Tag Archives: Advent

Hope Gains Ground [OR Blundering Our Way Through the Human Condition OR The First Sunday in Advent] Matthew 24:36-44

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2022 – First Sunday in Advent

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 24:36-44  [Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[sermon begins]

Classic blunders often make a good story great. Blunders abound in television and movies. In every episode of Scooby Do, Fred insists that the gang split up, sending Shaggy and Scooby to their inevitable clash with the masked villain.[1] What would the show “I Love Lucy” be without Lucy and Ethel’s regular blunders – think: Chocolate Factory episode when they lied about their qualifications and couldn’t keep up with the candy conveyor belt, so they stuff chocolate in their mouths and cloths before getting fired.[2] The movie Princess Bride lays out a few more classic blunders, “the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this, never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”[3]

Real life blunders abound too although the outcomes are, well, real. Falling asleep while driving is a big one. Cars didn’t exist back in the day when Jesus was teaching his disciples. But Jesus’ words about staying awake call to mind that classic parting line before a road trip, “Remember to pull over if you get tired!” It’s classic because we all know and can tell our own and other tragic stories when people haven’t pulled over when they got tired. Driving takes focus. We need to be ready to swerve around obstacles or avoid bad drivers or simply avoid driving into a ditch. Driving takes wakefulness. When we’re tired, eye-hand coordination slows down affecting response times.

Driving is a metaphor for Advent wakefulness. The Advent road trip ends at Christmas – the joy of Jesus’ birth, and it is also the longing for Christ’s return when the Kingdom of Heaven will reign fully and completely on earth. In the meantime, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, keep your eyes on the road. Worship this morning serves as pulling over because we’re tired and resting up on the side of the road to continue driving. This apocalyptic reading from the Gospel of Matthew may seem a surprising choice for the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the new church year. But apocalyptic literature is directed to listeners who blunder through the human condition, who have lost hope with the status quo, who despair that those with extreme wealth and power will ever share so that all people can live, who see that suffering goes unexplained and unanswered, and who long for God’s promise to burst on the scene in all its fullness.[4]

This reading is close to the end of the book of Matthew, just before Jesus starts heading to the cross. As we begin this new church year with Advent, we also begin the book of Matthew, beginning almost at the end. The Gospel of Matthew was likely written late in the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, fifty years after Jesus’ death. The Matthean community seems to have been primarily Jews who believed Jesus was their long-awaited savior. Initially a part of life in the synagogue, a conflict began with either other Jews, or with Roman authorities, or both, that escalated to the point of the Matthean group splitting off to form its own community.[5]

The verses today are a good example of the divide as well as illuminates what we think we already know about these verses.  For instance, in this story, is it better to be taken or left behind? The comparison with the people swept away by the flood in the Noah story indicates that being left behind might be the better outcome. If it’s the case that being left behind is the better option, it brings up another question. Who is doing the taking? The verses aren’t clear, which opens the possibility that there’s a group, perhaps Roman agents, who is taking some people while others remain – not unheard of in the Roman Empire or modern empires for that matter. If it’s possible that Rome is snatching people, why are we so quick to read it as divine judgment. Another blunder we make when we read scripture is already thinking that we know the destination. Framing Jesus’ teaching to the positive, he encourages listeners to actively anticipate God’s promised change when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives. To the negative, living a righteous life veers into the ditch when resignation or over-confidence are chosen as the right way to live.[6]

It’s not clear how pandemic times accelerated the time/space continuum. The Before Times weren’t trouble free but they didn’t seem to move quite so quickly. However it happened, the world came out of those quieter months in overdrive and keeps accelerating. Advent driving includes slowing down, steering with intention, and staying awake to truths that reveal where hope is losing ground.

Our queer siblings in the human family know the truth of hope’s lost ground all too painfully in the recent murders at ClubQ in Colorado Springs. When theologies and political ideologies collide into murder, we can be pretty sure that is not what Jesus would do. It is ever more life affirming to be queer affirming too. Humans are created in God’s image. All humans. Our queer selves, family, friends, and neighbors are necessarily created in God’s image too. Lives are at stake in the claims we make as Christians. Unconditional, assumption-shattering, prodigal love is the only way out of the sinkhole of hate. An active love through which hope gains ground. That is the hope that drives us in Advent. The hope that we long for and are a part of.

Awake and cruising into Advent we have a few driving instructions available to keep us on the road. One is more classically considered devotional, daily fueling our faith with God’s activity, promise, and hope. You can pick up one of these pocket-sized devos at the Sanctuary entrances. Called “prophets & promises: Devotions for Advent and Christmas 2022,” we’re given short bits of scripture, story, picture, and prayer for each day. Lighting our driven days with Advent hope so that God draws our attention rather than the dead end of commercial chaos.

Also part of our Advent road trip is a topographical map of sorts. The rolling hills and water features of the book Sleepers Wake drives our devotion into the discipleship depths of Climate Change. “Shot through with hope,” these daily reflections augmented with paintings, explore how we can remove obstacles for healing the earth injured by our human blunders.[7] With energy and heart, Nicholas Holtam draws on his experience as former Church of England lead Bishop for the environment to guide our spiritual and cultural transformation, so we can all do our part to preserve our world for future generations. A big thanks to Bonita Bock, retired pastor and professor and Augustana member, for leading us through Sleepers Wake in classes scheduled on Sunday or Wednesday mornings starting this Wednesday.[8]

Continuing down this road of Advent where hope gains ground, we drive through the four weeks towards Christmas avoiding the blunder of sleeping at the wheel and hurting people with our momentum in the wrong direction. We heed Jesus’ command to stay awake. Culturally, the season has a careening quality that we can’t entirely avoid. But there are maps given to us, and our faith drives us towards a different horizon, one with a manger snuggled in the midst of a bustling Bethlehem with full inns, one with the Kingdom of Heaven arriving in the fullness of God’s promises as Jesus will come again.

