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?

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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.

The Soil and the Sower

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15), Year A, July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

The Parable of the Sower is one of the great parables, a classic. In the cycle of readings for the church year that Lutherans follow, we hear it in worship once every three years. Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this point go something like this: the good soil, the one without rocks and weeds and thorns, will receive the seed which is God’s Word and God’s Word will grow abundantly in that good soil. So be the good soil!

There’s just one problem with that. I know we have a lot of farmers and gardeners here, so this is my question: have you ever seen soil get rid of rocks and thorns on its own? Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen soil turn itself from bad, rocky soil, to good soil. Yeah, that’s about what I thought. I’ve spent many hours working in my mother’s garden, pulling weeds and killing encroaching blackberry vines and digging out rocks and preparing the soil and tending it, and I have never seen the soil change itself. I’ve seen rocks work their way up from beneath when I didn’t think there were any rocks there, and I’ve seen thorny blackberry vines sprout where I thought I’d gotten them all, but I’ve never seen it go the other way. Not, at least, without a lot of hard work on the gardener’s part. You will notice that while Jesus calls his listeners the soil, he never once says that we should try and make ourselves into better soil.

No, Jesus’ focus is on the action of the sower. And, if you think about it, the actions of the sower are pretty weird. They’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to make you think. We sometimes think parables are easy to understand, because we’ve had them explained to us so many times. But that’s not what parables are. Even when they seem simple on the surface, there’s a lot of depth to them. They’re designed to make us think, to break in to our normal way of looking at the world and show us a different possibility. They’re designed to make us go “wait, what?” so that our understanding of God and God’s kingdom will not be confined to our understanding of the way the world works now.

So think about this sower, for a minute. You farmers, especially. Think about how you put the seed in the ground. This sower is sowing on everything. He’s throwing good seed after bad, putting it in places where he knows it’s not going to flourish. He’s throwing it on the good soil, but also in the thorns, in the rocky places, and even on the road. Now, during spring planting this year I spent a while riding in Gene Wirtz’s tractor watching him seed a field. He has a fancy GPS system with a map of the field, to control where the tractor goes and where the seed is put in the ground. That computer knows exactly where the right place to put seed is. The good soil, where the seed will not be wasted. The expensive computer is worth it because seed and fertilizer are expensive, so a good farmer tries to figure out how to get the best crop with the least amount of seed. Gene would certainly never try to seed the road bed, and I bet none of you other farmers would, either.

I like to imagine that first crowd that heard this parable. “So this guy did what? He tried to seed the road? He threw seed in the rocky areas and among the thorns? Wow, you can tell that Jesus isn’t a farmer!” I bet they grumbled about this town kid—this carpenter’s son—trying to tell them their business. What a waste, to throw seed where you know you’re not going to get a good crop!

That’s part of the point. God is not like a regular farmer. God does not count the cost. God does not do a cost-benefit analysis before figure out the right place to put his Word. God’s gifts are extravagant, abundant, meant for everyone, and given to all people, whether they listen or not. Whether they are good soil or not. God the extravagant sower gives the seed of his Word to the whole world. God’s gifts are not for the chosen few, they’re for everyone. Whether or not we want them, whether or not we value them, whether we respond for a lifetime or even just a moment, the gift is given.

God’s Word is like that. Given to all without counting the cost. But Jesus wasn’t just talking about the stories of the Bible, when he talks about the gift of God’s Word. He wasn’t just talking about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that helps us tell stories about what we have seen God do in our lives. He was also talking about himself. Remember that Jesus, too, is sometimes called the living Word of God.

God’s Word is given to all, extravagantly and abundantly, without counting the cost. Jesus poured out his life, first in ministry and then on the cross, a gift for a world that he knew would reject him and ignore him and turn away from him. A gift given not just to the chosen and faithful few, but to all people, everywhere, whether they were willing to listen or not. And where that gift finds good soil it takes root and springs up, yielding a harvest greater than we can imagine or understand. Just like the seed in the poem, that springs up with thirty-fold yields, or sixty, or even a hundred.

