Tag Archives: Craig Koester

Horseshoeing Elephants [OR Creed, Confession and the Limit of Words] John 1:1-16; Genesis 1:1-5, 26-2:4a; and Psalm 104:1-4, 19-28

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; Psalm 104 is at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-16   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.* He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Genesis 1:1-5, 26-2:4a In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

[sermon begins]

We’re standing near a blacksmith. It’s a historical farm. There’s a fire so hot that you wonder how anyone could work nearby as your body tries to cool itself, sweat beading on upper lip and forehead, trickling down necks. Hammers and pliers of varied shapes and sizes are at the ready, hanging in reach. An anvil is on the ground, a heavy block of iron ready to take the heat and hammering. The smith’s shirt sleeves are rolled up as tongs grab something small and u-shaped out of the fire. The hammer comes down over-and-over on heated iron and anvil announcing the blacksmith’s new creation, ringing out like a church bell for anyone to hear.  The act is repeated again and again.  Heating and hammering and ringing.  Until, finally, there’s a set of four u-shaped horseshoes, five inches by five inches, strong enough to carry the weight of 1,000 or more pounds of horse. Can you picture it? My guess is that the pictures in our minds cover a vast range of differences. Some picturing ancient metal works and some more clean-lined and concrete.  But most of us imagining horseshoes being shaped in some fashion.

This imagining is possible because of our shared language.  Whether you’re native to English or learned it alongside your primary language, you can glean something from the words being used because we have English in common.  If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know I love words.  Big ones, small ones, picking the right word to describe something probably couldn’t be more fun for me.  That is until the limitations of language make themselves known.  And we hit the ceiling of understanding due to those limitations.  Some words just aren’t capable of what we’re asking from them. It’s like taking one of those horseshoes made for a 1,000 pound horse with hooves and thinking it’ll do for a 10,000 pound elephant with feet because it’s a four-legged animal who walks long distances.  The verb “believe” is one such word.

Believing carries some modern baggage in the English language.  Belief gets tangled up in truth claims and absolutes in a way that faith does not.  “To believe” is often used as the verb correlate for the noun “faith” because faith doesn’t have a verb form.[1]  Using the verb “believe” to describe the action of faith is like thinking that horseshoe will work for the elephant. You’ll hear sermons that use the verb “to trust” to help us understand faith claims.  The meaning of “trust” edges us closer to the meaning of “faith” by way of verb usage.  However, it’s still lacking.  I wish there was a verb “to faith.”  Especially as it relates to the Apostle’s Creed.

Today we begin a four-week series on the Apostle’s Creed.  Many of our creeds like the Nicene or Athanasian Creeds were negotiated by committee. Part faith, part politics, these creeds identify specific theological priorities of their times. The Apostle’s Creed is harder to pin down. It has a more organic history. Various forms popped up in the writings of the early church fathers until settling into its current Trinitarian form in the early 8th century.[2]  It reads like a Biblical highlight reel that we say with people of faith across time, place, and language.  It seems to say, “These are the main things, remember them.”  The Apostle’s Creed also says, “I believe…”

This tension between belief and faith is formative as we confess the Creed together.  Belief think the right thing.  Faith surrenders to what cannot be fully known.  Belief makes us the subject and God the object.  Faith makes God the subject and us the object.[3]  Belief makes a claim about God.  Faith makes a claim on us.  All of this is why I wish for a verb that means “to faith.”  It means something different to my modern mind to say, “I faith in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Alas, the verb form of faith is not available to us.  So we use the word like the horseshoe that is meant for the 1,000 pound horse on the 10,000 pound elephant. Perhaps that formative tension between belief and faith might yet create something.  And what better place is there to start than in the beginning.

Hear these words, this confession of faith by the writer of Genesis:

“In the beginning when God created – the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God – swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”[4]

And this confession from the gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[5]

We confess similarly during worship in a lot fewer words:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

As Pastor Ann preached last week on Holy Trinity Sunday, this is a God who creates and sticks around.  As she pointed out, God does more than sticking around to sit back and see how things turn out.  God is involved.  God is present.  God is with us.  John’s confession continues, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”[6]

Father imagery is tricky.  We know this on Father’s Day. We know this because we have fathers who are simply human. Some of us are those fathers. So we know the gifts and limitations of earthy fathers. Sometimes we celebrate them. Sometimes we heal from them. Sometimes we grieve them.  Sometimes we do all of it at once and more.  So when we confess God as Father, these human realities can be confusing as we confess the Apostle’s Creed.  Genesis and the gospel of John re-focus us to God the Father Almighty whose creating power becomes power surrendered, emptied, and sacrificed for this world that God so loves. The breadth of divine power is poured out in the depth of divine love.[7]  God’s almighty self and God’s fatherly sacrifice is confessed in one breath: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”

As we confess, faith reveals that God creates us, sacrifices for us, and claims us as children of God.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Jaroslav Pelikan. Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 43.

