Dreaming Dreams Through Difference and Across Distance on Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23

**sermon art: Pentecost by Mark Wiggin (England)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 31, 2020

The Celebration of Pentecost

[sermon begins after two Bible Readings]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

John 20:19-23 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

[sermon begins]

Augustana has been around a looong time.[1] As a congregation we’re almost 142 years old. Almost exactly on our 40th anniversary, in September 1918, the first person died from Spanish Flu in Denver.[2] Churches, schools, theaters, etc., were closed by a public health order shortly after several more people died.[3] This means that our congregation’s ancestors of the faith lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and church closures. Some of you in the congregation had parents or grandparents worshiping at Augustana who were affected by it. And, here we are in 2020 facing a similar experience.

Our ancestors in the congregation would be shocked that we’re able to worship at all. The technology alone would short-circuit the early 20th century mind. News came from The Denver Post.[4] Worship was held in two languages while they received communion ten times a year. Their moment as the church probably felt like it would be how it would always be. I’m also sure that the days of the 1918 pandemic felt long, and the fear was overwhelming. Yet here we are today, a legacy of their faith. Their moment was not forever, and neither is ours. We do as they did. We grieve the people who have died, lament other losses, and get bogged down by disappointment. But we also have their faithfulness as part of our history. They are part of who we are because we still exist as a congregation. The same is true of the first century church, although with more twists and turns along the path of history than our mere 142 years.

The first century church received the Spirit in a blaze of glory described in the Bible’s book of Acts. The long list of people Tim pronounced for us were from all sides of the Mediterranean Sea, east of the Caspian Sea, and south of the Persian Gulf. Places we know today as Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Spirit of Jesus poured out in a new way over this multi-ethnic group of folks without regard for position and rank.[5] The Spirit included the young, the old, the men, the women, and the slaves. The Spirit lit them all up with prophesies, visions, and dreams.

Dreams, ah yes, dreams. This means good dreams, big dreams, hope-filled dreams. Not dark night of anxiety dreams but dreams in the life force of the Spirit’s fire at 9 o’clock in the morning. Dreams that transcend differences and preach a message so powerful that more dreams flowed. No wonder other people thought they were drunk. Pentecost fire had a moment with the people and left them changed to become the church. They are part of who we are because we exist as a congregation, a small corner of God’s whole church. But their euphoric moment was not forever. This ecstatic moment quieted down. Life in the faith became challenging almost immediately after this event and through the twists and turns of history. But for a moment, there was an experience of unity that amazed and perplexed the people. They heard their own language and couldn’t fathom the meaning, so they wrote it off as drunken babble. And then Peter began to preach.

Preaching is an act that has little to do with the preacher and everything to do with the Holy Spirit – a stark and humbling truth for the preacher. Many a preacher has had the experience of people hearing something in the sermon that the preacher didn’t say but was something that that person dearly needed to hear. Lutherans believe that through preaching the Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and fills us with faith. I had that experience through the words of a preacher and the power of the Holy Spirit. I was amazed and perplexed week after week hearing about grace, forgiveness, mercy, beauty, and hope while receiving faith through that same preaching. The message of being beloved and created good as the first act of God was new to these ears. That God’s breath created wonder and life and, as we heard in the Psalm today, even joy as the Leviathan of the sea swirled in chaos.[6]

God does not leave us swirling in the chaos but brings us to new life – to the life of the Spirit’s imagination and, thankfully, not our own. Often, what we can imagine fits into specific limits of good and bad, order and chaos, black and white, and so on. From those limits we make decisions both conscious and unconscious about how we think the world works. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams.

Dreams of multi-ethnic community unified by the Spirit over and against the uniformity of our limited experience. Unity is not uniform. As on the first Pentecost, unity functions through difference to amaze and perplex us as well as to challenge our assumptions about meaning by pausing long enough to ask the question, “What does this mean?” More than an academic question among friends over wine and cheese, this is a question of life and death deepened through the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine that forgives us and frees us into a life of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. All our neighbors, to be sure, but especially in these United States right now, our black and brown neighbors’ lives matter while their bodies remain at higher risk for violence and disease. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams. Dreams of unity through difference. And dreams of unity across distance.

