Shattering, Living Good News [Bible Books of Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31

**Shattered-Glass Art by Baptiste Debombourg at Brauweiler Abbey, Benedictine Monastery, Cologne, Germany

Caitlin Trussell with New Beginnings Worshipping Community at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on October 12, 2018; and with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 14, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Hebrews 4:12-16  Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Mark 10:17-31  As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

[sermon begins]

Nursing school is full of the unimaginable.  Procedures, bed pans, and math, lots of math.  Many of these experiences are served up on rotations.  Time is spent alternating through locked psych wards, labor and delivery units, and surgical suites.  It’s that last one, surgery, that caught my 19 year old self off guard.  Stay calm…I’m not going to get graphic about it.  I was excited.  Truly couldn’t imagine anything more cool than being in an operating room.  Then and now, surgery seems on that magical side of medicine reserved for the few, the bold, and the people who can stand on their feet for hours.  The O.R. nurse in charge of me gave me the skinny on how things work as she gave me the scrubs and papery hat and shoe covers.  I talked about it for days leading up to it.  I was set. Unflappable in my own mind.  Doing my best to live up to my long time book heroine, nurse extraordinaire, Cherry Ames.  Based on this build-up, you might be starting to imagine what came next.  I was on my feet, trying to get a better view.  The surgery began, there were the odd sensations as my composure shattered, and I must have turned white as a sheet because the scrub nurse flagged down the circulating nurse who took me out of O.R. and into a chair to regroup.  I was able to go back in but I was given a place to sit with a lesser view than standing.  Humbled, and turns out, quite flappable. Things just didn’t go the way I thought they would.

Things didn’t go the way the faith community described in Hebrews thought they would either.  No one knows who wrote Hebrews except God.[1]  (Although mystery-solving nurse, Cherry Ames could probably figure it out.)  It gets clumped in with the other New Testament letters because of the closing verses but it doesn’t follow the format.  It’s closer to a sermon.  Hebrews begins poetically, similar to the opening of the Gospel of John, in the verses we heard last week:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.[2]

The book of Hebrews reminds listeners about God. Not just any God. This is a God who speaks through prophets and now, more specifically, through a Son.[3]  The verses we hear this week bring God’s speaking more sharply in focus.  Precision focus.  One might even say God’s word is surgical precision.  Listen to verse 12 again:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[4]

We hear in this verse about a living word that is sharper than any sword, dividing soul from spirit, joint from marrow.  Is it any wonder that a scalpel comes to mind?

Living Word is a helpful way to consider what the Bible is doing.  Last Sunday, I met with people in the Discover Augustana class who are learning about the ministry of this congregation and what joining that ministry as members might mean. I cover several topics during our time together and one of them is the idea of Living Word as it relates to the Bible.  For this conversation we use Daniel Erlander’s book called Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.[5]  In 28 pages, Reverend Erlander summarizes worship, scripture, cross, and more.  The pages on scripture include the Living Word.  A Word that is neither a science textbook nor follows modern journalism standards, but rather a Word that works on each one of us, shattering our ideas and our very selves so that new life may grow in dark places inside of us.  The drawing in the book is a large arrow of Living Word blasting through scattered squares of bits and remnants.  Perhaps Reverend Erlander thought that the description in Hebrews of the sharpened Living Word dividing “soul from spirit” and “joints from marrow” leaving all creatures “naked and laid bare” to the eyes of God would be too graphic to convey in a drawing meant for personal study or Sunday school classes.  But he does convey the point that the Living Word of God acts upon us.  In the words from Hebrews, “…it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” and bares us before “the one to whom we must render an account.”[6]

And no one felt this more sharply than the man kneeling before Jesus in the gospel reading from Mark.  A man who thinks he knows what is required of him.  A man who likely thinks he’s going to get affirmation from Jesus that he’s on the right track, the God track, the eternal life track.  But what does Jesus do?  Jesus ups the ante.

Jesus, looking at [the man], loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”[7]

In this story, Jesus judges the man’s “thoughts and the intentions of [his] heart.”  The man can render no account that justifies himself before God. The man is attached to things more than he is attached to God. In essence, Jesus is telling the man that the “doing” is God’s alone.  God does the impossible. God saves human creatures. Human creatures do not save themselves.  This is good news.  The hard news is that in God’s economy there are priorities.  God’s grace is not a carte blanche to do whatever we want to do and ignore vulnerable people – particularly people without financial resources.  The man kneeling at Jesus’ feet goes away grieving because he knows that his priorities aren’t lining up with what he’s just been told.  There’s no way to pretty that up.  It’s part of the Christian challenge.  It’s a Living Word that works on us, shattering our composure, and pointing us towards God’s economy.

A couple things to notice here.  In verse 31, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  Notice that no one is booted out of that line or voted off the island.  There’s a rearranging that reveals the priorities of God’s economy but no one is left behind.  And the other thing to notice is in verse 21. Jesus “looking at [the man], loved him.”  The man is the only person singled out in the Gospel of Mark as being loved by Jesus.[8]  We don’t get to know the end of his story.  Perhaps his open-ended story is a way for us to see ourselves as the story’s closers, to hear a call of obedience as Jesus followers that we hadn’t considered before or feel stronger to respond to now.  It’s a good time to pause and feel uncomfortable because we tend to make quick moves toward grace when we get uncomfortable.  An alternative is to live in the discomfort of not measuring up and actually pray our confessions knowing that our sin is as real as God’s grace.  When we see our sin as real, when we own it, there’s the chance to be freed from it.  The promise of confession is begins in verse 14 of Hebrews:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

This promise emboldens our shattering by the Living Word who is Jesus.  Jesus our priest who sympathizes with our weakness and does not hold it against us.  People who’ve experienced this shattering, of having soul divided from spirit and joint from marrow, know the freedom of that shattering.  The freedom of knowing our limitations and our sin. The freedom of “[receiving] mercy and [finding] grace to help in time of need.”  Because it is that freedom that reminds us that we are children of God. Heirs of what Christ has done. Not inheriting because of what we do or not inheriting because of what we didn’t do.  Rather, we live as free people drawn into obedience to God by the Living Word who lives in us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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[1] Craig R. Koester, Professor and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament, Luther Seminary.  Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 for October 7, 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3790

[2] Hebrews 1:1-3 (check out John 1:1-3a and 14, to ponder the parallels.)

[3] Craig R. Koester, Commentary on Hebrews 4:12-16 for October 14, 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3796

[4] Hebrews 4:12

[5] Daniel Erlander. Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life. (Daniel Erlander Publications, 1995), 11.

