Category Archives: Preaching

Respair: The Return of Hope After a Period of Despair[1] [OR Hope Tells the Truth] Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 10, 2021

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Acts 19:1-7 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—7altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[sermon begins]

A few months ago, I noticed a word popping up on social media. Might have been late September or so when I first saw it on Twitter. Giving a word of the day, word expert Susan Dent tweeted about “respair” which means “the return of hope after a period of despair or to have hope again.”[2] While I was isolating with Covid, I searched the word respair on the interwebs and found five more citations that I started saving to a document. But the citations were still only social media sites and writer’s blogs and I couldn’t verify online that it wasn’t simply made up. It certainly wasn’t in my unabridged dictionary. What’s an enterprising lover of words to do? Why, give a shout out to my neighbor who is also an English professor.[3] She texted me a photo of the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “respair.” Sure enough, it’s an obscure and rare word from the early 15th century. A word that emerged following the 14th century Plague pandemic responsible for the death of over a hundred million people worldwide. A word that never quite caught on.

Why does any of this background matter? Because I know that I’m not the only one thinking about hope these days. Case-in-point is Pastor Ann’s sermon last Sunday that ended with a gorgeous statement about the convergence of hope. It’s clear that us pastor-types are giving hope some thought. Although, again, I know we’re not the only ones. In preparation for today’s sermon, I searched “respair” one more time and it has exploded. Twitter and the rest of the internet is full of references to respair at the turn of the calendar year to 2021.[4] People calling for it to be the word of the year and talking about why it resonates for them. Respair’s connection with an emergence from despair is an important distinction. It pushes against our instinct for the unhelpful optimism that calls for one more drink to numb reality and a pair of rose-colored glasses to blur it. Respair builds on the reality that exists without a need to negate it or erase it or distract us from it.

It might not surprise you to hear that our Bible readings today have parallels to building on realities that already exist. In Genesis, a wind from God moved in the darkness, across the formless void and over the untamed waters. With a word, God created light that was good and gave names to Night AND Day. Darkness remains and does not overcome the light. God does not toss darkness out. God moves in the darkness, names it, expands and builds on it.

In the reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan. Some scholars argue that one of the tasks of the Gospel writers was to explain the relationship between John and Jesus in a way that made common ground possible between their distinct groups of followers. After all, John’s following was huge. Mark’s gospel says that, “…people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” In Mark, as in the other gospels, we see John’s ministry expand forward to include Jesus and Jesus’ ministry loop backwards to include John. Jesus builds on John’s ministry and would not have been the same without it.

And finally, in the reading from the book of Acts, Paul finds some disciples who were called believers but hadn’t yet heard of the Holy Spirit. They’d been baptized by John the Baptist. Paul acknowledges John’s baptism of repentance that expands forward by pointing believers towards Jesus. The disciples were then baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and received the Holy Spirit from Paul – another layer built by the Holy Spirit on what was already happening.

This isn’t to say that everything happens for a reason – at least that’s not something I say or believe. As the child of a father who lost a mental battle with schizophrenia and who became alcoholic, violent, and eventually homeless after my mother escaped him with the five of us kids, it’s difficult for me to believe that the reason for Dad’s break with reality is of God when what we really needed was our compassionate, brilliant, and loving Dad. What I’ve come to believe in these intervening years, is that God helps me tell the truth of what happened to Dad and what happened to us with as much truth and compassion as is possible without the painful layers of shame. Our family found respair, our hope renewed out of despair, out of the pain and truth of what happened to all of us. We don’t sugar coat it. We talk about it, get therapy for it, and find our paths to healing from it. Even writing that down feels like respair out of my experience.

As of early October, there were almost 300,000 excess deaths in the United States recorded by the CDC over similar periods in previous years.[5] According to the CDC, these deaths are directly and indirectly attributable to COVID-19. We’ve lost members of our congregation to COVID and to the challenges that COVID creates for receiving care in unrelated health crises. Some of us have lost coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. If you are someone who believes that COVID deaths are inaccurately over-reported, then an argument still must be made as to why so many more people died in 2020 over previous years. Our country has long loved conspiracy theories. It seems to be part our society’s system DNA. But I generally agree with Occam’s Razor which is the theory that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. [6] There’s a worldwide pandemic and people we know and love along with far too many strangers are dying from it or reeling from its effects. While there is reason for hope as the vaccine is distributed, our losses and those of many others must be named and grieved for their painful reality or they simply fold into hiding places that require more alcohol, more relational numbness, and more political smokescreens to keep them hidden. These attempts to distract us and dull the pain are a recipe for despair.

God invites us as the church, as people of the Spirit to tell the truth about despair and shaken faith without shame. There are very few among us who haven’t felt those things in our lifetimes much less in the last year. Yet resiliency, grit, joy, and laughter are also in evidence over the last year and as we enter 2021. God builds on the common ground of our real, diverse experiences to bring respair out of the waters of our baptism. We are promised radical grace and reckless compassion that free us to confess despair and it’s causes, while our wounds receive the air and light they need to heal and to experience respair. Jesus offers us this renewed hope with every breath of our fragile, flawed bodies living the gift of life as people of the Spirit. Thanks be to God and amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Susan Dent, Tweet, June 14, 2017. “I’ve just discovered the beautiful word ‘respair’ (15th century), and it feels like we need it today: fresh hope; a recovery from despair.”   https://twitter.com/susie_dent/status/874919621375275009

[2] Susan Dent is the author of a new book about words, Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year (John Murray (Publishers), UK, 2020).

