Tag Archives: forgiveness

Heaven is the Place of God (which probably isn’t what any of us think it means) – A sermon for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 17, 2021

Livestream online worship at 7 p.m. this evening can be found on Augustana’s YouTube  page here.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

A couple of months ago, I preached about the choices we make about who we listen to in books, movies, politics, etcetera, and whether or not the voices we listen to point us to the light, to the voice of Jesus – a voice that promises grace, challenge, struggle, hope, and love of God, self, and neighbor.[1] A couple of days later, a parishioner emailed a recommendation for a favorite book series by Louise Penny.[2] Mysteries about the “light and dark in each person, love of family and community, laced with humor” went the email. Long story short, I’m on book seven. In the novels, Chief Inspector Gamache leads a crack team of homicide detectives. More importantly, he mentors them, teaching them the importance of using four key phrases, “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”[3] These four phrases bubble up in the series to consider the characters’ motivations and behaviors. The phrases are a good summary of Ash Wednesday too – I don’t know, I need help, I’m sorry, I was wrong. At least, it’s a good summary of the human side of the equation on Ash Wednesday.

It’s the human side of the equation that Jesus challenged his disciples about in the Gospel of Matthew reading. He challenged their motivations and behaviors as he told them not to engage in hypocritical rituals, practicing their piety on street corners in order to be seen by other people.[4] One sure way to make sure that’s absolutely not the case is to practice the rituals privately as Jesus then encouraged them to do. However, Jesus does assume that his disciples will give alms, pray, and fast. He said to the disciples, “When you give alms…; When you pray…; When you fast…” He reassured them that in their private moments of self-discipline and ritual piety of giving alms (also known as sacrificial giving), praying, and fasting, that God was with them – for which we can thank the grown-up bearded Jesus in these physically distanced times. We’ve relied heavily on God’s promise of presence in so many new and different ways over the last year.

A year ago, I’m not sure I would have believed you if you had told me that I’d be standing in front of the church building with Pastor Ann placing ashes on people’s foreheads outside of a worship service. I know I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I’d be presiding over communion via online worship. But if there’s one thing I know about theology, it’s that it’s at its best when it ends up being quite practical. Speaking of practical, anyone wondering what the skipped verses in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew contains? The reading jumps from verse 6 to verse 16 without missing a beat. It’s okay if you’re not wondering about those missing verses. I’m going to let you in on the secret. Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in those verses. Jesus says to his disciples:

Pray in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.[5]

In the middle of his speech to the disciples about avoiding hypocrisy, Jesus gives them a practical prayer to help them do so – the Lord’s Prayer. We’re immersing in the Lord’s Prayer as a congregation during Lent guided by Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry’s book, Thy Will Be Done.[6]

The Lord’s Prayer starts in heaven. Heaven, according to the prayer, is the place of God, some would even say the heart of God. Heaven is impossible to imagine although many of us have certainly tried. Time-limited, finite beings cannot comprehend the infinite. It’s a  physical impossibility. On Ash Wednesday, we lean into the place of God, into heaven, as we ponder our fragile mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we hear as ashes mark the sign of the cross. The underlying promise is that God breathes life into dust. The cross shaped with ash echoes the cross placed on our foreheads in our baptism. While we’re leaning into the truth of our mortality, we’re also leaning through that mortality into the place of God, into the embrace of God. The cross symbolizes the reality that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less. This means that when we take our last breath, God’s embrace holds us in heaven, in the place of God. This is God’s resurrection promise through the cross of Christ for our death someday, whenever our someday comes. But this isn’t only about someday.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[7] Your heart will be in heaven, in God’s place, in God’s heart. Not only someday. TODAY. What are the treasures of heaven? Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, generosity, and more. Treasures of heaven are the things that Jesus spends so much time challenging his listeners about in scripture. Practical things that we participate in right now. Or maybe they’re impractical. Not sure. We can argue about that another time. Regardless, treasures of heaven are unearned, undeserved, and permanent. They do not fade away and cannot be taken away. They are eternal. They are of heaven.

God’s promise, God’s side of the equation on Ash Wednesday, frees us into the challenges that Jesus gives his disciples, the challenges we take up today, continue through the six weeks of Lent, and in our lives of faith year-round.  A challenge of humility when we say, “I don’t know.” A challenge of imperfection when we say, “I need help.” A challenge of repentance when we confess to God and each other, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”  We’re free to tell the truth because God promises us a place in the place of God, in heaven, today and someday. Thanks be to God, and amen.

