Tag Archives: Disciples

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.

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

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

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

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

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

[5] Rohr, ibid.

________________________________________

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

Flawed People in a Wonderful World – Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 2, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings, the 2 Timothy reading follows the sermon]

Luke 17:5-10 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I were engaged about 20 years ago.  We’d been in Colorado a little while at that point. We talked wedding possibilities that ran the gamut between eloping to having a full wedding, finally settling on a family wedding at The Chapel at Red Rocks.[1]  About 40 of our family from the East, West, and Mid-west attended.  The first dance music was to be “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.  It had made a resurgence around that time.  Even though we ultimately decided on a back yard reception without dancing, I still think of it as our wedding song.  The song opens with a rose-colored glasses moment perfect for a wedding:

“I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world…”[2]

I’ve recently learned more of the story behind “What a Wonderful World.”  Originally released as a B-side single in 1967, it was a commercial flop.[3]  Armstrong was asked to sing the song by its two Jewish songwriters. Their hope was that Armstrong’s wide appeal would build bridges during a time when America was experiencing race riots and curfews in over 100 cities including attacks on Jewish shops.  The third verse of the song sets a different vision for living together:

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

They’re really saying I love you.”

Accusations flew that the song glossed over serious problems. [Here’s what] “Armstrong said as he introduced a live performance of the song – words which are best read with his gravelly delivery in mind…‘Some of you young folks been saying to me: “Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?” But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”[4]

Which is it?  Does the song gloss over real problems or does Armstrong sing about something real?  A similar question could be asked about the additional faith that the disciples are demanding from Jesus.  Does faith gloss over real problems or by faith are we proclaiming something real?  As a preacher and a pastor, this kind of question is regularly posed to me from people in all kind of situations.  I hear a lot about why faith is difficult for people.  And I wonder if, like the disciples in the Bible story from Luke, our ideas and questions about faith are generated from a misleading premise.

Just before the Bible verses in Luke we hear today, Jesus challenges his followers to see and help people who suffer, to not cause other people to stumble in their faith, and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.[5]   Then we get to the apostles pleading for more faith, literally in the Greek “add faith to us!”[6]  Who can blame them?  Jesus raises the bar high on discipleship telling them to relieve deep suffering, give away money and possessions, and forgive each other.  A bit more faith to get these things done would be awesome!  Most of us would like a heap more faith if it actually worked that way.

The apostles plead for more faith as a group – “Increase our faith!”  They ask as a group.  This is unfamiliar ground for most of us.  We tend to think of faith as an individual rather than a group thing.  In an individual way, I can wonder if I have any faith or enough faith or certain faith. I can analyze faith as an equation, that faith = proof + certainty.  This is a misleading premise for faith.

And this is the premise I used for faith when Rob and I were married. We even found a minister that would do the wedding without mentioning Jesus. At that point, I’d been out of the church upwards of ten years.  Faith in Jesus was something that didn’t compute. I couldn’t figure out why he computed for other people. In the following few years we baptized our two kids in Rob’s Lutheran tradition and we started going to church (a story for a different day).  Confusion reigned for me for a while as the preacher talked about a God who loves us through Jesus without condition – flawed, fragile, and messed up as we are.

It began to compute but it was an unfamiliar calculus.  The quick sum total was this…faith wasn’t about me.  Well, of course, it was in some ways.  In the ways I became more comfortable confessing to hurts I cause, real struggles of being human and screwing things up but still needing God’s love in the face of those flaws, that sin. And in the ways God’s good work in me is revealed.  Sinner and saint.  But more and more, faith became something about God, the people of God, and the wonderful world that God loves – claimed by faith rather making a claim about faith.

Being claimed by faith sounds like Habakkuk’s cries against violence and trusting in God’s faithfulness.[7]  Being claimed by faith names the living faith of ancestors like Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.[8]  Being claimed by faith announces a wonderful world, created and sustained by God for all people.  At the same time, being claimed by faith tells the truth about suffering, our part in it and Jesus’ challenge to us to relieve suffering, prevent it when possible and be present with people when it’s not.

We remind each other that God’s faithfulness overflows in the grace given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[9]  Not alone and wondering if each of our individual faith-o-meters are full enough.  Rather, as a group called the church living the faith that claims us through the cross of Christ and then frees us towards God and each other.  Living faith that is smaller than a mustard seed as signs of God’s love for each flawed and fragile person in this troubled and wonderful world.

 

[1] The Chapel at Red Rocks: http://www.chapelatredrocks.com/

[2] George Davis Weiss as “George Douglas” and Bob Theile, songwriters. “What a Wonderful World.” 1967. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Wonderful_World

[3] This paragraph and the Louis Armstrong quote that follows are referenced from, “Smashed Hits: How Political is ‘What a Wonderful World?” published December 10, 2011 on BBCnews.com. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16118157

[4] Ibid, BBC article above.

[5] In order: Luke 16:19-31 (challenge against indifference), Luke 17:1-2 (challenge to teach well), Luke 17:3-4 (forgive).

[6] Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. Commentary on Luke 17:5-10 for WorkingPreacher.org, October 2, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3028

[7] Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4

[8] 2 Timothy 1:1-14

[9] 2 Timothy 1:9

Timothy 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

 

 

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 (but the whole chapter is worth the read)

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 {really, go read the whole chapter)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 10, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Acts 10:44-48  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 

[sermon begins]

In the reading from John this morning, Jesus is talking to his disciples before he is very soon to be killed on the cross. This is an intense conversation in an intense time.  Smack in the middle of this conversation Jesus says something that likely had his listeners gasp.[1]  You know, the kind of gasp that you do when you’re truly surprised. You wonder if the people around you heard the same thing but you can’t interrupt the flow of the person speaking even to make eye contact with the person next to you.  But it’s hard to keep listening because you’re still back in the moment of what you heard.  This is where the mindful among us would want to coach us about staying in the moment.  But you know what I mean. Staying mindful after a big announcement is truly for the rare, gold-medal mindful.  Most of us averagey-mindful simply are not up to the task.

