God Chooses Life [OR Stay Curious, My Friends] Matthew 5:21-30, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; 3rd reading follows sermon]

Matthew 5:21-30 You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder'; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Deuteronomy 20:15-20 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

[sermon begins]

A few weeks ago my sister Izzy and I went through several boxes of my grandfather’s things.  We were on task to organize not synthesize. One of the stacks to read through later are letters that Granddad sent Grandma Ruth. Some of the letters are from before they were married. Some of them are from their married years when he traveled for work.  My experience of Granddad was a silent, stoic type with a grumpy edge.  A quick glance through the letters reveals that he had a variety of sweet nick-names for Grandma Ruth.  I suspect that his letters will reveal a lot about him.  The kinds of things he thought.  His side of the relationship with my grandmother.

Those letters have been on my mind as we approach Valentine’s Day.  Letters are becoming a lost art although blogs are everywhere.  The written word has shifted but remains.  And the written word still reveals a lot about the writer.  Which brings us to the Bible verses read today.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  I’m going to press pause here.  Just a moment to acknowledge that in our country we’re experiencing and disagreeing about laws – how they’re made, when they’re legal, etc.  There is a lot going on about constitutionality. Checks and balances.  Who makes the law?  Who stalls the laws?  All of that to say that for this conversation I invite us to put all of that in a parking lot so that we can have a shot at hearing these scriptures without conflating them.  Not possible, pastor, you might say?  Well, let’s at least try and see where that gets us.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  Just before our verses from Matthew today, Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[1]  Right away, in verse 21, Jesus puts those words into stark relief against the disciples’ lives.  This chunk of verses that begin today and conclude next Sunday are called the antitheses.[2]  There are six of them.  Today we hear four.

Jesus begins each interpretation of the law with, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”  For each antithesis, Jesus starts with the commandment and amplifies its protection over the other person in the relationship.  “You have heard that it was said…‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry…”  Jesus goes on to talk about making peace with the person you’re angry before offering gifts at the altar.  We participate in this antithesis every week when we share the peace during worship before the offering and communion.

The antitheses about adultery and divorce are similar in that Jesus demands the disciples’ protection of other people as the commandment is amplified. In first century terms, adultery and divorce left women without a safeguard in community.  Jesus uses big language to get at the seriousness of the offenses.

Here is where it becomes important to look at the Ten Commandments and what they say about God, the giver of life.  The Deuteronomy reading helps with the emphases on life.  What does life look like?  It looks like following the law of life that directs us toward care of neighbor.  What are the natural consequences for not caring for the neighbor?  Death and adversity.  Our image of God becomes evident by what we think is the cause of our death and adversity.  In our mind’s eye, if we see God as a white-bearded-judge-who-sees-us-sleeping-and-awake-so-be-good-for-goodness-sake-or-punishment-will-come kind of God, then God is a punisher of epic proportions, lightning bolts included.*

However, the God who gave the Ten Commandments, gave them to a people whom God had already redeemed through the covenant with Abraham.  The covenant with the people came from a God who freed them from slavery before these commandments were written.**  God’s people are set free without contingency and directed toward each other as a gift of life. Directed toward each other in the kingdom of heaven in the here-and-now.  These commands say more about God then they do about us.  The author of life give commandments so that life may thrive among the people God so loves.

Let’s take, “You shall not murder.”  It seems straightforward. As of yet, I’ve not killed anyone today.  In the antithesis, Jesus amplifies this commandment into a rebuke of anger. The exaggerated hyperbole of Jesus’ words gets our attention. A lot of you haven’t seen me truly angry but I have a husband and a couple of kids that could paint that picture for you. Jesus antitheses catch us where we live by showing us how we diminish life for other people.  They take us beyond a manners lesson into new life by convicting us.  What begins as a doable list of commands becomes a mirror about how we are really treating the people God so loves.

The Augustana staff begin the latest weekly devotions at staff meeting with Luther’s Small Catechism.  Right now, we’re taking the Ten Commandments one at a time.  Reading the commandment, Luther’s explanation, a bit of commentary and following up with a conversation.  Luther does his own antitheses of sorts by flipping the commandment into how we should care for our neighbor.  For murder, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”[3]  Our conversation about the explanation then takes it a step further into what this looks likes in our own lives.

My next comments are for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade confirmation students and their parents.  Students, you’re starting the Small Catechism in Confirmation Sunday School.  It begins with the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation.  In these conversations, I invite you to think and talk about what these commandments say about who God is and the life that God envisions for us.  Parents, this is an opportunity for curiosity.  After all, Luther wrote the Small Catechism for faith conversation in the home.  Continue to ask the questions about God while remembering that God’s saving act in Jesus is not dependent on anything we do as people.  It’s why we talk about God’s grace first, God’s new life first, and then we talk about Commandments.

As a congregation we’re invited to be curious too. We’ll begin Lent in a couple weeks on March 1 with the chance to study Luther’s Small Catechism with each other and with Lutheran Christians all over the world.  The 500 Year Anniversary of the Reformation serves as the spark.  The small devotion books are here in the church office.[4]  Each day is a page that directs our attention to a bit of the Small Catechism, a bit of prayer, a picture, and a thought or story from different writers.  The Adult Sunday School classes in Lent will also be centered on this devotion book.  Pick one up.

More importantly, be curious.  Be curious about our God who so loves the whole world that the law is given as a gift of life.  God renews our lives with each other through the law leaving us open to surprise and amazement when we see it in action through other people.  Be prepared to be surprised and amazed when God suddenly renews our lives with each other through you.  Because Jesus didn’t die to give us the 10 commandments on steroids.***  Jesus died because of our tendency to choose death over life.  Well, God is having none of it and chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 5:17

[2] Carla Works, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37 for Working Preacher on February 16, 2014.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

* David Lose. Commentary: On Love and the Law, Matthew 5:21-37 for In the Meantime… February 6, 2017. http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/

**Ibid.

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Small Catechism of Martin Luther. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1160.

