Category Archives: Sermons

Dawning Awareness [OR Knocked on Wood Recently?] Mark 16:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 4, 2021 – Easter!

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 16:1-8  When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[sermon begins]

You know that moment when things start to come together? A piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, all connect to gradually take shape – dawning awareness moving into the full light of day. The pandemic started out that way. A news story there, a parishioner’s comment here, wondering about the latest rumor, and then BAM! – the governor locked down the state. There are millions of stories around the world and then each of us have our own million stories to tell. Mine include a small one about a Christmas cactus – a glorious, 20-year-old cascading beast that showed up at my door as a small sprout in the fundraising hands of a marching band kid.

The cactus moved into my church office a few years ago and had never done better. Native to the rain forest floor, he gets the long, dark nights in the office that are needed for the big winter bloom (yes, he’s a “he,” just roll with me on this). I lugged him home at the start of the pandemic. Lately it’s dawned on me that he needs to move back to the office. His blooms were lovely this winter but sparse. Funny thing. I’m hesitant to bring him back. It feels like I might jinx the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel – which of course is absolutely ridiculous. At the same time, it feels pretty human. I’d guess that at least a few us recently “knocked on wood” after saying something good in order to prevent back luck. Many of us don’t really outgrow the magical thinking of our childhoods. We just learn how to hide it better. The truth is that we don’t control nearly as much as we’d like to think, or as much as we wish we could. That’s the essence of the Easter story.

Easter morning reveals a stone rolled back and an empty tomb. But before that happened, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome had followed Jesus on his ministry. They looked on from a distance and saw Jesus die on the cross.[1] They’d also watched as his body was placed in the tomb hewn out of rock.[2] Reality after reality had hit them head on. The women were under no illusions about the recent trauma. They were, however, having a difficult time getting their heads around what was happening tomb-side. We can imagine them packing up spices, feeling numb and exhausted, and walking to the tomb. Probably not speaking much except to wonder how they were going to get into the tomb to anoint Jesus. That’s a heavy stone sealing it. The first one to get there stops, the second one stops, and then the third. Blinking to clear their eyes. Then staring so their minds catch up to what they’re seeing. And then looking at each other to confirm the visual gradually taking shape in front of them in the light of dawn. The tomb is empty.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome make their way into the tomb. Armed with spices and a plan to care for Jesus’ body they instead were met by a young man, very much upright and talking, and very much not Jesus. He fast tracked the women into a new reality. They go from gentle dawning awareness of seeing the stone rolled back to terror and amazement as the young man dressed in white announces, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised.” New life has been unleashed and they have no idea what it means or what to do. Instead of telling Peter, as they’d been instructed by the young man, “…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It’s hard to blame them for being afraid. That’s a lot to take in after the cruelty and trauma of Jesus’ trial, torture, and execution. The women didn’t yet know whether Jesus being raised was good news or not. Eventually, they must have figured it out because here we are, picking up the story where it leaves off, invited to do what the young man in white told the women to do – “Go and Tell.”

“Go and tell.” Here on Easter morning our story parallels the women’s story. We started out talking about dawning awareness, Christmas cacti, and the women’s story at the tomb. Uneventful, Eastery business so far. But the telling part? WE just fast tracked into a new reality that calls for saying something out loud. Yikes! Anyone feel angst about saying something out loud? Want to get away from the empty tomb with the women as far as your credit card will carry you? Let’s take it down a notch then. The women regrouped at some point and so can we. We can say what we know. That’s it.

Ernest Hemingway used to tell writers who were blocked to “write one true sentence; write the truest sentence that you know.”[3] Similarly, as we interact with scripture and our own experience, we find the words or the situation that is the truest one that we know. For me, it was a few words in an obscure verse in a tiny book towards the end of the Bible. “God is love.”[4] I hung onto those words like I was drowning. Because at that time, I kinda was. You may have chosen peace over pain and finally forgiven yourself as God’s forgiveness took hold of you.[5] It may be that your self-pity has worn you out, and Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself unleashed you into the world to do some good.[6] Or it could be that the last year has exhausted you so thoroughly that you’re at Easter worship hoping for something but you’re not sure what that could even be.

Tell what you know. That’s the starting point. In the weeks, months, and years after Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, Jesus’ followers told the story bit by bit, sharing it with each other and other people, and finally writing it down. Theirs was a process of faith in the same way ours is a process of faith. Shaky with doubt or trusting and celebratory, we seek to understand the promises of the cross and resurrection in our daily lives with a dawning awareness – a piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, finally an experience in your life that ties the pieces together to gradually take shape.

Like the women at the tomb, suffering and fear make it difficult to see the new life that God promises. New life often reveals itself way after the fact as we look back on our experiences. Trusting by faith in God’s power to bring new life after trauma, over our own power to try and control, can be terrifying. BUT it can also be amazing. Easter invites us into dawning awareness along with the women at the empty tomb. New life isn’t something we can jinx by talking about it or moving our plants around. We also can’t wish new life were here when it’s not here yet. We’re just not that powerful. But watch what God can do.

