Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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

 

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

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

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

Amen.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.

To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

This Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Choose Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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.

Deuteronomy is one of those books of the Bible that most people will never read.  It takes place just before the Hebrew people enter the Promised Land.  God had used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and they had been nomads in the wilderness for forty years while they learned to be God’s people and live as God wanted them to.  They had learned to trust God and follow God even in the harshest conditions.  It hadn’t been an easy time; they kept backsliding, grumbling, and rebelling against God.  Now they were finally ready, and had been led to the area we call Israel today, the land God had promised to give them.  They were standing across the Jordan River from the land, they could see their future home.  But before they crossed, Moses had a few things to say.  Well, actually, Moses had a lot to say.  And the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of his speech.  Moses knew he wasn’t going to live much longer—he died before they crossed over the river.  And he wanted to help them remember the things they had learned in their years of wandering.  So he gave them the Law—chapter after chapter of legal minutia, everything they needed to know to establish a just and lawful society.

Our first reading comes from his summary, as he’s wrapping up his speech.  In this reading, he reminds people why the laws are there.  The law isn’t given so that people will trip up; it isn’t given so that lawyers can have a job; it isn’t given as a way for the powerful to oppress the powerless by wielding unjust rules.  The laws are given so that the people can live good, honest, and open lives.  We all have many choices in our lives, things we can decide to do or not do.  Some of them seem to be hard, but yet worth it in the long run.  Other choices are easy and seem good at the time, but lead to problems down the road.  It’s not always easy to lead a life of honesty, integrity, and love; sometimes it’s so much easier to be petty and deceitful and selfish.  But a life filled with love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself leads to, well, life.  A life filled with pettiness and selfishness, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Or, at least, it doesn’t lead to the kind of abundant and joy-filled life that God wants for us.  Choosing badly may not be a literal death; it may be a death of hope, a death of love, a death of possibility, a death of joy.  An addition to the brokenness of the world.

When we make choices about how we’re going to live, how we’re going to treat ourselves and others, that’s what’s at stake: are we going to choose the abundant life God has promised us?  Are we going to choose healing and wholeness?  Or are we going to turn away, and choose death and brokenness?  Choose life, Moses says, and reminds us that when we make those decisions every day, we don’t just make them for ourselves, but for our family and community.

Jesus is also talking about laws in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, and again it’s about choices.  What kind of life are we going to live?  Chapter 5 is the sermon on the mount.  You may recall a few weeks ago when we heard the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn.  Why?  Because they will be comforted, filled, lifted up; because in those times of grief and loss, some of the deepest connections and relationships are forged.  Whether or not the world can see it, God is with those who are last, and lost, and least.  Then, last week, the Sermon on the Mount continued with Jesus talking about being salt and light.  God has chosen us to be the light of the world, to let God’s light shine through us on the whole world, and participate in God’s work.

Then, today, Jesus’ sermon takes a more legalistic bent.  What kind of life should followers of God lead?  Jesus’ expectations are pretty high—much higher than was required by the Law of Moses.  But the expectations are high for the same reason.  Some choices lead to life; some lead to death.  Jesus wants us to choose life, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world.  Jesus wants us to live lives that let God’s light shine; Jesus wants us to help build up God’s reign on earth, where the poor are loved, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek and lowly aren’t trampled underfoot, where mercy and peace are everywhere.  So here are some practical tips on how to live that kind of life.

The first is about reconciliation.  There is conflict in life.  There will always be disagreements, inside church and outside church.  Sometimes those conflicts are small, and sometimes they’re not.  But we human beings aren’t very good at dealing with conflict.  All too often, we’d rather nurse our resentment and anger than forgive; we’d rather sweep things under the rug than take the hard work of rebuilding the relationship.  How many of you have had an argument or problem with somebody in the community that lasted for a long time?  Think about that conflict: did it affect other things in your life?  Did it take a toll on other people?  Did the resentment creep into other things you did?  That’s no way to live.  Jesus calls it a kind of murder: not of lives, but of relationships.  It destroys possibility; it breaks down the whole community.  So, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone or someone has a problem with you, you should handle it immediately—don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t bury it and seethe, go and be reconciled.  Even if you’re in the middle of worship, take the time to work through the problem and rebuild the relationship.  By the way, we actually allow time for this in worship.  Have you ever wondered why we stop in the middle of service to pass the peace?  It’s not just to catch up with people and say hello.  It’s a time intentionally set apart so that if you have a conflict with someone, you can take the first step of healing the breach: sharing peace with them.