What does Jesus say to derail the disciples’ mindful listening?  He tells them they are no longer servants, but now are his friends.  He ups the ante on them. The suggestion of mutuality is shocking! This is one of the few places in scripture that talks about friendship.  Especially notable in the story is Jesus saying, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Last week we heard a good word preached from two of Augustana’s high school seniors.  Both preachers challenged us with scripture and they also challenged us with their personal stories of what it means to be faithful in their own lives. They opened up the Bible readings for us and talked about Jesus’ vine metaphor.  Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” Last week’s scripture reading happens just before Jesus’ words of friendship in our story today.  He is the vine, he names the branches.  And these branches will bear the fruit of friendship.

It’s important to remember that the friends sitting around as Jesus speaks to them are the same friends who deny, betray, and run away in the tough time around the cross.  The friends’ have little ability to stick it out with Jesus immediately following his poetry of vine, branches, and abiding together in friendship. Keeping commandments that are given in a peaceful time are that much more challenging to keep in a difficult time. Dying for one’s friends means something when those friends fail you. Jesus did this in real time days after talking with them about being friends. And Jesus died for his friends to come in the future.

The bridge between Jesus words of friendship then and now is a crazy thing called death and resurrection.  This Easter season we’ve been asking the question, “What could this rising from the dead mean?” Asking the Easter question in this way keeps our feet connected to the ground while we, quite literally, speed through the cosmos.

For Peter, this rising from the dead means that he ends up in Cornelius’ home.  Cornelius is a Caesarean.  More specifically he is a centurion of the Italian cohort.  All of that is to say the BIG thing – that he is a Gentile. A short-hand way of saying that he is not part of the Jewish sect following Jesus.  Just as Jesus ups the ante with the disciples by calling them his friends, the Spirit ups the ante by instigating Gentile baptisms.  Baptizing Gentiles in the name of Jesus, into his death and into his new life. For Peter and the circumcised believers with him, this is a cosmic shift…on the ground…with actual people.  This is enough of a cosmic shift that Peter wonders about whether anyone can withhold the water for baptizing people who have received the Holy Spirit.

From time-to-time, I get calls to schedule a baptism. There are details to scheduling in terms of picking a date and worship time for the baptism itself and setting a date to meet with me at some point before the baptism. I get to know people, a little about their families and their faith. In turn, people in baptism meetings get to know a little about me.  These conversations are good.  In fact, some of the staff can verify that I say out loud that, “I love baptism meetings.” While it’s fun getting to know people, what I really love is reveling in God’s promises.  And as several of you can attest, there is a place in the baptism conversation about the promise that the congregation makes to the baptized on behalf of the whole church catholic and the communion of saints in every place and time.  You know the one.  You hear the words, “People of God, do you promise to support the baptized and pray for them in their new life in Christ?”

People of God.  It has a nice ring to it.  It’s both cosmic and personal. Cosmic because we’re talking about God.  Personal because we’re talking about us. The ‘People of God’ label is also quite relevant given the Bible readings from both John and Acts today.  The book of John begins cosmically with the mysterious Word existing before time and immediately becomes personal as the Word is made flesh in Jesus. Our particular reading from the book of John get even more personal as Jesus calls the disciples friends. In the book of Acts, the mysterious Holy Spirit gets personal quickly, acting on Cornelius and his household as Peter and the circumcised believers gasp and start baptizing.  Peter stays with Cornelius for a few days afterwards.

The story talks about Peter staying a few days almost as an afterthought. But could this be the fruit that the disciples are told they would bear?  It’s also one answer to what this rising from the dead means.  These two people, so different, both bringing past failures and prejudices to their time together.  Now they are both people of God – friends of Christ and each other through baptism.

Baptism brings the baptized into the body of Christ also known as a congregation.  A congregation is simply a collection of baptized people who remind each other through worshiping, communion, baptism, preaching and each other that God’s promises are for them.  I imagine Peter and Cornelius and the household reminding each other of God’s promises as Peter visited with them for several days. In a similar way, it’s what we do here as the congregation of Augustana.

As part of the body of Christ of Augustana, we bring along with us our failures, prejudices, and differences to our time together much like Peter and Cornelius. The Holy Spirit ups the ante and brings us together as friends of Christ.  This happens every time we get together in the many ways we get together. Whether it’s women’s circles, health ministries, choir rehearsal, Sunday School, Over the Top giving parties, staff meetings, Chapel Prayer, Middle School drop-in, Senior lunches, or some other group of people connected through Augustana.

The Holy Spirit gathers us as friends of Christ in worship, too.  We confess sins that include failures and prejudices at the beginning of worship and hear God’s forgiveness pronounced; and we sit next to each other reaching through our strange differences to another friend in Christ.

People of God, Jesus just called you friend. [Gasp] It couldn’t be more personal. We live in the cosmic strength and in the human frailty of this friendship together here this morning. Now strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ’s friendship with us, we live it in the world this afternoon.  Thanks be to God.