 

 

p.s. It’s definitely time for the Christmas Cactus to return to the office.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Mark 15:40-41

[2] Mark 15:47

[3] Ernest Hemingway. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/30849-all-you-have-to-do-is-write-one-true-sentence

[4] 1 John 4:16b

[5] Ephesians 4:32

[6] Mark 12:33

My Dog Sunny and the Apostle Peter Have Something in Common [OR Jesus’ Commands Us to Love One Another – How’s That Going?] John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Maundy Thursday on April, 1, 2021

John 13:1-17, 31b-35  Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”

31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

[sermon begins]

 

My dog Sunny doesn’t like baths. I’ve seen videos of dogs who loves baths loaded with bubbles, laying on their backs with shower caps on just to be silly. Sunny? Not so much. I have to coax her with treats into the tub and remind her that I love her while she presses her head into my shoulder. This makes washing her face a real challenge. You’d think we’d have this down after almost seven years, but it seems it’s as good as it gets. This story about Sunny is a tricky because, yes, I’m comparing Sunny to Peter in the Bible story. He doesn’t want a bath either. His issues may be different than her issues, in fact they really are different, but the bottom line is the same. He won’t get in the water. Well, he won’t put his feet in the water. You’d think he’d have this down after several years of ministry with Jesus. Jesus tells them what to do and they do it, right? Peter seems to mess up the process over and over again. It’s handy that Peter does this a lot because it makes it easier to see ourselves in the story. If the Bible were full of perfect people being with a perfect Jesus it would be much harder to connect.

Many of us are like Sunny and Peter. We find it hard to trust and would rather come up with our own ideas. That’s pretty much what the Holy Week and Easter stories are – we find it hard to trust and would rather come up with our own ideas. Thank God for Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter and us that our own ideas may not be best for us or each other. The Bible story says that Jesus knew that he came from God and was going to God. Right after that, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist and starts washing dirty, stinky disciple feet. He gets to Peter. Peter argues with him. He looks up to Jesus. Jesus is his leader. He doesn’t want Jesus washing his feet. Jesus basically tells Peter that this is the way it works. This is the way Jesus works. Jesus is a servant. A servant from God who washes feet and tells us to love each other like he loves us, a love in service to each other.

Before anybody runs out and starts washing other people’s feet, think bigger. We are named ‘child of God’ as we’re bathed in the water of baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Children of God, washed by God. Like Jesus in our Bible story today, we can say that we now come from God and one day we will go to God.[1] That’s handled. And by the power of the Holy Spirit through our baptism we are given gifts that help us serve in the way that Jesus asks us to serve.

During Communion Instruction class, I asked each parent to say something that they liked about their child. The answers included “love of music, zest for life, loves dogs, kind, snuggly, determined, and loves to read.” Being limited to one answer is tough. I’m sure the lists of what you parents like about these kids would be a mile long. But the point is this, the list of qualities, things about you that make you you, these can also be called gifts from God. Gifts that you can use to serve and love the world. It’s pretty simple even though we complicate it with ambition, goals, and what everyone else seems to be doing. Those are distractions. Gifts you’re given to serve are the very ones you’re given to lead. Jesus led his disciples and leads us with wisdom, determination, kindness, intensity, vulnerability, love, grace, and more – a real mishmash of gifts. We’re not Jesus but we’re similarly mishmashed.

It’s been a mishmash kind of year though, so we fit right in. It’s been a year of figuring a lot of things out including how to serve each other. Our old standbys of service like hugs, spending time with people who need a boost of emotional support, serving meals, and holding a hand have been changed. Everyone who works or goes to school outside their home has experienced dramatic changes in how we serve through our different roles. We had to get creative in our ways to work, learn, serve, and stay in touch. Reimagining so much of our lives has been an adjustment in using our mishmash of gifts.

Jesus doesn’t leave us there though, with our confusing jumble of gifts. Jesus gives us each other as the church to figure out those gifts and he gives us the food we need for the journey. That’s what Holy Communion is about at its most basic level. It’s food for the journey of faith. First, it’s food for the journey purely as a gift from God – a blessing and promise of forgiveness and faith from God to us. It’s also food for the journey to do what God asks us to do. To be strengthened and freed to love and serve each other as Jesus loves and serves us.

Jesus’ meal of bread and wine that we share in communion draws us deeply into an even wider community too. The other Bible story that we heard together was long ago. It’s called the Passover story. It’s a story about how God freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Our Jewish cousins in the faith celebrate Passover to this day. Jesus was a Jew and connected the lifeline of Passover to the lifeline that we celebrate as Holy Communion when he was with his friends at a Passover celebration. Jesus expanded the promise that God made to the Jews to be a promise for all people. His new covenant connects us with God’s ancient promises as we move into the future. Jesus’ set a table for one and for all people, as Jesus table set for you.

