Tag Archives: Baptism

Division is Not a Call to Hate [OR When Jesus Said ‘Love Your Enemies,’ I’m Pretty Sure He Didn’t Mean Kill Them] Luke 12:48b-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 18, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible readings from Luke and Hebrews]

Luke 12:48b-56  From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. 49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

[sermon begins]

Way back in January, I received a text asking if I could preach at New Beginnings at the women’s prison on August 16th. Pastor Terry is the called pastor of that church and she was planning her sabbatical for this summer.  Chaplain Nicole was going to be covering the sabbatical and knew she was going to be gone this weekend so they were getting things dialed in early to be sure all was well eight months later.  I agreed to the date and put it on my calendar.  Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. I e-mailed Chaplain Nicole confirming my schedule with New Beginnings on August 16. Her reply included the news that she was not going to be away after all but she’d like for me to go ahead and preach as planned.  There’s another twist in this short tale.  Holly, an Augustana member, has been volunteering with New Beginnings and set up a four dates a year for other Augustana people to join her as worshiping visitors.  Providentially, August 16 was one of those dates.

When Holly shared the dates, my plan was to proceed with preaching the 16th regardless. Who could have known that I’d be preaching on a day that Holly picked arbitrarily?  When Nicole told me that she was going to be in town after all, and we knew there would be Augustana people in worship with the women, I asked if she’d be willing to preach and I could help in worship in other ways.  I figure you all get plenty of my preaching and it would be cool to hear someone else.  To make an already long story shorter, Nicole came up with the idea that we could preach together by having a dialogue of sorts.  The women of New Beginnings could hear me and the Augustana people could hear Nicole. A win-win, so to speak.  It ended up working out!  Nicole and I figured out some talking points ahead of time so that we’d actually wring some good news out of these freaky verses in Luke which, at the beginning of the week, felt like no small task.  What follows in my sermon is my best solo attempt at what was really a two person job.  So, shout out to Nicole Garcia and the women of New Beginnings – check!

Jesus talks to his disciples about fire and division among families before turning to the crowd, calling them hypocrites, and asking them why they can’t read the present time.  These are really tough verses in Luke.  It’s impossible to read them as a stand-alone story.  They at least deserve to be connected to the larger story in the Gospel of Luke.  Otherwise there’s a danger of turning Jesus into a fire and brimstone preacher when that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is talking about here.  So let’s talk about that fire.

Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist says something about fire.  John was out in the wilderness baptizing people and they were wondering if he was the Messiah.  John answered them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[1]  This is language about purification and refining by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that shows up in the book of Acts as tongues of fire resting on each Jesus follower of the day of Pentecost.[2]  Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples wanted to rain fire down on some inhospitable Samaritans and Jesus rebuked those misguided disciples before they all left for another village.[3]  No fire of retaliation, Jesus reminds his people.

There’s another thing about fire in scripture. It’s a sign of God’s presence. Back in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Exodus, God calls Moses through a burning bush.  What happens to that bush?  Not a darn thing.  The bush isn’t consumed.[4]  The fire signifies to Moses that he’s in the presence of God. And again, as Moses and the Israelites wander in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt, “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night.”[5]

In the fire is the presence of God and in the fire is the refining power of the Holy Spirit – also God.  When we look at the fire as good news, it’s like the preacher in our Hebrews reading says when we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the one we look to shake loose “the sin that clings so closely” so that we can “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.[6]  The presence and power of God revealed in cross and in resurrection, in suffering and in victory over death.[7]  All those people listed by the preacher in Hebrews were of the great cloud of witnesses whose imperfection was part of how God was revealed by all that God did for, in and through them which loops us back into the Gospel of Luke and the division that Jesus is causing.  The division revealed by following Jesus because it’s a natural by-product of Jesus’ ministry of confronting the status quo – the status quo of sin that clings to us individually and collectively.  And stuff happens when the status quo is pushed.  Division happens.

The division isn’t a sudden turn or call into hatred.  Too easily we forget what Jesus said earlier in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount in chapter six. “Love you enemies…if you love those who love you what credit is that to you?…Love your enemies.”[8]  Jesus says it twice!  Preaching unconditional love and grace rankles people. Jesus was ultimately executed for it.  The message of God’s kingdom brings unbearable tension but the natural by-product of division should not be construed as a call to hatred.  Rather it is a call to be in the tension that comes with calling out sin.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote a letter from jail and in it he talked about tension.  He said, “A negative peace is the absence of tension, a positive peace is the presence of justice.”[9]  In particular, Reverend King was calling out the sin of racism which created a heck of a lot of tension. He was assassinated in the midst of that tension too. And still, in the midst of that tension, he continued to preach non-violence saying that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” in a sermon about loving your enemies.[10]

I fear that we’re confused about this distinction between division and hatred. The entertainment value of feuds and hatred in reality T.V. is a case in point.  The sharper and snarkier the comments about the people you disagree with lands you higher in the hierarchies of entertainment and politics – fanning the flames of hatred across the country.  This IS true on all the sides.  We start to believe in the righteousness of our hateful words that lead to hateful action – creating false separations between us.

But a different leader claims us in baptism, my friends – One who arrived in humble beginnings and died in humiliation; One who preached love for the outcast and the poor while loving the whole world that God so loves.[11]  The One named Jesus, who knows a thing or two about shame and darkness, also knows a thing or two about the shame and darkness that clings closely to us as sin. But Jesus also endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and now is seated at the right hand of God.[12]  The same Jesus who flows through us as the refining fire of the Holy Spirit bestowed on us in baptism. It isn’t comfortable and it isn’t easy but it prepares us to walk into a wounded world and tell the truth about ourselves and the world that surrounds us – living into the division caused by the tension of God’s kingdom – not with hatred but with love.  Amen and thanks be to God!

__________________________________________________________

[1] Luke 3:16

[2] Acts 2:3 – the books of Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke left off.  Same authorship.

[3] Luke 9:51-56

[4] Exodus 3:3

[5] Exodus 13:21-22

[6] Hebrews 12:1-2

[7] Hebrews 12:2

[8] Luke 6:27, 32, and 35.

[9] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[10] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Loving Your Enemies” in Strength to Love: A Book of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row Pocket Books, 1968).

