Choose Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 16, 2014

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.

Deuteronomy is one of those books of the Bible that most people will never read.  It takes place just before the Hebrew people enter the Promised Land.  God had used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and they had been nomads in the wilderness for forty years while they learned to be God’s people and live as God wanted them to.  They had learned to trust God and follow God even in the harshest conditions.  It hadn’t been an easy time; they kept backsliding, grumbling, and rebelling against God.  Now they were finally ready, and had been led to the area we call Israel today, the land God had promised to give them.  They were standing across the Jordan River from the land, they could see their future home.  But before they crossed, Moses had a few things to say.  Well, actually, Moses had a lot to say.  And the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of his speech.  Moses knew he wasn’t going to live much longer—he died before they crossed over the river.  And he wanted to help them remember the things they had learned in their years of wandering.  So he gave them the Law—chapter after chapter of legal minutia, everything they needed to know to establish a just and lawful society.

Our first reading comes from his summary, as he’s wrapping up his speech.  In this reading, he reminds people why the laws are there.  The law isn’t given so that people will trip up; it isn’t given so that lawyers can have a job; it isn’t given as a way for the powerful to oppress the powerless by wielding unjust rules.  The laws are given so that the people can live good, honest, and open lives.  We all have many choices in our lives, things we can decide to do or not do.  Some of them seem to be hard, but yet worth it in the long run.  Other choices are easy and seem good at the time, but lead to problems down the road.  It’s not always easy to lead a life of honesty, integrity, and love; sometimes it’s so much easier to be petty and deceitful and selfish.  But a life filled with love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself leads to, well, life.  A life filled with pettiness and selfishness, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Or, at least, it doesn’t lead to the kind of abundant and joy-filled life that God wants for us.  Choosing badly may not be a literal death; it may be a death of hope, a death of love, a death of possibility, a death of joy.  An addition to the brokenness of the world.

When we make choices about how we’re going to live, how we’re going to treat ourselves and others, that’s what’s at stake: are we going to choose the abundant life God has promised us?  Are we going to choose healing and wholeness?  Or are we going to turn away, and choose death and brokenness?  Choose life, Moses says, and reminds us that when we make those decisions every day, we don’t just make them for ourselves, but for our family and community.

Jesus is also talking about laws in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, and again it’s about choices.  What kind of life are we going to live?  Chapter 5 is the sermon on the mount.  You may recall a few weeks ago when we heard the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn.  Why?  Because they will be comforted, filled, lifted up; because in those times of grief and loss, some of the deepest connections and relationships are forged.  Whether or not the world can see it, God is with those who are last, and lost, and least.  Then, last week, the Sermon on the Mount continued with Jesus talking about being salt and light.  God has chosen us to be the light of the world, to let God’s light shine through us on the whole world, and participate in God’s work.

Then, today, Jesus’ sermon takes a more legalistic bent.  What kind of life should followers of God lead?  Jesus’ expectations are pretty high—much higher than was required by the Law of Moses.  But the expectations are high for the same reason.  Some choices lead to life; some lead to death.  Jesus wants us to choose life, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world.  Jesus wants us to live lives that let God’s light shine; Jesus wants us to help build up God’s reign on earth, where the poor are loved, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek and lowly aren’t trampled underfoot, where mercy and peace are everywhere.  So here are some practical tips on how to live that kind of life.

The first is about reconciliation.  There is conflict in life.  There will always be disagreements, inside church and outside church.  Sometimes those conflicts are small, and sometimes they’re not.  But we human beings aren’t very good at dealing with conflict.  All too often, we’d rather nurse our resentment and anger than forgive; we’d rather sweep things under the rug than take the hard work of rebuilding the relationship.  How many of you have had an argument or problem with somebody in the community that lasted for a long time?  Think about that conflict: did it affect other things in your life?  Did it take a toll on other people?  Did the resentment creep into other things you did?  That’s no way to live.  Jesus calls it a kind of murder: not of lives, but of relationships.  It destroys possibility; it breaks down the whole community.  So, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone or someone has a problem with you, you should handle it immediately—don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t bury it and seethe, go and be reconciled.  Even if you’re in the middle of worship, take the time to work through the problem and rebuild the relationship.  By the way, we actually allow time for this in worship.  Have you ever wondered why we stop in the middle of service to pass the peace?  It’s not just to catch up with people and say hello.  It’s a time intentionally set apart so that if you have a conflict with someone, you can take the first step of healing the breach: sharing peace with them.

