The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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.

Here’s a trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.

Amen.

The Gardener and the Fruit Tree

Third Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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.

When we study parables, often the first thing we look for in them is God. Which one of the characters is he? Sometimes the answer is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t; and there are times when our first impulse is wrong. In the parable of the Gospel reading, the most common response is to see the tree’s owner as the God-character in the parable. And yet, I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant. For one thing, he doesn’t call the tree the “master” or “lord” or anything like that. He’s just identified as a “man.” And, second, he doesn’t really act like God does in any of the other parables of Luke. This man is harsh, judgmental, just waiting for an excuse to chop that tree down and replace it with something better. By contrast, in every other parable in the Gospel of Luke that talks about repentance, the God-character’s deepest impulse is to find what is lost and rejoice over its return. In fact, the character in this parable with the most similarities to how God is depicted in the other parables is the gardener.

The gardener, you see, has a very different attitude. The gardener isn’t tempted by the quick and easy solution of ripping out the sick tree and replacing it with a new one. The gardener’s greatest wish is that the tree might be saved, healed, restored to what God intended it to be, made whole. And the gardener is prepared to do the hard work to bring that about. The gardener’s response isn’t about blame, or taking the easy way out. The gardener’s response is to do what’s best for the tree to save it, even at the cost of some hard, unpleasant work.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is all about. God loves us, and God’s greatest concern for our lives is that we be saved, healed, and restored to what God intended for us to be. And God is willing to do the hard, messy, painful work required: he became human, lived, and died so that we might be saved. In his teaching, his death, and resurrection, he is digging around our roots to free us from all the things that bind us down and stunt our spirits, and he is giving us all the fertilizer we need to grow big and strong. He gives us what we need most, without counting the cost to himself. God is generous beyond measure, and desires only our good.

The passage from Isaiah also follows this theme, as the prophet reminds us that God gives us the spiritual food and drink our souls need to thrive and grow. God gives abundantly; God has provided a world that is capable of sustaining the lives of every person on it. God gives, and gives, and gives, and only asks that we respond to his generosity by growing healthy and strong, and bearing fruit.

Bearing fruit. That’s a phrase that can sometimes seem threatening—if you don’t repent, if you don’t bear fruit, God’s going to chop you down like a bad tree! But as I said, I don’t think the one threatening the chopping in the parable is God. On the other hand, sometimes “bearing fruit” sounds like so much work, so hard. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to show it by bearing the right fruit! All the time! No matter what! But even healthy fruit trees don’t bear fruit all year, but only when the time is right. And then there is a season of dormancy to recover before the next time of fruitfulness. I think this parable is getting at something else. It’s not a command to produce good works on cue. Think about fruit trees you’ve known that didn’t bear fruit. They were usually pretty sickly, right? And you could see they weren’t healthy. If you were a fruit tree, would you want to be like that? With shriveled leaves and dry, brittle branches?  And maybe some moss or fungus growing on you?  I sure wouldn’t! I would much rather be healthy and strong and growing—and a healthy fruit tree is going to produce fruit at the right time, that’s its nature. God doesn’t want us to be pressured or oppressed by the need to produce; God wants us to be healthy and thriving. That’s what repentance leads to; that’s what following God leads to; that’s what Jesus’ work in us and in our lives leads to.

So if God is the gardener, who’s the guy who wants to chop down the sick tree? I wonder if that’s us—humanity. Remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable out of the blue. Somebody came to Jesus with a really nasty story, about Pontius Pilate—yes, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later crucify Jesus even knowing he was innocent.  Anyway, ol’ Pilate killed a bunch of Jesus’ countrymen while they were worshiping in the Temple. And they wanted to know why. Were those people especially sinful? Was God using Pilate to punish them? And, oh, hey, what about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell? Were they being punished? Were they trees cut down because they didn’t bear fruit?

