Life After Death

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

 

Let’s talk about death in the Bible.  Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the concept of resurrection in the Bible is almost completely absent from the Old Testament.  The last few books of the Old Testament to be written have a few vague references to it, most notably Daniel; many other books have passages that we can insert the resurrection into.  But God’s people didn’t even start talking about the possibility of the dead being raised until a few centuries before Jesus was born.

Up until then, the standard Jewish belief was that you were born, you lived, and you died.  And that was the end.  There was no heaven, no hell, only Sheol, where all the dead went, a place of nothingness.  If God wanted to reward you, God did it during your lifetime.  They looked forward to a day when God would come and set to right all the things that were wrong with the world and make creation perfect again, and if you were a good person living at that time things would be awesome for you, but if you died before that point you would just miss out on it.  As things got worse and worse for the Jewish people, as they got conquered and enslaved and sent into exile and returned from exile and got conquered again and again, this belief got less and less satisfying.  If you didn’t get rewarded for being a good follower in life, then you had to get rewarded in some other way.  Since they didn’t believe in a separation between body and soul, that meant that you had to come bodily back to life.  That’s what resurrection is.  It’s not about disembodied souls floating on clouds somewhere, it’s about the whole person, body and soul together, coming back to life in the most physical way possible.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of resurrection was highly controversial.  The Saducees, who were the high-level priests who controlled the Temple and had awesome lives, thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd.  And why shouldn’t they?  They had lots of money and power and influence, and their lives were pretty good.  Ordinary Jewish people from the Pharisees on down, on the other hand, loved the idea of Resurrection.  Because their lives were terrible.  They were horribly oppressed by the Romans, and the idea of a resurrection into a new life (one that the pagan Romans couldn’t share) sounded pretty good to them.

So when Jesus came to Jerusalem, preaching about a coming resurrection, the Saducees wanted to discredit both him and the idea of the resurrection.  To show just how absolutely absurd the whole concept was, they asked a question designed to stump him, about a woman who’d married a series of brothers.  Now, we think it’s an odd scenario, but it was actually fairly common back in those days.  Women had very few rights and very little ability to support themselves.  For protection and to make sure they didn’t starve, women needed to have either husbands or sons, preferably both.  And women who weren’t under the control of a man were seen as an unstable force, a threat to society.  So a woman whose husband died without sons was expected to marry his brother and have kids with him.  That way she’d be taken care of, and she would be kept out of trouble.  It was the law.  This happening seven times in a row was a bit unlikely, but hey, why let probability get in the way of a good straw-man argument.  So the Pharisees tell this story about a woman who married a series of seven brothers, all of whom died on her, and then they turn to Jesus, sure they’ve got the example that will point out just how absurd this whole idea of life after death is.  She’s got to belong to a man, and she can’t belong to more than one.  That’s how patriarchy works.  So which one is she going to belong to?

Of course, as Jesus points out, the problem is that they’re expecting life after resurrection to be just like life before resurrection.  And what would be the point of that?  If resurrection exists because there is terrible injustice in the world and people suffer, being resurrected to a life with just as much injustice and suffering would be nothing more than an invitation to more suffering.  The whole point of the resurrection is that God will fix things.  God will heal people.  God will make things better.  All the injustice and sin and evil in the world—and in all of us—will be gone.  Things will be made new.

As for marriage, well, we’re still going to have loving and life-giving relationships.  In fact, we’ll have better relationships because all the sin and brokenness that distort us and our friends and family will have been healed.  What we won’t have is all the legal and social frameworks based on economics and power and prejudice.  The Saducees asked the question assuming that a woman had to belong to a man, and that was the basis of marriage, so the question was which man she was going to belong to in the Resurrection.  But God didn’t institute marriage for economic reasons or as a way of controlling people.  God gave us marriage because it’s not good for human beings to be alone.  Because we need companionship and affection and mutual respect and support.  That’s what God has always wanted marriage to look like, and that’s what relationships of all kinds are going to look like after the resurrection.  Which man is she going to belong to?  Nobody’s going to belong to anybody in that way.  Nobody’s going to be a piece of property to be handed around as convenient for society.  She’s not going to belong to anyone but herself and God.  If she wants to form a relationship of mutual love and respect, that’s great, but it won’t be anything like the Saducees thought marriage should be.

The Saducees couldn’t imagine a life different from the one they were living.  So when they imagined a resurrection, they imagined it looking just like the life they already knew.  We have the opposite problem; we tend to think of the resurrection as not being anything like the life we already know.  Ask someone what heaven looks like and they imagine people in white robes sitting on clouds and strumming harps.  The thing is, both ideas are wrong.  The resurrection will be something like the life we know because it is life.  Soul and body together, filled with eating and drinking and enjoying God’s good creation and loving God and one another.  But at the same time, the resurrection is utterly different from this life because we and all of creation will be saved and forgiven and healed and made new.  All the things that hurt people will be gone.  All the things that distort or corrupt our hearts and minds and bodies and souls will be gone.  All the things that bring fear or pain or jealousy or worry or anger will be gone.  And all those emotions shape us and our society in this life so much that we can’t even begin to imagine what life would be life without them.

God is god not of the dead, but of the living.  The life we will have in the resurrection is the life that God wants all people and all of creation to have, the life that was the plan from the very beginning and was only prevented by human sinfulness.  God isn’t waiting to destroy this world and all but a few people in it, God is working to make this world into the world to come.  We can’t construct God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now, but we can look to that world as the guide for what God wants life to be like.  The point of being a faithful Christian is not to escape this life and try to make it into the next one, but to try and live our lives now in the light of that life to come.

Amen.

#Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

In the popular imagination, saints are especially holy people.  People who are righteous and good beyond what ordinary people can hope to be, or who do some great miraculous thing.  In this view of things, saintliness is a quality some people possess and others don’t.  In this view of things, being a saint is something you do, or something you achieve through your own merit.

But the thing is, that’s not how the Bible talks about being a saint.  For example, when Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,” he’s not talking about how the Ephesians love a few especially holy people.  To Paul, a “saint” is anyone who has received the grace of God.  Being a saint is not something you do or achieve, it’s a gift from God.  No human being can ever be truly holy or truly righteous on our own merit alone; we are all, even the best of us, sinners who fall short of God’s call for us.  And yet God saves us anyway.  God calls us, forgives us, renews us, claims us as God’s own, and makes us holy; and that is what it means to be a saint.  We are all, every single one of us, sinners who fall short of the glory of God and hurt ourselves and other people; we are all, every single one of us, saints made holy by God.  Sainthood is not about any internal resources or abilities we have; sainthood is about being forgiven, redeemed and made holy by God.

When we remember the saints who have gone before us, we’re not just remembering the really nice ones that everyone loved.  And we’re not just remembering the good parts of people and sweeping the bad parts under the rug.  So often when people die, we feel we have to pretend they were perfect even if we still bear the scars and wounds and grudges they gave us.  But acknowledging the saints doesn’t mean pretending they were perfect, because they weren’t.  Even the best of them were still sinners.  And when we call them saints, we aren’t forgetting the truth of their behavior and choices.  We are lifting up the work of God to save and redeem and make holy, even in this broken, sinful world.  We remember the saints, all of them, the good parts and the bad alike, and remembering that they are in the hands of Jesus Christ, just as we ourselves will some day be.  For those who helped us grow in the faith and loved us, we give thanks.  For those we had quarrels with, for those who hurt us, we pray that our wounds and scars will heal, and we pray that they will receive the forgiveness we ourselves hope to receive.  No one is holy on their own merits.  But God does not measure out grace and forgiveness by the teaspoon.  God pours out forgiveness and grace and mercy and salvation and blessing in overflowing cups for all who will receive it.

But blessing is another one of those words that is very different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible.  The most common thing people use “blessed” to mean is lucky.  Christians on social media will point out something good that happened to them, and tag it #Blessed along with a picture of themselves looking happy and perfect.  And if that’s what blessing truly means, then our Gospel reading makes absolutely no sense.  Jesus says the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the despised are blessed.  All the people whose lives are terrible, the people that society alternately ignores, exploits, pities, shames, and abuses—Jesus says they’re blessed.

You see, blessing in Biblical days didn’t just mean lucky or happy.  It could mean that good things had happened to you, and certainly if you blessed someone you wished for good things to happen to them, but that was only part of what it meant.  On a larger level, to be blessed was to be satisfied, at peace, unburdened.  To be blessed was to be respected and given honor.  Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor and despised because they are the ones who need it, and because God doesn’t just want to save the nice happy comfortable people.  God is at work in even the darkest places, among the people we would rather forget about.

Blessed are the poor and the hungry, because God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to give them the resources they need to survive and thrive.  God’s will is for all people to share in the abundance of God’s creation, and God is at work to see that it happens.  If human inaction and callousness prevent them from sharing God’s abundance in this world, they will certainly share in God’s abundance in the world to come.  If human sinfulness—both their own and other peoples’—works to prevent them from experiencing peace and satisfaction in this life, they will certainly receive it in the world to come.  Blessed are those who weep, for God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to provide them the support they need as they grieve.  And if human sinfulness and indifference work to isolate them so they don’t receive the support they need here and now, they will certainly receive that support in the world to come.  Blessed are the people society despises, because God sees them and God cares about them and God loves them, and God is at work in them and among them to help them heal from all the hurt they have received in this life.  And if their wounds are too deep to heal in this life, they shall certainly be healed in the next.

