Devouring Widow’s Houses: A Few Questions About the Widow’s Mite

24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8th, 2015

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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. Amen.

We all know the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus sees a widow give a few coins—all that she has—and praises her generosity, saying it’s greater than the large gifts from the rich people around her, because she gave everything whereas they only gave a small portion of their wealth. We commonly use it to talk about giving—about how all gifts are important, about how much God loves a generous giver. And all of those things are true. But the thing is, the story of the Widow’s Mite is only part of the story. It belongs to a larger section, and it sounds a bit different when we look at the whole story.

First of all, let’s back up all the way to the Old Testament. You see, when God was telling the Hebrew people how to set up their society, he spent a lot of time talking about widows. Not just widows, either, but orphans and foreigners, altogether as a group. And the thing that widows, orphans, and foreigners all have in common is that they were very vulnerable. Because in those days, women, children, and foreigners were second-class citizens. They didn’t have as many rights as men did. They could be cheated and abused quite easily, and most people wouldn’t really care. So God commanded them to be extra vigilant that vulnerable people were treated well—that they received both justice and mercy. It wasn’t enough to just assume that the laws were fair; all of God’s people were to pay special attention to making sure that the widows, orphans, and strangers were given the benefit of the doubt. And even ensuring justice wasn’t enough. God’s people were to see to it that the vulnerable people always had enough to get by, even in tough times. They were supposed to be generous to all those in need, regardless of who they were or why they needed help in the first place.

Now, this special care wasn’t because God loved widows more than he loved anyone else; it wasn’t because foreigners or orphans were somehow more deserving of justice and mercy than anyone else. It was because they needed it more. I mean, if one of the pillars of the community gets in a dispute with a poor widow on the fringe of the community, or with a stranger with no connections to anyone else in town, the community leader has a natural advantage. He’s probably prosperous, he’s going to have lots of friends and resources he can call on to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and more. But someone on the outside, someone poor and alone, they’re not going to have those resources. That’s why they need help—not because they’re more deserving, or better, or anything like that. It’s because they’re alone, and a lot more vulnerable than most people, and it’s all too easy for them to get crushed by the wheels of society. And when times get tough, the pillars of the community have a lot of resources to help them get through, whereas a poor widow or an orphan or a foreigner would be all on their own.

So, in all the laws, a care and concern for widows, orphans, and strangers is one of the common themes. And it’s not just in the laws. It’s in the Psalms, too–consider our Psalm for today.  “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  It’s no surprise that the Psalm contrasts God’s care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow with the ways of the wicked.  Because treating vulnerable people badly is one of the major marks of the wicked!

And it’s all through the Prophets, too.  When you read through the books of the prophets, they spend a lot of time telling the people of Israel that they are falling short of God’s call for them. When the prophets criticize the Hebrew people, it’s usually not for what we would consider “religious” reasons. It’s not because they believe the wrong thing, unless they’re so far astray they’re into outright idolatry. It’s not because they’re not worshipping in the right way. When God gets angry in the Old Testament, it’s because of how they treat the most vulnerable people in their communities—the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the poor people. When the people at the top of society don’t make sure that the people at the bottom get fair treatment and help when they need it, that’s when God starts getting really upset.

With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s Gospel reading. In the verses before today’s reading, the religious leaders and community leaders have been all up in Jesus’ face, trying to trip him up so they can discredit him. As usual, they only succeeded in showing that they were in the wrong. That’s where our Gospel for today begins. Having just proven that he knows the spirit of God’s law better than they do, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses … they will receive the greater condemnation.” In other words—the people at the top, who work to make themselves look good and have the best stuff in society, look at how they got that way. They should have been taking care of widows, and instead they’re taking advantage of them. They may have a good life now, but they’re going to be judged harshly.

Then he turns around and sees lots of rich people giving large donations, and a poor widow with almost nothing who gives everything she has. He talks about powerful people devouring widows’ houses, and then he sees a widow with nothing. And the question I have to ask is, why did she only have two small copper coins? Why is that “all she had”? If those rich and powerful people who were going around in fancy clothes and taking the best seats in the house and making a big deal about their generosity, if they were actually doing what they should be doing, that widow would not be down to her last penny. Because they would have made sure she was taken care of.

And yes, that widow’s generosity was wonderful. It was awesome. God calls all of us to be generous with what we have—our money, yes, but also our time, our attention, our love, our talents, everything that we have and everything that we are. The widow is a wonderful example of this, and our first lesson gives us the story of another generous woman, the Widow of Zarephath. It was a great drought, nobody could grow crops, and God sent the prophet Elijah to a town outside of Israel, to a foreign woman, and she had nothing. She was down to the last flour and oil she had, and once it was gone, she and her son were going to starve to death. But God sent Elijah to her, and he asked her for bread, and even with starvation waiting just around the corner for her and her son, she shared what little she had. That’s a kind of abundant generosity we don’t see too often. And it’s a generosity that God rewarded—she and her household were saved from starvation. God kept that little bit she had and gave more, so that she and her family had food even in the midst of starvation. It wasn’t a great feast, but it was enough. By sharing what little she had, she blessed Elijah and God blessed her in turn.

Let’s contrast that with the scribes and community leaders in the Gospel reading. They’re the ones that people look up to in the community. They dress nicely, they go to all the right parties and know all the right people. They give to all the right causes, worship regularly, on the surface they look like exactly what every faithful person should aspire to be. And yet, in their midst was a woman with nothing. Maybe she’d had a run of bad luck. Maybe she’d done some stupid things and wasted what she had. Maybe she’d been cheated out of her pension. Maybe her children didn’t take care of her, or maybe she had no children. We don’t know the exact circumstances of her misfortune, how much of it was her fault and how much of it was other peoples’ fault and how much of it was nobody’s fault. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter, in the end, why she was destitute. What matters is that nobody seems to care. The whole society has been charged by God to see to it that vulnerable people aren’t left destitute, and here she is, in the midst of their prosperity, with literally only a penny to her name. And she gave it, and I am sure God did many great and wonderful things with that penny that you and I can’t even imagine.

