Tag Archives: God

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 2018

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

“…everyone was getting so hungry

that the old ones started feeling ill

and the weak ones started passing out

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

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

“…the preacher he stopped preaching

and a hush the church did fill

and then a great white dove from up above

landed on the window sill.”[2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 10:24

[4] Acts 10:1

[5] Acts 10:34

[6] Acts 10:44

[7] Acts 10:47-48

[8] Genesis 12:1-3

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

[10] John 15:13

[11] 1 John 5:6

[12] John 15:16

 

We Can’t Handle the Grace, A Sermon for Good Friday [John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 30, 2018

Good Friday

[sermon begins after Bible reading; when you get a chance read the whole of John 18 and 19. It’s worth it.]

John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42

Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha.18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

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

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

 [sermon begins]

Good Friday takes us deep. Frailty, self-absorption, and pain repeatedly clash with the power of grace in the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Some theologians will say that each one of us holds the hammer that drove the nails through the hands and feet of God. That theology seems a bit overwrought to me, not to mention impossible on the time-space continuum. What does resonate is that we can’t handle the grace. (Yes, I’m invoking Jack Nicholson’s line delivery in A Few Good Men).

Grace is a handy, go-to word because it means a lot things all at once. Grace means God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and redemption. Grace means that we are created in the image of God.  And grace means so much more.  When I say we can’t handle the grace, I mean that when confronted with the grace of God in Jesus we would and do reject its fullness. We reject it time and again for ourselves and other people.  We put grace to death. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving. Think about the way you nurse that grudge that holds you captive to anger and resentment. There are many situations in our lives that beg the question, “Do we believe in grace or don’t we?”

We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption by grace is possible. Lent pushed us through those lines over the brink into Good Friday when we confess by faith that God hung dead on a cross – the cross being the ultimate moment of our human determination to reject grace. And what does God do?  Well, I’ll tell you what God doesn’t do. There is not a hand lifted against the people who see fit to hang Jesus on that cross. From the people most directly involved who organized the murderous scheme to the disciples, Jesus’ friends, who couldn’t stop it, all of them were unscathed, retribution not even a thing. In fact, in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John, we hear that from the cross, there came yet one more grace before Jesus died.  Listen again…

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[1]

Jesus uses his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship with each other. Everything that led to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, naming greed – everything Jesus did that hung him there is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. He gets in one more grace before he announces, “It is finished.”[2]  He reconciles his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconciling the world with God.  We confess this very thing by faith with the words of the Apostle Paul and say in the way only Paul can say it that, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

On Good Friday we are asked several things but one of the things we are not asked is whether or not we’re sinners. The truth of our capacity for self-absorption, dehumanizing violence, denial, running away when times get hard, watching bad things happen from a distance, and not getting involved, is more than evident. Telling the truth of our sin is like giving air to a wound that needs healing. We don’t fool anyone with our “I’m a good person” routines. Thank God the “good person” thing isn’t even a thing.[4] Here’s why it’s not a thing. God is NOT in the sin accounting business. God is in the covenant business. What’s the difference? The cross as covenant pulls the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross-beams and reconciliation to set us free into God and toward each other.

God is in the covenant business. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to resurrect from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and start hurting the very world God professes to love. God is reduced to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement. My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves.

Thank God that the power of God is not diverted by our lack of will, our misguided distortions, or our inability to comprehend the relentless force of grace. Today we are simultaneously convicted and set free. Today our trespasses are not counted against us. Today God’s covenant is sealed, finished on a cross. Today is Friday. Let’s call it Good.  Amen.

___________________________________________________

[1] John 19:26

[2] John 19:30

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

 

 

God Loves the People We Can’t [OR Jonah Slimed and Steaming] Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20, and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

**sermon art:  Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) Jonah and the Whale (1621). Oil on oak.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 21, 2018.

[sermon begins after two short Bible readings – 1 Corinthians readings is at the end of the sermon]

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth…  10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

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

[sermon begins]

Jonah is easy to love. At the very least he’s easy to understand. He is an every-man kind of Bible guy. He’s self-righteous for very good reasons. And he takes control of his own story. Jonah’s story is the Bible at its best. Four short chapters include our righteous hero and evil villains of an epic scale.  What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Notice the beginning of the reading we get today starts chapter 3.  “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time…”  Let’s go back and talk about what happened the first time.  The first time, the word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go to the great city of Nineveh.  Nineveh wasn’t great because it was a good place full of good people. Nineveh was called great because it was huge and powerful. It was full of Assyrians who had killed and enslaved many of Jonah’s people and would likely kill him if given half a chance.  He certainly didn’t want to give them that opportunity.

Jonah did not have a death wish. He had good reason to hate those Assyrians. So he made a run for it.  He boarded a ship to head the opposite direction of where God wanted him to go.  Short story shorter…there was a storm, Jonah was tossed overboard, and he ended up in the belly of a fish. This is the part of the story that makes it perfect for kids’ storytelling.  Does it get more fun than a slimy, stinky, pouting Jonah spewed out onto the shore by the fish?

