What We Do With God’s Blessings

Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

 

Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, and it takes place just before the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River to settle into the land that God had promised their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.  Let’s review, a little bit.  God had called Abraham and Sarah out of their home country, promising them that he would give to their descendants a good land for their very own.  Abraham and Sarah lived in that land, but as foreigners, resident aliens.  Their great-grandchildren went as refugees to Egypt, fleeing a bitter famine, and after a time the Egyptians enslaved them.  Generations later, God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness back to the land that he had promised their ancestors.

And now, in the reading from Deuteronomy, there they are, standing just outside it.  And God is giving them a whole bunch of instructions for what kind of life they’re supposed to live once they have this land.  How should they act?  What should they do?  When they are no longer slaves, but free people, safe in their own land?  And one of the things they must do every year is gather the first fruits of the harvest.  The first, and the best, and take it to the Temple and give it to God.  This passage doesn’t give the amount, but in other places it’s specified that it is supposed to be a tithe: ten percent of the harvest.  You take that tithe to the priest, and you remember your heritage.  You remember how God called your ancestors and promised them a good land, how God promised he would always be with your people.  You remember how God was with your people in good times and bad, even when they were enslaved in Egypt.  God was always with them, guiding them, protecting them, and working for their good.  And God freed them from slavery and brought them to this new land.  Everything that they have and everything that they are is a gift from God.  The fact that they are free is a gift from God.  The land is a gift from God.  The rain and the sun is a gift from God.  The physical ability to work is a gift from God.  The growth of their crops is a gift from God.  And they are to remember that by taking the first and the best of it to the Temple.

What does the Temple do with it, you may ask?  10% of every farmer’s crops.  That’s a lot.  First and most obvious, they use it to pay their priests and scribes and take care of the temple itself.  But they also used a chunk of it to throw a big party, for everyone in the community.  Not just the nice, religious, prosperous people.  Everyone, rich and poor alike.  The scum of the community as well as the pillars of the community.  The people who’ve been there all their lives as well as the strangers nobody knows and everyone thinks are weird.  Everyone in the region.  All are welcome and invited.  No exceptions.  They would come, give thanks to God for the harvest, and then have a feast.  Good food, good friends, good time for all.  And the rest of the tithe—the bulk of it, actually—was used charitably.  The temple used it to feed the hungry, buy clothes for the naked, take care of the sick and the orphan, and in general to help anyone who needed help.

These are actually some of the most common themes in the Old Testament.  We owe everything to God, blessings are meant to be shared, God’s presence is like a feast or a party, and when we see someone in need we are supposed to be generous and make sure that their needs are taken care of.  That last bit is crucial.  When someone is in need, it is our responsibility to make sure that need is taken care of.  If we are truly followers of God, if we are truly taking God’s commands seriously, there should never be anyone hungry among us, because we should take care of them as individuals and as a community.

With that in mind, what are we here to do today?  Well, we’re here to give thanks to God for the harvest.  It’s a Harvest Fest!  And we’re here to have a good time, to enjoy the music and eat a lot of good food.  And we’re here to raise money for the poor.  The world is incredibly different now than it was thousands of years ago when Moses and the Hebrew people stood outside the Promised Land and heard these words for the first time, but these core values remain: we praise God for the blessings God gives us, especially the harvest.  We rejoice in God’s presence and in the community, and have fun together.  And we raise money for those in need.