And note that this isn’t just the deserving poor, the ones who have done everything right their entire lives and never made any mistakes.  This isn’t just the people who are persecuted or hated for something they can’t change and are otherwise perfect and innocent.  This is all the poor, all the hungry,  all the people who are despised, and that includes the ones who are poor or hungry or despised because of their own sinfulness and brokenness and bad choices.  Because God sees with the eyes of a loving parent.  God knows all their potential, all the wounds and illness that twist them, all the terrible things in their life that have made them who they are, and God knows that healing for them and the world can only come from a place of compassion.  And God’s desire is that all people and all of creation be healed and saved and made knew.  So God blesses those who don’t deserve it.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that what God sees as blessing is not what human society sees is blessing, Jesus pronounces woe on those whom society thinks are blessed.  Woe to the rich and those who eat their fill, Jesus says.  And it’s not that wealth is evil or wrong, but God created a world of abundance with more than enough resources for everyone to have enough.  If some people are hungry and poor, that’s not because God hasn’t provided enough, it’s because we humans haven’t used God’s gifts for the good of all, only the good of some.  And if we can sit and enjoy God’s good gifts while others are being denied those same gifts, and do nothing to help them, well, that says a lot about us and none of it good.  If we can ignore and dismiss the suffering of others because things are going well for us, that’s pretty callous.  And sometimes when everyone speaks well of someone it’s because they’re really that good and deserve all the praise … but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s because the only people we’ve hurt are the ones nobody cares about.  Sometimes it’s just because we’re really good at playing the social game and putting on a good face—how often does someone commit a horrible crime, and the people around them are shocked because he was such a nice guy?  The eyes of the world see only the surface of things.  Our view of blessings and woes isn’t the same as God’s view.  And as Christians, we are called to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, not to the world.

As we remember those saints who have gone before us, let us

Amen.

You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

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.

My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.

On the Road

Lectionary 15, Year C, July 14, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:25-37

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous route.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of road travel through the wilderness in an era without heavy equipment to make and maintain high-quality roads.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of wildlife that might attack travelers who would not, after all, be safe in a metal, glass, and fiberglass vehicle.  But a lot of it was due to the consequences of human sin, and human choices: bandits.

There were a LOT of bandits in those days.  After all, there are always some humans in every group who would rather hurt people and steal than do honest work.  But this was more than that.  You see, the Roman Empire was very unjust, especially when it came to economics.  God created the world to have enough abundance for everyone in it, but the Romans wanted all of that abundance in the hands of the Roman elite.  The whole system was set up to divide people into haves and have-nots, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Taxes.  Inheritance laws.  Labor laws.  Everything was set up to enrich those who already had everything, and take from those who had little to nothing.  The Roman system preferred landless day-laborers and slaves who could be easily used and abused to prosperous middle and working class people who were harder to push around.  In a good year, a poor resident of the Empire barely scraped by.  In a bad year, they might find their only legal option to avoid starvation was to sell themselves or their children into slavery.  Faced with that horrifying choice, a lot of them turned to banditry as if they were first-century Robin Hoods.  Barabbas, the guy the crowd asked Pontius Pilate to release instead of Jesus, was just such a bandit.  These bandits mostly focused their attacks on the estates of the wealthy who benefited from the system that had impoverished them, but when it came right down to it they were not above attacking anyone they saw who might have something worth taking.

And the road to Jericho was on a border.  No man’s land.  Still firmly within the Roman Empire, but not near enough to any rich estates that the Roman Army would bother to clear out the bandits.  As long as nobody wealthy enough to matter got hurt, the Romans did not care what happened in the backwaters of their empire.  And the locals along one part of the road were Samaritan, and on the other part of the road they were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Jews and Samaritans did not speak with one another unless they had to.  They did not even drink out of the same wells if they could avoid it.  So there probably was not much cooperation between the two groups to clear out the bandits.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous one.  All of that sin—the sin of the Romans in creating a system that used and abused people until they snapped, the sin of the bandits themselves, the sin of the army that didn’t protect ordinary people, the sin of the local communities too caught up in their mutual dislike to work for the safety of all people in the region.  God created the world to be good, and yet, there was so much pain and suffering.  This was a huge problem.  It probably felt overwhelming and really scary.  The Roman Empire had existed for centuries and was really powerful.  A handful of local people couldn’t change it much.  The systems that created the problem were big and complicated, and there were so many other problems to deal with.

So when Jesus told a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, it would have come as no surprise to the listeners that he got robbed and beaten and left for dead.  It was an all-too-common problem.  Someone should do something about that.  The exchange that started the parable would also have been no surprise.  Judaism has a long and rich history of questioning and debating important religious topics such as which commandments are most important, and Jesus’ answer quoted from Scripture.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18.  Telling a story or parable to help explore an issue would also have been expected.

The shocking thing would have been twofold: first, that in the story, the religious people—the ones who should have been the heroes—walked past and did not help the man beaten and left for dead.  God’s people are supposed to help when we see someone who needs help, and that man obviously did.  Jesus doesn’t tell us why the characters of the priest and the Levite walked by without helping.  Maybe they thought he was dead already.  Maybe they were scared the bandits who assaulted him were still in the area and might attack if they stayed too long.  Maybe they thought he was a bandit, and his suffering the result of a falling-out among thieves.  Maybe they thought that God had allowed him to be assaulted as punishment for some sin or other.  Maybe they didn’t want to have to undergo the purification rituals necessary for people who have touched blood.  Maybe they’d seen enough people beaten and left for dead over the last few years that they were just overwhelmed and had hardened their hearts.  Maybe they didn’t think their first-aid skills were good enough to make a difference.  Maybe they couldn’t have carried the guy to safety without putting down their pack and letting robbers steal it, too.  Maybe they were on their way to an important meeting of a group trying to figure out how to make the Jericho road safer, and thought preventing future bandit attacks was far more important than helping the current victims of attack.

If you were the priest or the Levite, what would your excuse have been?  We human beings sure do make up a lot of excuses to get out of things we don’t want to do.  Children do it to get out of chores; adults do it to get out of much greater things.  I bet you that priest and Levite had great reasons why they couldn’t possibly have helped.  I bet that when they told their story later to their friends, it was a really convincing reason, and I bet most of their friends nodded solemnly and congratulated them for doing the right thing.  When we screw up, when we fail to do things we should, we are really good at convincing ourselves and others that we were doing the right thing.  It may be a transparent self-serving lie to outsiders, but that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enough to make us feel better.  And religious people are no better about it than anybody else.  God sees what we do, and what we fail to do, and knows just how often we fall short of what God wants, but we are experts at using pious phrases to excuse our failures.  We think ourselves blameless, but God knows the truth.  So do the people we leave bleeding and naked on the road.  Can you imagine how the victim felt, in agony and fear and pain, watching those two walk past and not even meet his eyes?  Can you imagine how people today feel, when they suffer and need help and the whole community ignores them?

The second thing that would have shocked people would have been that the person who did help was a Samaritan.  An enemy.  An outsider.  One of those people, the people you would cross the street to avoid and not talk to unless you had no choice whatsoever.  Jesus doesn’t say whether the victim was Jewish or Samaritan or Gentile, but his listeners would probably have assumed he was Jewish.  So the Samaritan would have known he was an enemy, from a rival tribe.  He helped anyway.  Many of Jesus’ followers would probably have denied that it was possible for a Samaritan to be good.  You’ll notice that when Jesus asks the lawyer which one acted as a neighbor, the lawyer can’t quite admit that the hero of the story was a Samaritan.  “The one who showed mercy” is true, but it strips away the hero’s identity.

Taken together, it’s a one-two punch.  The people who should help don’t; the person you don’t like is the one to do the right thing.  Loving God and loving your neighbor aren’t about whether or not you think nice thoughts about them, or pray about them.  (Want to bet the priest and the Levite kept the guy in their thoughts and prayers as they walked on by?)  I mean, you should think nice thoughts, and you should pray.  But for love to mean anything, we have to put it into action.  Even when it’s hard.  Even when we have every reason not to.  Even when it’s easier to walk on by.  Even when we’re tired, even when the problem seems so much bigger than we can fix.  We may not be able to solve the world’s big problems, but we can help the people in front of us who need help.  We can be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We can love our neighbor as ourselves.  And, who knows?  If enough people choose to step up instead of walking by on the other side, maybe we’ll even make a dent in the larger problems.  May we always follow God’s commands to love God and love one another.

Amen.

Laboring for Shalom

Lectionary 14, Year C, July 7, 2019

Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

“After this the Lord appointed sevent others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the Harvest to send laborers out into his harvest.” Believe it or not, this is one of the ways in which our world is similar to Jesus’ day.  There is a great harvest—a lot of people who are hungry for God, for some deeper meaning to their lives—but not that many laborers to bring in the harvest, to give the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who are most hungry for it.

