Tag Archives: cross

Knowing Enough to Hope [OR Knowing Enough to Be Dangerous] Romans 5:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 14, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Romans 5:1-8 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

[sermon begins]

“I know enough to be dangerous.” This is something people say when they don’t know much about a topic but they think that they have a gem to throw in the mix. I’m that way with art. A few trips through museums and suddenly I feel free to wax rhapsodic on Degas and da Vinci. Whatever my failings in knowledge, though, I make up for in enthusiasm. There are times when you look at a masterpiece and the effect is transcendent. For a moment your eye is captured, and your soul is filled with something “other.” Beauty has that effect. Closer to the ground, we’re cresting into late spring. Aspirations of green thumbs abound across many a beating heart while some blooms begin to fade, and heartier ones take their place.

Last week, it was the pale pink peonies that frothed in a profusion of petals. 2020 is a perfect year for them. The right amount of sun and water fell, and the hail didn’t. After my usual hemming and hawing about leaving them outside or bringing them in, I clipped a bouquet and have been enjoying them all week. I posted a picture of them on the media, attempting poetry about “air for the soul.” (Again, I know enough to be dangerous.) The thing about beauty is it reminds us that our humanity is part of something – something both essential and transcendent. For me, this is especially necessary when times are difficult, when everyone seems to know enough to be dangerous and when suffering seems inescapable.

Suffering is a universal human experience. There was plenty of it in my early kid years when my family was blown apart by mental illness and domestic violence. And more, during my years as a pediatric oncology nurse. And more, over time as a pastor. Here’s one of the things I know about suffering from all those years. Suffering cannot be compared. It’s a lot like beauty that way. What’s more beautiful – Degas’ elegant sculpture of “La Petit Danseuse” or the riotous tumble of pink peonies? It’s a ridiculous question. Suffering is similar. Being with someone who is suffering for any reason is NOT a time to get into qualifying their experience, giving a different take on it, or redirecting them to someone else’s experience of suffering. That stuff is the opposite of helpful. Being with someone who is suffering IS a time to listen and to wonder. It’s a time to share their burden by holding space for it without rushing to comfort. Sharing the burden lightens the suffering without imagining that it can be taken away.

Suffering is something the Apostle Paul seems to understand. How often do you suppose he cried out to God withOUT a pen in hand? It must have been a lot given his turn from the one giving punishment to the one on the receiving end of being beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.[1] For him to write about suffering like that, he knew it intimately, like a friend, just like he knew God. Listen again to a few of the verses from his letter to the Roman church.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

The Apostle Paul is talking to all of us. One reason his words about suffering resonate so strongly is because he describes what he knows and what we know. And he knows way more than enough to be dangerous. He knows enough to be comforting. Comfort is no small thing. It’s not appeasement – meaning I’m not making you feel better so that I feel better. Comfort is deep knowing shared across our human experience. Most of us have experienced suffering and still we live on. Some of us not so elegantly but still we live. Paul’s account of moving from suffering to endurance to character to hope is a description not a strategy. He describes what we know by faith and experience about how suffering works. There are days in the midst of it that we wonder how it’s possible to make it through. Days in which we’re not sure who we are anymore. And then, in the body of Christ, the church, we’re reminded once again of the main things – God’s promises to us no matter what is happening.

For our congregation, one such moment was Matthias’ baptism in the last couple of weeks. Long on the worship calendar, his baptism on Pentecost couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Masks and quiet sanctuary notwithstanding, water flowed off Matthias’ head in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We prayed for the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and joy. And he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In baptism God promises to be present, to form us as disciples, to always take us back, and to be the eternal One in our lives every day. In baptism, we “have obtained access to this grace on which we stand.” We were buried with Christ in baptism so that we too might live in newness of life. Today. Right now, even in suffering, we are pulled through the cross of Christ.

The cross frames suffering in a different way. The cross promises the presence of God in suffering. We know Jesus’ body broke and died which means that God knows suffering and suffers with us. God’s alignment with our suffering promises endurance through to hope. Hope does not come at the expense of false optimism where we close our eyes and wish everything away. False optimism is knowing enough about hope to be dangerous. Rather, hope comes from being planted at the foot of the cross while awaiting new life and continuing to do the hard work of grieving and the hard work of reconciliation with each other. Simply put, the cross binds us to the hard work of love in the midst of suffering – loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbor in such a time as this. By our baptism, our gracious heavenly Father frees us into hope and forms us into instruments of cross and resurrection in the name of the one who is, who was, and who is to come, Jesus Christ our Lord.[2] Amen and thanks be to God.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son,

and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Acts 7 (when Paul was still Saul); Acts chapters 9, 13, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22, and 23.

[2] A paraphrase of Revelation 1:8

____________________________________________________________

The Gospel Reading for worship today:

Matthew 9:35-10:8 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

The Cross Revealed – John 18:1-19:42 [OR Some Good News on Good Friday – Yup, That John Krasinski]

 

**sermon art by Laura James  [read more about Ms. James and her work at https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-caribbeat-laura-james-art-fights-coronavirus-panic-20200322-gomvswkmr5gwrnaxawcogzp6ma-story.html]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Good Friday – April 10, 2020

[sermon begins after full excerpts from full Bible reading John 18:1 – 19:42]

John 19:13–16 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” 16Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

John 19:17-18, 25b–27 So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 25bMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

John 19:28–34 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A 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. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

John 19:38–39, 40–42 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now 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]

At the end of March, my son texted me a link to John Krasinski’s first episode of “Some Good News.”[1] I laughed through tears watching it. Few of us are immune to the good feels inspired by grit and compassion. Cravings for good news intensify as disappointments and heartbreaks flow. Because we label events as good or bad, it makes it tough when something like Good Friday comes along. Jesus is betrayed, denied, executed, and buried. None of that is good – except for maybe the tender care his body received for burial. Sometimes a closer look is needed. For instance, Mr. Krasinski highlighted hospital workers on his show – the selfless care given by custodians, pulmonologists, and everyone else, to people suffering all kinds of health crises included coronavirus. Also highlighted was a 15-year-old girl named Coco who was coming home after finishing the final round of chemo that healed her cancer. Of course, the flipside of these two good news stories is that coronavirus demands a lot from hospital workers and that there is a 15-year-old who had cancer. News is not immune to these complexities. Well, at least human news is not immune to them.