[6] Hebrews 4:12-13

[7] Mark 10:21

[8] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Editor, Lutheran Forum, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Mark 10:17-31 for October 14, 2018 on Working Preacher.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3795

 

Jesus’ Side-Fives and Fury Are All of A Peace as Prairie Rose Seminole Encourages and Challenges Mark 9:38-50, James 5:13-20, and Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 30, 2018

[sermon begins after one Bible reading. The other two readings may be found at the end of the sermon]

Mark 9:38-50 John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 44 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. , 46 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

[sermon begins]

Running. There are people who love running. The sound of shoed feet hitting the pavement. The sound of breath. The joy of movement. Then you have people like one of my gym friends who says that running makes him die a little inside. Or, like me, whose sprint looks suspiciously similar to jogging it out. Last week, we had a workout of the day that included a 400 meter run at the start of each of the four rounds. During the second run, a couple of the faster runners each threw out an encouraging word and a side five – you know, like a high-five but out to the side – as they ran past me on their way back to the gym. I felt so encouraged that I ran 100 meters past the turnaround point before realizing my snafu. I was joking after the workout that we should think about handing out side-fives at work and in grocery store aisles.  Like, “Good job with the eggs!”  Or, “Way to go scoring that broccoli!”  How good would THAT feel?!  You know, once you got past the weirdness of being high-fived in Produce.  A little encouragement at any point in the day goes a long way.

Encouragement is a common way that many people experience Jesus day-to-day. Jesus cheering us on. Jesus carrying us. Jesus suffering when we suffer. Those stories are compelling and accurate to scripture. Then there’s the Jesus we get in today’s Bible readings. He is mad.  Maybe better to say that he’s furious. He’s had it with his followers arguing with each other about who’s the greatest and completely losing track of the main things. And the main thing in the 9th chapter of Mark’s Gospel is the vulnerable child.

Jesus is still holding that kid preached about by Pastor Ann last week. The baby left by the side of the road by a family with too many mouths to feed. The one picked up by Jesus, planted in the middle of his followers, and then scooped up again in his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[1] Jesus still has a hold of that kid as he continues talking to them in the verses we hear today. Jesus’ words about the child are ringing in the air and what do the 12 followers do?  They change the subject.

They change the subject to other people. “But, Jesus, what about those other people, doing that other thing in your name?!”  Jesus responds with “these little ones” like the one in his arms.  Don’t “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” he says.  Jesus’ words make me think about Prairie Rose Seminole’s keynote talks at Synod Theological Conference two weeks ago.[2]  Ms. Seminole is Program Director of American Indian Alaskan Native Ministries for the ELCA.[3] She is an enrolled tribal member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, descendent of the Sahnish/Arikara, Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Nations through her Indian father and also of German Russian heritage through her white Lutheran mother.

Ms. Seminole talked about a lot things. She encouraged us toward conversation and actions that neither romanticize the American Indian experience nor idealize migrant Europeans looking for religious freedom at the expense of Indian lives nor immobilizes white folks in the ditch of guilt and shame.  Tough balance but if anyone could help us get there it’s people like her.  She also talked about her own experience of Indian Boarding Schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.[4]  Schools that first opened in the 1870s with the explicit goal of being a “solution to the Indian Problem…To “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”[5]

The Indian Boarding Schools were founded by Army officer Richard Pratt who designed them after the education he developed for Indian prisons.  The schools were still going strong through the early 1970s.  People my age have vivid memories of these schools – the corporal punishment, the labor, and the childhoods lived without parents.  Jesus’ words about putting “a stumbling block before one of these little ones” take on a different tone in light of Indian Boarding Schools.  And now, today, in light of migrating families separated at the border by federal officers.  Have we learned nothing?

I ate dinner with several friends last weekend who represent the spectrum of American politics.  We agreed that separating immigrant families is out of line regardless of when such a policy was put on paper and when it was acted on – as if any of that matters when children’s lives hang in the balance. Trauma, especially in childhood, often generates lifelong problems.  As people of the United States, we are responsible for acts committed in the name of our country.  So what is a person sitting in Sunday worship to do?  Fortunately, there’s not far to look.

Jesus’ rhetorical one-two punch about it being better to drown, or to lose a hand, a foot, or an eye rather than put a stumbling block before a little one, is a good place to start.  We’re as attached to our body parts as we’re attached to our self-absorbed sins.  We take both for granted and barely give them a second thought until we’re made aware of them.  If history teaches us anything, it’s that we often act on self-interest, camouflaged as caution, and end up hurting a bunch of people in the process.  The better angels of our nature occasionally prevail but they often hit obstacles.[6]  The first obstacle is the idea of ourselves as “good people.”  It’s tough to uncover sin camouflaged by self-described “good people.”

I’ve thought about this notion of “good people” in my families’ history of owning slaves.  My family justified slavery as “good people” and Christians. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was justified as necessary caution by self-described “good people.”  Although then the script was flipped.  It was lone Colorado Governor Ralph Carr of the Republicans speaking out against President Roosevelt and the Democrats.[7]  Here’s a shocker. No political party has a corner on the market of inflicting pain.  Why is that?  Because there are people involved.

Lutheran Christians have pretty low expectations when it comes to people. Especially when those same people are arguing about being the greatest like Jesus’ followers were. Especially when those same people create institutions in which accountability is tossed around like a hot potato rather than naming it and confessing sin. Confessing sin opens up the possibility for something different to happen.  It would be cool if we could get ahead of the curve and prevent some of our country’s institutional sins.  Alas, it is sadly rare.  So, we are left today with Jesus’ fury, and an invitation to confession.

Today’s reading from the book of James urges our confession with these words, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”  This means that first we have to see our sin for what it is.  That’s a painful process for self-described “good people” but not nearly as painful as the sin we inflict on other people or, even worse, the sin we inflict on children.

Remember that gym encouragement I talked at the beginning of this sermon?  It was more than a way into these scripture readings.  When we confess together and hear absolution, we also puzzle through how to better care for our neighbors – especially these last couple weeks when the scripture lifts up vulnerable children.  A few months ago this meant that you all gave $3,500 dollars to the reunification ministry of Lutheran Family Services and ELCA congregations in El Paso, Texas.  This reunification ministry houses and feeds parents and children for brief periods as they’re reunited by the federal government. 35 families were touched by your gifts. Way to go on that ministry (side-five)!

Encouraging each other to connect and help people in pain is something we do as the communion of sinners and saints.  When we’re the ones causing the pain, the encouragement we give each other to confess and to listen to people affected by our sin is critical. Sharing the peace during worship represents connecting, listening and acting to make things right. Sharing the peace is a bit like those side-fives at the gym – helping us connect as bodies through our separation, through the limits we create.

If today’s readings from the books of Mark, James, and Numbers have anything in common, it’s that God reserves the right to break through the limits we create. God reserves the right to work through people who mystify us – whether those people prophecy outside proper channels in Numbers, or deeds of power done by people outside the authorized structure in Mark, or sinners who wander in James. It is good news that God through Jesus is constantly pushing us toward concern for other people, especially today for children, through very surprising sources. Seasoning the planet with people outside of our own experience to challenge us to notice and care for vulnerable children, and as Jesus says, to “be at peace with one another.”[8] Thanks be to God!

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[1] Mark 9:33-37 Then they came to Capernaum; and when [Jesus] was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

[2] Prairie Rose Seminole, Biography. https://www.montanasynod.org/uploads/3/0/9/6/30961995/prairie_rose_seminole.pdf

[3] The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.7 million members in more than 9,300 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes God’s grace in Jesus Christ and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.

