Tag Archives: faith

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.

 

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

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

“I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

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

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

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

They’re really saying I love you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, BBC article above.

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

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

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

[8] 2 Timothy 1:1-14

[9] 2 Timothy 1:9

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

 

 

John 2:1-11 – Best Bible Story Ever (or maybe just this preacher’s favorite, come and see)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 17, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[sermon begins]

Take a walk down a grocery store aisle with me.  Imagine it.  Laminate tile floors. Bright fluorescent light.  A slow, very relaxed shopper in front of us.  A parent telling their child “no” as they walk by the soda.  We’re making a quick stop at an unfamiliar store because it’s our job to show up with water.  We’re checking aisle signs so we can get in and get out of the store quickly.  Down at the end of the next aisle we can see the sign for water.  Arriving at our destination under the water sign, there is row upon row upon row of wine bottles.  Three shelves high, wine bottles in rows underneath the sign for water.  And you turn to me and say dryly, “Jesus was here.”[1]  Not only do I have a little envy that you thought of it first but, more importantly, we laugh like crazy about one of my favorite Bible stories.

Which leads me to the point that this Bible story is difficult for me to preach.  Not because it’s in the Gospel of John.  Not because of any need to try and explain how or if the supernatural sign occurred.  Not because of its links to Hebrew scripture and God’s covenant with God’s people that’s compared to marriage vows.  And not because I’m left wondering why the wine steward doesn’t seem to have any of that bad wine to serve the drunk wedding guests.  (Do those drunk people really need more wine?)  It’s difficult for me to preach because it is dear to me.  It’s dear to my experience of faith and my experience of life.  A dear taste of grace in scripture when other verses can be so puzzling.  When something is so dear and well-worn, it makes preaching trickier.

Regardless, we begin at a wedding.  Joy and celebration abound.  Jesus is there.  His mother is there.  It’s an epic party where the wine is flowing until it runs out.  The celebration seems fitting.  Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated by the events at this wedding.  Parties are commonplace at inaugural events but how often do inaugural events happen at parties?  During a party like this one, I can imagine someone saying, “I feel like I shouldn’t be having fun when there is so much suffering in the world.”  Why can I imagine that question?  Because people say that kind of thing to me fairly regularly.

It is in this tension between joy and suffering that the Wedding at Cana really shines.  Jesus is at a wedding celebration.  He is embodied grace smack in the middle of it.  His presence and activity at the wedding does not obscure the very real problem of Roman oppression or the pain that is experienced in everyday living.  He is an example of celebrating life in spite of Rome and in spite of day-to-day suffering.  He is also more than an example.

Turning water into wine and other things happening at the Wedding at Cana points us somewhere.  It’s a little bit like echolocation that bats and whales use.  Those animals make a sound and they can figure out their position in relation to another location based on the echoes that return.  If fact, when I preach from these verses at weddings and funerals, I often use the word “echoes” to describe what’s happening between the wedding celebration and Jesus’ death on the cross.

Some of the words in the story echo back from the cross.  The story itself begins “On the third day” which echoes Jesus’ resurrection.[2]  Jesus references his “hour not yet come.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ hour refers to the time that he will hang on a cross.[3]  Even the tasty wedding wine itself echoes back from the sour wine given to quench Jesus’ thirst on the cross.[4]  Jesus’ mother is not named in the Gospel of John.  She is called “the mother of Jesus.”  She shows up in the gospel only twice – once at the Wedding at Cana and then again at the cross.[5]  Jesus’ mother is another echo.  From his first sign of turning water into wine, the cross is already in play.  Suffering is on the horizon.  And curiously, Jesus is at a party.

The Wedding at Cana is how life works.  There are moments of joy and there are moments of suffering.  Neither joy nor suffering are completely absent while the other is present.  Both are human.  Both are faithful.  I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about blind optimism in the face of suffering.  As if everything is fine despite all evidence to the contrary.  I’m talking about faithful joy in the gift of life while being honest about the truth of suffering and working to alleviate it as Jesus calls us to do.

Jesus is at a party where the wine steward knows how things usually work in the world.  After Jesus turns the water into wine, the wine steward goes to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine after the guests have become drunk; but you have kept the good wine until now.”  I read this as the place where sin shows up in the story.  “Everyone” tries to hide what they’re doing and get away with substandard wine late in the wedding celebration.  This shenanigan is the norm.  But not this time.  Not this wedding.  Not this Jesus.

