A world of abundance

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Are you in the habit of making New Year’s Resolutions?  Promises to yourself that in the coming year you’ll do something differently?  Many people use New Year’s Resolutions to try and get themselves to live healthier lives: exercise regularly, eat more fruits and vegetables, spend less money on frivolous things, spend less time worrying.  Often the idea is that you pick something that you can do a little bit at a time—for example, exercise for fifteen minutes three times a week—that will add up.  Exercising once won’t do much good, but if you get in the habit and do it regularly, your body will be healthier in the long run.

For Christians, Lent is a time to make (and carry out!) resolutions.  But instead of benefiting your waistline or your pocketbook, Lenten resolutions are designed to benefit your soul.  We call them Spiritual Disciplines, because they take discipline and attention to do them, and because they make us better disciples.  (Did you know that “discipline” and “Disciple” come from the same root word?)  Like New Year’s resolutions, if you can do just a little bit each day, it can make a huge difference in the long run.

One of the most important spiritual disciplines is prayer.  This is one of the foundations of our lives as Christians.  Prayer is about taking time out of our daily lives to lift our concerns and our joys to God, and to listen for God’s Word for us.  Awesome things can and do happen when we pray regularly and sincerely.  Prayer is a way of connecting to God, and allowing God to lead and change us.  (An interesting note: This isn’t just on a spiritual level.  Scientists who study human brains have scanned the brains of people who pray at least fifteen minutes a day at least three days a week, and found that you can actually see things working differently when they pray!)

Reading the Bible regularly (especially with other people) is another important discipline.  The Bible is the story of how God has worked in the world from beginning to end, from Creation to Revelation, and everything in between.  The Bible tells our story, the story that has shaped us as a community, the story of our ancestors in the faith.  The Bible tells the story of how God made us, loved us, saved us, and will always be there in good times and bad.  When we read the Bible together, and talk about it, we can share insights that we couldn’t have thought of on our own.

If you’re not used to reading the Bible, here are a few tips to make it easier.  Use a modern translation of the Bible in a good study version with helpful notes to explain things that might be difficult to understand.  Start with the Psalms or with one of the books that is mostly stories (for example, the Gospels, Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, Jonah, Judges, Kings, Chronicles) because they’re easier to read.  Say a short prayer before beginning to read, then dive in.  As you read, ask yourself questions:  Does this remind you of anything in your own life?  How would you feel if you were one of the people in the story?  Does this connect with any other Bible stories you remember?  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be open to new insights.

Worship is a spiritual discipline that many people practice during Lent.  Worship brings people together to praise God.  It’s one of the foundations of our life together in the community which is the congregation.  Worship can draw us out of our regular, ordinary lives into participating in the presence of God in our midst.  When we regularly attend worship, we are shaped by our participation and are refreshed and strengthened to live as God’s people.  During Lent there are more worship services offered than usual.  I encourage you to attend them regularly.

Fasting is a discipline that is often misunderstood.  Fasting is not about making yourself miserable for the sake of being miserable, nor is it a way of showing your piety publicly by loudly proclaiming what you’ve given up for Lent.  Instead, fasting is about simplicity.  We live very crowded, complicated, busy lives these days.  What in your life separates you from God and from the people around you?  By paring down to the essentials, by getting rid of the things that distract us (even if only temporarily) we provide a space for reconnecting with God and with our fellow human beings.  We give ourselves time and space to be, to get back to the essentials.  If nothing else, we force ourselves to realize just how much of our time and attention is consumed by distractions.  One last thing:  if what you are giving up normally costs you money (eating at restaurants, TV or internet, gas, junk food, etc), try giving away that money that you save by not doing it.

Charity can also be a spiritual discipline.  Christ calls us to love one another as he has loved us, and when God blesses us, God asks us to share that blessing with others.  And yet, we so often walk right by people in need without even noticing them.  Sometimes the needs are monetary, but often what is most needed is a gift of time and attention.  Charity can look like a lot of things.  For example, it can be a morning spent volunteering at the Food Pantry or delivering homemade soup to someone who has been ill.  Charity can be participating in fundraising for local events, or national and international organizations such as Lutheran World Relief, ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Disaster Relief, and many others.  Monetary gifts are most effective when they are combined with our time and attention and our prayers.

Praying, Bible reading, worship, fasting, and charity are the most important spiritual disciplines.  When we practice them regularly, we can live out our discipleship more fully.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, 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.