 

Hymn of the Day, sung together after the sermon: ELW 636 How Small Our Span Of Life


[1] Matt Skinner, Associate Professor for New Testament, Luther Seminary,  for Sermon Brainwave – John 15:9-17, May 13, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=293

Matthew 18:21-35 and Romans 14:1-12 (13) – Don’t Do Me Like That [Or Let’s Get a Good Mad On]

Matthew 18:21-35 and Romans 14:1-12 (13) – Don’t Do Me Like That  [Or Let’s Get a Good Mad On]

Caitlin Trussell on September 14, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church

 

[sermon follows the Bible readings from Matthew and Romans]

Matthew 18:21-35 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Romans 14:1-12 (13) Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6 Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. 11 For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ 12 So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

 

 

What does it feel like to get a good mad on?  What does it look like?  Perhaps you’re good at the righteous mad.  These are the effective mads that motivate us to create change.  Change of the ilk of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Inspired by the righteous mad of Dr. King, Ms. Parks got her righteous mad on after being told where to sit on the bus because of her skin color.   As a result, she sat in a seat on the bus reserved for another skin color.  Getting your righteous mad on can change the world one relationship, one neighborhood, one country at a time.

Righteous mad happens in many of us daily on behalf of ourselves and maybe even other people who are being punished by people who use their power over other people to hurt them.  It’s the kind of mad that has us speaking up and speaking out; legitimately asking someone else, “Hey, why you do me like that?” Or, even more assertively, saying along with songwriter Tom Petty, “Don’t do me like that!”[1]

From these righteous mads come the legalities.   The legal dimension is where someone is held accountable.   Peter gets this part right.  These righteous mads are part of the ground from which Peter is asking his question of Jesus.  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

This is sin accounting.  This is an important question.  There are indeed actual wrong-doings that have consequences.  Someone is accountable.  So Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times to forgive is an honest question out of the knowledge that there are sins.   There are wrongs done against someone and someone else is accountable for them.  In current news, this is illustrated no more clearly than in the recent partner violence committed by NFL Football Player Ray Rice against his wife.[2]  He seems to be gravely at fault and the consequences are stacking up against him even as I stand here talking with you.

I like how David Lose talks about the place for sin accounting:

“It’s not that there is no place for the law in our relationships. There is, indeed, a need to count.  If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend [or partner] who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”[3]

Dr. Lose is pointing out that Peter’s sin-accounting question is an honest question. His question is also one in which he is trying to understand Jesus’ teaching that we heard Pastor Tim preach about last week; about our response to someone when they sin against us and hurt us.

For Peter, Jesus’ call for infinite forgiveness doesn’t compute.  I would suggest that it doesn’t compute for us either.  In fact, if any part of the reading from Matthew makes sense to us, it’s likely the vengeance done on the part of the king in torturing the greedy slave at the end.  Vengeance is something we can get behind and even celebrate.  As cases-in-point, think The Count of Monte Cristo to almost any Clint Eastwood movie to Sally Field in Eye for an Eye to Iron Man 3.[4]  These characters bait us to their side by their righteous mad and quickly switch us into supporting and even cheering on their self-righteous revenge.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, the reader lives this self-righteous revenge through the eyes of Montresor.  The opening line drops us into the thick of the numbers game. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”[5]   The story begins and ends in four and half pages.  The readers find themselves privy to the horror of this revenge as Fortunato, the object of Montresor’s fury, is buried alive behind a freshly built wall of brick and mortar in an ancient catacomb.

On one level, the Bible reading in Matthew speaks to the sin-accounting that is comfortable for both Montresor in Poe’s story, who presumably endured 1,000 injuries before Fortunato’s final insult, and for Peter, who talks with Jesus about forgiving seven times.  Both Peter and Montresor discover that when sin is counted in this way, in the way of law, the inevitable result is a winner and a loser.  The problem is that it’s difficult to figure out who ends up the loser.  This is because the assumption built into the sin-accounting game is that it reaches a limit.  Once this limit is reached, the temptation becomes revenge.

It’s at this point when Jesus moves us beyond the sin-accounting game.  He save us from the lose-lose of considering forgiveness only in light of the law.  Reacting only with the law, we end up doing only the legal math and calculating whether to punish, take revenge, or forgive the person who sins against us.  To get at the limited nature of sin-accounting, imagine two at their own wedding who stop the ceremony to ask how many times they are supposed to forgive each other.  The question is ludicrous.

Two people joining their lives together asking about the number of times to forgive, while professing their love for each other, is as ludicrous as Peter’s question.  In reply, Jesus’ presents an equally ludicrous question back to Peter.  Dr. Lose suggests that:

“It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota…it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake…Forgiveness, as an expression of love, ultimately, is not about regulating behavior but rather about maintaining and nurturing our relationships.”[6]

Paul takes us into forgiveness and relationship more deeply in the Bible reading from his letter to the Romans.  He asks the reader to be cautious of the quick move we often make to judgment.  Thinking that we know what is right for ourselves, we quickly decide what is right for everyone.  This kind of self-righteousness infects the whole community with claims of moral superiority and subtle forms of retribution.

The beauty of the Romans reading is that we are reminded that God is the primary actor.  In verse 3 we are told that, “God has welcomed them”; in verse 3 that, “the Lord is able to make them stand”; and in verse 8 that, “Whether we live or whether we die we are the Lord’s”; and finally in verse 9, the breath of air as we are reminded, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

It’s easy to get turned around in the questions like Peter.  It’s easy for meat-eaters and vegetarians to go after each other in self-righteous grandiosity.  It’s easy in the face of real hurt to strike back in revenge, justifying our own acts of violence.  When we take the easy way, we are reminded that we are weak, at the same time we are reminded of our need.   This need levels us all at the foot of the cross.  Each one of us in the shadow of the cross that illuminates the frailty and the sin we use to separate ourselves from God and each other.

