Tag Archives: grace

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., Moore.

Doubt…Grace…Doubt…Rinse, Repeat [OR For God’s Sake, Let Thomas Keep His Cool Name] John 20:19-31

**sermon art: “Doubting Thomas” by Nick Piliero (à la F. Barbieri) acrylic on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 19, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

We changed our daughter’s name when she was a year old. Nothing drastic. Taryn’s first name stayed the same. We changed her middle name. Her original middle name was my mother-in-law’s maiden name. Carol was honored but didn’t quite get it. A few months later, I discovered that my mother-in-law’s beloved mom had the middle name “Grace” – Velma Grace. Amazing Grace was also my mother-in-law’s favorite hymn. Perfect! We decided to change Taryn’s middle name to “Grace!” Turned out it was quite a process. Our little family that included one-year-old Taryn and three-year-old Quinn trooped off to Civil court and stood before a judge. I can still see him smiling at us – likely relieved for the break in his sad caseload. The judge asked us some serious questions about fraud. Then he declared her name change official as his gavel fell. Taryn Grace. On the way out of the courtroom, our son Quinn, who’d been quiet as a mouse, started yelling, “I don’t wanna change my name! I don’t wanna change my name!”

I wonder if Thomas in our Bible story today would pipe up similarly to Quinn. His name was Thomas, called the Twin. I have no idea if Thomas liked being called the Twin. My hope is that it was a cool nickname along the lines of will.i.am, J.Lo, or even Marky Mark. Regardless, I wonder what Thomas would think about the less cool switcheroo done to his name by centuries of Bible readers. Thomas, called the Twin, became Doubting Thomas. I hear Thomas, much like our son Quinn, saying, “I don’t wanna change my name.” Because the name Doubting Thomas highlights doubt as what comes “before” and belief as what comes “after.” First, Thomas doubted. Then, Thomas believed. End of story. But we know that’s not how it works. It’s not how any of this works.

We don’t know where Thomas the Twin went while his friends were afraid and locked in that room. Maybe he was making a run for essentials. Wherever he was, he missed Jesus’ first visit. This is important because he didn’t miss out forever. Jesus showed up again. He showed up wounded in a locked room where the disciples were still hiding. Now there’s the makings of a good party.

Actually, it is kind of a party. It’s a grace party. Jesus hosts it fresh from the crucifixion trauma and resurrection alleluias. Except, the disciples are still locked up in fear. Eyes gritty from lack of sleep. Minds clouded trying to understand what is happening. It’s unlikely that their alleluias were full-throated even after Jesus showed up. Because that’s how it works. Fear, grief, doubt, hesitation, belief, faith, and grace…these things get second, third, and fourth name changes as we figure out what they mean over time. Faith is especially tricky to name and gets renamed as time passes.

People often wonder why their faith isn’t available during a tough time in the way they assumed it to be. They’ll sometimes describe it as having “lost their faith” or that they “can’t pray” like they used to pray. I don’t know anyone who is immune to the experience of having their faith shaken or shattered. Sometimes it doesn’t take much. Faith can be thrown off by moving to a new town away from your church peeps who kept you connected. It can be clouded by a fresh understanding of the Bible’s ancient scripture. Sometimes it’s way bigger. Faith cracks under the weight of broken trust or chronic illness. Or faith can be crushed by grief and loss. While age is not immunity to faith-shifting experiences, our eldest elders have a thing or two to teach us.

Our Care Team of pastors and staff have been making calls to people to find out how they’re doing. It’s been inspiring to hear our oldest folks talk about today’s challenges in the context of other challenges they’ve faced in their lifetimes. In the same breath, their faith frames these challenges and sustains them through it. Resilient faith isn’t universal for everyone of a certain age. Many of us regularly shift between anxiety and the peace of Jesus. But our eldest elders offer us important perspective from their vantage point of a long life. Their faith, like life, isn’t static. Faith flexes, bends, breaks, and resurrects.

Thomas the Twin also shows us that faith isn’t fixed in a solid state. He faithfully followed Jesus until he abandoned Jesus at the cross. Then, locked and afraid in a room, Thomas receives life in Jesus’ name from wounds on hands and side – wounds, not perfection. The wounds that Jesus first shows to the other disciples, and then to Thomas, mean something. The wounds received on the cross were inflicted by fear, anger and fragile egos. The wounds that meet us in our most wounded places show us as we really are in the reflected light of the risen Christ. These wounds are the signs through which faith is resurrected.

