Tag Archives: angels

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

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

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

[3] Luke 2:9

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

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

It Seemed to Them an Idle Tale [OR How Idle Tales DO Pile Up] – Luke 24:1-12

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

[sermon begins]

 

Note-taking. Now there’s a topic filling sanctuaries across the land today.  You know, note-taking…jotting something down to remember something for later. It shows up in our day-to-day in one form or another.  In a meeting a work.  In a class at school. In a kitchen at home.  Or, even, in a church sanctuary near you.  One of the things I get to do with this church is read sermon notes written by our confirmation students who are in the 6th through 8th grade.

Yvonne and I both read their notes and write comments or ask another question in response to what’s been written.  These sermon notes are treasures.  As students, there’s a time to be honest about what is heard. As families, there’s a chance to talk about faith in a different way.  As a preacher, I learn a lot about how my sermons are heard – or are not hearable.  As a pastor, I learn a lot about what these young people are thinking about life, faith, and church – beyond what they tell me during the Children’s Sermons on these steps every Sunday.

There are some great questions in the most recent batch of sermon notes.  One of my favorites is, “How does taking notes help have a better connection with God?”  That’s a fair question especially if you’re the one who’s taking notes. It remains to be seen whether or not my answer about the value of listening differently to sermons is legit.  This is where it gets personal for me. I started going back to church as an adult after being a religious refugee for about a decade. My own notes filled the margins of the worship bulletins during the sermon.  Partly so I could remember what was said. And just maybe so I could ask the pastor about it later if I had the chance.  I had a lot of questions about what I had long set aside as an “idle tale.”[1]

These intrepid women from Galilee. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others were are there.  We’re told just earlier in the story that “the women who followed him from Galilee” were lurking about at the crucifixion, watching Jesus take his last breaths “from a distance.”[2]  We’re told that these women who “had come with him from Galilee” were watching when Jesus is taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea.  “They saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”[3]   Apparently, he was laid to rest without the rituals of burial because these intrepid women of Galilee left the tomb and “prepared spices and ointments” in the time remaining before the required rest on the Sabbath.

We pick up the story on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath, when the women from Galilee return to the tomb to pack Jesus’ body in spices.  His body is not there.  The tomb is open and empty which they find perplexing.  Angels dazzle them and the women drop face down in terror. The angels ask them that great question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is risen.”  Then the angels go on to say this really great thing, “Remember how he told you in Galilee…?”  And they remind the women that Jesus had told them he would die and rise again.  It made no sense the first time they heard it from Jesus.  Standing in the empty tomb, it’s sinking in just a little differently.   Then they remember what Jesus had said while still alive.  Isn’t that the way of hindsight?  We often don’t know what to make of something until more time passes and more information is available. Until we are reminded and have others to offer a new perspective on what we think we already know.

The intrepid women from Galilee head out from the tomb to tell the guys what happened.  “They told all this to the eleven and to all the rest…But these words seemed to be an idle tale and they did not believe them.”  Idle tale is a cleaned up version of the Greek word leros – garbage, drivel, baloney are euphemisms that get close.  Keep adding to the list and you’ll start adding words that are more like the salty speech of sailors or what farmers cart around as fertilizer. [4]  You can almost hear the eleven and the others saying to the women and each other, “That’s leros!”  The only time it’s used in scripture is right here, in Luke.[5]  A pithy, disrespectful response to the women’s report.

Those closest to Jesus can’t fathom the resurrection.  Jesus had told them about it during his ministry. They had been in Jerusalem and either watched or knew about Jesus’ execution. They knew he was dead, entombed.  But, regardless of what Jesus told them when he was alive, they know that the dead stay dead.  Of course they do.  It’s what makes sense.  Yet, the intrepid women of Galilee start chipping away at that truth.

In response to “that leros,” Peter races to the tomb and returns home amazed.  The story says nothing about his belief.  Another confirmation sermon-note writer recently asked, “Is it okay to be skeptical about God and his works?”  To which I would answer that skepticism finds good company with Peter this week…and next Sunday also as we’ll hear about Thomas’ unbelief.

For today, though, the intrepid women from Galilee are the real standouts.  They stuck around at the cross.  They showed up at the tomb. They go from perplexed, to terrified, to preaching, within a short period of time.  They remember what Jesus told them before he died and are no longer looking for the living among the dead.  A greater truth has broken through.  Death is now the idle tale.  By the power of God, the dead don’t stay dead.

In many ways the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real times of suffering and pain.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.