[11] John 3:16-17

[12] Hebrews 12:2

 

 

Temptation: Setting the Terms of the Debate [First Sunday in Lent] – Luke 4:1-13

**sermon art: The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark s Basilica, Venice

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 10, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

[sermon begins]

How do you know that you’re losing an argument?  Perhaps you’re blood pressure goes up.  Maybe you start to cry.  Or yelling happens.  Or you go quiet, seething on the inside.  Or shut down and tune out.  There’s a lot of reactions to arguing but it’s rare that one person says to the other, “You know you’re right…it’s so clear to me now!”  If temptation could show up like an argument we wouldn’t have a problem with it. We could just say, “Sorry old chum, take your temptations and carry on.”  Except.  Except…temptation is like an argument.  Someone or something else sets the terms of the temptation debate, whether explicitly set or not, and there are factors that affect the argument such as hunger, anger, loneliness, or fatigue.[1]

Jesus, for instance, was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after his baptism at the Jordan River.  He fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and was all by himself.  We can guess that he was likely some combination of hungry, lonely, and tired.  The questions being posed by the devil were about solving those very problems.  Hungry?  Turn stones to bread.  Lonely?  Have all the kingdoms of the world. Tired? Let the angels protect you.  Three easy steps to solve all Jesus’ problems. All three of these solutions for the price of worshiping something other than God.  The three temptations can be summed up as things, power, and safety.  There may be a better summary but let’s go with those for now…Jesus was offered things, power, and safety.  But Jesus, being Jesus of course, didn’t take the bait. Not only did he avoid the bait, he hardly entered the argument.  His response would suggest that he rejected the argument outright and reset the terms of the debate.  Being the Son of God and all might have helped just a tad.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about.  I’ve been wondering how it is that temptation presents itself to ordinary, non-Son-of-God humans.  I’m not talking about sweet treats or extra pairs of shoes we say that we’re tempted by.  I’m talking about honest to God temptation that draws us away from who God calls us to be into something else entirely.  Make no mistake, we ARE free to be honest about those things. As I said on Ash Wednesday, those ashes remind us at the beginning of Lent that God loves us “so much that we are free to wonder about our motivations and our actions without worrying about the love freely given to us.”[2]  No time like the first Sunday in Lent to take that promise out for test drive.

At the very least, we’re most susceptible to our temptations when we’re hungry, lonely, and tired.  The more isolated we become, the more lost-in-the-wilderness we can feel.  People who are recovered from the despair of addiction often describe their experience like, “I felt so lost and alone that I didn’t care who got hurt.”  This could be said by people lost in all sorts of addiction – alcohol, drugs, sex, social media, and food, to name a few.  Perhaps you’ve heard a friend or family member say this very thing.  Perhaps it’s a confession you yourself have made or know that you need to make.  Whatever your point of reference, the Anonymous groups are onto something essential for all of us.

Our recovered friends in the pews learn to reframe the debate using 12 steps that include looking beyond themselves to a higher power in addition to being in community with other people in recovery.[3]   The road is not traveled alone.  The isolation and loneliness that add fuel to the fire of temptation and addiction are thwarted by connection with God and other people.

In Adult Sunday School last week, I gave everyone a slip of paper and asked them to jot down responses to why they worship.  Before people started writing, I let them know that the papers would be gathered and redistributed so that they could be read out loud and anonymity of the writers guaranteed.  (Basically protecting the introverts who can occasionally get protective of their thoughts.)  There were a variety of answers as well as multiple answers per piece of paper. What struck me at the time, and then again while reading them as I wrote this sermon, is that the majority of people in class listed being connected with a community of faith as one of their reasons for being in worship.  This Lent there are extra opportunities to be together that are open to anyone who wants to come. One is the Lenten retreat led by the pastors here at Augustana this coming Saturday and the others are here on Wednesday evenings for soup supper and worship.[4]

Last Sunday Pastor Ann preached about how countercultural worship is “in a world that encourages us to worship things, power, money, and ourselves.”  I would add that it’s one of the few places in our society where we voluntarily get together over time and across a variety of differences like age, income level, and gender, to be reminded of our primary identity that reframes the debate against temptation – baptized child of God.

It seems there are as many takes on the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness as there are biblical commentators.  One that makes some sense connects Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with his baptism.[5]  The Gospel reading from Luke reads, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [River] and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.”  The reading reminds us what just happened in the waters of the river Jordan when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus while a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”[6]  Good ole Martin Luther, when the temptation to despair overwhelmed him, used to yell at the darkness, “I am a child of God, I am baptized!”[7]  It’s as if Luther had read this very part of the Gospel of Luke.  Hmmm….

The point is that we are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Besides being called a congregation, we are alternately called the Body of Christ, defined and formed by being “baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  In the waters of baptism, we are given the Holy Spirit as our strength and our guide through the temptation to get lost in the wilderness of a world that sets the terms of the debate as power, money, and things – isolating us in our own muddled minds.  Over and against that temptation, the Holy Spirit gives us company as we work out who God is calling us to be. The company of Jesus, by way of our baptism, through our daily journey. And the company of each other as traveling companions on the road.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Dana Max, Psy.D., personal conversation. H.A.L.T. rule for pressing pause on an argument when you’re “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or Intoxicated” and setting a time to revisit the contentious topic.

[2] You can find that sermon (“Beginning at the End, Ash Wednesday”) in which I unpack this concept here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2019/03/06/beginning-at-the-end-ash-wednesday-matthew-61-6-16-21-2-corinthians-520b-610-isaiah-581-12/

[3] The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Service Material from the General Service Office. (Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, 1953, 1954, 1981).

[4] Lasting Hope, A Lenten Retreat, Saturday, March 16, 9:30am-1:30pm; and Wednesday in Lent, Soup 6-7pm and Worship 7-7:30pm. Both the Saturday retreat and Lenten worship take place at Augustana.

[5] Arland J. Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Luke 4:1-13 for February 21, 2010. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=508

[6] Luke 3:2

[7] Wes Brendenhof, Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. “Luther: Baptizatus sum (I am baptized)” on January 26, 2017. https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/luther-baptizatus-sum-i-am-baptized/

A Baptism in the P.I.C.U – John 12:1-8

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

There are Bible moments so absurd and disruptive that they are difficult to imagine.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus is one of them.  Oil and hair and fragrance are dripping, cascading, and emanating.  There is no ignoring this moment if you’re around that dinner table.

Lazarus is there, having just recently been raised from the dead by Jesus.  His story is told in the chapter just before the reading today.[1]  We can imagine this dinner as a celebration.  Lazarus is back and people are ready to party.  His sister Martha is serving. Judas is there enjoying the circle of friendship as a disciple of Jesus.  Then there’s Lazarus’ other sister, Mary of Bethany. Her exuberance knows no bounds. Her adoration of Jesus must be expressed.  And so it goes, with dripping oil, cascading hair, and emanating fragrance.  A feast of the senses at a table set for dinner.

