The Next Right Thing [OR Pharaoh’s Fury, Meddling Midwives, and Moses’ Birth] Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Matthew 16:13-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 23, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; hang in there with the Exodus reading – it’s worth the story]

Exodus 1:8-2:10  Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Matthew 16:13-20 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[sermon begins]

Why doesn’t Pharaoh know the history of Joseph? You know, Joseph, his father’s favorite son and the recipient of that fancy coat; Joseph, the Israelite who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers; Joseph, who ended up second in command to the Pharaoh back in his day and ended up saving the Egyptians and others in the region from starvation. Why doesn’t the Pharaoh of this new time in Egyptian history remember Joseph? Someone, or many someones, stopped telling Joseph’s story and a key piece of the history between the Egyptians and the Israelites was lost. Their relationship that once centered on shared interest in mutual survival became one of fear. Our Bible reading from Exodus begins describing a king who “arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” This new king, the new Pharaoh, devised a plot to set taskmasters over the Israelites to “oppress them with forced labor.” Only it didn’t work. The Israelites grew in number. So Pharaoh concocted an even more diabolical plan. He ordered the Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah to kill the boy babies when they were born.

Pharaoh didn’t know who he was dealing with in those midwives. Shiphrah and Puah were God-fearing women. The two of them concocted their own plan to let the baby boys live. The most powerful person in the land was undermined by two of the least powerful. I wonder if they found courage in each other to continue letting the babies live. Imagine being called before Pharaoh to answer for the living, breathing Israelite babies. Their response to him is a much needed moment of comic relief and a good reminder to laugh in heavy times. The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Such a clever team, those two midwives. And “God dealt well with [them]” for their efforts. Notice that God’s action was in the least powerful people in the story.

The story goes on to describe Moses’ birth, his mother placing him in a basket in the river, his sister watching over him, and the Pharaoh’s daughter saving him through adoption. Each woman had a significant role in making sure Moses lived. Each woman found themselves doing the next right thing which was against the wishes of their king. Here’s where interpretation gets risky. There’s this term that been coined called “Disney Princess theology.” It describes reading scripture and placing ourselves in the hero or princess role rather than in the villain or clown roles. I don’t know about you but I want to think of myself as one of those scrappy midwives doing anything I could to save those babies. But it’s important to pause before we start down that road of Disney Princess and wonder about what lives in each one of us that is more like Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That there are times when we are more the people who are worried about our own children before we worry about anyone else’s children. More like the people who are in power than the powerless aided by God. More like the people who may not like the Pharaoh’s plan of oppression and forced labor but what can we really do about it anyway.

It’s easy to feel powerless to make change so we ignore what may need changing. Let’s take the mostly hidden, contemporary example of prisons. We may drive by them as there are a few in Metro Denver. Many are tucked away in rural towns of Colorado. The prison population in the United States in 1985 was 40,000, by 1997 it was 500,000, and is now approximately 2.2 million. Our country has 4% of the world population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The prison rate has grown faster that the country’s population. There were laws passed in the 1980s, especially related to drug use, that swelled the prison population. Laws that our legislators enacted on our behalf. And don’t get me started on the racial inequalities related to incarceration where black and brown folks are imprisoned well beyond their percent of the population. And don’t get me started on money made by corporations on prison labor, laboring people who receive little by way of compensation or benefits.

We’re in a country that has this prison system and we’re in a faith tradition in which Jesus says to release the captives and let the oppressed go free.[1] How we reconcile those competing realities is on us. Laws that our legislators enact are on us. Incarceration is one example of how easy it is to ignore the power we have and don’t use on behalf of people who are considered throw-aways by society. This is what I mean by taking the example of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people and wondering about parallels in our 21st century way of living.

We are not left only in the Pharaoh’s side of the story though. We also have the examples of those wonderful women who are doing the next right thing within their power to thwart the power of Pharaoh. The midwives deliver the babies anyway. The Levite mother saved her baby by hiding him in a basket on the river. His sister followed him, watched Pharaoh’s daughter find him, and concocted a plan for him to be nursed by his birth mother. Pharaoh’s daughter went against Pharaoh’s power to keep Moses alive and ultimately raise him as her own. Each woman did the next right thing in her power and the Israelite baby survived his childhood to deliver his people from slavery into freedom.

These five women are great examples of being faithful in the moment, of doing the next right thing. This powerful story in our faith history can call us into what it means to be faithful in the moment as we try to do the next right thing. Our view of the next right thing as faithful people has a lot to do with who we think Jesus is. That’s why the question Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew is a good one for us to answer as well. First, he asks about the latest gossip when he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” There’s a smattering of answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  Then Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter gets an A+ answer for once when he replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. He had time with Jesus and his teaching. He was also going to deny his relationship with Jesus as things heated up around Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity over time was as imperfect as Peter. It’s important to remember his imperfection because not getting things right doesn’t change Jesus’ identity. Not getting things right keeps us humble as we wrestle with how we describe Jesus and, frankly, may offer comic relief and laughter along the way of faith.

The scripture ultimately turns Jesus’ question towards each one of us. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s an important question. It’s also important to remember that our trust in Jesus, our faith in him, rests on who Jesus actually is and not what we say about him. Even though Jesus is still Jesus despite our imperfect confessions about him, who we think Jesus is, means something about our next faithful step as individual people of faith and as a congregation who cares for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. We know and confess our faith congregationally that Jesus frees us from sin and death into new life through no doing of our own but simply by the grace of God. In that freedom given by Jesus, we are liberated from our perceived powerlessness into the power of God. This freedom is for God’s sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of the world. And, like the midwives, the mother, the sister, and the daughter, we’re empowered by God to do the next right thing and trust that something wonderful is being born. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Luke 4:16-21

Follow the Breadcrumbs [OR Prophetic Witness and Celebrating Queer Inclusion] Isaiah 56:1-8 and Matthew 15:10-28

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 16, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 56:1-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:10-28  Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

[sermon begins]

Jesus and a shouting Canaanite woman. What’s the picture in your head? Who is she? What color are her eyes, her hair, her skin? Is she rich or poor? We know that she’s a mother because her daughter is tormented. Jesus comes to town and she shows up shouting. I love this image in part because she has everything to gain and nothing to lose by shouting her broken heart at Jesus. His guys want Jesus to send her away for all the noise she’s making. Jesus doesn’t send her away though. He talks to her. He blows up the conversation by calling her a dog. Some theologians think he’s giving voice to what the disciples are thinking and trying to teach them a lesson because he is somehow in the know about what the Canaanite woman is going to do. After all, he IS the teaching Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. And here he seems to be teaching his disciples what not to do. Could he have known that she was in on the lesson with him? Was it because she called him “Son of David?” She knew the lingo, maybe she knew the rest of his genealogy too. It’s possible she had heard about the Canaanites in Jesus’ family tree listed in Matthew’s opening chapter to the gospel – Rahab the courageous prostitute, Tamar the righteous trickster, and Ruth the loyal daughter-in-law and great-grandmother to King David.[1] [2] Or perhaps Jesus had a physical feature that identified the Canaanite blood that also flowed in his veins through his family tree. Maybe she took one look at him and immediately knew they shared Canaanite blood.[3]

