Tag Archives: grace

Be Light Because You Are Light [OR Bridesmaids, Pandemic, and Election are NOT the End of the Story] Matthew 25:1-13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading – hang in there, the reading will get the full treatment in the sermon]

Matthew 25:1-13  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

[sermon begins]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[1]

Liturgical geeks among us may be wondering why I’m echoing the season of Epiphany, singing from Tangled Blue’s lyrics pulled from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Well, for one thing, it’s easier to start there than in today’s reading. For another, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” In the verses following, he goes on to say the familiar words set in the baptism liturgy, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” With hard parables like this one about the bridesmaids, it’s good to be reminded about the main things before diving in. And the main thing today is that God’s promises flow from God to us. We don’t earn or generate God’s promises by our behavior. If that were possible, someone would have cracked that code long ago. It’s also not only easier to start in chapter 5, it’s an important key to how we read about the bridesmaids’ lamps.[2] In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount includes the beatitudes that we heard last week on All Saints Day. Jesus’ sermon is key to Matthew’s gospel and anchors us to his sermon to the faithful and his trial and crucifixion.[3]

Today we start Matthew’s 25th chapter for three weeks. Jesus’ challenges to the faithful are intensifying.[4] The Matthean community was experiencing conflict between insiders and outsiders, probably other Jewish groups, that called into question who had the proper authority to teach.[5] The community also likely had some internal conflict among themselves. It gives one pause to wonder about the writer’s biggest worry, the kind of pressure they were under. Curiosity about their 1st century distress lends compassion to this struggling faith community and the harsh parable in today’s reading.

A relevant side note here. Lyn Goodrum in our church office asked me recently if I’d fallen in love with Matthew’s gospel. Some of you may remember my confession last December in Advent that I’d had my own struggle with this particular book of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding. I was able to tell Lyn that I’ve not fallen in love with it but that I have grown to appreciate it. In part, this happened because I have a new appreciation for the Matthean community’s experience. Reading through that lens made room for more compassion. Our current cultural moment adds to that compassion. Division isn’t fun. Division that threatens potential violence, especially isn’t fun.

I wrote this sermon before Election Day and recorded it on Wednesday for today’s worship. There’s no telling what’s happened between Tuesday and today. Impossible to predict the status of the week’s stories. The Matthean community certainly didn’t know how their story ended either. In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus was pushing them and reminding them about what’s important regardless. He was pushing them to encourage their readiness. He was reminding them that he’d given them what they needed to endure what was coming. He was barking at them like a coach before game time so that they’d remember that light needs tending to endure what’s ahead. Jesus’ listeners knew that lamp oil lasts longer when the wicks are trimmed.[6] Back-up oil was needed in the story because the bridegroom’s timing was unpredictable, and every bridesmaid wore out and fell asleep. Waiting for something to change can feel long. Jesus challenged his followers to hang in there and be ready. In this parable, readiness included lamps that are lit with the long game in mind. Preparing the lamp includes a supply of oil and a trimmed wick to keep it burning slow and steady. Jesus’ challenge to his listeners means something about the Christian life over the long haul. For us, as a faith community, it’s a word of life in the midst of this prolonged meantime when we might miss opportunities as we’re tempted to wish this moment away.

My Pops used to warn me against wishing my life away when I was impatient for the next, long-anticipated event. I didn’t really understand what he meant for a good many years. But I hear his voice in my head, when I find myself wishing 2020 away as if 2021 is going to magically be better, as if we could fast-forward to our worship and community life together in person. Alas, fast-forwarding is neither possible nor would it be good news to do so. I’d be wishing away the life, light, and love of today. Also, we’re the church, the light of the world, for the long haul. The Augustana community is our tiny corner of God’s whole church. As the church, we can argue from here until kingdom come about what it looks like to be ready, to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. But Jesus is pretty clear in Matthew’s gospel about what trimming the lamp for the slow and steady burn looks like. We’re given images of the slow and steady burn in the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion. Jesus preaches about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. At the cross, Jesus is vulnerable, non-violent, and self-sacrificing – shining light through the darkness of the darkest moment.

The number of bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable implies that this wedding was a high-status affair. The bridesmaids appear to be more than just friends of the bride as they seem to serve in a necessary role.[7] We could argue that the role is not about works or faith but it’s about the life the beatitudes invites us into – a life centered on the cross that glorifies God, a life that makes it clear that God is the primary actor, the giver of life.[8] A life centered on the cross is a life that knows and endures suffering. Martin Luther names this as the Seventh Mark of the Church. “The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross,” he writes.[9] Luther argues that the church endures “hardship…temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says)…” and “becomes like its head, Christ.”[10]

He goes on to argue that the customs of the church are “necessary and useful…fine and proper” but they are not to be confused with the marks of the church. In this category of customs, he includes “times for preaching and prayer, and the use of church buildings, or houses, altars, pulpits, fonts, lights, candles, bells, vestments, and the like.”[11]  Our Augustana customs do not make us the church – the cross makes us the church.

