Tag Archives: faith

Dawning Awareness [OR Knocked on Wood Recently?] Mark 16:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 4, 2021 – Easter!

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 16:1-8  When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[sermon begins]

You know that moment when things start to come together? A piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, all connect to gradually take shape – dawning awareness moving into the full light of day. The pandemic started out that way. A news story there, a parishioner’s comment here, wondering about the latest rumor, and then BAM! – the governor locked down the state. There are millions of stories around the world and then each of us have our own million stories to tell. Mine include a small one about a Christmas cactus – a glorious, 20-year-old cascading beast that showed up at my door as a small sprout in the fundraising hands of a marching band kid.

The cactus moved into my church office a few years ago and had never done better. Native to the rain forest floor, he gets the long, dark nights in the office that are needed for the big winter bloom (yes, he’s a “he,” just roll with me on this). I lugged him home at the start of the pandemic. Lately it’s dawned on me that he needs to move back to the office. His blooms were lovely this winter but sparse. Funny thing. I’m hesitant to bring him back. It feels like I might jinx the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel – which of course is absolutely ridiculous. At the same time, it feels pretty human. I’d guess that at least a few us recently “knocked on wood” after saying something good in order to prevent back luck. Many of us don’t really outgrow the magical thinking of our childhoods. We just learn how to hide it better. The truth is that we don’t control nearly as much as we’d like to think, or as much as we wish we could. That’s the essence of the Easter story.

Easter morning reveals a stone rolled back and an empty tomb. But before that happened, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome had followed Jesus on his ministry. They looked on from a distance and saw Jesus die on the cross.[1] They’d also watched as his body was placed in the tomb hewn out of rock.[2] Reality after reality had hit them head on. The women were under no illusions about the recent trauma. They were, however, having a difficult time getting their heads around what was happening tomb-side. We can imagine them packing up spices, feeling numb and exhausted, and walking to the tomb. Probably not speaking much except to wonder how they were going to get into the tomb to anoint Jesus. That’s a heavy stone sealing it. The first one to get there stops, the second one stops, and then the third. Blinking to clear their eyes. Then staring so their minds catch up to what they’re seeing. And then looking at each other to confirm the visual gradually taking shape in front of them in the light of dawn. The tomb is empty.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome make their way into the tomb. Armed with spices and a plan to care for Jesus’ body they instead were met by a young man, very much upright and talking, and very much not Jesus. He fast tracked the women into a new reality. They go from gentle dawning awareness of seeing the stone rolled back to terror and amazement as the young man dressed in white announces, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised.” New life has been unleashed and they have no idea what it means or what to do. Instead of telling Peter, as they’d been instructed by the young man, “…they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It’s hard to blame them for being afraid. That’s a lot to take in after the cruelty and trauma of Jesus’ trial, torture, and execution. The women didn’t yet know whether Jesus being raised was good news or not. Eventually, they must have figured it out because here we are, picking up the story where it leaves off, invited to do what the young man in white told the women to do – “Go and Tell.”

“Go and tell.” Here on Easter morning our story parallels the women’s story. We started out talking about dawning awareness, Christmas cacti, and the women’s story at the tomb. Uneventful, Eastery business so far. But the telling part? WE just fast tracked into a new reality that calls for saying something out loud. Yikes! Anyone feel angst about saying something out loud? Want to get away from the empty tomb with the women as far as your credit card will carry you? Let’s take it down a notch then. The women regrouped at some point and so can we. We can say what we know. That’s it.

Ernest Hemingway used to tell writers who were blocked to “write one true sentence; write the truest sentence that you know.”[3] Similarly, as we interact with scripture and our own experience, we find the words or the situation that is the truest one that we know. For me, it was a few words in an obscure verse in a tiny book towards the end of the Bible. “God is love.”[4] I hung onto those words like I was drowning. Because at that time, I kinda was. You may have chosen peace over pain and finally forgiven yourself as God’s forgiveness took hold of you.[5] It may be that your self-pity has worn you out, and Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself unleashed you into the world to do some good.[6] Or it could be that the last year has exhausted you so thoroughly that you’re at Easter worship hoping for something but you’re not sure what that could even be.

Tell what you know. That’s the starting point. In the weeks, months, and years after Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, Jesus’ followers told the story bit by bit, sharing it with each other and other people, and finally writing it down. Theirs was a process of faith in the same way ours is a process of faith. Shaky with doubt or trusting and celebratory, we seek to understand the promises of the cross and resurrection in our daily lives with a dawning awareness – a piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, finally an experience in your life that ties the pieces together to gradually take shape.

Like the women at the tomb, suffering and fear make it difficult to see the new life that God promises. New life often reveals itself way after the fact as we look back on our experiences. Trusting by faith in God’s power to bring new life after trauma, over our own power to try and control, can be terrifying. BUT it can also be amazing. Easter invites us into dawning awareness along with the women at the empty tomb. New life isn’t something we can jinx by talking about it or moving our plants around. We also can’t wish new life were here when it’s not here yet. We’re just not that powerful. But watch what God can do.

 

 

p.s. It’s definitely time for the Christmas Cactus to return to the office.

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[1] Mark 15:40-41

[2] Mark 15:47

[3] Ernest Hemingway. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/30849-all-you-have-to-do-is-write-one-true-sentence

[4] 1 John 4:16b

[5] Ephesians 4:32

[6] Mark 12:33

My Dog Sunny and the Apostle Peter Have Something in Common [OR Jesus’ Commands Us to Love One Another – How’s That Going?] John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Maundy Thursday on April, 1, 2021

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

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

[sermon begins]

 

My dog Sunny doesn’t like baths. I’ve seen videos of dogs who loves baths loaded with bubbles, laying on their backs with shower caps on just to be silly. Sunny? Not so much. I have to coax her with treats into the tub and remind her that I love her while she presses her head into my shoulder. This makes washing her face a real challenge. You’d think we’d have this down after almost seven years, but it seems it’s as good as it gets. This story about Sunny is a tricky because, yes, I’m comparing Sunny to Peter in the Bible story. He doesn’t want a bath either. His issues may be different than her issues, in fact they really are different, but the bottom line is the same. He won’t get in the water. Well, he won’t put his feet in the water. You’d think he’d have this down after several years of ministry with Jesus. Jesus tells them what to do and they do it, right? Peter seems to mess up the process over and over again. It’s handy that Peter does this a lot because it makes it easier to see ourselves in the story. If the Bible were full of perfect people being with a perfect Jesus it would be much harder to connect.

