Are You Ready?  [Hang With Me Here – It’s a Personality Test, Not a Scorecard]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke 1:68-79  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[sermon begins]

“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile.  She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good.  Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future.  If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me.  Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy.  “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Some of you, I know, are all over it.  Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent.  Menus planned.  You name it and you’re on it.  You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness.  Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz.  What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season.  For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation.  I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago.  My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.

In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys.  We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much.  Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone.  All flesh.  All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.

Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter.  Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today.  Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.

The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story.  The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world.  One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God.  It wasn’t always tidy or easy though.  Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age.  The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born.  His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.

Why does any of this matter?  Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism.  The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine.  The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently.  The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.

Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus.  Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait.  We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John.  Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.  And amen.

 

Subjects of Christ the King – Nope, Nothing Weird About That [OR Pick Your Word for the Church Year] John 18:33-37 (and 38a) and Revelation 1:4b-8]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 18:33-37 (and 38a) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Revelation 1:4b-8 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

[sermon begins]

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate in court.  They’re debating truth in weird slow-motion at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.  It matters who Jesus says he is because there are people, especially religious leaders, who have had it with him and simply want him to go away, squashed like a bug underfoot.  Here’s a sampling of the accusations against him…

There’s the Jesus who goes to weddings and gets frustrated with his mom but does what she says anyway – turning water into wine.

…the Jesus who wields a whip, clearing the temple of vendors who swindle the poor.

…the Jesus who talks new life with a fearful Pharisee in the middle of the night.

…the Jesus who meets a shady woman in the light of the noonday sun.

…the Jesus who heals and who feeds; who walks on water and who’s described alternately as being the word made flesh, the lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, and the truth.

…the Jesus who quietly forgives and saves the woman caught in adultery from being executed, sending her on her way.

… the Jesus who cries with his friends Mary and Martha and who raises Lazarus from the dead.

…the Jesus whose feet are anointed with perfume in adoration.

…the Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, strips down to his skivvies to wash his friends’ feet, and prays for his disciples,

…the Jesus who is criminalized for all of these things and finds himself standing in front Pontius Pilate arguing about truth before he is sentenced to death as the King of the Jews.

There are a number problems with Jesus being and doing any one of these things much less all of them. The time has come to face the music.  He’s in front of Pilate. Pilate is on the emperor’s payroll. He’s not much interested in the petty, internal squabbles of the Jewish religious leaders. He is, however, very interested in keeping the peace.  Uprisings are costly for the emperor and Pilate would pay the piper for upsetting the emperor.  It’s a lesser of the evils in his book and his self-interest is staying alive, thank you very much.  What does it matter that the truth is standing right in front of Pilate as he asks, “What is truth?”

We tend to think of truth as telling a story accurately.  We don’t tend to think of it as the story itself.  We rarely think of truth in terms of a person.  I’m curious about this line of digging.  The archaeology of it.  If each of us IS a “truth” claim, then what is that truth?  In other words, each moment of my life reveals what I think is important in terms of other people, myself, time, money, and God.  What would that archaeological dig look like?  What could you learn about the truth that is me or the truth that is you?  We’re all invested in different things.  We could even say we’re ruled by different things, justifying our choices until we make some kind of sense to ourselves.  An archaeological dig of this kind reveals what runs and rules our lives, revealing our actual king.

I’d like to pause and point out what just happened here because I think it happens a lot.  We start out talking about Jesus and we end up talking about ourselves.  The sermon began with parts of Jesus’ story from the Gospel of John and how he ended up in front of Pilate.  Talking about Pilate, turns us toward the topic of self.  Naturally, it would.  Pilate is such a great human example of what not to do in the name of self-interest.  It’s hard to resist distancing ourselves from him even as we ask the same question about truth.  But why is it so hard to shift ourselves to look at Jesus?  Much less to adore Jesus?

Adoration is part of Christ the King Sunday but it’s not the whole story.  The Feast of Christ the King is young in the church calendar.  Begun in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, its purpose is to compel our hearts, minds, and lives into the reign of God on earth over and above the pull of power in the world.[1]  Not a bad idea given the political disasters and brief pause between world wars in the 1920s.  Not a bad idea given the timeless appeal of trading grace for power. Christ the King Sunday is to the church calendar a bit like New Year’s Eve is to the Common Era Gregorian calendar that we use every day.