This Advent season, as we worship together on the road towards Christmas, we are reminded that the God of hope and truth lightens our load, reminding us that we are never the worst blunder we have ever made, that we are loved beyond reason, and held by Christ who knows our human suffering firsthand. This Advent season, starting today and into this week, may you be blessed with the swaddled hope on the horizon that is Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God. And Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (Hanna-Barbera: 1969-1970) https://youtu.be/Bsg3sMPD4XA

[2] I Love Lucy (Paramount: 1951-1957). https://youtu.be/AnHiAWlrYQc

[3] Princess Bride. https://youtu.be/-WTelEdb6jk

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Dear Working Preacher: Matthew 24:36-44 – Advent Attentiveness. November 20, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/advent-attentiveness?fbclid=IwAR0vLeMtMn5rN1vTedkX67LVO0AFam5juKsqHFrh7WMT59U9RIgGti1pxGk

[5] Matthew L. Skinner. The New Testament: The Gospels and Acts. “The Gospel of Matthew.” (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 114-115.

[6] Skinner, Working Preacher, Ibid.

[7] Nicholas Holtam. Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2022).

[8] RSVP to the church office (303-388-4678 or info@augustanadenver.org) for the Wednesday classes, 9:30-10:30 a.m., 11/30, 12/7, 12/14, and 12/21. There is a minimum of eight participants required for this class to proceed. Sunday classes are 9:15-10:15 a.m. between worship services.

What IS it about Mary? [OR God-Bearing and the Courage of Belonging] Luke 1:39-56

**sermon art: The Visitation by Jesus Mafa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 1:39-56 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said,
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
 and holy is his name.
 50His mercy is for those who fear him
 from generation to generation.
 51He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
 53he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty.
 54He has helped his servant Israel,
 in remembrance of his mercy,
 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
 to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

[sermon begins]

What IS it about Mary? As Jesus’ mother, and a key figure during Advent and Christmas every year, most of us have some opinion about her. She is divinized by some and romanticized by others. She is prayed to, sung to, questioned, underestimated, elevated, and celebrated.  We know nothing about her before her visit from the angel Gabriel. There are no character references or list of qualities that support her being chosen as Jesus’ mother. We simply get the announcement of being chosen, of Mary’s consent to God’s will, and then her dash to the hill country to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months.

Mary is newly pregnant. Elizabeth is six months along. Mary is pregnant too soon – not yet married. Elizabeth is pregnant too late – no longer young and had no other children.[1] What a pair they made in the first century when women’s sexuality was closely guarded and honor-bound. Both of their pregnancies were taboo, disrupting social norms with pregnancies that bore shame and humiliation. Earlier in the story we are told that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she conceived.[2] It was in the sixth month that the angel Gabriel announced God’s plans to Mary. Mary knew the lowliness she sang about in verse 48 because her consent to God’s will, to bear a holy child, shamed her honor and risked her life.

Mary and Elizabeth show us what courage looks like in the face of shame. It looks like connecting with someone else who knows a similar shame and humiliation. Hanging out with them. Belonging with them. Mary and Elizabeth show us what the church is. Not what it should be. What it IS. Yesterday our family attended the funeral of one of our longtime family friends. His name is Paul. His son gave one of the eulogies and talked about Paul’s ability to love unconditionally and how that was connected to his faith. It wasn’t that Paul was okay with whatever. It’s that he knew that people, including his children, were more valuable and vastly more important than whatever they had done. Facing the consequences for whatever happens, forgiving where forgiveness is needed, and staying connected through it all are the main things because people are the main thing. Mary and Elizabeth give us a first century example of what this looks like. Our friend Paul gave us a 21st century example of what this looks like. There are other examples too.

In the last few weeks, a number of people have talked with me about their worship experiences.  A couple of folks feel certain that communion has been key for them in overcoming deeply personal challenges. Others have mentioned that worship connects with their grief in ways that defy easy explanations. I’m sure that each of us would express our worship experiences quite differently – from the mundane to the mysterious and everything in between. The impression made by the Bible story and by people’s worship stories is one belonging. No matter how imperfect each of us are or how imperfect our life situations may be, we have a place to belong because we first belong to God and, because of God’s promises, we belong to each other. In belonging we are comforted in our humiliations but we also find courage for whatever comes next.

Courage in belonging is one of Mary’s gifts to us through the example of her and Elizabeth, and through the example of being called by God without character references. Our Welcome Connection ministry here at church focuses on belonging. The ministry team started meeting a few months before Covid was even a thing. Naming the group became of part of figuring out what we were up to. I’ve learned over time to step back and watch as group names form from the group members themselves. Ta-da! Welcome Connection evolved out of those conversations – the name of the ministry also named part of our goal. Welcome Connection reaches out and invites folks to belong as well as welcome and connect folks with each other. Because it’s one thing to worship together and it’s another to be church with each other.

When Welcome Connection regrouped a few months ago and started meeting again, the first priority was reaching out to congregation members and re-connecting with them. Phone calls were made to let people know we were back in person for worship. Deepening our sense of belonging after being disconnected was a top priority. After all, reaching out and inviting goes better if there are connecting points in place. Welcome Connection’s urgency also grows from the awareness that 53 new continuing visitors in 31 households have begun worshipping more recently.[3] Some of you who are continuing visitors started worshipping via livestream and now are in person. Others of you found worship in person with the awareness of hoping for a place and people of connection, faith, and meaning. Whatever the reason, Welcome Connection’s ministry is finding ways to help folks connect with each other.

Obviously, everyone can’t know everyone in a congregation like ours. But there are ways to belong to groups and ministries that help us get to know each other and have a place to belong. Some ways of belonging are established, like Sunday lunches after 10:30 worship, and other ways are just beginning like Men’s Bible Study which is starting because someone suggested the idea and there’s a willing leader for it. Thanks Erin and Brian! Everyone’s creative ideas and experiments are invited by the Welcome Connection ministry. Feel free to brainstorm with each other and bring ideas to the team along with who can lead it. In a disconnected world, Elizabeth and Mary’s example of belonging is one worth pondering for our congregation.