How are we to understand this adoration she pours on Jesus?  The purity and price of the nard are emphasized.  A rare, imported Himalayan treasure.  A year’s wages.  The nard’s purity and price lead me to wonder about the purity of Mary’s adoration and the cost to herself as she disrupts the dinner party.

One cost is Judas’ poor opinion.  Judas feels free to give his opinion. He demeans her adoration with pious words.  He attempts to put her into her place and uses the poor to do so.  His argument is a vulgar appropriation of the poor – using them as a means to an end.  Jesus is having none of it and slams Judas’ argument.  There are plenty of other Jesus stories that assure us of his determination to eradicate poverty and not leave the poor to their subsistence or our hands clean of their plight.  Regardless of Jesus’ intervention, what does Judas’ poor opinion matter?  He can put it into pious language all he wants.  Mary’s joy will not be stolen by him or anyone else.  Judas’ disapproval is but a pittance.

A few years ago, a fellow seminarian said about Mary’s anointing of Jesus that if he had long hair this is what he would do for someone similarly important to him.  His comment opens the story slightly differently as the imagination plays across gender and time between Mary of Bethany and our moment in time today.  What does adoration look like on a personal level this century?  Set celebrity culture aside for a moment.  Groupies are a different conversation. Mary is in her home. Jesus is known to Mary and her family personally over the course of time.  Her adoration of Jesus is pure and costly.  And she is breaking gender barriers all over the place.  She is a woman of her time whose hair should be tucked away.  She should not be touching a man in the company of others.  In fact, it is life-threatening for her to do so. He, a man, would ordinarily rebuke her like Judas does.  Yet, there they are, oil dripping, hair cascading, and fragrance emanating.

There is something else happening in parallel to Mary’s adoration.  After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is now a target for death himself. The story of Lazarus raised from the dead is followed by the plot developing to arrest Jesus and kill him. [2] And then we get this dinner party. Mary of Bethany calls Jesus “Lord” in previous texts and now anoints him.  Jesus talks openly about his death when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone…She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”[3]  The implication is that she is anointing him for his death.

This past week I received a phone call from a man who asked me to come baptize his one month old son who was on life support.  They were at Children’s Hospital having been flown in by Flight for Life.  He was not expected to live. We arranged for me to come out that evening.  Via text, the father rescheduled our time for the following morning since the baby’s mother was arriving in the middle of the night from out-of-state.  When I arrived, they were both in the room along with the baby’s grandparents.

We talked briefly.  I assured them that, despite whatever we thought we were doing, this moment is first and foremost about God’s promise to be present for their baby even in this most painful time.  Then, with water from a clay bowl, this little one was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  His head dried with the linen baptismal napkin from the church.  I told him he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever while making the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil-lotion scented with frankincense and myrrh.

As the fragrant cross was made on his forehead, Mary’s anointing popped into my mind along with these words from Thanksgiving for Baptism in the funeral liturgy which begins, “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.”[4]  These words took on new meaning for me in the P.I.C.U. this week.

After this little one was baptized, I handed the parents the un-lit baptismal candle and told them that his light was shining even in his short life and that God is with him.  The family and I shared the bread and wine of communion and then the grandfather asked if I would give this little one “last rites.”  I briefly explained that I would pray what we call the “Commendation of the Dying.” And so we did.  He died within the next few days.

The anointing of this little one in baptism echoes with Mary’s anointing of Jesus before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  It also echoes the prayer and anointing for healing that you can choose to receive during this worship service.  The Health Minister will anoint your hands with olive oil and say this prayer for you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love…Amen.”

Lent invites reflection on our own baptism.  We reflect on the things that are being “put to death” in us so that something else, something we cannot imagine on our own, may come to life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through each of our baptisms.  This is part of the healing for which we pray.

Jesus is about life and living.  Lazarus discovered it first-hand. Mary of Bethany adores and anoints Jesus.  She adores and anoints him for the life he brings even as she prepares him for the death he will face because there are those who find his life threatening.  But, even in Lent, we are an Easter people – celebrating that Jesus brings life even through the darkest times by way of his death on a cross.  We remember this promise at funerals with these words, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.”[5]  This new life is for today.  For you.  Our baptism is God’s daily promise by way of a cross and a savior in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6]   All glory be to God for this indescribable gift![7]

 

[1] John 11:1-44 – These verses tell the story of Lazarus’ illness, death, and being raised from the dead by Jesus.

[2] John 11:45-57 – These verses tell the story of the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death for bringing Lazarus to life.

[3] John 12:7

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Funeral. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 280.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Acts 28:17

[7] 2 Corinthians 9:15

Football Sidelines and Neighbors – Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

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

[sermon begins]

John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality.  I’m talking football sideline.  There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players.  Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling.  The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level.  Up their game when they get on the field.  So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock.  There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.

Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people.  Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season.  Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment.  There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.

The sideline is a bit of wilderness.  There is wandering around. Sitting down.  Very little appears organized.  But those are appearances.

Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game.  Take a gander at those sidelines.  Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.

John is worked up.  He’s a wilderness guy.  This is his terrain.  And the crowds come.  Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats.  The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?”  John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats.  John’s answers are nothing earth shattering.  The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”

In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation.  It is a sincere question.

John tells the riff-raff what to do.  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.[1]

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us.  We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence.  For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself.  And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.

Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side.  For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism.  And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.  John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus.  Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:

16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[2]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.

We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free.  And once that happens, look out!  It is a salvation day in the here and now.   Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.

God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]

In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?”  We shall worship.  We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.”[4]  The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.  Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people.  This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving.  Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.

The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

[1] Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world.  Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.

[2] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Revelation 1:8

[4] Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while.  We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.

[5] From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.

 

Paradox of Powerlessness and Light – John 6:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 15, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 6:1-21  After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

[sermon begins]

 

The Bible story today could be an early edition of “Where’s Waldo?” with Jesus as the hidden one.  We pick up the story after a healing.  Jesus is trying to stay one step ahead of the crowds.  They saw him heal.  They heard him teach.  He has drawn a following.  He leads quite a chase.  Perhaps not high speed, but a chase nonetheless.  He even goes so far as to head to the other side of the sea of Tiberius and climb a mountain.  No rest for the weary, though.  When he looks up, there’s the crowd.  The trek through the wilderness does not shake them.  The people simply keep following him.

As Jesus sits down, he looks up.  He sees the crowd.  I wonder what he sees when he looks at them.  They’ve been chasing him for a while at this point.  Do they look confused?  Jesus is a healer and yet so hard to pin down.  Do they look tired?  Jesus led quite a chase.  Have some in the crowd started to wonder why Jesus just can’t stay put?  He asks for the crowd to sit down.  There is a “great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down.”  Enough room for everyone to rest.

