Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.

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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 Water of Life

Lent 3, (Year A), March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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.

You know, when I wrote last week’s sermon and focused a bit on “being born from water and the Spirit,” I hadn’t yet looked ahead to this week’s lessons, to see that water would be an even bigger part of today’s Gospel. As the story begins, Jesus was travelling on his way, and he had to stop in a Samaritan town. Now, Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along. There were religious and cultural differences that had led to an enmity stretching back hundreds of years. Think of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land today. They worshipped the same God, but they told the sacred stories of Scripture differently, and while Jews believed the best place to worship God was in Jerusalem, the Samaritans believed that Mount Samaria was the best place. There wasn’t any danger of war between the two groups, but that was mostly because they tried to ignore each other as best they could even when they lived right next door. Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk to one another. They didn’t do business with one another. They certainly didn’t eat or drink with one another.

So there Jesus is, sitting by a well. It was an important well, with a long history, and a tradition that connected it to Jacob, who was an ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans. Both groups liked to pretend that the other group wasn’t really faithful to God; both Jews and Samaritans liked to claim that only their own people were right and the others were completely wrong. But that well was a reminder that they both worshipped the same God. They might fight—and fight bitterly—about what God’s Word meant, and how to worship God rightly, but they were all children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But beyond its history, reliable wells are incredibly valuable things in dry climates like the Middle East. Even if it was just a random well, it had given water to the community for centuries. The Holy Land isn’t like Egypt or Mesopotamia. They don’t have great big rivers that flow reliably through the country, giving water whenever they need it. They have the rain, when it comes, and they have wells. Each drop of water is precious. It can’t ever be taken for granted, because there is never enough of it. They depend on rain to grow their crops; if it doesn’t rain, the crops don’t grow, and if the well dries up, they have nothing to drink with, nothing to wash with. In Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as indoor plumbing. As in many third-world countries today, collecting water from the well was one of a woman’s most important daily tasks. Every drop the household used had to be carried from the well, sometimes miles away from home. It’s a heavy task, hot and painful. The walk out to the well isn’t bad, but the walk back is hard. Imagine carrying a large pot full of water for a mile several times a day. We today complain when a water line break means we don’t get water to our houses for a few days and we have to get it elsewhere and carry it home, how awkward it is when we don’t have running water for drinking and cooking and showering and flushing the toilet. But imagine living your entire life like that, with every drop of water your family uses carried for miles on your back.

So a Samaritan woman gets to the well and finds a Jewish man there. A bit unusual, but they’re on the road from Judea to Galilee, and after all, Jews like to come to Jacob’s Well too. She assumes that they’ll just ignore one another as Jews and Samaritans do. But as she’s lowering the bucket into the well, he speaks to her. Unlike Nicodemus last week, this woman was not coming for any spiritual enlightenment. She was just going about her daily chores, probably distracted with all the things that needed to be done that day. Did she have enough food for supper or would she have to go to the market? How much weeding did her garden need?

And then this Jewish guy she doesn’t know speaks up. “Give me a drink,” he says. Now, if he were a fellow Samaritan, this wouldn’t be anything remarkable. After all, what else would you expect someone sitting by a well to ask? But this isn’t a Samaritan, this is a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans don’t talk to one another and they certainly don’t eat and drink together, and here’s this Jew asking her for water? “You do realize that I’m a Samaritan?” she says. And the stranger starts talking about water.

Now, this is a woman who knows about water. She knows to the very marrow of her bones how important water is. She knows the thirst of getting to the end of the day and realizing they don’t have enough and it’s too late to go to the well again and so she’ll have to go to bed parched, lips cracking from the heat and dryness, swallowing repeatedly to try and keep her throat moist. She knows about making the hard choices—when water is scarce, who goes thirsty? What stays dirty? She knows how quickly people get sick and die without water. She knows the weight of water, carried step by aching step from this well back to the village every day of her life. Water? If there’s a better way to get it, she wants to know.

Jesus tells her, “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus isn’t talking about the kind of water you can get in a well, he’s talking about living water, the kind that nourishes your soul and not your body. We tend to concentrate on the needs of our bodies—food and water and clothing and shelter. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with tending physical needs! But our souls have needs, too. Our souls get thirsty, too. Our souls need the water of life just as deeply as our bodies need physical water.