Fish slime is not exactly the sackcloth and ashes of repentance but it serves a similar purpose in Jonah’s story.  We often talk about repentance as turning in a new direction. Before the fish slime, he was running away to Tarshish. After the fish slime, he began moving toward Nineveh. Jonah did a 180 degree turn. I imagine him slinking into Nineveh with a bruised ego, some serious fear, and saturated in stink. As a prophet, he did his work with a minimum of words. Eight words, to be exact. Jonah announced to the Ninevites, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it.  Eight words.  Much to Jonah’s chagrin, the people of Nineveh did actually repent – from the King on down to all the animals.  Sackcloth and fasting for everyone![1]

Turns out, God’s mercy even reached as far as Nineveh. Jonah knew it would and greatly resented God and the Ninevites. But Jonah’s feelings on the matter did not limit what God was able to accomplish with a minimum of faithfulness.[2]  Jonah barely cooperated, his eight-word speech to the Ninevites contained no words of hope or good news. Even though he’s an old school prophet, he’s not a very good one. Jonah’s underachievement is good news for us.  Jonah’s got a grudge on.  He later tells God that the reason he first ran away to Tarshish is because he knows that God is “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Jonah knew God would forgive the Ninevites and was so furious he wanted to die when God forgave them.[4]

God is bigger than our grudges and the people we hold grudges against. God loves the people we can’t love. This is good news for us. The very last line in the book of Jonah is said by God. “Then the Lord said [to Jonah], ‘…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”  Let’s face it. It’s not easy to acknowledge that hated people are deemed worthy by God for love and compassion when there may be legitimate reasons for our feelings. Regardless, God is able to use our paltry efforts and mixed emotions despite our dismal participation.[5]

It’s not a stretch to imagine Jonah relishing the idea that the Ninevites could go down in flames.  Laughing at Jonah’s antics gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves. How far would we go to NOT be a part of God’s love and compassion for those who, at best, we deem undeserving or, at worst, we deem worthy of destruction?

Jonah’s story puts flesh on Jesus’ challenge to us to love our enemies, to love and pray for them.[6]  This is the story we’re called to tell as disciples.  In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus shows up in Galilee announcing the fulfillment of time and God’s kingdom coming near while calling for repentance.  There is a camp of theologians who interpret Jesus’ announcement and call as a moment of now – not to be confused with a distant apocalyptic event in the future that scares us.  In this line of thinking, this is the kingdom that reveals God’s intention for us. This is the kingdom we proclaim as fishers of people. This is the kingdom revealed to replace the present form of the world that is passing away (referred to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians).  A world in which we battle each other over land and resources like the Assyrians and Jonah’s people. A world in which one group of people essentially enslaves groups of other people.  A world in which violence and one-upmanship is the name of the game.

Instead, God’s kingdom announces a different world.  A world in which God’s move toward the Ninevites convicts them through Jonah’s half-hearted or even empty-hearted eight prophetic words. For us as Jesus people, we might say that the world announced by Jesus is cross-centered. The cross that proclaims powerlessness as the first move and the new life that becomes possible out of that powerlessness. Jesus’ kingdom means the first move is mercy which interrupts cycles of violence and blame and becomes our hope. Thankfully, the waters of baptism are the daily call into repentance and Jesus’ kingdom of now – no fish slime or sackcloth required.  Thanks be to God.

_____________________________________________

[1] Jonah 3:5

[2] Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake. Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 proclaimed with the good people of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO.

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Jonah 4:3

[5] Inga Oyan Longbrake, ibid.

[6] As part of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Matthew 5:43-44

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1 Corinthians 7:29-31 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Tell An Imperfect Story [OR Small Wonder the Inns Were Full] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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]

Imagine if you will, a young couple.[1] She’s very pregnant. Puffy cheeks and feet. He’s young too. Both just starting out in adulting and there hasn’t been a moment to catch their breath. Mary’s surprise pregnancy first sent her into hiding for several months at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hills.  Now she’s back with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. But that doesn’t last long either. Emperor Augustus calls for a registration census so that taxes can be collected. With his decree, Joseph and Mary travel the 80 miles to Bethlehem. There could have been a donkey to ride.  Although at many months pregnant, four days of donkey riding doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I imagine that they were slower than many of the other people on the long and winding road, taking more breaks along the way.  It’s no wonder that the inns were full by the time they arrived.

For all the drama that’s easy to imagine, the story is sparsely told. It’s told in almost bullet points. You and I both know that it couldn’t have been that simple. There’s a saying in the news business that, “All news is local.”  I would say that all news is about people. People in situations often beyond their control. The Bible couldn’t be less like a newspaper.  It neither follows modern journalistic guidelines nor could it ever hope to meet those standards. But Mary and Joseph’s story shows local people trying to live during a time when religious and political events are well beyond their control.

It makes me wonder if it’s a similar lack of control that fuels the latest “Christmas miracle” craze. I’ve heard the term in the past. But this December it seems to pop up everywhere describing good news big and small.[2] Christmas miracles are listed in the news as melt-in-your-mouth recipes, pet adoptions, inspiring health recoveries, snow in Texas, and even includes a tongue-in-cheek report of an ER staff who performed surgery on an Elf on the Shelf named Sam after the family’s dog went rogue. I’m totally on the band wagon. It feels really good to throw my arms in the air and announce, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Sometimes it’s celebration and sometimes it’s snark but it feels good and it makes me laugh every time.

Naming things a Christmas miracle seeks to name the good – from small things like not burning forgotten toast to big moments of joy that defy explanation. One thought is that we name them miracles because we want to see the transcendent in something tangible, relatable, and real. Who wouldn’t want a Christmas miracle?! Apparently the shepherds are game to see one – although the “good news of great joy” comes from an angel that’s hard to ignore and quite terrifying to boot.[3]

What about this savior that the angel announces?  What is one way we can think about that savior today in light everything that happens beyond our control? The Bible story goes on to tell us that the child who is born is named Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus.  Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness leads him to an execution on a cross.  But before we’re privy to those parts of the story, God begins with a baby.  Perhaps God knows what most us know.  Not many can resist a baby.  Babies get our attention. A baby certainly grabbed the shepherds’ attention – with a little help from the angel.