[4] Prairie Rose Seminole. “FM Area Foundation Bruch comments.” April 6, 2013.    http://www.prairieroseseminole.com/?p=90

[5] Charla Bear. “American Indian Schools Haunt Many.”  National Public Radio on May 12, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865

[6] Gene Griessman. “The Better Angels of Our Nature” How Charles Dickens Influenced Abraham Lincoln.  How to Say It Right on February 12, 2018.  http://whatyousay.com/a-quotation-you-can-use-in-writing-charles-dickens-and-abraham-lincoln/

[7] Jesse Paul. “In Gov. Ralph Carr, Colorado has a shining light in the painful history of Japanese internment.” The Denver Post on December 6, 2016. https://www.denverpost.com/2016/12/06/ralph-carr-colorado-japanese-internment/

[8] Mark 9:50 ends with Jesus’ challenge and blessing to “be at peace with one another.”

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James 5:13-20 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. 19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15 If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.” 16 So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. 26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

 

Nobody Puts Jesus in a Corner – Mark 8:27-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 16, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 8:27-38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Thump-thump-thump-thump.  Sounds of jumping away in a corner are a vivid memory from from Mrs. Gaines 4th grade class.  Mrs. Gaines cut a tall, elegant, utterly intimidating figure with her long, elegant hair flowing down just so and dressed to the nines in her long, elegant skirts.  She kept an eagle eye out for misdeeds and that eye seemed to be in the back of her head.  Her dreaded eye would fall on one of us attempting to get away with something. (Or, in my case simply talking too much with my desk neighbors.)  And, just like that [snap], the thumping began as 4th grade bodies did penance in the corner. Some of our more foolishly courageous classmates would try to thwart the system by not jumping. They’d use one leg to pound the floor without jumping.  I don’t remember anyone ever actually getting away with it though.  It’s this memory, this sound, of jumping in a corner that popped into my head when I read today’s Bible reading.

In my mind’s eye, I first saw Peter jumping in the corner.  He pulls a typical Peter-y move and clearly annoys Jesus. That isn’t a deep insight. You just know it’s bad when the name-calling starts with “Satan.”  Peter’s busted. There’s a simple problem unfolding here.  Jesus has a hard thing to do and he doesn’t need anyone taking him aside and chewing him out.  If Peter was anything like Mrs. Gaines, he would’ve had Jesus jumping in a corner.  And, nobody puts Jesus in a corner.

I’ve been thinking about how we do this very thing; how we pull Jesus aside and try to contain his wild talk about suffering, death, and new life.  The Bible reading gives us some help when Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?”  The people around Jesus give various answers about the word on the street in Caesarea Philippi – John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  Most of these answers would require a resurrection of someone who died for them to be true. So there is an accidental parallel between their answers and Jesus’ claims about the Son of Man rising again. Jesus then asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets closer than the current street gossip with his answer about the Messiah.  This variety of answers about Jesus’ identity is like a snapshot of the Bible’s New Testament.[1]

The 27 books in the New Testament are a conversation much like Jesus’ conversation with his disciples.  Even in the 13 letters attributed to the apostle Paul there are various angles on the Jesus question.  Between the four Gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – each writer forms part of the conversation about Jesus’ question and sometimes the writers disagree with each other or even contradict themselves in the same book! The First Century church apparently wasn’t much different than our own in that regard.  When you talk to people who have spent some time in the New Testament, you’ll hear people claim a favorite Gospel book  (mine is John) or tell you whether or not they like the Apostle Paul (I do but I wish there were things he’d kept to himself).  Along this line, Pastor Ann begins a three-week Adult Sunday School class today called the “Bible for Busy People.”  If you miss this week, come next week.  This class is for you whether you’re a seasoned reader or just starting to get to know the Bible.  It can be tough with Sunday readings like today’s to figure out where they fit in the overall story that the Bible tries to tell much less just the four Gospels. The opinions that we have about our favorite Gospel or the Apostle Paul are connected to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus’ question about who people say he is has a flip-side.  When we say who Jesus is, we also say who we are.  Answering the question of Jesus identity means also having to give voice to our own identity.

Here’s a small example of one way we do this together.  Our worship regularly begins with Confession and Forgiveness.  Before we sing a hymn, before we hear scripture, before a drop of wine is shared, we confess that we’re flawed, that we don’t get things right even when we’re trying, that sometimes we don’t even try, and that we could really use some help loving ourselves and our neighbors – God’s help in particular.  The act of confessing is subversive in a culture that demands best self at the cost of real self.  And it’s pretty powerful to be told that you’re real.  Even in Peter’s tough moment with Jesus, Jesus is telling Peter what’s real.

Real doesn’t mean easy. Real doesn’t pretty things up.  Real means crosses.  Crosses sometimes enter in our lives from the outside in the form of trauma, ill health, death, or disaster.  And crosses sometimes come from the inside in the form of pride, self-sabotage, or addiction – ways we sabotage the good that God has created in us. There are crosses aplenty in our lives without borrowing trouble from other people. It’s also important to say that we may not necessarily be asked by Jesus to go out and suffer some more.

In our confession at the beginning of worship, we tell the truth about our shadows, our pain, and our sin; about where we fall short because we are lost and we’ve forgotten how to care about it. We tell the truth about our crosses that hem us in much like being in a corner and not being about to turn ourselves toward the way out.  Peter makes this kind of move. He pulls Jesus to the side and rebukes him.  We make similar moves all the time – justifying our actions and disguising it as rational thought.

Jesus turns toward the crowd and disciples and calls to them. Bringing more people into the situation and leading Peter out.  Where Peter would isolate, Jesus turns toward other people and shows Peter the way out of the corner he just tried to put Jesus in.  Jesus does the same with us.  Jesus is in the corner with us doing what Jesus came to do which is shine a light into that corner where we disguise our misdeeds as rational thought and ending up hurting ourselves or other people.  In the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we don’t only confess how we’re cornered.  We are told the corresponding truth that Jesus is with us, naming the power of sin, taking its power away, and naming what is real and true and good about who God made us to be and who God calls us to be.  God is not in the sin accounting business. God is in the new life business.  Not a business of best self but rather a recognition of what is real – as much flawed and fragile as we are created good.  Jesus turns to us, calls us by the gospel, shattering the illusion of best life someday while drawing us into real life now.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  On Mark 8:27-28 for “Dear Working Preacher.”  September 11, 2018.  www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220

For Les Woodward – A Celebration of Life

Caitlin Trussell on September 14, 2018

You know the kind of laugh that makes you laugh along with it? Even if you missed the joke?! Laughter is contagious. Les’ laugh particularly so.  It’s one of the main things many of you talk about when describing him. Last week at the hospital, soon after Les died, Marianne was telling a story about Les and she said, “Oh, the pen…” She went over to her purse, grabbed the pen, and held it up to push its top. She looked around at all of us, asking if it was too soon, and was immediately assured it wasn’t.  She clicked the pen and out came Les’ laugh.

His laugh was talked about over and over again in a video made by his law firm. In the same video he was quoted answering a question about his greatest accomplishment.  He was most proud of his many decades of marriage with Marianne. They were partners who loved each other’s company, who made each other’s lives of service possible, and often fell asleep laughing at the end of the day. Les’ joy and their joy together is why Marianne chose the readings from the Bible books of Galatians and Psalms.

