God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving the Wrong Things: The Rich Man and Lazarus

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

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22), September 1, 2013

Proverbs 25:6-7, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

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.


Early this week I got sent a link to an article on cracked.com about psychologists studying what power does to people.   It turns out that if you take a group of random people give some of them power and not others, it will change how they think.  The power is meaningless—a few hours of interaction made up solely for a psychological experiment, with participants selected at random to be either leaders or followers.  It doesn’t matter what the  scenario is.  After time leading, people are more likely to lie, steal, cheat, and manipulate others for their own gain … and then feel they didn’t do anything wrong, because they deserved whatever benefits they got.  They believed were more worthy of good things than the people who were randomly assigned to be followers.  The old adage that power corrupts has been proven true time and time again by modern research.  There are good and bad people at all levels in society, of course, but having power works to degrade your morals.

I’d probably have forgotten that article quickly if I hadn’t read the lessons for this Sunday almost immediately afterwards, and been struck by how the article fit!  Here Jesus is at a party watching the leaders of the community jockey for position.  We’re told it’s the Sabbath, so their minds should be on worship and fellowship and the rest that God has divinely ordained.  Instead, they’re politicking to get the best seat at the table.  Now, we don’t pay much attention these days to who has the best seat at most meals, but think of it like a wedding reception: you can tell how important someone is to the bride and groom by how close they sit to the head table.

Think of it like a school lunch room.  You can tell who’s popular by where they sit.  The cool kids sit together, and the kids who aren’t lucky enough to be popular get left all alone.  There is a pecking order, and it changes on a daily basis, altered by rumors, jokes, verbal sparring, the sports season, social media, class standings, and other things.  The social battles to figure out who sits where leave emotional scars on both the winners and losers … and there are always losers.  The scars on the ones who lose are obvious to see: they feel alone, abandoned.  They’re more likely to be bullied, and more likely to be depressed.  The damage to the winners is less obvious.  They’re more likely to be arrogant, to hurt others, to think they’re a better person just because they’re good at sports and dress in the right clothes and have the right phone.  They deserve the best seat, right?  They deserve to be popular.  They deserve the best.  If other people get hurt by that, well, that’s just too bad.

So imagine you’re in a high school cafeteria.  The quarterback of the football team sits down at a table, and his friends sit down with him, filling most of it.  The quarterback sees a kid he wants to talk to, so he calls him over.  But in order for the new guy to sit down, somebody next to the quarterback has to be kicked out of his spot … and the only place left is on the edges.  In front of the whole school, he has to move out to the fringes of the group.  Maybe he even has to change tables.  You know kids are going to be talking about it all day, in person and on social media.  If he doesn’t do something to get back in the in-group pretty quickly, well, he might find himself on the fringes for good.  Because hey, if he deserved to be popular, he’d never have gotten shoved out, right?  It’s a lot better to be the person who gets invited in to the middle than the one left out in the cold.  So Jesus’ advice in today’s Gospel makes sense: act humble so you’ll get invited higher instead of getting kicked out for thinking too highly of yourself.

But what about the ones who are already on the outside?  What about the girl who tries to sit down at a half-empty table only to be told there’s no room for her?  What about the boy who regularly finds nasty things on his Facebook page?  What about the ones who will never be popular, never be part of the in crowd, never have friends until they leave and start a new life somewhere else?  What room is there for them in Jesus’ words today?

First of all, they’re not there at the meal Jesus was attending in today’s lesson.  Jesus ate with all people, sinners and saints, the righteous and the broken, the popular and the losers, the good people and the jerks, the cream of the crop and the bad apples.  But this particular dinner was given by the leaders of the community, and so only the popular crowd was invited.  So Jesus was talking to the popular crowd, the ones who are good at climbing up that social ladder, who believe they deserve the best seat.  The Pharisees, by the way, were religious leaders as well as big shots in the village.  They were the pillars of the community, the ones who decided how the rules should be interpreted.  They decided who got invited to speak in worship and who wouldn’t even get in the door without people whispering to one another, “What’s she doing here?”

Jesus’ advice is aimed at the leaders, but the second part is where it gets interesting.  The first bit was just common sense … and the second part throws common sense out the window, along with the whole social ladder.  Sure, if you want to play the game, Jesus gives you a pointer … but then he says we should stop playing the game altogether!  Don’t focus on trying to be in the “in” crowd.  Don’t spend your time and money scrambling after power and influence.  If you do, you are missing the point, because all that scheming, all that manipulating and planning, all that self-satisfied belief in your own righteousness is not worth anything in God’s eyes.  If you want to be the one everyone looks up to in this life, you may be able to achieve it … but God won’t care.  As far as God’s concerned, it’s just wasted effort.  So stop playing the game, Jesus says, and start using your time and money to help those who can’t help you because they can’t even help themselves.  Instead of cultivating the ones who can do you favors in return, reach out to the ones who can never pay you back.  They, too are God’s children.

Do you remember the old Sunday School song “I cannot come?”  It’s taken from a parable about a wedding banquet.  The master—that’s God—invites all his neighbors to come to the wedding banquet of his beloved son.  When they all respond with excuses of how busy they are, the master orders his servants to go out into the streets and invite everybody they see: the beggars and the robbers and the lame and the blind, everyone is invited to the great party.

Because, you see, God’s kingdom is not just for the winners.  God’s kingdom is for the losers, too.  God’s kingdom is for the ones who are lost, the ones who are forgotten, the ones who are shoved out to the margins.  God’s kingdom is for the screw-ups just as much as it is for the ones who seem like they have it all together, because from God’s perspective we are all losers.  We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God.  If the only people who could go to heaven were the ones who deserved it, the ones who earned it?  Not one single human being would ever go to heaven.  We are saved because God loves us, not because we’re worthy of it, and thank God!

Playing the power game, trying to make ourselves look good and righteous … none of it matters to God.  All it says to God is that we’re losers who think we’re winners.  And the things we do to climb that ladder and get ourselves in the “in” crowd, well, we can deceive ourselves, but not God.  God sees through our self-justifications.

