The Laws of Giving

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, September 25th, 2016

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

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 rich man is suffering in death because he ignored poor Lazarus’ suffering in life.  He doesn’t want his brothers to suffer a similar fate.  And so he asks Abraham to send someone to his brothers to warn them of what happens to those who ignore the poor and suffering.  Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”  The rich man says, but that’s not enough!  He had Moses and the prophets, and he didn’t listen; that’s how he ended up in this mess.

This begs the question: what is it that Moses and the prophets said that the rich man should have listened to?  By Moses, he means the first five books of the Bible, which were traditionally attributed to Moses.  And, most specifically, he means the laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These laws told the ancient Jewish people how God wanted them to behave.  They covered everything from farming to economics to political questions to business laws to how to dress and what to eat to what garments the priests should wear and how to celebrate the various festivals.  And the thing we Christians often forget about those laws, is how much care they take that everyone has enough and no one gets cheated.  In every section, on every subject, there are explicit instructions for how to treat the poor and the vulnerable.  Widows, orphans, immigrants, poor people, those suffering in any way: the laws God gave through Moses continually put their needs in the center of the question.

Farmers were instructed to farm so that everyone in the community had enough to eat, whether they had enough money to buy food or not.  Merchants were instructed to be especially honest with poor people.  The entire economy was set up so that no one could be left permanently destitute through high debt, if they followed God’s laws.  Every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that had been sold out of the family reverted to the original family that had owned it.  And it was everyone’s duty to protect foreigners, because, as God repeatedly said, God’s people needed to remember that they, too, had once been strangers in a strange land, wandering in search of a new place to call home.  The rich had no special rights or privileges, only greater duties to those less fortunate than they were.  This is not because God loves the poor and vulnerable more than the rich; God loves everyone equally.  But the rich can take care of themselves, by and large.  It is the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, who need special protection.  These were the heart of the laws given by God to his people through Moses.

And the prophets—from Elijah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Zechariah, the Prophets of old whose words and deeds are collected in Scripture had called God’s people to be faithful.  They had condemned sin, and told people that unless the people of Israel and Judah turned from their sin God would not protect them from their enemies.  And what were the sins that the people of Israel and Judah?  In most places, the prophets left it vague.  But when they got specific, there were two sins named far more often than any other.  The first was worshipping other gods, and not being faithful to the one true God.  And the second great sin was exploiting the poor and vulnerable.  Even just ignoring the needy was enough to be condemned by God’s prophets.  When you ask a modern Christian what the major sins are, a lot of us will answer with something about sex.  But that says more about us than it does about God’s priorities, because the Bible says very little about sexual morality.  But from cover to cover, one of the primary ethical concerns in the Bible is how we treat people who are less fortunate than we are.  From Moses to the Prophets to the Gospels to the Epistles, one of the constant themes is concern for the poor and vulnerable.

So.  With all of that—with Moses and the Prophets and the whole Jewish cultural tradition of charity—why didn’t the rich man lift a finger for Lazarus?  Why didn’t he even let him have the crumbs that fell from his table, those scraps and leftovers that were just thrown out, that were still better than anything Lazarus could afford?  I don’t know; the parable doesn’t say.  But I know why some Christians today walk right on past the Lazaruses in our society.  One of the questions I get asked about the Community Cupboard of Underwood is what kind of screening process we’re going to have.  How are we going to weed out the scammers and the addicts and the people who don’t deserve help?  The people who could work, but don’t?  The people whose misfortunes are caused by their own continual bad choices?  The ones who take advantage of peoples’ generosity?

Funny thing, folks.  With all that the Bible has to say about helping the poor and needy, there is only one verse in the whole Bible that says anything about who deserves help.  And even that, it’s in the context of participation in the work of the congregation.  You don’t get to take credit for someone else’s work.  Aside from that one single verse, the question of whether or not people deserve help is irrelevant.  And I guarantee you it’s not because scammers and lazy bums are some kind of newfangled modern phenomena.  People are people, and have been since Adam and Eve first ate the apple.  But the question in the Bible is never whether or not people deserve food—it’s whether or not they’re hungry.  The question is never whether or not people deserve charity, only whether or not they have the necessities of life.  And if we see someone who lacks basic necessities—food, shelter, clothing, healing, community—and we don’t help?  We are sinners who have failed in one of God’s purposes for us.