Rallying through their angel terror, the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to see the child. The new, young parents hear an earful from the shepherds about what the angel told them. The story tells us that, “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”  Like Mary, we are left to ponder their story in our hearts.  It’s a funny thing what happens when left to pondering. We notice random things when they would otherwise slip by.  For instance, my husband and I watch the show The Voice.  It’s a weekly singing competition. Four superstar performers act as coaches and judges. Viewers cast the winning votes. In the live, top 8 performances this season, superstar Jennifer Hudson says to one of the contestants, “Allow yourself to feel it…stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story; you should pretty much be on your knees when you get done.”[4]  Because this sermon was on my mind, my first thought when I heard Ms. Hudson’s say that was, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”  No, but seriously, she was my Christmas preacher in that moment.

“Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.”  How many of us are trying to sing a perfect song to cover for our imperfect story?  Want to hear a real Christmas miracle?  Your imperfect story, everything that is out of control and beyond your control, is exactly where God begins with you.  This is where God’s transcendence becomes tangible, relatable, and real because God meets us right where we live – shoving aside that perfect song we try to sing about ourselves and, instead, tells our imperfect story.  So, we can just leave that perfect song to the angels and heavenly host.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Bible is an imperfect story told by and about imperfect people that reveal the Christ perfectly. It’s like the manger that holds the baby Jesus. Maybe it has a bent nail or a few splinters, but Jesus is in there.[5]  Revealing the One who came under a star in skin and solidarity.  Revealing the One who comes in vulnerability – fragile, dependent, and hungry. Revealing the One whose story is imperfectly told so that we might see that our imperfections, our vulnerability, our fragility are revealed and held by God who also sees and names the good in you, calls you beloved, and names you children of God. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.

Thanks be to God!

______________________________________________________________

 

[1] “Imagine if you will…” is a line of narration used in The Twilight Zone.

[2] Here’s a link to a websearch of key words “Christmas miracle.” https://www.google.com/search?q=christmas+miracle+2017&tbm=nws&source=univ&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi965GngP3XAhUI2WMKHSoiBucQt8YBCEQoAQ&biw=1366&bih=662

[3] Luke 2:9

[4] Jennifer Hudson to Davon Fleming, direct quote, minute 23:50 as televised with commercials. The Voice: Live Top 8 Performances. Season 13, Episode 24, December 11, 2017, on NBC.

[5] Martin Luther paraphrased from the Preface to the Old Testament (1523/1545) quoted by Timothy Lull in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd Ed, Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 114.  https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/dear-is-the-treasure-who-lies-in-them-by-martin-luther/

Pick a Word, Any Word [OR Sl**p Happens] Mark 13:24-37 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:24-37 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

1 Corinthians 1:3-9  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[sermon begins]

Hanging from my car’s rearview mirror is a string with six colored beads tied into it – green, red, and white.  My daughter, Taryn, made it about ten years ago.  She gave me her gift and said it was the liturgical year. It’s hung in my cars ever since and now has that priceless quality of sweet nostalgia. She made it and gave it to me knowing that the liturgical year means something to me – which is funny because there was a time when I had no idea what it was. Here we now sit, on the first day of the new liturgical year. The term simply means church time. The church keeps time around the life, death, and life of Jesus and calls it the liturgical year. Today, we could easily greet each other with a joyous, “Happy New Year!” Advent begins the new church year today. We mark Advent during the four Sundays before Christmas.  At the same time, we turn the page from the Gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Mark.

I, for one, am relieved.  Matthew highlights the tension between the early church and Temple Judaism so much that it can be challenging to preach with all of that wailing and teeth-gnashing about who’s in and who’s out.  The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the four gospels at 16 chapters. This means that the Gospel of John shows up more in Sunday readings which, for this preacher, is heaven on earth. Get it? Word made flesh (John 1:14)? [I’m throwing in my own chuckle on this one thereby reifying my kids’ perception that I laugh far too easily at my own jokes].

Mark is writing at a time when Rome’s power destroyed the temple.[1] The political and the religious crossed swords regularly.  Mark preaches an engaged discipleship in troubled times that rejects violence on the one hand and timidity on the other.[2] Jesus opens and closes the reading today with descriptions of dark and chaotic times. We are listening in as Jesus teaches his disciples just before the events of the cross begin.[3] Jesus’ teaching reveals the cross as the apocalypse for which the disciples are to keep awake. He does this by using the language of time in verse 35 that matches the language of time in crucifixion story – evening, midnight, cockrow, or dawn.[4]  Let’s take evening as one example, Jesus catches these same disciples asleep in the garden as he prays.[5]

Yes, sleep happens. Knowing that sleep happens, let’s talk about the discipline of keeping awake and engaged.  For me, long before the pulpit stint, it was first about the Eucharist. Receiving weekly communion has been food for the soul revealing both my complete dependence on God and the strength needed for whatever God is calling me into. The Eucharist, of course, sits in the middle of the worship liturgy after the preaching that convicts, forms, and frees us as disciples.  Beyond the discipline of worship, there are daily opportunities for keeping awake.

A friend and colleague, Pastor Margot Wright, talked about her Advent discipline when we met in Preacher’s Text Study this week. Step 1, she chooses one word from scripture at the start of Advent.  Step 2, she keeps the word on her radar for the whole year.  She talks about listening for the word in her scripture study and also in her life.  The word serves to keep her awake and engaged.  In the spirit of word choosing, I’m asking each of you to open your worship bulletin to the 1 Corinthians reading and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. As I read the 1 Corinthians out loud, circle the words that jump out for you.  As an example, it could be the word “grace” or the name of “Jesus.” Circle as many or as few as you’d like – whatever jumps out to you. Here we go…

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]

Here’s your homework. Take this reading home and think through whether any of these words are worth choosing as your word for this church year.  A word that could become part of discipleship, keeping you awake and engaged in these troubling times.

