Posts From June, 2020

Genesis 22, Binding Isaac ‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras      Genesis 22, Binding Isaac           June 28, 2020

In the second century BCE, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV outlaws the Jewish temple worship, observance of Sabbaths and holy days, circumcision, and the keeping of Torah, and rules that the Jews who will not adopt Greek customs are to die (2 Macc 6:9). The second Maccabees, a Jewish book, chapters 6:7–7:42, lists stories of those who choose death over apostasy. The last martyr is the anonymous mother who dies after witnessing each of her seven sons cruelly tortured. In other Jewish traditions, the name of the mother is Hannah. The martyr family story opens with the arrest of the seven brothers and their mother, who are beaten to force them to eat pork (prohibited by Lev 11:7–8). Hannah encourages her seven sons to die rather than have them compromise their faith. King Antiochus dismembered the seven brothers' body and fried them. In another Jewish tradition, we learned that Hannah as her last son is about to die she tells him: ‘Go now, to Abraham your father, and tell him that I have bettered his instruction. He offered one child to God; I have offered seven.’[1]


God asks Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. In Scripture, God claims to abhor child sacrifice and considers it an abomination. God was testing Abraham, but Abraham was not aware of the test. The account of binding Isaac is a chilling story. We may think that God is cruel, and Abraham is an uncompassionate father. We may assume that Isaac is a stupid lad to accept to become a sacrifice for God. God spare Isaac by providing a ram to Abraham to use it instead of Isaac. After 4000 years, God did not spare God’s only son, Jesus Christ, from offering him as a sacrifice on the cross to save humanity (Rom 8:32).   Christ became a sin offering. The narrative of binding Isaac foreshadows the binding of Jesus Christ on the cross. Is God cruel to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? Is God not cruel to offer God’s only son as a sacrifice on the cross?


The account of binding Isaac is different than the narrative of the crucifixion. The story of binding Isaac is not meant to be read like a modern novel that concerns with individual characters.[2] Instead, it is a morality tale written to instruct future generations to give up the dearest to them in obedience to God.[3] This is what Hannah did.


Modern readers may see Abraham as an uncompassionate father, but many Jewish and Christian commentators praise him for his loyalty to his faith values and God. God rewards him for his dedication. Commentators over centuries have admired Abraham for “‘putting aside of fatherly love’ that proved Abraham's greatness in this, his most difficult of tests.”[4]


The central theme of this story is that our faith worth dying for and sacrificing our children. Someone may say that the story of binding Isaac and the martyrdom of Hannah and her seven children happen only in Scripture. My answer is no.



On December 16, 1803, sixty Greek women decided to commit suicide with their children during the Souliote War with the Ottoman empire. To avoid capture, enslavement, humiliation, and forced conversion to Islam, the women threw their children off a steep cliff, and then they held hands and started singing and dancing, with the steps leading to the cliff where they jumped to their death one by one.[5] These 60 Greek martyrs believed that their faith in Jesus Christ worth sacrificing their children and themselves.


Our Lord Jesus advises us to be ready to offer the ultimate sacrifice for his namesake. We may lose our job, money, friendship, and beloved one for the sake of the Lord. Martyrdom is not the only sacrifice we offer to our Savior, but in all the little things, Jesus urges us to forgo for his namesake. Iraqi and Syrian Christians had to relinquish their homes and all their possessions and run away from ISIS to keep their faith. They see Jesus Christ as more valuable than all their possessions. I know some of you like golfing very much, but you forgo your favorite game to worship the Lord on Sunday. A person who gives money to help the poor is sacrificing having a comfortable life to follow the teaching of our Lord. Some of you have sacrificed in many ways because of your faith in Jesus Christ.


The account of binding Isaac is not about inspiring religious fanaticism, but about a story to teach a future generation how to be ready to sacrifice for their faith in God and the Torah. For Christians, this narrative teaches us to forgo the most important person or thing in our life for the sake of Christ Jesus.


