Tag Archives: Jesus

Keshia Thomas, Anthony Ray Hinton, and You [OR Imago Dei, Real Image-of-God Type Stuff and The Good Samaritan] Luke 10:25-37

**photo credit: Keshia Thomas, 18 years old, by Mark Brunner (1996)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 14, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

[sermon begins]

Anthony Ray Hinton went to prison for a crime that he did not commit and sat on death row for 30 years. When he first went to prison, he was so angry and tired of not being believed that he stopped talking.  He wrote down his answers to the guards’ questions.  Going into his fourth year in prison, he heard a man crying in the cell next to his.  Mr. Hinton says that his mother’s compassion moved him to speak. Before long he was joking with the man.  After that night, Mr. Hinton spent the next 26 years trying to focus on other people’s problems.  He said he realized that the other inmates had not had the unconditional love that his mother had given him.  Family was created between the inmates.  54 people walked down the hallway by his cell on their way to be executed.  Mr. Hinton started the ritual with the other inmates to bang on the bars 5 minutes before the execution, letting them know that love walked with them.  Stories like Mr. Hinton’s are often lifted up as examples of the resiliency of the human spirit.  Very few of us will ever be put in a situation as dire as his to know how we would respond.  Regardless, his story has elements worth considering.  He was in a place of despair, angry and alone.  He was facing death.  But, he found meaning in sharing love and compassion that he himself had received from his mother.[1]

Mr. Hinton sharing compassion he himself received is why his story resonates with today’s Bible reading.  Verse 33 tells us that the Samaritan saw the naked, beaten, half-dead man on the side of the road and was “moved with pity.” This word “pity” is from a Greek word that is also translated as compassion elsewhere in Luke.  Luke uses this word only three times in the Gospel.[2]  In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it’s used 12 times and used specifically to either describe Jesus’ compassion or used by Jesus in parables to describe a major characters’ response.[3]  You may be asking why this translation gem gets a shout out.  It’s because this kind of compassion as it shows up in the gospels is quite specific.  More than a moral claim, one could say it’s almost holy.  One could even say it’s divine.  But if it’s divine, isn’t it out of reach for the common person?  I’m going to say no, it’s not.

In our tradition, we understand ourselves to be created in the image of God.[4]  Imago dei. Our humanity imprinted by God. One of the reasons we worship weekly is to remind ourselves of what we are and to whom we belong.  When we are reminded of what we are in the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear the parable in its rightful place.  Not as a moral action for the to-do list, rather as a divine reaction inspiring us across the road like the Samaritan.  Our bodies are created by divine compassion and also for divine compassion.  When we act compassionately, endorphins are released in our brains making us feel good.  When we act compassionately, the hormone oxytocin is released.  Oxytocin has health benefits like reducing inflammation in our hearts and circulatory systems.[5]  Additionally, compassion is contagious.  Social scientists have found that there’s a ripple effect.  If you are kind and compassionate, your friends, your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends have a greater inclination towards compassion.  Our bodies’ systems are wired to react positively to compassion and our community systems are wired to react positively to compassion.  This is one of those moments when faith and science come together like the thumb and index finger – between them we can grasp so much.

In the parable, Jesus reveals the compassion of the neighbor, the compassion that Jesus first and foremost reveals in himself as his own compassion is stirred by the people around him and ultimately his own compassion poured out at the cross.  Jesus’ compassion that is highlighted by Luke in Jesus himself and in the parables about Jesus is compassion stirred by death.  Compassion stirred by the death of the widow of Nain’s son in chapter 7, by the man left half-dead at the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and by the prodigal son showing up after he was assumed dead.  In each of these instances, the compassion of Jesus transforms the ones who are dead, half-dead, or assumed dead.   We could say that the compassion of Jesus, the deathless one, draws him toward death because there is nothing left to fear.

I had a seminary professor who tapped his clergy collar during class and said that the collar would take us boldly into situations where no one else would dare to go. It was a daunting thing to hear.  In hindsight, that seems toplofty to me.  Instead, I would say that it is our baptism that takes us boldly into situations where no one else dares to go.  Our baptism that brings us alive together with Christ, aligning us with the image of God in ourselves and in other people.