No, Jesus said. They were no better or worse than anything else. They didn’t die because they deserved it. They died because the world is a terrible place, broken by sin and death. They died because a cruel and capricious man like Pilate was given power over life and death. They died because humans didn’t build the tower of Siloam well enough. They were meaningless, empty deaths, for no purpose at all. There are a lot of those in the world, much as we would try to deny it. But humans try to keep finding meaning. We keep trying to make it all make sense. And we keep trying to find a way to make ourselves feel better. If they died because they deserved it, then I don’t have to worry, do I? Because I don’t deserve it! But no, Jesus said, they didn’t deserve it, it wasn’t their fault, their deaths weren’t a punishment from God or the universe. It just happened.

It happened because the world is broken by sin and death. It happened because God’s good plan for creation was shattered by human evil. And that evil has rebounded down the centuries, twisting and turning the world to its own ends … and twisting and stunting us, too. We are sick. Sick and tired of watching good people die for no reason, sick and tired of all the ways the world drags people down, chews them up, and spits them out. We are sick of the poisons the world pours into our ears, into our hearts and minds, the poisons of hate and fear and jealousy and greed. And we are sick of the ways we spew that poison back to one another. And that sickness has stunted our growth, made our branches brittle, shriveled our leaves, and prevented us from bearing much fruit.

Funny, how some people only see that sickness in others. Some people are all too much aware of their own sin; others, all too little. And when we see that sickness in others but not ourselves, it’s all too easy to be the man ordering the tree chopped down because it isn’t giving him what he wants and producing on cue. It’s easy to see the result—no fruit—but ignore the cause—the brokenness and sin we breathe in from the very day we are born.

Jesus has a different perspective. Jesus sees our sin and sickness more clearly than we do. He sees all the bits of poison we don’t even realize we’re breathing in, and he sees what damage it causes us, and he sees the poison we spread, and how it damages those around us. God knows the very worst of us—and God knows all the potential inside. Tupac Shakur wrote a poem called The Rose that Grew From Concrete, in which he points out that when you see a rose growing out of concrete, you don’t critique it for being a bit stunted—you praise it for being strong and good enough to grow at all. We’re the roses growing in concrete, and God the gardener is chipping away at the concrete that strangles our souls and our lives.  Some people–and some groups–have more concrete weighing them down than others do.  But it’s not their fault.

We tend to think of repentance as something we do because we’re sad. That repentance is all about guilt. We do something wrong, we realize it’s wrong, and we turn away from it. And, certainly, that is part of repentance. But it’s also about life. Which is better, a life stunted and sickly, or a life full of growth and good things? Repentance is also about following God to the water of life, to the banquet of good food freely given. Repentance is also about learning to grow freely as God breaks our chains and gives us the fertilizer we need to grow strong. It’s what makes a meaningful life possible, even amidst the brokenness and chaotic evil of the world. May we repent, and live the full and abundant and healthy lives that God has planned for us.

Amen.

The Baby who Breaks the Cycle

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

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.

Normally, when I read the words of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard, I focus on the light, and on the announcement of the child’s birth, that child who will be the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, who will bring justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. But this week, as I was pondering these texts, I found myself struck by other verses. The ones about the boots of the tramping warriors, and the garments soaked in blood, and people suffering under the yoke of oppression. And two things came to mind: first, what words to hear on the night of Jesus’ birth! And second, how much the boots of warriors and garments rolled in blood have been everywhere, this last year. How much fear and violence and hate there seems to be in the world. Isis beheading people and sending terrorists to Beirut and Paris. Mass shootings in the US. Police killing people and then trying to cover it up. Race riots. Women and children and disabled people abused and murdered by husbands, fathers, teachers. Every kind of evil under the sun. There has been so much violence and bloodshed this year, and I wasn’t expecting to hear it in the Bible texts appointed for Christmas Eve, and I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to hear about peace, and light, and a beautiful baby. I don’t want to hear about violence and baby Jesus in the same breath.