Many of us are like Sunny and Peter. We find it hard to trust and would rather come up with our own ideas. That’s pretty much what the Holy Week and Easter stories are – we find it hard to trust and would rather come up with our own ideas. Thank God for Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter and us that our own ideas may not be best for us or each other. The Bible story says that Jesus knew that he came from God and was going to God. Right after that, Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, ties a towel around his waist and starts washing dirty, stinky disciple feet. He gets to Peter. Peter argues with him. He looks up to Jesus. Jesus is his leader. He doesn’t want Jesus washing his feet. Jesus basically tells Peter that this is the way it works. This is the way Jesus works. Jesus is a servant. A servant from God who washes feet and tells us to love each other like he loves us, a love in service to each other.

Before anybody runs out and starts washing other people’s feet, think bigger. We are named ‘child of God’ as we’re bathed in the water of baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Children of God, washed by God. Like Jesus in our Bible story today, we can say that we now come from God and one day we will go to God.[1] That’s handled. And by the power of the Holy Spirit through our baptism we are given gifts that help us serve in the way that Jesus asks us to serve.

During Communion Instruction class, I asked each parent to say something that they liked about their child. The answers included “love of music, zest for life, loves dogs, kind, snuggly, determined, and loves to read.” Being limited to one answer is tough. I’m sure the lists of what you parents like about these kids would be a mile long. But the point is this, the list of qualities, things about you that make you you, these can also be called gifts from God. Gifts that you can use to serve and love the world. It’s pretty simple even though we complicate it with ambition, goals, and what everyone else seems to be doing. Those are distractions. Gifts you’re given to serve are the very ones you’re given to lead. Jesus led his disciples and leads us with wisdom, determination, kindness, intensity, vulnerability, love, grace, and more – a real mishmash of gifts. We’re not Jesus but we’re similarly mishmashed.

It’s been a mishmash kind of year though, so we fit right in. It’s been a year of figuring a lot of things out including how to serve each other. Our old standbys of service like hugs, spending time with people who need a boost of emotional support, serving meals, and holding a hand have been changed. Everyone who works or goes to school outside their home has experienced dramatic changes in how we serve through our different roles. We had to get creative in our ways to work, learn, serve, and stay in touch. Reimagining so much of our lives has been an adjustment in using our mishmash of gifts.

Jesus doesn’t leave us there though, with our confusing jumble of gifts. Jesus gives us each other as the church to figure out those gifts and he gives us the food we need for the journey. That’s what Holy Communion is about at its most basic level. It’s food for the journey of faith. First, it’s food for the journey purely as a gift from God – a blessing and promise of forgiveness and faith from God to us. It’s also food for the journey to do what God asks us to do. To be strengthened and freed to love and serve each other as Jesus loves and serves us.

Jesus’ meal of bread and wine that we share in communion draws us deeply into an even wider community too. The other Bible story that we heard together was long ago. It’s called the Passover story. It’s a story about how God freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Our Jewish cousins in the faith celebrate Passover to this day. Jesus was a Jew and connected the lifeline of Passover to the lifeline that we celebrate as Holy Communion when he was with his friends at a Passover celebration. Jesus expanded the promise that God made to the Jews to be a promise for all people. His new covenant connects us with God’s ancient promises as we move into the future. Jesus’ set a table for one and for all people, as Jesus table set for you.

Things happen quickly during communion. There are words, and prayers, and often singing. It can be easy to miss what’s happening in the special celebration that Jesus gave us. The words from our other Bible reading are the main words to hear. Listen to that Bible reading again:

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

These words are the promise. Jesus promises that what he did – every word he spoke against harm, greed, and hatred while speaking for love of God, enemy, and neighbor, for grace and forgiveness, for faith and generosity, for hope and healing; every word that made him that much more vulnerable to death on a cross – is a promise strong enough to claim us by faith.

Today we celebrate Jesus’s table, where there is a place for everyone and there is a place for you.

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[1] John 13:3

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

Exodus 12:1-4,  11-14   The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. [5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. ] 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

 

 

World Building with Light – John 1:6-8, 19-28

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:6-8, 19-28  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

  19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
 [sermon ends]

 

World-building novels are escapes. Books like Lord of the Rings and Dune are older school versions of the genre. One latest favorite is the Lies of Locke Lamora. It has everything: classic world building elements like maps to give the reader a lay of the land; a cast of characters with depth and quirks aplenty; a whole different spin on faith; and a well-developed thread of honor among thieves. It’s completely indulgent. And, honestly, a little stressful.

Over the summer, towards the end of the first novel, I told myself that I wasn’t going to read the next one in the series. Then the cliff-hanger was so compelling that I told myself that I would only read the second book long enough to answer the cliff-hanger. I’m embarrassed to report the same pattern at the end of the second book going into the third. I just couldn’t imagine how the author was going to spin the tale to resolve the latest crisis. I’m relieved to report that the fourth book isn’t released yet so I don’t have to test my obvious lack of resolve any time soon.

In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me a book last week while I was sick. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. An incredible story set in mostly present-day California, the author tells the story through the eyes of the main character who was born with ocular albinism. Sam has pink eyes. His mother is a devout Catholic. The novel is a compelling tale of faith, doubt, hope, and suffering, while avoiding trite explanations and easy resolution. It’s real world kind of stuff. I’ve been thinking about the contrast of the two tales quite a bit because I’m struck by the different effects they have on me. It makes me wonder all over again about the voices that we let in our heads. Not only that, it makes me wonder about the effects of stories and words on who we are as God’s people.

Our gospel reading highlights John, a man sent from God as a witness to testify to the light. His testimony was part of how people experience belief in Jesus. Some of the most beautiful words of scripture come right before these verses about John the witness:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

These are important verses to our reading today because the light is described by who he’s for and by what he does. His life was light shining for everybody, all the people, and could not be overcome by darkness. John was a witness who testified to the light. It’s John’s purpose that I’m interested in today. His purpose to be a witness who testifies. John gives me pause to wonder not only about the voices in my own life who point to the light today but the choices that I make about who to listen to. Are the books that I read pointing me to the light that shines in the darkness or do they just point out varying levels of dark? This is a bigger question than simply reading or watching feel good things to feel good. It’s a moment of assessing who I’m listening to and why.

