First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

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, O Lord.

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

Ah, December.  That wonderful time of the year when churches and homes are decorated with beautiful nativities and pictures of baby Jesus … and in worship we read about the end of the world.  Like in our Gospel reading, where Jesus talks about the day when he will return in power and glory, and our first reading, when the Israelites call for God to come to earth and renew them, showing his power in earthquake and fire and storm.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, contrasting sweet baby Jesus with apocalyptic readings, but it’s actually on purpose.  You see, December is a time of waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas to come; we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem … but we have to always remember who we are waiting for.  The beautiful baby that is the center of so many sentimental songs and Christmas cards and nativity sets is also the one who sacrificed himself on a cross for the redemption and renewal of the world, and he is also the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It’s all too easy, in this season of parties and homecomings and sentimentality, to trivialize Jesus, to sentimentalize him into a warm fuzzy “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone got along over the holidays.”  Yes, it would be nice; but Jesus did not and does not come for a superficial niceness and getting along with one another.  Jesus comes for something deeper, something better.  The peace that Jesus brings requires that all the root causes of injustice and harm be ripped out and done away with.  This peace is not just a truce; this peace requires us to face the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our world and acknowledge all the hurt we have done to ourselves, our world, and our neighbors, because only then can true healing begin.  Jesus came to bring love; but not the kind of superficial love that pastes a smile over deep disagreements and old hurts.  Jesus came to bring the kind of love that is open and honest even about the unpleasant things, and that works to heal brokenness and bring new growth, better growth.  That’s what Jesus was born to do; that’s what the judgment that he is coming again to bring will do again, finishing what he started in his death and resurrection.

And there are a lot of things in us and in our world that just aren’t compatible with that kind of love and peace and justice.  Stony ground is going to have to get the rocks picked out.  Hard ground is going to have to be tilled up.  Weeds are going to have to be pulled.  Dead branches pruned.  Ways of life and ways of thinking and ways of doing business that add to the pain and hurt in the world are going to have to end.  The world as we know it, ourselves as we currently are … there’s just too much selfishness and greed and hate.  That’s all going to have to end.  And it will.  There will be a new heaven, and a new earth, and we shall all be changed.  We need to be ready, and waiting, for that change to come.

But the literal-end-of-this-world-and-beginning-of-the-next isn’t the only kind of world ending we need to be alert for.  Worlds end all the time, in good ways and bad ones.  When somebody’s life crumbles, they lose their job and their spouse divorces them and everything they worked for and counted on crumbles to ashes, that’s the end of their world.  When a child who’s been passed around the foster system for years gets adopted and a fresh start with a family that loves and supports them and helps them heal and grow, that’s the end of the world as that child knew it.  And sure, a better one is coming, but it’s still the end of everything they know.  Peoples’ worlds end all the time.  And there’s a lot of pain and grief involved in it.  But even in the pain and grief, God can do a new thing.

Our first reading from Isaiah comes from a people who know about the world ending.  The people of Israel and Judah had spent centuries giving lip service to God while building unjust and idolatrous societies.  They had ignored the words God sent to the prophets warning them to reform their ways.  So God had stepped aside and allowed their enemies to conquer them, and lead them off into captivity.  When that happened, their world ended.  Everything they knew or loved was gone.  After a few decades of slavery in Babylon, God allowed them to return—and coming back to their ancestors homes, they found that there were strangers living there and all the buildings and roads and cities lay in ruins.  They were free, and home, but rebuilding was a massive task.  Their parents’ world had ended when the Babylonians captured them; their world had ended when the captivity ended and they returned to a ruined homeland they had never seen before.  This reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, as the prophet comforts and guides people whose world has ended twice in as many generations.

They long for God to come.  They long for God to make God’s power known in earthquakes and fire, something that nobody can mistake.  They long for God to take all the pain and misery and transform it, to take all the broken things and make them whole.  They know that even as screwed up as things are, God can and will make all things new.

But they look for this promised day of the Lord with clear and open eyes.  They know that they themselves will have to face a reckoning, that at least some of their problems are caused by their own bad behavior, their own selfishness, their own iniquity.  They know that they will have to change; that God’s presence will change them and mold them into something better as a potter’s hands mold formless clay into beautiful and useful pottery.

They know that God was with them generations ago, before they were exiled to Babylon.  They know that God was with them while they were captives in Babylon.  And now that they are home from captivity, God is still with them.  And they know that if they turn to God, God can and will save them; God’s power will re-make them, and their world, better than they ever could on their own.  They don’t know when God is coming, but they know he is acting, and they long for his presence.  They know that even though it will require change on their part, that that change is a good thing.  They are not sitting in their sins and pretending they’re doing well.  They are open and clear-eyed.

That’s a hard thing to do.  It’s not easy to live with one eye peeled for God’s presence and coming.  It’s not easy to acknowledge the things in ourselves that need to be mended and healed, the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others.  It’s so much easier to accept everything in us and in our world as normal and just the way things are.  It’s certainly a lot more comfortable!  To just go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing.  It doesn’t take much thought, and it doesn’t take any soul-searching.  You can sit there like a bump on a log and you don’t have to think about anything hard.  Or maybe you know things should be different, but shaking your head and making disapproving noises is all that’s required to salve your conscience.  It’s simple, it’s easy.  It doesn’t require you to take any risks.  It doesn’t require you to change.

We were not created by God our father to sit there like bumps on a log.  We weren’t given eyes to see so that we could turn them away from the dark places in ourselves and in our world that need God’s light.  We weren’t given brains to think so that we could just go along with whatever the world around us wants of us.  We were created to love one another—true and deep love that acknowledges pain and hurt and works towards healing and new growth.  We were created to help one another, to work for a God’s kingdom.  And we can’t do that if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not looking for things in ourselves and in our world that need to be changed, and we certainly can’t do it if we’re not looking for the places God is working in us and the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our midst.

We are flawed, imperfect people, who live in a world broken by sin and death.  We need God’s presence and God’s guidance to see the way the world should be.  We fall short of the good people God created us to be, which is why we wait in hope for the day Christ will come again to make all things new.  We can’t make the perfect world of God’s kingdom on our own; only God can do that.  But while we wait, we have work to do.  Work that begins with keeping awake.

Amen.

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A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

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

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

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

In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God.  By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky.  If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies.  Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded.  But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you.  This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too.  Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.

The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one.  That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships.  God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people.  God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.

And not just individual relationships, either.  Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior.  But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships.  Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another.  Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense.  After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another?  If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully.  If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset.  If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share.  Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet.  Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.

You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible.  It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected.  It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out.  The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor.  The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing.  And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together?  The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too.  The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else.  You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers.  You just can’t.

Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost.  Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you.  And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them.  And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means.  So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.

So, there they were.  With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said.  And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed.  And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great.  They thought they had a wonderful connection with God!  They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.

God had a much, much different perspective.  God thought things were going horribly.  God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care.  That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them.  And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in.  First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive.  “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”  They’re all going to be disgraced.  They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.

Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor.  Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering.  When people starve to death, it’s their fault.  The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track.  “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  …  12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”  They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain.  And they’re going to pay for it.  God is not going to protect them from their enemies.  God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children.  And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering.  You just can’t.

We keep forgetting this, though.  We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough.  But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites.  If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.  And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do.  May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.