Tag Archives: God

Equality Is Not False Moral Equivalency (OR Those Meddling Midwives) Exodus 1:8-20a Romans 12:1-18 Matthew 16:13-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 27, 2017

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Exodus 1:8-20a    Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives

Romans 12:1-8   I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[sermon begins]

Conversation about eclipse glasses started weeks ago.  Mom would be visiting from Palm Springs so she’d offered to order enough for her, my family, and my sister’s family in Arvada.  Nine altogether.  Glasses in hand, she received the recall from Amazon that the glasses were bogus.  A kerfuffle developed in my safety conscious family until my sister the math teach connected with a science teacher down the hall.  Rest assured, these new ones would work.  And work they did.  I was here at the church during the eclipse.  My mom and I stood outside the sanctuary with our certified eclipse glasses and looked up, taking in 93% of totality beyond the bell tower.  Very cool.  And very fun to share this moment with Mom.

At a dinner party this week we heard from people who had seen the eclipse in totality – 100% of the moon in front of the sun.  They were able to remove their glasses for 2 ½ minutes and be wowed by the ring of the sun, solar flares, and a 360 degree sunset.  It sounds amazing.  One friend said that there is no comparison between totality and the 93% in town.  So while Mom and I were having our moment, other people were having a completely different one.  Apparently eclipse viewing is not created equal.  To be honest, this idea of equality has been on my mind recently.  No surprise that it would come to mind related to eclipse viewing.

It all started when a young friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago that he didn’t think people truly believed in equality.  Equality meaning that all people are of equal value in the human story.  Before these thoughts about equality were percolating, I’d already been thinking ahead about the Bible verses in Romans 12 and the Exodus story of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.[1]

The Romans letter gives us familiar reminders.  In verse 4, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” And, immediately in verse 5, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”  The Apostle Paul writes that we are “many” and “one” at the same time while also reminding us that we “differ.”  We can almost hear the squabbling and power plays among those Roman Christians to whom Paul is writing.

As people of faith, Paul’s argument lays down a challenge for us.  Do we believe in the equal value of prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and the compassionate as laid out in next verses?  And, if we do believe in their equal value, how do not create false moral equivalencies?  Moral equivalency means that we would hear everything that every prophet, minister, or teacher SAYS as having equal value.  One of the ways that we do this is by saying things like, “Well, I’m a sinner so what right do I have to call out someone else’s sin?”  Or, “Who do you think you are to decide who is on the side of right?”  These are important and often faithful questions, to be sure.  But let’s also think about the way scripture sets these questions in tension with clear moral outcomes.  The midwives in Exodus are one such example.

The midwives’ story is the alternate first reading in the lectionary for this Sunday.  Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite Bible characters. I simply can’t resist them when they pop up on the schedule. They are Hebrew midwives commanded by the Egyptian king to kill boy babies delivered by the Hebrew women.  “But the midwives feared God…they let the boys live.”[2]  The king confronts them and asks, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” Shiphrah and Puah reply, “[the Hebrew women] are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”[3]  I laugh every time I hear their reply to the king. The midwives are called to the work of life and they find a way even when the king commands them to be instruments of death.  There is no moral equivalency as told by this story. The king’s demand to kill the boy babies is wrong.  The midwives saving these babies is right.

God calls us into the work of life, too.  Like the apostle Peter, we follow “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When we see death, God sees resurrection life.  When others rationalize people’s suffering as something deserved or beyond anyone’s help, Jesus tells us that they are God-given neighbors for whom we are to care.  Sometimes resurrection life means live-births midwifed by Shiphrah and Puah. Sometimes resurrection life means giving money for hungry people to both eat and work toward feeding themselves.  Sometimes resurrection life means calling out white supremacy as an egregious legacy of chattel slavery in America.

As much as the U.S. Constitution and Christianity had to do with advancing Civil Rights in this country, the same could be said in the other direction. The U.S. Constitution and Christianity also keep the 400 year legacy of racism alive and well with embedded racial biases. I have no trouble claiming that paradox because I see myself as a microcosm of it.  One of the confessional claims of our faith tradition is that we are simul iustus et peccator which means we are saint and sinner at the same time.  Why wouldn’t it be so when it comes to racism as well?

René Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity through his studies of mimetic theory, scapegoating, and the Bible.[4] He died in 2015 at the age of 91. Girard expected to find consistency between other ancient texts and the Bible when it came to scapegoating.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.  He argued that scapegoating is a primitive urge for cathartic violence.  This simply means we feel better when we get rid of our identified bad guy(s). Violence escalates as the scapegoat is more clearly identified as the problem.  Peaceful feelings ensue once the scapegoat is removed or killed.  Problem solved.  Mr. Girard argued that Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat “condemned by all rightful authorities.”[5]  He also argues that the cross reveals scapegoating for its lie.  It doesn’t solve anything.

Let’s take scapegoating in our present moment.  For white supremacists, the scapegoats are black and Jewish. For other white people like me, white supremacists make easy scapegoats. By focusing on white supremacists, we absolve ourselves from the subtle ways we maintain racial bias in religion, government, law enforcement, real estate, education, and commerce.  The cross lifts a mirror towards all of us – convicting us of our own sin and turning us towards our neighbors. The cross of Christ levels the ground on which we stand. When we see hierarchy and power and race, God sees children – many children who make one body and who differ in their gifts by grace.

As God’s children, it’s good to wrestle with the question that Jesus asks, “…who do you say that I am?”[6] In fact, we are free to wrestle with that question because we are first and foremost children of God, baptized and set free. But God knows that the lives of our neighbors and, by extension, our own lives, are at stake in our answer to Jesus’ question.  Later in the Gospel according to Matthew we are challenged by Jesus to see his face on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, and the stranger – the scapegoats, if you will.  Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you might discern the will of God…”[7]  The Apostle Paul knows that we need reminding because we forget that we have a living God who shows up whenever death is chosen over life.[8]  Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”  We confess and remind each other, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Amen.

 

[1] Exodus 1:8-20a

[2] Exodus 1:17

[3] Exodus 1:19

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 16:15

[7] Romans 12:2

[8] Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher: “Speaking Up For A Living God.” On August 20, 2017 relating to lectionary Bible readings for August 27, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4955

God’s Kingdom and Will? No sweat. (OR The Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done On Earth As It Is In Heaven) John 18:33-38 Romans 5:1-10 Jeremiah 29:11-13a Psalm 145:8-17

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 30, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the two other readings may be found at the end of the sermon]

Romans 5:1-10   Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

John 18:33-38  Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

[sermon begins]

There’s a kind of conversation that happens when two people think they’re clear as a bell and really there are two different conversations happening at the same time.  My husband and I had one of those just the other day.  Rob had to leave the house early to meet clients in Cheyenne.  Before he hopped in the shower, he said to me, “Don’t turn off the coffee pot, okay?”  My clear-as-a-bell reply was, “How many cups of coffee have I had?”  He tipped his head a bit at me with that classic expression that silently asks, “Whaaat?!”  I made perfect sense to myself because I was wondering how likely it would be that I would even think about turning off the coffee at that early hour.  Meanwhile, Rob just needed quick reassurance that the coffee pot would remain on while he rallied to leave.  Twenty-seven years into our relationship and there are still moments of confusion in the small and big conversations.

The dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate falls into the big conversation category.  Any prior relationship or benefit of the doubt or warm laughter between them is unlikely.  This is serious business. Jesus is on trial.  Pilate summons him to a private conversation after questioning the people who brought him in.  Jesus is brought to Pilate for a legal verdict.  Honestly?  He’s brought to Pilate for a guilty verdict. Pilate is caught between the crowd, Roman law, job security, and Jesus’ innocence. Whatever you may think of his actions, Pontius Pilate is a compelling character. His question about truth is compelling.  And it’s a very old question.  “What is truth?”  Great question all on its own.  Philosophers and neuroscientists have a field day talking about the origins of reality and truth.

“What is truth?” is also a great question when it comes to God’s kingdom and will.  There are lots of people who invoke God’s will for all kinds of things. The good that happens?  God’s will. The bad that happens?  God’s will. I’m more cautious when it comes to claiming God’s will.  This caution is due to something called bondage of the will.  Bondage of the will means that the human inclination is to think about the self first and think about everything else second. Including God.  Not only are we anthropocentric thinking that humans are the center of all reality; I am self-centered thinking that I am origin of truth.  There’s a Latin expression for this self-centeredness. Incurvatus in se. The expression means that we are curved in on ourselves.  In Christianity, we could say that the cross pulls our noses out of our belly buttons aligning us with God and God’s kingship.

God’s kingship brings us to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  “Thy kingdom come.”  Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.”[1]  To think about the kingdom, we look at the king.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus deflects the question by answering with a question.  Pilate then asks Jesus, “What have you done?”  Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world…”  Ah, Pilate thinks he has Jesus now.  “So you ARE a king?”  Again, Jesus hedges his answer by saying that he “came into this world to testify to the truth.”  Once again, two people having two different conversations at the same time.  Although, for our purposes today, Jesus does point us toward his kingdom.