Good Friday is no exception. Jesus’ death on the cross is chock-full of complexities. The cross reveals a lot all at once and the Gospel of John glories in the intricacy.[2]

The cross reveals a God who loves the world so deeply that becoming fragile and fleshy in Jesus was the go-to move. Jesus in the flesh is a mirror for us, reflecting our self-serving moves in the game we make out of the gift of life.[3] Jesus calls out our schemes better than anyone. Jesus knew Judas would betray him and that Peter would deny him.[4] There are reasons that the religious leaders were determined to have him killed.[5] Neither friend nor foe are left unscathed by Jesus’ truth-telling when it comes to the people we hurt or the way we hurt ourselves. His truth-telling frees us from the prisons we build for ourselves with illusions of perfection and invincibility. Not pain free but it IS good news.

The cross reveals a God who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against those who plot and execute his death sentence. When soldiers came for Jesus, he told Peter to put his sword away and healed the man injured by it.[6] Jesus’ message of God’s love for the world was so audacious that he was killed for it. He wasn’t caught off guard. His ministry of sharing God’s unconditional love could not go unnoticed. Self-sacrifice is something we understand when we experience it on our own behalf or hear a good news story about it. Jesus’ self-sacrifice reveals God’s grace that defies our understanding.

The cross reveals God suffering with us when we suffer. In Christian scripture, especially in the Gospel of John, the power of God is manifested in Jesus. Not responding in violence, Jesus suffered – which means that God knows suffering. We are not alone in our suffering whether it’s self-inflicted or comes out of nowhere. God’s light in Jesus shines in the darkness of suffering, shame, and fear, meeting us in the very place we think is furthest away from God.

The cross reveals relationships made new through suffering. Jesus spoke with his mother and friend before taking his last breath:

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[7]

Jesus used his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship toward each other. Everything leading to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, exposing greed – everything Jesus did that hung him on the cross is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. It’s the last thing he does before he announces, “It is finished.”[8]  He connects his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconnecting the world with God through the covenant of the cross.

Good Friday reminds us that God is in the covenant business. The cross as covenant cradles the truth about us in the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross beams and connection to set us free into God and toward each other. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to return from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and hurt the very world God professes to love. We reduce God to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement even as we’re told earlier in the Gospel of John that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world.[9]

My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves – the worst of ourselves that we keep hidden and the worst of ourselves in the 24/7 news cycle.

But God is not diverted by our lack of will and misguided distortions. The eternal God entered time to reveal self-sacrificial, unconditional love and free us into God today and for all time. Today is Friday and we can call it Good. Today, we remember that God’s covenant with the world was finished on a cross and sealed by a tomb. Stay tuned for more good news…

…and receive this blessing…

May the God of cross and tomb guide you to obedience in love.

May Christ shine light into your darkness with the breadth of his grace, and

May the Holy Spirit deepen your + faith, hope, and love,

through all that is to come. Amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] John Krasinski. SGN: Some Good News, Episode 1. March 29, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5pgG1M_h_U

[2] “Glory” in the Gospel of John refers to Jesus’ death on the cross rather than glory as triumphal victory as we would typically understand it.

[3] John 1:1-14

[4] John 13:21-26 and 37-38

[5] John 2:13-16

[6] John 18:10-11

[7] John 19:26

[8] John 19:30

[9] John 3:17

A Celebration of Life for Liz Heins (1935 – 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020

Psalm 23   The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

John 10:14-18 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.”

[sermon begins]

 

Liz and I shared a time of prayer the day before she died.  Our Parish Nurse, Sue Ann, had visited in the days prior. They sang hymns and selected Liz’s favorites for today’s service. Sue Ann knew that Liz’s body didn’t have many days left to live.  When I walked in her room and said her name, she woke right up and smiled, saying “hi” in welcome. I reminded her who I was, and she said she remembered me.  She said that, yes, she’d like the prayers that we pray in people’s last days.  She reached out and gently held my hand as the prayers unfolded during the next several minutes, speaking several words of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with me.  Truly, it was one of the sweetest end-of-life moments I’ve encountered over the last 30 years. It was made all the more sweet because I’ve known Liz for the last seven years. Many of us here today knew her to be a tough, straight-talking person without much of a need to soft-shoe anything she had to say.

A few days after she died, Rich and I were able to share the wonder of those last weeks of Liz’s life that seemed to soften her. After months of decline, there was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life. But the conversation also felt like a pause. A pause that allowed some time to reflect on how Liz moved through the world for so many years and how that shifted and softened.  In a few hand-written letters that Rich gave Sue Ann, it was touching to read how much one of her students missed her after the student moved away.  It’s good to remember all the facets of Liz as she lived her 84 years.

It’s good to remember because there’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He doesn’t tally.  If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask, “Have I done enough to make myself right with God?!”  It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love as Jesus lays his life down. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, because we have peace and grace we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Liz into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Liz.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

Nobody Puts Jesus in a Corner – Mark 8:27-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 16, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 8:27-38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Thump-thump-thump-thump.  Sounds of jumping away in a corner are a vivid memory from from Mrs. Gaines 4th grade class.  Mrs. Gaines cut a tall, elegant, utterly intimidating figure with her long, elegant hair flowing down just so and dressed to the nines in her long, elegant skirts.  She kept an eagle eye out for misdeeds and that eye seemed to be in the back of her head.  Her dreaded eye would fall on one of us attempting to get away with something. (Or, in my case simply talking too much with my desk neighbors.)  And, just like that [snap], the thumping began as 4th grade bodies did penance in the corner. Some of our more foolishly courageous classmates would try to thwart the system by not jumping. They’d use one leg to pound the floor without jumping.  I don’t remember anyone ever actually getting away with it though.  It’s this memory, this sound, of jumping in a corner that popped into my head when I read today’s Bible reading.

