You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

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.

My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.

On the Road

Lectionary 15, Year C, July 14, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:25-37

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous route.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of road travel through the wilderness in an era without heavy equipment to make and maintain high-quality roads.  Partly that was due to the natural hazards of wildlife that might attack travelers who would not, after all, be safe in a metal, glass, and fiberglass vehicle.  But a lot of it was due to the consequences of human sin, and human choices: bandits.

There were a LOT of bandits in those days.  After all, there are always some humans in every group who would rather hurt people and steal than do honest work.  But this was more than that.  You see, the Roman Empire was very unjust, especially when it came to economics.  God created the world to have enough abundance for everyone in it, but the Romans wanted all of that abundance in the hands of the Roman elite.  The whole system was set up to divide people into haves and have-nots, to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Taxes.  Inheritance laws.  Labor laws.  Everything was set up to enrich those who already had everything, and take from those who had little to nothing.  The Roman system preferred landless day-laborers and slaves who could be easily used and abused to prosperous middle and working class people who were harder to push around.  In a good year, a poor resident of the Empire barely scraped by.  In a bad year, they might find their only legal option to avoid starvation was to sell themselves or their children into slavery.  Faced with that horrifying choice, a lot of them turned to banditry as if they were first-century Robin Hoods.  Barabbas, the guy the crowd asked Pontius Pilate to release instead of Jesus, was just such a bandit.  These bandits mostly focused their attacks on the estates of the wealthy who benefited from the system that had impoverished them, but when it came right down to it they were not above attacking anyone they saw who might have something worth taking.

And the road to Jericho was on a border.  No man’s land.  Still firmly within the Roman Empire, but not near enough to any rich estates that the Roman Army would bother to clear out the bandits.  As long as nobody wealthy enough to matter got hurt, the Romans did not care what happened in the backwaters of their empire.  And the locals along one part of the road were Samaritan, and on the other part of the road they were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  Jews and Samaritans did not speak with one another unless they had to.  They did not even drink out of the same wells if they could avoid it.  So there probably was not much cooperation between the two groups to clear out the bandits.

The road to Jericho was a dangerous one.  All of that sin—the sin of the Romans in creating a system that used and abused people until they snapped, the sin of the bandits themselves, the sin of the army that didn’t protect ordinary people, the sin of the local communities too caught up in their mutual dislike to work for the safety of all people in the region.  God created the world to be good, and yet, there was so much pain and suffering.  This was a huge problem.  It probably felt overwhelming and really scary.  The Roman Empire had existed for centuries and was really powerful.  A handful of local people couldn’t change it much.  The systems that created the problem were big and complicated, and there were so many other problems to deal with.

So when Jesus told a story about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, it would have come as no surprise to the listeners that he got robbed and beaten and left for dead.  It was an all-too-common problem.  Someone should do something about that.  The exchange that started the parable would also have been no surprise.  Judaism has a long and rich history of questioning and debating important religious topics such as which commandments are most important, and Jesus’ answer quoted from Scripture.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength” is from Deuteronomy 6:5, and “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18.  Telling a story or parable to help explore an issue would also have been expected.

The shocking thing would have been twofold: first, that in the story, the religious people—the ones who should have been the heroes—walked past and did not help the man beaten and left for dead.  God’s people are supposed to help when we see someone who needs help, and that man obviously did.  Jesus doesn’t tell us why the characters of the priest and the Levite walked by without helping.  Maybe they thought he was dead already.  Maybe they were scared the bandits who assaulted him were still in the area and might attack if they stayed too long.  Maybe they thought he was a bandit, and his suffering the result of a falling-out among thieves.  Maybe they thought that God had allowed him to be assaulted as punishment for some sin or other.  Maybe they didn’t want to have to undergo the purification rituals necessary for people who have touched blood.  Maybe they’d seen enough people beaten and left for dead over the last few years that they were just overwhelmed and had hardened their hearts.  Maybe they didn’t think their first-aid skills were good enough to make a difference.  Maybe they couldn’t have carried the guy to safety without putting down their pack and letting robbers steal it, too.  Maybe they were on their way to an important meeting of a group trying to figure out how to make the Jericho road safer, and thought preventing future bandit attacks was far more important than helping the current victims of attack.

If you were the priest or the Levite, what would your excuse have been?  We human beings sure do make up a lot of excuses to get out of things we don’t want to do.  Children do it to get out of chores; adults do it to get out of much greater things.  I bet you that priest and Levite had great reasons why they couldn’t possibly have helped.  I bet that when they told their story later to their friends, it was a really convincing reason, and I bet most of their friends nodded solemnly and congratulated them for doing the right thing.  When we screw up, when we fail to do things we should, we are really good at convincing ourselves and others that we were doing the right thing.  It may be a transparent self-serving lie to outsiders, but that doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enough to make us feel better.  And religious people are no better about it than anybody else.  God sees what we do, and what we fail to do, and knows just how often we fall short of what God wants, but we are experts at using pious phrases to excuse our failures.  We think ourselves blameless, but God knows the truth.  So do the people we leave bleeding and naked on the road.  Can you imagine how the victim felt, in agony and fear and pain, watching those two walk past and not even meet his eyes?  Can you imagine how people today feel, when they suffer and need help and the whole community ignores them?

The second thing that would have shocked people would have been that the person who did help was a Samaritan.  An enemy.  An outsider.  One of those people, the people you would cross the street to avoid and not talk to unless you had no choice whatsoever.  Jesus doesn’t say whether the victim was Jewish or Samaritan or Gentile, but his listeners would probably have assumed he was Jewish.  So the Samaritan would have known he was an enemy, from a rival tribe.  He helped anyway.  Many of Jesus’ followers would probably have denied that it was possible for a Samaritan to be good.  You’ll notice that when Jesus asks the lawyer which one acted as a neighbor, the lawyer can’t quite admit that the hero of the story was a Samaritan.  “The one who showed mercy” is true, but it strips away the hero’s identity.

Taken together, it’s a one-two punch.  The people who should help don’t; the person you don’t like is the one to do the right thing.  Loving God and loving your neighbor aren’t about whether or not you think nice thoughts about them, or pray about them.  (Want to bet the priest and the Levite kept the guy in their thoughts and prayers as they walked on by?)  I mean, you should think nice thoughts, and you should pray.  But for love to mean anything, we have to put it into action.  Even when it’s hard.  Even when we have every reason not to.  Even when it’s easier to walk on by.  Even when we’re tired, even when the problem seems so much bigger than we can fix.  We may not be able to solve the world’s big problems, but we can help the people in front of us who need help.  We can be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.  We can love our neighbor as ourselves.  And, who knows?  If enough people choose to step up instead of walking by on the other side, maybe we’ll even make a dent in the larger problems.  May we always follow God’s commands to love God and love one another.

Amen.

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

Ah, December.  That wonderful time of the year when churches and homes are decorated with beautiful nativities and pictures of baby Jesus … and in worship we read about the end of the world.  Like in our Gospel reading, where Jesus talks about the day when he will return in power and glory, and our first reading, when the Israelites call for God to come to earth and renew them, showing his power in earthquake and fire and storm.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, contrasting sweet baby Jesus with apocalyptic readings, but it’s actually on purpose.  You see, December is a time of waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas to come; we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem … but we have to always remember who we are waiting for.  The beautiful baby that is the center of so many sentimental songs and Christmas cards and nativity sets is also the one who sacrificed himself on a cross for the redemption and renewal of the world, and he is also the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It’s all too easy, in this season of parties and homecomings and sentimentality, to trivialize Jesus, to sentimentalize him into a warm fuzzy “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone got along over the holidays.”  Yes, it would be nice; but Jesus did not and does not come for a superficial niceness and getting along with one another.  Jesus comes for something deeper, something better.  The peace that Jesus brings requires that all the root causes of injustice and harm be ripped out and done away with.  This peace is not just a truce; this peace requires us to face the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our world and acknowledge all the hurt we have done to ourselves, our world, and our neighbors, because only then can true healing begin.  Jesus came to bring love; but not the kind of superficial love that pastes a smile over deep disagreements and old hurts.  Jesus came to bring the kind of love that is open and honest even about the unpleasant things, and that works to heal brokenness and bring new growth, better growth.  That’s what Jesus was born to do; that’s what the judgment that he is coming again to bring will do again, finishing what he started in his death and resurrection.

