Tag Archives: hope

Hope Gains Ground [OR Blundering Our Way Through the Human Condition OR The First Sunday in Advent] Matthew 24:36-44

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2022 – First Sunday in Advent

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 24:36-44  [Jesus said to the disciples,] 36“About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[sermon begins]

Classic blunders often make a good story great. Blunders abound in television and movies. In every episode of Scooby Do, Fred insists that the gang split up, sending Shaggy and Scooby to their inevitable clash with the masked villain.[1] What would the show “I Love Lucy” be without Lucy and Ethel’s regular blunders – think: Chocolate Factory episode when they lied about their qualifications and couldn’t keep up with the candy conveyor belt, so they stuff chocolate in their mouths and cloths before getting fired.[2] The movie Princess Bride lays out a few more classic blunders, “the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this, never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”[3]

Real life blunders abound too although the outcomes are, well, real. Falling asleep while driving is a big one. Cars didn’t exist back in the day when Jesus was teaching his disciples. But Jesus’ words about staying awake call to mind that classic parting line before a road trip, “Remember to pull over if you get tired!” It’s classic because we all know and can tell our own and other tragic stories when people haven’t pulled over when they got tired. Driving takes focus. We need to be ready to swerve around obstacles or avoid bad drivers or simply avoid driving into a ditch. Driving takes wakefulness. When we’re tired, eye-hand coordination slows down affecting response times.

Driving is a metaphor for Advent wakefulness. The Advent road trip ends at Christmas – the joy of Jesus’ birth, and it is also the longing for Christ’s return when the Kingdom of Heaven will reign fully and completely on earth. In the meantime, Jesus tells his disciples to stay awake, keep your eyes on the road. Worship this morning serves as pulling over because we’re tired and resting up on the side of the road to continue driving. This apocalyptic reading from the Gospel of Matthew may seem a surprising choice for the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the new church year. But apocalyptic literature is directed to listeners who blunder through the human condition, who have lost hope with the status quo, who despair that those with extreme wealth and power will ever share so that all people can live, who see that suffering goes unexplained and unanswered, and who long for God’s promise to burst on the scene in all its fullness.[4]

This reading is close to the end of the book of Matthew, just before Jesus starts heading to the cross. As we begin this new church year with Advent, we also begin the book of Matthew, beginning almost at the end. The Gospel of Matthew was likely written late in the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, fifty years after Jesus’ death. The Matthean community seems to have been primarily Jews who believed Jesus was their long-awaited savior. Initially a part of life in the synagogue, a conflict began with either other Jews, or with Roman authorities, or both, that escalated to the point of the Matthean group splitting off to form its own community.[5]

The verses today are a good example of the divide as well as illuminates what we think we already know about these verses.  For instance, in this story, is it better to be taken or left behind? The comparison with the people swept away by the flood in the Noah story indicates that being left behind might be the better outcome. If it’s the case that being left behind is the better option, it brings up another question. Who is doing the taking? The verses aren’t clear, which opens the possibility that there’s a group, perhaps Roman agents, who is taking some people while others remain – not unheard of in the Roman Empire or modern empires for that matter. If it’s possible that Rome is snatching people, why are we so quick to read it as divine judgment. Another blunder we make when we read scripture is already thinking that we know the destination. Framing Jesus’ teaching to the positive, he encourages listeners to actively anticipate God’s promised change when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives. To the negative, living a righteous life veers into the ditch when resignation or over-confidence are chosen as the right way to live.[6]

It’s not clear how pandemic times accelerated the time/space continuum. The Before Times weren’t trouble free but they didn’t seem to move quite so quickly. However it happened, the world came out of those quieter months in overdrive and keeps accelerating. Advent driving includes slowing down, steering with intention, and staying awake to truths that reveal where hope is losing ground.

Our queer siblings in the human family know the truth of hope’s lost ground all too painfully in the recent murders at ClubQ in Colorado Springs. When theologies and political ideologies collide into murder, we can be pretty sure that is not what Jesus would do. It is ever more life affirming to be queer affirming too. Humans are created in God’s image. All humans. Our queer selves, family, friends, and neighbors are necessarily created in God’s image too. Lives are at stake in the claims we make as Christians. Unconditional, assumption-shattering, prodigal love is the only way out of the sinkhole of hate. An active love through which hope gains ground. That is the hope that drives us in Advent. The hope that we long for and are a part of.

Awake and cruising into Advent we have a few driving instructions available to keep us on the road. One is more classically considered devotional, daily fueling our faith with God’s activity, promise, and hope. You can pick up one of these pocket-sized devos at the Sanctuary entrances. Called “prophets & promises: Devotions for Advent and Christmas 2022,” we’re given short bits of scripture, story, picture, and prayer for each day. Lighting our driven days with Advent hope so that God draws our attention rather than the dead end of commercial chaos.

Also part of our Advent road trip is a topographical map of sorts. The rolling hills and water features of the book Sleepers Wake drives our devotion into the discipleship depths of Climate Change. “Shot through with hope,” these daily reflections augmented with paintings, explore how we can remove obstacles for healing the earth injured by our human blunders.[7] With energy and heart, Nicholas Holtam draws on his experience as former Church of England lead Bishop for the environment to guide our spiritual and cultural transformation, so we can all do our part to preserve our world for future generations. A big thanks to Bonita Bock, retired pastor and professor and Augustana member, for leading us through Sleepers Wake in classes scheduled on Sunday or Wednesday mornings starting this Wednesday.[8]

Continuing down this road of Advent where hope gains ground, we drive through the four weeks towards Christmas avoiding the blunder of sleeping at the wheel and hurting people with our momentum in the wrong direction. We heed Jesus’ command to stay awake. Culturally, the season has a careening quality that we can’t entirely avoid. But there are maps given to us, and our faith drives us towards a different horizon, one with a manger snuggled in the midst of a bustling Bethlehem with full inns, one with the Kingdom of Heaven arriving in the fullness of God’s promises as Jesus will come again.

This Advent season, as we worship together on the road towards Christmas, we are reminded that the God of hope and truth lightens our load, reminding us that we are never the worst blunder we have ever made, that we are loved beyond reason, and held by Christ who knows our human suffering firsthand. This Advent season, starting today and into this week, may you be blessed with the swaddled hope on the horizon that is Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God. And Amen.

