still slip up, well, I just need to try harder.  If there are things I can’t do because I’m close to a meltdown, it’s because I’m being “lazy.”  And if I try to explain (difficult, when you’re on the edge of a meltdown), “Well, everyone’s tired, Anna, not just you.  It’s not that hard.”  (It’s not hard for you.  But my brain works differently, and right now, it’s impossible for me.)  I’m “high-functioning,” so to a lot of people I shouldn’t need any accommodations or special understanding.

It’s society assuming that I’m always the one who needs to change if there is an incompatibility (however slight) between me and “normal.”  If there is a conflict between my deepest needs and someone else’s convenience, well.  Obviously, expecting them to accommodate me is completely unreasonable.  (But if there’s something they want to do for me, something that will make them feel good about helping the poor autistic, I must always let them do it and be grateful for it.  Even if it’s not anything I need or want, even if it’s something that actually causes me problems.  Because they’re being Nice, so it would be offensive if I don’t fall all over myself with gratitude.)

It’s parents of autistic kids being thrilled to meet me–at first.  They’re so happy, I give them hope that their kid will be “normal,” they hope their kid turns out just like me!  Except that a lot of the time, that only lasts as long as I’m the “good” autistic who agrees with everything they think, say, and do.  If I don’t, if I suggest things they don’t want to hear or offer an explanation of their child’s behavior that doesn’t fit their models, well, obviously I can’t know what I’m talking about, because I’m nothing like their child.  (Maybe–after all, autism is a fairly wide and deep spectrum, more like a color wheel than a straight line.  But if the parents are neurotypical, I bet I’m still a heck of a lot more like their child than they are.  Also: are you different as an adult than you were as a child?  Yes?  Well!  Guess what!  So am I!)

It’s listening to all the autistics I know who had (and many still have) worse childhoods and lives than mine, filled with well-meaning parents and therapists so focused on “helping” them be “normal” that they couldn’t see the trauma they were causing, the stress, the anxiety, the scars that still hobble them in many cases.  It’s hearing how so many of their parents still claim that they were doing the right thing, and their children should be grateful to them for getting that dehumanizing therapy.  (Note: not all therapy is bad, in fact there are a lot of things that therapy can help autistics with.  But unfortunately, there is SO MUCH autism therapy out there that is damaging rather than helpful, and while things are getting better, you still have to be VERY careful.  Particularly with anything labelled “behavioral,” ABA, or IBI.  My autism resource list has a whole section on this.)

It’s seeing scientific studies come out every six months or so with “revolutionary new findings about autism,” which is really only confirming something actual autistics have been trying to tell people for the last thirty years.  There’s never any acknowledgment of this.  We get belittled and pooh-poohed for trying to say it; they get glowing reviews.

It’s seeing the news every time the parent of an autistic kid murders their child because “raising a child who has autism is so hard.”  And seeing news outlets and talk shows fall all over themselves to exonerate the murderer and blame the victim for their own death. (Parents murder autistic children in the US at an average rate of about one every month.  In the past five years, over 180 people with disabilities have been murdered by parents and caregivers, with autistics making up a large percentage of the total.)  (I use person-first language here because while some disability communities, notably the Deaf community and Autistic community, prefer identity-first language, most other groups prefer person-first language, making it best when speaking of the larger whole.)

It’s steeling myself whenever I see an article or ad or blog post or book about autism, because chances are very good it’s going to be terrible and hurtful.  It’s probably spreading terrible stereotypes.  If not, good chance it includes at least some mention of all the terrible things that society, parents, therapists, and teachers can do to autistic kids.

It’s steeling myself every time there’s a mass shooting, because long before any facts are known, the media will be throwing around theories about the killer being mentally ill and/or autistic–this despite the fact that there has never been a mass shooting committed by an autistic, and very few mass shootings are committed by anyone with any mental illness or intellectual disability.  We are far more likely to be injured or murdered by “normal,” able-bodied folks than vice versa.  But it’s  easier to demonize us than to ask what it is about our society that makes otherwise mentally-stable young men decide to take their frustrations out by shooting up schools, churches, and other public places.