Listening to Les himself over the last few years and also to his family over the last few weeks included story after story about Les’ joy of life and his service to others even through some significant health challenges – asthma since he was three years old, losing a clavicle bone to cancer in his teen years, and a couple more cancer surgeries as an adult.  The stories also share a common theme about time. As much as Les laughed, he was utterly serious about time.

Being present in the time he had with each person and most especially in the time spent with his family – never missing dinner even if his work continued later at the kitchen table. He also shared the gift of over 40 years of time with the hundreds of acolytes in this church; youth who lit candles, carried Bibles, and lifted the cross in worship.  He called the youth acolytes every Saturday night to remind them of their worship commitment the next day no matter where he was in the world.  Perhaps this focus on time was in part because Les was not expected to live past his 50s.  Every day was truly a gift.

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.  But if Jesus’ death on a 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, or what Les did, it is all about what Jesus does for us.

In the gospel reading, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?  And really, how might God go about getting our attention?  God, at some point, needs to grab us in ways that we might have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms, through people.

In a very real way, God did this through Les. Les lived his life in service to everyone around him, laying his life down day after day in service to 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.  Les was one such person through whom we experienced a small fraction of the love that God has for us.

And also, in a very real way, God did this through Jesus, who literally laid his life down on a cross in self-sacrifice.  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.  (If I listed them all, Les might wonder if I was taking your time seriously.)  So here’s just one thing the cross means, it means God knows suffering and grief. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer and grieve.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and now catches death up into God, drawing Les into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Les. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!

_________________________________________________

Scripture selections by Les’ family:

John 15:12-13  ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Galatians 5:22-23 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

Psalm 16:7-8, 11

7 I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me. 
8 I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

11 You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

 

 

 

 

 

“This is why I can’t give up on Christianity…” – A Franciscan Friar on Moral Catastrophe [John 6:56-71]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 26, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 6:56-69 [70-71]  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

[sermon  begins]

“This is why I can’t give up on Christianity…,” said Richard Rohr as several hundred of us listened to him speak.  He said it often over the hours of class.  “This is why I can’t give up on Christianity…”  It’s a little surprising that he would say it that way.  After all, he’s a Catholic friar of the Franciscan order.  The Franciscans are the largest order in the Roman Catholic Church.  Six popes emerged from the Franciscans.[1]  His statement suggests that he may have wondered a time or two about why he sticks with Christianity.

Brother Rohr would make this statement about not giving up on Christianity and then he’d fill in the blank.  For instance, “This is why I can’t give up on Christianity, because when you’re hurting and gaze upon the crucifix – suffering unites with cosmic suffering.”  Yeah, he says super fluffy stuff like that.  Then he quotes a wide variety of theologians both historical and current.  The man must read constantly.  Doe the guy even sleep?! With all that he said during those lectures, not-giving-up-on-Christianity sticks with me.

Brother Rohr’s words about not-giving-up stuck with me when he wrote a few days ago about the new revelations of priestly abuse and cover up.  His own lament for this “moral catastrophe” is palpable as he calls for “public and sincere lamentation from every corner of the Body of Christ” as the first step toward deep healing. His statement briefly makes a few clear points.  I’m not going to detail his argument here although I invite you to read it.  Feel free to connect with me and I can tell you where to find it.[2]

What I do want to talk about is this paradox between showing up to church to receive Christ and, instead, experiencing the complete opposite of the gospel from other people.  And I’m not just talking about priestly abuse and a single denomination’s problems.  I’m talking about hurt of all kinds across denominations under the wide tent that is Christianity around the world.  People often leave their churches in solidarity with people who are hurt even if they’re not hurt themselves.  These injuries hold us all accountable to making sure we’re open and above board with each other as the body of Christ; that we check and cross-check especially how we watch over our children.

Honestly, people leaving churches because of moral catastrophes is absolutely understandable.  The gospel hardly stands a chance in those dark shadows.  So, I’m taking Brother Rohr’s challenge to heart and deeply lament with the families and children who have grown into adults carrying a pain no one should carry.  I also lament with my Catholic friends and family who are struggling either with their own faith or with the institutional hierarchy responsible for the church they call home.  And I wonder why they aren’t giving-up-on-Christianity.

While we hold space for that lament, I’d like to draw attention to the Gospel of John reading today.  These verses conclude the sixth chapter that is often called Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse.  A super dry term that sounds like bread gone bad.  The sixth chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000 and 12 baskets of leftovers; then Jesus walks on water, calling himself the Bread of Heaven and Bread of God and Bread of Life, and finally shocking his listeners with talk of his flesh and blood as wine and bread are eaten.  The disciples listening finally said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  A tighter translation from the Greek would read, “Difficult is this word; who is able to hear it?”[3]

This Greek translation is one of the reasons the Gospel of John is compelling.  Skimming stones over John’s first chapter reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what has come into being through him was life…yet the world did not know him…and the Word became flesh and lived among us…and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[4]  Some of my favorite verses in the Bible are right there.  Those verses from John’s first chapter make the Greek helpful in the sixth chapter.  “Difficult is this Word…” the disciples complain.  (Difficult is this logos/ λόγος)

Their complaint is just one reaction among the many different ways people respond to Jesus in the sixth chapter.  Here are some more.  In the feeding of the 5,000 the people “follow” Jesus and are “satisfied.”[5]  When Jesus walks on water the disciples are “terrified.”[6]  In the Bread of Heaven part of Jesus’ discourse the people are “looking for Jesus” and “request” a sign finally asking Jesus to “give us this bread always.”[7]  When Jesus says he is the Bread of Life, the people “complain about him.”[8]  Jesus then says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” and the people “disputed among themselves” and begin arguing.[9]  Finally, the disciples ask the question, “Difficult is this Word; who is able to hear it?”[10]  Some of the disciples “turned back and no longer went about with” Jesus.[11]  But Peter confesses his faith, believing and knowing that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.”[12]  And, finally, one of them “was going to betray him.”[13]

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John colors a picture of many different responses to Jesus – from following and satisfaction to terror to asking to complaining to arguing to confessing to betraying.  Neither loving nor praising make the list of reactions to Jesus in this chapter.  Other than those two, the list seems thorough.  It’s a list that makes me wonder how many of us see ourselves in those reactions.  Some of us may experience several of those reactions to Jesus in one day, or in one worship service, or in five minutes of living life.  This variety has me wondering about whether Brother Rohr’s question about not being able to give up on Christianity flows in an another direction too.

It makes me wonder if the re-framed question is why Jesus doesn’t give up on us with our own reactions being as fragile and varied as our circumstances.  I suppose it’s easy for Jesus to ask the questions.  Not so easy for us to answer him.  We get lost in the details of Jesus’ words.  5,000 people fed, really?! What does being the Bread of Life mean?  Flesh and blood equals bread and wine equals Jesus abiding in us and we in him – wait, what?!