We’ll never know whether she knew but it’s possible that that she did and it’s possible that Jesus knew about the non-Jew, Canaanite women in his genealogy. Jewish heredity follows the mother because mothers are obvious, pregnant links. It’s likely no mistake that it’s this point in Matthew’s Gospel at which Jesus’ ministry expands to include non-Jews. Up to now, he’s instructed his disciples to stay within certain Jewish boundaries. Now they’re in Tyre and Sidon getting shouted at and possibly feeling a little defeated after all they’ve been through. First John the Baptist was killed, then they fed over 5,000 men, women, and children who were also on the move after John’s death, then they spent a terrifying night on a boat at sea in a storm before debarking in Gennesaret, until their trek to Tyre and Sidon where they’re shouted at in welcome. Let’s follow the breadcrumbs through that maze, shall we?

Jesus first follows the breadcrumbs when he said to the crowd and his disciples, “…it is not what goes into his mouth that defiles a person.” Just before he said this, the religious leaders who followed Jesus from Jerusalem accused the disciples of being unclean because they didn’t observe the ritual of handwashing before they ate. It makes me wonder if the religious leaders were spying from behind trees, watching the disciples feed the over 5,000 hungry people in our Bible story two weeks ago who probably didn’t wash their hands either.[4] Perhaps they were hoping to reduce the power of the feeding miracle on a religious technicality. (A little like reversing a flashy touchdown with an offsides penalty.) But the religious leaders’ stale plan couldn’t have worked. Leftover food collected after that meal for thousands filled twelve baskets with the broken pieces. Crumbs, sifting through the baskets, were left as evidence all over the field where the thousands ate. There’s no way the religious leaders could sweep those crumbs under the rug. That’s a significant breadcrumb trail to follow.

Teeny tiny breadcrumbs were probably still embedded in the disciples’ clothes while they were shouted at by the Canaanite woman who was empowered by her broken heart. When she knelt before Jesus, she said, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (What is up with calling this woman a dog?!) Jesus’ comment vexes the faithful in every age. Jews didn’t historically keep or love dogs the way that their Greek and Roman counterparts did.[5] In antiquity, dogs were found in the households of all classes of people and were a symbol of loyalty in art and literature.[6]  Jesus’ dog accusation was flipped by the Canaanite woman who likely had a love of dogs much like dog lovers in our 21st century households.[7] Dogs in her town were fed under the table as beloved family members – crumbs falling over the table’s edge and lapped up by adored canine companions. Whatever this odd exchange between Jesus and the woman actually means, Jesus ends up rewarding the persistent loyalty of the woman by celebrating her faith and fulfilling her wish. His ministry expanded to include a non-Jew, a Canaanite sibling by blood, under the watchful gaze of his disciples. Before we get self-righteous about how Christianity is uniquely inclusive, let’s turn to our Isaiah reading.

Isaiah 56 begins what’s known as 3rd Isaiah because of the time period in which it’s thought to have been written. In our reading, the prophet welcomes two groups of people into the congregation – foreigners and eunuchs.[8]  These two groups of people had been excluded based on the law in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible in the Old Testament. Foreigners and eunuchs had been kept out of the Jewish faith community by law. Foreigners is an understandable concept to us. Eunuchs maybe not so much. Eunuchs in the Bible are commonly understood to mean those who were intentionally castrated to become guards and protectors of women and wealth. However, this is a narrow definition that keeps preaching safely contained. In the ancient world, eunuchs were broadly understood as men who didn’t respond to women in a traditional, heterosexual way.[9] 21st century language now describes eunuchs as queer and part of the spectrum of LGBTQIA+.[10] The prophet witness of Isaiah welcomes the foreigner and the queer into the “reign of Shalom.”[11] He writes:

1aThus says the Lord: 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree…” 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”[12]

Before any of us cast this passage off as an unusual wrinkle in the Old Testament, we could turn to the New Testament book of Acts when Philip, led by an angel, baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch who “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home…reading the prophet Isaiah,” the 53rd chapter.[13] After his baptism, now adopted as a child of God, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” And we celebrate this good news with him and all our queer siblings in Christ.

Anyone’s mind blown yet? Can you feel grace tumbling down like breadcrumbs over the edge of a table? God’s grace cannot be contained by the religious leaders in Matthew’s Gospel who want to trap Jesus in an argument about ritual defilement. Instead, Jesus flips the conversation from ritual to right hearts. Much like the Canaanite woman turns the table on Jesus with her broken-hearted demand for the crumbs fed to the dogs and is praised by Jesus for her faith. These Bible readings are a breadcrumb trail that guide us into the ever-expanding ministries of the prophet Isaiah and the Lord Jesus. Ministries that include the diversity of human siblings in skin along with our Savior who slipped on Jewish and Canaanite skin to show us the right-hearted direction. Ministries fueled by an extravagant, perplexing grace that cannot be contained by religious leaders, bread baskets, or tables.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

Song after the Sermon:

Healer of Our Ever Ill (ELW 612)

(Refrain)Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

  1. You who know our fears and sadness,
    grace us with your peace and gladness.
    Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts (Refrain)
  2. In the pain and joy beholding
    how your grace is still unfolding,
    give us all your vision, God of love (Refrain)
  3. Give us strength to love each other,
    every sister, every brother.
    Spirit of all kindness, be our guide (Refrain)
  4. You who know each thought and feeling,
    teach us all your way of healing.
    Spirit of compassion, fill each heart. (Refrain)[14]

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:3-6 Jesus’ genealogy [Tamar: Genesis 38; Rahab: Book of Joshua, Chapter 2; Ruth: Book of Ruth]

[2] Mitzi J. Smith, Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 15:10-28. Sermon Brainwave Podcast posted August 20, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4542

[3] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[4] Matthew 14:13-21

[5] Francis D. Lazenby. Greek and Roman Household Pets. The Classic Journal: Vol.44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949), 245-252 and Vol 44., No. 5 (Feb. 1949), 290-307. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., Smith.

[8] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave 738: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 19, 2020.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1288

[9] Pastor Reagan Humber, House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[10] LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexed, Asexual, Ally, and (+) other

[11] Ibid., Jacobson.

[12] Isaiah 56:1a, 3, and 5

[13] Acts 8:26-40; in verse 32 we learn that the eunuch is studying Isaiah 53:7-8.

[14] Sing along with music and lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdItMxllvN4

Sitting In The Grass [OR Small, Simple Things and Grace Beyond Our Imagination]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 2, 2020

Below is the sermon that I preached in our outdoor worship today. Pastor Ron Glusenkamp preached in our online worship that can be found here: https://www.augustanadenver.org/worship/   Pastor Ron is not only the husband of Augustana’s Faith Community Nurse Sue Ann, he is the churchwide national Director of the Campaign that includes projects for ELCA World Hunger.