And there are a lot of things in us and in our world that just aren’t compatible with that kind of love and peace and justice.  Stony ground is going to have to get the rocks picked out.  Hard ground is going to have to be tilled up.  Weeds are going to have to be pulled.  Dead branches pruned.  Ways of life and ways of thinking and ways of doing business that add to the pain and hurt in the world are going to have to end.  The world as we know it, ourselves as we currently are … there’s just too much selfishness and greed and hate.  That’s all going to have to end.  And it will.  There will be a new heaven, and a new earth, and we shall all be changed.  We need to be ready, and waiting, for that change to come.

But the literal-end-of-this-world-and-beginning-of-the-next isn’t the only kind of world ending we need to be alert for.  Worlds end all the time, in good ways and bad ones.  When somebody’s life crumbles, they lose their job and their spouse divorces them and everything they worked for and counted on crumbles to ashes, that’s the end of their world.  When a child who’s been passed around the foster system for years gets adopted and a fresh start with a family that loves and supports them and helps them heal and grow, that’s the end of the world as that child knew it.  And sure, a better one is coming, but it’s still the end of everything they know.  Peoples’ worlds end all the time.  And there’s a lot of pain and grief involved in it.  But even in the pain and grief, God can do a new thing.

Our first reading from Isaiah comes from a people who know about the world ending.  The people of Israel and Judah had spent centuries giving lip service to God while building unjust and idolatrous societies.  They had ignored the words God sent to the prophets warning them to reform their ways.  So God had stepped aside and allowed their enemies to conquer them, and lead them off into captivity.  When that happened, their world ended.  Everything they knew or loved was gone.  After a few decades of slavery in Babylon, God allowed them to return—and coming back to their ancestors homes, they found that there were strangers living there and all the buildings and roads and cities lay in ruins.  They were free, and home, but rebuilding was a massive task.  Their parents’ world had ended when the Babylonians captured them; their world had ended when the captivity ended and they returned to a ruined homeland they had never seen before.  This reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, as the prophet comforts and guides people whose world has ended twice in as many generations.

They long for God to come.  They long for God to make God’s power known in earthquakes and fire, something that nobody can mistake.  They long for God to take all the pain and misery and transform it, to take all the broken things and make them whole.  They know that even as screwed up as things are, God can and will make all things new.

But they look for this promised day of the Lord with clear and open eyes.  They know that they themselves will have to face a reckoning, that at least some of their problems are caused by their own bad behavior, their own selfishness, their own iniquity.  They know that they will have to change; that God’s presence will change them and mold them into something better as a potter’s hands mold formless clay into beautiful and useful pottery.

They know that God was with them generations ago, before they were exiled to Babylon.  They know that God was with them while they were captives in Babylon.  And now that they are home from captivity, God is still with them.  And they know that if they turn to God, God can and will save them; God’s power will re-make them, and their world, better than they ever could on their own.  They don’t know when God is coming, but they know he is acting, and they long for his presence.  They know that even though it will require change on their part, that that change is a good thing.  They are not sitting in their sins and pretending they’re doing well.  They are open and clear-eyed.

That’s a hard thing to do.  It’s not easy to live with one eye peeled for God’s presence and coming.  It’s not easy to acknowledge the things in ourselves that need to be mended and healed, the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others.  It’s so much easier to accept everything in us and in our world as normal and just the way things are.  It’s certainly a lot more comfortable!  To just go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing.  It doesn’t take much thought, and it doesn’t take any soul-searching.  You can sit there like a bump on a log and you don’t have to think about anything hard.  Or maybe you know things should be different, but shaking your head and making disapproving noises is all that’s required to salve your conscience.  It’s simple, it’s easy.  It doesn’t require you to take any risks.  It doesn’t require you to change.

We were not created by God our father to sit there like bumps on a log.  We weren’t given eyes to see so that we could turn them away from the dark places in ourselves and in our world that need God’s light.  We weren’t given brains to think so that we could just go along with whatever the world around us wants of us.  We were created to love one another—true and deep love that acknowledges pain and hurt and works towards healing and new growth.  We were created to help one another, to work for a God’s kingdom.  And we can’t do that if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not looking for things in ourselves and in our world that need to be changed, and we certainly can’t do it if we’re not looking for the places God is working in us and the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our midst.

We are flawed, imperfect people, who live in a world broken by sin and death.  We need God’s presence and God’s guidance to see the way the world should be.  We fall short of the good people God created us to be, which is why we wait in hope for the day Christ will come again to make all things new.  We can’t make the perfect world of God’s kingdom on our own; only God can do that.  But while we wait, we have work to do.  Work that begins with keeping awake.

Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 24, September 17, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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.

The first thing you have to understand about this parable is that in the ancient world—and up until the 20th Century—debt slavery was the norm in pretty much every society in the world much more complicated than hunting and gathering.  If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave.  In places where slavery was outlawed, you went to some sort of a debtor’s prison, where you were effectively a slave of the prison until you paid your debt … which was generally impossible, since people in prison can’t earn much money.  This was normal.  This was proper.  This was the way things worked, on a fundamental level.  If you can’t pay your debts, you lose EVERYTHING.  Even your own freedom.  Everything that makes life worth living, you lose.  So when Jesus starts talking about someone being enslaved and sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions, because he couldn’t pay his debts, it may sound shocking to us but the people who were there actually listening to Jesus would have thought it boringly ordinary.  Yeah, sure.  Of course a debtor is being sold into slavery.  And water is wet, and the sky is blue.  This is the way the world works.  And it is terrible, but it’s normal.  There are a lot of terrible things in the world that we accept as normal.

In the ancient world, debt was a life-or-death issue, and certainly a life-or-freedom issue.  We don’t have debt slavery today, but money problems can still ruin your life.  A lot of us have been where that debtor has been.  Bankruptcy may be better than a debtor’s prison, and a lot better than slavery, but you still lose everything and have a hard time starting over.  Half of all bankruptcies in the US happen because of a medical problem, and in half of those cases, the person even had medical insurance.  It just wasn’t enough, and didn’t cover things like travelling for care.  And what about the people who are accused of a crime but are too poor to pay bail?  They languish in prison until their trial simply because they are poor, whether or not they are guilty.  Or what about the person who went to school and has lots of student loans, but hasn’t been able to get a job that pays well enough to pay them off, and spends their whole life slaving away to service the debt, with the weight of it dragging them down no matter how hard they work.  If you haven’t been in the position of that debtor, you probably know someone who has.  The shame.  The fear.  The helplessness in the face of life’s disasters.  Begging that someone will have mercy.  Just a little, just enough that the axe doesn’t fall today.  Even if it has to fall sometime, just please let it not be today.  We know what that’s like.

The surprise comes in the next part.  The debtor falls to his knees before his lord and begs for time to repay the debt—no shock there—and the lord listens.  It’s ludicrous.  This debt is far, far too big.  The debtor could work for thousands of years and still not be able to pay it back.  But the lord listens to his pleas.  Not only that, he cancels the whole debtThat’s the shocker.  That’s what would have made Jesus’ original hearers sit up and take notice.  More time to pay back the debt, sure—if a rich person was feeling particularly generous.  But to completely cancel it?  This is not pocket change, here.  This was serious money, even for rich people.  A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand is literally the largest number in the ancient Greek language.  If you had asked someone in Jesus’ day to count larger than ten thousand they could not have done it because the numbers literally did not exist.  This is the largest possible number of the largest possible unit.  There was no way to owe more money than this.  There were kings in Jesus day who didn’t have that much money in their treasuries.  And this lord is just going to … let it go?  Wipe the slate clean?  Not collect it?  How much is that going to cost the lord?  What other things is he going to not be able to do because he lost all that money?  What are people going to think about this?  Are they going to call him soft, weak?  Are other people going to try to cheat him because they think he’ll let them get away with it?  This is baffling.  Strange.  It makes no sense.

Can you imagine how the forgiven man felt?  With the weight of all that load just suddenly … gone?  All the worry that his world was going to come crashing down on him vanished?  It must have felt like winning the lottery, but a lottery that you didn’t even buy a ticket to.  It was that kind of good fortune.  Or like a tornado that comes and picks up the house right next to you and tosses it for miles, leaving you untouched.  Unbelievable.  What do you do with that kind of grace?