Do you think our Lord Jesus worth sacrificing the dearest person you have for his namesake? I cannot answer this question for you. If your answer is no, I invite you to reflect on the reasons behind your answer.


[1] Sydney Nestel, “The Akeida: Questions of Sacrifice,” Reconstructing Judaism (blog), February 10, 2017,


[2] Ibid.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Dance of Zalongo,” Wikipedia, May 21, 2020,

Genesis 21

Traumatic biblical Stories

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras             Genesis 21                                        June 21, 2020

When you feel blue or face a challenge, you need support. What do you usually do to lift your spirits? What do you do when people lie about you, stab you in the back, or confuse your motives? What do you do when you see your loved one get sick or your children struggle in their lives? How can you thrive amid a global pandemic? You might read Scripture. What part of the Scripture will you read? We usually read Psalm 23, “the Lord is my shepherd.” Or Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.”

Maybe you would read Matthew 6:25-26 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

These verses and many more like them make us feel good. How many of you would read the story of Christ’s crucifixion or story about Israel and Judea exile, or genocide in the book of Joel to be comforted or have hope for tomorrow? Church-going believers usually ignore biblical stories that include traumatic events. We do not dwell on these stories to help us to grow in faith. I have learned that these kinds of narratives point me at the resilience of the people of God. They teach me to hold on to my faith for the sake of Christ and to withstand trials. One of the stories that has taught me resilience is the story of an Egyptian slave woman, Hagar. Hagar is my heroine, not Sarah.


Hagar means “resident alien.” She was an African slave woman held in slavery by Sarah (Genesis 16:1). What a name. It seems that Sarah and Abraham did not bother to give her a real name. They were satisfied to call her “a stranger.” Many of you are familiar with her story. Sarah fails to bear a child to Abraham. She gives him her slave, Hagar, to provide him with a child. Sarah decides to have a child through a surrogate Hagar so that the child will be hers. That was the custom in their times. So, Hagar conceives and looks down on Sarah, which leads to Hagar’s expulsion from Abraham's household. God orders Hagar to go back to Sarah, which she does. Later she gives birth to Ishmael. Finally, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Here, we reach today's reading from Genesis 21.



After Sarah has given birth to Isaac, she forced Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham leaves Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness with minimal provisions to face their fate alone. How cruel. Hagar sees her only son Ishmael dehydrated and close to death. She cries and weeps. God listens to her voice and saves her son.


Even though this story is painful and puzzling, we can empathize with Hagar’s anger, pain, and distress. Hagar takes everything she has to God. She brings her anger, emotions, and worries to God.


Hagar’s story and her relationship with Sarah and Abraham are as real as this world. Her story is the story of the relationship between free people and a slave woman. The racism that defines people based on their skin color is deeply rooted in our culture. We saw on the news the murder of George Floyd, a black man, at the hand of a white police officer. The result was demonstrations against police brutality and racism. Our city of Wausau participated in this demonstration. As God heard Hagar’s cry and saw her affliction, God is inviting us to listen to the voice of our disadvantaged sisters and brothers. God calls us to respect the minorities in our community. We are called to speak up for them and with them.


Hagar’s story is the story of a woman who is unable to protect her body from getting abused and used. Raped women, prostitutes, and battered women empathize with Hagar’s pain. Women and men who see their children go hungry or lying in hospital suffering can also empathize with Hagar. Hagar’s resilience and perseverance speaks to each one of us. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and the ability to keep going. “Real resilience is the process of coping with disruptive, stressful, or challenging life events in a way that provides the individual with additional protective and coping skills than prior to the disruption, that results from the event.”[1] (“Resiliency in Schools” 2003).



Hagar's resilience and perseverance to keep her faith sets an example for us how to live our faith. I am not talking about surviving tough trials. You build resilience when you learn and grow from trials. This is precisely what Hagar did.