[3] Christine Gillette, Ph.D. English Department, Metropolitan State University of Denver. https://webapp.msudenver.edu/directory/profile.php?uName=scoggan

[4] Nancy Friedman. Fritinancy: Word of the Week: Respair. December 21, 2020. https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2020/12/word-of-the-week-respair.html

[5] Lauren M. Rossen, PhD; Amy M. Branum, PhD; Farida B. Ahmad, MPH; Paul Sutton, PhD; Robert N. Anderson, PhD. “Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, by Age and Race and Ethnicity – United States, January 26-October 3, 2020.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report. Ocober 23, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6942e2.htm

[6] Josh Clark, “How Occam’s Razor Works.” https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/scientific-experiments/occams-razor.htm

World Building with Light – John 1:6-8, 19-28

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:6-8, 19-28  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

  19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
 [sermon ends]

 

World-building novels are escapes. Books like Lord of the Rings and Dune are older school versions of the genre. One latest favorite is the Lies of Locke Lamora. It has everything: classic world building elements like maps to give the reader a lay of the land; a cast of characters with depth and quirks aplenty; a whole different spin on faith; and a well-developed thread of honor among thieves. It’s completely indulgent. And, honestly, a little stressful.

Over the summer, towards the end of the first novel, I told myself that I wasn’t going to read the next one in the series. Then the cliff-hanger was so compelling that I told myself that I would only read the second book long enough to answer the cliff-hanger. I’m embarrassed to report the same pattern at the end of the second book going into the third. I just couldn’t imagine how the author was going to spin the tale to resolve the latest crisis. I’m relieved to report that the fourth book isn’t released yet so I don’t have to test my obvious lack of resolve any time soon.

In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me a book last week while I was sick. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. An incredible story set in mostly present-day California, the author tells the story through the eyes of the main character who was born with ocular albinism. Sam has pink eyes. His mother is a devout Catholic. The novel is a compelling tale of faith, doubt, hope, and suffering, while avoiding trite explanations and easy resolution. It’s real world kind of stuff. I’ve been thinking about the contrast of the two tales quite a bit because I’m struck by the different effects they have on me. It makes me wonder all over again about the voices that we let in our heads. Not only that, it makes me wonder about the effects of stories and words on who we are as God’s people.

Our gospel reading highlights John, a man sent from God as a witness to testify to the light. His testimony was part of how people experience belief in Jesus. Some of the most beautiful words of scripture come right before these verses about John the witness:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

These are important verses to our reading today because the light is described by who he’s for and by what he does. His life was light shining for everybody, all the people, and could not be overcome by darkness. John was a witness who testified to the light. It’s John’s purpose that I’m interested in today. His purpose to be a witness who testifies. John gives me pause to wonder not only about the voices in my own life who point to the light today but the choices that I make about who to listen to. Are the books that I read pointing me to the light that shines in the darkness or do they just point out varying levels of dark? This is a bigger question than simply reading or watching feel good things to feel good. It’s a moment of assessing who I’m listening to and why.

Twitter has been an interesting thought experiment in this regard. On Twitter, I follow a variety of thinkers – writers, comedians, theologians, activists, artists, scientists, and church types. It’s heavily curated because I unfollow them too. But I’ve been thinking more recently about this question of how they point to the light of Jesus, to the grace, challenge, justice, forgiveness, and more, that Jesus lifted up in his life and ministry for his followers to pay attention to. More than paying attention, the people who follow Jesus are formed by the lives that he asks us to lead as we love God and our neighbors. Talk about world building!

One of the things I miss in good ole in-person worship is the Confession and Forgiveness. We just haven’t figured out a way to include it in online worship so that it makes sense. This season’s confession acknowledges that “we’re held captive by sin [and] in spite of our best efforts, we have gone astray.” That’s just a piece of the confession. In the language of our scripture today, we could confess that we have not listened to those who have testified to the light and we ourselves have not testified to the light. In our tradition, it’s this kind of confession that helps us see where we let ourselves and others down, where we live as if darkness is more powerful than the light of Jesus, where we think that whatever we may have to say doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

We imagine that the way the world works is a given and that we don’t have much impact on it one way or another. Our gospel reading reminds us that that’s not true. Each of us impacts the way the world works. There IS light that puts darkness in its place.

The forgiveness part of today’s confession goes like this:

People of God, hear this glad news:

by God’s endless grace

your sins are forgiven, and you are free—

free from all that holds you back

and free to live in the peaceable realm of God.

May you be strengthened in God’s love,

☩ comforted by Christ’s peace,

and accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the one hand, we could say, “Oh, those are just words.” But we are part of a tradition that believes in the power of words to create, to bring life into being, to bring a light into being that is so powerful there is no way for darkness to have its way completely. The more we listen to words of light from witnesses who testify to it, the more prepared we are to testify to it while birthing justice, hope, and faith in a world building the kingdom of God.

So that’s your homework for this third week in Advent. Who are you listening to that shines the light of Jesus, for all people, no matter the darkness? Who are the friends, family, singers, authors, directors, actors, politicians, educators, journalists, activists, scientists and more, that continue testifying to the light shining in the darkness? The light of Jesus from the swaddled baby to self-sacrificing adult given for the life of all people. Advent is the perfect time to take this kind of inventory.

Advent is an expectant, pregnant time. In this pregnant time, the light of Jesus is like a twinkle in Joseph’s eyes and a glow on Mary’s face. The light is shrouded in the darkness of a life-giving belly but it’s still there – pulsing and wiggling into position for the hard work of labor. When we light our Advent candles, the flames pulse and wiggle as an echo of the one whose birth we will celebrate and whose return we anticipate. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, never will overcome it! Thanks be to God and amen.

