Tag Archives: hope

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!

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[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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

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

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

[15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

 

Connection at the Cradle’s Edge [OR Two Women Preaching a Shared Vision] Luke 1:39-55

**sermon art:  The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2009, oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Advent 4, December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

[sermon begins]

Ohhhh, cat fight!  Well, not really.  Not at all actually.  Mary and Elizabeth are two women in it together.  Both have slightly different jobs that work toward the same vision.  After Mary’s surprise pregnancy, she makes haste to the hills to her relative Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant in her old age.  Later we learn her visit to Elizabeth lasted about three months.[1]  Perhaps Mary was there when John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah – helping her aging relative with a difficult labor and delivery and then heading home as her own belly grew heavy with pregnancy.  This is no small relationship between the two women.  In a world that often pits women against each other, imagining competition where there isn’t any, here we have one of many examples in which competition is simply not the case.  Not only was Mary welcomed by Elizabeth and the baby inside of her.  Mary was celebrated by them.  The baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Celebration, indeed.

The celebration continues after Elizabeth’s joyous welcome with Mary’s psalm in response.  Psalms are a form of song in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  Psalm songs in Luke lead us to up to and beyond cradle’s edge.  In addition to Elizabeth and Mary, the priest Zechariah sings of God’s faithfulness after the birth of his son who becomes John the Baptist, the angels sing to shepherds in a field of good news for all people, and the prophets Simeon and Anna praise God’s mercy for all people.[2] Their songs celebrate the faithfulness of God in the One soon to be cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  Song is a way to remember. Songs get trapped in our head differently and become available in our minds at times when other words fail us.  Songs of full of faith and Christmas promise can sustain our faith and remind us of what we easily forget in the day – that the world and our connection with other people is to be celebrated by way of God’s imagination not our own imagined state of competition.

In her psalm, Mary praises God for humbling the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting the lowly, and feeding the hungry.  One reaction to Mary’s psalm might be vengeful if you’re exhausted by oppression and survival. Another reaction to her psalm might be dread if you hear you’re about to lose something.  In a world that often pits people against each other, inciting competition, categorizing winners and losers, Mary’s psalm can be heard as either/or categories – either you’re the powerful at the top waiting to be toppled or you’re the lowly at the bottom waiting for your turn to be at the top.  For God’s sake, we know what happens to that cradled baby Jesus who grows into the ministry celebrated by his mother’s psalm.  The competition perceived by the political and religious powers took Jesus to trial and death on a cross.  But let’s remember for a moment, that the cross was good news both for the criminal who hung next to Jesus and for the Roman centurion nearby who praised God and confessed truth.[3]  Not either/or categories – both/and – all!

Okay, I’ve dabbled at the cross long enough. Let’s return to the cradle’s edge, shall we?  Pregnant expectation is where we’re at with Mary and Elizabeth.  Even the baby in Elizabeth’s belly is jumping for joy.  The women are joyous and hopeful as they greet each other.  Their psalms preach hope and promise, a vision jump-started by the Holy Spirit.  Two women, both preaching, both celebrating new life in the form of a baby but not yet a baby born.  Another word for this is hope.

Hope is my word for the church year. I chose it at the end of November before Advent began.  I chose the word hope as an antidote to the seemingly endless messages of despair.  With a word chosen to focus faith, I have a better shot at seeing life through the lens of God’s imagination and promise rather than human frustration and despair.  I have a better shot at living and sharing the hope that is within us by the power of faith.  Elizabeth and Mary’s moment is a case in point.  Mary left town in a hurry to go see Elizabeth.  She had a lot to fear in town.  Betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, young and pregnant, facing potential backlash from her community, she walks through Zechariah’s front door into safety and celebration with Elizabeth.  I imagine Mary showing up at Elizabeth’s home with the fatigue and nausea common to the first trimester of pregnancy and perhaps with some worry about the future.  Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit welcome is like a fresh breeze that smooths Mary’s furrowed brow and blows the dust off of her traveling feet and inspires Mary’s response in the Magnificat.

