Temptation: Setting the Terms of the Debate [First Sunday in Lent] – Luke 4:1-13

**sermon art: The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark s Basilica, Venice

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 10, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

[sermon begins]

How do you know that you’re losing an argument?  Perhaps you’re blood pressure goes up.  Maybe you start to cry.  Or yelling happens.  Or you go quiet, seething on the inside.  Or shut down and tune out.  There’s a lot of reactions to arguing but it’s rare that one person says to the other, “You know you’re right…it’s so clear to me now!”  If temptation could show up like an argument we wouldn’t have a problem with it. We could just say, “Sorry old chum, take your temptations and carry on.”  Except.  Except…temptation is like an argument.  Someone or something else sets the terms of the temptation debate, whether explicitly set or not, and there are factors that affect the argument such as hunger, anger, loneliness, or fatigue.[1]

Jesus, for instance, was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after his baptism at the Jordan River.  He fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and was all by himself.  We can guess that he was likely some combination of hungry, lonely, and tired.  The questions being posed by the devil were about solving those very problems.  Hungry?  Turn stones to bread.  Lonely?  Have all the kingdoms of the world. Tired? Let the angels protect you.  Three easy steps to solve all Jesus’ problems. All three of these solutions for the price of worshiping something other than God.  The three temptations can be summed up as things, power, and safety.  There may be a better summary but let’s go with those for now…Jesus was offered things, power, and safety.  But Jesus, being Jesus of course, didn’t take the bait. Not only did he avoid the bait, he hardly entered the argument.  His response would suggest that he rejected the argument outright and reset the terms of the debate.  Being the Son of God and all might have helped just a tad.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about.  I’ve been wondering how it is that temptation presents itself to ordinary, non-Son-of-God humans.  I’m not talking about sweet treats or extra pairs of shoes we say that we’re tempted by.  I’m talking about honest to God temptation that draws us away from who God calls us to be into something else entirely.  Make no mistake, we ARE free to be honest about those things. As I said on Ash Wednesday, those ashes remind us at the beginning of Lent that God loves us “so much that we are free to wonder about our motivations and our actions without worrying about the love freely given to us.”[2]  No time like the first Sunday in Lent to take that promise out for test drive.

At the very least, we’re most susceptible to our temptations when we’re hungry, lonely, and tired.  The more isolated we become, the more lost-in-the-wilderness we can feel.  People who are recovered from the despair of addiction often describe their experience like, “I felt so lost and alone that I didn’t care who got hurt.”  This could be said by people lost in all sorts of addiction – alcohol, drugs, sex, social media, and food, to name a few.  Perhaps you’ve heard a friend or family member say this very thing.  Perhaps it’s a confession you yourself have made or know that you need to make.  Whatever your point of reference, the Anonymous groups are onto something essential for all of us.

Our recovered friends in the pews learn to reframe the debate using 12 steps that include looking beyond themselves to a higher power in addition to being in community with other people in recovery.[3]   The road is not traveled alone.  The isolation and loneliness that add fuel to the fire of temptation and addiction are thwarted by connection with God and other people.

In Adult Sunday School last week, I gave everyone a slip of paper and asked them to jot down responses to why they worship.  Before people started writing, I let them know that the papers would be gathered and redistributed so that they could be read out loud and anonymity of the writers guaranteed.  (Basically protecting the introverts who can occasionally get protective of their thoughts.)  There were a variety of answers as well as multiple answers per piece of paper. What struck me at the time, and then again while reading them as I wrote this sermon, is that the majority of people in class listed being connected with a community of faith as one of their reasons for being in worship.  This Lent there are extra opportunities to be together that are open to anyone who wants to come. One is the Lenten retreat led by the pastors here at Augustana this coming Saturday and the others are here on Wednesday evenings for soup supper and worship.[4]

Last Sunday Pastor Ann preached about how countercultural worship is “in a world that encourages us to worship things, power, money, and ourselves.”  I would add that it’s one of the few places in our society where we voluntarily get together over time and across a variety of differences like age, income level, and gender, to be reminded of our primary identity that reframes the debate against temptation – baptized child of God.

It seems there are as many takes on the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness as there are biblical commentators.  One that makes some sense connects Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with his baptism.[5]  The Gospel reading from Luke reads, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [River] and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.”  The reading reminds us what just happened in the waters of the river Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus while a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”[6]  Good ole Martin Luther, when the temptation to despair overwhelmed him, used to yell at the darkness, “I am a child of God, I am baptized!”[7]  It’s as if Luther had read this very part of the Gospel of Luke.  Hmmm….

The point is that we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Besides being called a congregation, we are alternately called the Body of Christ, defined and formed by being “baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  In the waters of baptism, we are given the Holy Spirit as our strength and our guide through the temptation to get lost in the wilderness of a world that sets the terms of the debate as power, money, and things – isolating us in our own muddled minds.  Over and against that temptation, the Holy Spirit gives us company as we work out who God is calling us to be. The company of Jesus, by way of our baptism, through our daily journey. And the company of each other as traveling companions on the road.

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[1] Dana Max, Psy.D., personal conversation. H.A.L.T. rule for pressing pause on an argument when you’re “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Intoxicated” and setting a time to revisit the contentious topic.

[2] You can find that sermon (“Beginning at the End, Ash Wednesday”) in which I unpack this concept here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2019/03/06/beginning-at-the-end-ash-wednesday-matthew-61-6-16-21-2-corinthians-520b-610-isaiah-581-12/

[3] The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Service Material from the General Service Office. (Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, 1953, 1954, 1981).

[4] Lasting Hope, A Lenten Retreat, Saturday, March 16, 9:30am-1:30pm; and Wednesday in Lent, Soup 6-7pm and Worship 7-7:30pm. Both the Saturday retreat and Lenten worship take place at Augustana.