Jesus’ kingdom talk is interesting.  Pilate isn’t off-base asking about a king when Jesus testifies that his kingdom is not from this world.  Asking for the identity of the king makes sense.  The problem is that this king is unlike other kings.  This king is standing trial in front of an insignificant governor of an obscure Roman outpost.  This king isn’t rallying power to fight and win.  This king is surrendering.  He is preparing for the ultimate self-sacrifice on behalf of friends and enemies alike.  This king reveals the breadth of divine power poured out in the depth of divine love.[2]  Jesus testifies to his kingdom with unexpected behaviors for a king. Unexpected behaviors for a king but perhaps not unexpected behaviors for THIS king.  Remember that this king spent his time on earth meeting with outcasts and strangers, healing the untouchables, feeding the hungry, and offending the powers that be by calling for love of God, neighbor, and enemy.  Remember that he ends up offending almost everyone.  Remember that he gets killed for his kingdom’s work, proclamation, and ministry.

In his ministry, Jesus teaches us to pray the third petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come in and among us.”[3] Dr. Alicia Vargas writes that this in this prayer “we acknowledge our obedience to divine authority.”[4]  We pray that our own will yields to God’s will as sovereign, as king.

God’s kingdom and will seem to be revealed through Jesus’ kingdom ministry and inevitable execution which gives one possibility as we pray for God’s will. God’s will is for God to love us.  God’s will is first about God and what God is doing through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God creates, sustains, shows up, dies, and lives again in love for us.  In verse 5 of the Romans reading, the Apostle Paul says it this way, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[5]  The love of God is revealed in and among us…the church…the body of Christ in the world. God commissions us through baptism to the ministry and proclamation of this good news.

So, God’s will is first for God to love us.  Not just some of us.  All of us.  I remember when this became shockingly clear to me. Six or seven years ago I was at a middle school volleyball tournament.  The seating for fans was in an oval one level above the game on the floor.  It was packed.  It was loud.  I remember looking around at everyone there – mixed in age, race, and class, faces scrunched up and lungs unleashed in competitive intensity.  And I remember thinking, God loves all you people.  I found this remarkable.  Stunning, really.  Feel free to try this yourselves at any sporting event.  Or at any time really. Look around school.  God loves all those people.  Look around work.  Look around government.  God loves all those people.  Look around the grocery store and the gym.  God loves all those people.  Look around your neighborhood and your home.  God loves all those people. You see them.  God loves them.

Look around these pews.  God loves all you people.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

_______________________________________________________

[1] Martin Luther. Luther’s Small Catechism in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2016), 44.

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

[3] Martin Luther, 46.

[4] Alicia Vargas, The Third Petition in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2016), 46.

[5] Romans 5:5

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Jeremiah 29:11-13a  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me.

Psalm 145:8-17   The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  9 The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. 10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. 11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, 12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. 14 The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.

The Creed, The Comma, And The Christian Community [OR I Love You Baby] John 14:15-19; Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalm 32; Acts 2:42-47a

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 9, 2017

[sermon begins after 2 reading; 3 additional readings at end of sermon]

John 21:15-19 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Apostles Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

[sermon begins]

Last weekend is a little something I like call, “Two weddings and a funeral.”  Friday, a wedding; Saturday, a funeral and a wedding rehearsal; and Sunday, a wedding. I guided the action as the officiant.  At each event, there was laughter through tears, flowers, and a LOT of talk about love. God’s love. Family love. Partner love. Love was the topic of readings, songs, and promises.  At one point, the father of the bride and her sisters serenaded the happy couple with Frank Valli’s “I Love You Baby” and kazoos were busted out by guests for the refrain.[1]  It was awesome! Each moment like that one became part of the love letter that family and friends write together despite complicated relationships and realities.  The opening line of our gathering song this morning captures it perfectly. “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive…”[2]  You and I know that it’s one thing to hold love up as an ideal and it’s quite another to live it out day-to-day with “hearts that learn to forgive.” A beautiful sentiment that’s tougher in reality.

