Tag Archives: forgiveness

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

#FanGirl and Forgiveness Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23

#FanGirl and Forgiveness Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2015 – Ascension of Our Lord

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Luke 24:44-53 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:1-11 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

 

[sermon begins]

Over the last week, from Monday evening to Friday morning, I attended a national preaching festival here in town.  Nearly 2,000 preachers and church people from all over the country showed up to worship together and to hear other preachers preach and then talk about preaching.  The preachers covered the palette of skin color, gender, and denomination.  It was inspiring, humbling, and hilarious.

On Tuesday evening, I came home from the conference all pumped up after having heard long time Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann preach. In the time it takes you and I to celebrate another birthday he’s published another couple of books.[1]  He’s up to about 90 of them. If you’ve not heard his name, you’ve certainly heard his ideas preached.  Anyway, he was to lecture to us the next morning and I COULD NOT WAIT!

I went in to say goodnight to my daughter and told her all of this juicy news about Walter Brueggemann and told her I was fan.  Then, I’m ashamed to admit, I did a very uncool thing.  You can consider this my public confession.  I made a number sign with my fingers and said, “Hash-tag fan-girl” and made a double clicking sound. She smiled and shook her head oh so tolerantly at me and said, “Oh, mom.”  On the way to take my daughter to school the next morning, I’m STILL talking about Walter Brueggemann.  She told me that the conference was funny.  I asked her why it was funny.  She said it’s funny how much I liked it so much and that it was like a music festival for preachers.  I know, you don’t have to say it – I know how to take a few days and really have some fun!

A few of you turned up at the festival to hear some preaching too.  One of the amazing things to me is how many non-preacher church types attend.  I mean, for me it makes sense to hang out from time-to-time with other pulpit people.  It’s amazing that it make sense to people simply to come, worship and listen to sermons on their days off.  That’s a pretty powerful God we worship.

Two of our readings this morning come from the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. Both of these books are attributed to Luke.  The verses we hear today are from the same author and come from the very end of Luke and the very beginning of Acts.  Luke and Acts are so closely tied together that they take on hyphen, becoming Luke-Acts.  Kind of like hyphenating two names into a married name…Luke-Acts.  The books are so wedded together in my own mind that I’m occasionally surprised to find the Gospel of John between them when I’m looking for Acts. Both books are written to Theophilus.  Theophilus means ‘friend of God’ in the Greek.

There’s a difference of opinion about whether Theophilus is an actual someone that Luke knows or if it’s used as a generic greeting to anyone who is a friend of God.  After last week’s story when Jesus blew our minds by calling us friends, I invite us to hear the gospel writer talking to each of one of us as friend of God.

So, all you Theophili, friends of God, Jesus has just had an intense, three year ministry of forgiveness, healing, and preaching; he was killed for it; he rose from the dead and hung out with his disciples for 40 days.  In the story today, Jesus makes a rousing speech to them about John the Baptist, then promises them that the Holy Spirit is going to baptize the disciples in a few days’ time.  These are his last words after putting his disciples through a post-resurrection, 40-day intensive.  What do those disciples do immediately?  They fail the final.[2] They ask the question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

After all this time with Jesus.  And this is what they figure out?! In Luke-Acts, Jesus tells them that, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” and that they “are witnesses of these things.”[3] He also tells them that they “will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”[4]  The disciples interpret Jesus’ words on the spot to mean Jesus is going to come back, take names, and wage war.  Except Jesus does NOT say this to them.  He talks about the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness and tells them they “will be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[5]

Christians throughout the ages flip Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness into the message that Jesus is going to come back with a big chip on his shoulder and you should be very afraid.  It starts with these misguided disciples in Luke-Acts and then with Paul in his letter to the Ephesians read for us today and it keeps right on going to now.  Is it possible that the human disappointment about Jesus’ actual ministry of forgiveness gets projected into a second coming worthy of the next blockbuster revenge film?

Notice that Jesus does NOT tell his disciples to run around and figure out who is responsible for his execution on a cross so that when the time is right, all heaven is going to break loose.  We can thank wild interpretations of the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation for this line of thought.  We can thank our own human taste for revenge too.

I was on the phone with my mother the other day.  She had muted the news when I called and had been listening to the verdict coverage of Mr. Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.  As we spoke, she suddenly broke in with, “He’s been given the death penalty…He’s been given the death penalty…it’s in big, flashing, red letters on the screen!”  And then we were quiet.

My friends, there’s a fine line between justice, consequence, and the sweet taste of revenge. We crave it like the disciples and end up on the razor’s edge – teetering precariously between righteous anger and unholy retribution.  Let’s be aware of that razor’s edge as we talk about what’s going on for Boston, the bombing victims, and Mr. Tsarnaev.

Here’s something to consider.  The uber-angry God riding in on the clouds that gets depicted in artwork, novels, and films does NOT line up with Jesus’ words and ministry.  Again, Jesus is talking about repentance, forgiveness, and witnessing. It’s what he began talking about with John the Baptist, what he died talking about, and what he ascended talking about.  How are we not getting this?!!

After Jesus speaks with the disciples, the end of the Acts reading goes on to say:

“…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

“…the same way…”  Hmmm….  Could the “same way” mean not on a cloud but rather mean publically and visibly?  Perhaps like the public and visible Holy Spirit swooping in with the sound of rushing wind and the likes of fire.[6]  Second coming and rapture theology is so pervasive in the culture-speak of apocalypse that it’s easy to miss Jesus’ words and miss Jesus altogether. Is it really so much easier to think that Jesus is coming again on a cloud rather than that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit just a week later, publically and visibly kicking off the ministry of the church to witness to the power of forgiveness?!