[5] Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13 for February 21, 2010. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=508

[6] Luke 3:2

[7] Wes Brendenhof, Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. “Luther: Baptizatus sum (I am baptized)” on January 26, 2017. https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/luther-baptizatus-sum-i-am-baptized/

Beginning at the End, Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Isaiah 58:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading; see the end of the sermon for two more Bible readings referenced in the sermon.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

[sermon begins]

In a hand-drawn cartoon, Charlie Brown in his signature yellow shirt with the wide, horizontal zig-zag stripe, sits beside his beloved white dog Snoopy at the end of boating dock.  We see their backs as they look out over the blue water in front of them. Rocks and a few trees sit in the distance at the sides of the calm lake waters that meet the blue sky out at the horizon.  In a speech balloon over Charlie Brown’s mostly hairless head, he says to his friend with the drooping, black ears, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy.”  Snoopy replies, “True, but on all the other days, we will not.”  This comic pops up from time-to-time on social media.  I couldn’t figure out if it’s Charles Schultz’s actual work but it’s been enough times across my screen that I can tell it means something to a number of people.  The simple scene and the two sentence conversation gets at something true.  In a similar way, Ash Wednesday gets at something true – someday we will die but on all the other days we will not.

Being honest about our death someday, frames our days of living today.  We often learn a lot about a thing by what we think of as its opposite.  Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians hones in on opposites in the verses we heard today – imposters yet true, unknown yet well known, dying yet alive, sorrowful yet always rejoicing, having nothing yet possessing everything…[1]   Paul gives us opposites and offers us an example of what living looks like through the lens of the gospel.  It’s as if he’s laying down a bit of challenge to people who think they have this Christian living thing down but are doing a poor job of it.  His alternative is a set of opposites that leaves us scratching our heads but smacks of honest truth.  A perfect message for us as we begin Lent.  Because Lent never moves us to easy answers.  Lent deepens us into reflection.  Reflection about ourselves with relentless honesty that reveals the motivations and actions of our daily living.[2]

It’s these very motivations and actions that are called into question by the Gospel of Matthew reading.  If we think Jesus’ challenge about keeping piety secret validates our natural tendency to be quiet Christians then we may be missing something.  Jesus was warning his disciples about pious prancing emptied of all concern for the neighbor.  His words are flying fast and furious as part of the Sermon on the Mount that pushes his listeners out of their comfort zones and into the work of Christian love for neighbor.[3] Jesus often singled out the publically righteous.  The publically righteous used their piety as a gauge through which everyone else’s worthiness before God is judged. In light of this challenge, how are we to understand the cross of ash marked on our foreheads? It’s a valid question.

I have to admit, there were quite a few years when I just couldn’t figure out Lent.  The ash, the repentance, the reflection about sin with the shadow of the cross looming larger with each passing day toward Good Friday.  I used to say with some frequency and none too gently, “Can we just get to Easter already?!!”  My wonderfully faith-filled friend Chris and I laugh about my Lenten laments in those days whenever my love of Lent comes up now.  She takes some pleasure in reminding me because now it’s hard for me to imagine how I could possibly rejoice more in the relentless honesty of this season.

Like Charlie Brown, I found myself in a particularly philosophical mood a few years ago.  From that mood, I said to someone, “Isn’t it weird that from the moment we’re born we begin to die?”  He immediately said, “Yes, but we’re also living.”  It’s impossible for me to remember when the dots finally connected.  But I can tell you that the connections worked backwards from the cross of ash echoing back from the cross of Good Friday. The ash goes on the forehead with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I swear there are times I can hear the grit of ash when it’s smeared on skin one way and then the other, priming us to begin at our end, priming us to live fully knowing that it is God who promises to hold us through death.  So the ash we end up wearing on our foreheads is pure promise.

When I take communion out to our home-centered folks, I often quote another one of the Apostle Paul’s Bible verses. It goes like this:

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”[4]

Other Bible translations say, “…the quick and the dead.”  Regardless, I say this verse at people’s bedsides and recliners because the reminder that God’s promises encompass our whole lives, even into life eternal, can never come too many times.   Because, deep down, we know a few things are true.  We know that our piety will never fully reflect our mixed motivations and inconsistent actions.  We know we can never love our neighbor or ourselves enough under our own steam.  (Check out that Isaiah reading again if you’re in any doubt.)

We also know that God’s love working in us and through us makes loving our neighbors and ourselves possible because it’s God who loved us first.  The movement of love is from God to us.  That’s what we wear on our foreheads in the form of ash.

For now, today, we begin at the end with the cross on our foreheads reminding us that we are fragile creatures who experience the freedom of living through the truth of our last day.  Because, in the end, we are reminded once more that our purpose in Jesus is first to be loved by the God who is, who was, and who is to come.  Loved unconditionally.  Loved so much that we are free to wonder about our motivations and our actions without worrying about the love freely given to us.  Loved so much that hearts are transformed by the grace of unconditional love.  Reminded that we are loved and to love.  When someone asks you what that ash is about, tell them that essential thing that means everything – that it reminds you first you are loved. and that this promise includes everyone. No exceptions.

This is good news indeed.  Amen.

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[1] 2 Corinthians 6:9-10

[2] Frank L. Crouch, Dean and Vice President, Moravian Theological Seminary. Commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for Ash Wednesday on March 6, 2019.  Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3983

[3] Matthew 5, 6, 7 [full chapters]

[4] Romans 14:7-9

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Isaiah 58:1-12 Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. 3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. 4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 …we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

 

For Sara, A Celebration of Life

Caitlin Trussell with Sara’s family and friends on February 24, 2019

I am Pastor Caitlin Trussell and I bring you greetings from the sinner/saints of Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver.  Much closer to home, I’ve been friends with Sara’s sister Susan for almost 20 years, after our sons met in preschool.  My heart and prayers have been with Sara and you all through her diagnosis and death.  The invitation to close the remarks today is an honor.

There’s a verse that I hang onto in the Christian Bible that helps me in difficult times.  It goes like this, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.”** Notice that this Bible verse doesn’t say love is perfect and it doesn’t say love isn’t messy. It says that God’s love is made complete in the love we share with each other. When I pray out loud with people, I often say a prayer of thanksgiving for the way God shows God’s love for us through other people.  And today, I thank God that you all had Sara to love and to love you – not perfectly revealing God’s love, but completing it nonetheless.  Sara was one such person through whom you experienced a small fraction of the love that God has for us.

And also, in a very real way, God did this through Jesus, who gave his life on a cross. There’s many things that the cross means but I’m going to spare you and highlight just one thing the cross means. It means God knows suffering and grief. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer and grieve. Because grief is often a messy mix of our love and our unfinished business, the cross also gives us hope that grief will be transformed by the love God shared with you through Sara.

