The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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.

Our reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?

Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

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.

Paul’s letters are just that: letters.  Like all letters even today, they start off with a greeting, a salutation.  Something to open the letter and introduce the writer and what the letter is about.  I began my Christmas letters this year with a salutation of “Merry Christmas from the Washington Coast!”  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Everyone on my Christmas card list knows me, so I don’t have to introduce myself, and everybody knows what to expect in a Christmas letter, namely, a cheerful summary of everything the sender has done in the past year, wrapped up with best wishes for the holidays.  So a brief holiday greeting is all I need.  Paul’s letters, however, are a different story, especially his letter to the Romans.  Our entire second lesson, all seven verses of it, is the greeting portion of this letter.  It took him seven verses to say “Dear congregation of Jesus-followers in Rome, Hello, it’s Paul, I’m writing about Jesus the Messiah, God be with you.”

That’s a much simplified version, of course, but that’s basically what it’s saying.  Paul’s introducing himself and what he’s going to be talking about in the whole rest of the letter, and blessing the people he’s writing to.  So let’s dive into the details.  First, this is the longest salutation in any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, because it was the only one where he was writing to people he didn’t know.  Every other letter we have from Paul, he was writing to a congregation he himself had founded.  He’d go to a city, live there for a while, plant a congregation, and then move on.  He kept in touch with everyone through letters, some of which were collected in the New Testament.  In those letters he would remind people of his teachings, and address issues that had cropped up since he had left.  Since everyone in the congregation knew him, he didn’t have to give any long explanations of who he was or why he was writing.  But the thing is, the congregation of Jesus followers in Rome had been planted by someone else.  Paul had never been there.  So he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, in the hopes that they would welcome him when he arrived.  They didn’t know him from Adam, so he had to introduce himself and prove his bona fides as an apostle, and give kind of a summary overview of his perspective on the good news of Jesus, in the hope that they would welcome him when he arrived and help support his future missionary journeys.  Because Paul hadn’t planted the church in Rome, his letter to the Romans mostly doesn’t address specific issues the Roman church was facing; instead, the letter as a whole is a step-by-step journey through Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and what the meaning and impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was.

Death and resurrection?  In December?  We’re less than a week away from Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth!  We are months away from Easter!  So why are we talking about death and resurrection?  All our attention is focused on that sweet little baby who will soon be laying in the manger, and on the shepherds and wise men and angels who surrounded him and his parents Mary and Joseph, and also on details like Christmas parties, last-minute present shopping, and everything else we need to make the holidays wonderful.  But the thing is Jesus was not born just to be a cute little baby in a manger that we can feel good about every December.  The central holy day of our faith is not Christmas, but Easter.  If Jesus had never died and been raised from the dead, it wouldn’t matter that he had been born.  We talk about Jesus being the reason for the season, and that’s true, but it’s not just that Jesus existed.  It’s that Jesus came to save us and all creation from sin and death.  Christ came to the world for a purpose, and that purpose was to break the chains of sin and death and dysfunction and despair that bind us, so that we and all creation might participate fully in the abundant life God wants for us and created us to experience.  If we celebrate Jesus’ birth while ignoring what he came to Earth to do, all that is left is sentimental fluff.  And sentimental fluff is nice, but it’s not a strong enough foundation to build our lives on.

Paul was an apostle of God.  An apostle means one who is sent.  Paul was sent to share the good news, and so are we.  And that doesn’t just mean share it with people who haven’t heard it or who have heard it but don’t care.  Paul, in this letter to the Romans, was sharing the Good News with people who already knew it.  No matter how many times we’ve heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we all need to be reminded of it sometimes, or to hear a new and refreshing perspective on it.  The message of Jesus isn’t just something to hear once, memorize, and then ignore; the message of Jesus is something we should be constantly thinking about, remembering, and exploring.

That good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preached, that we still share with one another today, it didn’t come out of nowhere.  God has been at work in the world since God created the world, working to bring life and healing to a world broken by sin and death.  God has been promising that God will save, that God will redeem, that God will set free, from the very beginning.  God has been shining a light in the darkest places in the world, and in the darkest places in the human heart, since sin and death first entered the world.  Some of those promises are recorded in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.  No book could ever be long enough to record all the wonderful things God has done, but the Bible contains the stories of how God was at work in the lives of our ancestors in the faith, even thousands of years before Jesus’ birth.

