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Violence, Guilt, and Defiant Faith [OR Pillars of the Earth, American Vaudeville, and the Apostle Paul] Matthew 21:33-46 and Philippians 3:4b-14

**sermon art: “A Cubist Prayer One World One God” painting by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 8, 2017

[Sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Matthew 21:33-46   “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Philippians 3:4b-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

I read Pillars of the Earth on vacation last week.[1] A gripping tale of love and hate, good and evil, set in the political intrigue of 12th century England. Cathedrals are built. Land battles and famine are constant. In the midst of it all is Prior Philip, a monk. He’s a character akin to the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians, very much very much aware of his gifts while pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[2] There are so many parallels it makes me want to buy the author, Ken Follett, a cup of coffee and talk faith, life, and theology. Prior Philip constantly questions his pride, care of his people, and God. He also constantly questions other people’s motives. Wrangling with kings, bandits, and bishops over decades the battle between good and evil wages. It’s classic American vaudeville. It’s wonderful. And like every good novel, it’s hard to turn the last page.

Sometimes the Bible reads like vaudevillian melodrama. Obvious villains arriving onstage to “boos” and “hisses” from the crowd.  The villains are bad and the heroes are good.  The moral of the story is simple. Wrongs are overcome and right wins the day.  At least that’s the feeling in the parable Jesus tells about the wicked tenants.  Let’s set the stage. Jesus is hanging out in the Jerusalem temple, home turf of the Pharisees, the religious elite. He’s done nothing to endear himself to them since his triumphal entry into the city, riding on a donkey, drawing cheering crowds who spread branches on the road in front of him.[3]  He’s dropped off at the temple where he flips over tables and chairs, driving out the money changers and sellers.[4]  Jesus leaves for a sleepover in Bethany and in the morning curses a fig tree on his way back to town.[5]  Busy guy. Busy challenging the status quo. He enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple leaders.  They basically say to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?!”[6]  He doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, out come the parables.

The parable we hear today is about the wicked tenants who beat, kill, and stone the landowner’s slaves as well as kill his son, tossing them all out of the vineyard.  Jesus talks and the Pharisees squirm. The parable makes it pretty obvious that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he doesn’t mean kill them. Here’s the key verse this week. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”[7]  It’s that verse that caught my eye when I read it on Monday.  I like the way the Pharisees “realize” that Jesus has them in the hot seat. Their realization that Jesus is talking about them raises questions for us.  How do we know what we don’t know? How do we realize new awareness and not commit violence against other people?

It could be because I watched the new Martin Luther movie last week but guilt and awareness connect for me in this Bible reading.[8]  Hanging out with a bunch of (mostly) Lutherans and watching Luther’s journey as he answers the question, “Am I a good person?”  His question turned into a faith journey called the Reformation that changed daily life, church, and politics for the Western world 500 years ago.  Watching his story makes me aware of a couple of things.  First, in chaotic times, people do good, bad, and ugly things. Not so unusual, people are always doing good, bad, and ugly things.  Second, faith is transformative. Is faith always transformative?  Doesn’t seem to be.  Is faith sometimes transformative?  I’d say ‘yes.’

The day after the Luther movie, I’d planned to stay home and write sermons. One for a funeral on Friday and one for today.  It was supposed to be a full day of writing but at the last minute I ended up leading chapel in the Sanctuary with our Early Learning Center kiddos. Getting ready to leave home included brainstorming age-appropriate chapel ideas. My own kids came to mind, when they were preschool age long ago. Sweet-faced and chatty. A song then came to mind that I sang to my kids every night at bedtime.  So, during chapel, we sang:

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Singing broke my heart open, choking back tears as these beautiful, little people of all the song’s colors sang with me. It’s hard to describe. Words that come close are, simple…pure…faithful…defiant…a song loaded with defiant faith. A faith that refuses to let natural or man-made destruction be the last word.  And because I was writing a sermon, Jesus’s parable about the tenants’ violence came to mind on my way home from chapel to write.  Jesus loves all the children of the world, including those Pharisees. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the guilt of their behavior.  Quick distinction here between guilt and shame.  Guilt is about what I do. Shame is about who I am.  Guilt admits my responsibility. Shame immobilizes me in the dark.  Guilt inspires my redemption. Shame pushes me to hurt other people. [10]