[2] Elliot Ritzema and John D. Barry. Lexham Bible Dictionary. https://blog.faithlife.com/blog/2015/04/the-apostles-creed-its-history-and-origins/

[3] “A subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside of itself (called an “object“). A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject_(philosophy)

[4] Genesis 1:1-4

[5] John 1:1, 3-5

[6] John 1:14 and 16

[7] Dr. Craig Koester said this repeatedly to during in his class on The Gospel of John, Fall 2010.  Luther Seminary.

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Psalm 104:1-4, 19-28

1Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty,

2wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,

3you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind,

4you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.

20You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.

21The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.

22When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.

23People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.

24O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

25Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.

26There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27These all look to you to give them their food in due season;

28when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:3 and John 14:1-6

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:1-4 and John 14:1-6a

Matthew 5:1-4  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.

John 14:1-6a “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Elizabeth Jane, E.J. – a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend, a flight attendant.  All of these titles belong to E.J.  And all of these titles communicate a relationship of one sort or another.  Born and baptized in Fargo, E.J.’s life was filled with relationship both through what I like to call the accident of family and through the choices of friends and work.

These relationships sustained E.J. through thick and thin.  Her work for the airline fueled and fed her love of travel as well as gave her access to the art that brought her joy.  Her work also brought her enduring friendships that stuck through long hours in the air, on the ground, and over the holidays. Friendships with Marianne and Wendy sustained her through to the end. And her work brought her stories.  Stories that engaged the funny bone and entertained many of you over the years.  Leaving you with the satisfied feeling that only shared laughter with someone who loves to laugh can gift you.

The relationships of family carried E.J. through some tough times, including her last years when her health took a turn.  Some of the organizing and conversations were hard on everybody, including E.J.  But, this case, family sticks together even amid the practical challenges of E.J.’s outer world and the darker effect of E.J.’s inner world.

It was E.J.’s inner world that became her greatest challenge.  Beginning in her teens and lasting through her life, anxiety and depression were regular companions.  Her attempts to quiet the anxiety and mask the depression with alcohol only made matters worse for her and for the people who love her.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the verse out of the Matthew reading that came to mind as I listened to stories about E.J.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in this reading.

Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to the different view that a blessing is something akin to being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are.

The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see E.J.’s life in full, revealing what belongs to her even though she herself could not see it as one who was “poor in spirit.”  Hers is the kingdom of heaven.  In the John reading, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He says this because he knows that your hearts already are troubled.  How could they not be?  Along with the laughter that E.J. shared with you was her struggle with herself.  Also in the reading, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…how can we know the way?”  Jesus’ reply? “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  What is Jesus’ way?  Jesus’ way goes through a cross.

And the cross is God speaking in human terms.  The human terms of self-sacrifice to save someone else.  For instance, when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves, our first thoughts are often respect and awe.  We also honor the soldiers who return again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends and then die in the firefight themselves. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That Jesus’ execution can change anything about real life seems a deception at worst and an utter folly at best.  And yet, quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross changes everything.  Time and again in the gospel, we hear that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And Jesus focuses on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.

The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that he has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.  The poor in spirit often experience life as a series of barriers in one form or another.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed because their relationship with God is not dependent on their own mindset and agency.  The poor in spirit are blessed because their relationship with God already exists through no effort of their own.

We do not make a way out of no way on our own.  Like Thomas, we do not know the way.  Jesus makes the way to God through the cross on our behalf.  The way is made by Jesus which means that the movement is from God to us, from God to E.J.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to E.J., God gives us a future with hope as God also brings E.J. into a future with God.

_______________________________________________________________________

[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

 

A Funeral Homily for Bob – Mark 2:1-5

A Funeral Homily for Bob – Mark 2:1-5

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 29, 2015

 

Bob was one of the first people I met when I arrived at Augustana.  His quiet way, his one-liners, his love for Carol, and his pride and gratitude for his children were common topics through our conversations both in his home and before and after worship here in this sanctuary.

