Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross, October 22, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, Psalm 9:7-18, Mark 15:33-39

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

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

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

So there was this centurion, a Roman soldier, one of many occupying Jerusalem.  Like all the Roman soldiers, he was there to do what the Romans called “maintaining order,” but which really mean keeping the boot on the neck of the Jews so that they would never get any funny ideas about freedom or anything like that.  His job was to protect Roman interests, keep their puppet Herod on the throne despite how much his own people hated him, and kill anyone who protested the established order.

One of the people he killed, or helped to kill, was a guy named Jesus of Nazareth.  Now, Jesus had the rare distinction of being counted a threat to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities.  And he was crucified, which was about the cruelest way the Roman Empire knew how to kill someone.  It was gruesome, bloody, and horrifying, and it took a long time.  Days, sometimes, if the so-called criminal was really healthy to begin with.  Jesus died in just a few hours.  And the centurion was there for every bloody, agonizing minute of it.  Just as he’d been there for the executions of other bandits, freedom-fighters, protestors, and anyone else who dared to oppose Rome.  And the centurion, he looks up at the mutilated corpse of this backwater preacher who was executed for the crime of daring to speak out against the way the world works, and this centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son!”

Really?  We know he was right, of course, but be honest with yourself: if you didn’t already know that that’s how Jesus died, if you had been there on that day two thousand years ago and been told “somewhere in this crowd is God made flesh and come to live among us,” would you pick the criminal who was brutally executed for disturbing the peace as the one?  Really?  I don’t think so.  Very few people, then or now, agreed with him.  I mean, the vast majority of both Jews and Gentiles for the next several centuries looked at Christians and said, “you want me to believe that God came to earth and suffered?  He died?  How weak is that.”  It makes no sense.  The cross of Christ was a stumbling block and a foolishness to most people.  And even after Christianity became the dominant religion, most Christians never stop to think what it really means that Jesus died on a cross.  We talk about the power of God, the might of God, but not the weakness of God.  Not the pain of God.

There’s a saying that Americans love an underdog, but that’s only partially true.  We like winners.  If an underdog wins, great!  That makes their victory all the sweeter.  But it’s a general human trait to be attracted to power, to justify power, to assume that power and glory and beauty means goodness.  We want stories in which the good guys win.  We want stories in which bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people … and so, in real life, when bad things happen to someone we try and find some reason they deserved it.  Especially if they’re poor, or different than us.  We want to believe that what happened to them could never happen to us because we are good people and we don’t deserve bad things.  We want to rejoice in the star quarterback’s skills, we don’t want to hear about how he beats his girlfriend.  We want to look up to that prosperous businessman, we don’t want to hear about how he cheated his partners or his customers or his contractors, and we don’t want to hear how he abused his employees.  We want to support and honor our police officers, not hear about the bad apples who use their power to bully and hurt people.  We want to hear stories in which everybody sees evil for what it is, good triumphs over evil, and evil gets its just deserts.  We don’t want stories where the bad guys lose, and we especially don’t want stories where most people don’t even recognize evil for what it is.  Yet that’s the story of Jesus’ death: a good man challenges evil where he finds it, and gets roundly condemned by most people around him, and gets killed, and the empire that put him to death goes on about its way unchanged and victorious for centuries afterwards.

As Christians, this is something that’s very hard to come to terms with.  Our savior—God made flesh—was not a hero.  He didn’t have a heroic Hollywood victory.  He died in pain and agony.  And that’s what God came to earth to do.  He came to earth in the last place anybody would think to look.  He didn’t choose to be born as a prince, and he didn’t choose to amass earthly power or wealth.  In fact, when he talked about power or wealth, he was pretty much always critical of it and of the people who had it.  He didn’t raise an army, he didn’t create a new government, he didn’t make a big splash—only a handful of people in the entire world remembered him when he was gone, although he transformed their lives and their telling of his story transformed others.  All the glory, all the wealth and power and control of society, all of that came later.  What came first, was death.  Death on the cross.

