Loving Before Knowing [OR The Foolishness of the Cross] Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

Several months after my husband Rob and I started dating, we ended up at a New Year’s Eve party.  We were standing in a circle of people we didn’t know.  A bit of round-robin started as people talked about their work.  Rob said his usual, “I’m in sales.”  Someone asked, “Oh? What kind?” He said something like, “I’m a manufacturer’s rep for a Georgia-based carpet mill.”  As is often still the case, people don’t seem to know how to reply to that statement.  Possibly because cut-pile vs. loop or solution-dyed vs. yarn-dyed controversies aren’t quite party talk.  So, I’m next in the round-robin.  People have their eyebrows up expectantly, hoping their curiosity moves into easier conversation.  And I say, “I’m a pediatric cancer nurse.”  Stares and crickets. More stares and crickets with some nodding and mmmm’ing, while the conversation moved to the next person.

Some conversations are too detailed for party-talk, like the pros and cons of carpet manufacturing techniques.  And other conversations are too hard, like kids having cancer.  These are not the only ones. Just a couple of examples of so many things that don’t qualify as polite conversation.  Grief is another such thing.  This is where the church comes in, talking through the polite conversation into what’s happening in our lives. It’s one of the reasons being part of the church can be a comfort while we’re also challenged by Jesus’ teachings. Listen to this Bible verse again from the book of Matthew:

[Jesus teaches his disciples, saying,] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus is often found teaching in Matthew.  The Bible verses today are most commonly known as the Beatitudes based on the Latin for blessed.  It is curious that people who suffer are described as blessed when these moments can feel and look like the opposite of blessing.  Jesus is pushing against the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  There is no explanation for why people are poor in spirit or mourning, why people suffer.  There is simply a description of suffering and God’s promise to be present in the midst of it.

The Beatitudes state a promise into the suffering.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice there are no requirements to receive the kingdom.  In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now and it’s here.  Check out the kingdom parables in Matthew chapter 13.  They describe active presence of the kingdom on earth.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, Jesus teaches us, that we receive the kingdom, live the kingdom, and teach the kingdom.

I can hear you asking, “Well, pastor, that’s lovely poetry, but what does it look like on the ground to receive the kingdom and live in it?”  I’m glad you asked.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and scholar, describes the rational mind hitting a ceiling.[1]  That ceiling is suffering. Today’s Bible verses name suffering as mourning and poor in spirit and more.  We can’t explain why it happens or its purpose.  We just know suffering exists and spend energy trying to prevent our own.  I mean, really, does anyone actually love eating kale?  Eventually, though, someone we love, or maybe even ourselves, suffers – we get sick, we grieve a death, we lose a job, we miscarry, or we watch our partner walk away.  All that we thought we knew about life and our place in it shifts.

But, as Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” the ultimate in earthly foolishness.[2]  Except that the cross means something beyond comprehension when it’s God’s foolishness. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God knows suffering.  More than that, it’s the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Paul’s use of “Christ crucified” points us there because the crucified Christ is also the resurrected Christ.  Christ whom we claim is among us now by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit names us the Body of Christ known as the church.  We are part of a resurrected life that we share together as a congregation.  We share that resurrection promise as a community of faith.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, he also teaches us, that we receive the kingdom and live in the kingdom especially when living through loss and grief.  Knowing this kingdom teaching can help stop us from painting a silver lining into someone else’s grief.[3]  We can simply be present with someone else in their suffering without fixing it or explaining it or telling someone it’s time to get over it.  We can avoid the trap of thinking someone else’s pain is a teaching moment for them and avoid setting ourselves up as the teacher.  Rather we can live the kingdom now by asking people how they’re doing, by telling people we’re sorry this is happening, by quietly listening, and by praying for them.

Prayer is one of the languages of the kingdom.  Jesus prayed the Psalms while on earth and now we do too as the body of Christ. Therefore, in the Psalms, we “encounter the praying Christ…Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”[4]  Praying for people on our prayer list who are suffering of mind, body, or spirit.  Taking the prayer list that’s in the weekly announcement page home, naming each person on it in prayer, or simply praying the whole list at once.  Praying is kingdom language even when we think our own prayers are uncomfortable and clunky.  That discomfort and humility in prayer are part of the kingdom language.  So is praying for people we don’t necessarily like.

As Christians, praying and being present to each other and the world’s pain is a freedom we have through the cross.  We may recognize God’s foolishness as wisdom and look to the cross as a way of knowing.[5]  It’s possible that one of the truths of Christ crucified is that our suffering connects us to each other differently.  We move through the party talk and listen to someone talk about their grief and loss.  These moments become prayer by transcending what we’re arguing about ideologically and opens our eyes us to see each other truly as beloved children of God.  Through the cross, through the suffering, we love before we know, we love as a way of knowing, we love as Christ loves us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Richard Rohr, Public Remarks, Join the Divine Dance: An Exploration of God as Trinity, Arvada, CO, January 13-15, 2017.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

[3] This is a riff on Brené Brown’s work on empathy vs sympathy.  See video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&sns=fb

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

[5] Rohr, ibid.