I have a challenge for you, though.  Consider the tithe.  That’s still, to this day, supposed to be the minimum that faithful people give.  Ten percent of everything that we earn, both to remind us that everything we earn or have is a gift from God, but also to fund ministry needs and help take care of those less fortunate than us.  Go home this afternoon and count up how much money you give to charity and to your church in a typical month.  Then compare it with your monthly take-home pay.  I bet that most of you will find that it is nowhere near ten percent.  For those of you who aren’t good at math, ten percent of 1,000 is 100.  So if you take home $1,000 a month from your work, ideally you would be giving $100 a month to your church and to the charities you support.  If you take home $2,000 a month, ideally it would be $200.  Now, we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s not always possible.  But if you’re not giving a full tithe, consider increasing your giving just a little bit.  One percent, maybe, or even half a percent.  There are so many good causes that need help right now.  The McLean Family Resource Center, for one, or Camp of the Cross, which we are supporting with today’s offering.  But there’s also your home church, or the Harbor Angels in Coleharbor which raise money for local people with high medical bills.  There’s the Community Cupboard of Underwood and other local food pantries that feed hungry people here in North Dakota, and the Great Plains Food Bank that is the backbone of hunger relief in North Dakota.  There are relief efforts for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, the US Virgin Islands, and other places hit by the horrifying hurricanes of the last few months.  There are relief efforts for the earthquakes in Mexico and the fires in California.  I have to put in a plug for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response, which are both excellent charities.  We tend to be the first to arrive at a disaster, and we’re some of the last to leave.

We have been given so many blessings by God.  It’s true that this wasn’t a perfect year.  Bad thing happened this year, both locally and nationally and internationally.  People got sick, people died, there were natural disasters, and the weather round here wasn’t very good for farmers.  But still, in the midst of all that, babies were born.  People healed from injuries and illnesses both physical and mental.  People came together to help and support one another.  People loved one another.  People chose to help when it would have been easier to do nothing.  And in each of those blessings, God has been present.

It’s not always easy to see that.  We ask God why he doesn’t send rain when we want it, but we don’t thank God when the rain comes.  We ask God where he was when hurricanes and earthquakes hit, but we don’t see his presence in all the people who help rescue others and work to rebuild afterwards.  We ask God where he was when a hate-filled man spews bullets at a crowd, but we don’t see God’s presence in all the people who tried to influence that man onto a different path throughout his life.  And where was God, as that man was shooting?  God was with people like Jonathan Smith, who saved thirty people before he himself was shot, and God was with all the people who performed first aid or covered other people with their own bodies.  We ask God where he is when people get sick, and don’t thank God enough when people heal.  We live in a world that focuses on horror and fear instead of on hope and love.  We live in a world that focuses on the negative and ignores the positive.  We live in a world that cannot see blessings when they come in the midst of pain.

But every breath we take is a gift from God, who made us.  Every smile we share with a friend is a gift from God, who gave us the capacity to love and be loved in return.  Every crop we grow, every job we get, is a gift from God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in it, seen and unseen.  We have a lot of blessings that we take for granted, and we should celebrate both them and the God who gave them to us.  But more than that, we need to remember that when God gives blessings, he doesn’t give them so we can hoard them for ourselves.  God gives blessings to be shared, with all the world.  As we thank God this day and always, may we share generously the blessings God gives.

Amen.

Faithful Money

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 25C, September 18th, 2016

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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.

 

If you listened closely to today’s Gospel reading, you probably got confused.  If so, you are not alone.  There are few passages that have as many different interpretations as this one, and few Bible passages where so many commentators just throw up their hands and admit they haven’t got a clue.  Because first Jesus commends dishonest wealth, and a guy who cheats his boss, and then he tells us to be faithful with our money.  And then Jesus says that money and God don’t mix.

So.  Where do we start with all of this?  When we talk about money and the Bible, one of the most things people do is remember that old quote which says that money is the root of all evil.  That’s actually a Bible verse, or a fragment of it, 1 Timothy 6:10.  Except that’s only part of what it says—that old saying isn’t even the whole sentence.  It says that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  Not money itself, but the love of it.  And the full verse is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  In other words, when you’re focused on money, when your main concern is wealth and getting more of it, you wander away from God and take yourself down some nasty paths which hurt you and those around you.  It’s not the wealth itself that’s the problem: it’s how you got it, what you’ll do to get more of it, and what you do with it when you have it.  Which is pretty much what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson in verse 13.  It’s not that the wealth itself is the problem, it’s that when wealth becomes a thing you serve, that gets in the way of serving God.