Twitter has been an interesting thought experiment in this regard. On Twitter, I follow a variety of thinkers – writers, comedians, theologians, activists, artists, scientists, and church types. It’s heavily curated because I unfollow them too. But I’ve been thinking more recently about this question of how they point to the light of Jesus, to the grace, challenge, justice, forgiveness, and more, that Jesus lifted up in his life and ministry for his followers to pay attention to. More than paying attention, the people who follow Jesus are formed by the lives that he asks us to lead as we love God and our neighbors. Talk about world building!

One of the things I miss in good ole in-person worship is the Confession and Forgiveness. We just haven’t figured out a way to include it in online worship so that it makes sense. This season’s confession acknowledges that “we’re held captive by sin [and] in spite of our best efforts, we have gone astray.” That’s just a piece of the confession. In the language of our scripture today, we could confess that we have not listened to those who have testified to the light and we ourselves have not testified to the light. In our tradition, it’s this kind of confession that helps us see where we let ourselves and others down, where we live as if darkness is more powerful than the light of Jesus, where we think that whatever we may have to say doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

We imagine that the way the world works is a given and that we don’t have much impact on it one way or another. Our gospel reading reminds us that that’s not true. Each of us impacts the way the world works. There IS light that puts darkness in its place.

The forgiveness part of today’s confession goes like this:

People of God, hear this glad news:

by God’s endless grace

your sins are forgiven, and you are free—

free from all that holds you back

and free to live in the peaceable realm of God.

May you be strengthened in God’s love,

☩ comforted by Christ’s peace,

and accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the one hand, we could say, “Oh, those are just words.” But we are part of a tradition that believes in the power of words to create, to bring life into being, to bring a light into being that is so powerful there is no way for darkness to have its way completely. The more we listen to words of light from witnesses who testify to it, the more prepared we are to testify to it while birthing justice, hope, and faith in a world building the kingdom of God.

So that’s your homework for this third week in Advent. Who are you listening to that shines the light of Jesus, for all people, no matter the darkness? Who are the friends, family, singers, authors, directors, actors, politicians, educators, journalists, activists, scientists and more, that continue testifying to the light shining in the darkness? The light of Jesus from the swaddled baby to self-sacrificing adult given for the life of all people. Advent is the perfect time to take this kind of inventory.

Advent is an expectant, pregnant time. In this pregnant time, the light of Jesus is like a twinkle in Joseph’s eyes and a glow on Mary’s face. The light is shrouded in the darkness of a life-giving belly but it’s still there – pulsing and wiggling into position for the hard work of labor. When we light our Advent candles, the flames pulse and wiggle as an echo of the one whose birth we will celebrate and whose return we anticipate. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, never will overcome it! Thanks be to God and amen.

 

 

Doubt…Grace…Doubt…Rinse, Repeat [OR For God’s Sake, Let Thomas Keep His Cool Name] John 20:19-31

**sermon art: “Doubting Thomas” by Nick Piliero (à la F. Barbieri) acrylic on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 19, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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.” 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.

[sermon begins]

We changed our daughter’s name when she was a year old. Nothing drastic. Taryn’s first name stayed the same. We changed her middle name. Her original middle name was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Carol was honored but didn’t quite get it. A few months later, I discovered that my mother-in-law’s beloved mom had the middle name “Grace” – Velma Grace. Amazing Grace was also my mother-in-law’s favorite hymn. Perfect! We decided to change Taryn’s middle name to “Grace!” Turned out it was quite a process. Our little family that included one-year-old Taryn and three-year-old Quinn trooped off to Civil court and stood before a judge. I can still see him smiling at us – likely relieved for the break in his sad caseload. The judge asked us some serious questions about fraud. Then he declared her name change official as his gavel fell. Taryn Grace. On the way out of the courtroom, our son Quinn, who’d been quiet as a mouse, started yelling, “I don’t wanna change my name! I don’t wanna change my name!”

I wonder if Thomas in our Bible story today would pipe up similarly to Quinn. His name was Thomas, called the Twin. I have no idea if Thomas liked being called the Twin. My hope is that it was a cool nickname along the lines of will.i.am, J.Lo, or even Marky Mark. Regardless, I wonder what Thomas would think about the less cool switcheroo done to his name by centuries of Bible readers. Thomas, called the Twin, became Doubting Thomas. I hear Thomas, much like our son Quinn, saying, “I don’t wanna change my name.” Because the name Doubting Thomas highlights doubt as what comes “before” and belief as what comes “after.” First, Thomas doubted. Then, Thomas believed. End of story. But we know that’s not how it works. It’s not how any of this works.

We don’t know where Thomas the Twin went while his friends were afraid and locked in that room. Maybe he was making a run for essentials. Wherever he was, he missed Jesus’ first visit. This is important because he didn’t miss out forever. Jesus showed up again. He showed up wounded in a locked room where the disciples were still hiding. Now there’s the makings of a good party.

Actually, it is kind of a party. It’s a grace party. Jesus hosts it fresh from the crucifixion trauma and resurrection alleluias. Except, the disciples are still locked up in fear. Eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Minds clouded trying to understand what is happening. It’s unlikely that their alleluias were full-throated even after Jesus showed up. Because that’s how it works. Fear, grief, doubt, hesitation, belief, faith, and grace…these things get second, third, and fourth name changes as we figure out what they mean over time. Faith is especially tricky to name and gets renamed as time passes.

People often wonder why their faith isn’t available during a tough time in the way they assumed it to be. They’ll sometimes describe it as having “lost their faith” or that they “can’t pray” like they used to pray. I don’t know anyone who is immune to the experience of having their faith shaken or shattered. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Faith can be thrown off by moving to a new town away from your church peeps who kept you connected. It can be clouded by a fresh understanding of the Bible’s ancient scripture. Sometimes it’s way bigger. Faith cracks under the weight of broken trust or chronic illness. Or faith can be crushed by grief and loss. While age is not immunity to faith-shifting experiences, our eldest elders have a thing or two to teach us.

Our Care Team of pastors and staff have been making calls to people to find out how they’re doing. It’s been inspiring to hear our oldest folks talk about today’s challenges in the context of other challenges they’ve faced in their lifetimes. In the same breath, their faith frames these challenges and sustains them through it. Resilient faith isn’t universal for everyone of a certain age. Many of us regularly shift between anxiety and the peace of Jesus. But our eldest elders offer us important perspective from their vantage point of a long life. Their faith, like life, isn’t static. Faith flexes, bends, breaks, and resurrects.