Most of you here this morning have stories with Bob that go back much longer in time.  Through many of you, I’ve heard details of his history including his service in the Pacific during World War II and his long-standing work as a Petroleum Engineer after graduating from the Colorado School of Mines.  You’ve also talked about the fun he had tinkering and creating as well as the joy he took in volunteering with his church including reading to the kids in Augustana’s Early Learning Center.

Through these details of history, there is much about Bob that came through as well.  These are the intangibles – the things that thread together over time.  Bob’s kindness, his humor, his love of the outdoors, and his willingness to lend a hand no matter how small or large the problem.

In the last few years of his life, it was Bob who needed your hands.  Always ready to help, he now needed help.  And you rose to the occasion. While this was difficult for Bob, he talked a lot with me about how grateful he was that his children and his friends did what they could, when they could, to make life a little easier even as it became more difficult.

Hear these words from the Bible as they speak into the tears of love and grief in this time to celebrate Bob’s life and to mourn his death; from the 2nd Chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people* came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay.5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’

 

What a scene! These friends are true problem solvers. Their paralyzed friend needs help and they head toward Jesus.  There were so many people that they couldn’t get in the house. So they head up to the roof and tear it open to lower their friend down to Jesus.  That is determination infused with deep love for their friend.  As you all shared story after story with me about Bob, this Bible story just shouted to be told.  I can imagine Bob up on that roof.  Quietly figuring out the physics of the friend on the mat, the ropes, the hole in the roof, and Jesus’ location.  Working with the other friends to figure out how to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus’ attention.

On the flip-side, I can also see Bob as the friend on the mat.  The one who desperately needs care from other people and also needs the attention Jesus.  In my conversations with Bob, he was acutely aware of his imperfections – the limits of how far his humanity could get him.  And this is where his testimony as a Christian is so powerful.  He worshiped Sunday after Sunday with the awareness and humility of the paralyzed friend on the mat who can’t help but capture Jesus’ attention and hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness of sins.

This begs a question to the opposite.  And that is, how might God go about getting our attention?  What are the means by which that may have been possible?  God, at some point, needs to grab our focus in ways that we might have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms – much like the friends risking their own lives and limbs to lower their friend to Jesus.

Think about it this way: What are our first thoughts when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves?  What kinds of things do we say to honor the soldier who returns again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends?  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was necessary or effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That this appalling execution can change anything about real life seems at worst a massive deception and at best an utter folly.  And yet, alarmingly, and quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus death on the cross changes everything because Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And God’s self-sacrificing death on a cross means that God would rather die than lift a hand in violence against us.  This is the God that Bob counted on and this is the God that shows up for Bob.

Jesus is focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  That is what the language of forgiveness means.  God is not irresistible. But God always takes us back. The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  God has already opened up whatever we perceive the barriers to be between us and God.

The love of God in Christ Jesus moves from God to us – we don’t create its momentum or its arrival, God’s love is simply given.  The love of God in Christ Jesus moves from God to Bob.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to Bob, God gives us a future with hope as God also brings Bob into a future with God.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

 

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason [OR Radical Inclusion is the Religious Freedom of the Cross] – John 18-19

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason – John 18-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Good Friday on April 3, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings excerpted from John 18-19]

John 18:15-18, 25b-27   Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

John 19:16-18, 25b-30, 40-42 Then [Pontius Pilate] handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40 [Joseph of Arimathea] took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

[sermon begins]

 

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday confronted with our own mortality.  Ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross and we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  A glaring reminder that life on the planet, our baptismal journey, ends in death.

Death leaves us longing for the spiritual. But in the meantime, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet.  From where we sit on this side of death there is no dressing it up.  At the bedside or roadside or war-side, wherever we encounter death, it is stark, austere, and unnerving in its lack of immediate meaning.  Death is simply absence.  Gone.  On this side of death, it is nothing more.

We begin Lent faced with our own mortality and a sign of the cross.  At the end of Lent this Good Friday, we are confronted by the cross itself.  Longing for the spiritual, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet after the betrayal, denial, ridicule, and execution.  The adrenalin fades.  The frantic hype is gone.  “It is finished.”  Jesus’ last words.  Finished.  All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.