The breath of the Spirit blows through us even as we worship across distance together today and the foreseeable future. Bishop Jim Gonia and the Rocky Mountain Synod Council has recommended that we continue worshiping in the digital space through at least the end of August.[7] We’ve got this, my dear Augustana friends. We’ve got this because the Spirit is not limited by space and time. Our first century ancestors in the faith discovered this truth when life became hard and so did our Augustana ancestors in the faith during pandemic. The chaos wrought by Covid is for now and not forever. We can dream of the moment beyond masks and distance even as we live in the day-to-day reality of it to protect our most vulnerable folks.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we as church are called by the gospel and filled with faith. We hold each other’s suffering in prayer and encouragement while we celebrate moments of shared joy even in this pandemic. We are forgiven and freed into lives of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. We grieve and hope together across the distance, connected to Christ and each other by the power of the Spirit and the grace of God. We’ll get some things right and we’ll make our share of mistakes as we always do – pandemic or no. Remember that even as “for now is not forever,” the Spirit is with us now as we dream and the Spirit remains with us forever. Thanks be to God. And amen.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Augustana’s Past and Present. https://www.augustanadenver.org/augustana-lutheran-church/history/

[2] Denver Health. “1918 Pandemic Flu versus Novel Coronavirus: Similarities and Differences.” April 9, 2020.

https://www.denverhealth.org/blog/2020/04/1918-pandemic-flu-versus-novel-coronavirus-similarities-and-differences

[3] Ibid.

[4] Founded 1892 – present.

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[7] Bishop Jim Gonia makes this recommendation in a video found here https://vimeo.com/422844342 and in his written remarks here https://www.rmselca.org/sites/rmselca.org/files/media/rms_in-person_gatherings_recommendations1.pdf

God’s Love in a Body Means Something for Black, Brown, and White Bodies [OR Jesus’ Farewell Commands Us to Love] John 14:15-21

**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 14:15-21  [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[sermon begins]

“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.

Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”[1] In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.

Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.

Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.

Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years.  66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education.[2] Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.

Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard.[3] This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.

Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population.[4] We have some explaining to do.

And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.

Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm. [5] Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body.[6] We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.

Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.

 

And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.

May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,

So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262

[3] Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. The Fifth Commandment [189]. http://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php

[6] Ibid., Moore.

Psalm 23, A Faithful Essential [OR What Might It Mean That God “Prepares a Table Before Me In The Presence of My Enemies” In Light of Covid19] and John 10:1-10

**sermon art: Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners — Sieger Köder d. 2015

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

Good Shepherd Sunday – May 3, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Psalm 23 (King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

See end of sermon for John 10:1-10

[sermon begins]

[Spoken in a British accent]

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…[1]

[Spoken in my regular voice.]

And on it went in my 9th grade drama class – The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost in Queen’s English. The assignment was to memorize a written passage and recite it in an accent not our own. I chose this poem because it was in a handy book on a shelf at home AND it was short. In a surprising economy of words, poetry completes a topic in a puzzle of order and wildness.[2] For instance, here’s a fun fact about the poem that is Psalm 23 – it’s written with only 55 Hebrew words.[3] Another fun fact, the 28th word in the very middle is the word “you” as in “you [the Lord] are with me.” One more, the word “Lord” is repeated in the opening and closing lines with an otherwise unusual lack of repetition for a psalm.[4]

Poetically, it’s as if the psalmist was given a fifty-five key word jumble and challenged to communicate how the Lord is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. With extreme brevity, the psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. While there’s warmth and light, there’s also a valley of shadow and death, the presence of enemies, and courage in the face of evil. This is NOT false optimism. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust – trust in God during the full experience of crisis.[5] It’s beloved sacred scripture for Jews and Christians. It’s also well-known in pop culture as it turns up in movies and memes. The poetic craft alone is impressive even if it wasn’t one of the essentials in a life of faith.

