Quiet Hearts, Restored Souls [OR Don’t Put Spitty-Mud in Anyone’s Eyes Right Now] Psalm 23 and John 9:1-41 (but read Chapter 10 too)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church Denver on March 22, 2020

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 9:1-41 (but read Chapter 10 too) **First 9 verses are here; the whole reading is at the end of the sermon.

John 9:1-9 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

[sermon begins]

“Here’s mud in your eye!” It’s is an old-timey drinking toast that wishes happiness to fellow drinkers.[1] Some think the toast has origins in today’s healing story about Jesus and the man born blind. Although the toast isn’t in scripture, it’s easy to picture it happening. And, for many of us, in this ever expanding socially distant time, it’s easy to picture and deeply miss the light-hearted, celebratory feels that were happening until recently. The story of the man born blind bridges the social distance between the gutter and everyday life in community. I didn’t read all those verses out loud today but you may want to check out the full reading and cruise right on into Chapter 10 while you’re at it. Because the man was launched from isolated begging back into full community. It’s a poignant rags-to-reconciliation story for him. The gospel in one spitty-mud story. You know, that gospel, the good news that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. “Here’s mud in your eye” to the happiness of that good news!

The good news is what Jesus’ followers, those curious disciples, are trying to figure out when they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.”  Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, (he was born blind) so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” There’s a messed-up translation into English here that makes it sound like suffering was inflicted by God to reveal God’s works. The Greek doesn’t include significant words that appear in the English and adds punctuation that isn’t Greek either. A closer translation from the Greek reads:

“Neither he nor his parents sinned. In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him.”[2] I’m gonna repeat it so you can hear it again.

“Neither he nor his parents sinned. In order that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him.”

Jesus directly answers the disciples’ question – it’s not about God’s reaction to our sin. This reminder is important because it’s on people’s minds. A few days ago, someone wondered what message God is sending through the coronavirus. This question pops across media like a beach ball across a full stadium. But, similar to the disciples in today’s story, it’s the wrong question. Jesus goes on to remind them and us that each moment is an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed. It’s about God drawing people back into relationship with each other, like the man to his community, and back into relationship with God. It’s not difficult but, oh, we make it so hard. We’re the ones who want people to get what we think they deserve. We’re the ones who aren’t loving our enemies and praying for them.[3] I’ve seen those tweets wishing coronavirus on people who’ve dropped the policy ball. Enough already. Speak truth to power, work the policy arena, love your neighbor, and love your enemy as you pray for them.

Jesus’ posture to the people around him is the posture he calls the church to take when doing God’s work. Jesus’ posture in this story doesn’t unite everyone in a round of Kumbaya and unanimous agreement (which you’ll find if you keep reading). Jesus’ posture across the story points us to the continued work of opening the fold when our instinct is to collapse inward and self-protect. In practical terms, the continued work of opening the fold are the ways we stay connected virtually, over the phone, by our generosity to those in need, dropping groceries to our oldest folks, and more. It’s energizing, I can feel it, even as I say those possibilities and as wedream them together. Here’s mud in your eye! (Just to be clear, though, don’t go be putting any spitty-mud into anyone’s eyes right now.)

That weird, spitty-mud moment so perfectly speaks into our moment as we struggle to stay connected through fear and physical distancing. We are still able to reassure each other, and the world, that God’s love is for all of us no matter what we do or don’t do. We remain valuable and beloved children of God regardless of our fear, our bad decisions, or our risk category for surviving a corona infection. The reactions and rhetoric during these times can make it harder to even remember God’s promises, much less be reassured by them.

So be reminded once more…God takes insignificant things and dignifies humanity with them.[4] God creates life from dust. Dust! In this moment with the man born blind, we are reminded that the life force that created us is bound to our fragility in the person of Jesus. We heard a few weeks ago on Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The whoosh of life, roaring like a river in between our dusty origin and our dusty end, is a gift to experience – even when we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”[5] I’ve buried too many people who wanted one more day, to ever disdain the gift even in the worst of times. But I’ve also learned that facing our end, in whatever form that will take, does not make us special. It makes us human. We so easily forget in the face of fear and trauma that our humanity, our fragility, is met by God in love through the person of Jesus, who connects us to each other and to God. For that and for all that God is doing, we can say, “Here’s mud in your eye!” And amen.

And now receive this blessing.

With the Lord as your shepherd, may you not be in want.

May your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the darkest valley.

And may goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life as the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long.  Amen.[6]

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[1] Historically Speaking. “Here’s Mud in Your Eye!”  https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/mud-in-your-eye/

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Podcast on John 9:1-41 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1240

[3] Matthew 5:44 [Jesus said] …But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…

[4] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Podcast on John 9:1-41 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1240

[5] The Psalm reading for today is Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

[6] The blessing is based on Psalm 23 in the previous footnote.

