Tag Archives: Jesus

Spiritual and Religious – Acts 2:14a, 22-32 and John 20:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 23, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

In Genesis 1, the first account of creation, God’s spirit moved over the waters and created humankind in the image of God.  In Genesis 2, another account of creation, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into the first human.[1]  In the 18th book of the Hebrew Bible, Job writes, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”[2]  Eleven books later, in the book of Joel, “…the Lord said:  …I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [and] your old men shall dream dreams…”[3]  In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[4]  And in the Acts reading we just heard, Peter preaches on the breath of the Spirit just received on Pentecost.[5]  That’s so much Spirit in one sermon-opening it would be easy to think your pastor was ordained by Pentecostals![6]  Although I’m guessing some of you may still be back at “the first account of creation” and “another account of creation.”

These creation stories caught me in seminary.  First semester, first assignment in Hebrew Bible we had to read Genesis 1 and 2 and write a brief exegesis.  Not once in the prior 38 years had it occurred to me that these are two accounts.  Needless to say, my exegetical commentary didn’t go over very well with the professor.  It was a rude awakening for me on several levels, letter grade notwithstanding. The gift in it was a new experience of the Bible.  66 books written over many thousands of years by faithful people trying to understand God, their faith, and each other.  Recently I gave a Lutheran Study Bible to a new friend along with a brief introduction to what’s in it and an invitation to come back around with any questions that come up.  I also said, “It’s a weird book, sometimes the people writing it disagree amongst themselves.”  Internal disagreement is one of the things I love about the Bible as it echoes conversations about faith we have right up through today.  Although, discovering these biblical wrinkles can be one of the things that shakes up faith.  Faith can also be shaken by challenges of modernity, by confrontations with other religions, or by suffering we see and experience ourselves.[7]  Just ask Thomas.

Thomas experienced trauma through the suffering and death of Jesus. He missed the first sighting of Jesus with the other disciples so they’re in a different place of faith than Thomas is himself. Jesus arrives and starts showing off his resurrected wounds in a way that reminds me of the scar scene from the movie Jaws, mesmerizing yet gruesome.[8]  Some of us crave a similar moment of certainty with Jesus, an unequivocal, supernatural revelation that proves faith once and for all time.  Most of us experience Jesus differently, the power of the Spirit moving slowly and methodically like water on stone.  The gospel of John calls this movement of the Spirit, “Word,” – “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[9]  The Word proclaimed by John is continuous with the breath of God at creation,[10] continuous with the Word made flesh in the earthly ministry of Jesus ending in glory on a cross,[11] continuous with Peter’s sermon inspiring the early church, and continuous with the Word we hear and speak today.  Therein lies the question.  How does the Word find us today? As Genesis tells it, the whole world is enlivened by the breath of the spirit. The assertion makes all people spiritual by definition, if not by confession. This aligns with nursing science that describes well-being as physical, emotional, and spiritual.  It also aligns with people who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”  But what about those of us who are religious?  How is the religious understood in continuity with the spiritual?  Just ask Thomas, and maybe Peter too.

Thomas is caught.  His friends are talking about something he hasn’t experienced first-hand.  These people are his people but he’s on the outside even though he’s in the same room with them.  It makes me think of the conversation that I have with new and continuing visitors – that there are as many different reasons for being here together as there are people here.  Gathered by the Holy Spirit into this time and place, we receive faith through Word and sacrament and we practice faith through worship with other people.  Continuous with the faith of the early church enlivened by the Spirit and proclaimed by Peter.  Religious Christianity involves a people and a practice that proclaims something about Jesus, something lively, something universal for the world, and something particular for each person.  For all and for you.

Religious Christian practice necessarily involves people’s stories about faith and life like Thomas and Peter’s stories. How else do people come to faith otherwise? This struck me again recently during Lenten worship on Thursdays. Different people each week chose Bible verses and talked about why they chose them related to their life of faith. Hearing about their faith and experience was powerful. Along this line, I recently invited a few people to be interviewed for a video about this congregation.[12]  The questions were simple.  What drew them here and what keeps them here? Now, of course, as a pastor I believe the Holy Spirit ultimately draws us all together. But the Spirit draws us by how we hear God’s voice.  I’ve made the comment to visitors and members alike to listen for the ways they hear God’s voice during worship and time with a congregation.  I also tell them that I know good colleagues and good congregations elsewhere if they’re still working on figuring that out.

