Category Archives: Sermons

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.

Be Light Because You Are Light [OR Bridesmaids, Pandemic, and Election are NOT the End of the Story] Matthew 25:1-13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading – hang in there, the reading will get the full treatment in the sermon]

Matthew 25:1-13  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

[sermon begins]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[1]

Liturgical geeks among us may be wondering why I’m echoing the season of Epiphany, singing from Tangled Blue’s lyrics pulled from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Well, for one thing, it’s easier to start there than in today’s reading. For another, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” In the verses following, he goes on to say the familiar words set in the baptism liturgy, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” With hard parables like this one about the bridesmaids, it’s good to be reminded about the main things before diving in. And the main thing today is that God’s promises flow from God to us. We don’t earn or generate God’s promises by our behavior. If that were possible, someone would have cracked that code long ago. It’s also not only easier to start in chapter 5, it’s an important key to how we read about the bridesmaids’ lamps.[2] In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount includes the beatitudes that we heard last week on All Saints Day. Jesus’ sermon is key to Matthew’s gospel and anchors us to his sermon to the faithful and his trial and crucifixion.[3]

Today we start Matthew’s 25th chapter for three weeks. Jesus’ challenges to the faithful are intensifying.[4] The Matthean community was experiencing conflict between insiders and outsiders, probably other Jewish groups, that called into question who had the proper authority to teach.[5] The community also likely had some internal conflict among themselves. It gives one pause to wonder about the writer’s biggest worry, the kind of pressure they were under. Curiosity about their 1st century distress lends compassion to this struggling faith community and the harsh parable in today’s reading.

A relevant side note here. Lyn Goodrum in our church office asked me recently if I’d fallen in love with Matthew’s gospel. Some of you may remember my confession last December in Advent that I’d had my own struggle with this particular book of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding. I was able to tell Lyn that I’ve not fallen in love with it but that I have grown to appreciate it. In part, this happened because I have a new appreciation for the Matthean community’s experience. Reading through that lens made room for more compassion. Our current cultural moment adds to that compassion. Division isn’t fun. Division that threatens potential violence, especially isn’t fun.

I wrote this sermon before Election Day and recorded it on Wednesday for today’s worship. There’s no telling what’s happened between Tuesday and today. Impossible to predict the status of the week’s stories. The Matthean community certainly didn’t know how their story ended either. In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus was pushing them and reminding them about what’s important regardless. He was pushing them to encourage their readiness. He was reminding them that he’d given them what they needed to endure what was coming. He was barking at them like a coach before game time so that they’d remember that light needs tending to endure what’s ahead. Jesus’ listeners knew that lamp oil lasts longer when the wicks are trimmed.[6] Back-up oil was needed in the story because the bridegroom’s timing was unpredictable, and every bridesmaid wore out and fell asleep. Waiting for something to change can feel long. Jesus challenged his followers to hang in there and be ready. In this parable, readiness included lamps that are lit with the long game in mind. Preparing the lamp includes a supply of oil and a trimmed wick to keep it burning slow and steady. Jesus’ challenge to his listeners means something about the Christian life over the long haul. For us, as a faith community, it’s a word of life in the midst of this prolonged meantime when we might miss opportunities as we’re tempted to wish this moment away.

My Pops used to warn me against wishing my life away when I was impatient for the next, long-anticipated event. I didn’t really understand what he meant for a good many years. But I hear his voice in my head, when I find myself wishing 2020 away as if 2021 is going to magically be better, as if we could fast-forward to our worship and community life together in person. Alas, fast-forwarding is neither possible nor would it be good news to do so. I’d be wishing away the life, light, and love of today. Also, we’re the church, the light of the world, for the long haul. The Augustana community is our tiny corner of God’s whole church. As the church, we can argue from here until kingdom come about what it looks like to be ready, to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. But Jesus is pretty clear in Matthew’s gospel about what trimming the lamp for the slow and steady burn looks like. We’re given images of the slow and steady burn in the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion. Jesus preaches about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. At the cross, Jesus is vulnerable, non-violent, and self-sacrificing – shining light through the darkness of the darkest moment.

The number of bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable implies that this wedding was a high-status affair. The bridesmaids appear to be more than just friends of the bride as they seem to serve in a necessary role.[7] We could argue that the role is not about works or faith but it’s about the life the beatitudes invites us into – a life centered on the cross that glorifies God, a life that makes it clear that God is the primary actor, the giver of life.[8] A life centered on the cross is a life that knows and endures suffering. Martin Luther names this as the Seventh Mark of the Church. “The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross,” he writes.[9] Luther argues that the church endures “hardship…temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says)…” and “becomes like its head, Christ.”[10]

He goes on to argue that the customs of the church are “necessary and useful…fine and proper” but they are not to be confused with the marks of the church. In this category of customs, he includes “times for preaching and prayer, and the use of church buildings, or houses, altars, pulpits, fonts, lights, candles, bells, vestments, and the like.”[11]  Our Augustana customs do not make us the church – the cross makes us the church.

