Tag Archives: God

Expectations, Envy, and Complaint [OR That’s God and That’s Good] Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:2-15

**sermon art: Manna in the Wilderness by Paul Oman

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 20, 2020

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

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

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

[sermon begins]

What does it look when you’re fragile and whiny? My own pity parties are inelegant at best and downright annoying at worst. Even I get tired of myself when I’m in the depths of one. In our family, we have an epic pity party that we still talk about. I have our 21-year-old daughter’s permission to share it with you. Taryn was little, maybe three or four years old. She had developed an escalating habit of inconsolable meltdowns. We instituted a family policy that meltdowns could happen in the privacy of her room and she could come out of her room anytime she was ready to be around people. Her door was wide open. My sister was over one day, and Taryn had a meltdown. Off to her room she was sent. From the kitchen we could hear Taryn crying, “Anybody loves me…ANYBODY LOVES ME!” Critique of our parenting aside, Taryn was onto something true. When we’re in the throes of a pity party, we can wonder if anybody loves us. Taryn’s meltdown subsided enough that she and I could do the needed mop up and reassuring loves and snuggles.

The Israelites complaints weren’t as epic as Taryn’s in this mother’s eyes, but they were substantial enough that they would rather have died as fed slaves in Egypt than continue another day hungry in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron had listened to their complaining without the luxury of being able to send them to their room to regroup. That’s okay though, because God heard their complaining and arranged for manna to collect like frost on the ground every morning. To which the Israelites asked, “What is it?” It’s their question that captures me.

“What is it?” is an appropriate question when you get what you need but not what you hope for or expect. The Israelites were nostalgic for their slavery and full bellies after a month of being free and hungry in the wilderness. They were in uncharted territory both literally and metaphorically. Their identity as a people had undergone a seismic shift that would take time and learning to navigate.[1] In the meantime, they complained…and complained…and complained…and complained. They threw an epic pity party blaming Moses and Aaron. God heard their complaint and responded. God showed the Israelites that they did not travel alone through the wilds of the wilderness and neither do we. It’s just that in the wilderness, it becomes more difficult to believe that God’s giving, sustaining, and prayer-hearing are true.[2]

One of my seminary professors tells a story about a friend of his.[3] She was going through an incredibly hard time sustained by the grace of the church around her. Their love, prayer, and encouragement didn’t make the situation any less difficult. When he asked her how she was doing she said, “Well, the Lord’s given me manna.” Closer to home in real time, we had a Church Council meeting this past week. Our meetings open with a devotion from a member of the Council and last week’s was led by our youth representative, Grace. She briefly described her experience since the pandemic began, her needed break at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp this summer, and the daily devotions from her week at camp. How God sees the good – the good in us and the good in other people that we have a hard time seeing. The campers were challenged to take the week’s messages back down the mountain. For Grace, the message lasted more than her usual week or two after camp and it’s still percolating in her as she’s able to see things like a sunset in her rearview mirror on a frustrating drive to soccer practice and say, “That’s God and that’s good.” She then asked Council to share moments when we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.” As I listened and shared, it occurred to me that Grace had answered the Israelite’s manna question. They asked, “What is it?” When Moses replied that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” he could just as easily have answered, “That’s God and that’s good.”

My professor’s friend described her experience of being sustained by the grace of her church people as the manna in the Bible story. “The Lord’s given me manna,” she said. She was sustained by what was needed even if not wanted or expected. Our expectations can catch us by surprise as they escalate unconsciously. Sometimes we’re not even aware we have expectations until they’re dashed. Take the workers in the vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew reading. Why did the workers who’d been in the vineyard all day expect that they would get paid more than their peers who came to work at the end of the day? They were filled with envy and complaint rather that being able to say, “That’s the manna that the Lord has given me,” or “That’s God and that’s good.”

This isn’t about ignoring injustice and using the name of God in vain to justify inequity. This is about what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us about ourselves and about God’s radical grace that defies our expectations – especially in our daily wilderness walk through pandemic, politics, and race. And maybe more specifically, what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us in our experience of being the church in the daily wilderness walk of being separated for now to keep each other healthy and well. Is our manna a few brief weeks of outdoor worship – masked, silent, and distanced during worship together? Is our manna weekly online worship with monthly communion at home if we have that access, or a weekly mailing of scripture, sermon, and a monthly home communion liturgy if we aren’t online?[4] Is our manna the online One at 1:00 devotions recorded by staff every Tuesday and Thursday? Is our manna talking over the phone to check-in with each other rather than in-person to keep each other safe? Is our manna conducting ministry meetings online with Zoom to continue the ministry of the church?

Manna can be a term to describe anything that’s a gift yet feels insufficient because a year ago our lives looked very different whether we’re in school, working, unemployed, retired, or in our last years. We’re in that slog of in-between time, squeezed between the departure from those old norms and arrival at our destination post-pandemic. Much like the Israelites who left what they knew behind when they departed Egypt and had yet to arrive at their destination.[5] We’re challenged as a faith community to see the manna and say, “That’s God and that’s good.”

We’re similarly challenged as individual Jesus followers praying for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pause to identify what God sees as good in our neighbor rather than meticulously cataloguing our neighbor’s faults. Maybe just as important, we can pause to glimpse what we can describe as “That’s God, and that’s good.” And as a faith community, we can help each other, our children, and our neighbors do that too so that we can say from our own experience and with the confidence of the Psalmist, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[6] Thanks be to God, and amen.

