Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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God’s Abundant Blessings

Eighth Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Psalm 131

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

 

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

 

If there is a blessing in our nation’s current economic woes, it is this: right now, it’s easy to see where we put our trust, whether in God or in material prosperity.  Or if we put our trust in God through material prosperity—after all, we print the words “in God we trust” on all our money.  Jesus’ words seem tailor-made to address our situation.  Raise your hand if you’ve spent significant energy in the last few years worrying about your finances—savings, job, mortgage, retirement fund, health insurance, car payments, all that stuff.  I’m not talking basic common-sense contingency planning and goal setting.  I’m talking the kind of worry that keeps you up at night.  The kind of worry when you are afraid that you can’t control what’s going to happen, when the things you relied on can’t be counted on anymore.  The kind of worry that infects everything you do and think, even when you try to ignore it.

I know how you feel.  I’ve done it myself.  I worry about two things, mainly.  Will I be able to get a call when I’m done here?  The recession affects pastors, too, you know—when I started Seminary, they predicted there would be a shortage of pastors by now.  You see, the Baby Boomer generation of pastors is supposed to be retiring.  But with the economy and the state of the pension fund, many of them are choosing to work a few years longer than they otherwise would have.  Then there are churches that can’t afford to pay a pastor anymore.  So instead of a shortage of pastors, there’s a surplus.  Some of my classmates who graduated last May didn’t get a call until a year after they were assigned to a region—and because of the way the schedule works and the fact that I’m doing things out of order, I can’t get assigned until a few months after I’ve graduated and am done here.  And I’m going to have to start paying back my student loans six months after I my internship ends—what if I don’t have a call by then?  The other thing I worry about is my parents.  My parents are portrait photographers who own their own small business.  Portrait art is a luxury; not many people are spending money on luxuries now.  What will happen to their business?

There’s nothing I can do to make more calls for pastors available or help my parents business.  And so I worry.  It’s useless—it does nothing but make me upset.  It can’t make things turn out the way I want them to.  As Jesus says, my worrying can’t add a single hour to my span of life.  It won’t make me any likelier to get a call quickly, and it won’t miraculously send customers to my parents’ studio.  All it can do is make me unhappy, blind me to the many gifts and blessings my family and I already have, and distract me from serving God.  And yet even when I tell myself that, it’s hard to stop.  Wealth—mammon, material prosperity, whatever you want to call it—has a lot more of my allegiance than I’d prefer to admit.

At heart, this kind of anxiety is a fear that God won’t be there to provide for our daily bread—or a belief that we know better than God how much and what kind of daily bread we need.  This anxiety is based on the belief that we live in a world of scarcity, with not quite enough to go around, where we must hoard and take care of ourselves rather than trust in God and take care of the world around us.  After all, regardless of Jesus’ poetic words about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we know that there are animals out there that eat birds and bad weather can wreak havoc with the crops of the field—we’ve certainly had enough bad weather lately to see that.  And I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my finances I prefer a much more solid and dependable answer than poetic metaphors!

This worry about our finances is also tied in to a kind of arrogance—the belief that we know better than God what we need.  Then if things don’t go the way we planned, we think it’s because God didn’t answer our prayers, or isn’t with us in our time of need.  In the words of Isaiah, we say “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  But God is always with us, in good times and bad.  Like a mother watches over her baby, God watches over us and will never abandon us.  In good times and bad, in prosperity and adversity, God is with us—even when we’re too blinded by our own worries to see.  Even when the crops wither or are frozen out or torn up by a storm, God is there.  Even when the birds of the air lose their nests to a storm, God is there taking care of them.  And you know what?  No matter how much bad stuff happens, there’s a lot more good in the world and in our lives.

God created this world to be fruitful, and our God is a God of abundant life.  No matter how broken, sinful, unjust, and unpredictable our world is, it was created to be good.  And our world and everything on it—including ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures—ultimately belong to God.  All the things that we cling to so deeply are gifts from God, gifts meant not just for us but for us to share with the world.  When we serve our wealth instead of serving God, when we allow our worries about our material possessions to consume our attention and our energy, we tend to pull back in on ourselves.  We want to serve ourselves instead of our God and our neighbors.  We begin to resent God’s call that draws us from our self-centered ways and out to work for the kingdom of God.

Our God is a generous and abundant giver.  We have been given so many blessings, both physical and spiritual.  But these gifts are not for ourselves alone.  We have been given them to equip us to work for God’s kingdom and righteousness, for the spreading of the Gospel in word and deed in our community and throughout the world.  As Saint Paul said in today’s second lesson, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.  Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”  Now, a steward in Paul’s day was an important person: a manager.  The one who made sure the whole household functioned well, that everything was done properly, that all members of the household were cared for and equipped to do their part in maintaining the household.  The steward was the one who made sure resources were used efficiently and responsibly.  Stewards had a lot of responsibility, and a lot of trust was placed in their hands, that they would serve faithfully and well.  But a steward also had to trust his master.  You see, if a steward didn’t trust his master, the steward would start trying to run things his own way, instead of his master’s way.  And that would break up the relationship—it’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you.

We are God’s stewards.  We have been given abundant gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and to work for God’s kingdom.  As a congregation, St. Luke’s has a lot of people from all age groups and walks of life, with a wide variety of skills and talents.  We have financial resources.  We have a good building.  As individuals, and as families, we also have many gifts.  When we focus on our fears and anxieties, we blind ourselves to God’s gifts and allow ourselves to be drawn away from God’s will.  Instead of looking for God’s grace and ways we can live out the Gospel, we pull back in on ourselves to try and conserve our resources.  We don’t trust that God will be there for us, to support us in the things he has called us to be and do.  We believe, but sometimes we fail at putting that belief into action.