While we focus on our bodies, we let our souls wither away. We thirst for a deeper connection, with each other and with God; we can bury that thirst in all kinds of things. We go out looking for the water of life and try to convince ourselves that other things will do just as well. We fill our stomachs and hope that will fill our souls. We post the best parts of ourselves on Facebook and Twitter and hope that getting a lot of “likes” will fill our deep need for friendship and connection. We drink and hope that the oblivion of alcohol will soothe the hopes and fears that plague us. We put one another down and hope that feeling superior will fix the cracks in our own lives. We build rules and walls and hope that we can build something that will fill our souls. We look for living water in all the wrong places, and we pay heavy costs for things we think will fill that thirst.

But here’s the thing about living water: it’s free. It’s a gift that is free for everyone. Whether you’re an insider or an outsider; whether you’re good or bad; whether you’re a man or a woman; whether you’re rich or poor. All you have to do is ask. The woman at the well, and thousands like her, work hard every day for water, but the living water flows freely for everyone. It comes through Jesus, in the love he has for each and every one of us. It comes as God comes to us, calls us by name, and builds a relationship with us. Jesus knew that woman, even though she didn’t know him; he knew everything she’d ever done. He knew the good parts and the bad parts, and he loved her and called her, warts and all. Just one encounter with him was enough to change her life. She still had to go to Jacob’s Well for water to drink, but her soul’s thirst was quenched.

And her encounter with Jesus didn’t just change her life, it changed her community’s life, too. She told them about her experience with Jesus, and that experience brought others to Jesus, too. She didn’t have any fancy training; she was no Bible expert. She didn’t win them over by quoting long passages of Scripture. She told them about her experience with God, a God in human form who knew her better than anyone in her life ever had and loved her and called her by name. Jesus gave her the fountain of living water, and through her that living water came to her whole community. The divisions between Jew and Samaritan—that great gaping chasm that ruled their lives—wasn’t important any longer. The old barriers were knocked down. The living water is for everyone. God’s love is for everyone. It’s not a scarce commodity to be rationed out by the cup to those who deserve it. It’s a wellspring that gushes forth with more than enough for everyone in the whole world. We go out looking for things to quench our soul’s thirst, and all the time Jesus is giving out living water. May we hear him when he comes to us.

Amen.

A party for the lost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), September 15, 2013

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15: 1-10

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.

Society was very different in Jesus’ day, in many ways.  The gap between rich and poor was much larger, for example, and virtually everyone worked at hard physical labor since their machinery was very primitive.  Their ideas of what family was were very different than ours, as was their understanding of gender.  They had very little concept of science, and viewed numbers and mathematics with a kind of mysticism.  But, as it happens, despite all the differences, there was a group in Jesus day very similar to most modern Christians.

These people were the pillars of their community.  They were as close as the ancient world got to “middle class.”  They studied the Bible regularly (although their Bible was only what we would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament hadn’t been written yet).  They went to worship every Sabbath.  They tried to do everything the right way, the way God wanted it.  They tried their best to follow the Commandments and establish a good and godly society.  They tried to get everyone in their community to be faithful to God, too; they spent lots of time and energy teaching anyone who would listen about God.  And they were generous, always giving their offering at the Temple and supporting the needy in their community.  They tried to do everything right, and by most standards they succeeded.  They knew who deserved God’s favor, who had earned God’s love.  When Jesus showed up, they were among the first to listen to him, although in the end they didn’t like what he had to say.  They agreed with Jesus about most things, but in the end, the few things they disagreed on were so important to them that they turned on Jesus and helped the chief priests to arrest him.  Who were these people, you may ask, these righteous and self-righteous people doing their best to follow God’s commandments?  The Pharisees.