A man was at a Bible study one evening, and afterwards as he walked to his car he passed a homeless man who asked him for money.  The Christian asked him why he wanted it, and the homeless man was honest: he wanted a beer.  The Christian said no, he couldn’t give him money for that, and walked past him to his car.  Where he drove to a bar, and bought a round of beers for his friends.  The Christian could buy drinks for his friends, who didn’t need his help—every one of them could afford their own drinks.  And every one of them wanted a beer to help them enjoy the evening.  But the homeless man might be an alcoholic, so he didn’t deserve a drink to help him enjoy his evening.  Nevermind that there are plenty of homeless people with no substance abuse problems, and plenty of addicts with homes and jobs.  Something that is unquestioned in someone with money becomes a mark of being undeserving in someone without it.  And of course there’s a difference between enabling an alcoholic and feeding the hungry, but the point is that our society today, Christian and secular, spends more time and money looking for reasons not to help than helping.  Private charity and government welfare program alike spend so much time trying to weed out the bad apples that we turn away people with genuine needs.  We spend more time judging than caring.  We harden our hearts and our minds, and listen more to fear and anger than to God’s good word.

The thing is, it’s very convenient to focus on who deserves help and who doesn’t.  Because there’s a million reasons to disqualify people.  They made bad choices.  They sin.  And if we can find a reason why they don’t deserve our help, well, then we don’t have to give it.  We don’t have to care about them.  We can keep our time, and our money, and our caring, instead of spending it on people who will probably never be able to pay us back.  If we can label someone as undeserving of help, then we can ignore God’s commands to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, ensure justice for the vulnerable, and visit the prisoners.  We can ignore God’s commands, and still think ourselves perfectly just and righteous.  Just like the rich man in the parable.

The rich man had the Scriptures to guide him.  He had Moses’ laws and the prophet’s words, and he found a way to convince himself they didn’t apply to him and Lazarus.  When he died, he found out otherwise, and asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers.  Abraham said no, because “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We have someone who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord.  He did not come to condemn this world, but to save it.  He came to break our hard hearts, to wash us clean from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our fears and angers and all the things that separate us from God and one another.  He came to be the living Word that speaks in our hearts; he came to bring the Holy Spirit, which sets us on fire for God.  He came to save us—whether or not we deserve it, whether or not we earn it.  He came to show us what true love and compassion really look like, in his life, death, and resurrection.  May we follow Jesus’ example, trusting that no kindness is ever truly wasted, and having faith that even when we fall short, he forgives us.

Amen.

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Faithful Money

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 25C, September 18th, 2016

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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.

 

If you listened closely to today’s Gospel reading, you probably got confused.  If so, you are not alone.  There are few passages that have as many different interpretations as this one, and few Bible passages where so many commentators just throw up their hands and admit they haven’t got a clue.  Because first Jesus commends dishonest wealth, and a guy who cheats his boss, and then he tells us to be faithful with our money.  And then Jesus says that money and God don’t mix.

So.  Where do we start with all of this?  When we talk about money and the Bible, one of the most things people do is remember that old quote which says that money is the root of all evil.  That’s actually a Bible verse, or a fragment of it, 1 Timothy 6:10.  Except that’s only part of what it says—that old saying isn’t even the whole sentence.  It says that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  Not money itself, but the love of it.  And the full verse is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”  In other words, when you’re focused on money, when your main concern is wealth and getting more of it, you wander away from God and take yourself down some nasty paths which hurt you and those around you.  It’s not the wealth itself that’s the problem: it’s how you got it, what you’ll do to get more of it, and what you do with it when you have it.  Which is pretty much what Jesus says in our Gospel lesson in verse 13.  It’s not that the wealth itself is the problem, it’s that when wealth becomes a thing you serve, that gets in the way of serving God.

In his Large Catechism, when he was talking about the First Commandment, Martin Luther described idolatry in an interesting way.  He said that your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  What do you trust to save you when you get in trouble?  What do you trust to make your life better?  What do you trust to fix your problems?  If you put your trust in anything other than in God—for example, if you put your trust in your wealth and property—then you have a problem, because that is idolatry.  Or as Jesus put it, you can’t serve two masters.  If you serve wealth, if money and property are your master, then God is not your master.

