Tag Archives: healing

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________

[1] Luke 17:17

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

[3] Luke 18:35-43

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

[5] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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

[7] Lose, Ibid.

[8] 2 Corinthians 9:15

_______________________________________________

Psalm 100

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

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.

________________________________________

[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

A Baptism in the P.I.C.U – John 12:1-8

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

There are Bible moments so absurd and disruptive that they are difficult to imagine.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus is one of them.  Oil and hair and fragrance are dripping, cascading, and emanating.  There is no ignoring this moment if you’re around that dinner table.

Lazarus is there, having just recently been raised from the dead by Jesus.  His story is told in the chapter just before the reading today.[1]  We can imagine this dinner as a celebration.  Lazarus is back and people are ready to party.  His sister Martha is serving. Judas is there enjoying the circle of friendship as a disciple of Jesus.  Then there’s Lazarus’ other sister, Mary of Bethany. Her exuberance knows no bounds. Her adoration of Jesus must be expressed.  And so it goes, with dripping oil, cascading hair, and emanating fragrance.  A feast of the senses at a table set for dinner.

How are we to understand this adoration she pours on Jesus?  The purity and price of the nard are emphasized.  A rare, imported Himalayan treasure.  A year’s wages.  The nard’s purity and price lead me to wonder about the purity of Mary’s adoration and the cost to herself as she disrupts the dinner party.

One cost is Judas’ poor opinion.  Judas feels free to give his opinion. He demeans her adoration with pious words.  He attempts to put her into her place and uses the poor to do so.  His argument is a vulgar appropriation of the poor – using them as a means to an end.  Jesus is having none of it and slams Judas’ argument.  There are plenty of other Jesus stories that assure us of his determination to eradicate poverty and not leave the poor to their subsistence or our hands clean of their plight.  Regardless of Jesus’ intervention, what does Judas’ poor opinion matter?  He can put it into pious language all he wants.  Mary’s joy will not be stolen by him or anyone else.  Judas’ disapproval is but a pittance.

A few years ago, a fellow seminarian said about Mary’s anointing of Jesus that if he had long hair this is what he would do for someone similarly important to him.  His comment opens the story slightly differently as the imagination plays across gender and time between Mary of Bethany and our moment in time today.  What does adoration look like on a personal level this century?  Set celebrity culture aside for a moment.  Groupies are a different conversation. Mary is in her home. Jesus is known to Mary and her family personally over the course of time.  Her adoration of Jesus is pure and costly.  And she is breaking gender barriers all over the place.  She is a woman of her time whose hair should be tucked away.  She should not be touching a man in the company of others.  In fact, it is life-threatening for her to do so. He, a man, would ordinarily rebuke her like Judas does.  Yet, there they are, oil dripping, hair cascading, and fragrance emanating.

There is something else happening in parallel to Mary’s adoration.  After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is now a target for death himself. The story of Lazarus raised from the dead is followed by the plot developing to arrest Jesus and kill him. [2] And then we get this dinner party. Mary of Bethany calls Jesus “Lord” in previous texts and now anoints him.  Jesus talks openly about his death when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone…She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”[3]  The implication is that she is anointing him for his death.

This past week I received a phone call from a man who asked me to come baptize his one month old son who was on life support.  They were at Children’s Hospital having been flown in by Flight for Life.  He was not expected to live. We arranged for me to come out that evening.  Via text, the father rescheduled our time for the following morning since the baby’s mother was arriving in the middle of the night from out-of-state.  When I arrived, they were both in the room along with the baby’s grandparents.

We talked briefly.  I assured them that, despite whatever we thought we were doing, this moment is first and foremost about God’s promise to be present for their baby even in this most painful time.  Then, with water from a clay bowl, this little one was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  His head dried with the linen baptismal napkin from the church.  I told him he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever while making the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil-lotion scented with frankincense and myrrh.

As the fragrant cross was made on his forehead, Mary’s anointing popped into my mind along with these words from Thanksgiving for Baptism in the funeral liturgy which begins, “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.”[4]  These words took on new meaning for me in the P.I.C.U. this week.

After this little one was baptized, I handed the parents the un-lit baptismal candle and told them that his light was shining even in his short life and that God is with him.  The family and I shared the bread and wine of communion and then the grandfather asked if I would give this little one “last rites.”  I briefly explained that I would pray what we call the “Commendation of the Dying.” And so we did.  He died within the next few days.

The anointing of this little one in baptism echoes with Mary’s anointing of Jesus before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  It also echoes the prayer and anointing for healing that you can choose to receive during this worship service.  The Health Minister will anoint your hands with olive oil and say this prayer for you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love…Amen.”