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[1] Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (Hanna-Barbera: 1969-1970) https://youtu.be/Bsg3sMPD4XA

[2] I Love Lucy (Paramount: 1951-1957). https://youtu.be/AnHiAWlrYQc

[3] Princess Bride. https://youtu.be/-WTelEdb6jk

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Dear Working Preacher: Matthew 24:36-44 – Advent Attentiveness. November 20, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/advent-attentiveness?fbclid=IwAR0vLeMtMn5rN1vTedkX67LVO0AFam5juKsqHFrh7WMT59U9RIgGti1pxGk

[5] Matthew L. Skinner. The New Testament: The Gospels and Acts. “The Gospel of Matthew.” (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 114-115.

[6] Skinner, Working Preacher, Ibid.

[7] Nicholas Holtam. Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change. (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2022).

[8] RSVP to the church office (303-388-4678 or info@augustanadenver.org) for the Wednesday classes, 9:30-10:30 a.m., 11/30, 12/7, 12/14, and 12/21. There is a minimum of eight participants required for this class to proceed. Sunday classes are 9:15-10:15 a.m. between worship services.

Lent’s Mystery and Invitation (OR What the heck is happening?!!!) Luke 4:1-14a

**sermon art: The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

First Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 4:1-14a Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
11and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.  14Then Jesus, filled with thte power of the Spirit, returned to Galiliee.

[sermon begins]

Ah Lent. Neither Biblical nor traceable to our first century ancestors in the faith, we sing, pray, and talk about the 40 days of Lent as if it’s been this way since Jesus’ death and resurrection. It just feels like the way it’s always been even though my own experience didn’t include Lent for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until more recent decades that American Lutherans included the imposition of ashes in Ash Wednesday worship. Why would I share this fun fact on the first Sunday in Lent? Just a few days into our 40 days? Because most of what we do in worship celebrates our freedom in Christ. Jesus didn’t prescribe our worship liturgy. Our worship developed from our Jewish ancestors in the faith and their traditions since the earliest Christians were Jewish because Jesus was a Jew. Our worship and the church year developed from these ancient Jewish practices and God’s bigger story as a way for Christians to experience Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the foundational story of our lives in the midst of other noisier, flashier stories. Jesus’ story reorients us to truths like: each life is treasured and loved by God regardless of what any one of us thinks about that life; and the death of Jesus was the logical end of human anger, not God’s. At the end of the day, or at the end of Lent as the case may be, what’s important is returning to the promises of God as the tie that binds us as church.

Our First Century church friends were eagerly focused on Jesus’ resurrection. For you church history buffs, early church controversies (because who doesn’t love a good controversy) included when Easter should be annually celebrated finally settling the Western debate in 325 C.E. at the Council of Nicaea.[1] Get this, the Council decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (March 21). This means that Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 to April 25. There was a recent, 21st century attempt between larger world denominations to pick a Sunday to make it the same time every year but so far it hasn’t worked. I’m a little glad about that because the mystery of how Easter is picked and when Lent falls is kind of cool.

Back to our early church friends, Easter was where it was at and what everything was about. Sunday worship celebrated the Easter resurrection every week. Even through today, Sundays in Lent are considered “little Easters” and are not counted in the 40 days. Find me later if you want to have a conversation about Christian math. The annual celebration of Easter Sunday evolved through Christian communities and quickly became the opportune time of year for adult baptisms. The pre-baptismal teaching and preparation time, sometimes called the catechumenate, originally varied in length, and grew into the 40 days of Lent.

When more and more people became Christians and Christendom expanded into medieval times, there were far fewer adult baptisms and Lent became penitential, focused on Christ’s suffering and death and human sinfulness. In recent times, the church holds both traditions while lifting the baptismal emphasis that resonates with Martin Luther’s concept of ongoing baptismal renewal, of daily dying and rising with Christ. In that spirit, we began worship today with a Thanksgiving for Baptism that holds the tension between the Lenten celebration of baptism and a season of repentance. In Lent, we return to the Lord our God who is gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.[2] Lent focuses us on the great love of God – who we see incompletely in Jesus and who mostly remains a mystery.

Last Sunday, Pastor Ann invited us into the mystery of Jesus’ mountaintop, razzle dazzle Transfiguration rather than trying to fit it into a box. Today’s mysterious moment in scripture is darker, tainted by temptation and a scripture smack down between Jesus and the devil. As we listen to the story, our mind tries to fit it into a box for it too. But try explaining who this tester (the devil) is and why it’s necessary for Jesus to be tested in the first place. No box can contain it. What we CAN see in the story is that Jesus is offered prosperity, power, and protection if he turned away from God. We know from our own experiences how tempting the promises of prosperity, power, and protection can be. We see their horrors in real time in Russia’s war on Ukraine, in the increasing numbers of our unhoused neighbors, and in the widening divide between the few people who hold extreme wealth and the many millions of adults and children who are living and dying in extreme poverty.

One of the things I appreciate most about Lent is truth-telling. Truth about ourselves and the world. I know we argue about truth as if it’s also a mystery but there are actually things we know. We know that cilantro can taste like heaven or it can taste like hell depending on your DNA. We know that if a few people hoard toilet paper, then there’s not enough for everyone’s bathrooms. And we know, even if we don’t talk about it out loud, that given the right set of circumstances, we can prioritize ourselves as the most necessary and worthy human on the planet before each and everyone else.

Lent is a time to struggle with the truth about ourselves without rejecting ourselves in shame and defeat. Self-rejection does not honor God’s promises embodied by Jesus who claims each one of us as beloved. [3] Here’s the beauty in the story about Jesus’ temptation in case you missed it.[4] The Spirit went with Jesus into the wilderness and Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit as he left the wilderness. Jesus was part of the community when he was baptized, before he went into the wilderness, and rejoined his community in Galilee as he came out of it. The power of the Holy Spirit is on the journey of Lent with us. The lie is that we’re solitary and alone. The truth is that we’re embedded through baptism into the body of Christ, this community of faith and the church catholic in all times and places.[5]

Our foundational story of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, into which we are baptized, is the core promise that inspires courage in temptation, offers comfort in grief, imparts strength in dark times, and stirs joy found in the gift of life. Baptism’s promise is daily. Daily we are promised that we die with Christ and rise to new life, rising beyond fear with each new dawn – imperfectly and beloved. God’s unbounded grace in Jesus Christ is the good news that shines light in the darkness. Given everything going on in the word right now, we have Lent as a gift. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Find a brief history of Easter here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Easter-holiday

[2] Psalm 145:8

[3] Henri Nouwen quoted in grace unbounded: Devotions for Lent 2022. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), 6-7.

[4] Grateful for Pastor Nic Leither, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, pointing out the story’s bookends of the Spirit and community in our weekly Preacher’s Text Study.

[5] The lower case “c” of catholic means universal. God’s whole church unrestricted by geography, time, and doctrine.