The tough reality is partly why I love the Apostle’s Creed. The creed is about what God is doing, not what we’re doing. It’s easy to get mixed up about that and make the creed about our belief because of those “I believe” statements. Though really, the creed is a love letter from God to us: God creates, God shows up in Jesus, and God is with us today in God’s Spirit.  We’ve focused four Sundays on the creed, wrapping up today.  Of course that makes sense.  Three articles of the creed – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and four Sundays.  Hmmm…that doesn’t quite add up. Except that it does. It’s like von Neumann said, “…in mathematics, you don’t understand things, you just get used to them.” [3]  Regardless, four Sundays on the creed allows for a conversation about we the people who confess it by faith, the people in Christian community called the church.  Right, that should be doable in 10 minutes of preaching…

In today’s Bible reading, the resurrected Jesus asks Peter a question. Three times he asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Three times come Peter’s heartfelt reply, “Yes, Lord, I love you.”  The three-part dialogue mirrors Peter’s three denials during Jesus’ trial.[4]  Jesus redeems Peter through this very short chat that mends their relationship. Jesus reconciles with Peter because he can. He spends a lot of the Gospel of John talking about how he and the Father are one and also describing himself using “I AM” statements which his Jewish listeners would equate with the divine name of God.  Peter is face-to-face with the One who has the power.  And the One who has the power says, “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep; and follow me.”  Verse 18 is tucked in the middle of all that feeding and following. Jesus reminds Peter that he too is going to die.  Time is short for Jesus before his ascension. Time is short for Peter.  In the meantime, Peter is given work to do – the work that Jesus himself began.

Has anyone ever noticed in the creed the profound quiet about Jesus’ life and ministry? Open up your bulletins and look at the creed with me for a minute. Find the second article that begins, “I believe in Jesus Christ…” It continues with conception and birth then (bam!) onto suffering, death, and resurrection.  Take another look, go back to the line about that ends with Mary. There’s a comma there that represents three years of Jesus’ feeding, healing, and forgiving people who are restored back into their communities.  First they are redeemed by grace through Jesus and then they’re re-connected with their people.  Similarly, Jesus first restores Peter and then co-missions him into the ministry designated by the comma of the creed.

The Gospel of John is pretty clear about the church being co-missioned as the “I Am,” the resurrected body of Christ, to feed people and to follow Jesus.  I’d like to suggest that, for this moment, we think of ourselves as people of the comma.  Peter is co-missioned by Jesus into that work and so are we. In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”[5] We experience the abundance of Jesus’ very self in worship.  We are fed by God’s love through bread and wine, the waters of baptism, and God’s word preached and sung.  We remind each other of God’s abundant intention for us and for all people.  In this congregation, we say it like this, “Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with our God.”[6]  This means that:

some of us live our faith into family, school, and work by loving neighbor as self;

some of us work in diplomacy, loving our enemies while praying for them;

some of us spend hours of time in retirement volunteering like crazy;

some of us give and raise money for ELCA World Hunger;[7]

some of us give to the mission and ministry of this congregation by way of our stewardship giving;

some of us show up in the public square and advocate with people living in poverty;

some of us cross racial, religious, and socio-economic lines to connect and save lives;

some of us take that comma pretty seriously even if we’ve never called it that before today.

It’s tempting to make the gospel all about the comma, and some people do. I appreciate the creed for the tension it builds between God’s activity and our passivity.  If grace is grace, then there are no conditions.  We’re pretty much sunk if grace is dependent upon us running all over the planet doing good in order to be in good standing with God.  There will never be enough good done to get us there.  Sinners, the lot of us. Like Peter, first we are redeemed by the grace of divine love, reminded that we are finite creatures, and then co-missioned into service.

Jesus says to us, “Augustana friends, children of God, do you love me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord, we love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my lambs.” A second time, Jesus asks, “Augustana children of God, do you love me?”  We say to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that we love you.” Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.”  He says to us a third time, “Augustana people of God, do you love me?” And we say, “Lord, you know everything; you know that we love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep…Follow me…”

 

[1] Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You’re Just Too Good To Be True. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQugcviHDTA

[2] All Are Welcome. Hymn 641 in Evangelical Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

[3] John von Neumann (1903-1957). http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/42636-young-man-in-mathematics-you-don-t-understand-things-you-just

[4] John 18:12-26

[5] John 10:10

[6] Augustana’s mission statement. http://www.augustanadenver.org/augustana-lutheran-church/

[7] ELCA.org/hunger “is uniquely positioned to reach communities in need. From health clinics to microloans, water wells to animal husbandry, community meals to advocacy, your gifts to ELCA World Hunger make it possible for the ELCA to respond, supporting sustainable solutions that get at the root causes of hunger and poverty.”