Lent invites reflection on our own baptism.  We reflect on the things that are being “put to death” in us so that something else, something we cannot imagine on our own, may come to life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through each of our baptisms.  This is part of the healing for which we pray.

Jesus is about life and living.  Lazarus discovered it first-hand. Mary of Bethany adores and anoints Jesus.  She adores and anoints him for the life he brings even as she prepares him for the death he will face because there are those who find his life threatening.  But, even in Lent, we are an Easter people – celebrating that Jesus brings life even through the darkest times by way of his death on a cross.  We remember this promise at funerals with these words, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.”[5]  This new life is for today.  For you.  Our baptism is God’s daily promise by way of a cross and a savior in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6]   All glory be to God for this indescribable gift![7]

 

[1] John 11:1-44 – These verses tell the story of Lazarus’ illness, death, and being raised from the dead by Jesus.

[2] John 11:45-57 – These verses tell the story of the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death for bringing Lazarus to life.

[3] John 12:7

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Funeral. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 280.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Acts 28:17

[7] 2 Corinthians 9:15

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

February 2, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 2:22-40  When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

Mary and Joseph are on the move again.  The first time – travel-worn and likely in the early stages labor, they made their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.[1]  In our story today, they are parents of only 40 days.  And they are also faithful Jews.  So they take a very, very long walk to Jerusalem, more specifically to the Temple, with their first-born son.  It’s time for Mary’s purification and for Jesus’ presentation to the Lord.

Joseph and Mary have been busy with details – from the earthy to the civic to the religious.[2]  They move into the temple cradling this child as carefully and as proudly as Julius Thomas carrying the ball into the end zone.[3] (Bet you though I couldn’t sneak in a Super Bowl reference…)

As they move into the Temple, what happens?  Simeon, having waited his whole life for this moment and guided by Holy Spirit, swoops into the Temple and scoops up the baby.   The parents likely didn’t know Simeon.  The story tells us that he was a man in Jerusalem, righteous and devout – a member of the congregation but not its designated clergy.  This was the man who swooped in, “took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.”[4]

Simeon is fascinating.  A long-time member of the parish, he is guided by the Holy Spirit into the temple that day and starts talking about God’s salvation in Jesus.[5]  Simeon’s song sounded a certain way because of the congregation in which he was formed.  Throughout the centuries since Simeon, the personal and congregational witness of God’s whole church looks thousands of different ways – from home churches to prison congregations to cathedrals and everything in between.

In the face of such diversity between churches we are tempted to set up ideal notions of church.  Whether it’s high-church or low-church or big church or small church or rock-band church or liturgically traditional church, we all seem to have opinions one way or another about which is better.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his short, wonderful book Life Together, reminds us that ideal Christian communities do not exist but that Christ-centered ones do.[6]  Most of God’s churches are simply groups of people, very often relative strangers to each other, who are guided by the Holy Spirit and suddenly find Jesus in their arms.

Finding Jesus in their arms, in light of Simeon’s song, can sound like a lovely, soft metaphor.  Simeon’s joy, and the new life of the Christ-child, can be the unbearable lightness of being that resonates for some of us.  But in the midst of his joy, Simeon speaks challenging words too – “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”[7]

Simeon then tells Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  The metaphor of finding Jesus in our arms is not such a soft one in light of those words.  Finding Jesus in their arms in light of those words is more like Michelanglo’s Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Jesus – grief-stricken and shocked.

This is a complex metaphor to be sure, but what does it mean in this place, here in the congregation of Augustana with these people – some whom you may know and likely many that you do not.  Having been called among you as a pastor one year ago today, I’d like to share a little about what I see.

Augustana’s 135 year history is a bit of a rarity this far west of the Mississippi.  Some of you sitting in the pews have a generational history here that includes parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, being baptized, confirmed, married, and buried here.  And some of you relocated to Denver years ago, discovered Augustana, and have been members for years.  There is a rich regard for the history of this congregation as a place where community has been forged by the work of many of you over time, through the power of the Spirit.  This is the hard-won kind of community that builds over time.  The kind of community that naturally includes both friendships and truces, joys and disappointment, plenty and want…because, of course, there are people involved.

And many of you have been guided into this congregational community more recently.  Some of you come to heal – to sit quietly and be consoled by the sacraments of communion and baptism as well as scripture and song while Christ and his body, the church, create space for you to heal over time.  Some of you come ready to connect, roll up your sleeves and revel in doing the work of congregational and community ministry.  And some of you come dubiously, wondering what everyone seems so excited about when there is so much to believe and disbelieve in the church and outside of it.