1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Faithful Curiosity [OR Dr. King’s Love In Action] John 1:29-42

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 15, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:29-42 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

[sermon begins]


Such a great Bible story and strange in a good way.  John the Baptist, acting like a street preacher, makes a double announcement that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  Two of John’s disciples hear the announcement and start following Jesus without talking at all.  Then there’s Jesus – walking along, minding his own business, a couple of lurkers tagging along.  I imagine Jesus looking backward a few times and seeing these guys talking quietly with each other but looking right at him.  A bit of sight gag with the two disciples trying to act casually every time Jesus looks.

Finally Jesus stops and turns to them.  Here comes the great part. Jesus says, “What are you looking for?”  We’re not privy to whatever motivates his question.  But we are privy to the curiosity in his question.  “What are you looking for?”  This is a passage where the curiosity of John’s disciples meets the curiosity of Jesus.  John the Baptist is the exception. While he’s on the street corner announcing Jesus, everyone else is just curious about each other.  Curiosity that has the disciples following Jesus before they have any information they can understand.

Last week, the staff had lunch with Sheryl Stenseth, our Faith Community Nurse who is retiring today.  Although I’d heard it before, I couldn’t remember how Sheryl made the decision to begin working in a church.  This is how it happened.  This is where I hear Jesus’ question as if he is asking Sheryl, “What are you looking for?”  She was getting her Nurse Practitioner degree and as part of a project she started thinking about how cool it would be if there were nurses who worked in churches.  Filled with life-long faith, she went to her professor to pitch the idea for her project and, without blinking, her professor gave the go-ahead even though she knew that church nursing was already a thing which Sheryl quickly discovered for herself.  Sheryl was connected with Sandy, the nurse who worked here before her, and the rest is history.

Here’s why Sheryl’s story fits so well with the Bible passage today. Because God puts our faithful curiosity about Jesus to good use for our neighbor in the world.  In Sheryl’s case, this is easily confirmed by talking to even just one person who has worked with her or received care from her.  I can think of so many people who reflect this faithful curiosity.  Curiosity that turns into action quietly behind the scenes or sometimes more visibly and vocally.

In the visible and vocal department, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind this weekend as we celebrate his birthday tomorrow.  His faithful curiosity turned into a dream.  As Dr. King said it, a dream of justice and freedom for his black brothers and sisters that extended to “all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.”[1]  There is only one Dr. King.  But he was simply one child of God as each of us are one child of God.  Each one of us to whom Jesus turns and asks, “What are you looking for?”

This past Sunday, I hosted the first of five lunches that we’re piloting as a way for people to focus locally on issues of human dignity like hunger, incarceration, health care, immigration, literacy, and more. The point of this group is to offer ways to be involved as well as to be a safe place for conversation regardless of how you vote.  Seven people joined me for lunch.  We talked about showing up out in the community to show support for people in the community and to follow Jesus more visibly in the world.  Each of us is built with different interests and passions so we can simply pick an event and show up.

As showing up applies to me, I’ll be at a large public meeting at Shorter AME Church on Tuesday evening, a historic black church in Denver since 1868.  I invite you to come as you’re able.  The meeting includes people from the community, law enforcement, and elected leaders, with the goal of strengthening relationship between law enforcement and the community they serve.  Like the other people at lunch, I’m looking for a way to follow Jesus visibly in the world for the sake of my neighbor.

But sometimes, like the disciples, we don’t really know what we’re looking for.  Frankly, some of us aren’t even sure we’re looking for Jesus.  Some of us loyally show up to church for years with a friend or partner who loves Jesus but we just don’t get it.  Some of us show up to church for the first time in a long time, disillusioned years ago.  Some of us show up to church maybe for the first time ever, knowing that something deeper is missing from our lives but we don’t know what.  So what the heck, maybe it’s Jesus.

Notice what’s happening in these Bible verses. John the Baptist is the only one drawn to confess that Jesus is the Lamb of God.  His disciples call Jesus “Rabbi” which means Teacher.  They go hang out with him but they haven’t made the leap to Lamb of God by a long shot.  The good news is that there is room for the curious.  I’ve often wondered what it’s like to hear or sing the “Lamb of God” song for the first time – the song that is sung in the worship liturgy before receiving communion.  Like our strange Bible story, it’s kind of a strange song.

John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Perhaps Dr. King can help us out here.  Here’s what he preached in his sermon, “Love in Action:”

[2]Every time I look at the cross I am reminded of the greatness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of the beauty of sacrificial love and the majesty of unswerving devotion to truth…But somehow I can never turn my eyes from that cross without also realizing that it symbolizes a strange mixture of greatness and smallness, of good and evil…I am reminded not only of Christ as his best but man at his worst. We must see the cross as the magnificent symbol of love conquering hate and of light overcoming darkness.”

Dr. King’s preaching conveys the simultaneous power of God and vulnerability of Jesus on the cross and the human sin that left him hanging there.  “Lamb of God” is a title that says the same thing in three words – vulnerable as a lamb, powerful as God.  But it’s more than a pithy title.

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by showing us the self-sacrificing love of God and drawing us to faith.

Jesus, who experienced what we’re capable of at our worst, sends us off to do what’s best for our neighbor.

Jesus, asking us what we’re looking for, loves us, pours himself out for us, and strengthens us to love.  Jesus does all of these things, even when we don’t know what we’re looking for…

Thanks be to God.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have A Dream…”speech, copyright 1963. https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Love in Action” in Strength to Love: A Book of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row Pocket Books, 1968), 40.