“With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

Time is very important to us as modern Americans.  Our lives are ruled by clocks and calendars.  Time is measured, weighed, accounted for.  Time is money.  Time is saved and filled and well-spent.  We kill time.  We waste time.  There’s no time like the present.  As children, time seems to drag on.  As adults, time flies.  Whether old or young, time is something we think we can understand, predict, and manipulate.  But as St. Peter points out, God’s understanding of time is not like our understanding of time.  It’s not about hours or minutes or days or years.  God’s time is about what God is doing, and God’s time is about relationships.

Our understanding of time is tied to our understanding of the world.  It’s hard to understand God’s time because we are so caught up in our daily cares and concerns.  We’re particularly aware of time now, in winter, when the days are short and the holidays are close.  The end of the calendar year is coming soon, and Christmas will be here even sooner.  There are, after all, only twenty more shopping days until Christmas.  And there’s a lot to do in those twenty days!  Parties, presents, cleaning, travel—it’s a lot to pack in to a month!  Yes, we want the day of the LORD to come, we want God to make all things new … but we’ve got other things to worry about.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent.  That in itself is a reminder of how different God’s time is from the world’s time.  As the calendar year is fast drawing to a close, the church year—which begins on the first Sunday of Advent—has only just begun.  While the world prepares for presents and parties, we are preparing for the coming of God.  And when the world turns off the Christmas music and packs up the tinsel on the 26th, we will still be celebrating Christmas, and the presence of God with us.

We live now in the between-times.  Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ was born as a child in Bethlehem, in Judea.  And Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, creating a new heaven and a new earth.  Advent is a time of preparation both for celebrating Christ’s coming, both as a child and at the end of the ages.  This is not just a time for remembering and singing beloved favorite songs.  This is a time for looking forward and preparing for the day of the LORD.  As Isaiah and John the Baptist thundered, “Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight!”

Being a Christian is not easy.  We live in the in-between times.  The first Christians expected Jesus to return soon, within months or years of his resurrection and ascension.  And yet, here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting, still caught between the already and the not yet.  Our salvation has been accomplished through the death and resurrection of Christ, and yet the fullness of that salvation will not be known until Christ comes again.  “In accordance with Christ’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”  The first Christians that St. Peter wrote to needed to know how to live in the in-between times, and so do we.  The question is not what must we do to be saved.  We are saved.  The question Peter wants us to ask is this: now that we have been saved, how should we live?

And that’s the question we face today.  We are saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  So how should we live?  Should we retreat into our homes and our churches to wait?  Should we go with the flow of what the world around us does, forgetting that Christ will come again when we least expect him?

No, says Peter.  No, say John the Baptist and Isaiah.  Now that we are saved, we are called to action!  We are called to live in the knowledge that Christ will come.  We are called to let God guide us in doing his will. Comfort my people!  Prepare the way of the LORD!  Make a highway for our God!  Straighten the things that are crooked and level the obstacles, within ourselves and throughout the world.  Open up to the possibility that God wants to use us.  We are called to be God’s hands in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s body, working together for the building up of God’s kingdom.  We wait, but we know the glory of the LORD is coming, and that we are God’s people.

So how do we open ourselves up to God so that he can use us to prepare his way?  Anyone who’s driven the turnpike through the Alleghenies knows that making a straight and level path is no easy task.  There was a lot of rock moved, filled in, and tunneled through to make that road.  It didn’t happen by accident, it took a lot of work and a lot of people working together.  Making a straight road isn’t any easier on a spiritual level.  Physical roads are made with bulldozers, jackhammers, dump trucks, rollers, and a whole host of other tools.  And the crew has a map that tells them where to go and what to do.  If a road crew came out to work with no tools and no map, they wouldn’t get very far and would almost certainly end up in the wrong place.  So what tools and maps has God given us for our spiritual road-building?

You probably know what most of them are already.  And yet, particularly in today’s busy world we so often choose to fill our time and our attention with other things that distract us from the work God has called us to do.  The tools of the Christian trade—the foundations of Christian life—are sometimes called spiritual disciplines, because they’re not always the easiest or most entertaining thing to do.  They are a habit or regular pattern in your life that repeatedly brings you back to God and opens you up to what God is saying to you so that you can follow God’s call.  Spiritual disciplines take time and attention, which is hard to find in today’s busy world.  But without them, we’re like a road crew standing empty-handed on the side of the road.

Prayer is the first of the tools God has given us.  Regular prayer, every day, in good times and in bad.  St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing.  And scientists tell us that regular prayer can reshape our brain and the way we think.  Through regular prayer we lift our concerns to God and receive God’s inspiration and guidance.  What are the obstacles in our lives?  What are the things in the world around us that we should be aware of?  Who around us needs prayer?  Where does God want us to build his road?  Who does God want us to comfort?  Prayer can be closely linked to meditation, a focused attention on communing with God.  Without regular prayer, any roads we build will only be of our own making.

