Sin, Forgiveness, and Naboth’s Vineyard

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 11C, June 12th, 2016

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3

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.

Let’s talk about sin, and forgiveness.  Our Old Testament reading for today is certainly an example of sin.  It starts out with coveting.  King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard.  Now, coveting isn’t just wanting something.  Coveting is jealousy.  Coveting is a belief that you have a right to possess something that belongs to someone else.  Coveting is a resentment that anyone else has something that you don’t.  Coveting is the toddler on the playground grabbing another child’s toy.  It’s the girl who spreads rumors about another girl dating the guy she wants.  It’s the man who gets mad when a woman doesn’t pay as much attention to him as he wants.  It’s the supervisor who belittles an employee who’s better than they are.  It’s the ugliness that happens when we believe we’re entitled to other peoples’ things, time, attention, or bodies.  And all the evil that we do because of that belief.

That’s the thing about coveting.  It’s bad in and of itself, but it leads us to do other sins.  Theft, violence, bearing false witness, rape, murder, abuse of every kind.  Coveting is the root cause of much of the evil in our world today.  It’s the cause of big sins, but also of a lot of the little miseries.  And usually, we come up with all kinds of reasons why we deserve what we want, why it’s good that we should take it, or attack the one who has it.  Reasons to justify anything that gets us what we want, regardless of the harm it does.  And, like most sins, it knots us up inside, turning us around in circles of justification and resentment and self-centeredness.

For Jezebel, it was simple.  Her husband was the king, so he deserved whatever he wanted.  That was what being king meant, for her.  And if Naboth didn’t want to give it to him, well, then Naboth deserved whatever he got.  And so she had Naboth falsely accused, and then killed.  Coveting lead to false witness and murder; one sin led to another.  Ahab wasn’t quite willing to order Naboth killed himself, to get the vineyard he coveted, but he was certainly willing to take advantage of Jezebel’s actions.  He didn’t want to get his own hands dirty … but he’d take advantage of his wife’s dirty hands in a hot second.  But to God there was no difference which one of them killed: Naboth died because Ahab coveted his vineyard, and so both Jezebel and Ahab were equally guilty of it.  Jezebel did the deed, but Ahab took advantage of it and profited from it.  Jezebel did it, but Ahab stood back and let her, and used her to get what he wanted.  This was not a subtle plan.  Everyone must have known what was happening, and no one did anything to prevent it or speak out against it.  And so God proclaimed judgment on Ahab and his household, because the whole household was complicit in the sin.  The sinners had been judged and found guilty … and the payment for their sin was death and destruction.

Then in the Gospel reading, we see Jesus forgiving a sinner.  We don’t know what her sin was.  Maybe she cheated on her taxes.  Maybe she was a thief.  Maybe she slept around.  Maybe she was a habitual liar.  Maybe her sins were big, maybe they were small.  We don’t know.  All we know is that everyone in town knew about it, and judged her harshly.  But Jesus forgave her, and she loved him greatly because of it.

We believe in a God who judges sin, but we also believe in a God who forgives sin.  It’s a contradiction, and different people reconcile it different ways.  But what a lot of us do, is we separate out big sins and little ones, sins we really hate and sins we think aren’t really that bad, when you get down to it.  And we separate out the kinds of sins we ourselves commit, or those we love, from the kinds of sin other people commit.  Our own sins, and the sins of our families, well, we can find a hundred reasons why they’re not really problems at all, or only little ones.  But when it’s people we don’t like, as the Pharisee didn’t like the woman in the Gospel reading, well, then it’s a horrible crime that God should cut them down for.

But that’s not the way God sees things.  Our sins, big or small, matter.  Each and every one of our sins affects us and the world around us.  Every sin makes the world just that much worse off—whether it’s a huge and visible sin, like Ahab and Jezebel, or the small sins we ourselves are so ready to shrug off.  We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.  We reduce the love in the world and fill it up with envy, fear, hate, greed, malice, and selfishness instead, and we purposefully blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions, to the way even little sins add up and lead to greater ones down the road.  They’re not so bad, we tell ourselves.  After all, everyone does stuff just like it—and a lot of people are worse!  It’s not just other people who deserve judgment, though; we, ourselves, do, as well.

So if God doesn’t forgive based on whether our sins are really big or small, why does God forgive?  Another Old Testament story tells us.  Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  David saw Bathsheba, a married woman, when she was bathing, and decided he wanted her.  Like Ahab, David’s first sin was coveting, although instead of coveting a piece of property he coveted a person.  And, like Ahab, David believed that he deserved whatever he wanted.  So he ordered her brought to him, and gave her no choice to say no.  And when she was pregnant, he had her husband killed.  Coveting lead to rape, lead to murder.  One sin led to another, spiraling outward with consequences for many others besides David himself.  Just like with Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard.  And, just like with Ahab and Jezebel, God sent a prophet to tell David what he had done and what the judgment for his crime was.