Whatever shape we show up in and for however much time we’ve been here, we are much like Simeon.  All of us are guided by the Spirit to be together in this particular way on this particular day of church; made new again today as Jesus is handed into our arms and waiting to see what happens next.

Simeon’s song of praise as well as his words to Mary emphasize that is it the Spirit who’s in charge of what happens next.  It is the Spirit who gifts each one of us for particular work in God’s world that also includes the church.  This is good news.    So stay tuned…

Today, February 2nd, is formally called Presentation of Our Lord.  This is a day every year when the church celebrates Jesus’ moment with Simeon and Anna in the Temple and bursts into praise.  The Prophet Anna’s words are not given to us in our story today.  In a few moments we’ll sing a song of praise.  Lending our voices to Anna, we sing praise to God for the redemption of all, through the power of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

[Congregation sings the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”]

 



[1] Luke 2:1-7

[2] Joy J. Moore. A Working Preacher commentary on Luke 2:22-40, January 1, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1180

[3] I couldn’t resist.  It IS Super Bowl Sunday in Broncos country after all.  This is a nod toward my now not-so-secret dream to guest commentate with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

[4] Luke 2:28

[5] Luke 2:27, 30

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 26-27.

[7] Luke 2:34-35

John 2:13-22 “Using God and Loving Things”

John 2:13-22 “Using God and Loving Things”

March 9, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility

 

John 2:13-22 – The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

 

A long, long time ago, in the year 350, there lived a man named…Augustine.  He tells his story in a book titled The Confessions – he simply pours it all out, the good, the bad, and the ugly…saint and sinner…all of it…and how God met him in the middle of it.  Fast-forwarding sixteen hundred years to this past Sunday, I was preaching at a congregation that I had preached at one other time, one year ago.  A woman came up to me before worship began and told me that she needed to speak with me.  So we arranged to meet back up after the service.   We sat together in the back of sanctuary, the worship space.  This was her 3rd time visiting this congregation and she told me that had spent very little time in church throughout her 60 years.  In the span of just a few minutes and speaking quickly, she spoke of the sin in her life, some of which had happened over 30 years ago.  She then told me that she was too much of a sinner to be in church and then she fell quiet.

 

“First,” I said, “you need to know that God forgives you all your sins.”  She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and began to tear up and said, “Oh, that feels good.”  After a few moments of quiet, the second thing I said to her was that, “One of the things I love about being in Lutheran-land is that we all come before God as sinners, all of us are level with each other at the foot of the cross…so, as a sinner, you’re in the right place.”

 

So, you may be asking yourself, what do St. Augustine and this woman have in common – across time, gender and life situation? St. Augustine wrote, all those many years ago, that sin can be described as what comes from the mixing up of what God has given us to use and what God has given us to love.  His argument is that God means for us to love God and use things but somewhere along the way we use God and love things…we use God and love things.  We have mixed up use and love.

 

Today’s scene in the temple started me wondering about this mix up between what we use and what we love.  Jesus is furious.  The temple has become a marketplace, a place where God is being used and everyone is part of using everyone else as a commodity, as currency, as cash.  Relationship has been transaction.

 

If we’re not very careful in this story, we end up standing behind Jesus, cheering him on, placing ourselves on his side, comfortable that our opinions about God and Jesus are the blameless ones.  I wonder, though, if our rightful place in this story is in the position of the sellers – the ones who use God and love things so much so that in our use of God we end up using each other in such as way that our relationships are transactions.  We see this time and again, right?  The ways in which we use each other, and the ways others use us, create deep pain.  Let’s be clear, while we’re at it, that this is not only a problem magnified within these walls, this is a problem within this world, inside all of us!  And it is into the mixed up mess of use and love that Jesus comes crashing in to clean house.

 

Jesus cleans house by first taking the problem into his own body.  In the Bible story for today, Jesus says that his body is the temple which will be destroyed – hung on a cross – and that he will raise it again three days later.  There is hope after all because Jesus does what we cannot do when left on our own – first in his body and then in ours.  Jesus fights this fight in us daily by virtue of our baptism.  Jesus attacks our sin and sends it packing, right out the door like the sheep and the cattle of the temple.

In his clearing of the temple, Jesus challenges us to look at the way in which we use and the way we love.

In his dying on the cross, Jesus destroys the power of sin and its death dealing way.

And in his rising again, Jesus heals us into new life.

In the name of Jesus Christ, may you be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that you may know the healing power of the Spirit.  Amen.