Additionally, there’s a special name for Mary that comes from the Greek Orthodox Church – Theotokos (Θεοτόκος).  Theotokos means God-bearer. Mary became a God-bearer when she consented to God’s plan for her to conceive a child and name him Jesus. When Mary calls herself “his servant” in verse 46, she echoes verse 38 when she called herself “a servant of the Lord” in her consent. Missing in the English is the closer translation from the Greek for δούλη[doule] which means slave to the full expression, “slave of the Lord.” “Slave of the Lord” aligns with the Jewish use of the honorary title “slave of God” used to describe Moses, Joshua, Abraham, David, Isaac, the prophets, Jacob, and one woman – Hannah.[4]

Mary singing about lowliness describes her humiliation, while in the same breath singing about being a “slave of God” places her within a long line of ancestors who were called by God. She is simultaneously elevated by her connection with the ancestors, even as she’s humiliated by her God-bearing body outside of the accepted social norms. Quite differently, but along similar lines, we become God-bearers when we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – bearing God’s love into the world through labors of love for our neighbors. As God-bearers, we are given opportunities to consent to God’s will, to gain courage from belonging to each other, and to take risks that may humiliate us on behalf of each other and our neighbors.

In the Hymn of the Day after the sermon, we’ll sing the Magnificat, Mary’s song of justice and deliverance in verses 46 to 55 from the Luke reading today. Singing the Magnificat gives us time to think about how we bear God to each other and to the wider world. Would you use words like Mary’s? Or would you use other words to describe what bearing God’s will into the world would look like for you? Regardless, you ARE God-bearers. Blessed are YOU among people as you’re blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit for your own sake and the sake of the world. Amen.

________________________________________________

[1] Luke 1:7

[2] Luke 1:24

[3] Discover Augustana classes are scheduled on Sundays January 9, 16, 23, and 30 between worship services for folks who would like to learn more about Augustana or are thinking about becoming members.

[4] Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, MI. Women’s Bible Commentary: Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 372-373.

Guard Your Hearts – Luke 21:25-37 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Like New Year’s Day but for the Church)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 28, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 21:25-36 [Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

[sermon begins]

 

 

Every so often scripture comes alive in an unexpected way. Most recently this happened for me on Thanksgiving. We watched a movie after dinner and before pie. King Richard. It’s a story about Venus and Serena Williams’ father. Richard and their mother, Oracene, coached them to become two of the world’s greatest tennis players of all time. This was their story. My scripture radar lit up in the scene when Richard makes the girls watch Cinderella after he felt that they’d crossed the line from celebrating into bragging. He asked them about the movie’s lesson. They guessed a few answers, none of which were what he was hoping for. He was about to make them watch it again when their mom caboshed him. Instead, he gave his own short sermon about being humble no matter what comes their way – disrespect, winning, or losing. And that they needed to keep their hearts clean.

When he said told them to keep their hearts clean, my mind translated it through the Luke reading. I thought I’d heard Richard say to the girls, “You got to guard your hearts!” I rewatched that scene a day later, as I was writing my sermon, and discovered that the gospel writer’s words weren’t in the movie as I’d thought. Which is also like when you think you heard the preacher say something in a sermon, so you mention it to them, and they assure you that it wasn’t in there. I chalk those moments up to the Holy Spirit’s mischief. Anyway, Richard’s admonition to them to keep their hearts clean carried several messages during the film – stay humble, stay off the streets, stay away from drugs. In other words, stay focused and guard your hearts.

Jesus also warned his disciples about their hearts. His words were a little different. Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” I like the Advent message in this verse. Advent, the start of the church year, is a time to get ready – only partly for Christmas and Jesus in the manger. Advent is more about trusting God’s promise that the kingdom comes fully when Jesus comes again.

This year, the first Sunday of Advent offers a Bible reading that sounds alarming but was a word of comfort to Jesus’ disciples with a message of hope. Chaos ruled their time. Rome was on the warpath. Oppression was rampant from the haves over the have nots. Jesus’ words in this reading comforted people with the promise of God’s kingdom in a world that felt like it was ending. During that chaos, Jesus taught them to guard their hearts against overindulgence. Because overindulgence, dissipation and drunkenness are an easy move when the world is in chaos and people are fainting in fear and foreboding. This year’s increased alcohol sales show just how easy it is to numb out of the chaos. Alcohol is only one way, and easy to measure, but we all know that there are other ways to avoid feeling the feelings and engaging with the world. Most of us can name our preferred mode of escape.

Jesus’ challenge to the disciples considers another way to live in the chaos while awaiting the kingdom of God. Guard your hearts from being weighed down with the worries of this life. Straightforward but not easy to do. Fortunately, we have some help. For starters, we have a framework called the Church Year, a.k.a. the Liturgical Year. The first Sunday of Advent is a timely reminder that there is a structure in place for guarding our hearts – like New Year’s Day, but for the church. Time is structured, first with Advent, then the 12 days of Christmas, then Epiphany and the following Sundays, and the rest that follows, to guard our hearts as we’re weekly and sometimes daily reminded who we are and who we belong to.

This Advent, you’re encouraged to do that with the daily devotion books on the tables at the doors.[1] You can also download an e-copy on your phone. Starting today there are short verses, readings and a prayer for each day that take us through the twelve days of Christmas. Whether you’ve done daily devotions many times or have never done daily devotions, there are touch points for faith each day that help us guard our hearts as individuals and connects us to each other as we daily reflect and pray the same devotions. Pick one up on your way out of worship this morning and get started.

Christianity has always been about engaging the world with hearts of compassion – and never about disengaging or escaping. Compassion guards our hearts against cynicism and the objectification of other people. We can tell when we’re objectifying folks when we start accepting their suffering as deserved or, at the very least, beyond our control. How many Sunday worship readings in the Church Year focus us on loving God and loving neighbor and that when we love our neighbor then we are also loving God? I don’t actually know the answer to that question but I’m going to go out on a limb and guesstimate that it’s a sizeable percent of Sunday readings during the year.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians edges toward this notion of loving God, loving neighbor, and loving neighbor to love God. Verses 12 and 13 of the reading go like this, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you; And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness…” 1 Thessalonians is considered to be Paul’s first recorded letter and may just be my favorite of his letters. There is an abundance of love between Paul and this church, a love from which he attempts to encourage them through their challenges. The language he uses about “strengthening hearts in holiness” could be problematic if he was telling them that they need to aim higher in their piety. But he isn’t. Paul’s words are a prayer, asking that God strengthen their hearts in the holiness that, of course, belongs first to God – that their hearts be guarded by God in their love for each other and for all people.