Grief is transformed in part through the love you share with each other here today. Because with Sara’s death, the fabric of relationship is torn.  And it’s as if each one of you is given a needle and thread, so that with every story you tell, every laugh with remembered stories, every tear with remembered grief, every silence shared that cannot be filled with words, you are stitching your relationships together in new ways that continue to reveal Sara’s shape, making God’s love complete in loving each other.

With the remarks concluded, you’re invited to continue sharing time, food, and stories.

And now hear this blessing:

May God bless you and keep you,

May God’s face shine on you with grace and mercy,

May God look upon you with consolation and (+) give you peace.

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**1 John 4:12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete  in us.

The Logic of Leveling vs. Scarcity and Scapegoating [OR Jesus, Pops, and Pithy Sayings] Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10

**sermon art: Jesus Christ Preaching by Jose Trujillo (oil on canvas)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:17-26  He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it? 10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

[sermon begins]

Growing up in my house meant growing up with a step-dad who would spout pithy sayings often in the form of warnings.  I’ve shared a few of Pops’ sayings with you in the past.  It’s surprising how the sayings come to mind as preachable given the amount of eye-rolling and foot-stomping that greeted them at the time.  One such saying bubbled up when I’d want to go do something with friends. Pops would then give me grief, I’d respond by telling him that my friends were allowed to go, and he’d say, “Would you rob a bank if you friends were doing it too?”  Classic.  I never saw much use in that particular logic as my friends never invited me to rob a bank. Nor did I ever think I would tag along on such a quest even if they did.  Regardless, Pops felt it necessary to regularly warn me of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  Warnings are often wasted on the wayward.  We don’t like the flaws in our logic challenged so we roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit the messenger. Pops likely didn’t deserve my disdain.  Similarly, Jesus’ likely didn’t deserve the contempt he received in response to his warnings either.

Warning is one way to think about what we hear today in the “woes” recorded in Luke’s gospel.[1]  There are connections between the language of woe that Jesus uses and the language of woe used by Old Testament prophets.  Prophets didn’t pull any rhetorical punches either.  They wanted people to hear the bad news about their current behavior and call people to repentance, to new ways of being in the world as God’s people.  The woes that Jesus lays down are for those of us who are rich, full, laughing, or admired.  Sure, we have options.  We could roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit Jesus or the Bible or the preacher in the pulpit, wasting Jesus’ warning for the wayward.  Or, we could let the warning of the woes settle over us.  Let the warning of the woes challenge our wayward living much like the prophets used to do.  The prophet Jeremiah challenges his listeners not to trust in mere mortals.  By extension, this means we can treat our inherently wayward opinions and circumstances with a bit of mistrust; with a healthy, well-deserved dose of skepticism.

Let me give one small example of what I mean by a healthy dose of skepticism.  Periodically, those of us preachers who show up for preachers’ text study will debate the pros and cons of sharing personal stories.  In this small example of an ongoing debate, it makes sense to wonder why we preachers tell stories about ourselves.  After all, the goal is to point to Jesus in the act of preaching.  It goes without saying that it’s not about spotlighting the preacher.  A healthy dose of skepticism can help challenge the privilege of the pulpit while also trying not to end up the hero of our own stories and sending sermons off the rails – an important, mostly behind-the-scenes task.  Similarly, Jesus’ woes to the rich, full, laughing, and admired can instigate a need to self-justify.  We can find ourselves saying things like, well, I’m not that rich. Or I used to be poor.  Or even more problematic, we can find ourselves trying to justify why other people are NOT rich or full or laughing or admired.  It’s like we read the four blessings and the four woes listed by Jesus as a particular challenge for us to see where we end up in his list. In the meantime, while we’re justifying things all over the place for ourselves and other people, the opening verse of the reading says that “[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed all the leveling language in Luke’s Gospel in quite the same way before.  Maybe it’s because we only get Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, during Year C of the Lectionary Readings when Easter is almost as late in the Spring as it can be.[2]  The last time that it came up in Sunday’s worship readings was in 2004, fifteen years ago.  While preparing and thinking about Jesus coming down to the level place, John the Baptist’s quotes from Isaiah came to mind about smoothing rough ways, filling valleys, and lowering mountains and hills.[3]  Mary’s Magnificat also came to mind about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly.[4]  The leveling is NOT a reversal of bringing the low high and the high low only to change places and repeat the same bad news. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in Luke’s Gospel enacted what was proclaimed and sung by John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother Mary.

Jesus came down and stood on a level place with the twelve, and also with “a great crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Naming those locations means that the crowds were full of Jews as well as non-Jews otherwise known as the Gentiles.  Crowds of people showed up from all over, some were Jesus followers, some were Jews, and some were Gentiles.  It’s chaos. People reaching out and touching Jesus, people unbound from the social norms of their day milling around a level place.

Leveling works against our primitive urge for scapegoats. Rene Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity late in life after studying scapegoating and the Bible.[5]  Girard expected to find consistencies in scapegoating between other ancient manuscripts and the Bible.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.

The Gospel of Luke in general, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in particular is a prime example of how the Bible levels the highs and lows of social norms that we tend to describe as “just the way things are.”  This is especially true in societies like ours where “the blessed” are often considered to be the rich or full or laughing or admired while “the woed” are the poor or hungry or weeping or reviled.  Somehow, we misinterpret blessings and woes as deserved and bestowed by God – subconsciously justifying each person’s social location.  The problem is that we end up treating our neighbors based on what we think they deserve rather than on the greatest commandment, so named in all four Gospels.  The greatest commandment goes like this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’[6]  In Luke, the 10th chapter, we’ll hear this greatest commandment coming up in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus, preaching on the level place, is able to name the blessings of the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled not because of a far off someday but because he calls and invites us all to be a part of the leveling here on earth – seeing each other as siblings in Christ over and above our primitive urges toward scarcity and scapegoating. The primitive urges that increase the risk of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  The good news is that Jesus meets us in the chaos of the level place.  Rather than recycle the same bad news with a new set of faces, he invites us into the good news of our shared humanity, beloved as children of God, and freed into loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Alleluia! And Amen.