From these signs of Jesus’ suffering, he resuscitates his relationship with Thomas and then Thomas names faith differently, calling Jesus “Lord” and “God.”  Hidden in a locked room, Thomas the Twin learned that he is neither alone nor unreachable.[1]  He experienced grace first-hand when Jesus reached out a wounded hand. The grace of divine kindness meeting him right where he was, even though he hid himself away. And that’s how it works. That’s how any of this works. We are neither alone nor unreachable in our hideouts. Locked rooms – pah! There’s no hiding from the relentless pursuit of grace. The risen Christ meets us where we prefer to hide, challenging our wounded reality and resurrecting faith to give life in his name. Thanks be to God and amen.

 

Now receive this blessing…

May the One who brought forth Jesus from the dead

raise you to new life, fill you with hope,

and turn your mourning into dancing.

Almighty God, Father, ☩ Son, and Holy Spirit,

bless you now and forever. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] John O’donohue (1956-2008). Irish poet, priest, and philosopher.   https://friendsofsilence.net/quote/author/john-odonohue

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

**sermon art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

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]

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! I’ve been known to blurt this out in a mix of people and places. Most of the time, it’s because someone has shared some good news. Praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus is not a phrase my family used, nor was it ever said even one time during my ten years away from church. But somewhere along the way, someone said it and it wove into my praise and prayer. I don’t remember when it started happening that people would respond with raised eyebrows and outright laughter to praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus, and then mention a movie they saw and assume that’s where I picked it up. It wasn’t. But as this Christmas Eve sermon started percolating and the phrase came to mind, it made sense to check out that movie scene before preaching it.[1] Turns out, it’s NOT the exact same phrase. The scene is a family argument that erupts over the table prayers during Christmas dinner. As the dad prays repeatedly to the baby Jesus, the mom stops the prayer and they argue about whether or not it’s okay for him to be praying to the baby Jesus. To this, the dad replies that she’s welcome to pray to whichever Jesus she likes – grown-up, teen-aged, or bearded Jesus – but that he likes “the Christmas Jesus best.”  The scene is waaay over the top but it gets something right theologically when it comes to this evening’s Bible readings.

The Luke reading announces the birth among farm animals as the child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in the manger that feeds those animals. Angels herald the baby as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, while sending the shepherds to the manger-side praising God. Bible verses before our reading announce the child as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.”[2] The Bible verse that follows our reading announces that the baby’s name is Jesus.[3] In the Isaiah reading, there are other names given to “a child born for us, a son given to us” – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[4]  One tiny newborn, so many names; and so many more names to come as he grows up and out of that manger – prophet, teacher, friend, and king.  We can ponder in our hearts why there are so many names for one divine human being.  Perhaps it’s possible to treasure ALL these names as we ponder and wonder and wander through the 12 days of Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s one name for Jesus that you like best.

When the many names for Jesus come up, disagreement CAN happen about which name is more applicable, or which name is the right name, or which name we should use when we’re being the most faithful, or which name gets at the authentic Jesus the best.  Seems like a moot argument.  All the names listed in the scripture have value in the fullness of Jesus.  Here’s one way to think about it.  I’m a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, weightlifter, community organizer, preacher, pastor, and more.  Am I any one of those things in negation of the other? No.

You may be a peacemaker, student, activist, friend, athlete, gamer, employee, reader, dancer, singer, and more.  Are you any one of those things in negation of the other? No. Are you sometimes more of one of those things than another?  Most likely, depending on the moment.  Are you still ALL YOU in any given moment?  Of course.  Who we are in any one of our roles adds to the breadth of our human experience and the depth of our humanity.  Similarly, so goes the divine humanity of Jesus.

The beauty of specifically celebrating the baby Jesus at Christmas is that we’re reminded just how much God loves us first.  Meaning that before we ever had an inkling that there might even be a God, God arrived physically in the world to be present with us in the most vulnerable way possible – as a squishy, squeaky newborn. For some of us, that’s more than enough because maybe you need the sweet baby Jesus as the Christmas gift, meeting you beyond the overfull inn where everyone inside seems cozy and snug while you’re on the outside looking in.