Our God comes to us in the form of a crucified man, a man who suffered and died.  God could have become human anywhere in any place and time, and he chose to be born as a poor man and get killed?  What does that tell us about God?

Well, it tells us that the best place to find God is in the last place a sane person would look.  In pain and suffering.  The cross is God saying “no” to power, “no” to wealth, “no” to greed, “no” to ambition.  The cross is God saying “you know all those things you humans care about and worship?  All the glory and feel-good self-justification?  They’re all wrong.”  The cross is God taking the established order, the way we think the world is meant to be, and turning everything on its head.

The cross is God saying “yes” to all those who are abandoned and abused.  God says yes to the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion, and so God says yes to those who are suffering now.  God will be present when you suffer.  God goes to places of hell on earth, the places where we are afraid to go, even the hells we create for ourselves, and sets us free.  And if, in that moment, freedom or physical salvation is not possible, God stays there, in the midst of suffering and evil.  It’s not that it’s okay that people suffer, but that God will not abandon those who do.

When we focus on the cross, when we remember that God is always with those who suffer, those whom the world abandons, it changes our perspective on God, and it changes our perspective on the world.  When you focus on the cross, on the God who is present even in the most hellish experiences the world has to offer, we call that a theology of the cross.  When you forget that, when you focus on power and glory and miracles and all the nice lies we tell ourselves about bad things only happening to bad people, that’s called a theology of glory.  And Martin Luther used to say that the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross is that a theology of glory calls evil ‘good’ and it good ‘evil.’  A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Let me give you an example of the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and what they look like in practice.  Let’s go back to that centurion at the beginning.  The Roman Empire had a theology of glory.  See, the Roman Empire was big and powerful and mighty, and the Roman Empire enforced a peace across its boundaries, the Pax Romana.  It was prosperous: it built great buildings and great engineering products, it brought water to cities in the desert, it did so many great and wonderful things.  The Emperor was called the “savior of the world.”  They put that on their money: Caesar, Savior.  That’s a theology of glory, to look at all the wonderful things they did and focus only on the good.  A theology of the cross looks at that and asks the question: how did they accomplish all of it?  And they answer is death and destruction and slavery.  They established peace by slaughtering anyone who disagreed with them, and they built all of that stuff with slave labor.  They had more slaves per capita than any society in the world until the 19th Century of the American South.  A theology of Glory looks at the peace and the beautiful surface and goes “wow, isn’t that great.”  A Theology of the Cross looks at the cost, all the lives shattered and destroyed to build that empire.

Or how about Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and 40s, most Christians in Germany supported Hitler.  Sure, he had a lot of hate-filled rhetoric, and sure, he established concentration camps where millions of people were slaughtered, but at the same time he was in favor of good, old-fashioned family values.  Honoring your parents, women staying at home.  He was very hard on people of different sexualities.  So Christians looked at him and said, “he’s a great guy, it doesn’t matter all the people who are dying because of his policies.  It doesn’t matter, the people getting marched away to concentration camps, because look at the nice society he is building.”  That’s a theology of glory.  A theology of the cross says all of those “family values” are worth nothing if they are built on the bones of the slaughtered.

Or how about the American Civil Rights era?  Many white people, including many white Christians, were absolutely against the Civil Rights marchers.  They were too disruptive, too much of a threat to the established civil society.  Even those who said “but they’ve got a good point!  They’ve been treated unjustly,” said “but they’re too militant about it, they’re too loud, they’re disrupting things.  They should be quiet and ask nicely and politely for the rights and privileges that have been denied them for centuries.”