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[1] Rolf Jacobson. Sermon Brainwave podcast #648 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany for February 17, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1106

[2] Easter is scheduled annually on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html

[3] Luke 3:1-6

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[6] Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34–40; Matthew 22:46; Luke 10:25–28

Personal and Prophetic Grace. Yes, it’s both. – Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; see end of sermon for last week’s reading from Luke that is the first part of Jesus’ sermon here]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

{sermon begins]

Oh, Jesus! Really?!! Upsetting your listeners again? How quickly things go downhill too.  Just before he’s nearly hurled off the cliff, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  If only Jesus had stopped with his gracious remarks before he launches with prophetic grace.  “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” Jesus. Timing is everything and Jesus’ timing with the people hearing his sermon was way off.  We hear the end of the story today begun in the Luke reading last Sunday.  Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”[1]  Of course it was his custom, being a first century Jew and all.  Jesus was Jewish through and through.  He stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah and sat to teach.  His named great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, alongside the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman and the widow were outsiders.  By telling those stories from Jewish history, Jesus pushes his home-town people hard on the outsider message.  A message long embraced by Jews about Elijah and Elisha who also summoned prophetic grace for outsiders.[2]  This was not a new message, although it was apparently an infuriating filled one.

Prophetic grace is not neutral.  There’s usually some kind of reaction.  People love it or people hate it.  Either way, prophetic grace often pushes people which means that people will often push back.  A couple weeks ago, I marched in the Marade celebrating the work and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders prayed about loving our neighbors by taking action; as politicians spoke with different perspectives on equality and freedom; and as I looked around at people of all ages and skin colors, I wondered if I would have had the courage to march with Dr. King over 60 years ago.[3]  Many white people thought he wanted too much, too fast, for black people and that his rhetoric was too risky for everyone.  Many moderate whites who were on his side in theory, couldn’t bring themselves to show up with him in actuality, although some did.[4] The same could be said of Harriet Tubman. She was a former slave, political activist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad that rescued slaves before the Civil War.[5]  It’s ironic that her image will grace the $20 dollar bill given that Ms. Tubman lived at a time when the economy depended on black slave labor who received none of the financial reward.  Both Ms. Tubman and the good Reverend King acted from deep faith.

If Harriet Tubman and Dr. King are too much prophetic grace to contemplate, let’s try Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Pastor Bonhoeffer is often lifted up by Lutherans as an exemplar of prophetic grace.  He lived and died in Nazi Germany working to overthrow Hitler first by speaking out against him and then by trying to assassinate him.  He was executed days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp.  The good Reverend Bonhoeffer is obviously inspiring for what he was willing to risk and the faith that was his strength.  Similarly to my thoughts about Dr. King and Harriet Tubman though, I wonder how I would have responded to Pastor Bonhoeffer had I been a German Lutheran of his day.[6]

I wonder because of their inspiring lives that they risked daily.  I also wonder because of Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in the verses 18 and 19 from last Sunday.  When Jesus unrolled that scroll in the synagogue, and stood to read, here’s what is quoted from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ reading from Isaiah, echoes the Spirit filled words of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon earlier in Luke.  People will argue about whether Jesus’ words are meant personally or prophetically.  Aren’t we all on some level poor in spirit, blind to truth, captive to sin, and oppressed by shame?  We talk about those experiences regularly and I often preach Jesus’ promises for all people as a direct word of grace.  For God’s sake (literally), I experience comfort in Jesus’ personal grace myself for all those reasons.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus only meant these words on a personal, spiritual level. If he did, what do we make of the likes of King, Tubman, and Bonhoeffer whose deep faith shapes actions on behalf of people who are actually poor, captive, and oppressed? One of the things I find fascinating about reviewing history is how it can help with perspective today.  Which leads to the other question I’ve been noodling. Who are the voices of prophetic grace are right now? Your homework this week is in the form of a question.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message?  Perhaps it’s a message that rankles and gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable and antsy for some cliff hurling.  Let me know who you come up with and why.  Here’s the question again.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message. Before we get too far on that homework, I’d like us to add to the mix of prophetic grace the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking with love. To paraphrase Paul, speaking without love ends up being a whole lot of noise for a whole lot of nothing.

Some of us have tasted this love that Paul is talking about.  We’ve experienced the grace of the gospel in the unconditional love of Jesus that means there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  It’s deeply personal and it’s transformed our lives.  I first heard this gospel when I was 28 years old. As it fell into my ears week after week, I would sit in that sanctuary and wonder what the people around me were hearing. The gospel, my husband, and my congregation at the time, started nudging me to seminary.  Six years ago yesterday, I was ordained and installed here, with you, as a pastor.  You just never know what the gospel is going to do with you once it’s had its way transforming hearts with love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  This is true whatever your vocation. Gospel love is a personal grace.

Gospel love is also prophetic grace. There are moments when other people say hard things but we’ve still experienced this gospel love.  It’s harder to hear the love through a tough message but it’s in there.  We question motives and meaning before we even realize we’re doing it.  Consistently, Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because all people are included in the love of God – even that person you wouldn’t mind hurling off a cliff – prophetic or not.  Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because Jesus loves the world, everything and everyone in it.  This means that grace in the form of unconditional, gospel love is personal for you and prophetic for everyone else.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say hallelujah…and amen.

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[1] Luke 4:16

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology. Commentary on Luke 4:21-30 for February 3, 2019 on Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955

[3] Saja Hindi. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade Sends Thousands Through Denver.” The Denver Post, January 21, 2019. https://www.denverpost.com/2019/01/21/martin-luther-king-day-marade-denver/

[4] Audio and Document to Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King. Have a listen: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[5] Harriet Tubman. History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman

[6] Victoria Barnett. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

___________________________________________________________________

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Running on Empty* [OR Water, Wine, and Weddings, with a Dash of Mary Oliver]

*Yes, invoking Jackson Browne here. Lyrics align with the sermon but I found it tricky to tie them in. Video is at end of sermon in case you’d like a listen.