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

[sermon begins]

This week, I heard a news report about the Lipstick Index, a term coined to describe how people buy small, simple things to treat themselves during tough times.[1] Well, masks have smeared lipstick sales but nail polish sales are looking shiny. When I heard this news gem, I wondered more about how people treat themselves to small and simple things during difficult times. And then I wondered about how we treat ourselves to small, simple spiritual things. And then I wondered how often we feel the need to muster up spiritual treats from inside of ourselves as if our spiritual well-being depends solely on ourselves. I especially wonder about self-spiritual-mustering during tough times. It’s handy that our Bible reading from Matthew’s Gospel has something to say about this very thing.

Jesus feeds the 5,000 in the story immediately following the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist at King Herod’s dinner party. After he gets the news of John’s death, Jesus gets in a boat to find some deserted quiet. His pursuit of quiet is foiled by the crowds who follow him on foot around the water’s edge. When he goes ashore and sees the people, he’s filled with compassion. The Greek work for “compassion” here means that he felt for them deep in his belly. Seeing the need in the crowd was gut-wrenching for Jesus. In their desperation, they had followed him to a deserted place. Perhaps they too were grieving and even afraid after John’s murder. At the very least, it was a tumultuous time for Jesus followers.

As 21st century Jesus followers, we are learning a thing or two about our own tumultuous times. We feel our own grief and fear. And we see desperation in our own homes, down the street, and around the world. In particular though, the pandemic destabilizes fragile social structures that leave some people especially vulnerable. Hungry communities in certain parts of the world are being pushed into famine.[2] It’s tempting to look away because the despair is heart breaking and our emotional resources feel maxed. But we can also pause and see the people as people and allow their desperation to stir our gut-wrenching compassion. This congregation has a long history of mutual ministry with ELCA World Hunger both domestically and internationally. They know what to do when it comes to feeding people as emergency response and when it comes to helping communities plan into their own self-sustaining future. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Even a small gift of money adds up to big possibilities in combination with gifts from other people. Join me in giving today to ELCA World Hunger at augustanadenver.org and clicking “Donate Online” [or clicking the link below if you’re reading this sermon].[3] 100% of our gifts go to hungry communities because congregations around the country pay the administrative costs. We can be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Even closer to home, the conversation has just started to try and figure out if our annual rice and bean breakdown for Metro Caring’s food pantry will work this year.[4] It may be here in the Fellowship Hall although it would like different. Or it could be at Metro Caring’s new warehouse set up for that purpose. Stay tuned for updates as we cruise toward the second Sunday in September when we would typically celebrate “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday by separating large bags of rice and beans into household sized portions for their pantry shelves. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can donate food to Metro Caring and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.[5]

One step closer to home is Augustana’s Soup Shelf, an honor system food shelf on the covered porch of our Sanctuary. Donating only canned food only food protected from nature’s critters. The motto “Leave what you can; take what you need” allows for the possibility that someone may be picking up food for themselves or for several neighbors at once. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can leave canned food on the porch of the Sanctuary and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Speaking of people eating dinner, just before Jesus prepares dinner for thousands of his followers, he asks them to sit down on the grass. Actually, he “orders” them to sit down in the grass. This is not a happy go lucky moment for the people or for Jesus. John’s execution by the king is a public act of political theater that traumatized the people. Now they sit together in the grass for what amounts to a funeral reception. There are fish and bread and grass and each other. Instead of treating themselves, the people are treated to a moment of refreshment from Jesus. In the midst of the impossibilities, there is a moment of peace.

Here we sit outside…in the grass. We’re masked and distanced while shaded by a canopy. Nowhere near 5,000, we’re limited in numbers with registration requested. We press pause on the seeming impossibilities of our time to simply be together and to receive. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who needs the reminder that we don’t muster up all that we need spiritually from inside of ourselves. It’s easy to either get caught up in the myth of the rugged individual or to curl up in despair when left to our own devices. For now, we gather when we can, in the ways we can – whether worshiping online or outside sitting in the grass. Here outside today, our communion is cradled in small condiment cups. In a few minutes, when we very briefly remove our masks, we’ll commune together at the same time before putting our masks back on. We commune in as simple way as possible. We commune in “one kind” with a wafer of bread only, pondering the mystery that in this small, simple wafer we receive the fullness of Christ’s grace, forgiveness, strength, and peace.

I hope that is what our time together here is, right now. A moment of peace when we’re reminded that Jesus turns to the desperate crowd and has compassion for them. Just as Jesus turns to us in these times of impossibility and has compassion for us – for our humanity, for our noise, and for the mess we find ourselves in. Jesus reminds us to sit, to pause, to eat, and to remember how important it is to receive. For today, there is a Sabbath invitation to stop or reduce our “doom scrolling” through the social medias or “news binging” shows on our favorite channel, as if the next bit of information is going to save us, and to surrender to Jesus’ compassion.

Surrendering to Jesus’ compassion understands that Jesus knows the trauma of losing close friends in the midst of political chaos. He knows the instinct to find quiet in a deserted place when bad things happen. He is the Word made flesh who experienced pain, surrender, hope, and joy. Following Jesus means we can surrender to his compassion for us when we don’t know where we’re headed next. Our surrender is sometimes marked by small, simple things like setting a table at home for online communion or holding ready a wafer in a condiment cup as we sit in the grass together. Hope for today is kindled and fueled as we receive grace beyond our imagination in a small, simple thing like the grace and peace of Christ in a communion wafer from the One who is, who was, and who is to come.[6] Amen.

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[1] Ailsa Chang and Ari Shapiro. “Pandemic Puts An End To The ‘Lipstick Index,’” National Public Radio: July 27, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/27/895867487/pandemic-puts-an-end-to-the-lipstick-index

[2] Lori Hinnant and Sam Mednick. “Coronavirus-Linked Hunger Tied To 10,000 Child Deaths Each Month,” HuffPost Online: July 27, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coronavirus-hunger-child-deaths_n_5f1f7e9ac5b638cfec48e471

[3] https://www.augustanadenver.org/giving/

Start by clicking the “Donate Online” option and make sure to designate your gift for “ELCA World Hunger.” 100% of donations to ELCA World Hunger go directly to hungry people. Administrative costs are covered by donations from ELCA congregations around the country including Augustana.

[4] Learn more about Metro Caring’s ministry and/or give food or money here: https://www.metrocaring.org/

[5] Turn into Augustana’s parking lot from the west-most Alameda entrance and follow the signs to the Sanctuary porch. Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 East Alameda Avenue, Denver, CO, 80246.

[6] Revelation 1:8.