But it makes me wonder. What kind of a job are we doing? Are there people in our midst that we have forgotten about, pushed out, ignored as they struggle? Who are the vulnerable people in modern-day America, and how are we treating them? Who are the vulnerable people in our community? North Dakota has had a lot of strangers over the last several years, with the oil boom, and when things go well they make good money … but it’s so easy for something bad to happen, and they’re left with nothing. How good a job do we do about making sure that the outsiders receive justice and mercy, fair treatment and help when they need it? Are we the widow, generous with everything we have, or are we the leaders who focus on our own wealth and status while forgetting she even exists? Have we built a society with justice and mercy for all people, especially the most vulnerable, or have we built a society that works to benefit the people who already have more than enough? If Jesus were here, today, watching us put our offerings in the plate, who would he point out that we haven’t even noticed?

I pray that we may work towards a world where all people receive justice and mercy as God would want.

Amen.

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Bearing the Cross

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 1st, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

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 can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it. I’m talking with someone about their day, and they mention some little thing that annoys them that they can’t change—maybe it’s a co-worker’s irritating habits, maybe it’s a relative’s drama that keeps spilling over to the rest of the family. “Well,” they say, “I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” Really? Jesus’ death on a cross, his sacrifice and agony, compared to Aunt Ethel’s temper tantrums? That’s what you’re comparing it to? When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” you think he meant having to deal with a co-worker who sometimes grabs your lunch by accident or can’t get important paperwork done on time? Really?

Sometimes when I hear that phrase it’s sadder. There’s something truly horrible in someone’s life—abuse, for example—and they don’t think there’s any way out. Maybe they’re scared, maybe they don’t think they deserve anything better, maybe they feel guilty or ashamed. And that’s how they comfort themselves: “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.” And it’s good that their faith is a comfort to them, but at the same time, calling that suffering their cross to bear can trap them in it, make them less likely to reach out for help, because they think their suffering is God’s will. Jesus came that we might have abundant life, that we might be saved and healed, that our sadness and grief and pain might be wiped away. Jesus died on the cross so that we might be saved, connected to God, so that God’s love might be poured out on the world. Jesus’ suffering and death are not meant to trap us in our own suffering, but to free us. To open us up to possibilities.

Devout Christians use that phrase a lot, but I’m not sure we take much time to ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said it. What is the cross, and what are the crosses that Jesus might be calling us to carry? We tend to apply it to any problem, big or small, that we don’t think can be changed. Sometimes those really are the crosses God has given us to bear. But sometimes, I don’t think they are. So let’s ask the question: what is the cross, and what does it mean to carry it?

First of all, the cross was painful. It was big, and heavy, and public, and nasty, and torturous. It was a big deal. It was an agonizing, painful death, and it was reserved for the worst of the worst. Slaves and foreigners and murderers were crucified. Not citizens. Not anybody who mattered. Nobody was watching Jesus and going, “what a great guy he is for being able to endure that.” They weren’t saying, “gee, isn’t it too bad?” No. They were looking at him and going, he must be scum to deserve that. What a horrible person that Jesus is! They saw him, and they despised him, and they mocked him. The cross killed him, but that wasn’t the only thing it did. It changed how people saw him, from then and ever after.

It even changed how the disciples looked at Jesus. I mean, here Peter is, Jesus starts talking about the cross—talking about the fact that he’s going to have to suffer and die—and what does Peter do? He tries to shut Jesus up. He doesn’t want to think about it. It’s too hard, too bad. Peter wants to think about all the nice, pleasant, good things that Jesus could do. He wanted to think about public respect, and power, and glory, and miracles, and political power. So when Jesus starts talking about the cross—that huge, painful, shameful thing—Peter tries to shut him up. Peter doesn’t want to have to deal with the pain and shame and grief and loss that are going to come hand in hand with Jesus’ death on the cross. He doesn’t want to hear that salvation is going to come through pain.

So when we look at life’s little annoyances and call them our cross to bear, we are really, really misunderstanding what the cross was, and what it did. It was not an annoyance. It was not something to be sighed over and swept aside. When we have crosses to bear, they are big, and they are heavy, and they hurt. Maybe not physically, maybe not where people can see, but they are going to have an impact. And a cross may make people look at you differently. It may make them look at you funny. It may be something that sets you apart, something that people would rather sweep under the rug and ignore, just as Peter wanted to ignore Jesus’ cross. It may be something that causes people—even other Christians!—to be uncomfortable or ashamed or judgmental.

The other thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that you have to look at what came out of it. Yes, it starts with pain and grief and shame and loss and horror. But that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it means. Because that pain and suffering did something. It changed the world—it changed us. Jesus died, but he rose again, and when he rose we were dragged with him from death into life. We are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It matters. Jesus’ suffering brought new life, abundant life, and healing, and hope, and joy, and love. It was hell to go through, but it made a difference.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he isn’t saying that suffering is good on its own. He’s not saying that pain, by itself, is a good thing. Pain is bad. What he’s saying is that sometimes it’s necessary to achieve something else. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because he liked pain or because he thought pain was good for him. He died in order to save the world. He suffered so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s what taking up our crosses means. It means doing the right thing even when it hurts. Taking up our cross means following Jesus and being his hands in the world even when it’s not nice, or convenient, or happy. It means living out the Gospel even when your friends shake their heads at you. It means reaching for life and healing even if that means pain in the short term. Taking up your cross means living a kingdom-centered life in a world that wants everyone to focus on money, power, and prestige.