Jesus’ intensity before his trial and crucifixion is understandable. His preaching in the parable of the bridesmaids is shocking and stark although his word fuels the endurance in his people who will falter, grow weak, fail in readiness, and then regroup to be the light of the world. Dear ones, as one tiny corner of God’s church catholic, we are “in holy possession of the Holy Cross.” There is much to endure in this waiting time but the bridesmaids are the not the end of the story – neither is the pandemic, nor the election.[12] As Jesus is pointed to the cross in this parable, so are we. Pointed to the cross where grace shines in light, where God brings life out of suffering and death. Where, by our baptism, we live “in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment.”[13]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[14]

________________________________________________________

[1] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

[2] Dirk Lange, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Switzerland. Commentary on Matthew 25:1-12 for November 9, 2008 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4620

[3] Ibid.

[4] If you get a chance this week, read Matthew 24 and 25. It’s a intensifying crescendo just before Jesus’ trial starts.

[5] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[7] Skinner, ibid.

[8] Lange, ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Everyone’s Luther: On the Councils and the Church (1539), 244. https://wolfmueller.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Work-on-Councils_100618.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Luther, 257-258.

[12] 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.

[13] Lange, ibid.

[14] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

__________________________________________________________________

Oh, The Places You’ll Go…Or Not [OR God Transforms Unholy Places] Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36 Reformation Sunday

**sermon art: /r/Place canvas as of April 3, 2017   Place is a collaborative canvas that any registered reddit user could ‘draw’ on one pixel at a time. In order to draw another pixel on the canvas there was a 5 minute wait time. ‘Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more,’ is Place’s motto.  https://twistedsifter.com/2017/04/what-is-reddit-place/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 25, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Romans 3:19-28 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

John 8:31-36 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

[sermon begins]

Oh, the places you’ll go…or not go, depending on who else is there, whether or not masks are required, and how much or how little you need to see people. As those things get figured out, “place” takes on new meaning in our lives. Our favorite places usually qualify as favorites because they’re fun or beautiful or peaceful or sacred or we find our favorite people there. These days, the places we go are often necessary and cannot be avoided, or meaningful and we bend to accommodate them.  Adjustments have also been made to meaningful places like the way we worshiped under a tent in the courtyard over the last few months. Last week, place was also shifted for our Confirmation students who were affirming their baptismal promises in the Rite of Confirmation. Annually celebrated on Reformation Sunday, we held a brief ritual with the youth and their families and recorded it to be celebrated with all of us here in online worship. It was a unique Confirmation, as the few of us who gathered together represented the fullness of the congregation in the Sanctuary, our community’s sacred place.

Place is important to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John reading as he says that, “the son has a place [in the household] forever; so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus’ place brings freedom that cannot be created on our own. This is good news if you don’t like the new place in which you find yourself, feeling displaced by a pandemic.[1] Jesus’ freedom can also sound like good news if you’ve been displaced or excluded by other people for reasons like income, disability, skin color, or education level.

The 16th century Reformation took place in complicated socio-political times that parallel our own. Martin Luther was not the first reformer of his day, but he was the first reformer that lived long enough to disrupt the systems of church and state applying pressure to both the pope who controlled the church and the princes who controlled the city-states of their time. While Luther condemned the institutional church for its extortion of the poor and manipulation of the faithful; he also challenged the princes against exploitation of the peasants. Luther and other Reformation preachers were adamant that princes and leaders address systemic issues.[2] Luther wrote, ““For so to help a man that he does not need to become a beggar is just as much of a good work and a virtue as to give alms to a man who has already become a beggar.”[3] Lutheranism has long since preached justice-oriented community engagement on behalf of our neighbors alongside the grace of salvation “by faith apart from works.”[4] In fairness though, this grace-and-justice preaching had its place long before Luther.

