What It Means To Be The Body: On Sex, Ethics, and Community

Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

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 Christians in America today talk about sex, we tend to talk about it in terms of individual moral behavior.  And we also tend to talk about sex from the perspective of sex being inherently bad or shameful unless it’s done the right way.  The problem with talking about it as an individual moral issue is that the Bible says very little about individual moral issues, focusing instead on the ethics of the community as a whole.  So, for example, in our lesson from Corinthians, Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the whole Corinthian community.  We know this because Greek language is different when you’re talking to one person or to a group.  And the problem with talking about sex as if it’s inherently bad or shameful is that what the Bible has to say about sex is a lot more complicated than can fit into the standard purity jargon.  And I think it’s important to think about this a little bit more deeply in a time when sex scandals are in the news.  So let’s look at our reading from Corinthians.

Before we talk about sex, though, we have to talk about community in Christ Jesus.  Because that community of all believers is, for Paul, the absolute bedrock foundation for morality.  All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, a metaphor Paul uses repeatedly throughout his writings, and especially in his letters to the Corinthians.  We are members, one of another.  Nobody can stand alone, and how we act affects others.  If our actions hurt others, they are bad.  If our actions build up the body, make it stronger or more unified or more healthy, they are good.  We don’t have to worry about our eternal salvation because Jesus has forgiven and freed us from our sins.  Therefore, we are free to pay attention to how our behavior affects our brothers and sisters in the here and now.  If we hurt one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we abuse one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we ignore the needs of others for our own selfish gain, we hurt the body of Christ.  And Paul explicitly addresses this message to the stronger, more powerful members of the community.  The more power you have, the stronger your faith is, the greater your responsibility to take care of the weaker, poorer, more marginalized members of the community.

Paul’s morals have nothing to do with legalism, and everything to do with relationship.  It doesn’t matter whether something is legal or not.  It doesn’t matter whether something is normal or not.  If it hurts people, especially if it hurts your brothers and sisters in Christ, you shouldn’t do it.  And if there are people in the community who are more vulnerable than you are, it is your job to look out for them, as it is the job of the whole community.  There’s an exchange from a book by Terry Pratchett that describes it well: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things,” said Granny Weatherwax.  “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” said the young man.  “But they starts with thinking about people as things,” Granny responds.  I think Paul would agree.  If you think about people as things—as commodities, as obstacles, as enemies, as burdens, as freaks—it’s a lot easier to hurt them.  Because their needs and wishes and feelings are irrelevant, because they’re not really people.  They don’t matter.  But when you see people as siblings in Christ, instead, as members of the same body of which you yourself are a part, you act differently.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, everything.  If you start with the assumption that other people are objects for your gratification, then prostitution, sexual harassment, and sexual assault become no big deal.  If other people are there for your gratification, if they’re not really people, or at least not people worth caring about, then their wishes don’t matter and you can use and abuse them without a second thought.  Instead of a mutual intimacy to build a relationship, sex becomes a means of domination.  It becomes selfish and ugly, instead of a God-given gift.

In Paul’s day, prostitution was both legal and commonplace.  In Corinth, people would hire prostitutes for their parties as a matter of course.  Nobody thought much about it.  Paul’s objection to prostitution was not that sex is inherently sinful.  No, Paul’s objection to prostitution is what it does to the body, the Body of Christ.  Say you were a Corinthian man, and you went to a party for your guild, and there were a bunch of prostitutes there for anyone who wanted one.  They’re party favors.  And it’s legal, and it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it, so why not?  But in order to use a prostitute, you have to think of them as a commodity to be bought and sold, objects who exist for your personal gratification.  You have to think of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So then you leave the party, and go back to your house.  But you bring that attitude, that mindset with you; it lingers.  The idea that women exist for your gratification, as commodities, instead of as people.  It would affect the whole body of Christ, because it would affect how you thought of, spoke to, and treated the other women you knew.  And that sort of thinking, that other people are not really people, it spreads.  Pretty soon, it’s not just women.  It’s men with less social or economic standing.  It’s people of a different race or culture.  It’s anyone who’s inconvenient.  And thinking leads to actions, to all kinds of mistreatment.  Once you stop thinking of people as people, any kind of mistreatment becomes justifiable.  It affects you and everyone around you.  It damages the body of Christ.

Prostitution isn’t legal today, but it exists right here in North Dakota.  Girls and boys are kidnapped, raped, sold, beaten, and kept moving around to prevent them from finding help.  It happens because some people think the pain and degradation of those young people is less important than the money to be made from them, or than their own gratification.  Prostitution continues because there are too many people who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get pleasure or profit.  And it’s not the only sin or injustice that begins that way.  When something bad happens, when people hear about someone doing something terrible, they often come to me and ask how someone could do something like that.  And the answer is, because they don’t see other people as people.  They don’t see other people as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They see them as things, as commodities, as obstacles.

Then we turn to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been so public in the last few months.  Here, too, is sexual misconduct that stems from treating people like things.  And it’s not just Hollywood, or politics, or something that happens to a certain kind of women.  There are far more cases than will ever be reported in the news, simply because most of the victims and perpetrators aren’t powerful enough or well-known enough for people to care about.  I was in middle school the first time a pickup truck full of college boys yelled sexual things at me.  These sorts of things aren’t new.  I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why it happens, and how to stop it, and what are the right punishments for it, and what consequences for it are too much and what consequences are too little, and what about men who might say things they shouldn’t but don’t know it’s wrong?

This is actually something psychologists and sociologists have been studying since the 70s.  In the vast majority of cases, the men who do things like this know perfectly well where the line is, they just don’t care.  Or, if they don’t know where the line is, it’s because they don’t want to know.  They don’t care about where the line is because they don’t care about their victim as a person; all they see is something they can use for their own pleasure.  When harassers claim that they didn’t know any better, it’s a lie because either they did know better, or they chose not to know better.  They chose not to see anything but their own personal gratification.

So how do we as Christians respond to all of this?  How should we respond?  Obviously, we should condemn the behaviors that hurt and injure people or take advantage of them, whether in a sexual sense or any other.  But I think we need to go back to the basics, to the foundation of Christian ethics.  And that foundation is the knowledge that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are all children of God, created by him, named by him, and claimed by him.  We are, each and every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves us and all of creation.  From the least of us to the greatest, every human being is a person who matters, a person for whom Christ died.  When we forget that, we leave ourselves and our world open for all kinds of evil.  When we remember that, everything else falls into place.  May we always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and one body together, and may that knowledge guide our thoughts and actions.

Amen.

Charlottesville: what comes out of a person

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 20

August 20, 2017

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:10-20

 

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

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

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

Most Jewish people, in ancient times and today, follow religiously-mandated dietary laws called kosher.  Kosher laws can be complicated, but they were also strict, and they set Jewish people apart from their neighbors.  These dietary regulations were commanded by God in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Some of them have to do with humane slaughter of animals.  Some have to do with avoiding foods that would spoil easily without refrigerators and thermometers.  Some are about cleanliness.  Some of them are cultural.  But all of them were and are important to Jewish people.  First, because God commanded them, and second, because they are a part of their culture.  Scandinavians eat Lutefisk.  Latinos eat tacos.  Italians eat pasta.  Jewish people eat kosher foods.

In Jesus’ day, this was especially important, because they had been conquered by a series of empires (the Roman Empire, most recently) that wanted them to stop being Jewish and become just like everyone else.  Keeping kosher was a way of saying to the oppressive Roman government that they were most certainly NOT going to give up their own ways just because the Emperor wanted to.  They were NOT going to stop eating kosher, and they were NOT going to stop circumcising their baby boys, and they ABSOLUTELY were NOT going to start worshipping Roman gods.  Period, end of story.  They were going to stay faithful to the one true God, no matter WHAT the larger culture tried to get them to do.  And part of that meant eating right.

It’s no wonder that a lot of people got mad when Jesus said that there were some things more important than keeping kosher.  He never says that it’s BAD, but that if you’re looking at what things are important parts of being faithful to God and living how God wants you to, the things you say and do are more important than the things you eat.  The things you put in your mouth—the things you eat and drink—aren’t as important as the things that come out of your mouth—the things you say, the things you think, the things you do.  If your heart and mind are corrupted, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating all the right things.  And if your heart and mind—and your words and actions—are in the right place, then how important is it, really, if you’re not eating right?  He never says that dietary concerns are bad or wrong, just that instead of policing what people eat, we should be paying attention to the sorts of things we ourselves are thinking, saying, and doing.  And people got mad at Jesus because of it.