The second area of behavior Jesus talks about has to do with more intimate relationships: marriage and sex.  Jesus focuses on adultery: actions which break those relationships.  And, specifically, he focuses on things men do that break up relationships.  Why?  Because men had the power in society.  A man could blame a woman for his own misbehavior.  A man caught in adultery got a slap on the wrist, but a woman caught in adultery could be killed.  A man could beat or kill his wife with few if any consequences.  A woman had very few circumstances in which she could get a divorce, even if she were being abused; a man could get a divorce for virtually anything.  A meal he didn’t like could be grounds for divorce: and while a man who got divorced didn’t face many problems in society, a woman who was divorced had very few options.  She could live with her father or brothers as a servant; she could marry again (if she could find someone willing to marry her); she could become a prostitute.  There weren’t many other choices.

So I don’t find it surprising at all that Jesus told men not to divorce their wives lightly or for trivial causes.  When you get a divorce, that’s a death of possibility.  It kills the relationship, and often it kills more relationships than just the couple’s: parents, children, siblings, friends, all are caught in the conflict; all are affected.  It can be devastating.  And in Jesus’ day, you added to it a very real possibility that the woman’s life would be ruined even if she had done nothing wrong.  Divorce for trivial reasons was the opposite of everything Jesus was trying to teach.  It was the opposite of the love and mercy and peace that Jesus was sent to bring.  For that reason, I don’t believe that Jesus would apply this teaching on divorce to cases of abuse: abuse, also, is the opposite of love and mercy and peace.  Marriage, like all relationships, should be good and positive and life-affirming.  Jesus wants us to make choices that lead to life, and that includes choices about marriage.

The third thing Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading is oaths.  Not cursing, but swearing.  For example, when a witness is sworn in court, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  And at first when I was reading this passage I didn’t get the connection.  Then I realized: why do we make people swear oaths?  Because we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own.  We don’t trust that witnesses in a court will tell the truth without an oath and penalties if they don’t.  We don’t trust that people who hold government positions will do their best if they don’t have to stand up and give an oath—and maybe we’re right not to trust.  Certainly, some people try to lie and cheat.  But Jesus’ point is that we as Christians shouldn’t need to take oaths—we should tell the truth even without them.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether we’ve sworn an oath or not.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether or not there are consequences.  We should make the choices that lead to trust, and integrity, and the kind of life worth living.

There are a lot of laws in the Bible, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in them.  Some people study the letter of the law, and forget the spirit; some people use the law as a club to beat other people over the head with.  But that’s not why God gave the law to Moses to give to the Hebrews, and it’s not why Jesus talked about the law, either.  God gave us guidelines for behavior to help us make good choices, choices that lead to life and love and wholeness and healing.

Moses said: “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.”

Amen.

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Sermon: Christ the King

Sorry for posting this a week late, but I was a bit busy with Thanksgiving last week.

Christ the King

Sunday, November 23 2008

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

MP3 of SermonBulletin.

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.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year; next week is the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin preparations for the coming of our Lord.  Today, we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is our King, ruler of heaven and earth.  We are citizens of two worlds, of this world we live in now and of the world to come, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  Jesus Christ is the king of both heaven and earth.  It’s easy to imagine Christ as King of heaven, where he reigns in glory with angels and pearly gates and all that.  It’s a lot harder to imagine Christ as king of this world we live in today.

What does it mean that Christ is King?  What kind of a King is he?  When I think of kings in this world, I think of grand castles and historic wars and riches and crown jewels locked safely behind glass.  Most kings in the world today are ceremonial figureheads, like Queen Elizabeth of England.  She comes out, she waves at crowds, she makes speeches, she travels the world, but in the end the country she rules is actually governed by elected officials in Parliament.  Then there are all the kings in history, who actually did rule their people.  Some were good, some were bad, but all had flaws when you take a close look at them.  They favored the rights of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the poor, they played favorites, they started stupid and tragic wars, they lived in lavish palaces while the majority of their people lived in squalor and filth, they had so much power and wealth and used it to get more power and wealth.  Even David and Solomon, the two greatest kings in the Bible, had significant problems.  David’s adultery and poor parenting skills caused a vicious civil war, and his son Solomon the Wise raised taxes and forced labor levies so high to pay for his building projects that on his death the kingdom of Israel-God’s chosen people-were permanently split in two.  That split never healed because a few centuries of rule by bad kings later, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria and taken off as captives and was never heard from again.  If that’s the legacy of a good king, well, I can see why our forefathers rebelled and threw out the English king in favor of a democratic government.  It’s hard to imagine a king being a good thing, hard to think of Christ as a king, when you think of all the bad things kings have done.

