We Can’t Handle the Grace, A Sermon for Good Friday [John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 30, 2018

Good Friday

[sermon begins after Bible reading; when you get a chance read the whole of John 18 and 19. It’s worth it.]

John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42

Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha.18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 [sermon begins]

Good Friday takes us deep. Frailty, self-absorption, and pain repeatedly clash with the power of grace in the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Some theologians will say that each one of us holds the hammer that drove the nails through the hands and feet of God. That theology seems a bit overwrought to me, not to mention impossible on the time-space continuum. What does resonate is that we can’t handle the grace. (Yes, I’m invoking Jack Nicholson’s line delivery in A Few Good Men).

Grace is a handy, go-to word because it means a lot things all at once. Grace means God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and redemption. Grace means that we are created in the image of God.  And grace means so much more.  When I say we can’t handle the grace, I mean that when confronted with the grace of God in Jesus we would and do reject its fullness. We reject it time and again for ourselves and other people.  We put grace to death. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving. Think about the way you nurse that grudge that holds you captive to anger and resentment. There are many situations in our lives that beg the question, “Do we believe in grace or don’t we?”

We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption by grace is possible. Lent pushed us through those lines over the brink into Good Friday when we confess by faith that God hung dead on a cross – the cross being the ultimate moment of our human determination to reject grace. And what does God do?  Well, I’ll tell you what God doesn’t do. There is not a hand lifted against the people who see fit to hang Jesus on that cross. From the people most directly involved who organized the murderous scheme to the disciples, Jesus’ friends, who couldn’t stop it, all of them were unscathed, retribution not even a thing. In fact, in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John, we hear that from the cross, there came yet one more grace before Jesus died.  Listen again…

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[1]

Jesus uses his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship with each other. Everything that led to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, naming greed – everything Jesus did that hung him there is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. He gets in one more grace before he announces, “It is finished.”[2]  He reconciles his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconciling the world with God.  We confess this very thing by faith with the words of the Apostle Paul and say in the way only Paul can say it that, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

On Good Friday we are asked several things but one of the things we are not asked is whether or not we’re sinners. The truth of our capacity for self-absorption, dehumanizing violence, denial, running away when times get hard, watching bad things happen from a distance, and not getting involved, is more than evident. Telling the truth of our sin is like giving air to a wound that needs healing. We don’t fool anyone with our “I’m a good person” routines. Thank God the “good person” thing isn’t even a thing.[4] Here’s why it’s not a thing. God is NOT in the sin accounting business. God is in the covenant business. What’s the difference? The cross as covenant pulls the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross-beams and reconciliation to set us free into God and toward each other.

God is in the covenant business. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to resurrect from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and start hurting the very world God professes to love. God is reduced to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement. My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves.

Thank God that the power of God is not diverted by our lack of will, our misguided distortions, or our inability to comprehend the relentless force of grace. Today we are simultaneously convicted and set free. Today our trespasses are not counted against us. Today God’s covenant is sealed, finished on a cross. Today is Friday. Let’s call it Good.  Amen.

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[1] John 19:26

[2] John 19:30

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

 

 

Crosses Here, Crosses There, Crosses, Crosses Everywhere. Why? Mark 15 and Philippians 2:5-11

* Photo montage by Rick Vanderpool, CrossInAmericaTrail.com “A Photojournalist’s History of Christianity in America”

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 25, 2018

[sermon begins after note and short Bible reading]

** Palm and Passion Sunday note ** Today includes the celebration of Palm Sunday as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.  Palm fronds are waved and the Bible story is read. Then worship shifts to the Passion of Christ – the church’s words for describing Jesus’ suffering from arrest to crucifixion (from Late Latin: passionem “suffering, enduring”). The Passion is read from the Gospel of Mark.  Worship today links with Good Friday worship later this week when we will hear the Passion from the Gospel of John.  The distinct voices of these two gospel writers allow us to claim by faith that the cross is simultaneously an instrument of suffering and a tree of life drawing us to faith.

Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Passion story from Mark is posted at the end of the sermon.

[sermon begins]

Crosses here, crosses there, crosses, crosses everywhere.

Crosses on top, crosses below,

Crosses needled in ink, crosses gilded to glow,

Crosses here, crosses there, crosses, crosses everywhere.[1]

Why? Why is there a cross outside, sitting on a bell tower 100 feet in the air? Why is there a 40 foot cross inside the Sanctuary; a fragmented multi-colored glass cross in Christ Chapel? Why do we make the sign of the cross?[2] Why do I wear one day in and day out?

In front of the cross, the palm parade waves a momentary filter. The highest honor in ancient Rome was a triumph parade – entering town in victory.[3] In Jesus’ case, triumph flipped quickly to a parade of a different sort. In this parade, Simon of Cyrene carried a cross for the one who would soon hang on it. Simon showed up to watch the action and became a part of it.[4] It’s hard to imagine that he stuck around after dropping off the cross. His ongoing presence is unlikely when even Jesus’ disciples had run away or watched from a distance. Even we listen across a distance gap of about 2,000 years. Even as the cross stands over and against the conventional wisdom of respectability, ideology, and economics. Even as we say we care about this death on the cross. To the point that we care isn’t the point. Rather, the point is that God cares.

God cares SO much that God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus becomes the event on which the whole scheme hangs. And it doesn’t seem to be about dishing up Easter with a side of tragedy just for dramatic effect. There’s something deeper. Something about this death that we cannot look away from. Public. Loud. Crying. Gasping. Jesus dies the ultimate scapegoat. The powers that be assured that he’s over and done so that their power remains unchecked. Holy Week presses slow motion over the scene for us. And it could stay just that – a slow motion story that takes a few extra verses to read while we do our best to seem patient. But for some of us, this is the main event because the longing, denial, betrayal, ridicule, pain, abandonment, and death are all too close to home.  The cross is the main event because we end up in tombs of our own making or someone else’s and the cross becomes the only thing that illuminates the shadows of our experience with anything close to resembling sense. The cross is the part of God’s promise that God’s hand is not inflicting suffering but instead is the very thing sustaining us through it.