Consider our society.  In politics, how often are decisions made based on what’s cheapest rather than on what’s right?  Schools, hospitals, the VA, police departments, critical systems get starved of the money and resources needed to do their job properly, and the community suffers.  In business, how often are decisions made based on what’s most profitable rather than what’s right?  Cleaning up oil spills and properly disposing of hazardous materials is expensive, so oil companies sweep it under the rug instead whenever they get away with it.  Large corporations know that labor is the most expensive part of their organization, so they try and keep wages low even when corporate profits are high, even when it means their employees have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.  And in our personal lives, we are often no better.  Too often, when making our decisions, we rank money concerns higher than anything else, even if that means our health and our relationships suffer.  In all of these cases, it’s not the money that’s the problem: the problem is what—and who—we’re willing to sacrifice to get and keep money.

In the Bible, money or wealth is never supposed to be an end in and of itself.  Money is not the goal; money is a tool to achieve goals.  God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the one we serve, not money.  And the question is, how then do we do that?  When Jesus was asked what was expected of us as God’s people, he said this: to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s what serving God means.  Love God, and love our neighbors.  That should be what our lives are built around.  You will notice that it’s all about relationships.  It’s not about knowing enough or being wealthy enough or doing enough spectacular good deeds, it’s about loving.  It’s about relationship.

And money is a tool that can be used to build relationships.  When we make financial decisions, those relationships should be our first concern.  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with God, or does it break down that relationship?  Does this use of money help us build our relationship with our neighbors here and across the world, or does it break down those relationships?  Does this use of money reflect our love for God and for our neighbor, or does it reflect hate, fear, or indifference?  What will it do to our relationships, to our faith, to our community, to our world, and to God’s kingdom?

Back to the parable.  The steward starts out wasting his master’s wealth.  We’re not told how or why; he may have been dishonest, or it may have been he just wasn’t very good at his job.  All we’re told is that he squandered it—he wasted it.  But then he becomes dishonest: he uses his last time with authority to reduce the debts people owed to his master so they would like him and see that he was taken care of after he lost his job.  He was purposefully reducing the money his master got in order to benefit himself.  This was dishonest, and Jesus is perfectly clear on that.  But you will notice that this use of his master’s resources, while dishonest, is not called wasteful.  This is dishonest, but it’s not squandering.  Why?  Maybe because the money is being used to build relationships.  When the steward was focusing on the money itself, on building his master’s wealth, he was wasting money.  When the steward was focused on building relationships, he was not wasting money.  He was being dishonest and selfish, sure.  But it was still a better use of the money than when building profit was the steward’s highest goal.

Jesus talks about honesty and dishonesty, and whether or not people are faithful.  But here’s the thing: he doesn’t seem to think being honest is the same as being faithful.  To Jesus, playing by the rules the world has set up is not the same as being faithful.  Not only that, he doesn’t seem to care about whether or not people are honest or dishonest, as long as they’re faithful with whatever they have.  Not faithful to money and power and the system, but faithful to God and to their neighbor.  Financial smarts don’t rank very highly with Jesus.  Accumulating wealth is not something he cared about at all … and often criticized.  Not because wealth and financial smarts are bad, but because when we focus on them, we miss out on the real point of life.  When we have money and power in this life, the “honest” thing to do may be to work to get more of them, managing them and investing them and working the system and so forth.  But that may not always be the faithful thing to do with them.

One of the ways to be faithful with our money is to be generous in our giving.  Indeed, Scripture tells us that ideally, we should be giving ten percent of everything we earn to God, plus being generous to those in need around us.  But that’s only one part of it—what we do with the other 90% matters, too.  And how we earn our money matters as much as how we spend it.  Is our first priority faithfulness to God and to our neighbor?  Then we’re on the right track, whether we’re rich or poor, respectable or disrespected, honest or dishonest.  May we always choose to serve God and our neighbor, rather than the riches of this world.

Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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.

A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews.  Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have.  There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him.  Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes.  Large mass altar calls, no.  Take a look at today’s Gospel reading.  It comes from the middle of Luke.  Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds.  So people are following him!  Huge crowds of them!  Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple.  He should be sealing the deal, right?  Getting them all fired up and committed to God.

That’s not what Jesus does.  Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that.  Jesus starts talking about how hard it is.  That there’s a very real cost.  Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have.  I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point.  Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it.  And who can blame them?  This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting.  Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures.  He is not playing the numbers game.  Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends.  So he is very up-front.  There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service.  Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.

