Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 12, June 25, 2017

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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, O Lord.

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

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about one of the things Christians like to talk about least.  Conflict.  Disagreement.  Division.  The hardship that comes from following Christ.    But whether or not we like to think about it, the sad reality is that it happens all too often.  When there is conflict or disagreement, Christians tend to respond theologically in one of two ways.  That is, if you ask us what God thinks about conflict and how that should affect us, all too often you’ll get one of two answers.  One is to say, well, God is love, therefore God doesn’t want us to fight, therefore we should just be nice.  The other reaction is to say, well, I know what God wants and therefore anything I do is following God’s will.  I don’t think Jesus likes either option.

The belief in the niceness as the central Christian virtue leads us to try to paper over problems or ignore them, because they feel threatening, like a sign that our community isn’t Christian enough.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for healing or growth.  Problems fester and grow instead of being dealt with.  The loudest voices get heard, and the others are shut up because they threaten the status quo.  Which is great if you’re one of the loudest voices, but not great if you aren’t.  Some people’s needs get met, while others get trampled on in the name of unity and community.  The least powerful people are forced to sacrifice so that the most powerful will be comfortable.

The belief in self-righteousness, on the other hand, leads to really nasty fights because of course if God is on your side than whatever you do is justified, and your enemies are evil, horrible people.  So you can be just as much of a jerk as you want, and it’s justified.  You can be as nasty as you want, and you are in the right because God is on your side.  There are a couple of problems with this one.  First, sometimes we’re wrong.  It’s actually pretty easy to convince yourself that God thinks the same way you do, instead of conforming your heart and mind to God.  I’ve seen far too many people—from a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and political orientations—use the Bible and God’s will to back up and support what they already think, instead of truly following Jesus.  The second problem with this kind of self-righteousness is that the God who commanded us to love our enemies is probably not going to look too fondly on the sort of scorched-earth tactics this kind of belief tends to lead to.

Conflict can happen for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad.  Sometimes everybody is just being a selfish jerk, or refusing to listen and think about anything other than themselves and the way their community sees the world.  Sometimes conflict happens because petty disagreements and old grudges keep getting brought out in new forms.  In these cases everybody just needs to take a step back and learn to listen to other people and be reconciled.  But sometimes conflict happens because of a deep conflict between God’s ways and the ways of the world.  In our Gospel reading Jesus says that we’re going to go through some of the same things that happened to him.  Just as Jesus got into conflicts with a wide variety of people, if we are truly his disciples, we’re going to have conflict too.  So what was Jesus doing that got people to react?  Why did some of them hate him and plot against him?  Why was this a concern here, in the tenth chapter of Matthew?  Let’s back up and see what Jesus has been doing.

Matthew chapters five through seven is the sermon on the mount, one of Jesus’ greatest times of teaching.  He starts off by saying that God especially loves the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, all the ones who get trampled on by the world.  In other words, God loves the ones that society would rather ignore or shut out.  Then Jesus talks about relationships, friendships and familial relationships and marital relationships, and how important reconciliation and forgiveness are.  Then he talks about loving your enemies.  Then he talks about doing good and religious works in private, so no one can see you doing them.  And Jesus finishes up by reminding us that we should always be relying on God, not on our own ability to make things turn out the way we want.

This is all really difficult stuff.  He’s telling anyone who will listen that what you look like in public—what the world thinks of you—is irrelevant.  God doesn’t care about who has power and who doesn’t.  God cares about people, even the least important and most despised people.  God loves everyone, good and bad alike.  God cares about how we treat one another.  Especially when we have nothing to gain by doing the right thing.  Especially when we will suffer for doing the right thing.  Because there are always people and forces in society who like to divide people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t.  The ones who deserve good things and the ones who don’t.  The saints and the sinners.  And when you start building bridges with the people that society doesn’t like, well, society generally doesn’t take it very well.  It’s a recipe for conflict.  And when you truly trust in God’s abundant blessings to provide, you’re a lot less likely to buy in to the rat race that tells us that to get ahead we have to keep others behind.  That’s a threat to all the people who profit on the rat race.  In order to follow Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, you have to pretty much ignore everything the world teaches about power and weakness, about love and hate, about money, about religion, about what matters and what doesn’t.