In God’s eyes, we’re all losers … but in God’s eyes, we are also beloved children, and to God that is infinitely more important.  That’s why God became human and died for our sake.  In God’s kingdom, we’ll all be welcome, the first and last, the best and the worst.  All our categories of in and out, winner and loser won’t matter.  So what if we actually lived like that now?  What would it be like to invite a kid who seems always to be alone to sit with your group or give up your seat on the bus to someone who got on late?  What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you?  What would it be like to stop someone from bullying someone else?  Or to post something kind on Facebook about someone who rarely gets noticed?  What would it be like to invite someone that doesn’t often get invited to a party?  What would it be like to tweet a quotation about looking out for others?  And what would it be like, if someone asks you why you’re doing this, to say it’s because it’s what you think God wants?

What if we all acted out of mutual love for one another instead of jealousy or cliquishness?  What if we welcomed the strangers who have come to live among us?  What if we visited prisoners and walked a mile in their shoes?  What if we allowed ourselves to be content with what we have because we trust God to care for us?  What would the world be like then?

I can tell you one thing, it would be a lot more like God’s kingdom.


A world of abundance

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C, March 17th, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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


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

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

If you were here Wednesday night, you would have heard another story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil.  And, like the story in today’s Gospel, those watching were not happy about it.  In the story from Luke that we read on Wednesday, the Pharisees were upset because Jesus was allowing such liberties from a sinner.  In today’s story from John, Judas was upset because the money that could have been given to the poor was spent on useless luxuries.

Both objections are very common-place ones, that we have all probably thought or felt at one time or another.  As for the woman in Luke, that sinner, well, there are people in the world who are untrustworthy and just seem to be worse than anyone else.  Even if you forgive their sins, if you allow them into your fellowship, you run the risk of being hurt or injured by them again.  And you run the risk of being tarred by the same brush.  And you run the risk of other people being led astray, because surely, if what that sinner did was so bad, you wouldn’t be letting them participate.  So letting in sinners is risky business.

As for the extravagance of Mary’s perfumed oil, well, any time you talk about money in a religious context, two subjects come up: maintaining the building, and giving to those who are in need.  Because obviously, Jesus wants us to love others with deeds as well as with words.  There are so many needs in the world, so many people who need help, whose lives can be dramatically improved with a few gifts.  And there are so many passages in the Bible that talk about justice for the poor, about providing for those who are worse off than you.  If you see someone in need, you’re supposed to help.  And that perfumed oil was about a year’s salary for a day laborer—that was a serious extravagance!  What a difference that money could have made in the lives of so many people!

So it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Judas and the Pharisees.  Yes, inviting in sinners and welcoming them is risky.  Yes, that perfume Mary used was very expensive, and think of all the good that could have been done with it!  Any half-way rational person who knows the Scriptures would have pointed it out as well.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisee and Judas.  They have the details correct, but they have completely missed the big picture.  They are focusing on the little stuff: how we should handle ordinary daily life.  And they are so focused on that, on keeping on with their ordinary lives, that they completely miss that things are not ordinary.  They completely miss that their handling of the details is getting in the way of the big picture.

Yes, we can’t just ignore sin, and sometimes we need to speak up about sinners.  Yes, we should love the poor, and work to bring justice and abundant life to all people.  But that must always, always be done in the light of Christ.  All of our lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ need to focus on the big picture of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us, as part of God’s plan for us and for all of creation.

God created the world, and God created it to be good.  God created all of humankind to be good.  God created the world abundantly, a world stuffed to the gills with wonderful things.  God created a world in which there is more than enough to go around for all.  But humans sinned.  Humans sin, and that sin has broken all of creation.  Instead of love, there is oppression and hate.  Instead of abundance for all, there is scarcity and hoarding.  Instead of building one another up, we tear one another down.

We have fallen from what God wants us to be, but God has never stopped seeking us out.  God comes to us where we are and forgives our sins, and lifts us up out of the holes we dig for ourselves.  God’s goal isn’t just to patch over the holes.  God’s goal isn’t just to save the nice people and forget about the rest.  God’s goal isn’t just to put a fresh coat of paint over the decay.  God isn’t just trying to fix a few things here and there, measuring out justice like a teaspoon and mercy by the cup to people dying of thirst.

No, God is creating something new.  God is doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth, do you not see it?  God is restoring the world, recreating it through the life and death of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  From the cross of Christ flows forth love and mercy and forgiveness and renewal like water from a fountain in the desert.  That love and mercy and forgiveness and justice overflow all the boundaries we humans would set for them.  From the cross of Christ flows forth the kind of abundant life God wants for us and for all of creation.

That spring of life that comes from God refreshes and renews us, but it hasn’t yet filled the whole world.  The new thing God has done in Jesus Christ has begun, but it has not finished.  The new creation will not be here until Christ comes again.  Until that time, we live caught between the old, sinful, broken world, and the new creation God brings.  We live caught between our old, sinful, broken selves and the new, forgiven and whole selves God is creating in us.

The question is, what are we going to do in the mean time?  How are we going to live our lives?  Are we going to put our confidence in our old selves, in the old broken world that we see around us that we understand all too well?  Or are we going to put our confidence in the resurrection?  Are we going to seek the power of Christ’s resurrection, or are we going to stay in the muck and mire that drags us down and traps us in sin?  Are we going to remember that Christ has made us his own through our baptisms, has claimed us and redeemed us, or are we going to focus on the broken world around us?

If we are going to press on towards the goal of Christ, if we are going to live in the power of the resurrection, that means we have to change how we see the world around us.  We have to look and see the abundance of God’s mercy not just for us, but for all people.  We have to remember that our God is the god of abundance, not scarcity.

The Pharisee from Wednesday night’s lesson was offended that Jesus forgave a sinner and accepted her gift.  Yet we know that all human beings are sinners, and that Jesus came to save all of humanity.  We know that forgiveness is a gift for all, because Jesus died for all.  And yes, we are called to speak out against sin—but we must always remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that God loves every single one of us, no matter how far astray we go.  Jesus didn’t come to Earth to condemn people or exclude them, but to seek out all the lost, all the sinners, all who have gone astray.  The Pharisee focused on the details of the sin, but not on the big picture of God’s mercy for all.