At the very least, the crowd must look hungry. Jesus talks to the disciples about feeding the crowd and the disciples’ confusion is understandable.  Where are they going to get the food to feed all of these people?

Andrew found a boy who has some loaves of bread and some fish but it’s not near enough.  Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

Andrew says, “There is a boy here…”  It starts with this one boy.  The disciples become part of the distribution. Jesus handles the feeding of the crowd.  A tired, hungry, and confused crowd.

We often do a particular thing when we talk about children.  We talk about children as becoming something.  The conversation shifts to the future.  We ask questions like, “What will you be…?” The conversations infers that children are in formation now to become who they really are later.

Andrew’s comment, however, makes the boy and what he offers, quite immediate.  He says, “There is a boy here…”

A few decades ago, there was a growing urge within Augustana to begin educating children during the week.  A few Augustana people started thinking about how the congregation could begin and sustain an early learning center for the community.  Like Andrew’s observation about the boy, people at Augustana were saying, “There are children here, in the community…”  Here we are today, several decades later after those initial ideas.  Like the boy’s gift of the loaves and fishes, the Augustana Early Learning Center children have grown in number over the years.  This is one of the ways ministry works and is good reason to celebrate.

The theme of the day is celebrating Augustana Early Learning Center as a mutual ministry of the congregation.  We celebrate its conception, high quality learning, and accessibility to the community including affordable tuition and scholarships.  Additionally, we celebrate all that the Early Learning Center gives back to the congregation on a daily basis.  These children bring energy and a fresh way of seeing the world.  The staff along with director Chris Baroody give of their considerable years of skill and consistently highlight who the children are today.  The Early Learning Center is also a strong community presence and impacts daily life for so many children and families.  This is a lot of mutual ministry that is like the exponential effect of loaves and fishes.

The immediacy of who children are right now is evident across the whole of Augustana.  On any given Sunday, there are children on the steps of the sanctuary or chiming in during worship in the chapel.  There are children in Sunday School, and in choirs.  Children this month are collecting canned Chili for Metro Caring.  In the last few months they have put together personal care kits for refugees and portioned out beans and rice for Metro Caring’s grocery store.  Children actively shape the ministry of the congregation now, today.

In the midst of tension and heartache unfolding in Paris, and already too well known in Syria and Beirut, it is especially important that we take a moment to see the places of light.  And there is a lot of light in the children’s ministries.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[1]

Often, like today for Alice, there is a baptism – a life changing encounter with water and the Holy Spirit.  A baptism into the death and life of Jesus.

In baptism, we are received in our powerlessness.  This is true whether we are a child or an adult.  If you read to the end of the Bible Story today, the crowds around Jesus want to make him king.  He left them before they could accomplish their goal.  In his absence, he said, “No.”   He said no to their ambitions and delusions of control.[2]   It’s easy to relate to the desires of the crowd around Jesus who want to make him king.  As video, photos, and information continue to come out of Paris, there is quite a crowd of people all around the world whose confusion is loaded with shock and grief.  In the moment of shock and grief, God is present by way of the cross.  For where else would God be but with those who are hurting and confused in their despair.  Conversely, there are a lot of people thinking about how to use power in response to the murders.

In the meantime, here…today, we are received in the waters of baptism and at the table of communion in our powerlessness, so much beyond our control.  The good news of Jesus is that the self-sacrificing love of God is given to us freely.  God’s love comes to us.  We don’t attain it or acquire it under our own steam.   There is nothing we do or leave undone that makes God love us any more or any less.   This is the gospel, the good news.

This is the gospel lived out in the ministries that assure children that they are loved and accepted for who they are today.  There is nothing they can do that makes God love them more or any less.  And this is the gospel promise for you.  There is nothing you can do that makes God love you any more or any less.

When you come to communion today, you receive the love of God unconditionally.  At the table of communion, Jesus says “no” to the way we try to use power, “no” to the way we hurt ourselves, and “no” to the way we hurt other people.  Then Jesus says “yes.”  Jesus says “yes,” you are loved unconditionally for the person you actually are…the person for whom Jesus died…for you, a beloved and hold child of God.  Jesus says “yes,” God’s love is for you and for world.  Strengthened by the love of God, we become light-bearers in dark places, serving where we are drawn to serve for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr.  http://www.thekingcenter.org/blog/mlk-quote-week-sticking-love-0

[2] David Lose.  In the Meantime: Pentecost 9B, Visible Words. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-9-b-visible-words/

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 (but the whole chapter is worth the read)

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 {really, go read the whole chapter)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 10, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Acts 10:44-48  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 

[sermon begins]

In the reading from John this morning, Jesus is talking to his disciples before he is very soon to be killed on the cross. This is an intense conversation in an intense time.  Smack in the middle of this conversation Jesus says something that likely had his listeners gasp.[1]  You know, the kind of gasp that you do when you’re truly surprised. You wonder if the people around you heard the same thing but you can’t interrupt the flow of the person speaking even to make eye contact with the person next to you.  But it’s hard to keep listening because you’re still back in the moment of what you heard.  This is where the mindful among us would want to coach us about staying in the moment.  But you know what I mean. Staying mindful after a big announcement is truly for the rare, gold-medal mindful.  Most of us averagey-mindful simply are not up to the task.

What does Jesus say to derail the disciples’ mindful listening?  He tells them they are no longer servants, but now are his friends.  He ups the ante on them. The suggestion of mutuality is shocking! This is one of the few places in scripture that talks about friendship.  Especially notable in the story is Jesus saying, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Last week we heard a good word preached from two of Augustana’s high school seniors.  Both preachers challenged us with scripture and they also challenged us with their personal stories of what it means to be faithful in their own lives. They opened up the Bible readings for us and talked about Jesus’ vine metaphor.  Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” Last week’s scripture reading happens just before Jesus’ words of friendship in our story today.  He is the vine, he names the branches.  And these branches will bear the fruit of friendship.

It’s important to remember that the friends sitting around as Jesus speaks to them are the same friends who deny, betray, and run away in the tough time around the cross.  The friends’ have little ability to stick it out with Jesus immediately following his poetry of vine, branches, and abiding together in friendship. Keeping commandments that are given in a peaceful time are that much more challenging to keep in a difficult time. Dying for one’s friends means something when those friends fail you. Jesus did this in real time days after talking with them about being friends. And Jesus died for his friends to come in the future.

The bridge between Jesus words of friendship then and now is a crazy thing called death and resurrection.  This Easter season we’ve been asking the question, “What could this rising from the dead mean?” Asking the Easter question in this way keeps our feet connected to the ground while we, quite literally, speed through the cosmos.