Now, I bet some of you are sitting there shaking your heads over how crazy those Pharisees were to care so much about some silly dietary laws.  But have you considered modern gentile dietary rules?  Seriously?  All the different rules and diets and fads and things?  Organic, whole foods, raw foods, gluten-free, Vegetarian or vegan, GMO-free or GMO-laden, free-range vs. factory farms, low sodium, low fat, calorie counting, the whole shebang?  Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, detoxing cleanses, I could go on and on.  Some of them have good science or medical necessity behind them.  Some of them, like gluten free, are necessary for some people and not harmful for others.  Some of them have significant points both in their favor and against them.  Some of them can actually damage your health if you do them too long.  People defend their chosen food theory with religious fervor.  And there are often ugly racist or classist undertones to it, too.  For example, there are a LOT of articles and think pieces and blog posts out there about how OF COURSE poor people could afford to eat organic, or whole foods, or whatever other diet of choice the author recommends, if only they weren’t lazy.  A quick look at the prices of different foods in any grocery store will show just how wrong this is, but that doesn’t prevent people who’ve never been poor from spouting off about it.

When you compare them to our modern American gentile wackiness about food, Jewish kosher rules start to sound pretty reasonable.  I mean, at least their rules come from God and not from some quack trying to sell a product or get famous or set trends!  But at the same time, thinking about all of this makes Jesus’ point even clearer.  We spend A LOT of time and effort thinking about the right things to eat, and the things to avoid eating, and angsting over the right things to eat.  What would we be like if, instead, we put that time and effort and consideration into the things we say, or don’t say, and figuring out the right thing to say?  What if we stopped judging people by superficial things like what they eat, and started paying attention instead to what kind of a person their words and actions show them to be?

A week ago, Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville.  They waved torches and chanted Nazi slogans calling for the death of Jewish people, Black people, and any other people they didn’t like.  They did kill people, both cops and a counter-protestor.  Anybody who’s been paying attention for the last decade should not have been shocked.  White terrorism—where white supremacists use violence to try and intimidate or control people of color—has been on the rise.  White supremacist groups have gotten very good at recruiting people through internet forums and websites, indoctrinating them into their violent and evil beliefs.  And, for the most part, people have excused them.  “I’ve known him all my life, he’s a good person, he doesn’t really mean it,” they say.  Or, “well, maybe they shouldn’t have said that, they went too far, but maybe there was a little bit of truth hidden in there somewhere.”  It started out as talk, and ended with people dead.  And after members of their group murdered people, the leaders of the movement celebrated it!  They told their followers that it was a good thing, and that those who disagree are cowards and enemies!  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

With many of them, it probably started out half-joking, or just to shock people, or they didn’t really mean it and were only saying it because they joined a community where other people said it.  But when you say something long enough—when you listen to other people saying it long enough—you start to believe it, even when you know it’s not true.  This is how propaganda works.  They chose to listen to hate.  They chose to believe that other people were silent or making excuses for them because those other people agreed with them.  They chose to speak hate to one another and to others.  They chose to let it seep into their hearts and defile them.  And then they chose to act on it, and kill people.  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

I’ve heard other people say that the other side is just as bad.  But this is a false equivalence.  The Nazis and the Klansmen and the White Supremacists and all the other members of the so-called alt-right believe some people should be killed simply because they exist.  They believe, teach, and say, that Jewish people and Black people and others are not people and should not be allowed to exist.  There is a HUGE difference between saying that some people should be murdered simply for existing, and someone else responding that it is utterly unacceptable to say that.  And there’s also a HUGE difference between attacking anyone who is different, and standing up to those who attack others.  In legal terms, we have a right to free speech—but that right does not cover inciting violence.  And attacking someone as the Nazis did is illegal, but defending yourself or others is not.

On a moral and religious level, no one who spreads hate can call themselves a Christian.  In the creation story we learn that all people—of all races and tribes, male and female, every single human being who ever existed—is created in the image of God.  In the Old Testament laws, we are repeatedly commanded to ensure that the most vulnerable people—especially those who are different from us—are protected and receive just treatment, and failing to do that is the thing the Prophets were most often sent to chastise people for.  Jonah was sent to preach to a people he hated, but God reminded him that even Jonah’s enemies were God’s beloved people, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus healed all people, regardless of ethnicity; he preached to all, he ate with all, he loved all, he died for all.  And he told his disciples that the truest mark of a Christian is love.  Saint Paul tells us that all human divisions are irrelevant to God, and that without love, everything else is irrelevant.  Saint John tells us that love is the core of God’s nature, and that if we cannot love people we cannot love God.

All too often, people say things they know they shouldn’t, because everybody around is saying or doing it.  Or we stay silent when somebody else says or does something wrong.  It’s hard to speak up, particularly when it’s someone you know.  And we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter, because it’s just words.  But when we stay silent while others spread hate or violence, we are complicit in what they do.  We allow their hate to shape us.  We allow it to seep in to our hearts and minds, and then sometimes we start to believe.  And even when that doesn’t happen, when we stay silent or make excuses, other people think the hateful words that have been said are okay.  That hate is normal, or even good.

Words are important.  Words shape the way we think, which in turn shapes how we act and how we live. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  So watch your words.  Spread love.  Stand up when others spread hate.  Let the love of God that is in Christ Jesus live in your heart and mind.

Amen.

Anti-Semitism and racism in America

There is a wave of racist and anti-semitic hate sweeping America.  As Christians, we worship a God who created all people of all races, loves all people, and died for the salvation and reconciliation of all.  Bigotry and hatred are not Christian–in fact, they are anti-Christian, in that they work directly against the reconciling and loving work of God in Christ.

For those of you who haven’t been aware of the sharp rise in bigotry and hate crimes, I encourage you to take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center.  They are dedicated to documenting and combating racism, anti–semitism, and every sort of bigotry and intolerance, and so they have information both on general trends and specific incidents.

I’d like to point out the case of Tanya Gersh, a Jewish woman who has been targeted by American neo-Nazis and faces huge amounts of unbelievable harassment.  The SPLC is suing the man who started and directed the harassment.  They have sent threats by every possible method.  Some of the milder examples include the following:

“Day of the rope soon for you and your entire family.”  Pictures of Tanya being gassed (just as Jewish people were gassed during the Holocaust).  Images of ovens with threatening messages sent to her twelve-year-old son.  (Remember how the bodies of millions of Jewish people were cremated in the ovens of Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.)  Christmas cards with threatening messages.  “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened.”  “You have no idea what you are doing, six million are only the beginning.”  “We are going to keep track of you for the rest of your life.”  Hundreds of letters, texts, emails, phone calls, all designed to terrify and hurt Tanya and her family.  These are the milder ones.  Most were much worse.

Why was Tanya targeted?  She’s a real estate agent in Whitefish, Montana, home to the mother of Richard Spencer, one of the country’s most prominent white nationalists, and until recently Richard Spencer’s own home base.  After Trump was elected, Spencer spoke to a crowd of white nationalists calling them to “Hail Trump!  Hail our people! Hail victory!” to which the crowd responded with Nazi salutes.  A video of this went viral, and many good citizens of Whitefish were shocked and disturbed to hear that their home town was associated with neo-nazis.  Not wanting their town to be used to support Spencer’s work, they wanted Spencer’s mother to sell the commercial property she owned in the town.  Tanya was the real estate agent working to broker a peaceful and fair solution.

Enter Andrew Anglin, founder and owner of the largest white supremacist website in the country.  It’s called the Daily Stormer, named after a 1930s Nazi tabloid.  Anglin, who calls Trump “Our Glorious Leader,” wrote article after article urging his followers to harass Tanya, her family, and other Jewish people in Whitefish.  He published pictures of them and contact information and encouraged people to go to Whitefish to attack them in person.  And the flood of hatred and evil began.

This is not Anglin and The Daily Stormers’ only effect in the last seven months.  They were emboldened by Trump’s election, which they call “the ascension of our Glorious Leader.”  Anglin regularly encourages his followers to intimidate Muslims and “any foreigners you see” so that they will “be afraid.”  He’s organized 31 chapters in the US and more in Canada, energizing and radicalizing people so that they commit acts of intimidation, terror, and violence.

Dylann Roof, who massacred nine African Americans at Emmanuel church in Charleston was a regular user of The Daily Storm.  So are several others who have killed or attempted to kill black men and women in recent months.  One even killed a member of the British Parliament.

The SPLC lawsuit, if it is successful, will take a bite out of his organization.  It won’t restore Tanya’s peace of mind, but it will pay for treatment for the trauma she and her family have endured, and the loss of income from clients driven away.  And, hopefully, it will discourage people from doing this kind of vicious evil.