But others may be in a different space this evening.

Maybe you need the Wonderful Counselor Jesus who calms the troubled mind.

Or maybe Prince of Peace Jesus who calms a troubled world.

Maybe you need the prophet Jesus who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Maybe you need the suffering Jesus on a cross who reassures you that God suffers with us in the darkest moments of life.

Or maybe you need the Savior Jesus who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Maybe you need the Easter Jesus, shining and shimmering with life eternal, sharing your moment of joy as you shout “Hallelujah.”

Or perhaps you need that other Easter Jesus who holds your fragile moment of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which name for Jesus calls to you, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re holding onto Jesus by the barest thread with only your fingernails. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like tonight in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and praise the sweet baby Jesus!

_________________________________________________________

[1] Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Scene: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. (Columbia Pictures, 2006: PG-13).

[2] Luke 1:32 and 35

[3] Luke 2:21

[4] Isaiah 9:6

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

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

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[1] Luke 15:11-32

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

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

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

[5] Acts 9:1-19

One-Liners: Charlie, Jesus, and Misguided Disciples (with a dash of Desmond Tutu for good measure) [Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1, 13-25]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 30, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 9:51-62  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

[sermon begins]

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

We all know that person.  The one that makes us belly laugh with a good one-liner – the joke that’s as dry as a bone, hilarious, and often pointed at themselves.  My father-in-law Charlie was regularly that guy.  Oh sure, there were plenty of dad jokes that we met with groaning and eye rolls.  But every so often, there was the one-liner that made us really laugh.  Here’s just one example.  The hospice care center that took care of Charlie in his dying days is supported by a family candy business that also makes ice cream.  Charlie loved ice cream.  The last dinner that he ate was a few bites of this special candy ice cream. His oldest son Tony asked him how it was and Charlie quipped, “It’s worth dying for.” There was this pause in the room and then we all just cracked up.  That moment was quintessential Charlie – a one-liner that made us laugh while it cut to the heart of things.

There are other kinds of one-liners that cut to the heart of things.  The reading from Luke today is full of them. Let’s set the stage a bit. Jesus and the gang had been in Galilee where Jesus’ home town sermon had people wanting to hurl him off a cliff.[1]  They left that town but stayed in Galilee for a bit before heading through Samaria to Jerusalem.  Today’s reading begins the travel narrative.  The travel narrative lasts 10 chapters and begins here with Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem.  It’s unclear how long he takes to get there.  It also marks a shift in Luke from Jesus’ behavior and actions to Jesus’ teaching and words.

Before we get to his words though, let’s focus on the first one-liner that he responds to.  It makes me laugh every time because it’s over-the-top and so very human.  James and John arrive at a Samaritan village ahead of Jesus.  We’re not privy to what happens there except that the Samaritans don’t receive him.  James and John say to Jesus together, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Instead of a one-liner at their own expense, those two misguided disciples launch one together at the expense of the Samaritans. Maybe it made them feel better to practice it ahead of time and to have each other’s company while they repeated it to Jesus. I wonder if their self-righteousness was strengthened since it became shared-righteousness. Ganging up on the people who disagree with us is a pretty common human vice. The trouble is that it’s not too far of a leap from wishing them ill to inflicting vengeance on them ourselves. Christianity has a particularly troubled history with this very thing. Which is ironic given that the Messiah we claim to follow is against raining fire down from the sky to consume people. Verse 55 says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I wish we had his words here. We could frame them and hang them on our walls as words of wisdom whenever we get the urge to take any action that resembles our fellow disciples, James and John. Because we often need that reminder when our most cherished beliefs are rejected.[2]

Here’s one way to think about anger that I read from Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of South Africa.

“Righteous anger is usually not about oneself. It is about those whom one sees being harmed and whom one wants to help.”[3]

Give Bishop Tutu’s test a try this week when you’re experiencing the rejection of your beliefs. Take that step back and wonder about your reaction and your response in the priorities of discipleship.  Perhaps there’s a one-liner, or five, that would cut to the heart of things.