Essential has new meaning in these Covid days. The debate is intense about what qualifies as essential. For Christians, one essential listed in the Gospel of John reading is Jesus’ encouragement to know his voice. We learn to recognize his voice in Gospel readings Sunday after Sunday AND in texts that have stood the test of time across the generations of the faithful. Psalm 23 is one such text. Many of our elders in the faith were taught to memorize and recite it. Even with significant memory loss, this psalm and Lord’s Prayer can be easily recalled. Psalm 23 is a poem and prayer of trust that we can turn to in times that make no sense. Times like today.

Given today’s pandemic, there’s one line in the psalm that nags at me. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What might it mean for God to set a table for us in the presence of Covid19 – a microscopic enemy? There have been pages and pages and memes and articles written about this particular enemy. By enemy, I don’t mean that the virus has conscious evil intentions. Viruses, like all living things, simply function to keep living. It’s a stretch to ascribe malice to them. But Covid19 is an enemy to our bodies and to our life together. We depend on everyone working in harmony to lessen the risk of infection for the most vulnerable and ease the burden on hospital workers. We learn terms like R0 (R0 or R-naught) to understand how many people each of us can potentially infect.[6] We’ve learned quickly that people we love can carry this enemy just as easily as people we don’t like at all. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

I was talking with one of my favorite checkers in the grocery store last week. Through our masks, we gave each other quick updates and shared frustrations. She told me about a customer who started screaming at other shoppers who were not wearing masks. He escalated to a point just shy of a 911 call. The manager talked him into leaving the store. On top of the viral threat for essential workers, they’re also vulnerable to people’s frayed nerves and overreactions. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

In that light, what might it mean for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our coronavirus enemy?  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came so that those who hear his voice “may have life and have it abundantly.” More broadly in the Gospels, Jesus loves, heals, and challenges the people he encounters. His voice is consistent with these actions while also compassionate and confident. He did not respond to mockery and suffering with insult and threat – he trusted God in all things.[7] And he continued to love people despite our self-serving, wicked ways. In his voice echoing through our baptism as the Body of Christ, he calls us to love people too – despite our and everyone else’s self-serving, wicked ways. In this way, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and guides us there by Jesus’ voice. It’s a table of trust in God, set with compassion for others, and filled with confidence to say hard things in love.

As a Jew, Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were essential. He knew them inside and out – even quoting Psalm 22 from the cross.[8] When we learn the psalms and pray them, we join the praying Christ.[9]  And we learn to hear his voice. Psalm 23 is short. It’s in a Bible or cell phone near you. Memorize it this week. Pray it daily. Make it a part of your faithful essentials. It’s a psalm of trust which means that it evokes God’s promise of being with us even in the face of invisible enemies, suffering, and trauma.[10] Through Psalm 23 we learn Jesus’ voice AND we are assured that the valley of the shadow of death does not have the last word. God does.

Now receive this blessing

With the Lord as your shepherd, may your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the shadowed valley of death, as God is with you.

And may Christ’s compassion and confidence guide you at God’s table prepared in the presence of your enemies,

as goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long.  Amen.[11]

_______________________________________________________

[1] Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 131.

[2] Ibid., vi.  It’s worth reading Robert Frost’s full reflections about poetry in his introduction “The Figure A Poem Makes.”

[3] James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern University. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – July 19, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2531

[4] Ibid. These fun facts are summarized from Dr. Mead’s commentary.

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – March 26, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185

[6] Robert Pearl, M.D.  “3 Coronavirus Facts Americans Must Know Before Returning to Work, School” – April 21, 2020 Forbes Online.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/04/21/3-coronavirus-facts/?fbclid=IwAR01vkcKTgHC2d3ZGXPTGCe9Gg73RHaw2_ehbjqDQ3AXPNQqmNJwFPufkOk#77169f114721

[7] Janette Ok, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University. Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25 for Working Preacher – May 3, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4447

[8] Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46

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

[10] Ibid., Jacobson.

[11] I wrote this blessing by paraphrasing Psalm 23.