Keep in mind that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is being sent because they are going through a difficult time. They were doing just fine when Paul left them as a mission start congregation but have fallen into disarray, squabbling about all kinds of things.  The reading from Paul’s letter lists truths about discipleship regardless of chaos because they are promised by God, not dredged up within ourselves – grace, peace, strength, speech, knowledge, spiritual gifts, and more, given by God.

Pick a word, any word, as a discipline for this next church year. Pick it from 1 Corinthians or 1 John or wherever scripture leads you. Mine is from Psalm 126 but I’ve had since Tuesday to think about it.  Tape it to your bathroom mirror, hang it from your car mirror, write it on a bookmark and use it in whatever book you’re reading at the moment, paint it on your fingernails, or use fingernail polish to paint it on your shop bench. Get creative. Keep awake. Be engaged in this moment in time.

Time is a funny thing.  I heard a Radio Map podcast yesterday called, “When Brains Attack.”[6]  “In this episode, strange stories of brains [are told] that lead their owners astray, knock them off balance, and, sometimes, propel them to do amazing things.” Diane Van Deren, a Coloradoan, lost her sense of time after part of her brain was removed to treat a seizure. Since her surgery, she can’t remember who she met this morning. Also since her surgery, she’s become one of the best ultra-endurance runners in the world, covering hundreds of miles in extreme conditions. Because she has no sense of time passing, she just keeps going. She talks about numbering her 8-minute pace as she runs, “1 – 2 – 3 – 4 * 1 – 2 – 3 – 4…” She calls the numbers her music, her flow, to her athlete’s’ ear.  The interviewer narrates, “Think about it, if you don’t know where you are in time, you don’t know how much further you have to go, where you’ve been.”[7]

The disciples listening to Jesus also don’t know where they are in time, how much further they have to go. Jesus gives his disciples time clues beyond their understanding. The clues sound like they’re way out in the future but the cross sneaks up on them. Jesus tells them, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”[8]

Jesus gives the disciples a word of life in the fig tree’s timing nestled in between his talk about the timing of the cross. In his words about the fig tree, he also gives us discipleship that speaks a challenging, good word to a world seeming bent on words of contempt and acts of violence. We do not know where we are in time or how much further each one of us will go. God’s good word reveals God’s tomorrow in the life we live today. This is the good Word first given to us in the life of Jesus for whom we wait and for whom we keep awake. Thanks be to God for God’s good Word.

_________________________________________________

[1] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. “Advent Time.” For Working Preacher on November 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007

[2] Matthew L. Skinner. Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. “Preaching Mark in Times of Strife (Part 1 of 2).  Working Preacher on November 14, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4999

[3] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

[4] Mark 14:32-52 (evening in the garden); Mark 14:53-65 (midnight, examined by the high priest); Mark 14:66-72 (cockrow, denied three times by a friend); Mark 15:1-20 (dawn, condemned to die); Mark 15:33 (Jesus’ crucifixion, death on the cross, and burial: Mark 15:21-47).

[5] Mark 14:32-42 The disciples fall asleep three times in the garden as Jesus is praying.

[6] Diane Van Deren interviewed by Mark Phillips. When Brains Attack: Head Over Heels. On Radio Map http://www.radiolab.org/story/217567-head-over-heels/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark 13:28

The Indescribable Gift [OR “I’m Tired of Doing the Impossible for the Ungrateful”] – Luke 17:11-19, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and Psalm 100

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Thanksgiving Eve, November 19, 2017, 7:00 p.m.

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

Luke 17:11-19  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

[sermon begins]

My mama raised me to write thank you notes. The rule I remember is that they had to be more than two sentences.  When I taught my own kids to write thank you notes, I added a rule about throwing in a comment unrelated to the gift.  The comment could be newsy – an update about life.  Or the comment could be a memory that includes the person they’re writing to.  Or the comment could be a question about the recipient’s life. I’ll be honest and tell you that I’m hit and miss when it comes to thank you notes these days. I’m often in the camp with the nine lepers.  Someone made the comment in Adult Sunday School this week that he’s often in the camp with the nine lepers, too. Going about his life, gratitude can occur to him months or even years later. He imagined the nine lepers in a similar moment. The nine head off to see the priest and then back to their families and communities from which they’d likely been separated for a long time. Who knows if or when it occurs to those nine people to say thank you? It’s possible gratitude occurs to them at some point. But it’s also possible that it doesn’t.

Jesus wonders about the nine others with the returning man.  He asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”[1]  It’s a bit like Jesus wondering about a thank you note. Notice that he didn’t assume ingratitude. He didn’t say, “Those ungrateful swine, I’m taking the healing back and never healing anyone again.”  Along this line, a recent movie preview caught my ear. I tend to pay attention when Denzel Washington’s in a new movie. His character is a defense attorney who’s passionate and burned out. Mid-preview is the line, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”[2]  “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”  It’s such a great line. So frustrated. So human. The movie preview uses this line to lead into self-isolating and justifying behavior on the part of the lawyer.  In thank you note land, it would be like not sending any more gifts because there were never any thank you notes in return.  And, just like that, gift-giving becomes transactional.  Whether it’s the gifts we use for the good of the world or the gifts we give as presents, we can be quick to decide who is worthy of receiving them.  It’s difficult to imagine God saying, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”

Jesus seems to have no such concerns about ingratitude. He goes on to heal a blind beggar after healing the lepers.[3]  Which makes me think a little more about the leper who returned. According to the story, Jesus is out in nowhere-ville between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem for the main event. He’s passing through a “middle space” where there is likely ethnic and religious tension. [4] The healed guy is not only a former leper but he’s also a Samaritan who Jews considered way outside of worthiness and God’s activity.  But there he is both healed and praising God.