Good tips for guarding our hearts in today’s readings. Praying for each other. Loving each other and all people. Good tips for guarding our hearts at this Advent time of the Church Year. Daily Devotions. Sunday worship. And here’s one more. Pick a word to guard your heart during the Church Year. A word to guide your prayer and focus your thinking when chaos ramps up and the temptation to escape rather than act in love becomes strong. The word can be “love” or “hope” or any other word from scripture. You can use the readings from today or the readings from the daily devotions this week. Circle the words in the bulletin that resonate with your faith. Thanksgiving Eve’s readings had some great stuff for Advent words too. That bulletin can still be found at augustanadenver.org/worship.

You can get as involved or keep it as simple as you’d like in choosing your word. If there are too many choices, let me know and I can help narrow the options or even just assign you a word. Write the word on a sticky note or create daily calendar reminders that pop the word on your phone at different times of day, or create something cool with paint, markers, or colored pencils. Be as high or low tech as you’d like. Be as simple or as artsy as you’d like.

The bottom line is that guarding our hearts is ultimately about reminding ourselves and each other that our hearts are already guarded. We need reminders that our hearts are already guarded because the world is a noisy place, and we are forgetful humans. We need reminders to not faint from fear, to not numb ourselves with drunkenness, to not be weighed down with worry. Jesus reminds us to engage each other with compassion and gives us plenty of examples. Our hearts are already guarded by Christ Jesus – the Messiah for whom we wait at Kingdom Come and the One who arrives in, with, and under the bread and wine of holy communion. We wait with hope and anticipation because God remembers us according to his steadfast love.  Amen and Thanks be to God!

________________________________________________________

[1] Heaven and Nature Sing: Devotions for Advent and Christmas 2021. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021). https://go.augsburgfortress.org/devotions-for-advent-and-christmas

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People of God, hear this glad news:

by God’s endless grace

your sins are forgiven, and you are free—

free from all that holds you back

and free to live in the peaceable realm of God.

May you be strengthened in God’s love,

☩ comforted by Christ’s peace,

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

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

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

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

 

 

From Friendly Competition to Celebrating Completion on the Third Sunday in Advent – Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Isaiah 35:1-10  The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

[sermon begins]

Nothing like a little friendly competition. We, in fact, just wrapped one up in the congregation on Thanksgiving Eve. Those Augustana Early Learning Center children collected chili like crazy and we collected chili like crazy. All together we collected 1,555 pounds of chili over the month of November. The goal was to out-do each other in the name of filling food pantries for Metro Caring and George Washington High School. Friendly competition makes us better in ways we never thought possible – challenging each other to be the best of who we’ve been created to be. We see this in sports when two athletes or two teams allow their rivalry to create deep respect and thrill-a-minute fun. A little like the Heisman trophy finalists Justin Fields and Chase Young who play football for the same team and have each other’s back during the hype and interviews; who play better ball because of each other.[1] The opposite is also true, sometimes we get worried that we’re not going to keep up, or that someone is going to come along and usurp our position. We know when we see the latter – the fits, the whining, the yelling, the lack of eye contact between teammates. We also know when we’re watching the former. When a ballgame winds down to the last seconds and no one knows who going to end up with the winning score but after the game the players laugh and smile in those handshakes and hugs after the game. You know they’ve had a blast. You know the losing team is disappointed. But still the joy of the game is mirrored in the teams’ demeanor towards each other.

The question of competition arises between commentators who study John the Baptist and Jesus. There seems to be agreement that John had a very large following of disciples, enough to have power that threatened King Herod. It’s how he ended up incarcerated as a political prisoner. John’s power is one reason his question from prison is so powerful. John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  It’s a humble question open to the possibility of Jesus’ greatness – not as threat but as hope. It’s also an Advent kind of question – filled with expectation on the one hand, and with lack of certainty on the other. A simple “yes” or “no” answer would have been easier to take back to John.

But Jesus didn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer. He gave an answer more like a spy movie’s exchange of coded messages. First spy on the inside of the door says, “The milkman delivered chocolate instead of half-and-half;” then the spy outside says, “Cookies would have been better,” which opens the door to let the spy in. Anyone listening can’t decipher the cryptic communication. Maybe Jesus wanted to protect John in the prison cell. Hard to say. It’s possible Jesus knew that John would know the Isaiah reading about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping, and the speechless singing. They could have been working together like the spies in the old movies passing cryptic messages through their knowledge of Hebrew scripture.

It could be, though, that Jesus simply understands one more thing better than us.  “Yes” or “no” answers are limiting when talking about Jesus. When John’s disciples go back to prison to pass along Jesus’ message, they’re supposed to talk about what they see and hear. Not competition but conversation and even celebration of what they see and hear. Let’s say someone comes up to you and asks, “Do you really believe God was born as Jesus on Christmas?” Rather than answer “yes” or “no” as the question is framed, there’s another way to answer the question by simply saying, “Here’s what I do know.” And following that up with your story of faith in Jesus, with what you see and hear.

Maybe you have a story of feeling unlovable and finally believing that the unconditional love of Jesus for all people actually does include you. Is that anything like the deaf hearing? Maybe you’ve found meaning in life’s vicissitudes – the highs and lows and in-betweens filled in by the grace of Christ with meaning beyond imagining. Is that anything like the blind seeing? Maybe you found yourself in recovery, confessing all the pain your addiction caused and finding forgiveness, fully dependent on God’s power after you hit bottom with a behavior that you thought would eventually kill you. Is that anything like the dead being raised? Maybe you’ve volunteered or advocated or walked alongside someone whose poverty was immobilizing and now there’s money to pay rent. Is that anything like the poor having good news brought to them?  Maybe you’ve been a faithful churchgoer all your life, finding hope and love in the good news of Jesus no matter what’s going on around you.  Is that anything like not taking offense at Jesus?