Things happen quickly during communion. There are words, and prayers, and often singing. It can be easy to miss what’s happening in the special celebration that Jesus gave us. The words from our other Bible reading are the main words to hear. Listen to that Bible reading again:

…Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. [1 Corinthians 11:23b-25]

These words are the promise. Jesus promises that what he did – every word he spoke against harm, greed, and hatred while speaking for love of God, enemy, and neighbor, for grace and forgiveness, for faith and generosity, for hope and healing; every word that made him that much more vulnerable to death on a cross – is a promise strong enough to claim us by faith.

Today we celebrate Jesus’s table, where there is a place for everyone and there is a place for you.

______________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:3

_______________________________________________________________

1 Corinthians 11:23-26   For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Exodus 12:1-4,  11-14   The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. [5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. ] 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 

 

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? [OR Hope Flickering in the Darkness] John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 14, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Numbers 21:4-9  From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21  [Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

[sermon begins]

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” “I see a red bird looking at me.”

“Red Bird, Red Bird, what do you see?” “I see a yellow duck looking at me.”[1]

So goes the children’s book that I read infinity times to my children when they were little. It popped into my head as I was thinking about what the Israelites saw in the Bible story from the book of Numbers this morning.

Israelite, Israelite, what do you see? I see a poisonous serpent looking at me.

Poisonous Serpent, Poisonous Serpent, what do you see? I see a Moses man looking at me.

Moses Man, Moses Man, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

Bronze Serpent, Bronze Serpent, what do you see? I see scared Israelites looking at me.

One of the odder and more disturbing stories in the Bible, the Israelites whine and complain against Moses and God after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Their misery about the conditions in the wilderness brings out their smallest selves – impatient and afraid, they question their liberation, and they question God and Moses. Things go quickly from bad to worse with the arrival of the poisonous serpents. The Israelites confess their sin and are freed from death by looking at the bronze serpent on a stick. They look at the very thing that causes pain, making it visible to be able to see life itself.[2] Fighting their fear, the Israelites are saved by focusing on source of their injury. That’s the solution lifted up by God and Moses.

Scared Israelite, Scared Israelite, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

How many times have we heard the opposite? Someone giving advice to not look at the very thing that is scary, painful, or dangerous because it’s too upsetting. Look on the sunny side of life, they say. There’s truth enough in that encouragement. We can’t continuously indulge in the dark, wrapping our smallest selves around fear and pain, if we have any chance at a balanced life. Joy and hope are lost to us if that’s the plan. Although, taking time to directly assess the cause of our pain may be necessary time in the dark, finding a glimmer of hope flickering in the darkness.

Hope flickering in the darkness brings us to the Gospel of John reading. We are not given all the verses in the story. The verses we hear today are part of a longer speech by Jesus to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, a religious leader. Nicodemus visits Jesus “by night,” under the cover of darkness. We’re not told exactly why he visits Jesus in the dark of night, but the Gospel of John makes a big deal out of light and dark. The opening verses of the book tell us, “The lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[3]  Later in John, Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world.”[4] Nicodemus, in the dark of night, said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

Nicodemus, Nicodemus, what do you see? I see Rabbi Jesus looking at me.

Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, what do you see? I see Nic-at-night looking at me.

Nicodemus knew enough to know that Jesus had something important to say, which is why he called him Rabbi and teacher. Jesus does not disappoint. He teaches his heart out. The verses we hear today are the second half of his teaching to Nicodemus and contain one of the most well-known parts of the Bible beginning with, “For God so loved the world…” It’s obvious why the people putting together the three-year cycle of worship readings paired this passage with the Old Testament reading about Moses and the Israelites. Jesus compared himself being lifted up on the cross with the bronze serpent lifted up on a stick by Moses. And then Jesus talked about God so loving the world, sending the Son not for condemnation but “in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Greek word for “saved” here, sozo [σώζω / sode-zo], can mean to protect someone from danger or to heal and restore.[5]

Beloved World, Beloved World, what do you see? I see Jesus the Light looking at me.

Jesus the Light, lifted up on a cross, shines light in the darkness of man’s inhumanity to man, or Son of Man as the case may be. To look at the cross is to look at the damage we can do in our worst moments when we believe that grace doesn’t belong to anyone else. We look at the darkness within us, and know that by looking at it, by examining the darkness, healing becomes a possibility. We depend on the daily promise of our baptisms for the freedom to live each day by grace through faith. We trust that God loving the world means that God also loves each one of us which means that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less; that we are children of God.

Child of God, Child of God, what do you see? I see the God of grace looking at me.

