Tag Archives: hope

Provoking Love [OR Little Red Corvette, Mondegreens, and Biblical Misinterpretation] Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-25

**sermon art:  1973 Red Corvette Stingray by Candace Nalepa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 18, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:1-8 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Hebrews 10:11-25 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

[sermon begins]

My family razzes me from time-to-time for singing the wrong lyrics to songs.  You’re all familiar with Prince’s 1983 hit, “Little Red Corvette?”[1]  Yours truly, hair-sprayed bangs and all, sang it wrong for much too long as “Cigarette Collect.” [sing “Cigarette Collect” to tune of “Little Red Corvette”].  See, it works in a weird sort of way but it sadly makes no sense whatsoever.  I’m a master at mishearing lyrics and singing them with gusto.  Try this question in a group of people, “What is a lyric you’ve sung wrong or the funniest lyric fail you’ve heard?”  The fails are epic and hilarious – a fun way to laugh at ourselves and each other that’s pretty harmless.  I looked up lyric fails this week and cracked up all over again reading them.  Except, they’re not called lyric fails.  They’re called Mondegreens.[2]  Mondegreens come from a 1950s mondegreen made by American writer Sylvia Wright listening to her mother read a favorite poem:

Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands/ Oh, where hae ye been?  They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.”[3]

Sylvia heard her mother say Lady Mondegreen when the actual poetry was that they had taken the Earl and Laid-Him-On-The-Green.  Similarly, some children think God’s name is Hal and begin their nightly prayers this way, “Our Father who art in heaven, Hal would (hallowed) be thy name…”  The possibilities for mondegreens are endless.

Mondegreens happen because our brains are quickly filling in blanks while processing information.  We hear sounds and combine them with context and knowledge.  This may partly explain why my young brain heard “cigarette collect” out of “little red corvette” – no context and limited knowledge.  Let’s go with that, shall we?  Regardless, something similar happens with scripture.  We hear the Bible’s words, slot them into our context and knowledge and poof(!) – interpretation and life application.  The resulting thought and behavior range from the hilarious to the glorious to the horrific.  Thank you, Martin Luther.  One of his great achievements was translating the Bible into the common language so that everyday people could read it and the priests could no longer control it – 16th century Power to the People.  Alongside this achievement, we can also lay Luther’s misguided anger with Jews based on how he misinterpreted the Bible and his anti-Semitic writings used by Hitler.  Hitler’s use of Luther’s work during the Holocaust led to the ELCA’s 1994 repudiation of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, expressing deep regret for their consequences, and reclaiming the desire to live in “love and respect for Jewish people.”[4]  Luther’s misinterpretation was no harmless mondegreen.

Mondegreen lyric fails are one thing.  Misinterpretation of scripture, armed for bear with our biases, is quite another – bringing us to the gospel reading from Mark. People read about these “wars, and rumors of wars…earthquakes…and famines” taking place and unconsciously connect them with Hollywood’s version of apocalypse.[5]  Some Christians even go so far as to see their task as bringing about this end-time blaze of glory.  This mission is not solely housed in fringe groups.  It shows up in political saber rattling and environmental apathy.  Think about it – if end times equal the end of the planet then everything is disposable.  Blaze-of-glory thinking makes faithful, thoughtful interpretation about this kind of scripture so critical. And makes Jesus’ closing words in verse 8 something to notice.  Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[6]  Birth pangs.  Birth is a word of hope. Birth means something new is coming.  Something is being born.  Christian scripture sends a message of radical healing of creation – a new heaven and a new earth “brought together in a lasting embrace.”[7]  This New Testament message sees salvation “in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share that new and gloriously embodied reality.” Jesus’ talks about birth pangs with his disciples which focuses this lens.

The gospel of Mark was first written to Jesus followers who lived through the actual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Rome was on the rampage, annihilating Jews and the earliest Jewish Christians.  It’s truly a wonder that the early church lived through Rome’s campaign against them.  Jesus’ words of hope give his followers something to hang on to during confusing and terrifying times without falling into despair.  Jesus’s words of hope also give us, his followers today, something to hang on to during challenging times without falling into despair.  The preacher in the Hebrews reading makes suggestions for the Jesus follower during challenging times as well. Listen once more to these verses:

“Approach [God] with a true heart in assurance of faith;

Hold fast to the confession of our hope;

And provoke one another to love.”[8]

Hmmm….faith, hope, and love…we might suspect that the preacher of Hebrews knew about 1 Corinthians 13.

Listen to this last bit of 1 Corinthians 13:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[9]

In Hebrews, faith in what God is doing on our behalf, on behalf of all creation, opens up our approach to God with confidence won through Jesus Christ.  This is not an invitation to meek humility.  We’re invited into bold confidence that Christ’s victory over sin allows our approach to God.  Not that sin is removed from our experience.  Rather, Christ allows for the possibility that sin could be removed from our experience.  This is a faith focused on God, the object of our faith, the means by which we catch glimpses of God as God draws us ever closer.[10]

These glimpses of God through the window of Christ inspire us to what the Hebrews preacher calls a confession of hope.  The Christ whose self-sacrificing death begins the birth pangs signaling God’s radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is not certainty. Our confession of hope is that God’s last word is life – life for you, me, everyone else, and all of creation.

If “our faith is what God has done; [and] our hope is what we confess,” so what of love? [11]  We hear in 1 Corinthians that out of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.  The writer of Hebrews tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Provoke love.  That’s not very flowery or prettied up for a wedding.  The love in 1 Corinthians 13 is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful; does not insist on its own way; does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.  This love bears, believes, endures, and hopes all the things. How do we understand this love in tension with provoking one another to love?  This is one example that is ripe for the type of misinterpretation that’s no mondegreen when we read our context and knowledge into the text rather than hearing Jesus out of the text.

Last week’s gospel reading from Mark had Jesus taking the religious leaders to task for exploiting poverty stricken widows, leaving them homeless. He stood to the side and directed his disciples to notice the widow giving “all she had to live on.”[12]  Was he provoking them to love?  What makes you feel provoked to love?  What kind of provocation to love wears you out when you hear it one more time?  Perhaps it’s the plight of coal workers whose jobs are gone or threatened by the new energy economy.  Perhaps it’s when someone raises the issue of income inequality as the wealthy get wealthier around the world while the poor get poorer as they’re paid non-living wages.  Perhaps it’s the desperation of farmers who can’t figure out how to get affordable food to your table while paying themselves and their migrant workers.  Perhaps it’s the issue of racial diversity, equality, and acceptance, around issues like corporate hiring or college admissions.  Or maybe it’s altogether closer to home – a spouse who asks for love from you only to be ignored; or a child who really just needs you to put away your phone and hang out for the evening.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to think about when you’re provoked to love and why that message bugs you so much.  Press pause on considering the problems with the message or the messenger who is provoking you.  Instead, ask what misinterpretations of this provocation to love might you be making? We’re all reading the Bible – the possibilities for misinterpretation are endless.  If we only read 1 Corinthians 13 and occasionally hear it at weddings, we may not know that the preacher in Hebrews is simultaneously urging us to provoke each other to love and good deeds.  We also tend to assign ourselves the role of provocateur when we think about provoking love.  We generally like to be the sender rather than the receiver who is provoked to love.