We are the soil, not the sower. But God tends us as patiently and as carefully as any farmer could. We can’t make ourselves into good soil, but God can. God can and does come into our lives to pull out the rocks and tear out the thorns. I have seen people’s hearts fill with rocks just as stone works its way up through the soil. I have seen people’s hearts fill with thorns and brambles, just as weeds take over a garden. But I have also seen God grace and love work in peoples’ lives to prepare break up and remove the stones and the thorns, so that the seed can take root in us. And no matter how rocky or thorny we get, no matter how hard we get, God keeps giving us the abundant gift of his Word.

Abundance: that’s not something we see much of. We tend to want things that are efficient, that are cost-effective, that give a lot of bang for the buck. If something doesn’t produce good results, forget about it and try something else. Don’t waste your time and effort and money on it. Don’t waste your love on it, either. Our lives are all about how to do the minimum and get the maximum. Do the numbers and figure out the logical way, and write off anything that doesn’t work. Only invest in something that’s worth it. That’s our way. But that’s not God’s way. God doesn’t care what the cost is; God doesn’t care what the response is. God will keep on giving, and giving, and giving, to all people, good and bad. Any response, any response at all, is worth it to God. And God never writes anyone off. To God, no one is beyond saving; no one is beyond reach; no one is a bad investment. No one is so hard, or rocky, or thorny that God’s Word is a waste. God rejoices when the Word bears abundant fruit in us. But whether it does or not, God will not give up on us.

We are the soil. We don’t get to choose whether we are good soil or bad, but we can love and honor what God does for us. We can appreciate the rocks he removes and the thorns he pulls. And we can see the abundance of the Word, given for all people, whether good soil or bad. God’s love, and God’s Word: given out for all, whether we deserve it or not; whether we’re a good investment or not; whether we’re good soil or not. God keeps on giving everything to us, no matter what. Thanks be to God.

A world of abundance

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C, March 17th, 2013

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

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.

If you were here Wednesday night, you would have heard another story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil.  And, like the story in today’s Gospel, those watching were not happy about it.  In the story from Luke that we read on Wednesday, the Pharisees were upset because Jesus was allowing such liberties from a sinner.  In today’s story from John, Judas was upset because the money that could have been given to the poor was spent on useless luxuries.

Both objections are very common-place ones, that we have all probably thought or felt at one time or another.  As for the woman in Luke, that sinner, well, there are people in the world who are untrustworthy and just seem to be worse than anyone else.  Even if you forgive their sins, if you allow them into your fellowship, you run the risk of being hurt or injured by them again.  And you run the risk of being tarred by the same brush.  And you run the risk of other people being led astray, because surely, if what that sinner did was so bad, you wouldn’t be letting them participate.  So letting in sinners is risky business.

As for the extravagance of Mary’s perfumed oil, well, any time you talk about money in a religious context, two subjects come up: maintaining the building, and giving to those who are in need.  Because obviously, Jesus wants us to love others with deeds as well as with words.  There are so many needs in the world, so many people who need help, whose lives can be dramatically improved with a few gifts.  And there are so many passages in the Bible that talk about justice for the poor, about providing for those who are worse off than you.  If you see someone in need, you’re supposed to help.  And that perfumed oil was about a year’s salary for a day laborer—that was a serious extravagance!  What a difference that money could have made in the lives of so many people!

So it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Judas and the Pharisees.  Yes, inviting in sinners and welcoming them is risky.  Yes, that perfume Mary used was very expensive, and think of all the good that could have been done with it!  Any half-way rational person who knows the Scriptures would have pointed it out as well.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisee and Judas.  They have the details correct, but they have completely missed the big picture.  They are focusing on the little stuff: how we should handle ordinary daily life.  And they are so focused on that, on keeping on with their ordinary lives, that they completely miss that things are not ordinary.  They completely miss that their handling of the details is getting in the way of the big picture.

Yes, we can’t just ignore sin, and sometimes we need to speak up about sinners.  Yes, we should love the poor, and work to bring justice and abundant life to all people.  But that must always, always be done in the light of Christ.  All of our lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ need to focus on the big picture of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us, as part of God’s plan for us and for all of creation.

God created the world, and God created it to be good.  God created all of humankind to be good.  God created the world abundantly, a world stuffed to the gills with wonderful things.  God created a world in which there is more than enough to go around for all.  But humans sinned.  Humans sin, and that sin has broken all of creation.  Instead of love, there is oppression and hate.  Instead of abundance for all, there is scarcity and hoarding.  Instead of building one another up, we tear one another down.

