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.