The beginning of the travel narrative doesn’t stop with James and John’s one-liners.  Usually Jesus is plainspoken in Luke.  Not here.  Three times there are followers who want to follow Jesus but just need time to prepare. Three times Jesus responds with comments that leave us scratching our heads.  But his comments aren’t totally mysterious.  He’s making the point that discipleship is hard. Demands are made on our lives that don’t jive with the idea that all our choices have equal value. And Jesus’ words are going to get harder as the travel narrative continues in Luke. He’ll push on how money is spent, who gets invited to dinner, and where to sit during dinner to surrender privilege. [4] Two Sundays from now, we’ll even learn about love from a Samaritan, from the very people that James and John wanted to incinerate with heavenly fire.

The one-liners are extreme from Jesus but they get to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ words don’t seem to be philosophical teachings to mull over, journal about, and file away as “good in theory.”  Jesus invites followers to re-think the priorities of discipleship.  Wait a minute though, what about grace?  I can almost hear that question in the room as I write this sermon.  Of course, yes, grace.  Grace reminds us that we’ll misalign the priorities and that God loves us regardless of what we do or don’t do.  Grace also shows us real life moments where we can try again.

The Apostle Paul hones in on this very question of grace and discipleship priorities in the reading today from his letter to the Galatians.  He writes:

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You are free, Paul writes.  Be slaves to each other through love, Paul writes.  When James and John forgot the humanity of the Samaritans, Jesus rebuked them.  When his followers say they need time to get ready to follow, Jesus reminds them that discipleship is hard. When Paul tells the Galatians that they are free in Christ, at the same time he tells them that their freedom enslaves them to each other through the love of Christ.

Small scale enslavement to our neighbors through the love of Christ looks like the hospice staff and their loving care of my father-in-law as he was dying.  Large scale enslavement to our neighbors through love demands taking care of migrant children and families at the border through the love of Christ regardless of whatever you personally think is the political answer to the immigration question.  Those kids and their families are as equally deserving as anyone else of the fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Oh yeah, while we’re at it, those people who disagree with you, who reject your deeply held beliefs, the ones that seem so easy to de-humanize on media, in the work place, or in your own family, those people that we’d try to incinerate a la James and John, they are as equally deserving as anyone else of the fruits of the Spirit.  That’s the grace part.  The grace part that swings all the directions, across all of humanity, in the world that God so loves.  The love of God that reorganizes our priorities as disciples.  The love of God that set Jesus’ face to Jerusalem. The love of God that frees us. The love of God that calls us to follow.

_________________________________________________________________

Song after the Sermon:

The Summons (Will You Come and Follow Me)[5]
John L. Bell & Graham Maule

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I’ll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

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[1] Luke 4:16-30

[2] Amy G. Oden. Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, St. Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City, OK. Commentary on Luke 9:51-62 for June 30, 2019 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4101

[3] The Dalai Llama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy. (New York: Penguin, 2016), 106.

[4] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 30, 2019.

[5] Watch and Listen to the hymn sung here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk6IUalJ3sk

Repentance, A Little Perspective [OR Schadenfreude Stinks for Someone] Luke 12:54-56, 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 12:54-56, 13:1-9   He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ 6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” 

Isaiah 55:1-11  Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. 
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. 
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. 
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples. 
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. 
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near; 
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

 

 

[sermon begins]

You all may not be aware that a bomb cyclone recently blew through town.  Anyone NOT in the loop on that one?  We know the drill.  The meteorologists start getting excited days in advance when the low pressure system starts to exhale above Colorado.  Eventually many of us realize an urgent need for bread and milk and the grocery store aisles go gridlock.  I can’t really blame the weather people.  The weather does get exciting at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains. We live its wildness and can feel slightly tougher than other parts of the country because of it.  But when Wednesday morning, the day of the big weather event, rolled around and the reporting was still over the top, I needed help with perspective.  There was to be a funeral here in the Sanctuary on Thursday morning for a gentleman who was a three-time Purple Heart in the Korean War.  His grandnephew is a Navy Seal deployed to parts unknown without security clearance and he’d arrived in town on Tuesday with special approval to attend his uncle’s funeral.

