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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

February 2, 2020 – Presentation of Our Lord and Candlemas

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

 

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________

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

Let us pray.

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

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

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

Amen.

________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reflections on Remembrance with Kavod Residents in Denver

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

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

[Remarks begin after the introduction]

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

[Remarks begin]

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________________________

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

[2] See Matthew 2:13-23.

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

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 1:21

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

**sermon art: Barbara Barnes, Untitled

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Today, at the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at just about the shortest day of the year.  There’s some history in those developments.  The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside non-Christian celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun.  So time of year and some of the trimmings were combined from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christian faith has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.  This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.

There is also the story told in scripture.  At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[1]  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible.[2] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a quiet story of a holy family, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as heady and inaccessible.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh – vulnerable, tiny newborn flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[3]

God living among us in Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we understand it, in part, by way of our experience.

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of unrest in the world that is a matter of life and death.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  Into these real struggles, this darkness, Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

My mother gave me permission to tell a bit of her story.  Many years ago, she married my first father in a romantic whirlwind. They honeymooned in Germany. While there, they picked up a set of Dresden angels – a few inches tall, fragile white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful. Life was good and fun and quickly grew to include five children.  Those angels were set out in a bed of pine boughs at Christmastime every year to protect their wing tips in case they were knocked over. They surrounded a small porcelain baby Jesus who finally joined the angels on Christmas Eve.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave. As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out. She remarried and every year those angels would go out. My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding and celebrating the baby Jesus. A few years ago, my mother and her third husband Larry gave the angels to me.  I think about those angels and my family’s story – the good, bad, and ugly.  I think about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle personally in families and collectively in world-wide crises. I also think about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – in bright times and broken times.

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

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[1] John 1:1

[2] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[3] John 1:14

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

**sermon art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

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.

[sermon begins]

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! I’ve been known to blurt this out in a mix of people and places. Most of the time, it’s because someone has shared some good news. Praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus is not a phrase my family used, nor was it ever said even one time during my ten years away from church. But somewhere along the way, someone said it and it wove into my praise and prayer. I don’t remember when it started happening that people would respond with raised eyebrows and outright laughter to praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus, and then mention a movie they saw and assume that’s where I picked it up. It wasn’t. But as this Christmas Eve sermon started percolating and the phrase came to mind, it made sense to check out that movie scene before preaching it.[1] Turns out, it’s NOT the exact same phrase. The scene is a family argument that erupts over the table prayers during Christmas dinner. As the dad prays repeatedly to the baby Jesus, the mom stops the prayer and they argue about whether or not it’s okay for him to be praying to the baby Jesus. To this, the dad replies that she’s welcome to pray to whichever Jesus she likes – grown-up, teen-aged, or bearded Jesus – but that he likes “the Christmas Jesus best.”  The scene is waaay over the top but it gets something right theologically when it comes to this evening’s Bible readings.

The Luke reading announces the birth among farm animals as the child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in the manger that feeds those animals. Angels herald the baby as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, while sending the shepherds to the manger-side praising God. Bible verses before our reading announce the child as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.”[2] The Bible verse that follows our reading announces that the baby’s name is Jesus.[3] In the Isaiah reading, there are other names given to “a child born for us, a son given to us” – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[4]  One tiny newborn, so many names; and so many more names to come as he grows up and out of that manger – prophet, teacher, friend, and king.  We can ponder in our hearts why there are so many names for one divine human being.  Perhaps it’s possible to treasure ALL these names as we ponder and wonder and wander through the 12 days of Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s one name for Jesus that you like best.

When the many names for Jesus come up, disagreement CAN happen about which name is more applicable, or which name is the right name, or which name we should use when we’re being the most faithful, or which name gets at the authentic Jesus the best.  Seems like a moot argument.  All the names listed in the scripture have value in the fullness of Jesus.  Here’s one way to think about it.  I’m a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, weightlifter, community organizer, preacher, pastor, and more.  Am I any one of those things in negation of the other? No.

You may be a peacemaker, student, activist, friend, athlete, gamer, employee, reader, dancer, singer, and more.  Are you any one of those things in negation of the other? No. Are you sometimes more of one of those things than another?  Most likely, depending on the moment.  Are you still ALL YOU in any given moment?  Of course.  Who we are in any one of our roles adds to the breadth of our human experience and the depth of our humanity.  Similarly, so goes the divine humanity of Jesus.