In the video interviews, we hear people who worship as part of this congregation reflect on how being a part of this religious people and practice enlivens their faith. Again, hearing from each one of them talk about their faith and experience is powerful.  At one point, Nick makes the comment that being part of this congregation allows he and his family to talk about faith and “the time that it’s challenged, and the time that it’s raised up, the time that it’s evident, and the time that it’s absent.”[13]  Thomas and Peter both could speak to this fluidity of faith.  Thomas, trying to figure out faith in the aftermath of trauma.  Peter, a denier of Jesus during his trial in one moment and a public preacher in the next.  On any given day, in any given minute, our faith can be challenged or raised up or evident or absent.  Jesus meets us by the power of the Spirit in any and all of those moments.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In large part, the faith we are called to share deals not in what we see but what we experience in our lives of faith.  Jesus encounters us through the practices of bread, wine, water, Word, and each other as God’s voice is heard through people’s flawed and faithful stories.  As God enlivens all things by the breath of the Spirit, may God enliven you by faith, joining in the prayer of the Apostle Paul:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”[14]

[1] Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 2:7

[2] Job 33:4

[3] Joel 2:28

[4] John 20:22

[5] Acts 2:1-13

[6] Pentecostal [def] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Pentecostal

[7] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[8] Jaws Movie CLIP HD – Scars (Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures, 1975).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLjNzwEULG8

[9] John 1:14

[10] John 1:1

[11] John 13:31-31 and John 17:4-5

[12] “Why Augustana?” published March 30, 2017 and produced by Ken Rinehart for Augustana Lutheran Church.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up03qnMqB-0

[13] Nick Massie, Ibid.  Video: “Why Augustana?”

[14] Ephesians 3:14-19

The Sin of Certainty [OR Catholics and Lutherans’ Risk of Faith] John 9:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 26, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 9:1-41   As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

[sermon begins]

We were assigned a classroom to robe before worship.  I was early so became part of a defacto welcome wagon for the next first arrivals. A few of my colleagues trickled in which made it feel a bit like old home week. Catching up with people who I hadn’t seen for a while.  The first Catholic priest showed up, then a Lutheran colleague or two, then a Catholic deacon, and so on.  We lined the walls of the room forming a circle of sorts. Introductions were repeated, echoing off the walls and each other.  The sound level rose as the room filled to hold about 35 of us who would walk together into the sanctuary for the Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer service held last Sunday over at Bethany Lutheran Church.  About a third of us were women.

In the last few minutes before the procession, a gentleman slipped into a gap between me and the next person.  After working as a lawyer in Paris, Father Luc was ordained through a more recent Catholic religious order call the Beatitudes – 50 years old in comparison to, say, the Benedictines whose order is 1,500 years old.  The Community of the Beatitudes understands their community as “a gift of God…for the unity of the Church.”[1]  Father Luc’s second career call into ordination through this unifying religious order resonates with my own second career call into ordination and Catholic roots.  My grandparents faithfully attended daily mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, Maine – Grammops’ mantilla and rosary faithfully at the ready.  My mother thought for a time she’d be a nun but my siblings and I are living proof that reveal the rest of that story. My First Communion was received in a Catholic parish in Virginia before my mother remarried my protestant step-father.  Because of all of these experiences, lining up for procession into the service with Catholic priests, vicars, and deacons defies prior experience.  It was surreal.

Surreal because over the last 500 years the Reformation divide often became an opportunity for derision, excommunication, and violence in both directions all over the world. Surreal because this is the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation that includes Catholics and Lutherans. Surreal because these moments of common ground are rare in our world today. Rare because unity across difference is hard work. Rare because the work develops relationships that shake up our certainty. And certainty puts us safely on the side of right.

I went back-and-forth about whether it’s helpful to hear all 41 verses of gospel reading for today.  Would people hear it?  Was there a way to condense it for easier hearing?  I have no idea.  Really.  So now this whole gospel story is in front of us – the man born blind, disciples’ off-base questions, Jesus’ muddy spit, eyes that can see, townspeople’s confusion, Pharisee accusations, the man’s identity, parents as witnesses, and Jesus’ authority.  Make no mistake, this is a trial.  Each person has a role to play in the trial after Jesus makes blind eyes see.

Jesus doesn’t ask the man born blind if he wants to see.  He just goes for it.  There may be a side-road to take about whether unrequested healing is okay but we’re not going there today.  Spit and dirt combine to make mud and Jesus smears it on the man’s eyes then sends him off to the pool for a rinse.  Jesus isn’t physically there when the healing happens.  And the trial begins.  Who saw what and when did they see it?  Who knows the man and can confirm his identity?  His parents worry about whether the man will be put out of the community because of Jesus’ healing.  They hedge their answer about who they think Jesus is because of this fear but the man is put out of the community by the religious leaders anyway.

The last few verses of the reading are the ones that have me most curious about the story:

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.”[2]

Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer uses this word “remains.”  Remains is “meno” in the Greek and is commonly translated as “abide” or “stay.” This is the only time you have meno used as a negative.[3] Rather than abiding in Jesus, the religious ones are abiding in sin.  Every so often Jesus will use this kind of flip to invert standard ways of thinking.  Let’s allow the end of this story to push on us, to challenge our ways of religious thinking.[4]  In Jesus’ challenge, it’s possible to hear him name the sin of certainty.  You heard that correctly, the sin of certainty.  The sin of certainty is being so certain that you are right at the expense of what God may be doing otherwise.  It’s one of the seductions of religion or of any thought that becomes a wedge rather than a bridge.  Once the mystery is organized, it is contained.  Once the mystery is contained, there is something about which to be certain.  And certainty menos with us, abides with us, cozies up to us and makes us feel safe.  Faith is different than certainty.  Faith is a trust that shakes things up.  Faith is risk – risking what seems so certain and the perks that go with it.[5]

Professor Peter Enns works with the difference between certainty and faith in his book, The Sin of Certainty.[6]   He argues that certainty is fragile, shaken by challenges of difficult Bible passages, modernity, pain and suffering, or confrontation with other religious.  Certainty is also shaken by ways that we become tyrannical about it.  Wielding certainty like a club.  On a practical level, this can look like the argument about which Christian tradition gets the gospel of Jesus right.  Faith, on the other hand, opens us up to hearing God’s voice differently.