Jesus’ intensity before his trial and crucifixion is understandable. His preaching in the parable of the bridesmaids is shocking and stark although his word fuels the endurance in his people who will falter, grow weak, fail in readiness, and then regroup to be the light of the world. Dear ones, as one tiny corner of God’s church catholic, we are “in holy possession of the Holy Cross.” There is much to endure in this waiting time but the bridesmaids are the not the end of the story – neither is the pandemic, nor the election.[12] As Jesus is pointed to the cross in this parable, so are we. Pointed to the cross where grace shines in light, where God brings life out of suffering and death. Where, by our baptism, we live “in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment.”[13]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[14]

________________________________________________________

[1] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

[2] Dirk Lange, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Switzerland. Commentary on Matthew 25:1-12 for November 9, 2008 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4620

[3] Ibid.

[4] If you get a chance this week, read Matthew 24 and 25. It’s a intensifying crescendo just before Jesus’ trial starts.

[5] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[7] Skinner, ibid.

[8] Lange, ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Everyone’s Luther: On the Councils and the Church (1539), 244. https://wolfmueller.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Work-on-Councils_100618.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Luther, 257-258.

[12] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Discussion on November 3, 2020, in Preacher’s Text Study of Metro East Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA.

[13] Lange, ibid.

[14] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

__________________________________________________________________

Oh, The Places You’ll Go…Or Not [OR God Transforms Unholy Places] Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36 Reformation Sunday

**sermon art: /r/Place canvas as of April 3, 2017   Place is a collaborative canvas that any registered reddit user could ‘draw’ on one pixel at a time. In order to draw another pixel on the canvas there was a 5 minute wait time. ‘Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more,’ is Place’s motto.  https://twistedsifter.com/2017/04/what-is-reddit-place/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 25, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Romans 3:19-28 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

John 8:31-36 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

[sermon begins]

Oh, the places you’ll go…or not go, depending on who else is there, whether or not masks are required, and how much or how little you need to see people. As those things get figured out, “place” takes on new meaning in our lives. Our favorite places usually qualify as favorites because they’re fun or beautiful or peaceful or sacred or we find our favorite people there. These days, the places we go are often necessary and cannot be avoided, or meaningful and we bend to accommodate them.  Adjustments have also been made to meaningful places like the way we worshiped under a tent in the courtyard over the last few months. Last week, place was also shifted for our Confirmation students who were affirming their baptismal promises in the Rite of Confirmation. Annually celebrated on Reformation Sunday, we held a brief ritual with the youth and their families and recorded it to be celebrated with all of us here in online worship. It was a unique Confirmation, as the few of us who gathered together represented the fullness of the congregation in the Sanctuary, our community’s sacred place.

Place is important to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John reading as he says that, “the son has a place [in the household] forever; so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus’ place brings freedom that cannot be created on our own. This is good news if you don’t like the new place in which you find yourself, feeling displaced by a pandemic.[1] Jesus’ freedom can also sound like good news if you’ve been displaced or excluded by other people for reasons like income, disability, skin color, or education level.

The 16th century Reformation took place in complicated socio-political times that parallel our own. Martin Luther was not the first reformer of his day, but he was the first reformer that lived long enough to disrupt the systems of church and state applying pressure to both the pope who controlled the church and the princes who controlled the city-states of their time. While Luther condemned the institutional church for its extortion of the poor and manipulation of the faithful; he also challenged the princes against exploitation of the peasants. Luther and other Reformation preachers were adamant that princes and leaders address systemic issues.[2] Luther wrote, ““For so to help a man that he does not need to become a beggar is just as much of a good work and a virtue as to give alms to a man who has already become a beggar.”[3] Lutheranism has long since preached justice-oriented community engagement on behalf of our neighbors alongside the grace of salvation “by faith apart from works.”[4] In fairness though, this grace-and-justice preaching had its place long before Luther.