The beauty of specifically celebrating the baby Jesus at Christmas is that we’re reminded just how much God loves us first.  Meaning that before we ever had an inkling that there might even be a God, God arrived physically in the world to be present with us in the most vulnerable way possible – as a squishy, squeaky newborn. For some of us, that’s more than enough because maybe you need the sweet baby Jesus as the Christmas gift, meeting you beyond the overfull inn where everyone inside seems cozy and snug while you’re on the outside looking in.

But others may be in a different space this evening.

Maybe you need the Wonderful Counselor Jesus who calms the troubled mind.

Or maybe Prince of Peace Jesus who calms a troubled world.

Maybe you need the prophet Jesus who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Maybe you need the suffering Jesus on a cross who reassures you that God suffers with us in the darkest moments of life.

Or maybe you need the Savior Jesus who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Maybe you need the Easter Jesus, shining and shimmering with life eternal, sharing your moment of joy as you shout “Hallelujah.”

Or perhaps you need that other Easter Jesus who holds your fragile moment of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which name for Jesus calls to you, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re holding onto Jesus by the barest thread with only your fingernails. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like tonight in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and praise the sweet baby Jesus!

_________________________________________________________

[1] Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Scene: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. (Columbia Pictures, 2006: PG-13).

[2] Luke 1:32 and 35

[3] Luke 2:21

[4] Isaiah 9:6

From Friendly Competition to Celebrating Completion on the Third Sunday in Advent – Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Isaiah 35:1-10  The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

[sermon begins]

Nothing like a little friendly competition. We, in fact, just wrapped one up in the congregation on Thanksgiving Eve. Those Augustana Early Learning Center children collected chili like crazy and we collected chili like crazy. All together we collected 1,555 pounds of chili over the month of November. The goal was to out-do each other in the name of filling food pantries for Metro Caring and George Washington High School. Friendly competition makes us better in ways we never thought possible – challenging each other to be the best of who we’ve been created to be. We see this in sports when two athletes or two teams allow their rivalry to create deep respect and thrill-a-minute fun. A little like the Heisman trophy finalists Justin Fields and Chase Young who play football for the same team and have each other’s back during the hype and interviews; who play better ball because of each other.[1] The opposite is also true, sometimes we get worried that we’re not going to keep up, or that someone is going to come along and usurp our position. We know when we see the latter – the fits, the whining, the yelling, the lack of eye contact between teammates. We also know when we’re watching the former. When a ballgame winds down to the last seconds and no one knows who going to end up with the winning score but after the game the players laugh and smile in those handshakes and hugs after the game. You know they’ve had a blast. You know the losing team is disappointed. But still the joy of the game is mirrored in the teams’ demeanor towards each other.

The question of competition arises between commentators who study John the Baptist and Jesus. There seems to be agreement that John had a very large following of disciples, enough to have power that threatened King Herod. It’s how he ended up incarcerated as a political prisoner. John’s power is one reason his question from prison is so powerful. John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  It’s a humble question open to the possibility of Jesus’ greatness – not as threat but as hope. It’s also an Advent kind of question – filled with expectation on the one hand, and with lack of certainty on the other. A simple “yes” or “no” answer would have been easier to take back to John.

But Jesus didn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer. He gave an answer more like a spy movie’s exchange of coded messages. First spy on the inside of the door says, “The milkman delivered chocolate instead of half-and-half;” then the spy outside says, “Cookies would have been better,” which opens the door to let the spy in. Anyone listening can’t decipher the cryptic communication. Maybe Jesus wanted to protect John in the prison cell. Hard to say. It’s possible Jesus knew that John would know the Isaiah reading about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping, and the speechless singing. They could have been working together like the spies in the old movies passing cryptic messages through their knowledge of Hebrew scripture.

It could be, though, that Jesus simply understands one more thing better than us.  “Yes” or “no” answers are limiting when talking about Jesus. When John’s disciples go back to prison to pass along Jesus’ message, they’re supposed to talk about what they see and hear. Not competition but conversation and even celebration of what they see and hear. Let’s say someone comes up to you and asks, “Do you really believe God was born as Jesus on Christmas?” Rather than answer “yes” or “no” as the question is framed, there’s another way to answer the question by simply saying, “Here’s what I do know.” And following that up with your story of faith in Jesus, with what you see and hear.