Taking up your cross isn’t about dying. It’s about living. What kind of life are you going to live? Here and now, where are your priorities? What’s most important in your life? Not the stuff you think should be most important—the stuff that you actually treat as most important. Where do you focus your time and energy? Because a lot of people will say “my family and my faith are most important!” but they actually spend more time and energy and attention on their jobs, their sports, their favorite TV show, their latest toys, and keeping up with the Joneses. Because that’s what our world values. That’s what our culture pushes. The rat race: work hard and make more money and look good and do all the right stuff and buy all the right products and you’ll be happy and people will love you and none of the bad things in the world will happen to you. And so people chase those goals, and they get busier and busier and more and more distracted by all sorts of things they chase after in the name of happiness and security, and all too often we don’t even notice the people we hurt along the way, and we try to fill the emptiness by working harder, and you know what? Bad things still happen. The busy-ness and distraction won’t prevent them or fix them.

The life God calls us to is a life of love for God and for one another. If we are truly living that life—if our priorities are truly on that love—it will affect how we act, what we do, how we treat ourselves and the people around us. And it will mean following God’s priorities, instead of society’s priorities. And our society won’t like that. And your friends and family may not like it, either. And following that love may take you in places you wouldn’t choose to go, and living a life centered on God’s love may mean standing up to the broken, sinful things in the world, to spread life and love where there is precious little of it.

But here’s the other thing about the cross: even Jesus didn’t carry it alone. He did for part of the way, but it was too much for him. He couldn’t do it alone, so a man stepped in to help, named Simon of Cyrene. And together, Jesus and Simon carried the cross on their backs. And we don’t have to carry our crosses alone, either. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and believe me, he knows what it’s like to carry a cross! But God also sends us others, people like Simon, to walk with us and help us carry the cross even if only for part of our journey. And yes, it’s hard to carry the cross. But we don’t have to do it alone.

Amen.

The Light of God in dark places

Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B, February 15th, 2015

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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.

The Transfiguration is a weird thing. Most of Jesus’ career is the sort of thing we can relate to rather easily: he wandered around with a group of friends, telling people about God. Some of us talk about God more than others, and some don’t talk about God much at all, but we can all relate to hanging out with your friends and travelling a bit, right? And he also healed people. Most of us can’t heal people with a touch as Jesus could, but we do have faith healers, and we pray for people who are sick all the time, and when we are sick we pray for healing. He had enemies who were trying to spread rumors about him—too many of us have experienced such a thing in our own lives. He ate dinner with a lot of people—we can relate to that, too! And then we have today’s story where he goes to the top of a mountain and gets lit up like a bonfire. And while I’ve seen such things done by special effects in science fiction TV and movies, I’ve never seen anyone glow with a heavenly light. I doubt any of you have, either.

So while it’s generally fairly easy to find a way to connect other Gospel readings to our everyday lives, I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. And I think that Peter and James and John did, too. Now, they lived in a day when people were far less skeptical about miracles and wondrous things, but that doesn’t mean they happened every day. Which is why Peter and James and John were terrified and confused and trying to search around for some way to fit this awesome thing into their heads. So Peter suggests building three “dwellings”—temples, tabernacles, booths, something like that. A chapel, maybe. So that people could come to the mountain to the special place and pray to God for whatever miracle they needed. As if it were the mountain that were holy.

That’s actually a pretty common human reaction to an encounter with God. Let’s set up a shrine to mark it! And tell everyone else about it, too, so that they could come up and see the special place where it happened! And pray there, because maybe God will be more likely to hear their prayers at that special place where special things happened! God is most likely to be there, on the mountaintops, right? In the special places? Where special things have happened? And if you go to the right place and pray the right way, you are closer to God than you are in your ordinary life, right? And if you worship in a beautiful church building you’re closer to God than when you worship in a mall or a hotel, right? It’s all about location, and ambiance, and going where you know people have encountered God before and hoping he’s still there. Peter’s confused and scared, he doesn’t know what’s going on, so he thinks “A special place needs a special building for people to visit. Let’s build some!”

It’s not necessarily a bad impulse; after all, we do need places to gather and worship together and celebrate God’s gifts and presence among us. It’s just not what God was trying to show the disciples. The point of the Transfiguration is not that mountaintops are holy, that particular mountain or any other. It’s not about the place. God is with us always, no matter where we go. God is in the most awesome locations—like mountaintops—but God is also with us in the nastiest, most horrible places on earth. That mountaintop is no more or less holy than any place else on earth, no matter what happens there. No, it’s not about location. It’s about connection to the past, to the future, and to God. And it’s about light.

The connection to the past is easy to spot. Moses and Elijah showed up! The two most beloved and awesome holy men of Israel’s history! Jesus is the culmination of what God has been doing in the Jews since he called Abraham out of Ur, since he called Moses through the burning bush, since he spoke through Elijah! God is doing a new thing through Jesus, but it’s not out of the blue. It’s all connected. For thousands of years God has been trying to teach his people to love God and to love one another so that they might be a blessing to the world, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that teaching, the manifestation of that love. No matter how much the religious leaders argued and quibbled and rejected Jesus, no matter how different he looked from what they expected the Messiah to be, Jesus is where the story has been heading all along. And now is the time the disciples most need to learn that.

You see, the Transfiguration is the turning point. The hinge, if you will, of Jesus’ ministry. Up to this point, he’s mostly been staying out in the hinterlands. The backcountry. With the hicks and the country people. And yeah, crowds came to see him, and the local community leaders are annoyed by him, but he’s not much threat to the powers that be, at this point. So he pretty much gets ignored by the authorities. But he’s about to set his face toward Jerusalem, and the sorts of trouble and stirring up crowds that’s acceptable out in the backwater of Galilee is just not going to be tolerated in Jerusalem. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and disagrees publicly with the political and religious establishment, things are going to get dire pretty quickly. And by “dire” I mean conspiring to have him crucified on trumped-up charges just to get rid of him. That’s what the disciples are going to be facing, when they walk down that mountain. Everything is going to get worse—a lot worse, as bad as things can possibly be—and it’s going to start with the religious leaders of their country trying to prove that Jesus is some sort of heretic.