One of the things that most annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was who he spent time with.  Sure, he came to be with them in worship, and he ate with them and taught them … but he also spent time with the sinners and tax collectors and all manner of unsavory people.  And sure, the Pharisees said, healing such people was great (as long as it wasn’t on the Sabbath), and teaching them was wonderful, and feeding the hungry was just what God would approve of.  But … eating with them?  Not just feeding the hungry, but spending time socializing with sinners from all walks of life?  Not just ladling out bowls of soup at a soup kitchen along with an invitation to worship, but building relationships with them?  These are the losers!  The lost!  The ones who have proved by their behavior that they don’t belong with the good people!  The ones who have proved that they aren’t worthy of being included in the community!  No respectable person should be hanging out with them, especially not someone who claims to be a teacher of the faith.  So it’s no wonder that they grumbled about Jesus’ social time with sinners.

Jesus, of course, heard the grumbling.  And so he told them three parables.  We only hear the first two today; the third, the story of the Prodigal Son, we won’t hear until Lent.  All three parables are about finding what is lost, and rejoicing.  The shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep behind to search for one that is lost, the woman who scours her house until she finds the last coin, the son who comes back expecting to be thrown out on his ear only to find himself wrapped in his father’s loving arms.

In our two parables today, the search for what is lost is extravagant, frantic, trumping all other concerns.  Have you ever thought what might happen to the ninety-nine sheep while the shepherd is away searching for the one that is lost?  Have you ever spent more time than you can afford tearing apart your home to search for something you know you have in there somewhere?  There comes a point where it makes more sense, from any rational standpoint, to simply accept the loss and move on.  But that’s not what happens in the stories.  The search continues until what is lost has been found.  We’re not told the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ choice of metaphor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been skeptical about it, frowning at what doesn’t seem to make sense.

And then, even worse is what happens after the lost is found.  There’s a party!  Rejoicing!  Sheep go astray all the time; it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them together and find the ones who wander off before anything happens to them.  So why is the shepherd throwing a party for doing his job?  And as for the woman with the ten coins, well, she, too, throws a party.  But how much did the party cost, I wonder?  She reacts to finding and saving money by … spending it.  Surely, the sensible thing to do would be to not lose things in the first place, and if you do lose them, take a good look at how important they are and whether or not it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to find them.  And how about a cost-benefit analysis before throwing the party.  Is it worth it?  Was the stuff you lost really that important?  What’s the sensible, responsible, logical thing to do?  Particularly when you remember that these parables are all about Jesus’ disreputable habit of hanging out with sinners.  It’s one thing to put a lot of time and energy into finding something that was lost by accident; something else entirely to search for someone who chose to get lost.  It’s no wonder that when Jesus was done telling his parables, the Pharisees ridiculed him!

And while the Pharisees are standing around debating the finer points of Jesus’ stories and pointing out the logical flaws, they were missing the big picture.  Any time, in Scripture, that you hear someone talking about a party, you should start paying attention.  Particularly when they’re talking about God throwing a party.  Because, you see, one of the great metaphors for Heaven is that of a party.  You see it over and over and over again, in the Old Testament and again in Jesus’ parables and even through to Revelation.  The Pharisees, good Bible-thumping people that they were, should have recognized the party just as you or I would recognize a picture of someone in a white robe sitting on a cloud with a harp.  But they don’t seem to; in chapter 16 when Jesus finally gets done with this string of parables, they ridicule him.  They’re so focused on the commandments, that they can’t see the love and grace behind them.  After all, as Jesus pointed out, all of the commandments can be summed up as loving God and loving your neighbor.  And that love comes in response to God’s love for us, a love that is extravagant and impractical and can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

You have to wonder if the Pharisees are ever going to get with the program.  Because, if they continue on as they are, they’ll be standing outside the party by their own choice.  In the great party that is heaven, will they be standing outside the gates complaining about who got in and refusing to enter because they certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with those kinds of people?  And complaining about what low standards God has, instead of joining in the rejoicing that what was lost has been found?   Will they spend eternity complaining about the extravagance of God’s determination to find and save everyone no matter how lost they are, an extravagance that includes pouring out God’s own self on the cross for the sake of the world?