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[1] Caitlin Trussell. Sermon: “World Building with Light” with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020. http://caitlintrussell.org/2020/12/13/world-building-with-light-john-6-8-19-28/

[2] Louise Penny official site – https://www.louisepenny.com

[3] Louise Penny. Still Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.), 84.

[4] Matthew 6:1

[5] Matthew 6:9-13

[6] Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. The 2021 Lent Book: Thy Will Be Done (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021).

[7] Matthew 6:19-21

Repentance – Not Sexy but Needed for National Healing — Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 24, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jonah 3:1-10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

[sermon begins]

Do-overs. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t wished for a do-over. That head-slapping, Homer Simpson moment of, “Doh!” followed quickly by, “I wish I hadn’t of done that.” [1a] Do-overs tap a longing for a chance to re-do a moment, a choice, or a behavior with a better frame of mind and more principled behavior. Every so often you’ll hear a celebrity or other public person say, “I have no regrets!” This is usually followed by the advice to not look back and that the only way to live life is to look ahead.

As with many such statements, there’s a shred of truth in it. But for a lot of us, it’s just simply not true about our own lives. Especially for Jesus followers, I think. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark come after he’s baptized by John, after God announces Jesus as the Beloved Son, after the Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he’s tempted by satan and waited on by angels. Jesus’ first sentence in the Gospel includes a command to repent. It’s not a great hook. Imagine trying to start a new group and telling everyone that their first task is to list all their wrongs and change their behavior. Yeah, not too sexy.

Jonah knew that the method of introducing yourself with the command to repent was dead in the water. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and announce repentance to the King and all the people there. Imagine going to the people that you’re most afraid will hurt you and demanding their repentance. The Ninevites of Assyria were those people. They were militarily dominant in every way and vicious with their opponents, ultimately destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel and oppressing the Southern Kingdoms.[1b] Jonah had every right to be afraid. He was also understandably angry that God would forgive his greatest enemies. He knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.”[2] He did not want God to be THAT God to the Ninevites.

Jonah ran away the first time God told him to go to Nineveh and demand their repentance. He was tossed over the side of a ship in a storm and ended up in the belly of a fish only to be thrown up on the shore after he did what? After he himself repented. Jonah was given a second chance by God to go preach to the Ninevites who did indeed themselves repent – covering every king, man, woman, child, and animal in sackcloth and ashes, crying out “mightily to God,” and turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.[3]

Our Jewish cousins in the faith read the book of Jonah “on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbor.”[4] It’s short book. Four brief chapters. Go ahead and read Jonah this week. It’s the only time it bubbles up on the three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings for worship. It’s an incredible example of the very human reactions that accompany both societal and individual repentance – including Jonah’s anger that his enemies would receive God’s grace. That’s the part of Jonah’s tale that is the most offensive. There’s a particular kind of happiness we feel when we see our enemies fall and the farther they fall the better. Jonah’s understandable anger for God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites mirrors our own. It’s too difficult to believe that God’s grace extends to those we hate. But God’s grace is indeed the last word.

Recently, an unchurched friend of mine texted to ask if I could hear their confession and we did so. Individual confession follows the general order of confession, discussion, and forgiveness. During the discussion, we talked about consequences for what was being confessed including making amends to the people affected by the confessed behavior. Grace is the last word in the confession and forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness frees us to navigate the consequences for our hurtful behavior.

Along that line, the question was asked recently in staff meeting about the role of the church during this time of national crises. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself off-and-on over the last couple of decades. There are books full of attempts to answer this question over the centuries. The general consensus is that if God so loves the world, then the church is not only about my personal, spiritual benefits from it. Several of our worship readings during the past few weeks gave a challenge of repentance including John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus’ call to the disciples to repent and follow him, and Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites to repent. We have heard plenty of it today as the Bible stories immerse us in repentance.

The role of the church in society is similar – although not as the bedroom vice-squad that polices who people are sleeping with, which is too often the case. The role of the church emphasizes Jesus’ example, the one whom we follow. Our own repentance for personal and collective sin holds us accountable and redirects our behavior. From our own accountability, we may challenge others to do the same. In times of national crises like the pandemic and the chaotic transition of presidential power, we may challenge elected officials and public leaders who have hurt people by what they have done and what they have left undone.