Song after the Sermon

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy – ELW Hymnal #588

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[2] Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 for September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573

[3] Rolf Jacobson. Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[4] Online worship with Augustana can be found at AugustanaDenver.org/worship or https://www.facebook.com/augustanadenver/

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

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Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de- | clare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.

Psalm 23, A Faithful Essential [OR What Might It Mean That God “Prepares a Table Before Me In The Presence of My Enemies” In Light of Covid19] and John 10:1-10

**sermon art: Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners — Sieger Köder d. 2015

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

Good Shepherd Sunday – May 3, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Psalm 23 (King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

See end of sermon for John 10:1-10

[sermon begins]

[Spoken in a British accent]

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…[1]

[Spoken in my regular voice.]

And on it went in my 9th grade drama class – The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost in Queen’s English. The assignment was to memorize a written passage and recite it in an accent not our own. I chose this poem because it was in a handy book on a shelf at home AND it was short. In a surprising economy of words, poetry completes a topic in a puzzle of order and wildness.[2] For instance, here’s a fun fact about the poem that is Psalm 23 – it’s written with only 55 Hebrew words.[3] Another fun fact, the 28th word in the very middle is the word “you” as in “you [the Lord] are with me.” One more, the word “Lord” is repeated in the opening and closing lines with an otherwise unusual lack of repetition for a psalm.[4]

Poetically, it’s as if the psalmist was given a fifty-five key word jumble and challenged to communicate how the Lord is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. With extreme brevity, the psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. While there’s warmth and light, there’s also a valley of shadow and death, the presence of enemies, and courage in the face of evil. This is NOT false optimism. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust – trust in God during the full experience of crisis.[5] It’s beloved sacred scripture for Jews and Christians. It’s also well-known in pop culture as it turns up in movies and memes. The poetic craft alone is impressive even if it wasn’t one of the essentials in a life of faith.

Essential has new meaning in these Covid days. The debate is intense about what qualifies as essential. For Christians, one essential listed in the Gospel of John reading is Jesus’ encouragement to know his voice. We learn to recognize his voice in Gospel readings Sunday after Sunday AND in texts that have stood the test of time across the generations of the faithful. Psalm 23 is one such text. Many of our elders in the faith were taught to memorize and recite it. Even with significant memory loss, this psalm and Lord’s Prayer can be easily recalled. Psalm 23 is a poem and prayer of trust that we can turn to in times that make no sense. Times like today.

Given today’s pandemic, there’s one line in the psalm that nags at me. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What might it mean for God to set a table for us in the presence of Covid19 – a microscopic enemy? There have been pages and pages and memes and articles written about this particular enemy. By enemy, I don’t mean that the virus has conscious evil intentions. Viruses, like all living things, simply function to keep living. It’s a stretch to ascribe malice to them. But Covid19 is an enemy to our bodies and to our life together. We depend on everyone working in harmony to lessen the risk of infection for the most vulnerable and ease the burden on hospital workers. We learn terms like R0 (R0 or R-naught) to understand how many people each of us can potentially infect.[6] We’ve learned quickly that people we love can carry this enemy just as easily as people we don’t like at all. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

I was talking with one of my favorite checkers in the grocery store last week. Through our masks, we gave each other quick updates and shared frustrations. She told me about a customer who started screaming at other shoppers who were not wearing masks. He escalated to a point just shy of a 911 call. The manager talked him into leaving the store. On top of the viral threat for essential workers, they’re also vulnerable to people’s frayed nerves and overreactions. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

In that light, what might it mean for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our coronavirus enemy?  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came so that those who hear his voice “may have life and have it abundantly.” More broadly in the Gospels, Jesus loves, heals, and challenges the people he encounters. His voice is consistent with these actions while also compassionate and confident. He did not respond to mockery and suffering with insult and threat – he trusted God in all things.[7] And he continued to love people despite our self-serving, wicked ways. In his voice echoing through our baptism as the Body of Christ, he calls us to love people too – despite our and everyone else’s self-serving, wicked ways. In this way, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and guides us there by Jesus’ voice. It’s a table of trust in God, set with compassion for others, and filled with confidence to say hard things in love.

As a Jew, Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were essential. He knew them inside and out – even quoting Psalm 22 from the cross.[8] When we learn the psalms and pray them, we join the praying Christ.[9]  And we learn to hear his voice. Psalm 23 is short. It’s in a Bible or cell phone near you. Memorize it this week. Pray it daily. Make it a part of your faithful essentials. It’s a psalm of trust which means that it evokes God’s promise of being with us even in the face of invisible enemies, suffering, and trauma.[10] Through Psalm 23 we learn Jesus’ voice AND we are assured that the valley of the shadow of death does not have the last word. God does.

Now receive this blessing

With the Lord as your shepherd, may your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the shadowed valley of death, as God is with you.

And may Christ’s compassion and confidence guide you at God’s table prepared in the presence of your enemies,

as goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long.  Amen.[11]

_______________________________________________________

[1] Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 131.

[2] Ibid., vi.  It’s worth reading Robert Frost’s full reflections about poetry in his introduction “The Figure A Poem Makes.”

[3] James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern University. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – July 19, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2531

[4] Ibid. These fun facts are summarized from Dr. Mead’s commentary.

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – March 26, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185

[6] Robert Pearl, M.D.  “3 Coronavirus Facts Americans Must Know Before Returning to Work, School” – April 21, 2020 Forbes Online.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/04/21/3-coronavirus-facts/?fbclid=IwAR01vkcKTgHC2d3ZGXPTGCe9Gg73RHaw2_ehbjqDQ3AXPNQqmNJwFPufkOk#77169f114721

[7] Janette Ok, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University. Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25 for Working Preacher – May 3, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4447

[8] Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46

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

[10] Ibid., Jacobson.