It is good to seek comfort from comforting passages in Scripture. It is also essential to read the most challenging stories in the Bible because these stories teach us resilience.

Jesus says, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). He also says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Hagar’s cross was her slavery. She carried her cross despite her pain. She kept carrying her cross, and finally, God rewarded her.

The author of Genesis 21: 20-21 tells us that “God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.”

“Our faith can be a pillar we lean upon at moments when it can be hardest to find meaning and purpose from our lives.”[2] This faith helps you to be resilient in the face of challenges. Your faith assures you that our God is always on your side. As God was with Hagar, God, through the work of the Holy Spirit in you, will help you to be resilient and to grow in faith.

ELCA Church Council Appoints Rev. Sarras to Task Force

The ELCA Church Council has appointed Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras to the ELCA task force charged with the development of a social statement on government, church, and civic participation. Eighty clergy and lay leaders applied to serve on this task force, but the ELCA Church Council selected 15 persons. Pastor Sarras will be part of an outstanding task force of knowledgeable, diverse, and dedicated church people. Each member brings unique gifts to the challenging responsibility the task force faces. The responsibility is to prepare a social statement that addresses significant theological, ethical, public, and pastoral challenges surrounding the social institution of government. The task force will serve until February 2025, when it delivers a Proposed Social Statement to the ELCA Church Council.

9:35-10:8 [9-23]

Becoming like the Lord Jesus Christ

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23]

June 14, 2020


Who does not want to be like Jesus Christ? He is the role model for a kind and compassionate leader. Our Lord possesses healing power and performs many miracles. He confronts hypocrite, religious leaders, without fear. Our Lord Jesus was executed on the cross, but he rose from the dead; and now he is seated at the right hand of God, the Father. All power and dominions are under his feet. He also has many followers. So, who does not want to be like Jesus? Maybe you will change your mind when I remind you that Jesus was perfect and without sin. All of us are sinners. As long as we live, we will continue to be sinners no matter what. For this reason, God, the Father, sent God the Son to ransom us from the bondage of sin.


None of us is perfect as our Lord Jesus Christ. However, our Lord uses your imperfection and weaknesses to advance his kingdom on earth. Despite your sin and imperfection, you are valuable in God's eyes.


The gospel of Matthew tells us about Jesus choosing his 12 disciples and sending them on a mission. In the gospel of Luke 6:12-13, Jesus spends a whole night in prayer before he appoints his disciples. Let us look at the makeup of the 12 disciples.

Peter: denied him three times and tried to prevent him from dying on the cross.

Judas Iscariot: betrayed him.

Thomas, the twin, and the intellectual disciple might give Jesus a headache by asking him lots of questions, and he doubted his resurrection.

Simon the Cananean or zealot was freedom fighter fighting the Romans and their allies by killing them.

Matthew, the tax collector, worked for the Romans, and the Jews hated the tax collectors.

The brothers James and John had the nickname of "sons of thunder" because they were rough-hewn guys. They could be very aggressive men.

In the night when Jesus was arrested, all his disciples left him a runaway.


Jesus did not surround himself with perfect and ideal disciples but surrounded himself with men who did not enjoy a good reputation. However, the Lord Jesus Transformed them. Jesus entrusts them with the same mission he had from God, the Father. Jesus sends them to preach, teach, and heal. He inducts his disciples and us into the same vocation. Jesus tells the disciples and each one of us, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38, therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (9:37-38).


Jesus had compassion for the crowd (v. 36), which indicates the urgency of the disciples' mission. He needs workers in his field now. The work and the mission of the disciples and us entail healing and liberation. The sign of the kingdom of heaven is of healing and liberation. Our calling is to proclaim the good news: "The kingdom of heaven has come near.' 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment" (10:7-8). These are the work that Jesus did, and he invites you to do the same work. In this sense, you are Jesus Christ to those who need to hear the good news.


