Covenant: Abraham and Sarah

Lent 2, Year B, February 25, 2018

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, O Lord.

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

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.  Last week we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how broken and sinful the world got, no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  This week, we get God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the first inkling of what God is going to do instead.

Let’s give some context.  Abram and Sarai started out as a well-to-do couple in Ur of the Chaldeans, the region that would later be known as Babylon and today we call Iraq.  They were part of a large clan or tribe, and pretty important within that tribe—Abram was the oldest son of his father, set to inherit everything and become the new patriarch of the tribe.  Like all people in that region, they were polytheists, worshipping a wide variety of gods and spirits, who were imagined to be capricious but powerful beings who didn’t care much about humans but could sometimes be bribed into helping them.  Abram and Sarai had wealth, power, status.  There was only one thing their society valued that they didn’t have: children.  In a world in which having descendants to inherit your wealth and position was supremely important, Abram and Sarai had none, and were well past the age of even the faintest hope.  But even there, Abram’s clan was large and wealthy, and as the future patriarch he probably had nephews he could adopt who would be thrilled to be his heir.

But that was not what God had in mind for Abram and Sarai.  God called them to leave their family, their country, their culture, and all the other gods they believed in, to follow him into Canaan.  And so they followed God into an uncertain future, a future that was radically different from anything that anyone might have expected.  A future where they couldn’t depend on the way things had always been, where they couldn’t just coast along with old certainties and familiar ways of thinking and acting.  They were strangers in a strange land, constantly facing new challenges.  They brought with them a whole household of servants and livestock, but following God’s call brought them to a world much different than the one they had left behind.  Instead of certainty and sameness and the protection of being leaders of their people, they were led into uncertainty and change and, sometimes, danger.

I sometimes wonder why God made them leave.  Why they couldn’t have built a relationship with God in their homeland, where they were.  Among other things, their old homeland was a far more fertile and prosperous place, with a correspondingly higher population density.  If God was looking for getting numbers, surely that would have been the place to start, not Canaan.  And yet, in their old homeland, would they have listened to God as well, or would God have stayed just one voice among many in their culture, just one god of a whole host to be worshipped and feared?  Without that shock of a new place, would they have taken the time and effort to rethink their lives, or just gone on much as they always had?

God called them, and they came.  God was building a new kind of relationship with Abram and Sarai, a deeper relationship.  This wasn’t just a trading of favors, or an offering of sacrifices in the hope that the deity would do what you wanted.  This was a friendship, based on love and commitment and communication.  God talked with Abram and Sarai, and it wasn’t just a matter of God telling them what to do.  Abram even argued with God, and sometimes caused God to change God’s mind.  This was a relationship that changed Abram and Sarai, that changed how they saw the world and how they acted and what they did.  And God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, that God would always be with them, and with their descendants.  God would give them children, and God would have this special relationship with their descendants to the end of time.  God would keep speaking to them, keep guiding them, keep walking with them, showing them how to live and how to be the good people God had created them to be.  And as part of that relationship, God gave Abram and Sarai new names, names that would forever after remind them of what God had done and would continue to do for them, names that would remind them that God had changed them.  Abraham, father of many nations, and Sarah, princess or queen.

Now, even with this new relationship, even with God calling them to be new people, Abraham and Sarah were not perfect.  Their descendants, too, the ones God gave them, were also imperfect.  The wickedness of the human heart that had so enraged God in the days of Noah was still present in them.  And if you read through the stories of Genesis, you will find many examples of them falling short of the good life God called them to.  Deceit, treachery, jealousy, greed, fear, all lead them astray many times.  Human nature was not changed by this covenant.

What changed was God’s nature.  What changed was God’s commitment to be there with them even when they fell short, even when they willingly chose to do evil, even when God stood aside to let them experience the consequences of their bad behavior, God was there with them.  No matter what happened, from then on to the end of time, God would always be with them.  This was the first time that God had made such a promise, the first time that God had made such a commitment to any creature.  The God of the universe, creator of everything seen and unseen, greater than any human being could ever comprehend, was going to be there for them and with them, in a relationship that would bring them closer to God.  Even if they fell short, even if they strayed, they would follow God and God would be there for them and with them, forever and ever, world without end.