Over the last month, Saint Luke has been doing a survey of members—remember those yellow sheets you all got handed out, and asked to pray about?  This congregation has some thinking and praying to do, in the next few months and years, about where God is calling you to go from here, how God is calling you to get there, and how you’re going to answer that calling.  I don’t know where this process will take you, and I won’t be here long enough to see it through myself, but I am sure that God will be with you along the way, and that God will give you the blessings you need to be able to do what God calls you to do.  But you still have to put your trust in God, and choose to be faithful stewards of those blessings.

It’s not always easy to be a faithful steward, because there are a lot of temptations out there in our society.  Jesus spent a lot of time talking about money and wealth.  And a lot of the things he said make us uneasy, because he was fairly critical of it, and we are a nation that worships prosperity and profit.  Jesus criticized those who were blinded by their possessions, whose attention was focused on their bottom line, who forgot that everything they had was a gift from God.  The problem was not the money itself, it was the way they centered their lives around it.  It’s easy to see that flaw in others, but a lot harder to see and change in ourselves.  We have been given many gifts from God—we are rich in blessing, even in this recession.  We are the stewards of all God has given us, and God calls us to use his gifts for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.  May we always be faithful and trustworthy in our management of God’s gifts.

Amen.

Don’t worry: Recession and the God of Abundance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give to God the things that are God’s

I know I’ve talked a lot about money and God and stewardship lately, but the text this last Sunday was so perfectly on that topic that I had to speak on it. Next week will be on a different topic, I promise.

Matthew 22:15-22

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ It sounds fairly simple. Yes, Christians are to pay taxes and be good citizens, while at the same time staying faithful to God. You might say we have dual citizenship—we are citizens of our country here on earth while at the same time we are also citizens of God’s kingdom, which will be fulfilled on earth when he comes again. We need to be good citizens of both heaven and earth, and that means participating in all just requirements of citizenship in our earthly country, including taxes.
But there’s more to this passage than simple advice to be good citizens of both kingdoms. ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ There’s a lot of political debate in our country about what and how much should be taxed, how much should be “given to the Emperor” in the words of today’s lesson, and just about everyone I know has a strong opinion on the subject one way or the other. Here’s something we don’t think about as often: what should be given to God? I know that time and talent sheets have been mailed out, so you’ve probably given this a little bit more thought recently than you usually would. Here’s something to keep in mind.

Jesus divides it up that if it belongs to the emperor, it should go to the emperor, and if it belongs to God it should go to God. But wait a minute. Doesn’t everything belong to God? God created heaven and earth. God created everything, from the planet we live on to the stars and sun that shine above us, to the plants and animals we share the planet with, to our very lives. God created us and everything around us. Everything we have, from our lives to our families to our possessions, is a gift from God. Our salvation through Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, the faith that brought us here today and sustains us through our lives, all are God’s gifts to us. We acknowledge this in our offering prayer, but have you ever really stopped to think about what that means?

We like to think we’ve earned everything we get. Study hard in school, work hard at your job, and you’ll get ahead and earn money to buy things with. But the intelligence that helped us learn and the health that helps us work are both gifts from God, for our use. And the things we buy with our money were all made from resources God has given us. The fabric in our clothing comes from plants and animals created by God, the metal in our cars comes from the planet created by God, the plastics that are in just about everything these days were created from materials given by God using knowledge gained by chemists using the intelligence God gave them. Everything we have comes from God, one way or another. And we have so much.

The Pharisees knew that everything comes from God. That’s what they based their question on—the Romans were foreign overlords who wanted them to worship Roman gods. They didn’t think it was lawful to give anything that belonged to God—including the money for the tax—to the people who ruled them and didn’t want them to remain faithful to God. But at the same time, they were looking at the whole thing from a purely political standpoint, as if God were merely a rival king and paying taxes to his rival were treason. They missed the deeper truth that God is not a petty ruler looking to consolidate his power at the expense of everyone else’s. God gives us everything he gives us because he loves us and wants us to have an abundant life, and he wants us to learn to love and share that abundance he has given us. Giving to God is not just about paying your share of the church’s bills, it’s about taking care of the people all around us, sharing our abundance so that all of God’s children here and around the world can live happy and healthy lives.

When we forget that everything comes from God, when we think of everything we have as things we earned on our own, it’s harder to be generous. We worry about not having enough, about not earning enough and saving enough, particularly when the economy is troubled. So when we do give things to others, we base it on needs and expectations. The church needs to make its operating budget and we are expected to contribute so we figure out what we can comfortably spare. The school band needs money for new uniforms, and we are expected to support them so we buy a sandwich or two. We do what we need to do to stay members of the community in good standing. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good, either.

Give to God the things that are God’s. When you find yourself having trouble with that, remember this: Everything in heaven and on earth belongs to God, and God has given to us everything we have. God will continue to give to us, though perhaps not always in the ways and quantities he has in the past. God wants us to give generously—not just with money but with time and talents, too. God wants us to give, not because it’s expected of us or simply to fill a need, but cheerfully and with love because we have so much to share.

Stewardship isn’t just about paying the bills on time. Stewardship means taking care of the things that have been entrusted to you. It means using them where they will do the most good and passing them on to the next generation. It means recognizing that in the end, everything belongs to God. Including ourselves.

If you have any questions about Christianity, please comment and I will answer them.