Thomas the Twin also shows us that faith isn’t fixed in a solid state. He faithfully followed Jesus until he abandoned Jesus at the cross. Then, locked and afraid in a room, Thomas receives life in Jesus’ name from wounds on hands and side – wounds, not perfection. The wounds that Jesus first shows to the other disciples, and then to Thomas, mean something. The wounds received on the cross were inflicted by fear, anger and fragile egos. The wounds that meet us in our most wounded places show us as we really are in the reflected light of the risen Christ. These wounds are the signs through which faith is resurrected.

From these signs of Jesus’ suffering, he resuscitates his relationship with Thomas and then Thomas names faith differently, calling Jesus “Lord” and “God.”  Hidden in a locked room, Thomas the Twin learned that he is neither alone nor unreachable.[1]  He experienced grace first-hand when Jesus reached out a wounded hand. The grace of divine kindness meeting him right where he was, even though he hid himself away. And that’s how it works. That’s how any of this works. We are neither alone nor unreachable in our hideouts. Locked rooms – pah! There’s no hiding from the relentless pursuit of grace. The risen Christ meets us where we prefer to hide, challenging our wounded reality and resurrecting faith to give life in his name. Thanks be to God and amen.

 

Now receive this blessing…

May the One who brought forth Jesus from the dead

raise you to new life, fill you with hope,

and turn your mourning into dancing.

Almighty God, Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit,

bless you now and forever. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John O’donohue (1956-2008). Irish poet, priest, and philosopher.   https://friendsofsilence.net/quote/author/john-odonohue

Keep Your Eye on the Ball [OR Full-Throated, Joyful Noise in the Playbook] Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

**sermon photo: Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones, Wide Receiver, Atlanta Falcons.  The Washington Times (Associated Press) August 7, 2018.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Psalm 98 O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. 2 The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

[sermon begins (Luke reading is at end of sermon)]

“Keep your eye on the ball.”  Wise words whether you’re up to bat with a fast-ball pitcher on the mound, launching up the line on the soccer field awaiting the sweet send, or hauling down the field and turning right when the quarterback’s pass is about to arc just so.  Wise words, indeed.  And you ball players among us can tell us just how hard it is to stay in the moment and keep your eye on the ball so that the bat connects with the ball before that mad dash to first (base), so that the ball goes from toe to toe for the boot into the goal, and so the pass lands in your hands before you shift toward the end zone.

Oh sure, those of us on the sidelines can easily declare that you should have had it.  But you all know how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball.  There are defenders rushing toward you, fans cheering, music blaring, refs in your way, coach’s threat to pull you out of the game, the urges to move toward scoring before you actually have the ball, and who knows what else on your mind to prevent you from keeping your eye on the ball. But there are those moments when all the blood, sweat, and tears of practice and past games come together, and the right things happen. Those moments when the joy of the game makes it fun.  For those of us watching, we’re often trying to read the signs as to whether or not the team has the focus, grit, and spirit to play strong through the last seconds.  Or whether they will give up.  We can see it in their eyes, that giving up.  They kind of disengage and glaze over – no longer energized by what’s happening on the field because eventually that last second will come and the game will be over.  Sweet relief.

Perhaps we could call that beleaguered team, um, I don’t know, hmmm. Let’s go with Thessalonians. I know, some of you have a different beleaguered team on your minds.  Regardless, we’ll call this team the Thessalonians.  The Thessalonians were awaiting a Second Coming to save them. Jesus’ Second Coming, that is, not a new quarterback.  As they waited, they grew idle in their community.  It’s not totally clear why. Regardless, they sat out of the work and were getting challenged by friends in the letter.

These comments to the Thessalonians have been used in so many wrong ways over the years to prove one view or another about who deserves food.  However, this letter is not about identifying the lazy people to justify sticking it to them.[1] The focus is on Jesus followers giving up on working together for what is right as Jesus taught them to do because they felt that Jesus was coming soon so their work didn’t matter.  Perhaps in the face of real persecution they’d simply shut down in the hope that Jesus was coming soon.  Whatever the reason, they were being challenged in verse 13 to “not be weary in doing what is right.”  They had taken their eye off the ball and quit the game before it was over.  Disengaged, eyes glazed, they had forgotten that doing what is right matters and that God has never called the church to withdraw into isolation and sectarianism.

Can we really fault the Thessalonians?  With wars, insurrections, plagues, and famines common in their time as in ours, their temptation to connect these signs with what God must be up to in Jesus was possibly like what Jesus was warning his disciples about in the Gospel of Luke.  Maybe not so different from us as we react to the extraordinary and disappointing events in our time.  More than react, we interpret these events as if they were certain signs from God.[2]  Time and again Jesus tells us not to interpret the signs.  We do it anyway. I certainly do. This often comes from a trusting, faithful place. I’m good with that. But it makes the reminder given to idle Thessalonians even more relevant to us – “…do not grow weary in doing what is right.” Is that a Christian faith checklist item then?  Not weary – check!  I wonder how many of us could check that box today…

If “not growing weary in doing what is right” isn’t a checkbox then it’s likely something else.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may have something to do with faith being more like a team sport than a solo effort, maybe even more like a team sport if we talk about keeping our eyes on the ball, on doing what is right without wearying.  Perhaps it has something to do with what God is up to when we’re together as we are today in worship. Here’s where the psalmist gets unusual top billing in the program.

Psalm 98 slices through the mayhem of Malachi, the last days in Luke, and the lethargy of the Thessalonians, to focus on God.  Not ignoring the realities of suffering but rather sustaining us through those realities and strengthening us for the work of engaging them. With the psalmist, we remember God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, first through God’s covenant with Israel and then to the nations, which is to say, to us through the ever-expanding, radically inclusive new covenant of Jesus Christ.  Because the cross breaks down the barriers we create with the illusions of certainty, safety, and permanence.  In place of our illusions, God gives faith and liberation into an unknown future with the reassurance of God’s prodigal grace, steadfast love, and righteousness.