Adult Sunday School was talking about the healed lepers on Sunday because the originally scheduled programming is to be rescheduled due to a death in the speaker’s family.  People showed up to class on Sunday expecting to hear from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon speaker.  It’s part of the World Faith Series that we’re doing throughout this year.  Speakers from various religious traditions present information with the goal of increasing our understanding of world faiths. Rabbi Bernie Gerson gave us an overview of Jewish law, traditions, and beliefs, through the lens of God, Torah, and Israel.  Imam Karim AbuZaid spoke to us about Islam in America which covered Islamic traditions and beliefs through the lens of the Bible and the Koran.  If there’s anything that this story of the Samaritan, former leper teaches us, it’s that God can speak a word of grace through whomever God chooses, often taking us outside of our comfort zone – religiously, racially, and pretty much all the other “-lys” you could list here.

A word of grace from the outside can be challenging for 21st century religious Christians just as it was in the life and times of first century religious Jews.  And I use the word “religious” in the best of possible ways.  Take this evening’s worship for example.  We’re here, singing thanks and praise to God for God’s indescribable gifts.[5]  When we do this together, we are being religious about our living faith.  We can naturally feel protective about the faith which for many of us is foundational to who we are in the world. Again, we are much like 1st century Jews who would be hearing this story of Jesus and the Samaritan leper.  For my part, I can not only feel protective but I can also get complacent and content with my understanding of faith and grace.

There is theological language that I hold dear and that makes sense to me in describing healing as I’ve experienced it by God’s grace. A few weeks ago, I fumbled and bumbled around trying to answer a question in new member class.  I had described my experience of first hearing about the love of God in Jesus during a time in my life when postpartum depression had me feeling my most unlovable and unworthy.  The message I heard was something like “there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less than God already loves us.”  This message of pure grace is dear and powerful and transformative in my own life. The question asked was asked by someone without a church background and was about what that looked like for me. There were so many things I wanted say and I couldn’t put them together into anything that made sense in the moment.  That’s how cozy I’ve become with my favorite words that can end up sounding churchy and incomprehensible to people not in the church world.  It was totally humbling.

As part of my scramble to lead Sunday School last Sunday, I came across a video by Brené Brown.[6] She’s a well-known, well-published anthropologist who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for the last 15 years.  This 2 minute video is her answer to the question, “What is grace?”  Dr. Brown highlights a line in the Amazing Grace hymn – “ ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”  She talks about a time in her life when she didn’t know how to be afraid and, in fear, she would “get perfect, get controlling, get blaming, get mean, run, do anything that [she] could do.”   She’s making a distinction between about how she instinctively protected herself in fear and how she lives differently today by way of grace.  For me, hearing Dr. Brown talk about grace is a bit of a blindside.  It’s not how I usually give words to it but, man, they make a lot of sense.  And it came out of nowhere, knocking me out what’s become a kind of complacent understanding of grace.

Jesus, the giver of grace, knocks the Samaritan, former leper, out of his complacency by healing him. The word “heal” in the Bible story can also be translated as healed, made well, saved, or whole.[7]  Jesus made the lepers whole through their relationship of healing.  Someone also pointed out in Sunday School about this text that the gratitude is relational. In this case, between Jesus and the former leper. Like a thank you note, gratitude is between the two parties – it could be two people or a group of people.  Like prayer and praise, gratitude is between us and God.

God, who finds us in our complacency and makes us whole through the grace of Jesus. Loving us at our most unlovable and healing us.

God, whose grace through Jesus makes us whole in the face of our fear, across the boundaries of “otherness” and difference.

And we, like the apostle Paul, can say, “Thanks be to God for [this] indescribable gift!”[8]

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 17:17

[2] Dan Gilroy, writer and director. Movie: Roman J. Israel, Esq.  (Columbia Pictures, 2017). Movie Preview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGVIKqbEtdU  [Quoted Line comes a minute 1:16]

[3] Luke 18:35-43

[4] David Lose. Luke 17:11-19 Commentary for Working Preacher, October 10, 2010.  Dr. Lose points out that Luke’s designation of this area is not as accurate topographically as it is theologically. The main point being that it’s an in between place where this significant story happens amidst significant tension. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

[5] 2 Corinthians 9:15

[6] Brené Brown. “Grace and Fear.” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery and Transformation. http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/grace-and-fear

[7] Lose, Ibid.

[8] 2 Corinthians 9:15

_______________________________________________

Psalm 100

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Pops, Purity, and Promise [I Promise It’s Not What You Think] Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

[sermon begins]

I was 9 years old when Mom and my stepfather were married after dating long distance for about two years between Washington D.C. and Pasadena, California. While they were dating and into their marriage my four sibs and I called him Bill.  Eventually we started talking about what we could call him differently that would signify the relationship. His children called him Dad so that didn’t fit. Plus we already had a Dad.  We eventually settled on Pops.

Early on I thought Pops looked like John Wayne. He had the gruff and tough thing down anyway.  He took us on our first road trip from Pasadena to Springdale, Arkansas, to meet his folks, Grandma and Grandpa Cloer. Somewhere in New Mexico, Pops laid down the law about fewer bathroom breaks. I’m sure with five kids that pit stops had spun out of control. At one point Mom turned around and I had quiet tears running down my face. I absolutely did not want to be the one who forced the next stop and didn’t want to fess up.  Pops felt terrible. This is a tale that we told in our family for years.