[11] I wrote this blessing by paraphrasing Psalm 23.

________________________________________________________________

John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Look, Listen, and Lighten Up [OR Transfiguration of the Dazzling Light and Dead Ancestors Kind] Matthew 17:1-9

**sermon art: The Transfiguration of Christ by Earl Mott (b. 1949)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 23, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

I have a Christian friend who gets on a lot of high horses about things Christians tend to do without thinking about them. In the middle of whatever roll he’s on at the moment, he’ll often wing out an alternative option to whatever thing it is that we do. One such high horse has to do with bowing our head and closing our eyes to pray. [I know, nothing is off limits to this guy.]  His take is that we should look around or up during prayer because God is out there. As with a lot of my church friends, this guy gives me challenging things to think about. So, I gave some thought to why I close my eyes when I pray, or when the psalm is chanted, or when listening to a sermon, or when singing a familiar hymn. And here’s the God’s-honest-truth. It’s just too easy for me to get distracted and start thinking about other things when I really want to focus on that one thing. I close my eyes to focus on that one thing more closely before I’m razzle-dazzled into distraction. I close my eyes to see, focusing on the other senses and allowing a moment of thought without the visual distraction.

The festival of Jesus’ Transfiguration distracts with all its dazzle. It’s one of the weirder Bible stories with the light show and the dead ancestors making an appearance.  Some people just need to get through it. Skipping the entire story and moving on to the next one. I’m going to invite a different strategy. Confronted by dazzling light, the disciples fell on the ground cowering away from the light and the voice from heaven. But Jesus came over and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  When they looked up, everything and everyone was gone but Jesus. Jesus, the Beloved Son. Jesus, the One to whom we should listen. Listening takes focus – hence that “closing our eyes to see” thing. Listening also takes a lack of fear. We don’t listen well when we’re afraid. The movie Gifted has a scene that is an example of this kind of listening.[1] A single man, Frank, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary. At one point he tells her, “No more math today” and swoops her outside for some fresh air. They’re on a beach, silhouetted by the setting sun. Mary’s twirling and bending around as Frank holds her hand. She asks about God and receives a lot of “I don’t know” replies from her uncle. He doesn’t wig out. He doesn’t try to answer when he doesn’t know the answer. He stays chill as she asks her questions. Then she says, “What about Jesus?” Her uncle answers, “Love that guy; do what he says.”  Frank’s answer doesn’t come from a place of faith for the character. Just a calm and honest reply, “Love that guy; do what he says.”

The uncle’s words parallel the voice from the heavens that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.”  The uncle’s words. “Love that guy; do what he says.”  The Hebrew understanding of the word “listen” is linked to obedience – listening to obey what is heard.[2]  “Love that guys; do what he says.” What’s first thing Jesus says after the heavenly voice speaks? “Get up and do not be afraid.” Part of what we do for each other in worship together is exactly Jesus’ reminder. Week after week we remind each other to get up and not be afraid. Not because things aren’t scary. Not because we shouldn’t take our suffering neighbor seriously. But because Jesus calls us into life free of fear. In essence, Jesus tells us to look up and lighten up as we follow him into dire situations on behalf of our neighbor.

We’ve been in the season of Epiphany since after Christmas. Epiphany emphasizes the light of Christ shining in the darkness and now crescendos to a close today on a mountaintop in dazzling light. During this season, together we’ve confessed weekly in worship that, “We look to other lights to find our way.” The reason I mention this here is because we often look for light in all the wrong places to decrease fear. And there are so many shiny, dazzling lights out there promising to fix our fear or at least distract us from it. There are also the shiny, distracting lights out there that stoke our fear and tell us who to blame for it so that we both excuse ourselves from helping the people we feel don’t deserve our help and we need never look at the good, bad, and ugly of ourselves.  We humans can be so clever that way, blinding ourselves to the very things that Jesus calls us to see and do.

On the mountaintop, dazzled by Jesus’ light today, many of us wonder if there’s anything to the Transfiguration. Pausing on top of this mountain before our six-week journey through Lent to the cross that sits on a different hill.[3]  It’s one thing for Jesus to tell us to lighten up and to not be afraid. It’s another thing entirely to figure out being fearless together. And believe you me, figuring out fearless Jesus following in a 21st century urban setting full of shiny distractions is often a group project. So, what’s one thing a Jesus loving congregation can do? We’re going to roll down this dazzling mountain into Lent and into a book and conversation called “The City is My Monastery” by Richard Carter.

The good Reverend Carter is an Episcopalian priest who was trying to understand a life of faith in the razzle-dazzle of downtown London to live more deeply into the promises of peace offered by Jesus.[4] He found himself in London after living monastically for 15 years in the Solomon Islands. After the peace and quiet of the islands, he began to question if feeling the peace of Christ and the presence of God was possible in the 24/7 sirens and other city noise, in his ministry to the homeless and refugees, and in the bustling wonder of living among so many other humans. Out of his own monastic practices, he suggests rules of life that are actually life-giving. Prayers, stories, and ideas that hope to inspire our own faith and ideas, to discover the deeper values and the things that give us life.  Whether or not you read the book, there will be facilitated conversations between worship services or after 10:30 worship over soup to dig deeper into these rules of life together and ask questions along the way.