In the cross of Christ we are grafted into that covenant.  Through Jesus Christ, we are made spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, called to follow God just as they were called to follow God.  And that call may keep us in our daily lives, and it may lead us out into the world, but wherever that call leads us it is a call to conform our lives and our hearts to God, trusting that God will always be with us.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him.  And sometimes we trivialize that command by thinking that any trying thing that happens to a Christian is a cross to bear.  Sometimes, people even use it to justify trapping people in abuse, by claiming that the abuse is the cross God has given them to bear.  But that’s not what Jesus meant.  We focus so hard on the ‘taking up the cross’ part that we forget about the second part of Jesus’ command, to follow him.  When we follow God, we find, as Abraham and Sarah did, that the way is not always smooth.  That there are challenges and heartaches and problems that we would not have had if we stayed safely on the easy path.  Those are the crosses we have to bear.

Just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of their easy, predictable lives, called them to follow him into a new life and a new land, God now calls us, through Jesus Christ, to follow him.  And like Abraham and Sarah, the path won’t be easy, and it won’t be predictable, and we’ll go astray.  But like Abraham and Sarah, God promises to be with us, now and always, our Savior and friend.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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 culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that?  We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love.  And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy.  And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts.  It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is.  And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.

As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God.  We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love.  We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love.  We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend.  God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.

What does that mean?  ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it.  Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant.  Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.

You can see that in Joel’s words.  In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God.  They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed.  Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered.  People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer.  In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by.  And how does God react?  He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.

More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony.  God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity.  All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us.  God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.

When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love.  We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways.  We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it.  We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right.  We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim.  We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive.  We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it.  And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too.  We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be.  We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.

But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go.  God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live.  This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds.  May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.

Amen.

Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

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, O Lord.

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

Have you ever noticed just how weird the story of the Three Wise Men is?  It is seriously strange.  Let’s start with the so-called ‘wise men’ themselves.  There’s a lot of folklore about them, but the Bible actually tells us very little.  It doesn’t even tell us how many there were.  We assume there were three because they brought three gifts, but there could have been two or ten or a hundred.  And they weren’t kings, they were magi—a word which could describe anything from street magicians to court entertainers to astrologers.  And it’s worth noting that every other time someone is described as “magi” in the Bible, it’s not a compliment.  Magi are hucksters, manipulators, people who use unearthly powers—or claims of unearthly powers—to manipulate people and cheat them out of money.  They don’t tend to respond well to the power of God in Christ Jesus, which they usually regard either as a threat or a way to prop up their own act.  That’s the case every time magi show up in the Bible—except for here, when they come seeking Jesus, and worship him.

These guys were probably astrologers, not street magicians, because no street magician could have afforded the gifts they brought, and because they were watching the stars.  Somehow, they have figured out from watching the skies that a new Jewish king has been born, and they come to Jerusalem figuring that the palace of the king is the right place to find him.  Except King Herod hasn’t had a child or grandchild born recently.  So Herod is both surprised and dismayed.  (Also, I would point out that while we tend to assume that the magi were following a single extraordinarily bright star, if that were the case, surely SOMEONE else in all of Judea would have noticed it and Herod wouldn’t have been caught by surprise, which is why I tend to think they saw a conjunction of stars or a comet or something that they interpreted to have symbolic meaning.  But it doesn’t really matter, in the end.  They saw something, and it brought them to Herod, and, eventually, to the young Jesus and his family.)

Anyway, when the magi appear, Herod calls up the Temple and asks them where the promised king given by God was supposed to show up—not because he wants to worship him or give up his throne but because he wants to kill his rival.  The magi take the information, and that plus the star leads them right to the house where the baby Jesus and his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph are living.  (If you’re wondering what happened to the inn, the magi didn’t show up the night of Jesus birth, but some time later, possibly not until Jesus was around two years old.)  They were living in a house by this point, but it couldn’t have been a very nice house because they were fairly poor.  And on finding this small, poor house, inhabited by peasants, completely the opposite of what they thought they were seeking, the magi are overjoyed!  (Which may be the strangest part of the whole story.  Think about it: how often are you overjoyed to find out you’re completely wrong?)  They come in and paid homage to Jesus—they may have worshipped him, or they may knelt and kissed his feet as some countries required when people met their king, the Bible is unclear.  They open their treasure chests and bring out fine, costly gifts worth a king’s ransom.  And then they leave.  And nobody ever hears anything about them ever again.