Pops also had season tickets to the Dodgers. My brothers and sisters and I each had a chance to go solo with him to games. Dodger dogs, peanuts, the 7th inning stretch, and Toni Tennille’s autograph are just a few of the highlights.[1] I’m a nostalgic Dodger fan because of that time with Pops. (Truth be told, I’ve only just found the tiniest bit of compassion for Houston’s first time Championship win…you know, given the hurricane and all.)

Then I became a teenager…dunh, dunh, duuunnh. Teens are really good at naming parental faults. I was no exception. Pops and I shared many a word about each other’s faults. I was most definitely NOT seeing him as the John Wayne epic hero at that time. He was real and human and deeply flawed. Pops died just after Christmas in 2002.  His were rough last days. He’s a hero in my eyes still. Marrying a single mother of five children after raising four of his own is nothing short of heroic even if he loved her. He was also flawed and fragile, sinner and saint, imperfect and beloved. He was and is enfolded in the life of God.

In a line from the First John reading today we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”[2] It’s a word of promise. We are God’s children NOW. John goes on to talk about purifying “just as Christ was pure.”[3] The way I hear being pure in these verses is such a comfort. Called Beloved and named a child of God and then reading that in that mix there will be purity as Christ is pure?  Are you kidding me?!  Sign me up! And then, I pause…and think… Because our human minds set up purity codes pretty darn quick. The things that I hold near and dear and pure can quickly become how I assess someone else.  And before I know it, I don’t even measure up to my own purity code.

A blog writer wrote about her son’s decisions to do high school differently than his two older sisters who ended up at top universities.[4]  He sat his parents down toward the end of middle school to talk with them about his own ideas about academics, sports, and leadership that were vastly different than theirs. She wrote about learning how to “slowly and sometimes painfully put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.”  Her words call to mind the beatitudes we hear in the Matthew reading.

Jesus names the blessed as he lists the beatitudes to his disciples with the crowd listening in.[5]  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.[6]  Jesus upends the purity code of his time and also ours. He is addressing specific situations in his speech that we can hear speaking into our own.

If we re-wrote the beatitudes with what counts for blessing these days they might sound like this:

Blessed are the thriving, the joyful, the confident, and those who hunger for victory; blessed are the moral, the great, the tough, and the prosperous.

Hearing the opposite of the beatitudes can help us to hear them more clearly. The beatitudes as Jesus lists them are a word of grace in the face of our own high expectations.  It’s human to disappoint other people and to be disappointed by them; to hurt and be hurt even as we love and are loved.  And it’s human to ignore grace and make statements like, “I’m a good person.”  Or, to turn it into a question, “Am I a good enough person?”  This question begs another question. Good enough for what?  Good enough for you to love me?  Good enough for me to love you?  Or maybe the question in its ultimate forms: Good enough for God to love you?  Good enough to be received by God and enfolded in the life of God?

I’ve been to four funerals in the last two weeks. One for an Augustana member, two for colleagues both just 67 years old, and one for a friend whose cancer had recurred. I’ve heard eulogy after eulogy, and homily after homily and I ended up pretty cranky after feeling too many deep feels. These were good people and deeply flawed people. Imperfect and beloved people. Sinner-saint people. People like you and me.

A son of one my departed colleagues is also a theology professor.[7] His eulogy for his dad dabbled in homily but, man, I’m so glad he did. He talked about his dad being “enfolded in the life of God.” He also said, “Death is not the enemy. Death can never unlive the life that is lived.”  I would add that death cannot unlove a life that is already loved.  In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[8] But I think it’s what we unintentionally do. We end up unloving lives that are already loved by creating purity codes and attaching the name of God to them. No quicker than that happens do we then turn those purity codes onto ourselves. Who could possibly measure up? I’ve talked to people who’ve been Lutheran all their lives, who have heard about the unconditional grace of God their whole lives, and who still doubt the full measure of God’s love as they breathe into their last days.

Just so we’re clear, the full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year?  God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out.  As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross. Whatever defense you’re inclined to create for yourself or someone else as a good-enough-person is unnecessary.  You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own.  In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[9]

Alleluia! And Amen!

__________________________________________________________

[1] Toni Tennille of the 1970’s and 80s singing duo ‘Captain and Tenille.’ https://www.tonitennille.net/biography/

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 3:3

[4] Kristen Jones Neff. “I Wanted My Son To Be Happy But On My Terms.” Grown & Flown: Parenting Never Ends. https://grownandflown.com/wanted-son-happy-my-terms/

[5] John Petty. Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday. ProgressiveInvolvement.com on October 30, 2017. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/10/all-saints-sunday-matthew-5-1-12.html

[6] Matthew 5:3-10

[7] Eric Daryl Meyer. Assistant Professor – Theology. Carroll College, Helena, Montana. https://www.carroll.edu/faculty/meyer-eric

[8] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[9] 1 John 3:2

Violence, Guilt, and Defiant Faith [OR Pillars of the Earth, American Vaudeville, and the Apostle Paul] Matthew 21:33-46 and Philippians 3:4b-14

**sermon art: “A Cubist Prayer One World One God” painting by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 8, 2017

[Sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Matthew 21:33-46   “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Philippians 3:4b-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

I read Pillars of the Earth on vacation last week.[1] A gripping tale of love and hate, good and evil, set in the political intrigue of 12th century England. Cathedrals are built. Land battles and famine are constant. In the midst of it all is Prior Philip, a monk. He’s a character akin to the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians, very much very much aware of his gifts while pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[2] There are so many parallels it makes me want to buy the author, Ken Follett, a cup of coffee and talk faith, life, and theology. Prior Philip constantly questions his pride, care of his people, and God. He also constantly questions other people’s motives. Wrangling with kings, bandits, and bishops over decades the battle between good and evil wages. It’s classic American vaudeville. It’s wonderful. And like every good novel, it’s hard to turn the last page.