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John 9:1-41 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

Faithful Debate to Challenge Assumptions [OR Rabbinic Machloket L’shem Shemayim/Disagreement for the Sake of Heaven]

**sermon art: Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899), oil on canvas. “The story of Nicodemus visiting Christ at night spoke to African American worship habits that Tanner remembered from his youth: After emancipation, freed slaves continued to meet at night, as they had done when their masters had forbidden them to read the Bible (Mosby, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1991).”

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading; Romans and Psalm reading at end of sermon]

John 3:1-17  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

[sermon begins]

Very few of us are gifted the amount of faith we wish we had. So much so that I wonder if that’s simply a normal part of faith – wishing we had more of it. It can be high praise to be described as having a strong faith. Not many people easily admit when their faith is flimsy or freshie or completely fails them – especially after reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans that makes a big deal out of the righteousness of faith. Nicodemus has often been considered a role model of flimsy faith. “Nicodemus just doesn’t get it,” the preachers gonna preach. Well to that, I say, shake it off.[1]

Look at what Nicodemus does and doesn’t do. He does seek Jesus out. He doesn’t shame Jesus in the temple with other religious leaders. He does acknowledge that Jesus is from God and that Jesus’ signs reveal the presence of God. He doesn’t try to give a negative explanation for Jesus’ signs. He does call him a teacher. He doesn’t succumb to name calling. Respect is evident even in Nicodemus’ approach. In Rabbinic tradition, debate and questioning are a sign of respect. 2,000 years ago in Jewish Mishnah, the House of Hillel and the House of Shimmai were engaged in “Machloket L’shem Shemayim,” meaning “Disagreement for the sake of heaven.”[2] Nicodemus and Jesus are participating in the kind of faithful exchange that continues to thrive today between our Jewish cousins in the faith. We’d do well to follow their example and reject the idol we make of unanimous agreement. Disagreement for the sake of heaven preserves the minority report along with the prevailing one because both bear fruit for ongoing learning over time.[3]

Jesus and Nicodemus give us their example as two teachers questioning and debating each other. Jesus’ words are more like Wisdom teaching that doesn’t give exact answers but leads to more questions, to deeper and deeper layers of understanding.  The opening words of the Gospel of John tell us that God’s love for the world brings life and light in the Word made flesh in Jesus. Here in his story with Nicodemus, we’re also reminded in verse 17 that Jesus came not to condemn the world. Oddly enough though, Jesus followers can turn to judgment just as quickly as anyone else. I don’t know if it makes us feel smarter or more in control but judging each other seems to be a go-to move for most humans. Christians often take the good Lord’s name in vain by judging and condemning people who disagree with them in the name of God. But Jesus’ posture towards Nicodemus in this story is one that I wish the church catholic, God’s whole universal church, would embody in our posture towards each other in the faith and towards people of other faiths or non-faiths.  An audacious goal for the church and certainly not one that can simply be announced and made so as if we were Captain Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise.[4] What, then, are well-meaning church folk to do to adopt Jesus’ posture of compassionate teaching and not condemnation?  You didn’t think I’d come without an idea, did you?

The Jesus Prayer dates back to at least the 5th century in Egypt. It goes like this…

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”[5]

The Jesus Prayer can be used in a daily practice of contemplative prayer like the one recommended by Richard Carter in his book, The City is My Monastery. [6] Breathe in to the first part “Lord Jesus Christ…”, hold your breath for “Son of God…” and breath out on the last part “have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is not a prayer I’ve prayed as any kind of regular spiritual practice prior to this Lenten season. I now pray it regularly along with the breathing. This is true especially when I’m awake in the middle of the night or find myself overthinking politics, or viruses,  or kids in cages, or tornadoes in Tennessee, or my own young adult children. I pray it because it reminds me that God is present in Jesus and that God shows me mercy first.

Reflecting on that prayer, I’ve wondered about our own experience of God’s mercy allowing us to be merciful with ourselves and with other people. And that perhaps in this small individual practice and others like it along with our worship together we could actually be a church whose posture towards other folks mimics Jesus’ posture towards the people he encountered in his ministry.

Nicodemus turns up again, you know. Twice more in the Gospel of John.  In Chapter 7, he speaks up for Jesus when other religious leaders were trying to have him arrested without a just hearing.[7] Then again in Chapter 19, Nicodemus appears with 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  We don’t hear a confession of faith from Nicodemus but we do witness these additional two moments after he and Jesus had their faithful debate. I like to think Nicodemus heard things that made him question his own motives and shook his assumptions about faith. He is a bit of a hero for those of us who are drawn slowly into faith through ordinary days and dark nights of the soul. There is no single grand epiphany for Nicodemus or for many of us. Just a gradual journey that winds and meanders while pointing us in the direction of Jesus one shaken assumption at a time.