Let’s take the whole family thing.  Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family.  (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.)  But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority.  Life itself can’t be your priority.  If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God?  Or between your life and your faith?  You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him.  I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then.  Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available.  People leave home all the time.  It’s normal.

Leaving home was not normal back then.  You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours.  There wasn’t really any other option.  It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way.  And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better.  And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships.  Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day.  If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life.  And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God?  You can’t be his disciple.

Think of it this way.  I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin?  Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion?  And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse?  That is not a healthy marriage.  When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize.  It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list.  In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.

As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives?  How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff?  How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most?  It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed.  For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat.  But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem.  But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities.  To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.

And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  You carried your cross on your way to be executed.  Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.  He was going to die for the sake of the world.  The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing.  What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion.  And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down.  And they will lash out to protect themselves.  And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.  It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do.  If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be.  If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century.  He was a youth leader.  As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party.  After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly.  They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.”  But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior.  They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions.  And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not.  He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice.  And eventually the Nazis executed him.  That was his cross to bear.  Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century.  It’s called the Cost of Discipleship.  It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.

Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”

That is the cost Jesus is talking about.  To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world.  May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

Amen.

God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving the Wrong Things: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), September 29, 2013

Amos 6:1, 4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

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.

A few years ago, a pastor friend of mine went on a mission service trip to Mexico.  They spent a lot of time working with poor people—helping to build homes and schools and things.  One of the women in particular caught my friend’s attention.  This woman had been poor before her husband died, but now she and her children were destitute.  They lived in a shack near a dump, and much of their income came from salvaging things from the dump to recycle and sell.  They often went hungry.  My friend asked this woman what a typical day was like for her.  “Oh,” the woman said, “In the morning we get up, and we say our prayers and thank God for our blessings, like anyone else,” she said.  “Then, if there is food, we eat.”

We thank God for our blessings.  Then, if there is food, we eat.  That kind of profound faith is often reported among desperately poor people.  How many of us, in the same situation, would do the same?  Would put our trust in God, and thank God for what God has given us, even when it seems to be so little?  That’s the kind of deep faith and trust you rarely find in prosperous communities, among people who are well off.  Not because poor people are inherently better, or because rich people are inherently worse, but simply because rich people don’t need it.  Rich people don’t need to trust God—or at least, think they don’t—because they have so many other resources to turn to in times of trouble, resources that are a lot more predictable and controllable than God’s grace.  Rich people have money, power, influence, the best of everything.  Why put your trust in God when you can buy what you need?  And money doesn’t just separate people from God, it tends to separate people from one another, too.  In just about every country on earth, poor people are more generous than rich people.  On average, poor people are a lot more likely to help out others than rich people are.  Some of that is because rich people are a lot less likely to need help themselves, and some of it is because they’re able to insulate themselves from other peoples’ needs.  If you live and work in a nice part of town and all your friends do too, how often do you see people who are in real need?  And even if you do see them, it’s easy to tell yourself it’s not your problem, and go on your way.

I wonder if that was the difference between the rich man and Lazarus.  Note that we aren’t told much about either of them; we’re not told how often they prayed or whether they were faithful worship regularly.  We aren’t told whether they were good or bad.  For all we know, Lazarus could have been an alcoholic who wasted every good thing he ever got and hurt everyone he ever loved.  For all we know, the rich man could have been a good family man who gave big checks to all the right charities.  Or, Lazarus might have been a good honest man with severe disabilities and the rich man could have been mean and vindictive and stingy.  We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t tell us in this parable.  All we are told is that Lazarus starved and suffered while the rich man feasted, and at the end Lazarus ended up in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man ended up in Hades.  One up, the other down.  The one who suffered is healed, and the one who ignored the suffering is condemned.

Chances are, the rich man would have fit in well with the rich people of Amos’ day in our first lesson.  The prophet Amos was an outsider, a farmer called by God to speak unpleasant truths to the rich and powerful both in the religious community and the secular community.  Our reading is one of the core passages of Amos.  The prophet denounces the rich who live in lavish homes and eat rich foods and ignore the suffering of those in need around them.  Alas for those who … lounge on their couches, who eat veal and rich foods and drink and pamper themselves and enjoy great entertainment, and don’t care about the suffering of God’s people.  Alas for those people who focus on their own good while others suffer.  They’ve been trapped and tempted by their desires, they’ve put their trust in their possessions instead of in God, and they’ve ignored the reason God gave them those riches in the first place.  They’ve wandered away from the life God wants for them, a life blessed in relationships with God and with all human kind, and worst of all, they don’t even see it.  They don’t even realize how far off they are from God.  They think they’re doing just fine.  Their wealth and power have insulated them from the reality of the world, and from the reality of God’s call.  It’s insulated them from the needs of their neighbors.  But no insulation lasts forever.