John and Jesus’ moment offers us a chance to wonder about where we see Jesus in life – whether it’s our own life or someone else’s. Many of us have heard the Jesus stories for so long that we know by heart the transformations of the blind, deaf, speechless, lame, diseased, and dead. We’ve even experienced those transformations  personally or communally. Which brings us to Jesus’s speech about John after his disciples deliver the message from Jesus to the prison.  Jesus challenges the crowds about what they were doing heading out to hear John in the wilderness. There are subtle references to King Herod whose monetary coin had a reed embossed on it and who wore the soft robes of royalty.[2] Jesus’ references to the king’s power are subtle but acknowledge the threat that John posed to Herod and the reason John ended up in prison. The people were not going out to the wilderness to praise the King. Once again, Jesus highlights John’s gifts and power not in competition but in celebration. In Jesus’ words, the crowds were looking for a prophet. Prophets tell the truth, even the uncomfortable truths, about what’s wrong in the world needing to be made right. As did John, a messenger prophet who would prepare the people for the way.

Isaiah called the way the “Holy Way,” where even the most directionally challenged traveler will be able to stay the path.[3]  On the Holy Way, fear becomes hope and there’s a reversal of everything that competes for the win. Instead, there is only celebration. Humanity is reconciled to God and so is all creation: Blind see, deaf hear, lame move, speechless sing, deserts blossom, water pours in wilderness, and predators vanish.[4]  From crocus to all creation, the Holy Way is the completion of the glimpse we’ve had of Jesus, the one for whom we wait in celebration of all he was yesterday in a baby, today in a living Word, and tomorrow in an eternal God.  Amen.

_________________________________

[1] Ohio State University, 2019. Justin Fields, Quarterback, and Chase Young, Defensive End.

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[3] Rolf Jacobsen, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[4] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

A Manger – Flawed and Real Luke 2:1-20 [Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 12, 2019

Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks: Today’s worship is the first of its kind for our congregation. Recently retired folks and people who work from home are hosting our home-centered folks by bringing them to a brief worship and communion service followed by lunch and then returning them home.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Put us all together and, between us, we know A LOT of Christmas music.  We could hear a medley of carols and know most of them.  At the very least, we know the music enough to be comfortable with it, to play with it, to give voice to it. In the kitchen or humming as we tuck in for the night, our caroling is as imperfect as it is joyous. Our spontaneous carols likely have a few flaws but they’re real. And these carols tell a story. A story that gathers us together here today.  A story that had its first tellers long ago.  Storytellers for whom the story is personal and real.

The first storytellers were the shepherds in the field. These men who heard the angels sing were shady characters. The closest example of these men in the 21st century would be people who camp under bridges and call it home. THESE are the people for whom the angels sing. They are given first dibs on the story by the angel who tells them – “to you is born this day…a Savior…a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[1]  They head out fast to go see this baby, this Savior.  After all, THEY clearly need one.  When they get to the manger, they talk about what’s been told to them.  Imagine for a moment the way they tell the story.  At best, they tell it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, they tell the story because it’s first and foremost for them.  The shepherds need a Savior; it’s obvious that they need one – a Savior on their side, a Savior for them.

So, because the Savior is for them, the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph the story, and apparently anyone else who will listen, because, “…all who heard it were amazed.”[2]  What amazes them?  The story itself?  That the shepherds are the ones telling it?  That a Savior is born?  That angels came, spoke, AND sang?  It’s pretty much all amazing! The truly amazing part is that Mary heard the shepherds out. The scripture makes a distinction in verse 19: “All who heard it were amazed but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”[3]  She’s just had a baby in a barn, laid that squishy, squeaky baby in a manger used for animal food, and she’s treasuring the words of these wild, shady shepherds in her heart.

Who does that?!  For Mary, this story told by the shepherds somehow made sense.  At best, perhaps because she heard it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, because…just maybe…it’s a story for her too.  Perhaps Mary needs a Savior, a Savior on her side, a Savior for her.

The Bible tells story after story about deeply flawed people whose lives are oh so real. People who regularly hurt other people or hurt themselves.  But it doesn’t take a 2,000-year-old look back in time to see this play out.  Our lives reveal a truth that we don’t often share with ourselves and try to avoid sharing with anyone else.  Despite our best intentions to “do better next time,” despite the reassurances that we give ourselves about being “good people,” the truth remains: anywhere people show up, so do flaws…real and personal.

Into the mix of flawed people, God shows up.  God shows up, of all places, in a manger.  A manger that has a splinter here and a cracked peg there – a manger that is flawed and real; a manger that cradles and reveals God showing up in Jesus.  The manger that reveals the Savior who came under a star in skin and solidarity, into a fragile humanity, to show up personally into our very real lives.

On the first Christmas, God showed up as a baby, a living and breathing hope.  “…hope [that] rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is,” has done and is doing.[4]  That’s the hope we cling to by faith, even if sometimes it’s by the barest thread with the tips of our fingernails. Regardless of how tightly you cling, the reality is that Jesus holds on to YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like today in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and amen!

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:11-12

[2] Luke 2:18

[3] Luke 2:19

[4] W. Dennis Tucher Jr., “Lectionary for November 27, 2011: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx

Waiting on Emmanuel, the Non-Violent One [A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent ]Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5

**sermon art:  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54228

Title: Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares
Notes: “The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959, by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare, is meant to symbolize man’s desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind. It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters. 1/Oct/2001. UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi.” — (from Flicker.com)
Date: 1959
Artist: Vuchetich, Evgeniy Viktorovich, 1908-1974

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 1, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Matthew 24:36-44  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

[sermon begins]

Wreath, check.

Candles, check.

Flickering candlelight, check.

Catchy Adventy tune, check.