I hope you are as horrified by the neo-Nazis, the so-called “alt-Right”, as I am.  And I hope you will join me in speaking up whenever you see racism, anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry.  If you are a Republican, this is especially important given how the white supremacists have attached themselves to the GOP’s coattails.

This kind of vileness is not okay.  It is anti-Christian and makes a mockery of both our faith and our nation’s ideals.

For further reading:

The SPLC case docket

The man behind the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website is being sued by one of his troll storm targets.–(warning, this Washington Post article includes some of the more explicit and horrifying harassment.)

Suing the Trolls: A woman’s lawsuit against a neo-Nazi’s “troll storm” could change how to fight back against online harassment.

 

Holding Together

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 16C, July 17th, 2016

Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

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.

As I was reading the texts and preparing for this week, one phrase in particular jumped out at me in our reading from Colossians.  The author of the letter is speaking about Christ, who Christ is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean.  “In him, Jesus Christ, all things hold together.”  And I thought, really?  Because I have to tell you, these last few weeks it has not felt like there was anything holding together—on the contrary, it kind of feels like the world is falling apart.  In Christ all things hold together.

God knows the world surely isn’t holding together on its own.  In the last few weeks, white cops have killed black men who were no threat to them—one victim, a peaceful citizen out for a drive with his family, was shot and killed in front of his wife and son.  In the last few days, there were bombings in France and an attempted coup in Turkey.  In the last few weeks, a black extremist sniper shot and killed good police officers just doing their job.  ISIS terrorists bombed peaceful Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as well as various targets in Baghdad, murdering hundreds.  A homophobe used his Muslim faith as an excuse to murder fifty people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.  In the last year, there has been so much violence, as people of all colors and faiths take out their frustrations and their fears by turning to violence.

In the last several months, American political life has seemed to fracture even more, with party lines between liberals and conservatives hardening.  We have a culture that favors the hot-headed response, a culture that favors attacking people personally when we disagree with them.  And the election season has only made it worse, further dividing an already split nation.  I know I’m not blameless in that regard.  People feel betrayed by political leaders, and are desperate for something different, something new; so desperate, they’ll grab hold of anything.  And Britain, too, is melting down politically over the Brexit referendum and its consequences; the whole European Union is shaken.  Meanwhile, the usual parade of natural disasters marches through, and the 24-hour news cycle brings a constant stream of hatred and horrors before our eyes.

Things seem to be falling apart.  And yet, in Christ, all things hold together.  The people of Colossae, too, lived in a world full of violence, strife, and dissension.  The Roman Empire was the most powerful nation of its day, and Colossae was a Roman city.  Rom prided itself on maintaining peace throughout the world, which they called a Pax Romanae.  Of course, the Roman Empire maintained that peace through conquest and destruction and brutality.  They literally crucified anyone they thought was a threat—that’s what happened to Jesus.  And in the middle of that world, in which killing was glorified and brutality was the order of the day, a small group of people gathered in Colossae to worship Jesus, and wonder what it meant that the son of God had become human, died, and rose again from the grave.

What does it mean?  In a world where there is hatred and injustice and brutality?  What does it mean that Jesus came and died for us?  Jesus, who was no ordinary human being, remember; Jesus was truly God and truly human at the same time.  And so Jesus was there at creation, the word God breathed over the primordial chaos to call forth order, light, and life.  Christ was the firstborn of all creation, and everything that now exists came into being through him.  No matter how much death and darkness surrounds us, we worship a God who gives light and life, who creates and creates and creates no matter how much destruction we humans wreak on each other.

And do you remember, from Genesis, what God said every time he created something?  “It is good.”  And when humanity was created God saw that we were very good.  That is what we were created to be.  That is the true reality of every human being, everywhere: God created us in God’s own image, and God created us to be good.  We are broken by sin and death, and so we hurt others and we hurt ourselves.  Instead of the good, just, and merciful society God calls us to, we create societies where injustice flourishes in ignored corners, where factionalism and oppression work to undermine God’s good will.  God created us for a good and godly society, and yet we tear ourselves apart.  And some of us turn to violence as the solution to our problems, or just as a way to take our frustrations out on other people, or because we’re scared of what they might do to us.  And some people get some kind of sick pleasure out of hurting others.  And so, because of human sin, things fall apart.

But you know what?  God is in the midst of this world, in the midst of all the bad things as well as the good things, working for the redemption of the world.  Because God loves this world, and God loves each and every one of us, and there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can make God give up on us.  Not even our own actions.  And that’s where the Christ, the Son of God, who danced over the waters of creation, came to earth and became flesh and blood in a woman’s womb.  He lived and taught peace and love and a better way of thinking and living.  And then he died and rose again, and in the process he destroyed the power of the devil and reconciled all of creation to himself.  We know that, no matter what, evil will not win in the end.  God has already won; evil will not win in the end.  God’s kingdom will come to earth, and everything broken will be healed and recreated better than before.  Sin and death will be no more, pain and mourning will be no more, and Christ will be there.  This is the promise of the gospel, and it has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

But the Gospel promise is more than the hope of some far-distant future, because God is presently at work in the world through Jesus Christ.  God’s promise is not merely a matter of pie in the sky by and by.  God’s promise is for us and all of creation, here, now, today.  The first fruits of God’s kingdom are sprouting even now.  And that’s the part that the news media won’t show you, because it doesn’t make them money: there is good in the world.  Christ is at work in the world.  For every act of evil there are so many acts of good.  And no matter how dark things get, no matter how much things seem to be falling apart, the world is holding together in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A Muslim man killed 50 people in a gay nightclub, and throughout the world hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered to pray and support the victims.  You probably didn’t see that on the news, but Christ was there.  And every day there are so many angry men and women across the globe who think about picking up a gun, but choose not to, and Christ is there.  And every year across America, some cities choose to train their police officers and officials in peaceful conflict resolution skills, and in how to be fair to all races.  Fewer people die, justice is done in greater measure, and Christ is there.  And every day there are people who get riled up about something, but choose to discuss it in good faith instead of lashing out at people who disagree with them, and Christ is there.  And every day people teach their children about justice and love, and every day people stop bullies from hurting people, and Christ is there.  Refugees flee the tyrannical and terroristic regimes that oppress them, and Christ is there with them, giving them strength and hope.  Some people and some countries reach out to support those refugees until they can return home and rebuild, and Christ is there.

Every day, there are a thousand evil things that could happen but do not, because Christ is there, helping to bring justice and love and peace.  Even when we work against that—even when we buy into the world’s story that things are going to hell and everything is terrible—Christ is there, giving hope in the midst of hopelessness and helping us to repent of our sins and step into the light of Christ.  That’s who we are as Christians—the people who have seen the light, who are sent out into the world to do God’s work of spreading justice and love and the promise that God has made to every living thing.

You know, the ancient Colossians, the ones who first received this letter?  They were a lot worse off than we are today.  We are uncomfortable because Christianity is losing power in the US—they were uncomfortable because being a Christian could mean their deaths.  They lived in constant peril, and in the midst of that this letter told them to trust God, and to work for God’s kingdom, the redemption of all creation.  Imagine how much more we can do, here, now, today.  Imagine the peace, justice, and love, we can bring to the world as the body of Christ.  And you know what?  We are doing it.  Not always; sometimes we fall short.  But even in the midst of our own shortcomings, in the midst of the worst the world can do, Christ is holding all things together—and we are participating in that work through our words, our actions, and our whole lives.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Day of Mourning

By Anna C. Haugen.  This article first appeared in Gather: The Magazine of Women of the ELCA in the March 2016 issue.  It was written in November of 2015.  For more information on Disability Day of Mourning, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit.

As I write this, I have just heard the news that a woman in Georgia has murdered her autistic son, Dustin, and shot herself. It sits in my gut like lead. In the last five years, more than 90 disabled people in the U.S. (many of them autistic) have been murdered by parents or caregivers. More than 90 people betrayed by those who should have protected them.

I sit in the land of death. I close my eyes and pray for young Dustin, and for Tracey, Melissa, Daniel and all those who went before him. I trust they are safe in God’s arms. It’s cold comfort.

I don’t have to turn on the TV to know what some are saying. It’s always the same. “He was such a burden.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be the parent of an autistic child.” “Can you really blame her?” “He was severely disabled—what kind of life would that be, anyway?” It will probably come out, eventually, that his mother abused Dustin long before she murdered him, taking her frustrations out on him (and worsening his condition in the process). If so, few will care.