For these marvelous things, we sing a new song to the Lord.  Our full-throated, joyful noise joins with the oceans’ roar and the singing hills as we praise God.[3]  God doesn’t need our unending praise. Rather, we need to praise God so that we can keep our eye on the ball and not grow weary of doing what is right. Not because God demands your praise and do-goodery in exchange for the perceived need for a golden ticket.  If any kind of golden ticket is needed at the imagined pearly gates it was attained on through the self-sacrificing death of Jesus on the cross anyway…and not by you (just to be clear about that). God demands your do-goodery on behalf of your neighbor who God loves just as much as God love you. Appalling isn’t it? God’s love for all people is especially appalling when you think about those super unlikable people that you’d rather weren’t on the planet the same time as you.

God’s love is the source of our focus, grit, and spirit with which we do “not grow weary of doing what is right.”  We join the psalmist’s celebration of God’s marvelous things, including the wonder of God’s radically inclusive love, which are worthy of our praise with a new song. Thanks be to God for this and for all that God is doing!

Song after the Sermon: Earth and All Stars

1 Earth and all stars! Loud rushing planets!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Oh, victory! Loud shouting army!
Sing to the Lord a new song!

Refrain
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!

2 Hail, wind, and rain! Loud blowing snowstorm!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Flowers and trees! Loud rustling dry leaves!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

3 Trumpet and pipes! Loud clashing cymbals!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Harps, lute, and lyre! Loud humming cellos!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

4 Engines and steel! Loud pounding hammers!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams! Loud building workers!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

5 Classrooms and labs! Loud boiling test tubes!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band! Loud cheering people!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

6 Knowledge and truth! Loud sounding wisdom!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Daughter and son! Loud praying members!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Ending
I too sing praises with a new song!

Herbert F. Brokering, b. 1926 © 1968 Augsburg Fortress

______________________________________________________

[1] Thanks Matt Skinner, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1197

[2] Skinner, ibid.

[3] In Psalm 98: 4 and 6, “Joyful noise” is the translation of the NRSV and King James Versions of the Bible (among others). The psalmody in the worship bulletin today translates it as “shouts of joy.”  Matt Skinner is also the source of that whole “full-throated” descriptor in the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Good word!

_______________________________________________________

Luke 21:5-19  When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

What’s Your Longing of Faith?  [OR Making It Through the Day] Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and a teaser from Luke 14:1, 7-14

**sermon art: A Cubist Prayer by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 1, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; see Luke reading at end of sermon]

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16   Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4 Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” 7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15 Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

[sermon begins]

What do you need to hear today?  Deep down. What’s the longing of faith that’s hard to name?  I was recently talking to some people underneath a clear starry night in the mountains – when the moon is brand new and the stars pile up on each other in the darkness.  The Milky Way is so vivid that it seems like you could reach out and touch it.  Looking up at all those stars, you realize that some of them no longer exist as we see their light reaching us. It can feel like good perspective to look up and take in the magnitude of the universe.  Perhaps our problems or experiences are right sized in the context of the millennia that fill the sky.  Or, as it was pointed out to me in the ponderings of the group, perhaps an alternate experience is wondering if anything matters when confronted with the magnitude of time, stars, and night sky.  These are the big questions that run deeply for many of us when we get a chance to pause in the face of something so much bigger than ourselves.  These are the kinds of questions that send people into mind-bending philosophy degrees.  I love that stuff and can get lost in it for hours.  But what’s become more urgent in the last several years is what people need to make it through their day or maybe their week.  That’s my longing of faith. The preacher in the book of Hebrews seems similarly concerned.

This is our last week of Hebrews readings in the latest run and the verses are the next to the last verses in Hebrews.  I went back and re-read this short book to listen to the arc of the sermon.  It’s intense!  That preacher is lit up!  There’s ongoing concern about perfection – better translated as completion.[1]  What makes the Hebrew church complete?  Okay, yes, Jesus, who in the book of Hebrews is our sympathetic high priest who knows what it means to struggle being human so he also understands our struggles.[2]  More specifically though, the church is made complete by each other – people given to each other, for each other and the world, by Jesus our high priest.  You see, hope by way of faith is a major longing in Hebrews too.  The preacher asks, how do we hang onto faith and live a life of hope?  By hanging onto community.  A better way to say it may be hanging in community.  Faith is difficult to do as a solo effort.  Heck, life is difficult to do as a solo effort.  I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard somebody say, “I don’t know how people make it without a church.”  From the outside, that statement can be confusing.  People regularly make it through all kinds of things without church.  The essence of the statement is heartfelt, though. To say it personally, I don’t know how I would make it without church.  The preacher in Hebrews doesn’t know either.

There was a lot coming down for the listeners of Hebrews.  Violence directed at them in particular, and violence in the world in general made life incredibly difficult and made faith hard to hold onto in the meantime.  Here we share similarities at least in the violence in the world.  Watching the gun industry placed ahead of human life is repeatedly tragic.  Watching immigration policy dehumanize our most vulnerable neighbors is disturbing.  Watching healthcare costs work against wellness for patients and families is impoverishing.  You get the picture.  For some of us, this means getting into the fray of advocacy and working with policymakers and voters to change how we treat each other through laws and practices.  For others of us, this means tending the sick, working on marriages, and visiting the prisoners.  Not so very different, really, from our first century Jesus followers in the book of Hebrews.

Amid everything going on for the listeners of Hebrews, there was a preacher who was trying to focus the community on the main things.  The main things in Christ.  The main things in each other.  And the main things around them.  Shanna VanderWel, our Minister of Youth and Family, says it this way in the latest video that launched on Friday.  Shanna hopes Augustana’s children and youth have a place to be their authentic selves, become friends, serve others, and have Jesus as their center – breaking down barriers caused by stressors that they might have in life.  She’s keeping the main thing lifted up for those kids and families as they live their lives of faith in the church today.[3]  It’s important to remember that many of the significant preachers in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones in Sunday’s pulpit.  Shanna’s hope for the kids sounds a bit like the Hebrews preacher.  Summarizing the Hebrews preacher sounds like this: continue mutual love, show hospitality to strangers, live free from the love of money, do good, share, confess faith, and praise God.  These words are the final appeal about growing in faith amid difficult times when it might be easier to fade into isolation outside of community.

As Lutheran Christians, we depend on the promise that Jesus shows up in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of communion.  That’s the baseline promise of our sacramental theology.  It’s a bigger leap for some of us to say that Jesus shows up in the people of the church, the body of Christ.  The Hebrews preacher urges showing up for each other in mutual love because Jesus is in the people around you.  Not as perfection but in real, human frailty and in real, human hope – in the body of Christ.  It’s an even bigger leap to start talking about angels.  There it is in Hebrews.  Show hospitality to strangers because you could be entertaining angels unawares.  More than a cool notion, this call to hospitality suggests the possibility of the divine in our most human interactions.