In my mind’s eye, I first saw Peter jumping in the corner.  He pulls a typical Peter-y move and clearly annoys Jesus. That isn’t a deep insight. You just know it’s bad when the name-calling starts with “Satan.”  Peter’s busted. There’s a simple problem unfolding here.  Jesus has a hard thing to do and he doesn’t need anyone taking him aside and chewing him out.  If Peter was anything like Mrs. Gaines, he would’ve had Jesus jumping in a corner.  And, nobody puts Jesus in a corner.

I’ve been thinking about how we do this very thing; how we pull Jesus aside and try to contain his wild talk about suffering, death, and new life.  The Bible reading gives us some help when Jesus asks the question, “Who do people say that I am?”  The people around Jesus give various answers about the word on the street in Caesarea Philippi – John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.  Most of these answers would require a resurrection of someone who died for them to be true. So there is an accidental parallel between their answers and Jesus’ claims about the Son of Man rising again. Jesus then asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets closer than the current street gossip with his answer about the Messiah.  This variety of answers about Jesus’ identity is like a snapshot of the Bible’s New Testament.[1]

The 27 books in the New Testament are a conversation much like Jesus’ conversation with his disciples.  Even in the 13 letters attributed to the apostle Paul there are various angles on the Jesus question.  Between the four Gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – each writer forms part of the conversation about Jesus’ question and sometimes the writers disagree with each other or even contradict themselves in the same book! The First Century church apparently wasn’t much different than our own in that regard.  When you talk to people who have spent some time in the New Testament, you’ll hear people claim a favorite Gospel book  (mine is John) or tell you whether or not they like the Apostle Paul (I do but I wish there were things he’d kept to himself).  Along this line, Pastor Ann begins a three-week Adult Sunday School class today called the “Bible for Busy People.”  If you miss this week, come next week.  This class is for you whether you’re a seasoned reader or just starting to get to know the Bible.  It can be tough with Sunday readings like today’s to figure out where they fit in the overall story that the Bible tries to tell much less just the four Gospels. The opinions that we have about our favorite Gospel or the Apostle Paul are connected to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus’ question about who people say he is has a flip-side.  When we say who Jesus is, we also say who we are.  Answering the question of Jesus identity means also having to give voice to our own identity.

Here’s a small example of one way we do this together.  Our worship regularly begins with Confession and Forgiveness.  Before we sing a hymn, before we hear scripture, before a drop of wine is shared, we confess that we’re flawed, that we don’t get things right even when we’re trying, that sometimes we don’t even try, and that we could really use some help loving ourselves and our neighbors – God’s help in particular.  The act of confessing is subversive in a culture that demands best self at the cost of real self.  And it’s pretty powerful to be told that you’re real.  Even in Peter’s tough moment with Jesus, Jesus is telling Peter what’s real.

Real doesn’t mean easy. Real doesn’t pretty things up.  Real means crosses.  Crosses sometimes enter in our lives from the outside in the form of trauma, ill health, death, or disaster.  And crosses sometimes come from the inside in the form of pride, self-sabotage, or addiction – ways we sabotage the good that God has created in us. There are crosses aplenty in our lives without borrowing trouble from other people. It’s also important to say that we may not necessarily be asked by Jesus to go out and suffer some more.

In our confession at the beginning of worship, we tell the truth about our shadows, our pain, and our sin; about where we fall short because we are lost and we’ve forgotten how to care about it. We tell the truth about our crosses that hem us in much like being in a corner and not being about to turn ourselves toward the way out.  Peter makes this kind of move. He pulls Jesus to the side and rebukes him.  We make similar moves all the time – justifying our actions and disguising it as rational thought.

Jesus turns toward the crowd and disciples and calls to them. Bringing more people into the situation and leading Peter out.  Where Peter would isolate, Jesus turns toward other people and shows Peter the way out of the corner he just tried to put Jesus in.  Jesus does the same with us.  Jesus is in the corner with us doing what Jesus came to do which is shine a light into that corner where we disguise our misdeeds as rational thought and ending up hurting ourselves or other people.  In the confession and forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we don’t only confess how we’re cornered.  We are told the corresponding truth that Jesus is with us, naming the power of sin, taking its power away, and naming what is real and true and good about who God made us to be and who God calls us to be.  God is not in the sin accounting business. God is in the new life business.  Not a business of best self but rather a recognition of what is real – as much flawed and fragile as we are created good.  Jesus turns to us, calls us by the gospel, shattering the illusion of best life someday while drawing us into real life now.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  On Mark 8:27-28 for “Dear Working Preacher.”  September 11, 2018.  www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5220

We Can’t Handle the Grace, A Sermon for Good Friday [John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 30, 2018

Good Friday

[sermon begins after Bible reading; when you get a chance read the whole of John 18 and 19. It’s worth it.]

John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42

Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha.18There 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. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then 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 fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A 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. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now 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. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 [sermon begins]

Good Friday takes us deep. Frailty, self-absorption, and pain repeatedly clash with the power of grace in the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Some theologians will say that each one of us holds the hammer that drove the nails through the hands and feet of God. That theology seems a bit overwrought to me, not to mention impossible on the time-space continuum. What does resonate is that we can’t handle the grace. (Yes, I’m invoking Jack Nicholson’s line delivery in A Few Good Men).

Grace is a handy, go-to word because it means a lot things all at once. Grace means God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and redemption. Grace means that we are created in the image of God.  And grace means so much more.  When I say we can’t handle the grace, I mean that when confronted with the grace of God in Jesus we would and do reject its fullness. We reject it time and again for ourselves and other people.  We put grace to death. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving. Think about the way you nurse that grudge that holds you captive to anger and resentment. There are many situations in our lives that beg the question, “Do we believe in grace or don’t we?”