Jesus’ birth didn’t come out of nowhere.  The message Jesus came to preach is consistent with the messages God had been giving God’s people since the very beginning.  Although Jews and Christians have come to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures very differently, Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles and the entire early Christian Church constantly and consistently looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance and support.  In fact, any time in the New Testament where someone talks about scripture, they’re talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament was in the process of being written and didn’t exist yet as a finished book.  Paul and the rest of the early Christians looked back at Scripture and saw all the ways in which Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, fit within the story the Scriptures were telling.  Among other things, Jesus had been raised and adopted by a man of the house of David, the lineage the Messiah was going to come from.  You sometimes hear Joseph described as Jesus’ stepfather, because of course we know that Jesus was God’s Son.  But the thing is, Joseph claimed Jesus and named him and raised him as his own, and in the ancient world that was at least as important as a modern adoption.  Joseph wasn’t “just” anything.  Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and in that way Jesus became part of the great covenant with David and David’s heirs.

But the covenant was only the beginning.  Jesus came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly.  Through his teachings, through his healings, through his miracles, and most especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.  Jesus called all things and all people to himself, and through our baptisms we are tied to that death and resurrection.  The renewal of the world is coming.  The re-birth and re-creation of all the cosmos and all people in it, is coming.  Abundant life free from sin and death is coming.  And it is coming through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

And while we wait for that great and glorious day, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and to put that allegiance higher than any other.  We are called to be faithful, to be obedient to God’s will, and are sent out to share that good news with one another and with all the world.  To all God’s beloved in Rome and Chinook and Naselle and across the world, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Being Part of the Community

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

Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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.

 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture.  On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped.  On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes.  On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.

First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture.  The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end.  We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live.  And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten.  Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens.  This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that.  Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity?  Of course there are.  But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it.  And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need.  If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing.  If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting.  They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.

Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time.  Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city.  Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like.  They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.

And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.  They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged.  Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen.  And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community.  Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons.  First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work.  Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle.  Jesus gave us work to do.  We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way.  We’re called to put that love into action.  And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus.  They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.

But it gets worse.  They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work.  They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way.  It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do.  This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever.  This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community.  Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either.  And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime.  Work that God has called us to do in the here and now.  The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things.  The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world.  We have work to do.

But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important.  And that’s especially true when it comes to work.  Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work.  Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods.  People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens.  They have less value.  And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up.  We see people with price tags.  If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more.  And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is.  I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing.  Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die.  Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help.  One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that.  It causes so much unnecessary suffering.

God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance.  The work is not the point.  The love and grace and abundance are the point.  The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance.  And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that.  God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter.  Love is one of the deepest needs we have.  Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have.  And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone.  You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.

If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you.  But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy.  If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too.  And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God.  You are not a burden.  Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do.  It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world.  That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another.  May we all share in that.

Amen.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

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.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  We recite these words in church almost every Sunday we gather … and when we don’t, we usually recite the Nicene Creed instead, which says basically the same thing.  In so doing, we join a Christian tradition stretching back to the very earliest days of Christianity, when all new converts to the faith memorized and studied the Apostles’ Creed, the teaching of the Apostles distilled into its purist form.  We believe in the Resurrection.  We believe that Christ died, and descended to the place of the dead, and that he was resurrected.  He rose from the grave not just in spirit but in body.  In flesh and blood.  And we believe that when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, all the graves will open and all those who have died will be raised.  All people will be resurrected, not just Jesus, and enter God’s kingdom in bodies purified and made whole by God.  Resurrection happened first for Jesus Christ, but it will come for all of us.

At least, that’s what’s in our faith statements.  How many Christians actually believe it … I don’t know.  We tend to think of heaven as some ethereal place,  spiritual, not physical.  Lots of Christians believe that when you die your spirit goes to be in heaven with Jesus, leaving behind all fleshly matters.  It’s a very old way of thinking about things, and it comes straight out of pagan Greek philosophy.  And it’s what Paul was arguing against in our reading from Corinthians.  “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  In a nutshell: Salvation comes from Christ, who died and was raised from the dead and in so doing destroyed sin and death.  If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and all of Christian teaching is false.  You can’t have just one resurrection, in Paul’s view.  Either resurrection is impossible, and nobody has ever been raised or ever will be; or resurrection is possible, and Christ was raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised from the dead some day when Christ comes again.  As Christ was raised, so too will we be.