In his Large Catechism, when he was talking about the First Commandment, Martin Luther described idolatry in an interesting way.  He said that your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  What do you trust to save you when you get in trouble?  What do you trust to make your life better?  What do you trust to fix your problems?  If you put your trust in anything other than in God—for example, if you put your trust in your wealth and property—then you have a problem, because that is idolatry.  Or as Jesus put it, you can’t serve two masters.  If you serve wealth, if money and property are your master, then God is not your master.

Consider our society.  In politics, how often are decisions made based on what’s cheapest rather than on what’s right?  Schools, hospitals, the VA, police departments, critical systems get starved of the money and resources needed to do their job properly, and the community suffers.  In business, how often are decisions made based on what’s most profitable rather than what’s right?  Cleaning up oil spills and properly disposing of hazardous materials is expensive, so oil companies sweep it under the rug instead whenever they get away with it.  Large corporations know that labor is the most expensive part of their organization, so they try and keep wages low even when corporate profits are high, even when it means their employees have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.  And in our personal lives, we are often no better.  Too often, when making our decisions, we rank money concerns higher than anything else, even if that means our health and our relationships suffer.  In all of these cases, it’s not the money that’s the problem: the problem is what—and who—we’re willing to sacrifice to get and keep money.

In the Bible, money or wealth is never supposed to be an end in and of itself.  Money is not the goal; money is a tool to achieve goals.  God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the one we serve, not money.  And the question is, how then do we do that?  When Jesus was asked what was expected of us as God’s people, he said this: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s what serving God means.  Love God, and love our neighbors.  That should be what our lives are built around.  You will notice that it’s all about relationships.  It’s not about knowing enough or being wealthy enough or doing enough spectacular good deeds, it’s about loving.  It’s about relationship.

And money is a tool that can be used to build relationships.  When we make financial decisions, those relationships should be our first concern.  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with God, or does it break down that relationship?  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with our neighbors here and across the world, or does it break down those relationships?  Does this use of money reflect our love for God and for our neighbor, or does it reflect hate, fear, or indifference?  What will it do to our relationships, to our faith, to our community, to our world, and to God’s kingdom?

Back to the parable.  The steward starts out wasting his master’s wealth.  We’re not told how or why; he may have been dishonest, or it may have been he just wasn’t very good at his job.  All we’re told is that he squandered it—he wasted it.  But then he becomes dishonest: he uses his last time with authority to reduce the debts people owed to his master so they would like him and see that he was taken care of after he lost his job.  He was purposefully reducing the money his master got in order to benefit himself.  This was dishonest, and Jesus is perfectly clear on that.  But you will notice that this use of his master’s resources, while dishonest, is not called wasteful.  This is dishonest, but it’s not squandering.  Why?  Maybe because the money is being used to build relationships.  When the steward was focusing on the money itself, on building his master’s wealth, he was wasting money.  When the steward was focused on building relationships, he was not wasting money.  He was being dishonest and selfish, sure.  But it was still a better use of the money than when building profit was the steward’s highest goal.

Jesus talks about honesty and dishonesty, and whether or not people are faithful.  But here’s the thing: he doesn’t seem to think being honest is the same as being faithful.  To Jesus, playing by the rules the world has set up is not the same as being faithful.  Not only that, he doesn’t seem to care about whether or not people are honest or dishonest, as long as they’re faithful with whatever they have.  Not faithful to money and power and the system, but faithful to God and to their neighbor.  Financial smarts don’t rank very highly with Jesus.  Accumulating wealth is not something he cared about at all … and often criticized.  Not because wealth and financial smarts are bad, but because when we focus on them, we miss out on the real point of life.  When we have money and power in this life, the “honest” thing to do may be to work to get more of them, managing them and investing them and working the system and so forth.  But that may not always be the faithful thing to do with them.