Then the guy sees someone who owes him money.  And this is a much smaller sum.  I mean, it’s still big—about four months’ wages—but not ludicrously big.  This is an amount that someone could repay, although probably not all at once.  Set up a payment plan, and it could be done.  But when debt collectors come looking for their money, a lot of the time they aren’t particularly interested in the slow, long repayment.  After all, it’s a chancy thing.  What if the person can’t do it?  What if they run away, leaving their debt behind?  And, you know, you have to make an example of people, otherwise other people will be tempted not to pay their debts, and then where would we be?  The whole system would collapse!  Chaos!  Sure, it would be better for the poor schmucks who owe money, but what about the people who lent it to them in good faith expecting to get their money back?  Don’t they deserve consideration, too?  The system has to be maintained.  And so the first man—the man who was just forgiven a greater debt than he could ever possibly repay—he has the man thrown in jail.  He was given a grace beyond measure, and he isn’t willing to pass it on and pay it forward.  He thinks it’s a one-off gift, not a radical change in the way the system works.

Well, word gets around, and the lord finds out.  And he’s angry, because he did mean it to be a change in the way the system works.  Because the system is bad.  The system grinds people up and spits them out.  The fact that we are used to it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean that’s the system the lord wants.  If he liked that system, if he wanted it to exist in his lands, he would never have pardoned the first slave in the first place.  So the lord took back his gift, and handed him over until he could pay that horrendous, huge, impossibly large debt.  Which, of course, he’ll never be able to do.  But the problem isn’t the first man’s debt.  The problem is that the first man was so used to the way the system worked that even the gift of the most massive grace anyone could ever receive didn’t make him stop and question it.

The debt in this parable, of course, symbolizes sin.  There are a lot of different metaphors for sin in the Bible: debts, trespasses, and so on.  There are a lot of different types of sin, and some of it is the ordinary everyday type that we don’t even notice, and some of it is the deep and violent and obvious sin that can’t possibly be mistaken.  Sometimes, the metaphors fit very well, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the hurt done is deeper than money lost and trust betrayed.  Sometimes, especially when violence is done, forgiveness is not something that can—or should—come quickly or easily.  In some cases, being pressured to forgive too quickly or easily can actually cause psychological damage to the victim.  There has to be safety, and healing, and growth, before forgiveness can happen.  And forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; neither the lord nor the other servants forgot the debt that had been forgiven.

But whatever the type of sin, we need to remember that we ourselves have been forgiven.  We ourselves have done things we shouldn’t, and we have failed to do the things we should, and we have hurt ourselves and others in the process.  And God has forgiven us everything we have done, because God loves us.  Moreover, the whole system of judgment and punishment that we take for granted isn’t God’s final say on the matter of sin and evil.  God hates the evil that we do, the ways we hurt ourselves and others; but God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, even sinners.  And God did not come into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to condemn, but to save.  To remake not just a few sinners, but the entire cosmos.  To take the whole dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, rich and poor, bullies and victims, hate and fear, and completely remake it.  To break the power of sin and death.  Not appease it, not punish it, wipe it away forever.

Hate will have no place in that new world that God is making.  Neither will old grudges, no matter how well-earned.  Neither will the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that sees the flaws of others, but cannot see its own.  If we are going to fit into that new world—if we are going to be who God created us to be and live the lives God has created us to live—we can’t cling to the ways of the world.  We can’t assume that our norms are God’s norms, or that we have the market cornered on God’s love and grace.  May we always remember to see things through God’s eyes, and forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.

Amen.

Sowing Stories

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 15

July 16, 2017

 

Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

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.

When I first came to North Dakota, Gene Wirtz thought that I needed to learn a little bit more about farming if I was going to be a pastor to so many farmers.  (He was probably right.)  And so, my first year here, he invited me out to ride along in his tractor when he planted and to ride in his combine as he harvested.  So, out I went.  And the thing that impressed me the most, particularly in the spring planting season, was the absolute precision of modern agriculture.  GPS-driven tractors with computers controlling the placement of each seed, making sure that every seed is planted in the optimal way for it to grow, and that every inch of field is planted in the most efficient way possible for the most number of healthy plants.  This is big business.  People spend lifetimes studying the best possible way to manage and utilize land, soil types, rainfall, irrigation, plant varieties, fertilizer, and more, and then developing new techniques and plant varieties to make things even better.  Everything has to be precise so that nothing is wasted and everything grows.  The idea is to spend the least amount of time, money, and resources to get the most amount of results.  That’s how modern farmers have yields that farmers a century ago would have thought completely absurd.

It looks absolutely nothing like the sower in the parable.  The sower, you see, is indiscriminate.  Good soil gets sowed with seed, but so does bad soil, and so does soil that isn’t soil at all.  The path gets seeded just like the good soil does.  It may not grow anything … but that’s not for lack of effort on the sower’s part.  And I assure you, no farmer in ANY era from the beginning of farming to the present would work that way.  Would you guys seed the ROAD?  No?  Guess what, neither would farmers in Jesus’ day.  Because it would be stupid, right?  You KNOW that it’s not going to yield anything.  Even a gravel road, it’s just too hard-packed for the seed to be able to dig in, there are no furrows or anything to get the seed into the soil, and the people passing by trample any young shoots that do spring up, and (as Jesus points out), the seed on the path is just perfect, sitting there on the surface, for birds to come along and eat.  Sowing seed on the path is STUPID.  And people in ancient times didn’t have modern technology or science to figure out all the things we know, but they weren’t stupid, either.  I’m pretty sure that as Jesus told this parable, and he starts out by talking about the seed falling on the path, that his listeners immediately thought to themselves “wow, is that farmer incompetent!  What an idiot!  OF COURSE he’s not getting any results!”

So why is Jesus telling us this crazy story?  He spent a lot of time telling crazy stories, throughout his ministry.  Yes, there were times that he just gave straight-up lectures about what you should do or shouldn’t do, but most of the time he spent teaching he spent telling stories.  Parables.  And we’ve heard these stories so many times that we often don’t pay much attention to how deeply weird they can be.  Like that incompetent farmer trying to grow crops on the road.  So let’s take a few minutes to remember what a parable is and why Jesus told stories.

First, stories are really important.  Human beings think in stories.  We organize our world around stories.  If you tell someone a fictional story—not just untrue, but contradicting the actual truth—and tell them the true facts at the same time, they will believe the false story.  Even if you tell them up front the story is a lie, it will have more impact on them than the facts do.  For example: most Latinos in this country are not only US citizens, but have no illegal immigrants anywhere in their family tree.  No member of their family has ever come to this country without permission.  See, Mexico used to be a lot bigger than it is now.  In 1821, Mexico included everything from Texas to California, and a lot of Mexicans lived there.  It was their home.  But in 1846, the US invaded and conquered those lands, adding them to the United States, and those Mexicans became US citizens overnight.  They never crossed the border, the border crossed them.  But that’s not the story we tell.  The story we tell is of people sneaking in to this country to steal American jobs.  And so when I tell the truth—that most Latinos in America are US citizens whose families have been here longer than most of our families—people don’t believe me.  Because the story is more powerful than the true facts of the matter.

If stories shape how we see the world, then they’re really important.  So it’s no wonder Jesus taught using them.  Jesus didn’t care if his followers memorized the right words, or were able to quote him verbatim, or could give the correct answers on a test.  Jesus wanted his followers to think like him, to be shaped by God’s Word and God’s will.  And if you want to shape how people think and feel, you don’t lecture them or give them a list of things to memorize.  You tell them a story.  A story they’ll remember; a story they can connect to.

And parables are a special kind of story.  “Parable” literally means “to throw alongside.”  In a parable, you don’t come at the moral of the story straight-on.  In fact, there may not be a simple moral or lesson.  Parables are more complicated than that.  Parables are designed to make you think.  Parables are designed to be complicated, and surprising, and layered, so that each time you come back to it you hear some nuance that you weren’t quite aware of before.  Parables are designed so that you can’t possibly simplify them into one right answer to memorize, even when (as here) Jesus explains them.  And when there is something in a parable that seems weird, chances are, that thinking more deeply will be fruitful.