 

[4] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: A Devotion for Lent 2017. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017).  Sold out in hard copy but still available as e-book: https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

***David Lose per a colleague sharing this quotation at preacher’s text study. I couldn’t find the direct citation.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

Loving Before Knowing [OR The Foolishness of the Cross] Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

Several months after my husband Rob and I started dating, we ended up at a New Year’s Eve party.  We were standing in a circle of people we didn’t know.  A bit of round-robin started as people talked about their work.  Rob said his usual, “I’m in sales.”  Someone asked, “Oh? What kind?” He said something like, “I’m a manufacturer’s rep for a Georgia-based carpet mill.”  As is often still the case, people don’t seem to know how to reply to that statement.  Possibly because cut-pile vs. loop or solution-dyed vs. yarn-dyed controversies aren’t quite party talk.  So, I’m next in the round-robin.  People have their eyebrows up expectantly, hoping their curiosity moves into easier conversation.  And I say, “I’m a pediatric cancer nurse.”  Stares and crickets. More stares and crickets with some nodding and mmmm’ing, while the conversation moved to the next person.

Some conversations are too detailed for party-talk, like the pros and cons of carpet manufacturing techniques.  And other conversations are too hard, like kids having cancer.  These are not the only ones. Just a couple of examples of so many things that don’t qualify as polite conversation.  Grief is another such thing.  This is where the church comes in, talking through the polite conversation into what’s happening in our lives. It’s one of the reasons being part of the church can be a comfort while we’re also challenged by Jesus’ teachings. Listen to this Bible verse again from the book of Matthew:

[Jesus teaches his disciples, saying,] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus is often found teaching in Matthew.  The Bible verses today are most commonly known as the Beatitudes based on the Latin for blessed.  It is curious that people who suffer are described as blessed when these moments can feel and look like the opposite of blessing.  Jesus is pushing against the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  There is no explanation for why people are poor in spirit or mourning, why people suffer.  There is simply a description of suffering and God’s promise to be present in the midst of it.

The Beatitudes state a promise into the suffering.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice there are no requirements to receive the kingdom.  In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now and it’s here.  Check out the kingdom parables in Matthew chapter 13.  They describe active presence of the kingdom on earth.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, Jesus teaches us, that we receive the kingdom, live the kingdom, and teach the kingdom.

I can hear you asking, “Well, pastor, that’s lovely poetry, but what does it look like on the ground to receive the kingdom and live in it?”  I’m glad you asked.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and scholar, describes the rational mind hitting a ceiling.[1]  That ceiling is suffering. Today’s Bible verses name suffering as mourning and poor in spirit and more.  We can’t explain why it happens or its purpose.  We just know suffering exists and spend energy trying to prevent our own.  I mean, really, does anyone actually love eating kale?  Eventually, though, someone we love, or maybe even ourselves, suffers – we get sick, we grieve a death, we lose a job, we miscarry, or we watch our partner walk away.  All that we thought we knew about life and our place in it shifts.

But, as Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” the ultimate in earthly foolishness.[2]  Except that the cross means something beyond comprehension when it’s God’s foolishness. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God knows suffering.  More than that, it’s the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Paul’s use of “Christ crucified” points us there because the crucified Christ is also the resurrected Christ.  Christ whom we claim is among us now by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit names us the Body of Christ known as the church.  We are part of a resurrected life that we share together as a congregation.  We share that resurrection promise as a community of faith.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, he also teaches us, that we receive the kingdom and live in the kingdom especially when living through loss and grief.  Knowing this kingdom teaching can help stop us from painting a silver lining into someone else’s grief.[3]  We can simply be present with someone else in their suffering without fixing it or explaining it or telling someone it’s time to get over it.  We can avoid the trap of thinking someone else’s pain is a teaching moment for them and avoid setting ourselves up as the teacher.  Rather we can live the kingdom now by asking people how they’re doing, by telling people we’re sorry this is happening, by quietly listening, and by praying for them.

Prayer is one of the languages of the kingdom.  Jesus prayed the Psalms while on earth and now we do too as the body of Christ. Therefore, in the Psalms, we “encounter the praying Christ…Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”[4]  Praying for people on our prayer list who are suffering of mind, body, or spirit.  Taking the prayer list that’s in the weekly announcement page home, naming each person on it in prayer, or simply praying the whole list at once.  Praying is kingdom language even when we think our own prayers are uncomfortable and clunky.  That discomfort and humility in prayer are part of the kingdom language.  So is praying for people we don’t necessarily like.

As Christians, praying and being present to each other and the world’s pain is a freedom we have through the cross.  We may recognize God’s foolishness as wisdom and look to the cross as a way of knowing.[5]  It’s possible that one of the truths of Christ crucified is that our suffering connects us to each other differently.  We move through the party talk and listen to someone talk about their grief and loss.  These moments become prayer by transcending what we’re arguing about ideologically and opens our eyes us to see each other truly as beloved children of God.  Through the cross, through the suffering, we love before we know, we love as a way of knowing, we love as Christ loves us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Public Remarks, Join the Divine Dance: An Exploration of God as Trinity, Arvada, CO, January 13-15, 2017.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

[3] This is a riff on Brené Brown’s work on empathy vs sympathy.  See video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&sns=fb

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 46-47.

[5] Rohr, ibid.

________________________________________

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Faithful Curiosity [OR Dr. King’s Love In Action] John 1:29-42

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 15, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:29-42 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

[sermon begins]

 

Such a great Bible story and strange in a good way.  John the Baptist, acting like a street preacher, makes a double announcement that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Two of John’s disciples hear the announcement and start following Jesus without talking at all.  Then there’s Jesus – walking along, minding his own business, a couple of lurkers tagging along.  I imagine Jesus looking backward a few times and seeing these guys talking quietly with each other but looking right at him.  A bit of sight gag with the two disciples trying to act casually every time Jesus looks.

Finally Jesus stops and turns to them.  Here comes the great part. Jesus says, “What are you looking for?”  We’re not privy to whatever motivates his question.  But we are privy to the curiosity in his question.  “What are you looking for?”  This is a passage where the curiosity of John’s disciples meets the curiosity of Jesus.  John the Baptist is the exception. While he’s on the street corner announcing Jesus, everyone else is just curious about each other.  Curiosity that has the disciples following Jesus before they have any information they can understand.