In the Romans reading, check out verse 25. The execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans gets flipped into the language of sacrifice.[5] The 1st century listener would have been like, “Whaaaat?!!” Everybody knew that sacrifices offered to God meant specific animals, killed in the temple, by a priest. No one would have equated a Roman execution of a Galilean rabbi, on a hill outside of town, with sacrifice. More specifically, the Greek word “hilasterion,translated here as “sacrifice of atonement,” is more accurately translated “mercy seat.” The early listeners in Greek would have heard that “the redemption in Christ Jesus” was put forward by God as a “mercy seat through faith in his blood.”[6]  This is BIG, so hang with me here. The mercy seat was known to be in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple where the high priest entered once a year to sprinkle blood over it on Yom Kippur for the atonement of all of Israel.[7] This section of the Romans reading transforms the unholy place of the cross into the Holy of Holies, the center of God’s reconciling grace; the place where the unholy, non-Jewish Gentiles are transformed into holy Christ believers and God’s servants. These verses claim that God transforms the unholy place into a place of holy transformation. Transforming the unholy into the holy. Put a place-holder there, we’re going to come back to it.

Another dilemma in the English is that the word for justice and righteousness is the same word in Greek – dikaiosyne. 1st century listeners would have heard this word to simultaneously mean “righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor).”[8] There was no choice needed to be made about meaning like there is in English. The place of justice for our neighbor IS the place of righteousness with God. There are many people who celebrate the Reformation solely as an event in history that revealed God’s reconciling grace within each individual believer. What often gets missed, is that it was simultaneously an event that turned the believer away from self towards the neighbor. This reading from Romans is the perfect place to open up God’s word in the fullness of the Reformation and to allow it to open us up as God’s word finds a place in us.

Grace was at the heart of the 16th century Reformation and love of neighbor completed the freedom granted by Christ’s grace. Luther also wrote, ““Poverty, I say, is not to be recommended, chosen, or taught; for there is always enough of that by itself, as [Jesus] says (John 12:8): ‘The poor you always have with you,’ just as you will have all other evils. But constant care should be taken that, since these evils are always in evidence, they are always opposed.”[9]

I’m going to let you in on a well-kept secret…we have an election coming up. Democracy and voting would have been inconceivable to Luther and his peers, not to mention to our 1st Century siblings in Christ, but they all would have understood justice and neighbor-love as required by God.[10] We’ve spent the whole last church year in the book of Matthew in which Jesus lifts up the vulnerable and oppressed as our faithful priority. And just around the corner in Advent, we’ll hear Mary sing about lifting the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.[11] Voting is one more place to help our neighbor as we examine ballot issues, judges, and elected leaders. Remember to pray for yourself and each other as we vote.

Remember also that the mercy seat of Christ dwells within you by the power of the Holy Spirit in your baptism. When we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his death, and into the mercy seat of God.[12] The unholy places in you are the very places that God redeems and makes holy for your sake in God’s righteousness and for your neighbor’s sake in God’s justice. Today on Reformation Sunday, we celebrate that everyone has a place in the household because Christ is the mercy seat through which God redeems us and sends us in freedom to love and serve our neighbor. Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Pastor Margot Wright, Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church, Centenniel, CO. Metro East Preacher’s Text Study, Rocky Mountain Synod (ELCA), on October 20, 2020.

[2] Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee (Eds.). The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation. (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016), 24.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Romans 3:28

[5] This section of the sermon relies heavily on this work of Jane Lancaster Patterson, Associate Professor of New Testament, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX. Commentary on Romans 3:19-28 for October 25, 2020 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4605

[6] Patterson, Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lindberg and Wee, Ibid.

[10] Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

[11] Luke 1:46-55

[12] Romans 6:3-11

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 13, 2020

[homily begins after two Bible passages]

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

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

[homily begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christians will sometimes refer to living on “this side of the cross.”  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.

Those are hard truths, but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when God, “will swallow up death forever…and will wipe away the tears from all faces.”[1] The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Nancy into the holy company of all the saints in light perpetual along with Ed. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Nancy.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you. Thanks be to God! And amen.

[1] Isaiah 25:8

Pandemic Brain [OR An Honest Accounting of Binding Anxiety to Unhelpful Things] Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-8, and Matthew 22:1-14

**sermon art: The Golden Calf (2001) Oil on canvas by John Bradford (9’ X 14’)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 11, 2020

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings; find the Matthew reading at end of sermon]

Exodus 32:1-14 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Philippians 4:1-8 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

[sermon begins]

 

 

Anybody else here struggling with pandemic brain? I can’t say that pandemic brain is an actual term coined by anyone else beyond me. But you may recognize it as a higher tendency for your mind to wander, not as efficient as you once were, less patient with yourself and others, more tired than warranted by the amount of sleep you’re getting. There are likely a slew of other ways you’re experiencing pandemic brain. I’d like to go after a big one that I’m pretty sure is fairly widespread – anxiety…[cue foreboding music].