Cancel Culture and Ideological Purity are Death-Dealing [OR Transformation Through Grace as the Earth Groans in Labor Pains]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 19, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 13:24-30 [Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

Romans 8:12-25  So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

[sermon begins]

My mother-in-law, now at rest in the company of the saints in light, would die all over again if she knew how long I delayed in tending my backyard flower garden. She was passionate about her gardens. During the last several months, I’ve prioritized family, friends, work, reading, and exercise…and even my little patch of garden in the front…over the jungle takeover in the back. The reckoning for this neglect came last weekend. I went after it, inviting – actually pretty much begging – my 21-year-old daughter to start the project with me so that I could finally get going on it. (I’m relationally motivated that way.) I found her a hearty pair of work gloves whilst I approached the weeds with weary gardening gloves. So weary were these gloves and so prickly were the weeds that I started pulling them with a pair of pliers. (Don’t tell Rob). Low and behold, according to the Bible anyway, I could have simply left the weeds to grow alongside the more desired flora and let God handle it in the end.

But, of course, Jesus isn’t telling a literal tale in today’s Bible reading. It’s a parable. A parable is a story told to illustrate where the listener’s attention should be. The Gospel of Matthew spends some of its time trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. In this parable, Jesus is telling his listeners that it’s not their job to figure out the insiders from the outsiders, the weeds from the wheat. In the Gospel of Matthew, it’s their job to follow Jesus. The same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful…[and] blessed are the peacemakers.”[1] The same Jesus who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Jesus didn’t ignore the weeds. Silence in the face of oppression and injustice was not what Jesus did. He regularly and actively challenged the powers that be on behalf of the poor in spirit and the persecuted.[3] In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, he’s reminding the listener that it’s impossible to identify oneself as either weed or wheat. Although, we tend to think we’re the wheat and that other people are those nasty weeds.

Identifying weeds and wheat takes on the either/or proposition that we humans seem to relish as much as the faith community in the Gospel of Matthew. One case in point is what’s known as “cancel culture.”[4]  Canceling initially meant to boycott someone in power who has committed atrocious acts against other people – think Jeffery Epstein who sex-trafficked young girls or Harvey Weinstein who exploited his position as a movie producer. Canceling was a way for the community to reduce the power of people who abused their position of authority to hurt other people. It has evolved into cutting someone out of the conversation so that constructive dialogue with opponents is no longer necessary or possible.[5] Canceling reduces people as unworthy based on a moving target of ideological purity. It makes me wonder how long it will take before no one is ideologically pure enough to survive cancel culture. Before anyone gets on a high horse, this happens across political and cultural ideologies. No one is immune to the temptation to cancel or to being canceled. One tweet or blog post or comment that doesn’t measure up to the purity code, and you’re out.

Canceling in its current form seems to move against every lesson that Jesus tells us about how grace works. No grace or transformation exists in cancel culture. It’s about social shaming. Nuance is lost as the humanity of the opponent is canceled. Violence becomes easier once opponents are dehumanized. Just like that, we’ve circled back to the parable of the wheat and the weeds; back to the either/or proposition of ideological purity. Ultimately, we’re back to the cross, where shame and ideological purity lead to inevitable violent death. And the earth groans in its shadow.

No wonder the whole earth is groaning as described in the Romans reading. I’m no fan of the Apostle Paul’s first century inclination to pit our flesh against our spirit. Once again, the either/or proposition becomes oversimplified in such distinctions. However, Paul makes a key theological move by indirectly placing the wheat and weeds distinction within each person. He makes an important claim that our whole selves wrestle with being saint and sinner at the same time. If you want to be Christian-fancy, you can quote Martin Luther’s “simul iustus et peccator” – simultaneously righteous and a sinner. The letter to the Romans describes it as adoption out of bondage to decay. That’s heavy-handed language but it gets at an important truth about our tendencies as earth’s creatures. Our hope rests in the comfort of adoption and the challenge of labor. The metaphor of groaning in labor aptly describes our current moment. Pregnancy and labor are expectant and hopeful but also painful and hard.

A few weeks ago, I was one of the people who downloaded the necessary channel for watching the musical Hamilton. There was an accompanying video of cast interviews that I watched to gear up for the show. The interviewer asked the cast about their experience of the state of world today. One cast member talked about how excited he is about the possibilities. That maybe what we’re going through will birth a society better equipped for 21st century life together. His excitement was infectious at a time when groans of despair are intermittently muted only by shouts of rage. Not a lot of fun to be had but there is hope. The kind of hope experienced by a laboring woman.

In the birth process, groaning in labor is active waiting. (Lest we think that we’re being encouraged by the Apostle Paul to hang out in a Barcalounger recliner while we wait.) Labor is active, sweaty, painful waiting. Our adoption as children of God calls us into midwifery for a planet groaning in labor. At our baptism, we pray to God to:

“Sustain [the baptized] with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.”

Our baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit empowers us to actively wait in hope through our adoption as children of God. This is transformation through grace while the earth groans in labor. Thanks be to God and amen.

Hymn of the Day: Canticle of the Turning

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the
God of my heart is great, And my spirit sings of the
Wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You
Fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my
Weakness you did not spurn, So from east to west shall my
Name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Though I am small, my God, my all, you
Work great things in me, And your mercy will last from the
Depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your
Very name puts the proud to shame, and to
Those who would for you yearn, You will show your might, put the
Strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
Stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
Justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
Hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
Food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
Mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember
Who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver
Us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This
Saving word that out forebears heard is the
Promise which holds us bound, ‘Til the spear and rod can be
Crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Copyright‎: ‎© 1990, GIA Publications, Inc
Author‎: ‎Rory Cooney

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[1] Matthew 5:7 and 9

[2] Matthew 22:39

[3] Matthew 5:3 and 10

[4] Merriam-Webster. “What It Means to Get ‘Canceled.’” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching#:~:text=The%20term%20has%20been%20credited,calls%20to%20cancel%20such%20figures.

[5] Petra Bueskens. An Apology to JK Rowling. June 23, 2020. Areo: Politics, Culture & Media. https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/23/an-apology-to-jk-rowling/

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Rest for Soul Exhaustion [OR More Than a Nap] Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Romans 7:15-25a; and Zechariah 9:9-12

**sermon art: Napping by Victor Tkachenko (1960 –    ) acrylic on cardboard

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 5, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading; two more readings at end of sermon]

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 [Jesus says to the crowds]”But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon'; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

 

[sermon begins]

 

Who needs a nap? Mmmm, not just me? It’s funny to me that we spend our first few years of life railing against naps and not too many years later it’s hard to drag us out of bed. I have teen-aged memories of Pops banging on my bedroom door on Saturday mornings to get me out of bed. On our vacation last week, Rob and I hiked and biked in the morning and, in the afternoons, I napped. It was dreamy. Naps are a luxury in our country and, at least for me, feel oddly stolen. But I hear from folks that there’s a lot of napping going on or a lot of wishing for naps. As a country we disagree about many things but most people seem to agree that it’s an exhausting time. Kids’ school and social lives are disrupted, adults’ work lives are on a new learning curve or gone kaput altogether, retirees are wondering about their decision to retire, and our eldest elders are leading much quieter lives than anyone could have imagined six months ago. The list of personal experiences expands from there to include political, medical, and racial chaos. Exhausting. And risky for a preacher to list a big list.