But the quiet of death breeds disquiet. Unnerved by the immediate lack of meaning the attempts to make meaning begin immediately.  Centuries of Christian thought have produced atonement theory after atonement theory.  Some more satisfactory than others.  Regardless, Gerhard Forde argues that all of these theories hold us “in a false relation to God,” most often reducing Jesus’ death to an unsatisfactory commercial transaction.[1]

Time and again in the New Testament, Jesus’ death is explained simply as “for us”.[2]  That is all.  “For us.”  Which necessarily means that Jesus died “for you.”  Jesus died for you.

Jesus died for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Because isn’t that what Jesus did in his life here on earth?  With the authority of God, he announced forgiveness time and again, and time and again, until finally he was killed for it.  Forgiveness, already available, already announced by Jesus, was that for which Jesus was killed.  He spoke a word of forgiveness until he hung on a cross for it.  For you.

The hands of the betrayer, the hands of the denier, the hands of the ridiculer, the hands of the executioner.  Those hands are ours hands in all the ways we take things into our own hands.  Determined to put conditions on what God’s gives to us unconditionally, we cannot hear this word of forgiveness.  We can’t hear it for other people.  And we can’t hear it for ourselves.

The cross is God’s answer to the re-imagining of God that we do. That re-imagining that leaves us separate from God.  Oh, so you think you know who God is?  Well, what about a God who hangs dead on a cross and gets buried in a tomb rather than use divine power over and against the very creatures whom God loves. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  Jesus on the cross simultaneously reveals the scope of divine power poured out to reveal the depth of divine love as we are drawn toward God.  When the self-sacrificing love of God, given fully, is made known to you, when this message of divine love gets through to you, you are drawn by God back into relationship. [3]

With great intention, Jesus hangs on the cross.  And, in one of his final acts while still breathing, does something radical.  Jesus turns to his own mother and then to the beloved disciple and redefines their relationship with the cross in between them.  “‘Woman, here is your son…then he says to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

Not only does Jesus draw us into relationship with God through the cross but Jesus redefines our relationship with each other at the foot of the cross – standing with the cross between us, Jesus intervenes.  Drawn back into the relationship with God our Father, Jesus the Christ turns us towards each other in a new way.  And God knows the world needs us to be with each other differently than we are at the moment.  Look as close as the cranky person next door or exclusion laws masquerading as religious freedom in several of these United States.  And look as far away as murder by plane crash in the French Alps or execution across religious differences at the Garissa University in Kenya.  We need every bit of help we can get to stand down and stand with each other.  As Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[4]

At the cross, love is freely taken up for us and for the sake of the people next to us.  In the same moment, we have everything to do with what happened at the cross and we have nothing to do with it.  We are culpable AND we are passive spectators who are being handed a stark realization of our common powerlessness.  In this way, the cross cannot be used as a method to live life.  The cross is the way we experience life.  Longing for the spiritual, we are often stunned by its lack.  Yes, the cross is the way we experience life.  Humbled by our participation in a death on a cross, made confident through the self-sacrificing love of God.  The cross is radically inclusive of all people which necessarily includes you.

Jesus says, “It is finished.”  Can you hear the whisper?  Finished.  His final moment. All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.[5]

 



[1] Gerhard O. Forde.  A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2004), 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[4] Anne Lamott.  Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

[5] On Good Friday, cross and tomb are the focal point so that hope is reflected out of suffering that is real rather than as false optimism denying painful realities.

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?!] Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?]  Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 8, 2015

 

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

[sermon begins]

I was early to the Worship Committee meeting this past Tuesday evening.  A couple other people were already there.  Typical of pre-meeting conversations, we meandered through each other’s lives, getting updates on home and work until stumbling into a conversation about calendars.  I was feeling thankful for having a cloud version on what I like to call my not-so-smart-phone.  If I need to put something on the calendar, it’s right there with me. This morphed into a virtues of electronic and paper calendars and then moved into the various ways we keep to-do lists.  One of us is all-electronic, one is all-paper, and one a hybrid of the two.

This conversation has me thinking about why we make lists at all.  In my world, there is one continuous list that I simply add to over time.  Things get marked off as done and added on to be done.  People get contacted, visits get made, articles get written, meetings get scheduled, and errands get run.  Lists are practical.  Things need to get done.  And lists are emotional.  People need to be remembered.

One of the all-time classic lists is The Ten Commandments.  Like many of our own lists, The Ten Commandments reflect something already in play long before the list itself was put together.  Different than our own lists, though, these are not 10 new things given to the people of Israel as if they have never heard them before or done them before.  Rather, they are a list of convenience. The Ten Commandments are practical.   A way to make the law handy to remember it.[1]   And The Ten Commandments are emotional.  These people in the desert need to remember God and for God to remember them.