Last week, the staff had lunch with Sheryl Stenseth, our Faith Community Nurse who is retiring today.  Although I’d heard it before, I couldn’t remember how Sheryl made the decision to begin working in a church.  This is how it happened.  This is where I hear Jesus’ question as if he is asking Sheryl, “What are you looking for?”  She was getting her Nurse Practitioner degree and as part of a project she started thinking about how cool it would be if there were nurses who worked in churches.  Filled with life-long faith, she went to her professor to pitch the idea for her project and, without blinking, her professor gave the go-ahead even though she knew that church nursing was already a thing which Sheryl quickly discovered for herself.  Sheryl was connected with Sandy, the nurse who worked here before her, and the rest is history.

Here’s why Sheryl’s story fits so well with the Bible passage today. Because God puts our faithful curiosity about Jesus to good use for our neighbor in the world.  In Sheryl’s case, this is easily confirmed by talking to even just one person who has worked with her or received care from her.  I can think of so many people who reflect this faithful curiosity.  Curiosity that turns into action quietly behind the scenes or sometimes more visibly and vocally.

In the visible and vocal department, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind this weekend as we celebrate his birthday tomorrow.  His faithful curiosity turned into a dream.  As Dr. King said it, a dream of justice and freedom for his black brothers and sisters that extended to “all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”[1]  There is only one Dr. King.  But he was simply one child of God as each of us are one child of God.  Each one of us to whom Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?”

This past Sunday, I hosted the first of five lunches that we’re piloting as a way for people to focus locally on issues of human dignity like hunger, incarceration, health care, immigration, literacy, and more. The point of this group is to offer ways to be involved as well as to be a safe place for conversation regardless of how you vote.  Seven people joined me for lunch.  We talked about showing up out in the community to show support for people in the community and to follow Jesus more visibly in the world.  Each of us is built with different interests and passions so we can simply pick an event and show up.

As showing up applies to me, I’ll be at a large public meeting at Shorter AME Church on Tuesday evening, a historic black church in Denver since 1868.  I invite you to come as you’re able.  The meeting includes people from the community, law enforcement, and elected leaders, with the goal of strengthening relationship between law enforcement and the community they serve.  Like the other people at lunch, I’m looking for a way to follow Jesus visibly in the world for the sake of my neighbor.

But sometimes, like the disciples, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.  Frankly, some of us aren’t even sure we’re looking for Jesus.  Some of us loyally show up to church for years with a friend or partner who loves Jesus but we just don’t get it.  Some of us show up to church for the first time in a long time, disillusioned years ago.  Some of us show up to church maybe for the first time ever, knowing that something deeper is missing from our lives but we don’t know what.  So what the heck, maybe it’s Jesus.

Notice what’s happening in these Bible verses. John the Baptist is the only one drawn to confess that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  His disciples call Jesus “Rabbi” which means Teacher.  They go hang out with him but they haven’t made the leap to Lamb of God by a long shot.  The good news is that there is room for the curious.  I’ve often wondered what it’s like to hear or sing the “Lamb of God” song for the first time – the song that is sung in the worship liturgy before receiving communion.  Like our strange Bible story, it’s kind of a strange song.

John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Perhaps Dr. King can help us out here.  Here’s what he preached in his sermon, “Love in Action:”

[2]Every time I look at the cross I am reminded of the greatness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the beauty of sacrificial love and the majesty of unswerving devotion to truth…But somehow I can never turn my eyes from that cross without also realizing that it symbolizes a strange mixture of greatness and smallness, of good and evil…I am reminded not only of Christ as his best but man at his worst. We must see the cross as the magnificent symbol of love conquering hate and of light overcoming darkness.”

Dr. King’s preaching conveys the simultaneous power of God and vulnerability of Jesus on the cross and the human sin that left him hanging there.  “Lamb of God” is a title that says the same thing in three words – vulnerable as a lamb, powerful as God.  But it’s more than a pithy title.

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by showing us the self-sacrificing love of God and drawing us to faith.

Jesus, who experienced what we’re capable of at our worst, sends us off to do what’s best for our neighbor.

Jesus, asking us what we’re looking for, loves us, pours himself out for us, and strengthens us to love.  Jesus does all of these things, even when we don’t know what we’re looking for…

Thanks be to God.

_________________________________

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream…”speech, copyright 1963. https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love in Action” in Strength to Love: A Book of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row Pocket Books, 1968), 40.

Wally’s World [OR Into This World, This Demented Inn] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

 

Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things.  Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news.  When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear.  The inn was full in Bethlehem.  Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”[1]

The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper.  The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all.  But we imagine him.  We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays.  One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time.  James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:

“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.

Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them.  “Wait! You can have my room.”[2]  [end of Harnish story]

Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?”[3]  What would we do as the innkeeper?  He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family.  Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer.  Regardless of tone, the end is the same.  There is no room.  But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.

The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading.  Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem.  There are times for sentiment.  Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out.  All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story.  In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius.  The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

No room.  Full.  This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today.  Room in the schedule.  Room in the mind.  Room in the heart.  Room for compassion in the face of suffering.  Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry.[4]  Room for the glory of God.[5]  Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host.[6]  Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.[7]

Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time.  Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma.[8]  This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover.[9]  Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.

Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none?  Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available.  Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary?  Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”[10]

You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited.  We can say, “No room, go away.”  We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.”  We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives.  We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene.[11]  Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.”[12]  Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability.[13]  With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.

Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own.  We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.[14]  Thanks be to God and Amen.

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[1] Luke 2:7

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.

[3] John Quinones. “What Would You Do?”  abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo

[4] Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53

[5] Luke 2:14

[6] Luke 2:14

[7] Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.

[8] Harnish, 34.

[9] Harnish, 34.

[10] Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.

[11] Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[12] Luke 2:11

[13] Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

[14] Ibid.

Darkness is Not Dark to God [Longest Night reflection] – John 1:1-5, 14 and Psalm 139:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 21, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; Psalm 139 is at the end of sermon]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

 

Today, we’re drawn into the company of other people and the promises of God in a quieter way.  Whether by temperament or circumstance we find a need for a reflective moment in the midst of this Christmas season.  Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at the darkest time of the year.  There’s some history in those developments.  The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside non-Christian celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun.  So time of year and some of the trimmings were co-opted from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christianity has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.  This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.  It’s one of the things that I like about it.