In the Romans reading, check out verse 25. The execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans gets flipped into the language of sacrifice.[5] The 1st century listener would have been like, “Whaaaat?!!” Everybody knew that sacrifices offered to God meant specific animals, killed in the temple, by a priest. No one would have equated a Roman execution of a Galilean rabbi, on a hill outside of town, with sacrifice. More specifically, the Greek word “hilasterion,translated here as “sacrifice of atonement,” is more accurately translated “mercy seat.” The early listeners in Greek would have heard that “the redemption in Christ Jesus” was put forward by God as a “mercy seat through faith in his blood.”[6]  This is BIG, so hang with me here. The mercy seat was known to be in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple where the high priest entered once a year to sprinkle blood over it on Yom Kippur for the atonement of all of Israel.[7] This section of the Romans reading transforms the unholy place of the cross into the Holy of Holies, the center of God’s reconciling grace; the place where the unholy, non-Jewish Gentiles are transformed into holy Christ believers and God’s servants. These verses claim that God transforms the unholy place into a place of holy transformation. Transforming the unholy into the holy. Put a place-holder there, we’re going to come back to it.

Another dilemma in the English is that the word for justice and righteousness is the same word in Greek – dikaiosyne. 1st century listeners would have heard this word to simultaneously mean “righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor).”[8] There was no choice needed to be made about meaning like there is in English. The place of justice for our neighbor IS the place of righteousness with God. There are many people who celebrate the Reformation solely as an event in history that revealed God’s reconciling grace within each individual believer. What often gets missed, is that it was simultaneously an event that turned the believer away from self towards the neighbor. This reading from Romans is the perfect place to open up God’s word in the fullness of the Reformation and to allow it to open us up as God’s word finds a place in us.

Grace was at the heart of the 16th century Reformation and love of neighbor completed the freedom granted by Christ’s grace. Luther also wrote, ““Poverty, I say, is not to be recommended, chosen, or taught; for there is always enough of that by itself, as [Jesus] says (John 12:8): ‘The poor you always have with you,’ just as you will have all other evils. But constant care should be taken that, since these evils are always in evidence, they are always opposed.”[9]

I’m going to let you in on a well-kept secret…we have an election coming up. Democracy and voting would have been inconceivable to Luther and his peers, not to mention to our 1st Century siblings in Christ, but they all would have understood justice and neighbor-love as required by God.[10] We’ve spent the whole last church year in the book of Matthew in which Jesus lifts up the vulnerable and oppressed as our faithful priority. And just around the corner in Advent, we’ll hear Mary sing about lifting the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.[11] Voting is one more place to help our neighbor as we examine ballot issues, judges, and elected leaders. Remember to pray for yourself and each other as we vote.

Remember also that the mercy seat of Christ dwells within you by the power of the Holy Spirit in your baptism. When we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his death, and into the mercy seat of God.[12] The unholy places in you are the very places that God redeems and makes holy for your sake in God’s righteousness and for your neighbor’s sake in God’s justice. Today on Reformation Sunday, we celebrate that everyone has a place in the household because Christ is the mercy seat through which God redeems us and sends us in freedom to love and serve our neighbor. Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Pastor Margot Wright, Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church, Centenniel, CO. Metro East Preacher’s Text Study, Rocky Mountain Synod (ELCA), on October 20, 2020.

[2] Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee (Eds.). The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation. (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016), 24.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Romans 3:28

[5] This section of the sermon relies heavily on this work of Jane Lancaster Patterson, Associate Professor of New Testament, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX. Commentary on Romans 3:19-28 for October 25, 2020 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4605

[6] Patterson, Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lindberg and Wee, Ibid.

[10] Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

[11] Luke 1:46-55

[12] Romans 6:3-11

Celebrating the Life of Cameron Rivera (April 22, 1996 – March 10, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell at Wings Over the Rockies Museum/ Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery (Centennial Airport)

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jeremiah 29:11  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Romans 8:35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[sermon begins]

Michelle and I have been talking about today since March when the pandemic shutdown the city. Trying to figure out where and when we could gather to celebrate Cameron’s life in this way was not easy. I know today is one of several times some of you have been together. The first time being the day Cameron died, during the hours long wait for the coroner’s arrival on the scene. Another being the balloon release the week after he died. It’s difficult to not let his tragic death overshadow the light Cameron brought in life and the light he continues to bring as you remember him. When I spoke with Rob and Michelle about today, I heard so many wonderful things about Cameron that make me wish I knew him as you did. We’ve already heard some of those memories today and there are so many more on your hearts and minds. His smile, loyalty, kindness, athleticism, perpetual motion, love of a challenge, and love of the Buffalo Bills all come with many stories. These are gifts that Cameron shared with you all who love him.

As a son, cousin, first grandchild and great-grandchild, friend, best friend, employee and more, Cameron brought a lot of joy. His adulting plans included his flight lessons with the goal of flying for UPS someday. It’s part of the reason we’re gathered here at the airport and will celebrate with a flyover. More immediately, he had plans to be in London in April. After he died, Cameron’s heart ventricles and corneas were able to be donated. One of his corneas ended up gifted to a recipient in London. Rob told me that while Cameron didn’t see London while he was alive, he was able to make it there after he died to see through someone else’s eyes.