I’m autistic, and so is my baby brother. I can’t help thinking that if our parents shared that mindset, that news story could have been us. When I share this, people try to comfort me: “Oh, you’re so much higher-functioning. You’d never have to worry about that!” As if the fact that I look more “normal” means I’m more worthy of life, of love. Yes, autism brings challenges. Yes, it has a profound impact on our lives, and sometimes limits what we can do. But there is also joy and happiness and great ability—in spite of our autism and because of it. I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who made me different, but not less. So was Dustin.

Many people can’t see that. And so, in this sinful, broken world, they take their fear, their hate, their frustration and their grief out on the vulnerable. Sometimes it’s “just” abuse. Sometimes it’s murder. We need better support systems, but more than that, we need to realize that disabled people are people—not burdens or tragedies. Every March 1st, the autistic community joins other disabled groups in a Day of Mourning. We hold vigils. We remember the names and stories of those who have died. We speak out against a society that excuses the murderers and blames the victims. We cry.

I sit in the land of death, hearing stories about people like me being abused and killed. I wait for the morning, for the light of new life coming from the empty tomb. I wait for the day Christ comes back and all the dead are raised—including Dustin—and we live in a world free from abuse and violence.

I live in the land of death, but I hope for new life.

The Baby who Breaks the Cycle

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

Normally, when I read the words of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard, I focus on the light, and on the announcement of the child’s birth, that child who will be the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, who will bring justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. But this week, as I was pondering these texts, I found myself struck by other verses. The ones about the boots of the tramping warriors, and the garments soaked in blood, and people suffering under the yoke of oppression. And two things came to mind: first, what words to hear on the night of Jesus’ birth! And second, how much the boots of warriors and garments rolled in blood have been everywhere, this last year. How much fear and violence and hate there seems to be in the world. Isis beheading people and sending terrorists to Beirut and Paris. Mass shootings in the US. Police killing people and then trying to cover it up. Race riots. Women and children and disabled people abused and murdered by husbands, fathers, teachers. Every kind of evil under the sun. There has been so much violence and bloodshed this year, and I wasn’t expecting to hear it in the Bible texts appointed for Christmas Eve, and I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to hear about peace, and light, and a beautiful baby. I don’t want to hear about violence and baby Jesus in the same breath.

And yet, isn’t that very contrast the reason that the birth of Jesus is such good news indeed? We live in a world filled with violence on a grand scale that reaches across countries, and violence on a small scale that lives in our own homes and schools. We live with violence and injustice, and desperately need peace; we walk in darkness and need light. And whenever we rely on our own abilities to protect ourselves and make the world safer, it seems things backfire against us. We get rid of one terrorist only to have another, worse one take his place. We fight to defend ourselves and only add to the cycle of violence. We fight fire with fire, only to find we made the whole blaze bigger and more dangerous. The more we rely on our own might, the more tramping warriors there are, the more garments soaked in blood, the more darkness there is. It seems an endless cycle.

But in Jesus Christ, that cycle is broken. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that son is the Prince of Peace who will rule with justice and with righteousness. And with that birth, the yoke across our shoulders—the burden of violence, of hatred, of fear—is broken. There is a new way, a different way. A way that gives light in the darkness, that brings joy instead of fear and hope instead of hate. This baby, to us this night, is a king indeed—but not a king like the kings of this world. This baby looks nothing like the kings and rulers of this world, for this baby hasn’t come to set up another country just like all the rest. This baby has come to turn the whole world upside down, to change the way we live, to change the way we relate to one another. This baby has come to make the whole world new.

Because the peace this baby has come to bring isn’t the temporary peace of a ceasefire while both sides get ready for the next fight, or the false peace where you grit your teeth and smile at people you don’t like because it’s the holidays, or the unjust peace where you don’t speak out against those who hurt you because you don’t dare. This baby has come to bring true peace, the peace that the world cannot give and doesn’t understand, the peace based on justice and mercy and love for all people and all of creation.

Jesus did not come into this world to play the same old power games in the same old way. If he had, he would have been born in a palace. But instead, God chose for his son to be born in the cold, in the dark, in a backwater village where nobody wanted him or his family. And God chose to send the first messengers announcing the birth of his son to shepherds—poor, dirty, outcasts. I think part of the reason he chose that is so that we wouldn’t be able to fool ourselves that this Prince of Peace is anything like the other princes, lords, presidents, governors, and leaders that we see around us all the time. This prince is different. This King of Kings, this Mighty God, does not come with a sword to try and fight us into peacefulness. He doesn’t come to respond to hate with more hate. He comes with open arms to bring love in the midst of hate, justice in the midst of oppression, mercy in the midst of judgmentalism. He comes to take everything we think we know about the way the world works, and turn it upside down.

Jesus Christ came into this cold, dark world to build something new. To bring light, and life, and peace, and hope. He came to bring a new way of being, a new way of looking at the world. A way based on love, instead of fear and hate; a way that opens up the possibility for true peace, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And though that peace will not be fully known until Christ comes again in glory, its light shines among us even now. That light shines every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose justice and mercy instead of revenge, every time we choose to put down our fists and our hateful words and raise our hands to help instead. That light redeems us, breaks us free from old, worn patterns, from despair, and helps us see the world through God’s eyes, instead of the world’s eyes. That light shines every time we help those in need, every time we choose to be generous, every time we open our hearts and our minds to God and God’s people. That light shines every time we set aside our fears and our doubts to do the right thing.

Thanks be to God for that light, for hope in the midst of a hopeless world, for peace in the midst of a violent world, and for joy despite all the things the powers of this world can throw at us. May the light of God shine in our hearts this Christmas and throughout the year.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

John the Baptist was one of the rock stars of his day. People came from all over to see him, to hear him talk, to watch him do his thing and to be baptized by him. If anybody had an excuse to be arrogant, to be confident of his own abilities, it was John. Yet when the chief priests in Jerusalem sent people to ask him about himself, John was quite clear: he wasn’t the Messiah, nor any great leader in his own right. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus, to get people ready for him. That was his mission, and he never strayed from it. When others might have gotten a swelled head, John did not. He kept pointing to Jesus, even when it would have been easier not to. His job was to see God and point him out. Now, for John, this was easy; Jesus was his cousin, right there physically near him. It’s a little harder for us, two thousand years later, because Jesus isn’t physically present with us. So how do we point to Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah writes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn.” Now, if this sounds familiar to you, it should. This, after all, is the passage Jesus quotes in the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of his ministry, saying “today this has been fulfilled in your sight.” And Mary’s song when she heard she was going to bear the messiah was very similar: the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things. And most of the depictions of the kingdom of God in the Bible contain these same elements: the oppressed are set free, those who mourn are comforted, the hungry are fed, true justice is given to those who have been abused and who have suffered. If you recall, about a month ago we had the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the sheep—the ones who were welcomed into heaven—were the ones who had fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the naked, comforted the mourners, visited the prisoners, and in general acted to bring good news to the oppressed, just as Isaiah says here.

It’s a common thread, all through the Bible: the will of God is that all people should be free from the chains that bind them, whether chains of sinfulness or chains of oppression. The will of God is that no one should have to face grief or sorrow alone. The will of God is that all people should have enough to eat and shelter to live in and clothes to wear. The will of God is that all the brokenness in our lives and in the world—whether injury or illness or accident or evil—should be made whole. The will of God is that no one should suffer. And, in God’s kingdom, nobody will suffer. So when God comes into our world—when God moves among us, whether in the person of Jesus Christ or in the Holy Spirit—that’s what God is working towards. Passages like this one from Isaiah are common in the Bible because that’s what happens when God shows up.

As I look around the world this December, I see so many places where people are broken-hearted, where people are held captive by injustice and fear and hate, where people hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities, where cruelty reigns and love is nowhere to be seen. In Mexico, for example, many thousands of families mourn for loved ones who have been kidnapped by drug cartels with the collusion of local authorities. In Central America, too, gangs have killed thousands of people. But even in the midst of the violence, ordinary people work to protect their families and bring justice for those who have been killed. I think the Holy Spirit is working with them, in them, and through them. In China, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong face police armed with tear gas. In North Korea, the leaders posture and spend huge amounts of money on weapons while their people go hungry. And yet, despite the worst their governments can do, people still continue to work for peace and freedom. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In the Middle East, extremists and terrorists oppress their own people and build power bases to attack the rest of the world. Any who speak out against them live in danger of their own lives. Girls who want to go to school, women who want to drive or vote or go to the market, boys who don’t want to fight, ordinary people of all ages and genders who want to live in peace, all are in danger. In the midst of it all, people like Malala refuse to be cowed. Palestinians are turned out of their homes and sent to refugee camps, Israelis fear terrorist attacks. Yet there are people on all sides working for peace and reconciliation. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

People in the Central African Republic try to rebuild their homes and their lives after the civil war, while many of the leaders who ordered and committed war crimes continue to brutalize their enemies. People in Liberia and Sierra Leone continue to suffer from the devastating disease Ebola, without enough resources for the basic protections that can stop the disease from spreading. In Nigeria, most of the three hundred girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this year remain in terrorist homes, forced to marry their kidnappers. But even in the midst of all this, hospitals are built, schools are opened, and people care for one another even at the risk of their own lives. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In cities across the US, African-American families mourn men killed by police for little or no reason. Protestors take to the streets at injustices, and policemen who try to do their jobs well resent being blamed for the failings of others, and often make things worse out of their own fear and bitterness. Black children in schools face harsher punishments than white children, causing resentment and deep emotional wounds. And yet, even in the midst of fear and anger, people of all races are working together to try and bring justice and healing. I think the Holy Spirit is here.