The church may hold powerful people accountable across the spectrum of partisanship and the roles of those involved for greed, indifference to the poor, harm inflicted, violence incited, and more – powerful people like former President Trump and other leaders who fanned the flames of violence to the ones who stormed the Capital seeking to harm those in Congress. The attack happened under the American flag, the Confederate flag, and symbols of the Christian church.

The symbols of the church were especially offensive because we follow Jesus. The Jesus who told Peter to put his sword away as Jesus was being arrested is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who called public leaders to account for the violence of failing to care for the widow and the poor is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves, is the Jesus we follow.

Ironically, our country’s violent roots began with people fleeing religious violence only to perpetuate that violence on the native people who already lived here and the enslaved people who were brought here – all in the name of white superiority and divine blessing. As a country, we continue to perpetuate violence in the name of God without pausing to repent for that violence, to collectively experience the consequences, and to make amends to the black and brown people who have borne the brunt of nationally sanctioned and inflicted violence. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Obviously, accountability is not the only role of the church. During national crises we also comfort people who are scared, grieving, alone, and hungry. We comfort each other in our congregation and reach out to comfort family, friends, and neighbors. There’s a saying that the church, the body of Christ, “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” following Jesus’ example and teaching.[5] That remains true in times of calm and in times of crises.

In Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark, he proclaims good news and repentance, and announces, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Repentance turns us away from our self-absorption towards the good news of Jesus. Good news that includes loving our neighbors (not always an easy task), loving ourselves (an often much harder task), and loving a God who loves us first, last, and in-between. A God who loves us so much that we are not left bound to the sin that clings so closely but free to live differently in the world because God loves us and our neighbor. A God who slipped on skin to show us how it’s done and forgives us when we fail. A God whose offensive, radical grace is the last word. Amen.

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[1a] Oliver Libaw. “Doh! Oxford Dictionary Takes Homer Simpson.” ABC News, January 7, 2006.  https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93098&page=1

[1b] Beth L. Tanner, Professor of Old Testament, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey. Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 for January 25, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-jonah-31-5-10-2

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 3:8

[4]  Tanner, Ibid.

[5] Tim Stewart. “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” August 5, 2013. Dictionary of Christianese: The casual slang of the Christian church…authoritatively defined.           https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/

[6] Mark 1:15

God’s Love in a Body Means Something for Black, Brown, and White Bodies [OR Jesus’ Farewell Commands Us to Love] John 14:15-21

**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 14:15-21  [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[sermon begins]

“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.

Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”[1] In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.

Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.

Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.

Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years.  66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education.[2] Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.

Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard.[3] This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.

Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population.[4] We have some explaining to do.

And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.

Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm. [5] Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body.[6] We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.

Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.

 

And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.

May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,

So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262

[3] Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. The Fifth Commandment [189]. http://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php

[6] Ibid., Moore.

The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Never Will Overcome It – John 1:1-5, 14

Longest Night: A Service of Hope and Healing, offering a quieter time of reflection during the Christmas Season

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2018

[Reflection begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.                                         14 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.

We have an advent wreath in our home.  Sometimes there’s a little chaos when I, the pastor, am somehow caught off guard by the arrival of Advent and end up dashing through the town to find candles.  (The irony of racing around for candles to mark the quiet expectation of Advent is not lost of me.)  Our wreath is a bit makeshift but that has its own appeal.  When they’re finally in place, three purple and one pink candle gradually burn down in their descending lengths over the four weeks of Advent.  Some years, the candles are lit without fanfare.  Other years, when I’m feeling especially pious (you know…in a good way), I find prayers to accompany the Sundays.

This year, without any planning, I simply said something like, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not, never will overcome it.”   There’s something about the promise of that verse.  It’s simple and powerful.  Simple because most of us know the comfort of light when we’re afraid in the dark.  Powerful because it doesn’t take much light to lessen the darkness but darkness is a necessary part of seeing light. We know this cosmically by looking at the stars in a moonless sky.  We know this intimately by lighting a candle in a dark room when the power goes out. Last Sunday in Adult Sunday School, one question Pastor Ann asked us in the class was “in what or where do you find joy right now or generally in this Advent season.”  There were several answers about Christmas lights and quiet moments.  Mine is the Advent wreath in all of its soft light meeting the darkness at its edges.