**sermon art: Marriage at Cana, Jyoti Art Ashram, India

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 20, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[sermon begins]

I love this wedding at Cana story.  I love that Jesus is at a wedding with family and friends.  I love that his mother is there.  I love that he listens to his mother (of course).  I love that the servants knew where the wine came from when the steward over them didn’t.  And, I love that the jars were for purification rituals and that, at first, they stood AS empty as the wine jars drained by the now drunk wedding guests.  Mary noticed that the wine gave out. It wasn’t so much that the guests needed more wine – they likely didn’t given the now empty wine jars and the steward’s comments to the bridegroom in verse 10.  The bigger problem was that the honor of the host was at stake.  The emptiness of the drained wine jars was shameful for the wedding host, the bridegroom.  A bridegroom running on empty and full of shame. Shame often happens when we’re running on empty – rushing in to fill our emptiness whatever the cause.

Mary flags the shame threat to Jesus.  She says to him, “They have no wine.”  He shrugs her off with the line about his “hour not yet come.”  Unfazed, Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” From her comment, the miracle unfolds.  The steward is surprised that the good wine is served last and the party continues.  Jesus at the wedding of Cana, speaking of his hour and turning the water into wine, foreshadows the events of his death on a cross.  He is present at the wine crisis and he is present at the cross.  He is present at the wedding celebration and he is present at the resurrection.  Emptiness and abundance intertwine through Jesus’ life story epitomized in the wedding at Cana.

Weddings are wonderful.  Earnest vows of love and fidelity.  Ceremonies surrounding the couple with the support of friends and family.  Decorations blooming in floral splendor coordinating with gowns and suits.  Menus taste-tested months in advance.  Cakes frosted into works of art.  And, to my mind, there’s nothing like dancing at a wedding.  My siblings and I adore our cousins’ weddings for so many reasons but one big reason is the dancing.  Pastors are privy to the months before the wedding during the premarital counseling we get to do with couples as they prepare for marriage beyond the wedding day.  We get to hear about wedding details, what they mean and who they’re meaningful for.  We also get a snapshot of what a couple thinks make them work well together.  One of the goals that I have for premarital counseling is for couples to be thinking about the possibility that the day may come when they need help over a hurdle that is bigger than both of their expertise combined.  I was laughing with a younger friend at the gym who was celebrating her first wedding anniversary and joking about being an expert on marriage – to which I paused and said, well, you ARE an expert at your first year of marriage.

Along that line of being the expert, we may get to a year in our marriage when our level of expertise is not up to the challenge confronting us and we may need some help over the hurdle of feeling empty and ashamed. Help can be found talking to pastors or counselors you know, or counselors your friends have used and trust. What do you have to lose when so much feels lost already?  At the very least, there can be healing in the process no matter the outcome. This is true for individuals too, by the way. The wedding at Cana is as good a reminder as any to ask for help if you need it; to ask for help from someone who has some experience coaching couples through an empty spot in marriage that can fill itself with shame.  While that’s more than poetic sentiment, poetry can work its way into the mix.

Poetry like that found in our reading from the Bible’s Song of Solomon can sometimes add to those feelings of emptiness.  The Song of Solomon’s poetry celebrates a bride and bridegroom with the enthusiasm and romance of newlyweds.  Very little of it ends up printed in worship bulletins because the ancient, sensual metaphors must have been determined to be too much for listeners.  The wildly popular tattoo and jewelry engraving, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” is from the sixth chapter of Song of Solomon. Biblical commentaries interpret the book in various ways – from the bride is Israel and the bridegroom is God to the bride is the church and the bridegroom is Jesus to the bride is a bride and the bridegroom is a bridegroom.[1]

When the Bible offers us poetry whether in the Song of Solomon or another book, there’s an opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes through an ancient lens, not our own.  Mary Oliver, American poet, and Pulitzer Prize winner, died this week.  Her poetry generally helps us to see the world with fresh eyes through a contemporary lens, not our own. She had a special gift of celebrating life’s ordinary moments. Her poem “When Death Comes” specifically invokes the bride and bridegroom imagery.  She writes:

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”[2]

Mary Oliver and the Song of Solomon similarly invoke the wonder and joy of newlyweds. Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine transformed the looming shame of the newlywed bridegroom into the wonder and joy of abundance at a wedding.

Notice who benefits from Jesus’ transformation of emptiness to abundance, though. It’s the bridegroom but it’s not ONLY the bridegroom.  There’s a bride there somewhere. There are Jesus’ friends and likely other friends and family of the newlyweds. There’s the steward who was probably supposed to keep tabs on things like the wine supply.  There are servants who were fully in the know.  Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine during the wedding at Cana touched the people there in different ways.  ALL this and still his “hour [had] not yet come.”  In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ “hour” refers to the time that he will hang on a cross.[3]  The tasty wedding wine relates to the sour wine given to quench Jesus’ thirst on the cross.[4]  Jesus’ mother is called “the mother of Jesus” in the Gospel of John and shows up in the gospel only twice – once at the wedding at Cana and then again at the cross.[5]  From his first sign of turning water into wine, the cross where Jesus’ life will be emptied is already in play.  Curiously, though, Jesus is at a party…maybe even dancing.  (At least I like to think he was dancing.)

Turning water into wine and other things happening at the wedding at Cana point us to the cross but it also points us THROUGH the cross.  The emptiness that can so easily fill with shame is taken to and through the cross by Jesus, transforming us into new life.  Like the people at the wedding at Cana, the abundance of new life looks different for each of us.  For some of us, new life seems miraculously immediate, gushing to overflowing; for others of us, we need to ask for help and take one next right step after another as new life fills our empty places one drop at a time.  One thing is true, regardless.  Jesus’ meets us in our most empty places. It’s part of what the cross means.  It is from that place of emptiness that shame loses ground, hope is born, and life is restored.  Hallelujah and thanks be to God.

 

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[1] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Assoc. Prof. of Old Testament. Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7 for August 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2511

[2] Mary Oliver. When Death Comes.  Library of Congress (© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston).  https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/102.html

[3] John 16:32

[4] John 19:28-29

[5] John 19:25-27

___________________________________________________________

Song after the sermon:

Jesus, Come! For We Invite You (ELW Hymn #312)

1 Jesus, come! for we invite you,
guest and master, friend and Lord;
now, as once at Cana’s wedding,
speak and let us hear your word:
lead us through our need or doubting,
hope be born and joy restored.