Mr. Hinton was released from prison in 2015 after his case was picked up by the Equal Justice Initiative and it was discovered that the evidence against him did not match the crime scene evidence.[6]  His 30 years in prison transformed the experience for himself and the people around him.  First, his mother’s unconditional love and compassion touched his mind and then he was able share it with those around him.  The lawyer questioning Jesus gives the right answer about the law, the Torah – love God and love neighbor as self.  These are the main things, and Jesus agrees with him.  The parable of the Good Samaritan highlights the main things in a way that speaks to us because we’ve see the hesitation of the priest and the Levite rear up in ourselves when confronted by difference and need.  Perhaps the hesitation to cross the road has good logic.  On the other hand, perhaps it’s flawed logic that is primarily fear settling in for an extended stay.

Experiencing compassion ourselves might make us more inclined to cross the road in compassion. Even witnessing acts of compassion makes us more inclined to cross the road in compassion – especially across difference as the Samaritan did.  There’s an image that often comes to mind as an example.  Keshia Thomas was a young black teenage woman protecting a white supremacist middle-aged man from being beaten at a protest.[7]  She’s kneeling on the ground next to him, arms thrown out over him, ready to take the blows herself.  Turns out she’d be on the receiving end of violence in her young life and wishes someone had stood up for her.  She says her faith also played a part in protecting him. The man’s son approached her a few months later and thanked her.  The man remains anonymous.  Both the photographer, Mark Brunner, and another woman, Teri Gunderson, report that Keshia’s action affects them even today.  Ms. Gunderson keeps the picture of Keisha on her wall.

Keshia Thomas and Anthony Ray Hinton are compelling modern examples of compassion.  I would argue that they are contagious examples of compassion inspiring us to cross that road of difference and stare death in the eye like the Samaritan did.  Inspiring us to the compassion that is also in us as the image of God empowered by our baptism into the death and life of Jesus.  Remember that the compassion extended by Jesus includes you too.  Because we’re linear creatures it can be difficult to see love of God, neighbor, and self as all three of those things happening at once.  We’re tempted to say that we have to love ourselves before we can love our neighbor.  Or we have to love God before we can rightly understand love of self.  The actual experience is messier – more like football than baseball if you’ll allow the sports analogy.  A lot is happening at once.  Here’s one suggestion to begin breaking it down.  Take your worship bulletin home this week. Fold it open to this Bible reading. Take a couple minutes to read it as you start your day.  Wonder about it. Ask questions of it.  Pray over it.  Let it remind you.

Crossing the road in compassion breaks the cycle of shame and judgment that we inflict on ourselves and other people.  However compassion comes to you and through you, for today, know that the savior who claims us crosses the road into whatever ditch you currently find yourself in, pulls you out, tends your wounds, and reminds you who you are and to whom you belong.  Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Anthony Ray Hinton’s story can easily be found on any web search.  I encountered his story in the following:

Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. (New York: Avery, 2016), 261-262.  Mr. Hinton tells his own story in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (2018).  It’s now on my list of books to read.

[2] Luke 7:13 – Jesus was moved with compassion for the widow of Nain and her dead son; Luke 15:20 – the prodigal son’s father is moved with compassion when he see that his son has returned.

[3] Girardian Lectionary (Proper 10, Year C, Ordinary 15) on Luke 10:25-37, Exegetical Note #5 re Luke 10:33 (2013).

[4] Genesis 1:26-27

[5] The Book of Joy, 258.

[6] EJI. “Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Death Row.” https://eji.org/anthony-ray-hinton-exonerated-from-alabama-death-row

[7] Catherine Wynne. “The teenager who saved the man with the SS tattoo.” BBC News Online on October 29, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24653643

Peace In, Peace Out (Double Fist-Bump on Heart + Peace Sign) Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 7, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20  After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

[sermon begins]