________________________________________________________________

John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Doubt…Grace…Doubt…Rinse, Repeat [OR For God’s Sake, Let Thomas Keep His Cool Name] John 20:19-31

**sermon art: “Doubting Thomas” by Nick Piliero (à la F. Barbieri) acrylic on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 19, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

We changed our daughter’s name when she was a year old. Nothing drastic. Taryn’s first name stayed the same. We changed her middle name. Her original middle name was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Carol was honored but didn’t quite get it. A few months later, I discovered that my mother-in-law’s beloved mom had the middle name “Grace” – Velma Grace. Amazing Grace was also my mother-in-law’s favorite hymn. Perfect! We decided to change Taryn’s middle name to “Grace!” Turned out it was quite a process. Our little family that included one-year-old Taryn and three-year-old Quinn trooped off to Civil court and stood before a judge. I can still see him smiling at us – likely relieved for the break in his sad caseload. The judge asked us some serious questions about fraud. Then he declared her name change official as his gavel fell. Taryn Grace. On the way out of the courtroom, our son Quinn, who’d been quiet as a mouse, started yelling, “I don’t wanna change my name! I don’t wanna change my name!”

I wonder if Thomas in our Bible story today would pipe up similarly to Quinn. His name was Thomas, called the Twin. I have no idea if Thomas liked being called the Twin. My hope is that it was a cool nickname along the lines of will.i.am, J.Lo, or even Marky Mark. Regardless, I wonder what Thomas would think about the less cool switcheroo done to his name by centuries of Bible readers. Thomas, called the Twin, became Doubting Thomas. I hear Thomas, much like our son Quinn, saying, “I don’t wanna change my name.” Because the name Doubting Thomas highlights doubt as what comes “before” and belief as what comes “after.” First, Thomas doubted. Then, Thomas believed. End of story. But we know that’s not how it works. It’s not how any of this works.

We don’t know where Thomas the Twin went while his friends were afraid and locked in that room. Maybe he was making a run for essentials. Wherever he was, he missed Jesus’ first visit. This is important because he didn’t miss out forever. Jesus showed up again. He showed up wounded in a locked room where the disciples were still hiding. Now there’s the makings of a good party.

Actually, it is kind of a party. It’s a grace party. Jesus hosts it fresh from the crucifixion trauma and resurrection alleluias. Except, the disciples are still locked up in fear. Eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Minds clouded trying to understand what is happening. It’s unlikely that their alleluias were full-throated even after Jesus showed up. Because that’s how it works. Fear, grief, doubt, hesitation, belief, faith, and grace…these things get second, third, and fourth name changes as we figure out what they mean over time. Faith is especially tricky to name and gets renamed as time passes.

People often wonder why their faith isn’t available during a tough time in the way they assumed it to be. They’ll sometimes describe it as having “lost their faith” or that they “can’t pray” like they used to pray. I don’t know anyone who is immune to the experience of having their faith shaken or shattered. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Faith can be thrown off by moving to a new town away from your church peeps who kept you connected. It can be clouded by a fresh understanding of the Bible’s ancient scripture. Sometimes it’s way bigger. Faith cracks under the weight of broken trust or chronic illness. Or faith can be crushed by grief and loss. While age is not immunity to faith-shifting experiences, our eldest elders have a thing or two to teach us.

Our Care Team of pastors and staff have been making calls to people to find out how they’re doing. It’s been inspiring to hear our oldest folks talk about today’s challenges in the context of other challenges they’ve faced in their lifetimes. In the same breath, their faith frames these challenges and sustains them through it. Resilient faith isn’t universal for everyone of a certain age. Many of us regularly shift between anxiety and the peace of Jesus. But our eldest elders offer us important perspective from their vantage point of a long life. Their faith, like life, isn’t static. Faith flexes, bends, breaks, and resurrects.

Thomas the Twin also shows us that faith isn’t fixed in a solid state. He faithfully followed Jesus until he abandoned Jesus at the cross. Then, locked and afraid in a room, Thomas receives life in Jesus’ name from wounds on hands and side – wounds, not perfection. The wounds that Jesus first shows to the other disciples, and then to Thomas, mean something. The wounds received on the cross were inflicted by fear, anger and fragile egos. The wounds that meet us in our most wounded places show us as we really are in the reflected light of the risen Christ. These wounds are the signs through which faith is resurrected.

