Fruits of the Spirit: Communication

Pentecost, Year C, June 9, 2019

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

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

Video of sermon on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Fishing for People

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

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

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

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

Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church.  And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years).  “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.”  Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t.  There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades.  And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do.  Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off.  Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?

No, the research is quite clear.  In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust.  In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual.  A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat.  That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world.  When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.

I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion.  How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith?  And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in?  And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them.  That’s something which has a very good track record!  The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well.  My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off.  That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time.  I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard.  There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.

We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism.  We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God.  Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God.  In many and various ways.  God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together.  Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend.  Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be.  And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways.  And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians.  Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives.  When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith.  When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well.  And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith.  Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.

In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena.  That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked.  It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once.  But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking.  Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith.  When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well.  It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people.  It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference.  Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?”  We’re talking tens of millions of people!  And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years.  You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs.  You just need a handful of new people every few years.  And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life.  That’s it.  That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.”  The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.

Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote.  If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people.  Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell.  If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did.  Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others.  Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.

The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life.  You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice.  And it’s not hard.  It just takes practice.  All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking.  Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day.  Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see.  If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before.  And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family.  And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people.  May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.

Amen.

Advent 4C, 2018, December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

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

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

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

There is a Christmas song that is very popular these days.  I’m sure that you’ve all heard it, and enjoyed it, because it is beautiful and, (unlike most modern Christmas songs) actually talks about Christ and what he means.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

If you’ve ever heard this song and wondered if Mary knew, well, the Gospel of Luke is quite clear.  She did.  The angel spelled out for her who and what her infant son was going to be, and then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and confirmed that the baby was going to be special, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, the Song of Praise, which we used as a psalm today.  And then even after Jesus was born, when they took him to the temple, two separate people, Anna and Simeon, prophesied about the baby Jesus and what he was going to grow up to do.  So, yes, Mary knew.  She might not have had everything spelled out with each individual miracle listed, but she knew the general gist of what Jesus was going to come to do.  She knew that Jesus was going to continue God’s saving actions.  She knew he was going to scatter the proud, the greedy rich who let others starve, the powerful who gained power by oppressing others, while at the same time lifting up the lowly, the downtrodden, the hungry, caring for them and making sure they had what they needed to live abundant lives.  She might not have known specifically that he was going to walk on water, but she knew that he was going to save the world by turning it upside down and doing incredible things.

But a lot of the time, simply knowing isn’t enough.  We may know the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it.  We may know that something hard and difficult is going to be worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about the hard and difficult bits.  How often do we put off or try to avoid something because, much as we might desire the end result, we really do NOT want to have to go through the process of getting there?  Mary knew who Jesus was going to be and what he was going to do, because the angel told her; but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it or looking forward to it.  I don’t know how she felt about it, but I imagine she was in a lot of shock.  And also, she was probably worried, considering that she wasn’t married and having a child out of wedlock was a huge deal that would change her life and probably make it measurably worse.  And, sure, she probably trusted that God would take care of her and provide what she needed to do the task he had given her … but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it, or looking forward to it.  Knowing isn’t enough.  Most of the time, we need something further to help put knowledge into action.

For Mary, that something was a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When the Angel told Mary what was going to happen, she accepted it, but that’s all.  The angel gave its message, Mary said okay, the angel left.  Then she went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child under unusual circumstances.  Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both elderly, and they’d been unable to have children.  Now, past the age of childbearing, they had given up hope.  But an angel had come to Zechariah and told them that they would have a child, who would grow up to become a prophet—you know him as John the Baptist.  That’s who Elizabeth was pregnant with when Mary came to visit.

Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was blessed with knowledge of who Mary was going to be, and who her child was going to become.  And Elizabeth was thrilled.  She affirmed what the angel had said, and blessed Mary.  And here is where we get Mary’s reaction, her song of praise, in response to the news the angel brought.  Here.  Not while the angel was there, not when she received her call to become the mother of God.  Here, with her cousin.  Who had just finished showering her with love and support.

Human beings aren’t created to be alone.  God did not make us to be solitary creatures.  That’s one of the first things we learn about humans in the Bible … God creates the first human, calls it very good, and then says, “but it is not good for the human to be alone.”  And then God creates the second human being.  Because humans need companionship, and support, and love.  And we get that from God, but we also need it from our fellow human beings.

God was asking Mary to do a hard thing, by asking her to bear and raise Jesus Christ, God-become-flesh.  Partly, that was hard because pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are hard.  But a lot of it was that people would gossip about her, and shame her, and treat her badly for bearing a child out of wedlock.  It doesn’t matter how much she told them the child was God’s Son and God’s will, they would not have believed her.  If someone told you that God was the father of their baby, would you believe them?  Probably not.  So Mary would be ostracized and alienated from her community because of this thing God was asking her to do.