Back to the parable of the sower.  That weird, incompetent, stupid sower who is too dumb to know that seed scattered on the road is wasted.  No farmer in real life would ever do that.  But this is a parable, and that seed is God’s word.  And so then I have to ask the question: can God’s word be wasted?  Is there ever a time when there truly is no point to God’s word?  Is there ever a time when it is truly hopeless that it can’t have any effect?  I mean, there are times when the chances that that seed is going to yield good fruit are pretty small.  But is yielding fruit the only purpose of God’s word?  And how small a chance is too small?  And so what if most of it gets snatched away or stifled or choked out?  Even if it never bears fruit, isn’t the world a better place for it to have been there?

And what does this tell us about God?  I mean, we human beings are all about efficiency and returns on investment.  If we’re going to put time into something, we want to know we’re going to get something out of it.  We want results.  Most people don’t bother with things we know will fail.  We hate waste.  We are convinced that there is a limited amount of wealth and resources to go around, so we had better make sure we get our share.  We hoard and store up things until we can get the maximum benefit out of it.  And, you know, a lot of times that’s a good thing!  When I was a kid, I stored up my allowance and the wages I got for working in my parents’ studio until I was able to afford to send myself to Space Camp in Alabama.  That would not have been possible without thrift and saving and being choosy.  But at the same time, that’s not how the sower is operating in the parable.  That’s not how God’s Word operates.

God’s word is profligate.  God’s word is abundantly generous, to the point of absurdity.  God’s word is decadently extravagant.  No restrictions, no shortages, no measuring it out by the spoonful for maximum impact.  Instead, God sprays it out indiscriminately on good soil and bad alike.  Sure, it’s not going to grow everywhere, but where it does grow, it grows miraculously huge.  God doesn’t restrict it to only the places where God is sure of a return; God showers it everywhere.  God does not work as if resources are scarce.  God works as if resources are never-ending.  There is no need to count the cost, to be choosy, to be efficient.  There is more than enough to go around.

And what does this parable tell us about us?  Are we the sower, or are we the soil?  Or are we both?  And what kind of ground are we?  Are we the path, or the rocky soil, or the thorny soil, or the good soil?  And are we always the same kind of soil or does that change throughout our lives?  Can we be good soil one day and thorny soil a week later, when something happens to make us worried?  Can we be rocky soil in one part of our lives, but good soil later?  And what are the rocks and thorns in our lives, and can we pull them out?  Can we help others to be good soil by, say, helping them deal with the cares and worries of life?

What do you think?

The Two Sons and the Father

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6th, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 5:1-3, 11b-32

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 parable is one of the richest and most meaningful stories in the Bible, but when we read it we tend to focus on the younger son.  Our traditional name for it is “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which is part of the reason.  But there are many other names for this parable, too.  Sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Prodigal God, the Parable of the Welcoming Father, or the Parable of the Lost Sons, or the Lament of the Responsible Child.  There are so many parts of this parable that we could focus on, and the part we tend to focus on is the younger son, the one whose selfish actions set the whole story into motion.  Yet when Jesus told the story, he started by focusing on the father—“there was a man who had two sons”—and he spent a full third of the story detailing the older son’s reactions.  And let’s not forget that he told this parable—and several others, right in a row—in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who were disdainful that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We tend to think of the Pharisees as the villains, because Jesus had so many clashes with them.  But the reason that he did was because he spent a lot of time with them and they continually sought him out, invited him to speak, and brought them home to eat dinner with them.  In fact, Jesus had many allies among the Pharisees, and they were for the most part natural allies.  When we look at the historical record, the Pharisees beliefs and practices were in fact very similar to Jesus’ own teachings—making the differences even more noticeable.  Israel of Jesus’ day was a nation under occupation, a culture under siege from outside forces that were trying to make Israel just another province of the Roman Empire, complete with pagan worship, secular values, and a disdain for the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers and foremothers.  While Israel’s elite pandered to their foreign overlords, the Pharisees were the ones defending the faith from foreigners and straying countrymen alike.

The Pharisees were mostly middle-class, solid family-values people, who spent lots of time and effort working for God.  They taught people God’s word, and how to interpret it.  They stood up to foreign occupiers and their own leaders alike.  They insisted that God’s Word and God’s commands were still relevant and deeply necessary for life.  And, in so doing, they ran the risk of being discriminated against.  They supported Jesus because he taught and preached about God, and even when they disagreed with him, they admired his ability to reach and inspire so many people.

The problem was, the Pharisees were jealous.  Not of Jesus’ successes—no, that was all to God’s glory, and they counted him as one of their own.  They were jealous of God’s love.  After all, they had been slaving away for years—generations!—for God, in a world that was hostile to them and to the very idea that there was a God who actually cared about people enough to intervene in the world.  They had stood up to hostile leaders and social forces tearing them apart.  They had forgone opportunities for personal advancement and riches in order to remain true to God.  They had, just like the elder brother, been working like a slave for God, and they were very aware of it.

And now this Jesus—this man of God—starts talking to tax collectors?  Those stooges of the Empire, those unfaithful people who turned away from God and cheated their own people for their own personal gain?  Not only that, he welcomes them?  These traitorous parasites who are a manifestation of all that is wrong in the nation?  And Jesus eats with them?  He calls them friends?  He accepts one of them—Matthew—as one of his own disciples?  And all those other sinners, too, the people who have set themselves outside of God’s people by their own actions?  Those thieves and murderers, those adulterers and addicts, those thugs and prostitutes, those con artists and scammers and parasites?  And Jesus tells them that God loves them?

No.  That is not acceptable.  Not to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are the ones God loves.  The Pharisees are the ones who have done the hard work and deserve the reward.  These sinners don’t.  These sinners are the ones who have thrown away and wasted the abundant gifts of God.  These sinners have ruined lives—their own and other peoples’.  These sinners have broken society, and they have hurt people.  They don’t deserve God’s love.  They deserve judgment.  They deserve to be punished for what they have done.

So Jesus tells a story about a man who had two sons.  Two sons who are very different, yet who both separate themselves from their father in different ways.  The younger one is a sinner.  He leaves the family behind and wastes everything he is given, until he is humbled by a famine, at which point he goes home to beg for mercy.  Except he doesn’t need to beg.  The father, overjoyed by the return of a beloved child he’s been worrying about for years, throws a party to celebrate and gifts the younger son with more than he could have dared hope for.  The older son, also, separated himself from their father.  He was a dutiful son, who did everything asked of him.  And so when his brother returns, all he can see is how unfair it is—he’s the one who deserves the party, not his jerk of a brother!  And so he refuses to come in.  He holds his own sense of justice and righteousness more valuable than his brother’s life.  And so he is angry at his father’s love.  Can you blame him?  He’s done all the hard work.  He’s done the right thing, while his brother did everything wrong.  He’s the one who deserves the reward.  The father’s treatment of the younger son is unfair on every level imaginable.

Just like God’s treatment of sinners—forgiveness and welcome—is unfair on every level imaginable.  Sure, it’s great and heartwarming if you’re the sinner, the younger brother, but it’s not great if you’re the righteous one, the Pharisee, the good Christian, the older brother.  The whole point of grace is that it’s forgiveness for people who don’t and never can deserve it.  It’s not fair.  It’s unconditional love for the undeserving.

The problem is, the more we focus on fairness—the more we focus on who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t—the more we separate ourselves from God.  The more we act like the older brother, the more we join him outside the party.  And remember, in the Bible a feast or party is the most common metaphor for heaven.  The older brother is right that it isn’t fair, but by focusing on what is or isn’t fair, he is separating himself from his father, from his entire family, and from the feast.  He’s worked hard, he’s earned a celebration, and he’s keeping himself outside the gates because of his own resentment.  The older brother took one look at the heavenly banquet and turned up his nose at it, because he didn’t like the guest list.