The copy room here at the church serves as an ad hoc lunch room for staff.  We cover a lot of conversational ground in there.  Family, trends, politics, travel, nutrition, theology, pets…you name it, we talk about it.  Last week, slang came up.  Well, honestly, I brought it up after making a comment earlier in the day to a younger gym rat at the end of a workout who responded with a really odd look. The look was so odd that I wondered if I’d said something unintentionally inappropriate.  I went home, looked it up, and was relieved to find that his confusion was because I’d been obtuse, not obscene.  You don’t have to hang out with me very long to know that I enjoy good words whether they’re super old and out of use or fresh and new on the scene.  The problem is that I have trouble keeping up with slang which creates confusion from time-to-time.  So when the words “peace out” popped into my head in response to today’s Bible reading, I searched them online before throwing them in the sermon.  Thank God, we’re good.  But you need to let me know if I somehow missed a memo.  Maybe it’s because of growing up in 1980s California, but saying “peace out” with the requisite double fist bump over the heart and peace sign comes second nature to me.  It’s the kind of thing that takes conscious effort not to do although it still regularly slips through the cracks of adulting.

“Peace out” (yes, fist bump and peace sign, too) is what comes to mind this week especially after last week’s Bible reading. The one in which Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to rain fire down on the Samaritans. In the story today, 70 additional disciples are running around Samaria with the good news of Jesus.  They’re supposed to announce peace by saying, “Peace to this house!”  If their peace is received, the disciples can stay and receive hospitality from the people there.  If not, peace out – wiping off the dust of the town from their feet in protest.  Peace in.  Peace out.

What does “peace in” look like for us?  How can we tell when someone is announcing peace to us?  This may be a good move to make as we think about announcing peace ourselves.  It doesn’t seem to be about like-mindedness.  By like-mindedness, I mean people who just give us the thumbs up on our latest cockamamie scheme or ill-conceived opinion because they’re similarly motivated.  Rather, I wonder if “peace in” looks like a truth contrary to our current opinion.  In the Bible story, the disciples are vulnerable in a potentially hostile environment.  In verse three, Jesus tells them that he is sending them “out like lambs into the midst of wolves” without purse, bag, or extra sandals.  Peace is what they carry.  Peace in.  On a personal level, peace as contrary truth to our current opinion could look like where Jesus meets the dark place in ourselves that we think is unredeemable.  The dark place in ourselves that makes it hard to hear other people.  The dark place from where our attacks on other people are subconsciously launched from.  When I’m with someone who announces this kind of peace, their lack of judgment is a gift as I wrestle with the darkness at hand.  The acceptance and love of Jesus is both honest and compassionate about my humanity on display.

Notice in the Bible story that Jesus is not asking the disciples to assess the house or its occupants.[1]  There’s no wondering about whether the people in the house have kept the law or worship the same God or will be worth it to the disciples’ overall work in the long run.  They are to simply announce peace to the whole house.  Peace in.  Jesus’ instructions rely on the assumption that the disciples have peace.[2]  Jesus says, “…your peace will rest on that person.”  He identifies that the disciples’ peace is something they already possess.  More than just an ability to stay calm, they have God’s peace, God’s shalom, in themselves which gives them confidence in God’s presence with other people too.

As Christians we practice this kind of peace during worship when we share the peace before communion.  We embody reconciliation with each other as we announce peace to each other with a word of peace.  When we share the peace in a few minutes, enjoy this moment as the disciples must have also done, confident in the presence of God within you and in each one of us.  From sharing the peace this morning, take the peace out into your interactions this week.  How will you announce peace?  As with Jesus’ disciples, there is nothing lost when we announce peace.  Think about the peaceful presence of other people who may not share the same perspective but are willing to engage with people as a sacred act – fully and peacefully present.  This peace looks really different than the people who treat others as objects on which they act, as others less worthy than themselves.  The disciples share peace and are assured that they lose absolutely nothing if it’s not received.  The world would be a different place if we acted out of that confidence.  But it takes practice.  Like the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  Trying again is part of the freedom of our baptism, my friends.

Unlike last week when James and John wanted to blast those who rejected them off the face of the planet, Jesus prepares the new disciples with a plan for when they’re rejected.  He gives them an action to take knowing that they will be rejected.  The translation today uses the word “protest.”  Jesus gives them the action of peaceful protest.  Life and limb is preserved while the response to the rejection takes the form of dust.  The power of peace in the powder falling from their shoes.

The peace the disciples share is also a prophetic peace.  “The Kingdom of God is near” regardless of whether or not their peace is received. This is the same kingdom sung about by Jesus’ mother Mary in her Magnificat found in the first chapter of Luke.[3] Mary celebrates the kingdom that scatters the proud, brings down the powerful, lifts the lowly, and feeds the hungry.  Again, not a peace that is about calm so much as it is about the confidence that God is present in the tension when the Kingdom of God comes near.