Loving Jesus, listening to him, and doing what he says can be a dicey proposition because for so many people it quickly becomes a way of validating ourselves and invalidating other people.  Rather than lightening up, we become heavy-handed and perpetuate the very fear that Jesus frees us from. The Transfiguration, in its weird, dramatic dazzle, is a moment in Jesus’ story that defies any attempt at certainty because it is pure mystery. The time-space continuum bends as ancestors and friends share space and light on the top of mountain. Whether we close or open our eyes, the Transfiguration resists explanation while drawing us to the light of God in Jesus and reminding us to look up, listen up, and lighten up.

Amen.

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[1] Gifted. (2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndaomDF4DMY

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Podcast for the Transfiguration on February 23, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232

[3] Ash Wednesday is Wednesday, February 26 this year. Lent ends April 11 with Easter on April 12.

[4] Richard Carter swapped a life of simplicity with an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands for parish ministry in one of London’s busiest churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Here’s a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaK6l4_Dqf8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0j4au_LTkGekE-o8lbvzzSN0xyZ-pHXjxKeR1ZDdFoyYwKEfb4lGlFYqM

A Celebration of Life for Liz Heins (1935 – 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020

Psalm 23   The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

John 10:14-18 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

[sermon begins]

 

Liz and I shared a time of prayer the day before she died.  Our Parish Nurse, Sue Ann, had visited in the days prior. They sang hymns and selected Liz’s favorites for today’s service. Sue Ann knew that Liz’s body didn’t have many days left to live.  When I walked in her room and said her name, she woke right up and smiled, saying “hi” in welcome. I reminded her who I was, and she said she remembered me.  She said that, yes, she’d like the prayers that we pray in people’s last days.  She reached out and gently held my hand as the prayers unfolded during the next several minutes, speaking several words of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with me.  Truly, it was one of the sweetest end-of-life moments I’ve encountered over the last 30 years. It was made all the more sweet because I’ve known Liz for the last seven years. Many of us here today knew her to be a tough, straight-talking person without much of a need to soft-shoe anything she had to say.

A few days after she died, Rich and I were able to share the wonder of those last weeks of Liz’s life that seemed to soften her. After months of decline, there was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life. But the conversation also felt like a pause. A pause that allowed some time to reflect on how Liz moved through the world for so many years and how that shifted and softened.  In a few hand-written letters that Rich gave Sue Ann, it was touching to read how much one of her students missed her after the student moved away.  It’s good to remember all the facets of Liz as she lived her 84 years.

It’s good to remember because there’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He doesn’t tally.  If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask, “Have I done enough to make myself right with God?!”  It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love as Jesus lays his life down. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, because we have peace and grace we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Liz into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Liz.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

Seek. Find. Joy. Repeat. [OR What’s Up in the Lost and Found?] Luke 15:1-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17

**sermon art:  “Lost Sheep – Lost Coin” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

[sermon begins]

My son made me a bracelet.  The class assignment had to be an original design and solder two kinds of metal together.  He chose copper and silver, balanced symmetry and asymmetry in the design, soldered and sanded the metals, and presented me with the finished product.  The bracelet had a toggle clasp to hold it on my wrist.  A toggle clasp is cool looking, but it can slip loose if you jostle it just so.  On my way home from Costco one day, hands in that 9-and-3 on the steering wheel, I realized it was no longer on my wrist.  Almost home, I ran my groceries inside and headed back to Costco where I retraced my path.  Didn’t find it.  Went to customer service and, lo and behold, someone had found it and turned it in.  I could NOT believe it!  Happy-happy-joy-joy!  A small thing but a whole lotta love embedded in it. Search. Found. Joy.  (And, yes, toggle clasp out, new clasp in.)

Joy is one of the highlights in the gospel reading today.  The shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep (v6).  The woman who finds her lost coin, a day’s wage gone missing, rejoices with her friends (v9).  And we haven’t even gotten to the story of the Prodigal Son that comes in the next verses and completes the trifecta of lost and found things in the next few verses.[1]  Take a peek at Luke 15 in the pew Bible in front of you.  Note how chapter 15 ramps up the lost stories each time.  There is so much joy that it can’t help but be shared. The shepherd who finds his sheep “calls together his friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with him.  The woman who finds her coin “calls together her friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with her.  The father runs wildly to his returning son, kisses him, kills the fatted calf, and celebrates with a dance party.

Friends, neighbors, and households are not the only ones partying in these parables.  Jesus adds that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  We heard a bit about the joy of the angels in our Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship today.  We heard that “For the sake of Jesus Christ ☩ your sins are forgiven” and then were invited to “rejoice with the angels at this good news.” Now THAT is a cool image – angels celebrating on our behalf. It’s counter-cultural to jump into anything with a confession of wrongdoing on our lips.  So much so that some people ask why we have a part of our worship that makes us sound so bad.  I argue that we start with the truth and the truth is that we can be as dumb as that sheep, as slippery as that coin, and as disobedient as that son. We’re sinners and we know it.  Sin is deeper than the hurtful things we do to others and ourselves. Sin is the breach, the distance, that is between us and God. Sin has us thinking we can save ourselves by finding ourselves.

Along the line of finding ourselves, a tourist group in Iceland lost track of a fellow traveler at a volcanic landmark.  A search was organized once the woman was verified missing.  50 members of the tour group joined the search while the Icelandic coast guard scrambled a helicopter.  They searched well into the night until one woman in the search and rescue group realized that everyone was searching for her and told the local police who called off the search.  It was about 3 o’clock in the morning.  The problem occurred when she had broken off from the group earlier in the day to change her clothes.  Her description was generic enough that she didn’t recognize herself in it.  The news headline was spot on:  “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After an Intense Search.” [2]  It’s a perfect headline for our topic at hand, really.