That’s where the similarities stop, though.  When Elijah came to Ahab to tell him about God’s judgment on him, Ahab called Elijah an enemy.  Ahab didn’t listen.  Ahab didn’t repent.  Ahab went on doing what he had been doing.  David, on the other hand, listened to God’s prophet.  David acknowledged his sin.  David didn’t make excuses, or get mad, when his own bad behavior was pointed out.  David took responsibility for it, and asked for forgiveness.  And so, although he still had to deal with the earthly consequences of his behavior, God forgave him.  David’s sin was wiped away, because he recognized and acknowledged what he had done.

God doesn’t forgive us because we deserve it, or because our sins weren’t really that bad, or because we can come up with a good enough excuse.  God doesn’t forgive us because we’re nice people.  God forgives us because he loves us, because he would rather forgive us than condemn us.  But before that can happen, we need to be willing to admit that we need forgiveness.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy justifying ourselves to listen.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy getting angry at anyone who dares to point out the bad things we have done.

It’s easy to sit here and listen to stories like the story of Naboth’s vineyard, and pat ourselves on the back for being decent people.  I’d be pretty willing to bet none of us here have arranged to have someone murdered.  Compared to Ahab and Jezebel, we look pretty good, so we can sit here and shake our heads and agree how bad and shocking they were while still feeling fairly comfortable about our own lives.  But God doesn’t compare our thoughts and actions to the worst humans can do; God compares our thoughts and actions to the best, pure, good people God created us to be.  And by that standard, we, too, have fallen very fall short of where we should be.  We covet things and people, and we do nasty things because of it.  We ignore God, and lead ourselves down bad paths.  We disrespect those we should honor.  We steal, and tell ourselves it’s no big deal.  We cheat on one another, and think it’s okay because everyone does it.  We add our voices to those calling for hate because we’re scared of the future.  We lie even to ourselves, about all the ways we add to the misery in the world around us.

God doesn’t want to condemn us.  God loves us.  God wants to shower us and our whole world with abundant gifts.  God wants us to do the right thing, not out of fear of retribution, but out of joy and love for God and one another.  God can and will forgive anything, any crime, no matter how vile … but first we have to confess and repent.  We have to admit what we have done, and let go of the hostility and bitterness and jealousy and fear in our souls.  We have to let God love us.  Thanks be to God for the love and forgiveness he gives to all who call upon him.

Amen.

An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

Amen.

Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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.

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Saint and Sinner

Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.

It has been my experience that most people generally fall into two categories: those who spend too much time dwelling on their own flaws and faults, and so think they’re worthless and horrible and not-good-enough, and those who mostly ignore the fact that they’re not perfect. This presents a problem for a preacher, because people generally only really hear the things that agree with what they already believe. So when you talk about sinfulness, the ones who dwell on their own sin and can’t believe God would love them tend to hear a confirmation of how bad they are, while the people who think they’re practically perfect think you’re not talking about them. And when you talk about God’s love and forgiveness for all people, the ones who think sin has nothing to do with them, personally, take it as confirmation that they don’t have to look at their own behavior and thoughts, while the ones who believe God can’t love them think you’re talking about other people.

The message of Lent—the message of Ash Wednesday in particular—has two parts. First, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners as individuals, as community members, in every way possible. We fall short of the glory of God. We do selfish things that hurt ourselves and others. We ignore God’s call. We break relationships, people, creation. We soak up the worst of society’s mores and habits and find a way to justify it. We spread poison with a smile, and when our choices hurt people we shrug and shift the blame. If salvation depended on our own righteousness, our own goodness, our own holiness, every single one of us would be destined for hell. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even those of you sitting there thinking “I’ve never done anything really bad! I’m a good person!” Would your spouse agree? Your kids? Your parents? Your boss? Other people in town? Or would they have a list of things you’ve done that you’ve forgotten about—things you justified to yourself or minimized—that did a lot more damage than you realized?

God made us out of dirt, and truth be told, we’re still a lot dirtier than we want to admit. We will all die. And if it was up to us, to our efforts, all that would happen is that we’d turn back into the dirt God made us out of. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The other message of Lent is that God loves you anyway. That’s what the cross is—a giant glowing sign from God saying how much he loves you, that he was willing to die to save you from the consequences of your own actions. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even when you genuinely did something horrible. Yes, even when you think you are too bad, too horrible, for God to love you. There is nothing you or anyone else can do that will make God stop loving you. He may not like what you’re doing—if you are hurting yourself or others, I guarantee that he doesn’t—but he will always love you no matter what.  And all that dirt?  God wants nothing more than to wash us clean.