Hope for a Different Way [OR Epiphany and the Magi’s Star] Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Epiphany by Miki De Goodaboom

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 9, 2022

[sermon begins after Bible story]

Matthew 1:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

As Christmas decorations get packed away, they often leave bits of themselves around, finding their way into corners and carpet fibers – pine needles either real or fake, tiny gingerbread house candies, and shimmery tinsel. Tinsel sparkles like glitter, but unlike glitter that is teeny-tiny and sticks to just about anything, tinsel shimmers in very thin strips, like super chill tin foil.[1] Tinsel is sometimes long, its strands tied together into snake-like garlands that drape across ceilings or coil around a Christmas tree. Tinsel reflects nearby light and sparkles even when the lights are dim. It’s inexpensive and widely available so it’s not surprising that tinsel fell into the hands of the five of us siblings when we were little. Just having left my dad who was losing his fight with mental illness, Mom and the five of us kids were starting over and getting ready for Christmas. Like anyone’s memory from childhood, mine are a bit spotty. But I remember sitting at a table with tinsel, scotch tape, and a hanger – watching my sister tape tinsel garland to the wire hanger that had been shaped into a star for the top of our Christmas tree. I now have that star with its singed scotch tape. It hangs by a thick red ribbon from my ceiling in the kitchen every year from the four weeks before Christmas through its 12 days, from Advent through Epiphany.

Six weeks of the shimmering tinsel star in my kitchen hardly compares to the years long journey of the Magi in our Bible story today. They’re sung about as kings or talked about as wise men, but those translation choices were made well after Jesus’ birth.[2] The Magi is what they were called in Biblical Greek. They were from the East, which at that time meant out towards Persia or Babylon now modern-day Iran and Iraq. Guided by a star, their journey ended with gifts of gold and spices given to a toddler Jesus by the time they finally arrived. We include the Magi in our nativity sets for simplicity’s sake not for Biblical accuracy. Simplicity is helpful. It helps us shorten a story into manageable parts so that we can tell the story and understand it.

The Magi capture our imagination. Not just ours. Early Christian writers, preachers, artists, and singers too. In the Ancient Near East, the Magi were astronomers and magicians who advised kings. Their visit to Jesus and the Feast of the Epiphany are a time to celebrate the good news of Jesus to the great joy of all the people.[3] Magi represent the inclusive good news for “all the people” because they couldn’t have been more foreign to our Jewish cousins in the faith who first heard this story. These magical advisors to kings also reveal God working through unexpected people in the Bible yet one more time.

The Magi are unexpected people, and they do unexpected things…well, after they do the expected thing by checking in with King Herod. It makes sense as advisors to Eastern kings that they would consult with King Herod to continue searching for the King of the Jews. Herod is so frightened by the Magi’s news that Jerusalem was frightened with him. I wonder if Jerusalem was frightened knowing that Herod was afraid, because a fearful king is a terrifying king. Fearful kings do violent things as their fear turns to anger. Case in point, after the Magi left town a different way to avoid Herod, the holy family escaped to Egypt just before Herod “sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the [Magi].”[4] Herod was fearful and angry and violent to the point of killing children.

We too live in a time of violence, suffering and sickness. Caution is advised as we try to interpret God’s intentions or activity in any event. More recently we saw the carnage wrought by hundreds of insurrectionists in D.C. and a lone gunman closer to home, or the ashes of someone’s home destroyed by fire, or the deathbed of someone’s loved one in pandemic.[5] Proceed with caution when interpreting God’s intentions or activity in any event. We are not God. We can mistakenly imply that God was with some people and not others if we confuse God’s blessing with a house still standing after the fire or someone still breathing after an infection.[6] Epiphany isn’t only about the Magi’s star journey to see Jesus, the escape to Egypt, and the threat of Herod. It’s also about the Magi’s return home a different way after visiting Jesus. They first met Jesus when he was still little, the embodiment of hope not yet matured.  Scripture assures us that the King of the Jews’ birth, life, death, and resurrection means something different is happening along with what we see and experience. The short word for this is hope.

Kids have a way of making a way when it seems like all is lost. Like when my siblings and I made that star for the top of our Christmas tree. The tinsel star as reminder of resilience through trauma and making a way when all seems lost. For us, the child-like wonder of Christmas crafted a star of hope. Kids are great at making a way when the evidence presents a wall. Flash to the Magi who followed a star as months turned into years, finding their way through a perilous journey to give their gifts to Jesus. Christians through the centuries have also made a way through whatever the circumstances of the moment may be. On January 6 every year, Christians worldwide celebrate Epiphany. January 6 is also now recorded in our country’s history as one of violent conflict over power. As Jesus followers, we are offered a different way in the face of violence and power – the wonder of Christmas revealing Jesus as the star of hope.

We sang a Gathering Song at the beginning of worship today – Christ be our Light. The song led us in prayer as we praised Christ for lighting the way of peace, hope, and salvation. Quite often, maybe far too often, the ones we need saving from is ourselves. Prone to conflict, scape-goating, and violence as both catharsis and solution, Christ shines light on the futility of those ways while guiding us on a different way to love not just ourselves but our neighbors too; to love not just our neighbors but our enemies too. Christ shines the love of God first – the unconditional, ever-expanding love of God for you. Epiphany is a good day for hope as Christ shines Star-light on a different way for us. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Tinsel has a history dating back to the 1600s. Check it out at https://www.thefactsite.com/history-of-tinsel/

[2] Sandra Sweeney Silver. Early Church History: Who Were the Magi? “In the ancient Middle Eastern world these Magi were trusted advisors to kings, were learned men proficient in the knowledge of mathematical calculations, astronomy, medicine, astrology, alchemy, dream interpretation and history as well as practitioners of magic and paranormal arts.” https://earlychurchhistory.org/beliefs-2/who-were-the-magi/

[3] Luke 2:10

[4] Matthew 2:13-18 These few verses summarize the holy family’s escape to Egypt and what is known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The stories are worth reading because we don’t hear them in the regular schedule of Sunday worship scripture a.k.a. Revised Common Lectionary.

[5] Without preaching the details, the shooter who recently shot and killed people across Denver and Lakewood, the 1/6/2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Marshall fire in and around Boulder CO, and Covid deaths, are inferred.

[6] Ryan Warner interviews Isaac Sendros on Colorado Matters: When the evacuation order for the Marshall Fire came, the 600-member staff of Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville sprang into action. The hospital’s CEO Isaac Sendros recounts how they cleared everyone from preemies to COVID patients. https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/how-to-evacuate-a-hospital-the-story-of-clearing-out-avista-adventist/

Being Human and Divine Being [OR Jesus Would Have Made a Great Nurse] John 6:24-35, Exodus 14:2-4, 9-15, and Ephesians 4:1-16

**Sermon Art: The Nurse by Jose Perez (American, b. 1929) Oil on Canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 1, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings…the third one from Ephesians can be found at the end of the sermon]

John 6:24-35 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were [beside the sea,] they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Exodus 14:2-4, 9-15 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.”
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.”