Here’s the deal though, the preacher of Hebrews is asking us to regularly meet together, encouraging each other through the difficulties and joys of faithful living in difficult times.  It’s easy to misinterpret scripture and, by extension, the One ultimately provoking us to love.  But our confession of hope points to the One who brings the radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is a gift to each other and a gift we bring the world in difficult times while we provoke each other to love.

Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

________________________________________________________

 

[1] Prince. Little Red Corvette. Album: 1999.

[2] Mondegreens, pronunciation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0FIISNVR7U

[3] Maria Konnikova. “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  The New Yorker, December 10, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/science-misheard-lyrics-mondegreens

[4] ELCA Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. Online Resources: Interfaith Resources. www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Online-Resources

[5] Mark 13:7-8

[6] Also Mark 18 verse 8.

[7] N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 19, 122, 142-144, 197

[8] Hebrews 10:22-24

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[10] Douglas John Hall. Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 248-254.

[11] Katherine A. Shaner, Asst. Professor of New Testament, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, N.C. Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-25 for November 18, 2018.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3909

[12] Mark 12:38-44

God Loves the People We Can’t [OR Jonah Slimed and Steaming] Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20, and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

**sermon art:  Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) Jonah and the Whale (1621). Oil on oak.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 21, 2018.

[sermon begins after two short Bible readings – 1 Corinthians readings is at the end of the sermon]

Jonah 3:1-5, 10 The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth…  10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

[sermon begins]

Jonah is easy to love. At the very least he’s easy to understand. He is an every-man kind of Bible guy. He’s self-righteous for very good reasons. And he takes control of his own story. Jonah’s story is the Bible at its best. Four short chapters include our righteous hero and evil villains of an epic scale.  What could go wrong? Pretty much everything. Notice the beginning of the reading we get today starts chapter 3.  “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a SECOND time…”  Let’s go back and talk about what happened the first time.  The first time, the word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go to the great city of Nineveh.  Nineveh wasn’t great because it was a good place full of good people. Nineveh was called great because it was huge and powerful. It was full of Assyrians who had killed and enslaved many of Jonah’s people and would likely kill him if given half a chance.  He certainly didn’t want to give them that opportunity.

Jonah did not have a death wish. He had good reason to hate those Assyrians. So he made a run for it.  He boarded a ship to head the opposite direction of where God wanted him to go.  Short story shorter…there was a storm, Jonah was tossed overboard, and he ended up in the belly of a fish. This is the part of the story that makes it perfect for kids’ storytelling.  Does it get more fun than a slimy, stinky, pouting Jonah spewed out onto the shore by the fish?

Fish slime is not exactly the sackcloth and ashes of repentance but it serves a similar purpose in Jonah’s story.  We often talk about repentance as turning in a new direction. Before the fish slime, he was running away to Tarshish. After the fish slime, he began moving toward Nineveh. Jonah did a 180 degree turn. I imagine him slinking into Nineveh with a bruised ego, some serious fear, and saturated in stink. As a prophet, he did his work with a minimum of words. Eight words, to be exact. Jonah announced to the Ninevites, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s it.  Eight words.  Much to Jonah’s chagrin, the people of Nineveh did actually repent – from the King on down to all the animals.  Sackcloth and fasting for everyone![1]

Turns out, God’s mercy even reached as far as Nineveh. Jonah knew it would and greatly resented God and the Ninevites. But Jonah’s feelings on the matter did not limit what God was able to accomplish with a minimum of faithfulness.[2]  Jonah barely cooperated, his eight-word speech to the Ninevites contained no words of hope or good news. Even though he’s an old school prophet, he’s not a very good one. Jonah’s underachievement is good news for us.  Jonah’s got a grudge on.  He later tells God that the reason he first ran away to Tarshish is because he knows that God is “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3] Jonah knew God would forgive the Ninevites and was so furious he wanted to die when God forgave them.[4]

God is bigger than our grudges and the people we hold grudges against. God loves the people we can’t love. This is good news for us. The very last line in the book of Jonah is said by God. “Then the Lord said [to Jonah], ‘…And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”  Let’s face it. It’s not easy to acknowledge that hated people are deemed worthy by God for love and compassion when there may be legitimate reasons for our feelings. Regardless, God is able to use our paltry efforts and mixed emotions despite our dismal participation.[5]

It’s not a stretch to imagine Jonah relishing the idea that the Ninevites could go down in flames.  Laughing at Jonah’s antics gives us a chance to laugh at ourselves. How far would we go to NOT be a part of God’s love and compassion for those who, at best, we deem undeserving or, at worst, we deem worthy of destruction?

Jonah’s story puts flesh on Jesus’ challenge to us to love our enemies, to love and pray for them.[6]  This is the story we’re called to tell as disciples.  In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus shows up in Galilee announcing the fulfillment of time and God’s kingdom coming near while calling for repentance.  There is a camp of theologians who interpret Jesus’ announcement and call as a moment of now – not to be confused with a distant apocalyptic event in the future that scares us.  In this line of thinking, this is the kingdom that reveals God’s intention for us. This is the kingdom we proclaim as fishers of people. This is the kingdom revealed to replace the present form of the world that is passing away (referred to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians).  A world in which we battle each other over land and resources like the Assyrians and Jonah’s people. A world in which one group of people essentially enslaves groups of other people.  A world in which violence and one-upmanship is the name of the game.

Instead, God’s kingdom announces a different world.  A world in which God’s move toward the Ninevites convicts them through Jonah’s half-hearted or even empty-hearted eight prophetic words. For us as Jesus people, we might say that the world announced by Jesus is cross-centered. The cross that proclaims powerlessness as the first move and the new life that becomes possible out of that powerlessness. Jesus’ kingdom means the first move is mercy which interrupts cycles of violence and blame and becomes our hope. Thankfully, the waters of baptism are the daily call into repentance and Jesus’ kingdom of now – no fish slime or sackcloth required.  Thanks be to God.

_____________________________________________

[1] Jonah 3:5

[2] Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake. Sermon for Sunday, January 21, 2018 proclaimed with the good people of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO.

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Jonah 4:3

[5] Inga Oyan Longbrake, ibid.

[6] As part of the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Matthew 5:43-44

_____________________________________________

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Caught With Their Lamps Down [OR Peace As A Destination]  Matthew 25:1-13, Wisdom 6:12-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Thessalonian reading is at the end of the sermon.]

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

Wisdom 6:12-16 
12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her. 
13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 
14 One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate. 
15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 
16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

 

[sermon begins]

Before the age of GPS and voice directions, there were TripTik maps[1].  A small, narrow flip map, spiral bound at the top, showed page for page how I was going to make the trip.  Paper TripTiks are still available although now there’s an app for that. In the paper version, you flip the pages as you drive the miles. Construction alerts, hotels, and rest stops were part of the trip plan. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandma Ruth’s house I drove. Each page flipped meant I was that many miles closer. Pit stops were strategic for food, facilities, and fuel.  Of course, knowing the destination is essential to receiving the right map.