Jesus cast out demons from people. He liberates people from Satan and all the powers that constrained them and prevented them from living their lives abundantly. This is your vocation, too. You are called to liberate people from their suffering and bondage and offer them healing. Our vocation and calling as followers of Jesus is to continue the work that Jesus began 2000 years ago. The harvest is still plentiful, and our Lord is still looking for laborers to send to his field to work with him.


Look around you, and you will find many people who need someone to free them from the bondage of socio-economic inequality, human trafficking, homelessness, and many more. You are Jesus Christ to those people, and your neighbor is Jesus Christ to you. When you liberate the disadvantaged, you bring Jesus Christ to them.


You do not need to be the perfect Christian to become like our Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord will continue to transform you and guide you to become more like him. Despite your weaknesses, sin, and vulnerable body, our Lord will use you to perform miracles in your life and people's lives. Jesus is still looking for laborers to work in his field. Are you one of his laborers? I pray you are.

Letter from Pastor Duane C. Hoven dated June 5, 2020

Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church from 1961-1970

Dear Friends at Immanuel Lutheran. While I realize that not many of us have met, I do hope that a few of you will recall the years I served as your Pastor. It is exactly fifty years ago that our family left Wausau for a new call.

For all of us living in a time of pandemic there seems to be ample time to reflect on days gone by and to reconnect with friends. This is precisely the purpose of this letter. The New Testament of God's Word contains a number of letters so it is a style of communication that endures.

The nine years spent with you in ministry were very formative for the balance of my pastoral work. Here are a few of my initial impressions. Wausau back then was a city of about 32,000. Immanuel had a baptized membership of 900. The attractive church on Seventh and Adams had been dedicated in 1949. The parsonage, located between the church and education center, had seen better days. Just across 7th Street was the Wausau Public High School.

Immanuel was still in a time of grief over the death of Pastor Fritjof Eikeland. He had endured a long struggle with cancer. Just prior to our arrival his widow, Corrine, and three children: Becky, Cathy, and Mark, had moved out of the parsonage as they continued to mourn their loss.

Intern, Arvid Jovaag, had completed his year of training and returned to the Seminary in St Paul. Assistance during the Pastor's long illness was generousty provided by Pastors Seidel and Meyer of St Stephen Lutheran.

Bertha Pearson was a prominent business woman in Wausau. She played a key roll in the Call Committee. In my initial years at Immanuel she offered wise counsel and wisdom to a young clergy (l had just turned 30 years.)

Assisting us with our move into the parsonage were custodians Al and Palma Lamphier, Managing the office as secretary was Millie Lang.

Worship was always exciting and challenging at Immanuel. Playing the organ with skill and conviction was Ethel Erickson. Worship attendance in the early years of the decade was consistent, averaging 425-450. Summer attendance was lower as many members were in public education and often gone over those months. The congregation always had capable lay leadership. I recall how intimidated felt when I attended the first meeting of the Altar Guild as they were much better informed on liturgical technicalities than I was.

After a few years I realized that we needed pastoral help. In 1966 we welcomed Pastor Hjalmer Hanson and his wife, Helen. He did faithful visitation in homes and hospitals into the early 1970s.

Highlights in my memory are many. The Bethel Series, a comprehensive study of both Old and New Testaments was popular in this decade. I began by training eleven members over a span of two years. We set April, 1964, for registering class participants. In a couple of hours we had 120 signed up with 20 more on a waiting list. Once each trimester we would gather the entire group of 100 plus and I would answer Biblical questions that needed clarification. Three years later 75% of adults who started the Series had either completed the study or were still at it.

Ministry to and with youth was an extremely high priority. Assisting in all aspects of this ministry were Arly and Mary Turnquist. Riding Stockley's bus we traveled to Outlaw Ranch in S. Dakota, to Luther and St. Olaf Colleges, as well as Detroit and Dallas for National Youth Conventions. A week for confirmands was held annually at Mission Lake Bible Camp. The lower level of the new unit building was named: The Fish Sandwich. Scouting also was a highly visible Immanuel program those years.