Here’s where things get murky.  Remembering the list somehow turns into memorializing the list.  And memorializing the list cements it into a to-do list.  Not just any old to-list, but one given to us from an unpredictable, high-maintenance God.  And when we turn it into that kind of to-do list, the list turns on us.  Pretty soon, the list becomes more than a handy reminder.  The list itself becomes the very kind of idol we are warned about in the list.  Ironic.

For a little help, let’s back up to Genesis, the first book in the Bible just before Exodus.  In the very first chapter of the creation story in Genesis, the very first command is given in the pre-sin Garden.[2]  Law was not an original idea first conceived for The Ten Commandments.  Law came before those commandments.  Furthermore, The Ten Commandments are listed again with a slight variation a few books later in the Bible in Deuteronomy.[3]  Terence Fretheim argues that The Ten Commandments seem “to require adaptation in view of new times and places.”

The quick summary in list form?

1)      Law came before The Ten Commandments in Exodus.

2)      The Ten Commandments started changing after they were written in Exodus.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are in the 21st century trying to be faithful Christians alongside people from all walks of life, some of whom are fellow Christians.  And The Ten Commandments turn into an occasion of sin against God and neighbor as if their use keeps the high-maintenance God-of-our-imagination happy.  We sorely miss the point when we beat each other up using the Ten Commandments or, for that matter, beat each other up using Jesus or a bad decision or socio-political differences or religious commitments.

One way to keep The Ten Commandments in perspective is to see the larger story.  Two weeks ago, we were regaled with the covenant God made with Noah; last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham; and this week we are treated to epic Moses moment of God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Each covenant God makes builds upon and includes the covenant that came before.  Do we ever once hear from God, “Okay, scratch that covenant, let’s make a new one that erases the old one.”  No, we don’t.  In fact, we hear reminders from God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  This history, these relationships, are an important part of each covenant God makes.  Not erasing the past and people.  Rather expanding to make room for the people here now.  With each new covenant, God ups the ante

Look at our Gospel reading from John today.  Look closely at it.  Who gets booted from the temple?  “Both the sheep and the cattle.”  That’s it.  “The sheep and the cattle.” The domesticated animals get booted.  Left in the temple are the undomesticated Jesus and the people.  This is no accident in the Gospel of John.  The sacrificial system is disrupted with the sending of the animals.  Jesus is the disrupter, anticipating the time when his death and resurrection would expand God’s covenant through Abraham and Moses to all people.  A covenant atoning for us today through the crucified and risen one.  One more time, God ups the ante again, this time with God’s very self in the person of Jesus.  When we sing in worship about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, this is who we’re singing about.[4]  The one who lets the sheep and cattle live another day, is also the one who gives us life through his very death.

Just a moment ago, I talked about The Ten Commandments being turned into an occasion of sin for us when we imagine a high-maintenance God that we’re making happy with us by following the commandments as God’s to-do list.  Here’s the twist.  WE are the high-maintenance ones.  To paraphrase an old movie – we’re the worst kind; we’re high maintenance but we think we’re low maintenance.[5]   God comes through time and again, with covenant after covenant.  The Ten Commandments is a short-hand list about loving our God more and loving other people more.  Really, God?!  We need to be reminded to stay faithful to our partners?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to explain each other’s actions in the kindest of ways?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to love you, God?  Yes.

People often ask me what I think God’s will is in many kinds of situations.  Here’s what I know for sure.  God wants us to love God and love each other.  That’s our to-do list.  To love God in spite our high-maintenance need to be certain and to love each other in spite of our high-maintenance need to be right.

The first words in the reading from Exodus today are words of redemption… “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” [6]

God’s to-do list?  To be your God.

To be your God in spite of all the ways you run away, hide from, ignore, and make fun of God.

To be your God by slipping into skin and disrupting the status quo through loving and healing you.

To be your God by dying because all of that loving and healing threatens your own to-do lists.

To be your God by living again and living in you.



[1] Terence Fretheim.  Commentary: Exodus 20:1-17 for March 8, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org

[2] Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply…”

[3] Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  More from Fretheim: Verse 21 – “(W)ife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture.”

[4] Craig R. Koester.  Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 84.