There are many things that happen in the world that shake our assumptions. You name the change, a good change or a bad change, and there are faithful people struggling to understand their faith in the midst of it. Being called to faith doesn’t mean we’re immune to change or our reactions to change. Oh, how I wish it did. A few years ago, I was sitting in my counselor’s office and, in all earnestness, told him that I just wanted a couple of months where things didn’t change. I don’t remember exactly when, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been worn out by a series of rapid-fire changes. He did what he often does and asked me whether or not I’d like to hear what he thought about my comment. To which I usually say “yes.” He leaned forward in his chair and said, “Life IS change.” Which, of course, I know but apparently had to hear again.

To that, we can add that Christian life IS change. What else would we expect?! It’s what God does. That much seems clear from Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus as we are to be born from above. Another translation of the Greek is to be born anew. Transformation is a churchy word but it’s really just a fancy word for change, for being born anew. In that Spirit, receiving this blessing:

As you are born anew each day through the daily promise of your baptism, may you be given the grace, strength, and wisdom as your assumptions are challenged, and may you encounter the wideness of God’s mercy over your going out and coming in from this time onward and forevermore.[8] Amen.

 

hymn song after the sermon:

ELW 588 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kind judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

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[1] Taylor Swift. Shake It Off. Album: 1989 (2014). Written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin, and Shellback.

[2] Daniel Roth. A short, animated video that explains: “Machloket L’shem Shemayim” – the power of constructive conflict. https://www.bimbam.com/machloket-lshem-shemayim/

[3] Leon Wieseltier. The Argumentative Jew. Winter 2015. https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/1491/the-argumentative-jew/

[4] Star Trek, The Next Generation, “Make It So” Compilation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaLyasJPyUU

[5] Read more about The Jesus Prayer here: https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Jesus%20Prayer.html

[6] Richard Carter. The City is My Monastery (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2019), 11.

[7] John 7:37-52

[8] Psalm 121:8 and ELW hymn #588 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

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Look, Listen, and Lighten Up [OR Transfiguration of the Dazzling Light and Dead Ancestors Kind] Matthew 17:1-9

**sermon art: The Transfiguration of Christ by Earl Mott (b. 1949)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 23, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

[sermon begins]

I have a Christian friend who gets on a lot of high horses about things Christians tend to do without thinking about them. In the middle of whatever roll he’s on at the moment, he’ll often wing out an alternative option to whatever thing it is that we do. One such high horse has to do with bowing our head and closing our eyes to pray. [I know, nothing is off limits to this guy.]  His take is that we should look around or up during prayer because God is out there. As with a lot of my church friends, this guy gives me challenging things to think about. So, I gave some thought to why I close my eyes when I pray, or when the psalm is chanted, or when listening to a sermon, or when singing a familiar hymn. And here’s the God’s-honest-truth. It’s just too easy for me to get distracted and start thinking about other things when I really want to focus on that one thing. I close my eyes to focus on that one thing more closely before I’m razzle-dazzled into distraction. I close my eyes to see, focusing on the other senses and allowing a moment of thought without the visual distraction.

The festival of Jesus’ Transfiguration distracts with all its dazzle. It’s one of the weirder Bible stories with the light show and the dead ancestors making an appearance.  Some people just need to get through it. Skipping the entire story and moving on to the next one. I’m going to invite a different strategy. Confronted by dazzling light, the disciples fell on the ground cowering away from the light and the voice from heaven. But Jesus came over and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  When they looked up, everything and everyone was gone but Jesus. Jesus, the Beloved Son. Jesus, the One to whom we should listen. Listening takes focus – hence that “closing our eyes to see” thing. Listening also takes a lack of fear. We don’t listen well when we’re afraid. The movie Gifted has a scene that is an example of this kind of listening.[1] A single man, Frank, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary. At one point he tells her, “No more math today” and swoops her outside for some fresh air. They’re on a beach, silhouetted by the setting sun. Mary’s twirling and bending around as Frank holds her hand. She asks about God and receives a lot of “I don’t know” replies from her uncle. He doesn’t wig out. He doesn’t try to answer when he doesn’t know the answer. He stays chill as she asks her questions. Then she says, “What about Jesus?” Her uncle answers, “Love that guy; do what he says.”  Frank’s answer doesn’t come from a place of faith for the character. Just a calm and honest reply, “Love that guy; do what he says.”

The uncle’s words parallel the voice from the heavens that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.”  The uncle’s words. “Love that guy; do what he says.”  The Hebrew understanding of the word “listen” is linked to obedience – listening to obey what is heard.[2]  “Love that guys; do what he says.” What’s first thing Jesus says after the heavenly voice speaks? “Get up and do not be afraid.” Part of what we do for each other in worship together is exactly Jesus’ reminder. Week after week we remind each other to get up and not be afraid. Not because things aren’t scary. Not because we shouldn’t take our suffering neighbor seriously. But because Jesus calls us into life free of fear. In essence, Jesus tells us to look up and lighten up as we follow him into dire situations on behalf of our neighbor.

