The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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.

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.

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To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

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 Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.