 

 

If God’s Got This, God Doesn’t Seem to Know What God’s Doing [OR Happy Church New Year’s Eve Everyone] Matthew 25:31-46 and Ephesians 1:15-23

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christ the King Sunday on November 22, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 25:31-46 [Jesus said to his disciples] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Ephesians 1:15-23  I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

[sermon begins]

Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new holy day in the church. Almost 100 years ago, there was a Catholic Pope, Pius XI, concerned about the rise of fascism in Spain, communism in Russia, antisemitism presaging nazism in Germany, and secularism in the West.[1] That’s a lot of -isms! So seductive were these -isms, they captured the imagination of faithful Christians who decided God was on their side. Pope Pius XI spotlighted the Lordship of Jesus to refocus the faithful in 1925. Lutherans adopted the Christ the King celebration in the 1970s. That’s pretty much yesterday in the grand sweep of 2,000 years of church history. Christ the King Sunday now ends our church year. It’s like a wacky New Year’s Eve of sorts for church types. And, frankly, there’s more than a few of us who wouldn’t mind seeing the new year start sooner than later.

The Biblical texts for Christ the King Sunday hone in on judgment and Jesus in the distant heavens – a shiny Jesus of exaltation and ultimate hope, a Jesus post-crucifixion and post-resurrection, a Jesus large and in charge against forces that defy God’s message of “the life that was light for all people.”[2] Like the praise song sings about Jesus, “…to see you high and lifted up, shining in the light of your glory…”[3] Who DOESN’T want Jesus to be THAT Jesus?![4] It’s seductive in its own right. It’s also Biblical. It’s in our Ephesians reading. Listen again to that reading as Paul writes:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…”[5]

Those are beautiful words, a beautiful promise. Read the whole Ephesians reading again. It’s full of light, hope, victory, and heavenly Jesus at the right hand of God. A few weeks ago I passed a church sign that said, “GOD’S GOT THIS!!!” All caps and lots of exclamation points added for . My first thought was that, if God’s got this, then it doesn’t seem like God knows what God’s doing. Truly, that was my first thought. Oh, I have enough grace to know what that church meant with the “GOD’S GOT THIS!!!” sign. But I also wondered what people of other faiths or no faith were thinking when they passed that sign. People who have been beaten up with readings like today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. People who have had enough with being called “goats” by Christians.

Make no mistake, this is a text about law and judgment.[6] Jesus has harsh words for his followers. He’s desperately trying to get them to understand his message before his trial and crucifixion coming up next in the story. I find it fascinating that both the sheep and the goats in his story ask the same question, starting with the same word, “When…?”[7] When were you hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and in prison? When did or didn’t we give you food, water, welcome, clothes, and a visit? Both the sheep and the goats ask the question about when they would have seen Jesus in these scenarios. Neither group understood what Jesus meant. How could they understand? It’s a weird concept and an incomprehensible truth. Jesus looks out through the eyes of the least victorious people on earth. Jesus is fully present, fully incarnate, fully embodied in people who are hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and in prison. What does that even mean?!

Almost a year ago, last Christmas Eve, I preached a sermon called “Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus.”[8] We’ll be getting there soon as Advent begins next Sunday and as we await the celebration of Jesus’ birth and Christ coming again. The gist of that sermon was about the many names of Jesus and the Jesus we call upon in our moments of need – the baby, the bearded Jesus, Counselor Jesus, Mighty God Jesus, Prince of Peace Jesus…you get the picture.[9] Flipping that sermon around, we find ourselves called upon by Jesus in these verses from Matthew – Hungry Jesus, Thirsty Jesus, Strange Jesus, Naked Jesus, Sick Jesus, Imprisoned Jesus. Not only is Jesus in the heavenly places, Jesus is in other people’s faces. Jesus ascended into heaven. And Jesus never left. Let THAT sink in. Jesus ascended into heaven beyond our understanding. Jesus is here with us, never having left us, in the suffering that we encounter in other people and in ourselves.

Neither the sheep nor the goats understand a thing about when Jesus is with them. Judgment falls where judgment will…on all of them. Parables like these have been wrongly used to terrify people throughout the centuries. But we are told about Jesus, by Jesus. We’re welcomed into Jesus’ way of seeing each other. Seeing each other not as means to end to lock-in salvation but rather seeing people as an end unto themselves, as the promised presence of Jesus right in front of us. The promised presence of Jesus not to be ignored but to be fed, hydrated, clothed, welcomed, and visited. Jesus cannot say this to us any more clearly then he is right here.

However, there’s a key piece of information standing between the judgement of this parable and the heavenly places. The cross is standing there. Jesus turns from this speech, from this run of harsh parables on the Mount of Olives,[10] towards another hill that’s looming large, and a time when he will soon hang on a cross – hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick, and imprisoned. Right there, on that cross, that’s the good news about how “God’s  Got This.”

Jesus who judges, is the Jesus who loves the most. Jesus the Christ who was vulnerable, non-violent, and self-sacrificing on the cross, resurrected into Christ the King who judges not in retribution, not to get even, but judges as the Light, the Life of all people.[11] Every failure that we accrue as goats will be stripped away.[12] We will be people who fully see Jesus through the enlightened eyes of our hearts.[13] We’ll see Jesus in other people not by our own power but by the power of Christ the King, the prodigal judge, who sees all of who we are in our goatness and loves us beyond our limitations through God’s reckless and extravagant grace.[14] Happy Church New Year everyone. This is good news indeed!

_______________________________________________________

[1] Frank C. Senn. The Not-So-Ancient Origins of Christ the King Sunday. Lutheran Forum. November 11, 2017. https://www.lutheranforum.com/blog/2017/11/11/the-not-so-ancient-origins-of-christ-the-king-sunday

[2] John 1:4

[3] Listen to that Michael W. Smith song sung by him here: https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=open+the+eyes+of+my+heart+lord+video#action=view&id=25&vid=211c211f61d6e3caea769d90f9354740

[4] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Discussion on November 3, 2020, in Preacher’s Text Study of Metro East Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA.