The new Evangelism committee is forming.  We’ll be focusing on two things.  The first is reaching out and inviting.  The second is welcoming and including.  Connecting into community can feel tricky to newcomers who made a visit or two to Augustana online and liked what they saw there.  More difficult is figuring out how to meet people and to have conversation beyond greeting each other in worship.  Next week, between worship services, we’ll be repackaging beans and rice for Metro Caring.  The week after that we’ll be started Faith Formation for all ages – from our littlest littles to our eldest elders.  You’re invited into those community experiences as we grow in faith and go serve in the world.  The connections we build with each other help us make it through this life and sustain our hope.

Ultimately, though, our hope as we long for completion is the reliability of Jesus Christ.  Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, calls out the ladder climbing shenanigans of our wider world and calls us into community with each other. Jesus is the one who challenges our use of each other as social capital and connects us to each other in the living body of Christ that we call the church. He knows we need each other to make it through our days and weeks.  The preacher in Hebrews echoes that call into community around Jesus Christ who “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[4]  Thanks be to God! And amen.

___________________________________________________

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.  Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2019.  Sermon Brainwave Podcast on https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1171

[2] Hebrews 4:14-16

[3] “Growing in Faith: Augustana’s Youth and Family Ministry.”  Video launched on August 30, 2019.  Produced by Ken Rinehart Media.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OVD_lhRbtw

[4] Hebrews 13:8

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Luke 14:1, 7-14  On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this confession from the gospel of John:

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

We confess similarly during worship in a lot fewer words:

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________

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

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

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

[4] Genesis 1:1-4

[5] John 1:1, 3-5

[6] John 1:14 and 16

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

_____________________________________________

Psalm 104:1-4, 19-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual and Religious – Acts 2:14a, 22-32 and John 20:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 23, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
22 “You 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— 23 this 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. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For 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; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow 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. 30 Since 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. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

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.” 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.

[sermon begins]

In Genesis 1, the first account of creation, God’s spirit moved over the waters and created humankind in the image of God.  In Genesis 2, another account of creation, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into the first human.[1]  In the 18th book of the Hebrew Bible, Job writes, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”[2]  Eleven books later, in the book of Joel, “…the Lord said:  …I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [and] your old men shall dream dreams…”[3]  In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[4]  And in the Acts reading we just heard, Peter preaches on the breath of the Spirit just received on Pentecost.[5]  That’s so much Spirit in one sermon-opening it would be easy to think your pastor was ordained by Pentecostals![6]  Although I’m guessing some of you may still be back at “the first account of creation” and “another account of creation.”

These creation stories caught me in seminary.  First semester, first assignment in Hebrew Bible we had to read Genesis 1 and 2 and write a brief exegesis.  Not once in the prior 38 years had it occurred to me that these are two accounts.  Needless to say, my exegetical commentary didn’t go over very well with the professor.  It was a rude awakening for me on several levels, letter grade notwithstanding. The gift in it was a new experience of the Bible.  66 books written over many thousands of years by faithful people trying to understand God, their faith, and each other.  Recently I gave a Lutheran Study Bible to a new friend along with a brief introduction to what’s in it and an invitation to come back around with any questions that come up.  I also said, “It’s a weird book, sometimes the people writing it disagree amongst themselves.”  Internal disagreement is one of the things I love about the Bible as it echoes conversations about faith we have right up through today.  Although, discovering these biblical wrinkles can be one of the things that shakes up faith.  Faith can also be shaken by challenges of modernity, by confrontations with other religions, or by suffering we see and experience ourselves.[7]  Just ask Thomas.

Thomas experienced trauma through the suffering and death of Jesus. He missed the first sighting of Jesus with the other disciples so they’re in a different place of faith than Thomas is himself. Jesus arrives and starts showing off his resurrected wounds in a way that reminds me of the scar scene from the movie Jaws, mesmerizing yet gruesome.[8]  Some of us crave a similar moment of certainty with Jesus, an unequivocal, supernatural revelation that proves faith once and for all time.  Most of us experience Jesus differently, the power of the Spirit moving slowly and methodically like water on stone.  The gospel of John calls this movement of the Spirit, “Word,” – “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[9]  The Word proclaimed by John is continuous with the breath of God at creation,[10] continuous with the Word made flesh in the earthly ministry of Jesus ending in glory on a cross,[11] continuous with Peter’s sermon inspiring the early church, and continuous with the Word we hear and speak today.  Therein lies the question.  How does the Word find us today? As Genesis tells it, the whole world is enlivened by the breath of the spirit. The assertion makes all people spiritual by definition, if not by confession. This aligns with nursing science that describes well-being as physical, emotional, and spiritual.  It also aligns with people who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”  But what about those of us who are religious?  How is the religious understood in continuity with the spiritual?  Just ask Thomas, and maybe Peter too.

Thomas is caught.  His friends are talking about something he hasn’t experienced first-hand.  These people are his people but he’s on the outside even though he’s in the same room with them.  It makes me think of the conversation that I have with new and continuing visitors – that there are as many different reasons for being here together as there are people here.  Gathered by the Holy Spirit into this time and place, we receive faith through Word and sacrament and we practice faith through worship with other people.  Continuous with the faith of the early church enlivened by the Spirit and proclaimed by Peter.  Religious Christianity involves a people and a practice that proclaims something about Jesus, something lively, something universal for the world, and something particular for each person.  For all and for you.

Religious Christian practice necessarily involves people’s stories about faith and life like Thomas and Peter’s stories. How else do people come to faith otherwise? This struck me again recently during Lenten worship on Thursdays. Different people each week chose Bible verses and talked about why they chose them related to their life of faith. Hearing about their faith and experience was powerful. Along this line, I recently invited a few people to be interviewed for a video about this congregation.[12]  The questions were simple.  What drew them here and what keeps them here? Now, of course, as a pastor I believe the Holy Spirit ultimately draws us all together. But the Spirit draws us by how we hear God’s voice.  I’ve made the comment to visitors and members alike to listen for the ways they hear God’s voice during worship and time with a congregation.  I also tell them that I know good colleagues and good congregations elsewhere if they’re still working on figuring that out.