I confess that my anxiety was up about whether or not this funeral could happen and not much else.  Changing channels across different news stations, Marty Coniglio was just beginning his report.  He explained rapidly moving pressure systems resulting in intense wind which leads to blowing snow that causes problems even if snow amounts seem minimal.  Then came what I needed to hear.  And that is that we’ve experienced these before but we usually call them blizzards.  And that this one would finish blowing in Metro Denver by late Wednesday as recovery and clean up began.* Ahhhh, a little perspective.

In a similar way, Jesus challenges the crowds around him about their weather forecasting abilities before laying down the bigger challenge.  We hear that we’re not so different from his first century listeners when Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”[1]  He accuses them about the time and energy they spend on the weather to their lack of attention on the main thing.  As Jesus is ramping up, “there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingles with their sacrifices.”[2]   They told Jesus gruesome news about Governor Pilate’s killing of these religious pilgrims.  The people wondered about the killings.  About the people killed.  Is there a way for them to avoid the same fate?  Is there a way for them to understand why they died in the way they died?  Jesus gives them a Job answer.[3]  Meaning that there is no way to understand suffering as being deserved by sin.  We simply can’t pin it on the sinfulness of the ones who died as if they were the reason it happened to them.

Pinning suffering on the sufferers is such a human response.  Even more human is creating distance between ourselves and people who are suffering.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the phenomenon called schadenfreude – the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others, the relief we feel that it wasn’t us.[4] Schadenfreude happens a lot in competitive arenas like sports and politics.  We might even say that team owners and politicians bank on schadenfreude.  When the other team loses, we feel better.  I heard a bit about schadenfreude on the Hidden Brain podcast during some car time last Saturday.  The podcast host interviewed experts on the topic of envy, malicious envy, and schadenfreude – how it makes us feel good when people we don’t like are brought down in some way.  It could be argued that some in the crowd around Jesus felt a bit of schadenfreude that the Gentile pilgrims met such a humiliating death.

My mind caught when host asked the chilling question, “How much can our pain prompt us to find pleasure and how much can this pleasure prompt us to cause pain?”  Individually, the social consequences are small scale.  When it comes to group behavior the consequences can be enormous.  “If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I’ll make a bad thing happen.”

Schadenfreude may turn our caring off when it comes to certain groups and community decisions we make. Schadenfreude can also be a gateway to unspeakable acts.  Let’s ask the question from the crowd around Jesus into our times today.  Listen to it this way:

There were some present who told him about the Muslims whose blood the shooter had mingled with their prayers.

These violent tragedies don’t happen in a vacuum but they can happen in echo chambers where groups dehumanize other groups.  Before any of us go getting on our high horses, think about what person or people that you wouldn’t mind coming to harm.  And might even secretly celebrate it.  See…not so far-fetched.

The podcast also covered how we know that schadenfreude isn’t socially acceptable so we tend to keep it locked up inside.  At the very end of the podcast, the host got down to the antidote for schadenfreude.  You’ll never guess…confession. Talking out loud about the inner conflict of feeling good when others feel bad. It seems important to make the point that confession is different than gleefully celebrating someone’s downfall with like-minded people which is typically what we do watching a favorite talk show host. Confession is a clarity that something is amiss. Confession comes on the heels of repentance.

One way to think about repentance is that our perspective is changed.  Very often the perspective change happens TO us.  A little like our friend the fig tree in Jesus’ parable. The tree grows not one piece of fruit that the owner can claim as success.  Then comes the grace of the gardener and manure in the story.  Manure happens. And there is the additional grace of time.  While we’re watching the weather, Jesus reminds us about the main thing, the grace of time.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Ann preached Joseph’s story from the Bible book of Genesis.[5]  His brothers sold him into slavery because they were tired of him being their father’s favorite. It’s not hard to imagine both their schadenfreude and their guilt. In the last chapter of Genesis, at the very, very end of the story, Joseph’s brothers confess their wrong to him, fall on their knees, and weep. Joseph tells his brothers that God brought good through the evil they inflicted on him.[6]

For us, the resolution seems incomplete.  We get no satisfaction through revenge.  The brothers don’t pay for their crime against Joseph.  Instead, just like our friend the fig tree ends up with more time from the gardener as a random grace, so did the brothers.  This is the offense and the good news of grace.