Or how about the movie last year called Birth of a Nation, about an enslaved Baptist preacher named Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in the early 1800s.  Now, if you watch many movies about the antebellum South or listen to people today talk about the Confederacy or Southern history, you will probably hear a lot about their proud heritage, the valiant and brave fighters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and states’ rights.  You probably will not hear much about the so-called ‘right’ they fought to protect, which was the right to own their fellow human beings.  Or they’ll admit it, but dance around it, or try and mitigate how bad it was.  This is a theology of glory, focusing on the glamour while ignoring the cost.  A theology of the cross reminds us that you can’t just ignore evil because it’s accomplishing things or done by people you otherwise admire.  In contrast to these other stories we tell of a glorious south, the 2016 movie Birth of a Nation shows in graphic detail just what slavery was like, how degrading and evil it was to black people, how it twisted and warped even good white people.  You cannot watch that movie and keep any illusions about slave-owning society.

And there is a question that keeps getting asked throughout that movie, at each horror.  Each time a black woman is raped by her owner, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slaves are tortured in horrifying ways to force them to work or to keep them from running away, people ask: “Where is God?”  When Nat is punished for baptizing a white man, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slave-owning Christians use the Christian faith to try and convince their slaves that God wants them to quietly accept as good all the evil that their masters do to them, people ask: “Where is God?”  And the movie’s answer to this question is twofold: first, that what happens is absolutely not God’s will.  None of the suffering, none of the pain, none of the horrors, none of the slavery.  These things are evil, and they are absolutely not God’s will.  And second, where is God in all of this?  God is with those who are suffering.  Even though their cause is hopeless, even though they all die in the end, even though the bad guys win, God is with Nat and his family and friends every step of the way.

A theology of glory gets blinded by power and wealth and beauty and glory.  A theology of the cross looks at the world from the point of view of those who suffer, and sees the consequences of human sin.  A theology of glory calls good ‘evil’ and evil ‘good,’ while a theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.  A theology of glory accepts Human justifications, while a theology of the cross sees the world from God’s point of view.  In every society, in every age, there is always a temptation to a theology of glory.  It makes sense to us.  It’s easier.  But it ignores God’s wisdom and presence in the world.  It ignores God’s will, and it ignores those who suffer.  A theology of the cross looks for God even in the darkest places.  A theology of the cross acknowledges the evil that humans do to one another, even when it’s people we otherwise might look up to.  A theology of the cross knows that God is there even when people suffer.  May we always see the world through God’s eyes, and through the perspective of the cross.  May we reach out to those who suffer, to see their pain and heal their wounds.

Amen.

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What We Do With God’s Blessings

Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Reformation 3: Saint and Sinner

Reformation 3, Saint and Sinner, October 8, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Psalm 51:1-12, John 20:19-23

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

 

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

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

Martin Marty once said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Martin Luther would definitely have agreed.  And the main way God’s Word does this, in Luther’s view, is by reminding us that we are both saint and sinner.

We tend to want to divide the world up into good people and bad people.  In the common American world view, there are some people who are worthy and some people who aren’t.  Some people who deserve attention and praise and help when things go wrong, and others who don’t.  From a Christian point of view, we label these categories as “righteous” and “sinners.”  People who have lived good lives, chosen the right things, and been generally good, and those who haven’t.  Except things are a bit more complicated than that.  Nobody is purely good or purely bad; nobody is all one or all the other.  We are all saints—and we are all sinners.

Let’s define our terms here.  A “saint,” in the way the Bible uses the word, is someone who is holy in the eyes of God.  And a sinner is someone who has fallen short of what God expects of us.  And every single one of us has fallen short of what God expects of us.  We have all failed to be the good people he created us to be.  The only reason any of us are holy in the eyes of God is because of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.

There are some people who know just how screwed up they are.  There are some people who know just how much they fail.  There are some people who know they are sinners.  There are some people who know that they have hurt themselves and others.  There are some people who know that they are broken.  There are some people who know that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t measure up to where they should be.  All too often these people are not in church because they do not believe they are worthy.  I’ve talked to so many people who said, “well, if I came to church pastor, there’d be a lightning bolt before I got through the door.”  And they mean it as a joke, but there’s a core of truth to it: they believe that they are too broken, too much a sinner, for God to love.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is a comfort.  God loves you anyway, as broken as you are, and you are forgiven and loved and saved.  You are a saint of God.  And in that forgiveness, God is working to heal you and make you whole.  You don’t have to be afraid, you can leave your guilt and anxiety and fear and all your burdens, for Christ is working to reconcile you and all of creation.