A rabbi friend of mine recently opened a meeting of interfaith leaders with a devotion about darkness and light.  The co-revealing of both the light of the menorah candles celebrating Hanukkah and the darkness in which we sat was framed, on the one hand, by the recent loss of life at a Pittsburgh synagogue and, on the other, by the joy of our shared connections with each other in the room, shadows holding the light.  The symbolism and the power of what it was representing was as plain as the candles burning in the dark room.  Candles have that way about them.  A pastor friend of mine likes to wave the occasional caution flag about finding a new use for candles in worship because they become so dear so quickly.  The small flame speaks volumes when words simply fail us.  While we’re worshiping together, we’ll have an opportunity to light a candle in remembrance or in prayer – powerful when words fail us.

And words often do fail us in the mystery of faith.  Deep in our bodies, in the life force of our bones, the words of creation are embodied but not explained.  The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  In the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[1]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”   Our candles symbolize something so much deeper with their flames.  With them we remember the God of history. God who creates light in the darkness and new life in a young mother’s body as the baby Jesus, new life as God’s Word made flesh.  God also promises to be with us today in Jesus – shining light in the darkness and new life here, now, in us, in OUR flesh.  We don’t always have the words to use but many of us know something about the light of the one who breaks into our darkness.  Whether that’s the darkness of illness, fatigue, grief, or the mess we’ve made of things, we know and have experienced God’s promise of light – most often it’s much to our surprise.  Being surprised by the light is kind of the best way because we know, deep inside, that we don’t create the light.

The Light is given by the One who is the Light and opens our eyes in deep darkness, in the midst of suffering.

From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus lives forgiveness that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we too reflect the light, shining light into darkness. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, cannot, does not, never will overcome it.

Amen.

——————————-

[1] Genesis 1:1-5

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 16, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God! Amen.

____________________________________________________________

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

Just Poking Around [OR Longing for Restoration] John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 8, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

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.

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

[sermon begins]

 

I’m caught between generations who like to shop – a sandwich generation of a different sort.  Both my mom and my mother-in-law as well as my daughter like to dabble in the aisles, across shelves, and around carousel racks to find the finds. Me, not so much. But their enthusiasm is contagious. So I tag along for the company and you just never know what the find will be. This is especially true when I shop with my mother-in-law, Carol. When store clerks ask her if she needs help finding something in particular, Carol replies, “No thanks, we’re just poking around.” Her non-committal answer, and the meandering that goes with it, opens up space to see what finds might be lurking on the next shelf.  I have a couple favorites from the hospice consignment shop in Grand Junction that include an antique porcelain bud vase and a silver filigreed shell dish. Must-haves in any household, I’m sure. The point being that sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.

Which leads me to Thomas. Some scholars will tell you that he’s not the doubter he’s claimed to be by church tradition and centuries of painters. I don’t really have a problem naming him a doubter but if that title troubles you we can lean toward skeptic or find some other label that edges us toward his non-committal, wary attitude. Thomas’ friends had an experience with the resurrected Jesus and he hasn’t. He’s a bit guarded about their reports. Perhaps it’s news that’s too creepy or too weird or too good to be true. Whatever the reason, he’s not about to accept his friends’ reports about Jesus. He seems to want his own moment with Jesus. Because the friends who first see Jesus in the locked room are privy to more than a sighting. Jesus gives them something. Peace, for starters. Then he sends them on their way by breathing the Holy Spirit on them.

I don’t know about you, but the breath of a three-day-dead, freshly resurrected guy doesn’t sound that appealing.[1] Regardless, it seems to cause something big. This rag-tag band of Jesus followers that were locked in a room become something so much more.[2] They become the church. Except Thomas. He’s not sure about anything now that his friends had an experience that he hasn’t had. But sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.  In Thomas’ case, it’s Jesus whose hands and side are made available.

A Bible story to poke around in is one thing but let’s think about what it looks like today to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. On March 24, a woman named Jennifer Reali died of cancer. Twenty-eight years ago she was convicted of murder in Colorado Springs. I’ll refrain from the gory details. They’re available online. Some of you may even remember the case. She is guilty of killing Diane Hood.

