Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.

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The Wedding Robe

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

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 had that dream where you’re going to something important—work or school, usually—and you get up in front of everyone and you realize you’re naked? Yeah. That one. Or a dream when you have something important you’re supposed to do and you realize when you get there that you’ve forgotten the one crucial thing you can’t do without. I think everyone gets those dreams, at least sometimes in their life, and some people get them more often than others. If you get that dream often, this Gospel reading may have struck a chord. Because in it, Jesus tells a parable about a king hosting a huge banquet for the wedding of his son, and the very last detail of the story is that he spots a guest who isn’t dressed properly—who doesn’t have a wedding robe—and throws him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t dressed right, so out he goes.

Which is kind of weird, because the king has spent most of the parable doing everything he can to get people in the front door in the first place. There are no qualifications to getting invited in. The best people in the land get invitations, and so do the worst people. Rich and poor, good and bad, old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, everyone gets invited. The king makes a huge deal about this: the feast is for everyone. He sends his servants out to bring in everyone they find. Not just those who can afford to dress in the latest fashions, or the ones who are of the right social circle to know what to wear to a wedding, everyone. And then the one guy gets thrown out. But when you think about it, he can’t have been the only one who wasn’t dressed properly—who didn’t have time to change, or who didn’t own a wedding robe—when the king’s servants came to get him. So it just doesn’t make sense that he gets thrown out.

Parables are stories that teach, they’re metaphors, they’re images that invite us in and invite us to put ourselves in the story. To ask questions, and to think about God in a new way. Now, obviously, no story about human beings can contain all that God is and all that God does. Which is why there are so many parables. Together, they add up to a larger story about who God is and what God is doing.

Some things about the parables are obvious. For one thing, many of them are about parties. When you look at all the parables about parties and all the stories about parties and feasts in the Bible and all the visions and dreams about parties and feasts, it’s pretty clear that God loves a celebration. And so many of the parties in those parables and stories and visions are metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven that whenever you come across a party or a feast, you should be thinking about God’s Kingdom in the back of your head. Similarly, most of the time you come across a parable of a king or landowner or master, God is being compared to the king or landowner or master. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the king or master is God, just that God is like that king in some way.

In this parable, we have a party, and a king. And we have a lot of invitations—God is calling people in, and they’re not listening, but those invitations go out to everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Just like God’s call to salvation goes out to everybody. So far, so good. But then we get to the dude who doesn’t have a wedding robe, and gets thrown out on his ear. And that’s where the Bible commentaries start to have problems.

If the party is like heaven and the king is like God, what the heck does the wedding robe symbolize? There are no other parables about wedding robes, so we can’t look elsewhere for help. What could anyone possibly do—or fail to do—that would get them thrown out of heaven once they were already in? And the outer darkness—does that stand for hell? We today spend a lot more time thinking about hell than people did in the Bible, Christians have spent the last two thousand years imagining ever more horrible hells and trying to figure out who’s going to hell and who isn’t, and then taking those speculations and reading them into the Bible. Is this hell, or is it something else, and is it permanent? What I mean is, could the guy go home and get a wedding robe and be allowed back in, or is he doomed to stay in the outer darkness forever? And is it the guy’s lack of a robe that causes him to be thrown out, or the fact that he didn’t answer the king? And what does it mean that many are called but few are chosen? Does that mean chosen to enter God’s kingdom, or chosen to have a specific role, or what?

This is where all those old nightmares about showing up to school naked start running through peoples’ heads, except worse. Because when you wake up from one of those nightmares, you sigh in relief, get up and go to the closet and you know what to wear and you just have to put it on and go. In the light of day it’s no big deal. But we don’t know what the robe symbolizes. We don’t! So we can’t just go to the closet and pull it out and go about our business, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got it covered and we’re in like Flynn. I mean, people have claimed it means all kinds of things that we should or shouldn’t do, but everyone has a different answer. And like I said, we Christians have spent two thousand years imagining worse and worse hells and more and more reasons why people are going to them, and Americans tend to like neat and simple answers to faith questions, and there isn’t one for this question.

Here are a few things to think about. First, Jesus was talking to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees when he told this parable. They were part of the people of Israel, the first people God had called, and they thought they knew what God wanted of them. They took it for granted that they had all the answers. They were so certain they knew what God wanted that even when God stood in front of them as Jesus, they couldn’t accept that they might not know everything. In the terms of the parable, they thought they were wearing the wedding robe and already in at the feast. They were wrong.

