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.

A New Kind of Kingdom

Christ the King, Year A, November 25, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

 

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.

 

At the ripe old age of 32, the holiday season turns me into a bit of a curmudgeon. Which holiday season, you may ask? ALL OF THEM, because these days the commercial rush to profit means they’re all in stores at the same time. By the time Halloween was over, the Christmas decorations were up in many stores, with Thanksgiving stuff shoehorned in anywhere it could go and the leftover Halloween costumes still in displays advertising half off. It makes me grumble, because back in MY day, Christmas preparations didn’t start until AFTER Thanksgiving, and there was a break between each holiday to catch your breath. This mish-mashed-everything-at-once is NOT the proper way to do things! Particularly when you consider that in the Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th. The month of December is the season of Advent, where we wait for Christ’s coming. Christmas, the celebration of his birth, doesn’t happen until the actual day! And the Wise Men don’t show up until Epiphany on January 6th!

But today I myself will be guilty of mixing up holiday seasons and mashing them together. You can see by the colors that today is a special day—not many days within the church calendar get the color white. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. The Church year doesn’t begin in January, it begins in late November/early December with the First Sunday of Advent. So, Happy New Year! And, as at the secular New Year, it’s good to take a look back and a look ahead, as we contemplate what it means to proclaim that Christ is King.

What I noticed, as I studied our texts for today, is that the cute little baby we’ll see in the manger a month from now is the king on the throne on the day of Judgment, the one calling all people to account for their behavior in the earthly kingdoms before they enter God’s heavenly kingdom. And that cute little baby is also the one prophesied by Ezekiel in our first lesson, the new King David, who will come to create a kingdom based on justice and mercy, and not the power and inequity our worldly kingdoms are based on. And that baby, lying in a manger, will suffer and die to bring that kingdom to reality.

Let us be honest with one another. Our world, the kingdoms we build, falls far short of God’s desire for us. Instead of the justice God wants, we build up injustice. Instead of mercy, we act all too often out of hate, jealousy, fear, and greed. Consider the sheep metaphor from the first lesson. The strong sheep butted the weaker sheep out of the way so that they could get at the best food and then trampled it so that the weak got nothing. And the strong sheep drank their fill of water, and then fouled up the rest so that the weak sheep didn’t get any. The strong got stronger and the weak got weaker, and the ones who were supposed to shepherd the flock did nothing. That’s kind of like our world. Since the economic bust of 2008, there has been a great recovery in the economy … but outside of North Dakota, most of that recovery has been among the richest Americans, passing the majority of the middle class by and leaving the poor even poorer. Even here, where we’ve got the oil boom to rev up the economy, the number of people in need of help with basics such as rent and food has soared. Some have been left behind. Others have gotten pushed out of the way of progress.

It happens in sports, too. Consider the Sayreville Football team, where ‘hazing’ meant that older players sexually assault younger players. When the coach found out and cancelled the football season, the parents were outraged. Many of the parents of the older boys were more upset that their son couldn’t play than that he had participated in horrible crimes. Consider the many professional sports players who have been caught on tape in the last few years abusing their families: wives, children, girlfriends, and then getting little or no punishment or intervention because their wealth and status protected them from consequences. The powerful abuse the powerless, and use their position to protect themselves from justice.

Think about your own life: how many times have you seen somebody powerful and well-respected get their way, while others get pushed aside? How often have you seen people get hurt by someone else’s desires? How often have you seen someone spoiling something so that nobody else can have it? How often have you been the one getting pushed out, and how often have you been the one doing the pushing? This is not the good and abundant life that God wants for us. This is not the way God wants God’s people to live. This is not the way God’s kingdom will be. In God’s kingdom, there will be justice. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, and all will have enough. In God’s kingdom, there will be no divisions between people. In God’s kingdom, there will be no abuse or domination.

And so God sent a new David, a Messiah, an anointed King to establish his own reign of justice. To call all people to a world in which there is justice for all. Not just for the rich and powerful, not just for the respectable and popular, but for all people. A world where everyone gets enough and nobody gets too much. There’s a reason he was born in a stable, with no room in the inn—this new David, this baby Jesus, this God in human flesh, is going to know with every cell of his being what it’s like to be the one getting shut out in the cold. He’s going to know what it’s like to be hungry, to be naked, to be sick and alone. He’s going to know all this because he’s experienced it, he’s suffered it, he’s been abused and shut out and he knows what it’s like. So every time you see someone suffering from hunger, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone without a home, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone who is sick and alone, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone imprisoned, Jesus is there. We like to focus on the nice pretty stuff—the things as pretty as a newborn baby—and forget the messy stuff. The hard stuff. The painful stuff. But Jesus is present in the pain and grief as much as he is in the joy and healing. No one suffers alone, because Jesus is with them. Jesus, who gets what you’re going through because he’s lived through it.

And this baby Jesus out in the cold is going to grow up. He’s going to give his wisdom and his miracles and his justice to any who will listen—rich and poor, old and young, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless. He’s going to tell them about God’s kingdom. And he’s going to die to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, and one day he’s going to come back and bring those seeds to their full growth. And so, a few weeks before he was killed, Jesus told this story about what his kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom where Ezekiel’s words will be true, a kingdom where the powerful will not abuse the powerless, a kingdom where everyone has enough to eat and clothes to wear and no one is sick or hurting. And as people come streaming in to this awesome, incredible place, this wonderful kingdom, the king will know about us. Our deepest fears, our deepest hopes, the things we did that are worthy of him and the things we wish he didn’t know.

And for some people, the kingdom won’t be completely new. It won’t be completely unexpected, because they’ve been participating in it all along. They’ve been spending their time in this kingdom trying to make it look more like that kingdom. So when they see someone hungry in this world, they feed them. When they see someone thirsty, they give them a drink. When they see someone sick, they take care of them. When they see someone in prison, they visit them. When they see any kind of injustice or abuse, they speak up. Even if they don’t see Jesus in what they do, even if they don’t see Jesus in the faces of the people they help, Jesus is there. Whether or not they’re even looking for him, whether or not they even believe in him, Jesus is there. And he will say to them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But other people are going to get a rude surprise. Because they weren’t participating in the work of the kingdom. They saw people in need, people hurting, and didn’t do anything. Maybe they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Maybe they didn’t think that the people deserved help. Maybe they thought someone else would do something. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they were the ones hurting people, or maybe they benefitted from it. For whatever reason, they haven’t been living the kind of life God calls us to. And so while they’ve been looking for their king in the bright and powerful and glorious places, they’ve been missing the king living among them, in the corners and shoved off to the side and forgotten.

Because that’s the kind of king we have. He doesn’t do what we expect—he doesn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he doesn’t dole out grace by the teaspoon to those who deserve it. He gives of himself freely, to all people. He lifts up the lowly and knocks down the powerful. He feeds his flock with justice, and is present wherever there is pain, or hunger, or thirst, or nakedness, or sickness, or fear, or hate. He brings joy and hope and justice in the midst of hopelessness and he calls his people to do the same. May we lead lives following our king’s commands.

Amen.

Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.