In the video interviews, we hear people who worship as part of this congregation reflect on how being a part of this religious people and practice enlivens their faith. Again, hearing from each one of them talk about their faith and experience is powerful.  At one point, Nick makes the comment that being part of this congregation allows he and his family to talk about faith and “the time that it’s challenged, and the time that it’s raised up, the time that it’s evident, and the time that it’s absent.”[13]  Thomas and Peter both could speak to this fluidity of faith.  Thomas, trying to figure out faith in the aftermath of trauma.  Peter, a denier of Jesus during his trial in one moment and a public preacher in the next.  On any given day, in any given minute, our faith can be challenged or raised up or evident or absent.  Jesus meets us by the power of the Spirit in any and all of those moments.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In large part, the faith we are called to share deals not in what we see but what we experience in our lives of faith.  Jesus encounters us through the practices of bread, wine, water, Word, and each other as God’s voice is heard through people’s flawed and faithful stories.  As God enlivens all things by the breath of the Spirit, may God enliven you by faith, joining in the prayer of the Apostle Paul:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”[14]

[1] Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 2:7

[2] Job 33:4

[3] Joel 2:28

[4] John 20:22

[5] Acts 2:1-13

[6] Pentecostal [def] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Pentecostal

[7] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[8] Jaws Movie CLIP HD – Scars (Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures, 1975).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLjNzwEULG8

[9] John 1:14

[10] John 1:1

[11] John 13:31-31 and John 17:4-5

[12] “Why Augustana?” published March 30, 2017 and produced by Ken Rinehart for Augustana Lutheran Church.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up03qnMqB-0

[13] Nick Massie, Ibid.  Video: “Why Augustana?”

[14] Ephesians 3:14-19

The Sin of Certainty [OR Catholics and Lutherans’ Risk of Faith] John 9:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 26, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 9:1-41   As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

[sermon begins]

We were assigned a classroom to robe before worship.  I was early so became part of a defacto welcome wagon for the next first arrivals. A few of my colleagues trickled in which made it feel a bit like old home week. Catching up with people who I hadn’t seen for a while.  The first Catholic priest showed up, then a Lutheran colleague or two, then a Catholic deacon, and so on.  We lined the walls of the room forming a circle of sorts. Introductions were repeated, echoing off the walls and each other.  The sound level rose as the room filled to hold about 35 of us who would walk together into the sanctuary for the Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer service held last Sunday over at Bethany Lutheran Church.  About a third of us were women.

In the last few minutes before the procession, a gentleman slipped into a gap between me and the next person.  After working as a lawyer in Paris, Father Luc was ordained through a more recent Catholic religious order call the Beatitudes – 50 years old in comparison to, say, the Benedictines whose order is 1,500 years old.  The Community of the Beatitudes understands their community as “a gift of God…for the unity of the Church.”[1]  Father Luc’s second career call into ordination through this unifying religious order resonates with my own second career call into ordination and Catholic roots.  My grandparents faithfully attended daily mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, Maine – Grammops’ mantilla and rosary faithfully at the ready.  My mother thought for a time she’d be a nun but my siblings and I are living proof that reveal the rest of that story. My First Communion was received in a Catholic parish in Virginia before my mother remarried my protestant step-father.  Because of all of these experiences, lining up for procession into the service with Catholic priests, vicars, and deacons defies prior experience.  It was surreal.

Surreal because over the last 500 years the Reformation divide often became an opportunity for derision, excommunication, and violence in both directions all over the world. Surreal because this is the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation that includes Catholics and Lutherans. Surreal because these moments of common ground are rare in our world today. Rare because unity across difference is hard work. Rare because the work develops relationships that shake up our certainty. And certainty puts us safely on the side of right.

I went back-and-forth about whether it’s helpful to hear all 41 verses of gospel reading for today.  Would people hear it?  Was there a way to condense it for easier hearing?  I have no idea.  Really.  So now this whole gospel story is in front of us – the man born blind, disciples’ off-base questions, Jesus’ muddy spit, eyes that can see, townspeople’s confusion, Pharisee accusations, the man’s identity, parents as witnesses, and Jesus’ authority.  Make no mistake, this is a trial.  Each person has a role to play in the trial after Jesus makes blind eyes see.

Jesus doesn’t ask the man born blind if he wants to see.  He just goes for it.  There may be a side-road to take about whether unrequested healing is okay but we’re not going there today.  Spit and dirt combine to make mud and Jesus smears it on the man’s eyes then sends him off to the pool for a rinse.  Jesus isn’t physically there when the healing happens.  And the trial begins.  Who saw what and when did they see it?  Who knows the man and can confirm his identity?  His parents worry about whether the man will be put out of the community because of Jesus’ healing.  They hedge their answer about who they think Jesus is because of this fear but the man is put out of the community by the religious leaders anyway.

The last few verses of the reading are the ones that have me most curious about the story:

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.”[2]

Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer uses this word “remains.”  Remains is “meno” in the Greek and is commonly translated as “abide” or “stay.” This is the only time you have meno used as a negative.[3] Rather than abiding in Jesus, the religious ones are abiding in sin.  Every so often Jesus will use this kind of flip to invert standard ways of thinking.  Let’s allow the end of this story to push on us, to challenge our ways of religious thinking.[4]  In Jesus’ challenge, it’s possible to hear him name the sin of certainty.  You heard that correctly, the sin of certainty.  The sin of certainty is being so certain that you are right at the expense of what God may be doing otherwise.  It’s one of the seductions of religion or of any thought that becomes a wedge rather than a bridge.  Once the mystery is organized, it is contained.  Once the mystery is contained, there is something about which to be certain.  And certainty menos with us, abides with us, cozies up to us and makes us feel safe.  Faith is different than certainty.  Faith is a trust that shakes things up.  Faith is risk – risking what seems so certain and the perks that go with it.[5]

Professor Peter Enns works with the difference between certainty and faith in his book, The Sin of Certainty.[6]   He argues that certainty is fragile, shaken by challenges of difficult Bible passages, modernity, pain and suffering, or confrontation with other religious.  Certainty is also shaken by ways that we become tyrannical about it.  Wielding certainty like a club.  On a practical level, this can look like the argument about which Christian tradition gets the gospel of Jesus right.  Faith, on the other hand, opens us up to hearing God’s voice differently.