Maybe you have a story of feeling unlovable and finally believing that the unconditional love of Jesus for all people actually does include you. Is that anything like the deaf hearing? Maybe you’ve found meaning in life’s vicissitudes – the highs and lows and in-betweens filled in by the grace of Christ with meaning beyond imagining. Is that anything like the blind seeing? Maybe you found yourself in recovery, confessing all the pain your addiction caused and finding forgiveness, fully dependent on God’s power after you hit bottom with a behavior that you thought would eventually kill you. Is that anything like the dead being raised? Maybe you’ve volunteered or advocated or walked alongside someone whose poverty was immobilizing and now there’s money to pay rent. Is that anything like the poor having good news brought to them?  Maybe you’ve been a faithful churchgoer all your life, finding hope and love in the good news of Jesus no matter what’s going on around you.  Is that anything like not taking offense at Jesus?

John and Jesus’ moment offers us a chance to wonder about where we see Jesus in life – whether it’s our own life or someone else’s. Many of us have heard the Jesus stories for so long that we know by heart the transformations of the blind, deaf, speechless, lame, diseased, and dead. We’ve even experienced those transformations  personally or communally. Which brings us to Jesus’s speech about John after his disciples deliver the message from Jesus to the prison.  Jesus challenges the crowds about what they were doing heading out to hear John in the wilderness. There are subtle references to King Herod whose monetary coin had a reed embossed on it and who wore the soft robes of royalty.[2] Jesus’ references to the king’s power are subtle but acknowledge the threat that John posed to Herod and the reason John ended up in prison. The people were not going out to the wilderness to praise the King. Once again, Jesus highlights John’s gifts and power not in competition but in celebration. In Jesus’ words, the crowds were looking for a prophet. Prophets tell the truth, even the uncomfortable truths, about what’s wrong in the world needing to be made right. As did John, a messenger prophet who would prepare the people for the way.

Isaiah called the way the “Holy Way,” where even the most directionally challenged traveler will be able to stay the path.[3]  On the Holy Way, fear becomes hope and there’s a reversal of everything that competes for the win. Instead, there is only celebration. Humanity is reconciled to God and so is all creation: Blind see, deaf hear, lame move, speechless sing, deserts blossom, water pours in wilderness, and predators vanish.[4]  From crocus to all creation, the Holy Way is the completion of the glimpse we’ve had of Jesus, the one for whom we wait in celebration of all he was yesterday in a baby, today in a living Word, and tomorrow in an eternal God.  Amen.

_________________________________

[1] Ohio State University, 2019. Justin Fields, Quarterback, and Chase Young, Defensive End.

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[3] Rolf Jacobsen, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[4] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

A Manger – Flawed and Real Luke 2:1-20 [Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 12, 2019

Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks: Today’s worship is the first of its kind for our congregation. Recently retired folks and people who work from home are hosting our home-centered folks by bringing them to a brief worship and communion service followed by lunch and then returning them home.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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.

[sermon begins]

Put us all together and, between us, we know A LOT of Christmas music.  We could hear a medley of carols and know most of them.  At the very least, we know the music enough to be comfortable with it, to play with it, to give voice to it. In the kitchen or humming as we tuck in for the night, our caroling is as imperfect as it is joyous. Our spontaneous carols likely have a few flaws but they’re real. And these carols tell a story. A story that gathers us together here today.  A story that had its first tellers long ago.  Storytellers for whom the story is personal and real.

The first storytellers were the shepherds in the field. These men who heard the angels sing were shady characters. The closest example of these men in the 21st century would be people who camp under bridges and call it home. THESE are the people for whom the angels sing. They are given first dibs on the story by the angel who tells them – “to you is born this day…a Savior…a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[1]  They head out fast to go see this baby, this Savior.  After all, THEY clearly need one.  When they get to the manger, they talk about what’s been told to them.  Imagine for a moment the way they tell the story.  At best, they tell it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, they tell the story because it’s first and foremost for them.  The shepherds need a Savior; it’s obvious that they need one – a Savior on their side, a Savior for them.