[sermon begins]

 

Nursing school is quite the thing. From bedpans, to injections, to wound care, to calculating dose per pound, to nearly passing out in the operating room, nursing school wades through human frailty, one fragility at a time. Underlying the instruction about caring for the body, is a constant reminder that people are more than their current diagnosis and more than bodies to be treated. People are social, emotional, spiritual beings too. None of this is surprising news. We could easily add to that short list about what makes people, people. What is surprising is how often we forget that this is true. We forget our own complexity and we definitely forget other people’s many layers. Thankfully, nurses are trained to assess the whole person, chart their assessments accordingly, make a plan, and take action.

Jesus would have made a great nurse. Last week, at the beginning of John’s sixth chapter, a very practical Jesus responded to the crowd and the disciples’ growling stomachs with bread and fish and leftovers to spare. Their physical hunger was the pressing need of the moment. Jesus assessed their need, made a plan, acted on the plan, and continued his assessment as they continued to follow him thinking they could make him their king.[1] He was quick to clear up their misunderstanding although their confusion about Jesus mirrors our own. We constantly try to define Jesus as one thing – teacher, prophet, priest, or king – and misunderstand the magnitude of all that Jesus came to be as the Son of God. Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of South Africa, makes this point when he’s asked about whether he preaches a Social Gospel, the question suggesting that Jesus came to only feed people and liberate people so we should focus only on that too. Bishop Tutu said:

I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.[2]

Perhaps Desmond Tutu would also have made a good nurse as he celebrates Jesus’ concern for the whole person. Or perhaps he’s just agreeing that Jesus would have made a good nurse. Regardless, Jesus actually fed people. And, to his point in the Bible reading today, Jesus came to do more than actually feed people.

As humans, we are more than our need for food and safety but it’s easy to forget when our food or safety are threatened. The Israelites are prime examples of such forgetfulness in the reading from Exodus. Under Moses’ leadership, they had been freed from slavery in Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness – tired, hungry, and exposed to the elements. They were aimless examples of the human condition. A human condition which can be summed up in this story as having short memories and being afraid.[3] It’s odd that this story was written down. It was quite unique in ancient times to record a story that failed to assess the heroes as consistently strong, virtuous, and victorious.[4] In their remembrance of this humbling story, our Jewish cousins in the faith remember the presence and provision of God alongside their own ancestors’ fragile faith caused by fear and hunger.

The crowd following Jesus remembered Moses, and the manna to munch on, to frame the miracle that fed the 5,000 and to ask for more. Jesus reminded them that both the manna and the miracle were signs that point to God. He named himself the Bread of Life while naming spiritual hunger and thirst. We know that Jesus cared for hungry people by feeding them and asks us to do the same. In fact, Jesus taught that when we feed hungry people, we’re feeding Jesus.

We also know that the church, by definition, is the body of Christ, through which Jesus gives himself to us as the Bread of Life and we pray to become what we receive in Holy Communion. We gather in worship to tell these stories of our ancestors by faith that both comfort and challenge us by their humbling similarities to us. We witness through our confession of sin that our failure to trust God and love each other has consequences for ourselves and other people. And we’re reminded that God’s unconditional forgiveness isn’t simply a reason to keep on sinning and being jerks – or worse. God’s unconditional forgiveness humbles us to the reality of our human condition and promises not to leave us there. Through forgiveness, and through surrender to the one who shows us mercy, we are promised that our past sins do not define our future and do not define the world’s future. Something else, dare I call it transformation, becomes possible – transformation of ourselves and our world as we cling less tightly to our self-absorption and more tightly to God.

Spiritual assessment takes stock of our denial, despair, fear, and suffering, as well as our hope, faith, trust, and love. A humble and honest assessment takes stock of our human condition and our reaction to it. The reading from Ephesians is just such an invitation to each of us as individuals to assess our spiritual lives. But the letter to the Ephesians is more than that too. It’s a letter to the faithful church. The first verse of the first chapter says, “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” By extension as the body of Christ here and now, we can imagine it as written, “To the saints who are in Augustana, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Is that as shocking to hear as it felt to write? Regardless, this letter is also written to us today. A call to the church “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[5]

Sunday worship and Faith Formation, ministry meetings and funerals, baptisms and Bible Studies, are all opportunities for us to practice this calling, to assess how we’re doing spiritually, and to be called to the one hope of our calling, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”[6] Many of us have been on the planet long enough to know that there is no arrival to any kind of holy perfection. That, in and of itself, is a gift and a big relief. But Christ does infuse our being human with divine being – in baptism, in gathering in his name, and in holy communion as the Bread of Life. We rely on his gift of himself for spiritual transformation from despair to hope, from denial to truth, from self-absorption to trust, and from hatred to love. And we rely on Jesus’ gift of himself to use our many gifts for the good of the whole and “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”[7] In our life of ministry as the church, we are called to speak the truth in love as we grow into Christ, who joins us together to promote our growth in love.[8] And that is good news indeed, for us and for the world. Thanks be to God. And amen.

__________________________________________________________________

[1] John 6:14-15

[2] Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu. https://www.biographyonline.net/spiritual/quotes/desmond-tutu-quotes.html

[3] Rolf Jacobsen, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Conversation about Exodus 16 on Sermon Brainwave for August 1, 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ephesians 4:1-3

[6] Ephesians 4:5

[7] Ephesians 4:12

[8] Ephesians:15-16

____________________________________________________________

Third Bible reading

Ephesians 4:1-16 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

A Celebration of Life for Carol and Charlie – John 2:1-11 and Romans 8:35, 37-39

Caitlin Trussell with family and friends in Grand Lake

July 20, 2021

[reflection begins after two Bible readings]

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? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 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.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[reflection begins]

In the Bible story about the wedding at Cana, we remember that Jesus’ ministry came to life during a celebration of marriage. The wedding is part of what makes this a great story to celebrate Carol and Charlie’s lives and their life together. Married at 18 and 19 years old, their adult lives were shaped by each other. Sometimes fun and sometimes fiery and other times everything in between, many of us sitting here today are here because they found each other.

My first encounter with them was at a wedding on the west coast. When Rob and I pulled into the parking lot, Charlie and Carol were standing on the sidewalk waiting for us. Charlie was smiling and calm, and Carol was smiling with mischief in her eye and sassily showing a bit of leg. Rob said, “Yup, that’s my mom.” At that same wedding, she also told me that she wanted brown-eyed grandchildren although she’d end up having to wait until the great-grandchildren arrived to get her wish.