Judas in today’s lesson was offended that Mary’s perfume was used so extravagantly.  It could have been sold, and the money used for the poor!  We are told by the Gospel writer that Judas used to steal from the common purse, giving him an unsavory motivation for his anger.  But many good Christians who don’t steal from the offering plate would agree with him.  Hungry people could have been fed with that money!  Sick people could have gotten medicine!  But Jesus said that Mary was in the right. Now, obviously, Jesus who spent so much time feeding hungry people and healing sick people approved of giving to those in need.  The problem isn’t wanting to help people.  The problem is the mindset of scarcity.

God created a world with abundance for all.  Yet we believe, deep in our heart of hearts, that there isn’t enough.  So we hoard what we have instead of sharing it, and some people have far more than they need, and others have nothing.  Did you know that the world produces enough food every year to feed every person alive today?  Yet people die of starvation because they cannot afford food, or cannot get to it.  God created a world with enough abundance to provide for the needs of all, and we remain trapped in our belief in scarcity.  There is enough for all; there is enough to provide for the poor and to give extravagant gifts of love to God.

We see brokenness and sin around us every day.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world afraid of not having enough.  We know that God is doing a new thing; we know that salvation and new life comes through Christ Jesus.  We know that even death itself will be swallowed up in the power of Christ’s resurrection.  We know that we, too, will be raised, and we know that God’s kingdom of abundant life and love and mercy will come.  Yet like the Pharisee, and like Judas, too often we muddle along in our every-day concerns, instead of knowing Christ and experiencing the power of his resurrection.  May we learn to press on towards Christ, and to see the world through his eyes: sinners forgiven, justice for the oppressed, and abundant life for all.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

The End of the Story

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B (Ordinary 15B), Sunday, July 15, 2012

Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 85:8-13, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6: 14-29

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

Click to download a podcast of this sermon.

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

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

How many of you watched Dallas, when it was originally on?  How many of you watch the new version they’re showing on TNT?  It’s a story about greed and power, lust and double-crossing.  It’s a story about flawed people, who get too caught up in their games and intrigues, even when they try to do the right thing.  The original series is the third-longest-running prime-time television show in US history.  After it ended, there were spinoffs, tie-ins, and re-runs.  Last year, TNT decided to resurrect it.  TNT’s version is not a re-make; instead, it starts up twenty years after the original ended, showing us what’s happened in the meantime, what’s stayed the same and what has changed.

And not much has changed.  The names and faces are somewhat different, as the show focuses on the new generation who were only children in the old series.  But the power games, the intrigues, the greed, the justifications, are all the same.  Second verse, same as the first.  It seems to be a good strategy, for the new show; after all, our love for drama and intrigues and flawed characters hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years.  That’s not surprising; humans have been telling stories like that since there have been humans to tell stories.  Sometimes we tack on morals: don’t you do that!  Sometimes we just follow the action with baited breath to see what happens next.

I think it’s understandable.  After all, the reason that stories like Dallas strike a chord is that, exaggerated and larger-than-life as it is, we recognize a little bit of ourselves in it.  Complicated relationships, petty jealousies and rivalries, ignoring how our words and actions hurt those around us, compromising our ideals to reach our goals … all of it looks really familiar.  Even more familiar are the justifications: it’s not really that  bad, everyone else is doing it, who cares about them.  We do it, too.  Instead of acting out of love as God calls us to do, we act out of hate and jealousy and greed and fear, and when we try to do the right thing we are all too ready to compromise for the sake of getting things done.  We do it in our personal lives, our political parties and leaders do it, and we even see that kind of behavior in church.  So it should come as no surprise to see a story like that told in the Bible, as well.

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruled part of the Jewish lands during the time of Jesus.  He had married for political connections, but fell in love with Herodias, who was at the time married to Herod’s older brother who had been passed over in the line of succession.  So Herod Antipas and Herodias divorced their spouses and married each other.  Besides causing political problems with the family of Herod Antipas’ ex-wife, we can imagine what havoc and hurt it caused within the Herod family.  Adultery, alienation of affection, divorce, families splintering as everyone takes sides.  Everything played out on the public stage, private pain and shame made public.  Throw in lingering hostilities from the way Herod the Great divided his titles and wealth, and it’s a recipe for a nasty situation, in which the ideals of family and marriage are made into caricatures.

Everybody knew the Herod family was acting badly, but given their political power few people were willing to say it out loud.  John the Baptist did, and it cost him his life.  John had been sent to call people to account, one of a long line of prophets and teachers called to tell the truth about sin, to break through the web of justifications people spin for themselves.

Amos, the prophet in our first lesson, was another.  He lived centuries before John the Baptist, when Israel and Judah were independent kingdoms.  In his time Israel was ruled by Jeroboam II.  Now, as far as we know, Jeroboam’s personal life was less sinful than the Herod family.  But he made up for it with political and economic sins.  Under his reign, the rich and elite prospered by exploiting ordinary people and ignoring God’s laws.  Several prophets, including Amos, were sent to call Jeroboam and his people back to justice, to right relationships with God and one another.  God uses the metaphor of the plumb line to describe this. A plumb line is a weight on a string used by builders to judge whether a wall is level and straight.  God used a symbolic plumb line to judge whether Israel’s actions were just—and found Israel wanting.  In the same way, John held the actions of the Herod family up to a standard, and showed just how crooked it was.

The problem is, nobody likes to have their faults pointed out.  Most people would rather cover up their sinfulness and make excuses than face the consequences of their actions and acknowledge they did the wrong thing.  Unfortunately, that means that people who try and blow the whistle like John did sometimes get attacked.  Covering up the sin means getting rid of the one who pointed it out, and so Herodias ordered John’s death.  Herod Antipas knew it was wrong, but was more interested in saving face than in doing the right thing.  And so John died, and was buried.  Sin and death win.  The end.

What a depressing story!  John did the right thing, and got punished for it.  John tried to get people to recognize the sinfulness of their lives, the brokenness and the pain and suffering they were causing themselves and others, and was killed because of it.  It’s realistic—it happens all too often, throughout all of history—but it’s not the kind of story we want to believe.  How often have we seen something like this happen in our own lives?  People make bad, selfish, sinful choices, and other people get hurt because of it.  Evil wins, and God’s call is ignored.  Sinfulness and brokenness triumph.  Herod Antipas and Herodias chose hate over love, greed over generosity, grudges over forgiveness, reputation over goodness, and fear over justice, and they got away with it.  And John suffered and died because of their sins.

