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.

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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.

The People We Don’t See

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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.

There are a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely.  But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities.  Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.

One of the reasons for this is obvious.  After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer.  Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing?  Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them?  We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life.  Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be.  And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now.  And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.

But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community.  Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!”  Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!”  As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure.  And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us.  Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs.  Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault.  If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen.  If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured.  If, if, if.

One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind.  He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured.  The professor agreed.  And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed.  But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed.  Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps.  But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith.  In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer.  The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else.  He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.

In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading.  He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be.  He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem.  No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it.  She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath.  The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  He looked at her and saw a problem.

But you know what?  I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either.  Eighteen years.  That’s a long time.  In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her?  Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened?  Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her?  Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life?  Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life?  Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences?  Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in?  Had he ever been a friend to her and her family?  Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult?  And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her?  Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity?  I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.

Too often, we act like the Pharisee.  We don’t see people with disabilities, not really.  They’re problems to be solved.  Or, better yet, ignored.  If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help?  How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it?  How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives?  How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God?  There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved.  It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing.  It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.

And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer.  We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God.  We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family.  We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie.  And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.

This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.”  But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder.  Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough.  My disability is often invisible.  It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t.  But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges.  It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God!  We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not.  We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others.  And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He knew her.  And when he saw her, he healed her.  We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly.  And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change.  But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome.  We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children.  May we learn to do so.

Amen.