From these signs of Jesus’ suffering, he resuscitates his relationship with Thomas and then Thomas names faith differently, calling Jesus “Lord” and “God.”  Hidden in a locked room, Thomas the Twin learned that he is neither alone nor unreachable.[1]  He experienced grace first-hand when Jesus reached out a wounded hand. The grace of divine kindness meeting him right where he was, even though he hid himself away. And that’s how it works. That’s how any of this works. We are neither alone nor unreachable in our hideouts. Locked rooms – pah! There’s no hiding from the relentless pursuit of grace. The risen Christ meets us where we prefer to hide, challenging our wounded reality and resurrecting faith to give life in his name. Thanks be to God and amen.

 

Now receive this blessing…

May the One who brought forth Jesus from the dead

raise you to new life, fill you with hope,

and turn your mourning into dancing.

Almighty God, Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit,

bless you now and forever. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John O’donohue (1956-2008). Irish poet, priest, and philosopher.   https://friendsofsilence.net/quote/author/john-odonohue

The Cross Revealed – John 18:1-19:42 [OR Some Good News on Good Friday – Yup, That John Krasinski]

 

**sermon art by Laura James  [read more about Ms. James and her work at https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-caribbeat-laura-james-art-fights-coronavirus-panic-20200322-gomvswkmr5gwrnaxawcogzp6ma-story.html]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Good Friday – April 10, 2020

[sermon begins after full excerpts from full Bible reading John 18:1 – 19:42]

John 19:13–16 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:17-18, 25b–27 So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 25bMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

John 19:28–34 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

John 19:38–39, 40–42 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there…

[sermon begins]

At the end of March, my son texted me a link to John Krasinski’s first episode of “Some Good News.”[1] I laughed through tears watching it. Few of us are immune to the good feels inspired by grit and compassion. Cravings for good news intensify as disappointments and heartbreaks flow. Because we label events as good or bad, it makes it tough when something like Good Friday comes along. Jesus is betrayed, denied, executed, and buried. None of that is good – except for maybe the tender care his body received for burial. Sometimes a closer look is needed. For instance, Mr. Krasinski highlighted hospital workers on his show – the selfless care given by custodians, pulmonologists, and everyone else, to people suffering all kinds of health crises included coronavirus. Also highlighted was a 15-year-old girl named Coco who was coming home after finishing the final round of chemo that healed her cancer. Of course, the flipside of these two good news stories is that coronavirus demands a lot from hospital workers and that there is a 15-year-old who had cancer. News is not immune to these complexities. Well, at least human news is not immune to them.

Good Friday is no exception. Jesus’ death on the cross is chock-full of complexities. The cross reveals a lot all at once and the Gospel of John glories in the intricacy.[2]

The cross reveals a God who loves the world so deeply that becoming fragile and fleshy in Jesus was the go-to move. Jesus in the flesh is a mirror for us, reflecting our self-serving moves in the game we make out of the gift of life.[3] Jesus calls out our schemes better than anyone. Jesus knew Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him.[4] There are reasons that the religious leaders were determined to have him killed.[5] Neither friend nor foe are left unscathed by Jesus’ truth-telling when it comes to the people we hurt or the way we hurt ourselves. His truth-telling frees us from the prisons we build for ourselves with illusions of perfection and invincibility. Not pain free but it IS good news.

The cross reveals a God who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against those who plot and execute his death sentence. When soldiers came for Jesus, he told Peter to put his sword away and healed the man injured by it.[6] Jesus’ message of God’s love for the world was so audacious that he was killed for it. He wasn’t caught off guard. His ministry of sharing God’s unconditional love could not go unnoticed. Self-sacrifice is something we understand when we experience it on our own behalf or hear a good news story about it. Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals God’s grace that defies our understanding.

The cross reveals God suffering with us when we suffer. In Christian scripture, especially in the Gospel of John, the power of God is manifested in Jesus. Not responding in violence, Jesus suffered – which means that God knows suffering. We are not alone in our suffering whether it’s self-inflicted or comes out of nowhere. God’s light in Jesus shines in the darkness of suffering, shame, and fear, meeting us in the very place we think is furthest away from God.