To get why this is so important to Paul, you have to understand a little bit about the way Jewish people think.  In Greek, as in English, there are separate and distinct words for body and soul, because we think about them as two separate things, as if human beings are ghosts who just happen to walk around in meat suits.  In Hebrew, however, there is no word for soul that doesn’t include the body as well.  When you read an English translation of the Old Testament, and you see the word “soul,” the actual Hebrew word is usually “נפש” which means your whole self, personality and body and spirit and heart and guts and all the things that make you who you are.  The word most Old Testament translations give as “spirit” is “רוח” which literally means breath.  The Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is literally God’s breath.  In Genesis, God breathes on the primordial chaos and the world comes into being.  There is a connection between the spiritual and the physical.  One cannot exist without the other.  There is no concept in the entire Old Testament of a spirit or soul separate from a physical body.

Because of this, physical things matter.  Evil and sin come through physical means—eating the forbidden fruit—and are manifest in all the many ways human beings abuse one another and themselves.  But you can’t ever forget that all good things come through physical means, too.  The Garden of Eden was a physical place.  It was a garden, filled with plants and animals, in which humans and God walked side-by-side.  The Old Testament is very earthy.  Condemnation is being trapped in a world where humans hurt one another and where the soil is rocky, thin, and full of weeds.  Blessing is a world where humans reconcile with one another and the soil is fruitful and easy to work.  Creation, like humans, may be marred by sin and death, but first it was a good gift from God.  And, so, it is not just souls that need to be redeemed, but bodies too, the whole self, and all of creation.  And that is what Jesus Christ came to do.

On the other hand, the Greeks hated the physical world.  Or, at least, they didn’t trust it.  Pagan philosophers as far back as Plato (and possibly even earlier) had decided that the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh were two completely separate things, and obviously anything to do with the flesh or the physical world or the body was inherently bad and disgusting.  This is why they believed rich people were better than poor people—work required physical effort, and doing things, and that was degrading.  The only good things in the world were sitting around, thinking deep thoughts, and contemplating art.  And so when Paul converted Greek people, they brought with them this idea that there is a separation between body and soul, and that flesh is inherently bad and spirit is inherently good.  Some of them even thought that Jesus hadn’t been a real flesh-and-blood human being at all, just a divine spirit sent to bring enlightenment.  (This is a heresy called Gnosticism.)  Even the ones who accepted that Jesus had been human before his death often thought that Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected, he’d just appeared to have a physical body, and that when Christians died, they would be freed from the prison of flesh and brought into a realm of spirit.  Which, uh, isn’t that far from what many Christians today believe.

And then we come again to Paul: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died, and one day we too will be raised.  We are not ghosts piloting meatsuits, we are whole people—body, mind, and soul—and Christ came to save all of us, body and soul together, along with all of creation.  God created the world to be good—God created us to be good—and even the worst that sin and death can do doesn’t change the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  God has been at work in the world since the very beginning, bringing light and truth and calling people to live in the world according to God’s good plan.  God has been working to bring life and healing and renewal and reconciliation even in a world that keeps turning away, and God keeps calling us to participate in that work.  And one day, when Christ comes again, all will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.  All that is broken will be healed, all that is destroyed will be made whole, all of creation will be made new.  The work that God keeps beginning in us will be completed.  And we will see God face-to-face.

Bodies matter.  The more we learn about the way bodies and brains work, the more connected we realize they are.  Our bodies influence our brains in a multitude of ways great and small, and our brains influence our bodies just as much.  Those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood human nature far better than the Greek philosophers did.  When we focus too much on the spirit alone, we forget about the body, and we forget about the world we live in.  We pray for peoples’ souls while ignoring the ways in which their bodies are suffering.  We are flawed, sinful, fleshy people living in a flawed, sinful, fleshy world.  We live in a world in which sin and death have done unbelievable damage to people and communities and to creation itself.  But we believe in a God who triumphed over sin and death, a God who will make all things new, a God who became flesh and blood like us, who died and rose again, and who will raise us to life again.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 21, August 27, 2017

Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 

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.