Then after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends chapters eight and nine putting his words into practice.  He heals people, casts out demons, forgives sins, and eats with all the people society wants to exclude.  And the Pharisees are outraged!  The Pharisees, by the way, are the local leaders of society.  They’re the movers and shakers in each little town, they’re the deeply faithful people who go to worship every week and study the Scriptures and spend lots of time and effort trying to be as faithful as possible.  They deeply hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and mercy … but only on their terms.  They want God’s healing and forgiveness to overflow … but only for the people they believe deserve it.  They want society to be healed and reconciled … but only the parts of society they approve of.  They want to experience God’s miracles … but only in the times and places that fit their ideas of when and where God should act.

When Jesus doesn’t fit into their nice, neat, orderly lives, they get angry.  When Jesus doesn’t fit into their expectations, when he teaches about loving everyone—and then goes out and actually does it, forgiving sinners and eating with them!—they can’t stand it.  When Jesus casts out demons, therefore, they say it’s a trick, and he does it because he’s a demon.  We don’t like to remember it, but the deepest resistance to Jesus came from the people who should have been his most ardent followers, the ones who had spent their lives honestly seeking God but who balked when he didn’t look like what they expected.  And if people balked at following Jesus when they saw what it was really like 2,000 years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have conflict today when we try to follow Jesus.  And some of that conflict is going to come even from deeply faithful people who disagree about what it means to put God’s word into action.

But let’s notice what Jesus is doing and what he’s not doing.  He’s preaching the Gospel, but he’s pairing it with actions.  He talks about God blessing the poor and meek, and then he goes and heals and feeds them, giving them tangible blessings.  He talks about forgiving people, and then he goes out and forgives sinners and eats with them.  He talks about the importance of right relationships, and then he goes out and builds relationships with people that society tries to exclude.  This is not about proving his point or rubbing his opponent’s noses in all the ways they’re wrong.  This is about putting God’s love into action.  The haters are gonna hate, but we don’t have to become haters in response.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  The same God who sees each sparrow is watching over us, too.

We have a mission.  That mission is not to attack people we don’t like, or to prove how great of a Christian we are, or to preserve the political power of Christianity, or to be nice no matter what.  That mission is neither to give unity through superficial niceness nor to self-righteously destroy those who disagree with us.  That mission is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  It’s to tell people that God loves them and forgives them, that God brings life and healing and freedom, and then show them what that love and forgiveness look like.  And sometimes showing people love and forgiveness is going to bring us into conflict.  And that’s not going to be fun.  But that is the mission Christ calls us to.  That is the mission Christ died for.  That’s the mission of the cross, the mission that brings salvation and the only life truly worth living.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.  May we find the life that truly matters in Jesus.

Amen.

Repent!

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10, 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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.

It is interesting to note that only two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—describe Jesus’ birth at all.  That’s right, the event that is so important to modern Christians, that we celebrate with so much attention and fervor—was not even considered important enough to be mentioned in half the Gospels.  On the other hand, John the Baptist’s message of repentance is in all four.  It always makes me wonder.  Why?  What makes John the Baptist so important?  And why is Jesus’ birth so relatively unimportant?

I think it comes down to meaning.  Without Jesus being born as fully God and fully Human, he could never have died to save us from our sins.  But while it’s wonderful to celebrate the birth of a baby, just the fact that the baby is born doesn’t tell you much about what that baby is going to become, what they’re going to do with their life.  The mere fact that Jesus was born doesn’t tell us what his birth means.  And it certainly doesn’t tell us what his life and death mean!  But John the Baptist does.  John gives context.  John the Baptizer, that crazy guy out in the wilderness, is the guy telling people what’s coming.  The Baptist sets up Jesus’ ministry by shaking people out of their comfortable certainties and preparing them to receive Jesus and his message.