But it’s easy to condemn the Pharisees.  After all, they lived so long ago and they are often Jesus’ opponents in the Bible.  It’s harder to recognize the same flaws in ourselves.  We, too, are good God-fearing people.  We, too, judge others, sometimes harshly.  We, too, are prone to think more about our own righteousness than on God’s saving grace.  We, too, sometimes hold to the letter of the law instead of the spirit of love which is its foundation.  If Jesus came here today, would we be offended by whom he chose to hang out with?  Would we be shocked to see him seek out druggies and welfare mothers and gang-bangers and pregnant teens and spend time with them?  Not just giving them a handout and a sermon, but building a relationship, loving them, and inviting them to the great party that is God’s kingdom?  Would we ridicule the time and effort spent seeking out the lost?  Would we, too, find ourselves on the outside of the party looking in, complaining about the guest list and the extravagance?

The truth is, we are all lost, in one way or another.  No matter how well we think we know God and follow him, we fall astray.  No matter how good we think we are, we fall short of the glory of God.  We fail to love God, and we fail to love our neighbor.  And sometimes, we even get so caught up in trying to follow the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of it.  If we can’t love our neighbors, particularly the ones who aren’t particularly good or likeable, how can we understand and accept God’s love for them?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own judgments that we lose sight of God’s grace, and become lost.

So thank God that our God loves us—all of us—so much that he will never stop seeking us.  Thank God for the extravagant grace and mercy poured out on all people, saint and sinner, good and bad, respectable and outcast.  For we are all, every one of us, sinners, in one way or another; and we are all, every one of us, saved by God’s grace and love, and invited in to the great party.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Dark, Cold, Smelly Stable

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24th, 2012

Luke 2:1-20

Preached by 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.

As you came in the front door this evening, you may have noticed the nativity scene at the top of the stairs.  You may have one at home—I do.  There are many styles of nativities and crèches, from everywhere in the world there is a Christian community.  Some are realistic, some are highly stylized.  All are beautiful.  You will see a baby Jesus—sometimes serene, sometimes smiling—lying in a manger, just as the Gospel said.  Oddly enough, he often looks more like a six month old baby than a newborn.  You will see Mary, fully dressed, kneeling beside her son in an attitude of prayerful devotion, looking beautiful.  You will see Joseph, standing or kneeling beside them, looking handsome.  You will probably see beautiful snowy white lambs, with athletic and handsome young shepherds.  You will see a star or a beautiful angel hanging overhead.  You will see three men in kingly robes bowing down, with boxes full of treasure.  It’s a beautiful picture, serene and perfect.  Our Christmas hymns describe it the same way: perfect and beautiful.

Here’s the thing, though.  My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and I remember spending time in the barns as a child before he retired and sold off his herd.  There’s something missing from all those beautiful nativity sets: the smell.

We don’t know what kind of animals might have been in that barn, possibly a cow, possibly a donkey or two, possibly some goats or chickens.  But all farm animals have one thing in common: they smell.  Or rather, the inevitable by-products do.  In any stable, no matter how clean or well-maintained, you will have dung.  Carved wood animals don’t make a mess.  Real farm animals do.  Let’s assume that the holy family had a clean stall or two with nice clean hay, they would still have been in the same barn overnight (and possibly for several days) with a bunch of smelly animals.  Certainly not a place I would have wanted to have a baby!

It would also have been cold and dark.  It’s true, Israel doesn’t get as cold as we do.  But the desert does get very cold at night, and a stable would not have had a stove or a fireplace to help keep out the chill, nor any insulation to keep away the cold night air.  The animals would help keep things warm, and the straw would be good insulation, but still, not very comfortable.  They didn’t have electric lights, of course; the best they would have had would be oil lamps to give off a dim and flickering light.  So the Holy Family would have spent their time in that stable shivering and unable to see much.

And have you ever noticed how clean Mary looks?  I was there when both of my younger brothers were born, and I know many of you have either had children yourself or been in the room during a birth.  There is sweat, blood, other bodily fluids, cursing, yelling, pain, hard work, and by the time the baby is born its mother is a mess and completely worn out.  And that’s in modern hospitals with doctors and epidurals.  Mary, as a stranger in town, might not even have had a midwife.  Just her and Joseph in a dark, cold, smelly stable, neither of them with any experience in this whole childbirth thing.  Even if we assume an easy birth, would Mary be fully dressed and looking perfect within a few hours?  Would she be up and kneeling, or would she be lying down and resting, trying to recover?  Then there’s the baby Jesus himself.  Even assuming that he was a perfect baby, he would still need to get fed and changed regularly.  Babies are hard work.