Grace is what frees us to look at the causes of our pain and the pain we cause acting out of it. We don’t hurt ourselves or other people from our healed, larger selves. It’s from our smaller selves, wrapped around our pain, cozied up with our fear, that we inflict ourselves on each other. Healing can be a life-long process. As opposed to a self-help project, healing takes community, sometimes including professionals trained to help us work through specific trauma. Jesus shares the space with us when we end up confused in the dark. We call this the Theology of the Cross. Jesus suffers with us when we suffer, shining light on the broken places in need of healing. God’s grace, showing up in the person of Jesus, was so excessive and offensive that the people in power reacted by doing their worst and killing him. Untamed grace is simply that threatening. Untamed grace shines light in the darkness and pulls life out death. Who knows what then becomes possible?!

God of Grace, God of Grace, what do you see? I see the world I so love looking at me.

________________________________________________________

[1] Bill Martin Jr. (author) and Eric Carle (illustrator). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1967). Listen to the whole book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTr0eDESN7U

[2] Kari Reiquam, Interim Pastor, Holy Love Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO. Preacher’s Text Study for Metro East Conference of Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA. March 9, 2021.

[3] John 1:5

[4] John 8:12

[5] Bible Study Tools: Lexicon. “Sozo.” https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sozo.html

Baseball’s Sacrifice Fly [OR Self-Sacrifice and Sinning Boldly by the Grace of God]   Mark 8:31-38

Photo credit:  Josh Rutledge #14 of the Colorado Rockies hits an RBI single during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on August 27, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 28, 2021

[sermon begins]

Mark 8:31-38  [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Spending time with my stepfather Pops often meant taking in a baseball game. The rare treat, a live game at the stadium, came with the bonus of Dodger dogs and peanuts. More typically, it meant hanging out on the couch, game on the television with the sound off, and Vin Scully calling the game on the radio. While my baseball speak is a little rusty, obvious excitement came from bases loaded and a homerun blasted out of the park. Personally, the drama of the sacrifice fly had me on the edge of my seat. The batter intentionally hits a ball, popping it up in the air, arcing it toward a fielder who catches it for the easy out, while the runners on base run like crazy to home to score in the meantime. The batter is out, sacrificed for the team to get ahead. The drama of it was the self-sacrifice. We could come up with real-life examples of self-sacrifice when someone dies to save someone else but the point is made. The self-sacrificing action is voluntarily taken by choice for the good of the whole.

Self-sacrifice is the name of the game in our Gospel of Mark reading today. It’s the first time in Mark that Jesus has taught about his death. Up to now, there have been healing after healing, calming storms, and feeding thousands. Jesus and the disciples were on a winning streak. The good news was easy marketing. Just before our reading today, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah. He was batting 1.000. His discipleship star was rising quickly. No risk of being traded. How quickly the momentum shifts.

As far as Peter was concerned, Jesus had just preached a three-strikes-you’re-out sermon that highlighted his suffering, rejection, and execution. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. Not a bad coaching strategy. If you have something tough to say, you create privacy to work it out. Jesus was having none of it. Jesus turned himself and Peter back to the disciples for an intense, public rebuke. Then he called the crowd in with the disciples, following up with another intense teaching moment in which he commands them to deny themselves and take up their cross if they want to follow him.

The key in Jesus’ teaching is the self-sacrifice. It’s obvious that going after the religious leaders and the power of Rome is not the path to hitting the salary cap in a multi-year contract. Jesus made choices along the way. Jesus chose. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because he himself came from a surprising choice. Just before Christmas, we heard the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and have a son named Jesus.[1] Although confused by how the plan was going to come together, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” At enormous risk to herself, she assented to the plan. In those days, turning up pregnant and unmarried could have meant death for her. But Mary said, “Let it be with me.” She said, “Let it.” Mary chose. Jesus chose.

Leading by example, Jesus commands his disciples in what smacks of another three-strikes-you’re-out teaching – deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.  A good agent would have told him that this is not an effective message for building a following and that Jesus should stick to healing and feeding. But the power of what Jesus teaches comes from his example. He wasn’t asking his disciples to choose anything that he wasn’t also willing to choose. The choice prohibits these verses from being used to justify abuse and suffering, used to keep someone in an abusive relationship. The self-defined choice makes all the difference.

Self-denial sounds Lenty and familiar. Giving up chocolate or another tasty treat is emblematic of the season of Lent. It makes sense that choosing to give up something that’s frequently enjoyed would serve as a reminder to pause, pray, and recenter our thinking around God’s presence and priorities. All good things. It’s more likely that Jesus’ command to the disciples to deny themselves meant giving up things like power, influence, ego, and control for discipleship priorities like compassion, mercy, faith, and hope. Things he preached and taught about regularly in his ministry. But it’s not self-denial for its own sake. There’s a purpose to self-sacrifice beyond accumulating discipleship stats. Also, a word of caution here. Jesus’ command is not a call to become mini saviors. Jesus’ consistent teachings across the gospel accounts calls his disciples into becoming neighbors. So, note to self: neighbors not saviors. An important distinction especially considering Jesus’ command to the disciples to take up their cross.