It’s knowing that most autistic-coded characters on TV are like Sheldon from the Big Bang theory–where it’s implied but never stated that they are on the autism spectrum, so half the time the show can occasionally toy with something resembling understanding, while half the time implying that it’s not a different neurology, he’s just a selfish jerk.  And all the time playing it for laughs.  (“Oh! You must love Sheldon Cooper, then,” people say when they find out I’m autistic.  No.  I don’t.  He makes me cringe.  Some autistics do like him, I’m not saying he’s a bad character or that there are no autistics who are selfish jerks.  I’m just saying, when my choices for seeing people like me on TV are him and the occasional Rain Man-esque autistic savant …. no thank you.)

It’s telling people that I’m autistic, and have them lecture me about what autism is like because their father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate’s kid is autistic and they met them for five minutes at a birthday party once, and then later read an article about autism, so obviously they know more than me.

Some of the biggest autism challenges in my life aren’t caused by autism itself, they’re caused by the way society thinks about and deals with autistics.  Especially the “autism society” that is made up of “experts” and parents, who only want what’s best for us … but who assume that only they can know what “best” is, and that obviously they know our minds and bodies better than we do ourselves.  So we’re welcome only as long as we agree with them and do what they say.  We’re welcome only as long as autism is only ever bad, and they’re heroes for “helping” us.

Which is why another autism society exists.  Autistic society.  Made up by and for people who actually are autistic.  (You can find us at ASAN, AWN, a large variety of blogs, and on most social media sites–look for #actuallyautistic and variations thereof.)  Our motto is “Nothing About Us Without Us.”  (Also, “Autism Speaks Doesn’t Speak For Me.”)

And most of that society starts with saying NO.

NO.  You do not get to tell us you know better than we do about our own brains and bodies.

NO.  You do not get to speak for us or tell us how we should think about ourselves.

NO.  You do not get to make us feel ashamed of who we are.

NO.  You do not get to pity us.

NO.  You do not get to say our lives are terrible and we’d be better off dead.

NO.  You do not get to exclude us from conversations about our own lives.

NO.  You do not get to decide what “normal” is, and that “normal” is always the ultimate goal.  (Healthy and happy are much better ones.)

NO.  You do not get to chop off the bad bits of our lives and say “this is autism.”

NO.  You do not get to declare that some of the good bits of are lives are bad just because you can’t separate them from our autism.

NO.  You do not get to decide that obviously, any good part of our lives is unrelated to our autism.

NO.  You do not get to decide that anything inconvenient to you is bad.

NO.  You do not get to demonize our condition to get sympathy and money and turn around and say you’re doing it for our own good.

NO.  You do not get to divide us up with the catch-22 of “high functioning” vs. “low functioning.”

NO.  You do not get to decide what accommodations I need, and when I need them.

NO.  You do not get to decide that my life is a tragedy because I’m autistic.

NO.  You do not get to control what language we use about ourselves or how we see ourselves.

NO.  My autism is not about you.  Your child’s autism is not about the problems it causes you and what an awesome parent you are for dealing with it.  Your patient’s autism is not about how great a therapist you are for changing their behavior and personality into something you like better.

NO.  You do not get to decide we’re unfeeling–or even sociopaths–because the body language and facial expressions and tone of voice and words we use to express our emotions are different than yours.

NO.  You do not get to make us ashamed of who we are.  And you do not get to be condescending and superior about trying.

I am autistic.  I am not ashamed, I am proud.  And I am not alone.  We are not alone.  We are the autistic community, and we speak with many voices.  Our lives are our own.  We define ourselves.  We are fearfully and wonderfully made by a creator who made us different, but not less.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.–Psalm 139:13-14

Choosing Life

Lent Wednesday 5, March 16th, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 16, Galatians 2:15-21

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

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

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

Our readings tonight have two common threads: they talk about God’s commandments, and about life.  Now, whenever we talk about the law, we can focus on two aspects: the legalistic aspects of it—what’s the minimum I need to do to skate by—and the spirit of it.  When Jesus was asked about God’s commandments, he summed up the whole law this way: love God with all your strength and heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The law, the commandments, the prophets, the Gospels and letters, everything in Scripture, Jesus said, can be summed up by those two statements.  Love God, and love your neighbor.  If you love God and your neighbor, and you put that love into action, it doesn’t matter whether or not you fulfill the legalistic parts of the law, because Christ lives in you.  And if you follow all the law’s demands, but don’t love God and your neighbor, you actually haven’t gained anything.