Our culture has pathologized anxiety to an extreme – as if we need any more help feeling anxious about feeling anxious. Here’s one gem of good news this week, anxiety is normal. At least a certain amount of anxiety is normal. It’s a normal function of the part of our brain called the limbic system, the part that processes our emotions.[1] We don’t do high level processing there. We simply react. It’s where fight-or-flight happens. It’s the part of our brain that keeps us alive without having to think about it. Emotions clue us into whether we feel afraid, or safe, or worried, or loved. Higher level processing takes place in the grey matter of our brain called the cortex. This is where we think, learn, and process our emotions, about the information our emotions give us.

Okay, neuroscience lesson over but why am I giving it? Well, for starters, it’s timely to World Mental Health Day on October 10.[2] It’s also timely to our current world moment. Most people I talk to are dealing with some level of anxiety spiraling in the wrong direction. Anxiety caused by events deeply personal and close to home or anxiety linked to everything going on in the world. One thing about anxiety is that it can fool us into thinking that we’re thinking but we’re not thinking, we’re just using a lot of words as we react.

Let’s take the Israelites in the Bible story from Exodus today. We’ve been following their story over the last couple of months starting with their oppression under Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, the call of the Lord to Moses to set his people free, their daring escape, their complaining in the wilderness, and now they’re at the base of Mt. Sinai up which Moses has disappeared to listen to God. They’re a traumatized people fleeing and fighting for their survival. Apparently, he was gone too long for their comfort and they did not know what had become of him (v1). They gathered around Aaron, a priest and also Moses’ brother, demanding that he make gods for them. The Hebrew word “to gather” might be better translated as to “gather against.”[3] Aaron was under pressure from the people to do what they asked. Probably feeling anxious about his own survival, he complied with their demand and made a golden calf around which the people first made sacrifices and then they ate, drank, and rose up to revel. They partied. And the Hebrew word translated as “revel” means that they partied hard.[4] The Israelites were stressed. They’d escaped slavery in Egypt, meandered in the wilderness, and now Moses was delayed in coming down the mountain. More than a few of us can probably appreciate their need to blow off some steam, drink away their troubles, and fall asleep without worrying about their leader. Who can blame them for binding their anxiety to the things that feel good.

“Binding the anxiety” is an expression that I learned from my therapist who I now see online about once a month whether I need it or not. These regular mental health tune-ups do a world of good in a world that isn’t always good. One of the things I’ve learned is that the anxiety we feel for all kinds of reasons finds a way to bind to things that make us feel better. These things run the gamut of good, bad, and ugly so subtly that we unconsciously sweet talk ourselves with them. We often leave our anxiety binds unexamined because the status quo is much easier than figuring out what IS good for us. We could invite our friends who’ve been through recovery with Alcoholics Anonymous to teach us a thing or two about binding anxiety with a perilous status quo. But there are lots of ways to bind anxiety that fly under the social radar. I bet if I polled all of you listening about what you bind your anxiety to that we’d come up with a fairly comprehensive list of how well we fool ourselves as well as healthy good options that are actually in our best interest.

Whether it’s the Israelites in the Exodus story, or the violent king in the parable in the gospel of Matthew, or Paul’s feuding co-workers of the gospel – Euodia and Syntyche, there are examples aplenty in today’s Bible readings to provoke us into difficult questions about our behavior and faith.[5] On the heels of World Mental Health day, there’s no time like the present to pause, think, self-examine, talk with trusted friends and therapists, reflect, pray, and repeat. Especially because over the next few weeks, the political, economic, and pandemic news as well as personal household stressors will increase the anxiety that highjacks our higher-level thinking and highjacks who we’re called to be as Jesus followers.

We’re called to gratitude, rejoicing, prayer, and in those activities “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.” And in our Augustana community of faith, as in the church at Philippi, we help each other understand ourselves and our neighbors as beloved so that we can hear the things that Jesus followers are encouraged to do. Let’s listen to those verses one more time:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and receive and heard and seen…and the God of peace will be with you.”