One of the ways to be faithful with our money is to be generous in our giving.  Indeed, Scripture tells us that ideally, we should be giving ten percent of everything we earn to God, plus being generous to those in need around us.  But that’s only one part of it—what we do with the other 90% matters, too.  And how we earn our money matters as much as how we spend it.  Is our first priority faithfulness to God and to our neighbor?  Then we’re on the right track, whether we’re rich or poor, respectable or disrespected, honest or dishonest.  May we always choose to serve God and our neighbor, rather than the riches of this world.

Amen.

Devouring Widow’s Houses: A Few Questions About the Widow’s Mite

24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8th, 2015

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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.

We all know the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus sees a widow give a few coins—all that she has—and praises her generosity, saying it’s greater than the large gifts from the rich people around her, because she gave everything whereas they only gave a small portion of their wealth. We commonly use it to talk about giving—about how all gifts are important, about how much God loves a generous giver. And all of those things are true. But the thing is, the story of the Widow’s Mite is only part of the story. It belongs to a larger section, and it sounds a bit different when we look at the whole story.

First of all, let’s back up all the way to the Old Testament. You see, when God was telling the Hebrew people how to set up their society, he spent a lot of time talking about widows. Not just widows, either, but orphans and foreigners, altogether as a group. And the thing that widows, orphans, and foreigners all have in common is that they were very vulnerable. Because in those days, women, children, and foreigners were second-class citizens. They didn’t have as many rights as men did. They could be cheated and abused quite easily, and most people wouldn’t really care. So God commanded them to be extra vigilant that vulnerable people were treated well—that they received both justice and mercy. It wasn’t enough to just assume that the laws were fair; all of God’s people were to pay special attention to making sure that the widows, orphans, and strangers were given the benefit of the doubt. And even ensuring justice wasn’t enough. God’s people were to see to it that the vulnerable people always had enough to get by, even in tough times. They were supposed to be generous to all those in need, regardless of who they were or why they needed help in the first place.

Now, this special care wasn’t because God loved widows more than he loved anyone else; it wasn’t because foreigners or orphans were somehow more deserving of justice and mercy than anyone else. It was because they needed it more. I mean, if one of the pillars of the community gets in a dispute with a poor widow on the fringe of the community, or with a stranger with no connections to anyone else in town, the community leader has a natural advantage. He’s probably prosperous, he’s going to have lots of friends and resources he can call on to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and more. But someone on the outside, someone poor and alone, they’re not going to have those resources. That’s why they need help—not because they’re more deserving, or better, or anything like that. It’s because they’re alone, and a lot more vulnerable than most people, and it’s all too easy for them to get crushed by the wheels of society. And when times get tough, the pillars of the community have a lot of resources to help them get through, whereas a poor widow or an orphan or a foreigner would be all on their own.

So, in all the laws, a care and concern for widows, orphans, and strangers is one of the common themes. And it’s not just in the laws. It’s in the Psalms, too–consider our Psalm for today.  “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  It’s no surprise that the Psalm contrasts God’s care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow with the ways of the wicked.  Because treating vulnerable people badly is one of the major marks of the wicked!

And it’s all through the Prophets, too.  When you read through the books of the prophets, they spend a lot of time telling the people of Israel that they are falling short of God’s call for them. When the prophets criticize the Hebrew people, it’s usually not for what we would consider “religious” reasons. It’s not because they believe the wrong thing, unless they’re so far astray they’re into outright idolatry. It’s not because they’re not worshipping in the right way. When God gets angry in the Old Testament, it’s because of how they treat the most vulnerable people in their communities—the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the poor people. When the people at the top of society don’t make sure that the people at the bottom get fair treatment and help when they need it, that’s when God starts getting really upset.

With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s Gospel reading. In the verses before today’s reading, the religious leaders and community leaders have been all up in Jesus’ face, trying to trip him up so they can discredit him. As usual, they only succeeded in showing that they were in the wrong. That’s where our Gospel for today begins. Having just proven that he knows the spirit of God’s law better than they do, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses … they will receive the greater condemnation.” In other words—the people at the top, who work to make themselves look good and have the best stuff in society, look at how they got that way. They should have been taking care of widows, and instead they’re taking advantage of them. They may have a good life now, but they’re going to be judged harshly.