Someone asked me a few weeks ago what it might mean when Jesus tells his disciples to, “take up their cross and follow me.”[7]   Taking up their cross, in part, means waking up to the reality of our need every day.  Waking up in need, realizing our dependence on the One who was tortured and died on the cross; and through that very cross offers infinite forgiveness for me and for you.  So that each day, within the ambiguity of what constitutes our success or failure, we can say with certainty, along with the Apostle Paul:

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

 



[1] Tom Petty singing “Don’t Do Me Like That” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL6XwAl_hNo.

[2] SB (SportsBlog) Nation http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/5/23/5744964/ray-rice-arrest-assault-statement-apology-ravens

[3] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia on his blog “…in the Meantime” for Pentecost 14A: Forgiveness and Freedom.  Link: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a/

[4] The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7126.The_Count_of_Monte_Cristo; Clint Eastwood http://www.clinteastwood.net/; Iron Man 3 (2013) http://marvel.com/movies/movie/176/iron_man_3

Eye for an Eye (1996) – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116260/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Edgar Allan Poe Tales (New York: Chatham River Press, 1981), 542.

[6] David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-14-a/

[7] Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

John 20:19-31 “The Path of Life” [Or, “Resurrection From…and In”] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31 “The Path of Life” [Or, “Resurrection From…and In”] Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9

Caitlin Trussell – April 27, 2014

Augstana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

[Additional scripture for today is posted at the end of the sermon]

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!  Ahhhh, the words of Easter, the proclamation of resurrection, the sweet relief from the dark days of Lent.  Christian churches fill up on Easter Sunday and right then and there, the very first thing, we show our hand.  “Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!”  These are party words.  Celebration words.  And do we ever revel in this celebration.  Trumpets, lilies, singing, smiles, Easter Eggs – these are symbols of the celebration.  And we keep right on partying for 50 days as the season of Easter unfolds.  And so we should.  This is the biggest and best of the good news – God coming in flesh, in the person of Jesus, dying and rising to new life, and saying to Death, “Your services are no longer needed.”  For Christians, it truly doesn’t get any better…or any more scandalous.

Make no mistake, it is a scandal.  Through sealed stone and an armed guard, all meant to protect death inside a tomb, life emerged.  Not just any life but the life of the One and from the One who brings all things to life.  If death is no longer a given, no longer secured in a sealed tomb, then what kind of life are we talking about?  What kind of life are we celebrating these 50 days?   This is a fair and honest question.

Peter preaches to this question of life eschatologically, that life for the Christian is “revealed in the last time.”[1]  He reassures exiled people that their suffering will end even though they suffer right now. Peter’s words are a blessed assurance in a painful time.

A few years ago I was leading a Bible study out at New Beginnings Church in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.  The topic of life after death, eternal life, came up as a philosophical question – a question we wrestled with intellectually and thoughtfully.  The conversation moved along as these conversations often do, with a lot of opinions thrown around and some curiosity sprinkled in for good measure.  When from the back of the group of about 100 women, one of them chimes in with a lot of anger.  Her words ring in my ears today.  She said, “I don’t know what you all are talking about but I believe God has a place for me where crying and dying are no more…I’m counting on it!”[2]  She preached as powerfully from her own moment as Peter preaches from his.  We even get in on their preaching when we join our voices with theirs as we speak to the “life everlasting” in the Apostle’s Creed.  This is the Easter promise as deliverance.  This is resurrection from something – from this life that can include the unbearable.

As a relevant aside, some of you may know how much some Christians delight in prepositions.  Those small words of grammar tucked in front of a noun to help us write about things in location to other things.  For example, Lutheran Christians will say that Jesus is “in, with, and under” the communion bread and wine.  The theological battles waged over these little words of location are stunning.  Nonetheless, prepositions have their helpful place.  As in the Easter promise of eternal deliverance from this life once having passed through death.  But this week, Thomas makes me curious about resurrection in this life.  “In” being the operating preposition, the key word.

Thomas and the disciples have locked themselves in a room in Jerusalem.  The metallic taste of terror still on their tongues after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Terror that includes their own inability to prevent Jesus’ death or be present for it.  A week before this moment in the locked room, Thomas missed out on seeing the risen Jesus with the other disciples.  But Jesus shows up, wounds and all, and Thomas’ mind and faith are put at ease as he puts his fingers in the hand and side wounds of Jesus.  Which, by the way, gross!  Most of us can’t stomach a small wound that needs stitches much less a stab-wound created by a spear or a nail-hole through a hand.  And there’s Thomas, poking and prodding in the wounds of Jesus like he’s on an Easter egg hunt.

To what end is Thomas physically examining Jesus?  More importantly, why is Jesus subjecting himself to this exam?  The end-point is not deliverance from the locked room or from eventual death.  Thomas goes on to die a martyr after all is said and done.  This is the resurrection of Christ, wounds and all, playing out in the locked room with Thomas and the other disciples – resurrection in, not from.

A good friend of mine has been listed in our ongoing prayer requests for some weeks now.  Her name is Chris.  She gave me permission to tell you her story.  Chris and I go back a ways.  The kind of friendship that includes talking about our families and our lives within the context of our faith.  In part because of this soul-searching and Christ-searching, Chris formally presented me during my ordination.  She and I continue to talk faith, life, and Bible with seamless fluidity.  A year older than me, six months ago Chris was living daily life with the usual mix of highs and lows and good health.  On November 5th, her hands started to hurt during the night.  From that first symptom we fast forward to today.  She now has muscle weakness that makes it difficult to walk up stairs, empty a dishwasher, and swallow.  Looking more and more to her doctors like some kind of autoimmune inflammation in her muscles, she and I spoke at length this past Monday night.