Being open and inviting to people of other religions and denominations was a style of ministry that grew and expanded for me these years. I asked the Jewish Rabbi to teach a class for our Bethel students, A group of lay folks from Immanuel met with a group from St. Matthew's Roman Catholic for "Living Room Dialogues." I was invited to speak to Catholic seminarians at Marathon City and a few of them came often to play their guitars at our youth events. January, 1970, I was invited to preach one evening at St. Mary's Catholic Church.

During years at Immanuel I also came to appreciate the importance and the necessity of continuing my professional education. Time was granted for me to attend Kairos Weeks at Luther Seminary and Theological Conferences at St Olaf College. I participated in a Ten Day Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies in Michigan led by Reuel Howe. These growth opportunities gave shape to the rest of my years in Church Ministry.

In 1965 a decision was made to remove the parsonage from the church lot and build a new home for the Pastor's Family. We moved into the new parsonage on Ninth and Augusta, built for $30,000. In the fall of 1968 we added the final addition to the Church and at the Dedication also recognized the 85th year of Immanuel's history in Wausau. On March 1, 1970, a new Schantz Pipe Organ was dedicated, the committee was chaired by David Riege.

The Immanuel Years were great for our family. Ann in addition to being Mom to our three children and managing our parsonage life also sang in the church choir and Pro Music, as well as being a teacher in the Bethel Series. These days she still keeps her knitting needles working and is an avid reader of books.

Beth, our oldest, became a serious student of the piano and added the violin which she still plays in Decorah's Foot Notes. She became a socially-conscious teenager. Beth recently retired from the Peoples' Co-op and enjoys nature walks with husband, Jon. Their daughter, Ingrid, a college grad lives in Vermont.

John, just a year old when we came to Immanuel, tried camping with his Dad on Rib Mountain, played the "dust Pan" at Franklin School, and used training wheels on his new bike for just five minutes. John teaches Math at Woodbury in Twin Cities, climbs 14,000 mountains, plays hockey, and bikes everywhere.

Maren joined our family in 1965 and brought us great joy. She enjoyed rides in her dad's bike basket, had a special bond with Helen Hanson and Maren had a starring moment on WSAU-TV Romper Room. Maren and husband, Jeff, and daughter, Ciara, live on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.

Before leaving Wausau we purchased a Skamper Camper and for the next decade traveled over much of America enjoying National Parks. In 2020 Ann and I will have been married 66 years and now live at The Waters on Mayowood in Rochester, MN. At the age of 89 this is now my 27th year of retirement.

Looking back the years at Immanuel were extremely formative for me. Serving you in that decade was both a major challenge and a true privilege. Counseling with youth and adults took a lot of time and wisdom. From 1961-1970 my pastoral records: Baptized: 196, Confirmed 257 Youth/Adults, Married 47 Couples, Officiated at 63 Funerals, and Preached 587 Sermons.

A book: The Gathering Storm in the Church, was written by Jeffrey Hadden in 1969. He wrote about a growing division in the church between conservatives and liberals. It is an accepted bit of history that "1968 is considered to be one of the most turbulent and traumatic years of the 20th century." I certainly sensed those turbulent times during my last couple of years at Immanuel.

At a Youth Retreat I taught a class on Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King's assassination in April of 1968 profoundly affected our nation. Having serious questions about our involvement in Vietnam I found it a challenge to write letters to our young members in the military. I joined 4 or 5 other Wausau clergy in a letter to the editor of our daily newspaper voicing the view that opposition to the war was not being unpatriotic. I want you to know how deeply I cherish the opportunity you and God gave me to serve Immanuel.

May Immanuel, God who is with us, continue to guide our Journey in these challenging and stressful days. To our God be all Glory and Praise. Amen.


Click here to view photos provided by Pastor Duane C. Hoven (page 1)

Click here to view photos provided by Pastor Duane C. Hoven (page 2)