The language of “finding ourselves” is an old one.  We thrive on thinking things through to the essence of self.  Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Among the Intellectuals,” gets at this tendency to think things down to the last thought.  He describes being “thought-provoking, as if thought were an animal” to be poked with a stick.  After illustrating his own experience of intellectual posturing, he writes:

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;
blind, really blind;
stupid, really stupid;
dry, really dry;
hungry, really hungry;
and you go on from there.[3]

The poet’s words strike a chord in the current culture of snark posing as savvy and irony masquerading as intelligence.  The dizzying intellectual acrobatics leave in their wake a longing for earnest joy and hoping for a moment of the absurd and even ridiculous.  Sublime is good but sometimes silly is what’s needed.  And that’s what we get in Jesus’ parables.  Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  You know what the answer is to that ridiculous question?  No shepherd would do that.  It’s absurd to even consider leaving your livelihood of 99 sheep in the wilderness to hunt down a single lost sheep.  Then Jesus asks, “…what woman having ten sliver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  The answer?  No woman would spend more money on lamp oil worth more than the coin she is looking for.  It’s ridiculous even to consider being that wasteful.

Jesus’ parables don’t leave the lost to find themselves.  Lost things simply don’t have that kind of capacity.  The seeking begins with God – from the cosmic to the particular in the person of Jesus; from Creator to creation to creature; from God to us.  God is not irresistible.  Many of us wander off, slip away, or run from God.  Our self-centeredness knows no bounds.  But God relentlessly pursues us through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  And God’s joy is exuberant when reconciliation happens between us and God.  Joy is part of God’s character and the angels rejoice in kind.

Finding the lost, no matter the cost, makes the angels jump for joy with the one who searches and finds.  One wonders if the search and the celebration cost more than the lost objects were worth.[4]  In that regard, the opening line of the gospel reading is even more compelling.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].”  Not just some. All. Not only the tax collectors. Also, the sinners. It’s an absurd excess of people.  I’m sure the grumbling religious elite WERE perturbed by the party crashers. But imagine what the sinners and tax collectors felt by being included around Jesus’ table. Just for a moment, imagine their joy. If imagining the joy of the sinners a stretch, take a look at Paul writing to Timothy in our second reading today.  Here he confesses to perpetrating violence. Elsewhere, we are told he was killing Jesus followers.  Then he had a come to Jesus moment.[5]  He had his own story of being lost and found, his own story of joy.  I’ve heard some of your stories including your joy.  There’s nothing like those moments of being found.

Rarely is being found a once and done experience.  Oh sure, our baptisms happen once.  But the experience of being in a push me/pull you with God happens over a lifetime. Often the stories defy being put into words that make sense to other people although I’d argue we should keep trying to find those words.  Often our own stories parallel elements of Jesus’ parables either by being dumb as a sheep, slippery as a coin, or disobedient as a son. Sometimes, our stories include all three.  Our joy at being found is a drop in the bucket of the joy of God who searches for us, risking God’s whole self in the search.  We are never beyond God’s relentless grace.

________________________________________________

[1] Luke 15:11-32

[2] Casey Glynn. “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After Intense Search.” CBS News. August 30, 2012. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-woman-finds-herself-after-intense-search/

[3] (Many thanks to John Pederson for posting this gem.)  Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). “Among the Intellectuals.” The New Yorker: September 2, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/among-the-intellectuals

[4] Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Assistant Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University. Commentary on Luke 15:1-10 for September 15, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165

[5] Acts 9:1-19

Christmas: The Hope, History, and Mystery of God With Us – Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

**sermon art: The Nativity by Julius Gari Melchers, 20th century

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Gospel of John. The reading from the Gospel of Luke may be found at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

In those hope-filled moments and hours before a baby arrives, time slows down. One breath, then the next, and then the next.  Breath – hope – breath – hope… Breathing paced around a woman’s body doing the work of labor.  Beyond breath, muscles that aren’t doing the work of birthing can be rested in between contractions that run on their own timing with increasing urgency.  People around the birthing mother can make all the difference in mood and tricky delivery moments with umbilical cords and pushing at the right times, but the bottom line is that the baby arrives in its own time, refocusing our attention from mother to child.  Taking its first breath. Crying its first cry.  Swaddled in its first cloths.  Held in its first arms.

Here we are, Christmas Day, remembering when Jesus was born in time, focusing our attention on one small, holy, hope-filled family.  Mary who labored and birthed as a new mother.  Joseph who stood by as an earthly father.  Jesus who arrived, breathed, cried, and was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  This is the story we sing about at Christmas. The story in the Gospel of Luke that has all the memorable characters including angles, shepherds, and sheep.  The story where God shows up in time in what we call the incarnation – God taking human form to be the long-promised Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmastime is about God showing up at a particular moment in time.  It’s about the God of history.  The God of history that made promises through Abraham and Moses and then expanded those promises to all people with the birth of Jesus who is hope cradled in history.

History is something we like to know and investigate.  History is time-bound.  History makes us hope for Johnny-on-the-spot reporting so we can know things for certain.  This hope turns into things like the song, “Mary Did You Know?”  We want to know what Mary knew and when she knew it, the story behind the history.  Truly, though, we know so little even as we hope for so much.  Even the four gospel writers are somewhat contradictory in their stories.[1]   Which brings us to the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  To paraphrase Genesis, in the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[2]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[3]   If Luke gives us hope and history, John gives us hope and mystery with his cosmic poetry.  Talk of Word made flesh is full of hope. John’s “Word made flesh” language catches our attention because, well, who talks like that?! High stakes apparently call for attention grabbing poetry.