We never do get told much about Lazarus, but we learn more about the rich man through his own words.  The rich man, who ignored Lazarus in life and let him live in some pretty terrible conditions, finds things reversed.  And he doesn’t say “Wow, I was so selfish never to notice what life was like for you, Lazarus, I’m sorry, I had no idea.”  He doesn’t say anything to Lazarus directly.  He calls to Abraham, and asks him to send Lazarus like a servant.  In life, he had everything he could ever want, and he could order anyone to fix any problems he had.  Well, now things are different.  The rich man still thinks he can control things; he wants help, but he doesn’t want to beg.  He doesn’t want to ask forgiveness—and he may not even know what he’s done that would need forgiving.  Even at the end, he won’t humble himself, to God or to the one whose suffering he ignored in life.  His years of wealth and power, his years of self-sufficiency and control, have left him without the slightest clue about how to deal with failure and proof of his own sins.  It’s not just that he completely ignored God’s call to love God and his neighbors when he was alive; after he dies he is still so stuck in that mindset that even Hades itself can’t break through to him.

As people who live in one of the richest nations on Earth, we should pay close attention to the rich man and his fate.  We may not feel rich.  We see the super-rich on TV and the internet, people like the Kardashians and Bill and Melinda Gates, and it’s easy to feel poor.  But if your household earns more than $34,000 a year, you are in the top 1% of the world’s income.  And yes, part of that gets eaten up by the fact that it’s a lot more expensive to live in the US than it is in most parts of the world.  But 3.4 million people die from problems caused by a lack of clean water every year; somebody once calculated the amount of money it would take to get access to clean water from everybody in the world.  It sounded really expensive … until they pointed out that people in the US spend more than that on ice cream every year.  We are a lot closer to being the rich man of the parable than we’d like to admit.  I don’t think that we need to feel guilty about how much we have, for the most part; but we have to be careful not to be like the rich many in the parable.  It is so easy to fall into that trap, to depend on our resources and focus on our own wants and foolish desires.

So why does God give us wealth, if it’s so dangerous?  Why does God give riches, if they can lead us astray?  The rich man illustrates the pitfalls of wealth, but it isn’t the wealth itself that caused the problem—it’s what he did with it.  Or rather, didn’t do.  Money is not, by itself, the root of all evil.  It’s the love of money that’s the root of evil.  And although it’s generally easier for rich people to fall into the trap of loving money more than God and their fellow human beings, poor people sometimes fall prey to it, too.  The problem is not how much money you do or don’t have, it’s what you do with what you’ve got—or what you do to get more.  God gives us material blessings so that we may bless the world; we are not called to be hoarders, but sharers.  God gives us gifts so that we may share God’s love with those around us.  Do you focus on your own needs, and ignore others?  Do you put your relationship with God on the back-burner because you think all the things that fill your daily life are more important?  Do you think of others mainly for what they can do for you?  Then you’ve got a problem, and money is at the root of it, no matter how rich or poor you are.  Are you generous with what God has given you?  Do you give thanks to God always, and trust God to guide you?  Do you work to build loving and healthy relationships with everyone?  Then no matter how rich or poor you are in material goods, you are rich in spirit.

The rich man and his brothers had the word of God, as taught by Moses and the prophets, to teach them the right way to live and the right thing to do with all the blessings they had received.  But they didn’t listen.  They allowed their wealth to make them deaf to God’s call.  We, too, have been blessed by God with many things.  We, too, have the word of God to guide us, to teach us how to love God and to love one another, and to share the blessings God has given us with the world.  May we listen and learn.

Amen.

Praise for the Dishonest Manager

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 25), September 22, 2013

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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.

When I saw that this text was coming up in the preaching schedule, I groaned.  And, this week, at the pastor’s Bible study I go to, we all complained about it.  If you were listening when I read the Gospel, you probably understand why.  Jesus said, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  How the heck do you preach that?  There are many excellent commentaries where great scholars and preachers go through the Bible and discuss it, but even the best of them gets to this parable and falters.  A lot of them try to cop out by finding all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said; others invent all kinds of backstory for the characters in the parable to make their actions more palatable.  And while those interpretations are very comforting, in the end we have to go back to the story that the Bible gives us.