Jesus says in the Bible, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Jesus knows that your hearts are troubled.  How could they not be?  The end of Cameron’s 23 years old life is a tragedy. And tragedy brings the question, “Why?!!”  And the attempts to answer that question also come.  Attempts that don’t answer the question of “why” and often leave us hurting each other or hurting ourselves.  We hurt each other and ourselves as we try to figure out what Jeremiah means by God’s plan for us and we wonder if that God had a direct hand in Cameron’s death.  Above and beyond the grief, we say things like, “Well if that’s the plan that God has then I want nothing to do with that God.”

But listen to the promise of Jeremiah once more… “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Not for harm…for hope.

How does this hope take shape in the face of real pain?  First by naming the tragedy for what it is – just like in the reading from the book of Romans that names tragedy as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, nakedness, sword; just like our reason for being here today is Cameron’s death at such a young age.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in his life too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the pain.

There’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He does NOT tally.

If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask “BUT what about WHAT I’M supposed to do?! Have I done enough to make myself right with God?! Has Cameron?” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us and for Cameron.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems. In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut.

The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.

The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.

Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

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

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and now catches death up into God, drawing Cameron into holy rest where suffering is no more.  Jesus is focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [1]  Jesus has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.

Nothing separates Cameron from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to Cameron.

And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to Cameron, God gives us a future with hope as God also brings Cameron into a future with God.

On his earthly birthday, we celebrate Cameron’s life as we celebrate his new life with God. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cameron. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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[1] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song after the Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

_____________________________________________________

Psalm 145:1-8

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

Follow the Breadcrumbs [OR Prophetic Witness and Celebrating Queer Inclusion] Isaiah 56:1-8 and Matthew 15:10-28

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 16, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 56:1-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:10-28  Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

[sermon begins]

Jesus and a shouting Canaanite woman. What’s the picture in your head? Who is she? What color are her eyes, her hair, her skin? Is she rich or poor? We know that she’s a mother because her daughter is tormented. Jesus comes to town and she shows up shouting. I love this image in part because she has everything to gain and nothing to lose by shouting her broken heart at Jesus. His guys want Jesus to send her away for all the noise she’s making. Jesus doesn’t send her away though. He talks to her. He blows up the conversation by calling her a dog. Some theologians think he’s giving voice to what the disciples are thinking and trying to teach them a lesson because he is somehow in the know about what the Canaanite woman is going to do. After all, he IS the teaching Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. And here he seems to be teaching his disciples what not to do. Could he have known that she was in on the lesson with him? Was it because she called him “Son of David?” She knew the lingo, maybe she knew the rest of his genealogy too. It’s possible she had heard about the Canaanites in Jesus’ family tree listed in Matthew’s opening chapter to the gospel – Rahab the courageous prostitute, Tamar the righteous trickster, and Ruth the loyal daughter-in-law and great-grandmother to King David.[1] [2] Or perhaps Jesus had a physical feature that identified the Canaanite blood that also flowed in his veins through his family tree. Maybe she took one look at him and immediately knew they shared Canaanite blood.[3]

We’ll never know whether she knew but it’s possible that that she did and it’s possible that Jesus knew about the non-Jew, Canaanite women in his genealogy. Jewish heredity follows the mother because mothers are obvious, pregnant links. It’s likely no mistake that it’s this point in Matthew’s Gospel at which Jesus’ ministry expands to include non-Jews. Up to now, he’s instructed his disciples to stay within certain Jewish boundaries. Now they’re in Tyre and Sidon getting shouted at and possibly feeling a little defeated after all they’ve been through. First John the Baptist was killed, then they fed over 5,000 men, women, and children who were also on the move after John’s death, then they spent a terrifying night on a boat at sea in a storm before debarking in Gennesaret, until their trek to Tyre and Sidon where they’re shouted at in welcome. Let’s follow the breadcrumbs through that maze, shall we?

Jesus first follows the breadcrumbs when he said to the crowd and his disciples, “…it is not what goes into his mouth that defiles a person.” Just before he said this, the religious leaders who followed Jesus from Jerusalem accused the disciples of being unclean because they didn’t observe the ritual of handwashing before they ate. It makes me wonder if the religious leaders were spying from behind trees, watching the disciples feed the over 5,000 hungry people in our Bible story two weeks ago who probably didn’t wash their hands either.[4] Perhaps they were hoping to reduce the power of the feeding miracle on a religious technicality. (A little like reversing a flashy touchdown with an offsides penalty.) But the religious leaders’ stale plan couldn’t have worked. Leftover food collected after that meal for thousands filled twelve baskets with the broken pieces. Crumbs, sifting through the baskets, were left as evidence all over the field where the thousands ate. There’s no way the religious leaders could sweep those crumbs under the rug. That’s a significant breadcrumb trail to follow.