But God provided her with people to support her, even so.  By giving a child to her cousin Elizabeth, and then giving Elizabeth enough insight to realize what was really going on, God ensured that Mary would not be alone.  No matter what anyone else said, she would have someone in her court, someone who would give her love and support and understanding, which are things all human beings need.  And it is at that point, when Mary knows that despite what society is going to think about her, she is going to have at least one person loving her and not judging her, that‘s when the knowledge of what was going to happen overflowed into praise.  That’s when she began to sing.

None of us are Mary or Elizabeth.  None of us are going to have mystical pregnancies that catapult us into the center of God’s work in the world and redirect our lives with one fell swoop.  But we all have callings from God; we all have a place in God’s work in the world, both individuals and as a community of faith.  Our callings may be smaller than Mary’s call, but they are still important, and still part of God’s work.  Knowing what God is calling us to do is the first step, and without an angelic messenger it usually involves a lot of prayer and study and contemplation.  But the second step is not one we can do alone.  It’s not private.  It’s about coming together as a community to support and encourage one another.  As Elizabeth encouraged Mary, so we too are called to encourage one another, to name God’s gifts when we see them and bless one another.  And that’s especially important when, as in the case of Mary, God calls us to do things that don’t necessarily fit in well with the larger society.  And sometimes what God is calling us to do isn’t necessarily to do the work ourselves, but to support those who do it.  To be there for the people who need us.  To be the arms of God wrapped in love around those who would otherwise be alone or neglected.  May we answer God’s call with joy; may we always have the love and support God desires for us; and may we always share that love and support with those who need it.

Amen

United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Discomforting Guest

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table.  We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation.  Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests.  And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest.  In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus.  Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.

Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world.  First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it.  I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it.  There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events.  They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere.  You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you.  They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house.  Both business and pleasure went on at the same time.  If there was a court case coming up that affected you?  The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before.  If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods?  You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties.  Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.

At the party, there was a strict social order observed.  The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table.  Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme.  Did you ever watch Downton Abbey?  Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where?  It was a little bit like that.  Where you sat at the table mattered.  It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life.  We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots.  You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot.  You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner.  Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.

If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch.  So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests.  And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table.  (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.)  So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.

Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are.  Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat.  Go and take the lowest seat, instead.  The one that’s beneath you.  Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot.  Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth.  I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot?  What if you’re stuck there?  And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them.  Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to!  That was the way the system worked!  Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs.  Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong?  Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?

Then Jesus turns to the host.  “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned.  Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with.  Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list.  Don’t worry about being a laughingstock.  Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things.  Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”

What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth.  Here on earth, we have hierarchies.  And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful.  Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society.  Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t.  Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’?  Yeah.  That’s a nasty metaphor.  It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.  Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it?  A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior.  The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life.  And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months.  Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way.  In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way.  “All animals are equal.  But some animals are more equal than others.”  We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons.  We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us.  And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.

That is not what God’s kindom is like.  God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people.  Not just pretend equality, but real equality.  Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us.  Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God.  And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love.  In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality.  In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true.  And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom.  And we are excluding people whom God is working through today.  As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice.  Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?

I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words.  They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society.  They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too.  And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God.  But that’s true of all people, then and now.  We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world.  We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway.  No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom.  We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth.  But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom.  We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table.  May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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 trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.

Amen.

What Makes a Fool

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, July 31st, 2016

Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-31

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.

 

Fair warning: I spent the week out at Camp of the Cross where we had Christmas in July, and so I’ve got Christmas on the brain right now.

This parable is often called the parable of the rich fool.  But what is it that makes him foolish?  Is it because he built silos to store his harvest in?  I don’t think so.  As any farmer knows, you don’t use up your harvest all at once.  Particularly if, as in those days, you weren’t selling it to a company and shipping it off far away, but were going to be eating much of it yourself over the course of the year and selling the rest bit by bit as people need it.  Building silos to hold your harvest is not only good common sense, it’s necessary to prevent spoilage, and to prevent pests from devouring your crops.  And God has no problem with good food storage in case of future bad harvests—remember the story of Joseph in Egypt.  The Pharaoh had bad dreams, which Joseph realized were a warning from God about years of famines to come, and it was through that warning and Joseph’s interpretation that allowed the Egyptians to store up supplies of grain to get them through the lean years, and in the end save Joseph’s family, too.  Building barns big enough to hold the harvest was not what made the rich man a fool.

The rich man had managed his land well.  The Bible tells us that the land produced abundantly—the soil was good, there was enough sun and rain, everything working together to produce a bumper crop.  But as any farmer knows, the farmer’s actions in cultivating the crop make a huge difference.  When to plant, when to harvest, what type of crop—even back in the days before things like pesticides and fertilizer sprayers, there was a lot of work that had to be done the right way to get a good crop, even when the weather and the land were perfect. The land that he had inherited was good, and God gave him good weather, that year; but he would still have had to manage it well to get such a wonderful crop.  So it’s not his land husbandry that makes him a fool, either.