If they’re going to go up against that—if these uneducated hicks are going to stand firm in the face of the disapproval of the most educated, powerful religious leaders of their day—they’re going to need some reassurance that Jesus truly is of their God and of their faith, and there’s not much better way to prove that to them than to have them see him with Moses and Elijah. In the dark days to come, the disciples are going to need to be able to draw on the faith of their forefathers and foremothers to help them survive and get through. And here are Moses and Elijah to reassure them. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about a time when remembering a faithful person has helped you when your own faith has faltered. Maybe it was someone from the Bible, maybe someone you knew personally. Even just remembering a story of their courage or commitment can help, can’t it?

But the faith of their ancestors will only carry the disciples so far. After all, this isn’t just a case of following the next prophet. God is doing a new thing, and that new thing—the salvation of the cosmos—is going to lead them to places they never dreamed, through hazards they can’t imagine yet. They’re going to go through some awfully dark places, and they’re going to need a light to carry them through. And the thing is, when you look at the story of the Transfiguration, it is really similar to some of the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Like, the blinding white robes, the two supernatural beings, it’s all very similar. They’re getting a foretaste of what’s coming. Not the horrors and death and despair that are in their immediate future, but the joy and wonder that will come after. They’re going to go through Hell on Earth for the next while, but they are not going to be facing it alone, and that hellish time won’t last forever. It can’t. God is going to win, in the end. The power of death and hate and fear will be broken forever. They don’t know it, but they are witnessing a foretaste of God’s victory. They’re seeing a little bit of the great party to come. They don’t understand what they’re seeing, but it’s going to help carry them through when they need it. Because they can’t just stay up there on the mountain in a nice pretty building remembering the good old days. They have to go back down the mountain and head towards Jerusalem. And this experience, this shared vision of light, is going to help them stay together and get through the dark days ahead.

Think back to your life, to the times when you’ve had dark times to walk through. The death of a loved one, or a serious illness, or abuse, or addiction, or depression, or isolation. We’ve all had dark times of one kind or another. How did God help you through them? What light did God give in your darkness? You may not have realized what it was at the time—the disciples didn’t get what was happening, either, and I know in my own life when I’ve had dark times, I was never able to see God’s presence until I looked back afterwards. God’s light may have come in many different forms. It may have come through the support of friends and loved ones. It may have come through memories of better times. It may have come through prayer or scripture or music or art or a good book. We look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom—when death will be no more, when we will be healed and made whole, when all evil will be wiped clean and all tears will be wiped away. But in the mean time—as we walk through dark places—thank God for the light. For the faithful ones of past years who have helped to shape us, and for the light even in the darkest place. May we see God’s light and be comforted by it.

Amen.

The Difference Between Healing and Curing

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, February 8th, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

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.

There is a difference between healing and curing. And, if you’ve spent much time in hospitals or doctors’ offices, you probably know what I mean. Modern medicine can work miracles of curing: we have machines that can see inside your body and tell doctors exactly what the problem is. We have blood tests that can tell us how your body’s doing. We have surgeries to cut out tumors or fix blocked arteries or replace body parts. We have antibiotics and antivirals to knock out disease. We’ve got physical therapy to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible. We have chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells. We’ve got vaccines to prevent us from catching deadly diseases in the first place. We’ve got inhalers to manage asthma and other lung conditions. We’ve got drugs to regulate your heart, your kidneys, your thyroid, your lungs. We’ve got drugs to regulate brain chemistry if you have seizures or depression or anxiety or schizophrenia. And, if whatever ails you can’t be fixed, we’ve got all kinds of assistive technology: high-tech wheelchairs that respond to the touch of a finger. Oxygen bottles you can carry with you anywhere. Prosthetic legs good enough to dance or run or play basketball with. I thank God regularly for all those things.

And yet, I speak with people who have been in the hospital for a while, or had any serious or long-term illness, and hear them talk about what it was like, and they say that they felt worst in the hospitals and doctors’ offices and therapy rooms. Not because of how sick they were—in several cases, they were in less pain in the hospital than they were at home, due to medication. But because they felt so isolated. So cut off from life. They felt less than human. They felt like a problem to be fixed, not like a person. Even when they had caring doctors and nurses, when they were well-treated, their time in the medical system made them feel less human. Because our medical system—our whole society!—focuses on curing problems instead of healing. We want something simple, easy, quick, something that restores normalcy right away.

I had to face that tendency in myself when I was doing my chaplain training in seminary. For a summer, I worked as a chaplain at Oregon State Hospital, the mental hospital where they filmed One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. In the afternoons I would spend my time on various wards, and then the next morning I would sit with my fellow chaplain trainees and discuss our work with our supervisor. We had to regularly do “verbatims” where we reported whole conversations to the group so we could be critiqued and evaluated. Now, the thing was, none of the patients in that hospital were ever going to get cured. They just weren’t. They had serious mental illnesses that they were going to struggle with their entire lives. They might be able to learn to manage their conditions well enough to leave the hospital for a group home, or even their own home, but they weren’t going to get better. Nobody working there—not the doctors or aides or nurses or chaplains—was going to be able to fix anything.