2 Jesus, come! transform our pleasures,
guide us into paths unknown;
bring your gifts, command your servants,
let us trust in you alone:
though your hand may work in secret,
all shall see what you have done.

3 Jesus, come! in new creation,
heav’n brought near by pow’r divine;
give your unexpected glory,
changing water into wine:
rouse the faith of your disciples —
come, our first and greatest Sign!

4 Jesus, come! surprise our dullness,
make us willing to receive
more than we can yet imagine,
all the best you have to give:
let us find your hidden riches,
taste your love, believe, and live!

____________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Helping Each Other See the Fullness of Life From Darkest-Dark through Lightest-Light to the Ordinary – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

**sermon art:  Embroidery Art by Pajnsy

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 13, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[sermon begins]

Preachers have a strange privilege week to week.  We get to wonder with people about scripture, faith, and life in all kinds of ways.  We get to convict people and we get to lavish God’s good grace over people.  Over the last few weeks, I have become somewhat tangled up in my own thoughts about the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.  Last week I attended a funeral for a young man who ended his life in despair.  He grew up in church with my kids and was in youth group with my son.  My vantage point during the funeral was leaning against the back wall of the sanctuary next to a woman who’s been my friend for the last 21 years.  I don’t know about you but I call that a God thing since we hadn’t planned on attending together. The standing room only section was 4 rows deep.  Folding chairs had been brought out to create many more temporary rows of seating in front of the standing room only.  Every chair in the sanctuary was filled.  Together we created a group of just under 350 heartbroken people.  Worship bulletins had run out.  Some of us in the standing room only section tried to sing the hymns by heart.  “It is well…it is well…with my soul…with my soul…it is well…it is well…with, my soul…” and “How great thou art…” bubbled up in pockets through the back of the sanctuary as we celebrated his life and grieved his death.

And it IS well with my soul.  Over the last few years, when people ask, “How are you,” sometimes I’ll answer, “Existentially, I’m good.” That’s a soul answer.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  I believe that answer and I’ll proclaim it till Jesus comes again.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  The implication is that while the soul is good, the current moment is kind of challenging.  Sometimes we’ll chuckle knowingly at my answer.  So, if you were to ask me that question directly, right now, my answer is, “Existentially I’m good thanks, but my heart is broken.”  Soul good.  Heart broken.  Both good and broken.

At the end of the funeral, I turned to my friend and said, “We’re letting our young people down, we have to do better.”  And we talked about that for a few minutes – especially related culturally. Collectively all of us are in the culture.  We’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.  When I called my 21 year old son to tell him about the funeral, he brought up the state of the world.  Some of you know that I’ve spent my adult life working with children and adults in their last days of life. First as a nurse and now as a pastor.  Along that line, and in tune with where he was at in the conversation, I said to my son, “You know what people in their last days miss the most? They miss how certain things taste or how it feels to move their bodies or how it felt to take a trip to the grocery store. Ordinary, good moments of life that add up living.”  So, my son being used to these kinds of things from me, rolled with it and added to the list.

Someone recently messaged me a bit from the movie “The Life of Brian” that we should “always look on the bright side of life.”[1]  It’s a satirical, hilarious and cynical take about looking on the bright side of the crucifixion.  Just so there’s no confusion.  I’m not talking about ignoring the woes of the world to look on the bright side.  What I’m asking us to do in difficult times is help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything.

I bring amaryllis plants to children’s sermons and continue to connect kids to their current moment and, by extension, invite all of us to see beauty in the ordinary moments of a lifetime – no matter how long the life.  It’s a serious intention to see life in the ordinary, to laugh at my own quirks, to not take everything so seriously in life, and to see life in all its wonder even in the ordinary. It’s NOT hard to see life in the extraordinary for cryin’ out loud.  The baptism of Jesus does that really well.  The heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends bodily like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven.  The divine transcendent couldn’t be more majestic and mysterious in this story.  We hear a story like that and can easily think, “Well, ya, sure, if only that could happen, then my life would be clear as water.”  Someone do me a favor, grab a pew Bible.  Look up those missing verses that we didn’t hear in the Bible reading.  Luke chapter 3, verses 18 to 20.  Someone tell me what happens to John at the end of those verses?  … … … …

John is thrown in prison!  By Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas.[2]  These few verses that take on John’s imprisonment and Jesus’ baptism go from the darkest-dark to the lightest-light with just a sentence-ending period in between.  Most of what happens in life is more in the middle.  More in the ordinary zone between darkest-dark and lightest-lights.  Jesus entering into the fullness of our existence includes this moment of baptism.  He is baptized.  He didn’t need to be baptized.  We are baptized and we more than need it – to hear we’re beloved children of God, to hang on to its promised grace of forgiveness and transformation.  One way to think about his baptism is that Jesus was completing the circle of entering into human identity.  During baptism, transcendence happens with the heavens opening, the spirit descending, and the voice speaking. The very next thing that happens after his baptism is Jesus’ temptation in the desert.[3]

Jesus enters into the identity of being beloved by God and then into the life we all lead, temptations included.  A life lived with a fragile body that can be tempted by despair, power, and safety.  A fragile body tempted to believe things other than the love of God for us, and the power of life revealed in the ordinary.  Tempted to believe that the dark is greater than the light.

But Jesus roamed around for 33 years.  There was likely a spot or two of the ordinary betwixt and between the darkest-dark and lightest-light.  Here’s your homework this week.  Look for the ordinary things you would miss and talk about them with friends and family.  Speak up and speak out about the beauty you see around you. Help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything. Every so often I’m struck by how weird it is that we are here on an earth breathing and moving and being.  That’s crazy amazing, my friends.  And, yet we often roll out of bed unaware of our own embodied grace.