[5] Ephesians 1:17-18

[6] John Petty. Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46. November 20, 2017. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/11/christ-the-king-matthew-25-31-46.html

[7] Pastor Margot Wright, Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church, Centennial, CO. Discussion on November 17, 2020, in Preacher’s Text Study of Metro East Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA.

[8] Find that sermon here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2019/12/24/praise-the-sweet-baby-jesus-luke-21-20-and-isaiah-92-7/

[9] Isaiah 9:6

[10] Matthew 24:3

[11] Petty, ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ephesians 1:18

[14] Yes, I’m invoking the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the image of the Father running with wild abandon. Luke 15:11-32.

For Nancy…A Celebration of Life (September 23, 1948 – October 10, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 13, 2020

[homily begins after two Bible passages]

Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Mark 2:1-5 When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

[homily begins]

Think for a moment about Nancy and what comes to mind. For some, her style for hosting funeral receptions is one. More than a few people have said to me how wild it is that we’re in a moment in time when that favor can’t be returned. Although someone told me on Sunday that Nancy would say that when the time came, skip the reception. I guess she got her way there. Nancy had a thorough way of talking through things – whether it was a trip she had taken or a story she told about someone she cared about or her own diagnosis and treatment. Time talking with Nancy took time. And it was time well spent.

You might hear about her upbringing on the farm in Iowa. Cleaning hundreds of eggs with her signature efficiency while she cried the whole time. She got it done but it wasn’t pretty.

You might hear about her enrolling in business school at the first possible opportunity and moving to Denver where she fell in love with the city, with Augustana, with her friends, and, eventually, with Ed.

You might hear about her unofficial parking spot at the Hallmark store where she acquired the 100s of card sent to many of you for birthdays, anniversaries, illnesses, and condolence.

You might encounter the beautiful things that Nancy had in her home and her personal elegance as you encountered her warmth and her kind heart.

And we all know she was organized and good at keeping the rest of us on task while she led by her example of being a good servant to others.

When she was diagnosed with leukemia, a year ago July, Nancy took the task of getting well as seriously as she approached everything else in life. She wanted to defeat it and she gave it everything she had to do so. And when her will wasn’t enough, and her body finally wore out, she died “gently.” That’s how her brother Greg described it – that she died “gently.” It’s why the passage from Philippians was chosen. In verse five, it reads, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” Nancy died as she lived – with a gentle determination into what comes next.

The story of the friends in the Gospel of Mark seems appropriate for Nancy’s funeral. What a scene! These friends are true problem solvers. Their paralyzed friend needs help and they head toward Jesus.  There were so many people that they couldn’t get in the house. So they opened the roof to lower their friend down to Jesus. That is determination infused with deep love for their friend.  This Bible story just shouted to be told as an echo to Nancy’s life.  I can imagine Nancy up on that roof.  Quietly directing the rest of us to be careful with the friend on the mat, monitoring the proper lowering speed to keep the descent smooth, and efficiently homing in on Jesus’ location – directing us to bring our paralyzed friend to Jesus’ attention.

On the flip side, I can also see Nancy as the friend on the mat. The one who desperately needed help from other people and also needed the attention Jesus. She couldn’t say enough about her brothers and those of you who made her life and treatment easier over the last year. When she was diagnosed, it was her turn to receive all that she had given. Note that Jesus doesn’t ask for a list of virtues before he forgives the friend on the mat. He doesn’t ask the friends to recite all the reasons why Jesus should do so. This seems important to notice at a funeral.

At funerals we have a tendency to create a virtue list of the person who died as if the life and virtues of a person can be mixed into cement of sorts, paving the way between us and God. Don’t get me wrong – the faithful virtues of someone like Nancy are a guide and an inspiration to the rest of us. She’s someone we can look up to. But God receives Nancy into the company of the saints in light because of who God is, not because of what Nancy did. Because what Jesus does through the cross, is promise that there is nothing Nancy could do or not do to make God love her any more or any less. That’s the beauty of grace through faith.

The gospel 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. 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, “will swallow up death forever…and will wipe away the tears from all faces.”[1] The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Nancy into the holy company of all the saints in light perpetual along with Ed. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Nancy.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you. Thanks be to God! And amen.

[1] Isaiah 25:8

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.

 

 

 

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

Festival of Michael and All Angels [OR ☩ May God’s Holy Angels Watch Over You][1] Luke 10:17-20 and Revelation 12:7-12

**sermon art:  Lily Yeh, 1994, Paint, A Mural of Contemporary Angels, Interweave exhibition, Jamaica Arts Centre, New York: Artasiaamerical.org/works/256

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, September 29, 2019

Festival of Michael and All Angels [OR ☩ May God’s Holy Angels Watch Over You][1]

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 10:17-20   The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Revelation 12:7-12  War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”

[sermon begins]

Holy Communion is an open table here at Augustana. It’s Christ’s meal, not ours. This means that during communion, Pastor Ann and I extend the open invitation to everyone here as well as the invitation to those who’d like to come forward but, for reasons of their own, would rather receive a blessing instead of receiving communion.  The blessing that I most often say to children and adults alike is, “The body and blood of Jesus Christ ☩ is given for you; and may God’s holy angels watch over you.”  It sums up a lot of scripture in a short blessing:  Jesus comes first; the self-sacrifice of Jesus is given in love for you; and angels are powerful, heavenly beings, created by God and busy on God’s and your behalf.