Study is another important spiritual discipline, and a foundation of many others.  God gave us our brains for a reason.  God gave us the Scriptures for a reason.  I know this may come as a shock to quite a number of people in America today, but God did not give us the Scriptures so that they could sit on a shelf and look important.  The Bible is the story of God’s work in the world and in his people from the creation of this world to the beginning of the next.  When we read the Bible, together in groups and on our own, God uses the stories of our ancestors to speak to us today.

Worship is our response to who God is.  Worship is how we come together to respond to God’s blessings.  Worship is coming together to remember who we are, and whose we are.  In worship we come together as a community, and remember that we aren’t alone, that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  Then we hear God’s word preached, and are fed with Christ’s body and blood and strengthened for the work to which we have been called.  Then we are sent out into the world again, renewed and refreshed for the new week.  Through worship, God helps us to hear what he calls us to do and equips us to go out and do it.

Fasting is probably the least practiced spiritual discipline in America.  It doesn’t mean punishing yourself or deprivation.  Fasting is about simplicity.  What in your life is adding to the clutter and minutia that fills your days?  What in your life do you take for granted?  What in your life is distracting you from God?  It seems we are so hungry these days, for money, for attractiveness, for the latest gadget and gizmo. Fasting is about renewing our hunger for God.  When we fast, whether from food or television or cell phones or watches, we take a break from the normal everyday world.  When we fast, we take time to go back to the essentials, filling time and money we would waste with time for building our relationship with God and one another.

Service is another important spiritual discipline.  Americans volunteer a lot, more than most people in the world.  And yet, as Christians we are called to a special kind of volunteering.  We are called to be Christ’s body in the world.  In fact, the ELCA motto is “God’s work, our hands.”  Service is faith in action.  Christian service is about connecting the Gospel with our actions, and letting God use us to do God’s will.

We are waiting for the day of the LORD, for the coming of Christ.  We have been saved, and yet we are still waiting.  But while we wait God has called us to live lives that show that salvation to the world.  We are called to comfort God’s children.  We are called to prepare God’s way, to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ in our words and in our actions.  We don’t do this on our own, but with the tools and guidance God gives us.  May we hear and follow God’s Word.


The Perils of Doing the Minimum

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, November 13, 2011


Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, 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.

What cheerful readings we have today!  The prophet Zephaniah starts us off with a passage about the day of the Lord—a day when the Lord will come in wrath and destruction.  “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  Zephaniah’s words are pretty harsh: blood shall be poured out like dust, and flesh like dung.  One might expect that with such harsh penalties, God would be moving against the really wicked people: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, idolaters, and the like.  But that’s not the case.

The ones God is condemning in today’s reading haven’t done much of anything bad … but they haven’t done much good, either.  They’re the ones who rest on their dregs—the people who are complacent, who coast through life, who do the minimum and play it safe.  God is condemning those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  In other words, what those people were saying was that they didn’t believe God could—or would—act in the world.  They didn’t believe God really mattered in how they lived their day to day lives.  “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  That’s something people might say today!  Let’s be honest with ourselves: how many of us know people who think like that?  How many of us have thought things like that ourselves?

It’s pretty easy to go through life like that.  Comforting.  You can coast through life, get by with resting on your dregs, and doing the minimum.  After all, if God doesn’t care enough to act, why should you?  Why spend the extra effort to do something awesome instead of something ordinary?  Why take the risk of standing up and pointing out the evil and broken things in the world?  Why not just go along to get along?  Why not just take the easy way out and let someone else do the hard work?

The Parable of the Talents is also about someone taking the easy way out.  This parable is told in the middle of a group of four parables about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, again, we’re talking about the coming of the day of the Lord.  And again, the Parable of the Talents has a harsh condemnation of someone who takes the easy way out.

A master entrusted his servants with money before leaving for a long time.  A ‘talent’ was an amount of money worth somewhere between 15 and 20 years worth of wages for an ordinary person.  That was a huge gift—extravagant, awesome, and far beyond anything the servants could earn.  Now, in those days they didn’t have much of a financial system.  They didn’t have reliable banks, or a stock market.  In fact, the prudent thing to do with money was to bury it—that way, it wouldn’t get stolen and you’d have it when you needed it.  And that’s just what the servant who was given one talent did: he buried it.  Nothing bad was going to happen to that money—but nothing good could be done with it, either.  The servant was safe, he thought—he’d done the minimum.  He could rest comfortably in the knowledge that he’d done his part.  The master’s angry response seems a little harsh.  After all, the servant didn’t lose or damage the gift; he didn’t do anything really bad, he just didn’t do much good, either.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a graphic real-world example of the consequences of that attitude.  Jerry Sandusky, a respected and influential member of the Penn State athletic faculty and a leader in a great charity, allegedly raped several boys over the course of several years.  I am sure we are all praying for the health and well-being of his victims.  But Sandusky could only commit his crimes because the people who knew or suspected what was going on, did little or nothing to stop it.  Joe Paterno heard the allegations back in 2002; others witnessed abuse starting (as far as we know) in 1998.  We all know that Coach Paterno is a good man, who has done many great things both on and off the field.  But in this case, he, like several others, did the minimum he was required to do by law: he reported it to his superiors at Penn State.  When the school administrators did nothing, he didn’t pursue the matter.  It was someone else’s problem.  And because all of the people who knew about or suspected the abuse took the easy way out and did the minimum, it went on for years.