My favorite part of last week’s Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer was the Five Imperatives found in the document “From Conflict to Communion.”[7]  Five families of mixed Catholic and Lutheran identities lit five candles while each read an imperative.  It’s the first one that caught me.  A young boy read it out loud so clearly his voice rang like a bell through the sanctuary:

“Our first commitment: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced (#239).”[8]

After reading this Imperative, his two younger sisters lit the first candle of five.

In the document, the Five Imperatives follow the Lutheran and the Catholic confessions of sins against unity.[9]  Having confessed the sin of certainty that inflicts pain in both directions, the commitment is made to shake things up, to take a risk by faith toward unity.  These risks of faith move us from blindness to seeing, from coziness with our sin to abiding with each other.  These risks of faith proclaim the gospel as central.  What do we hear time and again by way of the gospel?  Jesus, by his death and resurrection, abides in us and we in him.  Jesus’ abides in us through water, wine, and word. This gospel promise is blessed assurance indeed.

Congregational singing of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” follows the sermon:

  1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    • Refrain:
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long;
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long.
  2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
    Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
    Angels, descending, bring from above
    Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
  3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
    I in my Savior am happy and blest,
    Watching and waiting, looking above,
    Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

__________________________________________

[1] Community of the Beatitudes website: http://beatitudes.us/the-unity-of-the-church

[2] John 9:39-41

[3] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[5] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[6] Peter Enns, Ibid.

[7] From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation 2017; and Report of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagstanstalte, 2013).

[8] Ibid, 87.

[9] Ibid, 84-86.

 

Into the Mystic [OR Christian Mystics On The Love of God] Matthew 17:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Exodus 24:12-18 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

[sermon begins]

Wow.  Mind-blowing is the right description.  There is a ton happening in this short Bible story about the transfiguration of Jesus.[1]  The layers of thought are astounding.  Connections between Moses, Mount Sinai, and the 10 Commandments made with Jesus and his disciples’ ascent up the high mountain.  Shining Jesus on the high mountain parallels shining Moses after his mountain encounter with God.[2]  Dazzling white clothes of the divine are found in both the Old and New Testaments.[3]  And then there’s Elijah, the beloved, long-awaited, and oh-so-wise prophet.  Elijah who also encountered God and who anointed kings and prophets many hundreds of years previously.[4]  There are more time-bending parallels in this short story.[5]  The parallel that I invite us to hone in on today are the dwellings.

Peter wants to build three dwellings – “one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[6]  What is it about these dwellings that are so important?  Parallels are again made to the Exodus where encounters between the Lord God and God’s people happened in dwellings called the tent of meeting and the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant.[7] Peter’s understanding is that dwellings are tents where we meet God.  Jesus’ transfiguration is how God meets and dwells with us through the beloved son.[8]

God dwelling with us through Jesus is what Christian mystics encounter throughout the centuries.  Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, the list seems endless.  To be clear, mystics are not playing a theological mystery card whenever something is hard to understand.  Rather, God dwelling with us, God’s claim on us, is part of what mystics understand by faith as a promise from God.

Peter understands God dwelling. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus builds the church.[9]  Peter, one of the first Christian mystics. Peter’s understanding of God’s dwelling starts him talking about building dwellings.  Peter’s understanding is simply limited.  His architectural plans are shut-down by the voice from the blinding cloud but he is not rebuked for wanting to build these dwellings.  Then look what happens.  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.”  From Jesus touch, the disciples are able to look up from their fear.  The dwelling does not happen through Peter’s hands.  Dwelling comes from Jesus’ touch.  Jesus touches the three of them.  One way Christians have talked about God dwelling with us is by talking about God’s love.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 1300s.  Her faith was informed by the Bible and the church’s teachings.[10]  Her book was entitled, Revelations of Divine Love.  She writes:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.  It is only with the help of [God’s] grace that we are able to persevere…with endless wonder at [God’s] high, surpassing, immeasurable love.”[11]

Julian’s faithful witness emphasizes that God’s action comes first, before our action of loving.  Her prayers include the desire “to live to love God better and longer.”[12]  Prior to Julian, Bernard de Clairvaux lived at the turn of the first Millennia.[13]  He too wrote down his witness as a Christian mystic and leader in the history of the church.  The title for his major work is On the Love of God.  Bernard wrote about four degrees of love.  In the fourth degree of love, he writes:

“This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves…it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom [God] wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.” [14]

Bernard’s witness informed the faith of Martin Luther.[15]  So did Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, also a Christian mystic.  Augustine thought that our core human problem, our sin, is that we use God and love things rather than loving God and using things.  Martin Luther was a 16th century Augustinian monk.  Parallels abound between Augustine and Luther.  Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism are one example. They each begin with the statement, “We are to fear and love God…”  I find myself wondering about loving God through this Augustinian lens as we hear Peter talk about dwellings and Jesus’ touch that redirects Peter’s understanding.

Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, the part of the Apostle’s Creed when we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, reads, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”  Luther is speaking from a really low theological anthropology here, meaning that we are drawn to faith by God not by our own intellectual striving – again, very Augustinian.  Just as we are brought to faith in Jesus by God’s power through the Holy Spirit, we also love God by God’s power through the same Spirit.

I often end my public prayers at the children’s sermon, in meetings, or pastoral care by saying, “We love you God, help us love you more, amen.” I picked it up several years ago from a faith-filled friend.  This prayer aligns with the witness of Christian mystics, including Luther’s explanation of the Third Article, because it is only with God’s help that we are able to love God. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  God already dwells with us through the beloved son.

Loving God and asking for God’s help to love acknowledges our need to move from using God to loving God – redirected only by God’s help.  May we all be so redirected by God’s self-sacrificing love in Jesus as we’re drawn into faith and dwell in the love of God.  We love you God, help us love you more.  Alleluia and amen.

 

 

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School.  Commentary: Matthew 17:1-9 for Working Preacher on February 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3172

[2] Exodus 34:29

[3] Daniel 9:1 and Mark 16:5

[4] 1 Kings 19:11-16

[5] Matthew 3:17 (at Jesus’ baptism)  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

[6] Matthew 17:4

[7] Exodus 33:7-10 and Exodus 40:2, 17-22

[8] Matthew 17:5

[9] Matthew 16:18 [Jesus said] “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

[10] Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics. (HarperCollins: New York, 1993), 68.

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 40

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 40.