We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption by grace is possible. Lent pushed us through those lines over the brink into Good Friday when we confess by faith that God hung dead on a cross – the cross being the ultimate moment of our human determination to reject grace. And what does God do?  Well, I’ll tell you what God doesn’t do. There is not a hand lifted against the people who see fit to hang Jesus on that cross. From the people most directly involved who organized the murderous scheme to the disciples, Jesus’ friends, who couldn’t stop it, all of them were unscathed, retribution not even a thing. In fact, in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John, we hear that from the cross, there came yet one more grace before Jesus died.  Listen again…

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[1]

Jesus uses his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship with each other. Everything that led to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, naming greed – everything Jesus did that hung him there is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. He gets in one more grace before he announces, “It is finished.”[2]  He reconciles his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconciling the world with God.  We confess this very thing by faith with the words of the Apostle Paul and say in the way only Paul can say it that, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

On Good Friday we are asked several things but one of the things we are not asked is whether or not we’re sinners. The truth of our capacity for self-absorption, dehumanizing violence, denial, running away when times get hard, watching bad things happen from a distance, and not getting involved, is more than evident. Telling the truth of our sin is like giving air to a wound that needs healing. We don’t fool anyone with our “I’m a good person” routines. Thank God the “good person” thing isn’t even a thing.[4] Here’s why it’s not a thing. God is NOT in the sin accounting business. God is in the covenant business. What’s the difference? The cross as covenant pulls the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross-beams and reconciliation to set us free into God and toward each other.

God is in the covenant business. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to resurrect from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and start hurting the very world God professes to love. God is reduced to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement. My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves.

Thank God that the power of God is not diverted by our lack of will, our misguided distortions, or our inability to comprehend the relentless force of grace. Today we are simultaneously convicted and set free. Today our trespasses are not counted against us. Today God’s covenant is sealed, finished on a cross. Today is Friday. Let’s call it Good.  Amen.

___________________________________________________

[1] John 19:26

[2] John 19:30

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

 

 

Crosses Here, Crosses There, Crosses, Crosses Everywhere. Why? Mark 15 and Philippians 2:5-11

* Photo montage by Rick Vanderpool, CrossInAmericaTrail.com “A Photojournalist’s History of Christianity in America”

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 25, 2018

[sermon begins after note and short Bible reading]

** Palm and Passion Sunday note ** Today includes the celebration of Palm Sunday as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.  Palm fronds are waved and the Bible story is read. Then worship shifts to the Passion of Christ – the church’s words for describing Jesus’ suffering from arrest to crucifixion (from Late Latin: passionem “suffering, enduring”). The Passion is read from the Gospel of Mark.  Worship today links with Good Friday worship later this week when we will hear the Passion from the Gospel of John.  The distinct voices of these two gospel writers allow us to claim by faith that the cross is simultaneously an instrument of suffering and a tree of life drawing us to faith.

Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Passion story from Mark is posted at the end of the sermon.

[sermon begins]

Crosses here, crosses there, crosses, crosses everywhere.

Crosses on top, crosses below,

Crosses needled in ink, crosses gilded to glow,

Crosses here, crosses there, crosses, crosses everywhere.[1]

Why? Why is there a cross outside, sitting on a bell tower 100 feet in the air? Why is there a 40 foot cross inside the Sanctuary; a fragmented multi-colored glass cross in Christ Chapel? Why do we make the sign of the cross?[2] Why do I wear one day in and day out?

In front of the cross, the palm parade waves a momentary filter. The highest honor in ancient Rome was a triumph parade – entering town in victory.[3] In Jesus’ case, triumph flipped quickly to a parade of a different sort. In this parade, Simon of Cyrene carried a cross for the one who would soon hang on it. Simon showed up to watch the action and became a part of it.[4] It’s hard to imagine that he stuck around after dropping off the cross. His ongoing presence is unlikely when even Jesus’ disciples had run away or watched from a distance. Even we listen across a distance gap of about 2,000 years. Even as the cross stands over and against the conventional wisdom of respectability, ideology, and economics. Even as we say we care about this death on the cross. To the point that we care isn’t the point. Rather, the point is that God cares.

God cares SO much that God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus becomes the event on which the whole scheme hangs. And it doesn’t seem to be about dishing up Easter with a side of tragedy just for dramatic effect. There’s something deeper. Something about this death that we cannot look away from. Public. Loud. Crying. Gasping. Jesus dies the ultimate scapegoat. The powers that be assured that he’s over and done so that their power remains unchecked. Holy Week presses slow motion over the scene for us. And it could stay just that – a slow motion story that takes a few extra verses to read while we do our best to seem patient. But for some of us, this is the main event because the longing, denial, betrayal, ridicule, pain, abandonment, and death are all too close to home.  The cross is the main event because we end up in tombs of our own making or someone else’s and the cross becomes the only thing that illuminates the shadows of our experience with anything close to resembling sense. The cross is the part of God’s promise that God’s hand is not inflicting suffering but instead is the very thing sustaining us through it.

I’ve said this recently but it bears repeating. Through the Passion and death on the cross, there is not a hand raised in violence against the people who are around Jesus, even the ones who took an active role. Not one hair on their heads or cell in their skin is injured as each one takes part in his execution. It’s not simply the religious leaders who played a part. Everyone around the story took their turn. The disciples were passive but still did nothing to prevent the outcome. They denied, ran away, or watched from a distance. Not one person in the story is innocent in Jesus’ death on the cross. One thing this means is that the cross is an invitation to put the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified.

The truth is that we are capable of dehumanizing violence, of denial, of running away when times get hard, of watching bad things happen from a distance, of not getting involved. Paradoxically, we are also the ones who are baptized into Christ’s death. We are enlivened by the Spirit through the waters of our baptism which means we are filled with the capacity of the one who died on the cross. Paul writes along this line to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.”