Jesus has a destination in mind as he tells a story to his disciples about bridesmaids. The destination is the wedding banquet and the bridesmaids need enough oil for their lamps to follow the bridegroom. The oil fuels the lamps through the midnight-hour.  Five of the bridesmaids get caught with their lamps down.  They are the foolish ones.  I want to know what makes the foolish ones foolish.[2]  If we’re supposed to hear that people who aren’t ready, who miss the mark somehow, or who don’t have enough faith are the problem then that pretty much includes most of the disciples who were listening to Jesus. The same disciples who abandon him at the cross.  If that’s the definition of foolish then it also includes most of us which hardly qualifies as good news.

It may be more accurate to say that the foolish bridesmaids are accused of being passive and neglectful.[3]  All ten bridesmaids knew the bridegroom was coming. They all fell asleep in the darkness. Only five were prepared with lamp oil to make the trip. Up to this point in the gospel book of Matthew, Jesus talked at least three times about his death and resurrection.  He also repeatedly scolded the religious leaders about their priorities. Just a short time before the Matthew reading today, Jesus chews out the religious leaders for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”[4]  The religious leaders had lost sight of the destination.

In Judaism, there is a destination called the End of Days. The End of Days is a messianic era marked by world peace with no wars or famine, and enough for everyone to live on. Rabbi Dubov writes that “even in his darkest hour, [the Jew] hopes and prays for a brighter future – a world of peace and spirituality.”[5] Biblical prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, and Hosea repeatedly point to the End of Days messianic era.[6]  Christians were the ones in the 1800s who concocted doom-filled rapture theology.[7]  Because, you know, that’s so much better.

Here’s why any of this matters. It matters because our understanding of God’s vision for humanity at the End of Days affects the many days between now and then. It matters because people of faith tend to interpret God’s will for today in light of what they think will happen in God’s tomorrow.  It matters because what we say about Jesus’ return impacts the lives of people here and around the world today – the very people Jesus tells us to care about because he cares about them.

In the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[8] Jesus says this right after the Beatitudes.[9] It’s also right after he tells his disciples that they are the light of the world and that lighting a lamp gives light all around it.[10]  Disciples are the light of the world; wise bridesmaids have lamp oil to light the darkness. In a couple more passages after the bridesmaids’ tale, the plot to kill Jesus begins his trip to the cross. Dark times indeed. But the letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that we do “not grieve as others who have no hope.”[11]  There are things happening that cause grief that can lead to despair.  Whether it’s large-scale violence that sends refugees fleeing or interpersonal violence like the abuse coming to light in Hollywood and Washington, we can shut down in despair. Despair can lead to neglect and passivity. The very things for which the foolish bridesmaids stand accused.

The mapped history of humankind hangs in my kitchen. It’s four feet tall and two feet wide with vertical lines showing what was happening to world peoples at the same time. Who was impacting whom and the outcome of those impacts – whether or not a group of people ended up annihilated or subsumed into another group or whether they remained independent. Many victories are on the map.  Many dark times are on the map. Passive despair in the face of human violence is understandable. Jesus is a different destination.

In New Member class last week we talked about Christian freedom.  A great question was asked about personal responsibility when it can seem so easy to claim freedom by way of forgiveness. From that perspective there’s nothing to stop anyone from doing anything they want if they’re just going to be forgiven for it anyway. Jesus’ parable about the bridesmaids holds that tension between freedom and consequence, between self-determination and obedience.  He makes demands of the disciples through the parable and really through the whole book of Matthew. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets so, by that measure, Jesus embodies peace. Not a negative peace that is the “absence of tension.”[12] Rather, Jesus is a positive peace that is the presence of justice.[13] Jesus creates plenty of tension by naming neglect and passivity as unacceptable and calls us to a positive peace as light-bearers in the world today.

Jesus’ call to urgency challenges church people’s quietism.  Quietism that looks like passive withdrawal from the world by relying on divine action alone.[14]  Quietism that sounds like when people say, “It will all work out in the end.” Quietism that simply watches events unfold without considering that our passive withdrawal amounts to complicity in what we fail to do. Quietism that puts foolish bridesmaids in tension with the wise.

This tension between the bridesmaids gives us a glimpse into the conflict of the first century Matthean Christian community as well as holds up a mirror to our time in history.  However, we are on the other side of the cross and resurrection unlike the disciples listening to the parable.  The very disciples who abandoned Jesus at the cross, whose lamps were empty when “darkness came over the whole land” as Jesus died.[15]  The same disciples who afterwards encounter the risen Christ and are given the destination of “all nations” for teaching and baptizing as they are reassured by Christ’s presence to “the end of the age.”[16]

One reason we worship is to remind each other what we so quickly forget in dark and confusing times. Ours is a world in need of constructive tension witnessing to the destination of peace. To the End of Days, Jesus lights up our discipleship, embodying peace and a living hope for the sake of the world God so loves. Thanks be to God.

_____________________________________________

[1] Here’s a link if you’re curious about TripTik https://midatlantic.aaa.com/travel/maps-directions

[2] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Facebook post on the Parable of the Bridesmaids, November 7, 2017.  https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=matthew%20l%20skinner

[3] Ibid. Dr. Skinner’s comment to original post.

[4] Matthew 23:23-24 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

[5] Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK. “What is the ‘End of Days’?” for Chabad.org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108400/jewish/The-End-of-Days.htm

[6] Dubov, Ibid.

[7] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct, a recent biblical interpretation.

[8] Matthew 5:17

[9] Matthew 5:1-12

[10] Matthew 5:14-16

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

[12] Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Quietism: Religious Doctrine. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Quietism  “A doctrine of Christian spirituality that, in general, holds that perfection consists in passivity (quiet) of the soul, in the suppression of human effort so that divine action may have full play.”

[15] Matthew 27:45 [The Death of Jesus] From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

[16] Matthew 25:16-20

_______________________________________

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 5 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

 

Mr. Irrelevant 2017 is a Denver Bronco [OR The Last Will Be First…Thank God!] Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10-4:11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings from the books of Matthew and Jonah – hang in there]

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

Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

[sermon begins]

Some of you know of my hope to someday call an NFL game in the booth with Chris Collingsworth and Al Michaels. Word-sparring with Al and arguing biases with Chris would be tons of fun. Alas, not only would my inability to accurately call pass interference hold me back, but then I learn something else I didn’t know about American football and wonder if I would even have the courage to speak. The courage question will go unanswered as Al’s retirement will happen eventually and NBC hasn’t called. The latest NFL knowledge to pop on my radar is Mr. Irrelevant.[1] Are there people here that know this is a thing? Since 1976, the last player chosen in the annual NFL draft is given the title of Mr. Irrelevant.[2]  There’s a big-buildup as the draft comes to a close. The chosen player receives a team jersey. On the back, in big bold, letters, is Mr. Irrelevant.  This year, that team jersey was Bronco Orange.[3]  Anybody here that can name the player? … … Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, quarterback, 253rd overall pick of the draft.  Mr. Kelly apparently has an abundance of talent that is shadowed by health and character. What fascinates me is that regardless of his draft title, he’s still part of the team. He has the same shot as everyone else to make it happen. There’s even such a list as the top 5 Mr. Irrelevants who have gone on to make names for themselves in the sport.[4]

Mr. Irrelevant is a limited metaphor for Jesus’ parable today but it leans us toward it. (It also ups the odds that scripture comes to mind during today’s Bronco game. You’ll have to let me know.)  Regardless of its limits as a metaphor, this notion of the last chosen seems to be a main concern. Those last workers are at least the main concern of the first workers – especially the salary scale.  It’s easy to get lost in the levels of employment.  Into what level is each worker slotted as the landowner goes back out and gets more workers?  9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm.