Teeny tiny breadcrumbs were probably still embedded in the disciples’ clothes while they were shouted at by the Canaanite woman who was empowered by her broken heart. When she knelt before Jesus, she said, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (What is up with calling this woman a dog?!) Jesus’ comment vexes the faithful in every age. Jews didn’t historically keep or love dogs the way that their Greek and Roman counterparts did.[5] In antiquity, dogs were found in the households of all classes of people and were a symbol of loyalty in art and literature.[6]  Jesus’ dog accusation was flipped by the Canaanite woman who likely had a love of dogs much like dog lovers in our 21st century households.[7] Dogs in her town were fed under the table as beloved family members – crumbs falling over the table’s edge and lapped up by adored canine companions. Whatever this odd exchange between Jesus and the woman actually means, Jesus ends up rewarding the persistent loyalty of the woman by celebrating her faith and fulfilling her wish. His ministry expanded to include a non-Jew, a Canaanite sibling by blood, under the watchful gaze of his disciples. Before we get self-righteous about how Christianity is uniquely inclusive, let’s turn to our Isaiah reading.

Isaiah 56 begins what’s known as 3rd Isaiah because of the time period in which it’s thought to have been written. In our reading, the prophet welcomes two groups of people into the congregation – foreigners and eunuchs.[8]  These two groups of people had been excluded based on the law in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible in the Old Testament. Foreigners and eunuchs had been kept out of the Jewish faith community by law. Foreigners is an understandable concept to us. Eunuchs maybe not so much. Eunuchs in the Bible are commonly understood to mean those who were intentionally castrated to become guards and protectors of women and wealth. However, this is a narrow definition that keeps preaching safely contained. In the ancient world, eunuchs were broadly understood as men who didn’t respond to women in a traditional, heterosexual way.[9] 21st century language now describes eunuchs as queer and part of the spectrum of LGBTQIA+.[10] The prophet witness of Isaiah welcomes the foreigner and the queer into the “reign of Shalom.”[11] He writes:

1aThus says the Lord: 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree…” 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”[12]

Before any of us cast this passage off as an unusual wrinkle in the Old Testament, we could turn to the New Testament book of Acts when Philip, led by an angel, baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch who “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home…reading the prophet Isaiah,” the 53rd chapter.[13] After his baptism, now adopted as a child of God, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” And we celebrate this good news with him and all our queer siblings in Christ.

Anyone’s mind blown yet? Can you feel grace tumbling down like breadcrumbs over the edge of a table? God’s grace cannot be contained by the religious leaders in Matthew’s Gospel who want to trap Jesus in an argument about ritual defilement. Instead, Jesus flips the conversation from ritual to right hearts. Much like the Canaanite woman turns the table on Jesus with her broken-hearted demand for the crumbs fed to the dogs and is praised by Jesus for her faith. These Bible readings are a breadcrumb trail that guide us into the ever-expanding ministries of the prophet Isaiah and the Lord Jesus. Ministries that include the diversity of human siblings in skin along with our Savior who slipped on Jewish and Canaanite skin to show us the right-hearted direction. Ministries fueled by an extravagant, perplexing grace that cannot be contained by religious leaders, bread baskets, or tables.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

Song after the Sermon:

Healer of Our Ever Ill (ELW 612)

(Refrain)Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

  1. You who know our fears and sadness,
    grace us with your peace and gladness.
    Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts (Refrain)
  2. In the pain and joy beholding
    how your grace is still unfolding,
    give us all your vision, God of love (Refrain)
  3. Give us strength to love each other,
    every sister, every brother.
    Spirit of all kindness, be our guide (Refrain)
  4. You who know each thought and feeling,
    teach us all your way of healing.
    Spirit of compassion, fill each heart. (Refrain)[14]

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:3-6 Jesus’ genealogy [Tamar: Genesis 38; Rahab: Book of Joshua, Chapter 2; Ruth: Book of Ruth]

[2] Mitzi J. Smith, Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 15:10-28. Sermon Brainwave Podcast posted August 20, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4542

[3] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[4] Matthew 14:13-21

[5] Francis D. Lazenby. Greek and Roman Household Pets. The Classic Journal: Vol.44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949), 245-252 and Vol 44., No. 5 (Feb. 1949), 290-307. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., Smith.