Weddings are about hope. We all know the highs and the lows are coming. But the day itself is about hope. It’s fitting that Jesus’ first miracle happened at a wedding. It’s surprising that we get to talk about good wine by the gallon – especially because Mary had to step in with firm motherly encouragement. Jesus tried to tell his mother that it wasn’t his time.  Apparently he thought he had some living to do when he said that his “hour had not yet come.”  Jesus, speaking of his hour and turning the water into wine, foreshadows his death on a cross – when he drinks sour wine from a cloth just before the hour of his death.

We heard a Thanksgiving for Baptism this morning. Our baptism immerses us in Christ’s death and unites us with Christ in his resurrection.  The wedding at Cana gives us a glimpse of this connection between Jesus’ life and death and life, with Carol and Charlie’s completion of their baptismal journey through the cross of Christ.  As he did at the wedding, Jesus celebrates our joys, our highpoints and our relationships with us.  And Jesus’ life, ending on a cross, brings life and hope to our suffering through that very same cross.  How does this hope take shape?  First by naming suffering 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 Charlie and Carol’s lives and their deaths.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in their lives too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the struggle of not having them with us.

The last dinner that Charlie ate was ice cream – which surprises absolutely no one. The hospice had a connection with a family candy business that also made ice cream. He was asked how it was and Charlie said, “It’s worth dying for.” There was this pause in the room and then we all just cracked up.  That moment was quintessential Charlie, a classic one-liner that lightened the mood.

As we share stories to celebrate Carol and Charlie, there’s a temptation at funerals we can accidentally veer towards. Before we know it, our stories try to prove their goodness before God and position them 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 Charlie? Has Carol?” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is enough for us and for them to live into God’s future of hope.

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, failure, 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.

Through the suffering of self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and, through an empty tomb, now catches death up into God, drawing Carol and Charlie into holy rest where suffering is no more, and joy never ends.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.  Nothing separates Charlie and Carol from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to them.  In day-to-day living, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more. In the twinkling of an eye, Jesus catches death up into God and draws Charlie and Carol into holy rest.  This is God’s promise for them, and this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

Practical Hope for Life Today [OR Listen, God is Calling] Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 11, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 6:14-29  King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Ephesians 1:3-14 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

[sermon begins]

Last Sunday, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from church. This means that I was also still wearing my church clothes, including the collar. Choosing the zippiest checkout lane, I found myself in a line with a cashier I’d never met. She wasn’t new, by any means. She was waving at people who called out her to her, talking across lanes with other cashiers, directing the grocery bagger on how to help a customer with propane, and welcomed me to the party with a warm, “Hi honey, how are you?” As she handed me the receipt, she held onto it for a few seconds, leaned way over and quietly asked, “Are you a priest?”

“A pastor,” I replied.

“Will you pray for me?”

“Yes,” I said as I started looking for her name tag to commit it to memory.

She held up her name badge and told me her name. I repeated her name and told her again that I would pray for her. She thanked me and I went on my way. From entering her line to the prayer request couldn’t have been more than five minutes – a short, sincere, and significant scene.

Our Bible story today is a scene of a different kind. The gospel writer teased us in the first chapter with half a verse about John the Baptist’s arrest and in the third chapter with the Pharisees conspiring against Jesus with Herod’s followers, but waited until the sixth chapter to expand on the story.[1] It’s the full meal deal with John’s head served as the final course of the banquet at Herod’s party.[2] Gruesome and horrific, it’s like a scene in a movie that spotlights just how evil the evil ones can be. Herod had heard about Jesus and his apostles proclaiming repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick among the villages. When he heard about it, Herod was haunted by the idea that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised. Initially, Herod imprisoned John to protect him from his wife Herodias’ grudge. He liked listening to John’s perplexing teachings and confined him to a handy dungeon. But Herodias won the long game and trapped Herod in his oath-keeping and in his concern for what other people thought about him. Herod was “deeply grieved,” but apparently not grieved enough to do the right thing.

Herod executed John to save face and protect his power. His evil act haunted him when he heard about the things that Jesus and his apostles were doing, once again connecting John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries. At first, Herod’s deep regret stood out in this gruesome tale as something we can all relate to – even if we haven’t chopped off anyone’s head. But then, Jesus’ apostles and John’s disciples became more compelling. What were they doing around the edges of Herod’s evil acts? Mark, the gospel writer, bookends Herod’s story by first highlighting Jesus’ apostles preaching repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick; and afterwards, recounting how “the apostles gathered around Jesus to tell him all that they had done and taught” before they got down to Feeding the Five Thousand.[3] Mark concludes John’s murder with a short note about his own disciples’ compassion and action. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his [beheaded] body, and laid it in a tomb.” Not only does laying John in a tomb further connect his ministry and its end to Jesus’ earthly ministry and its end, but John’s disciples and Jesus’ apostles are examples of people practicing hope in the face of institutional evil and corrupt power.

Last week, I was in a meeting in which the opening icebreaker was to share a sentence or two about where we see signs of hope in a violent world. As you might imagine, the answers were all over the board, but there was a unifying theme that could be described as the hopeful behavior that we see other people doing and that we ourselves try to do – people creating hope for themselves and others by working with other people creating hope for themselves and others. Not spinning illusory hope for someday but working towards practical hope for today. Working repentance and healing for abundant life for everyone. And this takes us to the Ephesians Bible reading.

This reading starts the first of seven weeks in Ephesians, so it’s a good time to read this very short book attributed to Paul, although more likely written by one of his students. Ephesus was located in what’s now the western coast of Turkey. The letter’s message praises God’s work in Jesus, freeing us from sin by grace through faith that creates us for good works. In these opening verses of the first chapter that were read today, we hear about the spiritual blessings in Christ. Included in the list of blessings is redemption in Christ. Redemption in Biblical times meant the equivalent of being freed from slavery.[4] Redemption from sin would mean being freed from sin. Now obviously, Jesus followers have as much problem with sin as anyone else. But redemption in Christ also gives us a faith community through our baptisms and through whom we experience the weekly and even daily call to surrender our sin at the foot of the cross and practice faith, hope, and love as adopted children of God through Jesus Christ.

It’s taken me more that my fair share of time to figure out that being adopted as a child of God through baptism has nothing to do with playing it safe. In fact, being named child of God in baptism draws us into acts of practical hope for today that often don’t align with the goals of leaders who hold institutional power. Was John the Baptist safe? No. Was Jesus safe? No. Were Jesus’ early followers safe? No. Are we safe? No, I’m afraid not. What we are is redeemed and freed by the gospel into the work of practical hope assigned by Jesus.