We’ve been in the season of Epiphany since after Christmas. Epiphany emphasizes the light of Christ shining in the darkness and now crescendos to a close today on a mountaintop in dazzling light. During this season, together we’ve confessed weekly in worship that, “We look to other lights to find our way.” The reason I mention this here is because we often look for light in all the wrong places to decrease fear. And there are so many shiny, dazzling lights out there promising to fix our fear or at least distract us from it. There are also the shiny, distracting lights out there that stoke our fear and tell us who to blame for it so that we both excuse ourselves from helping the people we feel don’t deserve our help and we need never look at the good, bad, and ugly of ourselves.  We humans can be so clever that way, blinding ourselves to the very things that Jesus calls us to see and do.

On the mountaintop, dazzled by Jesus’ light today, many of us wonder if there’s anything to the Transfiguration. Pausing on top of this mountain before our six-week journey through Lent to the cross that sits on a different hill.[3]  It’s one thing for Jesus to tell us to lighten up and to not be afraid. It’s another thing entirely to figure out being fearless together. And believe you me, figuring out fearless Jesus following in a 21st century urban setting full of shiny distractions is often a group project. So, what’s one thing a Jesus loving congregation can do? We’re going to roll down this dazzling mountain into Lent and into a book and conversation called “The City is My Monastery” by Richard Carter.

The good Reverend Carter is an Episcopalian priest who was trying to understand a life of faith in the razzle-dazzle of downtown London to live more deeply into the promises of peace offered by Jesus.[4] He found himself in London after living monastically for 15 years in the Solomon Islands. After the peace and quiet of the islands, he began to question if feeling the peace of Christ and the presence of God was possible in the 24/7 sirens and other city noise, in his ministry to the homeless and refugees, and in the bustling wonder of living among so many other humans. Out of his own monastic practices, he suggests rules of life that are actually life-giving. Prayers, stories, and ideas that hope to inspire our own faith and ideas, to discover the deeper values and the things that give us life.  Whether or not you read the book, there will be facilitated conversations between worship services or after 10:30 worship over soup to dig deeper into these rules of life together and ask questions along the way.

Loving Jesus, listening to him, and doing what he says can be a dicey proposition because for so many people it quickly becomes a way of validating ourselves and invalidating other people.  Rather than lightening up, we become heavy-handed and perpetuate the very fear that Jesus frees us from. The Transfiguration, in its weird, dramatic dazzle, is a moment in Jesus’ story that defies any attempt at certainty because it is pure mystery. The time-space continuum bends as ancestors and friends share space and light on the top of mountain. Whether we close or open our eyes, the Transfiguration resists explanation while drawing us to the light of God in Jesus and reminding us to look up, listen up, and lighten up.

Amen.

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[1] Gifted. (2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndaomDF4DMY

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Podcast for the Transfiguration on February 23, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232

[3] Ash Wednesday is Wednesday, February 26 this year. Lent ends April 11 with Easter on April 12.

[4] Richard Carter swapped a life of simplicity with an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands for parish ministry in one of London’s busiest churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Here’s a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaK6l4_Dqf8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0j4au_LTkGekE-o8lbvzzSN0xyZ-pHXjxKeR1ZDdFoyYwKEfb4lGlFYqM

A Celebration of Life for Liz Heins (1935 – 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020

Psalm 23   The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

John 10:14-18 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

[sermon begins]

 

Liz and I shared a time of prayer the day before she died.  Our Parish Nurse, Sue Ann, had visited in the days prior. They sang hymns and selected Liz’s favorites for today’s service. Sue Ann knew that Liz’s body didn’t have many days left to live.  When I walked in her room and said her name, she woke right up and smiled, saying “hi” in welcome. I reminded her who I was, and she said she remembered me.  She said that, yes, she’d like the prayers that we pray in people’s last days.  She reached out and gently held my hand as the prayers unfolded during the next several minutes, speaking several words of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with me.  Truly, it was one of the sweetest end-of-life moments I’ve encountered over the last 30 years. It was made all the more sweet because I’ve known Liz for the last seven years. Many of us here today knew her to be a tough, straight-talking person without much of a need to soft-shoe anything she had to say.

A few days after she died, Rich and I were able to share the wonder of those last weeks of Liz’s life that seemed to soften her. After months of decline, there was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life. But the conversation also felt like a pause. A pause that allowed some time to reflect on how Liz moved through the world for so many years and how that shifted and softened.  In a few hand-written letters that Rich gave Sue Ann, it was touching to read how much one of her students missed her after the student moved away.  It’s good to remember all the facets of Liz as she lived her 84 years.