Jesus’ turning of water into wine toward the end of the wedding party throws the reverse switch on how things often work in the world.  Jesus’ sign reverses what we expect as normal.  Like the wine steward, expecting that people will protect their own interests at the expense of people who are unaware of the mischief at their expense.

Tomorrow this country celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and ministry.  He stands among the saints as an example of throwing the reverse switch against the accepted cultural norms of racism and poverty in his day. He believed people could do better in the face of black people suffering at the hands of white people.  He believed that racism makes everyone less than human – victims and perpetrators alike.  He believed this from a place of faith that is unequivocal about God loving all people.  All people.  And God’s love for all people inspired a movement of human dignity that continues through today.  People of all colors continuing to throw the reverse switch against the cultural norms of racism and poverty. He believed this from a place of faith that is unequivocal about God loving all people.  All people.

There is a relevant aside about MLK Jr. to add to our conversation about living in joy while being honest about suffering and our own hand in it.  He is attributed as saying, “It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart.”[6]  This from a man who saw and experienced raw suffering as racist cultural norms were viciously protected.

We sing songs and pray prayers of praise, joy, and thanksgiving in worship today as our bodies turn toward the processional cross as well as face the cross at the front during worship.  Our worship mirrors the tension between joy and suffering at the Wedding at Cana.  Our worship mirrors life.  Life that Jesus gives as he shows up with us in both celebration and suffering.

Jesus gives life by way of his own life.  Life that showed up in the skin of a baby.  Life that laughs with joy at a wedding party.  Life that knows suffering.  Life that is given for all people.  Life that is given for you despite your own efforts to live on your own terms.  That’s the promise God makes to you.  Let’s celebrate.

 

[1] Meme posted: http://dailypicksandflicks.com/2012/05/20/daily-picdump-464/jesus-was-here-wine-on-water-aisle/

[2] John 21:11-20

[3] John 16:32

[4] John 19:28-29

[5] John 19:25-27

[6] Martin Luther King Jr.  http://martinlutherkingjrquotes.org/martin-luther-king-jr-quotes-bootstraps.html

John 6:51-58 – The Italians, Jesus, and Me

John 6:51-58  – The Italians, Jesus and Me

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 16

John 6:51-58 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

[sermon begins]

John 6:51-58 “The Italians, Jesus, and Me”

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 16, 2015

Last Saturday, I preached a funeral for a dear, dear saint.  He was a member of this congregation.  When I would visit Louie he would spend time telling me stories about his children, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. His angels, he’d call them.  I don’t know many people who loved this life as much as Louie and who was equally as ready to go be with his recently departed wife as much as he was.

Louie and I shared a love of dry red wine and cheese almost as old.  We could talk cheese flavors like some people talk ice cream. Even closer to home, he and I were both drawn into the Lutheran tradition by marriage.  Here’s one stark difference.  Louie came from a very large, very Italian family, which is also mostly Roman Catholic.  His extended family, to a person, was warm and respectful with me through Louie’s last days. This day of celebrating Louie’s life was no exception. At the funeral, I stood to give my welcome and usual greeting.  “The Lord be with you.”  The response that came back?  An enthusiastic, “And with your spirit,” mixed in with, “And also with you.”

The mix of responses created a split-second of space between my greeting and all those other words I was planning to say as we began the celebration of Louie’s life.  It was like time stood still just for second.  My mind opened to take it in and my heart filled.  And I thought, “Oh…right…the church catholic, God’s whole church. Here we all are, Jesus included, right here, together in this place.”

These words of formal greeting between priestly leader and worshiping people are bequeathed to us from our Christian ancestors in the earliest church.  The greeting was used well before the Great Schism in the first millennia and both the East and West continue its use today.  The words are found in Christian writings as early as the year 215 and belong to no one modern denomination.  The Latin reads Dominus vobiscum et cum spiritu tuo.”   (You Latin scholars can correct my pronunciation later.)  Some Christian strands prefer the direct translation, “And with your spirit.”  Some of you may remember the Norwegian ELC black hymnal that translated it this way.