For Peter, this rising from the dead means that he ends up in Cornelius’ home.  Cornelius is a Caesarean.  More specifically he is a centurion of the Italian cohort.  All of that is to say the BIG thing – that he is a Gentile. A short-hand way of saying that he is not part of the Jewish sect following Jesus.  Just as Jesus ups the ante with the disciples by calling them his friends, the Spirit ups the ante by instigating Gentile baptisms.  Baptizing Gentiles in the name of Jesus, into his death and into his new life. For Peter and the circumcised believers with him, this is a cosmic shift…on the ground…with actual people.  This is enough of a cosmic shift that Peter wonders about whether anyone can withhold the water for baptizing people who have received the Holy Spirit.

From time-to-time, I get calls to schedule a baptism. There are details to scheduling in terms of picking a date and worship time for the baptism itself and setting a date to meet with me at some point before the baptism. I get to know people, a little about their families and their faith. In turn, people in baptism meetings get to know a little about me.  These conversations are good.  In fact, some of the staff can verify that I say out loud that, “I love baptism meetings.” While it’s fun getting to know people, what I really love is reveling in God’s promises.  And as several of you can attest, there is a place in the baptism conversation about the promise that the congregation makes to the baptized on behalf of the whole church catholic and the communion of saints in every place and time.  You know the one.  You hear the words, “People of God, do you promise to support the baptized and pray for them in their new life in Christ?”

People of God.  It has a nice ring to it.  It’s both cosmic and personal. Cosmic because we’re talking about God.  Personal because we’re talking about us. The ‘People of God’ label is also quite relevant given the Bible readings from both John and Acts today.  The book of John begins cosmically with the mysterious Word existing before time and immediately becomes personal as the Word is made flesh in Jesus. Our particular reading from the book of John get even more personal as Jesus calls the disciples friends. In the book of Acts, the mysterious Holy Spirit gets personal quickly, acting on Cornelius and his household as Peter and the circumcised believers gasp and start baptizing.  Peter stays with Cornelius for a few days afterwards.

The story talks about Peter staying a few days almost as an afterthought. But could this be the fruit that the disciples are told they would bear?  It’s also one answer to what this rising from the dead means.  These two people, so different, both bringing past failures and prejudices to their time together.  Now they are both people of God – friends of Christ and each other through baptism.

Baptism brings the baptized into the body of Christ also known as a congregation.  A congregation is simply a collection of baptized people who remind each other through worshiping, communion, baptism, preaching and each other that God’s promises are for them.  I imagine Peter and Cornelius and the household reminding each other of God’s promises as Peter visited with them for several days. In a similar way, it’s what we do here as the congregation of Augustana.

As part of the body of Christ of Augustana, we bring along with us our failures, prejudices, and differences to our time together much like Peter and Cornelius. The Holy Spirit ups the ante and brings us together as friends of Christ.  This happens every time we get together in the many ways we get together. Whether it’s women’s circles, health ministries, choir rehearsal, Sunday School, Over the Top giving parties, staff meetings, Chapel Prayer, Middle School drop-in, Senior lunches, or some other group of people connected through Augustana.

The Holy Spirit gathers us as friends of Christ in worship, too.  We confess sins that include failures and prejudices at the beginning of worship and hear God’s forgiveness pronounced; and we sit next to each other reaching through our strange differences to another friend in Christ.

People of God, Jesus just called you friend. [Gasp] It couldn’t be more personal. We live in the cosmic strength and in the human frailty of this friendship together here this morning. Now strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ’s friendship with us, we live it in the world this afternoon.  Thanks be to God.

 

Hymn of the Day, sung together after the sermon: ELW 636 How Small Our Span Of Life


[1] Matt Skinner, Associate Professor for New Testament, Luther Seminary,  for Sermon Brainwave – John 15:9-17, May 13, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=293

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Caitlin Trussell on January 11, 2015 with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 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.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

[sermon begins]

There are wild, unimaginable things happening in this Genesis creation story.  Formlessness and void of the earth.  Imagine that for a moment – formless…void…utter darkness.  Nothing to distinguish one part from another.  Nothing through which to capture any imagining of its future.  A wind in the form of breath, as the Spirit of God blows over the mystery and threat of the deep.  Sound in seismic proportions.  No quiet or tame God picking up a bit of clay and pottering away.  From our human-sized perspective, this is massive.  This is earth and heavens – loud, windy and wild.  This story doesn’t allow us to cozy up into a calm, domesticated God.   This is the sheer power of God beyond our imagining, beyond our understanding.

The God of creation is not to be tamed.  And yet, for many of us, our first inclination is to tone God down.  As if we can make God easier on the heart and mind if we craft just the right language about God.  Or at the very least we can distract ourselves from the problem of the power of God if we spend our time arguing about the accuracy of the story.

Several years ago, when my daughter Taryn was in preschool, I had only been back in church as an adult for a few years.  Taryn’s preschool was attached to our church and some of the school’s parents seemed to know that I was involved in the church too.  It was common to have conversations with other parents during the dropping off and picking up times.  One day after dropping Taryn off, I was sneaking a peek into the classroom to watch her.  One of the dads hung back too.  A few minutes went by and he sidled over to chat.  He confirmed that I went to the church and then, without any preamble or build-up, he asked, “If God is all about love then why do some people say they fear God?”  I fumbled and stumbled around the idea of God’s power for a minute or two but clearly was not passing muster on any kind of answer that settled this man’s mind.  And there’s the problem, right there, when it comes to God’s awesome, creating power, there is nothing that settles our mind.  No matter how many days or millennia you think it took, the creative force of it is mind-blowing – and it blows our soft and squishy imaginings right out the window with it.

Here’s the thing.  When we’re tempted to talk about God as exclusively merciful and loving and forgiving, we forget the fearsome breath of God that moves over a formless, dark void; the Spirit of God that moves over what Jurgen Moltmann calls “creation-in-the-beginning.”[1]  When we soften or negate the power of God in any way, we don’t have to ask the question, “What would happen if God does this again?”

So let’s hang onto the fearsome power of God and ask that question.  “What would happen if God uses that kind of power again?” Oh…wait…God does do it again.  Anyone hear that part of the baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open?  The Spirit of God that moves over formless, dark voids, is the same Spirit who tears apart the heavens and descends, untamable, into the wild, over a river, onto a person, and names him “Beloved.”[2]  This baptism of Jesus is a revelation of the redemption to come and the unmitigated power infusing that redemption.