The stakes are high because we’re talking about God keeping God’s promise to be present in and for the world through the act and sustenance of creation.  Our life, our breath, our hope rest in these promises which are revealed from the grace of creation through the grace of God’s new creation in Jesus through the grace of his unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, or race through the grace of his death on the cross to the ultimate grace of new life together in the great cloud of witnesses from all times and places.  This litany of grace is hope.  As I wrote it, and as I speak it now, I inhale it like air that gives life.  We are not left to our own devices and the messes we make of things.  We are called into the grace of God who makes new life possible.  From cradle to cross to new life, there is the hope and mystery of God’s presence in the midst of our pain, hope and mystery of God infusing our day-to-day moments so that our joy may be complete, and hope and mystery of being with our loved ones again one day.

Today, we spend time together with all the baggage we brought into the sanctuary with us as we sing the familiar and well-loved songs of Christmas.  As we sing, pray, and share communion, we are filled with breath and hope by the God of history who was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms; and we are filled with breath and hope by the God of mystery who breathed life into being and is here with us now.  As people who receive this good news of history and mystery, we live as people of hope by the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.[4]

__________________________________________________________

[1] Christian scripture, known in the Bible as the New Testament, contains four books called the Gospels meaning “good news.”  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

[3] John 1:1, 4-5, and part of v14.

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

___________________________________________________________

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

[15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

 

Are You Ready?  [Hang With Me Here – It’s a Personality Test, Not a Scorecard]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke 1:68-79  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[sermon begins]

“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile.  She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good.  Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future.  If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me.  Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy.  “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Some of you, I know, are all over it.  Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent.  Menus planned.  You name it and you’re on it.  You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness.  Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz.  What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season.  For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation.  I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago.  My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.

In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys.  We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much.  Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone.  All flesh.  All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.

Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter.  Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today.  Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.

The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story.  The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world.  One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God.  It wasn’t always tidy or easy though.  Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age.  The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born.  His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.

Why does any of this matter?  Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism.  The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine.  The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently.  The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.

Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus.  Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait.  We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John.  Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.  And amen.

 

Provoking Love [OR Little Red Corvette, Mondegreens, and Biblical Misinterpretation] Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-25

**sermon art:  1973 Red Corvette Stingray by Candace Nalepa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 18, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:1-8 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Hebrews 10:11-25 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

[sermon begins]

My family razzes me from time-to-time for singing the wrong lyrics to songs.  You’re all familiar with Prince’s 1983 hit, “Little Red Corvette?”[1]  Yours truly, hair-sprayed bangs and all, sang it wrong for much too long as “Cigarette Collect.” [sing “Cigarette Collect” to tune of “Little Red Corvette”].  See, it works in a weird sort of way but it sadly makes no sense whatsoever.  I’m a master at mishearing lyrics and singing them with gusto.  Try this question in a group of people, “What is a lyric you’ve sung wrong or the funniest lyric fail you’ve heard?”  The fails are epic and hilarious – a fun way to laugh at ourselves and each other that’s pretty harmless.  I looked up lyric fails this week and cracked up all over again reading them.  Except, they’re not called lyric fails.  They’re called Mondegreens.[2]  Mondegreens come from a 1950s mondegreen made by American writer Sylvia Wright listening to her mother read a favorite poem:

Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands/ Oh, where hae ye been?  They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.”[3]

Sylvia heard her mother say Lady Mondegreen when the actual poetry was that they had taken the Earl and Laid-Him-On-The-Green.  Similarly, some children think God’s name is Hal and begin their nightly prayers this way, “Our Father who art in heaven, Hal would (hallowed) be thy name…”  The possibilities for mondegreens are endless.

Mondegreens happen because our brains are quickly filling in blanks while processing information.  We hear sounds and combine them with context and knowledge.  This may partly explain why my young brain heard “cigarette collect” out of “little red corvette” – no context and limited knowledge.  Let’s go with that, shall we?  Regardless, something similar happens with scripture.  We hear the Bible’s words, slot them into our context and knowledge and poof(!) – interpretation and life application.  The resulting thought and behavior range from the hilarious to the glorious to the horrific.  Thank you, Martin Luther.  One of his great achievements was translating the Bible into the common language so that everyday people could read it and the priests could no longer control it – 16th century Power to the People.  Alongside this achievement, we can also lay Luther’s misguided anger with Jews based on how he misinterpreted the Bible and his anti-Semitic writings used by Hitler.  Hitler’s use of Luther’s work during the Holocaust led to the ELCA’s 1994 repudiation of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, expressing deep regret for their consequences, and reclaiming the desire to live in “love and respect for Jewish people.”[4]  Luther’s misinterpretation was no harmless mondegreen.

Mondegreen lyric fails are one thing.  Misinterpretation of scripture, armed for bear with our biases, is quite another – bringing us to the gospel reading from Mark. People read about these “wars, and rumors of wars…earthquakes…and famines” taking place and unconsciously connect them with Hollywood’s version of apocalypse.[5]  Some Christians even go so far as to see their task as bringing about this end-time blaze of glory.  This mission is not solely housed in fringe groups.  It shows up in political saber rattling and environmental apathy.  Think about it – if end times equal the end of the planet then everything is disposable.  Blaze-of-glory thinking makes faithful, thoughtful interpretation about this kind of scripture so critical. And makes Jesus’ closing words in verse 8 something to notice.  Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[6]  Birth pangs.  Birth is a word of hope. Birth means something new is coming.  Something is being born.  Christian scripture sends a message of radical healing of creation – a new heaven and a new earth “brought together in a lasting embrace.”[7]  This New Testament message sees salvation “in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share that new and gloriously embodied reality.” Jesus’ talks about birth pangs with his disciples which focuses this lens.