“Repent,” John told people, “for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  Now, when people hear the word “repent,” a lot of people dismiss it out of hand.  Some people because it’s an old-fashioned word, but mostly because people don’t think it really applies to them.  We look at our lives and go, “well, I’m not that big a sinner, I’m a good person, so I don’t need to repent.”  But while repentance can certainly mean being sorry for our sins, that’s not the only thing it means.  The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent,” for example, literally means “to turn around,” to reorient yourself towards God instead of all the things that draw you away from God.  And the Greek word used in the New Testament literally means “change your heart or mind.”  It’s not primarily about feeling sorry for your sins, it’s about seeing the world through God’s perspective.  It’s about being re-formed in God’s image, and according to God’s priorities.  When you do that, you will change your ways, but our individual sinning is only part of what changes.  Repentance is not just something that sinners need to do; this is something that all of us need to do, every single one of us, not just once, but always.  This world we live in is always trying to shape our priorities and our perspectives.  And those priorities and perspectives may not be particularly bad, in and of themselves, but they’re not God’s priorities and perspectives.  The problem is when we let them blind us to God’s priorities and perspectives.

Like the Pharisees did.  We Christians tend to think the Pharisees must have been horrible people because Jesus was always clashing with them, but the reality is that they were good, God-fearing people who worshiped every Sabbath, gave generously to their houses of worship and to charity, taught people about the Bible, and were good solid middle-class family people.  In the entire Bible, there is no group of people as much like modern Christians as the Pharisees were.  The problem was not that the Pharisees were bad people, because they weren’t.  And the problem wasn’t that they didn’t try to be faithful—they did try.  (If they hadn’t spent so much time trying to be faithful, Jesus would have had fewer problems with him because they wouldn’t have cared so much.)  No, the problem was that they thought they didn’t need to repent.  They assumed that because they were good, God-fearing people, because they were leaders in their congregations and communities, that God must agree with them.  They assumed that because they read the Scripture, their hearts and minds were already formed around God’s Word, and so they didn’t need to change.  They assumed that because they were children of Abraham, they were naturally in the right.  “We are God’s people, therefore we already know what God wants—the same things we do.”  They thought they already had the right answers and did the right things, and so they didn’t need to repent.

And that’s why, when Jesus showed up, they gave him such a hard time.  Because for all that they agreed with him on most things, where there was a difference they never even asked themselves if he might have a point: if he disagreed with them, he was wrong.  Period.  End of story.  They never asked if there was anything in their perspective, anything in their interpretation of scripture, anything in their lifestyle, that might not line up with what God desired of them.  They assumed they did not need to repent, and so they didn’t.  And so when God Incarnate walked among them, they dismissed him out of hand, because he didn’t look like what they expected him to look like.

You can see why a call to repentance is so central to the beginning of each of the four Gospels.  Because without repentance—without re-orienting ourselves to God, and allowing God to re-form our hearts and minds so that we see from his perspective—it doesn’t matter whether we tell the story of God becoming flesh and living among us.  Without repentance, it’s just another story to be slotted in to our lives to confirm that we’re good people who already know what God wants because he wants the same thing we do because we’re good people who go to church.  The crucial measure of faithfulness isn’t worship attendance, or good deeds, or Bible study; those can all help deepen our faith, but they’re not the center of what it means to be faithful to God.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to let God open our hearts and minds, take them out, shake them up, and turn them around so that they’re focused on God’s priorities and not the world’s priorities.  Only then do all our pious deeds have any meaning beyond ego-stroking.  When paired with repentance, reading the Bible and worshiping and doing good deeds become far, far more meaningful.

This is how John the Baptist prepares for the coming of Christ: by reminding us that repentance is necessary, because the world’s priorities—our priorities—are not God’s priorities.  Our eyes are not God’s eyes, and our understanding is not God’s understanding.  John was the voice in the wilderness telling us to prepare the way in the wilderness, to make a straight road for God.  That’s a quote from Isaiah 40, by the way, which talks about valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills levelled and the grass withering and the nations being worth nothing.  In other words, we’re not just talking about small changes here, little adjustments.  We’re talking about the very foundation of our lives—the ground beneath our feet and the powers of the world we respect—being completely and utterly reshaped by God.  To prepare for Christ, we have to repent.  We have to get ready for the fact that God’s coming means that the entire world is going to be re-shaped.  And the more tightly we cling to our own priorities and prejudices and ideas about how the world works, the more painful it is going to be.