I first met Jen 11 years ago in a Friday evening worship service at New Beginnings Church in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Honest and blunt, she was clear that she cut short Diane’s life, causing pain and grief for Diane’s family and friends. She would also say that Jesus found her in prison. For the skeptics among us, her confession of faith seems convenient, easily dismissed as one manipulation among many. Regardless, her sentence was commuted in 2011 by then Governor Ritter making her eligible for parole. Jennifer was released to a halfway-house in 2014, diagnosed with cancer soon afterwards, granted parole on the fourth try, and released on December 12, 2017.  One of Jennifer’s original songs has this line, “If you knew my dark side, would you sense the hands of Christ?”[3]

The hands of Christ were on display for the disciples in the locked room as the resurrected Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”[4]  While we’re poking around, we could consider that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to forgive even Jennifer. Make no mistake, her act of evil is neither forgotten nor condoned. Diane and her family deserve more than that. Rather, we proclaim by faith that evil is NOT more powerful than the good.[5]  Or, in the words of the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[6]

Restoration is what the resurrection makes possible.  Restoration that turns a murderer into a repentant, zealous Jesus follower. Restoration that turns a fearful, ragtag band of Jesus followers into the church.  A church that went from hiding in the darkness to walking in the light, from hiding the truth of sin to confessing it.  A church of fellowship who completed each other’s joy as told by the First John reading.[7]  A church of shared resources who testified to the resurrection with great grace upon them as told by the Acts reading.[8]

For some, like Thomas and his friends, there was a quick turnaround from fear to courage. For others, it took time for the early, first century church to get its act together. Time for the way women were respected in Christianity as they weren’t in classical culture. Time for life in the way of Jesus to crack through social class and tribal lines. Time for the selflessness of caring for all the sick, not just their own, in the age of plagues.[9]

The disciples’ and Jennifer’s stories are uncommon – drawing both attention and disbelief. Ordinary people seldom have such gripping tales to tell or even interesting sin. Although, when it comes down to it, there are common threads of grief, fear, sin, and skepticism that lead to poking around to find what we didn’t know we were looking for. A lot of people are looking for something, poking around into all kinds of things. Longing, hoping for restoration. I run into these people everywhere. They tell stories of pain. Personal pain inflicted by themselves or other people. Public pain experienced in the very churches where great grace should be upon them.

Healing from grief, fear, sin, and skepticism can take time. You may be one of these people. Perhaps you’ve had an experience of Christianity not letting go of you or you’re unable to let go of it. So I’ll tell you what I tell these people. I have amazing colleagues all over town in all kinds of parishes with all kinds of people in the congregations. Find a pew. Let the hymns and prayers wash over you. Receive communion. Heal. Talk with God, not about God. Listen for God’s voice. Don’t look for anything in particular while you’re just poking around.

Jesus’ resurrection makes restoration possible. The Holy Spirit is breathed on us by the risen Christ in ways that cannot be described, only experienced. God is not irresistible. We can and do screw things up regularly. Here’s the promise though, God’s presence and pursuit of you is relentless – through the cross, grave, and back again. God’s restoration is for you.  Alleluia and amen.

____________________________________________________

[1] Mary Beard’s research includes the investigation into what made ancient Romans laugh – apparently bad breath is among the topics which makes me wonder how early Christian listeners in the Roman Empire heard this bit of scripture. This historical gem is in an article about Beard’s work by Rebecca Mead, “The Troll Slayer: A Roman Classicist Takes On Her Sexist Detractors.” The New Yorker, September 14, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer

[2] George Wiegel. The Saturday Essay: The Easter Effect and How It Changed the World. The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-easter-effect-and-how-it-changed-the-world-1522418701

[3] Michael Roberts. “Fatal Attraction” Killer Jennifer Reali Finally Granted Parole.” Westword: November 8, 2017. http://www.westword.com/news/fatal-attraction-killer-jennifer-reali-seeks-parole-for-fourth-time-9590521

[4] John 20:22-23.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project. Video posted on September 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

[6] John 1:5

[7] 1 John 1:3-4

[8] Acts 4:32-35

[9] Wiegel, ibid.