One candle lit and we’re on our way OR, as our song went today, God’s kingdom is on its way, and, in fact, God’s kingdom is already here. Whew! Thank God! Because to hear our readings might give one pause to fear something terrible and rash is about to happen. Immersed in a culture that pivots around the idea that people get what they deserve – whether its wealth or punishment – it’s easy to become people who hope that other people get what they have coming to them.  Not us, though. Funny how that works. That wishing that other people get what they have coming never includes those of us who think those thoughts. Oh sure, grace is a good theory, but it’s not actually how the world works, we think to ourselves. Or perhaps that thought isn’t even conscious. Our unconscious thought is that grace doesn’t or can’t really function in the world.  With a gospel book like Matthew, that line of thinking may be understandable.

One of my favorite theologians is Rene Girard.[1] Originally an anthropologist and an atheist, he began to study the writings of major world religions for their practices of scapegoating. Scapegoating is the way groups identify someone in their midst who must be expelled for the group to survive. Group anxiety goes up. A source for that anxiety needs to be identified. Once identified, the source, the scapegoat, needs to be destroyed or at least kicked out of the group. Girard specialized on the topic through his study of apes and wanted to see how humans went about it.  Late in life, Girard concluded that Christianity was unique among world religions for its vehement rejection of scapegoating and the assertion that the human family was called to move beyond it – the parable of the Good Samaritan loving-neighbor-as-self is the case in point.[2] As Girard’s argument goes, Jesus was the ultimate and final scapegoat through his self-sacrifice on the cross. His nonviolent consent to his death subsumed the violence inflicted on him into himself and negated it. At the same time, Jesus’ death reveals our tendency to inflict violence and justify scapegoating.

We find ourselves scapegoating right down to our least favorite books of the Bible. Well, perhaps you don’t.  I’ll speak for myself.  I scapegoat right down to my least favorite books of the Bible.  The Gospel of Matthew falls in the top tier.  I find its focus on who’s in and who’s out a bit exhausting. No surprise, really, given how I was raised in a different denomination that preached the heck out of misguided rapture theology.  Recently, the Girardian Lectionary website encouraged readers to lean into the books of the Bible in which we struggle, the books we’re inclined to scapegoat. No time like the present given that today, December 1, begins a new church year centered by the Gospel of Matthew.  We’ll get a lot of Matthew over the next year. Happy New Year, people! Here’s the thing. Lutherans claim that the Holy Spirit shapes us through scripture, shattering our tightly held assumptions, and reforming us. This claim is true even in my hesitation about Matthew. I’d even go so far as to say it’s especially true about the Bible books we feel need not apply to our lives.

The Gospel of Matthew was likely written late in the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, fifty years after Jesus’ death. The Matthean community seems to have been primarily Jews who believed Jesus was their long-awaited savior. Initially a part of life in the synagogue, a conflict began with either other Jews, or with Roman authorities, or both, that escalated to the point of the Matthean group splitting off to form its own community.[3]  The book is deeply concerned about true and false belief and God as the final judge. The verses today are a good example of the divide as well as illuminates what we think we already know about these verses.  For instance, in this story, is it better to be taken or left behind?  The comparison with the people swept away by the flood in the Noah story indicates that being left behind might be the better outcome. If it’s the case that being left behind is the better option, it brings up another question. Who is doing the taking? The verses aren’t clear which opens the possibility that there’s a group, perhaps Roman agents, who is taking some people while others remain – not unheard of in the Roman Empire or modern empires for that matter.  If it’s possible that Rome is snatching people, why are we so quick to read it as divine judgment.

It’s curious that we’re more inclined to believe in divine punishment than mercy. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’re cool if that punishment applies to someone else. Out of that desire for retribution, even if we know better than to say it out loud, we can see how it’s possible to create God in our own violent image. But the birth we celebrate on Christmas and the return we actively wait for both hinge on the cross of the Savior who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world beloved by God. Isaiah envisions a Peaceable Kingdom with these words – “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  No more learning war.  Perhaps John Lennon’s song “Imagine” had a bit of Biblical influence imagining a future in which non-violence becomes possible.  For Matthew’s Gospel it was difficult to imagine even though Jewish scriptures run throughout the whole thing. This Gospel is deeply connected to the Jewish covenants through Abraham and following.[4]  When you get a chance, read Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew. Web search those names to find their story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more legal than biological as Matthew goes on to tell Jesus’ birth story. But among the stalwart patriarchs in the list of names are surprising characters, including five women, that become part of God’s story through unexpected or unconventional ways.[5]  Actually, don’t stop at the genealogy, read the whole book of Matthew as we begin our year within its chapters. Underline things you like. Jot a question mark by things that are confusing or troubling. The gospel of Matthew was written in a community that experienced polarization and tension about their Jesus claims with other groups.

Those tensions between the groups play out in some big language and rhetoric. But other, deeper tensions are also playing out in Matthew’s story of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – “between the expected and unexpected, between the old and the new, between sternness and mercy, and between respectability and scandal.”[6]  Through these stories, the Holy Spirit brings new life to fragile faith and heals soul deep wounds. The whispers of hope have begun this Advent during which we’ll hear the promise to Mary – that she’ll conceive and bear a son, name him Emmanuel which means “God is with us.”[7] Hope arriving through the baby we’ll celebrate and the return of Emmanuel who showed us the natural end of our violent scapegoating while showing us a different, peace-filled way forward as we stay awake and watchful.  Thanks be to God and Amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Read more about Rene Girard and his work at girardianlectionary.net

[2] Luke 10:25-37 (Matthew 22:34-40 gives the greatest and second commandment on which hang the law and prophets.)

[3] Matthew L. Skinner. The New Testament: The Gospels and Acts. “The Gospel of Matthew.” (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 114-115.

[4] Matthew 1:1-17 see Jesus’ genealogy and note both the stalwart and surprising players in the list.

[5] Skinner, 109-111 regarding Jesus’ genealogy.

[6] Ibid, 111.