Taking the easy way out can be very tempting, and there are so many excuses.  The people in Zephaniah’s day took the easy way out because they didn’t believe God cared.  The servant in the Parable of the Talents took the easy way out because he was afraid of failing.  And a wide variety of excuses and explanations have been offered for the people who knew or suspected about Sandusky’s actions.  We look at the excuses other people give and we see them for the flimsy things they are.  But what about ourselves?  Are we just coasting through life, making excuses for resting on our dregs?

In the Parable of the Talents, there were two other slaves.  They also received extravagant gifts from the master, but instead of taking the easy way out they used those gifts the master had given them.  They took those talents out into the world rather than hiding them away.  Our translation calls them “good and trustworthy,” but that phrase could also be translated “happy and faithful.”  They lived their lives in hope and joy, rather than in apathy, fear, or cynicism.  What would our lives be like if we did the same?  What would our world be like?

God has given us many blessings.  The Lord God Almighty created us, and the whole world around us, everything that is, seen and unseen.  All the good things that we have come from God.  Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin, giving us the gift of salvation which we could never have earned.  Jesus lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose again that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came that we might become children of the light, rather than children of darkness.  The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our advocate.  The Spirit is with us always, inspiring us with God’s wisdom and grace.

God didn’t give us all these things so that we could bury them in the ground, take the easy way out and do the minimum.  God gives us these gifts so that we can enter into God’s joy.  God gives us these gifts so that we could use the blessings we have received to bless others.  God gives us these gifts so that we can be the body of Christ in the world.  May we receive God’s gifts with joy and faithfulness, and use them for the building up of God’s kingdom and the blessing of God’s people.


God’s work, our hands

Today I had the privilege of listening to John Nunes, head of Lutheran World Relief, speak and preach in church.  One of the things he said was that historically, Lutheran World Relief and other Lutheran charities have not had to advertise themselves–Lutherans gave regularly, as congregations and as individuals, and so money that other organizations had to spend on marketing and fundraising, LWR could commit directly to projects.  That’s changing, and so Lutheran World Relief has just had to hire their first director of marketing.  And it seems to me that part of the problem is that we as Lutherans haven’t been good at spreading the word about all the good things we do.  As children of God, we are called not only to spread the Good News, but to be what Luther called “little Christs” to our neighbor, spreading the love of God through tangible means of food, shelter, healing, companionship.  We give and we work, not to earn God’s grace, but to share the love God has given us.  Here are some of the ways we as Lutherans do this:

Lutheran World Relief works in 35 countries throughout the world.  They seek lasting solutions to poverty and injustice in some of the poorest places in the world.  While they do disaster relief, their focus is on building communities and helping people raise themselves out of poverty so that when disasters strike, be they natural or manmade, the people can take care of themselves and are less dependent on the charity of others.  They work with and through local people and organizations, creating sustainable growth and working towards peace and justice.  And they do all that while staying financially stable in today’s economy, and while spending less than ten cents of every dollar on administration (which is an incredible ratio–a lot of charities are good if they get less then twenty cents per dollar for administration).  LWR’s projects include collecting and distributing quilts, health kits, clothing, etc, made by American Lutheran congregations, Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, and gifts (perfect for this holiday season!), disaster relief, and working with people in poor,  rural communities to figure out what they need and find a sustainable way to get it.

Lutheran Services in America is the largest social service organization in America.  It’s larger than Catholic charities, larger than the Red Cross, larger than the Salvation Army.  It’s an alliance of over 300 Lutheran health and human service organizations. Working neighbor to neighbor through services in health care, aging and disability supports, community development, housing, and child and family strengthening, these organizations together touch the lives of one in 50 Americans each year and have aggregated annual incomes over $16.6 billion.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.  For over 70 years, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has led a ministry of welcome to some of America’s most vulnerable newcomers.  They help people seeking safety from persecution in their home countries and reunite families torn apart by conflict. They resettle refugees. They protect vulnerable children who arrive alone in the United States. They advocate for compassion and justice for all migrants.

