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.

Bearing the Cross

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 1st, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

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.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it. I’m talking with someone about their day, and they mention some little thing that annoys them that they can’t change—maybe it’s a co-worker’s irritating habits, maybe it’s a relative’s drama that keeps spilling over to the rest of the family. “Well,” they say, “I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” Really? Jesus’ death on a cross, his sacrifice and agony, compared to Aunt Ethel’s temper tantrums? That’s what you’re comparing it to? When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” you think he meant having to deal with a co-worker who sometimes grabs your lunch by accident or can’t get important paperwork done on time? Really?

Sometimes when I hear that phrase it’s sadder. There’s something truly horrible in someone’s life—abuse, for example—and they don’t think there’s any way out. Maybe they’re scared, maybe they don’t think they deserve anything better, maybe they feel guilty or ashamed. And that’s how they comfort themselves: “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.” And it’s good that their faith is a comfort to them, but at the same time, calling that suffering their cross to bear can trap them in it, make them less likely to reach out for help, because they think their suffering is God’s will. Jesus came that we might have abundant life, that we might be saved and healed, that our sadness and grief and pain might be wiped away. Jesus died on the cross so that we might be saved, connected to God, so that God’s love might be poured out on the world. Jesus’ suffering and death are not meant to trap us in our own suffering, but to free us. To open us up to possibilities.

Devout Christians use that phrase a lot, but I’m not sure we take much time to ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said it. What is the cross, and what are the crosses that Jesus might be calling us to carry? We tend to apply it to any problem, big or small, that we don’t think can be changed. Sometimes those really are the crosses God has given us to bear. But sometimes, I don’t think they are. So let’s ask the question: what is the cross, and what does it mean to carry it?

First of all, the cross was painful. It was big, and heavy, and public, and nasty, and torturous. It was a big deal. It was an agonizing, painful death, and it was reserved for the worst of the worst. Slaves and foreigners and murderers were crucified. Not citizens. Not anybody who mattered. Nobody was watching Jesus and going, “what a great guy he is for being able to endure that.” They weren’t saying, “gee, isn’t it too bad?” No. They were looking at him and going, he must be scum to deserve that. What a horrible person that Jesus is! They saw him, and they despised him, and they mocked him. The cross killed him, but that wasn’t the only thing it did. It changed how people saw him, from then and ever after.

It even changed how the disciples looked at Jesus. I mean, here Peter is, Jesus starts talking about the cross—talking about the fact that he’s going to have to suffer and die—and what does Peter do? He tries to shut Jesus up. He doesn’t want to think about it. It’s too hard, too bad. Peter wants to think about all the nice, pleasant, good things that Jesus could do. He wanted to think about public respect, and power, and glory, and miracles, and political power. So when Jesus starts talking about the cross—that huge, painful, shameful thing—Peter tries to shut him up. Peter doesn’t want to have to deal with the pain and shame and grief and loss that are going to come hand in hand with Jesus’ death on the cross. He doesn’t want to hear that salvation is going to come through pain.

So when we look at life’s little annoyances and call them our cross to bear, we are really, really misunderstanding what the cross was, and what it did. It was not an annoyance. It was not something to be sighed over and swept aside. When we have crosses to bear, they are big, and they are heavy, and they hurt. Maybe not physically, maybe not where people can see, but they are going to have an impact. And a cross may make people look at you differently. It may make them look at you funny. It may be something that sets you apart, something that people would rather sweep under the rug and ignore, just as Peter wanted to ignore Jesus’ cross. It may be something that causes people—even other Christians!—to be uncomfortable or ashamed or judgmental.

The other thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that you have to look at what came out of it. Yes, it starts with pain and grief and shame and loss and horror. But that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it means. Because that pain and suffering did something. It changed the world—it changed us. Jesus died, but he rose again, and when he rose we were dragged with him from death into life. We are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It matters. Jesus’ suffering brought new life, abundant life, and healing, and hope, and joy, and love. It was hell to go through, but it made a difference.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he isn’t saying that suffering is good on its own. He’s not saying that pain, by itself, is a good thing. Pain is bad. What he’s saying is that sometimes it’s necessary to achieve something else. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because he liked pain or because he thought pain was good for him. He died in order to save the world. He suffered so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s what taking up our crosses means. It means doing the right thing even when it hurts. Taking up our cross means following Jesus and being his hands in the world even when it’s not nice, or convenient, or happy. It means living out the Gospel even when your friends shake their heads at you. It means reaching for life and healing even if that means pain in the short term. Taking up your cross means living a kingdom-centered life in a world that wants everyone to focus on money, power, and prestige.