One way to think about Paul’s emphasis of mind, humility, and obedience to the death is to consider the life of Christ Jesus that led to his inevitable, public execution on the cross. He repeatedly challenged religious and political authorities by eating with social outcasts, feeding hungry people, and healing sick ones of disease and demons. He never let anyone off the hook for ignoring the needs of the poor. It’s fairly clear that the singular focus of Christ’s compassion became more than pesky to the powers that be.  So incessant was the compassion of Christ Jesus that was he crucified, died, and was buried. His broken body was taken down from the cross, packed in spices, wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb by his friend Joseph. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Joses watched the stone as it was rolled against the door of the tomb.

Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial are signified by the crosses on our buildings and bodies. Symbols of the promise that we are baptized into Christ’s death. Baptized into the same mind, humility, and obedience to compassion that led to his death for us. For you. In this most holiest of weeks, the slow motion draws us deeper into the promise of this good news. Thanks be to God and amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] It took me awhile to remember where this familiar poetic rhythm and sound came from in my brain but finally remembered just before posting that it comes from the children’s book, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (1947). The end of the book: “Goodnight stars, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere.” I read it to my children when they were small so many times that it’s woven itself into my brain. It seems a fitting comfort when talking about how I feel about the cross.

[2] Matthew Skinner. Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) on Sermon Brainwave podcast for March 25, 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?lect_date=02/23/2014&lectionary=rcl

[3] Ibid., Rolf Jacobson.

[4] Ibid., Karoline Lewis.

______________________________________________________________

Mark 15 (add the 14th chapter for even more of the Passion)

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort.17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.*29Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah,*the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’* 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*

40 There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

42 When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time.45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph* bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body,* wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body* was laid.

Cross, Kinship & Redemption – Mark 8:31-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 8:31-38  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Late night comedians would have a field day with Peter – the classic straw man, so easily critiqued. He’s perfected the theological equivalent of the prat fall. But Peter’s comments are often reasonable with a consistent logic. Just a couple of verses before the Bible reading from Mark, Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”[1] We can imagine Peter’s answer, filled with awe, love, and bumbling pride. “You are the Messiah,” he says. Only thing is that Jesus never calls himself the Messiah in Mark’s gospel.

A couple of verses after Peter’s “Messiah” answer, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in our reading today. The Son of Man title comes from the book of Daniel and refers to a person who disrupts human powers from their questionable goals.[2]  Jesus’ self-reference as the Son of Man is in conflict with Peter naming him as the Messiah. In this light, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is actually quite reasonable. The internal logic of identifying a Messiah means that a shameful death of said Messiah wouldn’t compute. Peter’s rebuke seems meant as a reminder to Jesus about the righteous path – or what Peter reasons out at as righteous.

The rebukes come quickly. Peter takes Jesus to the side and rebukes him. Jesus opens the conversation to include all the disciples and rebukes Peter. Peter is trying to rebuke the idea of Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus is reporting the logical end of his work. His work includes tossing out demons, healing blind people, forgiving sins, and confronting the status quo of the powers that be. Jesus can only confront the powers that be for so long before the inevitable power play. In the first century, for Jesus, this meant an epic public smack down, a death on a cross, in return for his efforts. It’s not rocket science. It’s retribution.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[3] There are many a good sermon about personal crosses to bear. However, Jesus words here in Mark seem to connect to the public nature of crucifixion. People crucified in the first century had to literally carry their cross to the place of execution.[4] Jesus’ listeners would have seen in their mind’s eye this image of carrying the cross and heard the mocking taunts that accompany the procession.

Jesus is asking his disciples to pick up the cross. Choosing people over power, prestige, and even life itself. That’s a tall order. Pretty much the only one who’s able to fill the tall order is Jesus. In just a few short chapters, he’ll be carrying his cross with the help of Simon of Cyrene.[5] The disciples fall away the closer Jesus gets to the crucifixion. Mark’s gospel reminds everybody of the call of discipleship and what it means to follow the One who is actually faithful to the end.[6]  Jesus opens up the possibilities beyond what we can imagine. His faithfulness to his death and through his death fuels the fire of disciples. Their early stories are in the New Testament. But there are plenty of disciples alive today who continue to inspire. We see these people and see Jesus working through them.

Gregory Boyle is one such disciple. Thirty years ago he began working with young people in the heart of Los Angeles as they figured out life after gangs. He’s still doing it. His latest book is about radical kinship.  It’s called Barking to the Choir because one of the young people he worked with waved off Boyle’s comments with the comment, “Don’t sweat it bald-headed…Your barking to the choir.”[7]  Mixing his metaphors became an apt description for jostling the status quo of a world divided into us and them, into powers that be for themselves and not for everyone. Boyle encourages us with a gospel that Jesus took so seriously that he lost his life barking about it. And by barking, I mean the radical kinship embodied by Jesus – healing, forgiving, loving, and kicking those demons to the curb.  That kind of barking is hard to ignore because it’s about redemption.

Barking makes me think about my dog Sunny. When she’s determined about something, she barks. It’s her go to move and, when she’s about it, it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else. Boyle is specific about the kind of barking he’s talking about. He makes the point that the radical kinship embodied through the gospel of Christ is not one of anger. Anger continues to close the fists we end up shaking at each other.[8]  Radical kinship opens those fists and calls us together.

