Repent!

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The People We Don’t See

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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 a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely.  But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities.  Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.

One of the reasons for this is obvious.  After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer.  Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing?  Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them?  We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life.  Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be.  And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now.  And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.

But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community.  Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!”  Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!”  As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure.  And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us.  Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs.  Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault.  If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen.  If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured.  If, if, if.

One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind.  He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured.  The professor agreed.  And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed.  But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed.  Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps.  But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith.  In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer.  The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else.  He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.

In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading.  He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be.  He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem.  No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it.  She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath.  The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  He looked at her and saw a problem.

But you know what?  I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either.  Eighteen years.  That’s a long time.  In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her?  Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened?  Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her?  Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life?  Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life?  Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences?  Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in?  Had he ever been a friend to her and her family?  Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult?  And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her?  Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity?  I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.

Too often, we act like the Pharisee.  We don’t see people with disabilities, not really.  They’re problems to be solved.  Or, better yet, ignored.  If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help?  How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it?  How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives?  How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God?  There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved.  It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing.  It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.

And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer.  We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God.  We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family.  We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie.  And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.

This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.”  But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder.  Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough.  My disability is often invisible.  It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t.  But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges.  It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God!  We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not.  We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others.  And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He knew her.  And when he saw her, he healed her.  We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly.  And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change.  But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome.  We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children.  May we learn to do so.

Amen.

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 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.

Fears and Expectations

Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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

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

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

Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.

In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.

But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.

In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.

The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.

Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?

In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?