In our usual way, the conversation wove together her Prednisone questions with how her family is doing with what we heard during the Easter sermons at our churches.  She told me that the Easter gift for her this year is a bone-deep certainty that Christ’s resurrection is in her current situation.  She talks about Christ’s resurrection in her current situation whether or not the medications bring physical healing to her disease, whether or not she is delivered from her disease.  She doesn’t know what that will look like but she is sure of it.  I can’t help but hear her voice in today’s Psalm, speaking to the Lord, “…my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure…You show me the path of life.”

There are many of us or people we love dealing with situations in life along the lines of Chris or Thomas.   During Easter we celebrate Christ’s resurrection as life everlasting even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection in our lives now.

Christ now breathes the Holy Spirit on you, sharing his peace.

Christ’s resurrection, wounds and all, is in this life for you.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!

 



[1] 1 Peter 1:5

[2] Revelation 21:4

 

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, 22You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25For David says concerning him,
‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
29Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’
32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

 

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
2I say to the LORD, “You are my LORD;
I have no good apart from you.”
3As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.
4Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.
5The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
6The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.
7I bless the LORD who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
8I keep the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
9Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
10For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
11You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

 

1 Peter 1:3-9  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Matthew 11:2-11 Careful, You’re Wishing Your Life Away

Matthew 11:2-11  Careful, You’re Wishing Your Life Away

December 15, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Matthew 11:2-6  When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

 

 

My stepfather was always good for a pithy word of wisdom.  Responding to my teenage panic when I forgot to tip the waitress my first time into a restaurant on my own, Pops said, “You don’t get rich by tipping cheap.”  Or time and again when I was just about jumping out of my skin about something exciting on the calendar and would say things like, “I wish it were Saturday already,” Pops would say, “Careful, you’re wishing your life away.”  It’s that one especially that still catches me.  The whole thing about staying in the day, knowing full well there is something amazing ahead on the calendar.  “Careful, you’re wishing your life away.”

Christmas can be like that kind of waiting.  When you’re four, waiting to open that enormous box under the tree can feel like a lifetime.  When you’re fourteen, waiting to open what looks like it could be the new PlayStation4.  When you’re twenty-four, waiting to hear back about that job interview or whether you’ve been accepted to that graduate program.  When you’re sixty-four, waiting for your daughter’s flight to land or for the grandkids to show up for Christmas dinner.  When you’re ninety-four, waiting to be picked up for that dinner that includes four or five generations under one roof.  The things we wait for change but there is always waiting.

Some of us are better at waiting than others.  But, for most people, waiting often inspires curiosity.  What will whatever we’re waiting for actually be like?  John the Baptist’s question comes out of this kind of curiosity.  John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  And, typical of Jesus, he doesn’t actually answer the question.  He tells them to report back to John what they hear and see.  Although it’s funny that he tells them to report their observations and then he tells them what to say.  Regardless, Jesus responds to John’s question without really answering it.  Leaving John to wonder about the information he receives in light of the question he asked, “Is Jesus the Messiah?”

It’s a great question.  Many people at that time were awaiting the Messiah.  At the turn of the first century there were many people claiming to be the Messiah.  It was a confusing time, differently so than today.  Today, I don’t hear a lot of people wondering about Messiahs.  But I do hear people waiting.  People are looking and waiting for leaders to emerge as is evident in the Presidential elections.  People are looking and waiting for wins as the Broncos sew-up their regular season play and head toward the play-offs.  People are looking and waiting for a lot of things, good things, fine things, even fun things.  But are they looking and waiting for a Messiah?  A Savior?  The evidence would suggest not.

So the move we make in Advent as a church is a big one.  The move into preparation and waiting is not only to celebrate a birthday from long ago.  The people who are the church look toward a future with hope because there is a Messiah.  This promise is massively and widely counter-cultural.  This promise involves some Advent waiting.

Waiting in which some of us in the pews wonder if any of this even makes a difference?  Or wondering if Jesus is who he says he is?  Or who any faithful saint says Jesus is?  However, waiting is not a vacuum.  Waiting is time we don’t wish away.  Revealed in the waiting is need.  This may be some of what Jesus is getting at in his answer to John’s disciples.  There is real need that needs real solutions.  Jesus names hunger, illness, death, and poverty.  We can add to this list quickly by naming violence against family, friend, and neighbor that comes in many forms – gossip, slander, physical abuse, murder.

I would also add to the list the way we are prone to elevate and highlight certain kinds of dramatic violence as grief-worthy while relegating the daily violence that is happening in some people’s lives and communities to normalcy.  Our rapt attention to the spikes of violence deemed newsworthy and our failure to engage in the problem of daily violence that we’ve deemed normal violates our common humanity.  Deeming certain kinds of violence as normal adds, not insult to injury, but injury to injury.  In this way, we are not innocent bystanders.

The problems that Jesus names and the problems we add to the list are relational.  In the relational language of scripture we call each other neighbors; in the language of humanity we simply call each other people.  As people we are capable of fatally wounding each other in mind, body, and spirit…as people, the stark reality of our willingness to hurt each other, and our ignorance in even seeing that we hurt each other, makes obvious that we deeply need a Savior – a Savior who illuminates these stark realities and frees us into them to help our neighbor as well as being helped by them.  Some of us are made ready to do the hard work necessary to meet real needs and some of us are in the sometimes more difficult reality of asking for and receiving help when we have need.  Whichever end of the giving and receiving you find yourself, there is more to consider in this text.  This isn’t simply about helping each other and our neighbor out in the name of Jesus.