Resurrection. Now that’s little more slippery.  A God who brings life out of death is unpredictable…destabilizing.  Here’s what I know.  Twenty years ago I had spent a decade outside of the church and was a decade into my work as a nurse. I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be a Christian preacher.  There was a lot that had to die inside of me and God is not done yet.  You see, idle tales are easy. The leros piles up everywhere and we love getting out our shovels to heap it higher.  We tell idle tales in our personal lives as we hide our secrets.  We tell idle tales as we form our families with unrealistic standards of perfection.  We tell idle tales at school and work as the striving creates unlivable pressure cookers out of our lives.  We tell idle tales as we talk politics.

In contrast, the truth that God loves the world so much that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” is a story that saves in the here-and-now.  The saving story is the love of God who lived and died and lives again as Jesus the Christ.  That leros that you protect so carefully? Watch out, God wastes nothing as despair is turned to hope and as death is turned to life.

Amen and alleluia!

 

[1] Luke 24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

[2] Luke 23:49

[3] Luke 23:50-56

[4] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Moment on WorkingPreacher for June 2, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

For: You, From: A Fleshy Word – John 1:1-14 and Hebrews 1:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Day, December 25, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading, Hebrews reading is at end of post]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

Way back in Genesis, in the beginning of the Bible, the ancient writers describe a time before Earth-time. [1]  There is a dark, formless void that no one is quite sure about. Creation stories form out of that void as God speaks and God creates, “In the beginning…”  In the Bible reading this Christmas Day, the gospel writer of John takes us way back to that beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Word and God, before time and in the beginning of time.

In the beginning, something happened that broke the relationship God created.   After plenty of millennia in which the world has struggled and continues to struggle through today, I’ve grown comfortable with calling whatever is broken “sin.”  Sin helps me name the struggle within myself.  You might use the language of flaw or weakness or challenge.  I’m pretty good with the language of sin.  It’s a word that digs deep and reveals much that is true in my own life.  Sin separates, hurts, and blocks me from seeing the good in me or anyone else, including God.  Sin has me justifying my actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, including God.

What does God to do restore the broken relationship with humankind that came through sin so soon after creation?  What does God do to free us from our sin that divides and destroys?  God needs to communicate with us on our own terms.  Communicating in a way that is suited to the human condition.[2] Thankfully, over and against my sin, is a Word from God.  A Word that brings life into being.  A Word that communicates and gives life.  A Word that forms, reforms and restores relationships.[3]  A Word made flesh.  A fleshy Word that the Gospel of Luke tells us is a baby in a manger announced by angels and surrounded by his young parents, shepherds, and animals.  A baby whom Mary is told will be called Son of God.[4]  A baby named Jesus.[5]

A baby named Jesus, a fleshy Word through whom all things were made and in whom is life – the life that is the light of all people, a light that darkness cannot overcome.[6]  And with these words of light and darkness we arc back through the creation story in Genesis one more time, sent sling-shot through darkness and light.  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”[7]

A baby named Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  Listening to the many layers of the Christmas story, and the Gospel of John’s prologue in particular, is like hearing many notes all at once in a musical chord.[8]  Like a complex chord, the effect moves through head and heart at the same time as we are moved through Genesis and John, through time and space, through light and dark, through Word and flesh, through God and Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Incarnation of the Word into flesh becomes God’s way of communicating with us in a manner suited to our human condition.[9]  Incarnation is the length to which God will go to get through to us.  We are sensate creatures – we see, we touch, we hear.  So God calls through the cry from a manger and the groans from a cross.  In the story of Jesus that follows his birth, God communicates in Jesus’ actions and also in his words.  Jesus enacts life-giving power. God’s radical, subversive action in terms we can grasp.

Christmas is the beginning of God coming to all people[10] – expanding the eternal covenant made long ago through an ancient people.  In that time, God spoke to the ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.[11]  Now God is speaking to us through the Word made flesh, Jesus the Son of God.

Through Jesus, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit makes us children of God.[12]  The adoption process of God’s wayward, sinful creatures begins in the beginning and arcs through the incarnation, the Word made flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees us from sin.  Set free from the business of justifying our actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, or against God.

This Christmas, for you is the gift of Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  You are “children of God born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[13]   Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________________________

In response to the sermon, the people sing a song called the Hymn of the Day.   Today we sing, “What Child is This”

Listen here: http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/399

1. What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Refrain
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

2. Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

3. So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

______________________________________

Sermon footnotes

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

[2] Craig R. Koester. Narrative Lectionary 106: Word Made Flesh. Podcast for “I Love to Tell the Story” at WorkingPreacher.org on December 15, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=450

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

[5] Luke 1:30-31 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

[11] Hebrews 1:1-2 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13

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Hebrews reading

Hebrews 1:1-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”