One in every five Americans today calls themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  They believe there is something greater than the material world; they believe that they are better off if they pay attention to their spiritual life; they are curious about God; but they don’t go to church or read the Bible or look to Christianity for guidance or community.  Some of them grew up Christian but have left the faith; some of them were never Christian to begin with.  Many are wary or skeptical of institutional religion and churches, because they have seen too many abuses, too many hypocrites, too many people using the Bible as a club to beat people over the head with, too much use of the Bible simply as a trump card in political arguments.  Or they can’t imagine that someone like them could ever be welcome in church: they just don’t fit the standard mold of the churchgoer, and think they will only be welcome if they pretend to be someone they’re not.  Or, like a cousin of mine, they long for some deeper spiritual experience, but found the church more interested in maintaining the status quo and the traditions than in exploring discipleship and spirituality.

Whatever the reason, whatever their experiences, these people will never walk in a church’s doors on their own.  They will never seek to be baptized or to come to Bible study without being invited.  And they will probably be suspicious, at least at first, of invitations, because so many of them have been burned by Christians and Christian churches before.  And yet, despite all of this they are deeply hungry for a closer connection with God, and this is something we can help them find through our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are ripe for the harvest; but there aren’t many of us to go out and do it, and most of us are afraid of being sent out, because it’s hard to talk about important things with people who disagree with us.

So let’s talk about the seventy who were sent out, and how they were sent out, and what they were sent to do, because it’s not what we think of when we think of mission work.  In some ways, it’s a lot easier than what we think of; in others, it is so much harder.  We think of missionaries as people who know their Bibles cover to cover and who know all the right arguments to make to “prove” they are right and the people they are trying to convert are wrong.  But you can’t argue someone into faith; it just doesn’t work that way.  Faith can’t be taught, it has to be caught.  You absorb it from the people around you, from the way they interpret their experience of God.  Learning doctrines and theology, that comes later; if you have faith, it adds great richness and depth.  If you don’t have faith, the doctrines are useless.    And so often in the last few centuries, missionaries have brought as much cultural imperialism as they did religion.  When they entered a community, instead of seeing what the Christian life might look like in that culture, they tried to change the culture to be more like mainstream White middle-class culture, as if Jesus could only love you if you wore the right clothes and spoke the right way and sang the right songs.

But if you notice, when Jesus gave the seventy their marching orders, they were nothing like our stereotypes of what missionaries should be.  First, he doesn’t give them a list of doctrines or beliefs that people have to be taught and convinced to believe.  The seventy were people who had followed Jesus for months, who had heard him preach and talked with him and knew his message, but the teachings were not part of this first missionary journey.  The first thing they’re supposed to do—the beginning of their ministry—is not to preach, but to spread peace.

Now, in Jewish thought, peace is a lot deeper than what we think of today.  Peace was not merely the absence of conflict, although that was part of it; peace was part of shalom, which means peace but which also means wholeness, healing, harmony, completeness, prosperity, welfare.  This is the first thing they are to do: they are to bring shalom with them and bless those they meet with it.  This is for two reasons.  First, it is God’s desire that everyone experience that healing, that wholeness, that harmony within themselves and within their community, whether or not they believe in God.  And second, once you have experienced that shalom, even if only in part, it becomes so much easier for the Good News of Jesus Christ to take root.  Where fears, anxieties, angers, resentment, jealousy, and other things like them hold sway, the Word of God finds rocky soil in our hearts.  Shalom is the basis for every good thing.

And the seventy don’t get to take the easy way out.  They don’t get to discriminate and only go to places where there is already shalom, because God’s peace is beyond understanding and it is.  Everyone needs peace and wholeness; so the seventy are sent to be agents of shalom everywhere they go.  Not everyone will accept shalom; not everyone is willing to open themselves up to the possibility of healing and harmony.  And not everyone who experiences shalom will then be willing to hear God’s Word.  But the ones Jesus sends are to proclaim it anyway, and if that shalom is rejected, the laborers are not to retaliate or judge, but simply shake the dust from their feet and move on.

There are people today, in our own community, who are in desperate need of healing, wholeness, harmony, prosperity, and peace.  Sometimes that need is personal; sometimes, it is families who need it; sometimes, it is whole large groups.  Some of them will welcome that when it comes; others will not.  But as Jesus’ followers we are called and commanded by God to be instruments of that peace, and just as the seventy were sent out to bring that shalom to the communities along Jesus’ path, we are called to bring it to those in our own community.  We are called to do this both for the sake of God’s shalom, and because people who have experienced that shalom are far more likely to listen to the Good News of Jesus.  So here’s a question: where are the places in need of shalom among us, and what can we do to bring it?  How can we, as individuals and as a congregation, be instruments of God’s peace, healing, and wholeness?

But spreading shalom is only the first step for the seventy.  Once they have begun to spread that shalom, they have to stay with the people they are evangelizing.  They don’t get to retreat back into the familiar culture and surroundings of what they’re used to.  No, they stay with the people they are evangelizing, they keep promoting shalom through word and deed.  This is hard; it means they are not in control.  They are guests.  They don’t get to impose their cultural expectations as part of evangelism; they have to listen and adapt to the culture of their hosts.  They are to bring the Gospel, not their culture.  How can we, as we interact with others in our community, bring that same grace and openness to other ways of living?

And then, once they have brought peace and healing and wholeness, then they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.  But it’s still not about doctrine or Biblical knowledge or the right argument.  It’s about pointing out where God is in their midst.  It’s about pointing out God moments, places where God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and shalom break into the world.  It’s about seeing God in action.  And once you have that—once you have God’s shalom, and can see where God is around you, that is when faith comes.  That is when spirituality deepens from something vague into something concrete.  That is when people start to become disciples, start to become part of the community of faith and learn its stories and its beliefs.  And that is when we see, as the seventy did, the work of the Holy Spirit.  May we learn to spread shalom as they did.  May we learn to be good guests, as they did.  And may we always point out the kingdom of God in our midst.

Amen.

 

Healing and Grace

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 23, 2019

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

The man possessed by the demon had two problems: First and most obviously, the demon.  The demon—or legion of demons—who tormented him and possessed him and led him to hurt himself and prevented him from living any kind of life.  The second problem was the community of people around him, who were more interested in trying to control him and avoid him than they were in trying to help him.

People are afraid of those who are different, especially those who are mentally ill.  This was true in Bible times, and it is still true today.  People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than to commit crime, but still when we hear of a terrible crime like a mass shooting, we assume the perpetrator must have had a mental illness despite the fact that they’re almost always perfectly sane.  We turn old insane asylums into haunted houses and horror tours, scaring ourselves with stories of the creepy people who were confined there in days past, despite the fact that virtually all of the horrors in such places were done by the doctors and nurses and guards, not the patients themselves.  But it’s easier to lock up or shun people who are different or mentally ill than it is to love and support them.  In general, it’s easier to use other people as scapegoats than to face the dark things in us and our society.

So it should not surprise us that the man possessed by demons in our Gospel reading had lived with a terrible choice: he could be chained up, or he could be homeless, living outside society in the cemetery.  His own people didn’t want to give him any kindness or help.  Either he was bound up like a prisoner, despite having done nothing wrong but be sick, or he was shunned and excluded and left to fend for himself in the graveyard.  Those were his only two options, and both were pretty terrible.  As far as we know, he had never hurt anybody, or done any damage besides breaking the chains they put on him.  And the demon possession would have been horrible enough on its own, but the only things his community did were to make his life more painful than it had to be.

And then Jesus came.  You know, it’s funny, but in the Gospels the people who are most likely to know who Jesus is are the demons?  The religious leaders in society didn’t; even his own disciples only occasionally showed any awareness of who Jesus really was.  But the demons knew, and were terrified.  They were terrified because they knew Jesus would not leave them alone.  They knew Jesus came to heal the people they tormented.  They knew they could not continue on hurting people if Jesus came near.  And so too, this demon was afraid.  And it was right to be afraid of Jesus.

Jesus asked the man’s name and healed him, cast out the demons so that for the first time in years the man’s mind was his own.  He took a bath and got dressed.  He could talk without the demon speaking for him.  He was saved.  Not because he was anything special or good or unique, but because that’s what Jesus does: Jesus saves people from the things that torment us, whether that is demons or sin or illness or injury or hunger or any other force.  Jesus came to bring good news, to release those held captive, to liberate those oppressed, no matter who or what is holding them down.

And the people of the town, the man’s family and neighbors, came and saw what had happened.  They saw him safe, and sane, and whole, and free.  And they did not rejoice.  No, they were afraid.  They were happier with him sick than healthy.  They were afraid of change.  They were afraid to welcome him back among them.  I am sure that at least some of them loved him and were happy, but most of them were not.  Like an alcoholic’s friends who would rather he continues to party than get sober and recover, they liked the dysfunctional and unhealthy patterns they were used to better than a new and better way of living.