Moltmann talks about the “creation-in-the-beginning” being in continuity with the redemption of all things.  In the whole Bible, “the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God’s liberating and redeeming acts (e.g. Isaiah 43:19); redemption is the final new creation of all things…”[3]

Oh, how we long for the redemption of all things – all our formless, dark voids in need of the fearsome breath of God.  Voids in which we struggle and wonder about.  Voids in which we lose ourselves, not knowing which way to turn or to take the next right step.  Voids in which we lose the people we love or lose strangers in Paris who other people love.  Voids in which freedom suffers under political tyranny or disintegrating terror.

Into these voids comes the Spirit of God.  The same Spirit of God who breathes light into the darkness.[4]  Light into the darkness, now think about that one.  God spoke these words, “Let there be light” as God’s breath rushed over the mystery and threat of the deep.   What does creation of light sound like?  Is there a crack of thunder as light creates heat?  Is there a deep and resounding vibration that would quake us to the core and make us aware of every cell in our bodies?  What does even a single blaze of light through unfathomable darkness look like as it bounds through creation with power strong enough to sustain life through all the mornings and evenings of the millennia?

We know a lot about light, or at least the scientists do, but did you know that we still don’t know what it is?  Einstein spent a lot of his time researching the interplay between light and time, challenged the orthodoxy of the previous 100 years of physics and won a Nobel Prize.[5] Einstein did all this and yet we still really don’t know what it is.  We mimic it but we cannot create it. [6]  Light is more than a convenient nuance in our days.  Light is sustaining, life giving energy.  It shows us how limited we are as creatures that we still don’t understand it.

God’s breath, God’s Spirit, creates light and life out of formless, dark voids.  And God gives this same sustaining breath to you as you move through your days.  God’s power and imagination creates an earth out of no earth.  God’s power and imagination makes a way out of no way.

This same, fearsome God breathes that power into redemption for you.  This same, fearsome God breathes that power into love for you.  The magnitude of God’s power is not simply a show of sound and light to wow us all and leave us shaking in shoes.  The magnitude of God’s power is the same sheer power of God that breathes grace, forgiveness and love into you.  And your God-infused life and breath bear witness to God, as the power of God’s Spirit moves through Christ in you for the sake of the world.  There is hope in the power of God’s redemption.  What might be possible if we go out and live it?



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3459

[3] Moltmann, 9.

[4] Kathryn Shifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Richard Harris.  “Albert Einstein’s Year of Miracles: Light Theory” for NPR on March 17, 2005.  http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4538324/albert-einsteins-year-of-miracles-light-theory

[6] Troy Wanek, Renewable Energy Faculty, Red Rocks Community College, personal conversation, November 8, 2010.

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Caitlin Trussell on All Saints Sunday – November 2, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

[sermon starts after these three Bible readings/paragraphs]

Matthew 5:1-13  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Revelation 7:9-17   After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

1 John 3:1-3   See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

[sermon begins]

Ahhhh, the Book of Revelation from which our first reading comes.  Such comfort, consolation, and encouragement to be found.  Seriously, though, it’s a shame we shy away from the Book of Revelation.  Granted, a lot of it is uninterpretable – although rapture theologians won’t let that stop themselves from trying to leave us behind.[1]  But the book itself is written to comfort people who have been through a “great ordeal.”  An ordeal that leaves them in need of a comfort only God can give.

And, oh, what a people.  The writer tells us that, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”   This text gives us no way to imagine a limitation because it is all inclusive – “be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, linguistic, economic, and on and on the list goes.” [2]

The last verses of the Revelation text reads, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”   It is easy and tempting to try to minimize this promise of comfort.  I was leading a Bible Study at the women’s prison a few years ago.  There I stood, waxing on about different takes on heaven, when a woman from the back row raised her hand.  She told me it was all well and good that I had time to play with those ideas but she believed in a place and time when there would be no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more tears.  She counted on it.  She ended up being the preacher God put in our midst that day.   And she is definitely a saint.

The woman from the prison doesn’t fit the description of “saint” as it’s more commonly used to mean a “best-ever-super-great person.”   But she does fit into the saints who are part of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”  She is a saint who defiantly bears hope in the face of all things to the contrary.

Speaking of contrary things, Lutheran Confessions was a class I had to take in seminary to become a pastor.  The class isn’t quite as racy as the title makes it out to be.  For that you would have to turn to The Confessions of St. Augustine.[3]  But there were some gems.  One of them was the professor.  He liked a good argument and found plenty of them.  His passion for arguing was matched by his passion for walking into any situation regardless of the discomfort involved – his or anyone else’s.  At one point he whipped off his pastor’s collar, waved it around in the air, and told us that with this collar we were able to walk into any situation, bearing hope, where many would fear to go.  Well, I’d argue with him on that – which of course he’d love.

I’d argue that it is by our baptism into Christ that we are able to walk into any situation, EVEN IF we are afraid to go.  It’s not the collar.  It’s the cross that bears all things, even death. The author of the reading from First John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

As children of God we are saints by baptism, not by our own action.  At the same time we are sinners, bearing the hope that has been put in us through the Jesus’ death on a cross.  This sainthood is Christ’s to give and it is given freely.  Through his gift, we defiantly bear hope and bring peace in the face of all things to the contrary.

What are these contrary things, these things that would defy hope?  Let’s try those verses in Matthew to answer that question.  Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom is revealed into through a poor spirit, grief, hunger, thirst, persecution, and false accusations.  How do we bear hope?  We bear hope by being with people.  I hear these stories from you time and again.

You’ve sat in the hallway at a nursing home waiting to visit someone and take the time to hear another resident’s story because they need to tell it to somebody.

You’re the one who’s child died and you let someone sit with you while you felt everything and nothing all at once.

You’ve been with a friend who spouse has left them.

You’re the one whose “no” meant “yes” to someone who hurt you and then you needed to trust somebody else to help you heal.

You’ve been with the undocumented family who has no home.

You’re the victim of war who was caught in the crossfire and taken to safety in a new place with new people.

You’ve been with each other in places that seem the most forsaken by God because, if the cross means anything, it means God shows up in the worst possible places and situations.

Grief, poor spirits, all the contrary things, are not mentioned by Jesus as things to achieve and wear as a badge of honor.  These are the hard things that just happen in life.  Hard things that we get to bear with each other and for each other.  I get to show up for you, you get to show up for me, we get to show up bearing hope for each other in situations that seem utterly hopeless.  This is true when we don’t have words that fix it.  Perhaps it’s true especially when we don’t have words that fix it.  What’s most important is showing up for people regardless.  Showing up, bearing hope, does not imply that we’re not afraid.  It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to pay some kind of emotional or physical price for showing up.  Showing up, bearing the suffering and bearing a defiant hope, is a gift we give each other in the face of really hard times; because it is a gift first given to us.

See what love the Father has given you, children of God, for that is what you are…

Jesus shows up for the multitude, in the multitude, for you, and in you.

Children of God, for that is what you are, be at peace – the kingdom of heaven is yours.



[1] Rapture theology is a fairly recent historical development dating to the early 1800s.

[2] Eric Mathis, Professor of Music and Worship, Samford University.  Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17 for November 2, 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2182

[3] Saint Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine.  (Project Gutenberg, eBook, June 2002) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”[1]

Caitlin Trussell on August 17, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

 

Matthew 15:21-28  Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

 

 

Each of us grew up somewhere.  Some of us grew up on farms in the Midwest, others in cities, some in the South, a few of us in other countries.  Myself, I grew up on the East and West coasts – I like to say I’m bicoastal.  My husband grew up in a mid-sized Nebraskan town.  My kids are growing up as Colorado natives.  Some of you are likely 3rd, 4th, or 5th, generation Coloradans.

The point is, we all grew up somewhere.  This means our childhoods have a somewhere, a location, a place.  Chances are good that our place also has people.  Whether these people were good to us or not, our childhood places have people.   These people birthed us, taught us, fed us…formed us.  You get the idea.  As children, we grow up in the places of our people.  They become our people the minute we’re born into them.

Flipping it around, the minute someone is born they are born into us.  We become their people.  This happens at a lot of different levels all at once.  The child is born into a family, into a neighborhood, into a region.  On any given day, you might hear me say something like, “My people are heading over to a swim meet;” or “My people are going to lay low this weekend.”   However we acknowledge it, however much we like or dislike our people. Our people are there – intentionally and unintentionally forming us and us forming them.

In the previous stories to ours today, Jesus is moving between deserted places with the people he was born into, in his country of birth.  In the story today, Jesus is in a new place, the district of Tyre and Sidon, with a new people, the Canaanites.  And, oh, this Canaanite woman.  She wastes no time in getting Jesus’ attention.  The exchange that follows is shocking.  Did Jesus just call her a “dog?”  Biblical scholars wrangle with this text early and often.

In our wrangling with this text, we can see that the disciples want no part of this woman as they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  Jesus doesn’t send her away but tells her that he is, “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  His place, his people.  Did he say this to voice what everyone else was thinking?  Might that also be why he made that “dog” comment?  After all, the Canaanite people are the people of mixed marriages and conflated religious practices.  They are not to be trusted nor visited.  They are unclean, impure.  Pick a nasty label and insert it here.  There is bad blood between Jesus’ people and the Canaanite people.

The Canaanite woman knows all these things – bad blood included.  And still, this mother shouts after Jesus and the disciples.  She demands their attention.  Not on her own behalf but on behalf of her child.  She and her child do not live in a vacuum – meaning they do not live only as two people disconnected from other people.  Oh no, this woman’s shouting has bigger implications for the whole people.

On a small scale, and maybe with less shouting, this congregation similarly brings children the necessary care they need.  Through the baptismal font, children are baptized in what can easily be interpreted or dismissed as a sentimental moment.  But it is oh so much bigger than that.  Through the waters of baptism is a demand that God keep God’s promises to this child.  Through worship, children are in the mix with their sounds, voices, and bodies included right along with the whole people of God here.   Through the Children & Family Ministry, children have Sunday School, Squiggle Time, Youth Groups and more to meet them where they are developmentally so that they may find words for their faith.   Through the Music Ministry, children sing and make music all the while connecting with God, each other, and tradition.  Through the Augustana Early Learning Center, children receive care and instruction Monday through Friday – some on full scholarship, some on subsidized tuition.  Through Augustana Arts’ City Strings program, neighborhood children receive violin and music instruction regardless of inability to pay.

As a congregation, we are similar to the Canaanite woman.  There are children in our care and we make every effort to do right by them which sometimes means doing the hard thing not the easy thing.  But what else might the story of her faith hold for us?  We do violence to this woman’s story if we simply rip her from the page and guilt everyone into advocacy.  Advocacy being the act of lending your voice to those who cannot advocate for themselves.  I think if we have any chance of seeing our story in her story we need to take a detour.

For this brief detour, I invite Oswald Bayer into our conversation.  Bayer is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany as well as an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg.[2]  Stated very simply, Bayer’s argument for a Christian ethic goes something that goes like this:[3]

Everything we have is gift – from the basics of food and water to help in times of sickness and imprisonment.   The quintessential act of our dependence is over a meal; a meal of fellowship “where separation, isolations, and loneliness are overcome.”  We are truly dependent creatures – dependent on God and each other for everything.  In this dependence, we are able to see our “own fellow human beings simply as those who find themselves in the same situation.”  I especially like how Pastor Bayer puts this next part, “Thus the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt. 25.40) will not just be the others, strangers, with whom we are called to show solidarity…Rather, from the very outset we are those people…We are the same as them, for we too are in fundamental need.”[4]  In other words, those people are our people!

Jesus sits across the table from the woman who demands a place at it for herself and her child.  In Bayer’s words, this is a meal of fellowship that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  By extension, Jesus sits us at a table that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  And we are given a voice at this meal on behalf of our children.

Make no mistake, prioritizing children is not sentimental, nor is it easy.  This means that when our plans and systems fail children, we are free to launch into those conversations to help those children.  These conversations might happen in our neighborhoods, in our congregation, in our country.  These conversations are real, right now, as we talk congregationally about improving security in the Early Learning Center or group dynamics in Confirmation.  These conversations are real as we talk nationally and globally about children at the border, children in Ferguson (Missouri), children in Palestine, children in Liberia.

Some of us may believe that helpful action should happen locally and some may believe that it makes sense to focus helpful action globally.  However, local and global concerns are not mutually exclusive but part of the whole.  So simply pick a place to start and start helping.  We can so quickly fall silent when the children who need help begin to number in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands.  Along with falling silent, it’s a quick slip into inaction.

Dr. Keith Payne studies the collapse of compassion in the face of fear.[5]  In his work, he is triggered by similar comments from both Stalin and Mother Teresa.  Stalin reputedly said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic; and Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” In Dr. Payne’s words, “When Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on a point, I sit up and pay attention.”[6]  The point is that in the face of great numbers of people suffering we end up doing nothing because of our own fear. We fear that we can’t possibly help them all so we end up helping none.  We fear that taking on so much pain crumbles our shaky hold on our own emotions so we shut them down and focus someplace else.  Stalin counted on it.  Mother Teresa acted in spite of it.  Most of us are neither Stalin nor Mother Teresa.  Regardless, pick a place to start helping children and go for it.

The Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus across cultural boundaries on behalf of her child.  In part, these are real boundaries of culture and race that take care and respect to navigate successfully across our differences.  But in total, these boundaries collapse under the weight of the cross.  What Jesus Christ does for you, Jesus Christ does for all.  The people you think of as your people who come from your places is an artificial category of location.

Christ’s death on the cross makes all people your people.

Because Jesus died on a cross for all people, including you.

 

 

Responding to the sermon, the congregation sings this Hymn of the Day:

Lord Jesus You Shall Be My Song As I Journey[7]

Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey
I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go
You alone are our life and our peace and our love
Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey

Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey
May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you
May the earth and the sea and the sky join my song
Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey

As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant
To carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears
For you saved me by giving your body and blood
As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey
But courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side
And with all of the family you saved by your love
We’ll sing to the dawn at the end of our journey

Les Petites Souers de Jésus and L’Arche community, 1961; Translation by Stephen Somerville, 1970



[1] Read about Mother Teresa at http://www.motherteresa.org/.

Read about Joseph Stalin at http://www.biography.com/people/joseph-stalin-9491723.

[2] Oswald Bayer. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_Bayer

[3] Oswald Bayer.  Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies (Oxford: University Press, 2007), 19-20.  In these two pages, Dr. Bayer offers a succinct argument for categorical gift over and above Kant’s categorical imperative. I recommend them to you if you, like me, are into that sort of mind candy.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keith Payne. “Why is the Death of One Million a Statistic?” Psychology Today blog: Life on Autopilot on March 14, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Evangelical Book of Worship, Hymn 808.  (lyrics reprinted under OneLicense.net A-705796.)

Matthew 28:16-20 & 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 “Arrogance, Apathy, Anxiety – A Trinity of Our Own Design”

Matthew 28:16-20 & 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 “Arrogance, Apathy, Anxiety – A Trinity of Our Own Design”

Caitlin Trussell on June 15, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church

 

Matthew 28:16-20 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

 

Last Sunday’s worship was a doozy.  Between the festival of Pentecost and the celebration of Pastor Pederson’s ministry, along with his retirement, it might even be described as epic.  It held moments of poignant joy, of laughter through tears – that rare combination of ethos and pathos that sent many of us out on a high that was, dare we say, Pentecostal.

Saying a good “Goodbye” blesses the ones leaving and the ones left behind.  And we have said goodbye well.  But there is more to a farewell than parties, portraits, and parting words.  Farewells are work.  For starters, there is individual work of figuring out how this new farewell taps and stacks with the other farewells in our pasts.  The individual work is important so that we don’t inflict pain from out past goodbye’s to the present moment.  Then there is the congregational work of what Pastor Pederson’s retirement reveals about who we are without his leadership.  This work is important so that we can offer a good welcome a new pastor.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians helps us think about farewells.  “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”[1]

Along the lines of putting things in order, staff just met together and drafted out the church calendar for the next year; Personnel Committee is working toward the selection of an Interim Pastor; Stewardship Committee has made some first steps in teaching and leading us to think about the connection between faith, time, and money; and many other ministries are continuing their work within and outside of the congregation.  So, okay, maybe not as invigorating as a good festival but it’s the real stuff of real life where most of us live on most days.

Once the big Pentecostal energy subsides, life together in the church continues.  And, of course, the life of the congregation is not an end unto itself.  In this particular instance, the apostle Paul and the preacher John Pederson find easy agreement.  Just as Paul reminds the Corinthians that there is grace in the Lord Jesus Christ, there is love in God, and there is the communion of the Holy Spirit, so we heard last week that we might also “want to ring the gospel bell.”

Which brings us so nicely into the verses in Matthew where Jesus says to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  As 21st century Christians, 21st century Jesus-people, the disciples’ commissioning can seem too big.  There’s too much certainty in it.  There’s too much history between those words and our world today.

These verses in Matthew have a sordid past.  People often talk to me about the 13th century Crusades, the 16th century Spanish Inquisition, or the 20th century Native American boarding schools when they’re telling me why Christianity doesn’t work for them.  These atrocities wrought by the church in the world can turn us into ‘either/or’ people pretty quickly.  Either we reject the whole of Christianity outright deciding that we want no part of whatever leads to the Crusades.  Or we believe a life of faith looks like inspiring, festival joy without considering what the death of God in a body on a cross might mean in our lives.

Either end of this spectrum doesn’t quite get at anything.  People of all religious and non-religious types do all kinds of things good, bad, and ugly.  Christians might call the good things people do in terms of being “created in the image of God”; and Christians might call the bad and the ugly things that people do “sin.”   Neither the violence of forced conversions nor the 24/7 rejoicing gives us a footing to understand Jesus’ commissioning of disciples – then OR now.  The problem is that little word “understanding.”  This little word that can suddenly turn us into a group of people who think WE are the good news rather than a group of people brought together by a desperate hunger to feast on the good news.

Holy Trinity Sunday adds an extra dash of trouble because it ups the ante on understanding.  Suddenly we’re all trying to understand metaphor to understand Trinity rather than be claimed and secured by the good news of Jesus Christ.  Along this line, one of my new favorite voices is 20th century preacher Lesslie Newbigin.  He compiled and edited a lecture series called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.  The gist of one lecture is that Western Christians are often so concerned about avoiding the label of arrogance that we become either apathetic and never talk about our faith or overly anxious about proving whatever it is we think is true about our faith.[2]  Once again, acting out of the assumption that we ourselves are the good news.

The correction to our assumptions is of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew:

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus is leaving.  These words are his farewell.  Along the lines of a good farewell, Jesus reminds the disciples and us about putting things in good order.  And this order begins with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not with us.  Not with us who worship, nor with us who doubt, but with God.

I like how Newbigin puts this:

It is an action of God, the triune God – of God the Father who is ceaselessly at work in all creation and in the hearts and minds of all human beings whether they acknowledge him or not, graciously guiding history toward it’s true end; of God the Son who has become part of this created history in the incarnation; and of God the Holy Spirit who is given as a foretaste of the end to empower and teach the Church and to convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment.  Before we think about our role, the role of our words and deeds in mission, we need to have firmly in the center of our thinking this action of God.[3]

On this Holy Trinity Sunday, may you be given confidence in Christ through your baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As Christ reassures his disciples, may you also hear him clearly say to you, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”



[1] 1 Corinthians 13:11-13

[2] Lesslie Newbigin.  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989), 243.

[3] Ibid, 135.