Friends of God, beautiful and flawed Theophili, we have been tasked to this ministry of witness.  Our witness of Jesus’ ministry of repentance and forgiveness.  The power and glory of Christ is revealed through the power and glory of forgiveness.  Forgiveness that is so threatening, so powerful, that Jesus was put to death for it.  This is the Jesus we worship, who draws us through our worship to joy.[7]  Jesus who is “the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”[8]

Friends of God, beautiful and flawed Theophili, this IS good news indeed!  Alleluia and amen.

 

[last Bible reading, sermon references follow]

Ephesians 1:16-23  I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann website: http://www.walterbrueggemann.com/resources/books/books-by-walter-brueggemann/

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ascension of Our Lord 2014 on WorkingPreacher.org – http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=514

[3] Luke 24:47-48

[4] Acts 1:5

[5] Acts 1:8

[6] Acts 2:2-4

[7] Luke 24:52

[8] Ephesians 1:22-23

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason [OR Radical Inclusion is the Religious Freedom of the Cross] – John 18-19

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason – John 18-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Good Friday on April 3, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings excerpted from John 18-19]

John 18:15-18, 25b-27   Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

John 19:16-18, 25b-30, 40-42 Then [Pontius Pilate] handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40 [Joseph of Arimathea] took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

[sermon begins]

 

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday confronted with our own mortality.  Ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross and we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  A glaring reminder that life on the planet, our baptismal journey, ends in death.

Death leaves us longing for the spiritual. But in the meantime, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet.  From where we sit on this side of death there is no dressing it up.  At the bedside or roadside or war-side, wherever we encounter death, it is stark, austere, and unnerving in its lack of immediate meaning.  Death is simply absence.  Gone.  On this side of death, it is nothing more.

We begin Lent faced with our own mortality and a sign of the cross.  At the end of Lent this Good Friday, we are confronted by the cross itself.  Longing for the spiritual, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet after the betrayal, denial, ridicule, and execution.  The adrenalin fades.  The frantic hype is gone.  “It is finished.”  Jesus’ last words.  Finished.  All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.

But the quiet of death breeds disquiet. Unnerved by the immediate lack of meaning the attempts to make meaning begin immediately.  Centuries of Christian thought have produced atonement theory after atonement theory.  Some more satisfactory than others.  Regardless, Gerhard Forde argues that all of these theories hold us “in a false relation to God,” most often reducing Jesus’ death to an unsatisfactory commercial transaction.[1]

Time and again in the New Testament, Jesus’ death is explained simply as “for us”.[2]  That is all.  “For us.”  Which necessarily means that Jesus died “for you.”  Jesus died for you.

Jesus died for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Because isn’t that what Jesus did in his life here on earth?  With the authority of God, he announced forgiveness time and again, and time and again, until finally he was killed for it.  Forgiveness, already available, already announced by Jesus, was that for which Jesus was killed.  He spoke a word of forgiveness until he hung on a cross for it.  For you.

The hands of the betrayer, the hands of the denier, the hands of the ridiculer, the hands of the executioner.  Those hands are ours hands in all the ways we take things into our own hands.  Determined to put conditions on what God’s gives to us unconditionally, we cannot hear this word of forgiveness.  We can’t hear it for other people.  And we can’t hear it for ourselves.

The cross is God’s answer to the re-imagining of God that we do. That re-imagining that leaves us separate from God.  Oh, so you think you know who God is?  Well, what about a God who hangs dead on a cross and gets buried in a tomb rather than use divine power over and against the very creatures whom God loves. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  Jesus on the cross simultaneously reveals the scope of divine power poured out to reveal the depth of divine love as we are drawn toward God.  When the self-sacrificing love of God, given fully, is made known to you, when this message of divine love gets through to you, you are drawn by God back into relationship. [3]

With great intention, Jesus hangs on the cross.  And, in one of his final acts while still breathing, does something radical.  Jesus turns to his own mother and then to the beloved disciple and redefines their relationship with the cross in between them.  “‘Woman, here is your son…then he says to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

Not only does Jesus draw us into relationship with God through the cross but Jesus redefines our relationship with each other at the foot of the cross – standing with the cross between us, Jesus intervenes.  Drawn back into the relationship with God our Father, Jesus the Christ turns us towards each other in a new way.  And God knows the world needs us to be with each other differently than we are at the moment.  Look as close as the cranky person next door or exclusion laws masquerading as religious freedom in several of these United States.  And look as far away as murder by plane crash in the French Alps or execution across religious differences at the Garissa University in Kenya.  We need every bit of help we can get to stand down and stand with each other.  As Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[4]

At the cross, love is freely taken up for us and for the sake of the people next to us.  In the same moment, we have everything to do with what happened at the cross and we have nothing to do with it.  We are culpable AND we are passive spectators who are being handed a stark realization of our common powerlessness.  In this way, the cross cannot be used as a method to live life.  The cross is the way we experience life.  Longing for the spiritual, we are often stunned by its lack.  Yes, the cross is the way we experience life.  Humbled by our participation in a death on a cross, made confident through the self-sacrificing love of God.  The cross is radically inclusive of all people which necessarily includes you.

Jesus says, “It is finished.”  Can you hear the whisper?  Finished.  His final moment. All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.[5]

 



[1] Gerhard O. Forde.  A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2004), 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 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).

[4] Anne Lamott.  Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

[5] On Good Friday, cross and tomb are the focal point so that hope is reflected out of suffering that is real rather than as false optimism denying painful realities.

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

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

Caitlin Trussell on September 14, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church

 

[sermon follows the Bible readings from Matthew and Romans]

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7