Lutheran Disaster Response works with local people and volunteers to rebuild lives and communities, both in the initial aftermath of a disaster and in the years of rebuilding that long-term recovery requires.

Through these and other organizations, Lutherans do great work in the world.  I encourage you to give as you are able, of your money, time, and talents.  And spread the news about what we do!

Up and Down religion

You know what the most common theological problem among Christians is?  It’s that, without realizing it, we all tend to twist our religion into something about us, that despite its trappings has very little to do with our lord and savior Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

We are slaves to sin.  This is not something we want to admit to anyone, least of all ourselves.  We want to believe that we are fundamentally in control of our own lives and our own destinies.  We want to believe that we can get into heaven on our own merit.  This is “up religion” because We want to believe we can climb up to heaven by ourselves.  Even if we can’t control everything, we want to control what we can–there’s an old slogan, “Do your best and let God do the rest.”  In other words, most of it rests on us–God just fills in the gaps between what we can do and what we can’t.  To make ourselves feel better about our failures, we look around us for people who fail more often than we do, so that we can say “Well, at least I’m better than them.”  It leads to works righteousness, the belief that we can create a right relationship with God and with the world around us (be righteous) by doing good works to make up for any sin we might do.  It also leads us to turn our focus into our self, a kind of theological navel-gazing.  It’s about what we want, not about what God wants.

The problem with “up religion” is that however much we might like the idea, it doesn’t fit what we know of God.  God’s deepest and most fundamental relationship with humanity is through Christ Jesus–who did not stay up in heaven and invite us up, but came down to meet us and promised to be with us always down here on Earth in our daily life.  Christ Jesus became an ordinary human, and he took our sins on himself through crucifixion–the messiest, most painful, most shameful death imaginable to the time and place he lived.  We are sinners and we can’t do enough good to balance out our sin, but God loves us anyway.  We cannot climb up to heaven–and if we do, all we will find is a distorted mirror of our own desires, a god made in our image.  Instead, God comes down to us and claims us as we are.  We cannot go out to find God, but God does come to find us.  We can shut God out of our lives, but we cannot bring him in by our own efforts.

So how do we keep from slipping into an “up” religion?  First, be aware of the difference.  When you think about anything related to God or religion, ask yourself if you’re thinking about it in an “up” way or a “down” way.  Is it about you, or is it about God?  Are you leaving space for God to work in you and in your life?  Do you accept the fact that you are not the one in control of your life?  You won’t be perfectly open to this all the time; all have sinned, remember, and “up” religion is one of the most natural heresies to slip into.  But that’s okay.  God loves you anyway.

Mary and Martha: what really matters

Luke 10:38 – 11:1 38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this Bible story. Jesus comes to teach, and one sister stays to listen while the other sister takes care of the hospitality. The sister who works is jealous of the sister who doesn’t, and tries to get Jesus to come in on her side and make her sister help. This passage has been used many times over the centuries to argue that study and contemplation are holier and more worthy than working; more troublingly, this passage has been used to dismiss the contributions women make to the church and to society at large. After all, the argument goes, the traditional main role of women is to support and care for people—just as Martha says—and Jesus says that the role of religious study and contemplation is more worthy.

But let’s take a closer look at this passage. Jesus does not condemn Martha’s actions, but the way in which she carries them out. Martha is worried and distracted by many things. Martha is more worried about the work to be done than she is in why it needs to be done.

Let’s be realistic. There’s a lot of support work out there that needs to be done, whether it falls under the realm of “women’s work” or not. No church, family, or community can long survive without it. But all too often, when we do the support work that everything else depends on, we get so caught up in the details that we forget why we’re doing it. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We get worried and distracted by many things, just like Martha.  Here in the church office, it’s easy to get so caught up in finding a new coordinator for the food pantry, dealing with building renovations, scheduling visits with shut-ins, and such, that we forget why we as Christians need food pantries, buildings and people who can’t come to church.

We need to remember that the details that distract us are not the big picture. No matter how important they may be to daily life, they are not the ultimate goal of life. As Christians, our focus is in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We are freed from sin and death to become children of God, and are called to spread the Good News of God’s redeeming love to all the world. When life’s distractions get overwhelming and we find ourselves worried by many things and many responsibilities, we need to take a page out of Mary’s book and take the time to remember what our true center and focus is.  We run food pantries because of God’s saving call for justice and healing for all including (especially!) the poor.  We need buildings to provide a base for our worship of God and our spread of the Gospel.  We need to care for shut-ins because they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, members of the body of Christ.  What distractions do you have in your life?  How do they keep you from remembering the “big picture”?