When Jesus challenges us to see the time we’re in, he challenges our perspective and pushes us to repent of our part in the time.  We don’t live in isolation, no matter how many ways we try to close ourselves off from each other.  We live together on this tiny blue dot, utterly dependent on each other and the world that God so loves.  For God’s sake, and by God’s grace, we have time to bear fruit from manure.  Thanks be to God.

________________________________________________

*The bomb cyclone is major weather that neighbors near and far are still reeling from.  Floods in multiple states, not to mention around the world are devastating.  Lutheran Disaster Response spends dollar for dollar given to these events because congregational mission support pays for the admin.  Feel free to donate here:  https://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/

[1] Luke 12:56

[2] Luke 13:1

[3] The Bible’s book of Job takes on the question of why people suffer and ultimately comes up with no satisfactory answer. We are to simply live as God’s people regardless of what’s happening around us.  Not rejoicing in suffering but rather rejoicing in God’s promise to be present with us in the face of it (theology of the cross).

[4]  Shankar Vedantam. “Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly” for Hidden Brain: A Conversation About Life’s Unseen Patterns, February 26, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/26/586674547/feeding-the-green-eyed-monster-what-happens-when-envy-turns-ugly?fbclid=IwAR0g35VsT3i58qLH468KN9hcvoXZ8KbNl6s2aT3ob-4wJNzdyaWK_ZpYIJs

[5] The Joseph novella runs from Genesis chapters 37-50.

[6] Genesis 50:20

Personal and Prophetic Grace. Yes, it’s both. – Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; see end of sermon for last week’s reading from Luke that is the first part of Jesus’ sermon here]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

{sermon begins]

Oh, Jesus! Really?!! Upsetting your listeners again? How quickly things go downhill too.  Just before he’s nearly hurled off the cliff, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  If only Jesus had stopped with his gracious remarks before he launches with prophetic grace.  “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” Jesus. Timing is everything and Jesus’ timing with the people hearing his sermon was way off.  We hear the end of the story today begun in the Luke reading last Sunday.  Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”[1]  Of course it was his custom, being a first century Jew and all.  Jesus was Jewish through and through.  He stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah and sat to teach.  His named great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, alongside the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman and the widow were outsiders.  By telling those stories from Jewish history, Jesus pushes his home-town people hard on the outsider message.  A message long embraced by Jews about Elijah and Elisha who also summoned prophetic grace for outsiders.[2]  This was not a new message, although it was apparently an infuriating filled one.

Prophetic grace is not neutral.  There’s usually some kind of reaction.  People love it or people hate it.  Either way, prophetic grace often pushes people which means that people will often push back.  A couple weeks ago, I marched in the Marade celebrating the work and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders prayed about loving our neighbors by taking action; as politicians spoke with different perspectives on equality and freedom; and as I looked around at people of all ages and skin colors, I wondered if I would have had the courage to march with Dr. King over 60 years ago.[3]  Many white people thought he wanted too much, too fast, for black people and that his rhetoric was too risky for everyone.  Many moderate whites who were on his side in theory, couldn’t bring themselves to show up with him in actuality, although some did.[4] The same could be said of Harriet Tubman. She was a former slave, political activist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad that rescued slaves before the Civil War.[5]  It’s ironic that her image will grace the $20 dollar bill given that Ms. Tubman lived at a time when the economy depended on black slave labor who received none of the financial reward.  Both Ms. Tubman and the good Reverend King acted from deep faith.

If Harriet Tubman and Dr. King are too much prophetic grace to contemplate, let’s try Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Pastor Bonhoeffer is often lifted up by Lutherans as an exemplar of prophetic grace.  He lived and died in Nazi Germany working to overthrow Hitler first by speaking out against him and then by trying to assassinate him.  He was executed days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp.  The good Reverend Bonhoeffer is obviously inspiring for what he was willing to risk and the faith that was his strength.  Similarly to my thoughts about Dr. King and Harriet Tubman though, I wonder how I would have responded to Pastor Bonhoeffer had I been a German Lutheran of his day.[6]

