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?

Selective Hearing

Lent Wednesday 3, March 2nd, 2016

Isaiah 50:4-5, Psalm 40:1-8, Matthew 13:10-17

 

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.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes people have selective hearing?  When you’re calling for them to come and do something they don’t want to do, gee, they just didn’t hear you calling them!  It isn’t their fault, you were just too quiet.  But when you’re telling them what they want to hear, oh, boy, howdy, their ears work just fine.  Any parent who’s ever had to tell a child to go brush their teeth and get ready for bed has experienced this, as has anyone who’s ever tried to give their spouse a list of chores.  Sometimes, it’s a relatively small thing they don’t want to hear, and results in nothing worse than a child being a few minutes late getting into bed.  Sometimes, it’s a bit bigger, like when a friend doesn’t want to admit they said something really hurtful, and so they laugh it off as if it were a joke, and ignore the pain they caused someone that they claim to care about.  And sometimes selective hearing is a big enough deal that people die because they weren’t willing to hear the truth.  For example: Some parenting gurus claim that vaccines cause autism.  That is not true, and extensive research has disproven it, and many scientists and public health advocates have said so loudly and publicly.  When people choose to listen to bad advice instead of good science, they don’t vaccinate their kids—and so people in America died this year from diseases like diphtheria, rubella, and whooping cough which had been virtually eliminated.

There are a lot of voices out there.  Some of them are good, some are bad, some aren’t really either.  Some are healthy, and some are not.  We have to choose what to listen to, what’s right and true and what’s not.  And which voices we listen to shapes our perspective on the world.  What we hear—what we choose to listen to—affects our minds, our hearts, our hands, and our eyes.  And it affects our relationships, too. Hearing is the basis of most communication.  If you’re not willing to listen to what someone else is saying, no communication is possible.  And it’s not just a matter of acknowledging the words, either.  You have to acknowledge what they mean by those words, and that can be the hardest thing of all.

There are a lot of things out there we don’t want to hear, and so we choose not to listen.  How many times have you seen someone behaving self-destructively, doing things that will only result in pain and misery for themselves and other people?  Maybe it’s relying on drugs and alcohol.  Maybe it’s the way they’re treating themselves and others around them.  Maybe it’s something else.  You can tell them why they should change their behavior until they’re blue in the face, but until they’re willing to open their ears and listen it doesn’t matter what you say.  Or maybe you’ve been the one in that position, destroying your life for what you think are the best of reasons, setting yourself up for a fall, closing your ears to all the people who want to help and convincing yourself that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

But that’s not all.  Sociologists have found that in the vast majority of cases, people only see or hear what they expect to see or hear.  That’s one of the reasons why prejudice is so damaging.  Because we only pay attention to the things that match our understandings of the way the world works.  If you think scientists are untrustworthy and doctors are in the pay of Big Pharma, you may discount their words when they explain that vaccines are safe and necessary to prevent disease.  And then you won’t vaccinate your kids, and disease will spread more easily.  If you think Mexicans are lazy bums, you’ll notice every time a Latino takes a break … but you won’t notice how hard he works between them.  If you think a woman is promiscuous, and she gets raped, you’ll be more inclined to listen to and sympathize with the rapists side of the story than the victim’s side.  And in all these cases, you will think you have seen and heard everything, but in reality you will only be seeing and hearing the things that agree with your opinions.

And much as we all might like to think otherwise, our own opinions don’t always agree with God’s opinions.  And when that happens, well, we choose not to hear God’s voice at all.  Or we may only hear the parts of it that we can twist into agreeing with us.  And I bet you that you are thinking right now of people you know who do this, because it’s really easy to see where someone you don’t agree with is doing it.  Liberals spot it right off when conservatives do it, for example, and conservatives notice when liberals do it, but we almost never see when we ourselves are doing it.  We shut our eyes and our ears, and don’t understand because we don’t want to understand anything that doesn’t agree with us.

If we depended only on our own ability to hear the truth, we would be trapped in a world of lies.  But we are not dependent on our own abilities, because God can and does work in us to open our ears to the truth.  Thank God for the power of God’s Word, that can break in even when we don’t want it to, and open our eyes and our ears.  May we learn to listen as God would have us do.

Amen.

Living in the Story

Reformation Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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.

 

Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we celebrate the formation of the Lutheran Church—and all other Protestant Christian groups, such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and all the rest. And continuing in God’s Word was one of the big themes of the Reformation. You see, before the Reformation it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local language. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek; European Christians used a Latin translation for study and worship. But by the 1500s, the only people who understood Latin any more were scholars and priests and nobles. Your ordinary Joe or Jane on the street couldn’t read it, so they couldn’t read the Bible. They knew Bible stories—they knew the stories backwards and forwards. The stories got told and re-told, used as the basis of plays and songs and such. But only the church hierarchy read them directly from the Bible, and so only the church hierarchy could interpret God’s Word. Everyone else just had to accept what the priests and bishops told them.

This was to protect people from error, the church said. I’m sure many of you have had times when you are talking with someone about the Bible, and they come up with something that is completely out of left field, something that goes contrary to everything you believe about God’s Word. Well, if only the clergy can read the Bible—if ordinary people can’t read it, much less study it—that can’t happen, because the church is in control. (This assumes, of course, that the church hierarchy will always interpret God’s Word correctly.) This was a matter of theology; it was about saving souls by protecting them from error. But it was also about protecting the church’s power. And so throughout Europe it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local languages of English, German, and all the rest. And by illegal, I mean it was a capital crime. William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible. John Wycliffe died of natural causes, but they dug up his body from its grave, burned it, and scattered his ashes in the river. And the only reason they didn’t kill Luther for translating the Bible into German was because he went into hiding until enough powerful people listened to his message that he would be safe. All for the crime of wanting people to be able to read the Bible. Wanting people to be able to dwell in God’s Word.