Sometimes the Bible reads like vaudevillian melodrama. Obvious villains arriving onstage to “boos” and “hisses” from the crowd.  The villains are bad and the heroes are good.  The moral of the story is simple. Wrongs are overcome and right wins the day.  At least that’s the feeling in the parable Jesus tells about the wicked tenants.  Let’s set the stage. Jesus is hanging out in the Jerusalem temple, home turf of the Pharisees, the religious elite. He’s done nothing to endear himself to them since his triumphal entry into the city, riding on a donkey, drawing cheering crowds who spread branches on the road in front of him.[3]  He’s dropped off at the temple where he flips over tables and chairs, driving out the money changers and sellers.[4]  Jesus leaves for a sleepover in Bethany and in the morning curses a fig tree on his way back to town.[5]  Busy guy. Busy challenging the status quo. He enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple leaders.  They basically say to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?!”[6]  He doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, out come the parables.

The parable we hear today is about the wicked tenants who beat, kill, and stone the landowner’s slaves as well as kill his son, tossing them all out of the vineyard.  Jesus talks and the Pharisees squirm. The parable makes it pretty obvious that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he doesn’t mean kill them. Here’s the key verse this week. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”[7]  It’s that verse that caught my eye when I read it on Monday.  I like the way the Pharisees “realize” that Jesus has them in the hot seat. Their realization that Jesus is talking about them raises questions for us.  How do we know what we don’t know? How do we realize new awareness and not commit violence against other people?

It could be because I watched the new Martin Luther movie last week but guilt and awareness connect for me in this Bible reading.[8]  Hanging out with a bunch of (mostly) Lutherans and watching Luther’s journey as he answers the question, “Am I a good person?”  His question turned into a faith journey called the Reformation that changed daily life, church, and politics for the Western world 500 years ago.  Watching his story makes me aware of a couple of things.  First, in chaotic times, people do good, bad, and ugly things. Not so unusual, people are always doing good, bad, and ugly things.  Second, faith is transformative. Is faith always transformative?  Doesn’t seem to be.  Is faith sometimes transformative?  I’d say ‘yes.’

The day after the Luther movie, I’d planned to stay home and write sermons. One for a funeral on Friday and one for today.  It was supposed to be a full day of writing but at the last minute I ended up leading chapel in the Sanctuary with our Early Learning Center kiddos. Getting ready to leave home included brainstorming age-appropriate chapel ideas. My own kids came to mind, when they were preschool age long ago. Sweet-faced and chatty. A song then came to mind that I sang to my kids every night at bedtime.  So, during chapel, we sang:

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Singing broke my heart open, choking back tears as these beautiful, little people of all the song’s colors sang with me. It’s hard to describe. Words that come close are, simple…pure…faithful…defiant…a song loaded with defiant faith. A faith that refuses to let natural or man-made destruction be the last word.  And because I was writing a sermon, Jesus’s parable about the tenants’ violence came to mind on my way home from chapel to write.  Jesus loves all the children of the world, including those Pharisees. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the guilt of their behavior.  Quick distinction here between guilt and shame.  Guilt is about what I do. Shame is about who I am.  Guilt admits my responsibility. Shame immobilizes me in the dark.  Guilt inspires my redemption. Shame pushes me to hurt other people. [10]

Back to the Pharisees. Jesus calls out their guilt.  Similarly, our behavior and guilt are called out by Jesus.  When I read this Bible verse, my instinct is to challenge us to think about ourselves as the Pharisees.  Good, bad, and ugly.  What is Jesus calling us out on?  Our sisters at New Beginnings Worshipping Community lead us to an answer. On Friday evening, I attended a fundraiser for their church that worships inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. During the last few months, three people had a chance to speak one-on-one with a woman living there. Each woman’s story was then told by their visitor as if we were hearing from the woman herself.  Each woman owning up to the guilt of their crime and the pain they’d inflicted on people. Each woman talking about deep shame and pain they’d initially tried to numb with cocaine or meth.  Each woman experiencing redemption by faith that defies explanation, their lives transformed.  These women lead us because they don’t point fingers at everyone else. They know they can’t lie to God and they know they don’t have to. Theirs is a defiant faith through which Jesus refuses to let their guilt be the last word.  Real redemption in real time.

Our present time is all too real. A few days ago I used the word surreal but that doesn’t describe what’s at stake in the carnage and grief in Las Vegas, in hurricane after hurricane, or in Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police violence against black people.[9]  It’s all too real that patriotism and the common good are being shaped in ongoing debates about protests, guns, race, health care, immigration, media, diplomacy, aid, education, gender, incarceration, taxes, and more.  All of this to say that a defiant faith is what fuels my hope, prayer, and actions. It’s easy to give up and hide. It’s easy to disrespect other people, a violence of its own kind, while turning up the volume on my opinions. It’s impossible to lie to God about that violence.

Martin Luther King Senior came home from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son after learning about Martin Luther’s 15th century commitment to non-violence as a way to turn self-interest and corruption upside-down so that all people could live. No small thing, that name change. I’m committed to non-violence right down to the way I talk with you. Do I get it right every time? Not by a long shot. Do I get angry? You bet.