So, because the Savior is for them, the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph the story, and apparently anyone else who will listen, because, “…all who heard it were amazed.”[2]  What amazes them?  The story itself?  That the shepherds are the ones telling it?  That a Savior is born?  That angels came, spoke, AND sang?  It’s pretty much all amazing! The truly amazing part is that Mary heard the shepherds out. The scripture makes a distinction in verse 19: “All who heard it were amazed but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”[3]  She’s just had a baby in a barn, laid that squishy, squeaky baby in a manger used for animal food, and she’s treasuring the words of these wild, shady shepherds in her heart.

Who does that?!  For Mary, this story told by the shepherds somehow made sense.  At best, perhaps because she heard it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, because…just maybe…it’s a story for her too.  Perhaps Mary needs a Savior, a Savior on her side, a Savior for her.

The Bible tells story after story about deeply flawed people whose lives are oh so real. People who regularly hurt other people or hurt themselves.  But it doesn’t take a 2,000-year-old look back in time to see this play out.  Our lives reveal a truth that we don’t often share with ourselves and try to avoid sharing with anyone else.  Despite our best intentions to “do better next time,” despite the reassurances that we give ourselves about being “good people,” the truth remains: anywhere people show up, so do flaws…real and personal.

Into the mix of flawed people, God shows up.  God shows up, of all places, in a manger.  A manger that has a splinter here and a cracked peg there – a manger that is flawed and real; a manger that cradles and reveals God showing up in Jesus.  The manger that reveals the Savior who came under a star in skin and solidarity, into a fragile humanity, to show up personally into our very real lives.

On the first Christmas, God showed up as a baby, a living and breathing hope.  “…hope [that] rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is,” has done and is doing.[4]  That’s the hope we cling to by faith, even if sometimes it’s by the barest thread with the tips of our fingernails. Regardless of how tightly you cling, the reality is that Jesus holds on to YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like today in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and amen!

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:11-12

[2] Luke 2:18

[3] Luke 2:19

[4] W. Dennis Tucher Jr., “Lectionary for November 27, 2011: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx

Waiting on Emmanuel, the Non-Violent One [A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent ]Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5

**sermon art:  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54228

Title: Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares
Notes: “The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959, by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare, is meant to symbolize man’s desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind. It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters. 1/Oct/2001. UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi.” — (from Flicker.com)
Date: 1959
Artist: Vuchetich, Evgeniy Viktorovich, 1908-1974

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 1, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

[sermon begins]

Wreath, check.

Candles, check.

Flickering candlelight, check.

Catchy Adventy tune, check.

One candle lit and we’re on our way OR, as our song went today, God’s kingdom is on its way, and, in fact, God’s kingdom is already here. Whew! Thank God! Because to hear our readings might give one pause to fear something terrible and rash is about to happen. Immersed in a culture that pivots around the idea that people get what they deserve – whether its wealth or punishment – it’s easy to become people who hope that other people get what they have coming to them.  Not us, though. Funny how that works. That wishing that other people get what they have coming never includes those of us who think those thoughts. Oh sure, grace is a good theory, but it’s not actually how the world works, we think to ourselves. Or perhaps that thought isn’t even conscious. Our unconscious thought is that grace doesn’t or can’t really function in the world.  With a gospel book like Matthew, that line of thinking may be understandable.

One of my favorite theologians is Rene Girard.[1] Originally an anthropologist and an atheist, he began to study the writings of major world religions for their practices of scapegoating. Scapegoating is the way groups identify someone in their midst who must be expelled for the group to survive. Group anxiety goes up. A source for that anxiety needs to be identified. Once identified, the source, the scapegoat, needs to be destroyed or at least kicked out of the group. Girard specialized on the topic through his study of apes and wanted to see how humans went about it.  Late in life, Girard concluded that Christianity was unique among world religions for its vehement rejection of scapegoating and the assertion that the human family was called to move beyond it – the parable of the Good Samaritan loving-neighbor-as-self is the case in point.[2] As Girard’s argument goes, Jesus was the ultimate and final scapegoat through his self-sacrifice on the cross. His nonviolent consent to his death subsumed the violence inflicted on him into himself and negated it. At the same time, Jesus’ death reveals our tendency to inflict violence and justify scapegoating.