There is also the story told in scripture.  At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[1]  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis. [2] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a simple story, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as too heady or inaccessible.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[3]

God living among us in Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we get it.

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of unrest in the world that is a matter of life and death.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  It is into this real struggle, this darkness, that Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

My mother gave me permission to tell a bit of her story.  Many years ago, she married my first father in a romantic whirlwind.  They honeymooned in Germany.  While there, they picked up a set of Dresden angels.  A few inches tall, white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful.  Life was good and fun and grew to include five children.  Those angels were set out in a bed of pine boughs at Christmastime every year to protect their wing tips in case they were knocked over.  They surrounded a small porcelain baby Jesus.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  A late psychotic break.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave.  As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out.  She remarried and every year those angels would go out.  My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding the baby Jesus.  On Saturday, my mother and her third husband Larry took the angels to UPS.  The angels are heading to my home, yet to arrive.  Talking with her later in the day, she told me that she “burst into tears” when she got in the car after the UPS stop.  She talked about how the angels were from a happy time and she was happy that I will have them.  I’ve been thinking about the angels, my mom, first dad, siblings, and me – the good, bad, and ugly. I’ve also been thinking about this Longest Night worship.  I’ve been thinking about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle with personal family struggles and with world-wide crises. I’ve also been thinking about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But I’ve been thinking about how the speed of light travels to us whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. God comes down to us, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things.  We don’t move a muscle and God comes down to us.  In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to you, to me, and to world.  Some days that promise feels like a fragile thread and other days it feels like a defiant hope.  No matter our feelings on any given day, “darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [God].”[4]  Amen.

_________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

[2] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[3] John 1:14

[4] Psalm 139:12

__________________________________________

Psalm 139:1-12

 

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

 

 

Agency Denied [OR Why Joseph is Our Guy] Matthew 1:18-25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

[sermon begins]

 

I listen to a lot of people talk about their lives.  While listening, I’m often struck by the magnitude of what someone says and the quiet, matter-of-fact way the story is shared.  There’s the older gentleman in the seat next to mine on the airplane.  The pilot was navigating around thunderstorms. The plane was shaking. I’m sure I was pale and looking worried.  The gentleman next to me asked me if I was nervous. (I thought to myself, “Hah! Are you kidding me?!”) “Yes,” is what I said. He told me that he doesn’t get nervous in planes because it doesn’t get worse than being shot down in the Pacific during World War II and waiting days in the water to get picked up.  The story was longer than that, of course.  He told me bits and pieces, regaling in calm tones and stark detail.  It had the quality of a story told many times.  I could picture it without feeling a need to take care of him while he talked.  He was open to curiosity and questions. His gift was one of distraction from my turbulence terror while he calmly shared his past.

The gentleman’s story, while unique in detail, is common in quality.  How many of us get used to telling our strange tales that have become normal in our own lives but surprise other people in the telling.  Jesus’ birth story is along this line for Christians. We tell a really strange tale, my friends.  We celebrate it in sacred scripture. We sing about it. We pop it up in our homes. I confess I have several such home scenes myself.  Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by various configurations of animals, angels, shepherds, and magi.  Wood, porcelain, and pottery that is carved, poured, and molded.  Dioramas of faith that proliferate across the land and in my home.

In some ways, it’s such a simple story.  So simple that even a child can tell it.  Last week our young friends here at Augustana put on costume and learned their lines.  They processed into the sanctuary and preached the story of Jesus through a narrated, live diorama.  Their telling of this good news is a mash-up from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and appropriately called, “Simply Christmas.”

The gospel writer today keeps it super simple, too:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

That’s it.  Nothing flashy. But there is someone who gets a newsflash. Joseph. His betrothed is pregnant and he is not the father.  If that’s not a kick in the gut that takes your breath away then I don’t know what would be.  A man’s proudest agency is taken from Joseph.  Confronted with the news, his initial plan is simple and legal.  Dismiss Mary.  Send her on her way quietly, saving her from public disgrace.  Joseph is justified in his position. Not only in his own mind but in the eyes of the law.  No harm, no foul.  He is good to go.  Simple and legal.  Justified. Resolved.  And then not so simple at all…

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”[1]

The angel, the Lord’s messenger, shows up thwarting Joseph’s justified resolve.  I hate when that happens.  When a good resolve swirls down the drain.  Resolve feels good.  It feels right.  It is powerful, knowing what to do.  Powerlessness?  Not so much.  And definitely not in the way a good resolve feels.  Here’s a clue to part of the good news today.  If there’s room for Joseph in the nativity story, then there is room for me, and there is room for you.[2]

There’s room for us in the Nativity story because Joseph is asked simply to stay and watch the story unfold.  Oddly enough, he asks no questions of the angel in his dream and he’s given no understandable explanation.  In essence, Joseph is told to take Mary as his wife and to name the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, “Jesus.”  That’s not a lot of information.  In fact, it doesn’t amount to any information he can share with his friends as justification for staying with Mary, especially in light of the vague paternity. And, still, he obeys the angel.

He obeys without any knowledge of what this will mean. Just around the corner, what he can’t see is the visit from the magi.  Those strange people from a faraway place who come to visit Jesus after he is born.[3]  He can’t see the magi’s decision to thwart King Herod.[4]  He can’t see King Herod’s edict to slaughter all the infant children less than two years old because they may or may not be the rumored Messiah.[5]  He can’t see his and Mary’s escape and refuge in Egypt.[6]  There’s so much that Joseph can’t see when he agrees to take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus.

James Harnish, a long-time Christian pastor, recalls a story from when he was in college.  He went to see a professor with a very intelligent friend who had a lot of questions about his faith and was frustrated by the simplistic answers people gave him.  His friend asked the professor, “How can I [follow] Christ when I don’t know all that it will mean?”  The professor answered, “None of us knows all that it’s going to mean, but we know enough [to follow Jesus] and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.”[7]

Joseph is obedient without an “i” dotted or “t” crossed.  Some of us see ourselves in Joseph because, like him, our proudest self-agency is also taken away from us.  We do not save ourselves. The name “Jesus” means “God saves” or “the Lord saves.”  He will be born and named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.”  Week-after-week we scratch the surface of what this means for us.  Some of us wonder about intellectual problems raised by scripture that don’t jive with our experience or knowledge.  Some of us struggle with the mystery and want it solved so that then we could have faith.  Some of us are drawn to action on behalf of people who need help but don’t know where to start or how to keep going.  For all of us in those moments, Joseph is our guy.