If you have any questions about God, Christianity, or the Christian faith, please comment and I will address them next week.

Doing the Right Thing: Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2008

Lectionary 22 / Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Sunday, August 31

Jeremiah 15:15-21

Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

Sermon podcast

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.

There is a banner that hangs over the door to the gym in Talmadge Middle School in Independence, Oregon. It’s one of many inspirational quotes and slogans that decorate the halls of that school. It says: “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right.” The banner was there every day of the three years I went to school there, but few of the students ever bothered to read it, or apply it to their lives if they did. I know I read it, decided it was true, and promptly forgot about it.

Doing the right thing is hard, when it’s not the popular thing. It’s much easier, not to mention a lot more fun, to go with the flow and do what everyone else is doing. It’s safer, too—no danger of looking stupid or preachy or offending people. And let’s face it: most of the choices we have to make every day, most of the things we do, aren’t exactly life-shattering choices. Nobody lives or dies, nobody gets rich or poor, nobody’s soul is saved or lost. We may not always do things that are exactly right, but they’re not exactly wrong, either. The banner above the gym door is true, but it’s not what we want to hear.

Jeremiah lived by that truth. He’d been called by God to be a prophet, to bring God’s word to the people of Israel. It’s been said that a prophet’s job is to speak truth to power, even when that’s not what the power wants to hear. Jeremiah went one better: he spoke the truth to everyone. And no one wanted to hear it. Our first lesson today comes from one of Jeremiah’s laments. He complains that people are persecuting him because he’s speaking the words God has told him to speak. Jeremiah was attacked and accused of treason for doing what God wanted him to. But in today’s lesson, God tells him that this persecution isn’t going to last forever; in the end, God’s will will be done, and Jeremiah will be saved. More than that, eventually the people of Israel will heed Isaiah’s words and return to doing the right thing, to behaving like the people of God, and not just paying lip service to their faith while doing the easy thing, the popular thing.

It must have seemed an incredible, almost unbelievable, idea. Israel had been doing the popular thing for a long time. They’d demanded that God give them a king so they could be “like their neighbors,” and although David and Solomon and a few others had been good rulers, most had been utter disasters. Israel had focused on trade and their economy, and they’d produced an upper class that could rival the neighboring countries in wealth, but at the cost of trampling on the poor and oppressed. They’d learned to play power-politics, staking their safety and freedom on military alliances and power blocs, playing one neighboring nation off against another. Some of them had even adopted the gods of the nations around them. Most people worshipped as God had commanded, gave lip service to God’s laws, and went on with their daily lives as if it made no difference. Their minds were set on human things. God had brought them out of Egypt and freed them from slavery to be a chosen people, holy, a royal priesthood, but they behaved no differently than anybody else.

It’s no wonder they didn’t like Jeremiah; he called them on everything they were doing wrong, and told them that this time, they weren’t going to escape the consequences of their actions. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it wasn’t what they wanted to believe. Most of the Israelites weren’t bad people, after all, and most of them worshipped God according to Israel’s traditions. Surely they hadn’t done anything bad enough to warrant conquest. Surely something would happen to turn the tide and restore Israel to safety and prominence. It’s true, the northern kingdom of Judah had already been conquered, and the Babylonians were right outside their gates; there was still a good chance they might be bribed, or perhaps an alliance with Egypt would provide the military might to drive the invaders from their lands.

I’m sure the people of Israel felt they had many good reasons to disregard Jeremiah’s warnings. What good would repentance and changing their way of life, their way of thinking, do against an invading army? They went about their business as usual, ignored the word of God in their midst, and hoped for the best. But in the end, all their power politics and riches couldn’t save them. They were conquered by Babylon and taken into exile. Many fled to Egypt to escape; Jeremiah wanted to stay in Israel but was forced to leave his homeland for Egypt. God’s assurances that all would be well in the end must have been even more unbelievable then than they had been when they were made.

Like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, Peter, too, had his mind set on human things. You may recall from last week’s Gospel that Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. It’s a profound insight; it’s the first time in Matthew’s gospel that anyone but the narrator has called Jesus that. You’d think that the person who is spiritually-minded enough to realize that just a few verses earlier would get what Jesus is trying to say now, but Peter is still too focused on human things. According to the beliefs of the time, the Messiah was supposed to be a political figure, a king just like his ancestor David who would drive out the Romans and their puppet-kings and restore Israel to its former glory as a nation. True, there would be some religious changes, but in support of the political restoration, not in place of it. Suffering? Death? What kind of revolutionary goes in predicting that ahead of time? What kind of revolutionary counts that as success? And even if you ignore the political aspects of the Messiah’s coming, how could suffering and death possibly be according to the will of God?