We find ourselves scapegoating right down to our least favorite books of the Bible. Well, perhaps you don’t.  I’ll speak for myself.  I scapegoat right down to my least favorite books of the Bible.  The Gospel of Matthew falls in the top tier.  I find its focus on who’s in and who’s out a bit exhausting. No surprise, really, given how I was raised in a different denomination that preached the heck out of misguided rapture theology.  Recently, the Girardian Lectionary website encouraged readers to lean into the books of the Bible in which we struggle, the books we’re inclined to scapegoat. No time like the present given that today, December 1, begins a new church year centered by the Gospel of Matthew.  We’ll get a lot of Matthew over the next year. Happy New Year, people! Here’s the thing. Lutherans claim that the Holy Spirit shapes us through scripture, shattering our tightly held assumptions, and reforming us. This claim is true even in my hesitation about Matthew. I’d even go so far as to say it’s especially true about the Bible books we feel need not apply to our lives.

The Gospel of Matthew was likely written late in the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, fifty years after Jesus’ death. The Matthean community seems to have been primarily Jews who believed Jesus was their long-awaited savior. Initially a part of life in the synagogue, a conflict began with either other Jews, or with Roman authorities, or both, that escalated to the point of the Matthean group splitting off to form its own community.[3]  The book is deeply concerned about true and false belief and God as the final judge. The verses today are a good example of the divide as well as illuminates what we think we already know about these verses.  For instance, in this story, is it better to be taken or left behind?  The comparison with the people swept away by the flood in the Noah story indicates that being left behind might be the better outcome. If it’s the case that being left behind is the better option, it brings up another question. Who is doing the taking? The verses aren’t clear which opens the possibility that there’s a group, perhaps Roman agents, who is taking some people while others remain – not unheard of in the Roman Empire or modern empires for that matter.  If it’s possible that Rome is snatching people, why are we so quick to read it as divine judgment.

It’s curious that we’re more inclined to believe in divine punishment than mercy. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’re cool if that punishment applies to someone else. Out of that desire for retribution, even if we know better than to say it out loud, we can see how it’s possible to create God in our own violent image. But the birth we celebrate on Christmas and the return we actively wait for both hinge on the cross of the Savior who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world beloved by God. Isaiah envisions a Peaceable Kingdom with these words – “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  No more learning war.  Perhaps John Lennon’s song “Imagine” had a bit of Biblical influence imagining a future in which non-violence becomes possible.  For Matthew’s Gospel it was difficult to imagine even though Jewish scriptures run throughout the whole thing. This Gospel is deeply connected to the Jewish covenants through Abraham and following.[4]  When you get a chance, read Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew. Web search those names to find their story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more legal than biological as Matthew goes on to tell Jesus’ birth story. But among the stalwart patriarchs in the list of names are surprising characters, including five women, that become part of God’s story through unexpected or unconventional ways.[5]  Actually, don’t stop at the genealogy, read the whole book of Matthew as we begin our year within its chapters. Underline things you like. Jot a question mark by things that are confusing or troubling. The gospel of Matthew was written in a community that experienced polarization and tension about their Jesus claims with other groups.

Those tensions between the groups play out in some big language and rhetoric. But other, deeper tensions are also playing out in Matthew’s story of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – “between the expected and unexpected, between the old and the new, between sternness and mercy, and between respectability and scandal.”[6]  Through these stories, the Holy Spirit brings new life to fragile faith and heals soul deep wounds. The whispers of hope have begun this Advent during which we’ll hear the promise to Mary – that she’ll conceive and bear a son, name him Emmanuel which means “God is with us.”[7] Hope arriving through the baby we’ll celebrate and the return of Emmanuel who showed us the natural end of our violent scapegoating while showing us a different, peace-filled way forward as we stay awake and watchful.  Thanks be to God and Amen.

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[1] Read more about Rene Girard and his work at girardianlectionary.net

[2] Luke 10:25-37 (Matthew 22:34-40 gives the greatest and second commandment on which hang the law and prophets.)

[3] Matthew L. Skinner. The New Testament: The Gospels and Acts. “The Gospel of Matthew.” (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 114-115.

[4] Matthew 1:1-17 see Jesus’ genealogy and note both the stalwart and surprising players in the list.

[5] Skinner, 109-111 regarding Jesus’ genealogy.

[6] Ibid, 111.

[7] Matthew 1:23