Remember that in chapter fifteen, the Pharisees were grumbling about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors.  So Jesus told them the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and then the parable of the Prodigal Son, and then he finished up with the parable of the Dishonest Manager that we just read.  And what a parable it is!  It’s no surprise that the Pharisees ridiculed him for it.  If there are scandals and things that don’t make sense in the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son, there isn’t really anything in the parable of the Dishonest Manager that makes sense.  It doesn’t make sense economically and it doesn’t make sense morally.  A man cheats his master and gets praised for it?  This is not the kind of thing one would expect any self-respecting religious leader to preach about—even one so disreputable as to eat with sinners and tax collectors.  On an economic level, we modern Americans are lovers of money, just like the Pharisees.  Like the Pharisees, we want prudence, hard work, and honest dealing to be rewarded with riches, and we want fraud and embezzlement and wasting money to be punished.  On a moral level, we want that too—we want good people to be rewarded and bad people to be punished.  For a lot of people, that’s the main point of Christianity: to scare people into behave by making sure they know that good people go to Heaven and eternal reward and bad people go to Hell and eternal punishment.

This parable turns that whole system of belief on its head.  Jesus flat-out tells people that cheating and fraud are good!  It’s no wonder the Pharisees ridiculed him!  I think if Jesus showed up today in any church in America and told the same story, we’d react just like the Pharisees did.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?  Learn from the “shrewd” tactics of the children of this age?  Give away other peoples’ wealth in order to buy friendships?  Come on, Jesus!  That’s not what any good, God-fearing person—lover of money or not—wants to hear.

Let’s back up for a bit.  What do you think Jesus meant by dishonest wealth?  What do you think constitutes dishonest wealth from God’s point of view?  The 7th grade confirmation class and I were studying the Israelites wandering in the wilderness during the Exodus, this week, and we talked about how God provided all their needs for forty years.  The ones who had a lot didn’t have too much, and the ones who only had a little didn’t have too little.  No one could save or hoard anything; they had to depend on God’s grace to provide what they needed.  Those who had a lot didn’t have too much, and those who had little didn’t have too little.  That doesn’t sound much like the distribution of wealth in the world; here in America, the gap between rich and poor has been widening for the last twenty years, the middle class has gotten smaller, and more and more people are falling from working-class into poverty.  And if you look at the world as a whole, the distribution of wealth is even more out of balance.  And part of that comes from unjust things done by previous generations where rich and powerful nations took advantage of poorer nations.  Part of that comes from unjust things being done today, where many companies manufacture goods in poor countries where they don’t have to worry about pesky little things like the safety of their workers.  Consider the conditions in Bangladesh, where over a thousand workers in a garment factory died when their factory collapsed on top of them this last April.  We profit—we get cheaper clothes—because their working conditions are disastrously unsafe.  Then consider today’s first reading from Amos.  God condemns dishonest business practices—and I can name the modern equivalent of every one, things that are common in the American economy.

The more you look at where our wealth comes from, the more you realize that almost everyone benefits from shady practices, whether done by themselves or someone else, whether done now or in the past.  On some level, all wealth is dishonest; no matter how good and ethical we are, we have benefited from the injustice of others.  We can be very creative about justifying it or pretending it’s not true; it’s something we don’t like to acknowledge.  We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter because it was so long ago or far away, and that we’re not the ones doing it so our hands are clean, and hey, we’ve been victims ourselves, too, so it all balances out.  If you give someone an unfair advantage, the first thing most people do is make up reasons why they deserve it and other people don’t.  We don’t like admitting that injustices exist, and we don’t like admitting that we benefit from them.  But deep down, even though we don’t even admit it to ourselves, we generally prefer wealth over justice.  Humans have always been taking advantage of one another, sometimes through brute force and sometimes through trickery.  It’s part of the brokenness of the world, part of what divides us and hurts us all.  So we make up reasons why it’s not a problem; and, failing that, we convince ourselves that what we do with our money doesn’t matter to God, so we can do whatever we like.