And yet, isn’t that very contrast the reason that the birth of Jesus is such good news indeed? We live in a world filled with violence on a grand scale that reaches across countries, and violence on a small scale that lives in our own homes and schools. We live with violence and injustice, and desperately need peace; we walk in darkness and need light. And whenever we rely on our own abilities to protect ourselves and make the world safer, it seems things backfire against us. We get rid of one terrorist only to have another, worse one take his place. We fight to defend ourselves and only add to the cycle of violence. We fight fire with fire, only to find we made the whole blaze bigger and more dangerous. The more we rely on our own might, the more tramping warriors there are, the more garments soaked in blood, the more darkness there is. It seems an endless cycle.

But in Jesus Christ, that cycle is broken. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that son is the Prince of Peace who will rule with justice and with righteousness. And with that birth, the yoke across our shoulders—the burden of violence, of hatred, of fear—is broken. There is a new way, a different way. A way that gives light in the darkness, that brings joy instead of fear and hope instead of hate. This baby, to us this night, is a king indeed—but not a king like the kings of this world. This baby looks nothing like the kings and rulers of this world, for this baby hasn’t come to set up another country just like all the rest. This baby has come to turn the whole world upside down, to change the way we live, to change the way we relate to one another. This baby has come to make the whole world new.

Because the peace this baby has come to bring isn’t the temporary peace of a ceasefire while both sides get ready for the next fight, or the false peace where you grit your teeth and smile at people you don’t like because it’s the holidays, or the unjust peace where you don’t speak out against those who hurt you because you don’t dare. This baby has come to bring true peace, the peace that the world cannot give and doesn’t understand, the peace based on justice and mercy and love for all people and all of creation.

Jesus did not come into this world to play the same old power games in the same old way. If he had, he would have been born in a palace. But instead, God chose for his son to be born in the cold, in the dark, in a backwater village where nobody wanted him or his family. And God chose to send the first messengers announcing the birth of his son to shepherds—poor, dirty, outcasts. I think part of the reason he chose that is so that we wouldn’t be able to fool ourselves that this Prince of Peace is anything like the other princes, lords, presidents, governors, and leaders that we see around us all the time. This prince is different. This King of Kings, this Mighty God, does not come with a sword to try and fight us into peacefulness. He doesn’t come to respond to hate with more hate. He comes with open arms to bring love in the midst of hate, justice in the midst of oppression, mercy in the midst of judgmentalism. He comes to take everything we think we know about the way the world works, and turn it upside down.

Jesus Christ came into this cold, dark world to build something new. To bring light, and life, and peace, and hope. He came to bring a new way of being, a new way of looking at the world. A way based on love, instead of fear and hate; a way that opens up the possibility for true peace, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And though that peace will not be fully known until Christ comes again in glory, its light shines among us even now. That light shines every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose justice and mercy instead of revenge, every time we choose to put down our fists and our hateful words and raise our hands to help instead. That light redeems us, breaks us free from old, worn patterns, from despair, and helps us see the world through God’s eyes, instead of the world’s eyes. That light shines every time we help those in need, every time we choose to be generous, every time we open our hearts and our minds to God and God’s people. That light shines every time we set aside our fears and our doubts to do the right thing.

Thanks be to God for that light, for hope in the midst of a hopeless world, for peace in the midst of a violent world, and for joy despite all the things the powers of this world can throw at us. May the light of God shine in our hearts this Christmas and throughout the year.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.

Amen.

God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

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.

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.

Our Cause is With the Lord

Second Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:111, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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.

Those of you who came to Bible study last winter may remember that parts of Isaiah were written while the Jews were in exile in Babylon.  Their tiny country had been gobbled up by the Babylonian empire.  Many had been killed, and a large portion of the survivors had been taken to Babylon in chains.  You can read about what that was like in the book of Daniel.  The nations of Judah and Israel had been flattened.  The Temple, the heart of Jewish worship, was destroyed.  The land God had given to their ancestors was taken away from them, and they had to live in a foreign land, surrounded by pagans who mocked their faith, eating food unlike anything they knew.  And they were slaves, owned by Babylonian lords and subject to whatever their masters wanted to do to them.  The people of faith—God’s people—had been utterly flattened.  Nothing was left to them.  Imagine what that would be like.  Imagine how afraid they must have been, how lost, how homesick, how hopeless.