No, what makes him a fool is something subtler.  What makes him a fool is that he relies solely on himself, on his own actions, to safeguard himself.  He doesn’t consider his family and community, he doesn’t consider the larger world, and he doesn’t consider God.  It’s all about him.  Him, him, him.  His skills, his fears, his grain, his barns.  What matters to him?  That he, personally, has “enough” that he doesn’t need to worry.  Whose needs does he consider?  Only his own.  Whose advice does he ask?  Only himself.  This guy is the loneliest guy in the entire Bible.  He’s more alone than prophets fasting in the wilderness, because they at least had God with them.  This guy, not so much.  He kind of reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Like Scrooge, he had all the wealth a man could possibly want.  Like Scrooge, he wanted more.  Like Scrooge, he was utterly, completely alone, and he seemed to like it that way.

Notice that the fool is rich when the story begins, and he gets richer.  He shouldn’t have much, if anything, to worry about financially.  He should already be secure enough to take the time off that he so desires to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  But his existing wealth wasn’t enough, he needed more.  Before he could relax, before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors, before he could take the time off to have some fun, he needed to be more than just rich.  He needed to have AMPLE grain and goods for many years stored up neatly.  He needs to have enough so that no matter what happens, even if there are bad harvests for the next twenty years, he’ll still have more than he needs stored up.  Only then will he be able to relax and stop worrying.

It sounds absurd.  But you know what?  They’ve done studies on this.  If you ask someone “how much money would you need to have before you stop worrying about having enough money?”  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, the answer is usually about 15% more than you have right now.  And if you track people over the course of their life, and their wealth grows so they reach or surpass the wealth they thought they’d need to feel secure?  They still feel they don’t have enough, and that they would need about 15% more in order to not worry about money.  It doesn’t matter how much we have: when we focus on money, when we focus on our own wealth and earnings to make us financially secure, we will always think we don’t have enough.  We will always be craving more, thinking, “if only I had more, then I would be secure and could relax.”  And when we get that “more,” it still isn’t enough.  Because there will always be things in the world that could happen.  We could lose our home in a fire or flood.  We could get hit by a car.  A close loved-one might get a rare disease and need experimental treatments.  No matter how much money we have, we will never have the resources to handle every possible thing the world might throw at us.  Not if we’re relying on ourselves alone.

We were not created to rely on ourselves alone.  We were created for relationships—with God, and with our fellow human beings, and with all creation.  Love is God’s very nature, not as an abstract thing but as actions.  God created us in love, sustains us in love, forgives us in love, and asks that we love one another as he has loved us.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from God; God loves us, and wishes for us to have abundant lives filled with good things.  And one of the ways that God does this is by human relationships.  The kinds of relationships the fool just doesn’t seem to have.

When we see people in need, God tells us, we are supposed to respond.  Both the Old and New Testaments insist upon this point.  God does not give us blessings so that we can hoard them, but so that we can share them.  So, for example, farmers are supposed to leave some of their crop in the field for poor people to glean and for animals to eat.  Merchants are supposed to be scrupulously fair … but they are also supposed to see to it that no one is left destitute because of their practices.  Debts that are too onerous should be forgiven, and no one should ever be left without the basic necessities of life.  Those in the community without resources are to be taken care of.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains it this way: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”  In other words, when I see someone I can help, I’m supposed to do it—and then, when I need help, they help me.  What goes around, comes around, creating a community in which everyone has enough and no one is left out.  And the reason the rich man is a fool is that he can’t see that.  He thinks he can do everything himself, that his own efforts will give him the security that he craves, and so he considers only his own fears and desires.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or wear.  For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”  The rich man worried about all of that.  He never had enough.  And he spent so much time trying to get enough that he was completely alone.  He never thought about the needs of others; he never thought about what God might be calling him to do with the abundance he had been given.  He never took the time to rest, to relax, to enjoy his life.  And when he finally stopped to smell the roses, it was too late.  What had all that worrying about money gotten him?  Nothing.  He died before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors.  And he died alone.  It’s as if Scrooge had died that first night when Jacob Marley came to visit him.

Money matters.  Food, clothing, housing, all these things matter.  But there are things that matter more: community, for one.  Faith in God, for another.  Healthy, life-giving relationships with God and with our neighbor.  Love, justice, freedom, and peace.  Those are the things that make life worth living.  Those are the very things the rich fool didn’t have, for all his money.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, he was a slave to his wealth, turning away from all the good things he might have had if only he had opened himself up to God and to those around him, rich and poor alike.  And all his toil, all his worry, all his abundance of possessions didn’t save him in the end.  They couldn’t.  There is only one who saves, and he can’t be bought with money or posessions.

May we put our trust in Jesus Christ, and live abundant lives full of love and justice as he would have us do.

Amen.