Imagine you are Mary and Joseph.  While Jesus’ birth was kind of wild—in a stable, with shepherds and angels coming to see the baby—you’ve had some time to get into your new routine.  You have a house, presumably a job, you’re getting used to being parents.  Then, one day, out of the blue, a group of weird foreigners show up with gifts worth a king’s ransom.  They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you or dress like you, and they are pagans who worship other gods and practice magic.  They say they got here by following a star.  Now, God has never used astrology.  Sometimes the stars respond to things God does, but God doesn’t use stars to communicate with humans, and the actions of the stars don’t control human destiny.  Astrology is something humans make up, just like every idol in the world.  Yet somehow God has used the stars to draw these foreign weirdos to his son—your son.  They kneel before the baby, like a person would kneel before their king, and then they give you the gifts, and then they leave as suddenly as they arrived and you never hear from them again.  Bet they told that story around the dinner table a lot.

I wonder why the magi came.  They weren’t looking for a religious revelation; if they were, they would have asked for Jesus in the Temple, not in a palace.  They were looking for a new political leader, which is why they went to Herod in the first place.  But Judea was a backwater.  An insignificant territory of the great Roman Empire, which maintained its own king only so long as that king spent enough time and money sucking up to the Roman Emperor.  To most of the world, which person was King of Israel was pretty irrelevant.  The neighboring kingdoms and provinces might send a small gift and congratulations on hearing a new prince was born, but nobody else would bother.  And the magi probably weren’t sent by one of the neighboring kingdoms, because they would have said so.  Given the mercenary nature of most magi in the Bible, I wonder if they intended their journey as a sort of job hunt.  “Hey, see how good we are at astrology, we learned that you had an heir born through the stars!”  And then they show up and the king hasn’t had a child or grandchild born after all—how embarrassing to be wrong.  There’s no way to know why they went to find the new king whose birth they saw heralded in the stars, but come they did.  And they didn’t let getting things wrong the first time discourage them, either; they went on to Bethlehem where Jesus actually was.

They get to Bethlehem and what they find is nothing like they were expecting.  Instead of riches, they find poverty.  Instead of power, they find weakness.  And instead of politics, they find the son of God, who will bring light to the whole world.  What they found was the opposite of what they thought they were looking for … and yet they were overjoyed.  Think about your own life.  I’m sure there have been times when you have gone looking for one thing and found something completely different instead.  I’m sure there have been times when you realized that you were absolutely, completely, and totally wrong about something big.  It happens to all of us sooner or later.  But very few of us react with joy to learning that we’re wrong.  Even if we learn something better, even if it’s a positive change, we find some reason to be upset about it.  Shame of being wrong, or fear of the unknown, or resentment at looking foolish—we find some reason to be mad.  But when the magi found out they were wrong—when they found out God had been leading them somewhere stranger and better than they had imagined—they were overjoyed.  They kept following even when they weren’t sure where they were going, and they rejoiced when God led them someplace new.

I think there’s something to be learned from that.  God does new things.  God does things we’re not expecting, things we could never have imagined.  God has plans for us and for the world that we’re not aware of.  And sometimes, while we’re headed off to do our own thing, God radically redirects us to someplace new.  Even when we think we know what’s going on, and even when we think we’re going where God wants us to go, we may be wrong.  We may be clueless.  We may be headed somewhere else entirely.  And when God shows up in our lives to put us on a new path or reveal things to us that we don’t expect, we should respond to it with joy, and adjust our plans accordingly, instead of trying to force things back to the way we think they should be going.  Even if it means admitting we were wrong.  And that light they followed is here, with us; even on the darkest night, even when shadows creep in, that light continues to guide.  Even when we it takes us places we wouldn’t have imagined.

And the other thing to remember about this story is that all people are God’s people.  The magi were foreigners.  We don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we do know they were from someplace far away.  Throughout the Old Testament, in many places such as our first reading today, God promises that his light will shine for all people, and all people will come.  Not just those who already know him, not just the people already gathered around his table, but all people of every tribe and race and nation.  The magi were the first example of that promise being fulfilled in Christ Jesus, but they weren’t the last.  We are here today because that light they followed kept spreading throughout not just Judea, but throughout all lands, just as it keeps spreading today.  Mary and Joseph were probably surprised by those weird foreigners, but they accepted them as people sent by God.  May we also follow the light of God as the magi did, and accept those whom God’s light brings to us, as Mary and Joseph did.

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Abundant Life of God

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

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.