The good news is that we have a Savior who was bound, battered, and thrown into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – on a hill, far away, on an old rugged cross.  A few chapters beyond the today’s parable in Matthew is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.[6] During the events leading up to his crucifixion, through the crucifixion itself, we are told of one who is tossed out. The one who is silent in the face of challenge[7], the one who is mocked for being in the wrong clothes[8], the one who is bound hand and foot[9], the one who is hung on a cross where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth[10], the one who is forsaken,[11] the one who hangs under a sign announcing his kingship[12], and the one who is finally announced as God’s Son.[13]

Jesus knows threat, trauma, and fear because the lies of powerful people were exposed by his message of justice, peace, grace, love, and faith. Our Savior frees us to be honest about our fragile anxieties and yokes us to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can speak the truth of our failures while also seeing the way out of an empty tomb into healing and new life not only for ourselves, but in support of each other too, pandemic brains and all. There are big and small ways to take a step towards mental health. The first step is an honest accounting of our personal moment. As Christians, we’re encouraged to do that anyway. The second is to reach out, talk it through with trusted people, and make a plan that holds us accountable to thinking on honorable, just, and commendable things while binding our anxieties to a cross and a Savior that promises hope and life in the here and now. Thanks be to God and amen.

Song after the sermon; ELW 362 At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing

1 At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
praise to our victorious king,
who has washed us in the tide
flowing from his wounded side.
Alleluia!

2 Praise we Christ, whose love divine
gives his sacred blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast —
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
Alleluia!

3 Where the paschal blood is poured,
death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
through the wave that drowns the foe.
Alleluia!

4 Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
paschal victim, paschal bread;
with sincerity and love
eat we manna from above.
Alleluia!

____________________________________________________________

[1] For brief and surprisingly thorough one-minute videos about this anatomy, check out “The Triune Brain: at https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/the-triune-brain/

[2] World Federation for Mental Health https://wfmh.global/world-mental-health-day-2020/

[3] Vanessa Lovelace, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, PA. Commentary of Exodus 32:1-14 for October 11, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4611

[4] Ibid.

[5] Today’s Bible readings: Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14

[6] For my full sermon on this parable and line of thought go here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2014/10/12/matthew-221-14-a-haunted-house-and-a-flashlight-or-of-a-king-and-a-son-and-a-thrown-out-one/

[7] Matthew 26:63

[8] Matthew 27:28,

[9] Matthew 27:31b

[10] Matthew 27:33

[11] Matthew 27:46

[12] Matthew 27:37

[13] Matthew 27:54

_________________________________________________________________

Matthew 22:1-14 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

If Selfish Ambition and Conceit[1] Are Not of God, What Is? [OR Cleo Parker Robinson Invites Us to Dance] Philippians 2:1-13 and Psalm 25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 27, 2020

[sermon begins after 2 Bible Readings]

Philippians 2:1-13  If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Psalm 25 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
8 Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

[sermon begins]

How would you respond if I were to ask Daniel, our Minister of Music, to play something upbeat and festive to start us dancing right now? Hmmm…right. I’m going to guess that most of you aren’t so hot on the idea and that if I did so you might forever question whether or not to come to worship on my preaching Sundays. At our Synod’s Theological Conference last week, something similar happened.[2] The completely different part was that we were safely seated in front of our screens because we were meeting virtually. When we were invited to dance, the first thing I did was turn off the camera. Then I stood up, danced with the dancers on the screen, and sang with the music coming from my speakers, “Wade in the water…wade in the water, children…wade in the water…God is gonna trouble the water.”[3] [Admit it, you kinda want to dance now too, don’t you.]

The woman inviting us to dance was Cleo Parker Robinson, an internationally known dancer and choreographer as well as a local Denver treasure.[4] She talked about the burdens piling up on us in the world and invited us to keep moving to keep moving. Cleo wasn’t allowed to dance in church as a child and found ways to dance outside of church. She almost died when she was 11 years old and overheard the doctor tell her grandparents that she’ll never walk again. Cleo said to herself, “Well, if I’m going to live, I’m going to move.” She’s quite an example of joy in tension with her experience of suffering.

Examples of joy and suffering can be hard to come by. Especially when there’s truth to be discovered. We seem to be caught in a false choice between full denial and overwrought catastrophizing. It’s much harder to find a sweet spot of thoughtful, passionate engagement that makes space for joy while working against changeable causes of suffering. Hmmm…where to find another example. If only we could think of someone who could help us. As I was writing this, I found myself wishing for a God ole children’s sermon when I could ask that question a little differently and some quick-thinking five-year-old would shout, “Jesus!” And then I would say, “Yes, Jesus!” Those days will come again. In the meantime, I’m going to invoke Griffin (formerly named Xander) and shout for him, “Jesus!!”