But there are people who don’t need to hear that.  People who don’t need to hear the message of forgiveness, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven.  They believe they’re good, nice people, and that sin is always something other people do.  They hear of God’s judgment and they don’t quake in their boots, and it’s not because they trust in God’s mercy: it’s because they don’t believe they’ve done anything to need forgiveness in the first place.  Or, if they have, they count it as so minor as not to matter.  Because they’re good, nice, Christian people, so by definition anything they do is good, nice, and Christian.  I was once in a Bible study with a woman—a devout Christian, there every Sunday—who was really upset that we started each worship service with confession, because she didn’t think she had anything to confess.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is not supposed to be a comfort.  Because you are already too comfortable.  So comfortable that you cannot see your own flaws, your own sins, the way your own actions—and inactions—harm yourself, those around you, and the world.  This is, by the way, the sin of the Pharisees.  The sin of people who think they already have everything figured out, and so miss the very presence of God in their midst even as they claim to worship him.

If you are sitting there thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, then let’s stop for a bit and take a good hard look at what “sin” means in the lives of good, hardworking, ordinary people who’ve never killed anybody, never had an affair, and so on and so forth.  Let’s start with the Ten Commandments, shall we?  The first is that we are supposed to worship God alone, and nothing and no one else.  God is supposed to be the one in whom we put our trust.  God is supposed to be the one guiding our lives—not our co-pilot, but the pilot.  How many of us actually do that?  Not many.  A lot of good, Christian people put their trust in their money, or their ability to work hard, or their political party, or their own views of what is right and wrong, and then just assume that God approves of whatever they want him to.  And I’ve seen this happen on both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative both.  It’s really easy to see when people we disagree with do it; it’s a lot harder to recognize when we do it ourselves.  We create God in our own image, instead of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives to God.  And that’s sin.

Then there’s the commandment about adultery.  It is, by the way, the only commandment having to do with sex.  So you’d think we would count it as the most serious sexual sin, but how many people just shrug and say, “well, cheating isn’t so bad, everyone does it.”  Not to mention, when Jesus talked about adultery he talked about our own responsibility for how we look at other people sexually.  When you look at someone with lust, the proper response is to discipline your own heart and mind, not tell them what they should or shouldn’t wear.  It’s not about outer selves, it’s about how we think about others and how we treat them.  Sex should not be a commodity or a weapon or a toy, it should be about honest and healthy relationships of mutual trust and love.  And yet we splash sex all over the place, use it to sell things, treat people like nothing more than objects for our titillation.  Or we use the things people say or wear as justification for anything that happens to them.  “What did she expect, wearing a skirt that short?”  We treat others as things instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ.  And that’s sin.

How about “thou shalt not kill”?  Martin Luther had a lot to say about this commandment.  It’s not just about the actual act of murder, it’s about a lot more than that.  “God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and a refuge around our neighbors,” Luther said.  So we shouldn’t kill, and we shouldn’t allow others to kill.  But we also shouldn’t physically attack people, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so.  And we shouldn’t say things that encourage people to attack or to seek violent solutions, and we should speak up when others do so.  To quote Martin Luther again, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so.  If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death.  If you see anyone who is suffering hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve.”

As a society, we are doing a horrifyingly bad job of fulfilling this commandment.  And remember that in the Old Testament, God often does judge societies and communities as a whole.  Sin is about our individual actions, but it’s also about what we as a community accept as normal.  How do we, as a community and as a larger society, respond to challenges and needs?  Do we ensure that all people in our community are cared for and provided for, or do we allow others to slip through the cracks?  As a society, America is wealthier than it ever has been.  Yet over the last fifty years, as the total productivity and wealth of the nation have grown by leaps and bounds, the number of people who are not merely working class but really poor has also grown by leaps and bounds.  The percentage of people who are homeless in America has grown.  The percentage of people who are hungry in America has grown.  The percentage of people who lack medical care in America has grown.  We live in a land of plenty the likes of which the world has never seen before, and simply accept that people being sick and hungry and homeless is normal when we as a society have the resources to do something about it.  People die who did not have to, and none of us pulled the trigger, but we allowed the circumstances that caused it.  And that is sin.

Then there is the violence in our homes and schools and churches and public places.  We teach our young boys that crying is for girls, that real men aren’t afraid or nervous or shy or uncertain.  We teach our boys that the only manly emotion is anger.  And then we’re surprised when they grow up and take that anger out on their girlfriends, wives, and children.  And then we’re surprised when some of them take their anger out on crowds.  And we send our thoughts and prayers, and we rehash the same old tired arguments, and we don’t actually change anything, so that it keeps on happening.  And that is sin.

We are good, Christian people.  And we are sinners.  Hypocrites.  No matter how we justify ourselves, no matter how we close our eyes to the consequences of our actions and inactions, we are guilty.  God loves us, God saves us, God forgives us and makes us whole and holy, and yet while we live we keep messing up, we keep sinning, we keep mistaking our own prejudices and blindness for God’s will.  We are saints, and we are sinners.  Both at the same time.  When we are complacent, or blind, or hypocritical, then we need the law and judgment of God to show us the depths of our error, to afflict our consciences and drive us to God.  And when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the consequences of what we have done or allowed to happen, we need the comfort of God’s promise, the good news that God loves us and saves us and is reconciling the world.  We cannot pretend to be innocent, but we can never forget that we are forgiven.  The world is not divided into some people who are good and some people who are bad.  We are, all of us, both saint and sinner.  May we always recognize our sins, but trust in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness.

Amen.

Reformation Series 2: The Word of God

Reformation 2: The Word of God, October 1, 2017

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 1, John 1:1-5, 10-14

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

 

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

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

When I was on internship, I had dinner with a member of the congregation.  He had a question, and he wanted to know the answer.  More specifically, he wanted to have a cut-and-dried simple answer to what was actually a very complicated question.  And he wanted to know what the Bible said about it.  But the problem was, it was a complicated issue, and the Bible said a lot of things about it, some of which contradicted or argued with other things the Bible said about it.  There was no way to give a simple, cut-and-dried answer to his question without either twisting or ignoring some of the things the Bible had to say on that particular topic.  And because of that, it was one of those issues where faithful, believing Christians can prayerfully read the Bible and come up with different answers—all of which are really and truly based in the word of God.  So, I explained, it came down to interpretation, and point of view, and what weight we give to the different parts of Scripture.  I told him how I interpreted those passages, and why, but I also told him how other Christians interpret it.

Now, I’ve had conversations like this a lot.  The world is a big, complicated, messy place, and the Bible is a big, complicated, messy collection of books, and God is bigger and greater than anything we can imagine, and that means that there are a lot of places where you just can’t boil God’s Word down into a simple slogan or a verse or two to memorize and regurgitate.  Personally, I find this comforting.  No matter what happens, some other person of faith somewhere has had something like it happen to them, and chances are their story is recorded in the Bible.  And no matter how messed-up the situation is, no matter how closely good and evil are intertwined, no matter what is at stake, we as Christians don’t have to try and force the situation into some sort of one-size-fits-all platitude that ignores a lot of the reality of the situation.

I remember this conversation in particular because by the end of it, we were going around in circles.  See, he really wanted the one-size-fits-all platitude.  More than that, he sort of assumed that the Bible was a textbook for life and faith, and that we as Christians would be graded on how well we knew it.  Just like a textbook in school, where you memorize the right answers and then regurgitate them on the test, and if you have enough right answers memorized you pass and if you don’t you fail.  Except that in this case, “passing” means going to heaven and “failing” means going to hell.  So the idea that things were more complicated than just memorizing the right Bible verse was a problem to him.  It yanked the carpet right out from under his feet.

“But how do you know?” he kept asking.  “How do you know if you’re right?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I replied.  “You trust that the God who inspired the people who wrote the Bible, and who inspired the people who collected it and edited it and copied it and translated will still be with us today as we read it and talk about it and figure out what it means for us today.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked.  “What if you get the wrong answer?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I said.  “God isn’t standing there with a clipboard looking for reasons to send people to hell.  God is full of grace and mercy and forgiveness, and if you’re genuinely and honestly trying to be faithful, he will be faithful to you, even if you do mess up.  Everybody messes up, sometimes, and God loves us anyway.”

“But how can you be certain?” he said.

“You can’t,” I said.  “You just have to trust in the grace and mercy of God.”  And on, and on, it went.  He could not accept anything other than a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all answer to his question, because he wanted a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all view of the Bible.  And he put his trust in the Bible so deeply that he had trouble trusting in God.  He thought that if he didn’t have the right answer, if he couldn’t figure it out and know for certain what he was supposed to think and believe, he was in danger.

Ironic, isn’t it?  The Bible is the Word of God!  It’s supposed to point us to God, and help our faith grow!  And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when we put our trust in the Bible, that actually prevents us from trusting in God, because what we’re trusting in is our own ability to figure out the right answer.  (Remember how last week I talked about the temptation to put things other than Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith?  This is another one of them.)

The Word of God is important.  It’s the most important thing there is … but what exactly is the Word of God?  Well, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth.  Jesus Christ is the Word that God spoke in the beginning, separating out light from darkness and ordering the primordial chaos.  That Word is part of God, together with the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus Christ is the Word through which all things were made, and without Jesus there is neither light nor life.  (As Christians, we believe that Jesus is at the heart of everything.)

So if Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, what does that mean for the Bible?  Well, the Bible is not the living Word of God.  The Bible is a collection of words about God.  God inspired those words when they were being told and re-told by the ancient Jewish people.  God inspired those words when they were first written down, and when they were gathered together, and when they were edited over the centuries, and when they were copied and handed down, and when they were translated.  At each step of the way, God has been inspiring them and using them to speak to people.  And every time we come together to hear these words and preach and teach using them, God is still here, inspiring us and speaking through those words.  The Bible is special because there is no other collection of writings anywhere in the world that God has spoken through as reliably and as often as God has spoken through the Bible.  But we always have to remember that we don’t worship the Bible.  We worship the God who speaks to us through the Bible, and who also speaks to us through many other ways.  We worship Jesus Christ our Lord, the Living Word of God.

In ancient times, after God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and before leading them into the Promised Land, God gave them the first part of what would come to be the Bible—the laws, commandments, and teachings, that, along with stories of their ancestors in the faith, form the first five books of the Bible.  But while God was giving them all of these words to remember, God gave them something very simple, something that they should always remember, no matter what.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  That’s the core of all those teachings.  That’s the center.  That’s what they were to remember every minute of every day, in everything that they did.  If you remember that, then all the rest of the commandments and teachings and stories are meaningful and life-giving, and lead us to God.  If you forget that, they’re just words on a page.

Martin Luther used to put it this way: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger in which the infant Christ is laid.  We worship God.  And where do we find stories about God?  Where do we find a record of what God has done in, with, and through God’s people?  Where do we find stories of our ancestors in the faith?  Where do we find stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord?  We find them in many places, but the Bible is the best.  God speaks to us through many things: through nature, through works of literature and art, through the community of believers, through many other ways—even science, sometimes.  But the Bible is the way that God has most often and consistently spoken to believers.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God that transforms our lives, saves us from sin and death and all the powers of this world, and raises us from the power of the grave.  God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love.  Scripture itself doesn’t give life, because life can only come from God.  But scripture is a necessary part of the conditions for a life of faith to grow.  It’s like rain.  Rain is not what makes a seed alive.  But without enough of it at the right times, that seed isn’t going to amount to much.

May the living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, live in our hearts and minds.  And may the

Amen.

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

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, O Lord.

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

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 24, September 17, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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

 

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

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

The first thing you have to understand about this parable is that in the ancient world—and up until the 20th Century—debt slavery was the norm in pretty much every society in the world much more complicated than hunting and gathering.  If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave.  In places where slavery was outlawed, you went to some sort of a debtor’s prison, where you were effectively a slave of the prison until you paid your debt … which was generally impossible, since people in prison can’t earn much money.  This was normal.  This was proper.  This was the way things worked, on a fundamental level.  If you can’t pay your debts, you lose EVERYTHING.  Even your own freedom.  Everything that makes life worth living, you lose.  So when Jesus starts talking about someone being enslaved and sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions, because he couldn’t pay his debts, it may sound shocking to us but the people who were there actually listening to Jesus would have thought it boringly ordinary.  Yeah, sure.  Of course a debtor is being sold into slavery.  And water is wet, and the sky is blue.  This is the way the world works.  And it is terrible, but it’s normal.  There are a lot of terrible things in the world that we accept as normal.

In the ancient world, debt was a life-or-death issue, and certainly a life-or-freedom issue.  We don’t have debt slavery today, but money problems can still ruin your life.  A lot of us have been where that debtor has been.  Bankruptcy may be better than a debtor’s prison, and a lot better than slavery, but you still lose everything and have a hard time starting over.  Half of all bankruptcies in the US happen because of a medical problem, and in half of those cases, the person even had medical insurance.  It just wasn’t enough, and didn’t cover things like travelling for care.  And what about the people who are accused of a crime but are too poor to pay bail?  They languish in prison until their trial simply because they are poor, whether or not they are guilty.  Or what about the person who went to school and has lots of student loans, but hasn’t been able to get a job that pays well enough to pay them off, and spends their whole life slaving away to service the debt, with the weight of it dragging them down no matter how hard they work.  If you haven’t been in the position of that debtor, you probably know someone who has.  The shame.  The fear.  The helplessness in the face of life’s disasters.  Begging that someone will have mercy.  Just a little, just enough that the axe doesn’t fall today.  Even if it has to fall sometime, just please let it not be today.  We know what that’s like.

The surprise comes in the next part.  The debtor falls to his knees before his lord and begs for time to repay the debt—no shock there—and the lord listens.  It’s ludicrous.  This debt is far, far too big.  The debtor could work for thousands of years and still not be able to pay it back.  But the lord listens to his pleas.  Not only that, he cancels the whole debtThat’s the shocker.  That’s what would have made Jesus’ original hearers sit up and take notice.  More time to pay back the debt, sure—if a rich person was feeling particularly generous.  But to completely cancel it?  This is not pocket change, here.  This was serious money, even for rich people.  A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand is literally the largest number in the ancient Greek language.  If you had asked someone in Jesus’ day to count larger than ten thousand they could not have done it because the numbers literally did not exist.  This is the largest possible number of the largest possible unit.  There was no way to owe more money than this.  There were kings in Jesus day who didn’t have that much money in their treasuries.  And this lord is just going to … let it go?  Wipe the slate clean?  Not collect it?  How much is that going to cost the lord?  What other things is he going to not be able to do because he lost all that money?  What are people going to think about this?  Are they going to call him soft, weak?  Are other people going to try to cheat him because they think he’ll let them get away with it?  This is baffling.  Strange.  It makes no sense.