This is about being saved by the Messiah who reveals our need by calling us out on the way we damage each other and ourselves.  We, who are saint and sinner at the same time, are drawn to faith by the One who forgives us for the hurt we dole out and stands with us while we take on the consequences.  It is this one, this Messiah, who the kids in Simply Christmas point us toward this morning even as we still wonder if we’re really in need.  Only to hear that, yes, we are in need and cannot save ourselves.  But the one who is, who was, and who is to come, is the Savior.  A Savior worth the wait – a Savior for all of us, a Savior for you.

 

 

Luke 11:1-13 “…and yet, I pray”

Luke 11:1-13 “…and Yet, I Pray”

July 28, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 11:1-13 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread. 4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

As an adult, I spent a several years outside the church before being captured by grace through the Lutheran tradition.  There’s a lot I can say about that time but one of the most curious things to me is that I continued to pray.  Specifically, this means that I said a lot of quick things to God – flash prayers if you will.  Things like, “Please!” and “Seriously?!”  Occasionally these prayers were simply crying or sometimes I would laugh at God ala the likes of Sarah in the book of Genesis.[1]  I find this all very curious because, at the time, I wasn’t even sure who God was.  But how I prayed, and what I prayed, spoke volumes.  How we pray gives us a lot of information about who we think God is and how we think God moves in the world.  Maybe even more curiously, how we pray and whether we pray gives us a lot of information about how we see ourselves in relationship with God.

Theologians and church-types love to talk about what happens when we pray.  Dissecting it into parts and giving us theories on how prayer works and how it doesn’t work and how God works in the midst of prayer.  Out of all of those theories, some which come from tangling with our text in Luke today, I haven’t found one that is intellectually satisfying.  I have prayed desperate prayers and silly prayers and everything in between to all kinds of outcomes.  So the outcome of prayer is simply a mystery to me.   The mystery of prayer is especially true when my or someone else’s world is torn apart by loss.  And yet…and yet…I pray.  I continue to pray desperate prayers and silly prayers and everything in between.

My prayers have been added to in both content and form from the flash prayers – although I still use those too.  But much more importantly, I simply became comfortable praying.  So much so that now guess what happens at the start of a church meeting or meal…yup, you guessed it – “Pastor, will you pray for us?”

What happens at a church meeting or meal or gathering when the pastor says, “Would anyone like to pray for us?”  … … … … …  Exactly!  Crickets.  Because of this response, I hear the disciples’ demanding, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus’ answer to them, as good news.  They demand to be taught and he teaches them.  Notice that when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray he doesn’t launch into a three-point didactic instruction with power-point.  He doesn’t say things like, “Well, first you have to have a good theological understanding of the intersection between God and faith and the world.  None of that!  He simply prays.  What might this mean?  Perhaps that prayer can be learned.  Not as technical proficiency but, much more importantly, disciples can simply become comfortable praying through the practice of prayer.  So when someone says that they can’t pray there is a possibility that it could feel differently for them.   I have a good friend who said to me a long time ago that praying out loud is like chewing rocks. Now my friend is a lay assisting minister in her congregation and is praying the Prayers of Intercession…out loud!

The prayer that Jesus teaches the disciples is the prayer we pray together as “The Lord’s Prayer” during worship.  It is a corporate prayer; meaning that all of us, the whole body of Christ, pray this prayer together and on each other’s behalf.  Some of us widen the net a bit with this prayer and pray it in the morning before we get out of bed or on airplanes when the weather is bad.  This is a go-to prayer.  This is a prayer that has served the faithful for over 2,000 years and will continue to serve the faithful long after we’re gone.  We pray this prayer with our ancestors and with those yet to come.  This is THE most persistent prayer of the body of Christ.

During worship we also pray with the worship leader who prepares and prays the Prayers of Intercession when we “pray for the church, those in need, and all of God’s creation.”  This is a prayer for yesterday, today, and tomorrow – the concerns of now, this week.  The person who leads us in this prayer names names and gives voice to individual and community worries, wonderings, events, gratitude, praise, and so much more.  Week after week, like Abraham, we approach God in humble determination with petitions of prayer, holding God accountable to be God.[2]  Our prayers offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ just as we’re encouraged to do by Augustana’s mission statement.[3]

The point is that we already are praying and we pray well together.  So I’ve been wondering what it could look like if we, as the body of Christ, turned toward each other and continued praying on the foundation of our Sunday prayers and beyond.  In essence, turning toward Jesus and saying, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  And rather than a prayer tutorial, we simply begin praying more.  We practice.  I’m so curious about what this could look like that I’ve invited a team of Augustana people to wonder about this with me as part of something called Augustana Praying Project; so named because we are actively praying as well as working on different ways to pray – some that will work in our lives together and some that won’t.  Augustana Praying Project will take shape over time and change shape over time responding to the different needs people have and the different ways people pray.

I also wonder how much our practice of prayer, as David Lose suggests, “attunes ourselves to God and to our shared life.”[4]  In all that we bring to God in prayer, we are essentially putting our lives through the filter of faith.  Prayer as a connecting point between our lives of faith and our daily life gives us language for both.  So, at the very least, perhaps prayer creates fluid connections between the faith we claim as Christian people on Sundays and our lives as Christian people throughout the week.[5]

The disciples demand, “Lord, teach us to pray…”  When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, his prayer attunes them with God our Father and with each other and “our” needs.  Prayer, as Jesus instructs it, is highly relational even as it’s spoken by a single person.  We are set free into this prayer as our Lord Jesus teaches us to pray by praying.  We are also set free to pray our daily concerns so that our prayer reflects this life we live connected with this God in whom we have our being.