But notice where this story is told in Mark’s Gospel: chapter six, out of sixteen.  This is not the end of the story.  Rather, John’s death is just a part of a larger story.  And that story is the story of Jesus Christ, God’s only son, who came to earth to save us from our sins.  Christ came to redeem us from our sins, to bring salvation and hope and healing from all the brokenness in the world and in our lives.  He did this by dying on the cross for our sake.  Like John, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of others.  Yet Jesus’ death is not the end of the story.  Jesus died, but Jesus rose again from the grave.  And it is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we are healed, that our sins are forgiven and we become the people God calls us to be.

John the Baptist died, but his death was not the end of the story.  In fact, it wasn’t even the end of John’s story.  In baptism, we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are adopted as God’s children and share in God’s grace, and neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God.  Even in death, the victory of the brokenness of the world is only temporary.  Because in the end, love wins.  In the end, God’s grace triumphs.  When Christ comes again, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  All those who have died in Christ will be raised; John the Baptist will be raised, too.  All the brokenness and sinfulness of the world will be healed and made clean.  It won’t be like the new version Dallas, second verse, same as the first.  It will be different—we will be different.  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet together; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

Until then, we are sinners who live in a world of sinfulness and brokenness.  Yet we are also saints who have tasted God’s love and grace.  We are out of joint and crooked, yet we know God’s plumb line which calls us to justice.  May we follow God’s call, and let God’s Holy Spirit fill us with justice and love.


The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Last night, at the Wednedsay Evening Lenten service, a child of the congregation and I performed a dialogue/skit that I wrote about the boy who shared the loaves and fish (John 6:1-14).  Here is the script.  Like everything on this blog, it is licensed under a Creative Commons license.  This means that you can use it for any purpose besides to sell it, as long as you credit me and link back to this blog.

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The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Jacob enters, carrying a basket

Salomé: Ah, Jacob, my son, there you are!  It’s getting late, I was wondering when your cousins were going to bring you home—how was your day?

Jacob: It was wonderful, mother!  I had so much fun—it was a lot nicer than spending all day mending and cleaning fish nets!

Salomé:  I know, but the taxes on fishing are so high—everyone in our family must work.  There is no time for play, if we are to feed ourselves and meet our obligations.  Soon, you too will be out with your father and uncles and cousins, fishing, while your younger brothers mend the nets.  You should be grateful we could spare you for a day to go do something fun!

Jacob: I know, and thank you!  It was wonderful!  Such a beautiful day.  We walked for miles, and the sun was shining and I’ve never been so far from home! I don’t think Matthew and Jonah had ever been that far, either—we got lost.  But there were so many other people going to see the teacher, we could follow them, and so we got there in the end.

Salomé: I know this traveling preacher is a popular fellow, but times are hard—so many people are losing their land and becoming tenant farmers these days, I’m surprised anyone could spare the time to go and listen.  How many were there?

Jacob:  Lots!  If they were all fish, it would be more than our whole family could catch in a week!  There were all kinds of people.  I saw some people dressed in finer robes than I’ve ever seen, and others dressed in rags. And people in between—I saw fishermen, farmers, day laborers, craftsmen.  I didn’t know that many people lived in all of Judea.

Salomé: This teacher must be something special, then.  What was his name again?  Where is he from?

Jacob: His name is Jesus, and he’s from a town called Nazareth.  I think his family are craftsmen, but most of his followers are fishermen.

Salomé: I know—it was such a scandal when Zebedee bar-Jonathan’s son’s left their family to follow that preacher.  Of course, all parents dream of their children being pious and learning the Scriptures, so it was an honor that they were chosen … but they left in such a hurry!  And they were two of their family’s hardest workers.  Without their help, their family almost couldn’t pay for their fishing license!

Jacob: I can see why they followed him, though—when he talks, it sounds like he’s talking right to you, even if you’re on the edges of a big crowd!  There were a lot of people who were sick or had demons, there, and he healed them all!  One woman fell down in fits, and shook a lot, and Jesus spoke to her and she stopped.  Then there was a blind man, and Jesus touched him and he could see!

Salomé: Well, that’s worth travelling all day for, I must say.  But you and your cousins weren’t sick.

Jacob: Oh, but it was wonderful to see.  And he talked.  I didn’t understand everything he said, but I would have listened to him forever.  He talked about treating people with respect and honor, and following God’s commands, and being generous instead of stingy, and caring for all people, even those who aren’t part of your family.  He said we should love everybody, because we’re all God’s children.

Salomé: Very true!  The world would be a better place if more people thought like he did.Was there anything else?  Did he talk about Rome?  Did he talk about King Herod?  He’s one of us, he knows how hard times are.  Why, with the taxes on fishing, we barely make enough to feed and clothe ourselves, slaving away all day every day except the Sabbath.  The tax collectors cheat us and live in mansions while we can barely keep a roof over our heads, and the soldiers mock us and beat us, and our own king spends more time bowing to Rome than to God.  If this Jesus is a man of God who can work miracles, surely he can throw out the Romans!  If he can gather crowds like that, he should be able to raise an army, too.  I heard people talking in the marketplace that he’s the messiah, King David’s heir come to restore the kingdom of Israel.

Jacob: He didn’t say anything about that.  I know my cousins were disappointed.  But I liked listening to him anyway.

Salomé.  Well, maybe he’ll start talking about rebellion later.  I’m glad you had such a good day—there’s still some light left, you can do your chores.

Jacob: I have a present for you, mother!

Salomé: What is it?

Jacob hands her his basket

Jacob: Bread!  So you won’t have to bake tomorrow.

Salomé: Jacob!  There is so much bread here—where did you get it?

Jacob: From Jesus!  There were so many people in the crowd who had no money, and no food.  Thank you for packing us such a nice lunch, it made me sad to see all the people there who didn’t have anything.  My cousins made me carry our food, all five loaves of bread and two fish.

Salomé: They did, did they?  Three men and one boy, and they make the boy do the work?  I’ll have to talk to their mother!