One move we could make would be to think through the parable economically. We could ask about the landowner’s wealth and generosity in terms of our own biases about economic systems and merit pay.  A pure capitalist might ask about the landowner’s business plan if this turns into HR policy.  A pure socialist might ask why land ownership was necessary.

Another move we could make is to rank the workers against our own scale of worthiness.  In the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we say together:

“Living God, source of all life, we confess that we struggle to believe that your grace sets us free. You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it. We turn the church inward, rather than following you in the world. Forgive us. Stir us. Reform us. Amen.” [5]

“You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it.”  When we confess together in worship, it’s a chance to slow our thinking down and acknowledge our behavior.  While we’re on the topic, though, might I go a step further and suggest that we also think WE need to earn God’s love and grace.  Oh, I know, many of us have been Lutheran Christians a long time, some from the cradle.  So we know we’re not supposed to talk about earning God’s grace. But I’m here to tell you that in my world it’s not uncommon to hear people wondering if God is happy with them.  I hear questions like:  Am I worth it?  Do I know enough?  Have I read enough?  Am I kind enough?  Apparently, there is no limit to the ways in which we can torture ourselves.  No limit to the ways we can feel shame ourselves and inflict it on other people.  And, in the meantime, limit God.

For some reason, I’m hesitant to let the landowner off the hook in Jesus’ parable.  Maybe I’ve read too much Jonah and his lament against God. I want the landowner in the lineup with everyone else and ask him hard questions. I want to lump him into the problem of envy that the parable taps. And then, to go a step further, I want to erase everyone out the parable.  The parable is too complicated as allegory and, at the same time, oversimplifies humanity. Who is that landowner and why is the manager even there?  Can’t everyone just go home to live, work, and eat another day without reacting to the landowner’s behavior?  What if Jesus had simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…the last will be first and the first will be last.”[6]   The kingdom of heaven is the first being last.

Perhaps the first being last is like those nefarious Ninevites so despised by Jonah.[7]  He has every reason to avoid them. They were first in the land, top dogs, part of the Assyrian Empire that captured, killed, or carried away Jonah’s people to the north. They did bad, bad things. Jonah was sent by God to pronounce God’s mercy to the Ninevites so that they might repent and receive forgiveness. Jonah did NOT want to announce God’s mercy to the Ninevites because he knew about God’s slow anger and steadfast love. He knew that God would forgive them and Jonah did not want them forgiven.

The story wraps up with Ninevah’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. We share this story this week with our Jewish cousins in the faith who read the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, their highest holy day of the year. Yom Kippur begins before sunset this Friday and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Jews ask for other people’s and God’s forgiveness and praise God’s mercy and steadfast love as they reflect on Jonah’s story. It’s an incredibly offensive forgiveness.  God forgives the Ninevites their kidnapping and murder of the northern tribes. We heard read this morning the closing verse of the book of Jonah as God asks Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[8]

Perhaps…perhaps…the first being last means that the landowner ends up as the last.  If the parable being told by Jesus infers God as the landowner, then one possibility is that Jesus ending up dead on a cross is definitely ending up last. The Roman Empire’s own version of Mr. Irrelevant playing out in first century politics, on a hill, far away. Except, theirs is not the last word.

At the end of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[9]  Here’s the good news. God is not limited to our finite understanding of first and last.  We’re well beyond landowners, managers, and workers.

This God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This is the God you hear from after your confession at the beginning of worship as God’s good forgiveness is announced to you.  “God hears your cry and the Spirit sets you free; your sins are forgiven, + in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”[10]

No small thing, God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness turns lasts into firsts, and firsts into lasts, turning despair into defiant hope.  You are forgiven and set free.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________________________

[1] Sundays and Seasons. Day Resources for Sunday, September 24, 2017. https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources

[2] Foxsports.com.“The NFL Draft’s Top 5 “Mr. Irrelevants” of the Modern Era. April 26, 2016 http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/nfl-draft-mr-irrelevant-successes-042616

[3] Max Meyer. “Broncos Tab Chad Kelly as 2017’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” April 20, 2017. NFL.com http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000805002/article/broncos-tab-chad-kelly-as-2017s-mr-irrelevant

[5] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

[6] Matthew 20:1a and 16b

[7] I recommend reading all of Jonah.  It is four chapters and a fun read.

[8] Jonah 4:11

[9] Revelation 22:13

[10] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

Thievery, Shadows and Light [OR Why Matthew’s Year is Good News] Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalms]

Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

 

[sermon begins]

According to the stories of film, thievery is to be admired for all of its clever moves and precision timing.  Think Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job or Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist.[1]  We cheer on these anti-heroes as likeable scoundrels who are on the side of right – either against a truly evil villain or on a Robin Hood mission.  These storylines are one of my favorites as I wonder how the heist is going to be pulled off and feel the excitement of a braniac’s plan coming together.

In reality, being robbed is devastating.  It’s a total disruption of ownership and security.  One of our neighbors installed a house alarm after a break-in a few years ago.  It went off in the early morning hours yesterday, disturbing sleep and leaving me awake to wonder if there was an actual breach of hearth and home and how would any of us know if it was.  Those moments are neither fun nor intriguing in a good way.

Thievery is a strange metaphor in today’s Bible story.  Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful, staying awake like a homeowner ready to catch a thief in the night.  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  For those of us fed a steady diet of God’s grace from scripture, the metaphor doesn’t jive. It doesn’t help that some preachers have crafted a fearful rapture theology in the last couple hundred years from Bible verses like these.[2]

Jesus speech covers two chapters in the book of Matthew. Look closely at this small part of it.  We learn that God is in charge of the future and judgment.[3]  And he tells the disciples to keep awake and be ready.[4]  Ahhhh, here it is, that elusive good news. In judgment, Jesus offers hope.  Wait, what?!!  Yes, in words of judgment, Jesus offers hope.

As Christians, we sometimes act as if God’s arrival in Jesus has nothing to do with how much God loves the world.  Is God’s love so incomprehensible to us that we figure Jesus is going to show up someday in a really bad mood from that ugly cross incident?  Like Jesus is a time-limited offer akin to a Black Friday sale. If ever there was a corruption of the good news in Jesus, that would be it.

Isaiah as well as the psalmist may be able to shed some light on the connection between judgment and hope.  Isaiah describes many people going up to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.[5]  God is “judge” and “arbiter” among nations and people who end up beating swords into plowshares, striking war from their to-do list.  The psalmist sings of going up to the Lord’s house, to the thrones of judgment, and praying for peace.  Isaiah and the psalmist describe pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage meaning journey.  In their case, a journey towards God’s judgment with the end result of peace.  Peace between people. Peace between nations.