But Jesus preaches from a big list. He challenges his listeners, the crowds, about their insults and misconceptions – the way they diminish John the Baptist’s work by accusing him of demonic possession and the work of Jesus himself by saying that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  The missing verses in today’s reading include Jesus’ woes to unrepentant cities. Into this cultural chaos, Jesus commands his listeners. He says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” The language of the scripture is an imperative. Jesus is not suggesting or inviting or sweet-talking the crowds. In the Greek, he speaks in the imperative tense of command. “Come to me…” He commands the weary. What does that even mean?! All y’all who want to take a nap…get over here?! Could be. Although he’s likely offering more than a nap.

Jesus vindicates wisdom by her deeds when defending himself and John the Baptist against insults. The Gospel of Matthew is the “teaching gospel.”[1] Think Sermon on the Mount as one example.[2] Three full chapters of Jesus teaching. Not surprising then that Jesus invokes wisdom and her deeds. Jewish rabbis had been invoking the Wisdom tradition for centuries before he did it here.[3] In Jesus’ command to “Come to him…” he also says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” The language of “yoke” was often used by rabbis as symbol for Torah and teaching. Yokes were used by farmers to connect animals to harness their power for heavy lifting beyond human capacity. It makes some sense that Jesus would use it with his listeners here. He leads his followers into the heavy lifting of loving God, loving self and neighbor, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans, and setting the prisoners free. Jesus aligns himself with centuries of Rabbinic tradition and engaging in wisdom teaching as he commands the crowds to learn from him because, in his words, “I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” More than a nap. “Rest for your souls.”

Soul exhaustion describes our 21st century moment. Souls are the deepest part of ourselves. The soul is often how we describe our connection with God. There’s so much coming at us that demands our identities and, I would say, our souls. No matter which side or team or group we see ourselves in, pressure increases on how many of that team’s boxes we can check to fit in. And our societal disagreements have become intense because lives are at stake – all of our lives and especially brown and black lives.[4] Our identities get swept up in the debate because the risks are real. And before we’re aware of it, we’ve given away our foundational identity in Jesus Christ. No longer are we listening to the One who teaches us to follow his gentle humility. We unyoke ourselves from the One who commands us to love and pray for our enemies only to become the very worst of our enemies. We unyoke ourselves from the One who frees us from sin, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, only to be “at war with the law of [our minds], making [us] captive to the law of sin,” and [5] We unyoke ourselves from the One who revealed on a cross that vicious insults and violence have only one end – death. Soul exhaustion is well beyond what a nap can fix.

Jesus commands us to learn from him – he who is gentle and humble in heart. The closest thing I’ve seen to this gentle humility was in one of my seminary professors – Dr. Vincent Harding.[6] Dr. Harding was an Army veteran, a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity, a lay pastor, and an aide and occasional speechwriter for Rev. Dr. King. During my time in seminary, he was a Professor Emeritus. My most vivid memory of him was on a panel of professors. One of the younger professors had made a point about something and Dr. Harding turned to him, looked at him, and said gently and powerfully, “Professor, I am going to disagree with you in love…” And then he went on to say whatever it was he was going to say. Imagine that line coming at you all the time. “I am going to disagree with you in love…” Who knows? It might get old. But it communicates a posture towards the listener. Maybe it reminded Dr. Harding of his intention more than it prepared his hearer. Regardless, the memory is vivid because of the tension in the room AND because Dr. Harding commanded his listeners with a gentle power of humility.

Make no mistake, Dr. Harding’s life work included righteous anger that was instrumental in creating change and that remained faithful to the righteous anger in prophetic scripture. But his foundational identity in Jesus Christ meant that he saw the folks who disagreed with him as beloved in the eyes of God. He was a living example of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew and a living example of what our reading from Zechariah calls “prisoners of hope” led by a humble, triumphant king riding on a donkey.[7]  You may remember hearing that verse quoted on April 5th in the Palm Sunday Gospel reading from the 21st chapter of Matthew.[8] Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time before he’s executed in a plot concocted by religious leaders and Rome. The crowds celebrate his arrival as he rides in on a donkey.

We, too, are prisoners of hope given a foundational identity in Jesus Christ – our humble, triumphant, non-violent king. We who are weary are commanded to come to Jesus with our heavy burdens to learn from him and rest our exhausted souls. More than a nap, resting in Jesus yokes us to an identity bearing repentance, forgiveness, wisdom, gentleness, and humility. These are gifts given as promise for God’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God and amen.

 

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Go in peace to serve and love the Lord…Thanks be to God!

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[1] Jennifer T. Kaalund, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Iona College, New York. Commentary on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 for Sunday, July 5, 2020, on WorkingPreacher.org (Luther Seminary). https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4502

[2] Matthew 5-7

[3] Ibid., Kaalund.

[4] Brown and Black people are dying from Covid-19 at disproportionate numbers to their percent of the population. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/images/us-mortality-graph-animated-06032020.gif?fbclid=IwAR364jDZFSaNTYJSnLsXZpOnCItG7rk9G0Pm5wgQ2uCBritwO0lcpMG0yKo

[5] Romans 7:23

[6] The History Makers: The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection. Biography: Vincent Harding. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/vincent-harding-41

[7] Zechariah 9:12

[8] Matthew 21:1-11

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Romans 7:15-25a I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Zechariah 9:9-12 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Knowing Enough to Hope [OR Knowing Enough to Be Dangerous] Romans 5:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 14, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Romans 5:1-8 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

[sermon begins]

“I know enough to be dangerous.” This is something people say when they don’t know much about a topic but they think that they have a gem to throw in the mix. I’m that way with art. A few trips through museums and suddenly I feel free to wax rhapsodic on Degas and da Vinci. Whatever my failings in knowledge, though, I make up for in enthusiasm. There are times when you look at a masterpiece and the effect is transcendent. For a moment your eye is captured, and your soul is filled with something “other.” Beauty has that effect. Closer to the ground, we’re cresting into late spring. Aspirations of green thumbs abound across many a beating heart while some blooms begin to fade, and heartier ones take their place.

Last week, it was the pale pink peonies that frothed in a profusion of petals. 2020 is a perfect year for them. The right amount of sun and water fell, and the hail didn’t. After my usual hemming and hawing about leaving them outside or bringing them in, I clipped a bouquet and have been enjoying them all week. I posted a picture of them on the media, attempting poetry about “air for the soul.” (Again, I know enough to be dangerous.) The thing about beauty is it reminds us that our humanity is part of something – something both essential and transcendent. For me, this is especially necessary when times are difficult, when everyone seems to know enough to be dangerous and when suffering seems inescapable.