Mr. Irrelevant 2017 is a Denver Bronco [OR The Last Will Be First…Thank God!] Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10-4:11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings from the books of Matthew and Jonah – hang in there]

Matthew 20:1-16  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

[sermon begins]

Some of you know of my hope to someday call an NFL game in the booth with Chris Collingsworth and Al Michaels. Word-sparring with Al and arguing biases with Chris would be tons of fun. Alas, not only would my inability to accurately call pass interference hold me back, but then I learn something else I didn’t know about American football and wonder if I would even have the courage to speak. The courage question will go unanswered as Al’s retirement will happen eventually and NBC hasn’t called. The latest NFL knowledge to pop on my radar is Mr. Irrelevant.[1] Are there people here that know this is a thing? Since 1976, the last player chosen in the annual NFL draft is given the title of Mr. Irrelevant.[2]  There’s a big-buildup as the draft comes to a close. The chosen player receives a team jersey. On the back, in big bold, letters, is Mr. Irrelevant.  This year, that team jersey was Bronco Orange.[3]  Anybody here that can name the player? … … Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, quarterback, 253rd overall pick of the draft.  Mr. Kelly apparently has an abundance of talent that is shadowed by health and character. What fascinates me is that regardless of his draft title, he’s still part of the team. He has the same shot as everyone else to make it happen. There’s even such a list as the top 5 Mr. Irrelevants who have gone on to make names for themselves in the sport.[4]

Mr. Irrelevant is a limited metaphor for Jesus’ parable today but it leans us toward it. (It also ups the odds that scripture comes to mind during today’s Bronco game. You’ll have to let me know.)  Regardless of its limits as a metaphor, this notion of the last chosen seems to be a main concern. Those last workers are at least the main concern of the first workers – especially the salary scale.  It’s easy to get lost in the levels of employment.  Into what level is each worker slotted as the landowner goes back out and gets more workers?  9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm.

One move we could make would be to think through the parable economically. We could ask about the landowner’s wealth and generosity in terms of our own biases about economic systems and merit pay.  A pure capitalist might ask about the landowner’s business plan if this turns into HR policy.  A pure socialist might ask why land ownership was necessary.

Another move we could make is to rank the workers against our own scale of worthiness.  In the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we say together:

“Living God, source of all life, we confess that we struggle to believe that your grace sets us free. You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it. We turn the church inward, rather than following you in the world. Forgive us. Stir us. Reform us. Amen.” [5]

“You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it.”  When we confess together in worship, it’s a chance to slow our thinking down and acknowledge our behavior.  While we’re on the topic, though, might I go a step further and suggest that we also think WE need to earn God’s love and grace.  Oh, I know, many of us have been Lutheran Christians a long time, some from the cradle.  So we know we’re not supposed to talk about earning God’s grace. But I’m here to tell you that in my world it’s not uncommon to hear people wondering if God is happy with them.  I hear questions like:  Am I worth it?  Do I know enough?  Have I read enough?  Am I kind enough?  Apparently, there is no limit to the ways in which we can torture ourselves.  No limit to the ways we can feel shame ourselves and inflict it on other people.  And, in the meantime, limit God.

For some reason, I’m hesitant to let the landowner off the hook in Jesus’ parable.  Maybe I’ve read too much Jonah and his lament against God. I want the landowner in the lineup with everyone else and ask him hard questions. I want to lump him into the problem of envy that the parable taps. And then, to go a step further, I want to erase everyone out the parable.  The parable is too complicated as allegory and, at the same time, oversimplifies humanity. Who is that landowner and why is the manager even there?  Can’t everyone just go home to live, work, and eat another day without reacting to the landowner’s behavior?  What if Jesus had simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…the last will be first and the first will be last.”[6]   The kingdom of heaven is the first being last.

Perhaps the first being last is like those nefarious Ninevites so despised by Jonah.[7]  He has every reason to avoid them. They were first in the land, top dogs, part of the Assyrian Empire that captured, killed, or carried away Jonah’s people to the north. They did bad, bad things. Jonah was sent by God to pronounce God’s mercy to the Ninevites so that they might repent and receive forgiveness. Jonah did NOT want to announce God’s mercy to the Ninevites because he knew about God’s slow anger and steadfast love. He knew that God would forgive them and Jonah did not want them forgiven.

The story wraps up with Ninevah’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. We share this story this week with our Jewish cousins in the faith who read the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, their highest holy day of the year. Yom Kippur begins before sunset this Friday and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Jews ask for other people’s and God’s forgiveness and praise God’s mercy and steadfast love as they reflect on Jonah’s story. It’s an incredibly offensive forgiveness.  God forgives the Ninevites their kidnapping and murder of the northern tribes. We heard read this morning the closing verse of the book of Jonah as God asks Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[8]

Perhaps…perhaps…the first being last means that the landowner ends up as the last.  If the parable being told by Jesus infers God as the landowner, then one possibility is that Jesus ending up dead on a cross is definitely ending up last. The Roman Empire’s own version of Mr. Irrelevant playing out in first century politics, on a hill, far away. Except, theirs is not the last word.