We are on a pilgrimage of sorts well, drawn here together in the Lord’s house. We begin the season of Advent today with the first of many readings from Matthew’s gospel over the next year.[6]  Matthew tends to focus on Jesus’ teaching in comparison to, say, Mark who highlights Jesus’ actions.[7]  Matthew amplifies the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching so that we hear historic promise as it applies to the present.  This includes the hope that God’s judgment will turn us around.  That somehow there will be redemption from the mess we have made.[8]  Seeing the light, we can’t hide in our own shadows, cloaked in ignorance that shields us from the messes we make.[9]

The very first chapter of Matthew opens with genealogy – person after person whose messy lives show up in the Hebrew Bible.[10]  Seeing their names makes me want to re-read their stories, the familiar and not so familiar. The full list includes patriarchs of the faith who verify Jesus’ Jewishness – Abraham, Isaac, Jesse, and King David.  The genealogy also includes, contrary to custom, four ancestresses whose Jewishness is contested – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[11] Just as Matthew begins Jesus’ story by naming them, I encourage you to read one, two, or more of their stories this week as advent begins.  The ancestresses and patriarchs named alongside each other reminds us that God disrupts expectations as the promises made to Abraham are expanded to all people through Jesus.

God is not laying out a program but making an announcement. Showing up wherever and however God would like to show up, on thief’s timing. That is the promise of judgment that we lean into this Advent.  The light of God’s judgment gives us hope that we can no longer hide in our own shadows.  Advent is a chance to think about why this is good news in our own lives and in the life of the world.  It’s a chance to ask questions as we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Why is a savior needed?  Why does God slipping into skin make any difference in my life or the life of the world?

As Jesus people, God emboldens us by faith to proclaim light and peace.  We need each other as church to remind us of God’s promise to show up and we are needed in a world desperate for good news.   Christ’s return means that there is more to our story and God’s story than what we’ve already experienced.[12]  As Christians, though, we don’t turn our attention solely beyond history.  Trusting in God’s mercy, Christian hope generates a commitment to the good of this world God loves so much, a commitment to the people God loves so much.

So we ask God to grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life.

Dear people, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.[13] No longer hiding in our own shadows but committed to the world that God so loves.

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

[1] The Italian Job (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317740/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Tower Heist (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0471042/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[2] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005). http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/90534.The_Rapture_Exposed

[3] Matthew 24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”

[4] Matthew 24:42…44  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[5] Isaiah 2:3

[6] Gospel of Matthew, Year A of the three year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. In general, I’m a fan of the lectionary because it highlights texts we might otherwise choose to ignore. It’s a good idea to also check out what is not included. Read more about the lectionary at http://www.elca.org/lectionary

[7] Arland Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary. “Preaching from Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” for Working preacher.org on December 3, 2007.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1639

[8] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, for Sermon Brainwave Podcast (SB512) on texts for the first Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=816

[9] Pastor Deb Coté, preacher text study gem.

[10] Matthew 1:1-17 does not appear in the Sunday readings for Year A (see note 5 above).

[11] Douglas R. A. Hare.  Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6.

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

[13] Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Money in Motion, So Goes the Heart – Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 7, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 12:32-40 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Genesis 15:1-6 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

[sermon begins]

Right after Jesus’ lovely speech we just heard, Peter says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”[1]  It’s a classic question.  Is Jesus’ speech a general kind of “all y’all” or is Jesus talking to me?  As if I’ll fly under the radar just as long as I don’t make eye contact with Jesus on this one.

We don’t get to hear Peter’s reply to Jesus in the Bible reading today although it comes as the very next verse in Luke.  Jesus is still talking to the crowd of thousands.  In the verses just before ours today, he warns the crowds.  “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He wraps up those verses telling them not to worry about their lives but to strive for the kingdom.

Right away, though, Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

This is one of the challenges in the way we read the Bible Sunday-to-Sunday.  If left with the striving of last week’s verses, we could assume wrongly that striving is the whole plan.  It’s an easy move from striving to earning.  Earning God’s pleasure.  Earning God’s salvation.  And with earning comes deserving.  I deserve God’s pleasure.  I deserve God’s salvation.  Until, suddenly, I’m left wondering if I’ve strived enough, earned enough, and am deserving enough.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   In scripture, “do not be afraid” is the clue that we’re going to hear about God’s power and promise; God’s mighty deeds.[2]  We hear it multiple times in Luke.  Abram hears it in the Genesis reading.  These promises come from God to Abram, to Luke, and to us – unconditional promise.

Last week, I challenged us to keep our fingers pointing at ourselves to confess our own greed rather than pointing away from ourselves to someone else.  This week, Jesus is offering another way to be on guard against the greed he warns about in the earlier verses.  Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!  This means that through this promise, disciples can guard against all kinds of greed and resist the urge to worry 24/7.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and then directs us to be generous with money.[4]  Telling us that where our treasure, our money, goes then our hearts will follow.

For Rob and I, this kind of giving starts with our family’s congregations and moves beyond it.  10% of my income comes to Augustana and 5% of his income goes to Lutheran Church of the Master with more going to other non-profits and NGOs.  At this point, we know our money goes to the work of the church impacting not only congregational ministry but also passing through to local, national, and global efforts like Metro Caring in Denver and Lutheran World Relief worldwide.  This has long been important to us although we started off low and slow – well before I began working toward becoming a pastor.  Our giving was about 2.5% when we started into it.

Why does any of that detail matter?  It matters because there’s a tendency to be private about money in a way that becomes unhelpful to anyone.  Money impacts everyone on the planet and we talk gingerly around the topic.  Funny how hesitant we can be as Jesus followers because Jesus didn’t mess around talking about money:

16 out of the 38 parables told by Jesus dealt with money and possessions.

1 out of 10 Gospel verses, 228 verses in all, talk about money directly.[5]

I get it.  The church across denominations worldwide gets into problems with money. Sinners, the lot of us.

As a group of Jesus followers who make up this congregation, we have ongoing opportunities to talk about money and its impact.  Certainly we do in our own households as we grapple with Bible verses like today’s story on our way home after worship.  The opportunities to talk about money also exist congregationally – Stewardship Committee, Congregational Council or Council’s appointed Finance Support Committee.  Recently, in fact, the Finance Support Committee put forward a recommendation to consolidate and track funds differently.  They did a ton of work.  They talked to many people in the congregation.  Council voted unanimously to adopt the recommendation.  Leadership in this congregation is aware of the accountability and works hard on it.

Jesus’ words give us pause to talk about giving and generosity – each of us in our households as well as disciples together congregationally.  This could mean that our assumptions get tossed about a bit.  Jesus is especially good at flipping over assumptions and messing with the way we think things are true.  Being the church, the body of Christ in this place together means that we span pretty much the entire socio-economic spectrum among our households.  It’s a good opportunity to have our assumptions flipped.