Here in North Dakota, drug use is on the rise, ruining lives and tearing apart families. Children and teens, particularly girls, are forced into sex slavery and trafficked across the state, not just in the oil fields but even in places like Bismark and Jamestown. Rising costs of food and housing have pushed hard-working families into poverty, yet social assistance programs have been cut back. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and rape can be found in all corners of our own communities, and all too often we protect the abusers and blame the victims. And yet, there is a growing group of people working to stop the abusers and help the victims. I think the Holy Spirit is here. I look at all these places and I see so much evil … but I also see God at work.

Sometimes I wish God would come and put all these things right. Where is God when human beings hurt one another? We know that when God’s kingdom comes, there will be justice and mercy for all—so why can’t the kingdom come now, soon? The Spirit moves among us, helping us to see the wrongs in our society, and even in ourselves, and it inspires us to work for God’s peace and justice and healing, but surely it would be better if the problems never happened in the first place? Healing is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be better if nobody needed it in the first place? I thank God for the gifts of the Spirit, but I yearn for the day God’s Kingdom will come. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus. Break into our world, break into our lives, and make us new. Whenever there is healing, whenever there is light in the darkness, whenever there is comfort for those who mourn, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. The Spirit that inspires such things is a gift from God, to help us until the day the kingdom comes. But there are times that taste seems awfully small, not enough to go around. I want the banquet. I know it will come, one day, but I want it now.

The question is, what do we do while we wait? We know that God’s kingdom is coming. The job of a Christian is to live the kind of life that anticipates the Kingdom. The job of a Christian is to point to the things God is doing in us and among us. The job of a Christian is to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and in our midst. Healing, hope, justice, growth, love—these are all the things God wants us to have, the things Jesus Christ was born and died to give us, the things the Spirit inspires in us while we wait for Christ to come again.

None of these are easy things. It’s hard to bring justice in the midst of fear and oppression. It’s hard to stand up to the evils of this world. It’s hard to love when there is hate. It’s hard to heal and grow when there is danger. It means getting outside our comfort zone. It means taking risks. It means being willing to stand up to the powers of this world. That’s why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do it. But when we open ourselves up to the Spirit—when we let God open our eyes to the problems around us, when we let God guide us in truth and love—amazing things become possible. Not because we ourselves are great, but because God can use us to accomplish great things.

Amen.

Seeing through God’s eyes

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 20), Year A, August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Our Gospel reading for today is a hard one. It goes against everything Jesus says and does elsewhere in the Gospels, and it goes against a lot of things in the Old Testament. For example, in our first lesson from Isaiah, God tells the people that not only will he save the outcasts of Israel—the people who are already part of God’s people but who aren’t allowed to participate for whatever reason—God will also save the foreigners, people outside of Israel. God tells his people that the day of salvation is coming, and in the meantime they should maintain justice and remember that God’s promise was for everyone who believed, not just a chosen few, not just the insiders. That’s God’s goal, God’s mission: to save everyone. As for the New Testament, Jesus spent a lot of his time with the poor, the outcasts, the sinners, the foreigners, the ones outside the boundaries. The sort of people that good Jews were not supposed to hang out with. He healed everyone who came to him for healing, no matter who they were or where they were from or what kind of people they were. Everyone, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint, male or female, was healed. Jesus welcomed everyone even when it was going to get him in trouble. He did it when it was going to make his mission harder, when it was going to make the rich and powerful among his own people turn their backs on him and attack him. He did welcomed everyone even when his own disciples, his closest friends, were urging him not to. Because he saw through God’s eyes and knew that everyone was a child of God. Jesus opened his arms to everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from, no exceptions. He welcomed everyone. He poured out his life and died for everyone. He rose for everyone.

Except for the story told in this reading. In this reading, a foreign woman—a Canaanite, one of Israel’s ancient enemies—comes to him on her knees to beg healing for her daughter. This is the only time Jesus ever met someone in need of healing and tried to avoid healing them. And Jesus not only says “no,” he calls her a dog. Say what? This does not sound like Jesus at all. Remember, dogs were not considered man’s best friend in the ancient world. Dogs weren’t the family pet that everyone dotes on. Dogs were the dirty unclean things that ate all the disgusting stuff that people threw out. Calling someone a dog was a much worse insult for them than it is for us. This does not sound like God’s mission of salvation and healing and justice and reconciliation as proclaimed in both the Old and New Testaments. This sounds like ordinary, everyday human bigotry, preventing Jesus from spreading God’s healing and God’s Word. If the encounter ended there, with the disciples ignoring her and Jesus calling her a dog, do you think this woman would be very likely to become a follower of God? No. It’s a lot more likely that she would have gone home and told everybody about how horribly that Jesus guy treated her. She came for healing, and he insulted her and sent her away. Instead of spreading faith, that would spread disbelief. That would get in the way of God’s mission of justice and salvation.

To me, the problem with Jesus’ first response to the Canaanite woman is that it’s human. Too human. Humans like to draw nice neat categories—us vs. them. People who matter vs. people who don’t. The disciples do it all the time. When other pious Jews (their own people) challenge them, the disciples want to go along with them even if that goes against what Jesus is trying to teach. But the disciples consistently tried to avoid, discourage, or even attack non-Jews or people of low social status. When a Jewish town rejected Jesus, they just left quietly. When a Samaritan town rejected Jesus, the disciples wanted to call down hellfire and brimstone and destroy the town and everyone in it. Because, you see, the Samaritans weren’t members of the “in” group. They weren’t the children of the house of Israel, even though they claimed to be and worshipped the same God. They were the ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And the Canaanites, too, were ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And, here’s the thing: you and I? We’re not children of the House of Israel, either. Not in the sense that Jesus means here. The children of the House of Israel are the Jews. When Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog because she’s not Jewish, we’re all included in that. We like to think of ourselves as the children, the insiders, but we’re not. We’re the dogs, in this metaphor. The nasty, dirty, smelly animals, rooting around in the garbage.

This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus shows any kind of ordinary human prejudice. The only time he falls into the “us vs. them” mentality that humans do every day. And I think it’s because of who and what Jesus is. We tend to focus on his divinity: Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God, the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. We tend to forget the fact that Jesus was also truly human. He was fully God, but he was also fully Human at the same time. He had to be. He could not have saved us if he hadn’t been. Like us, Jesus was human, a person of flesh and blood just like any of us. It was through his humanity, through becoming one of us, that God was able to reach out and join us to himself. It’s through Jesus’ humanity that we are united with him, and through Jesus’ divinity that we are pulled from brokenness and death into life.

Part of being human is being limited. Finite. Not knowing all the answers, and making mistakes because of it. There are only a handful of times in the Gospels that Jesus shows us his limits. Later on in the Gospels, when he speaks of the end times, his disciples will ask him when the Day of the Lord will come, and Jesus says he doesn’t know, that only the Father knows. I think this is another time when Jesus’ humanity shows through. Jesus grew up Jewish, amid the same prejudices that his disciples did. Prejudices against Canaanites, for one. And here he is, face-to-face with a Canaanite for the first time, and the prejudice comes out without thinking about it. But when she challenges him on it, he backs up. He realizes that those prejudices are wrong. He knew he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but he apparently hadn’t realized that he was sent to all lost sheep, everywhere, of every tribe and nation. He realizes that all people are God’s children, not just the people he is a part of. He praises her great faith—greater than the disciples, whose faith is always pretty low. He gives her what he wants. He stops seeing her through the prejudices of his culture and starts seeing her through God’s eyes. And ever after, he gives his time and healing freely to all people. Not just the children of the house of Israel, but all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, clean or unclean, sinner or saint. To people like us, and to people not like us. To insiders, and to those we want to keep out in the cold.