Angels seem to hold cultural appeal if their appearance in books, movies, music, and art is any indication.  But their appearance in scripture and sermon is bound to put some of us on edge.  Artwork is fine…harmless even.  But for many of us, angels are in the category of aliens and UFOs – not saying they don’t exist, but the personal experience with them is zero to none.[2]  When it comes to scripture, though, angels are hard to avoid. In the Bible, they turn up often – 234 times, and even more than that if you include all the verses about heavenly hosts.  In the Old Testament, “angels comforted Hagar in the desert, delivered Lot from Sodom, guided Israel through the wilderness, fed Elijah under the juniper tree, surrounded Elisha with chariots of fire, saved Hezekiah from Assyria’s onslaught, led Isaiah to spiritual commitment, and directed Ezekial into ministry.”[3]  Angels show up in human form or sometimes in supernatural shimmer-lights; sometimes angels have wings and sometimes they don’t.[4]  Regardless of form, they appear in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.

Angel presence intensifies around the birth of Jesus.  The angel Gabriel from heaven came to a woman named Mary and announced that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus; an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night, “the good news of great joy for all people.” That angel was joined in song and praise by a multitude of heavenly host.  From there, angels are involved in Jesus life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.[5]  Angels abound.  So why don’t we get any of those stories for the festival of Michael and All Angels?

In our readings today, those stories are nowhere to be seen.  In some ways, those are easier and oddly more accessible stories.  Even though angels seem to startle people when they appear.  Angels’ opening remarks are often some form of, “Do not be afraid.”  Why would they have to say this but for the reason that the human in the story is probably very afraid?  (Maybe a “Keep Calm and Carry On” angel t-shirt would have helped?)  Just like in the communion blessing in which Jesus comes first, angels begin their work after God instigates the work to be done.  Angels are not rogue creatures acting of their own accord.  They are God’s creatures – messengers of God’s will.

Today’s readings have to do with the archangel Michael.  In the reading from Revelation, Michael and his angels have thrown down the dragon (a.k.a the devil a.k.a Satan a.k.a. the deceiver of the whole world) from heaven to earth by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their own testimony.” It’s easy to get caught up in the imagery and, frankly, to start arguing about the book of Revelation in general.  Much of it is thought to be written in code for Jesus followers living and dying by 1st century Roman persecution.  The writings inspire faithfulness during an outbreak of violence against the early Christians.  Cracking the code of Revelation has been attempted many times to mixed results.  The worst of which is probably 19th century rapture theology.[6]

At the level of story, though, this snippet about the archangel Michael tells a cosmic tale of evil in its death throes at the beginning of time – an act of desperation on the part of the deceiver because he knows that his time is short.  How do Michael and his angels defeat the deceiver?  Verse 11 says that “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”  It’s the classic children’s sermon answer that fits almost any question.  In this case the question is…how do Michael and the angels throw down the deceiver?  Answer: Jesus.  While we’re preparing for communion, we sing about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and we ask to be granted peace.  The Lamb of God is one of Jesus’ many epithets (and maybe not quite as popular as a children’s sermon answer).  Lamb of God means the One whose self-sacrifice on the cross closes the gap, what we often call sin, between God and us.  So Michael and his angels are able to overcome the deceiver by the blood of the Lamb of God, by the blood of Jesus.

Meanwhile, the disciples in the gospel reading from Luke returned from their long walk through many towns.[7]  The seventy “returned with joy” from making demons submit to them in Jesus’ name.  Jesus does what Jesus often does when his disciples go off the rails by refocusing them, rejoicing that their “names are written in heaven.”  This is relevant because, for Jews, there is a destination called the End of Days. Biblical prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, and Hosea repeatedly point to the End of Days messianic era marked by world peace with no wars or famine, and enough for everyone to live on.[8] Rabbi Dubov writes that “even in his darkest hour, [the Jew] hopes and prays for a brighter future – a world of peace and spirituality.”[9]  Jesus and his disciples understood this.

There’s another problem with the cosmic battle imagery of rapture theology. Some people see themselves as earthly extensions of a cosmic battle yet to be finished. “Some people” include neighbors, friends, politicians, and more. Hollywood has picked up rapture theology quite successfully and made millions. But there’s a significant, scriptural problem with the violence that is glorified in final battle imagery. Christian scripture argues that the final battle is already won by Jesus on the cross. Being told that the final battle is already won is confusing for people itching for a fight.  Even more problematic for people who want a smack down in the name of Jesus is that Jesus is the one who was smacked down by violence. One of the things the cross reveals is that violent human solutions are a dead end.

Jesus died on the cross in non-violence – putting violence to death and bringing death to life.  The end is known.  The angels know it too, so we celebrate with them and their message today. Whatever cosmic battle we think we’re participating in, think again.  From an earthly perspective, evil can seem unstoppable.  Evil rages not because it is powerful, but because it is vulnerable.[10]  It’s “time is short.”[11] Christ has already won the victory.  The deceiver and all his empty promises are exposed when we proclaim this good news with the angels.

The body and blood of Jesus Christ ☩ are given for you; and may God’s holy angels watch over you.  Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Sermon artwork: Lily Yeh, 1994, Paint, A Mural of Contemporary Angels, Interweave exhibition, Jamaica Arts Centre, New York: Artasiaamerical.org/works/256

[2] Inga Oyan Longbrake, Pastor, Messiah Community Church (ELCA), Denver. Michael and All Angles sermon, September 2013.

[3] Ibid.  I’m grateful on so many levels that that Pastor Inga preached this sermon ahead of my own so that you all can benefit from her study and proclamation.  Her sermon echoes throughout mine.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct, a recent biblical interpretation.

[7] The mission of the seventy is described in Luke 10:1-12.