There’s a temptation to dress up our reactions to Jesus. To think that we must have a worthy response to earn Jesus’ loving response to us, to position ourselves in right relationship with God by how well we react to him and his questions. The list becomes a bit like a multiple choice quiz at school – the test anxiety can be excruciating. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus sees all the reactions. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.[14]  Yet Jesus still does what Jesus is going to do as he completes his earthly ministry by redefining relationships,[15] dying on a cross finishing what he came to do,[16] and resurrecting in a garden calling people by name.[17]

As people of Jesus’ good news, I encourage us to find ways to describe why we can’t-give-up-on-Christianity.  It’s helpful in conversation with curious people who aren’t Christian who may wonder why it seems so important to us.  Consider this an invitation to play with your answers as to why you can’t give it up.

As you play around with your answers, be assured that it’s really Jesus who can’t give up on you.

Jesus who can’t give you up because Jesus is the Bread of Life, the life that is the light of all people; the light shines in the darkness of our moral catastrophes and the darkness did not overcome Jesus’ light.  Jesus who is our life and our peace and our love as we journey…

 

Hymn of the Day sung after the sermon:

Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song (ELW 808)

1 Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;
I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go:
you alone are our life and our peace and our love.
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.

2 Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey;
May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you.
May the earth and the sea and the sky join my song.
Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey.

3 As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant,
to carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears.
For you saved me by giving your body and blood.
As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant.

4 I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey;
but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.
And will all of the family you saved by your love,
we’ll sing to your dawn at the end of our journey.[18]

 

 

 

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Franciscans: religious order.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/Franciscans

[2] Fr. Richard Rohr’s statement on the new revelations of priestly abuse and cover up” may be found here: https://cac.org/fr-richards-statement-on-the-new-revelations-of-priestly-abuse-and-coverup-2018-08-20/

[3] Bible Hub Greek Intralinear: https://biblehub.com/interlinear/john/6-60.htm

[4] John 1:1, 4a, 10b, and 14.

[5] John 6:2 and 12

[6] John 6:19

[7] John 6:24, 30, and 34

[8] John 6:41

[9] John 6:52

[10] John 6:60 direct translation from the Greek

[11] John 6:66

[12] John 6:69

[13] John 6:71

[14] Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NRSV) What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.

[15] John 19:26-27

[16] John 19:30

[17] John 20:16

[18] Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song. Les Petites Soeurs de Jesus and L’Arche Community; tr. Stephen Somerville ©1970.

A Celebration of Life for Cathy on August 25, 2018

Reflection begins after the two Bible readings…

John 14;27  [Jesus says] “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Romans 8:35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Reflection begins…

Cathy and Ralph’s story about how they met is told with multiple variations depending on who you ask. The bottom line is that Ralph’s determination charmed up a phone number from someone who knew how to get a hold of her back in the day of land lines; back in the day when flight attendants were called stewardesses; back in the day when Cathy shelved her teaching degree for the blue sky and adventure of working for United Airlines. Their courtship flew into the adventure of marriage and onto the blue waters of Carter Lake where the occasional flipped sailboat dunked Cathy, the non-swimmer in the life vest, who’d get out of the water and back on the boat.  The boats became history once the kids arrived.  Greg and Nancy were precious cargo of a different sort via their deliveries into the Nyhus family made possible by adoption through Lutheran Family Services.  Pampers and parental duty became the new adventure.

For Cathy, faith ran deeply in her sense of duty – as a doctor’s wife and then mother, she drove her kids all over town as they pursued various sports and activities, she baked extraordinary cakes, she hostessed fabulous dinner parties, and she volunteered her time in the community.  As charitable and giving as Cathy was, she struggled with her the fear of her own imperfection – the limits of her humanity. In the language of the Christian tradition, we call it sin.  And this is where the testimony of faith is so powerful.  She worshiped regularly, even attending worship just a few weeks before she died.  While worshiping she heard Jesus’ promise of forgiveness of sin and God’s love for her over and over and over again.

In the Bible verse read by David, Jesus says, “I do not give to you as the world gives; do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”  I suppose that’s easy for Jesus to say.  Not so easy for us.  We can get lost in the details of Jesus’ words. How does the world give?  How is what the world gives different than what Jesus gives?  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 here in the Gospel of John, Jesus is saying he 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 any-more!  Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.

Listen to the promise in Paul’s letter to the Roman that Greg read:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We hear this promise and still we’re tempted to ask “BUT what about WHAT I’M supposed to do?! 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.

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. 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.

The crosses in our lives can separate us from each other and from God.  But God says, “Not so fast…I’ve been there too…I who came in the form of a baby, who lived and walked the earth, who was put to death and who conquered death in rising again…I am God and I have the last word.”  God’s last word meets us our sin with forgiveness and meets our grief with hope – the hope that forgiveness and reconciliation with each other are possible; and the hope of all that God is yesterday in a living baby, today in a living Christ and tomorrow in an eternal God.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Cathy into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cathy, just as it was for Ralph.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!

 

The Life of the Party [Proverbs 9:1-6, John 6:51-58]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 19, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Proverbs 9:1-6  Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. 2 She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. 3 She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, 4 “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, 5 “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. 6 Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

John 6:51-58 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

[sermon begins]

Wisdom is ready to party. Her house is decked out down to the twinkle lights on the pillars. There’s meat in the smoker, sangria by the pool, and a table setting so full of Pinterest pins it’s downright holey.  Wisdom is ready to party.  No one can accuse her of holding a party only for people equal to her eternal, creative power.  She flings wide the doors and shouts from the rooftops. She calls for simple and senseless people. Wisdom is ready to party, dear friends, and it’s our simple, senseless ears that are listening.  Listening through the many voices competing for airspace. Listening for how Wisdom, in her eternal glory, makes sense to the senseless.

Regarding our simple and senseless ears, Wisdom doesn’t seem to be inviting us into a new opinion. Opinions are everywhere right now. It seems like everyone should be ready to weigh in about all things at all times. We confuse wisdom with the social tool of opinion. A tool that we use at parties, in the hallways at work, via text with our friends, on social media, in the car on the way home from church – you name the location and we’re wielding our opinions like clubs. To be clear, opinions are actually important. They affect real lives in real time. Opinions decide where food ends up, where people live, how we drive our cars, and who gets elected. Opinions guide our choices in each moment of each day. Opinions matter. However, today’s Bible readings invites us to consider the difference between opinion and Wisdom. Not the least of which is that opinions decide who gets to be at a party, while anyone and everyone is invited when Wisdom is ready to party.

One of the courses I took on sabbatical is called Executive Skills for Church Workers.  For five days and many hours at a time, professors and executives from the business world regaled 20 of us pastors in the ways of accounting, entrepreneurship, information systems, social media, and more. Our accounting professor worked for many years as a consultant to large banks. She is married to a pastor and has also served on church councils as treasurer. Go ahead, ask me to lay out my fledgling opinion about zero-based budgets versus growth budgets as they relate to the church. Even more fun, let’s talk entrepreneurship and how new ideas are thread and cast to change the world.

The point is, we know how opinions are formed and shaped. Opinions can be widely held – of COURSE, Aretha Franklin is Queen of Soul! Opinions can rightly hold people and institutions accountable for misbehavior – from our banks sub-prime lending to our schools support of teachers in classrooms full of priceless children to our government’s accountability to the people to our churches plagued by pastoral misconduct. We know that opinions can be limited, biased, uninformed, and misleading.  We also know that opinions can be wise and insightful. We know all of these things and, still, our opinions are challenged by Wisdom’s invitation.  Wisdom is ready to party.  Come hungry to the party because Wisdom is preparing food.