[8] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave 738: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 19, 2020.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1288

[9] Pastor Reagan Humber, House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[10] LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexed, Asexual, Ally, and (+) other

[11] Ibid., Jacobson.

[12] Isaiah 56:1a, 3, and 5

[13] Acts 8:26-40; in verse 32 we learn that the eunuch is studying Isaiah 53:7-8.

[14] Sing along with music and lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdItMxllvN4

Sitting In The Grass [OR Small, Simple Things and Grace Beyond Our Imagination]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 2, 2020

Below is the sermon that I preached in our outdoor worship today. Pastor Ron Glusenkamp preached in our online worship that can be found here: https://www.augustanadenver.org/worship/   Pastor Ron is not only the husband of Augustana’s Faith Community Nurse Sue Ann, he is the churchwide national Director of the Campaign that includes projects for ELCA World Hunger.

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

[sermon begins]

This week, I heard a news report about the Lipstick Index, a term coined to describe how people buy small, simple things to treat themselves during tough times.[1] Well, masks have smeared lipstick sales but nail polish sales are looking shiny. When I heard this news gem, I wondered more about how people treat themselves to small and simple things during difficult times. And then I wondered about how we treat ourselves to small, simple spiritual things. And then I wondered how often we feel the need to muster up spiritual treats from inside of ourselves as if our spiritual well-being depends solely on ourselves. I especially wonder about self-spiritual-mustering during tough times. It’s handy that our Bible reading from Matthew’s Gospel has something to say about this very thing.

Jesus feeds the 5,000 in the story immediately following the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist at King Herod’s dinner party. After he gets the news of John’s death, Jesus gets in a boat to find some deserted quiet. His pursuit of quiet is foiled by the crowds who follow him on foot around the water’s edge. When he goes ashore and sees the people, he’s filled with compassion. The Greek work for “compassion” here means that he felt for them deep in his belly. Seeing the need in the crowd was gut-wrenching for Jesus. In their desperation, they had followed him to a deserted place. Perhaps they too were grieving and even afraid after John’s murder. At the very least, it was a tumultuous time for Jesus followers.

As 21st century Jesus followers, we are learning a thing or two about our own tumultuous times. We feel our own grief and fear. And we see desperation in our own homes, down the street, and around the world. In particular though, the pandemic destabilizes fragile social structures that leave some people especially vulnerable. Hungry communities in certain parts of the world are being pushed into famine.[2] It’s tempting to look away because the despair is heart breaking and our emotional resources feel maxed. But we can also pause and see the people as people and allow their desperation to stir our gut-wrenching compassion. This congregation has a long history of mutual ministry with ELCA World Hunger both domestically and internationally. They know what to do when it comes to feeding people as emergency response and when it comes to helping communities plan into their own self-sustaining future. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Even a small gift of money adds up to big possibilities in combination with gifts from other people. Join me in giving today to ELCA World Hunger at augustanadenver.org and clicking “Donate Online” [or clicking the link below if you’re reading this sermon].[3] 100% of our gifts go to hungry communities because congregations around the country pay the administrative costs. We can be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Even closer to home, the conversation has just started to try and figure out if our annual rice and bean breakdown for Metro Caring’s food pantry will work this year.[4] It may be here in the Fellowship Hall although it would like different. Or it could be at Metro Caring’s new warehouse set up for that purpose. Stay tuned for updates as we cruise toward the second Sunday in September when we would typically celebrate “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday by separating large bags of rice and beans into household sized portions for their pantry shelves. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can donate food to Metro Caring and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.[5]

One step closer to home is Augustana’s Soup Shelf, an honor system food shelf on the covered porch of our Sanctuary. Donating only canned food only food protected from nature’s critters. The motto “Leave what you can; take what you need” allows for the possibility that someone may be picking up food for themselves or for several neighbors at once. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can leave canned food on the porch of the Sanctuary and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Speaking of people eating dinner, just before Jesus prepares dinner for thousands of his followers, he asks them to sit down on the grass. Actually, he “orders” them to sit down in the grass. This is not a happy go lucky moment for the people or for Jesus. John’s execution by the king is a public act of political theater that traumatized the people. Now they sit together in the grass for what amounts to a funeral reception. There are fish and bread and grass and each other. Instead of treating themselves, the people are treated to a moment of refreshment from Jesus. In the midst of the impossibilities, there is a moment of peace.