In light of Joseph’s lack of information, his obedience to the angel’s wild request is shocking, confusing, and disturbing.[8]  If we let it, our familiarity with Jesus’ birth story means that our quiet, matter-of-fact way of telling it can oversimplify what God is doing all around us. God’s audacity in slipping into powerless, vulnerable skin is echoed by Joseph’s powerless, vulnerability as well as our own – the breadth of divine power revealed in the depth of divine, self-giving love.  Like Joseph, we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to follow Jesus.  Like Joseph, we watch, wait, and wonder as Emmanuel, God with us, shows up and saves.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:20

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 20.

[3] Matthew 2:1-11

[4] Matthew 1:8 and 12

[5] Matthew 2:16-18

[6] Matthew 2:13-15

[7] Harnish, 23.

[8] Harnish, 19.

Thievery, Shadows and Light [OR Why Matthew’s Year is Good News] Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalms]

Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

 

[sermon begins]

According to the stories of film, thievery is to be admired for all of its clever moves and precision timing.  Think Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job or Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist.[1]  We cheer on these anti-heroes as likeable scoundrels who are on the side of right – either against a truly evil villain or on a Robin Hood mission.  These storylines are one of my favorites as I wonder how the heist is going to be pulled off and feel the excitement of a braniac’s plan coming together.

In reality, being robbed is devastating.  It’s a total disruption of ownership and security.  One of our neighbors installed a house alarm after a break-in a few years ago.  It went off in the early morning hours yesterday, disturbing sleep and leaving me awake to wonder if there was an actual breach of hearth and home and how would any of us know if it was.  Those moments are neither fun nor intriguing in a good way.

Thievery is a strange metaphor in today’s Bible story.  Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful, staying awake like a homeowner ready to catch a thief in the night.  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  For those of us fed a steady diet of God’s grace from scripture, the metaphor doesn’t jive. It doesn’t help that some preachers have crafted a fearful rapture theology in the last couple hundred years from Bible verses like these.[2]

Jesus speech covers two chapters in the book of Matthew. Look closely at this small part of it.  We learn that God is in charge of the future and judgment.[3]  And he tells the disciples to keep awake and be ready.[4]  Ahhhh, here it is, that elusive good news. In judgment, Jesus offers hope.  Wait, what?!!  Yes, in words of judgment, Jesus offers hope.

As Christians, we sometimes act as if God’s arrival in Jesus has nothing to do with how much God loves the world.  Is God’s love so incomprehensible to us that we figure Jesus is going to show up someday in a really bad mood from that ugly cross incident?  Like Jesus is a time-limited offer akin to a Black Friday sale. If ever there was a corruption of the good news in Jesus, that would be it.

Isaiah as well as the psalmist may be able to shed some light on the connection between judgment and hope.  Isaiah describes many people going up to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.[5]  God is “judge” and “arbiter” among nations and people who end up beating swords into plowshares, striking war from their to-do list.  The psalmist sings of going up to the Lord’s house, to the thrones of judgment, and praying for peace.  Isaiah and the psalmist describe pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage meaning journey.  In their case, a journey towards God’s judgment with the end result of peace.  Peace between people. Peace between nations.

We are on a pilgrimage of sorts well, drawn here together in the Lord’s house. We begin the season of Advent today with the first of many readings from Matthew’s gospel over the next year.[6]  Matthew tends to focus on Jesus’ teaching in comparison to, say, Mark who highlights Jesus’ actions.[7]  Matthew amplifies the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching so that we hear historic promise as it applies to the present.  This includes the hope that God’s judgment will turn us around.  That somehow there will be redemption from the mess we have made.[8]  Seeing the light, we can’t hide in our own shadows, cloaked in ignorance that shields us from the messes we make.[9]

The very first chapter of Matthew opens with genealogy – person after person whose messy lives show up in the Hebrew Bible.[10]  Seeing their names makes me want to re-read their stories, the familiar and not so familiar. The full list includes patriarchs of the faith who verify Jesus’ Jewishness – Abraham, Isaac, Jesse, and King David.  The genealogy also includes, contrary to custom, four ancestresses whose Jewishness is contested – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[11] Just as Matthew begins Jesus’ story by naming them, I encourage you to read one, two, or more of their stories this week as advent begins.  The ancestresses and patriarchs named alongside each other reminds us that God disrupts expectations as the promises made to Abraham are expanded to all people through Jesus.

God is not laying out a program but making an announcement. Showing up wherever and however God would like to show up, on thief’s timing. That is the promise of judgment that we lean into this Advent.  The light of God’s judgment gives us hope that we can no longer hide in our own shadows.  Advent is a chance to think about why this is good news in our own lives and in the life of the world.  It’s a chance to ask questions as we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Why is a savior needed?  Why does God slipping into skin make any difference in my life or the life of the world?

As Jesus people, God emboldens us by faith to proclaim light and peace.  We need each other as church to remind us of God’s promise to show up and we are needed in a world desperate for good news.   Christ’s return means that there is more to our story and God’s story than what we’ve already experienced.[12]  As Christians, though, we don’t turn our attention solely beyond history.  Trusting in God’s mercy, Christian hope generates a commitment to the good of this world God loves so much, a commitment to the people God loves so much.

So we ask God to grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life.

Dear people, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.[13] No longer hiding in our own shadows but committed to the world that God so loves.

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

[1] The Italian Job (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317740/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Tower Heist (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0471042/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[2] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005). http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/90534.The_Rapture_Exposed

[3] Matthew 24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”

[4] Matthew 24:42…44  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[5] Isaiah 2:3

[6] Gospel of Matthew, Year A of the three year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. In general, I’m a fan of the lectionary because it highlights texts we might otherwise choose to ignore. It’s a good idea to also check out what is not included. Read more about the lectionary at http://www.elca.org/lectionary

[7] Arland Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary. “Preaching from Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” for Working preacher.org on December 3, 2007.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1639

[8] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, for Sermon Brainwave Podcast (SB512) on texts for the first Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=816

[9] Pastor Deb Coté, preacher text study gem.