Second, let’s remember God’s history of calling people. God is incredibly persistent. Even when people turn away and reject him, God keeps calling them. Take our first lesson: the people of Israel turning away from God to worship a statue they made. God got angry, but God didn’t abandon them. God was faithful even when they were not. The whole pattern of the Old Testament is people turning away from God, facing the consequences, and being called back and forgiven and welcomed. Any interpretation of this parable has to take that history into account.

Then there’s the matter of the robe. True, there are no other wedding robes in the parables, but remember the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son, who has rejected his father and gone away to live on his own, hits rock bottom and comes back expecting to get thrown out on his ear or, at best, given a job as a servant, his father gives him a new, wonderful outfit and throws him a party to welcome him home. In that parable, the guy was already in the place where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—the pig-sty, where he was starving. He comes home and his father gives him everything he could ever want, far more than he dared to ask for.

And in Paul’s letters, he talks several times about being “clothed in Christ.” That is, when we are baptized, we are reborn as children of God, and we wear Christ’s love and sacrifice for us as if it were a garment. And that clothing, that “robe,” if you will, is nothing we have or make or do, but it is given to us by God. That’s why people being baptized, from babies to adults, often wear white robes. It’s why Confirmation students wear white robes, too. And it’s why, in some churches, they have a white garment called a pall that is draped over the casket at funerals. It symbolizes Christ, whose love and mercy and forgiveness wraps around us like a warm fuzzy bathrobe, an invisible garment that we wear twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And that love is more important than anything we do or don’t do. So when you hear about this dude with no wedding robe, think about the prodigal son, and about the wonderful garment that is Christ.

I can’t tell you what Jesus meant, for sure, with all the details of this parable. I can’t tell you what the robe means, or why the guy didn’t have an answer for the king, or what the outer darkness is for sure. I can’t give you neat certainties and easy answers, because that’s not how Jesus works and that isn’t what the parables are for. But I can tell you this, for certain and sure: God calls everyone. No matter who, no matter where, God calls everyone. And the love and grace given to us in Jesus Christ is more powerful than anything else in the world, including our own sinfulness. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A little like this, a little like that

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16), Year A, July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25,  Matthew 13:24-43

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 travelling, and you met someone who had spent their entire life in a big city and never seen the countryside, never even seen a picture of a farm, had no clue where that steak dinner came from, and they asked you what life on a farm was like, how would you answer? How would you help them understand the total dedication it takes, the days when you work sun-up to sun-down for weeks, to get the crop in? How would you help them to feel the frustration at a broken-down tractor when you’re almost done seeding and the satisfaction of looking out and seeing a field planted? How would you show them what it means to be totally dependent on the weather, the hope and the fear as you watch the skies and listen to the weather report each day? How would you make the isolation real to them, the knowledge that there’s no one around for miles to help if something goes wrong? How would you show them the beauty of standing in a field under the open sky and soaking in the beauty of God’s creation? How would you help them to know the smell of dirt in spring, the heat of the sun in the summer, the crisp bite in the air on a fall day, the endless slog of snow-plowing in winter, and the constant blowing of the wind in all four seasons? How would you convey to them what it means to be rooted in a place, as so many of us are rooted in North Dakota? How could you make it real to them? Would it even be possible?

There’s an old story about some blind people who were taken to feel an elephant, and try to figure out what it was. One of them was standing at the elephant’s backside, and felt the tail. “It’s a snake!” he said. Another was at the elephant’s head, and felt the trunk. “It’s a tree!” she said. “No, you’re both wrong,” said another, feeling the elephant’s side. “It’s a wall!” None of them, by themselves, could figure out what it was, this thing that was a little like a snake and a little like a tree and a little like a wall. But by putting all those together, they were able to figure out what it must be.

That’s what Jesus is trying to do with the parables. No human being has ever seen the Kingdom of heaven. No human being has seen what the reign of God will look like. So, in Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tries to explain it by telling a series of parables. “It’s a little like this, and a little like that,” he says. By painting one picture after another with his words, Jesus was trying to help us to visualize something we haven’t seen. We’re like the city kids with no concept of what farm life is like. Each of the images Jesus uses tells us a little bit of what a part of God’s reign is like. When you put them all together, you get a much fuller, richer picture than any of them by themselves.