It’s good to remember because there’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He doesn’t tally.  If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask, “Have I done enough to make myself right with God?!”  It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love as Jesus lays his life down. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, because we have peace and grace we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Liz into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Liz.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

Daring to Gather Around the Light (OR Perspective of Great Age, Suffering and Peace) Luke 2:22-40

**sermon art: Simeon en Anna by Jan van ‘t Hoff b.1959

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

February 2, 2020 – Presentation of Our Lord and Candlemas

[sermon begins after Bible reading; it’s a meaty story – hang in there]

 

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

[sermon begins]

When I was a kid, not sure quite how old, I was walking down the street with my grandmother. Time alone with Grammops feels like it was rare. She could be a little intimidating too – almost regal in her bearing. I used to joke that if you had the manners to dine with Grammops, you could easily dine with the Queen. Walking alongside Grammops, armed with the ignorance of youth, I dared to ask how old she was. She told me that it was NOT a question to be asked, her body language speaking volumes, and we just kept right on walking. Clearly her response made an impression since I remember this story. I wished she’d simply said, “Caitlin, I am of a great age” and kept right on walking. A “great age” is how our Bible story describes the prophet Anna who lived in the Temple. So, to our friends of a great age, feel free to use this one. If someone asks you what it means you can tell them to check out the Bible’s second chapter of Luke in the 36th verse. Not only will it be Biblically accurate, you can also remain mysterious about said great age if that’s how you roll.

Anna and Simeon’s great age, in contrast with the 40-day-old baby Jesus, is part of what I love about this story. Artwork inspired by this Bible story captures the smooth newborn and the texture of age along with a radiant light. The contrast also frames a faithful perspective on peace and suffering. Simeon scoops Jesus into his arms and celebrates God’s long-awaited promise fulfilled with a song of peace. In the next breath, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will piece her own soul too.” (Probably not what you want to hear when you’re a first-time mom showing off your new baby in the Temple.)[1]

The widow prophet Anna follows Simeon’s speech with her own praise and talks about Jesus to anyone who would listen. Contrasts are vividly shaped in a matter of moments – old and young; life and death; peace and soul-piercing pain. Two faithful people of great age in the story are an audacious portrait of peace and suffering. You don’t arrive at a great age without experiencing things that you wish you hadn’t. Perhaps Anna and Simeon’s perspective can lead us to dare similarly, to gather around the light when death is ever present in the world.[2]

The light of Christ is part of what is celebrated annually on February 2 in the festival of Presentation of Our Lord and the accompanying ritual of Candlemas, also celebrated today. Blessing candles for use this evening and year-round invokes Simeon’s words as he held Jesus and praised God for “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The candlelight reminds us that the light of Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not overcome it.[3] Anna and Simeon lead by their example of showing up in sacred space where God’s promise is more readily remembered. They would find it hard to imagine how counter-cultural it is in the 21st century to self-identify as religious.

Religious ritual helps us to remember our center when the culture at large fails to do so. The grief for Kobe Bryant’s death is one such moment. The many layers and voices in the mix of what happened to Mr. Bryant, his daughter, and the other people in the helicopter make it difficult for us to remember that all of them are beloved children of God.  As the two women (not of a great age) in our congregation, who died recently and unexpectedly in different situations on the same day are also beloved children of God. As the people that you’ve lost to death and on your hearts and minds are also beloved children of God. And, as such, there is nothing they could do or not do to make God love them any more or any less.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross, hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s refusal to raise a hand in violence against the world God so loves. The empty tomb of Easter, also hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s promise to swallow death up into God, into holy rest with all the company of the saints in light perpetual. It’s tough to remember all those words when we need to hear them. It’s not tough to light a candle, say our loved ones’ names in prayer, and to remember God’s promise of love and light in Jesus – to comfort the afflicted with peace that passes all our understanding and to remember that we dare to gather around the light when death is ever present in our world.

Simeon’s praise and speech doesn’t end once he announces his own peace. He keeps right on going. Anna also keeps right on talking to all who will listen. Apparently, even at a great age, there’s more for them to say about Jesus. Do they keep going because there is little time to waste? Or do they keep going because their perspective gives them a vantage point that people of a lesser age can’t see? Regardless, our 21st century world of media and nation states would be unimaginable to them. Our ability to impact our world through a representative government would shock them. But the call of Jesus to disrupt any status quo – private, political, local, global, or otherwise – that ignores the pain of our neighbor remains the same.[4]

Anna and Simeon are saints in the faith as their stories are recorded in Luke for us to learn and gain strength from. We can look to them anytime or anticipate this day annually on February 2. Their story is easy to find. Whether you’re afflicted and needing comfort or whether you’re too comfortable and need to be agitated out of that comfort for your own good or for the good of your neighbor, the day that Jesus was presented in the Temple is your day. Jesus shows up both as a promise of peace and as a sign that will be opposed; as both a consoler and an agitator. We are people of faith drawn together by the Holy Spirit, daring to gather around the light when death and suffering are ever present in our world. Jesus, our light, our life and our peace, leads us on the journey.  Amen.

______________________________________________________

Blessing for your home candles (Adapted  by Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake from ELW Occasional Services)

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, O God, creator of the universe, for you have enriched our lives with every good gift, and you have invited us to praise you with lives of love, justice, and joy.

Send your blessing on these candles, which we set apart today; may they be to us a sign of Christ, the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

To you, O God, be all glory and honor through your Son, Jesus Christ,in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave on Luke 2:22-40. December 25, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=252

[2] Ibid. David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.