Peter’s not alone in thinking that, of course; how many people today assume that when something bad happens, it means God has abandoned us? How many people assume that if God loves you and you have the right faith, you’ll always be happy and healthy and rich? How many people assume that faith is nothing more than coming to church on Sunday, and ignoring it the rest of the week, as if God was a decoration you could take out on Sunday and store in a box the rest of the time? How many people who believe that are sitting in our pews right now?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We tend to think of the cross sentimentally, today. We sing hymns about it, we create beautiful artwork, we wear it as jewelry. If we think about “bearing our crosses,” we tend to think about things like arthritis, having to deal with annoying people, the kinds of problems everyone deals with all the time. That’s not what the disciples were thinking about when they heard Jesus say those words.

This is what they were thinking about: crucifixion was the ugliest, most painful, most shameful death the Roman Empire could come up with—and remember that this is a people who considered fights to the death to be a form of public entertainment. Criminals condemned to crucifixion were dragged naked through town, carrying a part of the thing that was going to kill them on their back, mocked by everyone who saw them. Then they were nailed to their cross—heavy, iron spikes driven through their hands and feet—and hung up in the air by those wounds for hours in the hot sun. They didn’t die from blood loss or pain, they died when their bodies became too weak and tired to hold their chest up to breathe anymore and they suffocated. And it took a long time, while the whole city watched and jeered. Take up your cross? What kind of insanity is that? Who would follow a Messiah who promised that as the reward?

Someone who had their mind set, not on human things, but on divine. Paul gives us a brief outline of what this mindset looks like in our second lesson: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul’s words give us a pretty picture of what life as a Christian is supposed to be like. It’s not as easy as he makes it sound of course, particularly in days like our own when hate and fear and evil seem to be everywhere, from local crime to national politics to international terrorists and wars. But oh, God, think of what life could be like if we could all genuinely live the way Paul tells us to, lives full of love and compassion and joy and harmony, a peace of mind and spirit too deep to be explained, even in times of trouble. Think of what life could be like, if we truly put our trust and our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, the true Messiah who comes not for political or military revolution, but to save us from our sins, make us children of God, and show us how to live lives of truth and justice and grace. Think of what we could be if we put our faith in God, instead of our money and our power and our politics. If we were ruled by hope instead of fear. If we did what was right, instead of what was popular.

Living that way means that you can’t always take the easy way out. It means you can’t hide behind the excuse that everyone else is doing it. It also means that people aren’t always going to like what you have to say, or what you do. Few people in America risk death or imprisonment on account of their faith as Jeremiah did, but ridicule and discrimination, both obvious and not, are certainly possible. Focusing on divine things instead of human things doesn’t mean everything in your life will go well, or that God will reward your faith with material prosperity. But it does mean that no matter where you go, no matter what happens to you, God will be with you, to guide and protect and care for you.

Jeremiah died in exile in Egypt. We don’t know how he died; we do know that he never stopped calling the people of God to repentance and new lives of faith, and that once the worst had happened, his words turned to comfort and hope for the future. Peter was crucified in Rome, after years of working tirelessly to spread the Gospel. Yet they were never alone, for God was with them, and when they died, God was waiting to welcome them into the rooms prepared for them. May we, like them and all the saints that came before us, learn to keep our minds on God’s will, instead of our own. Amen.

In the world but not of it: Christians and the World

Not long ago, I heard someone saying that the world was evil and sinful and that Christians should avoid and ignore the world, focusing instead on the coming reign of God. The role of Christians in the world around it has been debated since the very beginning, but I would disagree with the idea that the world is completely evil, and so does Lutheran theology. The devil can’t create anything; only God can create things. All the devil (or sin and evil, if you prefer not to believe in an actual “devil”) can do is warp things.

God created the whole world and all that is in it. He is present in all things, always beside us in the world. Nothing that God has created can ever be wholly evil. It can be twisted by the devil and used for evil purposes, but it is not by nature evil. Everything we have, everything in heaven and on Earth, is daily given, sustained, and protected by God. That includes the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Now, both can be used for bad purposes, but being fed and clothed is good, right? Some things are easier to misuse than others, but that doesn’t mean that that they are by nature evil. God provides for us through the things he has created, through the whole world we live in and all the creatures that inhabit it. Our daily needs are fulfilled as gifts from God, not evil things from the devil.

It is true that the world is broken and twisted by sin, and so is everyone who lives in it, including you and me. This is not because human nature is bad. God created human nature to be good, and recognizes it as his own work even as sinful as we are now. After the fall, we became corrupted by sin so deeply that nothing is left whole and pure and only God can separate the sin from our nature. Even when we try to do good, we don’t always succeed, and we’re not always as focused as we should be on doing good. Both goodness and sin are present at the same time and in the same place.