Jacob:  I don’t mind, because it worked out for the best!  Jesus was sorry for all the people with no food, so he sent his disciples over to ask me if I would share.  They weren’t very nice about it; I don’t think they wanted to have to ask a kid for a favor.  But I said yes, because Jesus had just been talking about being generous, and I knew I would have food here when I got home if I was hungry.  My cousins didn’t like it, but I was the one who had carried the food, and so I thought it only fair that I get to decide.  And Jesus thanked me!

Salomé: An important man like that, bothering to notice a child?  And thanking him, no less?  This Jesus is certainly unusual.

Jacob: I don’t think Jesus cares about who is rich and powerful and who is not—I think he only cares about who needs him.  And the hungry people sure needed him!  Jesus took the bread and the fish—all five loaves and two fish—and blessed them, and told his followers to pass them around for everyone to share.  And he told everyone to take as much as they could eat, but not to hoard it to take home, because he wanted everyone to be fed.  And they did!  And when everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets full of leftover pieces of bread!  They gave me one of them to take home to you as a thank you for giving the original loaves and fish.

Salomé: He fed the whole crowd with just the lunch I packed for you and your cousins?  That is truly a sign and a wonder!  Did anyone else bring food from home that they shared?

Jacob: I didn’t see any, but I suppose it’s possible.  I bet those rich people had food with them.  And a lot of the craftspeople and farmers and fishers probably brought lunch, too.  But that still wouldn’t be enough to fill all twelve baskets of leftovers!

Salomé: No, it wouldn’t.  Well, no matter how much food he started with, it was certainly a miracle.  Not just the bread and fish being enough for the whole crowd, but that people shared—with times so hard, people look out for their own family first and anyone else a distant second.  You would think they would eat their fill and keep the rest for their families.

Jacob: But they didn’t, everyone shared with everyone else!  Just like Jesus asked them to.

Salomé: That was a miracle!  And you were the first to share, Jacob.  Because you were generous, you participated in one of God’s miracles!  You helped people who were poor and hungry.  I’m so proud of you!

Salomé hugs Jacob

Jacob: Does that mean I don’t have to do my chores tonight?

Salomé: Sorry.  There’s still a lot of work to do, and everyone must help.

The Perils of Doing the Minimum

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, November 13, 2011


Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

What cheerful readings we have today!  The prophet Zephaniah starts us off with a passage about the day of the Lord—a day when the Lord will come in wrath and destruction.  “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  Zephaniah’s words are pretty harsh: blood shall be poured out like dust, and flesh like dung.  One might expect that with such harsh penalties, God would be moving against the really wicked people: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, idolaters, and the like.  But that’s not the case.

The ones God is condemning in today’s reading haven’t done much of anything bad … but they haven’t done much good, either.  They’re the ones who rest on their dregs—the people who are complacent, who coast through life, who do the minimum and play it safe.  God is condemning those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  In other words, what those people were saying was that they didn’t believe God could—or would—act in the world.  They didn’t believe God really mattered in how they lived their day to day lives.  “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  That’s something people might say today!  Let’s be honest with ourselves: how many of us know people who think like that?  How many of us have thought things like that ourselves?

It’s pretty easy to go through life like that.  Comforting.  You can coast through life, get by with resting on your dregs, and doing the minimum.  After all, if God doesn’t care enough to act, why should you?  Why spend the extra effort to do something awesome instead of something ordinary?  Why take the risk of standing up and pointing out the evil and broken things in the world?  Why not just go along to get along?  Why not just take the easy way out and let someone else do the hard work?

The Parable of the Talents is also about someone taking the easy way out.  This parable is told in the middle of a group of four parables about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, again, we’re talking about the coming of the day of the Lord.  And again, the Parable of the Talents has a harsh condemnation of someone who takes the easy way out.

A master entrusted his servants with money before leaving for a long time.  A ‘talent’ was an amount of money worth somewhere between 15 and 20 years worth of wages for an ordinary person.  That was a huge gift—extravagant, awesome, and far beyond anything the servants could earn.  Now, in those days they didn’t have much of a financial system.  They didn’t have reliable banks, or a stock market.  In fact, the prudent thing to do with money was to bury it—that way, it wouldn’t get stolen and you’d have it when you needed it.  And that’s just what the servant who was given one talent did: he buried it.  Nothing bad was going to happen to that money—but nothing good could be done with it, either.  The servant was safe, he thought—he’d done the minimum.  He could rest comfortably in the knowledge that he’d done his part.  The master’s angry response seems a little harsh.  After all, the servant didn’t lose or damage the gift; he didn’t do anything really bad, he just didn’t do much good, either.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a graphic real-world example of the consequences of that attitude.  Jerry Sandusky, a respected and influential member of the Penn State athletic faculty and a leader in a great charity, allegedly raped several boys over the course of several years.  I am sure we are all praying for the health and well-being of his victims.  But Sandusky could only commit his crimes because the people who knew or suspected what was going on, did little or nothing to stop it.  Joe Paterno heard the allegations back in 2002; others witnessed abuse starting (as far as we know) in 1998.  We all know that Coach Paterno is a good man, who has done many great things both on and off the field.  But in this case, he, like several others, did the minimum he was required to do by law: he reported it to his superiors at Penn State.  When the school administrators did nothing, he didn’t pursue the matter.  It was someone else’s problem.  And because all of the people who knew about or suspected the abuse took the easy way out and did the minimum, it went on for years.

Taking the easy way out can be very tempting, and there are so many excuses.  The people in Zephaniah’s day took the easy way out because they didn’t believe God cared.  The servant in the Parable of the Talents took the easy way out because he was afraid of failing.  And a wide variety of excuses and explanations have been offered for the people who knew or suspected about Sandusky’s actions.  We look at the excuses other people give and we see them for the flimsy things they are.  But what about ourselves?  Are we just coasting through life, making excuses for resting on our dregs?

In the Parable of the Talents, there were two other slaves.  They also received extravagant gifts from the master, but instead of taking the easy way out they used those gifts the master had given them.  They took those talents out into the world rather than hiding them away.  Our translation calls them “good and trustworthy,” but that phrase could also be translated “happy and faithful.”  They lived their lives in hope and joy, rather than in apathy, fear, or cynicism.  What would our lives be like if we did the same?  What would our world be like?