My favorite part of last week’s Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer was the Five Imperatives found in the document “From Conflict to Communion.”[7]  Five families of mixed Catholic and Lutheran identities lit five candles while each read an imperative.  It’s the first one that caught me.  A young boy read it out loud so clearly his voice rang like a bell through the sanctuary:

“Our first commitment: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced (#239).”[8]

After reading this Imperative, his two younger sisters lit the first candle of five.

In the document, the Five Imperatives follow the Lutheran and the Catholic confessions of sins against unity.[9]  Having confessed the sin of certainty that inflicts pain in both directions, the commitment is made to shake things up, to take a risk by faith toward unity.  These risks of faith move us from blindness to seeing, from coziness with our sin to abiding with each other.  These risks of faith proclaim the gospel as central.  What do we hear time and again by way of the gospel?  Jesus, by his death and resurrection, abides in us and we in him.  Jesus’ abides in us through water, wine, and word. This gospel promise is blessed assurance indeed.

Congregational singing of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” follows the sermon:

  1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    • Refrain:
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long;
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long.
  2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
    Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
    Angels, descending, bring from above
    Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
  3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
    I in my Savior am happy and blest,
    Watching and waiting, looking above,
    Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

__________________________________________

[1] Community of the Beatitudes website: http://beatitudes.us/the-unity-of-the-church

[2] John 9:39-41

[3] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[5] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[6] Peter Enns, Ibid.

[7] From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation 2017; and Report of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagstanstalte, 2013).

[8] Ibid, 87.

[9] Ibid, 84-86.

 

The Sweet Relief of Ashes – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

[sermon begins]

 

Piety can be heard as a judgmental word. People often use piety to mean something that is put on as a religious exaggeration, hypocritical rather than authentic.  The reading from Matthew begins, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  Another way to translate the word used in Matthew for piety is righteousness.[1]  Jesus says, “Beware practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.”  Jesus is critiquing the motivation for public esteem, not the acts of righteousness themselves. This is still the Jesus who’s preaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to do righteous “acts of mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, and to love enemies.” [2]  Given Jesus’ words against hypocritical piety, it can give us pause as we worship together on Ash Wednesday.  But, lest you think that we are here simply practicing personal piety, think again.[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has become bogged down in leadership issues, embarrassed by the socially low, and repelled by Paul’s culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.[4]  He begs them to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ.  He begs them as a group, emphasizing their shared experience of enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.”[5]  This part of Paul’s letter highlights how the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”[6]  Similarly, as baptized people, our lives become ever-more Christ-shaped through the crucified one.

Paul uses the same word for righteousness used by Matthew.  But instead of the caution against parading around in our own righteousness, Paul reminds the church that they are “becoming the righteousness of God.”[7]  It’s important to note that this is not happening in what we would consider signs of success.[8]  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Paul tells them:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[9]

Paul’s speech is pure theology of the cross.  Meaning, that it is exactly in the mess of things where Christ meets us.  One might even say on Ash Wednesday that it is in the dustiest, death-loving corners of ourselves where Jesus says, “Yeah, I’ll meet you in that corner…that’s where God’s righteousness will begin.”  We begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday because our sight is limited when we’re by ourselves.  We struggle to see God’s righteousness through our failures.  When we go after this by ourselves, we tend to let shame immobilize us.  When we go after this together, we have a better chance at discerning God’s presence, God’s righteousness, in the midst of the mess.

One of things we’re doing together to see God’s righteousness is the daily lent devotions from the book called Free Indeed.[10]  Sold out in hard copy, there are a few left at the sanctuary entrances for you to pick up after worship and the e-book is still available online.  In today’s devotion for Ash Wednesday, the question is asked, “What are you most afraid of losing?”  Like I told the parents in Sunday school a few weeks ago, for me it’s my kids. For many things, I can look to God and wonder how God is going to work through whatever mess is happening.  When it comes to my kids, not so much.  That thing that we’re most afraid of losing?  That’s the thing we’ve put in God’s place.  That is our idol. Thankfully, God’s righteousness is something God does. Not us. The cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This reminder is sweet relief.  God is God.  We are not.  The world may see failure. We may see shame.  But today we are reminded what God sees. God sees the world that God so loves.  God sees and loves us.  God sees and loves you.

The ministry of reconciliation, of bringing us back to God, begins with God’s self-sacrifice on the cross.  How do we recognize our reconciliation to God and to each other?  According to Paul, the evidence is in the brokenness that we endure.  And, in that brokenness, the hope that the gospel brings new life through the cross.[11] Our repentance today turns us to that cross.  We hold God to God’s promise of new life even though our tendency is to choose death over life. More specifically, through the cross of Christ, God chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves.  Thanks be to God and amen.