The gospel of Mark was first written to Jesus followers who lived through the actual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Rome was on the rampage, annihilating Jews and the earliest Jewish Christians.  It’s truly a wonder that the early church lived through Rome’s campaign against them.  Jesus’ words of hope give his followers something to hang on to during confusing and terrifying times without falling into despair.  Jesus’s words of hope also give us, his followers today, something to hang on to during challenging times without falling into despair.  The preacher in the Hebrews reading makes suggestions for the Jesus follower during challenging times as well. Listen once more to these verses:

“Approach [God] with a true heart in assurance of faith;

Hold fast to the confession of our hope;

And provoke one another to love.”[8]

Hmmm….faith, hope, and love…we might suspect that the preacher of Hebrews knew about 1 Corinthians 13.

Listen to this last bit of 1 Corinthians 13:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[9]

In Hebrews, faith in what God is doing on our behalf, on behalf of all creation, opens up our approach to God with confidence won through Jesus Christ.  This is not an invitation to meek humility.  We’re invited into bold confidence that Christ’s victory over sin allows our approach to God.  Not that sin is removed from our experience.  Rather, Christ allows for the possibility that sin could be removed from our experience.  This is a faith focused on God, the object of our faith, the means by which we catch glimpses of God as God draws us ever closer.[10]

These glimpses of God through the window of Christ inspire us to what the Hebrews preacher calls a confession of hope.  The Christ whose self-sacrificing death begins the birth pangs signaling God’s radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is not certainty. Our confession of hope is that God’s last word is life – life for you, me, everyone else, and all of creation.

If “our faith is what God has done; [and] our hope is what we confess,” so what of love? [11]  We hear in 1 Corinthians that out of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.  The writer of Hebrews tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Provoke love.  That’s not very flowery or prettied up for a wedding.  The love in 1 Corinthians 13 is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful; does not insist on its own way; does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.  This love bears, believes, endures, and hopes all the things. How do we understand this love in tension with provoking one another to love?  This is one example that is ripe for the type of misinterpretation that’s no mondegreen when we read our context and knowledge into the text rather than hearing Jesus out of the text.

Last week’s gospel reading from Mark had Jesus taking the religious leaders to task for exploiting poverty stricken widows, leaving them homeless. He stood to the side and directed his disciples to notice the widow giving “all she had to live on.”[12]  Was he provoking them to love?  What makes you feel provoked to love?  What kind of provocation to love wears you out when you hear it one more time?  Perhaps it’s the plight of coal workers whose jobs are gone or threatened by the new energy economy.  Perhaps it’s when someone raises the issue of income inequality as the wealthy get wealthier around the world while the poor get poorer as they’re paid non-living wages.  Perhaps it’s the desperation of farmers who can’t figure out how to get affordable food to your table while paying themselves and their migrant workers.  Perhaps it’s the issue of racial diversity, equality, and acceptance, around issues like corporate hiring or college admissions.  Or maybe it’s altogether closer to home – a spouse who asks for love from you only to be ignored; or a child who really just needs you to put away your phone and hang out for the evening.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to think about when you’re provoked to love and why that message bugs you so much.  Press pause on considering the problems with the message or the messenger who is provoking you.  Instead, ask what misinterpretations of this provocation to love might you be making? We’re all reading the Bible – the possibilities for misinterpretation are endless.  If we only read 1 Corinthians 13 and occasionally hear it at weddings, we may not know that the preacher in Hebrews is simultaneously urging us to provoke each other to love and good deeds.  We also tend to assign ourselves the role of provocateur when we think about provoking love.  We generally like to be the sender rather than the receiver who is provoked to love.

Here’s the deal though, the preacher of Hebrews is asking us to regularly meet together, encouraging each other through the difficulties and joys of faithful living in difficult times.  It’s easy to misinterpret scripture and, by extension, the One ultimately provoking us to love.  But our confession of hope points to the One who brings the radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is a gift to each other and a gift we bring the world in difficult times while we provoke each other to love.

Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

________________________________________________________

 

[1] Prince. Little Red Corvette. Album: 1999.

[2] Mondegreens, pronunciation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0FIISNVR7U

[3] Maria Konnikova. “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  The New Yorker, December 10, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/science-misheard-lyrics-mondegreens

[4] ELCA Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. Online Resources: Interfaith Resources. www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Online-Resources

[5] Mark 13:7-8

[6] Also Mark 18 verse 8.

[7] N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 19, 122, 142-144, 197

[8] Hebrews 10:22-24

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[10] Douglas John Hall. Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 248-254.

[11] Katherine A. Shaner, Asst. Professor of New Testament, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, N.C. Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-25 for November 18, 2018.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3909

[12] Mark 12:38-44

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

Disruptive Love with an Indulgent Dash of Lyle Lovett [Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings. If you only have patience for one, read the Acts reading.]

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

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

1 John 5:1-6 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

[sermon begins]

In a hilarious song called “Church,” there’s a preacher whose sermon is running waaayy long and

“…everyone was getting so hungry

that the old ones started feeling ill

and the weak ones started passing out

and the young ones they could not sit still.”[1]

Lyle Lovett sings from the viewpoint of a child whose stomach is growling for the potluck but the preacher keeps on preaching. At one point…

“…the preacher he stopped preaching

and a hush the church did fill

and then a great white dove from up above

landed on the window sill.”[2]

You’ll have to listen to the song to hear what happens next but suffice it say that everyone gets to go eat soon after getting disrupted by a great white dove and the preacher’s own hunger pangs.  Apparently that preacher isn’t the only preacher ever disrupted by the Holy Spirit from saying more.