God has given us many blessings.  The Lord God Almighty created us, and the whole world around us, everything that is, seen and unseen.  All the good things that we have come from God.  Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin, giving us the gift of salvation which we could never have earned.  Jesus lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose again that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came that we might become children of the light, rather than children of darkness.  The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our advocate.  The Spirit is with us always, inspiring us with God’s wisdom and grace.

God didn’t give us all these things so that we could bury them in the ground, take the easy way out and do the minimum.  God gives us these gifts so that we can enter into God’s joy.  God gives us these gifts so that we could use the blessings we have received to bless others.  God gives us these gifts so that we can be the body of Christ in the world.  May we receive God’s gifts with joy and faithfulness, and use them for the building up of God’s kingdom and the blessing of God’s people.


Whose decision is it, anyway?

Pentecost 14 (Year A), Sunday, September 18, 2011


Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

Today’s first lesson comes from the book of Jonah, one of the most fun-to-read books of the Old Testament.  How many of you learned the story of Jonah and the Whale in Sunday School when you were a kid?  If your Sunday School lesson was anything like mine, it went something like this: Jonah didn’t want to do what God wanted him to do, so he ran away and God made a big fish eat him.  Jonah said he was sorry, God forgave him, the fish spat him up on the shore, and Jonah went on to do what God told him to do.  The moral of the story was to listen to God and do what God tells you.  It’s a good lesson.  How many of you think this when you hear it: “That Jonah is so stupid.  I’m glad I’m more faithful than that.  Of course God knows best.  Of course I would have gone to Nineveh to preach God’s Word, if God had sent me.”

Then we get to today’s lesson, the last chapter of the book and the end of the story.  In between the fish and our reading, Jonah had gone to Nineveh as God commanded him to, preached the shortest sermon ever (only one verse long!) and the people of Nineveh repented of their sins.  Now God sees their repentance and spares them … and Jonah gets mad at him for it!  Jonah quotes one of the Bible’s most frequent descriptions of God: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Except that Jonah thinks that’s a bad thing: “This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he says, fuming.  He doesn’t want God to be merciful.  He doesn’t want God to be forgiving.  How many of you, listening to this, are thinking to yourself: “That Jonah, he just doesn’t get it.  God is love!  God is about forgiveness!  It’s a good thing that the people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them.  I’m glad I understand God better than Jonah.”

It’s tempting to judge Jonah like that, but don’t be too hasty.  Jonah wants God to hate the people of Nineveh because he hates the people of Nineveh.  He doesn’t want God to save them because Jonah doesn’t believe they deserve to be saved.  Jonah wants to be the one to decide who gets God’s grace and who doesn’t.  And the truth is, we are a lot more like Jonah than we think.

Jonah had good reason to hate the people of Nineveh.  You see, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  And the Assyrians weren’t just your ordinary pagan empire in the ancient middle east.  In their heyday, they were the great power of the region, conquering most of the area and dominating those countries they didn’t directly rule.  In 721 BC, they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting the ten tribes who lived there, and who were never seen again.  For the next century the Assyrians dominated the southern kingdom of Judah.  Nineveh wasn’t just any city.  Nineveh was the city that destroyed God’s people.  If any city deserved God’s wrath, it was Nineveh.  And yet Nineveh was the city God sent Jonah to preach to.

That puts kind of a different spin on the story, doesn’t it?  I have a suspicion that if we were in Jonah’s shoes, the majority of us would do the exact same thing Jonah did.  Would you want to bring God’s word to your enemies?  Would you want to be the person through whom God saved them?  I think that like Jonah, most of us would try and run away from God’s call, and like Jonah I think we’d be angry at God’s mercy.  God’s mercy is a wonderful thing—when it’s aimed at us.  We love that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—when we or people we care about benefit from it.  But it’s a whole other story when God shows mercy to people we don’t like, people who aren’t like us, people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and love.  The whole question of the book of Jonah is this: who decides who receives God’s mercy?

That’s the question of today’s Gospel reading, too.  Should God be fair and just, or should God be merciful?  I know that my own gut reaction is to side with the laborers hired first.  They have a good point!  There is no way to make the landowner’s treatment of the laborers just.  Those who have worked longer deserve more compensation for their labors by any human judgment.  And yet God reckons things differently.  The landowner held to his agreement with the ones hired first: a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.  They are not shorted, but given a just reward for their labors, a living wage.  Yet he treats the other workers with mercy and grace, instead of with justice, and gives them more than they have earned.  When we identify with the laborers hired first, we are tempted to see that as a bad thing.  Because we like God’s grace and mercy when we receive it ourselves, but not so much when it is given to others.

But put yourselves in the shoes of the laborers hired last.  The “usual daily wage” was just that—the daily wage.  It was enough for the needs of that day.  It paid for one day’s food and shelter.  Imagine standing around in the marketplace, hoping for work, and knowing that you and your children will go hungry that night if no one chooses you to harvest their crops.  Imagine the despair growing as the day goes on and there is no work for you.  You will be hungry that night.  You will have to explain to your kids that there is nothing to eat.  You may be sleeping in the streets and hoping no one steals what few belongings you have.  And then—someone comes and offers you a job.  They don’t even say what they’ll pay you, but whatever it is, it’s better than nothing, so you take it.  And as you work you wonder: how hungry will I be tonight?  I only earned a little—I know it isn’t enough for a full meal, but at least it will be something.  And maybe, maybe the manager will be generous.  Maybe he’ll give me a little extra, maybe even enough for my children to eat a full meal, at least.

And then comes the end of the day, and the manager calls everyone in to receive their wages.  And he hands you a full day’s wages: the same pay he would have given you if you had been hired first thing in the morning, far more than you earned.  It means that you and your family will be able to sleep safely in a warm place tonight.  It means that you and your family will have enough to eat.  It means life.  It means hope.

That is, after all, what God’s grace is all about: life and hope, even to people who haven’t earned it.  Even to people who only come late.  Even to people like the inhabitants of Nineveh who were so lost in their sin they didn’t even realize they were sinning until Jonah told them.  Let’s face it, no one has earned God’s grace.  The only reason the complaining laborers had a job—the only thing that separated them from the ones who came later—was because the landowner hired them early in the morning instead of late.  If the landowner had hired them later in the day, I bet they would have been singing a different tune.