The cashier who asked for prayer sees Jesus people as a sign of practical hope. Each day our baptism works in us the practical hope of dying to sin and raising us to new life so that we’re less like Herod and more like Jesus. Living into a life that is ever more Christ-shaped as a Jesus follower, safety from corrupt power fades to black while acts of practical hope take center stage in public acts of the faithful. Advocacy is one way to do the work of practical hope; community organizing is another. Working through legislation and ballot initiatives that change people’s real lives now. It’s partly why Augustana has a fledgling Human Dignity Delegate ministry to address issues of human dignity in the public square. The next meeting is August 1. Let me know if you’d like more details.

In a moment we’ll sing “Listen, God is Calling.” In the language of Herod’s story, God calls us from our self-absorbed, death-dealing sin. God redeems us into freedom from those very sins and our inevitable regret for them. God’s call through the cross of Christ empowers us by the Holy Spirit into the unsafe, bold, and practical hope on behalf of the gospel for the sake of the world. It’s a good day to be reminded of this good news. Amen.

 

Song after the sermon:

Listen, God is Calling [Neno lake Mungu][5]

#513 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006)

Refrain

Listen, listen, God is calling through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy. (repeat)

Jesus gave his mandate; share the good news that he came to save us and set us free. [Refrain]

Let none be forgotten throughout the world. In the triune name of God go and baptize. [Refrain]

Help us to be faithful, standing steadfast, walking in your precepts, led by your Word. [Refrain]

_______________________________________________________________

[1] Mark 1:14 and Mark 3:6

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave: Commentary discussion of Mark 6:14-29 for July 11, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/792-7th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-15b-july-11-2021

[3] Mark 6:30 immediately follows the gospel reading of Mark 6:14-29

[4] Lutheran Study Bible (NRSV). Ephesians 1:7 study note. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1922.

[5] Austin Lovelace and Howard S. Olson (1968). Lutheran Theological College, Makumira, Tanzania, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Respair: The Return of Hope After a Period of Despair[1] [OR Hope Tells the Truth] Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 10, 2021

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Acts 19:1-7 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—7altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[sermon begins]

A few months ago, I noticed a word popping up on social media. Might have been late September or so when I first saw it on Twitter. Giving a word of the day, word expert Susan Dent tweeted about “respair” which means “the return of hope after a period of despair or to have hope again.”[2] While I was isolating with Covid, I searched the word respair on the interwebs and found five more citations that I started saving to a document. But the citations were still only social media sites and writer’s blogs and I couldn’t verify online that it wasn’t simply made up. It certainly wasn’t in my unabridged dictionary. What’s an enterprising lover of words to do? Why, give a shout out to my neighbor who is also an English professor.[3] She texted me a photo of the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “respair.” Sure enough, it’s an obscure and rare word from the early 15th century. A word that emerged following the 14th century Plague pandemic responsible for the death of over a hundred million people worldwide. A word that never quite caught on.

Why does any of this background matter? Because I know that I’m not the only one thinking about hope these days. Case-in-point is Pastor Ann’s sermon last Sunday that ended with a gorgeous statement about the convergence of hope. It’s clear that us pastor-types are giving hope some thought. Although, again, I know we’re not the only ones. In preparation for today’s sermon, I searched “respair” one more time and it has exploded. Twitter and the rest of the internet is full of references to respair at the turn of the calendar year to 2021.[4] People calling for it to be the word of the year and talking about why it resonates for them. Respair’s connection with an emergence from despair is an important distinction. It pushes against our instinct for the unhelpful optimism that calls for one more drink to numb reality and a pair of rose-colored glasses to blur it. Respair builds on the reality that exists without a need to negate it or erase it or distract us from it.

It might not surprise you to hear that our Bible readings today have parallels to building on realities that already exist. In Genesis, a wind from God moved in the darkness, across the formless void and over the untamed waters. With a word, God created light that was good and gave names to Night AND Day. Darkness remains and does not overcome the light. God does not toss darkness out. God moves in the darkness, names it, expands and builds on it.

In the reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan. Some scholars argue that one of the tasks of the Gospel writers was to explain the relationship between John and Jesus in a way that made common ground possible between their distinct groups of followers. After all, John’s following was huge. Mark’s gospel says that, “…people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” In Mark, as in the other gospels, we see John’s ministry expand forward to include Jesus and Jesus’ ministry loop backwards to include John. Jesus builds on John’s ministry and would not have been the same without it.

And finally, in the reading from the book of Acts, Paul finds some disciples who were called believers but hadn’t yet heard of the Holy Spirit. They’d been baptized by John the Baptist. Paul acknowledges John’s baptism of repentance that expands forward by pointing believers towards Jesus. The disciples were then baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and received the Holy Spirit from Paul – another layer built by the Holy Spirit on what was already happening.

This isn’t to say that everything happens for a reason – at least that’s not something I say or believe. As the child of a father who lost a mental battle with schizophrenia and who became alcoholic, violent, and eventually homeless after my mother escaped him with the five of us kids, it’s difficult for me to believe that the reason for Dad’s break with reality is of God when what we really needed was our compassionate, brilliant, and loving Dad. What I’ve come to believe in these intervening years, is that God helps me tell the truth of what happened to Dad and what happened to us with as much truth and compassion as is possible without the painful layers of shame. Our family found respair, our hope renewed out of despair, out of the pain and truth of what happened to all of us. We don’t sugar coat it. We talk about it, get therapy for it, and find our paths to healing from it. Even writing that down feels like respair out of my experience.

As of early October, there were almost 300,000 excess deaths in the United States recorded by the CDC over similar periods in previous years.[5] According to the CDC, these deaths are directly and indirectly attributable to COVID-19. We’ve lost members of our congregation to COVID and to the challenges that COVID creates for receiving care in unrelated health crises. Some of us have lost coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family. If you are someone who believes that COVID deaths are inaccurately over-reported, then an argument still must be made as to why so many more people died in 2020 over previous years. Our country has long loved conspiracy theories. It seems to be part our society’s system DNA. But I generally agree with Occam’s Razor which is the theory that the simplest explanation is often the correct one. [6] There’s a worldwide pandemic and people we know and love along with far too many strangers are dying from it or reeling from its effects. While there is reason for hope as the vaccine is distributed, our losses and those of many others must be named and grieved for their painful reality or they simply fold into hiding places that require more alcohol, more relational numbness, and more political smokescreens to keep them hidden. These attempts to distract us and dull the pain are a recipe for despair.