The father acts out of love.  The father is more concerned with welcoming one he thought he’d lost forever than punishing him for leaving in the first place.  The father loves both his sons, but he’s never needed to worry about the elder.  This party is the action of one who has spent many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and hoping and praying that his child is alive, out there, somewhere in the world.  The party isn’t because the younger son deserves it; it’s because the father is so happy.  He’s been happy about his older son the whole time.  All this joy at the younger son’s return is spilling over at once—the joy at the older son’s goodness has been present all along, manifested in a thousand ways the older son either didn’t notice or took for granted or didn’t value.  He spent all that time working for his father, and yet he doesn’t seem to value his father’s love and the gifts he’s been given.  And so the older son is jealous.  He resents that his father has any love for the undeserving brother.  He refuses to come to the party.  He refuses to come to his father.  He wants his jerk of a brother gone again, or at least suitably punished.  He wants everything to be all about him, even when he doesn’t need anything and his brother does.

There are two sons in this parable.  One is a sinner, while the other is a good son.  Yet the two are more alike than either wants to admit.  Both disregard their fathers’ gifts, in different ways.  Both are deeply loved by the father.  Both separate themselves from their father.  And the father comes out to seek both.  There are many ways to separate ourselves from God.  Some, like the younger son’s path, are obvious to see.  Some are more insidious, like the older brother’s jealousy.  Yet no matter why we separate ourselves from God, God loves us, and seeks us out.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Gardener and the Fruit Tree

Third Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A New Kind of Kingdom

Christ the King, Year A, November 25, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

 

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.

 

At the ripe old age of 32, the holiday season turns me into a bit of a curmudgeon. Which holiday season, you may ask? ALL OF THEM, because these days the commercial rush to profit means they’re all in stores at the same time. By the time Halloween was over, the Christmas decorations were up in many stores, with Thanksgiving stuff shoehorned in anywhere it could go and the leftover Halloween costumes still in displays advertising half off. It makes me grumble, because back in MY day, Christmas preparations didn’t start until AFTER Thanksgiving, and there was a break between each holiday to catch your breath. This mish-mashed-everything-at-once is NOT the proper way to do things! Particularly when you consider that in the Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th. The month of December is the season of Advent, where we wait for Christ’s coming. Christmas, the celebration of his birth, doesn’t happen until the actual day! And the Wise Men don’t show up until Epiphany on January 6th!

But today I myself will be guilty of mixing up holiday seasons and mashing them together. You can see by the colors that today is a special day—not many days within the church calendar get the color white. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. The Church year doesn’t begin in January, it begins in late November/early December with the First Sunday of Advent. So, Happy New Year! And, as at the secular New Year, it’s good to take a look back and a look ahead, as we contemplate what it means to proclaim that Christ is King.

What I noticed, as I studied our texts for today, is that the cute little baby we’ll see in the manger a month from now is the king on the throne on the day of Judgment, the one calling all people to account for their behavior in the earthly kingdoms before they enter God’s heavenly kingdom. And that cute little baby is also the one prophesied by Ezekiel in our first lesson, the new King David, who will come to create a kingdom based on justice and mercy, and not the power and inequity our worldly kingdoms are based on. And that baby, lying in a manger, will suffer and die to bring that kingdom to reality.

Let us be honest with one another. Our world, the kingdoms we build, falls far short of God’s desire for us. Instead of the justice God wants, we build up injustice. Instead of mercy, we act all too often out of hate, jealousy, fear, and greed. Consider the sheep metaphor from the first lesson. The strong sheep butted the weaker sheep out of the way so that they could get at the best food and then trampled it so that the weak got nothing. And the strong sheep drank their fill of water, and then fouled up the rest so that the weak sheep didn’t get any. The strong got stronger and the weak got weaker, and the ones who were supposed to shepherd the flock did nothing. That’s kind of like our world. Since the economic bust of 2008, there has been a great recovery in the economy … but outside of North Dakota, most of that recovery has been among the richest Americans, passing the majority of the middle class by and leaving the poor even poorer. Even here, where we’ve got the oil boom to rev up the economy, the number of people in need of help with basics such as rent and food has soared. Some have been left behind. Others have gotten pushed out of the way of progress.

It happens in sports, too. Consider the Sayreville Football team, where ‘hazing’ meant that older players sexually assault younger players. When the coach found out and cancelled the football season, the parents were outraged. Many of the parents of the older boys were more upset that their son couldn’t play than that he had participated in horrible crimes. Consider the many professional sports players who have been caught on tape in the last few years abusing their families: wives, children, girlfriends, and then getting little or no punishment or intervention because their wealth and status protected them from consequences. The powerful abuse the powerless, and use their position to protect themselves from justice.

Think about your own life: how many times have you seen somebody powerful and well-respected get their way, while others get pushed aside? How often have you seen people get hurt by someone else’s desires? How often have you seen someone spoiling something so that nobody else can have it? How often have you been the one getting pushed out, and how often have you been the one doing the pushing? This is not the good and abundant life that God wants for us. This is not the way God wants God’s people to live. This is not the way God’s kingdom will be. In God’s kingdom, there will be justice. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, and all will have enough. In God’s kingdom, there will be no divisions between people. In God’s kingdom, there will be no abuse or domination.

And so God sent a new David, a Messiah, an anointed King to establish his own reign of justice. To call all people to a world in which there is justice for all. Not just for the rich and powerful, not just for the respectable and popular, but for all people. A world where everyone gets enough and nobody gets too much. There’s a reason he was born in a stable, with no room in the inn—this new David, this baby Jesus, this God in human flesh, is going to know with every cell of his being what it’s like to be the one getting shut out in the cold. He’s going to know what it’s like to be hungry, to be naked, to be sick and alone. He’s going to know all this because he’s experienced it, he’s suffered it, he’s been abused and shut out and he knows what it’s like. So every time you see someone suffering from hunger, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone without a home, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone who is sick and alone, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone imprisoned, Jesus is there. We like to focus on the nice pretty stuff—the things as pretty as a newborn baby—and forget the messy stuff. The hard stuff. The painful stuff. But Jesus is present in the pain and grief as much as he is in the joy and healing. No one suffers alone, because Jesus is with them. Jesus, who gets what you’re going through because he’s lived through it.

And this baby Jesus out in the cold is going to grow up. He’s going to give his wisdom and his miracles and his justice to any who will listen—rich and poor, old and young, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless. He’s going to tell them about God’s kingdom. And he’s going to die to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, and one day he’s going to come back and bring those seeds to their full growth. And so, a few weeks before he was killed, Jesus told this story about what his kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom where Ezekiel’s words will be true, a kingdom where the powerful will not abuse the powerless, a kingdom where everyone has enough to eat and clothes to wear and no one is sick or hurting. And as people come streaming in to this awesome, incredible place, this wonderful kingdom, the king will know about us. Our deepest fears, our deepest hopes, the things we did that are worthy of him and the things we wish he didn’t know.

And for some people, the kingdom won’t be completely new. It won’t be completely unexpected, because they’ve been participating in it all along. They’ve been spending their time in this kingdom trying to make it look more like that kingdom. So when they see someone hungry in this world, they feed them. When they see someone thirsty, they give them a drink. When they see someone sick, they take care of them. When they see someone in prison, they visit them. When they see any kind of injustice or abuse, they speak up. Even if they don’t see Jesus in what they do, even if they don’t see Jesus in the faces of the people they help, Jesus is there. Whether or not they’re even looking for him, whether or not they even believe in him, Jesus is there. And he will say to them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But other people are going to get a rude surprise. Because they weren’t participating in the work of the kingdom. They saw people in need, people hurting, and didn’t do anything. Maybe they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Maybe they didn’t think that the people deserved help. Maybe they thought someone else would do something. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they were the ones hurting people, or maybe they benefitted from it. For whatever reason, they haven’t been living the kind of life God calls us to. And so while they’ve been looking for their king in the bright and powerful and glorious places, they’ve been missing the king living among them, in the corners and shoved off to the side and forgotten.

Because that’s the kind of king we have. He doesn’t do what we expect—he doesn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he doesn’t dole out grace by the teaspoon to those who deserve it. He gives of himself freely, to all people. He lifts up the lowly and knocks down the powerful. He feeds his flock with justice, and is present wherever there is pain, or hunger, or thirst, or nakedness, or sickness, or fear, or hate. He brings joy and hope and justice in the midst of hopelessness and he calls his people to do the same. May we lead lives following our king’s commands.

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.

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.