[7] Matthew 1:23

Connection at the Cradle’s Edge [OR Two Women Preaching a Shared Vision] Luke 1:39-55

**sermon art:  The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2009, oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Advent 4, December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

[sermon begins]

Ohhhh, cat fight!  Well, not really.  Not at all actually.  Mary and Elizabeth are two women in it together.  Both have slightly different jobs that work toward the same vision.  After Mary’s surprise pregnancy, she makes haste to the hills to her relative Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant in her old age.  Later we learn her visit to Elizabeth lasted about three months.[1]  Perhaps Mary was there when John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah – helping her aging relative with a difficult labor and delivery and then heading home as her own belly grew heavy with pregnancy.  This is no small relationship between the two women.  In a world that often pits women against each other, imagining competition where there isn’t any, here we have one of many examples in which competition is simply not the case.  Not only was Mary welcomed by Elizabeth and the baby inside of her.  Mary was celebrated by them.  The baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Celebration, indeed.

The celebration continues after Elizabeth’s joyous welcome with Mary’s psalm in response.  Psalms are a form of song in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  Psalm songs in Luke lead us to up to and beyond cradle’s edge.  In addition to Elizabeth and Mary, the priest Zechariah sings of God’s faithfulness after the birth of his son who becomes John the Baptist, the angels sing to shepherds in a field of good news for all people, and the prophets Simeon and Anna praise God’s mercy for all people.[2] Their songs celebrate the faithfulness of God in the One soon to be cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  Song is a way to remember. Songs get trapped in our head differently and become available in our minds at times when other words fail us.  Songs of full of faith and Christmas promise can sustain our faith and remind us of what we easily forget in the day – that the world and our connection with other people is to be celebrated by way of God’s imagination not our own imagined state of competition.

In her psalm, Mary praises God for humbling the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting the lowly, and feeding the hungry.  One reaction to Mary’s psalm might be vengeful if you’re exhausted by oppression and survival. Another reaction to her psalm might be dread if you hear you’re about to lose something.  In a world that often pits people against each other, inciting competition, categorizing winners and losers, Mary’s psalm can be heard as either/or categories – either you’re the powerful at the top waiting to be toppled or you’re the lowly at the bottom waiting for your turn to be at the top.  For God’s sake, we know what happens to that cradled baby Jesus who grows into the ministry celebrated by his mother’s psalm.  The competition perceived by the political and religious powers took Jesus to trial and death on a cross.  But let’s remember for a moment, that the cross was good news both for the criminal who hung next to Jesus and for the Roman centurion nearby who praised God and confessed truth.[3]  Not either/or categories – both/and – all!

Okay, I’ve dabbled at the cross long enough. Let’s return to the cradle’s edge, shall we?  Pregnant expectation is where we’re at with Mary and Elizabeth.  Even the baby in Elizabeth’s belly is jumping for joy.  The women are joyous and hopeful as they greet each other.  Their psalms preach hope and promise, a vision jump-started by the Holy Spirit.  Two women, both preaching, both celebrating new life in the form of a baby but not yet a baby born.  Another word for this is hope.

Hope is my word for the church year. I chose it at the end of November before Advent began.  I chose the word hope as an antidote to the seemingly endless messages of despair.  With a word chosen to focus faith, I have a better shot at seeing life through the lens of God’s imagination and promise rather than human frustration and despair.  I have a better shot at living and sharing the hope that is within us by the power of faith.  Elizabeth and Mary’s moment is a case in point.  Mary left town in a hurry to go see Elizabeth.  She had a lot to fear in town.  Betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, young and pregnant, facing potential backlash from her community, she walks through Zechariah’s front door into safety and celebration with Elizabeth.  I imagine Mary showing up at Elizabeth’s home with the fatigue and nausea common to the first trimester of pregnancy and perhaps with some worry about the future.  Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit welcome is like a fresh breeze that smooths Mary’s furrowed brow and blows the dust off of her traveling feet and inspires Mary’s response in the Magnificat.

If Mary’s response is anything, it’s a word of hope. So much more than greeting card worthy, the Magnificat is bold, rebellious, and full of joy.  It’s hope-filled because, as we’ll hear in a few days, this is good news of great joy for ALL people.[4]  Which means that the mighty cast down and the lowly brought up stand together with each other by the power of Jesus.  It’s not about putting the lowly in the mighty category and the mighty in the low to simply repeat the same bad news.  Mary’s psalm births the possibility that the baby growing inside of her will lead us into love that connects rather than competes.  Not sentimental love where we pat each other on the head and wish each other good luck.  Rather, it’s a love that means seeing each other as human relatives, celebrating each other as Mary and Elizabeth did.  Sometimes it’s a compassionate love that soothes and consoles us within the cradle of Christ’s presence.  Sometimes it’s a convicting love that helps us understand when we are in the wrong from the courage gained by Christ’s cross.  Mary’s psalm afflicts those of us who are comfortable while comforting those of us who are afflicted.  The cradle and the cross reveal a lot about us.

But mostly the cradle and the cross reveal the Christ.  From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus is grace that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we live as people with hope.

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[1] Luke 1:56

[2] David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN. Commentary on Luke 1:39-55 for December 20, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=515

[3] Luke 23:39-47

[4] Luke 2:10-12 But the angel said to [shepherds], “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.”

 

Are You Ready?  [Hang With Me Here – It’s a Personality Test, Not a Scorecard]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke 1:68-79  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[sermon begins]

“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile.  She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good.  Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future.  If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me.  Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy.  “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Some of you, I know, are all over it.  Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent.  Menus planned.  You name it and you’re on it.  You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness.  Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz.  What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season.  For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation.  I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago.  My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.

In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys.  We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much.  Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone.  All flesh.  All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.

Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter.  Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today.  Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.

The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story.  The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world.  One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God.  It wasn’t always tidy or easy though.  Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age.  The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born.  His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.

Why does any of this matter?  Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism.  The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine.  The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently.  The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.

Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus.  Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait.  We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John.  Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.  And amen.

 

Subjects of Christ the King – Nope, Nothing Weird About That [OR Pick Your Word for the Church Year] John 18:33-37 (and 38a) and Revelation 1:4b-8]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 18:33-37 (and 38a) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Revelation 1:4b-8 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

[sermon begins]

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate in court.  They’re debating truth in weird slow-motion at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.  It matters who Jesus says he is because there are people, especially religious leaders, who have had it with him and simply want him to go away, squashed like a bug underfoot.  Here’s a sampling of the accusations against him…

There’s the Jesus who goes to weddings and gets frustrated with his mom but does what she says anyway – turning water into wine.