As with many things Jesus has to say, there are a couple of ways to hear them.  In regards to generosity, people can easily hear law.  We can hear it as “we must,” or in commandment language, “you shall.”  The other way to hear Jesus words is as “gospel.”  When we hear things as gospel promise we can hear it as “we get to.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Jesus gives faith along with the promise of God’s kingdom.  From his gift of faith to us – Jesus frees us to live generously, less anxiously, and into a future of God’s mercy not based on human merit.[6]  A future toward which the watchfulness commanded by Jesus is not one of uneasy anticipation but rather an secure confidence.[7]

God calls you through your baptism back to God and to neighbor.  God also knows that where your money goes, so goes your hearts.  A heart that is real, beating inside of you, and oxygenating your body is the heart through which God draws us towards each other and into the kingdom life that God gives in the here and now.

To answer Peter’s question, yes, Jesus is talking to you.  This is good news, indeed – for you, for your neighbor, and for the world.  Thanks be to God.

___________________________________________

Link: Lutheran World Relief

Link: Metro Caring

[1] Luke 12:41

[2] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[3] Luke 12:33-34

[4] Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

[5] Howard L. Dayton, Jr.  Sermon Illustration: Statistic: Jesus’ Teaching on Money.  (Preaching Today, 1996). http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Economic_LifeSS.pdf?_ga=1.79714647.1553381420.1424715443

[6] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[7] Ibid.

 

En Pointe, On Point: Dance Made It More Possible For Me To Live [OR Holy Trinity Sunday] John 16:12-15; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; and Romans 5:1-5                    

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 22 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings; they’re all too good]

John 16:12-15 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Romans 5:1-5 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.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 1 Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 In the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.
22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

[sermon begins]

 

Jesus tells his disciples that, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  That’s about as frustrating on the listeners’ side as it can get.  Imagine someone telling you that they’d fill you in on the main things if only you could understand them.  This happens all the time when we’re children.  The kids in the room know what I’m talking about.  In fact, Jesus starts his speech that includes the reading from John today by calling his disciples, “Little children…”[1]  Judas betrays Jesus, skulks off into the night, and Jesus starts talking using the endearment of “little children.”  There is a kindness in the endearment but there is also a limit that Jesus places on his listeners.  He knows and tells them that they cannot bear the weight of what he has to say.

When I was four, my feet found their way into a pair of ballet slippers.  There’s was a lot to learn.  A lot of strength to be gained.  But mostly, from my newly slippered perspective, there was love of the dance.  Body and music working together to make something new along with sounds of Bach and Tchaikovsky.  Classical ballet was a fairly consistent part of life even with the family relocations.  I don’t know how my mother did it through some of the family chaos.  It’s possible it made me easier to live with.  But truly, in hindsight, dance made it more possible for me to live.

Around the age of 13, my ballet teacher started talking about point shoes.  You know these shoes.  They’re part of the classic image of ballet dancers moving around on their toes.  For the dancer, point shoes are a big moment.  The joy of that moment of readiness is heady and alive.  There is much that goes into being ready.  Dancing en pointe means the strength and coordination are there to bear the weight of the body.  When the strength isn’t there – the toes can’t bear the body weight and it’s highly possible there will be pain and a lot of it.

Similarly, Jesus knows his disciples aren’t ready to bear the weight of what he has to say.  At this point in the story, Jesus is still alive.  There is no crucifixion or resurrection to give the disciples perspective.  Paul’s letter to the Romans is well after the crucifixion as the early church is making sense of what happened to Jesus.  Paul talks about the experience of suffering moving to endurance, character and, finally, hope.  Hope that comes through the love of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s a lot for him to put in one or two sentences.  Let’s slow it down a bit.

In the midst of suffering, it’s hard to have perspective and even harder when someone tries to give you their perspective.  It’s like the time-space continuum starts moving really differently.  This happens when you’re sick enough to land in the hospital or losing a loved one or lost a job or making a tough move or fighting depression.  Perspective is possible typically only after there’s been an experience and time passes.  Even then it can be a stretch to look back on the experience, realize you’ve come through it, and make any meaning out of it – framing it with other experiences.

We tend to think of this individually.  But the Proverbs reading tells us that Wisdom speaks publically.  “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out…”  Wisdom speaks publically in the places where people are together.  Also in the Proverbs reading, Wisdom holds the perspective of time.  Before the beginning of the earth, before the heavens and the deep, Wisdom was there.  Part of wisdom is public when people are together and part of wisdom is time.  It’s difficult to gain perspective when we’re alone in the middle a mess.

Before seminary and becoming a pastor, I spent about 10 years as an adult worshiper. Listening to sermons was a highlight of worship and my week. Scripture and life come together – sometimes like a breath of fresh air and sometimes in a gnarly collision. Sometimes I agreed with the preacher and sometimes I didn’t.  Mostly I was thankful for the reminders week-after-week that the people described by scripture were often just as lost, just as forgetful, just as gifted, and just as loved by God as I am in this beautiful struggle called life.

I needed and still need the forgiveness and strength that are given freely week-after-week in confession, preaching, bread, and wine and reinforced by the worship liturgy both in words and body motion. When I worship now as a pastor, I’m still grateful for the chances to hear another preacher remind us that we’re just as lost, forgetful, gifted, and loved as everybody else.  That is a gift of perspective.  A gift of wisdom.

For ballet dancers, being ready to dance is partly about practicing coordinated movement with other dancers.  For people of faith, living this beautiful struggle called life is partly about regularly practicing the faith with other people.  Just as the disciples are together with Jesus in the Bible reading today, we are together with Jesus through scripture and worship by the power of the Holy Spirit.  So together, the Holy Spirit draws us into perspective and hope through the love of God.

This Sunday, we celebrate the Holy Trinity – God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity is shared experience of otherness within itself – separate yet whole.  A mystery revealed to us by Jesus who suffered, died, and lives again. The Trinity integrates us into shared experience with God and with each other through worship and life in the world.

The dance between Father – Spirit – Son makes it possible for us to live.

No one says it like Paul says it to the Roman church and also to us:

“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.”

Amen and thanks be to God.

 

Hymn of the Day sung by everyone in response to the sermon.

Come, Join the Dance of Trinity (ELW 412)

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun –

The interweaving of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.

The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,

But as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

 

Come see the face of Trinity, newborn in Bethlehem;

Then bloodied by a crown of thorns outside Jerusalem.

The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone;

When fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.

 

Come, speak aloud of Trinity, as wind and tongues of flame

Set people free at Pentecost to tell the Savior’s name.

We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth;

Go tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!

 

Within the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun,

We sing the praises of the Three, the Father, Spirit, Son.

Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free,

To shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity.

[1] John 13:33a [Jesus says to his disciples] “Little children, I am with you only a little longer…”

 

Dry Bones and Delight, An Easter Paradox – John 20:1-18, Ezekiel 37:13, and Romans 6:3-6

Dry Bones and Delight, An Easter Paradox – John 20:1-18, Ezekiel 37:1-3, and Romans 6:3-6

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Ezekiel 37:1-3 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

John 20: 1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

[sermon begins]

Have you ever had that moment when you realize you’re talking with someone you’re supposed to know?  Not recognizing them for whatever reason – maybe it has been awhile since you’ve seen them, maybe you’ve just met them only a couple of times, or maybe you went to elementary school with them a few years ago.  Then there’s that moment when something clicks and you realize you share a history with this person, however small it might be, and suddenly you’re in a different kind of conversation.  You might have people or stories in common so there are things to talk about beyond the small talk.  It’s a funny sweet spot between almost-friends and enough-strangers that you might even give each other some of the harder stuff from each other’s lives – getting laid off from work, marriage trouble, or child trouble.  When the conversation is over, you part ways, wondering about the moment of honesty.