Acts 2:42-47a They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2 so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. 4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Psalm 32 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Selah) 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Selah) 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Selah) 8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. 10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. 11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this confession from the gospel of John:

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

We confess similarly during worship in a lot fewer words:

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________

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

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

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

[4] Genesis 1:1-4

[5] John 1:1, 3-5

[6] John 1:14 and 16

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

_____________________________________________

Psalm 104:1-4, 19-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Call Yourself A Christian? [OR Nope, Jesus Names Each of Us ‘Child of God’] John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 7, 2017 – Good Shepherd Sunday

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

John 10:1-10  [Jesus says] “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.

Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

[sermon begins]

At a small dinner party last weekend, spirituality and religion came up in conversation.  In particular, a dear friend brought up a negative church experience that she had as a 10 year old girl.  She talked about being spiritual but not religious. The conversation meandered around with good listening and good comments. I talked about the Holy Spirit giving life to all things making all people are spiritual by definition.  (Yes, I’m that fun at a dinner party.)  So when people say that they are spiritual and not religious this is scripturally accurate.[1]  I added that being religious Christians is about a people and a practice because it was on my mind after just preaching about Thomas. [2] (Yup, once again, really that fun.)  After I added the bit about Christians being about a people and a practice, my friend Karen looked at me and quietly said, “…and a person.”  The dinner talk kept moving while her comment settled in my brain. “…and a person.”  Being a religious Christian is about a people, a practice, and a person.

Last week, high school senior George Willoughby, preached to us about our tendency to want Jesus to be a certain way.  He made the point that we often try to make Jesus into something that we want him to be rather that who Jesus is.  He talked about his understanding of Jesus and how it’s changed during the time George has been a teenager.  It’s changed from wanting certain things from Jesus to instead being led by Jesus to compassion and love for our fellow humans.  His sermon brings us nicely into the Bible story today.

Jesus’ shepherd speech follows his argument with religious leaders about giving sight to the man born blind.  The restoration of sight and who Jesus says he is causes quite a controversy.  In a classic Jesus move, his next words are about as clear as mud in a sheepfold.  He talks about the shepherd and the sheep knowing the shepherd’s voice.  Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the shepherd in Psalm 23 also makes an appearance.  “The Lord is my Shepherd,” sings the psalmist.  This psalm may very well be one of the best known pieces of scripture in and outside of the church.  Psalm 23 is often one of the last available memories of Christians with Alzheimer’s disease. Psalm 23 also shows up in movies so that many people know at least the opening, “The Lord is my shepherd.” They also know something about “the valley of the shadow of death” although this translation reads, “darkest valley.”  Not only was shepherding an obvious metaphor in the first century, it’s also a good bet that Jesus knew and prayed the Psalms.

Lots of people connected God with the shepherd in Psalm 23. It could be one reason that the shepherd talk confuses Jesus’ listeners.  Jesus takes the confusion one step further by saying, “I Am the gate…”  Jesus says, “I Am…”  In biblical Greek, “I Am” is the name of God.  Naming Jesus “I Am” also names him God.  His listeners hear it. Hence their confusion.  The Lord who is my shepherd in Psalm 23 is also Jesus who is my shepherd and my gate.  Jesus says about the shepherd, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”[3]  Jesus’ leads using his voice.

There’s a lot of talk these days about how and where Jesus leads.  These last few days brought Lutheran church members, staff, Deacons, and Pastors together with Bishop Jim Gonia for the annual Synod Assembly.  We came from all over the Rocky Mountain Synod – Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, El Paso Texas, and Colorado.  We sang, prayed, voted, and talked about being the church.  We heard about our thriving companion synods in Madagascar.  We heard about partnerships with churches south of our border trying to keep fleeing people safe.  We heard about AMMPARO ministry that focuses us on helping children migrating by themselves.[4]  With earnest faith, we try to follow where we think Jesus is leading us as the church.

Describing opening worship at Synod Assembly, my friend and colleague Pastor Kim Gonia wrote this on Facebook:

“A truly ecumenical night. Lutheran liturgy in a Methodist Church with an Episcopal bishop presiding, a Lutheran bishop preaching, and greetings brought from the Colorado Council of Churches/African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ. Church better together. Really.”[5]

Amidst all the enthusiasm for shared ministry, it’s hard to remember that following Jesus isn’t about the gathering of the like-minded.  It isn’t about agreeing with everyone else on how we follow.  It isn’t about who gets to calls themselves a real Christian.  Although we certainly try hard on this last one. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say why someone else is or isn’t actually a Christian. People base this on what they think about Jesus or what they think the Bible says or what they think Christian ministry should be.  For crying out loud, there are people who think I’m not a real Christian because I’m a woman standing a pulpit.  Will the madness of our drawing lines ever end?!  According to the Gospel of John, Jesus is the one who names his followers, who calls us each by name through the waters of our baptism as he will once more this morning when Aspen is baptized and named Child of God.

