All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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.

This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season where we prepare for the coming of Christ among us.  On the most obvious level, we are preparing for Christmas, the day Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.  And so we sing Christmas carols and decorate the church and put on Christmas pageants.  But we are also preparing for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  As Christians, we live between the promise made with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fulfilling of that promise when Christ comes again.  Which is why our readings for this first Sunday of Advent  are about the adult Jesus telling his followers to be ready for him to come again, and the prophet Isaiah telling us what God’s kingdom to come will look like.

As I was reading and studying the texts for this Sunday, and listening to the news, I kept coming back to the first reading, and the image of the nations streaming up to the Lord’s house—all people from across the world coming to it and walking in God’s paths.  It’s such a beautiful image of what God’s kingdom will be like.  In fact, every time the Bible discusses who will be there, the various writers make the point that it will be all people, from every nation and tribe.  In other words, not just “us,” whoever “us” happens to be.  And that’s a crucial point: humans by nature like to divide people into categories and exclude those who aren’t like us.  We tell ourselves stories to justify why we’re good and they’re bad.  And then we only notice the things that fit those stories.  We are hyper-aware of differences, and those differences can’t just be differences—they are signs that we are better because there is a right way and a wrong way and obviously, we’re right and they are wrong.  This is something all humans of every continent, race, religion, and ethnicity are prone to do.  It comes and goes in waves, and right now there is a wave of racist thoughts and actions sweeping our country.  In the last few months, some North Dakotans have used the conflict over the pipeline as an excuse to harass and attack Native Americans.  In the last few months, some Americans have painted swastikas on Jewish homes and businesses.  In the last few months, the number of hate crimes against blacks and Latinos have escalated in this country have escalated.  In the last few weeks, neo-Nazis have held open rallies in American cities and an alt-right spokesman went on CNN to debate whether Jews were really people.  All of this traces back to the idea that some people matter more than others, that some people are better than others because of the group they were born into.  This is something humans do, in this broken, fallen, sinful world.  We look for reasons to hate and divide ourselves up and attack one another.

But it’s not something God does.  In fact, God spends significant time throughout the Bible combating that type of thought whenever it creeps up.  It starts out in the first chapter of Genesis when we are taught that all people—of all nations, all genders, everyone—was created in God’s image.  White, Black, Native American, Asian, Latino, everyone is a beloved child of God created in God’s own image.  And when God gave the law to Moses, God repeated many times throughout the law that outsiders should be protected, not condemned or ostracized.  And when the Israelites strayed from that teaching and discriminated against outsiders, God reacted.  For example, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites made laws forbidding their people from marrying non-Israelites, forcing divorces where such marriages already occurred, and throwing out any mixed-race children.  There were also laws forbidding non-Israelite participation in society.  But in that same period, two books were added to the Bible directly criticizing that.  The first, Ruth, tells the story of a foreigner—a pagan—who came to God and married an Israelite and became the grandmother of the great King David.  In the middle of prejudice and xenophobia, God sent God’s Word to tell a true story of a foreigner as an example of faithfulness, and to remind God’s people that David, their great hero of the faith, was himself of mixed-race.  The second book is Jonah, which tells the story of a prophet who was sent to proclaim God’s word Israel’s enemy, the city of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t want to go, but God forces him to.  The point of the story is that Israel’s enemies are just as much God’s children—just as beloved to God—as Israel was.

Jesus spent most of his time ministering among the Jews, but he also went to the Greeks and all the other ethnic groups in his area, and held no distinctions between them.  When his disciples tried to impose their society’s ethnic boundaries, Jesus rebuked them.  And when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, the first thing it did was give them the ability to preach to all sorts of different people in their own native tongues.  Why?  Because God loves all people of every land, and they are all God’s children, and they all need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, who became truly human, who is coming back to judge the world and to save it.

And in the early Christian church, too, people started to try to discriminate: they based worship practices on separating out rich people from poor people, Jews from Greeks, and women from men.  Paul wrote to condemn such things, because in Christ there is no distinction between ethnic groups, genders, or economic class.  All are one in Christ.  And when we try to separate people out and discriminate against some, we deny that.  We exclude and hurt people that Christ died to save.

In Revelation, there are many images of what God’s kingdom will be like, and Revelation, just like Isaiah, tells us that all people, from every tribe and nation, will be there in God’s kingdom, and that there will be no distinction between them, for all will be united in Christ.  So if you ask me “what the kingdom of God looks like,” and ask me to put together a picture from all the different images and visions of God’s kingdom in the Bible, I can tell you a few things.  1) it’s going to be a great party where there is no suffering or pain or grief, and 2) it’s going to be intensely multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, the Greek word usually translated as “nation” is “eqhnos”, which is where the word “ethnic” comes from.  All nations—and all ethnic groups—are equally beloved of God, and all will be part of God’s kingdom.