It’s those moments of honesty that can feel like air to the dry and dusty places we don’t tell many people about.  Let’s face it, there are moments in life when things going on around us and in us feel like that valley of the dry bones in the reading from Ezekiel.  In the story, the Lord asks the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  And receives the answer, “Oh, Lord God, you know.”

What does God know?  One way to get at a small piece of that answer is to look to Jesus. In Jesus, God knows what bodies know from being born and growing up.  God knows what it feels like to be warm, cold, loved, betrayed.  God knows what it feels like to laugh and to hope.  God knows what it means to be afraid, to be in pain, and to die. God knows what it feels like to come to life in a tomb and walk around looking like a gardener whose been digging in the dirt.

What do we know?  Like Peter and the other disciple, we can know what we see but it doesn’t mean we understand very much.  The Bible story tells us that they see the tomb is empty and believe but “as yet they did not understand the scripture.”[1]  The evidence of tomb is examined.  It is indeed empty.  And then they go home believing what exactly?  That the tomb is empty?

Mary Magdelene stays in the garden. It’s mentioned four times that she is weeping. Her eyes, already puffy from lack of sleep during the crucifixion, must be an absolute mess as she walks around the garden crying.  The body of her teacher who was killed is now missing.  She runs into a stranger…maybe he’s the gardener…and she asks him whether or not he took the body somewhere else.  Confusion rules the moment.  It’s difficult to know what to believe.

Last Sunday afternoon, I left church in time to get my daughter over to her behind-the-wheel drive time.  I might add that I have her permission to share this story with you.  Still in my suit and pastor’s collar, the driving instructor asked me a few questions about Taryn’s driving followed by a few extra questions about whether I am called priest or pastor and where my church is located.  In turn, I learned a little about how he became a driving instructor.  Then off the two of them went in the well-marked student driver car.

Picking her up afterwards, we talked a little about her drive.  After a lull in the conversation, she told me that the instructor asked her this question, “If you could describe religion in one word, what would it be?”  She told him, “Hope.”  I asked her if he came up with a word.  He apparently chose, “Comfort.”  There are many things that I think are interesting about the two of them having this conversation.  The relevant one today is that neither one of them picked words like ‘truth’ or ‘certainty’ or ‘goodness’.  They did, however, pick words that capture the essence of the Easter story.

Like the disciples at the tomb, we see and believe in our experiences but don’t really understand them all that well.  Like Mary Magdalene, we have trouble recognizing the resurrected Jesus.  He had to recognize her first, calling her out of her moment of despair and calling her into his resurrected life.

This is all well and good for Mary.  She was confident enough in her encounter with the risen Jesus that she ran off to tell the other disciples.  But what about us, here, today?  Apparently the resurrection obscures who God is until God reinitiates contact by recognizing us and calling us by name.[2]  Calling us by name out of our place of sin or, like Mary, out of our place of despair.

One of the ways this happens is among people like all of us together here today. We know what some of our flaws are, the sin that hurts others people and ourselves.  And we know we know what some of the good in us is, created in the image of God.  We bring our worst and our best into the time we worship God.  We are almost-friends and enough strangers to be in some honest conversation.  Part of that honesty is recognizing that the mystery of what God does through the cross, tomb, and resurrection has little to do with a method for living life.   Cross, tomb, and resurrection are how we experience life – the pain of it AND the joy of it.  We know what God knows – these dry bones most certainly can live!

The church is the body of Christ, people of the cross and resurrection given new life in the waters of baptism, new life through Christ in the bread and wine of communion, and new life in each other.  Jesus Christ, who was crucified, God has raised! In that resurrection God gives us hope, the promise of life, the promise that God is with us now, and that even death cannot defeat the power of God for us and for all the world![3]

Thanks be to God!

Romans 6:3-6 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

[1] John 20:9

[2] Rolf Jacobsen, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast about John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday, April 2009 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=61

[3] David Lose, President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  Sermon Brainwave podcast about John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday, April 2009 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=61

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Caitlin Trussell on January 11, 2015 with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the 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.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

[sermon begins]

There are wild, unimaginable things happening in this Genesis creation story.  Formlessness and void of the earth.  Imagine that for a moment – formless…void…utter darkness.  Nothing to distinguish one part from another.  Nothing through which to capture any imagining of its future.  A wind in the form of breath, as the Spirit of God blows over the mystery and threat of the deep.  Sound in seismic proportions.  No quiet or tame God picking up a bit of clay and pottering away.  From our human-sized perspective, this is massive.  This is earth and heavens – loud, windy and wild.  This story doesn’t allow us to cozy up into a calm, domesticated God.   This is the sheer power of God beyond our imagining, beyond our understanding.

The God of creation is not to be tamed.  And yet, for many of us, our first inclination is to tone God down.  As if we can make God easier on the heart and mind if we craft just the right language about God.  Or at the very least we can distract ourselves from the problem of the power of God if we spend our time arguing about the accuracy of the story.

Several years ago, when my daughter Taryn was in preschool, I had only been back in church as an adult for a few years.  Taryn’s preschool was attached to our church and some of the school’s parents seemed to know that I was involved in the church too.  It was common to have conversations with other parents during the dropping off and picking up times.  One day after dropping Taryn off, I was sneaking a peek into the classroom to watch her.  One of the dads hung back too.  A few minutes went by and he sidled over to chat.  He confirmed that I went to the church and then, without any preamble or build-up, he asked, “If God is all about love then why do some people say they fear God?”  I fumbled and stumbled around the idea of God’s power for a minute or two but clearly was not passing muster on any kind of answer that settled this man’s mind.  And there’s the problem, right there, when it comes to God’s awesome, creating power, there is nothing that settles our mind.  No matter how many days or millennia you think it took, the creative force of it is mind-blowing – and it blows our soft and squishy imaginings right out the window with it.

Here’s the thing.  When we’re tempted to talk about God as exclusively merciful and loving and forgiving, we forget the fearsome breath of God that moves over a formless, dark void; the Spirit of God that moves over what Jurgen Moltmann calls “creation-in-the-beginning.”[1]  When we soften or negate the power of God in any way, we don’t have to ask the question, “What would happen if God does this again?”

So let’s hang onto the fearsome power of God and ask that question.  “What would happen if God uses that kind of power again?” Oh…wait…God does do it again.  Anyone hear that part of the baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open?  The Spirit of God that moves over formless, dark voids, is the same Spirit who tears apart the heavens and descends, untamable, into the wild, over a river, onto a person, and names him “Beloved.”[2]  This baptism of Jesus is a revelation of the redemption to come and the unmitigated power infusing that redemption.