Peter’s sermon in the reading from Acts gets shut down too. Except he hasn’t been preaching all that long – maybe a minute or two by the word count. He had been summoned by a man named Cornelius who “had called together his relatives and close friends” to hear about God.[3] Cornelius is “a centurion of the Italian cohort,”[4] NOT a circumcised Jew like the disciples with Peter. Peter’s sermon starts in the verses before our reading today with these words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”[5]  He continues preaching BUT, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”[6]  Confusion and chaos ensued. Into that disruption Peter asks the disciples with him, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So [Peter] ordered [Cornelius, his family, and his friends] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”[7]  Wait a minute, did the Holy Spirit come on those people before baptism?  Don’t we usually say the Holy Spirit is given in baptism?  Which is it?  Before?  After?  Both?  You may wonder who the heck cares about such things but there are Christian denominations that were started on less vexing questions.

Let’s do a quick review to catch us up along with the disciples with Peter. Way, way, way back in Genesis 12, near the very beginning of the Bible, God makes promises to man named Abrahm, later re-named Abraham. God told Abraham that, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[8]  God’s promises to Abraham are called the Abrahamic covenant.[9]  Circumcision was given at that time as a sign of God’s covenant.  Fast-forward through Moses and the 10 Commandments, through the prophets, and through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, to the baptism of Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends.  This is the moment that the larger Biblical story is careening toward.  This is the moment that God’s life in Jesus disrupts into the wild abandon of the Holy Spirit.  This is THE moment.  It’s not the only moment though.  We know that, of course.  But this moment is easy to miss because we don’t hang around in the book of Acts very often.

Disruptive love sees other people as equally beloved.  This can be tough because it reframes a lot of our interactions.  Small example. I was in the middle of drafting this sermon about disruptive love during the last few days at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I was taking my suitcase to the car and trying to get to breakfast and, most importantly, to that first cup of coffee. As I was winging through the hotel door, a gentleman saw my tell-tale green name tag.  He stopped me and asked me how I was enjoying the “conference.”  He then went on to tell me his church history and asked me about the Lutheran church.  Even in that moment, I found it ironic that I had just come from writing about the disruption of the Spirit and there I was, salivating at the thought of coffee, and obstructed in a doorway by someone who wanted to talk about faith and church.  That wily Holy Spirit has some sense of humor.

But there are other times that are more frustrating than humorous.  There are some of us who know disruptive love very well.  Parents in the pews who are worshiping with their little kiddos, for the sake of their kiddos, while they themselves are only catching every 5th word of the liturgy.  Others of us struggle to encounter other people with vulnerability and connection. The Gospel of John and the First John reading lead us into the even harder moments.  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[10]  Seems to me that death is the ultimate disruption – both for the dead and the living.  Jesus commands us to love out of his own self-sacrificing love.  Disruptive love is risk.  Risking reputation, comfort, and safety for people besides ourselves.

Peter gets a taste of these side effects of disruptive love – risking his reputation, comfort, and safety on behalf of the newly baptized Gentiles.  Peter and the disciples baptize Cornelius, his family, and friends and the newly baptized invite Peter “to stay for several days.”  Then Peter heads back to Jerusalem.  Criticism from his friends welcomes him.  Apparently it’s all fun and games until you start baptizing Gentiles and eating with them.  I invite you into a little homework for the week.  Read the chapters of Acts 10 and 11.  Go ahead and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. Write it down – Acts chapters 10 and 11. Think about who you believe belongs in the church and who doesn’t.  Also think about who you believe is worthy of attention by the church and who isn’t.  The Holy Spirit not only disrupts our ideas about good order; the Spirit also disrupts our biases. While you’re reading Acts 10 and 11, think about what God is doing through faithful people to disrupt what other faithful people think and do.

It’s tough to know the difference between sheer human agenda with a hefty dose of ego versus what might be the God thing. Chances are good that the God thing of disruptive love is incredibly uncomfortable for the people doing the God thing.  Remember, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That’s a pretty hefty amount of personal discomfort if you’re the ones laying your lives down.  Pick a word, any word, to describe the discomfort. Here’s a few…weird, nauseous, uncomfortable, scary, exposed, patronized, compromised, denied, betrayed, beaten, abandoned, assassinated…  Quite a list. Because when you do the self-sacrificing thing and not the self-protective thing, it’s not often that cozy warm-fuzzies await you.  That’s not the way it works. It’s not the way any of this works.  Although, let’s remember that it’s also not simply disruption for disruption’s sake.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus reminds us that this love shatters orthodoxy or creeds.  Much blood has been spilled over the centuries as various groups of Christians go after each other about right teaching and good order.  Jesus invites you into the love of the Father by loving you.  This is anti-orthodoxy.  It moves you beyond the attempt at right thinking and pulls you into the love of the God and love of Jesus, sending you to be what you’ve received by abiding in their love.  Your flesh and bone born of water and blood embodies the faith of Jesus for the sake of the world.[11]  You did not choose.  You, beloved of God, have been chosen.[12]  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.  Amen.

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[1] Lyle Lovett. “Church” in Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA/Curb, 1992). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZI0zO2TS1Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 10:24

[4] Acts 10:1

[5] Acts 10:34

[6] Acts 10:44

[7] Acts 10:47-48

[8] Genesis 12:1-3

[9] Genesis 15 includes more promises and the ritual of the covenant.

[10] John 15:13

[11] 1 John 5:6

[12] John 15:16