We have fallen from what God wants us to be, but God has never stopped seeking us out.  God comes to us where we are and forgives our sins, and lifts us up out of the holes we dig for ourselves.  God’s goal isn’t just to patch over the holes.  God’s goal isn’t just to save the nice people and forget about the rest.  God’s goal isn’t just to put a fresh coat of paint over the decay.  God isn’t just trying to fix a few things here and there, measuring out justice like a teaspoon and mercy by the cup to people dying of thirst.

No, God is creating something new.  God is doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth, do you not see it?  God is restoring the world, recreating it through the life and death of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  From the cross of Christ flows forth love and mercy and forgiveness and renewal like water from a fountain in the desert.  That love and mercy and forgiveness and justice overflow all the boundaries we humans would set for them.  From the cross of Christ flows forth the kind of abundant life God wants for us and for all of creation.

That spring of life that comes from God refreshes and renews us, but it hasn’t yet filled the whole world.  The new thing God has done in Jesus Christ has begun, but it has not finished.  The new creation will not be here until Christ comes again.  Until that time, we live caught between the old, sinful, broken world, and the new creation God brings.  We live caught between our old, sinful, broken selves and the new, forgiven and whole selves God is creating in us.

The question is, what are we going to do in the mean time?  How are we going to live our lives?  Are we going to put our confidence in our old selves, in the old broken world that we see around us that we understand all too well?  Or are we going to put our confidence in the resurrection?  Are we going to seek the power of Christ’s resurrection, or are we going to stay in the muck and mire that drags us down and traps us in sin?  Are we going to remember that Christ has made us his own through our baptisms, has claimed us and redeemed us, or are we going to focus on the broken world around us?

If we are going to press on towards the goal of Christ, if we are going to live in the power of the resurrection, that means we have to change how we see the world around us.  We have to look and see the abundance of God’s mercy not just for us, but for all people.  We have to remember that our God is the god of abundance, not scarcity.

The Pharisee from Wednesday night’s lesson was offended that Jesus forgave a sinner and accepted her gift.  Yet we know that all human beings are sinners, and that Jesus came to save all of humanity.  We know that forgiveness is a gift for all, because Jesus died for all.  And yes, we are called to speak out against sin—but we must always remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that God loves every single one of us, no matter how far astray we go.  Jesus didn’t come to Earth to condemn people or exclude them, but to seek out all the lost, all the sinners, all who have gone astray.  The Pharisee focused on the details of the sin, but not on the big picture of God’s mercy for all.

Judas in today’s lesson was offended that Mary’s perfume was used so extravagantly.  It could have been sold, and the money used for the poor!  We are told by the Gospel writer that Judas used to steal from the common purse, giving him an unsavory motivation for his anger.  But many good Christians who don’t steal from the offering plate would agree with him.  Hungry people could have been fed with that money!  Sick people could have gotten medicine!  But Jesus said that Mary was in the right. Now, obviously, Jesus who spent so much time feeding hungry people and healing sick people approved of giving to those in need.  The problem isn’t wanting to help people.  The problem is the mindset of scarcity.

God created a world with abundance for all.  Yet we believe, deep in our heart of hearts, that there isn’t enough.  So we hoard what we have instead of sharing it, and some people have far more than they need, and others have nothing.  Did you know that the world produces enough food every year to feed every person alive today?  Yet people die of starvation because they cannot afford food, or cannot get to it.  God created a world with enough abundance to provide for the needs of all, and we remain trapped in our belief in scarcity.  There is enough for all; there is enough to provide for the poor and to give extravagant gifts of love to God.

We see brokenness and sin around us every day.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world afraid of not having enough.  We know that God is doing a new thing; we know that salvation and new life comes through Christ Jesus.  We know that even death itself will be swallowed up in the power of Christ’s resurrection.  We know that we, too, will be raised, and we know that God’s kingdom of abundant life and love and mercy will come.  Yet like the Pharisee, and like Judas, too often we muddle along in our every-day concerns, instead of knowing Christ and experiencing the power of his resurrection.  May we learn to press on towards Christ, and to see the world through his eyes: sinners forgiven, justice for the oppressed, and abundant life for all.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.