Suffering is a universal human experience. There was plenty of it in my early kid years when my family was blown apart by mental illness and domestic violence. And more, during my years as a pediatric oncology nurse. And more, over time as a pastor. Here’s one of the things I know about suffering from all those years. Suffering cannot be compared. It’s a lot like beauty that way. What’s more beautiful – Degas’ elegant sculpture of “La Petit Danseuse” or the riotous tumble of pink peonies? It’s a ridiculous question. Suffering is similar. Being with someone who is suffering for any reason is NOT a time to get into qualifying their experience, giving a different take on it, or redirecting them to someone else’s experience of suffering. That stuff is the opposite of helpful. Being with someone who is suffering IS a time to listen and to wonder. It’s a time to share their burden by holding space for it without rushing to comfort. Sharing the burden lightens the suffering without imagining that it can be taken away.

Suffering is something the Apostle Paul seems to understand. How often do you suppose he cried out to God withOUT a pen in hand? It must have been a lot given his turn from the one giving punishment to the one on the receiving end of being beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.[1] For him to write about suffering like that, he knew it intimately, like a friend, just like he knew God. Listen again to a few of the verses from his letter to the Roman church.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

The Apostle Paul is talking to all of us. One reason his words about suffering resonate so strongly is because he describes what he knows and what we know. And he knows way more than enough to be dangerous. He knows enough to be comforting. Comfort is no small thing. It’s not appeasement – meaning I’m not making you feel better so that I feel better. Comfort is deep knowing shared across our human experience. Most of us have experienced suffering and still we live on. Some of us not so elegantly but still we live. Paul’s account of moving from suffering to endurance to character to hope is a description not a strategy. He describes what we know by faith and experience about how suffering works. There are days in the midst of it that we wonder how it’s possible to make it through. Days in which we’re not sure who we are anymore. And then, in the body of Christ, the church, we’re reminded once again of the main things – God’s promises to us no matter what is happening.

For our congregation, one such moment was Matthias’ baptism in the last couple of weeks. Long on the worship calendar, his baptism on Pentecost couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Masks and quiet sanctuary notwithstanding, water flowed off Matthias’ head in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We prayed for the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and joy. And he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In baptism God promises to be present, to form us as disciples, to always take us back, and to be the eternal One in our lives every day. In baptism, we “have obtained access to this grace on which we stand.” We were buried with Christ in baptism so that we too might live in newness of life. Today. Right now, even in suffering, we are pulled through the cross of Christ.

The cross frames suffering in a different way. The cross promises the presence of God in suffering. We know Jesus’ body broke and died which means that God knows suffering and suffers with us. God’s alignment with our suffering promises endurance through to hope. Hope does not come at the expense of false optimism where we close our eyes and wish everything away. False optimism is knowing enough about hope to be dangerous. Rather, hope comes from being planted at the foot of the cross while awaiting new life and continuing to do the hard work of grieving and the hard work of reconciliation with each other. Simply put, the cross binds us to the hard work of love in the midst of suffering – loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbor in such a time as this. By our baptism, our gracious heavenly Father frees us into hope and forms us into instruments of cross and resurrection in the name of the one who is, who was, and who is to come, Jesus Christ our Lord.[2] Amen and thanks be to God.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son,

and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Acts 7 (when Paul was still Saul); Acts chapters 9, 13, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22, and 23.

[2] A paraphrase of Revelation 1:8

____________________________________________________________

The Gospel Reading for worship today:

Matthew 9:35-10:8 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Dreaming Dreams Through Difference and Across Distance on Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23

**sermon art: Pentecost by Mark Wiggin (England)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 31, 2020

The Celebration of Pentecost

[sermon begins after two Bible Readings]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

John 20:19-23 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

[sermon begins]

Augustana has been around a looong time.[1] As a congregation we’re almost 142 years old. Almost exactly on our 40th anniversary, in September 1918, the first person died from Spanish Flu in Denver.[2] Churches, schools, theaters, etc., were closed by a public health order shortly after several more people died.[3] This means that our congregation’s ancestors of the faith lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and church closures. Some of you in the congregation had parents or grandparents worshiping at Augustana who were affected by it. And, here we are in 2020 facing a similar experience.

Our ancestors in the congregation would be shocked that we’re able to worship at all. The technology alone would short-circuit the early 20th century mind. News came from The Denver Post.[4] Worship was held in two languages while they received communion ten times a year. Their moment as the church probably felt like it would be how it would always be. I’m also sure that the days of the 1918 pandemic felt long, and the fear was overwhelming. Yet here we are today, a legacy of their faith. Their moment was not forever, and neither is ours. We do as they did. We grieve the people who have died, lament other losses, and get bogged down by disappointment. But we also have their faithfulness as part of our history. They are part of who we are because we still exist as a congregation. The same is true of the first century church, although with more twists and turns along the path of history than our mere 142 years.

The first century church received the Spirit in a blaze of glory described in the Bible’s book of Acts. The long list of people Tim pronounced for us were from all sides of the Mediterranean Sea, east of the Caspian Sea, and south of the Persian Gulf. Places we know today as Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Spirit of Jesus poured out in a new way over this multi-ethnic group of folks without regard for position and rank.[5] The Spirit included the young, the old, the men, the women, and the slaves. The Spirit lit them all up with prophesies, visions, and dreams.

Dreams, ah yes, dreams. This means good dreams, big dreams, hope-filled dreams. Not dark night of anxiety dreams but dreams in the life force of the Spirit’s fire at 9 o’clock in the morning. Dreams that transcend differences and preach a message so powerful that more dreams flowed. No wonder other people thought they were drunk. Pentecost fire had a moment with the people and left them changed to become the church. They are part of who we are because we exist as a congregation, a small corner of God’s whole church. But their euphoric moment was not forever. This ecstatic moment quieted down. Life in the faith became challenging almost immediately after this event and through the twists and turns of history. But for a moment, there was an experience of unity that amazed and perplexed the people. They heard their own language and couldn’t fathom the meaning, so they wrote it off as drunken babble. And then Peter began to preach.

Preaching is an act that has little to do with the preacher and everything to do with the Holy Spirit – a stark and humbling truth for the preacher. Many a preacher has had the experience of people hearing something in the sermon that the preacher didn’t say but was something that that person dearly needed to hear. Lutherans believe that through preaching the Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and fills us with faith. I had that experience through the words of a preacher and the power of the Holy Spirit. I was amazed and perplexed week after week hearing about grace, forgiveness, mercy, beauty, and hope while receiving faith through that same preaching. The message of being beloved and created good as the first act of God was new to these ears. That God’s breath created wonder and life and, as we heard in the Psalm today, even joy as the Leviathan of the sea swirled in chaos.[6]

God does not leave us swirling in the chaos but brings us to new life – to the life of the Spirit’s imagination and, thankfully, not our own. Often, what we can imagine fits into specific limits of good and bad, order and chaos, black and white, and so on. From those limits we make decisions both conscious and unconscious about how we think the world works. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams.