As for the shepherds, well, shepherds were notorious for being filthy, scruffy, crude guys, who spent all their time out in the fields with their flocks and had little time for niceties like bathing.  Nobody wanted them around.

So when you stop to think about it, the stable that night probably didn’t look much like our crèches at all.  As for hymns, well, the only Christmas carol that I can think of that mentions anything less than pretty about the birth of Jesus is “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which at least mentions the cold.  Throughout history, Christians have tried to pretty it up, sanitize it, make it perfect.  The word we use most often to describe Jesus’ birthplace is “humble,” as if Mary and Joseph chose that stable because they didn’t want to look too proud.  But that’s not the case: Mary and Joseph chose that stable because it was the best they could get.

Prettying things up is a natural human response.  We like our world nice and neat and tidy.  We like there to be simple answers.  We like it when the good guys always win and good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  We like to think that prosperity is a reward for goodness, and peace and security is a reward for faithfulness.  We don’t like thinking about injustice, and poverty, and sin, and the dirty, messy realities of life.  Realities like the wind blowing in through cracks, and the perfume of manure competing with the frankincense and myrrh of the Wise Men’s gifts.

Did you feel uncomfortable when I talked about the smell, and how messy and cold and dark it would have been in that stable?  It’s a lot easier to think of God being born in a perfect picture, than it is to think of God being born in pain and squalor.  Yet that’s what happened: that’s where God chose to be born, in the form of Jesus.  We claim that God is almighty, powerful, creator of all things and ruler of heaven and earth.  Why choose an insignificant woman from nowhere in a backwater province of the Roman Empire?  Why not choose to be born into all the riches and wealth of the world?  And, once God had chosen Mary, why let her be shoved off into some stable, instead of claiming a room in a palace?  Surely, God Almighty could have arranged at least one spare room somewhere in the city of Bethlehem.

If Jesus was born in a stable, it wasn’t an accident or a coincidence.  God chose Mary, and God chose that stable, the last place you or I would have chosen.  God chose to come into the world just like billions of other babies throughout history: poor, cold, in bad conditions, ignored by society.  God chose the mess, the indignity, the pain and the sweat and even the smell of animal dung.  God chose all the things we shy away from, the things we like to pretend don’t exist.  God chose the people we’re all too happy to overlook: the young mother from out of town, pregnant in suspicious circumstances, the people out doing the dirty jobs no one else wants.

God chose to work through those insignificant people, those outcasts, those strangers.  God’s great work of salvation began in mess and squalor.  God doesn’t shy away from all the messiness and pain in the world.  God came to redeem that messiness, to claim and save all people, not just the nice and pretty ones.  God sees the things we would prefer to forget, the dark things, the cold things, the ones that stink.  And God chose to use them to bring about the kingdom of God, the kingdom where there is no more darkness or cold, no more hunger or pain, no more sorrow, the place where all are welcome and all are loved.

Our world can be a pretty dark place sometimes.  Even when we ourselves are happy and healthy, we know that others are not as fortunate, here in our community and around the world.  And no matter how much we try to do good, how hard we try to be perfect, we are sinful and broken people.  We can’t fix that brokenness in ourselves or in our world.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to save us, to bring light to the darkest corners of our selves and our world.  Christ came that we might know the truth that will make us free.  Christ came to give us the peace that is deeper than just the absence of war.  Christ came to give us abundant life.

Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God.  He was God in human flesh, God with us in the most fundamental way imaginable.  He was born in a real, working stable with real animals and real cold and real darkness.  He experienced human life in all its goodness and with all its flaws, and he experienced pain and heartache just like a human.  And like a human, he had to bear the consequences of our brokenness and sinfulness.

Jesus knows what life is like.  Jesus knows what we’re like, every single one of us, not the pretty picture we like to present to the world but the hidden parts of us, warts and all.  Jesus knows the darkness inside us; Jesus has suffered because of it.  That little baby in the manger grew up to suffer and die for our sakes.  He knows every blemish, every broken place, every sin.  We don’t have to hide from him, because he knows us and loves us.  He loves us so much he was born as a human to save us.  He sees our every flaw, and loves us still.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Transfiguration, Year B, Sunday, February 19, 2012

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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.