The Vineyard and the Vinegrowers

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 20, selected verses, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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

 

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

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

There are many metaphors in the Bible. Many images and visions and parables that are used to open our minds, to make us see things in a new way. One of the more common images is that of the vine. Now, there were a lot of vineyards spread throughout the Holy Land in those days; shipping was expensive, so most food and drink was made very close to where it was consumed. So everyone knew what a vineyard was, and many of them had worked in a vineyard at one time or another. Vineyards were expensive, but also very valuable: you needed the right kind of soil, a plot of land on a hillside facing the right direction, good cultivated vines, a wall to protect the vineyard from thieves, and a vat to press the grapes into juice that could be made into wine, and then sold, and experienced workers to tend the vines and make the wine. They were something that was special and valuable, and yet something that ordinary people could feel a connection to. Several times in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is sometimes compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in special soil and cares for. In Isaiah, God complains that Israel has produced wild grapes of bloodshed and violence, instead of the good grapes of justice that he planted. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells people that “I am the vine, and you are the branches”: the branches are the part that bears the fruit, but they can’t survive without the central vine stock to nourish them. Just like we are the people that do God’s work in the world, and rely on Christ to spiritually feed us and be our roots in a changing world.

In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of this vineyard is a pointed reminder of whom we belong to, and what God will do for us. This parable comes from the end of Matthew, in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. If you’ll recall from last week’s Gospel, Jesus has been making waves in Jerusalem and in the Temple, and the chief priests and the elders and the Pharisees came to him to demand what gave him the right to come in and change things. And he gave them and the people gathered there this parable. A landowner creates a vineyard: plants it, creates all the necessary equipment and buildings, and then hired workers to work in it while he went off to work. Nobody in North Dakota has much experience with vineyards, but you do know about hired hands and renting land. If you hire someone to work your land, you expect them to turn over the produce, right? Now, remember that this is a metaphor: the vineyard is the people of God, and the tenants are the religious and secular leaders who are supposed to rule them and tend to them in God’s place. And the fruit that they bear is supposed to be the fruit of the spirit: love, truth, peace, joy, faithfulness, goodness, self-control. The tenants are supposed to be helping the people to grow in God, to grow in faith, and to produce fruit that will lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.

That’s not what happened. In this parable, the tenants want to keep the produce for themselves. So they kill the landowner’s representatives and try and keep the fruit for themselves. The landowner sends his son, and they say to themselves: “hey, guys, here comes the heir: if we kill him, we’ll get his inheritance.” Now. I ask you. Is that a reasonable thing to think? If you kill someone, are you going to be rewarded by getting all their stuff? If you had a hired hand who killed your oldest child, would that hired hand take the child’s place and own the land? No, he would not. He would face trial for his actions. And it’s pretty stupid to imagine otherwise, but they do.

Now, the chief priest and the elders and the Pharisees, hearing this parable, realized that they were the bad tenants in the parable. But they didn’t realize that Jesus was the son, and even after telling him what the tenants deserve, they continue on a path to be just like them: they plot to kill the one sent by their Master, his only Son. Because they don’t want to listen to him. They don’t want to admit that they aren’t the ones in charge. They want to be in control of their own destiny, and do things their own way, and they had convinced themselves that that was what God wanted them to do. Jesus was threatening that. Jesus was trying to call them back to their responsibilities; Jesus was trying to remind them that God is the one who created them, who planted them and helped them grow, and God was the one in charge and no amount of shenanigans and ignoring that would change things.

So, to recap: We are the vineyard created by God, and we are the ones who are supposed to bear good fruit, and the chief priests and the elders were the ones who were supposed to take care of the vineyard, but they weren’t doing a very good job, and Jesus was trying to point that out. Now, our community of faith—our vineyard—is organized a bit differently. We believe in the priesthood of all believers, which basically means that all are people equal in precious in God’s eyes and that we all have a responsibility to care for God’s vineyard of which they are a part. So we are the vineyard, the branches bearing fruit, but we are also the hired hands whose job it is to care for the vineyard, to weed and prune and cultivate and harvest and make the fruits of the Spirit into wine fit for the great feast of the Kingdom. We are the ones whose rebellion kills the Son, and we are the ones who are saved by the Son’s sacrifice. We are the ones who reject the stone, and we are the ones whose lives are built on that cornerstone. It’s a lot of responsibility.

Today at Augustana we’re baptizing a baby, Augustus Paul. He is a new branch that is being grafted into the Vine that is Christ Jesus, and he’s young enough that he’s not really producing fruit just yet. At this point, he’s not producing much besides spit-up and messy diapers. He’ll need a lot of tending before he grows big enough to produce the fruits of the spirit. And a lot of that tending will come from his parents, his grandparents, his godparents, the rest of his family, and friends of the family, many of whom gathered this weekend to celebrate his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I’m sure they’ll do a great job of taking care of Gus, of helping him grow strong in faith and love.

But they are not alone. They can’t do it alone. Because we are all fellow branches in the same vine, and we are also the hired hands that God has called to care for the branches: to care for all of God’s people, big and small, so that they may bear the fruits of God’s kingdom. And when Gus is baptized, you will promise to support him in his life in Christ and help him grow in faith, just as you do at every baptism. There are a lot of things you can do to fulfill that promise: you can help with Sunday School, you can support him and his family and all the families of our young children, you can provide good examples, you can build good relationships built on honesty and love. You can watch for God’s presence in your lives and live according to God’s Word. You can bear fruit yourself, and participate in all the ways that God helps us use that fruit for God’s kingdom.

But always remember that we’re not the landowner. Our fruit is not our own; it belongs to the one who planted us, who gave us roots, who protects us and cares for us, and who gave his own Son for us. We don’t build and plan and teach for our own benefit; we do all these things so that God’s people might have life, and have it abundantly in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

A little like this, a little like that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Soil and the Sower

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15), Year A, July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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 Parable of the Sower is one of the great parables, a classic. In the cycle of readings for the church year that Lutherans follow, we hear it in worship once every three years. Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this point go something like this: the good soil, the one without rocks and weeds and thorns, will receive the seed which is God’s Word and God’s Word will grow abundantly in that good soil. So be the good soil!

There’s just one problem with that. I know we have a lot of farmers and gardeners here, so this is my question: have you ever seen soil get rid of rocks and thorns on its own? Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen soil turn itself from bad, rocky soil, to good soil. Yeah, that’s about what I thought. I’ve spent many hours working in my mother’s garden, pulling weeds and killing encroaching blackberry vines and digging out rocks and preparing the soil and tending it, and I have never seen the soil change itself. I’ve seen rocks work their way up from beneath when I didn’t think there were any rocks there, and I’ve seen thorny blackberry vines sprout where I thought I’d gotten them all, but I’ve never seen it go the other way. Not, at least, without a lot of hard work on the gardener’s part. You will notice that while Jesus calls his listeners the soil, he never once says that we should try and make ourselves into better soil.

No, Jesus’ focus is on the action of the sower. And, if you think about it, the actions of the sower are pretty weird. They’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to make you think. We sometimes think parables are easy to understand, because we’ve had them explained to us so many times. But that’s not what parables are. Even when they seem simple on the surface, there’s a lot of depth to them. They’re designed to make us think, to break in to our normal way of looking at the world and show us a different possibility. They’re designed to make us go “wait, what?” so that our understanding of God and God’s kingdom will not be confined to our understanding of the way the world works now.

So think about this sower, for a minute. You farmers, especially. Think about how you put the seed in the ground. This sower is sowing on everything. He’s throwing good seed after bad, putting it in places where he knows it’s not going to flourish. He’s throwing it on the good soil, but also in the thorns, in the rocky places, and even on the road. Now, during spring planting this year I spent a while riding in Gene Wirtz’s tractor watching him seed a field. He has a fancy GPS system with a map of the field, to control where the tractor goes and where the seed is put in the ground. That computer knows exactly where the right place to put seed is. The good soil, where the seed will not be wasted. The expensive computer is worth it because seed and fertilizer are expensive, so a good farmer tries to figure out how to get the best crop with the least amount of seed. Gene would certainly never try to seed the road bed, and I bet none of you other farmers would, either.

I like to imagine that first crowd that heard this parable. “So this guy did what? He tried to seed the road? He threw seed in the rocky areas and among the thorns? Wow, you can tell that Jesus isn’t a farmer!” I bet they grumbled about this town kid—this carpenter’s son—trying to tell them their business. What a waste, to throw seed where you know you’re not going to get a good crop!