[8] Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK. “What is the ‘End of Days’?” for Chabad.org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108400/jewish/The-End-of-Days.htm

[9] Dubov, ibid.

[10] Craig R. Koester, Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN. Revelation and the End of All Things (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001).

[11] Revelation 12:12

Disruptive Love with an Indulgent Dash of Lyle Lovett [Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings. If you only have patience for one, read the Acts reading.]

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

1 John 5:1-6 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

[sermon begins]

In a hilarious song called “Church,” there’s a preacher whose sermon is running waaayy long and

“…everyone was getting so hungry

that the old ones started feeling ill

and the weak ones started passing out

and the young ones they could not sit still.”[1]

Lyle Lovett sings from the viewpoint of a child whose stomach is growling for the potluck but the preacher keeps on preaching. At one point…

“…the preacher he stopped preaching

and a hush the church did fill

and then a great white dove from up above

landed on the window sill.”[2]

You’ll have to listen to the song to hear what happens next but suffice it say that everyone gets to go eat soon after getting disrupted by a great white dove and the preacher’s own hunger pangs.  Apparently that preacher isn’t the only preacher ever disrupted by the Holy Spirit from saying more.

Peter’s sermon in the reading from Acts gets shut down too. Except he hasn’t been preaching all that long – maybe a minute or two by the word count. He had been summoned by a man named Cornelius who “had called together his relatives and close friends” to hear about God.[3] Cornelius is “a centurion of the Italian cohort,”[4] NOT a circumcised Jew like the disciples with Peter. Peter’s sermon starts in the verses before our reading today with these words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”[5]  He continues preaching BUT, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”[6]  Confusion and chaos ensued. Into that disruption Peter asks the disciples with him, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So [Peter] ordered [Cornelius, his family, and his friends] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”[7]  Wait a minute, did the Holy Spirit come on those people before baptism?  Don’t we usually say the Holy Spirit is given in baptism?  Which is it?  Before?  After?  Both?  You may wonder who the heck cares about such things but there are Christian denominations that were started on less vexing questions.

Let’s do a quick review to catch us up along with the disciples with Peter. Way, way, way back in Genesis 12, near the very beginning of the Bible, God makes promises to man named Abrahm, later re-named Abraham. God told Abraham that, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[8]  God’s promises to Abraham are called the Abrahamic covenant.[9]  Circumcision was given at that time as a sign of God’s covenant.  Fast-forward through Moses and the 10 Commandments, through the prophets, and through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, to the baptism of Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends.  This is the moment that the larger Biblical story is careening toward.  This is the moment that God’s life in Jesus disrupts into the wild abandon of the Holy Spirit.  This is THE moment.  It’s not the only moment though.  We know that, of course.  But this moment is easy to miss because we don’t hang around in the book of Acts very often.

Disruptive love sees other people as equally beloved.  This can be tough because it reframes a lot of our interactions.  Small example. I was in the middle of drafting this sermon about disruptive love during the last few days at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I was taking my suitcase to the car and trying to get to breakfast and, most importantly, to that first cup of coffee. As I was winging through the hotel door, a gentleman saw my tell-tale green name tag.  He stopped me and asked me how I was enjoying the “conference.”  He then went on to tell me his church history and asked me about the Lutheran church.  Even in that moment, I found it ironic that I had just come from writing about the disruption of the Spirit and there I was, salivating at the thought of coffee, and obstructed in a doorway by someone who wanted to talk about faith and church.  That wily Holy Spirit has some sense of humor.

But there are other times that are more frustrating than humorous.  There are some of us who know disruptive love very well.  Parents in the pews who are worshiping with their little kiddos, for the sake of their kiddos, while they themselves are only catching every 5th word of the liturgy.  Others of us struggle to encounter other people with vulnerability and connection. The Gospel of John and the First John reading lead us into the even harder moments.  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[10]  Seems to me that death is the ultimate disruption – both for the dead and the living.  Jesus commands us to love out of his own self-sacrificing love.  Disruptive love is risk.  Risking reputation, comfort, and safety for people besides ourselves.

Peter gets a taste of these side effects of disruptive love – risking his reputation, comfort, and safety on behalf of the newly baptized Gentiles.  Peter and the disciples baptize Cornelius, his family, and friends and the newly baptized invite Peter “to stay for several days.”  Then Peter heads back to Jerusalem.  Criticism from his friends welcomes him.  Apparently it’s all fun and games until you start baptizing Gentiles and eating with them.  I invite you into a little homework for the week.  Read the chapters of Acts 10 and 11.  Go ahead and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. Write it down – Acts chapters 10 and 11. Think about who you believe belongs in the church and who doesn’t.  Also think about who you believe is worthy of attention by the church and who isn’t.  The Holy Spirit not only disrupts our ideas about good order; the Spirit also disrupts our biases. While you’re reading Acts 10 and 11, think about what God is doing through faithful people to disrupt what other faithful people think and do.

It’s tough to know the difference between sheer human agenda with a hefty dose of ego versus what might be the God thing. Chances are good that the God thing of disruptive love is incredibly uncomfortable for the people doing the God thing.  Remember, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That’s a pretty hefty amount of personal discomfort if you’re the ones laying your lives down.  Pick a word, any word, to describe the discomfort. Here’s a few…weird, nauseous, uncomfortable, scary, exposed, patronized, compromised, denied, betrayed, beaten, abandoned, assassinated…  Quite a list. Because when you do the self-sacrificing thing and not the self-protective thing, it’s not often that cozy warm-fuzzies await you.  That’s not the way it works. It’s not the way any of this works.  Although, let’s remember that it’s also not simply disruption for disruption’s sake.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus reminds us that this love shatters orthodoxy or creeds.  Much blood has been spilled over the centuries as various groups of Christians go after each other about right teaching and good order.  Jesus invites you into the love of the Father by loving you.  This is anti-orthodoxy.  It moves you beyond the attempt at right thinking and pulls you into the love of the God and love of Jesus, sending you to be what you’ve received by abiding in their love.  Your flesh and bone born of water and blood embodies the faith of Jesus for the sake of the world.[11]  You did not choose.  You, beloved of God, have been chosen.[12]  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.  Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Lyle Lovett. “Church” in Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA/Curb, 1992). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZI0zO2TS1Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 10:24

[4] Acts 10:1

[5] Acts 10:34

[6] Acts 10:44

[7] Acts 10:47-48

[8] Genesis 12:1-3

[9] Genesis 15 includes more promises and the ritual of the covenant.