At a very fundamental level, it’s about what kind of life are you going to live.  Are you going to live in Christ, a life that leads to more love in this world and blessings in the next?  Or are you going to live a life that leads to more pain and fear and death in this world, and draws you away from God?  To quote Moses from our first reading, the scriptures put before us life and death, blessings and curses, and asks us to choose life, so that we and our descendants may live.

Moses is not being poetic, and it’s not just about getting into heaven, either.  It’s about life.  Are we going to lead the kind of lives that inspire and bring about more life and love and faithfulness, or are we going to lead the kind of lives that lead to pain and fear and more death in the world?  Think about it this way: when we’re afraid, or angry, or jealous, we tend to strike out against the people we fear or dislike, sometimes with words and sometimes with physical attack and sometimes with lawsuits or rumors or other means of attack.  And then they fear us, and respond in kind.  And so it escalates.  You expect them to treat you badly, so you protect yourself—and hurt them in the process, so they hurt you back.  And maybe you don’t want to talk about how afraid you are, or how jealous you are, so you turn it into anger and lash out, or you bury it down deep where it eats away at you.

And all of that leads to death.  On an individual level, it can lead to the kind of escalating behavior that leads to fights and a cold war of resentment.  We curse others, and they curse us, and sometimes it’s just words and sometimes that curse bites deeper.  The kind of life where that’s your reality may be living, but it’s not a good life.  Sometimes all those negative emotions boil over into physical violence—sometime even into killing.  Most cases of physical violence and killing are between people who know one another—family, neighbors, coworkers.  Fear and anger and resentment and jealousy, they lead to broken lives and to death.  You can be following the letter of the law, and still be hurting yourself and other people.

But the way of death isn’t the only way.  We can open our lives to Christ, to let Christ live in us, to follow God’s command to love God and our neighbor.  And we may not be able to fix every problem—we may not be able to change other people who are acting out of fear and anger—but at least we won’t be making things worse.  And we won’t be trapping ourselves in all that pain.  Opening yourself and choosing love doesn’t mean that you pretend everything is fine when it isn’t, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you forget what you’ve been through.  It just means that you let go the bad things so you’re not dragging them around with you anymore.  It means that you focus on the good, instead of the bad.  When you are open to Christ, when love of God and others is the guiding force in your life, amazing things are possible.  So chose life.  Choose to bless the world around you, rather than curse it.  Chose the love that can lead to healing and growth and freedom in Christ.  Chose the love that will leave the world better than it was.

We choose between death and life on a community and country-wide level, too.  And again, it comes back to love versus fear and hate.  When we act out of love for our neighbors—not just the neighbors who live next door, but all people throughout our nation and our world—we help those in need and treat one another fairly.  We create the conditions that allow life to flourish.  We create a society that is a blessing for all people, not just us and our friends.  We do this in the things we do face-to-face, through how we spend our money, through how we vote, and in many other ways.  And when we act out of less noble motives—fear and greed and resentment and jealousy and prejudice—we act selfishly.  We look for ways to protect ourselves and hurt anyone who isn’t on our side.  We lash out verbally against anyone who disagrees with us.  We look out for number one, even if it means hurting others.  We follow politicians who say they can protect us from what we’re afraid of, and they enact policies that benefit us at the expense of those we don’t like.  We create a society that is a curse for some people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we live in the light of the one who died and gave himself for us.  We live because God loves us more than we can imagine.  We live because God’s generosity is greater than anything else in the universe.  And we have a choice.  We can respond to that love, that generosity, and live in the light of it, opening our lives to Christ and blessing the whole world with the love of God.  Or we can turn away.  We can say “yes, but real life isn’t like that” and ignore the love, returning pain for pain and lashing out so that we deepen the curse of sin that lays on the world.

I have set before you live and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.

Amen.