I’m going to take liberties with the Apostle Paul’s writings.  (Probably something I’m regularly guilty of.) Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians that we do not grieve as ones without hope.[4]  The liberty I’m going to take is to say that we do not live as ones without hope.  More simply put, we live as people with hope.  This hope gives us eyes to see and ears to hear by way of faith.  It’s a hope we carry as light into the world – not our own light but a light bestowed by Jesus the Christ.  A light that shines defiantly through the broken hallelujahs of the darkest-dark. A light that celebrates the extraordinary of the lightest-lights.  A light that experiences the ordinary as living fully too.  A light in the darkness that challenges despair with hope.  Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

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[1] All Things Monty Python, Facebook. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” From Life of Brian. https://www.facebook.com/AllThingsMontyP/videos/2233060303630365/

[2] John Petty, Pastor, All Saints Lutheran Church.  Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 for January 13, 2019. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2019/01/baptism-of-our-lord-luke-3-15-17-21-22.html

[3] Luke 4:1-13 The Temptation of Jesus

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Christmas: The Hope, History, and Mystery of God With Us – Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

**sermon art: The Nativity by Julius Gari Melchers, 20th century

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Gospel of John. The reading from the Gospel of Luke may be found at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

In those hope-filled moments and hours before a baby arrives, time slows down. One breath, then the next, and then the next.  Breath – hope – breath – hope… Breathing paced around a woman’s body doing the work of labor.  Beyond breath, muscles that aren’t doing the work of birthing can be rested in between contractions that run on their own timing with increasing urgency.  People around the birthing mother can make all the difference in mood and tricky delivery moments with umbilical cords and pushing at the right times, but the bottom line is that the baby arrives in its own time, refocusing our attention from mother to child.  Taking its first breath. Crying its first cry.  Swaddled in its first cloths.  Held in its first arms.

Here we are, Christmas Day, remembering when Jesus was born in time, focusing our attention on one small, holy, hope-filled family.  Mary who labored and birthed as a new mother.  Joseph who stood by as an earthly father.  Jesus who arrived, breathed, cried, and was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  This is the story we sing about at Christmas. The story in the Gospel of Luke that has all the memorable characters including angles, shepherds, and sheep.  The story where God shows up in time in what we call the incarnation – God taking human form to be the long-promised Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmastime is about God showing up at a particular moment in time.  It’s about the God of history.  The God of history that made promises through Abraham and Moses and then expanded those promises to all people with the birth of Jesus who is hope cradled in history.

History is something we like to know and investigate.  History is time-bound.  History makes us hope for Johnny-on-the-spot reporting so we can know things for certain.  This hope turns into things like the song, “Mary Did You Know?”  We want to know what Mary knew and when she knew it, the story behind the history.  Truly, though, we know so little even as we hope for so much.  Even the four gospel writers are somewhat contradictory in their stories.[1]   Which brings us to the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  To paraphrase Genesis, in the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[2]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[3]   If Luke gives us hope and history, John gives us hope and mystery with his cosmic poetry.  Talk of Word made flesh is full of hope. John’s “Word made flesh” language catches our attention because, well, who talks like that?! High stakes apparently call for attention grabbing poetry.

The stakes are high because we’re talking about God keeping God’s promise to be present in and for the world through the act and sustenance of creation.  Our life, our breath, our hope rest in these promises which are revealed from the grace of creation through the grace of God’s new creation in Jesus through the grace of his unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, or race through the grace of his death on the cross to the ultimate grace of new life together in the great cloud of witnesses from all times and places.  This litany of grace is hope.  As I wrote it, and as I speak it now, I inhale it like air that gives life.  We are not left to our own devices and the messes we make of things.  We are called into the grace of God who makes new life possible.  From cradle to cross to new life, there is the hope and mystery of God’s presence in the midst of our pain, hope and mystery of God infusing our day-to-day moments so that our joy may be complete, and hope and mystery of being with our loved ones again one day.

Today, we spend time together with all the baggage we brought into the sanctuary with us as we sing the familiar and well-loved songs of Christmas.  As we sing, pray, and share communion, we are filled with breath and hope by the God of history who was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms; and we are filled with breath and hope by the God of mystery who breathed life into being and is here with us now.  As people who receive this good news of history and mystery, we live as people of hope by the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.[4]

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[1] Christian scripture, known in the Bible as the New Testament, contains four books called the Gospels meaning “good news.”  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

[3] John 1:1, 4-5, and part of v14.

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

[15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

 

Connection at the Cradle’s Edge [OR Two Women Preaching a Shared Vision] Luke 1:39-55

**sermon art:  The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2009, oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Advent 4, December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

[sermon begins]

Ohhhh, cat fight!  Well, not really.  Not at all actually.  Mary and Elizabeth are two women in it together.  Both have slightly different jobs that work toward the same vision.  After Mary’s surprise pregnancy, she makes haste to the hills to her relative Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant in her old age.  Later we learn her visit to Elizabeth lasted about three months.[1]  Perhaps Mary was there when John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah – helping her aging relative with a difficult labor and delivery and then heading home as her own belly grew heavy with pregnancy.  This is no small relationship between the two women.  In a world that often pits women against each other, imagining competition where there isn’t any, here we have one of many examples in which competition is simply not the case.  Not only was Mary welcomed by Elizabeth and the baby inside of her.  Mary was celebrated by them.  The baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Celebration, indeed.

The celebration continues after Elizabeth’s joyous welcome with Mary’s psalm in response.  Psalms are a form of song in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  Psalm songs in Luke lead us to up to and beyond cradle’s edge.  In addition to Elizabeth and Mary, the priest Zechariah sings of God’s faithfulness after the birth of his son who becomes John the Baptist, the angels sing to shepherds in a field of good news for all people, and the prophets Simeon and Anna praise God’s mercy for all people.[2] Their songs celebrate the faithfulness of God in the One soon to be cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  Song is a way to remember. Songs get trapped in our head differently and become available in our minds at times when other words fail us.  Songs of full of faith and Christmas promise can sustain our faith and remind us of what we easily forget in the day – that the world and our connection with other people is to be celebrated by way of God’s imagination not our own imagined state of competition.

In her psalm, Mary praises God for humbling the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting the lowly, and feeding the hungry.  One reaction to Mary’s psalm might be vengeful if you’re exhausted by oppression and survival. Another reaction to her psalm might be dread if you hear you’re about to lose something.  In a world that often pits people against each other, inciting competition, categorizing winners and losers, Mary’s psalm can be heard as either/or categories – either you’re the powerful at the top waiting to be toppled or you’re the lowly at the bottom waiting for your turn to be at the top.  For God’s sake, we know what happens to that cradled baby Jesus who grows into the ministry celebrated by his mother’s psalm.  The competition perceived by the political and religious powers took Jesus to trial and death on a cross.  But let’s remember for a moment, that the cross was good news both for the criminal who hung next to Jesus and for the Roman centurion nearby who praised God and confessed truth.[3]  Not either/or categories – both/and – all!