[3] An emphatic paraphrase of John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

[4] Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Celebrating the Life of Cindy Brogren (August 21, 1946 – January 19, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on January 31, 2020

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 25:7-9 And [the Lord of hosts] will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

John 14:1-7  [Jesus said] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

[sermon begins]

Cindy’s warmth and encouragement seemed in endless supply through the years and across her relationships. Especially as a mother, she had a knack for knowing just how to encourage Katie and Anton in many situations. Her support carried all kinds of people through difficult times. This was true from her closest relationships to people she didn’t even know. When I walked into her hospital room on the Sunday afternoon she died, stories were already being told about her way of getting into the mix of people needing help. If fact, the family’s invitation to give in honor of Cindy to Metro Caring, a frontline anti-hunger organization in Denver, aligns with how she moved through the world.  Curt puts it this way, “Cindy had unconditional love; she didn’t judge, she served.”  Such love and support come from not only strength but also from the clarity of one’s own imperfection.  You see, clarity about one’s own imperfection frees grace for someone else’s imperfection. Out of that clarity of faith comes an awareness of just how much God must love us.

Because Cindy’s death was unexpected, the stories about her that reflect who you each knew her to be are so important. Not to idealize perfection but rather to continue loving her in the fullness of herself – loving her in the way she loved others. When I pray out loud with people, I often say a prayer of thanksgiving for the way God shows God’s love for us through other people.  Cindy was one such person through whom a small fraction of the love that God has for us was experienced. In that spirit, remember to offer grace to yourselves and each other in the coming days and weeks as the experience of her loss shifts in and out of focus.

In the Bible story from John 14, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus often said things like this when he knew that the people around him were definitely troubled. He acknowledges the truth of the troubled moment. I don’t know how easy it was for Jesus to offer encouragement to un-trouble ourselves.  I do know that it’s easy for us to get lost in the details of Jesus’ words just like Thomas. Jesus promises to prepare a place and Thomas unravels. In effect he asks, “Way?  What way?  Where?  How will we know?”  It is tempting to think that we have to know and prove the way, be able to explain the way and point ourselves in the right direction on the right way. There’s an additional temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, positioning them in right relationship with God with a list of the good.  In effect, we try to create the way – as if the life and virtues of a person can be mixed into cement of sorts, paving the way between us and God.

But if Jesus’ death on a cross means anything, it means that God is neither in the sin accounting business nor the proof of worthiness business.  Earlier in the Gospel, in John 3:17, we hear the promise that God did NOT send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, or what Cindy did, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  Because what Jesus does, is promise that there is nothing Cindy could do or not do to make God love Cindy any more or any less.

Listen again to Jesus’ promise to Thomas in his distress, Jesus’ promise to those of us who grieve.  Listen to how many things Jesus is doing, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  Jesus makes a promise and Thomas immediately panics.  “Ahhh, what about WHAT I’M supposed to be doing?!”  Jesus replies, “I am the way” – which can be heard as Jesus saying to us, “It is not about you doing anything, it is all about what I do for you.”  It’s like Jesus reminding us that, “There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.”

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus who came not to condemn the world but to save the world that God so loves.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer which means that the cross meets our grief with hope – allowing space at the foot of the cross for sadness and loss while also celebrating the goodness of life in the person who died.

Christians will sometimes refer to living on “this side of the cross.”  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves. The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love. The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures. Those are hard truths, but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when God, as Isaiah writes, “will swallow up death forever…and will wipe away the tears from all faces.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Cindy into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cindy.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

 

 

 

Reflections on Remembrance with Kavod Residents in Denver

Caitlin Trussell with Kavod Senior Life Residents on January 27, 2020

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

[Remarks begin after the introduction]

Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav invited me to participate in the January 27 commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day with our neighbors at Kavod Senior Life in Cherry Creek. The residents and rabbis told powerful stories about their own memories of survival and of loved ones who died in the Holocaust. This included Sarah Moses who talked about being liberated in 1945 from the Bergen-Belsen death camp when she was seven years old. She’s now Denver’s youngest death camp survivor at 88 years old. I was able to bring Augustana’s greetings of solidarity and love as well as reflect on the significance of remembering. Feel free to ask about this or other ways to support our Jewish and interfaith neighbors.  Augustana’s CAN Ministry (Compassion and Action with our Neighbors) will also put the word out about future events.]

[Remarks begin]

It is good to be here…to bring you greetings of solidarity and love from your neighbors, the good sinner-saints of Augustana Lutheran Church down the road on Alameda.

It is good to be here…to personally celebrate the Jewish part of my family, my sister-in-law Robin, my nieces Camden and Lindsay, my nephew Noah, and my brother Kevin who converted to join them as a Jew.

It is good to be here…to gather, to remember, to grieve, and to celebrate life, in the face of the Holocaust that stole 6 million Jewish lives and 11 million lives of so many other people while traumatizing millions and millions more who lived in its aftermath.