Next Sunday begins a new church year with the first Sunday in Advent.  Last year during Advent, I told you about my friend and colleague’s Advent discipline of choosing a word to help her focus on God during life’s hubbub. Step 1, she chooses one word from scripture at the start of Advent.  Step 2, she keeps the word on her radar for the whole year.  She talks about listening for the word in her scripture study and also in her life.  The word serves to keep God on her radar.  This year, I’m giving you a jump on choosing your word for the new church year.  Here’s your homework. Find a Bible reading and think through whether any of the words are worth choosing as your word for this church year.   Let me know what word you pick – e-mail it to me or post it to the sermon post.  A word that could become part of your discipleship, keeping faith front and center, and reminding you that you’re a subject of the realm of Christ’s kingship.  Yes, weird language but good for challenging for our democracy-trained brains.  Subjects of the realm, subjects of Christ’s realm – challenged by language that is other than how we’d ordinarily describe something.

Thanks again to Pope Pius the XI, the church year culminates as our thinking is challenged by the trial of Jesus.  Like Pilate, we are challenged by the question of Jesus’ kingship while he awaits judgment.  Let’s assume for the moment that we’re all cool with the idea of Jesus as king, as Christ the King.  By his admission to Pilate, Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world.  It’s not about signs of spectacular power or prestige.  It’s a kingship that’s obedient as he listens to his mother at a wedding; it’s a kingship that’s grace-full as he hangs out with the shady woman at high noon; it’s a kingship that forgives unforgiveable human failing; it’s a kingship that cries with compassion at the pain of loss; it’s a kingship that’s non-violent through trial and execution, raising not one hand in violence against the people who inflict it; and, ultimately, it’s a kingship emptied out in self-sacrifice on a cross revealing the breadth of divine power in the depth of divine love.[2]

Our devotion, adoration, and praise are for this king revealed in the person of Jesus. In the words from Revelation, we praise this God who is and who was and and who is to come through Jesus who loves us and frees us.  In our little corner of God’s whole church, we tend to do adoration with a reserved, earnest reverence.  Feeling it on the inside while the hymns keep things dignified. Leaving external exuberance to other siblings in Christ – well, unless you count being a super-fan of your favorite band or musical.  Maybe, though, that’s a hint of what some of us feel for Christ the King.  The love and gratitude for what is happening through Christ in kingdom moments breaking through on earth.  Christ’s kingdom of obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when it doesn’t serve our own self-interest. Christ’s kingdom of being loved by friends, family, and enemies…and even God…when we’re at our worst and don’t deserve it, even if that love is the tough kind that demands we face the pain we cause as individuals or groups.  Christ’s Kingdom is truth in the person of Jesus Christ who loves us. Love that inspires our praise and draws us into deeper love and faith.

We love you Jesus, Christ the King.  Help us love you more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lucy Lind Hogan, Hugh Latimer Elderdice Professor of Preaching and Worship, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.  Commentary on John 18:33-37 for November 25, 2018.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

Provoking Love [OR Little Red Corvette, Mondegreens, and Biblical Misinterpretation] Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-25

**sermon art:  1973 Red Corvette Stingray by Candace Nalepa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 18, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:1-8 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Hebrews 10:11-25 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

[sermon begins]

My family razzes me from time-to-time for singing the wrong lyrics to songs.  You’re all familiar with Prince’s 1983 hit, “Little Red Corvette?”[1]  Yours truly, hair-sprayed bangs and all, sang it wrong for much too long as “Cigarette Collect.” [sing “Cigarette Collect” to tune of “Little Red Corvette”].  See, it works in a weird sort of way but it sadly makes no sense whatsoever.  I’m a master at mishearing lyrics and singing them with gusto.  Try this question in a group of people, “What is a lyric you’ve sung wrong or the funniest lyric fail you’ve heard?”  The fails are epic and hilarious – a fun way to laugh at ourselves and each other that’s pretty harmless.  I looked up lyric fails this week and cracked up all over again reading them.  Except, they’re not called lyric fails.  They’re called Mondegreens.[2]  Mondegreens come from a 1950s mondegreen made by American writer Sylvia Wright listening to her mother read a favorite poem:

Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands/ Oh, where hae ye been?  They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.”[3]

Sylvia heard her mother say Lady Mondegreen when the actual poetry was that they had taken the Earl and Laid-Him-On-The-Green.  Similarly, some children think God’s name is Hal and begin their nightly prayers this way, “Our Father who art in heaven, Hal would (hallowed) be thy name…”  The possibilities for mondegreens are endless.