If Jesus loves all the children of the world, then that means you and I are in this together whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean keeping the peace for the benefit of the status quo while people suffer. It means leaning into the chaos of our time and speaking up on behalf of our neighbor – red and yellow, black and white. Taking action while acknowledging the guilt that is ours for violence large and small against self and others so that we do not perpetuate violence like the wicked tenants in Jesus parable.  Realizing our guilt, we become instruments of peace with a defiant faith bound by Jesus’ love. We are redeemed and set free to live.

___________________________________________________

[1] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[2] Philippians 3:14

[3] Matthew 21:1-10

[4] Matthew 21:12-16

[5] Matthew 21:17-22

[6] Matthew 21:23-32

[7] Matthew 21:45

[8] Boettcher and Trinklein, Inc. (2017) “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World.”

[9] Snopes. “Did a U.S. Veteran Influence Kaepernick’s ‘Take a Knee’ Protest of Police Brutality?” Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer confirmed he convince the quarterback to “take a knee,” rather than sit, during the national anthem. http://www.snopes.com/veteran-kaepernick-take-a-knee-anthem/

[10]  I’ve heard shame and guilt compared in different ways by different people. Lately, Brene Brown is one go-to expert on the topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGFrId-IQg

Sending Song  at end of worship:  CHRIST, BE OUR LIGHT

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

Longing for truth, we turn to you.

Make us your own, your holy people,

Light for the world to see.

Chorus:

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.

Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light! Shine in your Church

Gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled.

Longing for hope, many despair.

Your word alone has power to save us

Make us your living voice.

Chorus

3. Longing for food, many are hungry.

Longing for water, many still thirst.

Make us your bread, broken for others,

Shared until all are fed.

Chorus

4. Longing for shelter people are homeless.

Longing for warmth, many are cold.

Make us your building, sheltering others,

Walls made of living stone.

Chorus

5. Many the gifts, many the people,

Many the hearts that yearn to belong.

Let us be servants to one another,

Making your kingdom come.

Chorus

– Bernadette Farrell

 

For Boogie…Imperfect and Beloved – Mark 2:1-12, Psalm 23, Proverbs 3:1-3, 5

A Celebration of Life on October 6, 2017

Boogie Bob Olson [March 5, 1945-September 14, 2017]

Pastor Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

[Sermon begins after 3 Bible readings]

Mark 2:1-12 When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

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.

Proverbs 3:1-3, 5 My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; 2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. 3 Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.

[sermon begins]

Many of you here today have stories with Boogie that go back a long time.  Through some of you, I’ve heard bits and pieces.  The way he lit up a room and made life brighter, bringing music and humor to lighten life. The way he could modify any piece of music. The way he listened to you and surprise you later because he’d remember what you told him. The way he loved pinball, sneaking out of the house as a teenager and still playing years later.  And the way his mischievous streak would surprise people like his brother-in-law who thought he was showing up for a party and ended up moving a piano.  Through these details, there is much about Boogie that came through as well.  These are the intangibles – the things that thread together over time.  His generosity, his puns, and his willingness to lend a hand.

Boogie and I met a couple months ago, after his cancer diagnosis.  We shared communion at his bedside. He told me about his baptism as an adult here in this congregation. He talked a lot about his kids – Jerry, Brenda, and Christy – his pride, gratitude, and love for them.  He talked about past broken relationships with fitting humility and regret.  I asked him if there was anything he was worried about or needed to talk about and he said, “No, I’m not worried about anything; It’s just so sad. I’m going to miss so much.”

He also told me that over the last three years he has read the Bible three times. When I asked him why, he said that he though he didn’t know enough and wanted to know more. He read the Bible straight through its 66 books as printed.  He also read it through chronologically – bouncing around in the Bible.  While he was at it, he read different translations. By a happy accident, Boogie chose Psalm 23 and Proverbs 3 for the service today because he’d written them down to test his memory shortly before he died.

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

The Bible story about the four friends lowering their paralyzed friend down to Jesus speaks into the grief in this time to celebrate Boogie’s life and to mourn his death.  What a scene! These friends are true problem solvers. Their paralyzed friend needs help so they pack him up and head toward Jesus. It’s Flight for Life, first century style. There were so many people that they couldn’t get in the house. They head up to the roof and tear it open to lower their friend down to Jesus. Determination spiked with deep love for their friend.

As you all shared story after story with me about Boogie, this Bible story just shouted to be told.  I can imagine Boogie up on that roof.  Figuring out the mat, the ropes, the hole in the roof, and Jesus’ location.  Working with the other friends to figure out how to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus’ attention and adding mischief along the way.

On the flip-side, I can also see Boogie as the friend on the mat.  The one who desperately needs care from other people and also needs the attention Jesus.  In my conversation with Boogie, he was acutely aware of his imperfections – the way he’s hurt people important to him and the limits of how far his humanity could get him.  This is where his testimony is so powerful.  As beloved as he was in life and appreciated for his generosity and charm, the Christian faith also reminds us of the limits of our humanity and God’s efforts to get our attention through those limitations.

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

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

Jesus death on the cross changes everything because Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross means that God does not respond in violence against us. Jesus’ death on the cross also means that God knows suffering.  More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.

The crosses in our lives can separate us from each other and from God.  But God says, “Not so fast…I’ve been there too…I who came in the form of a baby, who lived and walked the earth, who was put to death and who conquered death in rising again…I am God and I have the last word.”  God’s last word meets us our grief with hope – the hope that forgiveness and reconciliation with each other are possible; the hope that redemption is real, and the hope of all that God is yesterday in a living baby, today in a living Christ and tomorrow in an eternal God. God has already opened up whatever we perceive the barriers to be between us and God.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Boogie into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Boogie.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God.

____________________________________________________________

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2017

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Matthew 20:1a and 16b

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

[8] Jonah 4:11

[9] Revelation 22:13

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