Notice that Peter takes Jesus off to the side and, in response, Jesus turns back to include the other disciples and then not just the disciples but he called the crowds with them, too. Jesus says to all of them that following him includes taking up their crosses and losing their life to gain their life. Their cross. Their life. A cross that comes through Jesus’ radical kinship. A cross that means each of us engaging in the way we’re empowered through baptism by the gifts of the Spirit to engage. This engagement does and will disrupt the status quo and the powers that be in our own lives and in the wider world. That’s what happens when the status quo is redeemed – redeemed out of what Boyle calls the status quo of “incessant judging, comparisons, measuring, scapegoating, and competition.”[9]

The status quo goes to town in each of us, showing up in unconscious behavior and attitudes. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving or outside of God’s love and acceptance. We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption is possible. There are a variety of situations that beg the question, “Do we believe in redemption or don’t we?” Our answer to that question is often “no” and we continue to judge, compare, measure, scapegoat, and compete; like Peter we continue to separate Jesus from the very people Jesus includes in ever widening circles of redemption.

Fortunately, the God of redemption is alive and well. Just look at Peter’s work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter became a preacher extraordinaire, tireless in his quest to share the good news. Or look at Gregory Boyle and the men and women who find redemption after gang life. Or look at you. In you, the God of redemption is alive and well, undiverted by your lack of will or understanding of what the cross means and who Jesus is.

Jesus reminds us that separation from each other isn’t true – even when we act like it is.

Jesus meets our separation with kinship, disrupting the status quo and enlivening us for the sake of the gospel.

By proclaiming the cross to his disciples, Jesus empowers us to take up the cross and follow him on the way of redemption for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.

___________________________________________

[1] Mark 8:27-30

[2] Pastor John Petty. Lent 2:::Mark 8:31-38 on February 19, 2018. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/02/lent-2-mark-8-31-38.html

[3] Mark 8:34

[4] Petty.

[5] Mark 15:21

[6] David Lose. In the Meantime: Mark 8:34-38. July 4, 2012. http://www.davidlose.net/2012/07/mark-834-38/

[7] Gregory Boyle. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 1.

[8] Boyle, 6.

[9] Boyle, 10.

Suffering Defies Logic [OR Mondo Cozmo Answers the Religious Question] Matthew 16:21-28 Romans 12:9-21 Exodus 1:22-2:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 3, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading; Exodus and Romans reading at end of sermon]

Matthew 16:21-28   From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

[sermon begins]

I often listen to music on the radio on the way to worship, Sunday Sunrise on KBCO is a favorite.  One parishioner heard the bass pounding as I pulled into the parking lot and, as I got out of the car, asked if I was getting my pastor jam on.  Hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess that’s part of it. One recent Sunday morning, a band I didn’t know was playing a song I’d never heard called “Then Came the Morning.”[1] Not a religious song, but I heard Psalm 30 in the music. Regaling my family with the concert video during dinner that evening, one thing led to another and suddenly Rob and I had concert tickets for a three-band evening at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. Being an early to bed person, I was super disappointed The Lone Bellow wasn’t on first. That slot was reserved for Mondo Cozmo, another unfamiliar band. It didn’t take too long before my ears perked up, though. The opening lines of their song Shine goes like this:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm

I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost.

Shine down a light on me and show a path

I promise you I will return if you take me back…[2] (my apologies to the band for my vocals on that one.)

The song has a great sound. The crowd of 500 was having a blast along with the band.  My ears perked up at the Jesus part.  (Shocker…I know.) Some of you have known me long enough to be unsurprised that I did some poking around about the band afterwards. One online interviewer asked an expletive-laced question about the song Shine and whether or not the singer was a religious man.[3]  Josh Ostrander answered, “I get asked this a lot, I’m not totally sure how to answer it ‘cause the song seems to be resonating with a lot of people, but for me it’s a song of hope.”  His answer seems reasonable answer given that the interviewer was aggressively negative in asking about being religious. Which also is fairly reasonable given that religious Christianity often shows itself in public spaces as ridiculous, repressed or radicalized and sometimes all three at once.  Let’s be honest, though. Jesus doesn’t especially help the cause in today’s Bible reading when he calls Peter, “Satan,” either.

It happens fast, too.  Just before this infamous Satan slam, Peter moves to the head of the class, getting an A+ for naming Jesus correctly.  Now? Not so much.  Let’s take a close look at the reversal.  The reading today begins, “From that time on…”[4]  We can hear this as: [From the time that Peter names Jesus correctly], “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[5]  Jesus BEGAN…  This is the first that Jesus’ friends hear about the cross. Those fishers turned disciples follow him around, listen to sermons on the mount, walk on water, and feed thousands.[6] Sure, John the Baptist’s murder was terrifying but that was a one-off.[7] Up to this point it’s been mostly positive.

Peter appeals for Jesus’ safety.  Who among us wouldn’t do the same for a friend? But in the temptation of Jesus way back in Matthew’s 4th chapter, Jesus’ self-preservation by avoiding his own suffering was deemed “satanic”.[8]  Hence, the name-calling here in the 16th chapter. The cross talk is confusing.  Jesus warns against self-preservation in the face of suffering as he tells his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him].” Jesus’ first disciples know that crosses kill slaves and political rebels who defy Rome at their peril.[9]  They haven’t seen crosses on top of church buildings and worn around people’s necks. Crosses become a Christian symbol in the 5th century.[10]

Jesus BEGAN to show his disciples’ about suffering and the cross. He knew his teaching about the cross would need some repetition. The cross of Christ isn’t something that’s easy to bear or to understand. We remind each other that the cross is the foundational story of our faith while spending a lifetime working out what it means.

This morning, Phoebe and Benjamin get wet with the waters of baptism. I meet with families several weeks ahead of baptism.  These conversations are chances to get to know a family just a bit and also to talk about God’s promises in baptism.  We talk about God promising to be present, to always forgive, to form lives that are ever more Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever. That first promise of being present is a biggie.

God promises to be present even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God is with us or don’t feel faithful or don’t feel worthy.  In baptism, God promises to be present with us despite any of our feelings to the contrary. This is sometimes called Theology of the Cross.  It means that Jesus shows up in our most confused, messiest, darkest places. The parts of ourselves we don’t like to talk about or show anyone. We all know that we don’t have to go looking for suffering. It seems to be a part of how the world works. Sometimes we do bring it on ourselves. But many times it comes from other people or from the natural world. The times when we seem inclined to say that God is absent is the very time when God promises to be present with us. God, who is Jesus. Jesus, who is God.