In the last two hundred years or so, there have been a lot of debates about the miracles and wonder stories and visions of the Bible.  Did they actually happen?  Did they happen as described?  What natural phenomena could explain them?  Were they hallucinations?  Wishful thinking?  Tall tales?  Poetic license?  If you had a time machine and a video camera, and stood on the banks of the Red Sea as the Israelites crossed, would it look like Cecil B. DeMille’s vision?

Modern society is all about facts.  Cold, hard, facts.  Things you can prove in a science lab or a court of law.  Names, dates, easy answers.  This is just as true for people inside the church as outside it.  In seminary, one of my professors told a story about teaching a Bible study about Noah’s ark to a class of adults whose most pressing question about the whole story was “what kind of wood was the ark made of?”  We treat the Bible as if it were a textbook, full of things to memorize or check off on a list.  We get so focused on trying to prove or disprove the facts, that sometimes we forget about the deeper reality they point to.  We get so blinded by the surface of things, that we forget to look for the truth inside them.

Peter could tell us a lot about being blinded by the surface of things.  It happened to him quite often.  Peter was forever missing the point, and today’s story is no exception.  Picture this: Jesus, Peter, James, and John, had been travelling around Judea for months, now, on foot.  Their clothes were probably in pretty sad shape, with dirt and grime ground in, and I doubt the rest of them was much better.  They probably didn’t look as pretty as they do in pictures, and I wouldn’t want to stand downwind of them.  But while they’ve been travelling, they’d done and seen some awesome things: Jesus had healed many people, cast out many demons, and taught thousands of people about how God wanted them to live their lives.  But not everything was so rosy.  Jesus had just begun telling them that he was going to suffer and die, and the disciples—Peter in particular—wanted to nip that idea in the bud.

So Jesus takes a few of his friends up on the mountain, and there something awesome happens.  Instead of the tired, grimy, ordinary guy they’re used to seeing, Jesus is transformed into a vision of light.  They glimpse, however dimly, that Jesus isn’t just an ordinary teacher, or even an ordinary prophet or miracle-worker.  The light of God’s presence shines in him.  They’ve been spreading God’s light through their ministry this whole time, and now, for the first time, they can actually see it, whether with their eyes or with their soul.  Jesus has said all along that God’s kingdom was near, and now they can see it, however dimly.

As if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah show up.  Now, any good Jew like Peter, James, and John, knew what that meant.  Moses gave them God’s Law, and Elijah was the most powerful prophet Israel ever knew.  Both died under mysterious circumstances: God took Moses’ body to bury it, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind to heaven.  Nobody ever found either body.  According to tradition, they were supposed to appear when the Messiah came.  So there they were, and there Jesus was, shining with the light of God.  Peter has already realized that Jesus is the Messiah.  This is all the confirmation he could ever want.

Knowing that Jesus is the Messiah, what does Peter want to do?  Stay there on the mountain top, with Moses and Elijah and Jesus shining!  Crowds have been coming to them for some time, willing to come great distances to hear Jesus preach or be healed by him.  Surely, they’ll come here, too.  Then everyone can see what Jesus is.  There will be more teaching, more healing, everything they’ve been doing all this time, except better.  No more talk of this scary “suffering” thing.  Everything will be great.

But that’s not why they’re up there on the mountain.  That’s not why they see God’s grace manifest in Jesus, their friend and teacher.  Because God’s plan isn’t just “more of the same, only better.”  God’s plan is not limited to healing a few lepers, feeding a few crowds, teaching a few people about the kingdom of heaven.  God’s plan is bigger than that, more radical.  God is going to turn the whole world inside out and right-side up.  God is going to heal all the brokenness in the world, all the sickness, all the sinfulness, not just a little here and there but all of it, in every time and every place.  And God is going to do it through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Things are always darkest before dawn.  In the days to come, after they come down from the mountain, as Jesus goes to Jerusalem to suffer and die, things are going to look awfully grim.  There will be high points, but there will also be deep, painful lows, worse than anything Peter can probably imagine at this point.  It’s going to get very scary.  Because brokenness and sin and death aren’t going to give up their hold on the world easily.  The entrenched power-structures of the world that feed off of injustice and evil aren’t going to give up easily.  Jesus will have to suffer and die to break their power.  And Peter, James, and John will be along to watch every minute of it.  No matter what Peter wants, there’s no quick fix, no easy solution.  Knowing the right answers will not make what’s coming any easier to endure.