My God, but that was hard to face. Day after day I’d report my conversations with patients back to the group, and day after day they’d point out that I was trying to fix them—I’d focus on little things that I could give advice about, rather than sitting with them and being with them. We were there to pray with them, to honor their struggles, to rejoice in their successes and mourn their failings, to help them build community even in the hospital, to help them know that they were beloved children of God even as they suffered and were cut off from the larger world. We were there, in other words, to help them heal even as they suffered things that could not be cured. And I was focused more on things like résumés and pill organizers. Because those were the easy things to fix. Facing the stuff that couldn’t be fixed—the illnesses that couldn’t be cured, only endured—was hard. And because I wasn’t willing to face that, I left the people on my wards to face it alone.

Healing, you see, is different. Healing is about renewing the body and soul. Healing is about being raised up. It’s about reconnecting with the community. It’s about becoming most deeply yourself, the person God intended you to be. Healing is about our whole lives as God’s children. Curing wounds and fevers can be a part of it, but only a part. In my time as a pastor, I have seen healing occur in deathbeds and funeral homes. I have seen people cured of disease and yet still lost and isolated and broken. Curing is not the same as healing.

Our Gospel is about healing. The Gospel includes both curing and healing. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, and he took her by the hand and raised her up—and by the way, that’s the same phrase used about the Resurrection, that Jesus was raised up—and she was healed. She was cured of the fever, and restored to her place in the family and the community. And, immediately, she began to serve them. (Have you known people like that, who get right up out of their sickbeds and hop back to work instead of taking it easy and resting a bit? That’s what she was like.) And the word service—the word that they use in Greek is “diakonia.” If it sounds like a churchy word you’ve heard before, good! It’s the word we get “deacon” from. The deacons are the ones who serve, who teach and serve meals and help with the sacraments and lead. She’s not just restored to her normal daily grind, she’s restored to fellowship and to participation in the ministry of Jesus. She becomes part of the Good News, part of the Gospel, part of the community of God’s people. That’s healing.

And you notice that as Jesus goes through Galilee, he spends a lot of time curing the sick, but he spends a lot of time praying and preaching and talking, too. Because curing people is only one part of the package. Jesus doesn’t just want the fever gone and the broken leg fixed—he wants more than that. He wants to heal us. Not just as individuals, but as a community. As a world. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be renewed. He wants us to be most deeply ourselves and he wants us to be connected with God and with each other. It’s all connected, the individual cures and the larger healing.

But you may also notice that people came to Jesus mostly for the cures. The short-term fixes. Cast out this demon, fix this broken leg, get rid of this fever. Because, you see, healing is hard work. It means being open to change. It means being open to God. It means, first and foremost, acknowledging that things in your life and community and self are wrong, broken, and that you can’t fix them on your own. It means acknowledging that you need God and you need other people. And it also means accepting that God can heal even those parts of yourself that you think are so broken that nothing can ever make anything better. It means letting go of your fear, and letting go of your self-righteousness and ego. Sometimes, healing means learning to live with what can’t be cured. Sometimes, healing means accepting that things can’t be fixed, and accepting that you are a beloved child of God even still.

And healing also means reaching out to other people. Even the people you don’t want to. It means building community and love and acceptance even with people you don’t like or understand. It means being willing to be honest, even if that means facing the parts of yourself and others that aren’t so nice. There is more of God’s healing in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than there is in some churches. You see, churches, like hospitals, can also be focused on cures. Quick fixes. Making things look good, putting a happy smiling face on things. After all, if God is here with us, shouldn’t everything be good and happy and cured? AA isn’t like that. In an AA meeting, the first thing everyone does is introduce themselves and acknowledge their brokenness. And out of that brokenness, they support and love one another. Out of that honesty, they build a community that changes lives. They heal, even as addiction continues to take its toll.

But so many churches get focused on fixes and cures. And so, when we come across things that can’t be cured—like death, and grief, and long-term illness, and depression, and addiction, and abuse—we either sweep it under the rug or we try and fix it. “Pray about it,” we say. And sometimes, “can’t you just stop it? Get better?” And sometimes even “maybe you just haven’t been praying hard enough. Maybe your faith isn’t strong enough.” We don’t like facing the hard truths, and so we ignore them, and sometimes in so doing we ignore the people in our midst who are suffering, who need healing most of all. It’s hard to feel helpless. It’s hard to acknowledge that we can’t fix things, that some things just won’t be fixed until Christ comes again. But there can be healing even in the midst of pain, and grief, and illness. There can be love and renewal even in the midst of brokenness. There can be hope in the midst of loss. There can be community even when the world tries to isolate us. And when we reach out—when we comfort people who are sick, and bring food to those who grieve, and are willing to be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others, and be there for people even when there’s no quick fix or easy answer—when we do that, we are part of God’s healing. We are God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

The kingdom of God has come near

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-14-20

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.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news—that is, the gospel—of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” And in our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes: the appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.” Two thousand years later, it’s kinda hard to believe that the time has grown short, or been fulfilled. And a week after having two funerals in the congregation, with another member in his last weeks and months, Paul’s instructions not to mourn seem … off, if not cruel. If the kingdom of God has come near, where is it? If the time between this world and God’s kingdom to come is short, when is it going to get here? And just what is the good news, anyway?

This is one of those places where our modern, high-quality, literalistic educations get in the way of reading the Bible. We are trained as children to take things literally. 2+2=4, history is about a provable series of names and dates, time is measured precisely down to millionths of a second, poetry can be logically analyzed. If something can be proved in a science lab or a court of law, we’re good. We understand it. But when you start talking about intangible things, about the things that don’t fit into nice, neat, logical categories, that can’t be proven—or disproved—in a science lab or court of law, the deeper mystery at the heart of existence … that’s when we trip up. That’s when we get confused. That’s when we try and force that mystery into nice, neat, logically-provable categories that are easily understandable to modern people with fact-based educations. And, all too often, we try to do that with the Bible. And that’s a problem.

