Tag Archives: celebrity

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

“I do not think it means what you think it means” (*) – Luke 4:1-13 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Pastor Caitlin with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 14, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; the Deuteronomy reading is at the end of the sermon]

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]

Last week the sermon began with the question, “What is it you seek?”  Someone suggested to me after worship that it may have been the wrong question to ask the same day as the Broncos were taking the field for the Super Bowl.  It’s possible some listeners drifted off to pondering whether or not the defense was really up to the challenge of Carolina’s offensive surge.  Now, a week later, we know the ending to that tale.

The Broncos’ celebration with a million fans coincided with Mardi Gras this year, the eve of Ash Wednesday.  Peyton Manning added one more career highlight to an already long list which leaves me wondering what data the NFL doesn’t collect. The flip-side is that Manning’s 39-year-old body is no longer as willing or able as his mind. The Broncos’ win really did take a team of “53” even though his leadership is included in that number.  Cam Newton’s smile and swagger, ordinarily contagious and larger than life, collapsed under disappointment.  The Carolina Panthers’ loss shrunk Newton into a shadow of himself. So much so that the criticism of his press conference behavior has become an intellectual sport.[1]

The fragility of Manning and the shadow of Newton in contrast with their accomplishments opened up Lent this year.  Opening up an honesty about ourselves that includes acknowledging our fragility and our brokenness.  I told my coach at the gym on Ash Wednesday morning that, “I love Ash Wednesday.”  She asked me, “Why?”  I told her that I like its honesty about so little I actually control, that it’s a break from striving.  The irony of being in the gym as I talked about this was not lost on me.  But it’s also not lost on me how much my 20-something gym friends are able to do over and above the 40-something me.

We enter Lent with honesty about our fragile bodies and brokenness.  In the Bible story today, Jesus enters the wilderness with his fragile body, eating nothing for forty days.  The translation we’re using says he’s “famished.” A more accurate description after forty days without food would be “wasting away.”  He must look pretty beat-up at that point – rail thin and bone weary.  The story doesn’t fill in all the temptations offered to Jesus. It’s more like game highlights of the red-zone plays.

The temptations are like a triumvirate – the big three of power, prestige, and prominence:[2]

Jesus, in his hunger, is tempted with the power to change stones to bread.

Jesus, in his weakness, is tempted with the prestige of authority over kingdoms.

Jesus, in his isolation, is tempted with the prominence of surviving death.

The trick with the Big 3 temptations is that they are hard to confront in ourselves because there are cultural aspirations that support those temptations.  My older teenaged children are marinating in those cultural aspirations as they figure out their next right steps.  Mother Theresa’s words are an antidote.  She said, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”[3]  Faithful, not successful.  Her words are good for us as celebrity and specialness seem to be the epitome of success.  I’m not sure which part of endless opportunity in the pursuit of happiness was once true.  But it was truer in recent history than it is now.  And right now in the story, we see Jesus who cannot be tempted at his weakest and most isolated.

Jesus is isolated.  But is he alone?  Jurgen Moltmann, renowned systematic theologian, would say most definitely not.  Moltmann’s faith came to him as an adult. He was a German soldier in a Belgian prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1945.  Raised in a non-religious home, he started reading the New Testament and Psalms out of boredom as a POW.  Faith hooked him.  After the war, he received his doctorate in theology, becoming a pastor and a professor.[4]

Moltmann argues that Jesus’ temptations are “not levelled at his human weakness…they are aimed at his relationship to God.” This challenge comes in the opening statement of the temptations: “If you are the Son of God then…”[5]  More importantly, Moltmann notes that, “…if the Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus, then the Spirit accompanies him as well…and if the Spirit accompanies him, then it is drawn up into his sufferings, and becomes his companion in suffering.”[6]  Why does this matter?  Because Jesus has the Spirit with him in the wilderness as well as through his suffering on the cross.  Isolated, not alone.  We are baptized by the power of the same Spirit into Jesus’ death. This same Spirit accompanies us as we encounter temptations that are ultimately the temptation to forget that God is in relationship with us.

What does Jesus do when he’s tempted?  He skips the argument and confesses scripture.  By confessing in this way, he claims his dependence on God and their relationship.  Something similar happens in the Deuteronomy story.  While Moses coaches the Israelites on their giving, he also instructs them on their confession.  When they take their gifts to the priest, they align with the powerless. They confess their ancestors’ affliction, oppression, and tears along with God’s redemption.[7]  They confess God’s relationship with them even at their weakest.

In the face of temptation, Jesus remembers God.  Jesus confesses God. Ironically, the things offered to him already belong to him.  But there’s a big difference between the temptation to power, prestige, and prominence versus God’s freedom.  As Moltmann puts it:

“True dominion does not consist of enslaving others but in becoming a servant of others; not in the exercise of power, but in the exercise of love; not in being served but in freely serving; not in sacrificing the subjugated but in self-sacrifice.”[8]

Jesus freely serves in self-sacrificing love.  This is the Jesus into whose life and death we are baptized.  And by the power of the Spirit, the Jesus through whom our lives become ever more Christ-shaped.  As baptized people we worship and remind each other about God’s promises and, in turn, are able to confess the love of God in Jesus.  It’s simple.  It’s weird.  It’s faithful.  It’s freedom.

The sober addicts in the room know this freedom.  The freedom that comes through our dependence on a higher power much bigger than ourselves to resist temptation.  Last week I started with the question, “What is it you seek?”  This week I end with the opposite question. What is it that seeks you?  In other words, what comes up in your life that tempts you to forget that God is in relationship with you?  It certainly could be power, prestige, and prominence.  It could also be something else.  You know what it is.  And it may isolate you.  Know this, you are not alone.  As people of God, we confess Jesus is the Lord.  We confess this together as the church and remind each other when we are tempted to forget.  In our fragility and brokenness, Jesus is with us and for you by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen and thanks be to God.


(*) Rob Reiner, screenwriter. The Princess Bride: Quote from character Inigo Montoya. (Iver Heath, UK: Pinewood Studios, 1987).

[1] Dr. Kimberly D. Manning. “Mom: Be Careful with Your Cam Newton Narrative.” Weekend Express: February 10, 2016. http://www.hlntv.com/shows/weekend-express/articles/2016/02/09/op-ed-how-to-talk-about-cam-newton-with-your-kids

[2] Another way to think about these three temptations are: control (power), respect (prestige), and celebrity (prominence).

[3] Mother Theresa. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/329513-god-does-not-require-that-we-be-successful-only-that

[4] Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology: Jurgen Moltmann. http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/moltmann.htm

[5] Jurgen Moltmann. The Spirit of Life. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 61.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] William Yarchin. Commentary: Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Working Preacher for February 14, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2761

[8] Jurgen Moltmann.  The Church in the Power of the Spirit. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977),103.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.