Back to the Pharisees. Jesus calls out their guilt.  Similarly, our behavior and guilt are called out by Jesus.  When I read this Bible verse, my instinct is to challenge us to think about ourselves as the Pharisees.  Good, bad, and ugly.  What is Jesus calling us out on?  Our sisters at New Beginnings Worshipping Community lead us to an answer. On Friday evening, I attended a fundraiser for their church that worships inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. During the last few months, three people had a chance to speak one-on-one with a woman living there. Each woman’s story was then told by their visitor as if we were hearing from the woman herself.  Each woman owning up to the guilt of their crime and the pain they’d inflicted on people. Each woman talking about deep shame and pain they’d initially tried to numb with cocaine or meth.  Each woman experiencing redemption by faith that defies explanation, their lives transformed.  These women lead us because they don’t point fingers at everyone else. They know they can’t lie to God and they know they don’t have to. Theirs is a defiant faith through which Jesus refuses to let their guilt be the last word.  Real redemption in real time.

Our present time is all too real. A few days ago I used the word surreal but that doesn’t describe what’s at stake in the carnage and grief in Las Vegas, in hurricane after hurricane, or in Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police violence against black people.[9]  It’s all too real that patriotism and the common good are being shaped in ongoing debates about protests, guns, race, health care, immigration, media, diplomacy, aid, education, gender, incarceration, taxes, and more.  All of this to say that a defiant faith is what fuels my hope, prayer, and actions. It’s easy to give up and hide. It’s easy to disrespect other people, a violence of its own kind, while turning up the volume on my opinions. It’s impossible to lie to God about that violence.

Martin Luther King Senior came home from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son after learning about Martin Luther’s 15th century commitment to non-violence as a way to turn self-interest and corruption upside-down so that all people could live. No small thing, that name change. I’m committed to non-violence right down to the way I talk with you. Do I get it right every time? Not by a long shot. Do I get angry? You bet.

If Jesus loves all the children of the world, then that means you and I are in this together whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean keeping the peace for the benefit of the status quo while people suffer. It means leaning into the chaos of our time and speaking up on behalf of our neighbor – red and yellow, black and white. Taking action while acknowledging the guilt that is ours for violence large and small against self and others so that we do not perpetuate violence like the wicked tenants in Jesus parable.  Realizing our guilt, we become instruments of peace with a defiant faith bound by Jesus’ love. We are redeemed and set free to live.

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[1] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[2] Philippians 3:14

[3] Matthew 21:1-10

[4] Matthew 21:12-16

[5] Matthew 21:17-22

[6] Matthew 21:23-32

[7] Matthew 21:45

[8] Boettcher and Trinklein, Inc. (2017) “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World.”

[9] Snopes. “Did a U.S. Veteran Influence Kaepernick’s ‘Take a Knee’ Protest of Police Brutality?” Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer confirmed he convince the quarterback to “take a knee,” rather than sit, during the national anthem. http://www.snopes.com/veteran-kaepernick-take-a-knee-anthem/

[10]  I’ve heard shame and guilt compared in different ways by different people. Lately, Brene Brown is one go-to expert on the topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGFrId-IQg

Sending Song  at end of worship:  CHRIST, BE OUR LIGHT

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

Longing for truth, we turn to you.

Make us your own, your holy people,

Light for the world to see.

Chorus:

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.

Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light! Shine in your Church

Gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled.

Longing for hope, many despair.

Your word alone has power to save us

Make us your living voice.

Chorus

3. Longing for food, many are hungry.

Longing for water, many still thirst.

Make us your bread, broken for others,

Shared until all are fed.

Chorus

4. Longing for shelter people are homeless.

Longing for warmth, many are cold.

Make us your building, sheltering others,

Walls made of living stone.

Chorus

5. Many the gifts, many the people,

Many the hearts that yearn to belong.

Let us be servants to one another,

Making your kingdom come.

Chorus

– Bernadette Farrell

 

Loving Before Knowing [OR The Foolishness of the Cross] Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 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.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

Several months after my husband Rob and I started dating, we ended up at a New Year’s Eve party.  We were standing in a circle of people we didn’t know.  A bit of round-robin started as people talked about their work.  Rob said his usual, “I’m in sales.”  Someone asked, “Oh? What kind?” He said something like, “I’m a manufacturer’s rep for a Georgia-based carpet mill.”  As is often still the case, people don’t seem to know how to reply to that statement.  Possibly because cut-pile vs. loop or solution-dyed vs. yarn-dyed controversies aren’t quite party talk.  So, I’m next in the round-robin.  People have their eyebrows up expectantly, hoping their curiosity moves into easier conversation.  And I say, “I’m a pediatric cancer nurse.”  Stares and crickets. More stares and crickets with some nodding and mmmm’ing, while the conversation moved to the next person.