You see, in Jesus’ day, they looked at the world almost exactly opposite to the way we do. We see the provable facts as the most important thing. They saw the intangible mysteries of the universe as far more important. Sometimes, when they’re talking about those deep mysteries, we try to interpret their words as if they’re talking about literal, easy-to-prove things. So when they start talking about the time being fulfilled, about the time being near, we expect that in a few hours or days or weeks (sometimes even a few years), the time will arrive. And it should be obvious from an objective, fact-based point of view. So when we read passages like this, it’s not that we doubt it—obviously, if Jesus said it, it must be true—but we sort of gloss over it. Because any ‘time’ that was near two thousand years ago can’t possibly also be near to us. And the Kingdom has not obviously shown up in the last two thousand years and the present form of the world hasn’t passed away, well, we start to wonder where it is. And since we can’t see it, we stop looking for it, and continue on about our daily lives. Business as usual.

And yet, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God has come near. What does it mean for the Kingdom to be near? What does it mean for the time to be at hand? Obviously, he didn’t mean that God’s kingdom was going to visibly take over the world in the next few years, because that didn’t happen. Yet all throughout his ministry, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God being near, and the time being close at hand. So what does he mean?

Well, first and most obviously, the kingdom is near because Jesus is near. Jesus is, after all, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And you know what? Jesus may not be physically present any more, but Jesus is still with us, in our hearts and minds, in our community and in communities across the globe. I mean, this is basic stuff, what we teach to our children. Jesus is always with us even if we can’t see him. So if the king is always with us, even when we can’t see him, does that mean the kingdom is, too? Does that mean the Kingdom of God is, right here and right now, one of those deeper mysteries that we can’t see or touch but can experience through the love of God? Does that mean that even when the kingdoms of this world overwhelm us and break us down and lead us away from our Lord, God’s kingdom is surrounding us, too, building us up and healing us and calling us back to faithfulness?

When Paul says that the present form of the world is passing away, is that what he means? When we participate in God’s kingdom, when we treat others according to God’s will instead of the world’s power, are we helping God’s kingdom to poke through into our everyday reality? When we live a God-filled life, are we helping God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his own? When we see people act according to the love of God even in the midst of hate and fear and conflict, are we seeing the present form of the world pass away, to be replaced by the world God is calling us to?

And the time has come near, Jesus said that and Paul affirmed it. Does that mean that the time has come for us to live kingdom centered lives? Does that mean that the time has come for us to stop listening to all the cares of the world that drag us down and keep us tied up in ordinary pettiness and pain, and let God open us up to the joy of the kingdom? When Paul says not to mourn or rejoice, is he talking about the kind of mourning and rejoicing the world shows us: shallow, selfish, and brief, and not at all the kind of deep abiding joy the kingdom brings? Because Paul mourned with his congregations and he rejoiced with them, we know that from his other letters. Grief is natural and right, and so is joy … but there’s a difference between the kind of hopeless, carefully stage-managed and abbreviated sorrow you see in the world today, and the kind of grief that knows however much we miss those we have lost, we will see them again, and God will be with us in the midst of our sorrow. And there’s a difference between the kind of manufactured artificial happiness you see on television with smiles pasted on, and the deep and abiding joy that God’s love can bring.

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says—the time is now! God is here, with us, now, today. God’s kingdom is here, with us, now, today! Get off your hind ends and live like it! God’s kingdom is deeper and more real than the kingdoms of this world—they will pass away and God’s kingdom will remain. That’s the good news! That’s the Gospel! All the problems of this world, all the things that drag us down, all the injustices large and small, all the pain, all the hatred, all the evil, all the banal mundane awfulness, that’s all temporary. And you don’t have to live your life as if this world is the most important thing. You don’t have to struggle alone in a sea of worldly concerns disguised as ultimate truths. You can follow Jesus instead, into a life filled with God’s love and joy, a life that sees and celebrates the kingdom of God that is poking through in so many different ways in so many different places.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the fishermen beside the sea. “I’ll make you fish for people.” This isn’t about ordinary life being swept away, this is about ordinary life being changed into something better. They were fishermen before Jesus’ call, and they were fishermen after it—but their ultimate goals changed. They left their nets by the sea to follow Jesus’ call, but they came back to those nets regularly. Think of how often in the Gospels we hear about the disciples fishing or being out in boats. And really, the area that Jesus preached and taught in wasn’t that large. It’s about the equivalent of calling local Underwood farmers to go out and farm for people and mostly spending time in the communities between Wilton and Max, with occasional trips to Minot and Bismarck. They’d still see their family and friends a lot. They’d have time to participate in the ordinary life. They could still help out some on the family farm.

And yet, in and among those ordinary days of work and family and friends, in and among those ordinary communities they grew up in and knew well, something extraordinary was happening. God was there! God was with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom was breaking in, little by little, and they were learning to live according to God’s time, not the world’s time. They were learning to live according to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. They were learning to follow Jesus, and learning that in the darkest times imaginable—with the world against them and all hope lost—God was still with them. God was there, in their darkest days of grief and happiest days of joy, in their confusion and doubt and faith, the kingdom of God was near, working in them and through them and around them. All they had to do was learn to see it. And to see it, all they had to do was follow Jesus, and keep following, no matter what.

May we, too, learn to follow Jesus and see his kingdom.

Amen.

An epiphany in the wilderness

Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 11, 2014

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-11

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.

There’s a movie in theaters right now called “Into The Woods.” It’s based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim that throws several well-known fairytales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel—together and intertwines them. It’s called “Into the Woods” because that’s where all the action takes place, where the characters meet and collide and scheme and cheat and help one another and learn and grow. In the woods—far away from their ordinary daily lives, from the patterns and social expectations that guide their normal behavior and perspectives—change is possible. Growth is possible. Learning is possible. Magic happens, and ordinary things become extraordinary, in the woods.

