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.



Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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.

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.