I’ve said this recently but it bears repeating. Through the Passion and death on the cross, there is not a hand raised in violence against the people who are around Jesus, even the ones who took an active role. Not one hair on their heads or cell in their skin is injured as each one takes part in his execution. It’s not simply the religious leaders who played a part. Everyone around the story took their turn. The disciples were passive but still did nothing to prevent the outcome. They denied, ran away, or watched from a distance. Not one person in the story is innocent in Jesus’ death on the cross. One thing this means is that the cross is an invitation to put the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified.

The truth is that we are capable of dehumanizing violence, of denial, of running away when times get hard, of watching bad things happen from a distance, of not getting involved. Paradoxically, we are also the ones who are baptized into Christ’s death. We are enlivened by the Spirit through the waters of our baptism which means we are filled with the capacity of the one who died on the cross. Paul writes along this line to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”

One way to think about Paul’s emphasis of mind, humility, and obedience to the death is to consider the life of Christ Jesus that led to his inevitable, public execution on the cross. He repeatedly challenged religious and political authorities by eating with social outcasts, feeding hungry people, and healing sick ones of disease and demons. He never let anyone off the hook for ignoring the needs of the poor. It’s fairly clear that the singular focus of Christ’s compassion became more than pesky to the powers that be.  So incessant was the compassion of Christ Jesus that was he crucified, died, and was buried. His broken body was taken down from the cross, packed in spices, wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb by his friend Joseph. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Joses watched the stone as it was rolled against the door of the tomb.

Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial are signified by the crosses on our buildings and bodies. Symbols of the promise that we are baptized into Christ’s death. Baptized into the same mind, humility, and obedience to compassion that led to his death for us. For you. In this most holiest of weeks, the slow motion draws us deeper into the promise of this good news. Thanks be to God and amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] It took me awhile to remember where this familiar poetic rhythm and sound came from in my brain but finally remembered just before posting that it comes from the children’s book, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947). The end of the book: “Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” I read it to my children when they were small so many times that it’s woven itself into my brain. It seems a fitting comfort when talking about how I feel about the cross.

[2] Matthew Skinner. Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) on Sermon Brainwave podcast for March 25, 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?lect_date=02/23/2014&lectionary=rcl

[3] Ibid., Rolf Jacobson.

[4] Ibid., Karoline Lewis.

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Mark 15 (add the 14th chapter for even more of the Passion)

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort.17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.*29Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah,*the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’* 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time.45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph* bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body,* wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body* was laid.

Jesus: Superhero? Antihero? Neither?  [John 3:14-21]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 11, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Wonder Woman hit movie theaters last spring and tallied box office returns of $103 million for opening weekend and over $800 million in worldwide box office sales.[1] Black Panther opened in mid-February to the tune of $202 million and is currently well over $900 million in worldwide ticket sales.[2] It’s still in theaters so, who knows, a billion dollars is possible. Those are record breaking numbers. People not only enjoy the quality movie making, they also care deeply about these films – their characters and stories. I’m fascinated by how deeply people care. Every so often, I day dream about the doctoral program at DU called Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory.[3] Programs like this excavate the layers of experience and thought behind cultural phenomena. For now, there are experts in their fields who propose their own theories. TV critic Eric Deggans thinks that, “Superheroes answer this desire that a lot of us have to have somebody cut through all the nonsense in life, use extraordinary powers to bring justice to a situation, and I think that’s the appeal of these movies and these T.V. shows; To find somebody who can just sort of cut through all the nonsense and deliver justice very directly.”[4]

It’s not a stretch that we would want God to work in the ways of the superhero, too. Especially in the Gospel of John in which Jesus performs miracles and seems to have superman-like resolve from his baptism all the way through his death on the cross. While I do not think this means what we often think it means, there is something both super-human and all too human going on here. The human part is that we are prone to condemnation. We like to judge other people as if we could do better in the same set of circumstances.[5]  And we tend to pull God into our court to support our verdict. Along this line, I hung out with the first communion students and their parents on Wednesday evening. Their first communion book, written by Daniel Erlander, tells stories about the crabby people who were very, very crabby about Jesus.[6] They didn’t like the way he healed. They didn’t like the way he fed. They didn’t like the way he forgave.

They didn’t like that he ate with the wrong people. You get the idea. We worked through the first few pages of the book, regaled by stories about Jesus while the crabby people in the stories plotted to kill him. The crabby people were meting out their own kind of justice with a plan to hang Jesus on a cross. Class ended with this thought. I told the kids that there may be crabby people who pop up in our lives to ask us the question, “Do you know what God’s going to do to you?!” Then I told them how to answer it by saying, “Yes, God’s going to love me.”  We know this because all the way to the cross there was not one finger lifted by God against the very people who were part of the execution.

The love of God is part of these verses today as the world God so loves. It’s a reference from John 3:16 which begins, “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16 is well known to us – on signs at football games and quite possibly anywhere else you could imagine, the signs read either just chapter and verse or sometimes the sign-artist will write the whole thing. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I always hope that the next verse, John 3:17, will make it onto the sign too.

Listen to beginning os John 3:17 again, “”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…” The Son in these Bible verses is Jesus. In God’s mysterious way, those of us who confess a faith of Jesus, also say that Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The Gospel of John begins with this claim. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what came into being was life and the life was the light of all the people…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[7] The Gospel of John confesses Jesus’ divinity.

 

Jesus came not to condemn – came NOT to be the movie superhero doling out retributive justice. Yet that is the justice often claimed out of these verses. It’s the kind of justice we crave from our superheroes because it cuts through the nonsense and appeals to a sense of fairness that is satisfying. Satisfying, that is, when it’s someone else getting cut down. A little less satisfying when we’re the ones under judgment. But, our satisfaction is amplified when our connections with each other are made around a common enemy. Kind of like those crabby people in the first communion book who are united against their common enemy of Jesus. Why doesn’t Jesus come out swinging and deliver the final one-two punch? Jesus, while occasionally sarcastic and biting, is no anti-hero. He isn’t skulking around, isolated and cynical. He is walking around as the light. Shining light on the human condition by telling the truth about the deeds we do in the darkness and light that exist in the world.