Dreams of multi-ethnic community unified by the Spirit over and against the uniformity of our limited experience. Unity is not uniform. As on the first Pentecost, unity functions through difference to amaze and perplex us as well as to challenge our assumptions about meaning by pausing long enough to ask the question, “What does this mean?” More than an academic question among friends over wine and cheese, this is a question of life and death deepened through the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine that forgives us and frees us into a life of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. All our neighbors, to be sure, but especially in these United States right now, our black and brown neighbors’ lives matter while their bodies remain at higher risk for violence and disease. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams. Dreams of unity through difference. And dreams of unity across distance.

The breath of the Spirit blows through us even as we worship across distance together today and the foreseeable future. Bishop Jim Gonia and the Rocky Mountain Synod Council has recommended that we continue worshiping in the digital space through at least the end of August.[7] We’ve got this, my dear Augustana friends. We’ve got this because the Spirit is not limited by space and time. Our first century ancestors in the faith discovered this truth when life became hard and so did our Augustana ancestors in the faith during pandemic. The chaos wrought by Covid is for now and not forever. We can dream of the moment beyond masks and distance even as we live in the day-to-day reality of it to protect our most vulnerable folks.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we as church are called by the gospel and filled with faith. We hold each other’s suffering in prayer and encouragement while we celebrate moments of shared joy even in this pandemic. We are forgiven and freed into lives of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. We grieve and hope together across the distance, connected to Christ and each other by the power of the Spirit and the grace of God. We’ll get some things right and we’ll make our share of mistakes as we always do – pandemic or no. Remember that even as “for now is not forever,” the Spirit is with us now as we dream and the Spirit remains with us forever. Thanks be to God. And amen.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Augustana’s Past and Present. https://www.augustanadenver.org/augustana-lutheran-church/history/

[2] Denver Health. “1918 Pandemic Flu versus Novel Coronavirus: Similarities and Differences.” April 9, 2020.

https://www.denverhealth.org/blog/2020/04/1918-pandemic-flu-versus-novel-coronavirus-similarities-and-differences

[3] Ibid.

[4] Founded 1892 – present.

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[7] Bishop Jim Gonia makes this recommendation in a video found here https://vimeo.com/422844342 and in his written remarks here https://www.rmselca.org/sites/rmselca.org/files/media/rms_in-person_gatherings_recommendations1.pdf

God’s Love in a Body Means Something for Black, Brown, and White Bodies [OR Jesus’ Farewell Commands Us to Love] John 14:15-21

**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 14:15-21  [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[sermon begins]

“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.

Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”[1] In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.

Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.

Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.

Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years.  66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education.[2] Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.

Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard.[3] This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.

Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population.[4] We have some explaining to do.

And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.

Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm. [5] Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body.[6] We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.

Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.

 

And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.

May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,

So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262

[3] Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. The Fifth Commandment [189]. http://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php

[6] Ibid., Moore.

Psalm 23, A Faithful Essential [OR What Might It Mean That God “Prepares a Table Before Me In The Presence of My Enemies” In Light of Covid19] and John 10:1-10

**sermon art: Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners — Sieger Köder d. 2015

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

Good Shepherd Sunday – May 3, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Psalm 23 (King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

See end of sermon for John 10:1-10

[sermon begins]

[Spoken in a British accent]

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…[1]

[Spoken in my regular voice.]

And on it went in my 9th grade drama class – The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost in Queen’s English. The assignment was to memorize a written passage and recite it in an accent not our own. I chose this poem because it was in a handy book on a shelf at home AND it was short. In a surprising economy of words, poetry completes a topic in a puzzle of order and wildness.[2] For instance, here’s a fun fact about the poem that is Psalm 23 – it’s written with only 55 Hebrew words.[3] Another fun fact, the 28th word in the very middle is the word “you” as in “you [the Lord] are with me.” One more, the word “Lord” is repeated in the opening and closing lines with an otherwise unusual lack of repetition for a psalm.[4]

Poetically, it’s as if the psalmist was given a fifty-five key word jumble and challenged to communicate how the Lord is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. With extreme brevity, the psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. While there’s warmth and light, there’s also a valley of shadow and death, the presence of enemies, and courage in the face of evil. This is NOT false optimism. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust – trust in God during the full experience of crisis.[5] It’s beloved sacred scripture for Jews and Christians. It’s also well-known in pop culture as it turns up in movies and memes. The poetic craft alone is impressive even if it wasn’t one of the essentials in a life of faith.

Essential has new meaning in these Covid days. The debate is intense about what qualifies as essential. For Christians, one essential listed in the Gospel of John reading is Jesus’ encouragement to know his voice. We learn to recognize his voice in Gospel readings Sunday after Sunday AND in texts that have stood the test of time across the generations of the faithful. Psalm 23 is one such text. Many of our elders in the faith were taught to memorize and recite it. Even with significant memory loss, this psalm and Lord’s Prayer can be easily recalled. Psalm 23 is a poem and prayer of trust that we can turn to in times that make no sense. Times like today.

Given today’s pandemic, there’s one line in the psalm that nags at me. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What might it mean for God to set a table for us in the presence of Covid19 – a microscopic enemy? There have been pages and pages and memes and articles written about this particular enemy. By enemy, I don’t mean that the virus has conscious evil intentions. Viruses, like all living things, simply function to keep living. It’s a stretch to ascribe malice to them. But Covid19 is an enemy to our bodies and to our life together. We depend on everyone working in harmony to lessen the risk of infection for the most vulnerable and ease the burden on hospital workers. We learn terms like R0 (R0 or R-naught) to understand how many people each of us can potentially infect.[6] We’ve learned quickly that people we love can carry this enemy just as easily as people we don’t like at all. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

I was talking with one of my favorite checkers in the grocery store last week. Through our masks, we gave each other quick updates and shared frustrations. She told me about a customer who started screaming at other shoppers who were not wearing masks. He escalated to a point just shy of a 911 call. The manager talked him into leaving the store. On top of the viral threat for essential workers, they’re also vulnerable to people’s frayed nerves and overreactions. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

In that light, what might it mean for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our coronavirus enemy?  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came so that those who hear his voice “may have life and have it abundantly.” More broadly in the Gospels, Jesus loves, heals, and challenges the people he encounters. His voice is consistent with these actions while also compassionate and confident. He did not respond to mockery and suffering with insult and threat – he trusted God in all things.[7] And he continued to love people despite our self-serving, wicked ways. In his voice echoing through our baptism as the Body of Christ, he calls us to love people too – despite our and everyone else’s self-serving, wicked ways. In this way, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and guides us there by Jesus’ voice. It’s a table of trust in God, set with compassion for others, and filled with confidence to say hard things in love.