Surrendering to the voice of Jesus, we follow as he leads.  The one who leads us to risk being outside the walls of safety on behalf of each other and on behalf of the world, on our way rejoicing, ministering, and disagreeing.  Outside the walls of safety as the psalmist describes it, on our way feeding, anointing, and setting a table with enemies, through the valley of the shadow of death.[6]  That’s just part of the good news. Jesus comes so that you may have life and have it abundantly, naming you Child of God, and moving you through death into life today…right now…no waiting.  This is good news indeed.

[See the Acts Bible reading for the day after this list of sermon references – a preacher cannot cover every gem in a sermon and there’s plenty in the Acts reading for several sermons.]

___________________________

[1] As Genesis tells it, the whole world is enlivened by the breath of the spirit. The assertion makes all people spiritual by definition, if not by confession.  Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 2:7

[2] My sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017: http://caitlintrussell.org/2017/04/23/spiritual-and-religious-acts-214a-22-32-and-john-2019-31/

[3] John 10:3b-4

[4] The word “amparo” in Spanish means the protection of a living creature from suffering or damage. The ELCA’s strategy to Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO) was envisioned after witnessing the plight of children who are forced to flee their communities because of complex and interrelated reasons, including chronic violence, poverty, environmental displacement and lack of opportunities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  Learn more about AMMPARO here: https://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Publicly-Engaged-Church/AMMPARO

[5] Pastor Kim Gonia, Priest-in-Charge, Intercession Episcopal Church, Thornton, CO.

[6] Psalm 23

____________________________

Acts 2:42-27 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 23, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Job 33:4

[3] Joel 2:28

[4] John 20:22

[5] Acts 2:1-13

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

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

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

[9] John 1:14

[10] John 1:1

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

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

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

[14] Ephesians 3:14-19

The Sweet Relief of Ashes – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

[sermon begins]

 

Piety can be heard as a judgmental word. People often use piety to mean something that is put on as a religious exaggeration, hypocritical rather than authentic.  The reading from Matthew begins, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  Another way to translate the word used in Matthew for piety is righteousness.[1]  Jesus says, “Beware practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.”  Jesus is critiquing the motivation for public esteem, not the acts of righteousness themselves. This is still the Jesus who’s preaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to do righteous “acts of mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, and to love enemies.” [2]  Given Jesus’ words against hypocritical piety, it can give us pause as we worship together on Ash Wednesday.  But, lest you think that we are here simply practicing personal piety, think again.[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has become bogged down in leadership issues, embarrassed by the socially low, and repelled by Paul’s culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.[4]  He begs them to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ.  He begs them as a group, emphasizing their shared experience of enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.”[5]  This part of Paul’s letter highlights how the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”[6]  Similarly, as baptized people, our lives become ever-more Christ-shaped through the crucified one.

Paul uses the same word for righteousness used by Matthew.  But instead of the caution against parading around in our own righteousness, Paul reminds the church that they are “becoming the righteousness of God.”[7]  It’s important to note that this is not happening in what we would consider signs of success.[8]  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Paul tells them:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[9]

Paul’s speech is pure theology of the cross.  Meaning, that it is exactly in the mess of things where Christ meets us.  One might even say on Ash Wednesday that it is in the dustiest, death-loving corners of ourselves where Jesus says, “Yeah, I’ll meet you in that corner…that’s where God’s righteousness will begin.”  We begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday because our sight is limited when we’re by ourselves.  We struggle to see God’s righteousness through our failures.  When we go after this by ourselves, we tend to let shame immobilize us.  When we go after this together, we have a better chance at discerning God’s presence, God’s righteousness, in the midst of the mess.

One of things we’re doing together to see God’s righteousness is the daily lent devotions from the book called Free Indeed.[10]  Sold out in hard copy, there are a few left at the sanctuary entrances for you to pick up after worship and the e-book is still available online.  In today’s devotion for Ash Wednesday, the question is asked, “What are you most afraid of losing?”  Like I told the parents in Sunday school a few weeks ago, for me it’s my kids. For many things, I can look to God and wonder how God is going to work through whatever mess is happening.  When it comes to my kids, not so much.  That thing that we’re most afraid of losing?  That’s the thing we’ve put in God’s place.  That is our idol. Thankfully, God’s righteousness is something God does. Not us. The cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This reminder is sweet relief.  God is God.  We are not.  The world may see failure. We may see shame.  But today we are reminded what God sees. God sees the world that God so loves.  God sees and loves us.  God sees and loves you.