But we human beings, we keep coming up with reasons to hate, reasons to fear, reasons to discriminate.  We tell ourselves stories about how terrible other groups are, and then we tell ourselves it’s not really bad to discriminate against them because they really are like that.  We take every bad example of other groups as the norm for them, while pretending our own bad apples don’t exist.  An example of this is the police department of Fergusson, Missouri.  That police department focused most of its attention on investigating and harassing black people.  When accused of racial bias, they said they focused on black people because black people committed more crimes.  After the protests in 2014 the Federal Government launched an investigation.  They found that the police were wrong: black people in Ferguson were no more likely to commit crimes than white people were.  But the police of Ferguson believed that blacks were criminals.  So when a black person committed a crime, they took it as evidence that black people were all prone to criminality.  When a white person committed a crime, however, they thought he was just a bad apple.  Everything they saw and experienced was twisted to fit into the story they told themselves: that black people were criminals and white people were good people.  The story wasn’t true, but they genuinely believed it.  And so they acted unjustly, harassing innocent citizens because of the color of their skin.  They broke up and separated their city, and hurt a lot of people—black and white—in the process.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about race that aren’t true.  We tell stories about Black criminals and thugs, when black people are no more likely to commit crimes than whites are.  We tell stories about immigrants who steal American jobs, when immigrants actually are far more likely to start their own businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens are.  We tell ourselves that other races are lazy, they’re bad, they’re wrong.  And then we look for things around us that confirm those stories.  But those stories are not reality.  And, most crucially, those stories are not God’s story.  God’s story is that every person of every race was created in God’s own image.  God’s story is that each and every human being is equally valuable and beloved, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, or any other category.  God’s story is that when God’s kingdom comes, all violence and conflict between groups will cease, and all people of every tribe and nation and group will come streaming to God, and all people will love one another instead of finding excuses to hate and fear and discriminate.

So when we break down ethnic or racial barriers, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we challenge ethnic or racial biases, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we make the world a little bit more equal, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  On the other hand, when we allow racism and bigotry to flourish, when we see it and do nothing, when we pretend it isn’t there, we are working against God’s kingdom.  When we see discrimination and prejudice and shrug and walk on by, we become complicit in a system that is directly opposed to God’s wishes.  We allow things to get less and less like the good and just kingdom that God is trying to create.  It doesn’t mean we’re horrible people—like I said, this is something all humans do—but it does mean we are not being faithful to God.  It means we are seeing through the eyes of the world, not through God’s eyes.  It’s not easy to challenge bias and racism; it’s not easy to challenge something that so many people believe.  Yet to be faithful to the vision of God’s kingdom, we have to do it.  May we have the courage and the wisdom to see the world through God’s eyes, and God’s story, and not the human stories that divide us.

Amen.

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What are you afraid of?

First Sunday after Advent, November 29th, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

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.

Jesus told the disciples: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What are you afraid of? What makes you faint from fear and foreboding?

Seriously, what are you afraid of? Our culture spends a lot of energy on fear: whipping it up for political purposes, covering it up with anger and hate and partying and a whole host of other things. We’re afraid of terrorists, so we close our borders to refugees, despite the fact that we’ve never had a terrorist come to this country disguised as a refugee. We’re afraid of ISIS, so we’re suspicious of Muslims, despite the fact that white Christians commit most of mass murders in our country. We’re afraid of uncertain economic times and the fact that the middle class is shrinking and college tuition is so expensive, so we pressure our children to be perfect in academics and in sports so they can get scholarships and eventually a good job. And so the percentage of youth and young adults suffering from anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the last ten years. We’re afraid of admitting America isn’t perfect, so we demonize and attack those who point out things we need to do better at. We’re afraid of change, so we never ask ourselves if any part of the change might be a good thing. We’re afraid of mass shootings, so we blame mental illness and loose gun laws to make ourselves feel better, but we’re also afraid of what our political opponents might do so we never actually try and figure out practical ways to prevent future attacks.

We’re afraid of a lot of things, but we don’t want to face that fear, so we find all sorts of ways to avoid it. When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, I was shocked. It never occurred to me that I had it, because I never faced my fears, the things I was anxious about. They were always there, gnawing at my thoughts, but I didn’t want to face them. I buried them. And when my fears did come to the surface, well, I was afraid for good reasons! The things I was afraid of were very likely to happen—they did happen to me, and they were painful. So when I did manage to look at my fears, I still couldn’t see all the ways in which the fear itself was twisting me and tripping me up and trapping me. I spent so much time and energy desperately trying to pretend I was fine, that I was okay, that everything was going great and I could handle everything without help. Sometimes that meant isolating myself from the world and burying myself in stuff to keep from having to deal with the world. Some people turn to alcohol to soothe themselves, but my drug of choice has always been books. I weighed myself down with them, I used them as a distraction. Anything, so that I didn’t have to face what I was afraid of. Anything to distract me. Anything to keep my fears at bay.