[10] John 15:13

[11] 1 John 5:6

[12] John 15:16

 

For Boogie…Imperfect and Beloved – Mark 2:1-12, Psalm 23, Proverbs 3:1-3, 5

A Celebration of Life on October 6, 2017

Boogie Bob Olson [March 5, 1945-September 14, 2017]

Pastor Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

[Sermon begins after 3 Bible readings]

Mark 2:1-12 When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

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

Proverbs 3:1-3, 5 My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; 2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. 3 Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.

[sermon begins]

Many of you here today have stories with Boogie that go back a long time.  Through some of you, I’ve heard bits and pieces.  The way he lit up a room and made life brighter, bringing music and humor to lighten life. The way he could modify any piece of music. The way he listened to you and surprise you later because he’d remember what you told him. The way he loved pinball, sneaking out of the house as a teenager and still playing years later.  And the way his mischievous streak would surprise people like his brother-in-law who thought he was showing up for a party and ended up moving a piano.  Through these details, there is much about Boogie that came through as well.  These are the intangibles – the things that thread together over time.  His generosity, his puns, and his willingness to lend a hand.

Boogie and I met a couple months ago, after his cancer diagnosis.  We shared communion at his bedside. He told me about his baptism as an adult here in this congregation. He talked a lot about his kids – Jerry, Brenda, and Christy – his pride, gratitude, and love for them.  He talked about past broken relationships with fitting humility and regret.  I asked him if there was anything he was worried about or needed to talk about and he said, “No, I’m not worried about anything; It’s just so sad. I’m going to miss so much.”

He also told me that over the last three years he has read the Bible three times. When I asked him why, he said that he though he didn’t know enough and wanted to know more. He read the Bible straight through its 66 books as printed.  He also read it through chronologically – bouncing around in the Bible.  While he was at it, he read different translations. By a happy accident, Boogie chose Psalm 23 and Proverbs 3 for the service today because he’d written them down to test his memory shortly before he died.

In the last few months of his life, it was Boogie who needed the hands of other people.  Often ready to help, he now needed help. And you rose to the occasion. While this was tough for Boogie, he talked with me about how grateful he was that his children and his friends did what they could, when they could, to make life a little easier even as it quickly became more difficult.

The Bible story about the four friends lowering their paralyzed friend down to Jesus speaks into the grief in this time to celebrate Boogie’s life and to mourn his death.  What a scene! These friends are true problem solvers. Their paralyzed friend needs help so they pack him up and head toward Jesus. It’s Flight for Life, first century style. There were so many people that they couldn’t get in the house. They head up to the roof and tear it open to lower their friend down to Jesus. Determination spiked with deep love for their friend.

As you all shared story after story with me about Boogie, this Bible story just shouted to be told.  I can imagine Boogie up on that roof.  Figuring out the mat, the ropes, the hole in the roof, and Jesus’ location.  Working with the other friends to figure out how to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus’ attention and adding mischief along the way.

On the flip-side, I can also see Boogie as the friend on the mat.  The one who desperately needs care from other people and also needs the attention Jesus.  In my conversation with Boogie, he was acutely aware of his imperfections – the way he’s hurt people important to him and the limits of how far his humanity could get him.  This is where his testimony is so powerful.  As beloved as he was in life and appreciated for his generosity and charm, the Christian faith also reminds us of the limits of our humanity and God’s efforts to get our attention through those limitations.

How might God go about getting our attention?  What are the means by which that may have been possible?  God, at some point, needs to grab our focus in ways that we have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms – much like the friends risking their own lives and limbs to lower their friend to Jesus.

Think about it this way: What are our first thoughts when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves?  What kinds of things do we say to honor the soldier who returns again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends?  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.

Jesus death on the cross changes everything because Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross means that God does not respond in violence against us. Jesus’ death on the cross also means that God knows suffering.  More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.

The crosses in our lives can separate us from each other and from God.  But God says, “Not so fast…I’ve been there too…I who came in the form of a baby, who lived and walked the earth, who was put to death and who conquered death in rising again…I am God and I have the last word.”  God’s last word meets us our grief with hope – the hope that forgiveness and reconciliation with each other are possible; the hope that redemption is real, and the hope of all that God is yesterday in a living baby, today in a living Christ and tomorrow in an eternal God. God has already opened up whatever we perceive the barriers to be between us and God.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Boogie into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Boogie.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Craig Koester,  Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

Mr. Irrelevant 2017 is a Denver Bronco [OR The Last Will Be First…Thank God!] Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10-4:11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings from the books of Matthew and Jonah – hang in there]

Matthew 20:1-16  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

[sermon begins]