Human beings don’t like change, on a fundamental level. Things have to be pretty bad before we want something new, and even then, the “new thing” that we want is often just an old thing in a shinier package.  We look with nostalgia and rosy-tinted glasses at the past, and think that if we could just make things like they used to be, then everything would be great.  This is especially seductive for Christians, because we can look back on a time when our religion dominated the country and the laws were weighted in our favor, and everyone went to church even if they didn’t really believe because it was just what everyone did on Sunday morning.  The problem is, when God does something “new” it isn’t just an old thing in a shiny package, it is genuinely new, different.  Jesus didn’t come to kick the Romans out, and he didn’t come to turn back the clock to the 1950s, and he isn’t coming back to keep the world as it is except for the parts we find inconvenient.  Jesus comes to break down the gates and set people free and raise up the valleys and mow down the mountains and rearrange the world according to God’s vision, not ours.  If we’re going to be faithful to Jesus, we can’t just read the Bible to hear what we want to hear.  We can’t just assume we’re always right, or that God always agrees with us, because like the Pharisees, we may occasionally find that we are wrong.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to turn towards God; we have to open our hearts and minds and let God change us into the people he created us to be.  And that’s not easy; in fact, it can be very scary.  But

Amen.

Faith and Talents

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), Year A, November 16, 2014

 

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

 

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.

Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than any other single topic besides the kingdom of God? It’s surprising, but true … particularly considering how many churches I could name where the pastor only talks about money once a year, when they’re doing the church budget. The rest of the time, money gets talked of in “spiritual” terms. In other words, it’s not really about money at all—it’s about faith, or it’s about power, or about honor, or something else. Now, all those can be legitimate ways of reading the text—after all, Jesus used money as a metaphor a lot. Like in our Gospel reading today, a ‘talent’ in the ancient world was a unit of money, about 15 years wages—say, around half a million dollars, in today’s terms. Jesus is telling a parable, a story designed to illustrate a point, and he uses money because how you handle money—what you spend it on, what you save it for, says an awful lot about your priorities. Like, a deadbeat dad may say he loves his kids, but if he’s going out partying instead of paying child support to help raise them, it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t very important to him. And if you say you feel sorry for people who are hungry but you don’t give to food pantries, or donate to ELCA World Hunger, and vote against government food assistance programs, you obviously don’t care that much. If you say you love God, and you don’t pay any attention to spending your money in ways God would want you to, well, that says something about you as well.

So here’s the parable. A man, going on a journey, summons his slaves. He doesn’t say how long he’s going to be gone or where he’s going, but he needs someone to take care of his household. So he divvies it up: five talents, about $2.5 million, to one slave; a million to another, half a million to the third. This is a huge windfall. A gift like very few people get, ever. And he just hands it over. No detailed instructions, just “here, it’s yours to take care of, you can handle it, I trust you.” And then he goes away. If it were you, if you were one of those slaves, what would you do with the money?

Two of the slaves get to work. They say to themselves, “Hey, my master gave me a lot. What can I do with lots of money?” You can tell where their priorities are, because you can see what they did with the gift they were given. They went to work, and they made a lot of money. Huge amounts of money, way more than anyone could reasonably expect. Now, remember, in those days you couldn’t just put a chunk of money in an index fund at the stock market like you can today. In our world, if you have money to invest, and you put it in an index fund for a long time—say, twenty years—you’ll get an average of about a 7% return. They couldn’t have done that back then—and, in any case, even today there’s no investment that will give you a 100% return, which is what they got. No, to get that kind of return, you have to be more active. You’d have to do something like start a new business that does really well, or find someone with a great idea for a new business and give them the money to start it. In other words, you have to pay attention to your community: what do people need that they don’t have, and how can I help them get it? Then, you have to be willing to work hard, and with some luck, you can get an incredible return. That’s what the first two did.