The ministry of reconciliation, of bringing us back to God, begins with God’s self-sacrifice on the cross.  How do we recognize our reconciliation to God and to each other?  According to Paul, the evidence is in the brokenness that we endure.  And, in that brokenness, the hope that the gospel brings new life through the cross.[11] Our repentance today turns us to that cross.  We hold God to God’s promise of new life even though our tendency is to choose death over life. More specifically, through the cross of Christ, God chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves.  Thanks be to God and amen.

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School. Commentary: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Ficke, Preacher’s Text Study on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for Ash Wednesday on March 1, 2011.

[4] Brian Peterson, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Commentary: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3180

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5

[6] Brian Peterson, ibid., and 2 Corinthians 5:6-7a.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[8] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10

[10] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017. (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 2016), Day 1.  https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

[11] Skinner, ibid.

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

[2] Exodus 34:29

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

[4] 1 Kings 19:11-16

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

[6] Matthew 17:4

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

[8] Matthew 17:5

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

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

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 40

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 40.

 

God Chooses Life [OR Stay Curious, My Friends] Matthew 5:21-30, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; 3rd reading follows sermon]

Matthew 5:21-30 You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder'; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Deuteronomy 20:15-20 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

[sermon begins]

A few weeks ago my sister Izzy and I went through several boxes of my grandfather’s things.  We were on task to organize not synthesize. One of the stacks to read through later are letters that Granddad sent Grandma Ruth. Some of the letters are from before they were married. Some of them are from their married years when he traveled for work.  My experience of Granddad was a silent, stoic type with a grumpy edge.  A quick glance through the letters reveals that he had a variety of sweet nick-names for Grandma Ruth.  I suspect that his letters will reveal a lot about him.  The kinds of things he thought.  His side of the relationship with my grandmother.

Those letters have been on my mind as we approach Valentine’s Day.  Letters are becoming a lost art although blogs are everywhere.  The written word has shifted but remains.  And the written word still reveals a lot about the writer.  Which brings us to the Bible verses read today.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  I’m going to press pause here.  Just a moment to acknowledge that in our country we’re experiencing and disagreeing about laws – how they’re made, when they’re legal, etc.  There is a lot going on about constitutionality. Checks and balances.  Who makes the law?  Who stalls the laws?  All of that to say that for this conversation I invite us to put all of that in a parking lot so that we can have a shot at hearing these scriptures without conflating them.  Not possible, pastor, you might say?  Well, let’s at least try and see where that gets us.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  Just before our verses from Matthew today, Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[1]  Right away, in verse 21, Jesus puts those words into stark relief against the disciples’ lives.  This chunk of verses that begin today and conclude next Sunday are called the antitheses.[2]  There are six of them.  Today we hear four.

Jesus begins each interpretation of the law with, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”  For each antithesis, Jesus starts with the commandment and amplifies its protection over the other person in the relationship.  “You have heard that it was said…‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry…”  Jesus goes on to talk about making peace with the person you’re angry before offering gifts at the altar.  We participate in this antithesis every week when we share the peace during worship before the offering and communion.

The antitheses about adultery and divorce are similar in that Jesus demands the disciples’ protection of other people as the commandment is amplified. In first century terms, adultery and divorce left women without a safeguard in community.  Jesus uses big language to get at the seriousness of the offenses.

Here is where it becomes important to look at the Ten Commandments and what they say about God, the giver of life.  The Deuteronomy reading helps with the emphases on life.  What does life look like?  It looks like following the law of life that directs us toward care of neighbor.  What are the natural consequences for not caring for the neighbor?  Death and adversity.  Our image of God becomes evident by what we think is the cause of our death and adversity.  In our mind’s eye, if we see God as a white-bearded-judge-who-sees-us-sleeping-and-awake-so-be-good-for-goodness-sake-or-punishment-will-come kind of God, then God is a punisher of epic proportions, lightning bolts included.*

However, the God who gave the Ten Commandments, gave them to a people whom God had already redeemed through the covenant with Abraham.  The covenant with the people came from a God who freed them from slavery before these commandments were written.**  God’s people are set free without contingency and directed toward each other as a gift of life. Directed toward each other in the kingdom of heaven in the here-and-now.  These commands say more about God then they do about us.  The author of life give commandments so that life may thrive among the people God so loves.