Can you imagine how the forgiven man felt?  With the weight of all that load just suddenly … gone?  All the worry that his world was going to come crashing down on him vanished?  It must have felt like winning the lottery, but a lottery that you didn’t even buy a ticket to.  It was that kind of good fortune.  Or like a tornado that comes and picks up the house right next to you and tosses it for miles, leaving you untouched.  Unbelievable.  What do you do with that kind of grace?

Then the guy sees someone who owes him money.  And this is a much smaller sum.  I mean, it’s still big—about four months’ wages—but not ludicrously big.  This is an amount that someone could repay, although probably not all at once.  Set up a payment plan, and it could be done.  But when debt collectors come looking for their money, a lot of the time they aren’t particularly interested in the slow, long repayment.  After all, it’s a chancy thing.  What if the person can’t do it?  What if they run away, leaving their debt behind?  And, you know, you have to make an example of people, otherwise other people will be tempted not to pay their debts, and then where would we be?  The whole system would collapse!  Chaos!  Sure, it would be better for the poor schmucks who owe money, but what about the people who lent it to them in good faith expecting to get their money back?  Don’t they deserve consideration, too?  The system has to be maintained.  And so the first man—the man who was just forgiven a greater debt than he could ever possibly repay—he has the man thrown in jail.  He was given a grace beyond measure, and he isn’t willing to pass it on and pay it forward.  He thinks it’s a one-off gift, not a radical change in the way the system works.

Well, word gets around, and the lord finds out.  And he’s angry, because he did mean it to be a change in the way the system works.  Because the system is bad.  The system grinds people up and spits them out.  The fact that we are used to it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean that’s the system the lord wants.  If he liked that system, if he wanted it to exist in his lands, he would never have pardoned the first slave in the first place.  So the lord took back his gift, and handed him over until he could pay that horrendous, huge, impossibly large debt.  Which, of course, he’ll never be able to do.  But the problem isn’t the first man’s debt.  The problem is that the first man was so used to the way the system worked that even the gift of the most massive grace anyone could ever receive didn’t make him stop and question it.

The debt in this parable, of course, symbolizes sin.  There are a lot of different metaphors for sin in the Bible: debts, trespasses, and so on.  There are a lot of different types of sin, and some of it is the ordinary everyday type that we don’t even notice, and some of it is the deep and violent and obvious sin that can’t possibly be mistaken.  Sometimes, the metaphors fit very well, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the hurt done is deeper than money lost and trust betrayed.  Sometimes, especially when violence is done, forgiveness is not something that can—or should—come quickly or easily.  In some cases, being pressured to forgive too quickly or easily can actually cause psychological damage to the victim.  There has to be safety, and healing, and growth, before forgiveness can happen.  And forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; neither the lord nor the other servants forgot the debt that had been forgiven.

But whatever the type of sin, we need to remember that we ourselves have been forgiven.  We ourselves have done things we shouldn’t, and we have failed to do the things we should, and we have hurt ourselves and others in the process.  And God has forgiven us everything we have done, because God loves us.  Moreover, the whole system of judgment and punishment that we take for granted isn’t God’s final say on the matter of sin and evil.  God hates the evil that we do, the ways we hurt ourselves and others; but God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, even sinners.  And God did not come into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to condemn, but to save.  To remake not just a few sinners, but the entire cosmos.  To take the whole dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, rich and poor, bullies and victims, hate and fear, and completely remake it.  To break the power of sin and death.  Not appease it, not punish it, wipe it away forever.

Hate will have no place in that new world that God is making.  Neither will old grudges, no matter how well-earned.  Neither will the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that sees the flaws of others, but cannot see its own.  If we are going to fit into that new world—if we are going to be who God created us to be and live the lives God has created us to live—we can’t cling to the ways of the world.  We can’t assume that our norms are God’s norms, or that we have the market cornered on God’s love and grace.  May we always remember to see things through God’s eyes, and forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.

Amen.

A Labor Day sermon on power, kingdoms, and crosses

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.