In the Bible, the wilderness functions kind of the same way. It’s the place where change happens. It’s a place that God is most likely to be able to take someone and turn them around, break into their life and make them new. In the wilderness—whether a physical or a spiritual kind of wilderness—you can’t hide behind anything anymore. You don’t have your normal job or what the neighbors will think or anything else to distract you. God often appears in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was during a forty-year stay in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned to trust God and follow him again after generations of slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that God renewed the faith of a despairing Elijah. And it is in the wilderness that John the Baptizer appears, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.

And it is in the wilderness that John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means “turning around.” You go out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, and that’s what’s going to happen. You will be turned around. You will be re-oriented. Your priorities will change. But the baptism of John was just water—water, and the wilderness. John knew that something was coming, something new, something extraordinary, beyond human understanding. John knew that God was coming. “I have baptized you with water,” John said. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” An ordinary repentance—even one in the wilderness—may not last long. When you go back to your normal life, it is all too easy to slip back around into the way you’ve always been. But it’s not quite so easy to slide back when God is the one to turn you around, when you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he was one of many. At this point, Jesus looked like a fairly normal guy—nobody looking at him would see anything special. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he hadn’t really done much to show it. His time to teach and preach and heal and feed people and die had not yet come. His baptism was the turning point. Jesus, being fully God as well as being fully human, didn’t need any sins forgiven—he’d never sinned in the first place. But this was the turning point, when people begin to see how incredible this ordinary-looking person really is. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is when things are set in motion. This is when God manifests—not just the Son by himself but all three together, Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Jesus went down into the water in the wilderness, he said good-bye to his normal, ordinary life. When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit came down to him and the Father said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s like a family reunion, a big group hug before Jesus begins his ministry, before he puts himself on a collision course with the powers of this world which will eventually result in his own death. I love you, the Father says. I will always be with you even as you walk towards death, the Spirit says. And if you think I’m putting too much weight on Jesus’ death here, at the beginning of the story, think about this: the word Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing apart? That word is only used one other time in Mark: when Jesus dies, and the curtain of the Temple that separates ordinary people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. Jesus’ whole ministry is bookended by this tearing: the things that separate us from God—whether the curtain of the temple, or the heavens themselves—get ripped in two. And it’s not just a simple slice, easily mended. This is a rip, a shredding. There’s no putting it back together again. God is coming into the world—God is coming to be with us.

This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about revelations, about God appearing, and as we move through this season, I want you to listen to the readings each week I want you to listen for the epiphanies, the revelations, in each one. In our reading today, it’s obvious—God tears the heavens open and speaks directly, and the Holy Spirit takes visible form like a dove, coming down. But although this epiphany seems to be mostly for Jesus—we’re told he heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit, we don’t know whether anyone else did—baptism is not just for Jesus, it’s for us. Because John’s baptism is only with water, but after this, every baptism done in Jesus’ name involves the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. That baptism with the Holy Spirit that John talked about that was coming? That’s the baptism we experience every time we bring a child or adult to the font and splash them with water. It’s not just our words. It’s not just our water. God is present.

In each baptism, the heavens are torn open a little wider and the Holy Spirit comes down, dancing over the water just as the Spirit danced over the waters of creation. In every baptism, God claims the one in the water, saying “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No matter what else happens, God is there, present in the whole community, welcoming and claiming each child and adult as God’s own. God is working. God is calling us and turning us around. We can still walk away from God—but God will never walk away from us, because God loves us and has chosen us. No matter where we go—no matter where life takes us—whether we are faithful or not, whether we walk by still waters and green pastures or through wilderness and temptation—God is with us. Sometimes, especially when we’re walking through wilderness and temptation. Even when we are blind to him, when our own fears and dreams drown out his voice, God is with us, calling us and guiding us and hoping we will turn to him and follow. Hoping that we will see him all around us.

Because God doesn’t just come to us once. God doesn’t just have one epiphany. God keeps coming to us, all the time, in many ways. In good times in bad, at home and when we wander and stray far away. We don’t always notice God—we’re not very good at seeing God’s presence in our lives. When good things happen, we attribute them all to our own skill or luck or deserving, instead of to God’s gifts. When bad things happen, we ask why God allowed it even while we ignore the ways God supported us and carried us through the wilderness. But even when we don’t see God, God is there.

We don’t always see God, but whether we see him or not, God is there. And when we do see him, when we look up from our distractions and our cares and see him, that’s an epiphany. What have the epiphanies been in your life?

Amen.

Waiting for the Baby’s Birth

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

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’ve been coming to church regularly the last month or so, you may have noticed a focus on the Kingdom of God. We’ve had parable after parable about the coming of the Kingdom—about staying awake, and how to prepare, and who is invited. If you were hoping that to change now that we’re in Advent—the season of preparing for Christ’s birth—you’re going to be disappointed. Because preparing for the coming of Christ doesn’t just mean getting the tree and presents ready, and lighting an advent wreath and admiring crèche scenes about the beautiful baby in Bethlehem. Preparing for the coming of Christ also means preparing for his coming in glory at the end of the age. The baby’s birth gets the ball rolling. The king coming again in glory is where it finishes.

And here’s the thing: for all that people—both Christians and people of other faiths—have spent thousands of years trying to predict when the end times come, nobody’s been right yet. We spend all this time and effort trying to figure out how to tell, when in our Gospel lesson Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen—nobody knows but the Father.

When you think about it, it’s kind of like pregnancy. I mean, when a woman is pregnant, you know that baby is going to come out eventually. And, it will probably be roughly nine months from the time of conception. But exact dates, times? Nope. That baby comes in its own time. The best we can do is guess—and sometimes, our guesses are pretty wrong. My baby brother was due around June 12, 1998. Now, my middle brother and I were both in choirs that were going to be going on tour that summer. My choir was going to England, and Nels’ choir was going to Canada. And both of us were flying out with our choirs on June 22nd.   We might miss our baby brother’s birth, which we both wanted to be there for. There was only about ten days between his due date and the day we were scheduled to leave the country. So you can imagine how nervous we all were. Would we be there? What if the baby was later than we expected? We prayed for him to be early. As the day we hoped he’d be born came and went, we prayed each day that he would be born soon.