Jesus’ unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, race, or sin, led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God does not respond in violence. Later on in Matthew, the one who pulls out a sword to protect Jesus from being taken into custody by Roman soldiers is told by Jesus to put the sword away.[11]

Jesus’ death on the cross also means that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  For some of us, this promise through the cross of Jesus makes all the difference even as it defies logic. It’s how we survive in the face of unspeakable suffering and loss.[12] It’s how we sit with other people in the face of their unspeakable suffering and loss.  The cross tells the truth about how we experience life.

Matthew writes, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[13]  In this verse, we also hear the truth about how we experience joy.  God is a God of resurrection life, too.  We heard this in last week’s Bible story about the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh and let the Hebrew babies live.[14]  We hear it again this week as Pharaoh’s daughter conspires with Moses’ sister and mother to keep him alive.[15] We hear it in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples that he would be raised on the third day.  We hear it in Paul’s letter to the Roman church:

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…life peaceably with all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[16]

God is a God of resurrection life through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

______________________________________________________

[1] The Lone Bellow performs “Then Came the Morning” live on the Honda Stage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4szaR8CJvA

[2] Mondo Cozmo – Shine (Live from Bardot) on December 9, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN0H6dpa9nU

[3]  Mondo Cozmo interview by Jeff Laufner for RockBandsofLA.com on November 30, 2016. http://www.rockbandsofla.com/mondo-cozmo-shine-and-devine-intervention/

[4] Matthew 16:21a

[5] Matthew 16:21b

[6] Matthew 5-7 and 14 are the chapters that cover these stories.

[7] Matthew 14

[8] John Petty. Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28 on August 28, 2017 for Pentecost 13. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew 26:50-52

[12] Matthew Skinner. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Posted August 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=919

[13] Matthew 16:21

[14] Exodus 1:8-20a

[15] Exodus 1:22-2:10

[16] Romans 12:12-13, 15, 18b, 20a, 21. (I picked a few of the many beautiful exhortations from Paul in the reading for today.)

_________________________________________________________

Exodus 1:22-2:10  Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”  2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:9-21  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

Self-Sacrificing Love: Gives, Confronts, Connects – John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Maundy Thursday – April 13, 2017

**Sermon graphic: Ikebana Communion by Ben Morales-Correa

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; the Exodus and 1 Corinthian readings follow the sermon]

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

[sermon begins]

Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  These words in John are sandwiched by two stories that are not part of what we just heard read out loud.  The glaring gap of verses in the middle of the reading is when Jesus foretells Judas’ betrayal.  Just following his command for us to love one another, he foretells Peter’s denial.  Jesus’ call to love is surrounded by betrayal and denial.  And, as if that’s not enough, the betrayal and denial come from his closest friends.

Footwashing begins Jesus’ last words and teachings to his disciples, Jesus’ farewell before his arrest and crucifixion.  His farewell opens with a fierce act of love that anticipates laying down his life.[1]  Footwashing is something that a slave does, not a host.  It is an act of utter devotion.[2] While washing the feet of his friends anticipates his death on the cross, it is also a culmination of the love that he’s already accomplished in the Gospel of John – showing up in Word made flesh, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration, meeting in the dark of night with the religious leader Nicodemus, surprising the Samaritan woman at the well, healing the man born blind, feeding the five thousand, walking on water as peace in the storm, and raising Lazarus from the dead.[3]  Each act of love connects to what comes before and what lies ahead.[4]  This is also true of the command to love one another.

Jesus’s command to love is not new.  Leviticus is the ancient Hebrew book of law still read today as part of the Torah by our Jewish cousins in the faith and read by Christians as part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.[5]  Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  The original command is to love neighbor as self.  The new commandment expands from the original to love as Jesus loves.[6]  Embodying the new commandment in footwashing, Jesus spends considerably more time revealing his own heart than the hearts of the betrayer and the denier.[7]  His love is both giving and confrontational, devoting himself to his disciples while turning the table on evil by an act of love – rejecting evil’s terms through his act of service.[8]  Jesus washes Judas’ and Peter’s feet along with everyone else’s feet.  No foot is left unclean.

The footwashing and Farewell Discourse anticipate the fullness of God’s glory at the cross, of life emptying out to fill us all through the self-sacrificing love of the One who lays his life down.  The self-sacrificing love that brings us to the Communion table.  The Communion students who will receive communion during this evening’s worship heard the story of the Passover a few weeks ago as part of their instruction.  We hear it again today.

Passover was celebrated this same week by our Jewish cousins in the faith. The Passover that led their Hebrew ancestors from slavery into freedom by the blood of a lamb.  As Jesus expanded the Levitical law into the new commandment of love for all, so Jesus expanded the Passover remembrance into a meal of life for all.  It’s important to note that God’s covenants with Jews through Abraham and Moses are not superseded by Jesus.[9]  The covenants are expanded to all, and therefore to us, through Jesus.[10]  This is important because God’s covenant expanded to include us non-Jews rejects any violence committed against our Jewish cousins in the faith, calling us to atonement and reconciliation with each other.

Reconciliation is a re-connection with each other and with God brought to us by Jesus through the cross.  It’s neither sentimental nor an echo-chamber of agreement.[11]  It’s the reality of community that contains betrayers like Judas and deniers like Peter.  It’s the reality of community that contains us.  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians challenges them through the reconciliation won by Christ on the cross. Their divisions across social standing is unacceptable.  Into their divisions, Paul shares the words of Jesus that we know as the Words of Institution said at the Communion table:

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”[12]

When we “share the peace” before we receive communion we are enacting the love that is first commanded in Leviticus and then commanded while embodied by Jesus.[13]  We embody the reality of community that contains us betrayers and deniers, us social dividers. Sinners the lot of us. All. At the same time, we embody the reality of community that contains beloved children of God.  All of us.