Except our democratically-elected political leaders don’t have that great a track record, either.  Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers owned slaves and left in place a system of slavery that was horribly unjust and cruel and caused a massive civil war for their children and grandchildren to fight.  Lincoln had no plans for the future besides winning the Civil War, and his lack of planning led to problems with Reconstruction after his death.  Our presidents have a better track run over the long term than the kings and queens of many other nations, but that’s not saying much.  All leaders of nations, whatever they call themselves and however they came to power, have fallen short of their promises and caused problems for their people.  Yet they keep making new promises about what they’re going to accomplish as leaders, each promise more lavish than the rest.  And we follow them, hoping they’ll fix all the things that are wrong with the world, all the mistakes their predecessors made.  We hope they’ll make things better for us, make a better world, fix the wrongs and injustices that affect our daily lives and prevent new ones from occurring.

On November 5, the day after the recent election, I visited a few shut-ins, and the conversation naturally turned to politics.  The Obama supporters spoke as if Obama was a savior who would right all the wrongs in America and in the world.  The McCain supporters spoke as if America was doomed and would crumble and fall within the next four years.  Now, politics is a touchy and dangerous subject for any pastor to discuss with parishioners, and I’m not quite comfortable yet with where the boundaries are.  But one thing I know for sure is that no matter which political party won this or any election, no matter which candidate is installed in office, the world is in God’s hands and will always be in God’s hands, difficult as that can be to remember at times.  And so we come back to the question: what does it mean that Christ is King of this world as well as the next?

In the first lesson, the leaders of the world-particularly the kings of Israel and Judah-have failed at their task as leaders and shepherds of their people.  The people are scattered and divided, the rich have gotten greedy and the poor have gotten trampled.  There is no justice anywhere.  The ones with God-given gifts to take care of and protect others have used those gifts to make themselves even richer and stronger at the expense of the ones they’re supposed to be protecting.  It’s not their riches God objects to-it’s the way they’ve used those riches to do the exact opposite of what they should be doing.  The result?  Everyone has suffered.  The nation has been conquered by foreigners and everyone-rich and poor alike-has been carried off into exile.  God sent the prophet Ezekiel to bring comfort: exile is not permanent.  The injustices that plague Israel will be redressed, and a new shepherd, a new king, will be given to lead them.  This king, however, will not be like their old leaders who brought them to this low point.  This new David will be a true shepherd-he will take care of the people with justice, and both rich and poor will be fed and protected and cared for.  This new David is Christ, the Messiah, king of heaven and earth.  What does it mean that Christ is King?  Christ is not just a ceremonial king, there to be brought out for rituals and holidays and ignored the rest of the time.  He has true power of both judgment and protection.  Christ’s kingship means that the old way of doing things, the way of life in which value is calculated by riches and power, will come to an end.  In its place will come a world in which all people are valued, in which everyone gets a fair chance and all will be cared for.  Christ’s kingship means that justice isn’t about who’s got the biggest army or the most money, and it means that no matter how bad things seem to be now, this world is not the end.

But justice can’t happen without judgment, and that means that injustices can’t be swept away under the rug or excused as simply the way things are.  People need to be held accountable for the things they’ve done, good and bad.  God’s justice can’t be bribed, or swayed by politics, or biased in any way.  God knows what is in our hearts and minds, God knows what we’ve done even better than we do, and God will judge everyone with greater justice than any human court could ever hope to do.  Let me repeat that: God will judge.  Not us, God.

In the second lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment that will happen when he comes again.  The story is simple: everyone will be judged and sorted into two groups.  The ones who are righteous-the sheep-will go into the Kingdom of heaven, and those who are not righteous-the goats-will be sent away to eternal punishment.  This parable is pretty well known.  It’s a common subject of sermons and Bible study classes.  It’s an excellent way to show what God’s justice looks like: when we see someone in trouble, and we have the power to help, we should do it.  We see the face of God not in the kings and rulers and powerful and wealthy of this world, but in those who are the most vulnerable.  We see the face of God in people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, imprisoned.  We have been given many gifts, not just of money but of time and talents as well, and we should use them to take care of those who honestly cannot take care of themselves.  This is what Christ our King commands.  This is the standard against which he will judge us.