In this story, the demons of the Legion are afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast them out.  The people of the town are also afraid of Jesus because he has the power to cast demons out.  It’s not that they like the demons, but rather that they’re used to them.  They’re used to fearing and being suspicious of the man who had been possessed.  They’re used to being able to do terrible things to him and telling themselves that he deserves it.  They’ve spent years locking him up and abusing him and ignoring him and his needs whenever possible.  They don’t want to have to look him in the eye and account for how they’ve treated him.  They don’t want to welcome him back and make him part of the community.  They don’t want to change.  And so instead of letting Jesus cast out their sins as he cast out the demons, instead of allowing him to heal them of their pride and fear and resentment and selfishness as he healed the man of his demon, they attack Jesus.  They cast him out.  They don’t want to change, even if that change is for the better.  They are more comfortable with their sins and their demons than they are with being healed and saved.  And so they try to kill Jesus.

This is another thing that hasn’t changed since Jesus’ day.  We still do not want to change even when that change would be better for us.  We would, by and large, rather stay in familiar-but-unhealthy patterns than open ourselves to the saving and healing power of Christ in our lives.  And most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that’s what we’re doing.  Do you think the people of that village were honest with themselves about why they drove Jesus out?  I don’t.  I bet they made up all kinds of reasons.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus was an evil magician, and that’s why he had power over the demon.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves they were mad about the money lost by the pigs’ owners.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves that Jesus came to town to destroy their crops and livestock and getting rid of the demon was just a side effect.  Maybe some of them convinced themselves of other reasons I haven’t thought of.  But the fact is, it was seeing the man—their relative, their neighbor, a man whom they should have loved and cared for but chained up instead—that made them fear Jesus.  And so they cast Jesus out rather than letting him heal them, too.

Some people, reading Bible stories like this one, argue about whether the demon was a literal evil spirit or just some form of mental illness.  I don’t know that it matters.  What matters is this: there are things in us that hurt, there are things that destroy the good life God meant for us.  And sometimes those things are present in individual people, like in that man, and sometimes those things are present in communities, like in the community that did not want him to be healed.  And whether those things that hurt us are demons or illness or social forces or our own habits, God has power over them and can heal them.

Some of that healing takes place in the here-and-now.  Sometimes miracles happen; sometimes God works through medical professionals and therapists and medication.  Sometimes forgiveness and spiritual healing take place even where we think nothing good is possible.  But sometimes we have to wait.  Miracles don’t happen on command; they don’t happen every time we want them.  If so, the community would have been healed of their fear and anger instead of casting Jesus out.  I don’t know why God doesn’t heal every wound in this world right now with a snap of his fingers.  But I do know this: there will come a time when Christ will come again, and the dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and everyone and everything will be healed and made whole, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.

I don’t know when that will happen, but I have faith that it will happen.  I have faith that even when healing is not possible in this life, it will come in the next, and God’s power will triumph even where hope seems futile.  And I also have faith that God put us here for a reason.  I have faith that God is working in us here and now, that even though there are times when healing is not possible now, God is at work.  Even though there are times when we reject Jesus, God is still at work.  Even though we turn away from God’s gift of healing, even though we so often prefer the fearful life we are used to over the grace-filled life of freedom God offers, God keeps coming to us and offering healing and forgiveness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

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.

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

Amen.

It’s About Trust

Lent 1, Year C, March 20, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Ever since paganism died out in the West, most Christians have not really paid attention to the First Commandment, “you shall have no other gods besides me.”  After all, there aren’t exactly any temples to Ba’al or Zeus or whoever around.  If you’re going to worship, the main choice is which branch of Christianity you’re going to follow.  But Martin Luther didn’t think that first commandment was obsolete.  On the contrary, Martin Luther saw idolatry everywhere.  Luther put it this way: whatever you say on Sunday morning during worship, your true God is the thing in which you put your trust.  The thing you rely on to keep things going well, the thing you look to to get you out of any problems.  And for a lot of people, even for devout Christians, we may say we trust God, but we don’t necessarily actually do that.  We put our trust in ourselves, our money, our political ideology, our leaders, in a lot of things, but not in God.  We focus so hard on the things we are doing, the things we can affect, that we don’t always see the other things around us that go into making our efforts possible.

Say you have a group of people go to play Monopoly together.  And one of them—decided at random—has different rules than the rest.  Rules that make the game much easier.  They start with more money and collect twice as much money when passing Go, for example, and get out of jail freely every time.  Chances are, they’re going to win.  Not because they’re such awesome players, but because the rules are slanted in their favor.  But if you ask them why they won, what factors contributed, nine times out of ten they start talking about what a great player they are: how they made sure to buy up all the real estate they could get their hands on, for example, and managed to avoid having to mortgage anything.  Even when it’s perfectly obvious that they won because the rules were slanted in their favor, they won’t notice it, trusting instead in their own abilities and talents.

Which is why, in our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to remember just where their harvest comes from every year.  First of all, the land is not theirs.  The land—all of creation—belongs to God.  God lets them use it, but it’s God’s land.  Their ancestors were nomads, people with no land and few possessions.  Then they became slaves in Egypt, which was pretty horrible.  The only reason they escaped was because God heard their cry and freed them.  And then God brought them to a land where they could live and farm and become prosperous.  I’m sure that especially after the first generation or so, when there was nobody left who remembered anything other than living in the Promised Land, it was tempting to believe that they had that land because they had earned it, because they were strong enough to defend it from other tribes, because they deserved it.  I’m sure it was tempting to believe that the crops they grew and the wealth they amassed were because of their own hard work, because they were good farmers.  I bet it was hard to remember that without the seed and sun and rain, their hard work would be absolutely useless.  I bet it was even harder to remember that the only reason they were able to do that hard work in the first place was because God gave them healthy bodies.

And that’s why they had a whole litany to remind them just where all the good things came from, and how much they depended on God’s good gifts.  Even when they had nothing, they had God.  When they were slaves, used and abused so that others might grow wealthy, God was with them.  It was God who saved them, it was God who brought them to their new homeland, and in their new prosperity there, it was still God who gave them every good thing they had.  Their lives, their health, their land, the sun and rain—everything was a gift from God.  Their own hard work mattered, but it was only a tiny part of the reason for the good things in their lives.  But that’s hard to remember when everything’s going well.  We blame God when things go wrong, but seldom give credit when they go right.  I don’t believe that God causes all the things that go wrong—for example, there’s no hint that the Israelites time of slavery was any sort of punishment; in the Bible, it’s not something God wanted, it happened because of Pharaoh’s fears and greed.  And even though everything was going wrong the Israelites were terribly oppressed, God was with them and God heard their cry and freed them.  God didn’t cause the evil that befell them, but God saved them from it and brought them to a place where they could grow and prosper and gave them every good thing they had.  They needed to remember that.  They needed to put their trust in God, rather than in themselves or their kings or their land or anything else.

Then we come to our Gospel reading.  When I was a kid, the story of Jesus’ temptation confused me.  Not the temptations to power in exchange for worshipping the Devil; the bit about food.  Because God wants people to be fed!  God spends a lot of time, in the Old and New Testaments, providing food for people through various miracles!  We as Christians are supposed to feed hungry people as part of our ministry.  That’s why we have food pantries and things, that’s why there are so many Christian ministries that provide food.  Jesus was hungry, and God doesn’t want people to go hungry.  So what would have been the problem with turning those stones into bread?

But the problem is, who was asking Jesus to do that?  The devil.  If Jesus had done it, he would not have been trusting God to provide for his needs.  He would have been listening to the voice that says “well, you know, the consequences of doing something wrong won’t be that bad.  After all, your goal is a good one, and what can it hurt?  Jesus would have been putting his trust in that voice, and not in his Father who was with him, supporting him and providing for him in good times and bad.  And we do that too, you know?  We have something we need, or that we think we need, and the only way we think we can get it, well, it’s not what we should be doing, but it’s not that bad, is it?  And so we do things that we think are small, but the whole point is that we’re not trusting God.  We’re not trusting God to provide, and both as individuals and as communities we go for expediency, the easy way, instead of doing the right thing.  Instead of doing the right thing and trusting that God will be with us even if there are consequences, we do things we shouldn’t—or we don’t do the things we should, because we put our faith in our own abilities instead.  Or we put our trust in our money, in our political parties, or in our leaders and bosses, or anywhere other than where it should be.

Where do we put our trust?  What is our god?  Is our trust in the Lord our God whom we come here to worship on Sunday?  Or is our trust in ourselves, or in our money, or in all the other things in the world that come to us and say “hey, I can solve all your problems, if you’ll just put me first.”

May we always put our trust and hope in the Lord where it belongs.

Amen.

It’s About Change

Transfiguration, Year C, March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

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.

When you hear the word “transfiguration,” how many of you think of Harry Potter?  I know I do.  For those of you who are not fans, transfiguration is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  It is taught by Professor McGonigal, who is capable of changing herself into a cat whenever she wants to.  And on a daily basis, she teaches young wizards and witches how to transfigure things: to turn needles into matchsticks, and rats into teacups, and any object into any other object.  Transfiguration, you see, literally means to change shape.  Leaving aside the world of fantasy, to transfigure something is about making one thing into something else.  And not in little ways, either.  To transfigure something is to completely and radically alter it.  It’s about conversion.  It’s about transformation.