The second area of behavior Jesus talks about has to do with more intimate relationships: marriage and sex.  Jesus focuses on adultery: actions which break those relationships.  And, specifically, he focuses on things men do that break up relationships.  Why?  Because men had the power in society.  A man could blame a woman for his own misbehavior.  A man caught in adultery got a slap on the wrist, but a woman caught in adultery could be killed.  A man could beat or kill his wife with few if any consequences.  A woman had very few circumstances in which she could get a divorce, even if she were being abused; a man could get a divorce for virtually anything.  A meal he didn’t like could be grounds for divorce: and while a man who got divorced didn’t face many problems in society, a woman who was divorced had very few options.  She could live with her father or brothers as a servant; she could marry again (if she could find someone willing to marry her); she could become a prostitute.  There weren’t many other choices.

So I don’t find it surprising at all that Jesus told men not to divorce their wives lightly or for trivial causes.  When you get a divorce, that’s a death of possibility.  It kills the relationship, and often it kills more relationships than just the couple’s: parents, children, siblings, friends, all are caught in the conflict; all are affected.  It can be devastating.  And in Jesus’ day, you added to it a very real possibility that the woman’s life would be ruined even if she had done nothing wrong.  Divorce for trivial reasons was the opposite of everything Jesus was trying to teach.  It was the opposite of the love and mercy and peace that Jesus was sent to bring.  For that reason, I don’t believe that Jesus would apply this teaching on divorce to cases of abuse: abuse, also, is the opposite of love and mercy and peace.  Marriage, like all relationships, should be good and positive and life-affirming.  Jesus wants us to make choices that lead to life, and that includes choices about marriage.

The third thing Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading is oaths.  Not cursing, but swearing.  For example, when a witness is sworn in court, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  And at first when I was reading this passage I didn’t get the connection.  Then I realized: why do we make people swear oaths?  Because we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own.  We don’t trust that witnesses in a court will tell the truth without an oath and penalties if they don’t.  We don’t trust that people who hold government positions will do their best if they don’t have to stand up and give an oath—and maybe we’re right not to trust.  Certainly, some people try to lie and cheat.  But Jesus’ point is that we as Christians shouldn’t need to take oaths—we should tell the truth even without them.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether we’ve sworn an oath or not.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether or not there are consequences.  We should make the choices that lead to trust, and integrity, and the kind of life worth living.

There are a lot of laws in the Bible, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in them.  Some people study the letter of the law, and forget the spirit; some people use the law as a club to beat other people over the head with.  But that’s not why God gave the law to Moses to give to the Hebrews, and it’s not why Jesus talked about the law, either.  God gave us guidelines for behavior to help us make good choices, choices that lead to life and love and wholeness and healing.

Moses said: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”

Amen.

Being the Light

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A),  February 9, 2014

 Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  And later, “You are the light of the world.”  They’re very pretty sayings, two of Jesus’ most often-quoted verses.  But I don’t think we really get what Jesus is saying.  How often do we really think about light, or salt?  Light and salt are too common, in our world.  They’re too easy to get, too easy to control, and too cheap.  If we want salt, we can always get some from the grocery store.  And we can get hundreds of other food flavorings and spices, too, both natural and artificial.  Anything we want, any time we want.  And when was the last time you salted something to preserve it?  Nowadays, we can or freeze most things.  There are easier and cheaper ways to preserve food.  Salt is everywhere, but we take it for granted.

In Jesus day, that wasn’t the case.  Salt was incredibly important.  There weren’t many other spices available, and most of them were so expensive that only the rich could afford them.  Salt wasn’t cheap, but ordinary people could afford it.  They had to; you’ll die if you don’t get enough salt.  You know all those sports drinks that advertise they have electrolytes?  Electrolytes are basically just salt dissolved in water.  And if you wanted to preserve food for later, well, you had two choices: you could salt it or you could dry it.  Salt was a daily necessity.  And, when used as a seasoning, it was a tiny luxury, too.

But you know, the thing about salt is that it seasons food differently than any other flavoring.  Most flavorings work by adding their own flavor to something.  And, if you add a lot of salt, that happens.  But if you add just a little, what happens is something different.  The flavor of the food itself becomes deeper, richer.  Tastier.  In other words, salt helps whatever it’s added to become more like itself.  Which is, when you think about it, kind of like what Jesus does: Jesus was sent to save the world from sin, to help break the chains of brokenness and death so that God’s good creation might be born again.  God created the world to be good.  When God created humans, the first thing God did was say that we were “very good.”  That’s the core of who we are.  That’s the essence of our being, but it’s been marred by sin and brokenness.  By saving us, Jesus helps us be reborn as children of God.  Jesus helps us become the people we were always meant to be, just like a dash of salt helps the flavors of a piece of food be more intense.  And Jesus wants us to be salt for the world.  Jesus wants us to be out there participating in God’s work in the world, by being salt: helping God’s good creation shine through, even in the midst of its brokenness.

Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” but most of us don’t understand light any more, either.  If it’s getting dark, we can just flip a switch and have it be as bright as day.  When I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s never completely dark.  Because, of course, I have night-lights scattered throughout the house, so that if I have to get up I’ll be able to see enough to go get myself a glass of water or whatever I need.  If I need to do something in a cramped space where there isn’t enough light, I can grab a flashlight.  And if I’m walking from the church to the parsonage after dark, there’s a streetlight on the corner, and floodlights on a motion sensor at both the church, so that the lights come on as I get close.

I never have to be in the dark if I don’t want to—in fact, I’d have to actively try to escape light.  In cities, there is so much light that astronomers talk about “light pollution,” which means that the lights are so bright you can’t see the stars very well.  When I was a kid, my Dad and I built our own telescope one summer, ground the mirrors and everything.  For years after that, our family would take a vacation and go camp out with other astronomers to watch the stars.  Because there is so much artificial light, these star parties took place in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain in the Oregon desert, hours away from the nearest town.  To see the gift of light given by God, we had to go away from all the artificial light and focus on the light given by God.

In Jesus’ day, things were different.  The main source of light was natural light.  The kind that comes from the sun, moon, and stars.  The kind that human beings can’t control.  Light from the sun is a gift from God, and people were almost totally dependent on it.  After the sun set, they could light a fire or a lamp, but there isn’t much firewood in Palestine, and oil for lamps was a lot more expensive then than electricity is for us now today.  Even with lamps lit, they could not create the kind of brightness indoors or at night that we take for granted.  When the sun was up, there was abundant light for all.  When the sun went down, things got dark.  Very dark.  So light was something to be treasured, something that they paid an awful lot of attention to.  And it wasn’t something they controlled.

In the same way, we don’t control whether or not we are the light of the world.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “You should be the light of the world” or “you’ll be the light of the world if you shape up” or “you have the potential to be the light of the world.”  No.  Jesus says “You are the light of the world.”  You already are the light of the world.  That’s not something you choose, or something you have to earn.  You are the light of the world because God has chosen to make you the light of the world.  It’s kind of like forgiveness: it isn’t up to you.  God forgives us because he loves us, not because we earn it; God makes us the light of the world because he loves us and he loves the world, not because we earn it.  The light is a free gift, to us and to the world.  Our only choice is what we’re going to do with that light we’ve been given.  We can put it out in public to give light to the world, or we can try to hide it away.  We don’t even get to control who gets it and who doesn’t.  Light shines.  Just as the sun shines on all people, good and bad alike, so too does the light of Christ shine on all people.

Jesus talks about entering the Kingdom of Heaven in our Gospel reading, too.  When we hear that, we think about “getting into heaven.”  And, yes, Jesus meant that; but that’s only a small part of what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven.  He talked about the kingdom of heaven a lot.  But the thing is, the word we translate “kingdom” meant a lot more than the English word.  You could translate it “reign” or “rule” or “dominion.”  And Jesus sometimes used “heaven” rather than say “God,” because in his day pious people often avoided using God’s name.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the place where God rules.  The kingdom of heaven is anywhere God’s will is done.  The kingdom of heaven will be most fully realized when Christ comes again, and the dead are raised, and all the world will be judged.  But let’s not forget that Jesus began his ministry by preaching that the kingdom of heaven is here.  Not somewhere far away, not some future time yet to come, but here, now.  It may not be fully present, and we may not always be able to see or feel or hear it, but it’s here.  Whenever the light of Christ shines forth, the kingdom of heaven is there.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve been called to enter into the kingdom.  We have been called to be salt and light for the world.  We’ve been called to season the world so that the goodness of God’s creation can be fully tasted.  We’ve been called to let God’s light shine through us for all the world to see.  We’ve been called to participate in God’s work.

We’ve been called to righteousness, but that righteousness isn’t the kind of nit-picking and finger-pointing that is all too common today when people talk about God’s law.  It isn’t the kind of “I’m better than you, so there!” that gives Christians a bad name.  We are called to the kind of righteousness that glorifies God by shining the light of God’s love throughout the world, on everyone whether they deserve it or not.  We are called to be the kind of righteousness that glorifies God by helping the goodness that God has created be most fully known.  We are called to live as Christ taught, spreading healing and forgiveness to everyone.  We are called to enter into and participate in the reign of God.  We have been given the gift of light.  We are the light.  We are the salt. May we live lives that enter into the reign of God that surrounds us.

Amen.