We know that we are held captive by sin and cannot free ourselves. We depend on God’s grace and love to free us from the dominion of sin. It isn’t just individuals who are captive to sin, either—all of creation is. Theologians like to talk about “systemic sins”—that’s a fancy way of saying that everything is affected by sin, and it’s not always traceable to single people or causes. Things like poverty, war, hunger, homelessness, inability to afford medical care—those things are sins that are not the result of any one person’s action or inaction. They just are. As Christians, it is our job to bring Christ’s redeeming presence into the world, in both word and deed, to individuals and communities. Sometimes that means rejecting parts of the world that are most twisted by sin. Sometimes that means going out into the world as God’s hands and feet, to bring good news and healing through word and deed. It always means shining a light in darkness and treating others with the same love and forgiveness God has granted us.

As Christians, we are in the world but not of it. Our true home is the kingdom of God, and yet we live here in this flawed and fallen world. Although the world is God’s good creation, it is also twisted by sin. We love the goodness while hating the sin. It can be difficult to balance the two perspectives. Being God’s children means we can’t just withdraw and write off everything as evil and bad. God called us and loves us despite our own sins, and renews us every day. As God’s children, we are sent out into the world to bring that healing where we can. We can’t fix everything; only God can do that when he comes in glory. But we can, with God’s help, make a difference in the lives of those around us, through prayer and action.

If you have any questions about Christianity, Christian life, or Christian theology, please leave a comment and I will address it next week.

Bearing fruit: good works, not works righteousness

Some people believe that if you do enough good deeds, if you follow God’s word perfectly enough, you can earn God’s forgiveness (and that if you don’t do enough good works, you’ll go to Hell). This is called “works righteousness” because it is based on a belief that our righteousness comes from the good works we do, instead of God’s grace. The problem with this belief is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). The grace of God is that even though we are all sinners, God still loves us and sent God’s only son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sin so that we could be saved. There is nothing we can do that would make God love us less, and nothing we can do on our own to earn the love and forgiveness God has already given us; works righteousness doesn’t work. But just because good works can’t “earn” us salvation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good things.

God loves us no matter what we do. Our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.) Our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith, and that faith is a gift of God that we call grace. When our sins are forgiven, our relationship with God is made right. The technical term for this is “justification.” That’s what Lutherans mean when we say we are justified by grace through faith. This is intended to be a comfort; we never have to worry that we have done enough good things to make God happy with us.  Good works have nothing to do with salvation. HOWEVER, you can’t just stop there.

We are saved by God’s grace when he justifies us, but there’s more to the Christian life than just coming into a right relationship with God. Once you are justified, then it becomes a question of living out your faith. We have been given a new life through Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. There’s an old saying: “if being Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Living as a Christian is called “sanctification.” And part of living as a Christian—being sanctified—is doing good works. We don’t do good works out of fear of going to Hell; we know that God will always love us and redeem us whether we do good works or not. We do good works because we love God and God loves us; he wants us to do good things, and we want to make him happy. Doing good works is a form of praise to God, just as surely as singing hymns or praise songs is.

I’m sure you can all remember Bible passages that talk about bearing good fruit or having the fruit of the Spirit. (For example, the parable of the sower in Mark 4, John 15:4-9, Ephesians 5:8-20, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 3:8, Romans 7:4, and many others.) As Christians, the Holy Spirit works within us, and inspires us to do things that are pleasing to God.  This is what it means to bear good fruit: to have the Spirit working within us, helping us to do good things. God loves us no matter what we do, but he wants us to live fruitful lives. God wants us to help others who need help. God wants us to do the right thing, not because we are afraid, but because we love God and we love our fellow human beings, and doing good works is a way of showing that love.

Christ died to forgive our sins and through that forgiveness the Holy Spirit comes to us. Forgiveness of sins is Justification, and giving the Holy Spirit is Sanctification. They’re not the same thing, though they are closely related.  When Christ saves us, he calls us to live as Christians, and to live out our faith in our daily lives. Each day we are renewed in faith and love by the Holy Spirit. Doing good works is our way of responding to that call. Good works are not necessary for salvation, period. But they are necessary for living according to God’s call. We do them not out of fear, but out of love and respect.

We should also remember that even though good works won’t save us, they do give us other rewards. Here on Earth they make others happy, and they do store up treasures for us in heaven. They don’t grant us salvation, but they do give bonuses once we have been saved.

If you have any questions about the Christian faith, Christian life, or theology, please leave a comment.