Imagine how incredulous they must have been when they heard the words of the prophet that we just heard.  “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”  First of all, they were the servants of Babylon, now.  They were slaves!  They weren’t free to serve God.  And even if they had been free, they were pretty pathetic.  Even before the Babylonians came, Judah had been a pretty small country.  Now they had nothing.  Not even themselves!  They were worthless slaves.  How could God possibly be glorified in them?

So they said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that all your hard work was for nothing?  Have you ever felt useless, like everything you could possibly try would go wrong?  Think about what that felt like, and then imagine what you would think if God told you that you were still his, and he was going to do something great through you that would glorify his name.  Pretty unbelievable, huh?  How much faith, how much courage, would it take to say yes, to open yourself up to God?  How hard would it be to say, as they did, “Surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”?

The people of Judah had every reason to believe that God had abandoned them.  They had every reason to believe that it was the end of the road for them.  But God said otherwise.  They weren’t abandoned; even in slavery and exile, God was with them.  God knew them, and claimed them.  The same God who called them and named them before they were even born was with them in Babylon; he was giving them strength when they thought all hope was lost.  And more than that, he had a mission for them, a call.  The promises God had made to their ancestors would be fulfilled.  They would have a land of their own, and that God would always be their God.  Their nation and their home would be restored.

But that wasn’t all.  God wasn’t just going to restore what had been before, God was going to do something even greater through them.  The Jews, the people of Israel and Judah, that despised and broken people, would become a light to the whole world.  They would spread God’s salvation throughout the nations, to all the ends of the earth.  They were slaves, they had nothing and nobody cared about them; as far as the world could see, they were on the trash heap of history.  But God saw differently; God still cared for them and claimed them as his own; God had a mission for them.  The LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, had chosen them.

That was the comfort and promise that God spoke through the words of the prophet Isaiah.  And it came true: after about sixty years in exile, the captives were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation.  And around five centuries later, a young Jewish woman named Mary, a descendant of the ones who had been in exile, gave birth to a son, named him Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.  That Jesus was God’s son, the Lamb of God, who came to earth that the whole world might be saved.

But here’s the thing.  God’s promise didn’t mean that everything would magically change overnight.  It didn’t mean that the problems would vanish.  The people who heard God’s word spoken through the prophet still had to wait in slavery for their exile to be over.  Some of them died while they were waiting, and never saw the end of the exile.  And when they were allowed to go home, they found their cities in ruins and foreign people living there.  It took time and effort to rebuild their nation, faith lived out through hard times and hard work.  And the nation they rebuilt wasn’t the same as the one that had been destroyed; they couldn’t turn back the clock.  The world had changed, and they had to change to deal with it.  It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t easy; there were lots of arguments and disagreements and setbacks.  Yet even in the midst of all that turmoil, God was working in them and through them.

None of the ones who heard the prophet speak would live to see the final fulfillment of his words.  But through all the struggle, the waiting and the work, they kept the faith.  They did the work God called them to, they adapted to their new situation, and they passed on their faith to those who came after.  They remembered that their cause was with the LORD, and their reward was for God.  Their success or failure wasn’t measured in the way the world measures things.  Their success or failure wasn’t determined by the lavishness of the Temple they built, or the power of their new nation.  Their success was in God; their reward was with God.  God’s judgment was the only one they had to worry about, and in God’s eyes they were holy and beloved.

As I first read this text, it seemed to speak to Birka’s situation.  Particularly verse 4: ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”’  There’s hopelessness in those words, a sense of the inevitability of failure.  Birka’s members are getting older and fewer, and that is glaringly obvious at every worship service, every church event, every time someone tells a story of what things used to be like in the good old days.  If nothing changes, Birka will eventually have to close.