Ahhhh, food. I love food which for me means a love of cooking that includes cooking shows, movies about cooking, pictures of food, recipes, and foodie restaurants.  But the best part of cooking is actually cooking. As Rob and I have flirted with an empty nest, cooking has taken on a different quality.  It’s become more reflective at the end of a work day.  It’s sensory in a way that settles my spirit. Slicing, dicing, sautéing, smelling, tasting, serving, chewing, swallowing…you get the idea.  It’s not much of a stretch to envision Wisdom’s invitation that includes food, wine, and people sharing supper.  Although it’s quite a stretch to cross space and time from Wisdom’s party to Jesus’ invitation to eat flesh and blood in wine and bread.  Wisdom is ready to party and Jesus keeps it weird.  There’s a bumper sticker for you – Wisdom is ready to party and Jesus keeps it weird.

Jesus doesn’t speak the classic words of communion in the Gospel of John.  The classic words of communion, what we call the Words of Institution, begin with the words, “On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread…” Jesus’ Bread of Life chatter in the sixth chapter is what he throws down.  And what Jesus gives us in these verses is weird – flesh, blood, bread, and wine weird.  The weirdness moves the crowd around Jesus from complaining to outright arguing with each other as they start forming their opinions about what he’s said.  At this level, Jesus doesn’t seem interested in the opinions.  Nor does Jesus seem interested in being taken into our hearts. Jesus seems interested in our mouths, gullets and bellies, in what’s digested and becomes part of bodies, in what he calls true food and true drink. This word “true” in the greek, alēthēs (ἀληθὴς), is literally translated as “what can’t be hidden.”[1]  Another way we say this in the church is that Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine.

Jesus tells us that eating this true food IS abiding in him and he in us. This abiding is happening at the gut level – digestion and nourishment. Jesus abides in our very selves at the cellular level. Literally, in our flesh. The infinite God contained in the finite; the divine mystery in bread and wine and in our very bodies. This is insight from the inside out. Talk of insight brings us full circle back to Wisdom’s party.  In verse 6 of the Proverbs reading, walking in the way of insight is defined a few verses later in verse 10 as knowledge of the Holy One. This is not meant as insight forming yet one more opinion to be explained and understood. Rather this insight is a relationship with the Holy One who is Jesus. The living Jesus sent by a living God.[2]

The Jesus in John’s gospel throws down communion words about flesh, blood, bread, and wine while he’s living his life early in his ministry. In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as for Paul in First Corinthians, communion words are spoken at a Passover meal on the eve of his death.[3] In the gospel of John, Jesus’ words about flesh, blood, bread, and wine draw life into focus – bringing the eternal in the flesh, into the now of living.[4] Jesus IS life. More than that, Jesus is life now, today, as the eternal, infinite God meets us in bread and wine.  Neither just a crusty remembrance of life ended on a cross in the past, nor a golden ticket into a future life to be postponed as long as possible.  Jesus promises life today – the abundant life of God in real relationship with us here and now.[5]

God’s source and norm of life brings hope t a world choking on opinions that end relationships. This is good news for our simple, senseless ears.  We embody hope and life in the world as we abide in Jesus and he in us.

Wisdom is ready to party and Jesus is the life of the party.  Welcome to the Table.

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[1] ἀληθὴς as interpreted by HELPS Word-studies at https://biblehub.com/greek/227.htm.

[2] John 6:57

[3] Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

[4] Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair of Biblical Preaching.  “A Living Bread” (John 6:51-58) on Dear Working Preacher for August 19, 2018. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3667

[5] John 10:10 [Jesus says] I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

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Disruptive Love with an Indulgent Dash of Lyle Lovett [Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings. If you only have patience for one, read the Acts reading.]

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

1 John 5:1-6 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

[sermon begins]

In a hilarious song called “Church,” there’s a preacher whose sermon is running waaayy long and

“…everyone was getting so hungry

that the old ones started feeling ill

and the weak ones started passing out

and the young ones they could not sit still.”[1]

Lyle Lovett sings from the viewpoint of a child whose stomach is growling for the potluck but the preacher keeps on preaching. At one point…

“…the preacher he stopped preaching

and a hush the church did fill

and then a great white dove from up above

landed on the window sill.”[2]

You’ll have to listen to the song to hear what happens next but suffice it say that everyone gets to go eat soon after getting disrupted by a great white dove and the preacher’s own hunger pangs.  Apparently that preacher isn’t the only preacher ever disrupted by the Holy Spirit from saying more.

Peter’s sermon in the reading from Acts gets shut down too. Except he hasn’t been preaching all that long – maybe a minute or two by the word count. He had been summoned by a man named Cornelius who “had called together his relatives and close friends” to hear about God.[3] Cornelius is “a centurion of the Italian cohort,”[4] NOT a circumcised Jew like the disciples with Peter. Peter’s sermon starts in the verses before our reading today with these words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”[5]  He continues preaching BUT, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”[6]  Confusion and chaos ensued. Into that disruption Peter asks the disciples with him, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So [Peter] ordered [Cornelius, his family, and his friends] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”[7]  Wait a minute, did the Holy Spirit come on those people before baptism?  Don’t we usually say the Holy Spirit is given in baptism?  Which is it?  Before?  After?  Both?  You may wonder who the heck cares about such things but there are Christian denominations that were started on less vexing questions.

Let’s do a quick review to catch us up along with the disciples with Peter. Way, way, way back in Genesis 12, near the very beginning of the Bible, God makes promises to man named Abrahm, later re-named Abraham. God told Abraham that, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[8]  God’s promises to Abraham are called the Abrahamic covenant.[9]  Circumcision was given at that time as a sign of God’s covenant.  Fast-forward through Moses and the 10 Commandments, through the prophets, and through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, to the baptism of Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends.  This is the moment that the larger Biblical story is careening toward.  This is the moment that God’s life in Jesus disrupts into the wild abandon of the Holy Spirit.  This is THE moment.  It’s not the only moment though.  We know that, of course.  But this moment is easy to miss because we don’t hang around in the book of Acts very often.

Disruptive love sees other people as equally beloved.  This can be tough because it reframes a lot of our interactions.  Small example. I was in the middle of drafting this sermon about disruptive love during the last few days at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I was taking my suitcase to the car and trying to get to breakfast and, most importantly, to that first cup of coffee. As I was winging through the hotel door, a gentleman saw my tell-tale green name tag.  He stopped me and asked me how I was enjoying the “conference.”  He then went on to tell me his church history and asked me about the Lutheran church.  Even in that moment, I found it ironic that I had just come from writing about the disruption of the Spirit and there I was, salivating at the thought of coffee, and obstructed in a doorway by someone who wanted to talk about faith and church.  That wily Holy Spirit has some sense of humor.