Okay, I’ve dabbled at the cross long enough. Let’s return to the cradle’s edge, shall we?  Pregnant expectation is where we’re at with Mary and Elizabeth.  Even the baby in Elizabeth’s belly is jumping for joy.  The women are joyous and hopeful as they greet each other.  Their psalms preach hope and promise, a vision jump-started by the Holy Spirit.  Two women, both preaching, both celebrating new life in the form of a baby but not yet a baby born.  Another word for this is hope.

Hope is my word for the church year. I chose it at the end of November before Advent began.  I chose the word hope as an antidote to the seemingly endless messages of despair.  With a word chosen to focus faith, I have a better shot at seeing life through the lens of God’s imagination and promise rather than human frustration and despair.  I have a better shot at living and sharing the hope that is within us by the power of faith.  Elizabeth and Mary’s moment is a case in point.  Mary left town in a hurry to go see Elizabeth.  She had a lot to fear in town.  Betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, young and pregnant, facing potential backlash from her community, she walks through Zechariah’s front door into safety and celebration with Elizabeth.  I imagine Mary showing up at Elizabeth’s home with the fatigue and nausea common to the first trimester of pregnancy and perhaps with some worry about the future.  Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit welcome is like a fresh breeze that smooths Mary’s furrowed brow and blows the dust off of her traveling feet and inspires Mary’s response in the Magnificat.

If Mary’s response is anything, it’s a word of hope. So much more than greeting card worthy, the Magnificat is bold, rebellious, and full of joy.  It’s hope-filled because, as we’ll hear in a few days, this is good news of great joy for ALL people.[4]  Which means that the mighty cast down and the lowly brought up stand together with each other by the power of Jesus.  It’s not about putting the lowly in the mighty category and the mighty in the low to simply repeat the same bad news.  Mary’s psalm births the possibility that the baby growing inside of her will lead us into love that connects rather than competes.  Not sentimental love where we pat each other on the head and wish each other good luck.  Rather, it’s a love that means seeing each other as human relatives, celebrating each other as Mary and Elizabeth did.  Sometimes it’s a compassionate love that soothes and consoles us within the cradle of Christ’s presence.  Sometimes it’s a convicting love that helps us understand when we are in the wrong from the courage gained by Christ’s cross.  Mary’s psalm afflicts those of us who are comfortable while comforting those of us who are afflicted.  The cradle and the cross reveal a lot about us.

But mostly the cradle and the cross reveal the Christ.  From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus is grace that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we live as people with hope.

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[1] Luke 1:56

[2] David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN. Commentary on Luke 1:39-55 for December 20, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=515

[3] Luke 23:39-47

[4] Luke 2:10-12 But the angel said to [shepherds], “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 

The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Never Will Overcome It – John 1:1-5, 14

Longest Night: A Service of Hope and Healing, offering a quieter time of reflection during the Christmas Season

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2018

[Reflection begins after the Bible reading]

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

We have an advent wreath in our home.  Sometimes there’s a little chaos when I, the pastor, am somehow caught off guard by the arrival of Advent and end up dashing through the town to find candles.  (The irony of racing around for candles to mark the quiet expectation of Advent is not lost of me.)  Our wreath is a bit makeshift but that has its own appeal.  When they’re finally in place, three purple and one pink candle gradually burn down in their descending lengths over the four weeks of Advent.  Some years, the candles are lit without fanfare.  Other years, when I’m feeling especially pious (you know…in a good way), I find prayers to accompany the Sundays.

This year, without any planning, I simply said something like, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not, never will overcome it.”   There’s something about the promise of that verse.  It’s simple and powerful.  Simple because most of us know the comfort of light when we’re afraid in the dark.  Powerful because it doesn’t take much light to lessen the darkness but darkness is a necessary part of seeing light. We know this cosmically by looking at the stars in a moonless sky.  We know this intimately by lighting a candle in a dark room when the power goes out. Last Sunday in Adult Sunday School, one question Pastor Ann asked us in the class was “in what or where do you find joy right now or generally in this Advent season.”  There were several answers about Christmas lights and quiet moments.  Mine is the Advent wreath in all of its soft light meeting the darkness at its edges.

A rabbi friend of mine recently opened a meeting of interfaith leaders with a devotion about darkness and light.  The co-revealing of both the light of the menorah candles celebrating Hanukkah and the darkness in which we sat was framed, on the one hand, by the recent loss of life at a Pittsburgh synagogue and, on the other, by the joy of our shared connections with each other in the room, shadows holding the light.  The symbolism and the power of what it was representing was as plain as the candles burning in the dark room.  Candles have that way about them.  A pastor friend of mine likes to wave the occasional caution flag about finding a new use for candles in worship because they become so dear so quickly.  The small flame speaks volumes when words simply fail us.  While we’re worshiping together, we’ll have an opportunity to light a candle in remembrance or in prayer – powerful when words fail us.

And words often do fail us in the mystery of faith.  Deep in our bodies, in the life force of our bones, the words of creation are embodied but not explained.  The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  In the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[1]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”   Our candles symbolize something so much deeper with their flames.  With them we remember the God of history. God who creates light in the darkness and new life in a young mother’s body as the baby Jesus, new life as God’s Word made flesh.  God also promises to be with us today in Jesus – shining light in the darkness and new life here, now, in us, in OUR flesh.  We don’t always have the words to use but many of us know something about the light of the one who breaks into our darkness.  Whether that’s the darkness of illness, fatigue, grief, or the mess we’ve made of things, we know and have experienced God’s promise of light – most often it’s much to our surprise.  Being surprised by the light is kind of the best way because we know, deep inside, that we don’t create the light.

The Light is given by the One who is the Light and opens our eyes in deep darkness, in the midst of suffering.

From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus lives forgiveness that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we too reflect the light, shining light into darkness. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, cannot, does not, never will overcome it.

Amen.

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[1] Genesis 1:1-5