[10] Matthew 1:1-17 does not appear in the Sunday readings for Year A (see note 5 above).

[11] Douglas R. A. Hare.  Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6.

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

[13] Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Divine Indifference Is Not A Thing – Luke 21:1-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the book of Luke]

Luke 21:1-19 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

[sermon begins]

A week and a half ago, a new Crock Pot turned up at my house. It sat on the counter for a few days, hanging out in its box.  My old Crock Pot was sitting there too.  Its clouded, plastic lid cracked beyond repair.  No replacement part available to prolong its use to be found online or in town. We received it as a wedding gift over 20 years ago and scooped from it many family meals and potluck offerings.  It shows its years in the pale blue floral pattern and other signs of wear beyond its broken lid.  Finally I pulled the new one out of its box on Tuesday morning and christened it with the evening meal. Here’s where the story takes a turn into the absurd.  I couldn’t part with the old one.  Besides my stubborn resistance to planned obsolescence, it is an object loaded with meaning through memories. I put it in my trunk rather than in the trash thinking that maybe I’ll discover a means to reuse or repurpose it.  That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, post-election, sentimentalism was put in its proper place.  Facebook was exploding in surreal contrasts of joy and despair.  It’s a wonder that my laptop didn’t split apart from the emotional output of so many people.  I looked at my laptop and wondered about all these people who were posting – family, friends, fellow clergy, and friends-of-friends.  Many of them I know and love.

So, there I sat, wondering if there was anything to say, if I had anything to say.  So, I did what I often do which is go to my faith. And I also did what a lot of people in my generation do and wrote a blog post.[1]  It was a mixture of testimony and confession.  That is to say, I wrote about my experience, Jesus, and what I was going to do by faith in the cultural turmoil even if not much else seems clear.

In the Bible reading today, Jesus tells his disciples that they will have an opportunity to testify.  Their opportunity to testify will come in times of massive upheaval as they’re arrested.  Some of them may not make it.  Some may die.  Jesus’ words are dire as they describe a dire time.  Their faithful testimony will not inoculate them against disapproval or death at the hands of kings or governors.

Generally speaking, testimony isn’t a big part of Lutheran-land.  It’s found a lot more in other Christian traditions.  Testimony is even odder when it’s given in non-Christian arenas like to the kings and governors.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will give them the words and wisdom for their testimony.

Right before this call to testimony, Jesus watches the widow walk humbly across the floor of the synagogue and put all that she has to live on in that treasury box.  Her presence is noted as Jesus watches her quietly give her gift.  Jesus’ witness means we remember her across time as an image of active trust in God.  She is identity bearing for us as the church.  As one congregation of people in God’s whole church catholic, our mission statement concludes with the words from the prophet Micah.[2]  We “walk humbly with our God.”[3]  We walk as the widow walks – right through the argument of the leaders.  We do as the widow does – giving our lives to God.

In contrast to the widow, we live in a world where politics often supplants faith as salvific. Politics becomes that which will save us from all manner of bad things. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us in her post-election remarks this week that, “No human candidate can guarantee our life and our future, that is the work that God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”[4]  While many of us may agree with that statement theoretically, our minds and bodies may have a more difficult time figuring out what it means. Especially because there are competing and emotionally-charged political views of people we’re sitting in the pews with right now. If the last few days are any indication, some of us are celebrating and some of us are afraid.  That’s a lot going on in a room of people much less a country of people.

Leading with the story of the widow, Jesus charges his disciples to give their testimony and tells them that it may cost their lives.[5] If we only had this reading, one could read this as a speech of indifference as to whether or not the disciples live. But nothing could be further from the good news of Jesus. In the first chapter of Luke, God slips on skin in solidarity with us[6]; Mary sings about God lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things[7]; and Zechariah prophesies about forgiveness of sins and the tender mercy of God giving light to those who sit in darkness and guiding our feet in the way of peace.[8]  Divine indifference is not a thing.  After Luke’s 21st chapter that contains the Bible reading today, come the last three chapters that include Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection during which Jesus’ prays for the people, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”[9]  Divine indifference is not a thing.

Bishop Eaton continued her post-election comments:  “So what do we do dear church? Three things.  Remember that all human beings are made in the image of God, even the ones who didn’t vote for your candidate.  Pray for our country, for those elected, for understanding.  And then we get back to work, doing the things the church has always done: welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, work for justice and peace in all the earth, all in the name of the one who is our hope, our life, and our peace, Jesus who set us free to serve the neighbor.”

Following up on Bishop Eaton’s question, I ask us, “How are we prepared to do these things, dear church?”  Our testimony on behalf of the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned need not wait until we’re dragged before a king or other world leader.  There are people right now who are riding the coattails of this election to intimidate and injure others.[10]  Swastikas and racist behavior are being reported by schools from around the country.[11]   We may testify right now against racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior – prepared by Jesus with the words, wisdom, and strength to do so on behalf of all people, ALL beloved children of God.

Healing prayers have been long-scheduled for worship this Sunday. Post-election, this now seems like providential timing – not to gloss over serious realities with sentimentalism but rather to be gifted strength to respond faithfully, to love our neighbor as ourselves.[12] Because divine indifference is not a thing.  In its ministry of healing, the church does not replace the gifts of God that come through the scientific community, nor does it promise a cure. The church offers and celebrates gifts such as these: God’s presence with strength and comfort in time of suffering, God’s promise of wholeness and peace, and God’s love embodied by the community of faith.[13]

Jesus’ death on the cross is evidence that God would not raise a hand in violence against the people God so loves. Claimed by this good news, we are set free to give our lives to God for the sake of our neighbor. Because of Jesus the Christ, the church’s indifference is not a thing.  Indifference is not an option.  Where people are hungry and thirsty, where people are suffering and hurting, where people are persecuted and threatened, Jesus people show up.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] “Tinted Purple” blog post link: http://caitlintrussell.blogspot.com/2016/11/tinted-purple.html

[2] Micah 6:8 – He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, seek kindness and walk humbly with your God.