And yet, if God was with the people of Israel in exile when all hope seemed lost, surely God is with Birka now.  If God can work through exiled slaves, surely God can work through us, too.  And we, too, were called and named while we were still in our mother’s womb; we, too, are precious and beloved.  Our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with God.

I am not a prophet.  I know that God could turn this congregation around and give us new life, as he did to the Jews in exile, but I don’t know if that’s what God has planned for us.  I have a feeling that if God were to do so, it would mean hard work and change on our part as it did to the people who returned home from exile.  But even if God doesn’t have Birka’s re-growth in his plans, that doesn’t mean that Birka is a failure.  Our success or failure is not determined by the size of our budget or the number of people sitting in our pews.  Our success is in God, and in the ministry we carry out in God’s name.

Ministry like our caroling trip to Bismarck in December.  Those of you who were able to come along saw the joy of those we visited, the tears of thankfulness.  We do ministry together when we worship, and when we invite friends and loved ones to worship with us.  We do ministry together when we come together to Bible study, and we do ministry when we pray.  And our generosity to organizations like the Food Pantry and Camp of the Cross and Lutheran World Relief enables those ministries to do great work in the community and throughout the world.

Birka has been here for over a century, and done a lot of ministry in that time.  None of it was in vain.  If we were to close our doors tomorrow, the things that we have done would still cast ripples of God’s light throughout the community, and the resources of our congregation would go to the larger church to support a new generation of ministry in God’s name.  But I don’t believe Birka will be closing tomorrow, or the day after, or any time soon.  I believe God still has ministry for Birka to do.

After worship today we’ll gather for an annual meeting.  We’ll discuss the budget, the roof, and other issues.  Some of it may be hard to think about, and some important decisions will need to be made about what kind of ministry God is calling us to.  But never doubt that our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with our God.

Amen.

Keep awake!

Advent 1A, December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the first day of the new church year.  It seems hard to talk about new beginnings this time of year; the days are still getting shorter, the landscape is cold and dead and covered in snow.  Nights are longer.  I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot harder to get up in the morning when it’s still dark outside.  And things are only going to get colder and darker from here.  It will be months before the world around us starts to look new, before days lengthen and snow melts and new plants push up from the ground.  It seems a funny time to begin, and to look to the future.

Isaiah must have felt the same way when he received the vision that is recorded in today’s first lesson.  Judah, his nation, was under direct threat.  The Northern Kingdom, Israel, had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and Judah had survived only because it was small and poor and out of the way of the major roads through the area. They used what wealth they had to bribe Assyria so they would go away.  But Isaiah knew that Judah’s survival was only temporary.  Judah was a small nation caught between huge empires, and could only exist as long as God protected them.  Judah, like their brothers and sisters in Israel, had sinned.  The rich exploited the poor and vulnerable, religion was given mere lip service, and the whole nation had fallen short of what God intended them to be.  God had called them to be a light to the nations, an example of the kind of righteousness and mercy that God brings.  Instead, the people of Judah were neither righteous nor merciful.  God had been speaking to the people of Judah through priests and prophets, calling them to turn back to God’s ways, and they had not listened.  And Isaiah knew that sooner or later, God’s patience would wear out and he would stop protecting them from their more powerful neighbors.  If Judah had chosen to live by the sword, by violence and corruption, well, Judah would fall by the sword.  Isaiah knew there were some pretty dark days ahead.

And yet, amid all the darkness of knowing just how far astray God’s people were, in the middle of watching his nation crumble, God gave Isaiah a vision of hope.  A vision of the future.  A vision of what Judah would be like when they returned to God’s ways to participate in God’s reign of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy.  “In days to come … many peoples and nations shall stream to the LORD’s house,” to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.    In days to come, God will be judge and arbiter between nations and peoples, helping them to treat one another with justice and mercy.  In days to come, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”  Swords and spears won’t be necessary any longer, for there will be peace on earth.