It is good to be here…to be visibly in relationship across faiths to say never again and celebrate all life. Saying “never again” as we choose to be here together when we could be spending our time elsewhere.

It is good to be here as a Christian…to rightfully confess that some Christians were either complicit by their silence or collaborating with the violence; but also to celebrate that some Christians worked subversively and bravely to save the lives of neighbors and strangers alike. It is good to be here as a Christian to be reminded that Jesus calls us to act wisely and compassionately for the well-being of our Jewish neighbors because we know what the pain looks like when we fail to do so.

It is good to be here as a human…to be together in defiant hope and gentle candlelight; to be together today as we grieve, as we heal, and as we remember. It is good to be here. Amen.

 

 

 

Faithful Thursdays: My Remarks for the Transforming Justice Team of Together Colorado

Caitlin Trussell for Faithful Thursday (Denver) on January 23, 2020

[Faithful Thursdays is a diverse coalition of leaders, organizations and community members whose focus is to advance a faith narrative and collaborative process that supports human dignity, promotes equity, and eradicates racism in Colorado. Multi-faith public events are held every other Thursday at or near the Colorado State Capitol throughout the 2020 legislative session and are open to anyone who would like to attend. Learn more at faithfulthursdays.org]

There were other people presenting about their concerns related to Criminal Justice Reform and Mass Incarceration. Here are my remarks:

As the descendant of slave owners, I’m convicted by how easily people excuse what they would call “normal” or even “necessary evils” and how slavery is shaped both deliberately and insidiously into new forms. Mass incarceration is the new form of slavery in our present time – especially for brown and black folks. It takes will, persistence, and demand to eradicate slavery in whatever form it takes. The will to be in relationship across differences of skin color and faith traditions; the persistence that creates power, and the demand that things change. In the spirit of will, persistence, and change, I share with you Together Colorado’s Transforming Justice Team’s vision statement.

“Together Colorado’s Transforming Justice Team is a multi-faith community working towards a vision of a merciful, rehabilitative justice system that maintains the hope and human dignity of every person within it, on all sides of the law. From the beginning of any encounter with law enforcement officers, through jails, the courts, prisons, and back into life outside, every step of the system must be radically devoted to the healing and restoration of all those who are part of it. We are organizing for a transformed justice system that reckons with and undoes its role in upholding the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and that insists on equitable care for all persons inside and outside of that system.”

With our vision leading us, Together Colorado Transforming Justice Team’s goal is to reduce the prison population in Colorado by 40 % in the next 10 years.  We will achieve that goal by working on the three pillars that hold up the Criminal Justice System – cops, courts, and cages. From the first interaction with law enforcement including apprehending, arresting, and detaining people who are presumed guilty; to the channeling of people through cash bail, plea bargaining, and sentencing; to the warehousing of these folks in massive buildings designed to dehumanize or banding their ankles with the shackles of community corrections; we have the will, we are persistent, and we demand change especially for the black and brown folks who disproportionately represent this new evolution of slavery.

During the next couple of weeks, Together Colorado will determine which pieces of legislation the entire organization will empower for change. Stay tuned for ways to use your will and persistence to demand change through upcoming legislation.

God’s Gift Unboxed by the Wise Men, A Sermon for Epiphany – Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi, c.1894 (oil on canvas), Tissot, James Jacques Joseph (1836-1902) / Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 5, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

Boxes. Sometimes pretty in their own right, boxes usually hold other things – storing things like grits or jewelry; or moving things like books or refrigerators. There are classes about designing boxes. Boxes are big business. Don’t even get me started on the packaging inside. That’s a whole other level. Here’s what started me thinking about boxes, especially in these days of Christmas and giving gifts to children. We carefully pick out something special for a kid, then pack it and wrap it for Christmas. The gift is given, the paper torn off, the gift is plucked out of the box and then ignored while the box is played with for days. It makes me wonder if, like other kids his age, Jesus played with the boxes that held the gifts from the wise men, ignoring the presents inside.[1] He was two years old or less according to the stories about big bad King Herod.[2]  Toddler Jesus likely had little interest in the wise men’s presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the boxes, now those would be a real treat. Stacking, climbing on, and filling them with dirt could occupy a good amount of time for self-respecting toddlers in any century.  In the 21st century, the crème-de-la-crème of boxes is the appliance box that transforms into a fort or a ship or a special hiding place.

There was no such hiding place for Jesus and his family. Apparently, they couldn’t quite miss being found with that torchlight of a star in the sky.  At least, the wise men found them and were able to drop off their gifts and ooohh and aaahh over Jesus before leaving. Herod had more trouble locating the toddler. The wise men ended up slipping out of town by a different road to avoid ratting out the holy family to the frightened King Herod.  The strange people from the East journeyed a long time for a quick visit. One thing their arrival signifies is that the very young Jesus is now revealed to more people than just his family and more people than Jews. Specifically, the wise men’s arrival reveals Jesus to the nations.  Note that the people bearing gifts are really the ones who found the gift of Jesus in a home – like opening another big box if you stop and think about it.  Yeah, I know, the box thing has a hold.