Taking up our crosses is informed by Jesus’ self-sacrificing example. It’s helpful to consider what we deny ourselves so that there’s space for a cross – letting some things go to make room for what’s being asked of us. Again, not self-sacrifice for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel which Jesus says saves lives. Our lives. There are no easy answers in a sermon that lasts minutes. It’s discipleship in the big leagues. Questions about self-denial can be brought to God both individually and congregationally. Individually we can pray, “God, what are you asking me to give up, making room for your will?” We can talk to people we trust, inviting counsel from faithful people in our lives. Sourcing ourselves with multiple perspectives helps prevent mini-savior errors. The same is true congregationally. We went through a strategic planning process over the last few years that helped us discern our collective discipleship internally as a faith community and externally as neighbors in the wider community. Today’s congregational meeting and vote about our vacant land being developed into affordable housing is one more step in the process.

At the end of the day, the cross we count on is not the one we take up as our own. The cross we count on is the one that Jesus taught about here in Mark. The cross on which he hung after great suffering and rejection. The cross was his own. His individual event. His choice. His self-sacrifice. Like Peter, we struggle to understand it but equally depend on it for the life given to us by the one who poured out his life. If you hear nothing else today, please hear this, we are set free in discipleship by the cross of Christ, which means that the road to God is not paved by any deeds or do-goodery on our part. God’s presence in our lives is given by the grace of Jesus through the cross of Jesus, undeserved and unearned by us. Martin Luther described this as the freedom to “sin boldly” for the sake of the gospel. Meaning that it is difficult, more like impossible, to tease apart our flawed motives from our faithful interpretation of God’s will. So we make choices as best we can, asking for forgiveness and celebrating God’s grace as we follow Jesus on the journey.

__________________________________________

[1] Luke 1:26-38 is formally called The Annunciation.

Heaven is the Place of God (which probably isn’t what any of us think it means) – A sermon for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 17, 2021

Livestream online worship at 7 p.m. this evening can be found on Augustana’s YouTube  page here.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

A couple of months ago, I preached about the choices we make about who we listen to in books, movies, politics, etcetera, and whether or not the voices we listen to point us to the light, to the voice of Jesus – a voice that promises grace, challenge, struggle, hope, and love of God, self, and neighbor.[1] A couple of days later, a parishioner emailed a recommendation for a favorite book series by Louise Penny.[2] Mysteries about the “light and dark in each person, love of family and community, laced with humor” went the email. Long story short, I’m on book seven. In the novels, Chief Inspector Gamache leads a crack team of homicide detectives. More importantly, he mentors them, teaching them the importance of using four key phrases, “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”[3] These four phrases bubble up in the series to consider the characters’ motivations and behaviors. The phrases are a good summary of Ash Wednesday too – I don’t know, I need help, I’m sorry, I was wrong. At least, it’s a good summary of the human side of the equation on Ash Wednesday.

It’s the human side of the equation that Jesus challenged his disciples about in the Gospel of Matthew reading. He challenged their motivations and behaviors as he told them not to engage in hypocritical rituals, practicing their piety on street corners in order to be seen by other people.[4] One sure way to make sure that’s absolutely not the case is to practice the rituals privately as Jesus then encouraged them to do. However, Jesus does assume that his disciples will give alms, pray, and fast. He said to the disciples, “When you give alms…; When you pray…; When you fast…” He reassured them that in their private moments of self-discipline and ritual piety of giving alms (also known as sacrificial giving), praying, and fasting, that God was with them – for which we can thank the grown-up bearded Jesus in these physically distanced times. We’ve relied heavily on God’s promise of presence in so many new and different ways over the last year.

A year ago, I’m not sure I would have believed you if you had told me that I’d be standing in front of the church building with Pastor Ann placing ashes on people’s foreheads outside of a worship service. I know I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I’d be presiding over communion via online worship. But if there’s one thing I know about theology, it’s that it’s at its best when it ends up being quite practical. Speaking of practical, anyone wondering what the skipped verses in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew contains? The reading jumps from verse 6 to verse 16 without missing a beat. It’s okay if you’re not wondering about those missing verses. I’m going to let you in on the secret. Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in those verses. Jesus says to his disciples:

Pray in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.[5]

In the middle of his speech to the disciples about avoiding hypocrisy, Jesus gives them a practical prayer to help them do so – the Lord’s Prayer. We’re immersing in the Lord’s Prayer as a congregation during Lent guided by Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry’s book, Thy Will Be Done.[6]