The third didn’t. There were so many things he could have done with that gift, and he didn’t do any of them. He didn’t do any work himself. He didn’t invest it. He didn’t look for some way to use it as his master might want. He didn’t give it to one of the other two to manage. He didn’t even put it in a bank. He dug a hole and put it in the ground and forgot about it and went on with his life. The other two guys were working, they were using what their master gave them, they were thinking about how he would want them to use what he gave them. Even though the master wasn’t there with them, their relationship with their master was guiding their lives, and guiding what they were doing with his gifts. The third guy, on the other hand, well, he didn’t seem to care about his master one way or the other. Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe he just thought, “well, the other guys got more than I did, and one talent isn’t enough to do anything with.” He ignored his master’s gift and anything his master might want, and called it good enough. He was too busy with all the other stuff in his life to care much about his master’s wishes.

So the master comes back! And the first two slaves show their master what they’ve done with his great gift, and the master is happy. “That’s awesome! You’ve done such a great job, I want you to keep on doing it, but here’s some more stuff to take care of, too—we can work together. I love you and I love what you’ve done.” And the third slave goes out, digs up the hole he put the half a million dollars in, and hands it back. Complete with an excuse: “I was afraid to lose it!” he said. “I know you’d punish me if I wasted it, and I know you can be really harsh and strict, so wasn’t it great of me to keep it safe?”

And the master was not happy, to say the least. First off, it’s not true—if the guy was worried, why didn’t he put it in a bank? It would have been almost as safe, and there would have been at least some return. Second, this description of the master as harsh and fearsome doesn’t match with what else we see of the master. We know he’s a generous guy, giving the money to his slaves to take care of. And when he comes to settle up with them, his first impulse is to praise them and celebrate. Third, the master doesn’t seem to care about how much the return on investment is—he doesn’t say, “that’s awesome that you doubled my money, so I’m going to give you a bonus!” No, he says instead, “it’s awesome how faithful you were.” The two faithful slaves, they trusted that their master was going to come back, and they kept working. They’ve been participating in their master’s work this whole time, so they will keep on doing it now that he’s back. That’s what the master celebrates: their faithfulness, not their profits. I mean, the profits are great, but they’re not what he master cares about. The third guy, he hasn’t been participating in his master’s work. He said he was going to, and he was given resources to do so. But he didn’t. He stuck the gift in a hole and forgot about it, and then tried to blame his master for doing so. Needless to say, the master was not impressed, and sent him packing.

So the question is, how are we managing the talents God has given us? We’re like the slaves in the parable, given great riches by our master. Sometimes those riches are in the form of wealth—and anyone who doesn’t think we’re wealthy here in North Dakota, remember that there are places in the world where people live on annual incomes of $300 or less. And many of those people who live on $300 or less still find the time and money to help one another within their community. Sometimes the riches God gives are in the form of relationships, the love and support that helps us grow and thrive and survive in times of trouble. Sometimes those riches are in the form of talents in our modern definition, things we’re good at that can make the world a better place. Sometimes those riches are in the form of opportunities God gives. Sometimes those riches are in the form of physical and mental health. Sometimes those riches are in the form of intelligence or street smarts. But whatever the riches are that God has given you, the question is, what are you doing with them? What are we doing with them?

Remember that the profit God wants isn’t money. What God wants us to do with his gifts is to spread God’s love. God wants us to spread healing, and wholeness. God wants us to spread community and hope. God wants us to grow, and God wants us to help others grow. God wants us to participate in his work of building up his kingdom in this world. God wants us to have a share in his joy, and to share that joy with one another.

It’s not always easy. It would be so much easier to put God’s gifts in a drawer or a hole in the ground and go on with what we want to do. It would be so much easier to say, “Others have more money, time, talents, treasures, let them do the work.” It would be so much easier to be the third guy and ignore the master and the gift both until he comes back to ask us in person what we did with it.

It’s easier to be the third guy. But it’s better by far to be the first two—to take the gift and use it, to spread it around, to participate in God’s work, and to enter into God’s joy.

Amen.