I wonder because of their inspiring lives that they risked daily.  I also wonder because of Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in the verses 18 and 19 from last Sunday.  When Jesus unrolled that scroll in the synagogue, and stood to read, here’s what is quoted from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ reading from Isaiah, echoes the Spirit filled words of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon earlier in Luke.  People will argue about whether Jesus’ words are meant personally or prophetically.  Aren’t we all on some level poor in spirit, blind to truth, captive to sin, and oppressed by shame?  We talk about those experiences regularly and I often preach Jesus’ promises for all people as a direct word of grace.  For God’s sake (literally), I experience comfort in Jesus’ personal grace myself for all those reasons.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus only meant these words on a personal, spiritual level. If he did, what do we make of the likes of King, Tubman, and Bonhoeffer whose deep faith shapes actions on behalf of people who are actually poor, captive, and oppressed? One of the things I find fascinating about reviewing history is how it can help with perspective today.  Which leads to the other question I’ve been noodling. Who are the voices of prophetic grace are right now? Your homework this week is in the form of a question.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message?  Perhaps it’s a message that rankles and gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable and antsy for some cliff hurling.  Let me know who you come up with and why.  Here’s the question again.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message. Before we get too far on that homework, I’d like us to add to the mix of prophetic grace the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking with love. To paraphrase Paul, speaking without love ends up being a whole lot of noise for a whole lot of nothing.

Some of us have tasted this love that Paul is talking about.  We’ve experienced the grace of the gospel in the unconditional love of Jesus that means there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  It’s deeply personal and it’s transformed our lives.  I first heard this gospel when I was 28 years old. As it fell into my ears week after week, I would sit in that sanctuary and wonder what the people around me were hearing. The gospel, my husband, and my congregation at the time, started nudging me to seminary.  Six years ago yesterday, I was ordained and installed here, with you, as a pastor.  You just never know what the gospel is going to do with you once it’s had its way transforming hearts with love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  This is true whatever your vocation. Gospel love is a personal grace.

Gospel love is also prophetic grace. There are moments when other people say hard things but we’ve still experienced this gospel love.  It’s harder to hear the love through a tough message but it’s in there.  We question motives and meaning before we even realize we’re doing it.  Consistently, Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because all people are included in the love of God – even that person you wouldn’t mind hurling off a cliff – prophetic or not.  Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because Jesus loves the world, everything and everyone in it.  This means that grace in the form of unconditional, gospel love is personal for you and prophetic for everyone else.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say hallelujah…and amen.

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[1] Luke 4:16

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology. Commentary on Luke 4:21-30 for February 3, 2019 on Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955

[3] Saja Hindi. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade Sends Thousands Through Denver.” The Denver Post, January 21, 2019. https://www.denverpost.com/2019/01/21/martin-luther-king-day-marade-denver/

[4] Audio and Document to Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King. Have a listen: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[5] Harriet Tubman. History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman

[6] Victoria Barnett. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

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Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________________________

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

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

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

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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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.]

 

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.

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[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

 

 

Jesus: Superhero? Antihero? Neither?  [John 3:14-21]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 11, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 3:14-21 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

[sermon begins]

Wonder Woman hit movie theaters last spring and tallied box office returns of $103 million for opening weekend and over $800 million in worldwide box office sales.[1] Black Panther opened in mid-February to the tune of $202 million and is currently well over $900 million in worldwide ticket sales.[2] It’s still in theaters so, who knows, a billion dollars is possible. Those are record breaking numbers. People not only enjoy the quality movie making, they also care deeply about these films – their characters and stories. I’m fascinated by how deeply people care. Every so often, I day dream about the doctoral program at DU called Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory.[3] Programs like this excavate the layers of experience and thought behind cultural phenomena. For now, there are experts in their fields who propose their own theories. TV critic Eric Deggans thinks that, “Superheroes answer this desire that a lot of us have to have somebody cut through all the nonsense in life, use extraordinary powers to bring justice to a situation, and I think that’s the appeal of these movies and these T.V. shows; To find somebody who can just sort of cut through all the nonsense and deliver justice very directly.”[4]

It’s not a stretch that we would want God to work in the ways of the superhero, too. Especially in the Gospel of John in which Jesus performs miracles and seems to have superman-like resolve from his baptism all the way through his death on the cross. While I do not think this means what we often think it means, there is something both super-human and all too human going on here. The human part is that we are prone to condemnation. We like to judge other people as if we could do better in the same set of circumstances.[5]  And we tend to pull God into our court to support our verdict. Along this line, I hung out with the first communion students and their parents on Wednesday evening. Their first communion book, written by Daniel Erlander, tells stories about the crabby people who were very, very crabby about Jesus.[6] They didn’t like the way he healed. They didn’t like the way he fed. They didn’t like the way he forgave.