The Lord’s Prayer starts in heaven. Heaven, according to the prayer, is the place of God, some would even say the heart of God. Heaven is impossible to imagine although many of us have certainly tried. Time-limited, finite beings cannot comprehend the infinite. It’s a  physical impossibility. On Ash Wednesday, we lean into the place of God, into heaven, as we ponder our fragile mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we hear as ashes mark the sign of the cross. The underlying promise is that God breathes life into dust. The cross shaped with ash echoes the cross placed on our foreheads in our baptism. While we’re leaning into the truth of our mortality, we’re also leaning through that mortality into the place of God, into the embrace of God. The cross symbolizes the reality that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less. This means that when we take our last breath, God’s embrace holds us in heaven, in the place of God. This is God’s resurrection promise through the cross of Christ for our death someday, whenever our someday comes. But this isn’t only about someday.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[7] Your heart will be in heaven, in God’s place, in God’s heart. Not only someday. TODAY. What are the treasures of heaven? Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, generosity, and more. Treasures of heaven are the things that Jesus spends so much time challenging his listeners about in scripture. Practical things that we participate in right now. Or maybe they’re impractical. Not sure. We can argue about that another time. Regardless, treasures of heaven are unearned, undeserved, and permanent. They do not fade away and cannot be taken away. They are eternal. They are of heaven.

God’s promise, God’s side of the equation on Ash Wednesday, frees us into the challenges that Jesus gives his disciples, the challenges we take up today, continue through the six weeks of Lent, and in our lives of faith year-round.  A challenge of humility when we say, “I don’t know.” A challenge of imperfection when we say, “I need help.” A challenge of repentance when we confess to God and each other, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”  We’re free to tell the truth because God promises us a place in the place of God, in heaven, today and someday. Thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Caitlin Trussell. Sermon: “World Building with Light” with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020. http://caitlintrussell.org/2020/12/13/world-building-with-light-john-6-8-19-28/

[2] Louise Penny official site – https://www.louisepenny.com

[3] Louise Penny. Still Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.), 84.

[4] Matthew 6:1

[5] Matthew 6:9-13

[6] Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. The 2021 Lent Book: Thy Will Be Done (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021).

[7] Matthew 6:19-21

The Holy Ordinary – Mark 1:29-39, Isaiah 40.21-31, and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 7, 2021

[after one Bible readings]

Isaiah 40.21-31, and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 may be found at the end of the sermon

Mark 1:29-39  As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

[sermon begins]

 

Shuffling into the kitchen in cozy pajamas. Eyes focusing just enough to get there but stepping on the dog bone anyway. Choosing a favorite mug, chipped after years of use – the right shape, color, and substance to hold the heat in as long as possible. Pouring steaming, fragrant liquid. Sipping carefully to take good care – warm, tasty, comforting, energizing. The day begins…a moment of the holy ordinary. A moment so normal that, if you blink, you miss it. There’s a similar Jesus moment in our Bible reading today. If you blink, you miss it.

The guys had a long morning at the synagogue. Getting back to Simon’s house, maybe they’re tired and hungry, looking forward to a warm meal and a peaceful place to put up their feet and plan their next move. Only it wasn’t peaceful. They found illness at home. Simon’s mother-in-law was “in bed with a fever.”[1] A lounging lunch was a longshot. Well, thank God for Jesus! He took her hand, lifted her up out of bed, and the fever left. She served them lunch after all! Simon’s mother-in-law recovered and dished up the holy ordinary.[2] If the guys hadn’t missed her absence due to fever, they might have missed what it meant for her to serve them. The same Greek word for “serve” is used a few verses earlier when the angels “waited” on Jesus in the wilderness.[3] I wonder if Simon and the guys had a new awareness of the holy ordinary too.

Walking into my mother-in-law’s home was like encountering the holy ordinary in the work of the angels too – warm, fragrant food filled with love…although if I’d said that angel-bit to her she might have kicked my keester to the curb. I point this out NOT as a moment to idealize and prescribe a self-serving notion of Biblical womanhood where homemaking is sacralized as women’s work over and against other vocations. I point this out because Jesus makes the holy ordinary possible in this story. I’d argue that he makes the holy ordinary his priority in this story. This unnamed mother-in-law was Jesus’ second healing in the Gospel of Mark and faith was not required. He simply healed her, and she went about her ordinary life…her holy, ordinary life.

Extraordinary moments capture attention and inspire imagination but it’s the holy ordinary moments that form the bulk of our lives. I watched an interview of Paul McCartney that gets at this a bit. Stephen Colbert asks Paul how he deals with the emotional connections that fans have with him. He describes the normal guy that he is at home, “slobbing out, watching television, like anyone.”[4] “Slobbing out” sounds like the holy ordinary equivalent in a life of extreme celebrity. These extraordinary extremes dominate the culture. Perfect example in today’s matchup between the youngest and oldest playing quarterbacks to have won Super Bowls. Extraordinary moments push our mind’s eye beyond what we think is possible and allow us to celebrate human achievement.