Jesus is the centerpiece of our reading from Philippians – Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Philippi was an intense pro-Roman colony. Not the safest place to be for these early church peeps. The church was facing external threats and internal stress and behaving badly. Paul wrote to remind them who they were in Christ and about the God to whom they belong. I sometimes wonder how the first listeners of Paul’s letters reacted to them. Some of us have cozied up with Paul’s run-on sentences and theological speak enough times that we’ve become used to it even if we don’t totally understand it. But the early church formed only a decade or so after Jesus’ death. They were still trying to understand how death on a cross exalted Jesus’ name above every name.[5] This part of Philippians contains the Christ hymn – a creed of sorts. We’ll say the Apostle’s Creed today in the baptism recorded for online worship. A creed is a statement about who we think Jesus is, based on the witness of scripture. We say them as something to wrestle with as opposed to something we’re supposed to agree with full stop. Before Paul gets to the credal part in the Christ hymn, he offers some words of advice:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.[6]

Before anyone gets all crazy about Paul calling everyone to the same dull sameness. He’s asking his readers to look to the interests of others. He’s acknowledging a variety of interests that take effort to include. Not advocating for cookie-cutter Jesus followers, Paul is emphasizing a diversity in their unity to sustain their fellowship with each other.[7] Cleo Parker Robinson gave an extreme example of what Paul is identifying. Her troop had been invited out of state to perform. I think she said Idaho but don’t quote me on that. Most of the troupe had checked into the hotel and their sound technician was at the theater running a check on the system. The White theater owner showed up with gun and said that he was part of making sure that Black people didn’t come to town and, if they did, that they didn’t stay long. He hadn’t realized that he’d booked a Black dance troupe. The sound technician raced over to the hotel and said they had to leave town now. They decided they would perform and maximize their safety with an exit plan. Then they danced. Following the performance, the theater owner was so affected that he broke down, apologized, and thanked them for coming. Some would call the dancers foolhardy. Others would describe them as courageous. All I know is that it was inspiring to hear her tell their story. I can’t imagine that level of life and death decision-making just to do my job.

It’s difficult to imagine finding that level of humility at deep personal risk. Fortunately, we are not left to our own devices. In verse 13, Paul assures his readers and us that, “it is God who is at work in you.” This isn’t a mysterious, untouchable God at work it us. Oh sure, most of God is ineffable, unknowable, and mysterious. But, just a few verses before, we’re assured that God is with us. We’re given this description:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on the cross.[8]

God reveals God’s self through Jesus. While Paul’s idealized slave is problematic language in our country still reckoning with racism tied to slavery, there’s enough clarity about God’s revelation in Jesus.

Jesus who is vulnerable and remains strong.

Jesus who surrenders and is resolute.

Jesus who is obedient and still a self.

Jesus is the glimpse that Christians are given of the mystery of God. It’s a picture of humility that has no room for “selfish ambition or conceit” and focuses us on “the interests of others.”[9] Verse 4 makes clear that selfish ambition and conceit are not of God. But their opposite humble and selfless attributes are so much of God that when we see them in someone we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.”[10]

Lutherans are NOT about marks of salvation that make following Jesus sound like a checklist of personal works and somehow that’s how we know we’re really in with God. For Lutherans, God is the starting point, not us. We don’t have to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” because, like the psalmist in Psalm 25, we are assured of God’s mercy and steadfast love for they have been from of old.[11] We’re in with God because of what Jesus has done and not by any righteous behavior of our own. But we do have Jesus’ example and are freed from salvific concerns to focus on living our lives in his name and in his image. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

____________________________________________________________

Hymn of the Day

ELW #810  O Jesus, I Have Promised

1    O Jesus, I have promised

to serve you to the end;

remain forever near me,

my master and my friend.

I shall not fear the battle

if you are by my side,

nor wander from the pathway

if you will be my guide.

2    Oh, let me feel you near me;

the world is ever near.

I see the sights that dazzle,

the tempting sounds I hear.

My foes are ever near me,

around me and within;

but, Jesus, then draw nearer

to shield my soul from sin.

3    Oh, let me hear you speaking

in accents clear and still

above the storms of passion,

the murmurs of self-will.

Now speak to reassure me,

to hasten or control;

now speak and make me listen,

O Guardian of my soul.

 

4    O Jesus, you have promised

to all who follow you

that where you are in glory

your servant shall be too.

And Jesus, I have promised

to serve you to the end;

oh, give me grace to follow,

my master and my friend.

Text: John E. Bode, 1816-1874, alt

____________________________________________________

[1] Philippians 2:3

[2] Augustana Lutheran Church is part of the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA. Synod is a fancy church word that designates an area of congregations. Theological Conference is an annual gathering of pastors, deacons, and church leaders.