Paul talked about spiritual gifts a lot.  Three times in three different letters, including our second reading from Romans, he talks about the gifts of the Spirit, and how each person in the community of faith has different gifts, and all are needed.  And each place he lists off the gifts of the Spirit, it’s different.  No two lists are the same.  This is because the Spirit gives lots of different gifts to lots of different people, depending on who they are and what the needs around them are.  There is no way that anybody could ever put together a list with EVERY gift the Spirit gives, because the Spirit gives a lot of gifts.  And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “oh, that must be wonderful to have a spiritual gift, but I don’t have any, I’m too ordinary,” or “too boring,” or “too sinful,” I have news for you.  God has given you spiritual gifts.  You may not recognize them; you may not be aware of them; you may not be using them.  But you have been given a spiritual gift just the same.

I think this is the reason Paul starts this section by talking about being transformed by God, instead of conforming to the world.  Because the world tells an awful lot of lies about gifts of every kind, but especially about spiritual gifts.  The world tries to tell us things that aren’t true about God, about ourselves, and about each other.  And if we believe these lies, we can’t possibly know what God is doing in us and in the world around us, because we can’t see anything or anyone clearly.  In order to know what is good and right, in order to know who we are and who God is, we have to let God transform us from who the world wants us to be, to who we were created to be.

The first lie the world tells us is about money.  And the lie is, that money determines how important or good something is.  Think about it: we judge things—even moral things!—by their worth.  We talk about our “values”—that’s an economic term.  Now, there’s a lot of problems with letting money determine how important or good things are, but when it comes to spiritual gifts it’s a huge problem because it tells us that gifts are only important if we can profit off of them.  Have you ever noticed that?  Gifts that you can make money off are valued; gifts that you can’t exploit for profit aren’t.  We spend a lot of time these days helping young people figure out what their gifts are, but not for spiritual purposes, for career planning.  So we know all about how to build a career off of peoples’ gifts, but not much about identifying spiritual gifts for use as Christians.  And if you have a gift and choose to use it in ways other than making money, people shake their heads.  For example, I enjoy writing.  I do it as a hobby.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if I’m not trying to get published—if I’m just doing it for my own enjoyment and my friends’ enjoyment—that I’m wasting my time and talents.

But a lot of the gifts God gives can’t be monetized.  They can’t be profited from.  And those are some of the most necessary gifts of all.  You’ll notice that compassion is one of the gifts that Paul names in our passage.  So is generosity.  You can’t make money off of either of those, but think how terrible the world would be if there was no compassion, no generosity.  It would be a pretty dark, grim place.  These are only two of the gift that are absolutely vital to both the Christian community and the world in general, that no one can put a price on or profit from.  If you’re only looking for things that society values, things that will help make money or build a career, chances are, you’re not going to see the gifts that God has given you.

The second lie that the world tells us is that gifts are extraordinary, and that only some people get them.  That most people are boring and normal, and if you don’t have the kind of special talent that makes someone sit up and take notice, you have nothing to offer.  The world divides people into winners and losers, the beautiful few who have what it takes and make it to extraordinary heights, and the ordinary schmucks who just don’t make the grade.  Some people succeed, and others are failures.  Some people matter, and some don’t, and you want to be one of the ones who matter, don’t you?  So work hard, and maybe you’ll be one of the winners instead of one of the losers.  And if you don’t have what it takes to be one of the winners, well, then you just don’t matter.

But that is a lie, because everyone matters, to God.  God does not see winners and losers, important people and schmucks.  God does not care whether anybody wins or loses, whether anybody succeeds or fails.  God loves each and every one of us.  God cares for each and every one of us.  And God gives gifts to everybody, including the people the world labels as failures or losers or just too ordinary to pay much attention to.  And so a lot of God’s gifts get overlooked because they’re too ordinary.  And yet, all of those ordinary things: building lives, and homes, and taking care of people, and seeing that the necessary work gets done, sometimes that too is a spiritual gift, just making sure that the people who need to get taken care of get taken care of.  Seeing that when work needs to be done there are people to pitch in to do it.  That, too, is a gift from God to make the world a better place.