Thanks be to God!



[1] Genesis 18:1-15 – Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for July 21, 2013.

[2] Genesis 18:20-32 – Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for today, July 28, 2013.

[3] Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Mission Statement: Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.

[4] David Lose.  “What is Prayer?” Blog: …In the Meantime, February 2013.

Find full post at:http://www.davidlose.net/2013/02/what-is-prayer/

[5] Ibid.

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 “What if the Means ARE the End?!”

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 – “What if the means ARE the end?”

July 7, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

 

I am immediately curious when a story begins with, “After this…”  My first question is often, “After what?”  So I want to back up.  Not too far; simply to a story that is told right before our story this morning.  In that story from Luke, chapter 9, Jesus had just “set his face toward Jerusalem” for the first time.  This is Lucan code that Jesus’ journey to the cross has begun.  Jesus and his disciples had entered a Samaritan village.  The Samaritans do not receive Jesus and the disciples’ response to this is to ask Jesus whether or not they should rain fire down from heaven and consume the village.  Let that one sink it for a minute…  Since when did it become an option for them to rain fire down from heaven?!

Fortunately for all involved, Jesus rebuked them (I like to imagine that he also rolls his eyes and gives himself a slap on the forehead) and they continued on their way in a mysterious conversation about foxes and birds.

After he rebukes his disciples’ raining fire plan, Jesus appoints seventy disciples to go into the towns ahead of him.  He must figure they need some guidance as they announce that “the kingdom of God has come near” because he gives them some basic instruction about how to be a good guest.  I like to imagine Jesus this way, “OK, tempers were running a little hot in that last town so here’s the game plan on visiting the towns – stick together, greet the people in peace, eat what they give you, and stay put – no trading up if you get a better offer.”

Perhaps more importantly, given the disciples penchant for retribution, Jesus instructs them on what to do if they are not welcome after they greet the town in peace.  Jesus tells them to dust off their feet in protest (read: no need for fire) and still to tell them that that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Jesus gave them a job to do and the means to get it done.  The kicker is that the job Jesus gives them is still their job regardless of the townspeople’s’ response – an outcome they have no control over.

In the last few years, some faithful leaders of Augustana spent some time praying, reading scripture, talking, listening and working on a mission statement.  Mission statements are one way for congregations to organize their life together – taking advantage of the diversity and gifts given to that congregation by the Holy Spirit.    At their best, mission statements prioritize ministry decisions and mobilize a diverse congregation into action for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Similarly to what Jesus does by sending out the 70 disciples in different directions for the common mission of telling people that the kingdom of God has come near.

If you would, please take your worship bulletin and find Augustana’s mission statement on the back cover in the upper right hand corner.  Are we all there?  Please read it out loud with me. “Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.”  It’s lovely in its simplicity.  And from my perspective, earns extra points for getting the Trinity in there as the guide.

Augustana’s mission statement is something I read and thought about during the pastoral call process.  And it is mentioned occasionally in meetings here as a reference point when various decisions are being made or the future of Augustana is being discussed.  By my way of thinking about this mission statement, Jesus has given Augustana a job to do and the means to get it done.  The kicker is that the job Jesus gives us is still our job regardless of people’s response to us – an outcome we have no control over.

You may have heard the expression, “The end justifies the means.”  People use this expression to justify doing anything and everything that they feel is necessary to achieve their goal, their intended end. Yet,this gospel story is all about the means.  Jesus tells the disciples what to do and how to do it – the outcome, the end, the way people respond, isn’t within the disciples’ control.  It makes me wonder if the means ARE the end – for the disciples and possibly for us.

Augustana’s mission statement is all about the means.  Here’s what we are to do and how we are to do it, at least in general terms.  The outcome, the end, the way people respond, isn’t within our control.  Again, it makes me wonder if the means ARE the end.  This is to say more explicitly that the means ARE the end for us, not for God.  Because God’s going to do what God’s going to do as far as the end is concerned.  We don’t control the outcome, God does.  And I hear this as the very best of the good news.

While we’re on the subject of means, some of you may have heard the expression “means of grace.”  Lutheran Christians use this means-of-grace language to describe the ways in which God comes to us, meeting us on our level.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) website offers a quick explanation of the means of grace.  It goes like this…

“Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God. By the power of the Spirit, this very Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, is read in the Scriptures, proclaimed in preaching, announced in the forgiveness of sins, eaten and drunk in the Holy Communion, and encountered in the bodily presence of the Christian community.  By the power of the Spirit active in the Holy Baptism, this Word washes a people to be Christ’s own Body in the world.  We have called this gift of Word and Sacrament by the name ‘the means of grace.’  The living heart of all these means is the presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit as the gift of the Father.”[1]

Jesus directs the disciples into the towns, giving them the means through which they are to proclaim the kingdom of God coming near.

The Holy Spirit guides this congregation by our mission statement, giving us the means through which our life together takes action.

And Christ the Savior commands us to make available the means of grace and to avail ourselves of the means of grace, giving us the means through which God forgives and sustains us in faith.

In these three situations the logic of the incarnation, of God coming to us, of the means as the end, is real.  In these three situations the actual end, the consequence, the outcome is on God.  For us creatures, who time again pressure ourselves and each other to bigger and better success stories, this is good news indeed.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

John 20:19-31 “Doubt in Community”

John 20:19-31 “Doubt in Community”

April 7, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin  ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31  But these are written so that you may come to believe  that Jesus is the Messiah,  the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Very, very few people have been able see and touch the wounds of the Risen Christ as he is standing in the living room.  So, for those very few people, I celebrate what faith must look like and feel like beyond the shadow of a doubt.  There are a few more people who have told me that they have never struggled with their faith in Jesus – it just has simply always been there for them and remains with them as pure gift.  I have to imagine that this group is more widely represented in churches around the world than the first group.  Again, I celebrate the fullness of their faith with them and am grateful for the ways in which those people of great faith have impacted my own faith.