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School. Commentary: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Ficke, Preacher’s Text Study on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for Ash Wednesday on March 1, 2011.

[4] Brian Peterson, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Commentary: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3180

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5

[6] Brian Peterson, ibid., and 2 Corinthians 5:6-7a.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[8] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10

[10] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017. (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 2016), Day 1.  https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

[11] Skinner, ibid.

 

Into the Mystic [OR Christian Mystics On The Love of God] Matthew 17:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Exodus 24:12-18 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

[sermon begins]

Wow.  Mind-blowing is the right description.  There is a ton happening in this short Bible story about the transfiguration of Jesus.[1]  The layers of thought are astounding.  Connections between Moses, Mount Sinai, and the 10 Commandments made with Jesus and his disciples’ ascent up the high mountain.  Shining Jesus on the high mountain parallels shining Moses after his mountain encounter with God.[2]  Dazzling white clothes of the divine are found in both the Old and New Testaments.[3]  And then there’s Elijah, the beloved, long-awaited, and oh-so-wise prophet.  Elijah who also encountered God and who anointed kings and prophets many hundreds of years previously.[4]  There are more time-bending parallels in this short story.[5]  The parallel that I invite us to hone in on today are the dwellings.

Peter wants to build three dwellings – “one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[6]  What is it about these dwellings that are so important?  Parallels are again made to the Exodus where encounters between the Lord God and God’s people happened in dwellings called the tent of meeting and the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant.[7] Peter’s understanding is that dwellings are tents where we meet God.  Jesus’ transfiguration is how God meets and dwells with us through the beloved son.[8]

God dwelling with us through Jesus is what Christian mystics encounter throughout the centuries.  Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, the list seems endless.  To be clear, mystics are not playing a theological mystery card whenever something is hard to understand.  Rather, God dwelling with us, God’s claim on us, is part of what mystics understand by faith as a promise from God.

Peter understands God dwelling. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus builds the church.[9]  Peter, one of the first Christian mystics. Peter’s understanding of God’s dwelling starts him talking about building dwellings.  Peter’s understanding is simply limited.  His architectural plans are shut-down by the voice from the blinding cloud but he is not rebuked for wanting to build these dwellings.  Then look what happens.  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.”  From Jesus touch, the disciples are able to look up from their fear.  The dwelling does not happen through Peter’s hands.  Dwelling comes from Jesus’ touch.  Jesus touches the three of them.  One way Christians have talked about God dwelling with us is by talking about God’s love.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 1300s.  Her faith was informed by the Bible and the church’s teachings.[10]  Her book was entitled, Revelations of Divine Love.  She writes:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.  It is only with the help of [God’s] grace that we are able to persevere…with endless wonder at [God’s] high, surpassing, immeasurable love.”[11]

Julian’s faithful witness emphasizes that God’s action comes first, before our action of loving.  Her prayers include the desire “to live to love God better and longer.”[12]  Prior to Julian, Bernard de Clairvaux lived at the turn of the first Millennia.[13]  He too wrote down his witness as a Christian mystic and leader in the history of the church.  The title for his major work is On the Love of God.  Bernard wrote about four degrees of love.  In the fourth degree of love, he writes:

“This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves…it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom [God] wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.” [14]

Bernard’s witness informed the faith of Martin Luther.[15]  So did Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, also a Christian mystic.  Augustine thought that our core human problem, our sin, is that we use God and love things rather than loving God and using things.  Martin Luther was a 16th century Augustinian monk.  Parallels abound between Augustine and Luther.  Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism are one example. They each begin with the statement, “We are to fear and love God…”  I find myself wondering about loving God through this Augustinian lens as we hear Peter talk about dwellings and Jesus’ touch that redirects Peter’s understanding.

Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, the part of the Apostle’s Creed when we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, reads, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”  Luther is speaking from a really low theological anthropology here, meaning that we are drawn to faith by God not by our own intellectual striving – again, very Augustinian.  Just as we are brought to faith in Jesus by God’s power through the Holy Spirit, we also love God by God’s power through the same Spirit.

I often end my public prayers at the children’s sermon, in meetings, or pastoral care by saying, “We love you God, help us love you more, amen.” I picked it up several years ago from a faith-filled friend.  This prayer aligns with the witness of Christian mystics, including Luther’s explanation of the Third Article, because it is only with God’s help that we are able to love God. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  God already dwells with us through the beloved son.

Loving God and asking for God’s help to love acknowledges our need to move from using God to loving God – redirected only by God’s help.  May we all be so redirected by God’s self-sacrificing love in Jesus as we’re drawn into faith and dwell in the love of God.  We love you God, help us love you more.  Alleluia and amen.