People try to cope with their fears in a lot of different ways, and a lot of those ways are self-destructive, and many of them hurt those around us. We come up with distractions, bury ourselves in work or anger or drugs and alcohol or gambling or spewing hate or anything else that will keep us from having to face the darkness. In December, we turn to shopping and parties to fill that hole, as if having a perfect story-book holiday season will make everything okay, as if finding the perfect present and cooking the perfect dinner will make everything be peaceful and good and right. But if we aren’t willing to face our fears—to acknowledge that we are afraid—then we stay prisoners. We stay trapped, bound up, pretending we’re free while we run around like rats in a cage trying to pretend everything is fine and that if we just pretend hard enough, everything will be okay.

And then we try to use our faith to justify our coping mechanisms. After all, God couldn’t really mean for us to love those people, they’re dangerous! God couldn’t really mean for us to help those people, they don’t deserve it, and anyway what if we don’t have enough? God wants me to be happy, and so it’s okay to do whatever I want that I think might make me happy! It’s not like it’s really hurting anyone.

People have always been afraid. Because the world is a scary place, and always has been. Since the days of Adam and Eve, there has always been violence in the world. There has always been hatred and fear. There have always been people who lash out, taking their own problems out on those around them, creating even more problems in the world. There have always been natural disasters that devastate communities and bring suffering. Jesus talks about some of these in our Gospel lesson, in the context of the end times. He’s talking about things that were happening in his day—the civil war and Roman attack that would destroy the Temple in 70AD—but he was also speaking about the future, when this world ends and Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Scary things are happening now, and scary things will continue to happen. Even Christ’s coming—when all the evil in the world will be defeated once for all—will be scary. Our current social order will topple. All the powers of this world will be shattered. All the stuff we put our trust in will tremble and fall. This is terrifying stuff. And Jesus doesn’t try to hide or sugar-coat it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Because his focus isn’t on the scary stuff, his focus is on how we should respond.

Christ will come again. And in that coming, he will wipe away every tear from every eye. There will be peace, and justice, and righteousness. There will be no war, no violence, no abuse, no betrayal; there will be no injustice, no hardship, no natural disasters. Everyone will have enough and no one will have too much. There will be joy, and love, and peace, and we will be together with God. This is a promise that God made long before his Son was born in Bethlehem; this is a promise you can read many times in the Old Testament, including our first lesson. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” That promise is the coming of Christ. He came once already, as a child born in Bethlehem, to teach us how to live in love as God’s people, and he will come again to bring the kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise by which we live.

So what are we afraid of? Terrorists? Racial unrest? Losing our job? Losing a loved one? Being abused by a loved one? Cancer? A bad drought? The coal plant going out of business? America going to the dogs? What’s the worst thing that the world can do to us, anyway? It can kill us. And then what happens? We’re with God, and will be with God when he comes back to judge the living and the dead and re-create the world into the paradise he originally meant it to be. I don’t mean to belittle the very real suffering that we can and do face in this life—it can be horrifically bad, and some of you know that from personal experience. And our suffering in this life can really damage us, beyond the power of anything in this life to fix or heal.

But nothing can damage us beyond God’s power to fix and heal, and if that healing doesn’t come in this life, it will come in the next, when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory to shake things up and re-create them as God intends, full of goodness and love and life. That’s a promise, bedrock solid and sure, that the Christ who came once will come again, bringing God’s kingdom with him, and we will be healed and restored to the people God created us to be.

So again, the question is, what are we afraid of—and how do we respond to that fear. Because we have the promise, we know that no matter what happens in this life, whether our fears come true or not, God is going to win in the end. Nothing we are afraid of will win. The things we fear may win the game, but we already know who’s going to win the tournament. That’s not the question we face. The question is, are we going to let our fears dictate our response to the world? Are we going to let our fears control our actions and our lives? Are we going to spend our energy spewing hate and burying our heads in the sand and filling the gaps with anything that can distract us? And then try to use our faith to justify it?

When we get afraid, we tend to turtle up, hunching in on ourselves in self-protection, only emerging to fight anything that comes near. But that’s not the advice that Jesus gives. When you’re afraid, be on your guard! But not against the thing you’re afraid of. Be on your guard against the fear itself. Don’t let it weigh you down with worries and care, don’t let yourself hide get so caught up in avoiding your fears that you miss God’s presence. Because the Son of Man will be there. Stand up, raise your heads—no matter what the world does to you, you are not alone, and you will be saved.

May Christ help us stand up and face whatever comes, in the sure and certain hope that the kingdom of God is near.

Amen.