That’s why the disciples need this mountaintop experience.  They need to see the light of God, because things are going to get very dark.  They need to know that even ordinary things—like the clothes Jesus is wearing, worn and stained from months of travel—can become extraordinary.  They need to know that God’s light is within Jesus, shining forth, even when they can’t see it.  No matter how dark things get, Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the Son of God and Son of Man.  And all the things that Jesus has done before this lead up to his death and resurrection.

Jesus heals people because in the kingdom of God all people will be well and whole.  The brokenness of the world that causes illness will be wiped away.  Jesus feeds people because in God’s kingdom there is abundance for all.  Jesus teaches people to help them live lives worthy of God’s kingdom, lives of grace and mercy and love for God and for all people.  And Jesus dies so that God’s abundant life may be given to all.  No matter how dark things look, God’s light is more powerful still.  Jesus shines on that mountaintop so that Peter and the others can see that.

And so that we can see it, too.  Jesus’ death and resurrection broke the power of sin and death, but the ultimate victory will not happen until Christ comes again.  In the meantime, there is still plenty of darkness in the world.  I’m sure everyone here has experienced that darkness.  We have experienced pain, and suffering, illness and injury, grief and fear and doubt.  We have experienced sin and brokenness and death.  We know that the pain is not the end, that brokenness does not have the final say, that death has lost its sting.  And yet, until Christ comes again we must wait to experience the healing and joy that we know is coming.  We need the light of Christ to shine in our darkness, to help us see that God is working in the world and in us.  We need the light of Christ to remind us that our pain and suffering we experience and see around us are not the ultimate reality.  In the end, God’s love and healing win.

Amen.

Does Jesus Heal?

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, Sunday, February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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.

Lutheran seminary students are required to spend at least one summer working as a chaplain in a hospital or nursing home as part of our training.  This program, called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE, combines practical hands-on work, group study, and one-on-one mentorship, and one of my classmates who had been in the Army called it “boot camp for pastors.”

I did my CPE at Oregon State Hospital.  It’s the mental facility where they filmed “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There were strict rules for all employees and volunteers at the hospital.  One of them was that we could not tell anyone the names of the patients we worked with.  If we saw them out on the street, after they left, we could not make contact.  Unless they came up to us, we could not acknowledge that we knew them, and unless they brought it up, we could not say where we knew them from.  Not if anybody might be able to hear us.  This rule was supposed to protect the patients from people knowing they spent time in a mental hospital.

You see, there’s a stigma about mental illness.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s unpleasant.  If you are known to have a mental illness, people will look at you differently, and you will likely be discriminated against … particularly if your illness is severe enough that you end up in the hospital.  “Can’t he control it?” you hear people say.  Or “Can’t she just snap out of it?”  “Why can’t they act normally?”  Mental illness is a hard thing, a difficult thing to deal with that can split families and ruin lives.  There are no easy cures or answers why some people have it and others don’t.  So people ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and in the process they ignore the people who suffer from mental illness.  There is a divide between the world and those who suffer from these devastating conditions, and it can be as wide as the Grand Canyon.  The mentally ill are often treated like lepers.

What the Bible calls “leprosy” included a lot more than just Hansen’s Disease, which is what we call it today.  Leprosy included everything from true leprosy to bad psoriasis to severe acne.  Leprosy was a terrible thing in the ancient world.  If you were a leper, you were an outcast.  You could not associate with healthy people.  You could not work to earn your daily bread, but had to beg.  Your own family would probably cast you out.  You could not go to the Temple to worship God and participate in the community of believers.  And you were often told their affliction was a punishment for the sins they had committed, so it was your own fault.

We hear this, and we think, “How horrible!  How primitive, how superstitious and cruel, to blame people for things that aren’t their fault and isolate them from the support they need to live and thrive!”  When the truth is, we do the same thing.  But instead of penalizing people with incurable diseases that are visible on their skin, we do it to people whose wounds are in their hearts and minds.