Priorities

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32), Year A, November 9, 2014

 

Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70m 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

 

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 don’t know about you guys, but I went to camp every year as a child. It was a church camp, Camp Lutherwood, in the hills and forests north of Eugene, Oregon. I loved every minute of it. I loved the pool, and the creek, and the huge trees, and the hills that towered over the camp, and the cabins, and the songs, and the crafts, and the counselors, and the special activities—one year I went to horse camp, and another I went to model rocket camp. But, once I got old enough to pack my own bag, I knew one thing for certain and sure: no matter how closely I followed the packing instructions they sent out each year, I would forget something. One year, it was pajamas, and I had to sleep in a t-shirt all week. Another year, it was a flashlight.

Now, a flashlight is a very important thing at camp. Oregon is further south than North Dakota, so our summer days aren’t quite as long as they are here. By the time evening campfire was over and it was time to go back to our cabins for the night, it would always be dark, and we would have to walk through narrow forest trails, down the gully and up the other side, in the dark. There was a lamp by the dining hall, but it would only light the way if you took the long way around by the gravel road, which we never did. Then we would gather our things from our cabin and make our way across the back field to the bathrooms, where we would brush our teeth and wash up and get ready for bed, and then trek back to the cabin. And that year, I was out in the tent cabins which didn’t have electricity—after dark, the only light we had was our flashlights. You can see why not having a flashlight was A BIG DEAL.

So, I get why the five foolish bridesmaids were freaked out that they didn’t have enough oil. Been there, done that. And I also get why the wise bridesmaids didn’t want to share the oil, because it wouldn’t have been enough. I mean, say I’d had a flashlight without batteries in it. If one of my friends had given me half her batteries, then neither flashlight would have enough batteries to work. And that doesn’t make any sense.

What I don’t get is this: why didn’t they share the lamps that had oil in them? I mean, yeah, sure, it’s better to have your own lamp or flashlight, but I know from experience that one flashlight can be shared between two girls, and things will work out just fine. Because that’s what we did, that year I forgot my flashlight. I paired up with one of the other girls, and we kept close together after dark. Even walking through a dark and scary forest at night, and then rooting around in your bag to get your toothbrush and soap and washcloth and stuff, you can share one flashlight between you. It may take a little longer, it may be less convenient, but there will be enough light. You don’t have to have enough oil for both lamps if you can use one lamp for both of you.

And, sure, the wise bridesmaids didn’t offer to share the lamps. They probably should have, but they didn’t. But on the other hand, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t think to ask, either. Getting light from someone else wasn’t enough. They needed their own light. So they went out in search of the oil they needed to make it. And because they were out getting supplies, they missed the bridegroom, and weren’t let back in to the wedding party.

That’s a crucial point, there. They weren’t let back in. You see, they were already there, in the house, waiting for the bridegroom to come. They left, before the party started. And here’s the thing. The bridegroom didn’t say to them, “hey, you need oil for your lamps, or you can’t come to the party.” Nobody said that. Nobody said they had to have lamps at all. I bet you that at a party, the guy throwing the party would have enough supplies so that everyone could have a good time. I bet you there were lamps full of oil in the house just waiting to be lit. Sure, having their own lamps might have made things a little brighter, but every party I’ve ever been to the host has made sure they had more than enough of everything to take care of their guests. And if something runs out, well, the party continues without it. Because the important part of a party is the people, gathered together to have fun. All the other stuff, from food and drink to decorations and party games, you plan it and get more than you think you need and if you run out—or if you forget to get something—you figure out a way to deal with it, or you shrug your shoulders and get back to the party. If people are having fun together, you can get by without whatever it is that you’re missing. And if people aren’t having fun together, well, whatever’s missing probably wouldn’t have changed much anyway.