[3] LB Crew. “Wade in the Water.” 2019. (I highly recommend this version over my attempt while preaching.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfnSBf77SGs

[4] Learn more here: https://cleoparkerdance.org/

[5] Philippians 2:9

[6] Philippians 2:3-5

[7] Ekaputra Tupamahu, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Portland Seminary/George Fox University, Portland, OR. Commentary on Philippians 2:13 for September 27, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4593

[8] Philippians 2:5-8

[9] Philippians 2:3-4

[10] See my sermon of that title from last week here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2020/09/20/expectations-envy-and-complaint-or-thats-god-and-thats-good-matthew-201-16-and-exodus-162-15/

[11] Psalm 25:6

Celebrating the Life of Cameron Rivera (April 22, 1996 – March 10, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell at Wings Over the Rockies Museum/ Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery (Centennial Airport)

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jeremiah 29:11  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Romans 8:35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[sermon begins]

Michelle and I have been talking about today since March when the pandemic shutdown the city. Trying to figure out where and when we could gather to celebrate Cameron’s life in this way was not easy. I know today is one of several times some of you have been together. The first time being the day Cameron died, during the hours long wait for the coroner’s arrival on the scene. Another being the balloon release the week after he died. It’s difficult to not let his tragic death overshadow the light Cameron brought in life and the light he continues to bring as you remember him. When I spoke with Rob and Michelle about today, I heard so many wonderful things about Cameron that make me wish I knew him as you did. We’ve already heard some of those memories today and there are so many more on your hearts and minds. His smile, loyalty, kindness, athleticism, perpetual motion, love of a challenge, and love of the Buffalo Bills all come with many stories. These are gifts that Cameron shared with you all who love him.

As a son, cousin, first grandchild and great-grandchild, friend, best friend, employee and more, Cameron brought a lot of joy. His adulting plans included his flight lessons with the goal of flying for UPS someday. It’s part of the reason we’re gathered here at the airport and will celebrate with a flyover. More immediately, he had plans to be in London in April. After he died, Cameron’s heart ventricles and corneas were able to be donated. One of his corneas ended up gifted to a recipient in London. Rob told me that while Cameron didn’t see London while he was alive, he was able to make it there after he died to see through someone else’s eyes.

Jesus says in the Bible, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Jesus knows that your hearts are troubled.  How could they not be?  The end of Cameron’s 23 years old life is a tragedy. And tragedy brings the question, “Why?!!”  And the attempts to answer that question also come.  Attempts that don’t answer the question of “why” and often leave us hurting each other or hurting ourselves.  We hurt each other and ourselves as we try to figure out what Jeremiah means by God’s plan for us and we wonder if that God had a direct hand in Cameron’s death.  Above and beyond the grief, we say things like, “Well if that’s the plan that God has then I want nothing to do with that God.”

But listen to the promise of Jeremiah once more… “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Not for harm…for hope.

How does this hope take shape in the face of real pain?  First by naming the tragedy for what it is – just like in the reading from the book of Romans that names tragedy as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, nakedness, sword; just like our reason for being here today is Cameron’s death at such a young age.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in his life too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the pain.

There’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He does NOT tally.

If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask “BUT what about WHAT I’M supposed to do?! Have I done enough to make myself right with God?! Has Cameron?” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us and for Cameron.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems. In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut.

The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.

The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.

Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Bible emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and now catches death up into God, drawing Cameron into holy rest where suffering is no more.  Jesus is focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [1]  Jesus has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.

Nothing separates Cameron from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to Cameron.

And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to Cameron, God gives us a future with hope as God also brings Cameron into a future with God.

On his earthly birthday, we celebrate Cameron’s life as we celebrate his new life with God. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cameron. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

______________________________________

[1] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

Expectations, Envy, and Complaint [OR That’s God and That’s Good] Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:2-15

**sermon art: Manna in the Wilderness by Paul Oman

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 20, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Psalm is at the end]

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

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

[sermon begins]

What does it look when you’re fragile and whiny? My own pity parties are inelegant at best and downright annoying at worst. Even I get tired of myself when I’m in the depths of one. In our family, we have an epic pity party that we still talk about. I have our 21-year-old daughter’s permission to share it with you. Taryn was little, maybe three or four years old. She had developed an escalating habit of inconsolable meltdowns. We instituted a family policy that meltdowns could happen in the privacy of her room and she could come out of her room anytime she was ready to be around people. Her door was wide open. My sister was over one day, and Taryn had a meltdown. Off to her room she was sent. From the kitchen we could hear Taryn crying, “Anybody loves me…ANYBODY LOVES ME!” Critique of our parenting aside, Taryn was onto something true. When we’re in the throes of a pity party, we can wonder if anybody loves us. Taryn’s meltdown subsided enough that she and I could do the needed mop up and reassuring loves and snuggles.

