A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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The Freedom of a Christian: Memorial Day 2017

Memorial Day Service, May 28, 2017

Micah 4:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Luke 6:20-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Birka Lutheran Church, Rural Washburn, 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.

Our first reading was one of George Washington’s favorite passages, and he quoted it a lot, particularly verse four: ‘they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’  It’s a picture of what God’s kingdom will look like, when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.  But it’s also a picture of what Washington dreamed America could be: a peaceful place, where all citizens were prosperous and happy, and never needed to be afraid.  This is, at its heart, what we dream America could be like.  There has never been a place, anywhere in the history of the world, where this has been true for all the citizens of any nation.  There has never been a time in American history when all Americans of every tribe and race were prosperous and happy all together, but it is what we hope for, it is what we work towards.  It is, in a very real sense, what we send our soldiers out to fight and die to protect and try to establish: a world where all people are prosperous and happy.

I don’t know if that is possible in this broken, sinful world.  Human beings are flawed creatures who seem bound and determined to keep finding new ways to screw things up.  We also find new ways to fix things and make things better, but too often it’s one step forward, two steps back.  I don’t know if it will be possible to achieve that before Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Whether or not we humans can achieve the good and godly society the prophet Micah dreamed of, we know that God can.  Whether we succeed or fail, we know that Christ will return one day and establish his kingdom.  In that kingdom, we shall beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.  It won’t be necessary.  God will arbitrate between peoples; we shall all be fairly judged, and all people will truly learn to walk in God’s footsteps.  There will be no evil, no pain, no hatred, no fear, no jealousy, no grief, no pride, no boasting, nothing that could possibly lead to violence.  Nothing that could require good men and women to lay down their lives.

I am very grateful, as I know you all are, for the many courageous men and women who have done just that, and are still doing that today.  I am grateful that for all the veterans who have defended this country and protected us from evil, but I am especially grateful to those who have given the last full measure of devotion.  I am grateful for their sacrifices, and for those of their family and loved ones.  And I pray, vehemently, for that day when it will no longer be necessary.  When nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, with no need to fear.

Washington was a soldier; he had seen the cost of war.  He knew, as any veteran does, just how important it is to know what you’re fighting for and what you hope to accomplish.  If you don’t know what you’re fighting for, you can’t possibly choose the right tactics to accomplish it, and in the end you achieve nothing but death and destruction.  We’ve seen that in America’s wars.  Sometimes, there has been a truly good cause worth fighting and dying for, something that could only be achieved through violence, something worth the sacrifices demanded.  Other times, we have fought because of pride or fear or political advantage, and what was gained was never worth the lives it cost.  We have a responsibility, as citizens of this great nation, to ensure that our leaders keep their eyes on the goal that Washington and our other Founding Fathers set.  We have a responsibility to ensure that when our leaders send our men and women off to war, they do so only when it is absolutely necessary, when the cause is worth their lives and their blood.  We have a responsibility to make sure that their lives and their sacrifices are not wasted.  We have a responsibility to make sure that when our people are sent into harm’s way, it is to build up a world where justice and freedom reign for all people.

Freedom.  That’s an important word for us as Americans, but what does freedom mean for a Christian?  Is freedom the same for us as it is for other people?  All too often, when people talk about “freedom” they mean a very selfish thing.  They mean that nobody can make them do anything they don’t want to do, and if they want to be a jerk to others, or stand by as their neighbors suffer, they can do so.  This is not what the freedom of a Christian is, at its heart.  The freedom of a Christian is not about politics, or legalities.  The freedom of a Christian is not about political systems.  The freedom of a Christian is a spiritual gift from God, and it comes with responsibilities.

The world does not want anyone to be free, and it comes with traps to break us and chain us and keep us from God.  These chains look different for everybody, and they come even for those of us who are lucky enough to have political freedom.  They can look like power, or self-righteousness; they can look like fear, or jealousy; they can look like ambition that drives us to cause harm in the name of advancement or sloth that convinces us there’s no point to even trying.  They can look like a hate that drives us on to attack people we think are our enemies, or a love that causes us to excuse and cover up the harm our loved-ones do.  These chains can even take the form of Christianity, driving us to make noise about the outer forms and ignore the heart of God’s Word.  In all cases, these chains harm us and those around us.  These chains break us and twist us and the world around us, and sometimes, we can’t even see them for what they are.  That’s what sin is: a chain that binds us and twists us.

The freedom of a Christian is that God has broken those chains.  Jesus Christ died for our sins, and taught us to love one another in word and deed.  We are redeemed through his sacrifice for us.  And even though the chains of sin are still at work in us and around us, God sends the Holy Spirit into our lives to inspire us, to fill us with God’s fire and keep us free from all the evils that want to entangle us.  The freedom of a Christian starts with this: we don’t have to drag around the dead weight of sin in our lives any more.  We don’t have to let the world’s chains drag us down.  We don’t have to live in fear; instead, we can focus on the work God is calling us to do.  The freedom of a Christian is not the freedom to be idle, or the freedom to focus on our own little corner of the world and ignore the suffering and evil around us.  The freedom of a Christian is the freedom to act.

Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, said it this way: “A Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is the perfectly bound servant of all, subject to all.”  In other words, we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Our chains are broken, and we don’t have to work to earn our way into heaven or anything like that.  We are saved, and we are free from the chains of sin and evil, we are the children of God, and no one can force us to do anything or constrain our consciences.  But being a child of God comes with responsibilities.  We don’t need to earn our salvation—that is a free gift from God.  But we do need to act like it.  Because we have been saved, because we are free, that means we are free to act.  We are free to do God’s work in the world.  We are free to work for justice and peace even when the world would rather have fear and oppression and senseless violence.

That work can look like a lot of things.  It can look like volunteering and donating to the local food pantry.  It can mean standing up against bullies. It can mean loving people that the world tells us should be our enemies.  It can mean serving in the military.  It can mean honoring our veterans, not just on Memorial Day and Veterans Day but by being there for them throughout the year and working to make sure that all veterans and their families receive the support they need.  It can mean holding our leaders accountable so that none of our servicemen and women are sent into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary for the safety of America.

I am so thankful for the political freedoms which our brave men and women have died to give us, and I am thankful for the spiritual freedom Christ brings.  I pray for the day when no more of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers need to to go into harms way and perhaps die.  I pray for the day that the prophet Micah promised, when the Lord will judge the nations, and there will be peace, and everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees, free from fear.

Amen.