The foolish bridesmaids don’t seem to have figured this out. They made sure they looked right, that they looked like they were prepared—they brought lamps with them, and until it was time to light the lamps, they looked no different than the wise bridesmaids. If everything had happened like they expected—if the bridegroom had come during the day when they thought he was coming—they would have been fine. But he didn’t come until it was night, and then everyone could see that their lamps were just for show. And they didn’t want to look foolish, carrying around lamps that weren’t lit. Maybe they thought the bridegroom would only let them be bridesmaids if they had their lamps lit. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they didn’t trust their host to take care of them and provide enough lamps to see by. Maybe they thought that since their fellow bridesmaids couldn’t share the oil, they wouldn’t share the light from their lamps. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they couldn’t enjoy the wedding and the party without their own lamps. Having enough oil of their own to have their own light was more important to them than the wedding. So they left to get some. And the bridegroom came while they were out knocking on the door of the shopkeeper to sell them oil in the middle of the night. While they were out running around town in a panic about not having enough oil, the wedding happened, and the party started. And they missed it.

So my question is, what’s the lamp oil in our lives? What is it that we think is more important than anything else? The thing that will send us panicking out to get, the thing that distracts us from the coming of Christ? What’s the thing we think we can’t possibly do without, the thing we think we need more deeply than anything else? The thing we don’t trust Jesus to provide for us? Think about that, for a second. I would bet you that most of the people here have something they think they need more than Jesus, when push comes to shove. You might not put it quite that directly—I bet you if you had asked those bridesmaids, they wouldn’t have said they needed oil more than they needed the bridegroom, but their actions proved it. Oil was a higher priority for them than the bridegroom. They might have said they needed the oil to properly welcome him, but they were so busy trying to get it that they missed him completely.

Even if you think you put Jesus above everything else in your life, do you really? Think about how you act. Think about what you do. Think about where your priorities prove about you. Here are some things that people tend to put as more important in their lives than anything else, things that distract themselves from Jesus Christ. One of them is money. Money is a big one, it’s something that a lot of good Christians spend a lot of time pursuing and not a lot of time using as God might want, which is why we don’t like talking about it in church. But there are a lot of other things on that list, too. How about power? Respectability? Land and crops? Technology? Fashion? Romance? Something else? These just scratch the surface. There are so many things that we put first in our lives, sometimes without even realizing it.

We are saved by Jesus Christ, and invited to the party. We are all bridesmaids at the great wedding feast of our Lord. God calls all people to himself, good and bad, rich and poor, male and female. We don’t have to do anything to earn that invitation, for it is freely given to everyone. But we can leave the party. We can pursue things we think we need, ignoring everything that God gives us. We can put our priorities in things that don’t matter in the end, just as the foolish bridesmaids did. May we learn from the lesson they teach, and follow Christ no matter what.

Amen.

To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

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.

This Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Which Commandment?

Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, Matthew 22:34-40

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.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Of all the many things that we believe, teach, and do, what’s the core? What’s the guiding principle we should live our lives by? What is the absolute most important thing God calls us to be and do? This was a question in Jesus’ day, because as any good Jew knew, there were over six hundred commands and teachings, and so a guiding principle was important to help keep you on the right track. And sometimes we Christians shake our heads at how legalistic the Jews were—couldn’t they see that faith was more important than works? And yet, we can be pretty legalistic ourselves. Just think of all the things that we argue about, things that various Christian churches hold up as the most important, guiding principles they hold. Issues about sexuality and marriage and divorce are pretty common. So are ideas about hell—as in, if you don’t believe the same way we believe, that’s where you’re going. Then there are all sorts of rules, spoken and unspoken, about gender and race and class and birth control and education and economics and political beliefs. And sometimes, Christians in this country act as if those rules are the most important thing about being a Christian.

Even if you try and say, “Forget about the nitpicking, all that matters is that you have faith,” you’re probably going to run into problems. How do you define faith, how much is “enough,” and how do you get saved and what does it mean to be saved? Do you need to be born again, do you need to have the right kind of faith with the right kinds of Bible interpretation? Should you be baptized as an infant or as an adult? These are all things that Christians in America think are important, but we don’t agree on how we interpret them, let alone which ones are the most important. We spend an awful lot of time arguing about these sorts of things. So, although we have differences in what we count as commandments in the law, this is still an issue we face today: which of the teachings is the greatest? What is the guiding principle we should be living our lives by?