…the Jesus who wields a whip, clearing the temple of vendors who swindle the poor.

…the Jesus who talks new life with a fearful Pharisee in the middle of the night.

…the Jesus who meets a shady woman in the light of the noonday sun.

…the Jesus who heals and who feeds; who walks on water and who’s described alternately as being the word made flesh, the lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, and the truth.

…the Jesus who quietly forgives and saves the woman caught in adultery from being executed, sending her on her way.

… the Jesus who cries with his friends Mary and Martha and who raises Lazarus from the dead.

…the Jesus whose feet are anointed with perfume in adoration.

…the Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, strips down to his skivvies to wash his friends’ feet, and prays for his disciples,

…the Jesus who is criminalized for all of these things and finds himself standing in front Pontius Pilate arguing about truth before he is sentenced to death as the King of the Jews.

There are a number problems with Jesus being and doing any one of these things much less all of them. The time has come to face the music.  He’s in front of Pilate. Pilate is on the emperor’s payroll. He’s not much interested in the petty, internal squabbles of the Jewish religious leaders. He is, however, very interested in keeping the peace.  Uprisings are costly for the emperor and Pilate would pay the piper for upsetting the emperor.  It’s a lesser of the evils in his book and his self-interest is staying alive, thank you very much.  What does it matter that the truth is standing right in front of Pilate as he asks, “What is truth?”

We tend to think of truth as telling a story accurately.  We don’t tend to think of it as the story itself.  We rarely think of truth in terms of a person.  I’m curious about this line of digging.  The archaeology of it.  If each of us IS a “truth” claim, then what is that truth?  In other words, each moment of my life reveals what I think is important in terms of other people, myself, time, money, and God.  What would that archaeological dig look like?  What could you learn about the truth that is me or the truth that is you?  We’re all invested in different things.  We could even say we’re ruled by different things, justifying our choices until we make some kind of sense to ourselves.  An archaeological dig of this kind reveals what runs and rules our lives, revealing our actual king.

I’d like to pause and point out what just happened here because I think it happens a lot.  We start out talking about Jesus and we end up talking about ourselves.  The sermon began with parts of Jesus’ story from the Gospel of John and how he ended up in front of Pilate.  Talking about Pilate, turns us toward the topic of self.  Naturally, it would.  Pilate is such a great human example of what not to do in the name of self-interest.  It’s hard to resist distancing ourselves from him even as we ask the same question about truth.  But why is it so hard to shift ourselves to look at Jesus?  Much less to adore Jesus?

Adoration is part of Christ the King Sunday but it’s not the whole story.  The Feast of Christ the King is young in the church calendar.  Begun in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, its purpose is to compel our hearts, minds, and lives into the reign of God on earth over and above the pull of power in the world.[1]  Not a bad idea given the political disasters and brief pause between world wars in the 1920s.  Not a bad idea given the timeless appeal of trading grace for power. Christ the King Sunday is to the church calendar a bit like New Year’s Eve is to the Common Era Gregorian calendar that we use every day.

Next Sunday begins a new church year with the first Sunday in Advent.  Last year during Advent, I told you about my friend and colleague’s Advent discipline of choosing a word to help her focus on God during life’s hubbub. Step 1, she chooses one word from scripture at the start of Advent.  Step 2, she keeps the word on her radar for the whole year.  She talks about listening for the word in her scripture study and also in her life.  The word serves to keep God on her radar.  This year, I’m giving you a jump on choosing your word for the new church year.  Here’s your homework. Find a Bible reading and think through whether any of the words are worth choosing as your word for this church year.   Let me know what word you pick – e-mail it to me or post it to the sermon post.  A word that could become part of your discipleship, keeping faith front and center, and reminding you that you’re a subject of the realm of Christ’s kingship.  Yes, weird language but good for challenging for our democracy-trained brains.  Subjects of the realm, subjects of Christ’s realm – challenged by language that is other than how we’d ordinarily describe something.

Thanks again to Pope Pius the XI, the church year culminates as our thinking is challenged by the trial of Jesus.  Like Pilate, we are challenged by the question of Jesus’ kingship while he awaits judgment.  Let’s assume for the moment that we’re all cool with the idea of Jesus as king, as Christ the King.  By his admission to Pilate, Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world.  It’s not about signs of spectacular power or prestige.  It’s a kingship that’s obedient as he listens to his mother at a wedding; it’s a kingship that’s grace-full as he hangs out with the shady woman at high noon; it’s a kingship that forgives unforgiveable human failing; it’s a kingship that cries with compassion at the pain of loss; it’s a kingship that’s non-violent through trial and execution, raising not one hand in violence against the people who inflict it; and, ultimately, it’s a kingship emptied out in self-sacrifice on a cross revealing the breadth of divine power in the depth of divine love.[2]

Our devotion, adoration, and praise are for this king revealed in the person of Jesus. In the words from Revelation, we praise this God who is and who was and and who is to come through Jesus who loves us and frees us.  In our little corner of God’s whole church, we tend to do adoration with a reserved, earnest reverence.  Feeling it on the inside while the hymns keep things dignified. Leaving external exuberance to other siblings in Christ – well, unless you count being a super-fan of your favorite band or musical.  Maybe, though, that’s a hint of what some of us feel for Christ the King.  The love and gratitude for what is happening through Christ in kingdom moments breaking through on earth.  Christ’s kingdom of obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when it doesn’t serve our own self-interest. Christ’s kingdom of being loved by friends, family, and enemies…and even God…when we’re at our worst and don’t deserve it, even if that love is the tough kind that demands we face the pain we cause as individuals or groups.  Christ’s Kingdom is truth in the person of Jesus Christ who loves us. Love that inspires our praise and draws us into deeper love and faith.

We love you Jesus, Christ the King.  Help us love you more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lucy Lind Hogan, Hugh Latimer Elderdice Professor of Preaching and Worship, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.  Commentary on John 18:33-37 for November 25, 2018.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885

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