Let’s take, “You shall not murder.”  It seems straightforward. As of yet, I’ve not killed anyone today.  In the antithesis, Jesus amplifies this commandment into a rebuke of anger. The exaggerated hyperbole of Jesus’ words gets our attention. A lot of you haven’t seen me truly angry but I have a husband and a couple of kids that could paint that picture for you. Jesus antitheses catch us where we live by showing us how we diminish life for other people.  They take us beyond a manners lesson into new life by convicting us.  What begins as a doable list of commands becomes a mirror about how we are really treating the people God so loves.

The Augustana staff begin the latest weekly devotions at staff meeting with Luther’s Small Catechism.  Right now, we’re taking the Ten Commandments one at a time.  Reading the commandment, Luther’s explanation, a bit of commentary and following up with a conversation.  Luther does his own antitheses of sorts by flipping the commandment into how we should care for our neighbor.  For murder, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”[3]  Our conversation about the explanation then takes it a step further into what this looks likes in our own lives.

My next comments are for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade confirmation students and their parents.  Students, you’re starting the Small Catechism in Confirmation Sunday School.  It begins with the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation.  In these conversations, I invite you to think and talk about what these commandments say about who God is and the life that God envisions for us.  Parents, this is an opportunity for curiosity.  After all, Luther wrote the Small Catechism for faith conversation in the home.  Continue to ask the questions about God while remembering that God’s saving act in Jesus is not dependent on anything we do as people.  It’s why we talk about God’s grace first, God’s new life first, and then we talk about Commandments.

As a congregation we’re invited to be curious too. We’ll begin Lent in a couple weeks on March 1 with the chance to study Luther’s Small Catechism with each other and with Lutheran Christians all over the world.  The 500 Year Anniversary of the Reformation serves as the spark.  The small devotion books are here in the church office.[4]  Each day is a page that directs our attention to a bit of the Small Catechism, a bit of prayer, a picture, and a thought or story from different writers.  The Adult Sunday School classes in Lent will also be centered on this devotion book.  Pick one up.

More importantly, be curious.  Be curious about our God who so loves the whole world that the law is given as a gift of life.  God renews our lives with each other through the law leaving us open to surprise and amazement when we see it in action through other people.  Be prepared to be surprised and amazed when God suddenly renews our lives with each other through you.  Because Jesus didn’t die to give us the 10 commandments on steroids.***  Jesus died because of our tendency to choose death over life.  Well, God is having none of it and chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 5:17

[2] Carla Works, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37 for Working Preacher on February 16, 2014.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

* David Lose. Commentary: On Love and the Law, Matthew 5:21-37 for In the Meantime… February 6, 2017. http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/

**Ibid.

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Small Catechism of Martin Luther. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1160.

 

[4] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: A Devotion for Lent 2017. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017).  Sold out in hard copy but still available as e-book: https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

***David Lose per a colleague sharing this quotation at preacher’s text study. I couldn’t find the direct citation.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

Wally’s World [OR Into This World, This Demented Inn] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas

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.

[sermon begins]

 

Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things.  Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news.  When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear.  The inn was full in Bethlehem.  Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”[1]

The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper.  The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all.  But we imagine him.  We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays.  One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time.  James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:

“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.

Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them.  “Wait! You can have my room.”[2]  [end of Harnish story]

Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?”[3]  What would we do as the innkeeper?  He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family.  Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer.  Regardless of tone, the end is the same.  There is no room.  But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.

The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading.  Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem.  There are times for sentiment.  Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out.  All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story.  In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius.  The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

No room.  Full.  This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today.  Room in the schedule.  Room in the mind.  Room in the heart.  Room for compassion in the face of suffering.  Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry.[4]  Room for the glory of God.[5]  Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host.[6]  Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.[7]

Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time.  Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma.[8]  This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover.[9]  Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.

Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none?  Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available.  Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary?  Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”[10]

You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited.  We can say, “No room, go away.”  We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.”  We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives.  We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene.[11]  Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.”[12]  Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability.[13]  With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.

Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own.  We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.[14]  Thanks be to God and Amen.

_____________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:7

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.

[3] John Quinones. “What Would You Do?”  abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo

[4] Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53

[5] Luke 2:14

[6] Luke 2:14

[7] Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.

[8] Harnish, 34.

[9] Harnish, 34.

[10] Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.

[11] Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[12] Luke 2:11

[13] Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

[14] Ibid.