God invites us as the church, as people of the Spirit to tell the truth about despair and shaken faith without shame. There are very few among us who haven’t felt those things in our lifetimes much less in the last year. Yet resiliency, grit, joy, and laughter are also in evidence over the last year and as we enter 2021. God builds on the common ground of our real, diverse experiences to bring respair out of the waters of our baptism. We are promised radical grace and reckless compassion that free us to confess despair and it’s causes, while our wounds receive the air and light they need to heal and to experience respair. Jesus offers us this renewed hope with every breath of our fragile, flawed bodies living the gift of life as people of the Spirit. Thanks be to God and amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Susan Dent, Tweet, June 14, 2017. “I’ve just discovered the beautiful word ‘respair’ (15th century), and it feels like we need it today: fresh hope; a recovery from despair.”   https://twitter.com/susie_dent/status/874919621375275009

[2] Susan Dent is the author of a new book about words, Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year (John Murray (Publishers), UK, 2020).

[3] Christine Gillette, Ph.D. English Department, Metropolitan State University of Denver. https://webapp.msudenver.edu/directory/profile.php?uName=scoggan

[4] Nancy Friedman. Fritinancy: Word of the Week: Respair. December 21, 2020. https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2020/12/word-of-the-week-respair.html

[5] Lauren M. Rossen, PhD; Amy M. Branum, PhD; Farida B. Ahmad, MPH; Paul Sutton, PhD; Robert N. Anderson, PhD. “Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, by Age and Race and Ethnicity – United States, January 26-October 3, 2020.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report. Ocober 23, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6942e2.htm

[6] Josh Clark, “How Occam’s Razor Works.” https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/scientific-experiments/occams-razor.htm

World Building with Light – John 1:6-8, 19-28

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 1:6-8, 19-28  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

  19This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ ”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
 [sermon ends]

 

World-building novels are escapes. Books like Lord of the Rings and Dune are older school versions of the genre. One latest favorite is the Lies of Locke Lamora. It has everything: classic world building elements like maps to give the reader a lay of the land; a cast of characters with depth and quirks aplenty; a whole different spin on faith; and a well-developed thread of honor among thieves. It’s completely indulgent. And, honestly, a little stressful.

Over the summer, towards the end of the first novel, I told myself that I wasn’t going to read the next one in the series. Then the cliff-hanger was so compelling that I told myself that I would only read the second book long enough to answer the cliff-hanger. I’m embarrassed to report the same pattern at the end of the second book going into the third. I just couldn’t imagine how the author was going to spin the tale to resolve the latest crisis. I’m relieved to report that the fourth book isn’t released yet so I don’t have to test my obvious lack of resolve any time soon.

In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me a book last week while I was sick. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. An incredible story set in mostly present-day California, the author tells the story through the eyes of the main character who was born with ocular albinism. Sam has pink eyes. His mother is a devout Catholic. The novel is a compelling tale of faith, doubt, hope, and suffering, while avoiding trite explanations and easy resolution. It’s real world kind of stuff. I’ve been thinking about the contrast of the two tales quite a bit because I’m struck by the different effects they have on me. It makes me wonder all over again about the voices that we let in our heads. Not only that, it makes me wonder about the effects of stories and words on who we are as God’s people.

Our gospel reading highlights John, a man sent from God as a witness to testify to the light. His testimony was part of how people experience belief in Jesus. Some of the most beautiful words of scripture come right before these verses about John the witness:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

These are important verses to our reading today because the light is described by who he’s for and by what he does. His life was light shining for everybody, all the people, and could not be overcome by darkness. John was a witness who testified to the light. It’s John’s purpose that I’m interested in today. His purpose to be a witness who testifies. John gives me pause to wonder not only about the voices in my own life who point to the light today but the choices that I make about who to listen to. Are the books that I read pointing me to the light that shines in the darkness or do they just point out varying levels of dark? This is a bigger question than simply reading or watching feel good things to feel good. It’s a moment of assessing who I’m listening to and why.

Twitter has been an interesting thought experiment in this regard. On Twitter, I follow a variety of thinkers – writers, comedians, theologians, activists, artists, scientists, and church types. It’s heavily curated because I unfollow them too. But I’ve been thinking more recently about this question of how they point to the light of Jesus, to the grace, challenge, justice, forgiveness, and more, that Jesus lifted up in his life and ministry for his followers to pay attention to. More than paying attention, the people who follow Jesus are formed by the lives that he asks us to lead as we love God and our neighbors. Talk about world building!

One of the things I miss in good ole in-person worship is the Confession and Forgiveness. We just haven’t figured out a way to include it in online worship so that it makes sense. This season’s confession acknowledges that “we’re held captive by sin [and] in spite of our best efforts, we have gone astray.” That’s just a piece of the confession. In the language of our scripture today, we could confess that we have not listened to those who have testified to the light and we ourselves have not testified to the light. In our tradition, it’s this kind of confession that helps us see where we let ourselves and others down, where we live as if darkness is more powerful than the light of Jesus, where we think that whatever we may have to say doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

We imagine that the way the world works is a given and that we don’t have much impact on it one way or another. Our gospel reading reminds us that that’s not true. Each of us impacts the way the world works. There IS light that puts darkness in its place.

The forgiveness part of today’s confession goes like this:

People of God, hear this glad news:

by God’s endless grace

your sins are forgiven, and you are free—

free from all that holds you back

and free to live in the peaceable realm of God.

May you be strengthened in God’s love,

☩ comforted by Christ’s peace,

and accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On the one hand, we could say, “Oh, those are just words.” But we are part of a tradition that believes in the power of words to create, to bring life into being, to bring a light into being that is so powerful there is no way for darkness to have its way completely. The more we listen to words of light from witnesses who testify to it, the more prepared we are to testify to it while birthing justice, hope, and faith in a world building the kingdom of God.

So that’s your homework for this third week in Advent. Who are you listening to that shines the light of Jesus, for all people, no matter the darkness? Who are the friends, family, singers, authors, directors, actors, politicians, educators, journalists, activists, scientists and more, that continue testifying to the light shining in the darkness? The light of Jesus from the swaddled baby to self-sacrificing adult given for the life of all people. Advent is the perfect time to take this kind of inventory.

Advent is an expectant, pregnant time. In this pregnant time, the light of Jesus is like a twinkle in Joseph’s eyes and a glow on Mary’s face. The light is shrouded in the darkness of a life-giving belly but it’s still there – pulsing and wiggling into position for the hard work of labor. When we light our Advent candles, the flames pulse and wiggle as an echo of the one whose birth we will celebrate and whose return we anticipate. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, never will overcome it! Thanks be to God and amen.