If Mary’s response is anything, it’s a word of hope. So much more than greeting card worthy, the Magnificat is bold, rebellious, and full of joy.  It’s hope-filled because, as we’ll hear in a few days, this is good news of great joy for ALL people.[4]  Which means that the mighty cast down and the lowly brought up stand together with each other by the power of Jesus.  It’s not about putting the lowly in the mighty category and the mighty in the low to simply repeat the same bad news.  Mary’s psalm births the possibility that the baby growing inside of her will lead us into love that connects rather than competes.  Not sentimental love where we pat each other on the head and wish each other good luck.  Rather, it’s a love that means seeing each other as human relatives, celebrating each other as Mary and Elizabeth did.  Sometimes it’s a compassionate love that soothes and consoles us within the cradle of Christ’s presence.  Sometimes it’s a convicting love that helps us understand when we are in the wrong from the courage gained by Christ’s cross.  Mary’s psalm afflicts those of us who are comfortable while comforting those of us who are afflicted.  The cradle and the cross reveal a lot about us.

But mostly the cradle and the cross reveal the Christ.  From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus is grace that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we live as people with hope.

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[1] Luke 1:56

[2] David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN. Commentary on Luke 1:39-55 for December 20, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=515

[3] Luke 23:39-47

[4] Luke 2:10-12 But the angel said to [shepherds], “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

 

The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Never Will Overcome It – John 1:1-5, 14

Longest Night: A Service of Hope and Healing, offering a quieter time of reflection during the Christmas Season

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2018

[Reflection begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:1-5, 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.                                         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.

We have an advent wreath in our home.  Sometimes there’s a little chaos when I, the pastor, am somehow caught off guard by the arrival of Advent and end up dashing through the town to find candles.  (The irony of racing around for candles to mark the quiet expectation of Advent is not lost of me.)  Our wreath is a bit makeshift but that has its own appeal.  When they’re finally in place, three purple and one pink candle gradually burn down in their descending lengths over the four weeks of Advent.  Some years, the candles are lit without fanfare.  Other years, when I’m feeling especially pious (you know…in a good way), I find prayers to accompany the Sundays.

This year, without any planning, I simply said something like, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not, never will overcome it.”   There’s something about the promise of that verse.  It’s simple and powerful.  Simple because most of us know the comfort of light when we’re afraid in the dark.  Powerful because it doesn’t take much light to lessen the darkness but darkness is a necessary part of seeing light. We know this cosmically by looking at the stars in a moonless sky.  We know this intimately by lighting a candle in a dark room when the power goes out. Last Sunday in Adult Sunday School, one question Pastor Ann asked us in the class was “in what or where do you find joy right now or generally in this Advent season.”  There were several answers about Christmas lights and quiet moments.  Mine is the Advent wreath in all of its soft light meeting the darkness at its edges.

A rabbi friend of mine recently opened a meeting of interfaith leaders with a devotion about darkness and light.  The co-revealing of both the light of the menorah candles celebrating Hanukkah and the darkness in which we sat was framed, on the one hand, by the recent loss of life at a Pittsburgh synagogue and, on the other, by the joy of our shared connections with each other in the room, shadows holding the light.  The symbolism and the power of what it was representing was as plain as the candles burning in the dark room.  Candles have that way about them.  A pastor friend of mine likes to wave the occasional caution flag about finding a new use for candles in worship because they become so dear so quickly.  The small flame speaks volumes when words simply fail us.  While we’re worshiping together, we’ll have an opportunity to light a candle in remembrance or in prayer – powerful when words fail us.

And words often do fail us in the mystery of faith.  Deep in our bodies, in the life force of our bones, the words of creation are embodied but not explained.  The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  In the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[1]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”   Our candles symbolize something so much deeper with their flames.  With them we remember the God of history. God who creates light in the darkness and new life in a young mother’s body as the baby Jesus, new life as God’s Word made flesh.  God also promises to be with us today in Jesus – shining light in the darkness and new life here, now, in us, in OUR flesh.  We don’t always have the words to use but many of us know something about the light of the one who breaks into our darkness.  Whether that’s the darkness of illness, fatigue, grief, or the mess we’ve made of things, we know and have experienced God’s promise of light – most often it’s much to our surprise.  Being surprised by the light is kind of the best way because we know, deep inside, that we don’t create the light.

The Light is given by the One who is the Light and opens our eyes in deep darkness, in the midst of suffering.

From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus lives forgiveness that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we too reflect the light, shining light into darkness. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, cannot, does not, never will overcome it.

Amen.

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[1] Genesis 1:1-5