The point of all of this is to say that several hundred of us were there, celebrating Louie’s life in the face of his death and to hear a good word in the middle of it all.  It was what we were there to do.  And right out of the gate, a good word arrived in the very first words of greeting that we shared together as a group.  I’ll get to what I mean by that.  Or, more importantly, Jesus’ words in the Bible verses will help us get there.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The people with him ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  We could wish that Jesus would have stayed poetic and metaphorical talking about fresh baked living bread and its warmth and smell.  Proving to everyone that, indeed, the gospel of John is simply, a wild, gnostic tale spun out to be so mystical that only the very few could every attain understanding.

 

People like to get out their “gnostic” stamp.  You know, those wooden stamps that you have to dampen on the ink pad, and then pound the gospel of John with it – gnostic…gnostic…gnostic…  In today’s parlance, the stamp could just as easily read, “spiritual.”  Because if we do that, if we stamp it all to pieces with the gnostic, or the spiritual, or the metaphorical, then maybe it would do one of two things.  We could either ignore it as mythic, romantic poetry.  Or it could help distract us from what it going on in this real mess of a life we’ve created for ourselves.

Well, Jesus, the Word made flesh, begs to differ.  He rides the knife edge between metaphor and reality.    He does not go spiritual and gnostic in answer to the people’s question.  He goes flesh and blood.  He is relentlessly incarnational.  He doesn’t try to explain anything.  He simply tells them to eat.  For those of us who think that being spiritual is about stuff you can’t see, this is the opposite.  It’s anti-gnostic.  It’s not romantic.  It’s fleshy.

The opening dialogue at communion begins with the pastor’s words, “The Lord be with you.”  The assembly replies, “And also with you.”  This dialogue doesn’t try to explain anything either.  The dialogue simply announces.  We announce it, then we give God thanks and praise for it, Jesus words are spoken, and then we eat.  So simple.  And such good news because in the midst of it all we are claimed by life, by Jesus who is the life – in whom we abide, and who abides in us.

Last Sunday, Pastor Todd and I spoke with the TLC volunteers who regularly visit with Augustana’s home-centered members.  Some of these TLC volunteers are on the Home Communion Team.  Today, the bread and wine sits on the communion table along with the bread and wine that we share together during our communion during worship.  Communion will then be taken out to people who cannot gather with us in worship.  Jesus, abiding is us in abundant life, is carried out to those in whom he also abides.  The home communion team takes communion out as an extension of the congregation.  So that the life that claims us here this morning claims more than us this afternoon.

The language of life shows up in these eight verses nine times.  NINE times in EIGHT verses.  You’ve known me long enough to have some inkling that Christ crucified is pretty central to my faith.  That we have a God who died is utterly mind-shattering to me in only the best of ways. There’s a cross either on me or around me in most of my waking moments.  Today, however, is a time for us to revel in the life of God. That we have a God who lived in a body before and after death.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread, that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”   Louie is enjoying the eschatological nature of Jesus’ eternal promise.  Jesus says in the Bible reading today, “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

But this isn’t only about waiting for the fulfillment of an eschatological hope.  We enjoy the eternal in this moment. Jesus, son of the Living Father abides with us now.  Because it is the promise of the eternal One to abide with us always, which starts today.

Thanks be to God!

Luke 17:5-10 What Faith is Not [or Holding God to God’s Promises]

Luke 17:5-10 What Faith Is Not [or Holding God to God’s Promises]

October 6, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

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

 

Some of us make this faith thing really hard.  And pretty much by “some of us”, I mean at least me and maybe some of you too.  Those of us who make faith hard complicate it with a lot of stuff that makes no sense in the conversation about faith.  Take the disciples in our story who demand that Jesus increase their faith.  What does that even mean?!  “Increase our faith!”  It’s kind of a desperate request, isn’t it?  It sounds like they think they don’t have enough for what this life has in store.

Jesus’ answer is great.  He basically tells them that they have enough.  After all, who actually needs to make a mulberry bush jump in the ocean?   (I imagine him telling them this while secretly wishing he could send them into the sea along with the mulberry bush.)

After Jesus tells them that they have enough faith, he launches into the slavery comparison to tell them that they have all the faith they need to simply show up and do what needs to be done.[1]  A lot of us are just trying to make it through the day.   Our lives move along in ordinary ways – work and play, highs and lows, are all the stuff of our mostly ordinary lives.  And we are given enough faith to make it through the days.