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration.  It is one of the minor festivals of the church year that we celebrate every year on the last Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.  On this day, we remember the transfiguration of Jesus, when he went up on a hilltop with some of his disciples, and changed before their eyes into something heavenly, something glorious.  For a few brief minutes they saw him not only as their friend and a fellow human being, but also as the Son of God.  Two of the ancient Jewish heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him and spoke with him.  And a voice from heaven repeated the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him!”  And then, things went back to normal, and Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain, and Jesus began walking to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes.  He lit up like a superhero in a movie.  It was the first time that the glory of God was revealed, not just in Jesus’ actions, but in his appearance.  Jesus’ nature did not change—he had always been God’s Son, fully human and fully divine—but that nature had been hidden.  There, on that mountain, for just a few brief moments, he was revealed for all to see.  The power of God wasn’t just something he could call on to heal people or feed people, it was a part of him.  What changed was that the disciples could see that, even if only for a short time.

But Jesus’ appearance wasn’t the only thing about him that had been transfigured.  His mission was transfigured, too.  This is the hinge point of Jesus’ story.  Before this, Jesus had been wandering around the area teaching and healing and feeding people and eating with them and welcoming them and, generally, doing ordinary ministry.  After this, Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem.  After this, Jesus started teaching his disciples about his coming sacrifice, suffering, and death.  Jesus didn’t stop teaching and healing and loving people along the way, but there was an urgency to it.  A sharper edge.  Jesus was getting ready to die to save the world: Jesus was getting ready to use his own suffering, death, and resurrection to begin the transfiguration of the whole world into the kingdom of God.

When you get right down to it, God’s work in the world is all about change.  It’s about bringing life to places where there is death.  It’s about bringing healing where there is woundedness.  It’s about bringing salvation to places where there is sin.  It’s about turning this world into God’s kingdom.  And none of that happens quickly or easily, and none of that will be complete until Christ comes again, but that is what we’re here for.  The church is not a social club.  The church is not here so that we have a place to have coffee and chat with our friends once a week.  It’s certainly not here just because we’ve always done it that way.  No.  The church is here so that we can worship God, and here God’s word, and be transformed by God’s presence in our lives, and sent out into the world as God’s people.  The church is the place where ordinary, sinful, conflicted and conflicting human beings are gathered into one and formed into the body of Christ.  God does not call us to remain mired in all the things that have shaped us—our society, our fears, our sins, and the words and actions of others.  God does not call us to conform to the ways of the world.  God calls us to be made new in Christ.  God calls us to be transfigured.

The problem is, most people … don’t really want to be transfigured.  We don’t want to be changed.  Even if we’re not happy with who we are, we’re used to it.  How many times have you seen someone stay in a bad situation or repeatedly make the same bad choices over and over again?  This is something that humans do a lot of.  We cling to what we’re used to even if it’s terrible, because then we know what to expect.  We want life to be predictable.  We want to feel that we have control.  Acknowledging that there are things outside our control—even God!—is scary.  Letting God start us on a journey we can’t see or imagine the end of is pretty dang unnerving.  Which is why we tend to respond in fear, or denial.  We pray for God to do the things we want, but we very rarely pray that God will change us according to God’s will.

When Moses spoke with God directly, God’s glory shone on and around him, and the people of Israel were afraid.  He had to cover his face so that they couldn’t see the visible manifestation of God’s power.  The people had promised to follow God’s commands and be God’s people.  They had promised to worship God and put God first; and yet they were still afraid of God’s power manifest in their midst.  And no matter how much the promised to love and serve God, they kept going astray.  They kept returning to old ways.  They kept hollowing out God’s words until they were following the letter but not the spirit.  They set up society the way they thought it should be, and told themselves they were following God’s will.  They kept turning away.  They did not want to be changed into the people God kept calling them to be.

But don’t be too harsh on them.  After all, the disciples were no better.  They heard Jesus’ teaching, and they saw his glory manifest on that mountain, and they did not understand.  They chose not to understand.  They wanted God’s power to fit neatly into their expectations.  They wanted God’s power to be something they could control.  They wanted God to turn the world into what they imagined, with themselves in positions of power.  And when Jesus tried to talk about his death, when he tried to talk about sacrifice and resurrection, they didn’t listen.  They told him to be quiet.  Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they didn’t allow themselves to be changed by that awesome sight.  And, when at last Jesus was arrested and put on trial, they fled.  Peter denied Jesus altogether.  It took both the Resurrection and Pentecost to get them to truly follow Jesus out of what they were used to; and even then, they sometimes fell back into old habits instead of following where the Spirit led them.  There have been times in Christian history where a group of people, large or small, truly opened themselves up to whatever God might ask of them, and each time they accomplished amazing things.  They were transformed, and so was their community.  But it never lasts for long, before we slip back into our old, bad habits.

And think about us, here, today.  How many of us come to Christ to be transformed?  How many of us truly conform our hearts, minds, and lives to Christ?  All too often, even devout Christians come to church hoping for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of something new.  And this is true regardless of ethnicity, age, political ideology, gender, economics, or nationality.  We want Jesus in our lives as long as he has the same opinions we do and doesn’t ask us to do anything we don’t already want to do.

But what if we were willing to change?  What if we opened our hearts and minds to Christ and allowed him to transform us according to his will?  I don’t know what that would look like, but I bet it would lead to awesome, amazing, wonderful things.  May we be open to the transforming love of God, now and always.

Amen.

Grace and the Golden Rule

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 24, 2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Ah, the Golden Rule.  Treat other people the way you would want to be treated.  It’s such a basic idea that you find a version of it in most cultures and ethical systems.  This ethical teaching is practically universal.  Jesus’ commands to love one another, forgive, and not be judgmental are more unique to Christianity, and are fundamental to the Christian life.  They are the bedrock of how God calls us to live.  Because they are so foundational, we obviously understand what these precepts mean, and act accordingly, right?  We always follow the Golden rule, love others, and forgive as we have been forgiven, right?

Oh, if only that were true.  Alas, Christians are not much better at doing these things than non-Christians are, in my experience.  And sometimes, it seems to me, we don’t even understand what these commands from Jesus mean.  Or we interpret them too narrowly so that we can follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit.  We tend to want things nice and neat and easy, tit-for-tat.  You do something good and you get rewarded.  You lend money and you receive back with interest.  You help someone and they help you.  You treat someone well, and they treat you well.  Simple, easy, rewarding.  But the thing is, these commandments aren’t about narrowly following the rules, they are about love and grace.  And by interpreting them too narrowly, by turning them into a quid-pro-quo, we miss the whole point.

Let’s take some examples.  “Treat people in the same way you want them to treat you.”  The Golden Rule!  The world would be a much better place if everyone acted according to this basic rule of thumb.  And yet, even when people follow the letter of this, they can miss the spirit of it.  I have a colleague who serves a church where the surrounding community has changed a lot in the last fifty years.  What used to be a mostly white working-class neighborhood now has very few white people living there, and the economic spectrum ranges from very poor to upper-middle-class professional.  The church, however, is still mostly made up of white people—they moved to other neighborhoods, but keep commuting to church.  They have several ministries in the neighborhood, including a food pantry.  Problem is, the congregation has a habit of donating the things they would like to eat.  Peanut butter.  Potatoes.  Standard American fare, because when they give to the food pantry, they ask themselves “what would I like to eat?”  Golden rule, right?  If you had kids you struggled to feed, you’d want someone to give you lots of peanut butter.  So you should give peanut butter.

Problem is, the people who now live in the neighborhood eat different foods.  A lot of standard American fare, they either don’t like or don’t know how to cook.  So what good does it do them?  When the food pantry volunteers told the congregation this and asked for them to donate things their clients could actually use, a lot of members got huffy.  Those poor people should be grateful for that food, and they should learn to cook it and like it!  They never stopped to think about what they would want, really want, if they were hungry.  Obviously, they’d want people to help give them food.  But would they prefer that food to be stuff they didn’t like and would struggle to figure out what to do with, or food they loved and that they already knew tons of ways to use?  The congregation was interpreting the golden rule very narrowly.  “If I needed food, I would want peanut butter, so I’ll give peanut butter,” they thought.  A more grace-filled response would have been, “If I needed food, I would want food I liked and knew how to cook.  So I will give food they like and know how to cook.”  Fulfilling the Golden Rule is easy when everybody is pretty much the same and likes and wants the same things.  It’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with people who are different.  But somehow, I don’t think Jesus meant it only to apply to people who are like us, or only when it was easy.  Jesus gave us the command to help us love one another, and it’s not very loving to ignore peoples’ actual wants and needs because you think they should want or need different things.

Then there’s forgiveness.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world in which people hurt one another through actions and through inaction.  There is so much pain and evil in the world, and most of it is caused by humans.  We can ignore the problems around us and become apathetic, or we can strike back an eye for an eye and add to the pain in the world.  Or, we can choose to forgive and love our enemies, working for healing and reconciliation and the possibility of peace.  And guess which one Jesus wants us to do?  Jesus wants us to work for healing and reconciliation through forgiveness and love.