What prejudices do we have that are blinding us to God’s mission for us? What prejudices do we use to divide people into us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, people worthy of God’s love and God’s message, and people who aren’t? It might almost be easier to list what prejudices we don’t have. Race, color, gender, sex, politics—Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. We’re like the disciples, who think God’s message is only for the good people like us who deserve it. Who think God’s justice is only for the good people like us who deserve it. When I was thinking about prejudice this week, there were several examples of it happening right now that jumped right out at me.

One is the refugee children on the border. Children are coming to our country, fleeing for their lives. Yet because they are from another country, and they don’t speak our language or look like us, there are a lot of people who want to send them home where they will almost certainly be killed. They’re the dogs who we think don’t even deserve the scraps off of America’s table. Then there’s Ferguson, Missouri. A week ago Saturday, a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenage boy in the back for walking in the wrong place. When the police wouldn’t release any information or even apologize to the boy’s family, the black community protested and held candlelight vigils, demanding justice. The cops—almost all of whom are white—showed up with machine guns, snipers, armored vehicles, and tear gas. As one former member of the 82nd Airborne division put it, “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.” Pictures coming out of Ferguson look more like the streets of Egypt or Syria than the US, except instead of Islamic fundamentalists vs. ordinary people, it’s white cops against black community members who just want to know why their child was murdered. How much of God’s work do you think is being done in Ferguson right now? Can you hear people asking for help and healing and justice, and being insulted instead?

Here in North Dakota, I most often hear prejudice about Native Americans and oil field workers. People gossip about all the bad things they do, and ignore the good parts. We talk about their flaws, but don’t acknowledge the struggles and hardships they’re dealing with. We don’t reach out to them; we don’t welcome them; and we don’t invite them to church with us. It’s us-vs.-them. The children of God vs. the outsiders. And, like Jesus in the Gospel lesson, our first instinct is to exclude them. We think to ourselves, it’s not fair to take the children’s food—our food—and throw it to the dogs. And so human prejudice prevents the spreading of God’s justice, God’s healing, God’s love, and God’s Word.

May we, like Jesus, learn to see with God’s eyes instead of our own prejudices. And may we learn to give God’s love, God’s healing, and God’s Word to all people.

Amen.

God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

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

 

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

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

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.

The End of the World As We Know It

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28B (Ordinary 33B), Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

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

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

A few years ago, for Christmas, I got a book called Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World.  It’s a funny book, but very informative and readable.  The longest part of the book—almost fifty pages—contains short summaries of the major apocalyptic predictions from 2000 BC through 2004 AD, when the book was published.  The end of the world is a very popular subject—people have been thinking about it for a long time.  And it seems like people are thinking about the end of the world even more these days.  The Left Behind series are all international bestsellers.  Action-adventure movies like The Day After Tomorrow make Hollywood lots of money showing the world’s destruction with jaw-dropping special effects.  Whether for religious, political, environmental, or economic reasons, we seem obsessed with the idea that the world is going to end, and end soon.

And so there are a lot of people who, very sincerely, predict dates they believe the world will end.  If we know, they think, we can prepare.  We can say the right prayers, if that’s what’s needed, or stock up on canned goods and bottled water, or whatever it is we need to get through the end of the world.  We can control our fate, even if the world is going to hell in a handbasket around us.  The next prediction coming up that I know of is December 21, when the Mayan calendar runs out.  The last big one was Harold Camping’s prediction that Rapture would come on May 21, 2012.  At a paragraph each, the dates predicted for the world’s end over the past couple thousand years take up almost 50 pages in my handbook.  The last two decades or so have averaged one major apocalypse prediction per year.

When times are tough, when the world seems uncertain, there is a comfort in knowing what will happen.  There is comfort in being able to say that no matter what may happen now—despite all the bad things that are happening to good people and good things happening to bad people—our problems won’t last forever.  For people of faith, there is the added consolation of knowing that there will be a reward for our faithfulness no matter how grim things look.  Throughout history all kinds of religious literature about the end times has been written to reassure people—and sometimes to scare them into behaving.  In the Hebrew tradition, which Jesus inherited, Daniel was the major prophet of the apocalypse.  Hebrew apocalyptic literature is full of dreams and visions, intended for spiritual comfort during times of trial.  Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings are not intended to be roadmaps or calendars.  Instead, they are highly symbolic reassurances that God will be with us no matter what.  Even as bad things happen, God is with us, and the bad things won’t last forever.  In the end, evil will be vanquished and God’s will will be done.

Reassurance is all well and good, but people still want to know exactly what’s coming, and they want to know when.  Modern people who read the Left Behind books or listen to the Harold Campings of the world want to know.  The disciples wanted to know, too.  So when they’re admiring the architecture of the Temple and Jesus points out that those monumental pieces of architecture won’t last forever, four of them take him aside to ask when.  What date do they need to have everything done by?  What should they do to prepare?  Do they need to buy swords to drive out the Roman invaders?  Stock up on sacrifices at the Temple to absolve them of their sins before it’s too late?  Stand out on a hilltop on the appointed day wearing their best robes?  When do they need to be ready?  That’s what people today still want to know, isn’t it?  That’s what those fifty pages of dates in the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse are about, right?  When does the world end?  How long do we have?

Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  He doesn’t give them any kind of time frame for when the world will end.  Instead of giving them a straight answer, he simply tells them to pay attention.  Stay vigilant, don’t get complacent.  Over the centuries, people have used his words and other apocalyptic texts in the Bible, from Daniel to the book of Revelation, to produce timelines and predict the date the world will end.  So far, they have all been wrong.

But I know the answer.  I know the date Jesus was talking about.  I know when his prediction became reality.

It happened in the year 70 AD.

Yes, that’s right, 70 AD, just forty or so years after the time of Jesus’ death.  But wait, you say, it’s 2,000 years later and we’re all still here!  The world couldn’t have ended in the year 70!

The world as a whole may still be here, but the world of the disciples ended in 70 AD.  You see, that was the year Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jewish Christian community with it.  The Jews were ruled by Romans, and they hated it.  They expected God to send them a messiah in the form of a military leader who would throw off the yoke of their oppressor and restore the Jewish state.  In 66 AD, they launched a great rebellion that lasted for almost a decade.  They lost.  As part of their campaign, the Roman Army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple that had been the center of Jewish life.  If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see those great stones the disciples marveled at, fallen down just as Jesus said.  Only one wall remains of the magnificent Temple the Disciples admired.  We call it the Wailing Wall, where observant Jews still go to pray and mourn what was lost.  And it wasn’t just the buildings.  The surviving rebels—and the Romans considered anyone within Jerusalem a rebel—were sold into slavery, never to return.  Throughout that war and its aftermath, many Jews were killed or sent into exile.

The disciples—all the first Christians—were Jewish.  They went to the synagogues and the Temple, they kept Jewish dietary laws and purity rituals, they celebrated Jewish festivals, and they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic.  They looked for new converts within the Jewish fold.  When Paul began preaching to gentiles, there was great debate as to whether or not one could become a Christian without becoming Jewish first.  As the message of Jesus spread to the gentiles, the center of the faith remained in Jerusalem.  They were poor in worldly goods, but they were rich in spirit and rich in the Gospel.  And when Jerusalem was destroyed, so were they.

We don’t know what happened to them.  They disappeared into the mists of history.  Some were probably killed by the Romans or sold into slavery.  Others may have abandoned their Christian faith and melted back into the ordinary Jewish world.  Still others were probably absorbed into the Gentile-Christian community.  The Christian faith survived and flourished, but it was carried by the Greek-speaking Gentiles.  God’s word survived, but the Good News was spoken in Greek, not Hebrew.  The message of Jesus remained and spread, but it was carried by people who spoke a different language, ate different foods, were not circumcised, wore different clothes, told different stories, followed different laws, had different names, sang different songs, and celebrated different festivals.  The church the Jewish Christians had nurtured was gone.  In its place was something different.  But that new church still heard God’s word and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Nobody knows what happened to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.  But I can tell you this: God was with them.  No matter what happened to them, I guarantee you that Jesus Christ was with them, comforting them in their grief and supporting them as they faced hardships and suffering.  And when Christ comes again, whenever that may be, they will be among those who shine like the stars.