They didn’t like that he ate with the wrong people. You get the idea. We worked through the first few pages of the book, regaled by stories about Jesus while the crabby people in the stories plotted to kill him. The crabby people were meting out their own kind of justice with a plan to hang Jesus on a cross. Class ended with this thought. I told the kids that there may be crabby people who pop up in our lives to ask us the question, “Do you know what God’s going to do to you?!” Then I told them how to answer it by saying, “Yes, God’s going to love me.”  We know this because all the way to the cross there was not one finger lifted by God against the very people who were part of the execution.

The love of God is part of these verses today as the world God so loves. It’s a reference from John 3:16 which begins, “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16 is well known to us – on signs at football games and quite possibly anywhere else you could imagine, the signs read either just chapter and verse or sometimes the sign-artist will write the whole thing. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I always hope that the next verse, John 3:17, will make it onto the sign too.

Listen to beginning os John 3:17 again, “”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…” The Son in these Bible verses is Jesus. In God’s mysterious way, those of us who confess a faith of Jesus, also say that Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The Gospel of John begins with this claim. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what came into being was life and the life was the light of all the people…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[7] The Gospel of John confesses Jesus’ divinity.

 

Jesus came not to condemn – came NOT to be the movie superhero doling out retributive justice. Yet that is the justice often claimed out of these verses. It’s the kind of justice we crave from our superheroes because it cuts through the nonsense and appeals to a sense of fairness that is satisfying. Satisfying, that is, when it’s someone else getting cut down. A little less satisfying when we’re the ones under judgment. But, our satisfaction is amplified when our connections with each other are made around a common enemy. Kind of like those crabby people in the first communion book who are united against their common enemy of Jesus. Why doesn’t Jesus come out swinging and deliver the final one-two punch? Jesus, while occasionally sarcastic and biting, is no anti-hero. He isn’t skulking around, isolated and cynical. He is walking around as the light. Shining light on the human condition by telling the truth about the deeds we do in the darkness and light that exist in the world.

Here’s the truth of it. We take turns in the darkness and light – by choice and by circumstance. Part of God loving the world is shining light on the truth of what we do. This isn’t necessarily joyful or easy. But shining the light on our rush to judgment without all the data, our call for retributive justice without compassion, or our determination to energize around a common enemy is exactly what’s needed. Shining a light on all of our attempts to end up at the top of the heap while condemning others around us.

In the Gospel reading we are told that, “The light has come into the world.” The very first verses of the Gospel of John tells us Jesus is “the light of all people.”[8]  During communion we hear the words of Jesus spoken over the wine:

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for ALL to drink saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.[9]

During the invitation to communion, we often say that if you are here you are welcome to Holy Communion. It is Christ’s table for all because Jesus is the light come into the world, the light of all people. Such is the welcome and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Neither superhero, nor anti-hero, Jesus is simply given to us by grace, for God so loves the world and continues to draw us into the light of Christ by this good news.

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[1] The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet. “Wonder Woman” as of March 10, 2018. https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Wonder-Woman-(2017)#tab=summary

[2] Ibid. “Black Panther” as of March 10, 2018 https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Black-Panther#tab=box-office

[3] DU/Iliff Joint PhD Program in the Study of Religion: Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory. https://www.du.edu/duiliffjoint/current-students/concentrations/theology-philosophy-cultural-theory.html

[4] Eric Deggans, NPR TV Critic. “Here and Now.” March 9, 2018. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510051/here-x26-now

[5] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  “After Effects” (John 3:14-21) for Dear Working Preacher. Sunday, March 4, 2018.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075

[6] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book. 1999. http://danielerlander.com/apfy.html

[7] John 1:1, 3b-5, 14

[8] John 1:5

[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Holy Communion, Setting One. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 108.