But when we talk about forgiveness, too often we make it superficial.  Instead of a tool for healing and reconciliation, we make forgiveness a tool for maintaining the status quo.  We pair forgiveness with forgetting, so that the ones who have done the hurting face no consequences or accountability for their actions.  So often, when our society tells people that they should forgive, what they really mean is “you should stop talking about what they did so we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.”  Instead of healing, more injury is done.  Instead of healing, the wound festers.  Instead of love and grace, there is only more resentment as the one who hurt people continues to hurt them.

That is not what God’s forgiveness looks like, and it isn’t what our forgiveness should look like, either.  Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat.  Sometimes, the issue has to come out into the open so that everyone can see and address it.  The normal human instinct for how to address an injury is to fight back, to try and inflict the same hurt on the one who hurt you.  But Jesus calls for accountability without violence and revenge.  For instance, giving someone who sues you your tunic as well as your coat is a way of bringing the issue out in the open without responding in kind.  Most people in those days only had one outfit, which is why the law prohibited taking both coat and tunic.  If they did, you would be naked and the whole community would be shamed.  So if someone takes your coat and you give them your tunic as well and walk out of there buck naked, it’s a problem for the whole community.  Everyone has to reckon with the actions of the one who sued you.  Everyone has to ask, was it justified?  What are the consequences?  It’s not just business as usual.  The community has to stop and deal with what has happened.  And in that process, there is a possibility for change.  There is a possibility of new life.  There is a possibility of grace.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting, or about sweeping things under the rug.  It’s not about pretending things never happened, or forcing a smile onto your face when all you want to do is scream.  It’s a way of dealing with the hurt that was done without hurting back.  And it doesn’t mean you have to let them keep doing the hurtful thing.  In seminary, one of my classmates was pastor of a church where two parents had abused their child so terribly that they had gone to jail for it.  When the mother got out, the child was still a member of the church, and they had to figure out what to do.  Obviously, as Christians we are called to forgive, but they were also called to protect the vulnerable—including the child.  They forgave the mother, but knew they couldn’t allow her to worship where the child she had brutalized would have to see her.  So they found her another church in the area, and worked with that congregation to provide her spiritual support and community without letting her near children.  She received grace, and was welcomed back into a community of faith, but with clear and open eyes so that she could not repeat her terrible deeds.  And her child was given a safe space to grow, knowing the family of God cared for them and protected them.  It was not easy or simple or quick, but there was grace and healing for both victim and perpetrator.

In fact, Jesus actually uses the word “χάρις” in this passage, which is the word we usually translate as grace.  Where our translation reads “What credit is that to you?” another way to translate it might be “What grace is that in you?”  If you only give so that you may receive, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  If you only love those it’s easy to love, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  What grace is that in you?  The Golden Rule, the command to forgive, these are not balance sheets.  They’re not coldblooded rules to follow by the letter.  They are means by which the love and grace of God can overflow in the world.  They are means by which we can be a part of that love and grace.

The world has enough violence and hate and narrowness.  It doesn’t need more.  It doesn’t need people lashing out in anger and fear and jealousy, it doesn’t need revenge even when it seems justified.  What the world needs, what God’s good creation needs, is more graced, and more love, and more healing.  May we act according to God’s grace, acting for forgiveness and reconciliation, and when we fall short, may God forgive us.

Amen.

Fishing for People

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church.  And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years).  “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.”  Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t.  There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades.  And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do.  Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off.  Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?

No, the research is quite clear.  In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust.  In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual.  A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat.  That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world.  When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.

I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion.  How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith?  And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in?  And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them.  That’s something which has a very good track record!  The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well.  My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off.  That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time.  I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard.  There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.

We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism.  We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God.  Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God.  In many and various ways.  God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together.  Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend.  Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be.  And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways.  And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians.  Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives.  When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith.  When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well.  And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith.  Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.

In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena.  That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked.  It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once.  But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking.  Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith.  When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well.  It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people.  It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference.  Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?”  We’re talking tens of millions of people!  And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years.  You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs.  You just need a handful of new people every few years.  And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life.  That’s it.  That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.”  The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.

Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote.  If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people.  Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell.  If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did.  Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others.  Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.

The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life.  You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice.  And it’s not hard.  It just takes practice.  All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking.  Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day.  Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see.  If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before.  And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family.  And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people.  May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.

Amen.

Advent 4C, 2018, December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

There is a Christmas song that is very popular these days.  I’m sure that you’ve all heard it, and enjoyed it, because it is beautiful and, (unlike most modern Christmas songs) actually talks about Christ and what he means.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

If you’ve ever heard this song and wondered if Mary knew, well, the Gospel of Luke is quite clear.  She did.  The angel spelled out for her who and what her infant son was going to be, and then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and confirmed that the baby was going to be special, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, the Song of Praise, which we used as a psalm today.  And then even after Jesus was born, when they took him to the temple, two separate people, Anna and Simeon, prophesied about the baby Jesus and what he was going to grow up to do.  So, yes, Mary knew.  She might not have had everything spelled out with each individual miracle listed, but she knew the general gist of what Jesus was going to come to do.  She knew that Jesus was going to continue God’s saving actions.  She knew he was going to scatter the proud, the greedy rich who let others starve, the powerful who gained power by oppressing others, while at the same time lifting up the lowly, the downtrodden, the hungry, caring for them and making sure they had what they needed to live abundant lives.  She might not have known specifically that he was going to walk on water, but she knew that he was going to save the world by turning it upside down and doing incredible things.

But a lot of the time, simply knowing isn’t enough.  We may know the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it.  We may know that something hard and difficult is going to be worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about the hard and difficult bits.  How often do we put off or try to avoid something because, much as we might desire the end result, we really do NOT want to have to go through the process of getting there?  Mary knew who Jesus was going to be and what he was going to do, because the angel told her; but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it or looking forward to it.  I don’t know how she felt about it, but I imagine she was in a lot of shock.  And also, she was probably worried, considering that she wasn’t married and having a child out of wedlock was a huge deal that would change her life and probably make it measurably worse.  And, sure, she probably trusted that God would take care of her and provide what she needed to do the task he had given her … but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it, or looking forward to it.  Knowing isn’t enough.  Most of the time, we need something further to help put knowledge into action.

For Mary, that something was a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When the Angel told Mary what was going to happen, she accepted it, but that’s all.  The angel gave its message, Mary said okay, the angel left.  Then she went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child under unusual circumstances.  Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both elderly, and they’d been unable to have children.  Now, past the age of childbearing, they had given up hope.  But an angel had come to Zechariah and told them that they would have a child, who would grow up to become a prophet—you know him as John the Baptist.  That’s who Elizabeth was pregnant with when Mary came to visit.

Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was blessed with knowledge of who Mary was going to be, and who her child was going to become.  And Elizabeth was thrilled.  She affirmed what the angel had said, and blessed Mary.  And here is where we get Mary’s reaction, her song of praise, in response to the news the angel brought.  Here.  Not while the angel was there, not when she received her call to become the mother of God.  Here, with her cousin.  Who had just finished showering her with love and support.

Human beings aren’t created to be alone.  God did not make us to be solitary creatures.  That’s one of the first things we learn about humans in the Bible … God creates the first human, calls it very good, and then says, “but it is not good for the human to be alone.”  And then God creates the second human being.  Because humans need companionship, and support, and love.  And we get that from God, but we also need it from our fellow human beings.

God was asking Mary to do a hard thing, by asking her to bear and raise Jesus Christ, God-become-flesh.  Partly, that was hard because pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are hard.  But a lot of it was that people would gossip about her, and shame her, and treat her badly for bearing a child out of wedlock.  It doesn’t matter how much she told them the child was God’s Son and God’s will, they would not have believed her.  If someone told you that God was the father of their baby, would you believe them?  Probably not.  So Mary would be ostracized and alienated from her community because of this thing God was asking her to do.

But God provided her with people to support her, even so.  By giving a child to her cousin Elizabeth, and then giving Elizabeth enough insight to realize what was really going on, God ensured that Mary would not be alone.  No matter what anyone else said, she would have someone in her court, someone who would give her love and support and understanding, which are things all human beings need.  And it is at that point, when Mary knows that despite what society is going to think about her, she is going to have at least one person loving her and not judging her, that‘s when the knowledge of what was going to happen overflowed into praise.  That’s when she began to sing.

None of us are Mary or Elizabeth.  None of us are going to have mystical pregnancies that catapult us into the center of God’s work in the world and redirect our lives with one fell swoop.  But we all have callings from God; we all have a place in God’s work in the world, both individuals and as a community of faith.  Our callings may be smaller than Mary’s call, but they are still important, and still part of God’s work.  Knowing what God is calling us to do is the first step, and without an angelic messenger it usually involves a lot of prayer and study and contemplation.  But the second step is not one we can do alone.  It’s not private.  It’s about coming together as a community to support and encourage one another.  As Elizabeth encouraged Mary, so we too are called to encourage one another, to name God’s gifts when we see them and bless one another.  And that’s especially important when, as in the case of Mary, God calls us to do things that don’t necessarily fit in well with the larger society.  And sometimes what God is calling us to do isn’t necessarily to do the work ourselves, but to support those who do it.  To be there for the people who need us.  To be the arms of God wrapped in love around those who would otherwise be alone or neglected.  May we answer God’s call with joy; may we always have the love and support God desires for us; and may we always share that love and support with those who need it.