In Martin Luther’s day, this, too, was an issue. The Christian church of his day had oodles and oodles of traditional teachings, laws, and regulations that they said you had to follow. In order to be a Christian, in order to be saved, you had to do certain types of good works, and confess your sin, and do penance to make up for all the things you did wrong, and if you didn’t think you were worthy of praying directly to God you could pray to a saint who would then supposedly talk to God on your behalf, and there was this whole huge list of things you had to do to be a good Christian. And Martin Luther tried so hard to follow every teaching to do everything right, to be perfect, and the harder he tried the more he realized that there was just no way he could possibly do everything right, and so he spent a lot of time looking through his Bible trying to figure out what to do. What’s the center? What’s the core? Which commandment is the greatest?

After reading his Bible cover to cover many times, and spending many hours in prayer and in discussion with other monks, Martin Luther found was that it wasn’t about the law at all. It wasn’t about legalism, or doing the right thing, or figuring out how to be perfect. Because, in point of fact, humans aren’t perfect. We’re mortal. We mess up all the time. As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we base our faith, our relationship with God, on trying to be perfect and follow all the rules perfectly … we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own. All of our arguing, all of the rules we think are so important, well, even when we’re right those rules won’t keep us from straying. And we’re not always right. Sometimes we interpret God’s will wrongly, and then all our rules do nothing but lead us further from God.

Martin Luther, like so many people of his day, was deeply afraid of Hell. He was afraid of not measuring up to God’s goodness, of being found unworthy and being condemned because of his sin. In the 1500s, when Martin Luther lived, people had a much deeper and more visceral fear of Hell than most Americans do today. The Church had spent centuries teaching people an elaborate system for earning their way into God’s good books, with dire threats of Hell for anyone who didn’t measure up … except there was no way to really know whether you measured up or not, so a whole lot of people lived their lives with a kind of general anxiety about whether they’d done enough. So when Martin Luther read today’s passage from Romans and realized what it meant, he was stunned. The Church was wrong. If God’s forgiveness is a gift, if God’s gift of forgiveness is given to everyone regardless of what they’ve done or haven’t done to deserve it, then the whole system the Church taught was wrong. Nobody needs to earn God’s forgiveness. It’s a gift, given out of love. People were trying to earn what God had already given them for free. This was a revolutionary idea, and it led to changes in Christianity and in Europe that Martin Luther could never have guessed at. Holding on to that central idea of forgiveness and grace helped lead people from confusion and fear into a deeper relationship with God. It led to the Reformation—a re-forming of peoples’ hearts, minds, faiths, and lives.

This may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t see Reformation as a one-time thing. They knew that humans would continue to go astray, that we would sometimes put our own priorities in place of God’s priorities, that we would follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. So the church should always be re-forming, always striving to renew itself, always asking “Is this what God is calling us to be and do?” And I think that we live in a world with as much need to ask that question as people in the 1500s. We live in a time of change. Whether you are for it or against it, the world is not the same as it used to be. And change comes more slowly here in North Dakota than it does other places, but it’s coming even here. Some of the change is good, and some of it is bad, and all of it affects the world we live in, that our children will live in a generation from now. How we react will shape that world. Which rules and traditions and ways of life will we keep? Which ones will we modify, and how? Which ones will fall by the wayside? Which of the commandments and teachings we live our lives by is the greatest? What’s the core guiding principle that God wants us to use as our compass point on the journey of faith? What is God trying to re-form us around?

A lawyer asked Jesus this question: “Which commandment in the tradition is the greatest?” And Jesus replied: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Love God, and love your neighbor. All of the commandments, all of the teachings and traditions, all of them grow from this root. So everything we do, everything we teach, and everything we are should be centered around these two principles. Love God, and love your neighbor. If you hold to that in your heart and in your actions, you can’t go too far wrong. No matter what the issue is—sex, divorce, gender, race, oil, poverty, foreign policy, human trafficking—if we let our love for God and for our neighbor come second to our opinions, we have broken the commandments. If we let our interpretation of God’s Words hurt our neighbors and cause us to dislike or fear them, then we have broken the commandments. But if we act in love, love of God and love of our neighbors, then we are faithful to God. That’s the great litmus test. That’s the standard by which we are judged. May we always live according to the love God has given us.

Amen.

The Wedding Robe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.