In the two millennia since Jesus taught, we are no closer to being able to predict the end of the world than the first disciples were, either the end of the whole world or just our little corner of it.  We can’t put the apocalypse on our calendars or know what it will look like.  We are blessed that we don’t face a threat as dire as the Roman army, which was more powerful and deadly to their way of life than anything we face today.  But our world is changing rapidly, and while some of the changes are good, some are not.  North Dakota, especially, faces a lot of changes brought by the mineral wealth of the area, with money and people both flocking to the state.  Like the disciples, Jesus calls us to be watchful.  As in their day, there are people from all across the political, religious, and economic spectrum, who use the name of God to further their own agenda.  There are some changes we need to adapt to, and others we should not.  We don’t know what the future will look like, and we don’t know what challenges we’ll face along the way.  But this we do know: God is with us, and God will be with us no matter what.  As we face the storms of life, the earthquakes that shake our world, we know that we have a strong foundation in Jesus Christ.  We know that God’s Word will endure forever.  And we know that Christ will come again.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Recommended Reading

Here are a few articles written by others recently that I thought I would pass on:

Cursing our Enemies Before God.  “Given the debate over the last few days about whether it’s appropriate to be happy about, and even celebrate, the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ellen Davis’s discussion of the cursing (imprecatory) psalms in her book Getting Involved with God. These psalms, which call God’s wrath down upon the psalmist’s enemies in what often seems like a very unchristian spirit, are frequently glossed over or heavily edited, if not extirpated entirely from contemporary Christian worship.”

Defined by Freedom by Jaqui Thone.  What does it mean to be freed in Christ?  What does it mean to be people of the resurrection?

And, completely off-topic and just for fun, Obi-Wan Kenobi is Dead, Vader Says, a Star Wars parody of the news coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death.

A Lutheran’s Argument For Religious Freedom

There are a lot of debates going around now about religious freedom, morality, and related topics.  There is also a lot of violence throughout the world, that testify to the consequences these debates have.  So one of my classmates recently wrote theological defense/championing of religious freedom.  It’s concise, well-reasoned, theologically sound, and well worth reading.  So, with his permission, here it is:

A LUTHERAN’S THESES FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

by Robbie Ketcham

 

I.) CENTRAL THESIS

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood as God’s will to save the world by God’s grace and love alone (Jn. 3:16), not only allows but demands that one not restrict another’s religious or moral freedom in God’s name.

 

II.) THE PURPOSE OF THIS WRITING

1.) Some of the most notable public displays of religion have often depicted God as legalistic, judgmental or condemnatory. Further, the promoters of this view of God have often taken it upon themselves, either individually or institutionally, to restrict the religious and moral freedom of others, under the supposed authority of God.

a.) This has been most apparent in the rise of militant Islam, including the declaration of religious war against the United States by al-Qaida; and barbaric interpretations and executions of Sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-controlled areas of the Afghan-Pakistan region.

b.) The Christian Church has historically also misused the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a basis for denying religious freedom to others, especially in the Medieval period of the Church.

c.) While the United States has not committed such institutional actions denying religious freedom, certain individuals and so-called Christian churches in the United States have also misused the Gospel so as to intimidate or restrict the freedom of belief of others,  such as in attacks or bigotry against those of other faiths or intentionally desecrating the sacred texts of other faiths.

d.)  Others, on both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of American Christianity, have advocated for legal limitations on people’s moral freedoms, seeking to impose by law their own sense of personal morality (often regarding sexuality or speech, and using such euphemisms as “family values”) or their own sense of social morality (often regarding the distribution of wealth or taxation, and using such euphemisms as “social justice”).

e.) Still others, while not seeking to act through physical violence and intimidation or through legal action, have propagated corrupt interpretations of the Christian faith, such as claiming the God “hates” or condemns others based on their morality, especially in regards to sexuality.

2.) These images of religion have, especially in recent years, led to a backlash against organized religion – and, in Europe and the United States, against Christianity in particular.

a.) Several recent surveys have shown that non-Christians’ perception of Christians is as judgmental or intolerant. (There have been several articles that I cannot retain at the moment, but here is one: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.5281867/k.C5A7/unChristian_Is_Christianitys_Image_Hurting_Christs_Image.htm)

b.) The recent movement of “evangelical atheism,” epitomized chiefly through writings such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” attempt to refute religion altogether, but are chiefly a condemnation of this legalistic idea of religion. (Again, I fear I’ve not the link at the moment, but in an article with the London Guardian, Dawkins seemed to acknowledge this – in response to a criticism that his work did not as fully grapple with theologians such as Barth, Tillich or Bonhoeffer, he said that he was confronting religion as most people saw it – which he described as being chiefly that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.)

3.) Given that such an image of a judgmental God seems to correlate with increasing disillusionment with Christianity, the issue of religious tolerance and freedom is therefore neither merely one of political correctness nor merely one of social niceness. It is, in fact, a theological issue that could well determine the future health of the Christian church in the West. Indeed, one can claim that the promoters of such a judgmental image of God are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing [the people] and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). As such, these false prophets and teachers must be condemned not just on the basis of political correctness or social propriety, but on the basis of true theology and the true Gospel of Christ, lest Satan work through them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) and so tear down people’s faith in the true Gospel of God’s love and grace, manifest in Jesus the Christ.

 

III.) THE BASIS OF THIS WRITING’S AUTHORITY

1.) The ultimate basis of authority on Christian doctrine is the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ. For in the Christ, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Hence, the Incarnate Word is also the Word of “grace and truth.” The Incarnate Word is the Word of grace, in that the crucified and resurrected Christ ensures all God’s chosen of salvation and everlasting life by God’s love and freely given grace alone, regardless of works. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). The Incarnate Word is the Word of truth, as Christ is the one and only true Son of God, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

2.) The Protestant canon of the Holy Bible is the Inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). In its original writing and rightly interpreted in light of the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is an authoritative and infallible witness to God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity, which includes God’s desire for right human living (the Law; Rom. 7:7), the human inability to so live rightly (the condemnation of the Law; Rom. 7:8-14), and which culminates in the salvific death and resurrection of the Christ, through which God’s relationship with humanity is forever restored (the Gospel; Rom. 3:23-27).

3.) The ancient and ecumenical Creeds of the Church are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God.

4.) The unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, and in particular of the Gospel of God’s salvation of humanity by grace and love alone without regard to human works, insofar as they are in line with #1-3.

5.) The other writings of the Book of Concord of 1580 are enlightening and useful reflections on the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with #1-4.

6.) The Holy Spirit’s continued action in the proclamation and witness of the Church is authoritative, insofar as it is in line with #1-4.

 

IV.) AGAINST LIMITING THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF

1.) As noted in Art. III Sect. 1 of this paper, Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). While this does not mean that a doctrinal belief in Jesus Christ in this world is a condition for salvation (for indeed, such would make doctrine itself a work, and would restrict God’s freedom of grace; see also Karl Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians”), it does mean that adhering to the Christian faith and being baptized in the name of the Triune God is the one assurance of salvation, for “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Therefore, this argument in support of the freedom of belief should not be misconstrued as a relativistic view that minimizes the centrality of the Christian faith.

2.) Despite the centrality of Christian faith, however, neither the Incarnate nor the Inspired Word of God suggests that one should force his belief on another through law, force or intimidation. Indeed, the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God instead argues forcefully in favor of upholding another’s freedom of belief.

a.) The Incarnate Word of God is Jesus Christ, in whom is “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). This grace is God’s free gift given through the death and resurrection of the Christ, and is freely given to those whom God chooses. Grace and faith, therefore, cannot be obtained through human effort (see Luther’s Small Catechism, on Art. III of the Creed). While God does work through human means to spread the Gospel (see Augsburg Confession, Art. V), any human attempt to force one’s belief upon another runs contrary to God’s sole independence to give grace and faith to those whom He wishes.

b.) The Inspired Word of God – that is, the Protestant canon of the Holy Bible – repeatedly shows Jesus explicitly refusing to force his beliefs on others. For instance, Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world would have given Jesus the power to force all people to follow a particular belief. However, Jesus explicitly refused such temptation – which, Scripture notes, would have actually been a worship of Satan (Mt. 4:8-10). Even if one considers another belief to be an enemy of his own faith, Jesus does not allow for one to act with force, but with love for enemies and without judgment or condemnation (Lk. 6:27-42). When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus, the disciples asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the village. But Jesus rebuked the disciples for such thoughts (Lk. 9:51-55). In sending out 70 followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus warned that some would reject the message, but he did not order the followers to force any belief, but rather to leave the town and leave any retribution to God alone (Lk. 10:10-12). Even at his arrest, when a disciple attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, Jesus rebuked such force, saying, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 22:51-52). Therefore, Scripture clearly shows that it is against God’s will to force another into one’s own beliefs. While one can try to persuade others through proclamation, it is the Holy Spirit alone that can inspire faith and belief – not any human force of sword, law or intimidation.

c.) It is true that some components of the Old Testament Law, such as the rule of cherem or cities “devoted to destruction” (e.g., Deut. 20:16-18) could be read as allowing for religious warfare. However, such a reading for today is out of line with both the context of the Mosaic Law – which had its roots in an Israelite theocracy that had been overturned by Jesus’ claim that his Kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36) — and is out of line with the overall theme of the Inspired Word as grounded in the Incarnate Word, as described in #2a. Further, even such texts were not efforts to force others into Israelite belief, but were attempts to defend the Israelites against others’ beliefs (Deut. 20:18) — therefore, they cannot be used as a basis for attempting to force or intimidate another into adopting one’s own faith. Indeed, the Old Testament also witnesses to God’s sole role in judging the righteousness of other nations and peoples (Isa. 2:3-4), saying that “vengeance is mine” alone (Deut. 32:35, cf. Rom. 12:19). Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot be used as a basis for forcing or intimidating another into accepting one’s own beliefs.