You know when you open a present partway and then you get an inkling of what’s in the box. Maybe you asked for something special. Or someone heard you mention something you’d really like a few months ago and they remembered.  You tear open the wrapping, slash through layers of tape (cuz if you’re a Trussell, you tape the heck out of the box as if the thing inside could escape by itself), you lift one box top panel to see something you recognize but didn’t for a moment expect and it was different than what you remember and maybe the better for your fuzzy memory. I wonder if the wise men had any of that anticipation and reaction. The star signaled something big. How could it not create anticipation as they journeyed? On departure, something special was clearly afoot because their dream protected the toddler and sent them out of their way to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod who was trapped in the even bigger box of his palace filled with fear. Herod may not have understood the complexity of what was happening, but he knew that that wise men showing up was problematic for him. Power emerging from within his empire but outside of himself must, indeed, have felt frightening.  It’s difficult to imagine those early rumblings of a faith that currently claims two billion followers. Herod’s imagination worked just fine.

Because Christianity is now a worldwide religion, it’s hard to remember that it began as an Eastern one – the original language was Greek; John, the gospel writer lived and died in Asia Minor; most of Paul’s work was in the fertile crescent also known as the Orient or Southwest Asia or the Middle East depending on your vantage point.[3] It was from the east the wise men came and into the east they arrived. The story is known to us and become westernized through our experience that it’s easy to forget the geography. Because Christmas has become a central holiday in the West, it’s hard to remember that Epiphany is centuries older than Christmas. The festival originated in Egypt and traditionally celebrated these events: the birth of Jesus, the wise men, the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus turning water into wine.[4]  In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is called the primary feast of the Incarnation (what we know as Christmas).  It had little to do with Jesus’ birth in early Christianity.[5]  We tend to get so locked in our box of time that it’s hard to imagine how our siblings in the faith may have experienced it differently and continue to experience it differently.

Kinda funny when you think about it. Epiphany is the manifestation of God shining to the nations through Jesus. The wise men embody the arrival of wisdom from the east paying homage to his arrival, kneeling deeply in reverence to the toddler King. The box is opened, the gift unleashed upon all people, and what do the people do? Well, they argue.  Argue about who Jesus is; who Jesus loves; who Jesus saves, doesn’t save, and what saves means. Honestly, we can make the shining gift of Jesus into the worst of ourselves. I’m not sure why that’s compelling and why we feel the need to do so. But we do it.  It’s like we can’t believe that the gift of Jesus isn’t one of our own making. We act like the birth-baptism-crucifixion-death-to-new-life-thing can be contained and taped securely by our wants, likes, and dislikes, or, worse, conforms to the shape of our self-interests and hatreds.  Odd how we want to close the lid on God’s love for the world and God’s forgiveness of sins.[6] Fortunately, for us and for the world, we’re not in charge of God’s gift unboxed to the nations so long ago.

Epiphany reminds us that the darkness inside our self-constructed boxes isn’t as powerful as the light marked by a star. Baptized into that light, we shine the light of Christ through good works so that God in heaven may be glorified. God builds our anticipation through the gift of Jesus and, on Epiphany, through the toddler Jesus who is reverenced by the strangers from a far-off land who seem to understand against all odds. Those of us in the West can give thanks for the wise men from the East who made a journey bearing gifts to the One who doesn’t fit in any box. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] “Scholars Now Believe Jesus Ignored Magi’s Gifts, Just Played With The Boxes They Came In (Satire).” December 26, 2019. Babylon Bee. https://babylonbee.com/news/biblical-scholars-claim-jesus-ignored-gold-frankincense-myrrh-just-played-with-the-boxes-they-came-in

[2] See Matthew 2:13-23.

[3] Christopher Hill. Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. (Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2003), 93.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 1:21

Christmas Day: Defiant Hope at the Speed of Light – John 1:1-14

**sermon art: Barbara Barnes, Untitled

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:1-14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And 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, at the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at just about the shortest day 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 combined from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christian faith 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.

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 at the very beginning of the Bible.[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 quiet story of a holy family, 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 heady and 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 – vulnerable, tiny newborn 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 understand it, in part, by way of our experience.

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.  Into these real struggles, this darkness, 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, fragile white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful. Life was good and fun and quickly 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 who finally joined the angels on Christmas Eve.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  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 and celebrating the baby Jesus. A few years ago, my mother and her third husband Larry gave the angels to me.  I think about those angels and my family’s story – the good, bad, and ugly.  I think about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle personally in families and collectively in world-wide crises. I also think about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – in bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But think about how fast 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. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things in the good, bad, and ugly.  We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as porcelain. Today, Christmas Day, the glimmer of light from the manger feels like a defiant hope. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [can not, never will] overcome it.” Amen and Merry Christmas!

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[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