The Bible talks about abundance a lot.  We get two examples in today’s readings.  Psalm 23 talks about God leading us through green pastures and making our cups overflow.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus is more direct.  He tells his listeners, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible, because it is one of the few places where Jesus sums up his entire mission in one sentence.  He has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly.  Forgiveness of sins?  Yeah, that’s part of an abundant life.  How can you live if you are crushed beneath the weight of the harm you have caused yourself and others.  Healing?  That’s part of an abundant life, too.  Just getting through the day is hard when you are in need of healing.  Good and healthy relationships with God and our neighbors?  That’s also part of an abundant life.  Healthy relationships—the mutual love and support of friends and family—is one of the things that makes life worth living.  God desires good things for us and for all people.  God constantly works to give us good things.  God constantly works to enrich our lives and give us every good thing.

But when we modern Americans think of abundance, we think of it in a different way than people did back in Jesus’ day.  We tend to equate abundance with material prosperity.  There are a lot of Christians who believe in the prosperity Gospel.  If you are good, and follow Jesus, God will bless you with wealth and health.  There are many books written about this, many churches that preach on this all the time.  How to do the right things and pray the right prayers so that God will give you money and power and all the things your heart desires and your life will be perfect and shiny and happy and nothing will ever go wrong.

That’s not how these passages were heard in Jesus day, or before that in the days of the Old Testament.  In those days, when there was a famine, people starved to death.  In those days, there were bandits lurking on every road to attack travelers, kill them, and steal from them.  In those days, almost half of all children died before age 5.  In those days, waves of epidemic diseases would periodically sweep through, killing adults and children both—measles, mumps, cholera, various poxes, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough.  In those days, war was constant, and Israel spent more time ruled by foreign invaders than an independent nation.  In those days, kings raised high taxes and used forced labor to build themselves palaces and monuments, spending more time aggrandizing themselves than ruling and protecting their people.  In those days, a handful of the richest people in society owned most of the resources, forcing people to slave away for a meagre existence.  In those days, life was very precarious, and only rich people could expect the kind of material prosperity we tend to take for granted.

They still believed in the abundance of God.  They didn’t believe that meant that everything would be shiny and happy and perfect.  They didn’t believe that meant the world would be nothing but puppies and kittens and rainbows.  But they did believe that God was present and at work no matter what happened, in good times and bad.  God’s gracious gifts were not just limited to material possessions.  God’s gifts included hope for the future, shelter in the storm, and the protection and guidance even in the midst of a very dangerous and grim world.

Notice that in both the Psalm and John, there is abundance, but there are also enemies.  God prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies.  God’s rod and staff and guidance don’t prevent us from having to go through the valley of the shadow of death.  Jesus came that we might have life, but there are thieves and bandits around who want to kill and destroy.  These passages do not deny the harsh realities of life.  These passages do not try to offer a simple message of God-given riches to those who are faithful enough.  These passages tell us that God will be with us, protecting and guiding and helping us, even in the midst of all the problems of life.  These passages tell us that God’s abundance is about more than just material possessions and outward appearances.  Abundant life is not a life with a sports car and a vacation home.  Abundant life is a life that keeps growing even in the middle of death and destruction.  Abundant life if a life that not even hell itself can destroy.

And notice that this abundant life isn’t about staying safe in the paddock.  No.  God sends us out into the world, and leads us to better places.  God has work for us to do, work that can’t be done without going into the world and working with and among those we find out there—whether they are fellow sheep or thieves and bandits.  And as we go on our way, as we walk through good places and bad, we are not alone.  God is with us even in the darkest parts of our lives, wherever the valley of the shadow might be for us.  God is with us when bandits attack us, when enemies attack us, and whether things are going well or badly, whether we are making good choices or bad ones, no matter what is happening, God is working in us and around us to give us life and hope and good things.

Things are a lot better now than they were in Jesus’ day.  Fewer people die of hunger; fewer people die of violence; fewer people die from preventable diseases.  There are far fewer people in the world living in extreme poverty.  There are far fewer tyrants.  But there is still sin in the world; there is still pain and death and evil. There are still enemies.  For some of us, who struggle with mental illness or disability or addiction or hatefulness, our enemies are in our own bodies and brains.  For some of us, who suffer from abuse or neglect, our enemies may be gathered around our family table.  For others, who are vulnerable or outcasts, our enemies may be the forces in society that oppress them and keep them in pain and fear.  For all of us, the enemy is death and destruction and despair.  But no matter who our enemy is, no matter what they do or try to do, we are not alone, for God is with us; God’s rod and staff comfort us and protect us; God knows us by name and leads us as a shepherd.