[5] When Harry Met Sally (1989).  Quotes from the movie:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098635/quotes

[6] Exodus 20:2 – More from Fretheim: “God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line [is] about redemption…”

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Caitlin Trussell on December 21, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church

 

[Two Bible readings before the sermon]

Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Romans 16:25-27  Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

 

[sermon begins]

 

There’s a pretty good chance that something is happening in your life right now that has a lock on your mind.  Something that nags at the gray matter.  Something that is looking for a solution.  And life keeps moving along with its time-tables and decisions and final exams and projects.  Or at the very least there is something from which you need a break.  A place to rest.   To unhook from the daily dose of fear, inadequacy, and even shame.  A pause in the action to find a little room to breathe.

Breathing allows a little space and time for being.  For a moment to be flesh and blood and little else.  Breathing allows for calm.  The calm may be in the eye of the storm but for this moment, in this sanctuary, we are in the calm.

And here is Mary.  Mary’s day-to-day is likely one of survival.  She is, after all, a lowly one.  Daily decisions and dangers – true threats to her creaturely, flesh and blood existence.  And dropping in for a visit is Gabriel, the angel.  Mary is “perplexed.”  Great word.

Gabriel’s words, and Mary’s perplexed pondering, birth the question, “How can this be…?”[1]   This is an assertive question.  A bold question.  She puts her question to Gabriel but he’s simply the messenger.  Her question is pointed squarely at God.  “How can this be…?”

Such a flesh and blood question from Mary.  Mary who is perplexed, and ponders, and asks for answers from her place and time.  In her world that is plagued by poverty and political unrest.  Mary who is trying to understand what she is being told.  And also trying to understand how she fits into it.

It’s a pretty quick leap from the question of “how” to the question of “why.”   From, “How can this be?”  To, “Why is this happening?”  In one form or another we ask this question a lot.  We ask this question thinking that the gray matter is going to finally kick in and we’ll finally figure it out.  All that nagging worry will finally pay off in reasons for the thing happening in the first place.  We hop on the merry-go-round of our flawed humanity thinking that we’ll get that gold ring and make everything all right.

Things are flying by so quickly that everything’s a blur.  How might God go about getting our attention while things are moving so quickly?  What are all the ways in which that may have been possible?  God needs to speak in human terms.  But God, at some point, also needs to communicate in a way that bypasses our human defenses. So, through Mary the Christ-bearer, God shows up.  After all, who can resist a baby?  A baby whose life and death ultimately changes everything.  It’s delightfully subversive on God’s part.  Because, quite frankly, we’re just not that good at intervening on our own behalf.

In a startling move, Mary becomes the Christ-bearer.  The one who birthed God into skin and solidarity among us.

Including today’s Bible reading from Luke, the gospels confess, time and again, that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The lowly birth we look forward to celebrating, in just a few days’ time, bears into being this incarnation of God, this flesh and fragile Jesus.

Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary’s answer is so certain that it resonates with a fierce determination to do God’s will, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[2]  The One who Mary bears into the world, is the One who is focused on the goal of bringing us back into God.  This self-sacrificing love of God, given in the incarnation but given most completely on the cross, draws us back. [3]  Through the cross, you and I become Christ-bearers too.  Different from Mary, we are Christ-bearers of the crucified and risen One.

We await the party of the Christmas birth because we celebrate the One who shows up.  The One who shows up knowing full well we are afraid, confused, and asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.  As Christ-bearers, we are in a sweet-spot of sorts.  We are in the sweet-spot between “How can this be?” and “Here am I, a servant of the Lord”; in the sweet-spot between asking God questions and fiercely set on God’s will.

Echoing between our questions and God’s will are Gabriel’s words, “Do Not Be Afraid.”[4]  Our fearful confusion is offered a place of calm.  Fragile and flawed, we are given a bit of space to breathe…to be.  “Do Not Be Afraid.”  We can move from the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to the ‘what now’ with a bit more courage knowing that God is with us.  God is with us confronting our sin, holding us accountable to each other, and giving us to each other to be Christ-bearers for each other and the world.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of forgiveness.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of hope.

Paul’s reassurance to the Romans is also for us.  [There is a] “God who is able to strengthen you…and the proclamation of Jesus Christ…the revelation of the mystery…to the obedience of faith…through Jesus Christ.”  The revelation of mystery has us asking, “How can this be?”  The “obedience of faith” has us saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  And “…through Jesus Christ” we are not alone, not afraid.  The Hope born of Mary in the fragility of flesh and blood is the One born for you and for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God.