So what is the kingdom of God like? Last week, we heard that it’s like seed sown on all different kinds of ground, good and bad alike. This week, we hear several more parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a field where the master sowed good grain and an enemy sowed weeds. But since they’re all mixed together, the weeds can’t be taken out until the harvest time. But the kingdom of heaven is also like yeast—a little bit of yeast gets mixed in with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is leavened and yeasty. And the kingdom of heaven is like a very small seed which grows into a big bush, making a home for birds.

Think of the parable of the yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that gets mixed in with flour and water and oil to make bread. You can’t make regular bread without yeast, but you only need a very little bit of yeast mixed in. Even just a little yeast will have a dramatic effect on the other ingredients. You mix them together until you can’t possibly separate them out, and the yeast turns the dough into a loaf. It transforms the whole thing, all the flour and salt and water and oil and seasonings and any other ingredients. Just a little bit goes a long way. God is like a woman baking bread, putting a little bit of yeast in things to transform them into something new and wonderful. Imagine the smell of fresh-baked bread coming right out of the oven. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. All the parts of us, good and bad, are transformed by the yeast that is the kingdom of God, just like all the ingredients in the bread are transformed by the yeast. All people, good and bad, are transformed by God’s kingdom just as the dough is transformed by the yeast.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed. It starts out small, and gets big. The funny thing about this one is that we kind of expect that a mustard seed would be grown to get the mustard, the spice and seasoning, the thing that benefits humans. It’s why we grow mustard plants, right? Because we like to eat mustard. Yet when Jesus uses it as a parable of the kingdom, his point is not what humans can make of it but what birds can make of it—a home for their nests. The kingdom of heaven grows, and it benefits all of creation, not just humans. It is a shelter and a home for all creation, including the birds. It grows larger than we would have thought. It starts small, but it has a big impact. And that impact affects more things than we could imagine.

Think about the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I would be willing to bet quite a lot that when I read this passage, many of you focused on the fire—that the weeds, the sinners, will be cast out into Hell. And you probably have quite detailed imaginations of what that might be like. After all, Christians throughout the centuries have been focused on Hell, with lots of art and poetry and songs discussing what it’s like and who’s going to go there. I would be willing to bet that some of you are sitting here right now wondering who’s in and who’s out, who’ll go to heaven and who’ll go to hell.

The problem is, that’s not what the parable—any of these parables—is about. They’re about heaven, not hell. In fact, Jesus actually talks very little about hell in the Gospels, and it’s never even mentioned in the Old Testament. We focus on Hell a lot, but the Bible doesn’t. The point of the parables in today’s lesson is to assure the listeners that the evil in the world is not part of God’s plan, and will not be part of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, which transforms and brings to life and gives good to all of creation. When we see weeds, when we see evil, we don’t need to worry—it will not be allowed into God’s kingdom. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. All the pain and brokenness and problems in the world are not part of God’s plan, and even when we can’t dig them out and get rid of them in this life—even when they’re too firmly rooted in the good parts of life to get rid of them—they are not going to get to stay forever.

We hear this parable and other parables about judgment, and we think of who won’t make it into God’s kingdom. Sometimes that makes us happy, if they’re people we don’t like. Sometimes that makes us sad, if they’re people we love. Christians have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. And we like to think of Heaven as an exclusive club with St. Peter as a bouncer. Yet even in the judgment, this parable goes against that view. For one thing, the weeds aren’t just people—Jesus explains that the weeds are, first and foremost, all the causes of sin. In other words, all the things in each one of us that make us hurt people, all the things in us that drag us down and poison our hearts and minds and souls, all those weeds that choke the life out of the good seed that God has planted in us, those will be taken out of us and thrown onto the burn pile. It’s not simply a matter of separating out good people and bad people; it’s a matter of taking the badness out of people. That badness can’t exist in God’s kingdom, so God will take it out. And yeah, there will be some people who, when you take out all the evil in them, there’s nothing left. But the fire isn’t there because God likes hurting people who don’t shape up, and it’s not there to torment people eternally. Think of it like a burn pile on a farm: the farmer doesn’t keep a burn pile to torment the weeds for all eternity, just to get rid of them. The fire is there to dispose of the parts of us that just can’t stay in God’s kingdom. And God plants the good seed of God’s kingdom everywhere, in good soil and bad, and rejoices in even the smallest response.

God’s kingdom is greater than we can imagine. It’s full of hope, and full of surprises. It transforms us, it transforms the world, and makes something new and good. It is stronger than any evil in the world, and it grows into new life for all. Thanks be to God.