But there are other times that are more frustrating than humorous.  There are some of us who know disruptive love very well.  Parents in the pews who are worshiping with their little kiddos, for the sake of their kiddos, while they themselves are only catching every 5th word of the liturgy.  Others of us struggle to encounter other people with vulnerability and connection. The Gospel of John and the First John reading lead us into the even harder moments.  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[10]  Seems to me that death is the ultimate disruption – both for the dead and the living.  Jesus commands us to love out of his own self-sacrificing love.  Disruptive love is risk.  Risking reputation, comfort, and safety for people besides ourselves.

Peter gets a taste of these side effects of disruptive love – risking his reputation, comfort, and safety on behalf of the newly baptized Gentiles.  Peter and the disciples baptize Cornelius, his family, and friends and the newly baptized invite Peter “to stay for several days.”  Then Peter heads back to Jerusalem.  Criticism from his friends welcomes him.  Apparently it’s all fun and games until you start baptizing Gentiles and eating with them.  I invite you into a little homework for the week.  Read the chapters of Acts 10 and 11.  Go ahead and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. Write it down – Acts chapters 10 and 11. Think about who you believe belongs in the church and who doesn’t.  Also think about who you believe is worthy of attention by the church and who isn’t.  The Holy Spirit not only disrupts our ideas about good order; the Spirit also disrupts our biases. While you’re reading Acts 10 and 11, think about what God is doing through faithful people to disrupt what other faithful people think and do.

It’s tough to know the difference between sheer human agenda with a hefty dose of ego versus what might be the God thing. Chances are good that the God thing of disruptive love is incredibly uncomfortable for the people doing the God thing.  Remember, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That’s a pretty hefty amount of personal discomfort if you’re the ones laying your lives down.  Pick a word, any word, to describe the discomfort. Here’s a few…weird, nauseous, uncomfortable, scary, exposed, patronized, compromised, denied, betrayed, beaten, abandoned, assassinated…  Quite a list. Because when you do the self-sacrificing thing and not the self-protective thing, it’s not often that cozy warm-fuzzies await you.  That’s not the way it works. It’s not the way any of this works.  Although, let’s remember that it’s also not simply disruption for disruption’s sake.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus reminds us that this love shatters orthodoxy or creeds.  Much blood has been spilled over the centuries as various groups of Christians go after each other about right teaching and good order.  Jesus invites you into the love of the Father by loving you.  This is anti-orthodoxy.  It moves you beyond the attempt at right thinking and pulls you into the love of the God and love of Jesus, sending you to be what you’ve received by abiding in their love.  Your flesh and bone born of water and blood embodies the faith of Jesus for the sake of the world.[11]  You did not choose.  You, beloved of God, have been chosen.[12]  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.  Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Lyle Lovett. “Church” in Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA/Curb, 1992). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZI0zO2TS1Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 10:24

[4] Acts 10:1

[5] Acts 10:34

[6] Acts 10:44

[7] Acts 10:47-48

[8] Genesis 12:1-3

[9] Genesis 15 includes more promises and the ritual of the covenant.

[10] John 15:13

[11] 1 John 5:6

[12] John 15:16

 

What the Flock?! [Good Shepherd Sunday] Psalm 23, John 10:11-18, and 1 John 3:16-24

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 22, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; 1 John reading is posted at the end of the sermon.]

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.

John 10:11-18 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 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]

Some of you may have figured out that I like a good movie. What you may not know is that I have favorites that I watch over and over again.  (My husband Rob can easily verify this claim if you need it backed up.)  Re-watching a movie is a bit like a kid asking to hear the same story that they’ve heard more times than can be counted. The story never seems to get old. I see new things about the characters or hear one of the well-written, well-delivered lines, and if Rob has drifted into the room I’ll turn to him and say, “I love that line.” Some of these tried and true favorites are the Lord of the Ring trilogy, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and A Knight’s Tale.  Every so often I’ll re-watch bits of disaster films like San Andreas or 2012. Towards the end of the movie 2012, the President is addressing the nation about the impending doom after giving up his seat on the rescue boat.[1] He concludes his remarks with the opening words of the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall…”  The doom cuts short his prayer as the television screens go static. Psalm 23 pops up in many movies. It’s one of the best known parts of the Bible to non-churchy people. My guess is that movie makers use it to say a lot in a little amount of time, to say something about hope and comfort in a dire situation.

In dire, scary situations the shorthand of Psalm 23 gets us to the same point quickly, acknowledging life and hope while walking through the valley of the shadow of death. This notion occurred to me during yesterday’s training downstairs here about what to do in an active shooter situation. I was getting myself to the church on time to join congregation volunteers and our staff, as well as our next door neighbors – the priest from the Greek Orthodox Church and the head of security for the Jewish Community Center. I showed up pretty sad that this was even a thing in the world to show up for.

Two City of Glendale law enforcement officers led the training. They taught us to, “Run. Hide. Fight.” They clued us in that fire extinguishers are every 75 feet in public buildings by code and can be used as a weapon when running and hiding are not an option. They taught us to apply tourniquets and pack wounds. They said things like, “Your body can’t go where your mind hasn’t been.” Based on their information, we’re to think about what each of us could and would do on behalf of other people and ourselves – like the President in the movie 2012 who gave up his seat in the rescue boat, like the writer of the First John reading whose example of Jesus laying his life down for us challenges us to lay our lives down for each other.[2]  We practiced together because it’s tough to actually do what we haven’t first learned to do. Afterwards, it occurred to me not for the first time that “shepherding a flock” has a very broad scope in the “other duties as assigned” part of the job description. It also occurred to me, not for the first time, that being part of Jesus’ flock holds a tension between being an individual person and being together as a group.

As a small part of what Jesus calls his “flock” in the Gospel reading today, we worship in a style that’s called liturgy. We stand and sit, pray and sing together which is one way of experiencing faith together. I’ve heard it affectionately called “Lutheran aerobics.” Our shared experience with the liturgy is also practice – because our bodies can’t go where our minds haven’t been. We practice our faith together here so that faith has a chance at weaving into our complicated lives. Last week, someone asked me a question about the liturgy. The question was something like, “Do you think that people experience the liturgy as rote and mindless?” I answered that I can’t speak for all y’all but that for some whom I’ve spoken with about it, the liturgy we do together creates a container through which we experience the mystery of God’s transcendence. We move as a flock to acknowledge the mystery and hear God’s promises yet one more time. Because like actual sheep in an actual flock, our brains don’t seem to be able to hold onto any one thought for very long.

As a flock, we often say Psalm 23 at funerals here. If it’s chosen, we say it together like we did just a few minutes ago. This does a couple of things. It makes it a personal prayer from each one of us as we pray in the first person. But, because we say it together, it becomes something we pray for each other as well.  Simply put, as a flock we hold faith when those among and around us cannot. We hold faith when the valley of the shadow of death is too dark for someone else in the flock. This is where I think we Western Christian types get hung up on being a person of faith rather than a people of faith, where we make it about our own individual power rather than about the power of the shepherd. We can talk about what our flock power can accomplish so much more easily that we can talk about what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has already accomplished.