By June 20th, two days before Nels and I flew out of the country, we were all on tenterhooks waiting. We were looking for the signs. The baby had rotated head down, just like he was supposed to—that was great! That was a sign he would come soon! But not a definite clue as to when. Was mom getting backaches, which sometimes come just before contractions? Was anything happening? Was the baby ever going to come? And as we were waiting, we had stuff to do. So much stuff! We had to help Mom pack for the hospital—things she and dad and the baby would need, and also snacks and games and stuff to keep Nels and I occupied and out of the way. (Nels, by the way, kept drooling over the snacks—we rarely got chips and cookies and things, and so having a whole basket full them right by the front door for a couple of weeks was torture for him. All that good stuff that he could see but not enjoy, yet.) But, since we also were going on tour, we had to do all our packing for that. We needed to be packed before the baby was born, because what if he came the day we were supposed to leave? We’d be too busy then. So we packed early. While Nels and I were practicing music for the tour and making sure everything was packed, Mom and Dad were doing last-minute preparations, gathering supplies, practicing childbirth techniques, staying in touch with the doctor, and doing all the other things to keep ready. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

That’s kind of like what the life of a Christian is. We’re waiting for a baby to come, and we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for it. There’s the normal everyday stuff that still has to get done. But there’s also the stuff that needs to get ready specifically for the baby. What kinds of things do we need to do to be ready for the coming of Jesus? When a baby’s coming, you prepare the house. For the coming of Christ, shouldn’t we prepare our world? Our hearts? Ask yourselves this question: what do you think needs to be prepared in your life for the coming of Christ?

We spent a lot of time preparing for my baby brother to come. We waited, and waited. And then, just when we were starting to think that it was going to be too late, that Nels and I would have to miss it, Mom went into labor. And off we went to the hospital. It was quite a process: Dad driving and taking care of Mom, Nels and I handling the baggage and trying to help with Mom as much as we could. Then we got to the hospital, and things really got hectic. If you’ve ever had a baby or been present for a birth, you know what I mean. Doctors and nurses in and out, Mom yelling in pain, Dad taking care of her, me trying to keep Nels and I out of the way, blood and other bodily fluids … about as far from the serene and pretty picture that you see on Christmas cards as possible. But, eventually, it was over. The baby was out, cleaned, and nursing. And we were all so happy. Our baby brother Lars was born on June 20th. He was only two days old when he came with Mom and Dad to drop Nels and I off at the Portland Airport. We thought he would be too late—we thought his timing was bad—but it turned out, he was coming in his own time, not ours.

The thing was, we knew what the signs of labor were. I only knew from books and things because I didn’t remember Nels’ birth that clearly. But Mom and Dad, this was their third kid. They’d done this twice before. They knew the signs to look out for. But that didn’t mean they knew when he was coming. And that didn’t mean they couldn’t get fooled by false contractions or other symptoms. “Is this it?” Dad would ask Mom. “Well, maybe,” she would say. Until the labor was well and truly started, we didn’t know whether or not it was going to be just another false alarm.

That’s what the coming of a baby is like, but it’s also a little bit like the coming of the kingdom. Jesus lists signs and symbols of what will happen beforehand. The sun will be darkened, stars falling from heaven, powers shaken … Our reading from Isaiah mentions some more symptoms. Earthquakes, nations trembling. And Jesus says that we should be able to look at the signs and tell when the coming of God’s kingdom is near, just like you can look at a fruit tree budding out and tell that the seasons are changing. But the thing is, as anyone who lives in cold climates knows, the trees beginning to bud out is not necessarily a sure-fire sign that the season has changed—you can still get killer frosts after that point. In the same way, all those other signs Jesus and Isaiah point to—celestial events, natural disasters, political events—people have spent thousands of years looking at those signs and saying “see—this meteor shower means God is coming soon!” or, “That earthquake is a sign of the kingdom!” or, “This political catastrophe means the end of the world is coming!” But each time, the signs they were pointing to weren’t the real thing: they were like Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor, that got people all excited and yet weren’t the big event. Christ is coming—he came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and he’s coming again—but we don’t know when.

The point isn’t to know for certain exactly when it’s going to happen. If you bet on an exact date, you’ll probably be just as wrong as people generally are at predicting the date of a baby’s birth. We can’t know, because even Jesus doesn’t know. The point is to be ready and waiting, to be paying attention and asking the question: is this it? Because, as sure as a baby can’t stay in the womb forever, sooner or later God’s kingdom will come. And if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not looking for it, you may miss the signs—just like pregnant women sometimes dismiss or ignore the signs of labor. My mom did that when my middle brother Nels was born. She assumed it would be a long labor, like she had with me, and so when she felt the first stirring she ignored it. Well, Nels came out a lot faster—and by the time she realized that, well, we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time. It made his birth a lot more stressful and hard than it would have been if we’d been paying attention.

Then there’s the matter of preparation. Because once labor starts, you don’t have time to pack your bags. The time of getting ready is over and done with. If you’re not ready, well, you’re going to have to go as you are. You won’t have clothes to change into, or a toothbrush, or a camera, or anything else you might need. And that, too, will make the birth a lot more stressful than it needs to be.

We know how to get ready for an ordinary baby, but we’re not always sure how to get ready for the Holy Baby.  I mean, really, we know about Christmas trees and lights and things, but how much attention do we give to preparing our hearts and minds?  Preparing our world?  May we learn to watch and wait for the coming of Christ.

Amen.