And again I point out: the standard against which Christ will judge us, not the standard we will use to judge others.  Here’s what most people miss when they read this parable: the sheep don’t think they’re sheep and the goats don’t think they’re goats.  The sheep are honestly surprised to hear that they’ve been serving Christ in their daily lives, and the goats honestly can’t think of a time when they haven’t served.  The problem is that the goats were serving the wrong things-and didn’t know it.  They got so caught up in what they thought needed to be done, they forgot to ask what God thought needed to be done, and how God wanted them to go about doing it.

It’s kind of like when I was a kid and I would take care of my younger brother on Saturdays while Mom and Dad were at work.  We had a list of chores to accomplish, and it was my responsibility to see to it the chores got done and that we both did our fair share.  Now, I was a fairly bossy girl, and my brother has always been laid back, and so normally he’d just go along with whatever I told him to do, and normally I tried to divide things relatively equally.  But sometimes I’d get so caught up in the fact that I was in charge that I would try to make my brother do a lot more than his fair share-and then try and micromanage how he did it.  Well, I never got away with it for very long-eventually, even my laid-back brother would call Mom and Dad to complain, and I would get in trouble.  Even if the chores got done like Mom and Dad wanted, they didn’t get done how Mom and Dad wanted when I made my brother do most of the work, and they got done in ways that harmed the relationship between myself and my brother.  Just as it was easy for me to think I was doing what my parents wanted by bossing my brother around and making him do most of the work, it’s easy for us to arrange things the way we want them and justify it by thinking we’re doing what God wants.  It’s easy to fall back into the habits of power-seeking, of seeing things through the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of Christ, and not even realize we’re doing it.

That’s a scary thought.  If it’s that easy to forget about the true justice of Christ, if we can honestly think we’re serving God when we really aren’t, what’s to stop us from being goats?  How can we make sure we’re headed for eternal life rather than eternal punishment?  We do our best, but what if that isn’t enough?  Well, the bad news is, our best isn’t enough and there’s no way we can make sure we’re sheep and not goats.  We can’t judge anyone, not ourselves, not others.  The power of judgment belongs exclusively to Christ our King, who isn’t blinded by power and money and all the things we use to decide status.  But the good news is that Christ exercises that judgment along with mercy, in grace and love.  Christ uses his kingship for protection and care.  As sinners, we stand condemned before the throne.  But Christ loves us still.  And that is where we place our trust and our hope of salvation, not in our deeds that often go wrong, but in the grace of God.

Jesus Christ is our king both in this world and the next.  Doing good things isn’t just about salvation.  We do good works because our God and King desires justice in this world, and mercy, and he wants to work through us to accomplish it.  We do good works because our God cares just as much about the weak as he does the strong.  Christ can be seen in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, the sick, the dying.  The world may have forgotten them, but God hasn’t.  And neither should we.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all.  The rulers of this world have the power of laws and armies and bureaucracy in their control, but Christ is still the one in ultimate control.  Things may seem grim or depressing when we see all that’s wrong with the world, all the things that we as human beings have done wrong.  But Christ doesn’t exercise that power through a show of riches and might.  He rules by bringing justice and grace to the world, to those who need it the most.  He rules by gathering up the lost and forsaken, by being a good shepherd to his people.  Thanks be to God.

Law and Gospel: living in the tension between sin and salvation

We Christians talk a lot about the Gospel.  It’s a term so basic we don’t often stop to define what we mean when we say it, but let’s take the time now.  “Gospel” can actually mean two things: first and most obviously, the four Gospels are the four books of the Bible that chronicle the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  But there’s a deeper meaning.  “Gospel” literally comes from an old English word meaning “Good News.”  “Evangelism” is derived from an old Greek word meaning “Good News.”  On a fundamental level, the Gospel is the Good News that God loves us and wants to save us from our sins, to make us happy and healthy and whole and in a right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings.  Gospel, then can be found in more places in the Bible than just the four Gospels.  The Gospel can be found in every single book in the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation.  (“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15, etc.)