No one has earned God’s love.  God loves us freely, unconditionally, whether or not we’ve earned it.  God wants us to follow his commands not because he’s waiting to punish us when we fail, but because he loves us and wants us to have good and whole lives.  Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about: the kind of life that can only come from God’s generous love.

It’s tempting to be like Jonah, and the laborers hired first.  It’s tempting to think that God’s love and mercy are things we can control.  It’s tempting to assume that God agrees with us about who deserves grace and mercy and who doesn’t.  One thing that devout Christians have done throughout the ages—usually with the best intentions—is try to figure out what the criteria are or should be for salvation.  Do you have to go to church regularly, and how often is regularly enough to count?  Do you have to do good works, and if so, how many?  Do you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?  Are some sins too great for forgiveness?  When you sin, do you have to do something to make up for it for God to forgive you?  Does being a member of one group mean that God loves you more than God loves members of another group?  Do you have to work the whole day to receive the reward, and what happens if you come late?

Too easily we forget the times when we ourselves have come late, when we have failed to follow Christ, when we have rejected Jesus.  Too easily we forget that we, too, need God’s unconditional love.  And we begrudge others what God has freely given us.  Thank God that God’s mercy is greater than ours, that God’s love is wider and deeper than we imagine.  May God help us to show that love and generosity to others.


God’s Abundant Blessings

Eighth Sunday After Epiphany (Year A)

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Psalm 131

1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA


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


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


If there is a blessing in our nation’s current economic woes, it is this: right now, it’s easy to see where we put our trust, whether in God or in material prosperity.  Or if we put our trust in God through material prosperity—after all, we print the words “in God we trust” on all our money.  Jesus’ words seem tailor-made to address our situation.  Raise your hand if you’ve spent significant energy in the last few years worrying about your finances—savings, job, mortgage, retirement fund, health insurance, car payments, all that stuff.  I’m not talking basic common-sense contingency planning and goal setting.  I’m talking the kind of worry that keeps you up at night.  The kind of worry when you are afraid that you can’t control what’s going to happen, when the things you relied on can’t be counted on anymore.  The kind of worry that infects everything you do and think, even when you try to ignore it.

I know how you feel.  I’ve done it myself.  I worry about two things, mainly.  Will I be able to get a call when I’m done here?  The recession affects pastors, too, you know—when I started Seminary, they predicted there would be a shortage of pastors by now.  You see, the Baby Boomer generation of pastors is supposed to be retiring.  But with the economy and the state of the pension fund, many of them are choosing to work a few years longer than they otherwise would have.  Then there are churches that can’t afford to pay a pastor anymore.  So instead of a shortage of pastors, there’s a surplus.  Some of my classmates who graduated last May didn’t get a call until a year after they were assigned to a region—and because of the way the schedule works and the fact that I’m doing things out of order, I can’t get assigned until a few months after I’ve graduated and am done here.  And I’m going to have to start paying back my student loans six months after I my internship ends—what if I don’t have a call by then?  The other thing I worry about is my parents.  My parents are portrait photographers who own their own small business.  Portrait art is a luxury; not many people are spending money on luxuries now.  What will happen to their business?

There’s nothing I can do to make more calls for pastors available or help my parents business.  And so I worry.  It’s useless—it does nothing but make me upset.  It can’t make things turn out the way I want them to.  As Jesus says, my worrying can’t add a single hour to my span of life.  It won’t make me any likelier to get a call quickly, and it won’t miraculously send customers to my parents’ studio.  All it can do is make me unhappy, blind me to the many gifts and blessings my family and I already have, and distract me from serving God.  And yet even when I tell myself that, it’s hard to stop.  Wealth—mammon, material prosperity, whatever you want to call it—has a lot more of my allegiance than I’d prefer to admit.

At heart, this kind of anxiety is a fear that God won’t be there to provide for our daily bread—or a belief that we know better than God how much and what kind of daily bread we need.  This anxiety is based on the belief that we live in a world of scarcity, with not quite enough to go around, where we must hoard and take care of ourselves rather than trust in God and take care of the world around us.  After all, regardless of Jesus’ poetic words about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, we know that there are animals out there that eat birds and bad weather can wreak havoc with the crops of the field—we’ve certainly had enough bad weather lately to see that.  And I don’t know about you, but when it comes to my finances I prefer a much more solid and dependable answer than poetic metaphors!

This worry about our finances is also tied in to a kind of arrogance—the belief that we know better than God what we need.  Then if things don’t go the way we planned, we think it’s because God didn’t answer our prayers, or isn’t with us in our time of need.  In the words of Isaiah, we say “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  But God is always with us, in good times and bad.  Like a mother watches over her baby, God watches over us and will never abandon us.  In good times and bad, in prosperity and adversity, God is with us—even when we’re too blinded by our own worries to see.  Even when the crops wither or are frozen out or torn up by a storm, God is there.  Even when the birds of the air lose their nests to a storm, God is there taking care of them.  And you know what?  No matter how much bad stuff happens, there’s a lot more good in the world and in our lives.

God created this world to be fruitful, and our God is a God of abundant life.  No matter how broken, sinful, unjust, and unpredictable our world is, it was created to be good.  And our world and everything on it—including ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasures—ultimately belong to God.  All the things that we cling to so deeply are gifts from God, gifts meant not just for us but for us to share with the world.  When we serve our wealth instead of serving God, when we allow our worries about our material possessions to consume our attention and our energy, we tend to pull back in on ourselves.  We want to serve ourselves instead of our God and our neighbors.  We begin to resent God’s call that draws us from our self-centered ways and out to work for the kingdom of God.

Our God is a generous and abundant giver.  We have been given so many blessings, both physical and spiritual.  But these gifts are not for ourselves alone.  We have been given them to equip us to work for God’s kingdom and righteousness, for the spreading of the Gospel in word and deed in our community and throughout the world.  As Saint Paul said in today’s second lesson, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.  Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”  Now, a steward in Paul’s day was an important person: a manager.  The one who made sure the whole household functioned well, that everything was done properly, that all members of the household were cared for and equipped to do their part in maintaining the household.  The steward was the one who made sure resources were used efficiently and responsibly.  Stewards had a lot of responsibility, and a lot of trust was placed in their hands, that they would serve faithfully and well.  But a steward also had to trust his master.  You see, if a steward didn’t trust his master, the steward would start trying to run things his own way, instead of his master’s way.  And that would break up the relationship—it’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you.