 

 

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School.  Commentary: Matthew 17:1-9 for Working Preacher on February 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3172

[2] Exodus 34:29

[3] Daniel 9:1 and Mark 16:5

[4] 1 Kings 19:11-16

[5] Matthew 3:17 (at Jesus’ baptism)  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

[6] Matthew 17:4

[7] Exodus 33:7-10 and Exodus 40:2, 17-22

[8] Matthew 17:5

[9] Matthew 16:18 [Jesus said] “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

[10] Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics. (HarperCollins: New York, 1993), 68.

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 40

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 40.

 

God Chooses Life [OR Stay Curious, My Friends] Matthew 5:21-30, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; 3rd reading follows sermon]

Matthew 5:21-30 You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder'; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Deuteronomy 20:15-20 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

[sermon begins]

A few weeks ago my sister Izzy and I went through several boxes of my grandfather’s things.  We were on task to organize not synthesize. One of the stacks to read through later are letters that Granddad sent Grandma Ruth. Some of the letters are from before they were married. Some of them are from their married years when he traveled for work.  My experience of Granddad was a silent, stoic type with a grumpy edge.  A quick glance through the letters reveals that he had a variety of sweet nick-names for Grandma Ruth.  I suspect that his letters will reveal a lot about him.  The kinds of things he thought.  His side of the relationship with my grandmother.

Those letters have been on my mind as we approach Valentine’s Day.  Letters are becoming a lost art although blogs are everywhere.  The written word has shifted but remains.  And the written word still reveals a lot about the writer.  Which brings us to the Bible verses read today.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  I’m going to press pause here.  Just a moment to acknowledge that in our country we’re experiencing and disagreeing about laws – how they’re made, when they’re legal, etc.  There is a lot going on about constitutionality. Checks and balances.  Who makes the law?  Who stalls the laws?  All of that to say that for this conversation I invite us to put all of that in a parking lot so that we can have a shot at hearing these scriptures without conflating them.  Not possible, pastor, you might say?  Well, let’s at least try and see where that gets us.

The Ten Commandments are commonly understood as law.  Just before our verses from Matthew today, Jesus says in verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[1]  Right away, in verse 21, Jesus puts those words into stark relief against the disciples’ lives.  This chunk of verses that begin today and conclude next Sunday are called the antitheses.[2]  There are six of them.  Today we hear four.

Jesus begins each interpretation of the law with, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you…”  For each antithesis, Jesus starts with the commandment and amplifies its protection over the other person in the relationship.  “You have heard that it was said…‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry…”  Jesus goes on to talk about making peace with the person you’re angry before offering gifts at the altar.  We participate in this antithesis every week when we share the peace during worship before the offering and communion.

The antitheses about adultery and divorce are similar in that Jesus demands the disciples’ protection of other people as the commandment is amplified. In first century terms, adultery and divorce left women without a safeguard in community.  Jesus uses big language to get at the seriousness of the offenses.

Here is where it becomes important to look at the Ten Commandments and what they say about God, the giver of life.  The Deuteronomy reading helps with the emphases on life.  What does life look like?  It looks like following the law of life that directs us toward care of neighbor.  What are the natural consequences for not caring for the neighbor?  Death and adversity.  Our image of God becomes evident by what we think is the cause of our death and adversity.  In our mind’s eye, if we see God as a white-bearded-judge-who-sees-us-sleeping-and-awake-so-be-good-for-goodness-sake-or-punishment-will-come kind of God, then God is a punisher of epic proportions, lightning bolts included.*

However, the God who gave the Ten Commandments, gave them to a people whom God had already redeemed through the covenant with Abraham.  The covenant with the people came from a God who freed them from slavery before these commandments were written.**  God’s people are set free without contingency and directed toward each other as a gift of life. Directed toward each other in the kingdom of heaven in the here-and-now.  These commands say more about God then they do about us.  The author of life give commandments so that life may thrive among the people God so loves.

Let’s take, “You shall not murder.”  It seems straightforward. As of yet, I’ve not killed anyone today.  In the antithesis, Jesus amplifies this commandment into a rebuke of anger. The exaggerated hyperbole of Jesus’ words gets our attention. A lot of you haven’t seen me truly angry but I have a husband and a couple of kids that could paint that picture for you. Jesus antitheses catch us where we live by showing us how we diminish life for other people.  They take us beyond a manners lesson into new life by convicting us.  What begins as a doable list of commands becomes a mirror about how we are really treating the people God so loves.

The Augustana staff begin the latest weekly devotions at staff meeting with Luther’s Small Catechism.  Right now, we’re taking the Ten Commandments one at a time.  Reading the commandment, Luther’s explanation, a bit of commentary and following up with a conversation.  Luther does his own antitheses of sorts by flipping the commandment into how we should care for our neighbor.  For murder, Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”[3]  Our conversation about the explanation then takes it a step further into what this looks likes in our own lives.

My next comments are for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade confirmation students and their parents.  Students, you’re starting the Small Catechism in Confirmation Sunday School.  It begins with the Ten Commandments and Luther’s explanation.  In these conversations, I invite you to think and talk about what these commandments say about who God is and the life that God envisions for us.  Parents, this is an opportunity for curiosity.  After all, Luther wrote the Small Catechism for faith conversation in the home.  Continue to ask the questions about God while remembering that God’s saving act in Jesus is not dependent on anything we do as people.  It’s why we talk about God’s grace first, God’s new life first, and then we talk about Commandments.

