Tag Archives: COVID-19

Dreaming Dreams Through Difference and Across Distance on Pentecost – Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23

**sermon art: Pentecost by Mark Wiggin (England)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 31, 2020

The Celebration of Pentecost

[sermon begins after two Bible Readings]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

John 20:19-23 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

[sermon begins]

Augustana has been around a looong time.[1] As a congregation we’re almost 142 years old. Almost exactly on our 40th anniversary, in September 1918, the first person died from Spanish Flu in Denver.[2] Churches, schools, theaters, etc., were closed by a public health order shortly after several more people died.[3] This means that our congregation’s ancestors of the faith lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and church closures. Some of you in the congregation had parents or grandparents worshiping at Augustana who were affected by it. And, here we are in 2020 facing a similar experience.

Our ancestors in the congregation would be shocked that we’re able to worship at all. The technology alone would short-circuit the early 20th century mind. News came from The Denver Post.[4] Worship was held in two languages while they received communion ten times a year. Their moment as the church probably felt like it would be how it would always be. I’m also sure that the days of the 1918 pandemic felt long, and the fear was overwhelming. Yet here we are today, a legacy of their faith. Their moment was not forever, and neither is ours. We do as they did. We grieve the people who have died, lament other losses, and get bogged down by disappointment. But we also have their faithfulness as part of our history. They are part of who we are because we still exist as a congregation. The same is true of the first century church, although with more twists and turns along the path of history than our mere 142 years.

The first century church received the Spirit in a blaze of glory described in the Bible’s book of Acts. The long list of people Tim pronounced for us were from all sides of the Mediterranean Sea, east of the Caspian Sea, and south of the Persian Gulf. Places we know today as Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Spirit of Jesus poured out in a new way over this multi-ethnic group of folks without regard for position and rank.[5] The Spirit included the young, the old, the men, the women, and the slaves. The Spirit lit them all up with prophesies, visions, and dreams.

Dreams, ah yes, dreams. This means good dreams, big dreams, hope-filled dreams. Not dark night of anxiety dreams but dreams in the life force of the Spirit’s fire at 9 o’clock in the morning. Dreams that transcend differences and preach a message so powerful that more dreams flowed. No wonder other people thought they were drunk. Pentecost fire had a moment with the people and left them changed to become the church. They are part of who we are because we exist as a congregation, a small corner of God’s whole church. But their euphoric moment was not forever. This ecstatic moment quieted down. Life in the faith became challenging almost immediately after this event and through the twists and turns of history. But for a moment, there was an experience of unity that amazed and perplexed the people. They heard their own language and couldn’t fathom the meaning, so they wrote it off as drunken babble. And then Peter began to preach.

Preaching is an act that has little to do with the preacher and everything to do with the Holy Spirit – a stark and humbling truth for the preacher. Many a preacher has had the experience of people hearing something in the sermon that the preacher didn’t say but was something that that person dearly needed to hear. Lutherans believe that through preaching the Holy Spirit calls us by the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and fills us with faith. I had that experience through the words of a preacher and the power of the Holy Spirit. I was amazed and perplexed week after week hearing about grace, forgiveness, mercy, beauty, and hope while receiving faith through that same preaching. The message of being beloved and created good as the first act of God was new to these ears. That God’s breath created wonder and life and, as we heard in the Psalm today, even joy as the Leviathan of the sea swirled in chaos.[6]

God does not leave us swirling in the chaos but brings us to new life – to the life of the Spirit’s imagination and, thankfully, not our own. Often, what we can imagine fits into specific limits of good and bad, order and chaos, black and white, and so on. From those limits we make decisions both conscious and unconscious about how we think the world works. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams.

Dreams of multi-ethnic community unified by the Spirit over and against the uniformity of our limited experience. Unity is not uniform. As on the first Pentecost, unity functions through difference to amaze and perplex us as well as to challenge our assumptions about meaning by pausing long enough to ask the question, “What does this mean?” More than an academic question among friends over wine and cheese, this is a question of life and death deepened through the Lord’s Supper of bread and wine that forgives us and frees us into a life of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. All our neighbors, to be sure, but especially in these United States right now, our black and brown neighbors’ lives matter while their bodies remain at higher risk for violence and disease. Thankfully, the Spirit blows through our assumptions and sends us into the world with something different – prophesy, visions, and dreams. Dreams of unity through difference. And dreams of unity across distance.

The breath of the Spirit blows through us even as we worship across distance together today and the foreseeable future. Bishop Jim Gonia and the Rocky Mountain Synod Council has recommended that we continue worshiping in the digital space through at least the end of August.[7] We’ve got this, my dear Augustana friends. We’ve got this because the Spirit is not limited by space and time. Our first century ancestors in the faith discovered this truth when life became hard and so did our Augustana ancestors in the faith during pandemic. The chaos wrought by Covid is for now and not forever. We can dream of the moment beyond masks and distance even as we live in the day-to-day reality of it to protect our most vulnerable folks.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we as church are called by the gospel and filled with faith. We hold each other’s suffering in prayer and encouragement while we celebrate moments of shared joy even in this pandemic. We are forgiven and freed into lives of sacrificial love on behalf of our neighbor. We grieve and hope together across the distance, connected to Christ and each other by the power of the Spirit and the grace of God. We’ll get some things right and we’ll make our share of mistakes as we always do – pandemic or no. Remember that even as “for now is not forever,” the Spirit is with us now as we dream and the Spirit remains with us forever. Thanks be to God. And amen.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Augustana’s Past and Present. https://www.augustanadenver.org/augustana-lutheran-church/history/

[2] Denver Health. “1918 Pandemic Flu versus Novel Coronavirus: Similarities and Differences.” April 9, 2020.

https://www.denverhealth.org/blog/2020/04/1918-pandemic-flu-versus-novel-coronavirus-similarities-and-differences

[3] Ibid.

[4] Founded 1892 – present.

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for Pentecost, May 31, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1267

[7] Bishop Jim Gonia makes this recommendation in a video found here https://vimeo.com/422844342 and in his written remarks here https://www.rmselca.org/sites/rmselca.org/files/media/rms_in-person_gatherings_recommendations1.pdf

God’s Love in a Body Means Something for Black, Brown, and White Bodies [OR Jesus’ Farewell Commands Us to Love] John 14:15-21

**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 14:15-21  [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[sermon begins]

“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.

Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”[1] In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.

Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.

Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.

Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years.  66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education.[2] Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.

Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard.[3] This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.

Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population.[4] We have some explaining to do.

And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.

Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm. [5] Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body.[6] We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.

Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.

 

And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.

May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,

So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262

[3] Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. The Fifth Commandment [189]. http://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php

[6] Ibid., Moore.