The trouble with these extraordinary people and moments is not found in and of the people and moments themselves. The trouble is with us. Our imaginations become limited by societal definitions of “winning.” Limited imaginations that turn Isaiah’s sacred scripture about eagles wings, about God’s encouragement of the people beleaguered by their exile into Babylon, into fight songs for sports teams. The extraordinary overshadows the holy ordinary, demanding attention like the demons in the Bible story. Jesus made small work of those demons, too. Silenced them. And went to bed. He woke up the next day at O-dark-30 to hide and pray. Simon and Company found him, followed him, and proclaimed his message of good news with him. This isn’t to say that the disciples don’t get distracted by the extraordinary – just wait until next Sunday’s shiny Jesus mountaintop transfiguration. Rather, it’s to say that the disciples kept their eyes on Jesus and the win of the good news which IS the holy ordinary in God’s economy.

Eight years ago last week, I was ordained to the call of Word and Sacrament and could be called “Pastor.” It was a wonderful evening here in Augustana’s Sanctuary. Close friends, long-time neighbors, Augustana folks, and family from near-and-far shared that moment with me and the Holy Spirit. It was an extraordinary moment in my life. That same evening, I was installed as a Pastor with Augustana. The following years have been filled with the holy ordinary moments of a pastor – visits in homes and hospitals, phone calls, ministry committees, worship, preaching, charity, and justice. A call rich with meaning and little fanfare. Moments that I couldn’t have imagined even just a few years earlier. During ordination and installation, there was a moment when Gretalea and Mel Johnson stood at the pulpit on behalf of everyone else and announced, “You have been called to be among us to proclaim the good news.” Every pastor has this announced by their congregation. It’s an extraordinary announcement. It’s also an announcement that can be misinterpreted, as if pastors are the sole proclaimers of the good news.

But one of the things that tugs at my mind about today’s Bible story in Mark is that the ordinary moments were created by Jesus with what was available to him, with what was normal to him, with what was ordinary to him. It got me thinking that what we often describe as radical or outrageous grace is simply ordinary to God. So ordinary is the good news that it takes people from all walks of life to announce it in all kinds of ways…and, yes, this means you too. One way was through the band of misfits that Jesus called his disciples. Another way was Simon’s mother-in-law who popped up from a fever to serve lunch. Another more real time example is today’s pile of ordinary things at the communion altar – diapers, wipes, feminine hygiene products, socks, and underwear – for ordinary people who need them.

We’ve become so used to the extraordinary but what would a world be like where everyone had holy ordinary moments all day, every day. Everyone’s equal worth is simply assumed. No one even thinks about whether or not to give when something is needed because there’s plenty to go around.  That would be extraordinary wouldn’t it? And yet, the message here is that’s simply the way it works in the ordinary good news of Jesus. That’s how much Jesus loves us. We breathe, serve, live, and love as the holy ordinary way of God – and so do our neighbors. Thanks be to God for this extraordinary good news.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Mark 1:29-30

[2] Grateful for Pastor Kari Reiquam’s comments in preacher’s text study this past week about Simon’s mother-in-law and her holy ordinary work.

[3] Mark 1:13

[4] “How Paul McCartney Handles Fans’ Emotional Connections.” The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. September 24, 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdGlGwlgxTk

___________________________________________________________

1 Corinthians 9:16-23  If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Isaiah 40.21-31  Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
26Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

27Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

 

Repentance – Not Sexy but Needed for National Healing — Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 24, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jonah 3:1-10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10When 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.

Mark 1:14-20  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

[sermon begins]

Do-overs. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t wished for a do-over. That head-slapping, Homer Simpson moment of, “Doh!” followed quickly by, “I wish I hadn’t of done that.” [1a] Do-overs tap a longing for a chance to re-do a moment, a choice, or a behavior with a better frame of mind and more principled behavior. Every so often you’ll hear a celebrity or other public person say, “I have no regrets!” This is usually followed by the advice to not look back and that the only way to live life is to look ahead.

As with many such statements, there’s a shred of truth in it. But for a lot of us, it’s just simply not true about our own lives. Especially for Jesus followers, I think. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark come after he’s baptized by John, after God announces Jesus as the Beloved Son, after the Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he’s tempted by satan and waited on by angels. Jesus’ first sentence in the Gospel includes a command to repent. It’s not a great hook. Imagine trying to start a new group and telling everyone that their first task is to list all their wrongs and change their behavior. Yeah, not too sexy.

Jonah knew that the method of introducing yourself with the command to repent was dead in the water. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and announce repentance to the King and all the people there. Imagine going to the people that you’re most afraid will hurt you and demanding their repentance. The Ninevites of Assyria were those people. They were militarily dominant in every way and vicious with their opponents, ultimately destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel and oppressing the Southern Kingdoms.[1b] Jonah had every right to be afraid. He was also understandably angry that God would forgive his greatest enemies. He knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.”[2] He did not want God to be THAT God to the Ninevites.