Which begs the question of what is expected of faith?  The disciples are worried because Jesus has been talking about things like forgiveness, giving money to the poor, and picking up crosses and following him.  This is a big to-do list that seems to require some big help to get through.  It’s no wonder the disciples were asking for an extra sprinkle or two of faith.  How could they possibly have enough to get it all done?  And if they think they don’t have enough faith with Jesus right in front of them, how could we?

One of the wrinkles in this text is that faith doesn’t seem to be a measurable thing.  And yet we tend to think that faith equals agreement to each point on a checklist about God.  Like if we intellectually agree 100% with each statement of the Apostle’s Creed then we have a lot.  As if faith can be boiled down to some kind of mathematical proof that has form and measure and only then we can trust in it.  The problem comes when we try to explain how this all adds up to enough faith in the right things.  The problem comes when we think we can measure it at all.

Last week I had a chance to hang out with the 9th graders who are participating in the ritual of Confirmation in a few weeks.  I asked them to explain the scientific method to me.  They did this as easy as 1-2-3.  First you make a hypothesis about something being true, then you set out to collect the data to prove your hypothesis, and you make a conclusion that proves or disproves the truth of your hypothesis.  I then told them that we are not teaching them to argue the faith by way of the scientific method.  We are not making statements about Jesus and proving them.  Rather, the ritual of Confirmation is yet one more point in the baptized life where we are able to pause and take stock of what faith means in our everyday lives.  This is the place where our brains show up.  After all, we don’t leave our minds at the church door.  Plenty of brilliant scientists and gifted minds spend their lifetimes figuring out how to talk about the faith, the meaning and the mystery of it, in their own lives.

Like Timothy, in the second reading, whose faith moves through his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice to him, the Christian faith lives, in part, through what our ancestors of the faith have been moved to confess about God.  It is a confessing faith that is both in tension with the ordinary things of our ordinary days and woven through them.  Like Paul writing to Timothy, faith rests in trusting God to be God “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”[2]  This confession of faith allows us to hold God accountable to God’s promises made in baptism.

God’s promises in baptism are this…[3]

God promises in baptism to be in relationship with you.  God’s presence is true even, and maybe especially, if you don’t think it is or feel like it is.  And because God is the God of today, tomorrow, and forever, these promises are eternal.  And so, trusting God to keep God’s promises, we confess the life everlasting.

God promises in baptism to always be reconciled with you, always open to your return to God.  And so, trusting God to keep God’s promises, we confess the forgiveness of sins.

God promises in baptism to draw you into a deeper relationship with God, into discipleship.  And so, trusting God to keep God’s promises, we confess the holy catholic church and the communion of saints – the community of people in which our lives as disciples are nurtured.

 

The disciples have one thing right.  Faith does come from Jesus.  This is a faith that rests on the promises of God made to us in our baptism; a faith that moves within our lives no matter what the outcome or how we think it gets measured.

May Christ Jesus gift you faith for today, tomorrow, and all of your days.  Amen.

 



[1] David Lose in “Dear Working Preacher…” on WorkingPreacher.com for Sunday, October 6, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773

[2] 2 Timothy 1:12-13.

[3] John Pederson, personal conversation about the promises of baptism.

Luke 13:10-17 – “Freed Into Rest [or Jewish Patriarchs through Moses in 2 Minutes or Less]”

Luke 13:10-17 –  “Freed Into Rest [or Jewish Patriarchs through Moses in 2 Minutes or Less]”

August 25, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 13:10-17   Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

 

I’m going to show my hand and let you know straight out of the gate that my sympathies lie with the leader of the synagogue.[1]  Not because there are parallels between his position and my own as pastor – that would be way too easy  of a target; plus it would leave you all out of it which basically means I’d be preaching to only myself which I can do on any old day without you sitting here while I do it.

To give us some understanding of the leader of the synagogue, think with me for a bit about the history of our Jewish cousins and our common ancestors of faith.  The story of Abraham and Sarah gives us the courageous travelers, uprooted by God and sent to a land far away.[2]  We can appreciate the romantic adventure of their tale from beginning to end; or we could read it through the hard lens of being migrants and immigrants.  Regardless, they were free people.

Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac and the shenanigans of Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau lead us right into the Joseph story.[3]  Joseph, the favorite son sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, ends up second-in-command of Egypt – saving his band of brothers as the sun sets dreamily in Egypt over the happy family reunion.  Okay, that last part smacks of Hollywood cinematography but you get the picture.  We get to end of the book of Genesis on a high as Joseph, with his dying breath, tells his brothers once more about God’s promises.[4]  So far, these are great stories of deeply flawed people but wildly free people.