[1] Check out the ponderings of my friend and colleague Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on the perplexing topic of the virgin birth: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-virgin-birth-fact-fiction-or-truth/

[2] Luke 1:38

[3] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[4] Luke 1:30

John 18:1-19:42 “Think Again” [a sermon for Good Friday]

John 18:1-19:42 “Think Again”

March 29, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Pick a spot, any spot, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are many places to sit, stand or lie down.  We can betray, deny, judge, rant, abandon or despair.  Go ahead, pick a spot, because those characters are us.  Those characters who run amok and rail against Jesus, ridicule him, or despair in his death are us.  The irony of being a part of this cast of characters is that the person who hangs on the cross is the precisely the one who saves us.  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it does indeed offend.

 

It offends the sophisticated thought of modern people to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was necessary or effective in any way.  That we even need saving offends our enlightened sensibilities.  That this appalling execution can change anything about real life seems at worst a massive deception and at best an utter folly.  And yet, alarmingly, and quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus death on the cross changes everything.  Jesus insists, time and again in the gospel, that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus.

 

Think on this for a moment.  How might God go about getting our attention?  What are all the ways in which that may have been possible?  God, at some point, needs to grab us in ways that we might have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms.  When we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters, what are our first thoughts?  What kinds of things do we say to honor the soldier who returns again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends?  Wow!  Spectacular save!  How selfless!  And on and on goes the praise and adoration.  Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]

 

In the Gospel of John as a whole, and in this reading from John on this Good Friday, Jesus is aware and focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  Somewhere along the way, as human creatures we lost our way.  Rather than living into the image of God we became much more interested in placing ourselves in the center of things and holding God to the outskirts, leaving us free to make God into whatever image we choose – distorting God.[2]  It is in that re-creation of God that we are separate from God, powerless to repair what has happened.  This separateness, this breach, this distance between us and God is called sin.  Out of that separateness, that breach, that distance, that sin, comes all the ways in which we hurt each other and ourselves; inflicting sins against each other, ourselves, and God.

 

The cross is God’s answer to all of that re-imagining of God that we are so wont to do. That re-imagining that leaves us separate from God.  Oh, so you think you know who God is?  Well, what about a God who hangs dead on a cross and needs to be buried in a tomb rather than use divine power over and against the very creatures whom God loves.  Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  Jesus on the cross simultaneously reveals the scope of divine power poured out to reveal the depth of divine love as we are drawn toward the God who saves us.  When the self-sacrificing love of God, given fully, is made known to you, when this message of divine love gets through to you, you are drawn by God back into relationship. [3]

 

With great intention, Jesus hangs on the cross.  And, in one of his final acts while still breathing, does something radical.  Jesus turns to his own mother and then to the beloved disciple and redefines their relationship with the cross in between them.  “‘Woman, here is your son…then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

 

Not only does Jesus draw us into relationship with God through the cross but Jesus redefines our relationship with each other at the foot of the cross – standing with the cross between us, Jesus intercedes for us on each other’s behalf.  Drawn back into the relationship with God our Father, Jesus the Christ turns us towards each other in new ways.  Here, at the cross, love is freely taken up for us and for the sake of the people standing next to us.  In the same moment we have everything to do with what happened at the cross and we have nothing to do with it.

 

We are, first and foremost, passive spectators who are being handed a radical realization of our powerlessness.  As people in and around the story of the crucifixion, we think we know what’s happening and that the power is ours to create the story.  It is our turn on this day to hear God say, “Think again.”

 


[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 113.  This is a great text for deepening into the theological reflection on the “The Fall” that breached God’s intention for the creature as imago dei, in the image of God.

[3] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

April 29, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

House for All Sinners and Saints as well as Lutheran Church of the Master

John 10:11-18  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

I have this memory of an image from childhood.  I’m not sure where it comes from or how old it is.  You may know the kind.  It’s a little hazy around the edges and slightly out-of-focus but a couple of things come through in crisp outline and color.  It pops into my head of its own accord when I hear Jesus talking about being the Good Shepherd.  In this image, Jesus is laughing in a group of children who are also laughing and he is holding a little lamb.  And, after my initial freak-out about overly-sentimentalized religion that would domesticate God, this image rings true for me as I think about the story a friend of mine tells about his Hebrew Bible professor tucking in her children at night.[1]  When she tucks them in she asks them, “Who are you?”  And they reply, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” – a sweet image of mothering and bedtime as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep.  And it rings true for me when I sit with families during funeral planning and they choose Psalm 23 time and time again.  I can hear the psalmist crying out through the families’ tears and from their broken hearts, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

 

And, for some of us, there are times when it is enough and sometimes quite necessary to allow those texts to wrap around us in the sweet, simple comfort of being cherished and celebrated as Jesus cradles us in light.  But what else might these texts have to say to us?