This is the reality of the cross. We are sinful creatures of the dust, and we are the beloved children of God, washed clean in the waters of baptism. And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. We are transformed by God. We are reborn and made the righteousness of God. We become the hands and feet which God uses in the world to share that love with all people. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and become the body of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we may one day be resurrected as he is. And none of this happens because we deserve it! None of this happens because we’re good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough, because we are not. We are dirt. It happens because God loves us that much.

Lent is a time to dwell in those two realities—our sinfulness, and God’s love. It’s a time to shape our hearts and minds, our actions and our words, to reflect those two realities. That’s what all those things people do for Lent are supposed to do. They’re supposed to help us live out our faith, live out the promises that God has made us, live out our baptismal promise. They’re designed to help us acknowledge both our sinfulness and God’s love, and return to the Lord our God.

If you have a Lenten discipline or observation that you already do that is meaningful to you, great. If not, I have a suggestion. Pick a Bible verse about one of those two realities, and recite it to yourself at least twice a day. Put it on a sticky note in the bathroom so you’ll see it when you brush your teeth, and take the time to really think about what you’re saying. Keep that verse in your heart and mind all through Lent, and see what it does for you. If you’re one of those who has trouble remembering that you are a sinner, I suggest Psalm 51:3-4. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” If you’re one of those who knows their sinfulness on a bone-deep level but has trouble remembering God’s love, I suggest Psalm 103:8, a saying that appears many times in the Bible, including our reading from Joel earlier this evening. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You might even follow that up by singing Jesus Loves Me.  I know, it’s a kid’s song, but it’s got a really important message. And as you go through Lent, living with your verse, you may be surprised at how your experience of Lent deepens and grows.

Amen.

The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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.

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A little like this, a little like that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Easy Yoke

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14), Year A, July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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

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

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

Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Isn’t it lovely? We take our burdens to Jesus, and he will give us rest. Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem comes when you examine it a little more closely. We lay down our own burdens at Jesus’ feet, and he gives us rest from them: but he also gives us his burden, his yoke. Yes, it’s easy and light, but still. We don’t see yokes often in our daily lives, so it’s easy to romanticize this saying, a lot easier for us than for people who used them in daily lives. Consider this woman. She needs water for her household: for cooking and cleaning. But without indoor plumbing, she has to go and get it and carry it back. So she has two buckets, hung from a yoke. This is so she can carry more weight than if she were just carrying two buckets in her hands. It’s easier to walk with the weight, too, without the buckets banging in to your shins the whole way. But still, water is heavy. And two bucketfuls of water isn’t that much. She’ll probably have to go back and get more. Sure, a yoke makes her task easier, but it’s still a heavy, hard thing. Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus had just left out that part?

A historical re-enactor carrying two buckets on a yoke over her shoulders.

When I was a child, I worked for my parents at their photography studio. I started out doing basic janitor chores for $1 an hour—vacuuming, taking out the trash, that sort of thing. It was work that needed to be done, and I was part of the family so I needed to help out with the family business just like farm kids help out with chores around the farm. It teaches responsibility, it helps out the family, it’s good experience later in life. But here’s the thing. I didn’t like doing those chores—in fact, I hated them. I would much rather have been reading or playing with my best friend Chrissy who lived only a block away from the Studio. But those chores needed to get done and I was the one who had to do them. So I’d get to the studio after school each day and hide with my books, trying to get out of doing my chores. Or I’d try and figure out some way so that it would look like I had done my chores without having to actually do them.

There really isn’t a way to do that with the trash; either it’s been taken out or it hasn’t. Vacuuming, however. Vacuuming is harder to tell. I mean, if there’s big dirt or stuff on the carpet, then you can tell, but otherwise, you may not be able to tell until it gets really bad. Particularly on the kinds of carpets that are designed not to show stains and stuff, which the studio had. So I had a bright idea! I’d just pick up the little debris that was visible to the eye, and call it good. I wouldn’t have to vacuum. I could get out of doing my chores. I could fool my parents into thinking I’d done what I was supposed to do. Awesome! Except for the fact that I had to keep looking over my shoulder to keep my parents from seeing what I was doing, and I had this fear of getting caught hanging over my head. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. And also, crawling on the floor to pick up the dirt wasn’t fun, either. But I told myself that, hey, it was better than doing the vacuuming!