 

V.) AGAINST LIMITING FREEDOM OF MORALITY

1.) It is undoubtedly true that a great deal of religious teaching is on morality. The Old Testament Law, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament all include numerous exhortations for a moral life. Likewise, the whole basis of Christian faith – that Jesus Christ came to redeem sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) by God’s grace and love alone – would be meaningless if there were no such thing as sin, or that which separates humanity from God.

2.) Despite the wealth of teachings on morality, however, both the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God suggests that one should not attempt to force one’s moral code upon another by force, law, threat of divine condemnation or intimidation, but should instead seek to persuade others toward right action as a response to God’s grace and love.

a.) The Word became Incarnate not to condemn the world, but so that all the world might be saved (Jn. 3:16-17). This salvation cannot be obtained by human action alone (Gal. 2:15), not can it be lost by human action alone (Gal. 3:25-29, Rom. 8:31-39; see also, Augsburg Confession Art. IV). Therefore, if God has chosen to freely justify and save humanity, and in so doing free it of the condemnatory demands of the Law, no human can try to use force, human law or the threat of divine condemnation (the heresy of Pelagianism) to force obedience to a particular moral code.

b.) The Inspired Word of God also refutes any attempt to force moral obedience upon another. Although the Mosaic Law might have been initially used as a legal code for ancient Israel (that is, the “First Use of the Law”), even then God maintained His covenant with Israel despite its transgressions (see, e.g., Ex. 32:14) and remained a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., Ps. 145:8). This steadfast love came to its full manifestation in the death and resurrection of the Christ, which fully freed humanity from the consequences of the Law (Gal. 2:15; Rom. 3:21-22). Moral demands thus become means by which humanity is shown its sin, and is drawn to Christ for forgiveness (the “Second Use of the Law”). God still does desire humanity to follow God’s will, but not as a demand but as an invitation to live a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; the so-called “Third Use of the Law”). This is not truly “Law” anymore, but free invitation, for breaking such “law” will not carry any eternal or eschatological consequences, as Christ has overcome the full burden of sin (it is true, of course, that human actions can have consequences in this world). Again, Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation of worldly kingdoms manifests this, as an earthly King Jesus could have forced all to follow his moral code. Rather, however, Jesus says that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), allowing others the moral freedom even to kill him. Likewise, Paul refused to force Philemon to free Oenesimus, but instead appeals to him on the basis of love (Phm. 8-9). Paul also encourages the Corinthians to give of themselves, but “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Therefore, Scripture shows that God does have moral expectations for humanity, but that no human should take upon himself the power to force his own morality upon another.

 

VI.) IMPLICATIONS OF THE FOREGOING

1.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular belief, or to force not to change beliefs, should be most strongly condemned.

2.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular moral code, or to force one into following certain actions on the basis of divine will alone, should be most strongly condemned.

a.) While the realities of civil society do demand some degree of law and restraint, these laws should be based as much as possible on the practical and utilitarian benefits to society, liberty and good order, and should not be based on one’s perception of “God’s will.”

3.) Even if disagreeing strongly with another belief or moral code, one should act with respect if trying to encourage or exhort another to adopt one’s own beliefs or morality.

4.) Those adopting such beliefs as outlined here should proclaim this Gospel of freedom in God’s love and grace, over against the false prophets and teachers who would distort God’s will into a means of coercion, intimidation, legalism, moralism or judgmentalism.

5.) Prayers should be frequently made to God for wisdom and guidance so that even those professing these beliefs might avoid corrupting the God’s will into a means of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation, and for God to work God’s loving will, despite humanity’s resistance and inclination to cling to its own desire for control and power.

And with such prayers are the foregoing theses humbly submitted.

 

Some disclaimers:

I do recognize that parts of this might alienate friends both on the right and the left of me – which I’ve actually sort of come to expect. 🙂 I also recognize that not all of this is necessarily “Lutheran,” though it is strongly influenced by my understanding of the Confessions (see “Basis of Authority”). Hence, I title this “A Lutheran’s argument” rather than the more basic “a Lutheran argument” or the more vague “a Christian argument.”

Interesting Articles

This week, I’ve decided to post a collection of links to blog posts and articles that I’ve found interesting or thought-provoking, lately.

The Perils of “Wannabe Cool” Christianity. This is just a short piece on the problem of churches focusing on the flashy stuff to get peoples’ attention, and not paying enough attention to the Gospel.

How True Revivals Start.  This looks back at the revivals that have swept America in previous centuries, and why the current attempt to get a “revival” going is nothing like them.

Neither Slave Nor Free.  On discipleship, Biblical interpretation, history, the perils of finding only what you look for, and Paul’s letter to Philemon.

If you have any subject, issue, or Biblical passage you’d like to learn more about, please comment!

On the burning of the Quran: a historical note

Did you know that in 1529, Germany lay under the shadow of a possible Muslim invasion?  It’s not covered in many history courses, I find.  But it’s true: a Turkish army had conquered most of Hungary and besieged Vienna, and Vienna was the gateway to Europe.  Hysteria and prejudice against Muslims in Europe reached heights that would not be seen again until modern times.  Religious and political leaders called for holy wars, to drive the infidels out and destroy them, to protect Christendom–the reign of Christian governments.

It was twelve years after the Ninety-Five Theses, and the Reformation was in full swing.  So, when the horrified city fathers of Basel found that a printer planned to print a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Islam (sometimes spelled Koran), they banned it … and called on Luther to produce one of his vitriolic denunciations.

Now, Martin Luther was a great theologian, but he could also be viciously sharp-tongued, and he certainly had his prejudices.  We may say that Luther was much more progressive in many ways than most of his contemporaries or successors, and it is certainly true, particularly in his understanding of the place of women and sexuality.  However, he was still a man of his day, and so some of his writings make us cringe to read them, particularly his attacks on the Jews which were used to support generations of cruelty and violence.  He also lived in a time before the modern ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion were conceived.

What did this brilliant but caustic man say when the good fathers of Basel asked him about the Quran?  Martin Luther wrote back, saying that if they would not allow it printed in Basel, he would have it printed in Wittenburg, and wrote a preface to be printed with it.  Martin Luther was certainly no apologist for Islam, he believed Christianity to be superior, and he wrote suggestions for how to witness the Gospel to Muslims (in his parlance, Turks).  And he believed that it was right and just for civil leaders to go to war against the Turks in defense of their peoples and lands.  But even as Germany was threatened with invasion, he refused to sanction a Holy War against Islam, and encouraged a faithful and honest study of the Quran and Islam by Christian scholars.  He even went so far as to advise Christians living in Islamic-controlled territory to be good and faithful citizens, under his two-kingdoms theory.  (In the theology of the two kingdoms, Christians live both in the secular “kingdom” and the spiritual “kingdom.”  Both are necessary for life.  The secular kingdom was ordained by God for the maintenance of good order among all people.)

We today in America do not live under the threat of invasion.  There are Muslims living among us, yes, but for the most part we coexist peacefully, with them, with those of other religions, with those of no religion at all, and with far more diversity in Christianity than Luther would have believed even living through the religious fragmentation of the Reformation.  The good order of our secular kingdom depends on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, in order that we may coexist peacefully.  The threat to burn copies of the Quran on September 11th, besides being bigoted and hateful, is a direct attack on the freedom of religion of others, and hence on the maintenance of the secular kingdom.  Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center (was ever a church more wrongly named?) do have the right to do it, under the First Amendment (although I’ve heard it argued that this falls under the exception of shouting fire in a crowded room).  That does not make it right, or Christian.  If Luther in 1529 with the Turks practically on his doorstep could open a door for dialogue, so can we.