Amen

What Kind of Savior?

Christmas Eve, 2017

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

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.

I have a confession to make.  This year, I have not found it easy to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have spent a lot of time wondering what difference it makes that Jesus was born, in this world in which so many terrible things have happened.  This year, I have not enjoyed the candle-light that comes with Advent and Christmas.  The light in the darkness imagery, which I usually find powerful, has been corrupted by current events.  Specifically, Charlottesville, and the Nazis who paraded down its streets one night, carrying torches and calling for the murder of anyone they didn’t like.  Those torches brought light, but only so that they could cast deeper shadows.  Which then begs the question: what kind of light are we waiting for?  What is the light that shines in the darkness, bringing good news?  Which brings up another question: what kind of savior are we waiting for?  What kind of savior is this baby Jesus, born in a manger two thousand years ago?  Which leads to the final question: what difference does it all make?  What does it matter, to you or to me or to anyone, that two thousand years ago a poor Jewish baby named Jesus was born in a backwater village, grew up, lived for about thirty years, before being executed for treason and blasphemy?

There’s all kinds of light, and there’s all kinds of saviors.  If you had asked most Roman citizens in the year that Jesus was born if they needed a savior, they would have said they already had one.  Emperor Augustus was the ‘savior’ of the Roman Empire.  That was his official title.  They put it on all the money.  He saved them from disorder by seizing control and turning the Republic into a dictatorship.  He saved them from war by brutally putting down Rome’s enemies so that none of them would dare oppose him again.  He was the biggest, the best, the most powerful, and so he won control of everything, and ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘truth’ were whatever he said they were.  If you were one of his supporters, life was pretty good.  If you weren’t, however, or if you just happened to be one of the masses of people he didn’t care about one way or another, life got worse.  Emperor Augustus brought light to some people by making the world darker for others.  He saved some people by hurting others.

All too often, that’s what the world thinks light and salvation are supposed to look like.  And when you are scared, or upset, or hurting, or angry, or proud and someone promises you that they will fix all your problems for you, it’s very easy to go along with it.  To say that if a good life for me and my people means that other people have to get clobbered and hurt, well, it’s worth it.  To say that the power to hurt and control others is what makes a person or a nation great.  To go through life with your fists up, expecting the worst, assuming that anybody who isn’t your family or tribe is out to get you and you’ve got to get them first.  To look for the kind of light that you can control and use as a weapon, the kind of safety that’s rooted in hurting others before they can hurt you.  And it seems like a lot of people are looking for that kind of light and salvation.  We’ve all seen it, in the rhetoric of politicians, in rants on facebook, in the torches and online mobs of white supremacists.

But the light that God gives is not a weapon, and it’s not something we can control, and God did not create us to treat the rest of God’s creation like enemies, and God’s salvation is not based on hurting others before they get a chance to do it to you.  God’s salvation is not about temporary safety from people we hate or fear.  God’s salvation is about creating a world where hate and fear are gone, permanently, a world where all people—even those we believe are our enemies—have a good and safe and happy place.

God’s light is Jesus Christ, who lived and died without a scrap of earthly power to his name.  He was born a poor child in the middle of nowhere, member of a race that’s spent most of its existence getting pushed around by just about everybody.  He was born in a stable, and while angels heralded his birth, the only humans who took any note were poor shepherds and weird foreigners called magi.  And that baby, that savior grew up, but he didn’t grow up with power to rival the self-professed savior of the world, Emperor Augustus.  Jesus the savior grew up with quite a different power, a different salvation.  A power that’s about healing and justice for all people, not just those on top of the heap.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: all the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  All the trappings of violence and hate, all the weapons of oppression, will be destroyed.  There will simply be no place for them in God’s kingdom.  All people will be free, from whatever holds them captive: freed from unjust laws and bullies and abusers, but also freed from fear and greed and hate.  That’s the salvation that Jesus brings.  A world where nobody walks around with their fists up to fight with, but with their arms open to embrace with.  And the light he brings is a light for all people who live in darkness.  It’s a light that obliterates the shadows, instead of making them loom larger.  It’s a light that brings joy for all people—not just the chosen few, but for all of creation, all humans and animals and rocks and plants and stars.

That’s the kind of light and salvation that Jesus brings.  It’s not just for a few people, it’s for everybody.  And while the fullness of that light will not be seen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we as Christians live in response to it.  We can’t control the world, but we are called to let Christ shape our response to it.  We are called to live in the light of that future reality, to live as people who walk in light and not in darkness, people who have seen the salvation of God.  We are called to live as people who know that the baby Jesus, born in a manger, has made and is making a real difference in the world and will continue to do so.

The world has a lot of darkness in it, and there are some people who want to make that darkness deeper, or who think that light and salvation and safety belong only to themselves.  But we are called to spread the light to all people who walk in darkness.  We are called to open our arms to embrace all of God’s children in love, as Mary and Joseph embraced their baby boy, as Jesus himself embraced all people who came to him.  We are called to live lives of joy, knowing that God has given us light and salvation.  We are called to remember that Christ is here, with us, now, this night and every moment of our lives, and that Christ is at work in us and through us even when the world seems darkest.

May we always follow the true light of Christ, and may that light shine forth for all the world.

Amen.

What Would We Have Done?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

In first-century Judea, there were problems.  First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans.  The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist.  The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods.  So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest.  They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage.  Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.

And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy.  And after his death, they … didn’t go away.  They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son!  They worshipped this Jesus as God!  While still claiming to be good Jews!  Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel.  There is no other God.  To claim otherwise was blasphemy.  And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else?  Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous.  This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense.  No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans.  The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this.  They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude.  They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God.  They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.

And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen.  They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks.  They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new.  They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people.  God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say.  I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death.  But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd?  Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?

This is something that has happened throughout history.  God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it.  They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way.  In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people.  In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today.  In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English.  In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption.  Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.

This is something we should be wary of.  We live in a time of great upheaval and change.  Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago.  Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t.  But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work.  I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people.  And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not.  What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us.  It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do.  When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong.  Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading.  They weren’t evil people.  They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want.  But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them.  And so they killed Stephen.

But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us.  Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us.  There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul.  Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God.  Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do.  After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there.  Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God.  But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.

One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus.  But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision.  I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him.  God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes.  And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews.  While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul.  That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.

God works in mysterious ways.  And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand.  God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world.  We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it.  Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing.  When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last.  But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

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

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Where is God?

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8

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 you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context.  What else is going on around it?  How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture?  This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages.  Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable.  This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14.  It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming.  And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook.  Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that.  The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.

So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us.  There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today.  Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself.  And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have.  In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them.  A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law.  You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!

But the widow was persistent.  The widow kept on demanding justice.  She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down.  I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow.  I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating.  I can almost hear them: “She lost!  Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.”  The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too.  But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her.  And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice.  Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.

So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom?  Let’s start with the first question.  Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here.  The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God.  And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice!  God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage.  God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small.  God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind.  This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?  I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?”  Where is God?  Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.

As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company.  She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication.  Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad.  There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition.  One is expensive, the other relatively cheap.  Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one.  But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her.  Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat.  So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse.  Where is God?  Helping her get through each day.  She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her.  And because our entire health care system is messed up.  Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice.  One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs.  One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it.  And meanwhile, God is with her.  Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.

So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable?  Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day.  But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them.  So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God?  Again, it can’t be the judge.  Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor.  The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors.  The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.

The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t.  And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t.  In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes.  He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it.  He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will.  Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today.  The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them.  We all know just how often that isn’t the case.  Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable.  There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.

And yet.  Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us.  Now.  In our hearts and in our communities.  And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence?  Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world?  Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed.  We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings.  Where is God’s kingdom in all of that?  God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end.  May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.

Amen.

The Laws of Giving

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, September 25th, 2016

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

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.

The rich man is suffering in death because he ignored poor Lazarus’ suffering in life.  He doesn’t want his brothers to suffer a similar fate.  And so he asks Abraham to send someone to his brothers to warn them of what happens to those who ignore the poor and suffering.  Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”  The rich man says, but that’s not enough!  He had Moses and the prophets, and he didn’t listen; that’s how he ended up in this mess.

This begs the question: what is it that Moses and the prophets said that the rich man should have listened to?  By Moses, he means the first five books of the Bible, which were traditionally attributed to Moses.  And, most specifically, he means the laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These laws told the ancient Jewish people how God wanted them to behave.  They covered everything from farming to economics to political questions to business laws to how to dress and what to eat to what garments the priests should wear and how to celebrate the various festivals.  And the thing we Christians often forget about those laws, is how much care they take that everyone has enough and no one gets cheated.  In every section, on every subject, there are explicit instructions for how to treat the poor and the vulnerable.  Widows, orphans, immigrants, poor people, those suffering in any way: the laws God gave through Moses continually put their needs in the center of the question.