That’s part of the point. God is not like a regular farmer. God does not count the cost. God does not do a cost-benefit analysis before figure out the right place to put his Word. God’s gifts are extravagant, abundant, meant for everyone, and given to all people, whether they listen or not. Whether they are good soil or not. God the extravagant sower gives the seed of his Word to the whole world. God’s gifts are not for the chosen few, they’re for everyone. Whether or not we want them, whether or not we value them, whether we respond for a lifetime or even just a moment, the gift is given.

God’s Word is like that. Given to all without counting the cost. But Jesus wasn’t just talking about the stories of the Bible, when he talks about the gift of God’s Word. He wasn’t just talking about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that helps us tell stories about what we have seen God do in our lives. He was also talking about himself. Remember that Jesus, too, is sometimes called the living Word of God.

God’s Word is given to all, extravagantly and abundantly, without counting the cost. Jesus poured out his life, first in ministry and then on the cross, a gift for a world that he knew would reject him and ignore him and turn away from him. A gift given not just to the chosen and faithful few, but to all people, everywhere, whether they were willing to listen or not. And where that gift finds good soil it takes root and springs up, yielding a harvest greater than we can imagine or understand. Just like the seed in the poem, that springs up with thirty-fold yields, or sixty, or even a hundred.

We are the soil, not the sower. But God tends us as patiently and as carefully as any farmer could. We can’t make ourselves into good soil, but God can. God can and does come into our lives to pull out the rocks and tear out the thorns. I have seen people’s hearts fill with rocks just as stone works its way up through the soil. I have seen people’s hearts fill with thorns and brambles, just as weeds take over a garden. But I have also seen God grace and love work in peoples’ lives to prepare break up and remove the stones and the thorns, so that the seed can take root in us. And no matter how rocky or thorny we get, no matter how hard we get, God keeps giving us the abundant gift of his Word.

Abundance: that’s not something we see much of. We tend to want things that are efficient, that are cost-effective, that give a lot of bang for the buck. If something doesn’t produce good results, forget about it and try something else. Don’t waste your time and effort and money on it. Don’t waste your love on it, either. Our lives are all about how to do the minimum and get the maximum. Do the numbers and figure out the logical way, and write off anything that doesn’t work. Only invest in something that’s worth it. That’s our way. But that’s not God’s way. God doesn’t care what the cost is; God doesn’t care what the response is. God will keep on giving, and giving, and giving, to all people, good and bad. Any response, any response at all, is worth it to God. And God never writes anyone off. To God, no one is beyond saving; no one is beyond reach; no one is a bad investment. No one is so hard, or rocky, or thorny that God’s Word is a waste. God rejoices when the Word bears abundant fruit in us. But whether it does or not, God will not give up on us.

We are the soil. We don’t get to choose whether we are good soil or bad, but we can love and honor what God does for us. We can appreciate the rocks he removes and the thorns he pulls. And we can see the abundance of the Word, given for all people, whether good soil or bad. God’s love, and God’s Word: given out for all, whether we deserve it or not; whether we’re a good investment or not; whether we’re good soil or not. God keeps on giving everything to us, no matter what. Thanks be to God.

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.

A party for the lost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), September 15, 2013

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15: 1-10

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.

Society was very different in Jesus’ day, in many ways.  The gap between rich and poor was much larger, for example, and virtually everyone worked at hard physical labor since their machinery was very primitive.  Their ideas of what family was were very different than ours, as was their understanding of gender.  They had very little concept of science, and viewed numbers and mathematics with a kind of mysticism.  But, as it happens, despite all the differences, there was a group in Jesus day very similar to most modern Christians.

These people were the pillars of their community.  They were as close as the ancient world got to “middle class.”  They studied the Bible regularly (although their Bible was only what we would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament hadn’t been written yet).  They went to worship every Sabbath.  They tried to do everything the right way, the way God wanted it.  They tried their best to follow the Commandments and establish a good and godly society.  They tried to get everyone in their community to be faithful to God, too; they spent lots of time and energy teaching anyone who would listen about God.  And they were generous, always giving their offering at the Temple and supporting the needy in their community.  They tried to do everything right, and by most standards they succeeded.  They knew who deserved God’s favor, who had earned God’s love.  When Jesus showed up, they were among the first to listen to him, although in the end they didn’t like what he had to say.  They agreed with Jesus about most things, but in the end, the few things they disagreed on were so important to them that they turned on Jesus and helped the chief priests to arrest him.  Who were these people, you may ask, these righteous and self-righteous people doing their best to follow God’s commandments?  The Pharisees.

One of the things that most annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was who he spent time with.  Sure, he came to be with them in worship, and he ate with them and taught them … but he also spent time with the sinners and tax collectors and all manner of unsavory people.  And sure, the Pharisees said, healing such people was great (as long as it wasn’t on the Sabbath), and teaching them was wonderful, and feeding the hungry was just what God would approve of.  But … eating with them?  Not just feeding the hungry, but spending time socializing with sinners from all walks of life?  Not just ladling out bowls of soup at a soup kitchen along with an invitation to worship, but building relationships with them?  These are the losers!  The lost!  The ones who have proved by their behavior that they don’t belong with the good people!  The ones who have proved that they aren’t worthy of being included in the community!  No respectable person should be hanging out with them, especially not someone who claims to be a teacher of the faith.  So it’s no wonder that they grumbled about Jesus’ social time with sinners.

Jesus, of course, heard the grumbling.  And so he told them three parables.  We only hear the first two today; the third, the story of the Prodigal Son, we won’t hear until Lent.  All three parables are about finding what is lost, and rejoicing.  The shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep behind to search for one that is lost, the woman who scours her house until she finds the last coin, the son who comes back expecting to be thrown out on his ear only to find himself wrapped in his father’s loving arms.

In our two parables today, the search for what is lost is extravagant, frantic, trumping all other concerns.  Have you ever thought what might happen to the ninety-nine sheep while the shepherd is away searching for the one that is lost?  Have you ever spent more time than you can afford tearing apart your home to search for something you know you have in there somewhere?  There comes a point where it makes more sense, from any rational standpoint, to simply accept the loss and move on.  But that’s not what happens in the stories.  The search continues until what is lost has been found.  We’re not told the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ choice of metaphor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been skeptical about it, frowning at what doesn’t seem to make sense.

And then, even worse is what happens after the lost is found.  There’s a party!  Rejoicing!  Sheep go astray all the time; it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them together and find the ones who wander off before anything happens to them.  So why is the shepherd throwing a party for doing his job?  And as for the woman with the ten coins, well, she, too, throws a party.  But how much did the party cost, I wonder?  She reacts to finding and saving money by … spending it.  Surely, the sensible thing to do would be to not lose things in the first place, and if you do lose them, take a good look at how important they are and whether or not it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to find them.  And how about a cost-benefit analysis before throwing the party.  Is it worth it?  Was the stuff you lost really that important?  What’s the sensible, responsible, logical thing to do?  Particularly when you remember that these parables are all about Jesus’ disreputable habit of hanging out with sinners.  It’s one thing to put a lot of time and energy into finding something that was lost by accident; something else entirely to search for someone who chose to get lost.  It’s no wonder that when Jesus was done telling his parables, the Pharisees ridiculed him!

And while the Pharisees are standing around debating the finer points of Jesus’ stories and pointing out the logical flaws, they were missing the big picture.  Any time, in Scripture, that you hear someone talking about a party, you should start paying attention.  Particularly when they’re talking about God throwing a party.  Because, you see, one of the great metaphors for Heaven is that of a party.  You see it over and over and over again, in the Old Testament and again in Jesus’ parables and even through to Revelation.  The Pharisees, good Bible-thumping people that they were, should have recognized the party just as you or I would recognize a picture of someone in a white robe sitting on a cloud with a harp.  But they don’t seem to; in chapter 16 when Jesus finally gets done with this string of parables, they ridicule him.  They’re so focused on the commandments, that they can’t see the love and grace behind them.  After all, as Jesus pointed out, all of the commandments can be summed up as loving God and loving your neighbor.  And that love comes in response to God’s love for us, a love that is extravagant and impractical and can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

You have to wonder if the Pharisees are ever going to get with the program.  Because, if they continue on as they are, they’ll be standing outside the party by their own choice.  In the great party that is heaven, will they be standing outside the gates complaining about who got in and refusing to enter because they certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with those kinds of people?  And complaining about what low standards God has, instead of joining in the rejoicing that what was lost has been found?   Will they spend eternity complaining about the extravagance of God’s determination to find and save everyone no matter how lost they are, an extravagance that includes pouring out God’s own self on the cross for the sake of the world?