Here’s the truth of it. We take turns in the darkness and light – by choice and by circumstance. Part of God loving the world is shining light on the truth of what we do. This isn’t necessarily joyful or easy. But shining the light on our rush to judgment without all the data, our call for retributive justice without compassion, or our determination to energize around a common enemy is exactly what’s needed. Shining a light on all of our attempts to end up at the top of the heap while condemning others around us.

In the Gospel reading we are told that, “The light has come into the world.” The very first verses of the Gospel of John tells us Jesus is “the light of all people.”[8]  During communion we hear the words of Jesus spoken over the wine:

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for ALL to drink saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.[9]

During the invitation to communion, we often say that if you are here you are welcome to Holy Communion. It is Christ’s table for all because Jesus is the light come into the world, the light of all people. Such is the welcome and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Neither superhero, nor anti-hero, Jesus is simply given to us by grace, for God so loves the world and continues to draw us into the light of Christ by this good news.

____________________________________

[1] The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet. “Wonder Woman” as of March 10, 2018. https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Wonder-Woman-(2017)#tab=summary

[2] Ibid. “Black Panther” as of March 10, 2018 https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Black-Panther#tab=box-office

[3] DU/Iliff Joint PhD Program in the Study of Religion: Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory. https://www.du.edu/duiliffjoint/current-students/concentrations/theology-philosophy-cultural-theory.html

[4] Eric Deggans, NPR TV Critic. “Here and Now.” March 9, 2018. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510051/here-x26-now

[5] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  “After Effects” (John 3:14-21) for Dear Working Preacher. Sunday, March 4, 2018.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075

[6] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book. 1999. http://danielerlander.com/apfy.html

[7] John 1:1, 3b-5, 14

[8] John 1:5

[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Holy Communion, Setting One. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 108.

Torkel Palmer Attleson 1922-2018…Celebrating the Life of a Dear Saint-and-Sinner of the Greatest Generation*

* Simultaneously “saint and sinner” is part of how we try to explain baptism in the Lutheran Christian tradition.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 7, 2018

Torkel Palmer Attleson’s name says a lot about him. Born full-blooded Norwegian, he was proud of his first name, Torkel.  Born on Palm Sunday in 1922, he was given the name most of us know him by, Palmer, because of the palm branches in the Bible story waved when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He filled out his 5 Wishes for what he wanted us to know about him. His list begins like this – full-blooded Norwegian, lifetime Lutheran, and baptized in the Norwegian Church. So much of what defined Palmer’s life was steeped in his families’ experience in the Norwegian immigrant community in Iowa. The other two things on his list stretched him just a bit – the rite of Confirmation in the German Lutheran Church and marriage in a Swedish Lutheran Church to his lovely Swedish bride who was from a Swedish immigrant community in Kansas. These are the things that he wants you to know.

Of course, there’s more. Palmer was a part of what’s called America’s Greatest Generation. Naval service in World War II’s Pacific Theater is incomprehensible to most of us, as is the rebuilding of the post-Depression, post-War America.  He and Leona married in it, grew their family in it, and held onto their faith through it.  Palmer lived this life while winging out Ollie and Lena jokes along with other one-liners with his signature dry humor and twinkle in his eye. His care and devotion to Leona through her MS is unparalleled, moving her in her wheelchair up the stairs in their home at the age of 75. The list could go on and on and there’s more in Palmer’s bio in the back of your bulletin. He loved his wife, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He loved his church. He loved his life.

Celebrating Palmer’s life is the easy part. Missing him is the harder part. I read recently about grief that it seems to take up all the space in the world until one day, it doesn’t.  So we celebrate his life even as we miss him in death.

As devoted, proud, funny, and accomplished as Palmer was, he had an honesty about his own imperfection – the limits of his humanity. In the language of Christian tradition, we call it sin.  And this is where his testimony of faith is so powerful. He worshiped with awareness and humility to hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and God’s love for him.  For Palmer, this language of faith was formed by his Norwegian Lutheran heritage expanded by Leona’s Swedish Lutheran commitments.

In the Bible story chosen by his children from the Gospel of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time on his way to the cross. He had just come from visiting his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was because of the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead that the crowd came to see Jesus when they heard he was coming into Jerusalem. They took branches from palm trees and went out to meet Jesus. What a strange parade – palm branches waving as Jesus rides by on a donkey.  The story goes on to tells us that even his disciples didn’t understand what was happening at first. Their lack of understanding is comforting. Jesus is on the move, on the cross, and onto the resurrection on our behalf whether we understand it or not. It’s a beautiful, powerful promise.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God’s promise in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  For someone like Palmer, whose last years muted hearing, dimmed eyesight, and faded memory, the promise of the cross, of God suffering when we suffer, is no small thing.

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

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

Cross, Kinship & Redemption – Mark 8:31-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Late night comedians would have a field day with Peter – the classic straw man, so easily critiqued. He’s perfected the theological equivalent of the prat fall. But Peter’s comments are often reasonable with a consistent logic. Just a couple of verses before the Bible reading from Mark, Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”[1] We can imagine Peter’s answer, filled with awe, love, and bumbling pride. “You are the Messiah,” he says. Only thing is that Jesus never calls himself the Messiah in Mark’s gospel.

A couple of verses after Peter’s “Messiah” answer, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in our reading today. The Son of Man title comes from the book of Daniel and refers to a person who disrupts human powers from their questionable goals.[2]  Jesus’ self-reference as the Son of Man is in conflict with Peter naming him as the Messiah. In this light, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is actually quite reasonable. The internal logic of identifying a Messiah means that a shameful death of said Messiah wouldn’t compute. Peter’s rebuke seems meant as a reminder to Jesus about the righteous path – or what Peter reasons out at as righteous.

The rebukes come quickly. Peter takes Jesus to the side and rebukes him. Jesus opens the conversation to include all the disciples and rebukes Peter. Peter is trying to rebuke the idea of Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus is reporting the logical end of his work. His work includes tossing out demons, healing blind people, forgiving sins, and confronting the status quo of the powers that be. Jesus can only confront the powers that be for so long before the inevitable power play. In the first century, for Jesus, this meant an epic public smack down, a death on a cross, in return for his efforts. It’s not rocket science. It’s retribution.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[3] There are many a good sermon about personal crosses to bear. However, Jesus words here in Mark seem to connect to the public nature of crucifixion. People crucified in the first century had to literally carry their cross to the place of execution.[4] Jesus’ listeners would have seen in their mind’s eye this image of carrying the cross and heard the mocking taunts that accompany the procession.

Jesus is asking his disciples to pick up the cross. Choosing people over power, prestige, and even life itself. That’s a tall order. Pretty much the only one who’s able to fill the tall order is Jesus. In just a few short chapters, he’ll be carrying his cross with the help of Simon of Cyrene.[5] The disciples fall away the closer Jesus gets to the crucifixion. Mark’s gospel reminds everybody of the call of discipleship and what it means to follow the One who is actually faithful to the end.[6]  Jesus opens up the possibilities beyond what we can imagine. His faithfulness to his death and through his death fuels the fire of disciples. Their early stories are in the New Testament. But there are plenty of disciples alive today who continue to inspire. We see these people and see Jesus working through them.

Gregory Boyle is one such disciple. Thirty years ago he began working with young people in the heart of Los Angeles as they figured out life after gangs. He’s still doing it. His latest book is about radical kinship.  It’s called Barking to the Choir because one of the young people he worked with waved off Boyle’s comments with the comment, “Don’t sweat it bald-headed…Your barking to the choir.”[7]  Mixing his metaphors became an apt description for jostling the status quo of a world divided into us and them, into powers that be for themselves and not for everyone. Boyle encourages us with a gospel that Jesus took so seriously that he lost his life barking about it. And by barking, I mean the radical kinship embodied by Jesus – healing, forgiving, loving, and kicking those demons to the curb.  That kind of barking is hard to ignore because it’s about redemption.

Barking makes me think about my dog Sunny. When she’s determined about something, she barks. It’s her go to move and, when she’s about it, it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else. Boyle is specific about the kind of barking he’s talking about. He makes the point that the radical kinship embodied through the gospel of Christ is not one of anger. Anger continues to close the fists we end up shaking at each other.[8]  Radical kinship opens those fists and calls us together.

Notice that Peter takes Jesus off to the side and, in response, Jesus turns back to include the other disciples and then not just the disciples but he called the crowds with them, too. Jesus says to all of them that following him includes taking up their crosses and losing their life to gain their life. Their cross. Their life. A cross that comes through Jesus’ radical kinship. A cross that means each of us engaging in the way we’re empowered through baptism by the gifts of the Spirit to engage. This engagement does and will disrupt the status quo and the powers that be in our own lives and in the wider world. That’s what happens when the status quo is redeemed – redeemed out of what Boyle calls the status quo of “incessant judging, comparisons, measuring, scapegoating, and competition.”[9]

The status quo goes to town in each of us, showing up in unconscious behavior and attitudes. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving or outside of God’s love and acceptance. We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption is possible. There are a variety of situations that beg the question, “Do we believe in redemption or don’t we?” Our answer to that question is often “no” and we continue to judge, compare, measure, scapegoat, and compete; like Peter we continue to separate Jesus from the very people Jesus includes in ever widening circles of redemption.

Fortunately, the God of redemption is alive and well. Just look at Peter’s work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter became a preacher extraordinaire, tireless in his quest to share the good news. Or look at Gregory Boyle and the men and women who find redemption after gang life. Or look at you. In you, the God of redemption is alive and well, undiverted by your lack of will or understanding of what the cross means and who Jesus is.

Jesus reminds us that separation from each other isn’t true – even when we act like it is.

Jesus meets our separation with kinship, disrupting the status quo and enlivening us for the sake of the gospel.

By proclaiming the cross to his disciples, Jesus empowers us to take up the cross and follow him on the way of redemption for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.

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[1] Mark 8:27-30

[2] Pastor John Petty. Lent 2:::Mark 8:31-38 on February 19, 2018. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/02/lent-2-mark-8-31-38.html

[3] Mark 8:34

[4] Petty.

[5] Mark 15:21

[6] David Lose. In the Meantime: Mark 8:34-38. July 4, 2012. http://www.davidlose.net/2012/07/mark-834-38/

[7] Gregory Boyle. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 1.

[8] Boyle, 6.

[9] Boyle, 10.

When Beauty Sustains [Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 50:1-6, and Romans 12:1-2]

**sermon image celebrates nature’s beauty through the photography of Jim Doty

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Psalm 50:1-6 The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. 3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. 4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. (Selah)

Romans 12:2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[sermon begins]

The Transfiguration readings from Mark and Psalm 50 have me thinking about beauty. Specifically the beauty of God that breaks through whatever normal thing is happening. The moments just before the transfiguration are normal enough. In Colorado, we might call it a hike among friends.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. They barely bag the peak when the light show begins.  Dazzling them and even terrifying them.[1]  Psalm 50 brings up the perfection of beauty and God shining through. The word perfection in this Hebrew usage means all-in-all or complete which has parallels to telos in Biblical Greek.[2]  The Psalmist refers to Zion as the conduit of beauty through which “God shines forth.”[3]

Beauty is thorny.  We often suspect that beauty is contrived or exploited for gain. I’ve met many people who are suspicious of the aesthetics of beauty because they’re troubled about who sets the definitions and principles of what is beautiful. Here’s what I suggest for today. Let’s let the Transfiguration guide us. The Transfiguration is a dazzling, terrifying moment that surprises the disciples. Peter, James, and John are thrown off-balance to the point that Peter wings out an absurd building plan to sustain the moment. But it seems that it’s not about sustaining the dazzling moment of beauty. It seems that the dazzling moment of beauty is about sustaining them.

Pastor Ann asked us a question last week out of the Isaiah reading.[4]  How does faith sustain you in the weary places?  Today, the Transfiguration shifts that question ever so slightly to wonder how glimpses of God’s beauty sustain us through Lent.[5] Ash Wednesday arrives in three days.  For today, tomorrow, and the next, I’m inviting us into a transfiguration not of our own making – a beauty makeover, a transformation of a different sort.  Because I think this is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  The word for transformed is a Greek word rarely used in the New Testament – only 4 times.[6] It’s translated “transfiguration” in Mark and Matthew; it’s translated transformed in Romans and in 2 Corinthians.  Let’s play with moments of God’s beauty that might transfigure us, renewing our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Here’s one such moment. I was talking with a friend early last week about this idea of God’s beauty surprising us. He was one week into teaching a two-week technical class that includes electrical safety and the like out at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. He told me about a class moment during which a woman’s attention was drawn to a book underneath her desk rather than on the class discussion. Stopping the class, he asked the woman what she was reading. Turns out it was the Bible. She had been to a worship service the evening before and wanted to keep going. My friend’s exact words to describe that moment were, “Beauty tore into life to dominate the day.” Poor class behavior notwithstanding, this woman’s Jesus moment would not be thwarted. My friend saw a glimpse of God’s sustaining beauty in that moment.

Here’s another one.  Last Sunday, our youngest choir called the Cherub Choir sang a song called, “God has made me wonderful.” What made it beautiful was not harmonious brilliance. The beauty was their exuberance in singing the message and the fact that they were singing the message at all. I would hasten to bet that the thought bubbles that pop up over your heads during the week about yourself and other people don’t exactly echo “God has made me wonderful.” Think about what does pop up in those thought bubbles in the grocery aisle, in the hallways, and in traffic. Now is probably not the best time for the turn-to-your-neighbor and have a conversation on that topic. When those kids were singing last week, it was a glimpse of the beauty of God. So much so that the beauty of it intruded my mind several times during the week.

Surprising glimpses of God’s beauty are pure gift that transfigure us, sustaining us in dark times. This is not to be confused with putting on rose-colored glasses to avoid bad news or the pain of trauma. This is about God’s beauty that sustains us through the pain. There is a centuries old Christian practice of iconography that trains the mind’s eye to see the beauty of God revealed in the world. Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians are so named, was no iconoclast.[7] He did not support or encourage the destruction of religious images and icons the way other 16th century reformers did. Icons were simply one more way to catch glimpses of God’s beauty in the world. They are paintings that often feature Christ or the infant Jesus and his mother Mary or other ancestors of the faith. They’re painted with precious metals and have many meanings painted into them by way of color, clothes, hand positions, halos, and more. I have a couple small icons in my home. One is of Mary and the baby Jesus. This icon hangs next to a crucifix so that I can regularly reflect on the mess and the beauty of the incarnation of God from a mother’s body in tension with the suffering of God on a cross. Icons engage the senses and imagination preparing the faithful to see the image of God in the world.[8]  The in-breaking of God’s image, God’s beauty that surprises and transfigures us.

Pictures that flood social media very often include sunsets, sunrises, mountains, trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Christians believe that nature in all its glory reveals the glory of God.[9] Referring to nature as creation reveals it as another icon of sorts – revealing God’s provision of food and water as well as the beauty of God that surprises, inspires, terrifies, and ultimately sustains. I believe that the beauty of God sustains us, my friends. But I also believe that sharing our glimpses of the beauty of God sustains other people especially when we see it in them. At a time when despair nips at our own heels and overwhelms people we love, we offer by faith the glimpses of God’s beauty that we experience by grace. Whether through prison Bible reading, a song by young children, or the icon of creation, God breaks through with glimpses of beauty so compelling, so dazzling, that we cannot look away.  Not only can we not look away, but we are sustained through bad news and trauma.

God has made you wonderful. You are living icons through whom God’s beauty is revealed and sustains. Be at peace. The light of Christ shines in you.[10] Thanks be to God. And Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Mark 9:3 and 6

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair in Scripture, Theology, and Ministry at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[3] Psalm 50:2

[4] Isaiah 40:31

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[6] Bible Hub. “3339. μεταμορφόω (metamorphoó).” Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18   http://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_3339.htm

[7] Anthony Ugolnik. The Illuminating Icon. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989), 59.

[8] Ugolnik, 61

[9] Romans 1:20

[10] This phrase is part of the worship liturgy called the Dismissal during this Sundays after Epiphany.

God Loves the People We Can’t [OR Jonah Slimed and Steaming] Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20, and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

**sermon art:  Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) Jonah and the Whale (1621). Oil on oak.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 21, 2018.

[sermon begins after two short Bible readings – 1 Corinthians readings is at the end of the sermon]

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth…  10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

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

[sermon begins]

Jonah is easy to love. At the very least he’s easy to understand. He is an every-man kind of Bible guy. He’s self-righteous for very good reasons. And he takes control of his own story. Jonah’s story is the Bible at its best. Four short chapters include our righteous hero and evil villains of an epic scale.  What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Notice the beginning of the reading we get today starts chapter 3.  “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time…”  Let’s go back and talk about what happened the first time.  The first time, the word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go to the great city of Nineveh.  Nineveh wasn’t great because it was a good place full of good people. Nineveh was called great because it was huge and powerful. It was full of Assyrians who had killed and enslaved many of Jonah’s people and would likely kill him if given half a chance.  He certainly didn’t want to give them that opportunity.

Jonah did not have a death wish. He had good reason to hate those Assyrians. So he made a run for it.  He boarded a ship to head the opposite direction of where God wanted him to go.  Short story shorter…there was a storm, Jonah was tossed overboard, and he ended up in the belly of a fish. This is the part of the story that makes it perfect for kids’ storytelling.  Does it get more fun than a slimy, stinky, pouting Jonah spewed out onto the shore by the fish?

Fish slime is not exactly the sackcloth and ashes of repentance but it serves a similar purpose in Jonah’s story.  We often talk about repentance as turning in a new direction. Before the fish slime, he was running away to Tarshish. After the fish slime, he began moving toward Nineveh. Jonah did a 180 degree turn. I imagine him slinking into Nineveh with a bruised ego, some serious fear, and saturated in stink. As a prophet, he did his work with a minimum of words. Eight words, to be exact. Jonah announced to the Ninevites, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it.  Eight words.  Much to Jonah’s chagrin, the people of Nineveh did actually repent – from the King on down to all the animals.  Sackcloth and fasting for everyone![1]

Turns out, God’s mercy even reached as far as Nineveh. Jonah knew it would and greatly resented God and the Ninevites. But Jonah’s feelings on the matter did not limit what God was able to accomplish with a minimum of faithfulness.[2]  Jonah barely cooperated, his eight-word speech to the Ninevites contained no words of hope or good news. Even though he’s an old school prophet, he’s not a very good one. Jonah’s underachievement is good news for us.  Jonah’s got a grudge on.  He later tells God that the reason he first ran away to Tarshish is because he knows that God is “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Jonah knew God would forgive the Ninevites and was so furious he wanted to die when God forgave them.[4]

God is bigger than our grudges and the people we hold grudges against. God loves the people we can’t love. This is good news for us. The very last line in the book of Jonah is said by God. “Then the Lord said [to Jonah], ‘…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”  Let’s face it. It’s not easy to acknowledge that hated people are deemed worthy by God for love and compassion when there may be legitimate reasons for our feelings. Regardless, God is able to use our paltry efforts and mixed emotions despite our dismal participation.[5]

It’s not a stretch to imagine Jonah relishing the idea that the Ninevites could go down in flames.  Laughing at Jonah’s antics gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves. How far would we go to NOT be a part of God’s love and compassion for those who, at best, we deem undeserving or, at worst, we deem worthy of destruction?

Jonah’s story puts flesh on Jesus’ challenge to us to love our enemies, to love and pray for them.[6]  This is the story we’re called to tell as disciples.  In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus shows up in Galilee announcing the fulfillment of time and God’s kingdom coming near while calling for repentance.  There is a camp of theologians who interpret Jesus’ announcement and call as a moment of now – not to be confused with a distant apocalyptic event in the future that scares us.  In this line of thinking, this is the kingdom that reveals God’s intention for us. This is the kingdom we proclaim as fishers of people. This is the kingdom revealed to replace the present form of the world that is passing away (referred to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians).  A world in which we battle each other over land and resources like the Assyrians and Jonah’s people. A world in which one group of people essentially enslaves groups of other people.  A world in which violence and one-upmanship is the name of the game.

Instead, God’s kingdom announces a different world.  A world in which God’s move toward the Ninevites convicts them through Jonah’s half-hearted or even empty-hearted eight prophetic words. For us as Jesus people, we might say that the world announced by Jesus is cross-centered. The cross that proclaims powerlessness as the first move and the new life that becomes possible out of that powerlessness. Jesus’ kingdom means the first move is mercy which interrupts cycles of violence and blame and becomes our hope. Thankfully, the waters of baptism are the daily call into repentance and Jesus’ kingdom of now – no fish slime or sackcloth required.  Thanks be to God.

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[1] Jonah 3:5

[2] Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake. Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 proclaimed with the good people of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO.

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Jonah 4:3

[5] Inga Oyan Longbrake, ibid.

[6] As part of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Matthew 5:43-44

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1 Corinthians 7:29-31 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

My Triple-Great Grandfather Owned Slaves* [OR What’s Under Your Fig Tree?] 

sermon image: Arrington James, 8, grabs the hand of a freed slave figure at the African-American history monument at the South Carolina Statehouse, in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

* Many thanks to my colleague Roshan Bliss for his guidance on telling the story.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 14, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be read at the end of the sermon

Psalm 139 may be read at the end of the sermon

[sermon begins]

I want to know what happened under that fig tree. Apparently, so do a lot of people throughout time.  Not surprisingly, Bishop Augustine of Hippo in 4th century Africa decided it was sin.[1] This was his go-to move for most things. He had epic struggles with his own sin. Take a look at his book Confessions some time. His point about the fig tree is well taken though. First he asks if the fig tree signifies anything.  Finding that Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves after doing what God had asked them not to do, St. Augustine concludes that Jesus knows Nathaniel’s sin.[2]  Thus exposed, Nathaniel comes to faith in the blink of an eye.  First he questions, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[3]  Then, Jesus announces the fig tree sighting. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Suddenly, Nathaniel goes all street preacher as he shouts, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”[4]

St. Augustine is arguably one of the most influential Christian thinkers through the last two millennia.  Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians derive their name, was an Augustinian monk. His own challenges with sin are no secret. Now, I’m game to talk about sin along with the best of them.  I’m committed to calling a thing what it is and sometimes that means acknowledging our darker natures. But I also think that this makes for a quick turn to condemnation. Condemnation that takes shape in the church as finger-pointing and accusation.

Take today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, for example.  The word translated “fornication” comes from the Greek “porneia.”[5]  It’s also translated “sexual immorality.” The word is vague enough that interpreters throughout time tend to put their cultural spin on defining its meaning.[6] Paul’s explanation is his letter to the Corinthians points at the 1st Century practice of visiting prostitutes.[7]  He’s making a distinction between the behavior of Corinthian men who were not-Jesus-followers and men who were Jesus-followers. Jesus-followers who were free men of Corinth and slaves to Christ. Paul’s argument seems pretty straight forward. And yet, I grew up in a different Christian tradition that winged around the words “fornication” and “sexual immorality” as the end-all-be-all of whether or not Jesus had any other interest for me or other people. My experience of the church at that time was that it had its finger out in condemnation. We can see how this happens. Look at Augustine again. Fig tree equals sin. Therefore, Jesus knew Nathaniel’s sin. Therefore, the body of Christ on earth sees and identifies other people’s sin. Before you know it, the church is off and running as sexual-immorality-sin-sniffer-outers and no one measures up…even the church by the way.

Please hear me clearly.  There is sexual sin that hurts ourselves and each other. Absolutely.  Some of the individual confessions I hear in my office are about sexual sin and the hurt people inflict through them. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are important for us to hear.  It’s the distortion of that message by the church that is concerning. The distortion between what’s make or break for whether or not Jesus is for us or against us. It’s a distortion of the gospel. If there’s anything that the cross teaches us, it’s that Jesus finds us in those dark places and offers us a way out of them. Here’s a thought in that regard.  It’s possible that Nathaniel’s story under the fig tree, the one that Jesus knows about, is of a different nature entirely.  The story that God knows about our whole story.

As the Psalm reading from today describes what God knows:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”[8]

I’ve been wondering lately about how our story fits into God’s call to us. Not just because of Nathaniel’s leap to faith – although his story has given me a way to think about it. It makes me wonder how the different parts of our story work into the call. Many of you know my religious background and church refugee status that led to my call to the pulpit. Added to this call is Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and my experience of call as a person of faith to work in the breach between Black and White people in this country. There’s a lot in the mix there for me.  When I moved to California from D.C. at 9 years old, my very first friend Kim Gammel was Black and so was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Gaines.  In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Lake – an amazing, strong Black woman – assigned the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racism in America during the Great Depression.[9]  I spent four years at John Muir High School in Pasadena. It was 10% White kids and predominantly Black and Latino kids with an additional minority of first and second generation Asian and Armenian kids.

Running in parallel to those details of upbringing is the picture of the South Carolina governor’s mansion hanging in my grandparents’ home because my Great-Great Grandfather, Hugh Thompson, was the governor of South Carolina.[10]  He led a battalion of Citadel cadets to fire some of the first shots of the Civil War against the North’s Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor.  And, on top of that infamy is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas B. Clarkson, Plantation man and owner of 300 slaves – men, women, and children.[11]

About a year and a half ago, my mother gave me a letter written by an abolitionist to my triple-great grandfather.  The letter congratulated him on his good care of the slaves. I suppose it’s good to know that he treated his slaves with some kindness. The bottom line for me is that he owned people. The odd thing is that I’ve known for many years that he was a plantation owner and it never once occurred to me that he owned slaves. Of course I’m not responsible for his choices but I am affected by them…and so are all of us here. There is always something to be learned. The legacy of slavery for all of us in this country, but especially for our Black brothers and sisters, is part of how I understand my call to the ministry of reconciliation in the second letter to the Corinthians.[12] Reconciliation understood as repairing our broken relationships between God and neighbors.

Last week, Pastor Ann asked the question, “Who do you think you are?” Through the story of Jesus’ baptism, she announced the good news that we are beloved children of God.[13]   So when I hear Jesus say to Nathaniel, “I saw you underneath the fig tree,” that opens up the question of Nathaniel’s whole story, not only his sin but everything that makes him him and ready for telling the story of Jesus though his own story.

Somehow, Nathaniel’s story moved him from the skepticism and contempt of his original question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel had a story under that fig tree. Jesus knew that story about Nathaniel and called him through it to faith. Apparently something good does come out of Nazareth…and from under fig trees. In the same way, Jesus calls us through our stories – whether the story is one of sin and darkness or one of family heritage or something else entirely or a combination of all those.  His call is an opportunity to get curious about our own stories and other people stories and how Jesus calls us through them…accepting us for who we are, what we’ve done, who our family was, what they’ve done, who our country is, and what we’ve done and drawing us to faith. Drawing us to faith and setting us free to tell Jesus’ story through the truth of our own story by the grace of God. Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Tractate VII, Chapter 1 vv 34-51, Section 20. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.viii.html

[2] Geneses 3:1-7 [verse 7 is the moment of fig leaf couture.]

[3] John 1:46

[4] John 1:49

[5] Peter Liethart. “Porneia.” January 14, 2015. Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/porneia/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Maître de Conférence (Assistant Professor), Faculté Libre de Théologie Protestante, Paris, France.  Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for January 18, 2015 on Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2338

[8] Psalm 139:1-2

[9] Mildred D. Taylor. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).

[10] Hugh Smith Thompson (1836-1904). 51st Governor of South Carolina (1882-1886).  http://www.carolana.com/SC/Governors/hsthompson.html

[11] Suellen Clarkson Delahunty (my mother’s cousin). Information About Thomas B. Clarkson, Col. http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/d/e/l/Suellen-Clarkson-Delahunty-NC/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0001.html

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

[13] Jesus baptism by John is told earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

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1 Corinthians 6:12-20  “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

Tell An Imperfect Story [OR Small Wonder the Inns Were Full] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 2: 1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Imagine if you will, a young couple.[1] She’s very pregnant. Puffy cheeks and feet. He’s young too. Both just starting out in adulting and there hasn’t been a moment to catch their breath. Mary’s surprise pregnancy first sent her into hiding for several months at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hills.  Now she’s back with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. But that doesn’t last long either. Emperor Augustus calls for a registration census so that taxes can be collected. With his decree, Joseph and Mary travel the 80 miles to Bethlehem. There could have been a donkey to ride.  Although at many months pregnant, four days of donkey riding doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I imagine that they were slower than many of the other people on the long and winding road, taking more breaks along the way.  It’s no wonder that the inns were full by the time they arrived.

For all the drama that’s easy to imagine, the story is sparsely told. It’s told in almost bullet points. You and I both know that it couldn’t have been that simple. There’s a saying in the news business that, “All news is local.”  I would say that all news is about people. People in situations often beyond their control. The Bible couldn’t be less like a newspaper.  It neither follows modern journalistic guidelines nor could it ever hope to meet those standards. But Mary and Joseph’s story shows local people trying to live during a time when religious and political events are well beyond their control.

It makes me wonder if it’s a similar lack of control that fuels the latest “Christmas miracle” craze. I’ve heard the term in the past. But this December it seems to pop up everywhere describing good news big and small.[2] Christmas miracles are listed in the news as melt-in-your-mouth recipes, pet adoptions, inspiring health recoveries, snow in Texas, and even includes a tongue-in-cheek report of an ER staff who performed surgery on an Elf on the Shelf named Sam after the family’s dog went rogue. I’m totally on the band wagon. It feels really good to throw my arms in the air and announce, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Sometimes it’s celebration and sometimes it’s snark but it feels good and it makes me laugh every time.

Naming things a Christmas miracle seeks to name the good – from small things like not burning forgotten toast to big moments of joy that defy explanation. One thought is that we name them miracles because we want to see the transcendent in something tangible, relatable, and real. Who wouldn’t want a Christmas miracle?! Apparently the shepherds are game to see one – although the “good news of great joy” comes from an angel that’s hard to ignore and quite terrifying to boot.[3]

What about this savior that the angel announces?  What is one way we can think about that savior today in light everything that happens beyond our control? The Bible story goes on to tell us that the child who is born is named Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus.  Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness leads him to an execution on a cross.  But before we’re privy to those parts of the story, God begins with a baby.  Perhaps God knows what most us know.  Not many can resist a baby.  Babies get our attention. A baby certainly grabbed the shepherds’ attention – with a little help from the angel.

Rallying through their angel terror, the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to see the child. The new, young parents hear an earful from the shepherds about what the angel told them. The story tells us that, “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”  Like Mary, we are left to ponder their story in our hearts.  It’s a funny thing what happens when left to pondering. We notice random things when they would otherwise slip by.  For instance, my husband and I watch the show The Voice.  It’s a weekly singing competition. Four superstar performers act as coaches and judges. Viewers cast the winning votes. In the live, top 8 performances this season, superstar Jennifer Hudson says to one of the contestants, “Allow yourself to feel it…stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story; you should pretty much be on your knees when you get done.”[4]  Because this sermon was on my mind, my first thought when I heard Ms. Hudson’s say that was, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”  No, but seriously, she was my Christmas preacher in that moment.

“Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.”  How many of us are trying to sing a perfect song to cover for our imperfect story?  Want to hear a real Christmas miracle?  Your imperfect story, everything that is out of control and beyond your control, is exactly where God begins with you.  This is where God’s transcendence becomes tangible, relatable, and real because God meets us right where we live – shoving aside that perfect song we try to sing about ourselves and, instead, tells our imperfect story.  So, we can just leave that perfect song to the angels and heavenly host.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Bible is an imperfect story told by and about imperfect people that reveal the Christ perfectly. It’s like the manger that holds the baby Jesus. Maybe it has a bent nail or a few splinters, but Jesus is in there.[5]  Revealing the One who came under a star in skin and solidarity.  Revealing the One who comes in vulnerability – fragile, dependent, and hungry. Revealing the One whose story is imperfectly told so that we might see that our imperfections, our vulnerability, our fragility are revealed and held by God who also sees and names the good in you, calls you beloved, and names you children of God. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.

Thanks be to God!

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[1] “Imagine if you will…” is a line of narration used in The Twilight Zone.

[2] Here’s a link to a websearch of key words “Christmas miracle.” https://www.google.com/search?q=christmas+miracle+2017&tbm=nws&source=univ&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi965GngP3XAhUI2WMKHSoiBucQt8YBCEQoAQ&biw=1366&bih=662

[3] Luke 2:9

[4] Jennifer Hudson to Davon Fleming, direct quote, minute 23:50 as televised with commercials. The Voice: Live Top 8 Performances. Season 13, Episode 24, December 11, 2017, on NBC.

[5] Martin Luther paraphrased from the Preface to the Old Testament (1523/1545) quoted by Timothy Lull in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd Ed, Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 114.  https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/dear-is-the-treasure-who-lies-in-them-by-martin-luther/

For Jocelyn, A Celebration of Life (April 10, 1934 – December 9, 2017)

Jocelyn Ann Kopperud, A Celebration of Life on December 23, 2017

John 14:1-6 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?*3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

You know and have heard more about Jocelyn than I could ever begin to know. Here’s what I do know. Celebrating Jocelyn’s life gives us a highlight reel worth watching. Her devotion to her parents and sisters, her complete devotion to Ed and their children and grandchildren as well as their friends were returned by all of you in your devotion to her. All the fun times of travel, shopping, and Broadway shows are simply reflections of your shared devotion. The highlight reel also includes Jocelyn’s ability to get things done. Whether supervising farm workers, conducting choirs, scheduling the calendar for attending everything, or running herd on five children, she got it done and had fun doing it.

As devoted, fun, and accomplished as Jocelyn was, she had an honesty about her own imperfection – the limits of her humanity that show up in the rarely seen lowlight reel. In the language of Christian tradition, we call it sin.  And this is where her testimony of faith is so powerful.  She worshiped with awareness and humility to hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and God’s love for her.

For Jocelyn, this language of faith ran deeply in her love of music and hymns.  In her very last days she talked about the angels she could see and described them to the people with her in the room. At one point, John described her moving her arms as if conducting their singing. I have this image of the angels saying to each other, “Just go with it,” as Jocelyn was conducting. I don’t try to explain what it is people see as they’re dying or why it is that they see it. I just know it brings comfort to them and their loved ones.  A few days before she died, Jocelyn told Eddie, Carol, and everyone around her that she was happy and content.

In Bible story read by Lauren, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” I suppose that’s easy for Jesus to say.  It is also easy for us to get lost in the details of Jesus’ words just like Thomas when he says, “Way?  What way?  Where?  How will we know?”  It is so tempting to think that we have to know and prove the way, be able to explain the way and point ourselves in the right direction on the right way.

Listen again to Jesus’ promise to Thomas in his distress, Jesus’ promise to us in our grief.  Listen to how many things Jesus is doing, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  Jesus makes a promise and Thomas immediately panics.  “Ahhh, what about WHAT I’M supposed to be doing?!”  And Jesus says, “I am the way” – which can be heard as Jesus saying to us, “It is not about you doing anything, it is all about what I do for you.”

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.

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

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Jocelyn into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Jocelyn, just as it was for Marvel, Janine, Kathy and John.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!

Angels We Have Heard on High (Song after the homily)

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing,
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, in excelsis Deo