We take it for granted these days. We have Bibles everywhere, many different translations, which many of us don’t read as much as we think we should. Imagine what Wycliffe or Tyndale or Luther would have thought of that! I’m sometimes guilty of not reading my Bible as I should myself. But I want to back up, a little bit, and think about what Jesus meant when he said we should continue in his Word. Because even when we read the Bible, I think we sometimes miss the point, a little bit.

The word translated here as “continue” is “menw” which also means remain, dwell, abide. Later in the Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him and he will abide in them? The word he uses, that’s translated “abide”? That’s menw. And in today’s lesson, when he says the slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household but the son has a place forever? The word he uses to talk about remaining in the household is “menw”. It means live, stay, continue, dwell. Literally, it means to pitch a tent. This is the word you use when you want someone to pull up a chair, crack open a nice cold can of soda, and get comfortable. It’s not just about plodding through it, or about carrying something around with you. It’s about staying somewhere, building something.

That’s the way, Jesus says, we should approach his Word. But do we? All too often, when people use the Bible, it’s in a fairly shallow and superficial way. We read it because we’re supposed to, memorize bits of it as lists of rules or quotes to stick on things, and then promptly forget about it, God’s Word lost in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. We pull it out when we can use it to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. We pull it out on special occasions. But we don’t live in it. We don’t dwell in it. We don’t pitch the tent of our lives in it.

I think back to those medieval peasants who couldn’t read the Bible. They never read it, but they turned out in droves to watch plays based on it, they sang about it, they wrote poems about those stories that they had heard and seen, they let those stories fill their hearts and minds. We have the precious gift of being able to read God’s word directly, yet we seldom take it as seriously.

Scientists tell us that human beings think in stories. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are shape how we think and speak and act. The stories we tell about other people shape how we treat them. The stories we tell about life and the world guide how we live our lives. Think about your favorite TV show, book, or movie: think about how it moves you. Think about how you care about the characters. Think about that sense of rightness you feel when something happens that fits with the world as you understand it—or when something in your real life echoes something you saw or read. When a story affects us powerfully, we will look for things in our life that confirm that story as true. We will see patterns that connect to that story, even if they’re not really there and the story is fiction. If you tell someone a fact, and then tell them a false story that contradicts the fact, they will believe the story even though they know it’s a lie. This is how a lot of politicians operate. If you tell a story often enough, people will believe it even if it’s a lie. You know those stories you hear about people using food stamps to buy iPads and things? Those are lies; you literally cannot use food stamps to buy those, the debit card only works in grocery stores and even then not all departments of the grocery store. But it doesn’t matter how often you point this out, people believe the stories instead of the facts. Because stories, even false stories, are more powerful than facts. If even TV shows, movies, and books can do that—if even the lies politicians tell can do that—imagine what dwelling in God’s Word can do.

We have the truest story of all, the story of how God created the cosmos, and us, how God chose us and called us and saves us, the story of God acting in the lives of God’s people throughout history. We call it the Bible. What would it be like if we let that story be as real to us, as important to us, as the stories we watch on TV? If we spent as much time thinking about those stories as we do thinking about Game of Thrones or The Office or NCIS? How would that shape us as people of God? And how could we even do that?

It’s not about reading, or not just about reading. It’s about opening yourself up to the story. Who are the people in the story, and how are they like us? How are they different from us? What would you have done, if you were there with them?   Even if the only time you read the Bible is when you’re in church, you can do that. Listen actively, and put yourself in the story. Because you are a part of the story—God’s Word didn’t stop when the last words of the Bible were written. God is still speaking to us today, through the Bible but also sometimes through our experiences in the world. Let’s take the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” as an example. Now, you may have heard that Martin Luther based on Psalm 46, which we read today, and if so, you probably were confused, because there are some pretty big differences between the two. First off, there are no “mighty fortresses” in the Psalm; instead, the psalmist talks about God as “our refuge and strength.” And “A Mighty Fortress talks a lot about the Devil and about Jesus, neither of which are mentioned in the Psalm.

But let’s consider Martin Luther’s world. It was a VERY dangerous time. The Ottoman Empire—which ruled Turkey—kept invading up into Europe, getting as far as Hungary and Austria, which are pretty close to Germany, where Luther lived. There was religious violence, civil war—you name it, they had it. What kind of refuge and strength did people need in Luther’s day? A big huge fortress to protect them from rampaging armies. So that’s what Luther wrote about. And Luther really struggled with the devil’s influence—he had dreams and nightmares about Satan all the time. So that’s another thing that God was his refuge from, another thing that God gave him strength to deal with. He read Psalm 46 and saw himself in it, and in “A Mighty Fortress” he wrote about what God was doing there in 16th Century Germany. Luther knew that he was a part of God’s story, the stories of the Bible.

The story isn’t over. The story will never be over, and we are a part of it. The stories in the Bible didn’t just happen to people with funny names in funny clothes a long time ago; the stories in the Bible are our stories, too. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Whether you read your Bible a lot or a little, remember that you are a part of the story.

Amen.

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.

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

 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.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.