Now, we don’t quite get what a big thing it was for swords to be beaten into plowshares.  We live in a resource-rich nation with modern mining techniques.  Metal is cheap and easy to get and make into things.  Judah, however, was small and poor, and there isn’t a lot of metal in the Holy Land.  And this was back when mining metal and forming it into useful things was a lot more difficult than it is today.  Swords were expensive.  So were plowshares!  Every spear a family bought to defend itself, that was money that couldn’t be spent on farm equipment, homes, and all the other things people need to feed their families.  Every sword a ruler bought to defend the nation, that was money that had to be taken in taxes and couldn’t be used for roads and all the other things governments do to help their people prosper.  Imagine it in the modern equivalent: they shall turn their tanks into combines.  If we didn’t have to be afraid of war, if nobody on earth had to be afraid of war, and all the money that currently gets spent on defense and the military could be spent instead on things that help people feed themselves, imagine what that would be like.  But even more than that, imagine what life would be like if nobody ever had to be afraid.

In a time of darkness, in the middle of a war-torn land, with enemies at every side, among people who gave only lip service to God’s Word, God gave Isaiah a vision of a better world.  A world of peace, a world where justice and peace, righteousness and mercy ruled.  A world where all people truly hear and listen to God’s Word.  A world where God’s light shines in all the places that used to be dark.  You can hear the prophet’s longing for that world.  “O house of Jacob,” Isaiah cries, “come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

We, too, long for that world.  We, too, walk in darkness but crave the light.  We, too, long for a world in which all people walk in the light of the LORD, where no one needs to be afraid of violence, and where people can take things meant for destruction and use them to build and grow.  We know that it will come, for we God has promised it to us.  Isaiah’s vision and visions from other prophets have been given to us.  But the problem is, we don’t know when.

Jesus was quite clear in today’s Gospel when he said that even he didn’t know when that day will come.  For all that we try to read the sign of the times, for all we try to make predictions, we don’t and can’t know.  All we know is that we need to keep awake, keep watch.  “Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…. The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not just that we don’t know when; the only thing we can know is that that day will come when we least expect it.

What does it mean to keep watch?  Some people have sold all their possessions when they thought the Kingdom was near.  It’s been 2,500 years since Isaiah’s vision, and 2,000 since Jesus told his disciples to keep awake.  Predictions have come and gone.  There have been times when Christ’s coming in glory was all people could think of, and times when Christians have largely forgotten about it.  How do we keep watch, for something that could come today or could come two millennia in the future?  How do we prepare?

Notice what Jesus says people will be doing when the day comes: they’re going about their ordinary lives, doing their daily work.  You couldn’t tell from the outside which of the workers in the field was going to be swept away like a flood and which was going to remain as Noah did.  And the same goes for the two women doing their household chores.  Looking at them from the outside, both were pretty ordinary.  The ones who remained, as Noah did, hadn’t sold everything and gone to sit on a mountaintop and wait.  They kept on keeping on, doing their daily work like normal.

So what was the difference?  How did they keep awake?  They put on the armor of light; they put on Christ.  They knew they were living in a dark time, in a time when there was sin and brokenness and evil and fear and hate and injustice.  But they trusted in Christ even in the midst of the darkness.  They strove for the light, they listened to God’s Word.  They tried to live lives of righteousness and mercy even when it would have been easier not to.  I’m sure they failed, sometimes; I’m sure they fell short of the life God was calling them to, sometimes.  In this broken, dark world, no one is perfect.  Putting on Christ doesn’t mean that we become perfect.  It means that we allow Christ to be our guide, to lead us through dark places and pick us up and forgive us when we fall.

Keep awake.  It may be easier to bury your head in the sand and forget the promise of a world full of light and peace.  It may be easier to go along with the way the world does things, and forget the promise of a future filled with righteousness and mercy.  But we know the promise is coming.  We know the light of Christ.  We know that Christ is coming, even if we don’t know when.  So keep awake!

Amen.