As a congregation we’re invited to be curious too. We’ll begin Lent in a couple weeks on March 1 with the chance to study Luther’s Small Catechism with each other and with Lutheran Christians all over the world.  The 500 Year Anniversary of the Reformation serves as the spark.  The small devotion books are here in the church office.[4]  Each day is a page that directs our attention to a bit of the Small Catechism, a bit of prayer, a picture, and a thought or story from different writers.  The Adult Sunday School classes in Lent will also be centered on this devotion book.  Pick one up.

More importantly, be curious.  Be curious about our God who so loves the whole world that the law is given as a gift of life.  God renews our lives with each other through the law leaving us open to surprise and amazement when we see it in action through other people.  Be prepared to be surprised and amazed when God suddenly renews our lives with each other through you.  Because Jesus didn’t die to give us the 10 commandments on steroids.***  Jesus died because of our tendency to choose death over life.  Well, God is having none of it and chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 5:17

[2] Carla Works, Associate Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37 for Working Preacher on February 16, 2014.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

* David Lose. Commentary: On Love and the Law, Matthew 5:21-37 for In the Meantime… February 6, 2017. http://www.davidlose.net/2017/02/epiphany-6a-on-love-and-law/

**Ibid.

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Small Catechism of Martin Luther. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 1160.

 

[4] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: A Devotion for Lent 2017. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017).  Sold out in hard copy but still available as e-book: https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

***David Lose per a colleague sharing this quotation at preacher’s text study. I couldn’t find the direct citation.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

 

Loving Before Knowing [OR The Foolishness of the Cross] Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 29, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

[1 Corinthians reading is after the sermon]

[sermon begins]

Several months after my husband Rob and I started dating, we ended up at a New Year’s Eve party.  We were standing in a circle of people we didn’t know.  A bit of round-robin started as people talked about their work.  Rob said his usual, “I’m in sales.”  Someone asked, “Oh? What kind?” He said something like, “I’m a manufacturer’s rep for a Georgia-based carpet mill.”  As is often still the case, people don’t seem to know how to reply to that statement.  Possibly because cut-pile vs. loop or solution-dyed vs. yarn-dyed controversies aren’t quite party talk.  So, I’m next in the round-robin.  People have their eyebrows up expectantly, hoping their curiosity moves into easier conversation.  And I say, “I’m a pediatric cancer nurse.”  Stares and crickets. More stares and crickets with some nodding and mmmm’ing, while the conversation moved to the next person.

Some conversations are too detailed for party-talk, like the pros and cons of carpet manufacturing techniques.  And other conversations are too hard, like kids having cancer.  These are not the only ones. Just a couple of examples of so many things that don’t qualify as polite conversation.  Grief is another such thing.  This is where the church comes in, talking through the polite conversation into what’s happening in our lives. It’s one of the reasons being part of the church can be a comfort while we’re also challenged by Jesus’ teachings. Listen to this Bible verse again from the book of Matthew:

[Jesus teaches his disciples, saying,] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus is often found teaching in Matthew.  The Bible verses today are most commonly known as the Beatitudes based on the Latin for blessed.  It is curious that people who suffer are described as blessed when these moments can feel and look like the opposite of blessing.  Jesus is pushing against the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  There is no explanation for why people are poor in spirit or mourning, why people suffer.  There is simply a description of suffering and God’s promise to be present in the midst of it.

The Beatitudes state a promise into the suffering.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice there are no requirements to receive the kingdom.  In Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is now and it’s here.  Check out the kingdom parables in Matthew chapter 13.  They describe active presence of the kingdom on earth.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, Jesus teaches us, that we receive the kingdom, live the kingdom, and teach the kingdom.

I can hear you asking, “Well, pastor, that’s lovely poetry, but what does it look like on the ground to receive the kingdom and live in it?”  I’m glad you asked.  Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and scholar, describes the rational mind hitting a ceiling.[1]  That ceiling is suffering. Today’s Bible verses name suffering as mourning and poor in spirit and more.  We can’t explain why it happens or its purpose.  We just know suffering exists and spend energy trying to prevent our own.  I mean, really, does anyone actually love eating kale?  Eventually, though, someone we love, or maybe even ourselves, suffers – we get sick, we grieve a death, we lose a job, we miscarry, or we watch our partner walk away.  All that we thought we knew about life and our place in it shifts.

But, as Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified,” the ultimate in earthly foolishness.[2]  Except that the cross means something beyond comprehension when it’s God’s foolishness. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God knows suffering.  More than that, it’s the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Paul’s use of “Christ crucified” points us there because the crucified Christ is also the resurrected Christ.  Christ whom we claim is among us now by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit names us the Body of Christ known as the church.  We are part of a resurrected life that we share together as a congregation.  We share that resurrection promise as a community of faith.  As Jesus teaches his disciples, he also teaches us, that we receive the kingdom and live in the kingdom especially when living through loss and grief.  Knowing this kingdom teaching can help stop us from painting a silver lining into someone else’s grief.[3]  We can simply be present with someone else in their suffering without fixing it or explaining it or telling someone it’s time to get over it.  We can avoid the trap of thinking someone else’s pain is a teaching moment for them and avoid setting ourselves up as the teacher.  Rather we can live the kingdom now by asking people how they’re doing, by telling people we’re sorry this is happening, by quietly listening, and by praying for them.