Here we sit outside…in the grass. We’re masked and distanced while shaded by a canopy. Nowhere near 5,000, we’re limited in numbers with registration requested. We press pause on the seeming impossibilities of our time to simply be together and to receive. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who needs the reminder that we don’t muster up all that we need spiritually from inside of ourselves. It’s easy to either get caught up in the myth of the rugged individual or to curl up in despair when left to our own devices. For now, we gather when we can, in the ways we can – whether worshiping online or outside sitting in the grass. Here outside today, our communion is cradled in small condiment cups. In a few minutes, when we very briefly remove our masks, we’ll commune together at the same time before putting our masks back on. We commune in as simple way as possible. We commune in “one kind” with a wafer of bread only, pondering the mystery that in this small, simple wafer we receive the fullness of Christ’s grace, forgiveness, strength, and peace.

I hope that is what our time together here is, right now. A moment of peace when we’re reminded that Jesus turns to the desperate crowd and has compassion for them. Just as Jesus turns to us in these times of impossibility and has compassion for us – for our humanity, for our noise, and for the mess we find ourselves in. Jesus reminds us to sit, to pause, to eat, and to remember how important it is to receive. For today, there is a Sabbath invitation to stop or reduce our “doom scrolling” through the social medias or “news binging” shows on our favorite channel, as if the next bit of information is going to save us, and to surrender to Jesus’ compassion.

Surrendering to Jesus’ compassion understands that Jesus knows the trauma of losing close friends in the midst of political chaos. He knows the instinct to find quiet in a deserted place when bad things happen. He is the Word made flesh who experienced pain, surrender, hope, and joy. Following Jesus means we can surrender to his compassion for us when we don’t know where we’re headed next. Our surrender is sometimes marked by small, simple things like setting a table at home for online communion or holding ready a wafer in a condiment cup as we sit in the grass together. Hope for today is kindled and fueled as we receive grace beyond our imagination in a small, simple thing like the grace and peace of Christ in a communion wafer from the One who is, who was, and who is to come.[6] Amen.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Ailsa Chang and Ari Shapiro. “Pandemic Puts An End To The ‘Lipstick Index,’” National Public Radio: July 27, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/27/895867487/pandemic-puts-an-end-to-the-lipstick-index

[2] Lori Hinnant and Sam Mednick. “Coronavirus-Linked Hunger Tied To 10,000 Child Deaths Each Month,” HuffPost Online: July 27, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coronavirus-hunger-child-deaths_n_5f1f7e9ac5b638cfec48e471

[3] https://www.augustanadenver.org/giving/

Start by clicking the “Donate Online” option and make sure to designate your gift for “ELCA World Hunger.” 100% of donations to ELCA World Hunger go directly to hungry people. Administrative costs are covered by donations from ELCA congregations around the country including Augustana.

[4] Learn more about Metro Caring’s ministry and/or give food or money here: https://www.metrocaring.org/

[5] Turn into Augustana’s parking lot from the west-most Alameda entrance and follow the signs to the Sanctuary porch. Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 East Alameda Avenue, Denver, CO, 80246.

[6] Revelation 1:8.

Cancel Culture and Ideological Purity are Death-Dealing [OR Transformation Through Grace as the Earth Groans in Labor Pains]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 19, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 13:24-30 [Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

Romans 8:12-25  So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

[sermon begins]

My mother-in-law, now at rest in the company of the saints in light, would die all over again if she knew how long I delayed in tending my backyard flower garden. She was passionate about her gardens. During the last several months, I’ve prioritized family, friends, work, reading, and exercise…and even my little patch of garden in the front…over the jungle takeover in the back. The reckoning for this neglect came last weekend. I went after it, inviting – actually pretty much begging – my 21-year-old daughter to start the project with me so that I could finally get going on it. (I’m relationally motivated that way.) I found her a hearty pair of work gloves whilst I approached the weeds with weary gardening gloves. So weary were these gloves and so prickly were the weeds that I started pulling them with a pair of pliers. (Don’t tell Rob). Low and behold, according to the Bible anyway, I could have simply left the weeds to grow alongside the more desired flora and let God handle it in the end.

But, of course, Jesus isn’t telling a literal tale in today’s Bible reading. It’s a parable. A parable is a story told to illustrate where the listener’s attention should be. The Gospel of Matthew spends some of its time trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. In this parable, Jesus is telling his listeners that it’s not their job to figure out the insiders from the outsiders, the weeds from the wheat. In the Gospel of Matthew, it’s their job to follow Jesus. The same Jesus who said, “Blessed are the merciful…[and] blessed are the peacemakers.”[1] The same Jesus who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Jesus didn’t ignore the weeds. Silence in the face of oppression and injustice was not what Jesus did. He regularly and actively challenged the powers that be on behalf of the poor in spirit and the persecuted.[3] In the parable of the weeds and the wheat, he’s reminding the listener that it’s impossible to identify oneself as either weed or wheat. Although, we tend to think we’re the wheat and that other people are those nasty weeds.