But it’s easy to condemn the Pharisees.  After all, they lived so long ago and they are often Jesus’ opponents in the Bible.  It’s harder to recognize the same flaws in ourselves.  We, too, are good God-fearing people.  We, too, judge others, sometimes harshly.  We, too, are prone to think more about our own righteousness than on God’s saving grace.  We, too, sometimes hold to the letter of the law instead of the spirit of love which is its foundation.  If Jesus came here today, would we be offended by whom he chose to hang out with?  Would we be shocked to see him seek out druggies and welfare mothers and gang-bangers and pregnant teens and spend time with them?  Not just giving them a handout and a sermon, but building a relationship, loving them, and inviting them to the great party that is God’s kingdom?  Would we ridicule the time and effort spent seeking out the lost?  Would we, too, find ourselves on the outside of the party looking in, complaining about the guest list and the extravagance?

The truth is, we are all lost, in one way or another.  No matter how well we think we know God and follow him, we fall astray.  No matter how good we think we are, we fall short of the glory of God.  We fail to love God, and we fail to love our neighbor.  And sometimes, we even get so caught up in trying to follow the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of it.  If we can’t love our neighbors, particularly the ones who aren’t particularly good or likeable, how can we understand and accept God’s love for them?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own judgments that we lose sight of God’s grace, and become lost.

So thank God that our God loves us—all of us—so much that he will never stop seeking us.  Thank God for the extravagant grace and mercy poured out on all people, saint and sinner, good and bad, respectable and outcast.  For we are all, every one of us, sinners, in one way or another; and we are all, every one of us, saved by God’s grace and love, and invited in to the great party.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Farewell Sermon–Planting Seeds

Pentecost 6 (Year A), Sunday, July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5-2
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

When you think of Jesus teaching, what’s the first thing to come to mind?  The parables.  Usually, they’re a bit longer than the parables of today’s lesson, which are only a verse or two apiece.  The word “parable” comes from a Greek word, “parabolh.,” which literally means “to throw alongside.”  And a parable is a story that makes a point indirectly, by going alongside it and using metaphors and analogies to paint a picture.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws a lot of ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven out to his listeners.  I think it shows at least one reason why Jesus used parables so often to teach people.

How do you talk about the kingdom of heaven—God’s kingdom, where righteousness, mercy, peace, and love flourish and sin is no more—to people who have only ever lived in this broken, sinful world?  How do you describe the joy of salvation?  I don’t know that any human can possibly understand—I mean really understand—what the kingdom of heaven is like until we experience it.  God is so much greater than we are; God is greater than we can ever know.  It stands to reason that God’s kingdom would be, as well.  In the Bible, the kingdom of God is almost never described directly.  Instead, we are told of the kingdom in parables, visions, dreams—things that inspire us to imagine greater, to expand our ideas what God’s reign means.  In today’s lesson Jesus throws several parables to us, and in these parables we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like.  I’m going to focus on just one of today’s parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  A mustard seed starts really, really small, and inconsequential, and unless you know what it is you’d never believe that such a huge bush—almost a tree—could come from it.  Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven grows out of things that seem small and unimportant.  Now, remember the Gospel lessons for the last two weeks, the Parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those come right before today’s Gospel reading, and the crowds that Jesus was preaching to here had just heard those two parables.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s a literal one-to-one correspondence between the various parables; after all, they are metaphors.  But these parables are related.  They work together, like different chords in a song or different colors in a painting.  So when you hear Jesus talk about seeds here, you should remember that in those two parables the seed that is sown is God’s Word, and in this lesson the seed grows in us to produce God’s Kingdom.

God sows the seed of God’s word in us, and it grows in us to produce God’s kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  The kingdom of heaven won’t be fully realized until Christ comes again, but at the same time, the seeds of that kingdom are in our midst, oftentimes so small we don’t even realize what they are.  Maybe that seed is a smile or an encouraging word when we’re feeling down.  Maybe that seed is what motivates you to get up and spend an afternoon helping someone that needs it.  Maybe that seed is something that makes you question your prejudices.  Maybe that seed is praying with your family.  Maybe that seed is reconciling with someone you’ve had a fight with.  Maybe that seed is a thought you’d never considered, before, that gives you a different perspective.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of the world, in our own hopes and fears and desires, and let that blind us to the seeds of God’s kingdom in our midst.  We all have a lot of ideas about what life should be like, and how we want our life to go.  And conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what our goals should be and how we should live our lives.  But God’s wisdom is very unconventional. God’s wisdom places justice and mercy above social climbing.  It places generosity and hospitality above accumulating riches.  It places love above all.

God works in our world, in our communities and in our hearts, planting seeds.  Seeds of generosity, and mercy, and justice, and love.  Sometimes they bear fruit in our actions.  But even when they don’t, God keeps sowing seeds, knowing that some will grow until they become great trees.  Remember the parable of the sower, where the seed is spread around on all types of soil, the good and bad alike?  God gives the gift of the Word generously to all.  Whether or not we respond, God is there for us, giving us the precious gift of the seeds of his kingdom.

That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon in our first lesson today.  Solomon could have asked for anything.  Take a few minutes, and consider what you would ask for if God came to you and offered you anything you want.  Would you ask for a better job?  A nicer home?  Would you ask to be more popular?  There are a lot of things that tempt us.  I’m sure Solomon was just as tempted as you or I would be.  But Solomon realized that all the things the world values most are ultimately unimportant next to God’s word.  Solomon could have asked for anything, and what he asked for was the wisdom to do the task God had called him to do.  Solomon asked for the seed of God’s kingdom to be planted in him, so that God’s will could be done and God’s kingdom could grow.

It’s not always easy to keep our focus on God’s kingdom rather than our own desires.  Even Solomon, for all his God-given wisdom, faltered and went astray.  He let his desire for women and his hunger to become an international power lead him away from God’s will and into idolatry.  His desire for riches and huge building projects led to heavy taxes and forced labor, and to the splitting of his kingdom in half after his death.  It’s easy to look at Solomon’s life from a safe distance and disapprove, but not so easy to realize when we’re going astray ourselves.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve let our desires and our fears rule; I know that’s true for me.   And yet, no matter how far we go astray, God is still with us, ready to forgive and bring us back.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—not even our own sinfulness—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No matter how far we go astray, God never stops planting seeds.

God is planting seeds today.  One of the seeds God is planting is the baptism of Josey Louise.  In baptism God claims us as his own, and connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Josey Louise may be small, but like the mustard seed she will grow in God’s grace beyond anything we can imagine for her now.  God is coming to her today in the midst of this congregation, through water and the Word, to plant the seed of God’s kingdom within her.  God is planting today, and God will keep planting, and nurturing, and watering, and fertilizing, until the harvest comes.  We don’t know when the harvest will be, but we know that we are safe in God’s hands.

God tends the seeds he plants in many ways.  Sometimes, we are the tools God uses to nurture and guide the seeds that God has planted in our community.  That’s one of the reasons the whole community participates in baptism: it’s not just between Josey and God, or even between Josey and her parents and God.  We are all called, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to nurture and support Josey, her parents, and her godparents, in their life of faith.  We are called as Christians to be brothers and sisters to one another, in love and grace.  We are called to help one another grow in Christ, to help one another be good soil, to help one another seek the pearl of God’s wisdom and not the empty promises of the world’s riches.

Saint Luke is a very nurturing family in Christ.  I know, because you have helped me grow this year that I have spent as your Vicar.  I have been so blessed by your love, your support, and your example.  I have learned and grown so much in my time here, and I could not have done it without you.  Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.  I hope and pray that you will continue to be a nurturing environment for the seeds God plants in this congregation, in this community, and in the whole world.

Thanks be to God, the sower of the seed, the maker of the pearl, the giver of true wisdom, the guide and companion along life’s journey.

Amen.