As a Jew, Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were essential. He knew them inside and out – even quoting Psalm 22 from the cross.[8] When we learn the psalms and pray them, we join the praying Christ.[9]  And we learn to hear his voice. Psalm 23 is short. It’s in a Bible or cell phone near you. Memorize it this week. Pray it daily. Make it a part of your faithful essentials. It’s a psalm of trust which means that it evokes God’s promise of being with us even in the face of invisible enemies, suffering, and trauma.[10] Through Psalm 23 we learn Jesus’ voice AND we are assured that the valley of the shadow of death does not have the last word. God does.

Now receive this blessing

With the Lord as your shepherd, may your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the shadowed valley of death, as God is with you.

And may Christ’s compassion and confidence guide you at God’s table prepared in the presence of your enemies,

as goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long.  Amen.[11]

_______________________________________________________

[1] Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 131.

[2] Ibid., vi.  It’s worth reading Robert Frost’s full reflections about poetry in his introduction “The Figure A Poem Makes.”

[3] James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern University. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – July 19, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2531

[4] Ibid. These fun facts are summarized from Dr. Mead’s commentary.

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – March 26, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185

[6] Robert Pearl, M.D.  “3 Coronavirus Facts Americans Must Know Before Returning to Work, School” – April 21, 2020 Forbes Online.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/04/21/3-coronavirus-facts/?fbclid=IwAR01vkcKTgHC2d3ZGXPTGCe9Gg73RHaw2_ehbjqDQ3AXPNQqmNJwFPufkOk#77169f114721

[7] Janette Ok, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University. Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25 for Working Preacher – May 3, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4447

[8] Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46

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

[10] Ibid., Jacobson.

[11] I wrote this blessing by paraphrasing Psalm 23.

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John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Doubt…Grace…Doubt…Rinse, Repeat [OR For God’s Sake, Let Thomas Keep His Cool Name] John 20:19-31

**sermon art: “Doubting Thomas” by Nick Piliero (à la F. Barbieri) acrylic on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 19, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

We changed our daughter’s name when she was a year old. Nothing drastic. Taryn’s first name stayed the same. We changed her middle name. Her original middle name was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Carol was honored but didn’t quite get it. A few months later, I discovered that my mother-in-law’s beloved mom had the middle name “Grace” – Velma Grace. Amazing Grace was also my mother-in-law’s favorite hymn. Perfect! We decided to change Taryn’s middle name to “Grace!” Turned out it was quite a process. Our little family that included one-year-old Taryn and three-year-old Quinn trooped off to Civil court and stood before a judge. I can still see him smiling at us – likely relieved for the break in his sad caseload. The judge asked us some serious questions about fraud. Then he declared her name change official as his gavel fell. Taryn Grace. On the way out of the courtroom, our son Quinn, who’d been quiet as a mouse, started yelling, “I don’t wanna change my name! I don’t wanna change my name!”

I wonder if Thomas in our Bible story today would pipe up similarly to Quinn. His name was Thomas, called the Twin. I have no idea if Thomas liked being called the Twin. My hope is that it was a cool nickname along the lines of will.i.am, J.Lo, or even Marky Mark. Regardless, I wonder what Thomas would think about the less cool switcheroo done to his name by centuries of Bible readers. Thomas, called the Twin, became Doubting Thomas. I hear Thomas, much like our son Quinn, saying, “I don’t wanna change my name.” Because the name Doubting Thomas highlights doubt as what comes “before” and belief as what comes “after.” First, Thomas doubted. Then, Thomas believed. End of story. But we know that’s not how it works. It’s not how any of this works.

We don’t know where Thomas the Twin went while his friends were afraid and locked in that room. Maybe he was making a run for essentials. Wherever he was, he missed Jesus’ first visit. This is important because he didn’t miss out forever. Jesus showed up again. He showed up wounded in a locked room where the disciples were still hiding. Now there’s the makings of a good party.

Actually, it is kind of a party. It’s a grace party. Jesus hosts it fresh from the crucifixion trauma and resurrection alleluias. Except, the disciples are still locked up in fear. Eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Minds clouded trying to understand what is happening. It’s unlikely that their alleluias were full-throated even after Jesus showed up. Because that’s how it works. Fear, grief, doubt, hesitation, belief, faith, and grace…these things get second, third, and fourth name changes as we figure out what they mean over time. Faith is especially tricky to name and gets renamed as time passes.

People often wonder why their faith isn’t available during a tough time in the way they assumed it to be. They’ll sometimes describe it as having “lost their faith” or that they “can’t pray” like they used to pray. I don’t know anyone who is immune to the experience of having their faith shaken or shattered. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Faith can be thrown off by moving to a new town away from your church peeps who kept you connected. It can be clouded by a fresh understanding of the Bible’s ancient scripture. Sometimes it’s way bigger. Faith cracks under the weight of broken trust or chronic illness. Or faith can be crushed by grief and loss. While age is not immunity to faith-shifting experiences, our eldest elders have a thing or two to teach us.

Our Care Team of pastors and staff have been making calls to people to find out how they’re doing. It’s been inspiring to hear our oldest folks talk about today’s challenges in the context of other challenges they’ve faced in their lifetimes. In the same breath, their faith frames these challenges and sustains them through it. Resilient faith isn’t universal for everyone of a certain age. Many of us regularly shift between anxiety and the peace of Jesus. But our eldest elders offer us important perspective from their vantage point of a long life. Their faith, like life, isn’t static. Faith flexes, bends, breaks, and resurrects.

Thomas the Twin also shows us that faith isn’t fixed in a solid state. He faithfully followed Jesus until he abandoned Jesus at the cross. Then, locked and afraid in a room, Thomas receives life in Jesus’ name from wounds on hands and side – wounds, not perfection. The wounds that Jesus first shows to the other disciples, and then to Thomas, mean something. The wounds received on the cross were inflicted by fear, anger and fragile egos. The wounds that meet us in our most wounded places show us as we really are in the reflected light of the risen Christ. These wounds are the signs through which faith is resurrected.

From these signs of Jesus’ suffering, he resuscitates his relationship with Thomas and then Thomas names faith differently, calling Jesus “Lord” and “God.”  Hidden in a locked room, Thomas the Twin learned that he is neither alone nor unreachable.[1]  He experienced grace first-hand when Jesus reached out a wounded hand. The grace of divine kindness meeting him right where he was, even though he hid himself away. And that’s how it works. That’s how any of this works. We are neither alone nor unreachable in our hideouts. Locked rooms – pah! There’s no hiding from the relentless pursuit of grace. The risen Christ meets us where we prefer to hide, challenging our wounded reality and resurrecting faith to give life in his name. Thanks be to God and amen.

 

Now receive this blessing…

May the One who brought forth Jesus from the dead

raise you to new life, fill you with hope,

and turn your mourning into dancing.

Almighty God, Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit,

bless you now and forever. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John O’donohue (1956-2008). Irish poet, priest, and philosopher.   https://friendsofsilence.net/quote/author/john-odonohue