Some of you know of my hope to someday call an NFL game in the booth with Chris Collingsworth and Al Michaels. Word-sparring with Al and arguing biases with Chris would be tons of fun. Alas, not only would my inability to accurately call pass interference hold me back, but then I learn something else I didn’t know about American football and wonder if I would even have the courage to speak. The courage question will go unanswered as Al’s retirement will happen eventually and NBC hasn’t called. The latest NFL knowledge to pop on my radar is Mr. Irrelevant.[1] Are there people here that know this is a thing? Since 1976, the last player chosen in the annual NFL draft is given the title of Mr. Irrelevant.[2]  There’s a big-buildup as the draft comes to a close. The chosen player receives a team jersey. On the back, in big bold, letters, is Mr. Irrelevant.  This year, that team jersey was Bronco Orange.[3]  Anybody here that can name the player? … … Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, quarterback, 253rd overall pick of the draft.  Mr. Kelly apparently has an abundance of talent that is shadowed by health and character. What fascinates me is that regardless of his draft title, he’s still part of the team. He has the same shot as everyone else to make it happen. There’s even such a list as the top 5 Mr. Irrelevants who have gone on to make names for themselves in the sport.[4]

Mr. Irrelevant is a limited metaphor for Jesus’ parable today but it leans us toward it. (It also ups the odds that scripture comes to mind during today’s Bronco game. You’ll have to let me know.)  Regardless of its limits as a metaphor, this notion of the last chosen seems to be a main concern. Those last workers are at least the main concern of the first workers – especially the salary scale.  It’s easy to get lost in the levels of employment.  Into what level is each worker slotted as the landowner goes back out and gets more workers?  9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm.

One move we could make would be to think through the parable economically. We could ask about the landowner’s wealth and generosity in terms of our own biases about economic systems and merit pay.  A pure capitalist might ask about the landowner’s business plan if this turns into HR policy.  A pure socialist might ask why land ownership was necessary.

Another move we could make is to rank the workers against our own scale of worthiness.  In the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we say together:

“Living God, source of all life, we confess that we struggle to believe that your grace sets us free. You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it. We turn the church inward, rather than following you in the world. Forgive us. Stir us. Reform us. Amen.” [5]

“You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it.”  When we confess together in worship, it’s a chance to slow our thinking down and acknowledge our behavior.  While we’re on the topic, though, might I go a step further and suggest that we also think WE need to earn God’s love and grace.  Oh, I know, many of us have been Lutheran Christians a long time, some from the cradle.  So we know we’re not supposed to talk about earning God’s grace. But I’m here to tell you that in my world it’s not uncommon to hear people wondering if God is happy with them.  I hear questions like:  Am I worth it?  Do I know enough?  Have I read enough?  Am I kind enough?  Apparently, there is no limit to the ways in which we can torture ourselves.  No limit to the ways we can feel shame ourselves and inflict it on other people.  And, in the meantime, limit God.

For some reason, I’m hesitant to let the landowner off the hook in Jesus’ parable.  Maybe I’ve read too much Jonah and his lament against God. I want the landowner in the lineup with everyone else and ask him hard questions. I want to lump him into the problem of envy that the parable taps. And then, to go a step further, I want to erase everyone out the parable.  The parable is too complicated as allegory and, at the same time, oversimplifies humanity. Who is that landowner and why is the manager even there?  Can’t everyone just go home to live, work, and eat another day without reacting to the landowner’s behavior?  What if Jesus had simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…the last will be first and the first will be last.”[6]   The kingdom of heaven is the first being last.

Perhaps the first being last is like those nefarious Ninevites so despised by Jonah.[7]  He has every reason to avoid them. They were first in the land, top dogs, part of the Assyrian Empire that captured, killed, or carried away Jonah’s people to the north. They did bad, bad things. Jonah was sent by God to pronounce God’s mercy to the Ninevites so that they might repent and receive forgiveness. Jonah did NOT want to announce God’s mercy to the Ninevites because he knew about God’s slow anger and steadfast love. He knew that God would forgive them and Jonah did not want them forgiven.

The story wraps up with Ninevah’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. We share this story this week with our Jewish cousins in the faith who read the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, their highest holy day of the year. Yom Kippur begins before sunset this Friday and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Jews ask for other people’s and God’s forgiveness and praise God’s mercy and steadfast love as they reflect on Jonah’s story. It’s an incredibly offensive forgiveness.  God forgives the Ninevites their kidnapping and murder of the northern tribes. We heard read this morning the closing verse of the book of Jonah as God asks Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[8]

Perhaps…perhaps…the first being last means that the landowner ends up as the last.  If the parable being told by Jesus infers God as the landowner, then one possibility is that Jesus ending up dead on a cross is definitely ending up last. The Roman Empire’s own version of Mr. Irrelevant playing out in first century politics, on a hill, far away. Except, theirs is not the last word.

At the end of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[9]  Here’s the good news. God is not limited to our finite understanding of first and last.  We’re well beyond landowners, managers, and workers.

This God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This is the God you hear from after your confession at the beginning of worship as God’s good forgiveness is announced to you.  “God hears your cry and the Spirit sets you free; your sins are forgiven, + in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”[10]

No small thing, God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness turns lasts into firsts, and firsts into lasts, turning despair into defiant hope.  You are forgiven and set free.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________________________

[1] Sundays and Seasons. Day Resources for Sunday, September 24, 2017. https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources

[2] Foxsports.com.“The NFL Draft’s Top 5 “Mr. Irrelevants” of the Modern Era. April 26, 2016 http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/nfl-draft-mr-irrelevant-successes-042616

[3] Max Meyer. “Broncos Tab Chad Kelly as 2017’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” April 20, 2017. NFL.com http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000805002/article/broncos-tab-chad-kelly-as-2017s-mr-irrelevant

[5] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

[6] Matthew 20:1a and 16b

[7] I recommend reading all of Jonah.  It is four chapters and a fun read.

[8] Jonah 4:11

[9] Revelation 22:13

[10] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.