This is not about material blessings.  This is about relationship.  We know our master’s voice.  We know that God will guide us and protect us.  He loves us, and we love him.  He creates communities, flocks, which go through life together and support one another.  The good shepherd doesn’t just have one sheep.  The good shepherd has many sheep, who live and work and travel together.  Knowing the shepherd’s voice means we also know our fellow sheep.  The love that God gives us is not only for ourselves, but for all.  God gives us blessings so that we may bless each other.

When our cup overflows, with love or hope or joy or faith or wealth or any other good thing, we do not hoard the excess but share it so that all the world may know the abundance of God’s blessings.  Have you ever seen that thing they do sometimes at parties where they make a pyramid out of wine-glasses and pour wine into the top until it overflows into the glasses beneath it?  That’s what we’re supposed to do when our cup overflows with blessings—pass them along so that others may also be blessed.  Maybe that blessing is in riches or prosperity.  But maybe that blessing is love, the love of friends and family.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of wisdom, or hope, or skills to be shared.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of health and healing.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of forgiveness.  But whatever form God’s blessing takes, that abundance is meant to be shared so that all the world may know the abundant life that God brings.  May we hear God’s voice and follow him, and may his abundant life overflow in our lives, now and forever.

Amen.

Where is God?

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8

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

 

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

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

When you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context.  What else is going on around it?  How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture?  This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages.  Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable.  This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14.  It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming.  And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook.  Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that.  The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.

So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us.  There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today.  Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself.  And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have.  In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them.  A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law.  You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!

But the widow was persistent.  The widow kept on demanding justice.  She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down.  I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow.  I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating.  I can almost hear them: “She lost!  Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.”  The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too.  But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her.  And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice.  Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.

So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom?  Let’s start with the first question.  Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here.  The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God.  And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice!  God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage.  God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small.  God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind.  This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?  I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?”  Where is God?  Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.

As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company.  She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication.  Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad.  There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition.  One is expensive, the other relatively cheap.  Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one.  But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her.  Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat.  So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse.  Where is God?  Helping her get through each day.  She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her.  And because our entire health care system is messed up.  Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice.  One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs.  One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it.  And meanwhile, God is with her.  Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.

So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable?  Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day.  But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them.  So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God?  Again, it can’t be the judge.  Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor.  The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors.  The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.

The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t.  And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t.  In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes.  He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it.  He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will.  Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today.  The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them.  We all know just how often that isn’t the case.  Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable.  There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.

And yet.  Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us.  Now.  In our hearts and in our communities.  And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence?  Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world?  Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed.  We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings.  Where is God’s kingdom in all of that?  God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end.  May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.

Amen.

How to Lament

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, October 2nd, 2016

Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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.

Today’s first reading and psalm come from the book of Lamentations.  A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.  A lament is when mere tears are not enough.  A lament is when every inch of your body and soul cry out within you.  When no consolation is possible.  There are times for songs of joy and hope, but there are also times for songs of sadness and despair.  There is a time for grief.  The book of Lamentations is a whole book filled with lament.

We don’t know how to lament, these days.  We are uncomfortable with grief and sorrow.  When someone suffers a loss, we don’t often cry with them.  How often have I seen this: someone is overcome with grief, and we pat them on the shoulder, tell them we’re praying for them, and then explain why they shouldn’t cry.  God wanted another angel in heaven.  She’s in a better place.  You’ll feel better soon.  God’s got a plan—and don’t you trust God?  Shouldn’t you be over it by now?  We tell ourselves that these platitudes are to comfort the one who grieves; yet all too often what they really do is just shut them up.  In big ways and small ways, our culture tells us that we can’t grieve too much.  We can’t be too extravagant in our tears, and we can’t take too long.  It makes people uncomfortable.  As Christians, especially, there is a pressure to hide our grief and recover quickly, to put a good face on our sorrows.  After all, don’t we have God?  Isn’t God supposed to take care of us?  Isn’t God supposed to supply us with all good things all the time?  If our suffering is too great, if our sorrow is too deep, well.  Maybe we’re not being faithful enough.  Maybe we just don’t have the right attitude.  And yet, here in the Bible is an entire book filled with grief and pain and anger and fear and sorrow and all the emotions that rage through us in the darkest times.

The book of Lamentations was written after the Babylonians destroyed the country of Judah, and its capital the city of Jerusalem, in 587BC.  And by destroyed I don’t just mean they conquered it.  They tore down the Temple to its very foundations.  They took a large portion of the population away in chains to live as hostages to the good behavior of those left behind, and to be forced to serve the very empire that had destroyed their home.  A large portion of Judah’s population, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt, where they lived as refugees watching from afar as their enemy destroyed their homes.  To add insult to injury, the Babylonians resettled people from other parts of their empire in Judah, to make doubly sure that even Judah’s culture would be destroyed.

Imagine that.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How would you feel?  Imagine that America was conquered by a foreign power.  Imagine that an occupying army patrolled the streets of Bismarck every day, and swept through Underwood regularly.  Imagine that they destroyed the church, the city hall, the pharmacy, the grocery store.  Imagine that they took your friends and family away at gunpoint, and took them somewhere else—you didn’t know where.  Imagine that they were coming for you, and so you gathered your family and what you could carry on your back and slipped out of town at night, heading for Mexico, in the hopes that you would be safe there.  Imagine arriving with nothing, terrified and alone, in a place you didn’t speak the language, a place where no one liked you and no one wanted you.  Imagine waiting every day for news from home, hoping that the invaders would be destroyed and you could go back, but only hearing more stories of pain and suffering.  How would you feel?

That’s what the book of Lamentations is all about.  That despair.  That pain.  That sorrow.  “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! … she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks … all her friends have dealt treacherously with her.  Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude.”  They sang these songs, Jeremiah and the rest of the refugees in Egypt, and they cried, and they wept.  There is no platitude that will fix this, no consolation that will make it all worth it, no sweet, pious words that will make things better.  And you know what?  It was okay to be honest about that.  It was okay to be honest about the depth of their pain and their grief.  It was okay to scream and yell and rage at God.  God knew what was in their hearts.  Putting a brave face on it and pretending to be okay would not fool God; all it would do is bottle all that emotion up where it could do nothing but fester.  God is big enough to take all of us, even the ugly parts, even the grief and the pain and the anger and the fear and the sorrow.

And yes, the captives and the exiles and the refugees were partly to blame for their own misfortunes.  As a nation, they had turned away from God, taking his love and protection for granted, seeking after other gods and allowing injustice free reign in their communities.  If they hadn’t done that, if they had remained as faithful to God as he was to them, even all the might of Babylon would not have prevailed against them.  By turning away from God, they had removed his protecting hand from them, and so the Babylonians had come.  I imagine that must have made things ten times worse, to look back and wonder what they might have done differently, what might have been possible if they had been more faithful.

But even in the midst of that grief, God was with them.  As they grieved the destruction of their homes, as they took responsibility for the things they had done leading up to the fall of their country, God was there.  He wasn’t there with a magic bullet to take away their pain and make things better.  He wasn’t there with greater rewards to make the destruction of their homeland and the deaths and kidnappings of so many of their loved ones unimportant.  He wasn’t there to tell them to get over it.  He was there in the midst of their pain to hold them as they cried.  He was there in a million small ways, giving them strength to get through each day and courage to start building new lives.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul thinks continually of it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”

I hope and pray that we never suffer what they suffered, but there are people today who suffer that and worse.  Between imperialistic nations, terrorists, gang violence, and environmental disasters, there are more refugees in the world today than there have been since the end of World War II.  But there is no Olympics of grief: no scale to weigh things out and go, well, this grief is worse than that one, so you can’t be too upset about that one.  There is death in this community.  There are broken relationships and broken homes in this community.  There is abuse and rape and homelessness and suicide in this community.  There is loss and grief and pain.  And you know what?  It’s okay to lament.  It’s okay to not be okay.  If grief overwhelms you and fear and pain and doubt and anger and sorrow drag at your footsteps and threaten to drown you, that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian, and it doesn’t mean your faith isn’t strong enough, and it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there with you, helping you along and giving you strength.

Things may never be the same.  There may be no happy shining thing that makes what you have suffered all worth it in the end.  Sometimes things get better; sometimes, there is a dramatic recovery and change of fortune and everything becomes almost perfect.  And we rejoice when that happens and celebrate it.  But that doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t real, and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or your faith if that never happens.

Because God is with us.  You, me, every person who suffers loss, every person who celebrates a joy.  God is here.  With us.  God is always faithful; his steadfast love never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.  Even in the darkest parts of our lives, when we can do nothing but lament and wail at our suffering, God is with us, and God will never let us fall.  You are not alone.  We are not alone, not any of us, for God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.