Then he turns around and sees lots of rich people giving large donations, and a poor widow with almost nothing who gives everything she has. He talks about powerful people devouring widows’ houses, and then he sees a widow with nothing. And the question I have to ask is, why did she only have two small copper coins? Why is that “all she had”? If those rich and powerful people who were going around in fancy clothes and taking the best seats in the house and making a big deal about their generosity, if they were actually doing what they should be doing, that widow would not be down to her last penny. Because they would have made sure she was taken care of.

And yes, that widow’s generosity was wonderful. It was awesome. God calls all of us to be generous with what we have—our money, yes, but also our time, our attention, our love, our talents, everything that we have and everything that we are. The widow is a wonderful example of this, and our first lesson gives us the story of another generous woman, the Widow of Zarephath. It was a great drought, nobody could grow crops, and God sent the prophet Elijah to a town outside of Israel, to a foreign woman, and she had nothing. She was down to the last flour and oil she had, and once it was gone, she and her son were going to starve to death. But God sent Elijah to her, and he asked her for bread, and even with starvation waiting just around the corner for her and her son, she shared what little she had. That’s a kind of abundant generosity we don’t see too often. And it’s a generosity that God rewarded—she and her household were saved from starvation. God kept that little bit she had and gave more, so that she and her family had food even in the midst of starvation. It wasn’t a great feast, but it was enough. By sharing what little she had, she blessed Elijah and God blessed her in turn.

Let’s contrast that with the scribes and community leaders in the Gospel reading. They’re the ones that people look up to in the community. They dress nicely, they go to all the right parties and know all the right people. They give to all the right causes, worship regularly, on the surface they look like exactly what every faithful person should aspire to be. And yet, in their midst was a woman with nothing. Maybe she’d had a run of bad luck. Maybe she’d done some stupid things and wasted what she had. Maybe she’d been cheated out of her pension. Maybe her children didn’t take care of her, or maybe she had no children. We don’t know the exact circumstances of her misfortune, how much of it was her fault and how much of it was other peoples’ fault and how much of it was nobody’s fault. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter, in the end, why she was destitute. What matters is that nobody seems to care. The whole society has been charged by God to see to it that vulnerable people aren’t left destitute, and here she is, in the midst of their prosperity, with literally only a penny to her name. And she gave it, and I am sure God did many great and wonderful things with that penny that you and I can’t even imagine.

But it makes me wonder. What kind of a job are we doing? Are there people in our midst that we have forgotten about, pushed out, ignored as they struggle? Who are the vulnerable people in modern-day America, and how are we treating them? Who are the vulnerable people in our community? North Dakota has had a lot of strangers over the last several years, with the oil boom, and when things go well they make good money … but it’s so easy for something bad to happen, and they’re left with nothing. How good a job do we do about making sure that the outsiders receive justice and mercy, fair treatment and help when they need it? Are we the widow, generous with everything we have, or are we the leaders who focus on our own wealth and status while forgetting she even exists? Have we built a society with justice and mercy for all people, especially the most vulnerable, or have we built a society that works to benefit the people who already have more than enough? If Jesus were here, today, watching us put our offerings in the plate, who would he point out that we haven’t even noticed?

I pray that we may work towards a world where all people receive justice and mercy as God would want.

Amen.

Your Father’s good pleasure

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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.

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”  Raise your hand if that was your first thought when you heard Jesus say “Sell your possessions and give alms.”  Sell everything and give it to the poor?  Really?  That’s not a very popular thing to say in America, where we love our possessions. And I doubt it was very popular in Jesus day, either.  We accumulate stuff.  It seems no matter how much stuff we already have, pretty soon there’s something else we have to have.  We love money, too—it’s how we get more stuff, and it’s how we keep score.  It’s how we tell who’s important and who’s not.  Sell it all and give it away?  Really?