The problem is, God actually talks quite a lot about money in the Bible.  God wants a world where everybody has enough, and where nobody has too much.  God wants a world where all business practices are just and honorable, where everybody has a fair chance and nobody profits at someone else’s expense.  God wants a world where money is simply a tool, and not the be-all and end-all that we strive for.  God wants a world where people prize justice and mercy more than they do wealth.  God wants a world where no one is trapped by debt.  Until Christ comes again to heal the world’s brokenness and create all things new, we will not live in that world.  But that doesn’t mean that we should just bury our heads in the sand and keep on as we have been.  And it doesn’t mean that we should spend all our time bemoaning the injustices of the world but not doing anything.

The point of the parable isn’t how bad a manager the steward was to have that dishonest wealth; the point of the parable is what he does with it once he has it.  And what does he do with it?  He gives it away.  He takes the wealth entrusted to him, and he forgives people’s debts.  They haven’t earned it; they don’t deserve it.  But their burden is lifted through no merit or worth of their own.  It’s grace.  As someone with student loans, I can imagine what that must feel like.  I’m sure any of you who’ve ever borrowed a chunk of money to buy a house or a car or a piece of farm equipment can, too.  If the bank ever said “we’re wiping half your loan off the books, you don’t have to pay us back”, wouldn’t that take a huge load off your shoulders?  Wouldn’t you thank God?  Wouldn’t that free you up in all sorts of ways?

Have you ever been to a church where, in the Lord’s Prayer, they say “forgive us our debts” instead of “forgive us our sins”?  That’s because, in several places in the New Testament (including the Matthew version of the Lord’s Prayer), “debt” is used as a metaphor for sin.  Our sins are debts we owe the world and God, charges we’ve racked up in the great balance sheet.  So, especially in a parable, when someone’s forgiving a debt there’s usually a deeper meaning.  Who else forgives debts?  Jesus.  That’s what Jesus came to do on Earth, is to forgive people.  So by forgiving peoples’ debts, this guy is participating in God’s work.  He’s not being faithful to his employer or to the whole system of business and debt, but at the end he is being faithful to God’s wishes for the world, in his own small way.  Granted, he’s a crook who’s only doing this because he hopes to get something out of it.  And granted, he’s using somebody else’s wealth—wealth that he doesn’t deserve, wealth that doesn’t really belong to him—to do it.  And granted, he’s only doing a partial job; he’s not forgiving the whole debt, just reducing them.  He’s not a nice guy.  He’s not a good guy.  He’s not a trustworthy guy.  But he’s still doing God’s work, in his own small way.

So I guess I can understand why Jesus praised the guy, after all.  And it gives me hope.  We, too, sin; we, too, have access to advantages and wealth that we didn’t earn or deserve.  We, too, do good things for the wrong reason.  We, too, do good things only half-way.  We, too, are sinners who deserve to be dismissed by our master.  We are more like the dishonest manager than we’d like to admit.  And yet, he is proof that even dishonest wealth can be used for good; even sinners can participate in God’s work; and even people who do the right thing for the wrong reasons can be forgiven and rewarded.  May we, too, learn to use our wealth to be faithful to God rather than to the world.

Amen.

Your Father’s good pleasure

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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

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

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

Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”  Raise your hand if that was your first thought when you heard Jesus say “Sell your possessions and give alms.”  Sell everything and give it to the poor?  Really?  That’s not a very popular thing to say in America, where we love our possessions. And I doubt it was very popular in Jesus day, either.  We accumulate stuff.  It seems no matter how much stuff we already have, pretty soon there’s something else we have to have.  We love money, too—it’s how we get more stuff, and it’s how we keep score.  It’s how we tell who’s important and who’s not.  Sell it all and give it away?  Really?

When you start to look at the reasons behind our dependence on money and possessions, it often comes down to fear.  We’re afraid of not having enough.  We’re afraid if we don’t get it now, the price will have gone up when we need it.  We’re afraid of what people will think of us if we don’t have the latest model.  There was a study done once of rich people, and it found that people with a lot of money and no debt were, on average, just as afraid of not having enough money as poor people were.  In fact, they were sometimes more afraid!  So here Jesus is, telling us to give up our money and our stuff and give them away?  It’s no wonder that many preachers choose to follow Peter’s lead on this text and others like it and find a way to explain why it doesn’t apply to them and their congregation.  They’re afraid of what might happen if they take it seriously.