Mondegreens happen because our brains are quickly filling in blanks while processing information.  We hear sounds and combine them with context and knowledge.  This may partly explain why my young brain heard “cigarette collect” out of “little red corvette” – no context and limited knowledge.  Let’s go with that, shall we?  Regardless, something similar happens with scripture.  We hear the Bible’s words, slot them into our context and knowledge and poof(!) – interpretation and life application.  The resulting thought and behavior range from the hilarious to the glorious to the horrific.  Thank you, Martin Luther.  One of his great achievements was translating the Bible into the common language so that everyday people could read it and the priests could no longer control it – 16th century Power to the People.  Alongside this achievement, we can also lay Luther’s misguided anger with Jews based on how he misinterpreted the Bible and his anti-Semitic writings used by Hitler.  Hitler’s use of Luther’s work during the Holocaust led to the ELCA’s 1994 repudiation of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, expressing deep regret for their consequences, and reclaiming the desire to live in “love and respect for Jewish people.”[4]  Luther’s misinterpretation was no harmless mondegreen.

Mondegreen lyric fails are one thing.  Misinterpretation of scripture, armed for bear with our biases, is quite another – bringing us to the gospel reading from Mark. People read about these “wars, and rumors of wars…earthquakes…and famines” taking place and unconsciously connect them with Hollywood’s version of apocalypse.[5]  Some Christians even go so far as to see their task as bringing about this end-time blaze of glory.  This mission is not solely housed in fringe groups.  It shows up in political saber rattling and environmental apathy.  Think about it – if end times equal the end of the planet then everything is disposable.  Blaze-of-glory thinking makes faithful, thoughtful interpretation about this kind of scripture so critical. And makes Jesus’ closing words in verse 8 something to notice.  Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[6]  Birth pangs.  Birth is a word of hope. Birth means something new is coming.  Something is being born.  Christian scripture sends a message of radical healing of creation – a new heaven and a new earth “brought together in a lasting embrace.”[7]  This New Testament message sees salvation “in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share that new and gloriously embodied reality.” Jesus’ talks about birth pangs with his disciples which focuses this lens.

The gospel of Mark was first written to Jesus followers who lived through the actual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Rome was on the rampage, annihilating Jews and the earliest Jewish Christians.  It’s truly a wonder that the early church lived through Rome’s campaign against them.  Jesus’ words of hope give his followers something to hang on to during confusing and terrifying times without falling into despair.  Jesus’s words of hope also give us, his followers today, something to hang on to during challenging times without falling into despair.  The preacher in the Hebrews reading makes suggestions for the Jesus follower during challenging times as well. Listen once more to these verses:

“Approach [God] with a true heart in assurance of faith;

Hold fast to the confession of our hope;

And provoke one another to love.”[8]

Hmmm….faith, hope, and love…we might suspect that the preacher of Hebrews knew about 1 Corinthians 13.

Listen to this last bit of 1 Corinthians 13:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[9]

In Hebrews, faith in what God is doing on our behalf, on behalf of all creation, opens up our approach to God with confidence won through Jesus Christ.  This is not an invitation to meek humility.  We’re invited into bold confidence that Christ’s victory over sin allows our approach to God.  Not that sin is removed from our experience.  Rather, Christ allows for the possibility that sin could be removed from our experience.  This is a faith focused on God, the object of our faith, the means by which we catch glimpses of God as God draws us ever closer.[10]

These glimpses of God through the window of Christ inspire us to what the Hebrews preacher calls a confession of hope.  The Christ whose self-sacrificing death begins the birth pangs signaling God’s radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is not certainty. Our confession of hope is that God’s last word is life – life for you, me, everyone else, and all of creation.