Some conversations are too detailed for party-talk, like the pros and cons of carpet manufacturing techniques.  And other conversations are too hard, like kids having cancer.  These are not the only ones. Just a couple of examples of so many things that don’t qualify as polite conversation.  Grief is another such thing.  This is where the church comes in, talking through the polite conversation into what’s happening in our lives. It’s one of the reasons being part of the church can be a comfort while we’re also challenged by Jesus’ teachings. Listen to this Bible verse again from the book of Matthew:

[Jesus teaches his disciples, saying,] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus is often found teaching in Matthew.  The Bible verses today are most commonly known as the Beatitudes based on the Latin for blessed.  It is curious that people who suffer are described as blessed when these moments can feel and look like the opposite of blessing.  Jesus is pushing against the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  There is no explanation for why people are poor in spirit or mourning, why people suffer.  There is simply a description of suffering and God’s promise to be present in the midst of it.

The Beatitudes state a promise into the suffering.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice there are no requirements to receive the kingdom.  In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now and it’s here.  Check out the kingdom parables in Matthew chapter 13.  They describe active presence of the kingdom on earth.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, Jesus teaches us, that we receive the kingdom, live the kingdom, and teach the kingdom.

I can hear you asking, “Well, pastor, that’s lovely poetry, but what does it look like on the ground to receive the kingdom and live in it?”  I’m glad you asked.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and scholar, describes the rational mind hitting a ceiling.[1]  That ceiling is suffering. Today’s Bible verses name suffering as mourning and poor in spirit and more.  We can’t explain why it happens or its purpose.  We just know suffering exists and spend energy trying to prevent our own.  I mean, really, does anyone actually love eating kale?  Eventually, though, someone we love, or maybe even ourselves, suffers – we get sick, we grieve a death, we lose a job, we miscarry, or we watch our partner walk away.  All that we thought we knew about life and our place in it shifts.

But, as Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” the ultimate in earthly foolishness.[2]  Except that the cross means something beyond comprehension when it’s God’s foolishness. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God knows suffering.  More than that, it’s the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Paul’s use of “Christ crucified” points us there because the crucified Christ is also the resurrected Christ.  Christ whom we claim is among us now by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit names us the Body of Christ known as the church.  We are part of a resurrected life that we share together as a congregation.  We share that resurrection promise as a community of faith.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, he also teaches us, that we receive the kingdom and live in the kingdom especially when living through loss and grief.  Knowing this kingdom teaching can help stop us from painting a silver lining into someone else’s grief.[3]  We can simply be present with someone else in their suffering without fixing it or explaining it or telling someone it’s time to get over it.  We can avoid the trap of thinking someone else’s pain is a teaching moment for them and avoid setting ourselves up as the teacher.  Rather we can live the kingdom now by asking people how they’re doing, by telling people we’re sorry this is happening, by quietly listening, and by praying for them.

Prayer is one of the languages of the kingdom.  Jesus prayed the Psalms while on earth and now we do too as the body of Christ. Therefore, in the Psalms, we “encounter the praying Christ…Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”[4]  Praying for people on our prayer list who are suffering of mind, body, or spirit.  Taking the prayer list that’s in the weekly announcement page home, naming each person on it in prayer, or simply praying the whole list at once.  Praying is kingdom language even when we think our own prayers are uncomfortable and clunky.  That discomfort and humility in prayer are part of the kingdom language.  So is praying for people we don’t necessarily like.

As Christians, praying and being present to each other and the world’s pain is a freedom we have through the cross.  We may recognize God’s foolishness as wisdom and look to the cross as a way of knowing.[5]  It’s possible that one of the truths of Christ crucified is that our suffering connects us to each other differently.  We move through the party talk and listen to someone talk about their grief and loss.  These moments become prayer by transcending what we’re arguing about ideologically and opens our eyes us to see each other truly as beloved children of God.  Through the cross, through the suffering, we love before we know, we love as a way of knowing, we love as Christ loves us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Public Remarks, Join the Divine Dance: An Exploration of God as Trinity, Arvada, CO, January 13-15, 2017.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

[3] This is a riff on Brené Brown’s work on empathy vs sympathy.  See video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&sns=fb

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

[5] Rohr, ibid.

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1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”