Growing in the Word

Augustana’s 100th Anniversary, June 29, 2013

 Isaiah 40:6-11, Psalm 100, 1 Corinthians 3:5-11, Matthew 28:16-20,

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

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

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

It is a privilege and an honor to preach today, at Augustana’s 100th Anniversary worship service.  Welcome, again, to all of you who have come from out of town to join us this morning.  I hope you all had a good time last night at the dinner, and will be joining us for lunch after worship.  For those of you who haven’t been here in a while, things look a little different, don’t they?  In the hundred years since the first church was built, there have been a lot of changes.  The addition of Sunday School classrooms; the building of this new sanctuary and the fellowship hall beneath.  Most recently, the new kitchenette upstairs.  And those are just the big changes—the little ones like new paint, more electrical outlets, new furniture, and new art have made this place look different.

But the differences in the building just scratch the surface of the changes.  Some of the same families are here now that were there at the very beginning, but some have left and new ones have come in.  And many of those first families probably spoke Swedish at home, and remembered the Old Country well, but we here today are all English speakers whose roots have gone deep in the soil of this country. We even look different—we dress more casually, and women’s style of dress has changed dramatically.  You certainly wouldn’t have seen pink and purple streaks in the hair of today’s youth a hundred years ago!  Nor would you have had a woman up here in the pulpit.  Even the Bible we read has changed a little—we use a more modern translation that is generally more faithful to the original languages.  All of these things have changed.  And yet, God is still here, and we are still here together.  The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever.

The word of God—what a rich phrase, with so many meanings!  The simplest meaning is, of course, Scripture.  The Scriptures tell the stories of God’s work in the world, from the creation through to the New Jerusalem.  There is such a richness in the scriptures—God’s words to us; our words of praise for God; the rules that people of different times followed to help them live as God’s people; the stories of people of faith who can inspire and teach us.  Together, all these many strands form God’s word.

But in a time where so many things are changing, including how we read and interpret the Bible, it sometimes doesn’t feel like the Scriptures are enduring.  How we interpret the Bible’s teachings on so many issues have changed in the last few decades—gender, race, sexuality, in so many ways we are rethinking how we are interpreting such things.  The words themselves may not have changed, but our understanding of them has changed.  In many cases, this is because the questions we ask God have changed.  It can be confusing and sometimes even a little frightening to hear all the many different ways of hearing and understanding God’s word.  Yet there have been many periods of change in the history of the Christian faith; many times when new eyes and new insights have affected our understanding of what it means to be God’s people.  Our understanding of God’s plans may change, but God does not, and neither does God’s love; through everything, God remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible so frequently reminds us.

That love is manifest most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ the living Word of God.  While the Bible contains many of God’s words, Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ came to us and shared our life on this planet.  He lived, cried, loved, and laughed, sharing everything that it means to be human, and he was baptized in the Jordan River.  He taught people about God, about what God’s love means for each and every one of us.  He taught people about what grace and mercy and forgiveness mean, he healed people and brought wholeness to everyone he met.  And then he died on the cross to save us from our sins.  In our baptisms we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrected.  Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, the center of our faith, now and always.  Although we change, Christ does not.  And through all the changes in our lives, Christ is with us, helping us to grow in faith and love.

I know the farmers and the gardeners in the congregation know about tending growing things.  To help something grow, there are a lot of things that need to be done.  Tilling, planting, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, keeping the equipment maintained and in good condition—all of these things need to be done to ensure a good crop.  They take time, and effort, and attention.  You can’t just do everything all at once and be done with it.  You can’t just do the same thing every time by rote.  You have to think, and pay attention, and adjust your plans as you go to respond to changing conditions like how much rain there’s been, and you have to be willing to work hard.  Yet, for all that time and effort and expertise, the farmer or gardener isn’t the one who created the plants, or made them grow.  God created the plants, God gave them life.  We may plant them in the ground, and work to give them the best conditions possible, but it is God who causes them to grow.

So it is with faith in God.  We didn’t create it; God reaches out to us, claims us even when we are dead in sin.  We can do things to help prepare the soil in which our faith grows, fertilize and water it: we can worship together, pray, study the Bible, talk about our faith with one another, give generously, feed the hungry and heal the sick.  We can baptize people, and teach them the stories of our faith.  All of these will help God’s saving work in us and in the world around us, and all of these are things God calls us to do.  Yet it is still God who comes to us, who gives us the gift of faith, who leads us to his Word and brings us together as God’s people.

A hundred years ago, God called a group of people together here on the prairie to worship God together, and to support one another in their life as followers of Christ.  Creating a new congregation is an act of faith.  So is participating in a congregation’s continuing ministry.  God calls us together, to study God’s Word, and sends us out into the world to live as God’s people and spread the Gospel in word and deed.  We come together because we have faith that God will be with us as we worship, as we study, and as we work.  We come together because we have faith that God will be present in us and around us, and because we have faith that God will gather us together and make us the body of Christ.  Being a congregation together requires faith not just in ourselves, but in God and in all who gather for worship now and in all times past and future.

No congregation depends on the work of one person, or on the work of one family, or even on one generation.  When we begin things—be it a new service, a new class, a new ministry to the community, a new anything—we can’t see where it will lead.  A farmer can, with modern technology, do everything on his farm that needs to be done.  A gardener can take care of a garden by themselves, without help.  But that’s not the way God’s Word works: God’s Word works in and through many people.  One person plants a seed—a kind word at the right time; a prayer; a visit to someone who is sick; help to someone who needs it; a question that leads to a new idea; a Bible study.  It could be a small thing or a large thing.  Someone else waters it, giving that seed what it needs to grow.  Another person takes out some of the weeds surrounding it, giving it space and freedom.  Another person prunes out some of the parts that aren’t so healthy anymore, so that new growth can take place.  All work together, following God’s call and acting as God’s hands and feet in the world.  It takes faith and trust that God will give the growth, and will guide us together to share the Gospel and support God’s work in the world and in ourselves.  It takes faith that other people will participate, will join in the work.  It takes faith that even people who don’t always agree with you will be able to join together in common cause.

We are the farmers and gardeners, who help God’s people to grow.  And yet, we are also the grass and flowers that are grown.  Each individual blade of grass will turn brown and die.  Each flower will fade and fall.  And yet, the field of grass remains and comes back; new flowers rise to take the place of old ones.  In the same way, individual humans die, yet the community remains.  We change; generations come and go.  The questions we ask of God’s word change, as do the assumptions we bring to it.  Yet the Word of God endures forever, and the Word of God keeps drawing us to God, and sending us out into the world to be God’s hands.

God has been gracious and merciful to us, abounding in steadfast love.  God has brought us together and given us the gift of God’s own Word, which is our rock and cornerstone in a changing world.  God has been with Augustana for the last hundred years, and God will still be with us in the future.  God gives us the faith to help us grow, and leads us to work together as God’s people.  May we follow God’s Word even in the midst of all the changes in ourselves and in our world.