Taking up your cross isn’t about dying. It’s about living. What kind of life are you going to live? Here and now, where are your priorities? What’s most important in your life? Not the stuff you think should be most important—the stuff that you actually treat as most important. Where do you focus your time and energy? Because a lot of people will say “my family and my faith are most important!” but they actually spend more time and energy and attention on their jobs, their sports, their favorite TV show, their latest toys, and keeping up with the Joneses. Because that’s what our world values. That’s what our culture pushes. The rat race: work hard and make more money and look good and do all the right stuff and buy all the right products and you’ll be happy and people will love you and none of the bad things in the world will happen to you. And so people chase those goals, and they get busier and busier and more and more distracted by all sorts of things they chase after in the name of happiness and security, and all too often we don’t even notice the people we hurt along the way, and we try to fill the emptiness by working harder, and you know what? Bad things still happen. The busy-ness and distraction won’t prevent them or fix them.

The life God calls us to is a life of love for God and for one another. If we are truly living that life—if our priorities are truly on that love—it will affect how we act, what we do, how we treat ourselves and the people around us. And it will mean following God’s priorities, instead of society’s priorities. And our society won’t like that. And your friends and family may not like it, either. And following that love may take you in places you wouldn’t choose to go, and living a life centered on God’s love may mean standing up to the broken, sinful things in the world, to spread life and love where there is precious little of it.

But here’s the other thing about the cross: even Jesus didn’t carry it alone. He did for part of the way, but it was too much for him. He couldn’t do it alone, so a man stepped in to help, named Simon of Cyrene. And together, Jesus and Simon carried the cross on their backs. And we don’t have to carry our crosses alone, either. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and believe me, he knows what it’s like to carry a cross! But God also sends us others, people like Simon, to walk with us and help us carry the cross even if only for part of our journey. And yes, it’s hard to carry the cross. But we don’t have to do it alone.

Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), Year A, September 28, 2014

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

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.

Have you ever noticed that the cross is everywhere these days? It gets slapped up on billboards arguing for one political position or another. People wear it all the time as jewelry—even people who never go to church or do anything religious will wear it. If you google “cross” online, you’ll see lots of beautiful shining pictures like this one. Light, beauty, respect, worship. Those are all things we tend to associate with the cross. And almost every Christian organization, building, group, book, or artwork is going to have a cross on it somewhere. Like a brand logo in advertising. This is who we are.

Glorious glowing cross
Glorious glowing cross

Which is why people today tend to be so surprised that during the first three centuries, Christians did not use the cross as an emblem. At all. If you go to the Middle East and go to the oldest Christian churches still standing, there are no crosses anywhere. If you go to the catacombs, the underground burial chambers where Christians buried their dead and worshiped in secret from their persecutors, there is a lot of art on the walls. You’ll see murals of worship, of Bible scenes, of saints and angels. But you will not see any crosses anywhere until the fourth or fifth century.

We tend to think of the cross as power and salvation, but we forget that the cross was a torture device.A gory crucifix

A method of execution reserved for the worst of the worst. No Roman citizen could be crucified; that punishment was reserved for foreigners and slaves. And the kind of foreigners and slaves that the Romans most hated, to boot: the ones who were a danger to the existing social order. The ones who challenged the authorities. Revolutionaries, violent bandits, slaves who rebelled. The lowest of the low and the worst of the worst. That was the kind of people who were killed on crosses. It was a long death, slow and painful and public. In those first few centuries, when crucifixion was still a regular punishment meted out by the Empire, Christians didn’t need to paint it on walls. They’d all seen it done to people, every agonizing and horrifying moment of the hours (and sometimes days) it could take to die on a cross. It was not a symbol of glory and power and beauty. It was a sign of weakness and horror.

So when Paul says that Christ became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—that’s something. Being willing to die is one thing; it happens. Good people and bad people alike are willing to die for loved ones and for principles. Being willing to allow yourself to be tortured to death … that is another matter entirely. And that’s what Jesus did. Let’s be quite clear on that. Jesus was not just another human. He was human and God together. He was the Word who blew over the waters at creation, and the one who walked on the waters of the Sea of Galillee and calmed storms with a word. If he had not allowed himself to be handed over, tried in a kangaroo court, whipped, paraded naked through town, and nailed to a cross, it would not have happened. But Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And not just die, but die horribly, in a long, drawn-out, ugly death. He loved us that much, so much that he would let that happen to save us.

In our second reading, Paul asks us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, the same attitude, the same love. To turn away from selfish ambition and conceit, but act with humility and for the good of others.

Humble Pie

Now, humility, that’s a loaded word. And it’s a word that can be used like a weapon. For a lot of people, humility is different for the powerful and the powerless. Powerful people give lip service to humility with false modesty while regarding themselves as better than others. Meanwhile, when people lower down on the totem pole dare to speak up for themselves, to protest when they are hurt and abused, they get told they should be more humble. Submit to authority, no matter what. Not because they need to be humble, but just to shut them up and keep them from bothering people. An abusive husband may talk about how women should be humble, but what he really means is that he wants his wife to just take anything he dishes out. Needless to say, that is not the kind of humility that Paul is talking about.

Paul describes Jesus as humble, but I don’t think the chief priests and the elders would have described Jesus as humble. They wanted him to submit to them. Instead, Jesus submitted to God, which meant standing up to them. In our Gospel lesson today, they came to him to challenge his authority. You see, they were the ones who were supposed to have all the authority in society, and particularly religious authority. They were the ones who set policy, the ones who decided religious doctrine, the ones people came to for advice and judgment. And here was this Jesus dude, this ignorant backwater hick from Nazareth, of all places, who not only had huge crowds come listen to him preach, who could not only do miracles like heal people and feed thousands, he came into the Temple in Jerusalem and upset the apple cart. Literally. Well, it wasn’t an applecart, it was the stalls of the moneychangers and merchants who set up to do business in the outer courts of the Temple and disrupted the worship of those who came to pray.

“Who do you think you are?” the chief priests asked him. “What gives you the right to come in here and criticize us and disrupt things?” They wanted Jesus to back down and apologize. They wanted Jesus to bow to their authority. They wanted Jesus to be humble—by which they meant subservient to them. And if he wouldn’t do what they wanted, well, there were ways to deal with troublemakers. Just after this conversation, they decided that he was too dangerous to live, and began trying to arrest him. If Jesus had backed off and apologized, he would probably not have been crucified. But this is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is humble, but Jesus’ humility is about submitting to God, not to humans. The way the chief priests run the Temple works—for them. They were very good at keeping things running smoothly and business going on as usual.

The problem was, that very business got in the way of people worshipping God. It drew people away from God, and so it had to go. So Jesus would not back down. Jesus would keep on saying what the people in power didn’t want to hear because they needed to hear it, even if that meant he was going to suffer. And he was going to allow himself to be crucified, to be handed over to death, because he loved all of creation, from the rocks to the stars to the animals to the people of every tribe and race and class and nation, so much that he was willing to die to fix what we screwed up. He was willing to suffer in agony if that was what it would take to open up and expose the sinful, broken nature of the world so that we could be healed.

Jesus’ humility led him to allow himself to suffer for the sake of others; it also led him to stand up and speak out and take action for the sake of others. It’s a humility based on love, on choosing to do the right thing even if it will cost you. That’s what the cross is. And that’s the kind of humility that Paul wants us to have. The same mind that was in Christ Jesus, God in human form, who poured out his life to save us. Paul wants us to have the humility to follow God, whether that means standing up to people or sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s not humility for the sake of humility, it’s about doing the right thing, even when that’s hard or painful. It’s about making love—love for God and love for all the world—be more important than our own ego. It’s about letting God work in us and through us even if it’s not convenient, even if it hurts. That’s what the cross means.

We put crosses on billboards and on jewelry, we get them tattooed on our bodies, we put them in our churches and on our walls at home. We share pictures of them on Facebook. But are we willing to walk in the way of the cross? Are we willing to take on pain for the sake of others, and are we willing to stand up and speak out for the sake of others? Are we willing to seriously let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Thanks be to God for his work in us, which helps us to walk with Jesus.

Amen.

Promises

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

Jeremiah was not a very popular guy.  Do you know the story of Cassandra, from Greek mythology, the woman who was doomed to prophesy disaster and not be believed?  Jeremiah was the Cassandra of the Old Testament.  When all the other prophets in Judah (particularly those paid by the government) were predicting that Judah would defeat the mighty Babylonian army that was attacking them, Jeremiah said the opposite.  Even though the Judeans were God’s people, the Babylonians were going to conquer their tiny kingdom.  And Jeremiah refused to be bought off, and he refused to be silenced, and that’s why the king had him locked up at the beginning of today’s lesson.  When everyone else was turning themselves inside out to pretend things were going just fine, Jeremiah pointed out the obvious.  When everyone else was singing hymns to the glory of the Kingdom of Judah and insisting that since they were God’s people nothing bad could ever happen to them, Jeremiah pointed out the ugly truth.  They weren’t acting like God’s people, and bad things could and did happen to them.  And what was going to happen to them—being conquered by Babylon and deported into exile—was going to happen whether they believed it or not.  The only choice they had was whether they were going to let it take them by surprise, unprepared, or instead let God help them prepare for the trials ahead.

They didn’t want to hear what Jeremiah was saying.  They would rather follow false prophets who told them comforting lies.  So King Zedekiah, the ruler of Judah and the man who had ordered Jeremiah to be locked up, came to Jeremiah, and asked him why he insisted on prophesying that the Babylonians were going to win.  The answer may seem obvious: Jeremiah was a true prophet, and that’s what God had told him to say.  And I’m sure Jeremiah had told him that before, but apparently King Zedekiah had a hard time believing that God would allow anything bad to happen to God’s people.

Have you ever felt like Zedekiah?  Like you couldn’t believe something bad was happening, and so you’d rather keep you head in the sand than face it?  A man with his head buried in the sand.We laugh at the image of a guy with his head buried in the sand like an ostrich, but only because we’re looking at it from the outside—we’re not in that guy’s head pretending that everything is fine and if he can’t see the problems they don’t exist.  I know there have been times in my life when I’ve tried to pretend that everything was okay, as if wishing things would turn out fine would make it happen.  It’s hard to face unpleasant realities.  But pretending that everything is fine doesn’t make it true; and that’s as much the case today as it was two and a half thousand years ago when the Babylonian army sat right outside the Jerusalem city wall.  Jeremiah could have told King Zedekiah that.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he told King Zedekiah about a piece of property he’d just bought.

Property?  With the enemy at the gates, Jeremiah bought land?  And why tell that to the king?  I think it has to do with why we have trouble facing unpleasant truths.  I know when I don’t want to face the truth, it’s usually because I think it’s hopeless—that there’s nothing to be done.  I sometimes hide from the truth because it makes me feel like God has abandoned me, or no longer cares for me.  And there have been times in my life where I’ve hidden from the truth because I didn’t want to admit what I had done wrong.  I don’t want to see the truth because I can’t see a way forward.

But you know what?  Whether they were in exile or in Babylon or home in Jerusalem, God was with them.  Just as God is with us no matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.  By telling Jeremiah to buy that property, God was telling him—and the people of Judah—that there was a future, that God would be with them, that the dark times wouldn’t last forever.  God was telling them that there was something they could do: they could follow God.  There was hope for the future, but that hope could only come through facing their problems and trusting God to guide them through.  God was telling them that the promises he had made them—to be their God and to give them land—were still just as true in that time of trouble as they had been in times of safety and security.

God has made promises to us, too.  God’s promises come to us through Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  In this broken, sinful world there will be times of trial, times when the world seems to be coming apart around us, times when it’s hard to face what’s coming.  Just as God never abandoned the people of Judah, God will never abandon us.  God loves us so much that he gave his only son to die for our sake.  God loves us so much that he is willing to take our burdens on himself, and redeem us from our brokenness, and make us whole.  God will always be our God, even when we stray from the paths he has laid out for us.  And God will always be with us to guide us back home to him.  God will never draw back from doing good to us, in the midst of our brokenness.  In the midst of our darkness, there is light, and hope.  And that light comes from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Don’t worry: Recession and the God of Abundance

Matthew 6:25-34. ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

In the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the reasons the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” referred to in the text is so useful a book is because it has inscribed on its cover in large letters the words “DON’T PANIC.”  It seems to me that these words are useful to remember in more times and places than just the book, and now is one of them.

Let’s be honest: the economy is in the tank, and won’t be bouncing back in the next couple of years.

Let’s be even more honest: We have been and are still incredibly blessed by God.  If you have access to a computer and the internet to read this post, you have access to more resources than most people on this planet have ever had, no matter how hard you have been hit by the recession.  If you live in the “first world,” then you almost certainly have a safety net of social programs (both secular and religious) to help when things are at their worst.  They may not be ideal or as good as they should be, but they are still better than the majority of the world’s population has ever had access to.  God has given us many blessings, and he gives them abundantly.

In some ways, we’ve been too blessed.  We are used to having so much that as a society we’ve forgotten how to tell the difference between wants and needs, between things that are handy and cool and things that truly sustain our bodies and souls.  The world around us tells us that we need the newest iPhone, the hottest car, the biggest TV, the fastest computer, the biggest house, the latest tech toy, trendy clothes, to go out to eat all the time.  Thinking like that gets people into financial trouble, by encouraging them to spend more than they can afford, leaving them no savings to fall back on in times of trouble.  But even worse than that, it causes spiritual trouble in both good times and bad.

In good times, our cultural addiction with spending money encourages people to turn away from God by promising happiness through material things.  We take the abundance God has given us and depend on it without ever thinking about the one who gave it to us.

When things turn bad, our response is even worse.  Because we’re convinced that the abundance God has given us is the minimum necessary for survival, we panic at the idea of having to get by on less.  And in our panic, we turn even further from God, grasping at anything that might keep us in the style we have become accustomed to.  I’ve seen a lot of that lately, both within and outside of the church.

DON’T PANIC.  Or, as Jesus puts it in our Gospel today, don’t worry.  Don’t bury your head under the sand, either, but don’t worry about all the things that might go wrong.  Remember how much abundance you have been given.  Then take a good hard look at how you have used the abundance God has given you–your time, your talents, your posessions.  Have you used God’s gifts as a faithful Christian, or have you used that abundance selfishly?  Have you fallen into the trap of thinking material posessions lead to happiness?  If so, what can you do to change your thinking and your way of life to be more faithful and wholesome?

DON’T WORRY.  You are in God’s hands.  You have been in God’s hands all your life.  God knows what you need.  Many people in this world will need to change their spending habits because of the financial crisis, or take other actions to deal with the situation.  But don’t do so out of panic or worry over all the bad things that might happen, over the fact that you might not be able to do and have all the things you wanted.  Do so in faith that God will help you meet your needs–your true needs, not your wishes.  Know that God loves you, and will never abandon you.

No one can lengthen their life or affect the world’s economy by worrying about it.  No one can make themselves happier by worrying.  The world and we ourselves are where we have always been: in the hands of a God who loves us, and loves us abundantly, and has given us many gifts.  And who will never abandon us, no matter how much we despair.  So don’t worry.

Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,  23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-31)

Paul divides the world up into two categories in this passage: the “Jews” who want signs of God’s power to prove his existence and their own righteousness, and the “Greeks” who want to prove God’s existence through wisdom, which they can then use to enhance their standing in society (“wisdom” being highly valuable in Greek culture).  Now, obviously our world does not fall into the neat ethnic categories of Jew and Greek today … but the two basic mindsets of how people approach religion are still much the same.  People generally want religion for one of two reasons.  Either they want a sign of God’s power (preferably one that benefits them in some way–wealth, healing, political or military power, etc.) or they want some special wisdom that will enlighten them, help them climb up the path to heaven.  (Remember when I talked about up religion and down religion?  These are the two main forms of up religion.)

But God the deepest and most powerful way in which God shows Godself to us is not through great wisdom and great power (or, at least, not what the world counts as great wisdom and great power).  God came down to earth and took on human form.  Then he allowed himself to be arrested for a crime he was innocent of, and died one of the most gruesome deaths imaginable, naked and broken for all the world to see.  This does not look like power, and it does not look like wisdom.  At least not what we think of as power and wisdom.

Yet through that cross, through that weakness, that foolishness, God broke the power of sin and death and the hold it had over the world.  This is the way God works in the world: through weakness and foolishness, things that we humans would normally try to avoid at all costs.  The cross is what God’s power and wisdom truly look like.  So if we truly want to see and experience God’s power and wisdom, we can’t rely on our own views of what power and wisdom should look like.  We need to let God show us what “Christ crucified” looks like in the 21st century.  We need to stop boasting in ourselves or the things we think we can get from God, and start paying attention instead to what God is doing in us and through us in things that look weak and foolish.

We need to start seeing every person through the lens of the cross.