And the third lie the world tells is that gifts should be used for the individual.  If one person has a gift, it should be used for their own betterment.  It’s all about individual growth, individual prosperity.  But if you’ll notice the gifts Paul lists, none of them can be used for just one person.  Teaching, ministering, generosity, leading, giving, being compassionate—these are all gifts that require relationships.  You can’t teach if there’s no one to learn.  You can’t lead if there’s no one to follow.  You can’t minister if there’s no one to minister to.  These are all gifts that require relationships.  And Paul talks about these gifts in at the same time as he uses the metaphor of the body to describe the Christian community.  When God gives us anything—spiritual gifts, wealth, health, anything—he doesn’t give it to us to hoard.  God gives us gifts to share, to spread around, so that all people may experience God’s blessings in many and various ways.

We all have gifts from God.  Some of them are obvious, and some are not.  Some are valued by the world, and some are not.  Teaching is a gift—and not just one given to professional educators, either.  Being generous is a gift.  Being compassionate is a gift.  Encouraging people is a gift.  Persistence is a gift—just being able to put one foot in front of the other, doing the job God puts in front of us, that’s incredibly important.  A willingness to help others is a gift.  The ability to build relationships and communities is a gift.  But as long as we’re listening to the world’s lies, and seeing with the world’s eyes, we won’t see God’s gifts for what they are.  We’ll ignore them, or devalue them, or just plain not see them.  And our world will be a darker and a colder place because of it.  God gives gifts to each one of us.  Every single one of us has gifts from God.  The trick is learning how to see them, to use them, for the good of all God’s people.  And to do that, we have to listen to God, and not the world.  May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can see God’s gifts for what they truly are, and put them to use as God calls us to do, for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

Freedom in Christ

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 13

July 2, 2017

Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

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.

There’s something ironic about talking about slavery on the Fourth of July weekend, don’t you think?  The Fourth of July is a holiday devoted to freedom.  Liberty!  Getting to make our own rules and laws instead of having to do what someone else tells us to!  Woohoo, isn’t it awesome to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave!  Let’s remember all of the reasons it is AWESOME to be an American, starting with the fact that we are free!

Except that, uh, we aren’t.  Or rather, we are politically free.  But there are deeper forms of slavery than just the external political reality.  Addiction, illness, dysfunctional or abusive relationships—all of these can enslave us just deeply as any external political force.  And of all the possible things that hold us in bondage, sin is the worst and the most deeply twisting.  Sin corrupts us so that we choose to do things that will hurt ourselves and others.  Sin corrupts us so that we don’t even see the problem.  It’s not just that sin makes us do bad things; sin makes us think that they’re the right things.

For example.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  There are no qualifiers to that, no limitations.  It’s not “we should love our enemies until they do something really bad, and then it’s okay to hate them.”  It’s not, “say you love your enemies while plotting to hurt them.”  It’s not, “love some of your enemies and hate the rest.”  It’s not even “be superficially nice to your enemies while fuming internally about them.”  No, all of those would be a lot easier than what Jesus really tells us, which is to love our enemies.  Period, full stop, no limitations or exclusions apply.  No loopholes to weasel out of it.  Love your enemies.

But hating them feels so good!  And if they DESERVE to be hurt, if they’re bad people or sinners or have done terrible things, then SURELY God would agree that it’s okay to hate them!  There are people in this world who are really, truly, awful people, who have hurt and killed and done terrible things.  Who need to be stopped from hurting anyone else.  But it’s not our job to hate them, and while it’s our job to protect people in danger, it’s not our job to plot vengeance.  But it’s so easy to convince ourselves that God surely wouldn’t mind, just this once.  Or even that God would want us to hate them.  And then, once you’re used to explaining away or ignoring God’s commands to love, well, lots of other things can be explained away or ignored, too.  And pretty soon, we’ve developed a whole series of justifications to make ourselves believe that God approves of everything we do.  The temporary benefits blind us to the fact that sinfulness is drawing us further away from God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks a lot about sin, and about slavery.  For Paul, sin isn’t just individual acts.  Sin is the whole way of thinking that draws us away from God.  Sin is not something we do, it’s something we are, something that guides and controls everything about how we see the world and ourselves, how we see God, how we see our fellow human beings.  While people can choose whether or not to commit individual bad acts, we can’t choose our state of being.  I can choose, for example, whether or not to lie in any one given situation; that’s a choice I can make.  But I can’t choose whether or not to be a sinner.  The only thing that can free me from slavery to sin and death is the saving action of Jesus Christ our Lord.  As baptized children of God, we are freed from slavery to sin!