The cross reveals relationships made new through suffering. Jesus spoke with his mother and friend before taking his last breath:

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[7]

Jesus used his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship toward each other. Everything leading to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, exposing greed – everything Jesus did that hung him on the cross is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. It’s the last thing he does before he announces, “It is finished.”[8]  He connects his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconnecting the world with God through the covenant of the cross.

Good Friday reminds us that God is in the covenant business. The cross as covenant cradles the truth about us in the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross beams and connection to set us free into God and toward each other. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to return from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and hurt the very world God professes to love. We reduce God to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement even as we’re told earlier in the Gospel of John that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world.[9]

My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves – the worst of ourselves that we keep hidden and the worst of ourselves in the 24/7 news cycle.

But God is not diverted by our lack of will and misguided distortions. The eternal God entered time to reveal self-sacrificial, unconditional love and free us into God today and for all time. Today is Friday and we can call it Good. Today, we remember that God’s covenant with the world was finished on a cross and sealed by a tomb. Stay tuned for more good news…

…and receive this blessing…

May the God of cross and tomb guide you to obedience in love.

May Christ shine light into your darkness with the breadth of his grace, and

May the Holy Spirit deepen your + faith, hope, and love,

through all that is to come. Amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] John Krasinski. SGN: Some Good News, Episode 1. March 29, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5pgG1M_h_U

[2] “Glory” in the Gospel of John refers to Jesus’ death on the cross rather than glory as triumphal victory as we would typically understand it.

[3] John 1:1-14

[4] John 13:21-26 and 37-38

[5] John 2:13-16

[6] John 18:10-11

[7] John 19:26

[8] John 19:30

[9] John 3:17

A Complicated Praise Simplified on Palm Sunday [OR First Responders and Hospital Workers Are Human Too] Matthew 21:1-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 5, 2020

[sermon begins after this Bible reading]

Matthew 21:1-11  When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

[sermon begins]

Ordinarily on Palm Sunday, we tackle the whole Passion story from Jesus’ palm parade into Jerusalem right onto the cross and into his burial in the tomb.  I can’t speak for you all right now, but my mind’s at a saturation point and I find smaller doses more helpful. So, a smaller dose it is. The rest of the story will unfold this week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

In the story today, the people who came to Jerusalem with Jesus are the crowds who scatter palm branches and cloaks on the ground in front of him as he parades into Jerusalem on a colt and a donkey.[1] Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus knows what’s ahead of him in Jerusalem.[2] He’s been telling his followers what’s going to happen when he gets there. In other Bible stories, Jesus is often vague and mysterious. Not this time. His followers, the “crowds” who went ahead of him into Jerusalem throwing palm branches and cloaks, knew Jesus would be killed. It was the city folk in the turmoil of Jerusalem who didn’t know. These city folk ask, “Who is this?” It’s a fair question given the turmoil created by crowds of Jesus followers along with Jesus himself, the donkey, colt, palm branches, and cloaks.

“Who is this?” In Matthew’s gospel, God’s holiness is given through Jesus to people who didn’t fit the definition of holy or even worthy of holy consideration. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek… blessed are the merciful…blessed are those who are persecuted….blessed are you when people revile you…”[3]  Jesus’ words were NOT describing a typical in-crowd back in the Bible’s day. Jesus widened the circle – pulling in people who previously had no business showing up there. Jesus made holy the very people who were not considered holy. Making the unworthy people holy made the powers that be unhappy – murderously unhappy – with Jesus.

The people following Jesus, waving branches and throwing cloaks, were drawn into the expanded circle of previously unimaginable holiness. Perhaps that was part of their enthusiasm on entering Jerusalem. The enthusiastic gratitude of people who didn’t get it but were on their way to understanding what Jesus was doing for them.