Along this line, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for videos that pop up on social media.  One in particular keeps coming to mind as I think about Jesus’ commandment to love and then his own self-sacrificing love.  It’s a recorded video of three-year old Leah and her mom.[14]  Leah is three, has a life-threatening illness and a feeding tube in place.  Her mom is asking her a bunch of questions. Favorite color? Pink. Favorite food? Yogurt. What is your favorite animal? Tigers.  What are you scared of? Tigers. Question-after-question, and then this one, “What does love mean?”  God. [mother pauses] What? God.  I watch something like that, someone like Leah and her mother, and it catches me.  There’s incomprehensible suffering alongside the naming of love and it doesn’t compute.

Fortunately, God’s love isn’t dependent on my or anyone else’s computational skills. God’s love empties through Jesus’ death on a cross to us through the communion table of mercy, through wine and bread.  Sharing this meal together proclaims Jesus’ death and contains his self-sacrificing loves just as it has in all times and places.[15]  Jesus’ meal is at the center of God naming us Beloved across whatever sin we dish out on our own including the lines we draw to divide ourselves.  Jesus’ meal re-connects us with God and each other. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

______________________________________

[1] Craig Koester. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 194.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gospel of John, chapters 1-12.  There’s more there than the abbreviated version above. It’s no secret that John is my favorite Gospel.

[4] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preacher and Marbury E. Anderson Chair of Biblical Preaching. Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Maundy Thursday scripture readings on April 13, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=867

[5] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[6] Ibid., Koester.

[7] Robert Hoch, Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 for April 13, 2017 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3204

[8] Ibid., Koester.

[9] Supersessionism is the theory that Jesus fulfills, replaces, and therefore negates God’s covenant with Jews.  The explicit assertion in this sermon is the counter-argument to supersessionism.

[10] Krister Stendahl. Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

[11] Ibid., Koester, 195.

[12] 1 Corinthians 11:23b-26

[13] A worship leader says, “The peace of Christ be with you always.” The people respond, “And also with you.” Then everyone shares a sign of Christ’s peace with each other by shaking each other’s hands.

[14] Video of Leah interviewed by her mother at https://www.facebook.com/Break/videos/10155078881787792/

[15] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Maundy Thursday scripture readings on April 13, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=867

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

1 Corinthians 11:23-36 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

The Sweet Relief of Ashes – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

[sermon begins]

 

Piety can be heard as a judgmental word. People often use piety to mean something that is put on as a religious exaggeration, hypocritical rather than authentic.  The reading from Matthew begins, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  Another way to translate the word used in Matthew for piety is righteousness.[1]  Jesus says, “Beware practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.”  Jesus is critiquing the motivation for public esteem, not the acts of righteousness themselves. This is still the Jesus who’s preaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to do righteous “acts of mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, and to love enemies.” [2]  Given Jesus’ words against hypocritical piety, it can give us pause as we worship together on Ash Wednesday.  But, lest you think that we are here simply practicing personal piety, think again.[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has become bogged down in leadership issues, embarrassed by the socially low, and repelled by Paul’s culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.[4]  He begs them to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ.  He begs them as a group, emphasizing their shared experience of enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.”[5]  This part of Paul’s letter highlights how the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”[6]  Similarly, as baptized people, our lives become ever-more Christ-shaped through the crucified one.

Paul uses the same word for righteousness used by Matthew.  But instead of the caution against parading around in our own righteousness, Paul reminds the church that they are “becoming the righteousness of God.”[7]  It’s important to note that this is not happening in what we would consider signs of success.[8]  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Paul tells them:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[9]

Paul’s speech is pure theology of the cross.  Meaning, that it is exactly in the mess of things where Christ meets us.  One might even say on Ash Wednesday that it is in the dustiest, death-loving corners of ourselves where Jesus says, “Yeah, I’ll meet you in that corner…that’s where God’s righteousness will begin.”  We begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday because our sight is limited when we’re by ourselves.  We struggle to see God’s righteousness through our failures.  When we go after this by ourselves, we tend to let shame immobilize us.  When we go after this together, we have a better chance at discerning God’s presence, God’s righteousness, in the midst of the mess.

One of things we’re doing together to see God’s righteousness is the daily lent devotions from the book called Free Indeed.[10]  Sold out in hard copy, there are a few left at the sanctuary entrances for you to pick up after worship and the e-book is still available online.  In today’s devotion for Ash Wednesday, the question is asked, “What are you most afraid of losing?”  Like I told the parents in Sunday school a few weeks ago, for me it’s my kids. For many things, I can look to God and wonder how God is going to work through whatever mess is happening.  When it comes to my kids, not so much.  That thing that we’re most afraid of losing?  That’s the thing we’ve put in God’s place.  That is our idol. Thankfully, God’s righteousness is something God does. Not us. The cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This reminder is sweet relief.  God is God.  We are not.  The world may see failure. We may see shame.  But today we are reminded what God sees. God sees the world that God so loves.  God sees and loves us.  God sees and loves you.

The ministry of reconciliation, of bringing us back to God, begins with God’s self-sacrifice on the cross.  How do we recognize our reconciliation to God and to each other?  According to Paul, the evidence is in the brokenness that we endure.  And, in that brokenness, the hope that the gospel brings new life through the cross.[11] Our repentance today turns us to that cross.  We hold God to God’s promise of new life even though our tendency is to choose death over life. More specifically, through the cross of Christ, God chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves.  Thanks be to God and amen.

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School. Commentary: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Ficke, Preacher’s Text Study on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for Ash Wednesday on March 1, 2011.

[4] Brian Peterson, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Commentary: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3180

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5

[6] Brian Peterson, ibid., and 2 Corinthians 5:6-7a.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[8] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10

[10] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017. (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 2016), Day 1.  https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

[11] Skinner, ibid.