Besides the stigma, there’s another similarity between mental illness now and leprosy then.  It’s that both conditions were or are, by and large, incurable.  If you were a leper in Jesus’ day, unless you were extremely lucky and your “leprosy” was only a bad case of acne, you would have it for your entire life.  It was never going to go away.  Likewise, if you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or any other mental illness, you will struggle with it for the rest of your life.  Some people are lucky enough that they can function on their own, with or without medication.  Some people will be in and out of mental hospitals, as their condition ebbs and flows.  And some of the people I worked with that summer at Oregon State Hospital will never be functional enough to leave the hospital, even with the best treatment possible.

During the summer I worked there, one of the stories of Jesus healing people came up as the appointed Gospel lesson for one Sunday.  One of my fellow students preached on it, and as we discussed that sermon Monday morning the Chaplain was very critical.  “Does Jesus heal?” he asked.  “Of course!” we replied.  “How can you possibly say that?” he said.  “You’ve been here a month.  How can you possibly believe that?  None of the patients at this hospital will ever be free of their illness.  Many of them will only leave the hospital for their graves.”  After twenty years of being a chaplain in prisons and hospitals, the chaplain had seen too much brokenness, pain, and suffering to believe that God could heal people.  He believed in emotional and spiritual healing—Jesus as Comforter—and social healing—Jesus the Good Shepherd welcoming people back into the flock—but not physical healing.

It can be hard to argue with his reasoning.  I know people who have been healed, who beat the doctors’ expectations, and I believe that Christ was working there, but for each story of hope there are many stories of pain and suffering.  There are so many people in the world who are faithful followers of God who will never receive healing in this life.  Those with mental illnesses, who struggle with addiction, with AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Lou Gherig’s Disease, a whole host of other devastating conditions will struggle with their conditions for the rest of their lives.

And then we come to a text like today’s Gospel.  Leprosy, the most dread disease of that day, healed with a touch!  Jesus, in one move, cured both the leper’s physical ailment and reunited him with the community that had turned its back on him.  And it makes me wonder why.  Why that leper, and not others?  How many lepers were there in Judea in Jesus day who weren’t that lucky?  What about the people here, now, today?  What about the people who are dying as we speak?  Is the chaplain right?  If Jesus is a healer, why isn’t he healing more people?

I don’t know.  People have been wondering why God allows pain and suffering since the first people existed.  C.S. Lewis called it “The Problem of Pain.”  My professors at seminary had a fancy Greek word for it, “theodicy.”  There have been a lot of theories, but there is no definitive answer.

What I do know, absolutely for certain, is that God is a healer, and God will heal all suffering and brokenness, whether now or when Christ comes again.  For some, that healing comes in this life.  For others, it will not come until the Resurrection.  We pray that healing comes soon, but it whether it comes now or later it will come.

And those who suffer are not alone.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus Christ is with the outcast, the leper, the unclean, the mentally ill, with all those who suffer.  Even when society turns its back, Jesus does not.  Our Lord spent his ministry with those pushed to the margins by their community: lepers, tax collectors, sinners.  Even when we would rather ignore the unpleasant reality of illness, Christ meets it head on.  Jesus Christ has suffered himself; he knows what we go through and will not abandon us.  We may not see the signs of Christ’s presence—when things are hardest, our pain can blind us to the support God is giving us.  There are times we feel utterly alone, and yet later, can look back later and see Christ with us.  We as Christians are invited to participate in this reality, by providing support in tangible ways, and serving as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  We may not be able to cure illness with a touch, but we can support and nourish and love, and create an environment which supports healing.  Christ does not call us to sympathize with those who suffer from afar, to shake our heads and murmur how terrible it is.  Christ calls us to join him in his healing work.

I believe that there are miracles of healing.  I have seen them and I have heard others tell their stories, some in this very congregation.  Some are physical: deadly diseases cured.  Other healings are spiritual, not physical, when someone receives the strength to carry on, or a broken relationship is restored.  But no matter what form the healing takes, no matter when it happens, Jesus Christ is there.

Amen.