[3] Augustana mission – Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ and walk humbly with our God.  http://www.augustanadenver.org/

[4] Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw2-f82fklc

[5] The Book of Acts tells stories of the disciples’ work, testimony and martyrdom.

[6] Luke 1:26-38

[7] Luke 1:46-56

[8] Luke 1:67-79

[9] Luke 23:34

[10] Jim Axelrod for CBS News on November 11, 2016. “Ugliness Sprouting Up Across The Country.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ugliness-sprouting-up-across-country-after-donald-trump-election-win/

[11] CBS News/AP on November 11, 2016. “Schools Nationwide Report Racially-Charged Incidents After Election.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/schools-nationwide-report-racially-charged-incidents-after-election/.

[12] Luke 10:27

[13] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Opening Rubric of “Brief Order for Healing.” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006). members.sundaysandseasons.com/library

 

Truth. Freedom. You Know, Just Small Topics. John 8:31-36

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 30, 2016 – Reformation Sunday

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 8:31-36 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I live with a 19 year old young man and a 17 year old young woman. It’s important for me to describe them this way from time to time as a reminder that they are their own people with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  That mash-up can be hard to experience and to witness. Oh sure, sometimes it’s comedy with lots of laughs from all of us.  But sometimes it’s tragedy and there really aren’t words or kisses to make it better.  Such is life for parents and for young people – just when you think you know something, many times either the thing changes or you do.

In that way, there are some similarities to spending time recently with Augustana’s young people in their last couple of months of Confirmation study.  Pastor Ann and I have the privilege of hanging out with them as a group in Sunday classes and tag-teaming visits with each one.  Each is their own person with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  There is comedy and there is tragedy – laughter and tears and sometimes both at once.  I sometimes wonder if the age of Confirmation in the early to mid-teens is the “right” time.  And then I end up wondering if it might not be the best time because their questions are enormous and honest.

Questions about self and God and the world.  Questions about fantasy and faith.  Questions about myth and truth.  At Confirmation the student takes on the promises of baptism that their parents made to them so long ago.  This is why we call it this ritual the Affirmation of Baptism. These young people will promise to continue asking questions of faith as baptized people.  If the last few weeks are any indication, they will continue asking some good, hard questions.

Jesus cuts to the chase about truth in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[1]  Truth and freedom. They’re compelling on a gut level.  Truth and freedom.  Compelling until you start trying to figure out the truth.  A little like Pontius Pilate a few chapters later.  He asks Jesus at the trial before the crucifixion, “What is truth?”  If we’re honest, a lot of us ask that question with Pilate.  We want to know the truth and understand it.

Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”[2]  Slavery language can make us uncomfortable when we use it to talk about ourselves.  It’s tough enough when we talk about historical or modern day slavery.  But about ourselves, we’re inclined to talk like the religious leaders in the Bible story.  We’ve never been slaves to anyone – what do you mean we’ll be made free?![3]

It’s interesting that the people questioning Jesus are more understandable than Jesus.  The religious leaders essentially asking Jesus, “What do you mean, ‘made free?”  Here, right here is where I press pause.  With this question, “What do you mean?”  At our youngest ages this question first comes out as, “Why?”  From then on, that question doesn’t stop.  We ask it over and over as children.  As people of faith, as people of church, we continue to ask it over and over. Questions seek answers.  More specifically, faith seeks understanding.[4]

In seeking understanding, our faith is formed.  Faith, given by God, is formed by experience and intellectual exercise, by comedy and tragedy, by people around us, and by more than I can think of right now.  How do we imagine that Martin Luther was able to hammer those 95 theses onto the door of a German church issuing a challenge that was a theological smack-down to the church leaders of his time?  Luther’s experience, intellect, friendships, suffering, and his determination to be in the Bible and wring good news from it all contributed to the world changing event of the Reformation.  Translating the Bible in everyday language was considered a crime against the Holy Roman Empire of Luther’s time. Theologians before and in Luther’s time were executed, even burned at the stake, for translating the Bible into the common language.[5]  Luther managed a full translation of the Bible into German while protected to do so.

The Bible is a library of 66 books written by many people over thousands of years.  When I talk to Confirmation Students about it, we talk about the imperfect people who wrote it and the disagreements they have with each other between books and sometimes in the same book.  These imperfect people writing about their experience of God, Jesus, and their stories in light of those experiences.  There is power there working through that book sitting almost casually in the pews and in our homes.  The Confirmation students and I also talk about how the book is not Jesus.  We do not worship this book that we call the Bible.

We may reverence the Bible but we do not idolize the Bible.  We do not say the Bible is God.  We experience it as God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit works through the Bible to form faith as the Holy Spirit works through our families and each other as the church to form faith.  Luther could do what he did in part because of his relationship with his family and his church.  He was formed by asking questions of faith and the church.  And then he turned the church of the Holy Roman Empire upside down with the clarity gained through his formation.  Never underestimate the power of asking, “What does this mean?”  The legacy gift here is that we do not function as an echo chamber of agreement.

To the Confirmation students today, keep asking “What does this mean?”  You spoke so much of your families as well as your Sunday school and Confirmation teachers.  You talked about the challenging questions and conversations for which your families and church school teachers held space if not always answers.  Remember their humility, faith, and time spent.  And remember your questions.  Keep asking them. There are people of all ages, times, and places asking similar questions. They are honest questions demanding good news.  Faith seeking understanding is faithful and good. It changes lives. It changes the world.

Tomorrow, October 31, marks the beginning of a year-long commemoration of the 500th Year of the Reformation.[6]  Pope Francis will worship with the Lutheran Church in Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran worship service.[7]  This is a striking moment of unity for churches who experienced literal murder and mayhem in the wake of the Reformation marked in the year 1517.  That there is unifying worship in Sweden and in many places around the world in the coming year is a sign of hope in our time filled with religious, political, race, and class divisions.

Jesus tells the religious leaders to continue in his word, assuring them that they will know the truth.  Part of this truth is that we are slaves to sin.  If I’m honest in my demand for truth, then I’m also honest about the truth of who I am and the enslavements that bedevil me.  Another part, maybe the harder part, is that we need a liberator.  Slaves do not typically free themselves.

Jesus frees us through our baptisms and God promises to:

Always be with us even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God.