If “our faith is what God has done; [and] our hope is what we confess,” so what of love? [11]  We hear in 1 Corinthians that out of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.  The writer of Hebrews tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Provoke love.  That’s not very flowery or prettied up for a wedding.  The love in 1 Corinthians 13 is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful; does not insist on its own way; does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.  This love bears, believes, endures, and hopes all the things. How do we understand this love in tension with provoking one another to love?  This is one example that is ripe for the type of misinterpretation that’s no mondegreen when we read our context and knowledge into the text rather than hearing Jesus out of the text.

Last week’s gospel reading from Mark had Jesus taking the religious leaders to task for exploiting poverty stricken widows, leaving them homeless. He stood to the side and directed his disciples to notice the widow giving “all she had to live on.”[12]  Was he provoking them to love?  What makes you feel provoked to love?  What kind of provocation to love wears you out when you hear it one more time?  Perhaps it’s the plight of coal workers whose jobs are gone or threatened by the new energy economy.  Perhaps it’s when someone raises the issue of income inequality as the wealthy get wealthier around the world while the poor get poorer as they’re paid non-living wages.  Perhaps it’s the desperation of farmers who can’t figure out how to get affordable food to your table while paying themselves and their migrant workers.  Perhaps it’s the issue of racial diversity, equality, and acceptance, around issues like corporate hiring or college admissions.  Or maybe it’s altogether closer to home – a spouse who asks for love from you only to be ignored; or a child who really just needs you to put away your phone and hang out for the evening.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to think about when you’re provoked to love and why that message bugs you so much.  Press pause on considering the problems with the message or the messenger who is provoking you.  Instead, ask what misinterpretations of this provocation to love might you be making? We’re all reading the Bible – the possibilities for misinterpretation are endless.  If we only read 1 Corinthians 13 and occasionally hear it at weddings, we may not know that the preacher in Hebrews is simultaneously urging us to provoke each other to love and good deeds.  We also tend to assign ourselves the role of provocateur when we think about provoking love.  We generally like to be the sender rather than the receiver who is provoked to love.

Here’s the deal though, the preacher of Hebrews is asking us to regularly meet together, encouraging each other through the difficulties and joys of faithful living in difficult times.  It’s easy to misinterpret scripture and, by extension, the One ultimately provoking us to love.  But our confession of hope points to the One who brings the radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is a gift to each other and a gift we bring the world in difficult times while we provoke each other to love.

Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

________________________________________________________

 

[1] Prince. Little Red Corvette. Album: 1999.

[2] Mondegreens, pronunciation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0FIISNVR7U

[3] Maria Konnikova. “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  The New Yorker, December 10, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/science-misheard-lyrics-mondegreens

[4] ELCA Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. Online Resources: Interfaith Resources. www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Online-Resources

[5] Mark 13:7-8

[6] Also Mark 18 verse 8.

[7] N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 19, 122, 142-144, 197

[8] Hebrews 10:22-24

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[10] Douglas John Hall. Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 248-254.

[11] Katherine A. Shaner, Asst. Professor of New Testament, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, N.C. Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-25 for November 18, 2018.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3909

[12] Mark 12:38-44

Memorial to Victims of Violence [Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh]

**sermon art is Star of David by Ram Coenca, arcrylic on canvas, coenca-art.com

Caitlin Trussell with the residents of Kavod Senior Life in Denver and other faith leaders by invitation of Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav, on October 30, 2018

[Rabbi Steve invited our remarks and prayers to reflect unity in diversity as well as to offer comfort to residents of each faith leader’s tradition. He notes that the deaths in Pittsburgh hit Kavod’s residents in “some unique ways, including: Most of the victims in Pittsburg were over 60 as are our residents; a little under half of our residents are Jewish; our non-Jewish residents feel a special closeness, and vulnerability, with our Jewish community.”]

[Remarks begin]

I am Pastor Caitlin Trussell and I bring you greetings from my colleague Pastor Ann Hultquist, who is traveling, and the good people of Augustana Lutheran Church, your neighbors one mile to the east.