But notice how our lesson starts out.  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Do not be afraid—the same thing the angels almost always start out with when they come to bring messages from God.  And Jesus also says “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  That’s the heart of the Gospel, right there.  Or, as Jesus puts it in the Gospel of John, “God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”  That is the place where our relationship with God starts—God loves us and the whole world so much that God was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ.  We have been given the promise of the kingdom, the promise of a world where there is no evil, where no one goes hungry, where no one is sick, where no one hurts anyone else.  A world where all our sorrows and our ills are healed, and we are whole and filled with joy.  A world where the master—our Lord God—bends down to serve us out of love.  That is what we have been promised in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We can’t create God’s kingdom on our own; it can only come as a gift from God.  And God has promised it to us because he loves us, and because that’s the kind of life God wants us to live.  That kingdom will come when Christ comes again.

There is nothing we could ever do to earn God’s love and forgiveness; nothing we could do to be worthy of it.  When Jesus says “Store up treasure in heaven!” he isn’t saying “Do good deeds so you can buy forgiveness from me.”  What Jesus means is, “I love you and have already given you a place in my kingdom.  It’s a much nicer place than this rat race you’re trapped in, and all the things like money and power and all your possessions won’t be worth anything in my kingdom.  Why not get out of the rat race?  Why not focus on what you have that’s a sure bet—a place in my kingdom—rather than on stuff that’s going to rot and decay and get stolen.”

So when Jesus starts telling us to do things like give away all our possessions, it’s not a test.  Jesus isn’t saying that the only way to get to heaven is to condemn ourselves to poverty.  When he gives us a warning to be ready, there is no sinister undertone implying that if we aren’t ready in the right way, we won’t get to heaven.  Instead, it’s an invitation to live as God’s people.  It’s an invitation to take salvation seriously.  It’s an invitation to live like the kingdom were already here.  Because we have been saved, we should act like it.  We should love God, and wait for his coming, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And in this world where poor people have fewer opportunities than rich people, in this world where medical bills can wipe out a family’s whole life, in this world where some people go hungry and others don’t have a safe place to live, part of loving your neighbor is helping those in need.

In God’s kingdom, nobody will go hungry.  So we should feed the hungry.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will be sick, so we should heal those who are sick or injured.  In God’s kingdom, nobody will hurt anyone, so we should stop doing things that hurt people.  In God’s kingdom, there will be justice for all, so we should work to make sure everyone has justice here.  In God’s kingdom, everyone will have a safe place to live, so we should help people have safe places to live.  And if that takes money, well, everything that we have comes from God, so we are spending what God has given us to take care of God’s people.  Whenever we feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the lonely, work for justice, we are waiting for God’s kingdom to come.  We are looking forward to the day when our Master returns.  We are looking forward to the day when the promise of salvation becomes a reality.  We are preparing for what life will be like on that day.

In the meantime, we don’t need to be afraid.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll miss out on the kingdom; we don’t have to be afraid that we aren’t good enough to be saved.  We don’t have to be afraid that we’ll run out of money or possessions and calamity will strike.  We don’t have to be afraid of what life will bring, because we know that God is with us and that God’s kingdom will come.  Now, we don’t live in that kingdom yet.  We don’t live in that world of milk and honey, that land where all people are welcome and happy and whole and good.  So things in this life won’t always be good.  There will be hard times.  There will be times of wandering in the wilderness.  There will be times of grief and pain and loss.  None of the people in the Bible had an easy life, not Abraham and Sarah, not Moses and the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, not the prophets, not Jesus.  And I’m sure you all know many good, faithful Christians whose lives have been hard, and sometimes heart-breaking.  I know some good and faithful Christians who have lost everything they had—possessions, but even more importantly, they lost loved ones.

But even in the midst of their loss, God was with them.  Even when it seemed like there was no hope, God’s promise stood firm.  God has never broken a promise, and God will not break the promises God has made to us.  God promised Abraham and Sarah a child, and God gave them a child and grandchildren and literally millions of descendants.  God promised Moses and the Hebrew slaves freedom, and they walked out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  God promises us that we are saved, that we are God’s own beloved children, and that God’s kingdom is near.  God has never broken a promise, and God never will.

So what do we have to be afraid of?  Why do we need to hoard possessions and money and ignore the needs of those around us?  Why do we get so caught up in the cares of life that we forget whose people we are and where our home really is?  We are the children of God, and God’s promises are sure.  We look forward to the kingdom and the life God has promised us.  May God help free us from our fears to live in the light of that promise.

Amen.