Always take us back by grace, even when we turn away from God.

Always work to make our lives ever more Christ-shaped.

And to keep these promises forever.

Children of God, in baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.[8]  Jesus sets us free and we are free indeed.  Amen and thanks be to God.

________________________________________________

* Photo and quote of Albert Camus comes from an article he wrote in 1939 about freedom of the press.  Read more here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2012/07/camus-on-irony-when-does-the-truth-get-censored-.html

[1] John 8:31-32

[2] John 8:34

[3] John 8:33

[4] Sze Zeng, “Where Did the Phrase “Faith Seeking Understanding” Come From?”  theology + life on October 12, 2010. http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/10/where-did-phrase-faith-seeking.html

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner podcast conversation on John 8:31-36, October 25, 2015 for WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=805

[6] The Reformation is officially recognized as beginning on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg.

[7] Sylvia Poggioli. “The Pope Commemorates The Reformation That Split Western Christianity.” For NPR on October 28, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/28/499587801/pope-francis-reaches-out-to-honor-the-man-who-splintered-christianity

[8] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Holy Baptism. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 231.

Flawed People in a Wonderful World – Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 2, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings, the 2 Timothy reading follows the sermon]

Luke 17:5-10 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I were engaged about 20 years ago.  We’d been in Colorado a little while at that point. We talked wedding possibilities that ran the gamut between eloping to having a full wedding, finally settling on a family wedding at The Chapel at Red Rocks.[1]  About 40 of our family from the East, West, and Mid-west attended.  The first dance music was to be “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.  It had made a resurgence around that time.  Even though we ultimately decided on a back yard reception without dancing, I still think of it as our wedding song.  The song opens with a rose-colored glasses moment perfect for a wedding:

“I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world…”[2]

I’ve recently learned more of the story behind “What a Wonderful World.”  Originally released as a B-side single in 1967, it was a commercial flop.[3]  Armstrong was asked to sing the song by its two Jewish songwriters. Their hope was that Armstrong’s wide appeal would build bridges during a time when America was experiencing race riots and curfews in over 100 cities including attacks on Jewish shops.  The third verse of the song sets a different vision for living together:

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

They’re really saying I love you.”

Accusations flew that the song glossed over serious problems. [Here’s what] “Armstrong said as he introduced a live performance of the song – words which are best read with his gravelly delivery in mind…‘Some of you young folks been saying to me: “Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?” But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”[4]

Which is it?  Does the song gloss over real problems or does Armstrong sing about something real?  A similar question could be asked about the additional faith that the disciples are demanding from Jesus.  Does faith gloss over real problems or by faith are we proclaiming something real?  As a preacher and a pastor, this kind of question is regularly posed to me from people in all kind of situations.  I hear a lot about why faith is difficult for people.  And I wonder if, like the disciples in the Bible story from Luke, our ideas and questions about faith are generated from a misleading premise.

Just before the Bible verses in Luke we hear today, Jesus challenges his followers to see and help people who suffer, to not cause other people to stumble in their faith, and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.[5]   Then we get to the apostles pleading for more faith, literally in the Greek “add faith to us!”[6]  Who can blame them?  Jesus raises the bar high on discipleship telling them to relieve deep suffering, give away money and possessions, and forgive each other.  A bit more faith to get these things done would be awesome!  Most of us would like a heap more faith if it actually worked that way.

The apostles plead for more faith as a group – “Increase our faith!”  They ask as a group.  This is unfamiliar ground for most of us.  We tend to think of faith as an individual rather than a group thing.  In an individual way, I can wonder if I have any faith or enough faith or certain faith. I can analyze faith as an equation, that faith = proof + certainty.  This is a misleading premise for faith.

And this is the premise I used for faith when Rob and I were married. We even found a minister that would do the wedding without mentioning Jesus. At that point, I’d been out of the church upwards of ten years.  Faith in Jesus was something that didn’t compute. I couldn’t figure out why he computed for other people. In the following few years we baptized our two kids in Rob’s Lutheran tradition and we started going to church (a story for a different day).  Confusion reigned for me for a while as the preacher talked about a God who loves us through Jesus without condition – flawed, fragile, and messed up as we are.

It began to compute but it was an unfamiliar calculus.  The quick sum total was this…faith wasn’t about me.  Well, of course, it was in some ways.  In the ways I became more comfortable confessing to hurts I cause, real struggles of being human and screwing things up but still needing God’s love in the face of those flaws, that sin. And in the ways God’s good work in me is revealed.  Sinner and saint.  But more and more, faith became something about God, the people of God, and the wonderful world that God loves – claimed by faith rather making a claim about faith.

Being claimed by faith sounds like Habakkuk’s cries against violence and trusting in God’s faithfulness.[7]  Being claimed by faith names the living faith of ancestors like Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.[8]  Being claimed by faith announces a wonderful world, created and sustained by God for all people.  At the same time, being claimed by faith tells the truth about suffering, our part in it and Jesus’ challenge to us to relieve suffering, prevent it when possible and be present with people when it’s not.

We remind each other that God’s faithfulness overflows in the grace given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[9]  Not alone and wondering if each of our individual faith-o-meters are full enough.  Rather, as a group called the church living the faith that claims us through the cross of Christ and then frees us towards God and each other.  Living faith that is smaller than a mustard seed as signs of God’s love for each flawed and fragile person in this troubled and wonderful world.

 

[1] The Chapel at Red Rocks: http://www.chapelatredrocks.com/

[2] George Davis Weiss as “George Douglas” and Bob Theile, songwriters. “What a Wonderful World.” 1967. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Wonderful_World

[3] This paragraph and the Louis Armstrong quote that follows are referenced from, “Smashed Hits: How Political is ‘What a Wonderful World?” published December 10, 2011 on BBCnews.com. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16118157

[4] Ibid, BBC article above.

[5] In order: Luke 16:19-31 (challenge against indifference), Luke 17:1-2 (challenge to teach well), Luke 17:3-4 (forgive).

[6] Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. Commentary on Luke 17:5-10 for WorkingPreacher.org, October 2, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3028

[7] Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4

[8] 2 Timothy 1:1-14

[9] 2 Timothy 1:9

Timothy 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.