At the end of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[9]  Here’s the good news. God is not limited to our finite understanding of first and last.  We’re well beyond landowners, managers, and workers.

This God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This is the God you hear from after your confession at the beginning of worship as God’s good forgiveness is announced to you.  “God hears your cry and the Spirit sets you free; your sins are forgiven, + in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”[10]

No small thing, God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness turns lasts into firsts, and firsts into lasts, turning despair into defiant hope.  You are forgiven and set free.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________________________

[1] Sundays and Seasons. Day Resources for Sunday, September 24, 2017. https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources

[2] Foxsports.com.“The NFL Draft’s Top 5 “Mr. Irrelevants” of the Modern Era. April 26, 2016 http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/nfl-draft-mr-irrelevant-successes-042616

[3] Max Meyer. “Broncos Tab Chad Kelly as 2017’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” April 20, 2017. NFL.com http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000805002/article/broncos-tab-chad-kelly-as-2017s-mr-irrelevant

[5] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

[6] Matthew 20:1a and 16b

[7] I recommend reading all of Jonah.  It is four chapters and a fun read.

[8] Jonah 4:11

[9] Revelation 22:13

[10] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

Football Sidelines and Neighbors – Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality.  I’m talking football sideline.  There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players.  Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling.  The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level.  Up their game when they get on the field.  So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock.  There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.

Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people.  Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season.  Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment.  There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.

The sideline is a bit of wilderness.  There is wandering around. Sitting down.  Very little appears organized.  But those are appearances.

Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game.  Take a gander at those sidelines.  Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.

John is worked up.  He’s a wilderness guy.  This is his terrain.  And the crowds come.  Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats.  The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?”  John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats.  John’s answers are nothing earth shattering.  The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”

In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation.  It is a sincere question.

John tells the riff-raff what to do.  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.[1]

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us.  We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence.  For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself.  And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.

Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side.  For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism.  And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.  John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus.  Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:

16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[2]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.

We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free.  And once that happens, look out!  It is a salvation day in the here and now.   Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.

God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]

In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?”  We shall worship.  We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.”[4]  The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.  Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people.  This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving.  Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.

The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

[1] Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world.  Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.

[2] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Revelation 1:8

[4] Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while.  We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.

[5] From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.

 

A Funeral Homily for Bob – Mark 2:1-5

A Funeral Homily for Bob – Mark 2:1-5

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 29, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

Grace and the White-Washing of Race – Mark 4:35-41 and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Grace and the White-Washing of Race – Mark 4:35-41 and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 21, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Mark 4:35-41  On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

2 Corinthians 8:7-15  Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you —so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. 8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”

[sermon begins]

 

There’s a small bit of verse 35 missing from the Mark reading in our worship bulletin.  Verse 35 should begin, “On that day, when evening had come…”  So, go ahead and take a pen from the back of the seat in front of you and write in that beginning part of verse 35, “on that day…”

This little bit of Bible verse begs the question about what day Jesus is talking about.  On what day?  The answer is in the Bible stories before the one about the storm today.  In those stories, there are so many people that came to hear Jesus that he has to hop into a boat to teach the people on the shore.  In his teaching, Jesus makes several attempts to describe the kingdom of God.  In one he talks about a farmer planting seeds that the birds steal.  In another, he talks about the greatest of all shrubs that shades even those dastardly birds, the enemies of the kingdom.  The invasive mystery of the kingdom of God is ringing in the listeners’ ears on that day.

Ears ringing, their minds are bent by these kingdom mysteries.  It’s been a long, hot afternoon listening to Jesus.  His disciples are likely ready for a good night’s sleep.  Instead, they hear Jesus say, “Let us go across to the other side.”  Jesus wants them to head over to the country of the Gerasenes, full of Gentiles, non-Jews.  As the boat people go from here to there, shore-to-shore, they are pumped with the adrenalin rush of the storm and the inertia of a dead calm in the aftermath. Their teeth and nerves are rattled by the waves beating into boat.  It’s a wonder they had a clear thought in their head much less a memory of Jesus’ kingdom-of-God speeches from earlier in the day.