 

Wondering about Jesus’ claim of being a Good Shepherd is a good place to begin.  Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse into one of early Judaism’s understandings of God as shepherd.  And the words of Jesus echo deeply from within this tradition as he says, “I AM the good shepherd.”  The ante is upped as Jesus also says the words, “I AM”.  The “I AM” at the beginning of his words is the same “I AM” used in the divine claim by God, by Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus statement is infused with so much divinity it simply spills out all over. In fact, it is THE claim that sets the cross in motion.  The bottom line for us today?  God is made known in Christ.[2]  But how so according to John?

 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.”   Jesus is the good shepherd who died.  There’s a leadership model that would climb the bestseller list today.  A good leader is a dead one?  Why is this?  How is this a good thing?  How is the good shepherd the one who would lay his life down?  Why does the church call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” anyway?  I know, that last question seems a bit out of order in this exuberant season of Easter resurrection but I will take the liberty of asking it anyway.  How is any of this good?  It is good because God in Jesus, dead on the cross, reveals the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God will go to wrap us into God.  Belonging to a crucified God doesn’t mean that God is dead but that death is now captured up in the living God.

 

Jesus tells the story of the good shepherd not in an idyllic, cozy, safe location as my determined memory of the smiling image of Jesus from childhood would suggest.  In this story, there is howling that warns of threat and danger and hired hands who run away in fear, leaving the sheep to the wolf, leaving the sheep to death.  Ultimately the wolf means death in this story.  This infuses quite a different urgency into the mother tucking in her child at night and asking, “Who are you?”  And the child saying, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”  The sweet image of mothering at bedtime, as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep, reverbs within a fiercer promise of love and protection.  And the wolf’s howl intensifies the prayers of a family and a community as they pray the words of Psalm 23 together during a funeral – “yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, (through the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil.”

 

One of the things that I am privileged to do with my time over the last year while awaiting a call to a congregation is funerals – lots of them.  All excepting one have been the kind where I receive the call from the funeral director that a family is asking for a Christian minister to be the officiant for their loved one’s funeral within the following three to five days.  Either they or the person they have lost to death are often long unaffiliated with or never been part of any faith community and the element of having a Christian minister seems important.

 

One could argue lots of things – that there request for a minister is simply an example of a family hedging their bets or covering their bases or whatever might work as a metaphor for thinking their motivations shallow.  Or it could be that it is something that is a supposed-to-be-done.  In some of the stories these lines of thinking might be true.

 

But as I speak with these families, often torn open by their person’s death and their own grief, there is something more going on.  That something more has to do with the ways in which meaning in their lives had been suddenly shattered into a million pieces.  What had once made sense from the sum of their experiences and gave life meaning, no longer does.  Something more is needed.  This “something more” that is needed is a word that comes from outside of their own experience.  The story of the good shepherd offers meaning not crafted from within ourselves.  Rather it comes from beyond our experience – gifted to us from outside of ourselves through the cross of the one who laid his life down.

 

As the conversation about the funeral continues with the family, two things quickly become important as the life story about person who died takes shape – having the body or the ashes at the funeral and the commendation at the end of it.  Having the body there speaks a truth about the death that has happened, just as Jesus and the commendation speaks a promise of new life directly into the heart of that truth.  The commendation is a prayer that acknowledges God’s welcome of the person who died.  The prayer of commendation sounds like this…

“Into your hands, O merciful God, we commend your child. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.”

 

When I pray this prayer on behalf of the one who has died, I take quite seriously in our text today, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

 

In the Gospel of John we hear over and over and over again how Jesus came for sake of the world.  In day-to-day living, many, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more.

 

So hear this gift, the promise of the good shepherd for you this day of Easter resurrection…

By the power of the Holy Spirit of the risen one who first laid his life down,  Jesus draws you through the cross of Christ into faith, into meaning, into new life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life and took it up again for you.

Death is now caught up into God, for you.

New life is here and now, in you and for you, by the power of the risen Christ!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Justin Nickel, personal conversation, April, 24, 2012.

[2] Craig Koester. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 297.