The Israelites complaints weren’t as epic as Taryn’s in this mother’s eyes, but they were substantial enough that they would rather have died as fed slaves in Egypt than continue another day hungry in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron had listened to their complaining without the luxury of being able to send them to their room to regroup. That’s okay though, because God heard their complaining and arranged for manna to collect like frost on the ground every morning. To which the Israelites asked, “What is it?” It’s their question that captures me.

“What is it?” is an appropriate question when you get what you need but not what you hope for or expect. The Israelites were nostalgic for their slavery and full bellies after a month of being free and hungry in the wilderness. They were in uncharted territory both literally and metaphorically. Their identity as a people had undergone a seismic shift that would take time and learning to navigate.[1] In the meantime, they complained…and complained…and complained…and complained. They threw an epic pity party blaming Moses and Aaron. God heard their complaint and responded. God showed the Israelites that they did not travel alone through the wilds of the wilderness and neither do we. It’s just that in the wilderness, it becomes more difficult to believe that God’s giving, sustaining, and prayer-hearing are true.[2]

One of my seminary professors tells a story about a friend of his.[3] She was going through an incredibly hard time sustained by the grace of the church around her. Their love, prayer, and encouragement didn’t make the situation any less difficult. When he asked her how she was doing she said, “Well, the Lord’s given me manna.” Closer to home in real time, we had a Church Council meeting this past week. Our meetings open with a devotion from a member of the Council and last week’s was led by our youth representative, Grace. She briefly described her experience since the pandemic began, her needed break at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp this summer, and the daily devotions from her week at camp. How God sees the good – the good in us and the good in other people that we have a hard time seeing. The campers were challenged to take the week’s messages back down the mountain. For Grace, the message lasted more than her usual week or two after camp and it’s still percolating in her as she’s able to see things like a sunset in her rearview mirror on a frustrating drive to soccer practice and say, “That’s God and that’s good.” She then asked Council to share moments when we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.” As I listened and shared, it occurred to me that Grace had answered the Israelite’s manna question. They asked, “What is it?” When Moses replied that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” he could just as easily have answered, “That’s God and that’s good.”

My professor’s friend described her experience of being sustained by the grace of her church people as the manna in the Bible story. “The Lord’s given me manna,” she said. She was sustained by what was needed even if not wanted or expected. Our expectations can catch us by surprise as they escalate unconsciously. Sometimes we’re not even aware we have expectations until they’re dashed. Take the workers in the vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew reading. Why did the workers who’d been in the vineyard all day expect that they would get paid more than their peers who came to work at the end of the day? They were filled with envy and complaint rather that being able to say, “That’s the manna that the Lord has given me,” or “That’s God and that’s good.”

This isn’t about ignoring injustice and using the name of God in vain to justify inequity. This is about what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us about ourselves and about God’s radical grace that defies our expectations – especially in our daily wilderness walk through pandemic, politics, and race. And maybe more specifically, what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us in our experience of being the church in the daily wilderness walk of being separated for now to keep each other healthy and well. Is our manna a few brief weeks of outdoor worship – masked, silent, and distanced during worship together? Is our manna weekly online worship with monthly communion at home if we have that access, or a weekly mailing of scripture, sermon, and a monthly home communion liturgy if we aren’t online?[4] Is our manna the online One at 1:00 devotions recorded by staff every Tuesday and Thursday? Is our manna talking over the phone to check-in with each other rather than in-person to keep each other safe? Is our manna conducting ministry meetings online with Zoom to continue the ministry of the church?

Manna can be a term to describe anything that’s a gift yet feels insufficient because a year ago our lives looked very different whether we’re in school, working, unemployed, retired, or in our last years. We’re in that slog of in-between time, squeezed between the departure from those old norms and arrival at our destination post-pandemic. Much like the Israelites who left what they knew behind when they departed Egypt and had yet to arrive at their destination.[5] We’re challenged as a faith community to see the manna and say, “That’s God and that’s good.”

We’re similarly challenged as individual Jesus followers praying for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pause to identify what God sees as good in our neighbor rather than meticulously cataloguing our neighbor’s faults. Maybe just as important, we can pause to glimpse what we can describe as “That’s God, and that’s good.” And as a faith community, we can help each other, our children, and our neighbors do that too so that we can say from our own experience and with the confidence of the Psalmist, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[6] Thanks be to God, and amen.

Song after the Sermon

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy – ELW Hymnal #588

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

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[1] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[2] Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 for September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573

[3] Rolf Jacobson. Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[4] Online worship with Augustana can be found at AugustanaDenver.org/worship or https://www.facebook.com/augustanadenver/

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

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Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de- | clare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.