Over lunch on Tuesday a week ago, a rabbi friend of mine talked about his fear about being a Jew in America [2]. Then Saturday came and, with it, the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh. Twenty-four years ago my brother married a lovely Jewish woman. They raised their children at Congregation Or Ami in California.  My brother converted to Judaism more recently.  When I heard about the shootings, weighing heavily on my heart and mind were those who died, their friends and family, my Jewish friends and colleagues, as well as my brother, his family, and their Jewish congregation.

In Christian scripture, the Gospel of John, the 14th chapter, Jesus says to his disciples:

“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.”

I suppose that’s easy for Jesus to say.  Not so easy for us.  We can get lost in the details of Jesus’ words because, in the aftermath of Saturday’s killings of our Jewish cousins in faith, we see all too clearly how the world gives, which troubles our hearts and makes us afraid. Christians sometimes refer to our life here on earth as living on “this side of the cross” – meaning that we live in a world in which we so clearly see and experience suffering.

It’s a truth we understand deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. However, Christians see along with that truth that the cross means that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God loves unconditionally.  Not only that, the cross also reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer, revealing life in the midst of that suffering through the love we share with each other; and through the love and solidarity we share with people of no faith and people of all faiths in our collective determination and actions to prevent future suffering.

It is in the spirit of love and solidarity that I offer this prayer from my faith tradition…

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, you have brought us this far along the way.

In times of bitterness you did not abandon us, but guided us into the path of love and light.

In every age you sent prophets to make known your loving will for all humanity.

The cry of the suffering has become your own cry; our hunger and thirst for justice for all people is your own desire.

You entered our sorrows in Jesus our brother. He was born among the poor, he lived under oppression, he wept over the city. With infinite love, he meets us in our suffering.

O God most merciful, our comfort and our hope, graciously tend those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love.

O God most majestic, you are breath and fire, our strength and our song, you show us a vision of a tree of life with fruits for all and leaves that heal the nations.

Grant us such a life as you make us instruments of your peace.[1]

Amen.

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] The prayer above is modified from Prayers for Worship VIII and X as well as the Funeral Prayer of the Day in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Hymnal).  (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 67, 69, and 281.

[2] This same rabbi friend encourages the use of the word Jew acknowledging that non-Jews are squeamish about it given the pejorative use in history up through today.

Keeping Jesus Simple on Reformation Sunday [John 8:31-38 and Romans 3:19-28]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 28, 2018 – Reformation Sunday

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 8:31-38 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Romans 3:19-28  Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

[sermon begins]

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…”[1] So sang the choir last week with flute lifting voices into the air during communion.  Their song landed during a hectic few weeks when I needed the simple reminder.  Their song also came to mind during preacher’s text study on Tuesday, when we preachers get together and talk about the upcoming Bible readings for Sunday.  We start by reading the Gospel in which Jesus talks about being made free by the truth.  Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls himself the truth.[2]  If we’re talking about keeping things simple, then there is a simple way to think about Jesus as the truth.  We tend to think this means that we need to get at the truth about Jesus.  That we need to make a list and check the boxes as to whether we agree or not.  Like a multiple choice test. Really though, Jesus as the truth doesn’t mean that we get together and agree. Jesus as the truth means that Jesus isn’t who we say Jesus is.  It means that Jesus is who Jesus is without our input or interpretation.  Keeping Jesus simple.

“Keeping Jesus simple” could have been one of the bumper stickers of the 16th century Reformation of the church…you know, if they had car bumpers.  It was a complicated time in the church.  The gospel was unrecognizable.  Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, felt crushed under the weight of the church’s corruption of the gospel.  At that time, the church was charging for forgiveness to fund a building campaign.  The list of corruptions numbered, oh, hmmm, somewhere around 95. As a faithful member of the church, Brother Martin couldn’t feel reassured that God loved him.  He just couldn’t feel sure that he had done enough to deserve or earn God’s love.  He was in an almost constant state of panic about whether or not he was in right relationship with God; whether or not he was justified before God. A lot of freaking out led to a lot of Bible reading for Brother Martin, especially in Romans. In Romans chapter three from our Bible reading today, the Apostle Paul argues that there is no distinction between people.[3]  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Everyone.  All the people.  The sameness is so deafening that “no one may boast” of having more faith or worry about not having enough.  All the people. All human.  Simple.