Moltmann talks about the “creation-in-the-beginning” being in continuity with the redemption of all things.  In the whole Bible, “the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God’s liberating and redeeming acts (e.g. Isaiah 43:19); redemption is the final new creation of all things…”[3]

Oh, how we long for the redemption of all things – all our formless, dark voids in need of the fearsome breath of God.  Voids in which we struggle and wonder about.  Voids in which we lose ourselves, not knowing which way to turn or to take the next right step.  Voids in which we lose the people we love or lose strangers in Paris who other people love.  Voids in which freedom suffers under political tyranny or disintegrating terror.

Into these voids comes the Spirit of God.  The same Spirit of God who breathes light into the darkness.[4]  Light into the darkness, now think about that one.  God spoke these words, “Let there be light” as God’s breath rushed over the mystery and threat of the deep.   What does creation of light sound like?  Is there a crack of thunder as light creates heat?  Is there a deep and resounding vibration that would quake us to the core and make us aware of every cell in our bodies?  What does even a single blaze of light through unfathomable darkness look like as it bounds through creation with power strong enough to sustain life through all the mornings and evenings of the millennia?

We know a lot about light, or at least the scientists do, but did you know that we still don’t know what it is?  Einstein spent a lot of his time researching the interplay between light and time, challenged the orthodoxy of the previous 100 years of physics and won a Nobel Prize.[5] Einstein did all this and yet we still really don’t know what it is.  We mimic it but we cannot create it. [6]  Light is more than a convenient nuance in our days.  Light is sustaining, life giving energy.  It shows us how limited we are as creatures that we still don’t understand it.

God’s breath, God’s Spirit, creates light and life out of formless, dark voids.  And God gives this same sustaining breath to you as you move through your days.  God’s power and imagination creates an earth out of no earth.  God’s power and imagination makes a way out of no way.

This same, fearsome God breathes that power into redemption for you.  This same, fearsome God breathes that power into love for you.  The magnitude of God’s power is not simply a show of sound and light to wow us all and leave us shaking in shoes.  The magnitude of God’s power is the same sheer power of God that breathes grace, forgiveness and love into you.  And your God-infused life and breath bear witness to God, as the power of God’s Spirit moves through Christ in you for the sake of the world.  There is hope in the power of God’s redemption.  What might be possible if we go out and live it?



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3459

[3] Moltmann, 9.

[4] Kathryn Shifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Richard Harris.  “Albert Einstein’s Year of Miracles: Light Theory” for NPR on March 17, 2005.  http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4538324/albert-einsteins-year-of-miracles-light-theory

[6] Troy Wanek, Renewable Energy Faculty, Red Rocks Community College, personal conversation, November 8, 2010.

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Caitlin Trussell on December 21, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church

 

[Two Bible readings before the sermon]

Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Romans 16:25-27  Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

 

[sermon begins]

 

There’s a pretty good chance that something is happening in your life right now that has a lock on your mind.  Something that nags at the gray matter.  Something that is looking for a solution.  And life keeps moving along with its time-tables and decisions and final exams and projects.  Or at the very least there is something from which you need a break.  A place to rest.   To unhook from the daily dose of fear, inadequacy, and even shame.  A pause in the action to find a little room to breathe.

Breathing allows a little space and time for being.  For a moment to be flesh and blood and little else.  Breathing allows for calm.  The calm may be in the eye of the storm but for this moment, in this sanctuary, we are in the calm.

And here is Mary.  Mary’s day-to-day is likely one of survival.  She is, after all, a lowly one.  Daily decisions and dangers – true threats to her creaturely, flesh and blood existence.  And dropping in for a visit is Gabriel, the angel.  Mary is “perplexed.”  Great word.

Gabriel’s words, and Mary’s perplexed pondering, birth the question, “How can this be…?”[1]   This is an assertive question.  A bold question.  She puts her question to Gabriel but he’s simply the messenger.  Her question is pointed squarely at God.  “How can this be…?”

Such a flesh and blood question from Mary.  Mary who is perplexed, and ponders, and asks for answers from her place and time.  In her world that is plagued by poverty and political unrest.  Mary who is trying to understand what she is being told.  And also trying to understand how she fits into it.

It’s a pretty quick leap from the question of “how” to the question of “why.”   From, “How can this be?”  To, “Why is this happening?”  In one form or another we ask this question a lot.  We ask this question thinking that the gray matter is going to finally kick in and we’ll finally figure it out.  All that nagging worry will finally pay off in reasons for the thing happening in the first place.  We hop on the merry-go-round of our flawed humanity thinking that we’ll get that gold ring and make everything all right.

Things are flying by so quickly that everything’s a blur.  How might God go about getting our attention while things are moving so quickly?  What are all the ways in which that may have been possible?  God needs to speak in human terms.  But God, at some point, also needs to communicate in a way that bypasses our human defenses. So, through Mary the Christ-bearer, God shows up.  After all, who can resist a baby?  A baby whose life and death ultimately changes everything.  It’s delightfully subversive on God’s part.  Because, quite frankly, we’re just not that good at intervening on our own behalf.

In a startling move, Mary becomes the Christ-bearer.  The one who birthed God into skin and solidarity among us.

Including today’s Bible reading from Luke, the gospels confess, time and again, that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The lowly birth we look forward to celebrating, in just a few days’ time, bears into being this incarnation of God, this flesh and fragile Jesus.

Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary’s answer is so certain that it resonates with a fierce determination to do God’s will, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[2]  The One who Mary bears into the world, is the One who is focused on the goal of bringing us back into God.  This self-sacrificing love of God, given in the incarnation but given most completely on the cross, draws us back. [3]  Through the cross, you and I become Christ-bearers too.  Different from Mary, we are Christ-bearers of the crucified and risen One.

We await the party of the Christmas birth because we celebrate the One who shows up.  The One who shows up knowing full well we are afraid, confused, and asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.  As Christ-bearers, we are in a sweet-spot of sorts.  We are in the sweet-spot between “How can this be?” and “Here am I, a servant of the Lord”; in the sweet-spot between asking God questions and fiercely set on God’s will.

Echoing between our questions and God’s will are Gabriel’s words, “Do Not Be Afraid.”[4]  Our fearful confusion is offered a place of calm.  Fragile and flawed, we are given a bit of space to breathe…to be.  “Do Not Be Afraid.”  We can move from the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to the ‘what now’ with a bit more courage knowing that God is with us.  God is with us confronting our sin, holding us accountable to each other, and giving us to each other to be Christ-bearers for each other and the world.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of forgiveness.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of hope.

Paul’s reassurance to the Romans is also for us.  [There is a] “God who is able to strengthen you…and the proclamation of Jesus Christ…the revelation of the mystery…to the obedience of faith…through Jesus Christ.”  The revelation of mystery has us asking, “How can this be?”  The “obedience of faith” has us saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  And “…through Jesus Christ” we are not alone, not afraid.  The Hope born of Mary in the fragility of flesh and blood is the One born for you and for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God.



[1] Check out the ponderings of my friend and colleague Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on the perplexing topic of the virgin birth: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-virgin-birth-fact-fiction-or-truth/

[2] Luke 1:38

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

[4] Luke 1:30