 

 

Knowing Enough to Hope [OR Knowing Enough to Be Dangerous] Romans 5:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 14, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Romans 5:1-8 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

[sermon begins]

“I know enough to be dangerous.” This is something people say when they don’t know much about a topic but they think that they have a gem to throw in the mix. I’m that way with art. A few trips through museums and suddenly I feel free to wax rhapsodic on Degas and da Vinci. Whatever my failings in knowledge, though, I make up for in enthusiasm. There are times when you look at a masterpiece and the effect is transcendent. For a moment your eye is captured, and your soul is filled with something “other.” Beauty has that effect. Closer to the ground, we’re cresting into late spring. Aspirations of green thumbs abound across many a beating heart while some blooms begin to fade, and heartier ones take their place.

Last week, it was the pale pink peonies that frothed in a profusion of petals. 2020 is a perfect year for them. The right amount of sun and water fell, and the hail didn’t. After my usual hemming and hawing about leaving them outside or bringing them in, I clipped a bouquet and have been enjoying them all week. I posted a picture of them on the media, attempting poetry about “air for the soul.” (Again, I know enough to be dangerous.) The thing about beauty is it reminds us that our humanity is part of something – something both essential and transcendent. For me, this is especially necessary when times are difficult, when everyone seems to know enough to be dangerous and when suffering seems inescapable.

Suffering is a universal human experience. There was plenty of it in my early kid years when my family was blown apart by mental illness and domestic violence. And more, during my years as a pediatric oncology nurse. And more, over time as a pastor. Here’s one of the things I know about suffering from all those years. Suffering cannot be compared. It’s a lot like beauty that way. What’s more beautiful – Degas’ elegant sculpture of “La Petit Danseuse” or the riotous tumble of pink peonies? It’s a ridiculous question. Suffering is similar. Being with someone who is suffering for any reason is NOT a time to get into qualifying their experience, giving a different take on it, or redirecting them to someone else’s experience of suffering. That stuff is the opposite of helpful. Being with someone who is suffering IS a time to listen and to wonder. It’s a time to share their burden by holding space for it without rushing to comfort. Sharing the burden lightens the suffering without imagining that it can be taken away.

Suffering is something the Apostle Paul seems to understand. How often do you suppose he cried out to God withOUT a pen in hand? It must have been a lot given his turn from the one giving punishment to the one on the receiving end of being beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.[1] For him to write about suffering like that, he knew it intimately, like a friend, just like he knew God. Listen again to a few of the verses from his letter to the Roman church.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

The Apostle Paul is talking to all of us. One reason his words about suffering resonate so strongly is because he describes what he knows and what we know. And he knows way more than enough to be dangerous. He knows enough to be comforting. Comfort is no small thing. It’s not appeasement – meaning I’m not making you feel better so that I feel better. Comfort is deep knowing shared across our human experience. Most of us have experienced suffering and still we live on. Some of us not so elegantly but still we live. Paul’s account of moving from suffering to endurance to character to hope is a description not a strategy. He describes what we know by faith and experience about how suffering works. There are days in the midst of it that we wonder how it’s possible to make it through. Days in which we’re not sure who we are anymore. And then, in the body of Christ, the church, we’re reminded once again of the main things – God’s promises to us no matter what is happening.

For our congregation, one such moment was Matthias’ baptism in the last couple of weeks. Long on the worship calendar, his baptism on Pentecost couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Masks and quiet sanctuary notwithstanding, water flowed off Matthias’ head in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We prayed for the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and joy. And he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In baptism God promises to be present, to form us as disciples, to always take us back, and to be the eternal One in our lives every day. In baptism, we “have obtained access to this grace on which we stand.” We were buried with Christ in baptism so that we too might live in newness of life. Today. Right now, even in suffering, we are pulled through the cross of Christ.

The cross frames suffering in a different way. The cross promises the presence of God in suffering. We know Jesus’ body broke and died which means that God knows suffering and suffers with us. God’s alignment with our suffering promises endurance through to hope. Hope does not come at the expense of false optimism where we close our eyes and wish everything away. False optimism is knowing enough about hope to be dangerous. Rather, hope comes from being planted at the foot of the cross while awaiting new life and continuing to do the hard work of grieving and the hard work of reconciliation with each other. Simply put, the cross binds us to the hard work of love in the midst of suffering – loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbor in such a time as this. By our baptism, our gracious heavenly Father frees us into hope and forms us into instruments of cross and resurrection in the name of the one who is, who was, and who is to come, Jesus Christ our Lord.[2] Amen and thanks be to God.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son,

and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Acts 7 (when Paul was still Saul); Acts chapters 9, 13, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22, and 23.

[2] A paraphrase of Revelation 1:8

____________________________________________________________

The Gospel Reading for worship today:

Matthew 9:35-10:8 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Christmas Day: Defiant Hope at the Speed of Light – John 1:1-14

**sermon art: Barbara Barnes, Untitled

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Today, at the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing.  It’s religious.  It’s cultural.  It’s festive.  And it comes at just about the shortest day of the year.  There’s some history in those developments.  The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside non-Christian celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun.  So time of year and some of the trimmings were combined from those celebrations and remain today.  I’m cool with that.  Christian faith has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.  This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.

There is also the story told in scripture.  At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[1]  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible.[2] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a quiet story of a holy family, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as heady and inaccessible.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh – vulnerable, tiny newborn flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[3]

God living among us in Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we understand it, in part, by way of our experience.

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of unrest in the world that is a matter of life and death.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  Into these real struggles, this darkness, Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

My mother gave me permission to tell a bit of her story.  Many years ago, she married my first father in a romantic whirlwind. They honeymooned in Germany. While there, they picked up a set of Dresden angels – a few inches tall, fragile white porcelain, graceful, and beautiful. Life was good and fun and quickly grew to include five children.  Those angels were set out in a bed of pine boughs at Christmastime every year to protect their wing tips in case they were knocked over. They surrounded a small porcelain baby Jesus who finally joined the angels on Christmas Eve.

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave. As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out. She remarried and every year those angels would go out. My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding and celebrating the baby Jesus. A few years ago, my mother and her third husband Larry gave the angels to me.  I think about those angels and my family’s story – the good, bad, and ugly.  I think about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle personally in families and collectively in world-wide crises. I also think about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – in bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But think about how fast the speed of light travels to us, whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things in the good, bad, and ugly.  We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as porcelain. Today, Christmas Day, the glimmer of light from the manger feels like a defiant hope. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [can not, never will] overcome it.” Amen and Merry Christmas!

_____________________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

[2] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[3] John 1:14