On the cross, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus accomplished the expansion of God’s love for the world into God’s covenant with the world. Out of the tomb, Jesus frees us into God and toward each other.  We are a flock set free and at the same time guided by the voice of the One who does the freeing. Borrowing the language of our Gospel reading today, there will always be wolves in sheep’s clothing and there will always be unreliable hired hands. It’s hard to understand why this is true but we can certainly acknowledge its truth. The truth of wolves and hired hands are evidenced by our own regrets of what we have done and left undone just as much as the truth of wolves and hired hands are evidenced by flashier sinners. As a flock, we can acknowledge this truth about ourselves because of God’s covenant accomplished by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, through death on a cross and life from an empty tomb. So we can proclaim together, “Have no fear, little flock, for surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole lives long.” [3]

Alleluia and amen.

___________________________________________________

[1] Video excerpt from the movie 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5uBrXLpt8Y

[2] 1 John 3:16

[3] Plural flourish of Psalm 23:6

___________________________________________________

1 John 3:16-24 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

Just Poking Around [OR Longing for Restoration] John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 8, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

[sermon begins]

 

I’m caught between generations who like to shop – a sandwich generation of a different sort.  Both my mom and my mother-in-law as well as my daughter like to dabble in the aisles, across shelves, and around carousel racks to find the finds. Me, not so much. But their enthusiasm is contagious. So I tag along for the company and you just never know what the find will be. This is especially true when I shop with my mother-in-law, Carol. When store clerks ask her if she needs help finding something in particular, Carol replies, “No thanks, we’re just poking around.” Her non-committal answer, and the meandering that goes with it, opens up space to see what finds might be lurking on the next shelf.  I have a couple favorites from the hospice consignment shop in Grand Junction that include an antique porcelain bud vase and a silver filigreed shell dish. Must-haves in any household, I’m sure. The point being that sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.

Which leads me to Thomas. Some scholars will tell you that he’s not the doubter he’s claimed to be by church tradition and centuries of painters. I don’t really have a problem naming him a doubter but if that title troubles you we can lean toward skeptic or find some other label that edges us toward his non-committal, wary attitude. Thomas’ friends had an experience with the resurrected Jesus and he hasn’t. He’s a bit guarded about their reports. Perhaps it’s news that’s too creepy or too weird or too good to be true. Whatever the reason, he’s not about to accept his friends’ reports about Jesus. He seems to want his own moment with Jesus. Because the friends who first see Jesus in the locked room are privy to more than a sighting. Jesus gives them something. Peace, for starters. Then he sends them on their way by breathing the Holy Spirit on them.

I don’t know about you, but the breath of a three-day-dead, freshly resurrected guy doesn’t sound that appealing.[1] Regardless, it seems to cause something big. This rag-tag band of Jesus followers that were locked in a room become something so much more.[2] They become the church. Except Thomas. He’s not sure about anything now that his friends had an experience that he hasn’t had. But sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.  In Thomas’ case, it’s Jesus whose hands and side are made available.

A Bible story to poke around in is one thing but let’s think about what it looks like today to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. On March 24, a woman named Jennifer Reali died of cancer. Twenty-eight years ago she was convicted of murder in Colorado Springs. I’ll refrain from the gory details. They’re available online. Some of you may even remember the case. She is guilty of killing Diane Hood.

I first met Jen 11 years ago in a Friday evening worship service at New Beginnings Church in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Honest and blunt, she was clear that she cut short Diane’s life, causing pain and grief for Diane’s family and friends. She would also say that Jesus found her in prison. For the skeptics among us, her confession of faith seems convenient, easily dismissed as one manipulation among many. Regardless, her sentence was commuted in 2011 by then Governor Ritter making her eligible for parole. Jennifer was released to a halfway-house in 2014, diagnosed with cancer soon afterwards, granted parole on the fourth try, and released on December 12, 2017.  One of Jennifer’s original songs has this line, “If you knew my dark side, would you sense the hands of Christ?”[3]

The hands of Christ were on display for the disciples in the locked room as the resurrected Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”[4]  While we’re poking around, we could consider that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to forgive even Jennifer. Make no mistake, her act of evil is neither forgotten nor condoned. Diane and her family deserve more than that. Rather, we proclaim by faith that evil is NOT more powerful than the good.[5]  Or, in the words of the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[6]

Restoration is what the resurrection makes possible.  Restoration that turns a murderer into a repentant, zealous Jesus follower. Restoration that turns a fearful, ragtag band of Jesus followers into the church.  A church that went from hiding in the darkness to walking in the light, from hiding the truth of sin to confessing it.  A church of fellowship who completed each other’s joy as told by the First John reading.[7]  A church of shared resources who testified to the resurrection with great grace upon them as told by the Acts reading.[8]

For some, like Thomas and his friends, there was a quick turnaround from fear to courage. For others, it took time for the early, first century church to get its act together. Time for the way women were respected in Christianity as they weren’t in classical culture. Time for life in the way of Jesus to crack through social class and tribal lines. Time for the selflessness of caring for all the sick, not just their own, in the age of plagues.[9]

The disciples’ and Jennifer’s stories are uncommon – drawing both attention and disbelief. Ordinary people seldom have such gripping tales to tell or even interesting sin. Although, when it comes down to it, there are common threads of grief, fear, sin, and skepticism that lead to poking around to find what we didn’t know we were looking for. A lot of people are looking for something, poking around into all kinds of things. Longing, hoping for restoration. I run into these people everywhere. They tell stories of pain. Personal pain inflicted by themselves or other people. Public pain experienced in the very churches where great grace should be upon them.

Healing from grief, fear, sin, and skepticism can take time. You may be one of these people. Perhaps you’ve had an experience of Christianity not letting go of you or you’re unable to let go of it. So I’ll tell you what I tell these people. I have amazing colleagues all over town in all kinds of parishes with all kinds of people in the congregations. Find a pew. Let the hymns and prayers wash over you. Receive communion. Heal. Talk with God, not about God. Listen for God’s voice. Don’t look for anything in particular while you’re just poking around.

Jesus’ resurrection makes restoration possible. The Holy Spirit is breathed on us by the risen Christ in ways that cannot be described, only experienced. God is not irresistible. We can and do screw things up regularly. Here’s the promise though, God’s presence and pursuit of you is relentless – through the cross, grave, and back again. God’s restoration is for you.  Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Mary Beard’s research includes the investigation into what made ancient Romans laugh – apparently bad breath is among the topics which makes me wonder how early Christian listeners in the Roman Empire heard this bit of scripture. This historical gem is in an article about Beard’s work by Rebecca Mead, “The Troll Slayer: A Roman Classicist Takes On Her Sexist Detractors.” The New Yorker, September 14, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer

[2] George Wiegel. The Saturday Essay: The Easter Effect and How It Changed the World. The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-easter-effect-and-how-it-changed-the-world-1522418701

[3] Michael Roberts. “Fatal Attraction” Killer Jennifer Reali Finally Granted Parole.” Westword: November 8, 2017. http://www.westword.com/news/fatal-attraction-killer-jennifer-reali-seeks-parole-for-fourth-time-9590521

[4] John 20:22-23.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project. Video posted on September 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

[6] John 1:5

[7] 1 John 1:3-4

[8] Acts 4:32-35

[9] Wiegel, ibid.