We are God’s stewards.  We have been given abundant gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and to work for God’s kingdom.  As a congregation, St. Luke’s has a lot of people from all age groups and walks of life, with a wide variety of skills and talents.  We have financial resources.  We have a good building.  As individuals, and as families, we also have many gifts.  When we focus on our fears and anxieties, we blind ourselves to God’s gifts and allow ourselves to be drawn away from God’s will.  Instead of looking for God’s grace and ways we can live out the Gospel, we pull back in on ourselves to try and conserve our resources.  We don’t trust that God will be there for us, to support us in the things he has called us to be and do.  We believe, but sometimes we fail at putting that belief into action.

Over the last month, Saint Luke has been doing a survey of members—remember those yellow sheets you all got handed out, and asked to pray about?  This congregation has some thinking and praying to do, in the next few months and years, about where God is calling you to go from here, how God is calling you to get there, and how you’re going to answer that calling.  I don’t know where this process will take you, and I won’t be here long enough to see it through myself, but I am sure that God will be with you along the way, and that God will give you the blessings you need to be able to do what God calls you to do.  But you still have to put your trust in God, and choose to be faithful stewards of those blessings.

It’s not always easy to be a faithful steward, because there are a lot of temptations out there in our society.  Jesus spent a lot of time talking about money and wealth.  And a lot of the things he said make us uneasy, because he was fairly critical of it, and we are a nation that worships prosperity and profit.  Jesus criticized those who were blinded by their possessions, whose attention was focused on their bottom line, who forgot that everything they had was a gift from God.  The problem was not the money itself, it was the way they centered their lives around it.  It’s easy to see that flaw in others, but a lot harder to see and change in ourselves.  We have been given many gifts from God—we are rich in blessing, even in this recession.  We are the stewards of all God has given us, and God calls us to use his gifts for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.  May we always be faithful and trustworthy in our management of God’s gifts.


God is not a vending machine: the problem with the prosperity gospel

Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?

–Janis Joplin

This song was written to be a satire on the materialistic culture of America.  Like all satires, it’s funny because it’s true: we do pray to God for that ‘Mercedes-Benz,’ whatever that may be for us.  There is a widespread belief that in the “prosperity Gospel”: if God loves you, you will be healthy and wealthy.  If you are spiritual enough, if you pray the right prayers, if you go to the right churches, if you have the right positive attitude, God will give you what material gifts you ask for.  And it makes sense–we all know people who self-sabotage, who assume the worst or prepare for the worst and through that very belief cause, in some sense, the worst to happen to them.  So if the opposite is true, that you can influence what happens to you by having a positive attitude, well, that seems fair.  And after all, didn’t Christ say “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  It seems clear enough.  Decide what you want, trust in God, ask, and it’s yours.

A best-selling book was written about the Prayer of Jabez from 1 Chronicles 4:10, explaining how this one verse can lead you to a deeper spirituality that will result in material prosperity, as if God were a vending machine.  Put in the correct change (the right belief and the right attitude), make the correct selection (the right prayer) and the treat drops down into your hand.  Joel Osteen and other televangelists make similar claims, as do a wide variety of other spiritual figures from Conservative Christians to New Age gurus to business consultants and life coaches.  (And what does it say about our society that business consultants give spiritual advice?)  We all want a good, long, prosperous life.  God loves us and wants us to be happy, and has said he’ll take care of us.  Surely, putting the two together can’t be a bad thing?

But what happens when things go wrong?  What happens when we don’t get that Mercedes-Benz?  What happens when bad things happen–abuse, illness, injury, the death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of a job?  If God rewards the right attitude, the right faith, and the right prayers with material prosperity, then the only explanation is a failure of the person in trouble.  Maybe they didn’t have a positive enough attitude.  Maybe they didn’t pray for the right things.  Maybe their faith wasn’t strong enough.  This is the fundamental problem with the prosperity gospel: during the darkest times of our lives, when we need the love and presence of our God the most, we are abandoned.

Now, I don’t mean to say that God actually leaves us, because he doesn’t.  But if we assume God only works through material prosperity and good fortune, if we assume that bad things are a sign that he is not with us, we will almost certainly blind ourselves to the ways that he is with us during times of trouble.  And then we have nothing to fall back on.  God is always with us, even if we can’t see him.  But if we can’t see or feel him, we feel as bereft as if he was truly absent.  I worked for a summer as chaplain in a mental facility, and one of the people living there was a woman with severe depression who had suffered many things in her life and so believed God was not with her.  However untrue that belief was, her anguish over the perceived abandonment was real.

But God does tell us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8).  How do we interpret this if not through the lens of the prosperity gospel?  How do we pray to God and share with him our needs and concerns without assuming that if those needs and desires aren’t met, God has ignored us?  Let’s compare Jesus’ words in Matthew with those of James in his letter to the church:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

-James 4:2-3

Why do we ask for things?  How do we decide what we need, and how does that relate to God?  James points out that our attitude and our greed matter.  If we try to treat God like a cosmic vending machine, handing out treats on demand, we’re asking wrongly.  It’s not that pleasure is by itself bad, and it’s not that wealth itself is bad.  The problem comes when we allow our wants and desires and appetites to direct our thinking instead of our relationship with God.  If we’re focused on our own wealth and well-being, we’re probably ignoring both God and our neighbor.  James points out that selfish thinking separates us from the community as we try and get what we want through whatever means we can; we shouldn’t be surprised if it has the same effect of separating us from God, so that we cannot see the ways in which God is calling us and supporting us.

God is always with us, even when we can’t see or feel him.  God is with us even when we focus on our own selfish desires.  God is with us in good times and bad, and God knows our true needs better than we do ourselves.  God will never forsake us, in good times or in bad.  God’s love cannot be measured by health or wealth, but only in the fullness of his grace and mercy.