Jonah ran away the first time God told him to go to Nineveh and demand their repentance. He was tossed over the side of a ship in a storm and ended up in the belly of a fish only to be thrown up on the shore after he did what? After he himself repented. Jonah was given a second chance by God to go preach to the Ninevites who did indeed themselves repent – covering every king, man, woman, child, and animal in sackcloth and ashes, crying out “mightily to God,” and turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.[3]

Our Jewish cousins in the faith read the book of Jonah “on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbor.”[4] It’s short book. Four brief chapters. Go ahead and read Jonah this week. It’s the only time it bubbles up on the three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings for worship. It’s an incredible example of the very human reactions that accompany both societal and individual repentance – including Jonah’s anger that his enemies would receive God’s grace. That’s the part of Jonah’s tale that is the most offensive. There’s a particular kind of happiness we feel when we see our enemies fall and the farther they fall the better. Jonah’s understandable anger for God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites mirrors our own. It’s too difficult to believe that God’s grace extends to those we hate. But God’s grace is indeed the last word.

Recently, an unchurched friend of mine texted to ask if I could hear their confession and we did so. Individual confession follows the general order of confession, discussion, and forgiveness. During the discussion, we talked about consequences for what was being confessed including making amends to the people affected by the confessed behavior. Grace is the last word in the confession and forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness frees us to navigate the consequences for our hurtful behavior.

Along that line, the question was asked recently in staff meeting about the role of the church during this time of national crises. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself off-and-on over the last couple of decades. There are books full of attempts to answer this question over the centuries. The general consensus is that if God so loves the world, then the church is not only about my personal, spiritual benefits from it. Several of our worship readings during the past few weeks gave a challenge of repentance including John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus’ call to the disciples to repent and follow him, and Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites to repent. We have heard plenty of it today as the Bible stories immerse us in repentance.

The role of the church in society is similar – although not as the bedroom vice-squad that polices who people are sleeping with, which is too often the case. The role of the church emphasizes Jesus’ example, the one whom we follow. Our own repentance for personal and collective sin holds us accountable and redirects our behavior. From our own accountability, we may challenge others to do the same. In times of national crises like the pandemic and the chaotic transition of presidential power, we may challenge elected officials and public leaders who have hurt people by what they have done and what they have left undone.

The church may hold powerful people accountable across the spectrum of partisanship and the roles of those involved for greed, indifference to the poor, harm inflicted, violence incited, and more – powerful people like former President Trump and other leaders who fanned the flames of violence to the ones who stormed the Capital seeking to harm those in Congress. The attack happened under the American flag, the Confederate flag, and symbols of the Christian church.

The symbols of the church were especially offensive because we follow Jesus. The Jesus who told Peter to put his sword away as Jesus was being arrested is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who called public leaders to account for the violence of failing to care for the widow and the poor is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves, is the Jesus we follow.

Ironically, our country’s violent roots began with people fleeing religious violence only to perpetuate that violence on the native people who already lived here and the enslaved people who were brought here – all in the name of white superiority and divine blessing. As a country, we continue to perpetuate violence in the name of God without pausing to repent for that violence, to collectively experience the consequences, and to make amends to the black and brown people who have borne the brunt of nationally sanctioned and inflicted violence. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Obviously, accountability is not the only role of the church. During national crises we also comfort people who are scared, grieving, alone, and hungry. We comfort each other in our congregation and reach out to comfort family, friends, and neighbors. There’s a saying that the church, the body of Christ, “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” following Jesus’ example and teaching.[5] That remains true in times of calm and in times of crises.

In Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark, he proclaims good news and repentance, and announces, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Repentance turns us away from our self-absorption towards the good news of Jesus. Good news that includes loving our neighbors (not always an easy task), loving ourselves (an often much harder task), and loving a God who loves us first, last, and in-between. A God who loves us so much that we are not left bound to the sin that clings so closely but free to live differently in the world because God loves us and our neighbor. A God who slipped on skin to show us how it’s done and forgives us when we fail. A God whose offensive, radical grace is the last word. Amen.

_______________________________________________________________

[1a] Oliver Libaw. “Doh! Oxford Dictionary Takes Homer Simpson.” ABC News, January 7, 2006.  https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93098&page=1

[1b] Beth L. Tanner, Professor of Old Testament, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey. Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 for January 25, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-jonah-31-5-10-2

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 3:8

[4]  Tanner, Ibid.

[5] Tim Stewart. “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” August 5, 2013. Dictionary of Christianese: The casual slang of the Christian church…authoritatively defined.           https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/

[6] Mark 1:15

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.