Prayer is one of the languages of the kingdom.  Jesus prayed the Psalms while on earth and now we do too as the body of Christ. Therefore, in the Psalms, we “encounter the praying Christ…Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.”[4]  Praying for people on our prayer list who are suffering of mind, body, or spirit.  Taking the prayer list that’s in the weekly announcement page home, naming each person on it in prayer, or simply praying the whole list at once.  Praying is kingdom language even when we think our own prayers are uncomfortable and clunky.  That discomfort and humility in prayer are part of the kingdom language.  So is praying for people we don’t necessarily like.

As Christians, praying and being present to each other and the world’s pain is a freedom we have through the cross.  We may recognize God’s foolishness as wisdom and look to the cross as a way of knowing.[5]  It’s possible that one of the truths of Christ crucified is that our suffering connects us to each other differently.  We move through the party talk and listen to someone talk about their grief and loss.  These moments become prayer by transcending what we’re arguing about ideologically and opens our eyes us to see each other truly as beloved children of God.  Through the cross, through the suffering, we love before we know, we love as a way of knowing, we love as Christ loves us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Public Remarks, Join the Divine Dance: An Exploration of God as Trinity, Arvada, CO, January 13-15, 2017.

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

[3] This is a riff on Brené Brown’s work on empathy vs sympathy.  See video, “Brené Brown on Empathy”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&sns=fb

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 46-47.

[5] Rohr, ibid.

________________________________________

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Wally’s World [OR Into This World, This Demented Inn] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

 

Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things.  Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news.  When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear.  The inn was full in Bethlehem.  Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”[1]

The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper.  The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all.  But we imagine him.  We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays.  One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time.  James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:

“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.

Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them.  “Wait! You can have my room.”[2]  [end of Harnish story]

Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?”[3]  What would we do as the innkeeper?  He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family.  Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer.  Regardless of tone, the end is the same.  There is no room.  But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.

The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading.  Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem.  There are times for sentiment.  Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out.  All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story.  In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius.  The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

No room.  Full.  This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today.  Room in the schedule.  Room in the mind.  Room in the heart.  Room for compassion in the face of suffering.  Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry.[4]  Room for the glory of God.[5]  Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host.[6]  Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.[7]

Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time.  Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma.[8]  This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover.[9]  Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.

Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none?  Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available.  Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary?  Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”[10]

You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited.  We can say, “No room, go away.”  We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.”  We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives.  We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene.[11]  Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.”[12]  Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability.[13]  With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.

Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own.  We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.[14]  Thanks be to God and Amen.

_____________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:7

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.

[3] John Quinones. “What Would You Do?”  abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo

[4] Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53

[5] Luke 2:14

[6] Luke 2:14

[7] Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.

[8] Harnish, 34.

[9] Harnish, 34.

[10] Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.

[11] Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[12] Luke 2:11

[13] Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

[14] Ibid.

Darkness is Not Dark to God [Longest Night reflection] – John 1:1-5, 14 and Psalm 139:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 21, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; Psalm 139 is at the end of sermon]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  A late psychotic break.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave.  As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out.  She remarried and every year those angels would go out.  My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding the baby Jesus.  On Saturday, my mother and her third husband Larry took the angels to UPS.  The angels are heading to my home, yet to arrive.  Talking with her later in the day, she told me that she “burst into tears” when she got in the car after the UPS stop.  She talked about how the angels were from a happy time and she was happy that I will have them.  I’ve been thinking about the angels, my mom, first dad, siblings, and me – the good, bad, and ugly. I’ve also been thinking about this Longest Night worship.  I’ve been thinking about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle with personal family struggles and with world-wide crises. I’ve also been thinking about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But I’ve been thinking about how the speed of light travels to us whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. God comes down to us, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things.  We don’t move a muscle and God comes down to us.  In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to you, to me, and to world.  Some days that promise feels like a fragile thread and other days it feels like a defiant hope.  No matter our feelings on any given day, “darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [God].”[4]  Amen.

_________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

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

[3] John 1:14

[4] Psalm 139:12

__________________________________________

Psalm 139:1-12

 

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

 

 

Agency Denied [OR Why Joseph is Our Guy] Matthew 1:18-25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

[sermon begins]

 

I listen to a lot of people talk about their lives.  While listening, I’m often struck by the magnitude of what someone says and the quiet, matter-of-fact way the story is shared.  There’s the older gentleman in the seat next to mine on the airplane.  The pilot was navigating around thunderstorms. The plane was shaking. I’m sure I was pale and looking worried.  The gentleman next to me asked me if I was nervous. (I thought to myself, “Hah! Are you kidding me?!”) “Yes,” is what I said. He told me that he doesn’t get nervous in planes because it doesn’t get worse than being shot down in the Pacific during World War II and waiting days in the water to get picked up.  The story was longer than that, of course.  He told me bits and pieces, regaling in calm tones and stark detail.  It had the quality of a story told many times.  I could picture it without feeling a need to take care of him while he talked.  He was open to curiosity and questions. His gift was one of distraction from my turbulence terror while he calmly shared his past.