Over the last few weeks, Pastor Ann and I had the pleasure of meeting with the young people Affirming their Baptism in the rite of Confirmation today.  The conversations and activities focused on the promises of baptism. Jonathan’s parents make theses promises to him today in his baptism just as these promises were made to these young people by their parents when they were baptized.  The promises go like this:

As you bring your children to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:

to live with them among God’s faithful people,

bring them to the word of God and the holy supper,

teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments,

place in their hands the holy scriptures,

and nurture them in faith and prayer,

so that your children may learn to trust God,

proclaim Christ through word and deed,

care for others and the world God made,

and work for justice and peace.

Do you promise to help your children grow in the Christian faith and life?[4]

The parents say, “I do.”

When we talked about these promises over the last few weeks.  We broke them down into their parts.  When we talked about living among God’s faithful people, we talked about worship and asked to hear their favorite part of worship.  One answer was the Canticle of Praise that we sing on most Sundays early in the worship service.  It begins, “This is the feast of victory for our God…”  It’s a favorite because it’s most often sung with enthusiasm and everyone knows it so well that almost everyone sings.  Its impact is significant because of these simple reasons.

Keeping Jesus simple is in evidence in your bulletin insert that lists the confirmation students.  I should say here that simplicity focuses on what’s essential.  The essence of the thing.  The main thing.  I encourage you to read their chosen Bible verses and why they picked them.  We’re privy to the essence, the simplicity, of where the word of God encounters each of these young people at this moment in time.  If I were to poll each of you, it’s likely that there’s been a verse or two that’s bubbling up over time that boils down the main thing for you too.  In fact, I encourage you to a bit of study this week.  Find a simple verse that speaks to you. Write it on a piece of paper or sticky note and pop it on your bathroom mirror.  At times when the world seems so vast and complicated, it’s helpful to hang onto a good, simple word.

We complicate this stuff so quickly.  We complicate Jesus so quickly.  Again, another symptom of our shared humanity.  When I preached a couple weeks ago at the women’s prison, I introduced myself at the beginning of worship like this:

“My name is Pastor Caitlin and I bring you greetings from the good people of Augustana Lutheran Church.  Also by way of introduction, my first father was schizophrenic, he became homeless, and he died at a young age. I don’t tell you this to say that our lives are the same. I tell you this because I know that life is complicated.  And as we worship together today, I invite us all into a sacred time of healing and good news.”

I said this to the women because our shared humanity before God, in that moment, was the main thing.  In the complicated and often anxious moments of life, we so easily miss the main thing.  We have a hard time keeping it simple.

When we’re young children, early school age-ish, our brains are set up to see a manageable view of the world.  Somewhere towards middle school, the scope of the world that’s only this big [  ], expands into something more like this big [                                 ].  It takes our brains a long while to organize the expanded world view.  Like a lifetime to organize it.  So many options.  So much more complicated.  In the church world, this can end up looking like a lot of arguing about who Jesus is and what we think Jesus is doing for us humans and for the world.  We have a big, chubby Bible that is actually a library of 66 books.  From these 66 books of the Bible, the potential arguments are endless and many of us regularly engage those arguments in our own minds.  Let’s try keeping Jesus simple. Shall we?  What we end up saying ABOUT Jesus, is NOT Jesus.  If my relationship with Jesus depends on what I say about him, I have taken faith and made it a work achievement yet one more time.

In the Gospel of John reading, Jesus says that we “set free.”  Slaves to sin and set free.  Thank the sweet baby Jesus that we do not free ourselves because we seem to complicate everything by way of our shared humanity.  This seems like a good moment on the planet, a good moment in the week, just a good moment period, to keep Jesus simple and be set free. Set free from slavery to sin through the waters of baptism into new life.  This is simple, good news, indeed.

Thanks be to God. And Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Yo-Yo Ma. Simple Gifts. https://genius.com/Yoyo-ma-simple-gifts-lyrics

[2] John 14:6a Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

[3] Romans 3:23

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Holy Baptism (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).

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.

_____________________________________________

[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!

_________________________________________________________

[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.”

_______________________________________________

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.