When reading the gospel to write today’s sermon, the first thing that came to mind was the crowd lauding Jesus; but instead of palm fronds and cloaks, I saw masks and white coats being waved in the air and thrown down on the road. In the last couple of weeks, there’s been praise heaped on first responders and hospital workers of all kinds. It’s a complicated praise. Most of us don’t totally get what these paragons of healthcare virtue do but most of us are on the way to understanding it. These people, by their chosen work, are at greater risk to themselves and are also the very people we hope will be around to take care of us if we get sick.

The symbols of their self-sacrifice have become masks and personal protective equipment. As PPE supplies catch up to demand, a variety of manufacturers have converted their production lines into ventilator and N95 mask components, distilleries are making hand sanitizer, and seamstresses both amateur and professional have begun making homemade masks to help regular people and to help healthcare workers prolong the life of their N95s. Many of the rest of us are simply trying to stay out of the way to flatten the curve and lessen the demands on hospitals at any given point in time. These efforts acknowledge the daily risk of healthcare workers. They’re also the tangible, complicated praise of a society depending on their care when it’s most desperately needed. We are at the mercy of healthcare workers who are gifted to heal. Our praise is a complicated praise, indeed!

Please hear me say that these folks deserve our utmost respect and thoughtful actions. The videos of gratitude for them are overwhelming to watch. The stories from my family, friends, and colleagues in hospitals are awe-inspiring. I also want to encourage us to acknowledge their humanity, make space for their fear, and do what’s possible to mitigate the danger they face daily. Our adoration of folks, complicated by our potential need for them, is as tricky for the receivers of that praise as it is for those of us giving it.  What I’m trying to say is that a self-sacrificial act is, by definition, one in which the person doing the giving understands there is no capacity to make up for what is lost in the gift.

On Palm Sunday, we can barely understand what the humbled, servant king Jesus was headed towards. He knew and understood that God’s love was big enough for the whole world and personal enough to be experienced by each person. He knew that his ministry of sharing God’s love would not go unnoticed. For crying out loud, there were enough people cheering him on his way into Jerusalem to create turmoil in the city. These people had been touched by Jesus’ ministry of holy inclusion during a time when they had been, at best, ostracized, and, at worst, tortured and killed. They knew that his ministry to them put him in the murderous path of people who felt that they knew better how to apply God’s love to only the appropriate, worthy people.

Regardless of whether or not we understand the lengths to which God goes to get our attention; regardless of whether or not we can see that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had only one possible outcome given those who would do anything to maintain their power; and regardless of whether or not we can hold the complexity of a non-violent God who brings redemptive grace to shame-addled people; we can still offer our complicated praise to Jesus. Or, let’s try something else…we could simplify our praise because maybe it’s not complicated at all.

Our praise of Jesus is not transactional. It’s we who make it complicated because we often think of giving in terms of what we’ll receive in return. Give-and-take or quid pro quo are null and void. Our praise does not inspire greater love on God’s part. Either the love of God through Jesus is unconditional or it’s not. Either God so loves the world, the whole world, or God doesn’t. We’re the ones who complicate it by shaming ourselves or other people into unworthy categories. Thankfully, Jesus’ grace is not distributed based on a graded curve that rates only some of us as worthy of God’s love. Jesus flattens the curve all the way flat. It’s appalling to stop and think about who’s included next to us on the flat line. Appalling enough that what happens next to Jesus in Jerusalem is no surprise. It’s simply worthy of our praise.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

Now receive this blessing…

God almighty send you light and truth to keep you all the days of your life.

The hand of God protect you, the holy angels accompany you,

and the blessing of almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit +,

be with you now and forever. Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] John Petty, retired pastor from All Saints Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO. Commentary on Matthew 21:1-11. March 30, 2020. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2020/03/palm-sunday-matthew-21-1-11.html?fbclid=IwAR3kZnjv3wuDSvn6x4iftOIMR08mPNT-6PDlJTiJxYVsnaepBa8fywsDJHI

[2] Matthew 16:21-23; 17:22-23; and 20:17-19

[3] Matthew 5:3-11

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now receive this blessing.

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

May your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the darkest valley.

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

______________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

hymn song after the sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

____________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] John 7:37-52

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

__________________________________________________

 

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 23, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

____________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020

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

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

[sermon begins]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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