We can literally turn the page to the book of Exodus and all manner of hell has broken loose.  Hundreds of years have passed, the new king does not know Joseph, and has no appreciation for the numerous descendents of Joseph and his eleven brothers.  “The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites…and became ruthless in imposing tasks on [them], and made their lives bitter with hard service.”[5]  These were hard times that lead to harder times that led to Moses’ leading the Israelites out of slavery to the Egyptians into…well, the wilderness.  But they were a free people there!  They were a free people who were given laws – laws given by God to preserve life and protect people’s relationships with God and each other.

Some of you could likely come up with the ten big laws, a.k.a. the Ten Commandments.  The one I’m really interested in this morning is the third one.[6]  After being told to have no other gods and to not misuse the name of God, comes commandment number three to:

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”[7]

Just sit for a moment with this and think about how huge it must have sounded to a newly freed people who were freed from ruthlessly imposed tasks and bitter lives of hard service.  Just imagine that.  It’s difficult at best to understand the magnitude of the freedom given by this law.  At worst, our understanding of it becomes blasé in our current context of labor laws, workers’ rights, and weekends off.  But for the Jewish people of the 1st century, keeping Sabbath meant to be freed into rest by the law of God!  Freed into rest.  Take a breath on that one for a minute.   Freed into rest….

The leader of the synagogue would have worked very hard to make sure that the people followed this law because it was for their good and for their God.  This doesn’t mean he had pure motives when confronted by Jesus’ healing the woman.  It’s a given that he didn’t.  But it does mean that the Sabbath being held up by the leader of the synagogue is a good thing.  So then where does it go awry for the synagogue leader?

Listen again to the beginning of the story:

“ Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

Jesus is teaching away, he sees this woman who he can help and so he does.  The problem is that Jesus does this on a day when there is a rule of law about work; a rule of law that has the big history and current meaning of being freed into rest.  And the leader of the synagogue becomes indignant on behalf of this law, starts talking to the people about coming to be cured on any other day but the Sabbath, and gets an earful from Jesus.  Not just any old earful, but a shaming earful.

Jesus clearly did not get the current parenting advice about public shaming.  You may have heard some of this advice.  If your child or grandchild or someone else’s child is up to no good, you are to talk to the child privately to preserve their dignity and create a safe space.  It’s good advice.  It’s even wise advice.  It’s advice that applies well to adults too.  Jesus didn’t get the memo.  While I feel for the leader of the synagogue, I’m grateful for what comes next in the story because then Jesus makes an interesting move that actually isn’t about shaming.  It’s an exegetical move – a move that interprets scriptural law as it has been handed down through the centuries and lived out in that synagogue, a move that breathes new life into the law.

The leader of the synagogue had become so bound into the law, the law was no longer doing its job of preserving life and people’s relationships with God and each other.  Jesus’ interpretation of the law frees the law so that, at least the woman, could be freed by the law.  I like to think that the leader of the synagogue took some time later to ponder the moves that Jesus makes in the synagogue – first freeing the woman from that which binds her, then freeing the law from the person who would try to bind it, and, maybe, just maybe, freeing the lead of the synagogue, the very one who would bind the law.

My sympathies lie with the leader of the synagogue because we can get curved in on ourselves and the law in the same way.  We are given a law to preserve life and protect people’s relationships with God and with each other.  And then we bind up that law, playing a kind of keep-away game between Jesus and law, wondering what will happen to that which we hold dear if we are compelled to a different interpretation of the law – slavery and the role of women in the church are two recent historical examples.  It is into this bound up, curled up mess that Jesus saves by the power of the Spirit.  Calling us on all the ways in which we bind ourselves and each other into the law and freeing us back into the law as a place of rest.

For this and for all that Jesus has done and is doing, thanks be to God!



[1] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher” for Sunday, August 25, 2013.   http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=2699

[2] Genesis 12-20.

[3] Genesis 21-34.

[4] Genesis 35-50.

[5] Exodus 1:12-13, New Revised Standard Version.

[6] In Jewish tradition, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is number four.  Luther’s Small Catechism lists it third.

[7] Exodus 20:8-11, New Revised Standard Version.

Luke 11:1-13 “…and yet, I pray”

Luke 11:1-13 “…and Yet, I Pray”

July 28, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!



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

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid.