Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

 

My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there.  Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that.  So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show.  I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot.  It just did not make sense to me.  It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.

This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful.  There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous.  Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need.  Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.  But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.

That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it.  True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is.  I mean, what does Jesus need oil for?  It serves no practical purpose.  It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die.  And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one.  The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God.  So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come.  But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant.  Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever?  It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.

The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John.  In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness.  Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana.  In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough.  God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness.  The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly.  If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess.  God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.

And this anointing is abundant.  It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house.  Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often.  Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross.  It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act.  When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her.  And that extravagance is kind of the point.  Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions.  That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt.  The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service.  It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence.  Sometimes, it’s about abundant love.  Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.

Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor.  But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need.  The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need.  The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it.  We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives.  That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel.  That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us.  That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions.  That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives.  That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins.  That love is what heals us and makes us whole.  That love is what brings us here today.  And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world.  As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.

The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week.  The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet.  This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit.  To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root.  You cannot have one without the other.  You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God.  If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness.  Mary knew how to love beyond measure.  Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her.  Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed.  And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.

I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that.  If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom.  If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack.  If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God.  If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality.  I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.

Amen.

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Abundance

Second Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 20, 2019

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

 

We are in the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany means revelation, and specifically something being revealed by or about God.  An epiphany is a “Eureka!” moment, when you realize something big that changes the way you see the world.  And so, the Gospel readings in the time after Epiphany tend to deal with revelations of who Jesus is and what his ministry is all about.  On Epiphany itself, we hear about God revealing the coming of Jesus to the Magi through the star.  In Jesus’ baptism, we hear of the Spirit coming down like a dove, and a voice from heaven calling Jesus the Beloved Son.  And today, we read John’s account of Jesus’ first act of public ministry, his miracle at the wedding of Cana, in which Jesus was revealed as something more than just another wandering rabbi.

So Jesus goes to this wedding, and something TERRIBLE occurs: they run out of wine!  Now, weddings in the Middle East are BIG BUSINESS.  The parties can go on for DAYS, and food and drink are supposed to flow freely.  If the bridegroom didn’t provide enough hospitality, he would be shamed in the community.  Everyone would talk about it for decades to come.  It would have been a nightmare.  But Jesus and his mother Mary were there, and Mary knew darn good and well Jesus could fix this.  And he does: he turns water into wine, into really good wine.  The party is saved, and so is the bridegroom’s reputation!  Yay!

To our ears, it’s a weird little story, because why is this party special enough to rate a miracle from Jesus?  And why is this the first public act of Jesus’ ministry?  Like, if I were planning my first public act as pastor of a new church, providing refreshments at someone else’s wedding reception wouldn’t be what I’d choose, I’m just saying.  But every story included in the Gospels is included because it’s important, because it tells us something about Jesus or about the life of faith.  And this passage is specifically picked for the season of Epiphany because it reveals something about who Jesus is.

First, abundance is one of the themes of the Gospel of John.  Each Gospel has its own perspective on what traits of Jesus should be emphasized, and one of the things the Gospel of John emphasizes about Jesus is that life in Jesus brings abundance.  As Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Or as John 1:16 puts it, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  If you ever read through the Gospel of John, notice how Jesus provides: wine here, bread and fish at the feeding of the 5,000 with twelve baskets left over after everyone had eaten their fill, so much fish for the Disciples in John chapter 21 that they couldn’t haul all of them in, healing and forgiveness whenever anyone needs them.  Any spiritual or physical need that Jesus encounters, he provides for it, abundantly.  Things overflow, or are given beyond any rational hope or expectation.  Like here: the party’s already been going on long enough for the wine to run out.  Jesus provides somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.  That’s the equivalent of somewhere between 600 and 900 bottles of wine.  And not just two buck chuck, either; this is the really good stuff.

So what this tells us about Jesus, besides the fact that he has good taste in wine, is that when Jesus provides he really provides.  In a world in which there is scarcity, Jesus provides abundance.  So often in the world, people run out of things they need.  People go hungry, or cold, or thirsty; people can’t afford to pay for healthare; people struggle to pay rent, or go homeless; people are one paycheck away from disaster; people are afraid of losing what they have.  But our God is a God of abundance.  God does not measure out grace by the teaspoonful, demanding we prove ourselves worthy and grateful for every drop.  God’s love overflows like wine at a really good party, more than we need, simply because we need it.  Because that’s the kind of God that God is: God loves abundantly.  God gives abundantly.  God wants us to have abundant lives.

But still: why a party?  Why a wedding banquet, specifically?  We don’t tend to associate parties—particularly ones with lots of wine—with God, but they did back in Bible days.  Specifically, contrary to our modern imagery of people sitting on clouds and strumming harps, the most common metaphor for heaven in the Bible is a party.  God’s coming kingdom is repeatedly described, throughout the Bible, as a feast, a banquet filled with rich foods and well-aged wines.  It’s not some sort of ethereal unworldly place for souls to float around in.  It’s an earthy, joy-filled, feast, like the best holiday dinner you ever had except better, because all the impurities, all the bad things that creep in to mar even the best earthly experience, will be gone.  There will be no fighting or hurt feelings, because every petty or selfish or scared or hateful bit of us will be healed, and we will all love and understand one another.  There will be food that tastes better than anything you’ve ever imagined, and nobody will have to worry about calories or allergies or balancing their blood sugar, or anything else.  For those who drink, there will be the best wine you can imagine, only nobody will have to worry about addiction or hangovers.  For those who don’t drink, there will be other awesome things.

This is how the Bible describes God’s kingdom: a vast and great party, a banquet, with every good thing you can imagine overflowing, and all bad things destroyed or healed or purified.  It’s no accident that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the first thing the father does when his son returns is throw a huge party.  Think back to the Garden of Eden.  The thing that made it paradise was that it was a garden filled to overflowing with every good thing.  Our God is a God of abundance.  Our God is a God who rejoices.  Our God is a God whose love and mercy overflow.  That’s just how God rolls.

So why, then, is the world the way it is?  Why is there scarcity?  Why is there suffering?  And the answer is sin.  Sin warps people, and sin warps the universe.  In Genesis, we’re told that things like weeds and rocky soil and all the things that make life hard are a result of sin contaminating things.  And even then, God’s creation keeps providing, but we do not use that provision wisely.  Every year, enough food is produced to feed everybody, but people go hungry because there aren’t good roads to transport that food on, or because they can’t afford to buy it, or because stores throw out food they can’t sell, or because violence destroys their livelihood.  If we as a planet sat down and decided we were going to ensure that nobody went hungry, we could do it.  We could solve the problem of hunger.  It is human sinfulness, not God’s gifts, that cause hunger.  And yet, even in the midst of human sinfulness, God is at work to provide.  Even as people do things that add to the pain and suffering in the world, God inspires others to work for the good of all.  There are countries in the world that cut their rate of hunger in half between 2000 and 2015.  It took a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people at the local, national, and international level, but they did it.  And I firmly believe that God was working in their midst, inspiring them and leading them and bringing them together to help more and more people receive the gifts of God’s abundant creation.

It’s really easy to look at the world and think that there is no redeeming it.  That there is too much violence, too much hunger, too much conflict.  It’s easy to look at the world and think that there just isn’t enough to go around, so we need to fight for ourselves and our families even if it means depriving others of things they need.  But that is not the way God created the world to work.  Our God is a God of abundance, who showers all of creation with love and every good thing.  Our God is a God who created the world to be a great feast, a banquet, a wedding party, with more than enough for all.  The question is, can we see that?  Can we see all the gifts God has given us, and give thanks for them?  Or will we let ourselves get hypnotized by all the bad things?

May we all feel God’s abundance in our lives, and may we respond in gratitude to share that abundance with all God’s creation.

Amen.

Sowing Stories

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 15

July 16, 2017

 

Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

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.

When I first came to North Dakota, Gene Wirtz thought that I needed to learn a little bit more about farming if I was going to be a pastor to so many farmers.  (He was probably right.)  And so, my first year here, he invited me out to ride along in his tractor when he planted and to ride in his combine as he harvested.  So, out I went.  And the thing that impressed me the most, particularly in the spring planting season, was the absolute precision of modern agriculture.  GPS-driven tractors with computers controlling the placement of each seed, making sure that every seed is planted in the optimal way for it to grow, and that every inch of field is planted in the most efficient way possible for the most number of healthy plants.  This is big business.  People spend lifetimes studying the best possible way to manage and utilize land, soil types, rainfall, irrigation, plant varieties, fertilizer, and more, and then developing new techniques and plant varieties to make things even better.  Everything has to be precise so that nothing is wasted and everything grows.  The idea is to spend the least amount of time, money, and resources to get the most amount of results.  That’s how modern farmers have yields that farmers a century ago would have thought completely absurd.

It looks absolutely nothing like the sower in the parable.  The sower, you see, is indiscriminate.  Good soil gets sowed with seed, but so does bad soil, and so does soil that isn’t soil at all.  The path gets seeded just like the good soil does.  It may not grow anything … but that’s not for lack of effort on the sower’s part.  And I assure you, no farmer in ANY era from the beginning of farming to the present would work that way.  Would you guys seed the ROAD?  No?  Guess what, neither would farmers in Jesus’ day.  Because it would be stupid, right?  You KNOW that it’s not going to yield anything.  Even a gravel road, it’s just too hard-packed for the seed to be able to dig in, there are no furrows or anything to get the seed into the soil, and the people passing by trample any young shoots that do spring up, and (as Jesus points out), the seed on the path is just perfect, sitting there on the surface, for birds to come along and eat.  Sowing seed on the path is STUPID.  And people in ancient times didn’t have modern technology or science to figure out all the things we know, but they weren’t stupid, either.  I’m pretty sure that as Jesus told this parable, and he starts out by talking about the seed falling on the path, that his listeners immediately thought to themselves “wow, is that farmer incompetent!  What an idiot!  OF COURSE he’s not getting any results!”

So why is Jesus telling us this crazy story?  He spent a lot of time telling crazy stories, throughout his ministry.  Yes, there were times that he just gave straight-up lectures about what you should do or shouldn’t do, but most of the time he spent teaching he spent telling stories.  Parables.  And we’ve heard these stories so many times that we often don’t pay much attention to how deeply weird they can be.  Like that incompetent farmer trying to grow crops on the road.  So let’s take a few minutes to remember what a parable is and why Jesus told stories.

First, stories are really important.  Human beings think in stories.  We organize our world around stories.  If you tell someone a fictional story—not just untrue, but contradicting the actual truth—and tell them the true facts at the same time, they will believe the false story.  Even if you tell them up front the story is a lie, it will have more impact on them than the facts do.  For example: most Latinos in this country are not only US citizens, but have no illegal immigrants anywhere in their family tree.  No member of their family has ever come to this country without permission.  See, Mexico used to be a lot bigger than it is now.  In 1821, Mexico included everything from Texas to California, and a lot of Mexicans lived there.  It was their home.  But in 1846, the US invaded and conquered those lands, adding them to the United States, and those Mexicans became US citizens overnight.  They never crossed the border, the border crossed them.  But that’s not the story we tell.  The story we tell is of people sneaking in to this country to steal American jobs.  And so when I tell the truth—that most Latinos in America are US citizens whose families have been here longer than most of our families—people don’t believe me.  Because the story is more powerful than the true facts of the matter.

If stories shape how we see the world, then they’re really important.  So it’s no wonder Jesus taught using them.  Jesus didn’t care if his followers memorized the right words, or were able to quote him verbatim, or could give the correct answers on a test.  Jesus wanted his followers to think like him, to be shaped by God’s Word and God’s will.  And if you want to shape how people think and feel, you don’t lecture them or give them a list of things to memorize.  You tell them a story.  A story they’ll remember; a story they can connect to.

And parables are a special kind of story.  “Parable” literally means “to throw alongside.”  In a parable, you don’t come at the moral of the story straight-on.  In fact, there may not be a simple moral or lesson.  Parables are more complicated than that.  Parables are designed to make you think.  Parables are designed to be complicated, and surprising, and layered, so that each time you come back to it you hear some nuance that you weren’t quite aware of before.  Parables are designed so that you can’t possibly simplify them into one right answer to memorize, even when (as here) Jesus explains them.  And when there is something in a parable that seems weird, chances are, that thinking more deeply will be fruitful.

Back to the parable of the sower.  That weird, incompetent, stupid sower who is too dumb to know that seed scattered on the road is wasted.  No farmer in real life would ever do that.  But this is a parable, and that seed is God’s word.  And so then I have to ask the question: can God’s word be wasted?  Is there ever a time when there truly is no point to God’s word?  Is there ever a time when it is truly hopeless that it can’t have any effect?  I mean, there are times when the chances that that seed is going to yield good fruit are pretty small.  But is yielding fruit the only purpose of God’s word?  And how small a chance is too small?  And so what if most of it gets snatched away or stifled or choked out?  Even if it never bears fruit, isn’t the world a better place for it to have been there?

And what does this tell us about God?  I mean, we human beings are all about efficiency and returns on investment.  If we’re going to put time into something, we want to know we’re going to get something out of it.  We want results.  Most people don’t bother with things we know will fail.  We hate waste.  We are convinced that there is a limited amount of wealth and resources to go around, so we had better make sure we get our share.  We hoard and store up things until we can get the maximum benefit out of it.  And, you know, a lot of times that’s a good thing!  When I was a kid, I stored up my allowance and the wages I got for working in my parents’ studio until I was able to afford to send myself to Space Camp in Alabama.  That would not have been possible without thrift and saving and being choosy.  But at the same time, that’s not how the sower is operating in the parable.  That’s not how God’s Word operates.

God’s word is profligate.  God’s word is abundantly generous, to the point of absurdity.  God’s word is decadently extravagant.  No restrictions, no shortages, no measuring it out by the spoonful for maximum impact.  Instead, God sprays it out indiscriminately on good soil and bad alike.  Sure, it’s not going to grow everywhere, but where it does grow, it grows miraculously huge.  God doesn’t restrict it to only the places where God is sure of a return; God showers it everywhere.  God does not work as if resources are scarce.  God works as if resources are never-ending.  There is no need to count the cost, to be choosy, to be efficient.  There is more than enough to go around.

And what does this parable tell us about us?  Are we the sower, or are we the soil?  Or are we both?  And what kind of ground are we?  Are we the path, or the rocky soil, or the thorny soil, or the good soil?  And are we always the same kind of soil or does that change throughout our lives?  Can we be good soil one day and thorny soil a week later, when something happens to make us worried?  Can we be rocky soil in one part of our lives, but good soil later?  And what are the rocks and thorns in our lives, and can we pull them out?  Can we help others to be good soil by, say, helping them deal with the cares and worries of life?

What do you think?

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.

What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

Amen

God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.