So the questions the Romans wanted to know is, now that we’re free from the power of sinfulness and have been forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, does that mean we can do anything we want?  Does that mean that we can commit any individual sin we please, and it’s fine, because Jesus saved us?  It would be very convenient if that were true.  But that way of thinking is the first step away from God, back down into that mindset where we can hurt ourselves and others as much as we please, as long as we come up with a good enough excuse for it.

Paul puts it this way.  Yeah, sure, you’re no longer slaves of sin, and that’s awesome!  But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities.  The fact that we have been forgiven doesn’t mean we get to choose our own way: we are still in the power of the one who created us, the one who redeems us, the one who guides us through life.  We are still slaves.  Except that we are now slaves of God.  And while being a slave of sin leads only to death and pain (of ourselves and others), being a slave of God leads to love and abundant life, in this world and the next.

Now, wait a minute, hold on, I can hear you saying it.  We’re free!  God freed us through Jesus’ death and resurrection!  And that’s true.  We are free.  But there’s different kinds of freedom.  There’s “freedom from,” which means that we are free from the things that used to restrain us.  It’s the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom: nothing to hold us back, baby!  No consequences, no restraint, we can do ANYTHING WE WANT.  Which, uh, yeah, sure, you might be free to do anything you want, but there’s a lot of stuff you still shouldn’t do, right?  The more you focus on freedom from restraint, the more it leads you to doing dangerous and destructive stuff just because you can.  Yeah, maybe it’s allowed … but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The other kind of freedom is the “freedom to.”  The freedom to do the right thing.  The freedom to heal.  See, when you’re chained up in bad ways, when you’re hurt, the chains themselves hurt you even more.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, even the good times in that relationship keep you from healing because they keep you in that spot where your abuser can hurt you the next time things get bad.  And abusers keep you from forming healthy relationships with other people, too.  Only when you are free can you heal.  Only when you’re free can you start to build healthy relationships.  Only when you are free can you start to make good choices that lead to a better life.  And that’s the kind of freedom that God gives: the freedom to heal, and the freedom to do the right thing, and the freedom to build healthy relationships with God and with other people.

So why is Paul calling that freedom in Christ, that freedom to heal and build relationships, slavery?  Partly, it’s to remind us that the freedom of a Christian is not a license to misbehave.  It’s not the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom.  The freedom of a Christian comes with responsibility, to do the right thing, to spread the love of God, to work for peace and justice and healing.  We are not freed to do whatever the hell we want.  We are freed to serve God.

But calling our service to God “slavery” is also a way of reminding us that God has to come first.  In his explanation of the first Commandment, Martin Luther points out that having no other gods before the Lord our God isn’t just a matter of not being a Buddhist.  See, our ‘god’ isn’t just the one we name in our prayers and come to worship occasionally.  Our ‘god’ is the number one priority in our life.  Everything else that we do, everything we say, flows from our number one priority.  Is our priority making money?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our kids’ sports?  That’s our God.  Is our priority being liked?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our political ideology?  That’s our God.  Once we set something as the most important thing in our life, we start to shape our life and our thoughts and our hopes and dreams and fears and everything about us.  We put ourselves in service to things, we enslave ourselves, without ever consciously realizing what we’re doing.  We make chains for ourselves.  And some of those things may be very good things!  But if we build our life around them, it will be warped and constraining and lead us to places we do not want to go.  That’s why the first commandment is to put God first.  Because if we put anything else first, it will become our god and it will warp us in its service.

Even love of country can be an idol, if we let it.  I love America.  I am proud to be an American.  I am so grateful to God that I was born here, and while other countries are nice to visit, America is and always shall be my home and beloved native land.  But when we start to say “America first,” when we lift our love of country to the highest place in our hearts, that is idolatry.  Because the highest place in our hearts should belong to God.  God is the only one that can give life and hope and healing and growth.  God uses many channels to give God’s gifts—family, friends, job, country, community—but we must always remember that they are God’s gifts, above all else.

We have been freed from slavery to sin and death by Jesus Christ our Lord.  That means we have a choice.  We get to choose what our priorities will be, what we will hold highest in our heart.  But when we put anything but God in that first place, we become slaves to that thing.  God leads to life, and healing, and right relationships.  May we always hold God first in our hearts, and follow him.

Amen.