The gentleman’s story, while unique in detail, is common in quality.  How many of us get used to telling our strange tales that have become normal in our own lives but surprise other people in the telling.  Jesus’ birth story is along this line for Christians. We tell a really strange tale, my friends.  We celebrate it in sacred scripture. We sing about it. We pop it up in our homes. I confess I have several such home scenes myself.  Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by various configurations of animals, angels, shepherds, and magi.  Wood, porcelain, and pottery that is carved, poured, and molded.  Dioramas of faith that proliferate across the land and in my home.

In some ways, it’s such a simple story.  So simple that even a child can tell it.  Last week our young friends here at Augustana put on costume and learned their lines.  They processed into the sanctuary and preached the story of Jesus through a narrated, live diorama.  Their telling of this good news is a mash-up from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and appropriately called, “Simply Christmas.”

The gospel writer today keeps it super simple, too:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

That’s it.  Nothing flashy. But there is someone who gets a newsflash. Joseph. His betrothed is pregnant and he is not the father.  If that’s not a kick in the gut that takes your breath away then I don’t know what would be.  A man’s proudest agency is taken from Joseph.  Confronted with the news, his initial plan is simple and legal.  Dismiss Mary.  Send her on her way quietly, saving her from public disgrace.  Joseph is justified in his position. Not only in his own mind but in the eyes of the law.  No harm, no foul.  He is good to go.  Simple and legal.  Justified. Resolved.  And then not so simple at all…

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”[1]

The angel, the Lord’s messenger, shows up thwarting Joseph’s justified resolve.  I hate when that happens.  When a good resolve swirls down the drain.  Resolve feels good.  It feels right.  It is powerful, knowing what to do.  Powerlessness?  Not so much.  And definitely not in the way a good resolve feels.  Here’s a clue to part of the good news today.  If there’s room for Joseph in the nativity story, then there is room for me, and there is room for you.[2]

There’s room for us in the Nativity story because Joseph is asked simply to stay and watch the story unfold.  Oddly enough, he asks no questions of the angel in his dream and he’s given no understandable explanation.  In essence, Joseph is told to take Mary as his wife and to name the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, “Jesus.”  That’s not a lot of information.  In fact, it doesn’t amount to any information he can share with his friends as justification for staying with Mary, especially in light of the vague paternity. And, still, he obeys the angel.

He obeys without any knowledge of what this will mean. Just around the corner, what he can’t see is the visit from the magi.  Those strange people from a faraway place who come to visit Jesus after he is born.[3]  He can’t see the magi’s decision to thwart King Herod.[4]  He can’t see King Herod’s edict to slaughter all the infant children less than two years old because they may or may not be the rumored Messiah.[5]  He can’t see his and Mary’s escape and refuge in Egypt.[6]  There’s so much that Joseph can’t see when he agrees to take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus.

James Harnish, a long-time Christian pastor, recalls a story from when he was in college.  He went to see a professor with a very intelligent friend who had a lot of questions about his faith and was frustrated by the simplistic answers people gave him.  His friend asked the professor, “How can I [follow] Christ when I don’t know all that it will mean?”  The professor answered, “None of us knows all that it’s going to mean, but we know enough [to follow Jesus] and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.”[7]

Joseph is obedient without an “i” dotted or “t” crossed.  Some of us see ourselves in Joseph because, like him, our proudest self-agency is also taken away from us.  We do not save ourselves. The name “Jesus” means “God saves” or “the Lord saves.”  He will be born and named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.”  Week-after-week we scratch the surface of what this means for us.  Some of us wonder about intellectual problems raised by scripture that don’t jive with our experience or knowledge.  Some of us struggle with the mystery and want it solved so that then we could have faith.  Some of us are drawn to action on behalf of people who need help but don’t know where to start or how to keep going.  For all of us in those moments, Joseph is our guy.

In light of Joseph’s lack of information, his obedience to the angel’s wild request is shocking, confusing, and disturbing.[8]  If we let it, our familiarity with Jesus’ birth story means that our quiet, matter-of-fact way of telling it can oversimplify what God is doing all around us. God’s audacity in slipping into powerless, vulnerable skin is echoed by Joseph’s powerless, vulnerability as well as our own – the breadth of divine power revealed in the depth of divine, self-giving love.  Like Joseph, we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to follow Jesus.  Like Joseph, we watch, wait, and wonder as Emmanuel, God with us, shows up and saves.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:20

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 20.

[3] Matthew 2:1-11

[4] Matthew 1:8 and 12

[5] Matthew 2:16-18

[6] Matthew 2:13-15

[7] Harnish, 23.

[8] Harnish, 19.

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.