But there’s more in the Bible than just Gospel.  Before you can talk about the need for healing, you have to understand that you’re sick.  Before you can see the need for salvation, you have to be able to see sin.  That’s where the other thing in the Bible comes in: the Law.  The Law is the stuff that points out just how far short we fall of the life God intends for us.  The Law is not just the legal codes in Leviticus and other places in the Old Testament.  Just as there is Gospel in the Old Testament, there is also Law in the New Testament.  The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 is a good example.  The bridesmaids were to meet the groom with lamps lit.  Five brought enough oil, five didn’t.  The groom was delayed.  The five who ran out of oil left to find more, and when they came back they found they had missed the bridegroom’s coming and were not allowed to enter the wedding.  It’s an allegory for the coming of the kingdom of God, and the message is that if you’re not prepared, you don’t get to come in.  After two thousand years of waiting, how many of us are truly ready for the coming of God?  This passage is law because it points out to us just how unready we are for God’s coming into our lives, and because the redeeming mercy of God is not shown to the bridesmaids who weren’t ready.  Will there be mercy?  Yes, because God is a merciful God.  But before there can be mercy, there must be the recognition of a need for it.  The Law convicts us, and the Gospel saves us.

We are redeemed by God’s love manifest in Christ Jesus.  But sin is the default condition of the world and everyone in it, and this will be the case until Christ comes again.  We still sin, every day, which is why we still need God’s love and forgiveness.  We are saints–people made holy by God–who are also sinners.  If we forget that we are saints, we turn away from God in despair at our brokenness.  If we forget we are sinners, we turn away from God because we think we can rely on our own merit, and we become self-righteous hypocrites who condemn sin in others without recognizing it in ourselves.

We need both law and gospel.  We need the law to remind us of our need for God, and we need the Gospel to remind us that God answers our needs.

If you have any questions about this article, or any aspect of Christianity, please comment and I will address the question next week.

No Other Gods

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7)

Thus begin the Ten Commandments, the laws given by God to his people to teach them how to live good lives.  This commandment is the first because without a strong foundation, without knowing who our God is who is the basis of our faith, everything else becomes relative, shaky, a house of cards ready to fall.  After all, look at the story that follows the Ten Commandments: while Moses is up on Mount Sinai talking to God, the people of Israel get afraid and make an idol to worship to reassure themselves.  This is quickly followed by the people of Israel breaking just about every single one of the Ten Commandments they’ve just been given.

It sounds so simple to follow.  When we go to church on Sunday, it’s pretty clear who we worship: all the songs, scripture, preaching, etc., point to God, and it’s pretty easy to avoid going to the worship services of other religions which would involve the worship of other gods.  So it’s easy to read the story and condemn the Israelites for a lack of faith.  What we don’t realize is that idolatry is easy to spot when it’s wrapped up in a golden calf.  It’s a lot subtler in its modern forms, and we are very guilty of it.

Martin Luther said that our god is whatever we put our trust in.  Think about that: your god is whatever you put your trust in.  It’s not just about what you worship in formal ceremonies, it’s about what you rely on in your day to day life.  And watching what’s going on in America today, it’s pretty obvious that even in a nominally Christian nation, what we put our trust in is not the God who led our ancestors out of slavery and sent his only son to save us and make us whole and who has promised to be with us no matter what.

From the reactions to and panic about the banks and the stock market, it’s blatantly obvious that the thing in which many Americans put their trust is the nation’s economy.  And I’ll bet most Western nations have similar attitudes.  When the financial system falters and people start hearing the word “recession,” people feel nervous because the thing in which they put their trust–their god–is failing them.

From the reactions to and talk about the Presidential race, it’s blatantly obvious that the thing in which many Americans put their trust is their political party or specific political candidates.  America has problems; so does every other nation on earth.  People believe that a political ideal, or a political party, or a certain politician can fix those problems and make things right; that’s what they put their faith in.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that having a working economy is bad, or that participating in and caring about politics is bad.  Both are necessary to a functioning society.  But you always have to ask yourself: what do I put my trust in?  What is my God?

If your ultimate trust is in any human institution, you are doomed to disappointment.  All humans have flaws; all humans have problems; all humans have limitations.  Every human society and institution since the beginning of history has eventually collapsed in one way or another, because of those human failings.  If they are what you put your ultimate trust in, what will you do when things go wrong?  When the economy fails or the politician turns out to be just like all the others that came before or the ideology that sounds so great in speeches turns out not to work in real life?

All humans eventually fail.  But God, the one true God who created us and loves us and redeems us, will never fail.  You can put your trust in God whether things are going well or badly, whether the economy is strong or fails, whether politicians keep their promises or not.  God will never abandon you.

If you have any questions about the Christian faith, please comment and I will answer them next week.