Then there’s a third group of people for whom the Gospel of John was expressly written.  Check out verse 31 again, it says that, “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  If the number of people in the pews of the church around the world is any indication, this is by far the largest group.  While conversations and theories abound as to why this is so, the Gospel of John presumes this is so.  There are people who believe and there are people who don’t.  Just as there are today.

At Luther Seminary, I took a course called ‘Jesus the Savior and the Triune God.’  Our first reading assignment was a named Doubt: A Parable.[1]  As a class, we had a lively discussion about doubt and its place in conversations about faith.  The various opinions about whether doubt or skepticism should be part of faith conversations are missing the point.  The reality is that most conversations about Christian faith in the western world are fraught with questions and skepticism pretty much since about the 17th century and the Enlightenment.

Many of the conversations people have with me about their own faith are on the very topic of doubt – as if faith and doubt are mutually exclusive, as if faith cannot exist while doubt exists or vice versa.  But they aren’t mutually exclusive, they are connected.  It’s right here that I need to give a shout-out to something called a dialectic.   A dialectic is when you take two ideas that seem in complete opposition to other but yet they are connected.  Today, the dialectic in this sermon is faith and doubt.  One of Martin Luther’s favorite dialectics is Law and Gospel.  Rather than saying that one cannot exist while the other does, a dialectic connection acknowledges their coexistence and allows the tension between them to reveal meaning.

In the Gospel reading for today, Thomas is on the outside of faith looking in at the disciples who have seen the risen Christ.   I wonder if he’s listening to all of that excited faith-filled testimony of the rest of the group and feeling left out, feeling frustrated that he missed out and wondering if he could ever trust as they seem to trust, could ever be comforted as they seem to be comforted.  Or maybe it’s something else entirely.  Maybe Thomas thinks the disciples have truly lost it.  The trauma of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion was simply too much and they were under the power of some kind of group delusion.

Regardless of his motive and tone, we can learn from Thomas.  Not only does he own his skepticism, he talks freely about it with his friends, his community.  He struggles, wondering about the truth of the risen Christ, and the people who know him best make space and hold his doubt.  That first day in the locked house, Jesus appears to the disciples but not to Thomas and when Thomas shows up later that same day he makes his big speech about what it would take for him to believe.  Then we are told that it’s a week later, the disciples are still in the house and Thomas is still with them.  He is still with them!  He responded to the disciples with skepticism but he is still there in the house…with the disciples.

So, yes, we can learn from Thomas.  But I think today we also learn from those disciples, those disciples who hold the space for Thomas even as they hold to their witness of the resurrected Jesus.  They are true to the story as they received it without ridding their group of one who stands resolutely against what they say they saw.

A few weeks ago in the Gospel of John class, I asked everyone to break into twos or threes and talk about something that they had heard or learned.  Two people from the same pair then shared their thoughts with the larger group.  I asked them if they agreed with each other or did they agree to disagree because at that moment it was unclear.  The conversation moved on without an answer but then a hand from the pair went up after they chatted a bit more and realized that they were, indeed, in disagreement on a particular point.  Their capacity to discuss and hold this disagreement is a powerful example to us all.

When I begin teaching a class, one of the things that I like to say is that, “Jesus is Jesus; what we say about Jesus, sing about Jesus or construct about Jesus is not Jesus.”  It is so tempting, so unbearably tempting, to hold up what we say about Jesus and slip into believing that whatever it is that we say is actually Jesus.  Listen to Thomas again.  He says, “My Lord and my God.”  This claim and confession of “My Lord and My God” is the starting point.  And in saying this with Thomas, we are freed into the conversations about Jesus that deepen our faith and expand our witness of Jesus in the here and now by the power of the Spirit.

Thomas is not an example of meek acceptance of the status quo.   He stands in the middle of that house and makes a demand – a demand that allows for the possibility of faith.  And who is able to respond to Thomas’ request?  It is the risen Christ Himself.  As Thomas stands in the presence of his friends who faithfully witness to the risen Christ, it is Christ who yields to Thomas’ demand.

The story of Thomas gets at some of the most daunting dimensions of faith because it’s clear that faith is not self-generated, nor can we generate it in others.  Faith can only be generated by God in Jesus through the Spirit working through the witness that people hear.[2]  As readers of the Gospel, we are the ones who have not seen the risen Christ, we receive only the witness about Jesus.  This means that seeing is not a precondition for faith as it was for Thomas but rather “faith is evoked by words from and about Jesus…through the work of the Spirit in whom the risen Christ is present and active.”[3]

By the work of the Spirit, the risen Christ is revealing his wounds and birthing faith.  He holds out his wounded hand as he challenges us to a new reality through the scriptures.  He turns and offers love from His side as He forgives, strengthens and renews the Body of Christ, His church, to make space for faithful testimony as well as doubt.  He immerses with us into the waters of baptism as He washes through our sin and brokenness to reveal the power of His resurrecting grace.  Christ beckons us through His meal as His wounded and resurrected presence offers love and forgiveness unknown except through Him.

May God grant that you be born out of Christ’s wounded side,

and be drawn to faith in Him.

 

 



[1] John Patrick Stanley, Doubt: A Parable (2005).

[2] Craig R. Koester, Class lecture, NT3211 “The Gospel and Epistles of John” (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), December 18, 2010.

[3] Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 73.