Farmers were instructed to farm so that everyone in the community had enough to eat, whether they had enough money to buy food or not.  Merchants were instructed to be especially honest with poor people.  The entire economy was set up so that no one could be left permanently destitute through high debt, if they followed God’s laws.  Every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that had been sold out of the family reverted to the original family that had owned it.  And it was everyone’s duty to protect foreigners, because, as God repeatedly said, God’s people needed to remember that they, too, had once been strangers in a strange land, wandering in search of a new place to call home.  The rich had no special rights or privileges, only greater duties to those less fortunate than they were.  This is not because God loves the poor and vulnerable more than the rich; God loves everyone equally.  But the rich can take care of themselves, by and large.  It is the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, who need special protection.  These were the heart of the laws given by God to his people through Moses.

And the prophets—from Elijah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Zechariah, the Prophets of old whose words and deeds are collected in Scripture had called God’s people to be faithful.  They had condemned sin, and told people that unless the people of Israel and Judah turned from their sin God would not protect them from their enemies.  And what were the sins that the people of Israel and Judah?  In most places, the prophets left it vague.  But when they got specific, there were two sins named far more often than any other.  The first was worshipping other gods, and not being faithful to the one true God.  And the second great sin was exploiting the poor and vulnerable.  Even just ignoring the needy was enough to be condemned by God’s prophets.  When you ask a modern Christian what the major sins are, a lot of us will answer with something about sex.  But that says more about us than it does about God’s priorities, because the Bible says very little about sexual morality.  But from cover to cover, one of the primary ethical concerns in the Bible is how we treat people who are less fortunate than we are.  From Moses to the Prophets to the Gospels to the Epistles, one of the constant themes is concern for the poor and vulnerable.

So.  With all of that—with Moses and the Prophets and the whole Jewish cultural tradition of charity—why didn’t the rich man lift a finger for Lazarus?  Why didn’t he even let him have the crumbs that fell from his table, those scraps and leftovers that were just thrown out, that were still better than anything Lazarus could afford?  I don’t know; the parable doesn’t say.  But I know why some Christians today walk right on past the Lazaruses in our society.  One of the questions I get asked about the Community Cupboard of Underwood is what kind of screening process we’re going to have.  How are we going to weed out the scammers and the addicts and the people who don’t deserve help?  The people who could work, but don’t?  The people whose misfortunes are caused by their own continual bad choices?  The ones who take advantage of peoples’ generosity?

Funny thing, folks.  With all that the Bible has to say about helping the poor and needy, there is only one verse in the whole Bible that says anything about who deserves help.  And even that, it’s in the context of participation in the work of the congregation.  You don’t get to take credit for someone else’s work.  Aside from that one single verse, the question of whether or not people deserve help is irrelevant.  And I guarantee you it’s not because scammers and lazy bums are some kind of newfangled modern phenomena.  People are people, and have been since Adam and Eve first ate the apple.  But the question in the Bible is never whether or not people deserve food—it’s whether or not they’re hungry.  The question is never whether or not people deserve charity, only whether or not they have the necessities of life.  And if we see someone who lacks basic necessities—food, shelter, clothing, healing, community—and we don’t help?  We are sinners who have failed in one of God’s purposes for us.

A man was at a Bible study one evening, and afterwards as he walked to his car he passed a homeless man who asked him for money.  The Christian asked him why he wanted it, and the homeless man was honest: he wanted a beer.  The Christian said no, he couldn’t give him money for that, and walked past him to his car.  Where he drove to a bar, and bought a round of beers for his friends.  The Christian could buy drinks for his friends, who didn’t need his help—every one of them could afford their own drinks.  And every one of them wanted a beer to help them enjoy the evening.  But the homeless man might be an alcoholic, so he didn’t deserve a drink to help him enjoy his evening.  Nevermind that there are plenty of homeless people with no substance abuse problems, and plenty of addicts with homes and jobs.  Something that is unquestioned in someone with money becomes a mark of being undeserving in someone without it.  And of course there’s a difference between enabling an alcoholic and feeding the hungry, but the point is that our society today, Christian and secular, spends more time and money looking for reasons not to help than helping.  Private charity and government welfare program alike spend so much time trying to weed out the bad apples that we turn away people with genuine needs.  We spend more time judging than caring.  We harden our hearts and our minds, and listen more to fear and anger than to God’s good word.

The thing is, it’s very convenient to focus on who deserves help and who doesn’t.  Because there’s a million reasons to disqualify people.  They made bad choices.  They sin.  And if we can find a reason why they don’t deserve our help, well, then we don’t have to give it.  We don’t have to care about them.  We can keep our time, and our money, and our caring, instead of spending it on people who will probably never be able to pay us back.  If we can label someone as undeserving of help, then we can ignore God’s commands to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, ensure justice for the vulnerable, and visit the prisoners.  We can ignore God’s commands, and still think ourselves perfectly just and righteous.  Just like the rich man in the parable.

The rich man had the Scriptures to guide him.  He had Moses’ laws and the prophet’s words, and he found a way to convince himself they didn’t apply to him and Lazarus.  When he died, he found out otherwise, and asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers.  Abraham said no, because “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We have someone who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord.  He did not come to condemn this world, but to save it.  He came to break our hard hearts, to wash us clean from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our fears and angers and all the things that separate us from God and one another.  He came to be the living Word that speaks in our hearts; he came to bring the Holy Spirit, which sets us on fire for God.  He came to save us—whether or not we deserve it, whether or not we earn it.  He came to show us what true love and compassion really look like, in his life, death, and resurrection.  May we follow Jesus’ example, trusting that no kindness is ever truly wasted, and having faith that even when we fall short, he forgives us.

Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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.

A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews.  Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have.  There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him.  Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes.  Large mass altar calls, no.  Take a look at today’s Gospel reading.  It comes from the middle of Luke.  Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds.  So people are following him!  Huge crowds of them!  Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple.  He should be sealing the deal, right?  Getting them all fired up and committed to God.

That’s not what Jesus does.  Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that.  Jesus starts talking about how hard it is.  That there’s a very real cost.  Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have.  I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point.  Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it.  And who can blame them?  This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting.  Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures.  He is not playing the numbers game.  Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends.  So he is very up-front.  There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service.  Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.

Let’s take the whole family thing.  Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family.  (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.)  But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority.  Life itself can’t be your priority.  If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God?  Or between your life and your faith?  You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him.  I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then.  Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available.  People leave home all the time.  It’s normal.

Leaving home was not normal back then.  You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours.  There wasn’t really any other option.  It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way.  And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better.  And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships.  Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day.  If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life.  And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God?  You can’t be his disciple.

Think of it this way.  I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin?  Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion?  And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse?  That is not a healthy marriage.  When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize.  It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list.  In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.

As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives?  How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff?  How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most?  It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed.  For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat.  But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem.  But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities.  To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.

And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  You carried your cross on your way to be executed.  Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.  He was going to die for the sake of the world.  The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing.  What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion.  And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down.  And they will lash out to protect themselves.  And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.  It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do.  If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be.  If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century.  He was a youth leader.  As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party.  After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly.  They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.”  But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior.  They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions.  And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not.  He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice.  And eventually the Nazis executed him.  That was his cross to bear.  Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century.  It’s called the Cost of Discipleship.  It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.

Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”

That is the cost Jesus is talking about.  To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world.  May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

Amen.

The Discomforting Guest

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table.  We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation.  Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests.  And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest.  In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus.  Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.

Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world.  First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it.  I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it.  There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events.  They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere.  You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you.  They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house.  Both business and pleasure went on at the same time.  If there was a court case coming up that affected you?  The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before.  If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods?  You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties.  Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.

At the party, there was a strict social order observed.  The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table.  Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme.  Did you ever watch Downton Abbey?  Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where?  It was a little bit like that.  Where you sat at the table mattered.  It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life.  We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots.  You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot.  You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner.  Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.

If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch.  So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests.  And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table.  (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.)  So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.

Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are.  Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat.  Go and take the lowest seat, instead.  The one that’s beneath you.  Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot.  Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth.  I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot?  What if you’re stuck there?  And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them.  Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to!  That was the way the system worked!  Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs.  Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong?  Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?

Then Jesus turns to the host.  “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned.  Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with.  Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list.  Don’t worry about being a laughingstock.  Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things.  Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”

What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth.  Here on earth, we have hierarchies.  And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful.  Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society.  Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t.  Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’?  Yeah.  That’s a nasty metaphor.  It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.  Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it?  A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior.  The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life.  And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months.  Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way.  In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way.  “All animals are equal.  But some animals are more equal than others.”  We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons.  We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us.  And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.

That is not what God’s kindom is like.  God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people.  Not just pretend equality, but real equality.  Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us.  Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God.  And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love.  In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality.  In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true.  And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom.  And we are excluding people whom God is working through today.  As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice.  Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?

I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words.  They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society.  They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too.  And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God.  But that’s true of all people, then and now.  We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world.  We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway.  No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom.  We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth.  But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom.  We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table.  May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.

Amen.