Identifying weeds and wheat takes on the either/or proposition that we humans seem to relish as much as the faith community in the Gospel of Matthew. One case in point is what’s known as “cancel culture.”[4]  Canceling initially meant to boycott someone in power who has committed atrocious acts against other people – think Jeffery Epstein who sex-trafficked young girls or Harvey Weinstein who exploited his position as a movie producer. Canceling was a way for the community to reduce the power of people who abused their position of authority to hurt other people. It has evolved into cutting someone out of the conversation so that constructive dialogue with opponents is no longer necessary or possible.[5] Canceling reduces people as unworthy based on a moving target of ideological purity. It makes me wonder how long it will take before no one is ideologically pure enough to survive cancel culture. Before anyone gets on a high horse, this happens across political and cultural ideologies. No one is immune to the temptation to cancel or to being canceled. One tweet or blog post or comment that doesn’t measure up to the purity code, and you’re out.

Canceling in its current form seems to move against every lesson that Jesus tells us about how grace works. No grace or transformation exists in cancel culture. It’s about social shaming. Nuance is lost as the humanity of the opponent is canceled. Violence becomes easier once opponents are dehumanized. Just like that, we’ve circled back to the parable of the wheat and the weeds; back to the either/or proposition of ideological purity. Ultimately, we’re back to the cross, where shame and ideological purity lead to inevitable violent death. And the earth groans in its shadow.

No wonder the whole earth is groaning as described in the Romans reading. I’m no fan of the Apostle Paul’s first century inclination to pit our flesh against our spirit. Once again, the either/or proposition becomes oversimplified in such distinctions. However, Paul makes a key theological move by indirectly placing the wheat and weeds distinction within each person. He makes an important claim that our whole selves wrestle with being saint and sinner at the same time. If you want to be Christian-fancy, you can quote Martin Luther’s “simul iustus et peccator” – simultaneously righteous and a sinner. The letter to the Romans describes it as adoption out of bondage to decay. That’s heavy-handed language but it gets at an important truth about our tendencies as earth’s creatures. Our hope rests in the comfort of adoption and the challenge of labor. The metaphor of groaning in labor aptly describes our current moment. Pregnancy and labor are expectant and hopeful but also painful and hard.

A few weeks ago, I was one of the people who downloaded the necessary channel for watching the musical Hamilton. There was an accompanying video of cast interviews that I watched to gear up for the show. The interviewer asked the cast about their experience of the state of world today. One cast member talked about how excited he is about the possibilities. That maybe what we’re going through will birth a society better equipped for 21st century life together. His excitement was infectious at a time when groans of despair are intermittently muted only by shouts of rage. Not a lot of fun to be had but there is hope. The kind of hope experienced by a laboring woman.

In the birth process, groaning in labor is active waiting. (Lest we think that we’re being encouraged by the Apostle Paul to hang out in a Barcalounger recliner while we wait.) Labor is active, sweaty, painful waiting. Our adoption as children of God calls us into midwifery for a planet groaning in labor. At our baptism, we pray to God to:

“Sustain [the baptized] with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.”

Our baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit empowers us to actively wait in hope through our adoption as children of God. This is transformation through grace while the earth groans in labor. Thanks be to God and amen.

Hymn of the Day: Canticle of the Turning

My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the
God of my heart is great, And my spirit sings of the
Wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You
Fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my
Weakness you did not spurn, So from east to west shall my
Name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Though I am small, my God, my all, you
Work great things in me, And your mercy will last from the
Depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your
Very name puts the proud to shame, and to
Those who would for you yearn, You will show your might, put the
Strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a
Stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your
Justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The
Hungry poor shall weep no more, for the
Food they can never earn; There are tables spread, ev’ry
Mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember
Who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver
Us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This
Saving word that out forebears heard is the
Promise which holds us bound, ‘Til the spear and rod can be
Crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Copyright‎: ‎© 1990, GIA Publications, Inc
Author‎: ‎Rory Cooney

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[1] Matthew 5:7 and 9

[2] Matthew 22:39

[3] Matthew 5:3 and 10

[4] Merriam-Webster. “What It Means to Get ‘Canceled.’” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/cancel-culture-words-were-watching#:~:text=The%20term%20has%20been%20credited,calls%20to%20cancel%20such%20figures.

[5] Petra Bueskens. An Apology to JK Rowling. June 23, 2020. Areo: Politics, Culture & Media. https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/23/an-apology-to-jk-rowling/

________________________________________________________________

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!

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[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