It’s a bit quieter for us here together today than it was in that boat. Our minds may be a bit clearer than those of the boat people post-storm.  Although maybe not by much.  Wednesday evening’s murders of nine Black church goers in South Carolina has seen to that.  Honestly?  When I first heard about the killings I simply shut them out.  Another shooting, more people dead.  I’d apparently reached a point where compassion fatigue for this kind of thing had set in.

I can’t even believe I say it that way – “this kind of thing.”  As if it were possible to label a manila folder and file it away.  I’d already had the direction of the sermon worked out to include topics like our interim transition and the rebuilding taking place within the Children and Family ministry.  Then I heard Jesus’ words to his friends in the Bible story again.  “Let us go across to the other side.”  I don’t know how the Holy Spirit calls you out through scripture.  But this is one time when I feel utterly called out.  The churchy word for this feeling is convicted. Convicted by the awareness that the color of my skin allows me to whitewash someone else’s experience as if it didn’t happen.

Along with Jesus’ friends in the boat, I want to scream at Jesus, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  And then, I opened The Denver Post yesterday to this headline – “Ungodly Deed Forgiven.”[1]  When I saw the headline, I asked myself immediately who would have the audacity?!  Reading further, and then listening online to the bond hearing, reveals a word to the killer from our Christian brothers and sisters whose friends and families were killed during their Bible study on Wednesday night.

Person after person spoke a word of forgiveness to the killer at that bond hearing.  Through anger, tears, and grief, to be sure.  But words of forgiveness spoken so that love wins, not hate.  These friends and family members’ words to the killer echo out of Paul’s letter to those defiant Corinthians. Paul writes:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 11 We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. 12 There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. 13 In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

My friends, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a Holy Week sermon in Augustana’s sanctuary pulpit here some fifty years ago. This is a point of historical pride for many in this congregation including me.  Many of us may wish that enough time has passed between slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and today.  But it hasn’t.  Perhaps because it’s not as much about time passing as it is about Jesus calling us out on the ways we dehumanize each other.  One way this tendency to dehumanize gets lived out has been the development of the concept of race.

It’s been argued that our experience of race in the 21st century is a product of modernity over the last few hundred years.[2]  Now that it’s been constructed, the calls to deconstruct it are getting louder.  Race has too long been a matter of life and death.  As Jesus people in America, we have work to do.  As Jesus people of Augustana, we each live a story affected positively or negatively by the color of our skin – including the white-skinned among us.  Finding ways to tell our stories and listen with care to other people’s experiences is one part of deconstructing the inherited system of race bequeathed by modernity.

As Jesus people in worship here together in this congregation, we regularly confess that we sin in ways that we don’t even understand.  By extension then, we sin when it comes to race.  As Jesus people, we have something to offer the national conversation about race in terms of sin and grace.

A few years ago, Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, was interviewed about his Christian faith.[3]  He had this to say about grace, “…along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘as you reap, so you will sow’ stuff…Grace defies reason and logic; love interrupts.”[4]  This is what our Christian brothers and sisters in Charleston did with their words of forgiveness.  They preach to us on this day as their historic congregation experiences violence again.[5]  I pray that they may be consoled.  And I pray that our Augustana mission to “offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ” allows room among us to hear their lament, including their anger.

God extends forgiveness and grace to each one of us on all kinds of days, for all kinds of reasons.  As forgiven people, Jesus calls us as disciples to go across to the other side where other people tell a story much different than our own.  For those of us who are part of a congregation, some of those different stories are only a pew away.  Our differences are part of the grace through which God is working in this congregation for God’s sake and for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

[1] Jeffery Collins. The Denver Post on Saturday, June 20, 2015, page 1. http://www.pressreader.com/usa/the-denver-post/20150620/281487864988085/TextView

[2] Racism and Modernity: Festschrift for Wulf D. Hundt ed. by Iris Wigger, Sabine Ritter. Critical Philosophy of Race
Volume 1, Issue 1, 2013.  Pp.136-140.  http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/critical_philosophy_of_race/v001/1.1.lettow.html

[3] Bono’s biography may be read online here: http://www.atu2.com/band/bono/

[4] Bono. Excerpt online from interview with Michka Assays. (Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, 2005). http://www.patheos.com/blogs/robertricciardelli/ricciardelli/bono-interview-grace-over-karma-by-michka-assayas/

[5] Jonathan Wiseman. The New York Times: Killings Add Painful Page to Storied History of Charleston Church. June 18, 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-killings-evoke-history-of-violence-against-black-churches.html?_r=0