When you start to look at the reasons behind our dependence on money and possessions, it often comes down to fear.  We’re afraid of not having enough.  We’re afraid if we don’t get it now, the price will have gone up when we need it.  We’re afraid of what people will think of us if we don’t have the latest model.  There was a study done once of rich people, and it found that people with a lot of money and no debt were, on average, just as afraid of not having enough money as poor people were.  In fact, they were sometimes more afraid!  So here Jesus is, telling us to give up our money and our stuff and give them away?  It’s no wonder that many preachers choose to follow Peter’s lead on this text and others like it and find a way to explain why it doesn’t apply to them and their congregation.  They’re afraid of what might happen if they take it seriously.

But notice how our lesson starts out.  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Do not be afraid—the same thing the angels almost always start out with when they come to bring messages from God.  And Jesus also says “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s the heart of the Gospel, right there.  Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”  That is the place where our relationship with God starts—God loves us and the whole world so much that God was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ.  We have been given the promise of the kingdom, the promise of a world where there is no evil, where no one goes hungry, where no one is sick, where no one hurts anyone else.  A world where all our sorrows and our ills are healed, and we are whole and filled with joy.  A world where the master—our Lord God—bends down to serve us out of love.  That is what we have been promised in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We can’t create God’s kingdom on our own; it can only come as a gift from God.  And God has promised it to us because he loves us, and because that’s the kind of life God wants us to live.  That kingdom will come when Christ comes again.

There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s love and forgiveness; nothing we could do to be worthy of it.  When Jesus says “Store up treasure in heaven!” he isn’t saying “Do good deeds so you can buy forgiveness from me.”  What Jesus means is, “I love you and have already given you a place in my kingdom.  It’s a much nicer place than this rat race you’re trapped in, and all the things like money and power and all your possessions won’t be worth anything in my kingdom.  Why not get out of the rat race?  Why not focus on what you have that’s a sure bet—a place in my kingdom—rather than on stuff that’s going to rot and decay and get stolen.”

So when Jesus starts telling us to do things like give away all our possessions, it’s not a test.  Jesus isn’t saying that the only way to get to heaven is to condemn ourselves to poverty.  When he gives us a warning to be ready, there is no sinister undertone implying that if we aren’t ready in the right way, we won’t get to heaven.  Instead, it’s an invitation to live as God’s people.  It’s an invitation to take salvation seriously.  It’s an invitation to live like the kingdom were already here.  Because we have been saved, we should act like it.  We should love God, and wait for his coming, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And in this world where poor people have fewer opportunities than rich people, in this world where medical bills can wipe out a family’s whole life, in this world where some people go hungry and others don’t have a safe place to live, part of loving your neighbor is helping those in need.

In God’s kingdom, nobody will go hungry.  So we should feed the hungry.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will be sick, so we should heal those who are sick or injured.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will hurt anyone, so we should stop doing things that hurt people.  In God’s kingdom, there will be justice for all, so we should work to make sure everyone has justice here.  In God’s kingdom, everyone will have a safe place to live, so we should help people have safe places to live.  And if that takes money, well, everything that we have comes from God, so we are spending what God has given us to take care of God’s people.  Whenever we feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the lonely, work for justice, we are waiting for God’s kingdom to come.  We are looking forward to the day when our Master returns.  We are looking forward to the day when the promise of salvation becomes a reality.  We are preparing for what life will be like on that day.

In the meantime, we don’t need to be afraid.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll miss out on the kingdom; we don’t have to be afraid that we aren’t good enough to be saved.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll run out of money or possessions and calamity will strike.  We don’t have to be afraid of what life will bring, because we know that God is with us and that God’s kingdom will come.  Now, we don’t live in that kingdom yet.  We don’t live in that world of milk and honey, that land where all people are welcome and happy and whole and good.  So things in this life won’t always be good.  There will be hard times.  There will be times of wandering in the wilderness.  There will be times of grief and pain and loss.  None of the people in the Bible had an easy life, not Abraham and Sarah, not Moses and the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, not the prophets, not Jesus.  And I’m sure you all know many good, faithful Christians whose lives have been hard, and sometimes heart-breaking.  I know some good and faithful Christians who have lost everything they had—possessions, but even more importantly, they lost loved ones.

But even in the midst of their loss, God was with them.  Even when it seemed like there was no hope, God’s promise stood firm.  God has never broken a promise, and God will not break the promises God has made to us.  God promised Abraham and Sarah a child, and God gave them a child and grandchildren and literally millions of descendants.  God promised Moses and the Hebrew slaves freedom, and they walked out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  God promises us that we are saved, that we are God’s own beloved children, and that God’s kingdom is near.  God has never broken a promise, and God never will.

So what do we have to be afraid of?  Why do we need to hoard possessions and money and ignore the needs of those around us?  Why do we get so caught up in the cares of life that we forget whose people we are and where our home really is?  We are the children of God, and God’s promises are sure.  We look forward to the kingdom and the life God has promised us.  May God help free us from our fears to live in the light of that promise.

Amen.

Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch

First Sunday of Lent, Year C, February 17, 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

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 don’t think Moses ever heard the saying “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”  If he did, he certainly didn’t listen!  Today’s first reading is proof of that.  The reading starts after the Hebrew people had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  In those forty years they’d been through tough times—hunger, thirst, weariness, war.  They’d grumbled and rebelled, and then come back to God.  And now, at the beginning of Chapter 26, they were almost to the land that God had promised them.  In fact, they were so close to the Promised Land they could throw a stone to it: all that separated them was the Jordan River.  And there, standing in the wilderness looking at the land God has promised them, Moses gives them some final instructions.

Included in those instructions is today’s reading.  Notice that Moses isn’t talking about how to capture the land.  Nor even about how to plant and tend the land after they’ve gotten it.  No, Moses wants to make sure they know what to do with the first harvest after they’ve captured the land, settled in it, built houses, planted fields, tended their crops, and harvested them.  They don’t even have the land yet, they’re still in the wilderness, but Moses is telling them what to do with their crops.  They are to take the first fruits of the fields—the best part—and bring it to the temple and give it to God.  Then they are to have a party.

I know enough farmers to guess at the reactions of the people listening.  The first fruits?  Before you’ve paid back your loans?  Before you’ve stored up enough for next year’s seeds?  Before you’ve put away enough to get you through the winter?  But what if it’s a bad harvest?  What if the price falls and you barely scrape by?  That harvest is your entire yearly income!  Surely, the sensible thing to do is to make sure you have enough to get through the year and start the next, and then give what’s left over.  And, have a party?  When only the first part of the harvest is done?  There’s so much work to do!  We’re too busy!  We don’t have time to worship God, we’ll just do it after all our work is finished.

But that’s not what God commands.  The first fruits, the best of the harvest, and a party.  Don’t stop to worry about providing for the future.  Don’t be distracted by all the things that need to be done.  Trust that God, who has brought you out of slavery, through decades of wandering in the wilderness, will give you what you need, as he has always done.  And don’t give grudgingly, because you have to.  Give with joy, and as you give, remember that everything you have—the land that allowed you to grow those crops—came as a gift from God, which you did nothing to deserve.  God has provided what you need, and listened to you when you were hurting.  God was with you in slavery and now, in freedom, God is with you still.

It’s about trust.  Now, failing to trust God is a common human problem.  Whatever our job, we don’t tend to want to trust God to provide for us.  We would rather go our own way.  We have earned our money and our possessions through hard work and diligence; we need it, to provide food and clothing and shelter and computers and cars and the latest smartphone.  Then, once our mortgage is paid and our credit card bill is paid and the utilities and cable bills are paid and our pantry is full and the gas tank in our car is full and all our wants are fulfilled, then we’ll take a little out of what’s left over and stick it in the offering plate, or give it to our favorite charity.  If we do it the other way around, if we put God and our neighbor first when it comes time to open our wallet, there might not be enough left for us!  We might not have enough for everything we need!  God might not provide for us!

That little voice in the back of our heads, telling us that we need to look out for ourselves before anything else, is hard to ignore.  After all, it is true that God might not provide everything we want, or think we need, and he might not provide it in the way we want him to.  Consider that by the time the Israelites came to the Jordan River they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness, eating strange food they didn’t like, with no way to store anything up against future need.  They regularly grumbled that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt, because at least there they’d had food they liked and always enough of it.  God had provided what they needed but not what they wanted, and the ultimate goal—a land of their own—took a long, long time to reach.

Consider also Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness from our Gospel lesson.  Jesus endured hardship and temptation.  Even being God’s Son didn’t mean Jesus had a perfect life free from trouble.  Hunger, thirst, heat and cold, Jesus suffered it all.  And as if that wasn’t enough, the Devil came to tempt him.  What could it have hurt to make himself some bread?  After all, as I’m sure the devil pointed out, God wants to take care of his children, he wouldn’t want Jesus to starve, would he?  Food is a basic necessity!  One loaf, that’s all.  What could it hurt? asked the devil.  And when Jesus refused, the devil offered all the kingdoms of the earth: after all, the Father sent his Son to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  And human beings are so screwed up, they need a good ruler.  You should be it, the devil whispers.  God’s plan is too long-term, too complex, too painful.  Let’s cut to the chase, the devil says, and if you worship me I’ll help you accomplish everything you want and more.  Again, Jesus said no.  Then the devil took him to the top of the temple, and said, Okay, Jesus, you’re such hot stuff.  You really believe that God will protect you and provide for you even though you’ve just spent forty days wandering around, starving.  Prove that God is with you!  If you really believe that, if you’re really right, jump off the tower and God will catch you.  Then everybody will know you’re something special—wouldn’t that really help your ministry get off on the right foot?  Why not do things the easy way?  Why bother with all that hard part?  Why not cut corners?

We hear these stories and we sit back in our pews, secure because we know the ending.  Of course Jesus will resist temptation, and in the process bring in a kingdom greater than any the Devil could possibly imagine!  Of course the ancient Hebrew people will prosper in the Promised Land, and God will take care of them!  It’s so simple to look at these people, these situations, with the benefit of hindsight.  We don’t often put ourselves in their shoes.  Yes, we know that God will take care of them, because we know the ending.  But if I were standing in the wilderness, having gone through long hardships (whether for forty days or forty years), it would be really hard to trust God to provide for me.  If I’d been led through places I didn’t want to be, and had to experience problems like that, it would be really hard to trust God to provide for me.  It would be hard to trust God, period.

And we know that experience.  Every one of us has had hard times in our lives.  Every one of us has had times when we couldn’t understand why God allowed things to happen as they did.  We’ve all had times we had to go without things we thought we needed.  We’ve all had times when it felt like we were alone, struggling through a wilderness, trying desperately to survive.  We’ve all had times of temptation.  And because of those wilderness experiences, it’s hard to trust God to take care of us.

That’s the struggle of faith.  That’s the hard part about being a Christian.  It’s all well and good to say we have faith, that we trust God, but sometimes it’s really hard to put that into action.  Particularly when it means giving up our own control over our fate.

I think that’s the reason God asked the Hebrew people for the first fruits.  Not the leftovers.  Not the extra.  Not the stuff you didn’t need anyway.  No, God asks for the first, the best, so that we would have to put our money where our mouth is.  God asks for the first so that we will remember that everything we have and everything we will ever have is a gift from God.  God asks for the first so that we will trust God, really trust him, with our actions as well as our words.  Making that leap of faith, putting our trust into actions in addition to words, that changes us.  It makes our faith more real to us, more concrete.

There are many ways to learn to trust God more.  Giving generously is one.  I pray that we may all grow in faith and trust this Lenten season.

Amen.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, 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.

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.