Of course, it didn’t take my parents long to figure it out. My dad saw me crawling along the floor, picking up dirt and little bits of garbage. “You know,” he said, “It takes a lot more time and effort to do that than it does to actually vacuum. If you’d just done what you were supposed to do, you would be done by now.” And I was all, but I hate vacuuming, and this way I don’t have to! “Do you like crawling along the floor picking up dirt better?” Dad asked. “Vacuuming is easier, does a better job, and gets done quicker.” And you know what? He was right! When you stop and think about all the stuff I was having to do to get out of doing what needed to be done, I was doing more work, a worse job, and having to spend more time and energy dealing with it than I would be if I just did what I was supposed to do. But I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to do the right thing. I just wanted to get out of a chore I hated, and I didn’t pay any attention to the costs of my actions. I focused on the wrong thing, and it led me to make some stupid choices.

Humans do this all the time, and often on a much bigger scale. We often know what we should be doing, but we don’t want to do it. We find all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t have to. Even when, in our heads, we know what to do and what not to do, all too often we find ways to let our heart overrule us. Or when our hearts burn within us to act, we step back and let our minds come up with all the reasons why we shouldn’t. And when we don’t do the right thing, we hurt ourselves and others, so we feel guilty, so we find reasons why it’s not our fault, reasons why we did the right thing, reasons why it wasn’t really hurting anyone, reasons why other people are so unreasonable for expecting anything different. And it builds and builds and goes round and round chasing its tail, and each sin leads us deeper into the next, and on, and on.

That’s what our second reading is about. Paul is talking about sin, and how it dominates our lives. For Paul, sin is not just an action, something we do or don’t do. Sin is a state of being: it’s how we are. It’s the whole big muddle of how we keep screwing up, even when we know better. We do something wrong, so we feel bad, so we try to justify ourselves, so we dig the hole deeper and do more bad things trying to get out of doing what we know we should, and on, and on. It’s an endless cycle, like a rat in a cage, running in a wheel and getting nowhere. If you listen to the way Paul uses language in this passage, he really evokes that feeling of spinning your wheels. Listen: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Three sentences later: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Two sentences later: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Do you feel how repetitive this is, how he keeps circling around? It’s that feeling of dread and futility you get when you know you’re screwing up and you know you’re not going to change. That’s the burden of sin. That part of ourselves that keeps us running on a hamster wheel to nowhere, hurting ourselves and others in the process, focused on the wrong things and blinding ourselves to the true cost of our actions and inactions.

Woman on a hamster wheel

Finally, Paul stops dead in his tracks. He can’t do this on his own. He can’t break the chains of sin. He can’t pull himself up by his bootstraps. He can’t stop the cycle, and he can no longer pretend that things are okay. The burden is too much. “Wretched man that I am!” he says. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Paul can’t do it. But he knows, if he gives his burden to Jesus, if he trusts Jesus Christ to help him, he’ll be saved. Jesus can break the pattern. Jesus can stop the cycle that goes nowhere. Jesus can give him rest from the pointless and heartbreaking hamster wheel. Jesus can take his burden, the burden of sin that does nothing but pull Paul down and chain him to futility, and replace it with something lighter. Something that matters. Something good.

Consider the woman with the yoke. She’s a re-enactor, showing what life was like in Colonial Williamsburg. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, and they didn’t have pumps. But people still needed water, so it had to be carried from the well to the house. This is a true and deep need. Water is a source of life. By carrying the water, she is helping herself and others in her household. If you have a hard job to do—a job that needs to be done—you want to do it well and as quickly as possible instead of wasting your time trying to get out of it. The yoke helps. The strain of the water’s weight is transferred to her shoulders, instead of her hands. She won’t bruise her shins with the buckets bouncing off them. She can carry more, and carry it faster, meaning the chore of getting water takes less time, and her body will hurt less than if she’d carried the buckets by hand. She’s doing the right thing and it’s easier because of the yoke.

That’s the kind of yoke Jesus is talking about. The kind of yoke that makes a job go better. As followers of Jesus, there are a lot of things we are called to do that we wouldn’t necessarily want to do. They’re the right thing, but they seem harder. Like forgiving someone we don’t like, or welcoming someone who’s not like us, or helping someone when we’d much rather do nothing. All the things that we know are right, that need to be done, but don’t want to do. Jesus’ yoke helps us to do them. Jesus’ yoke makes them easier. Jesus’ yoke makes the burden lighter. Jesus breaks the burdens and chains that keep us doing pointless stuff that hurts ourselves and others, and Jesus replaces it with a yoke that will help us do the right thing, and do it better than we could without Jesus. He brings rest that truly satisfies, and work that accomplishes good things.

Thanks be to God. Amen.