May we be ever confident in the peace of God that passes all understanding as we peacefully protest, announcing the peace that is promised for everyone, and that is promised for you.[4]  Peace out.

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[1] Amy G. Oden. Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, St. Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City, OK. Commentary on Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 for July 7, 2019 on WorkingPreacher.org.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4104

[2] Ibid.

[3] Luke 1:46-55

[4] Philippians 4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

One-Liners: Charlie, Jesus, and Misguided Disciples (with a dash of Desmond Tutu for good measure) [Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1, 13-25]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 30, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 9:51-62  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

[sermon begins]

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

We all know that person.  The one that makes us belly laugh with a good one-liner – the joke that’s as dry as a bone, hilarious, and often pointed at themselves.  My father-in-law Charlie was regularly that guy.  Oh sure, there were plenty of dad jokes that we met with groaning and eye rolls.  But every so often, there was the one-liner that made us really laugh.  Here’s just one example.  The hospice care center that took care of Charlie in his dying days is supported by a family candy business that also makes ice cream.  Charlie loved ice cream.  The last dinner that he ate was a few bites of this special candy ice cream. His oldest son Tony asked him how it was and Charlie quipped, “It’s worth dying for.” There was this pause in the room and then we all just cracked up.  That moment was quintessential Charlie – a one-liner that made us laugh while it cut to the heart of things.

There are other kinds of one-liners that cut to the heart of things.  The reading from Luke today is full of them. Let’s set the stage a bit. Jesus and the gang had been in Galilee where Jesus’ home town sermon had people wanting to hurl him off a cliff.[1]  They left that town but stayed in Galilee for a bit before heading through Samaria to Jerusalem.  Today’s reading begins the travel narrative.  The travel narrative lasts 10 chapters and begins here with Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem.  It’s unclear how long he takes to get there.  It also marks a shift in Luke from Jesus’ behavior and actions to Jesus’ teaching and words.

Before we get to his words though, let’s focus on the first one-liner that he responds to.  It makes me laugh every time because it’s over-the-top and so very human.  James and John arrive at a Samaritan village ahead of Jesus.  We’re not privy to what happens there except that the Samaritans don’t receive him.  James and John say to Jesus together, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Instead of a one-liner at their own expense, those two misguided disciples launch one together at the expense of the Samaritans. Maybe it made them feel better to practice it ahead of time and to have each other’s company while they repeated it to Jesus. I wonder if their self-righteousness was strengthened since it became shared-righteousness. Ganging up on the people who disagree with us is a pretty common human vice. The trouble is that it’s not too far of a leap from wishing them ill to inflicting vengeance on them ourselves. Christianity has a particularly troubled history with this very thing. Which is ironic given that the Messiah we claim to follow is against raining fire down from the sky to consume people. Verse 55 says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I wish we had his words here. We could frame them and hang them on our walls as words of wisdom whenever we get the urge to take any action that resembles our fellow disciples, James and John. Because we often need that reminder when our most cherished beliefs are rejected.[2]

Here’s one way to think about anger that I read from Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of South Africa.

“Righteous anger is usually not about oneself. It is about those whom one sees being harmed and whom one wants to help.”[3]

Give Bishop Tutu’s test a try this week when you’re experiencing the rejection of your beliefs. Take that step back and wonder about your reaction and your response in the priorities of discipleship.  Perhaps there’s a one-liner, or five, that would cut to the heart of things.

The beginning of the travel narrative doesn’t stop with James and John’s one-liners.  Usually Jesus is plainspoken in Luke.  Not here.  Three times there are followers who want to follow Jesus but just need time to prepare. Three times Jesus responds with comments that leave us scratching our heads.  But his comments aren’t totally mysterious.  He’s making the point that discipleship is hard. Demands are made on our lives that don’t jive with the idea that all our choices have equal value. And Jesus’ words are going to get harder as the travel narrative continues in Luke. He’ll push on how money is spent, who gets invited to dinner, and where to sit during dinner to surrender privilege. [4] Two Sundays from now, we’ll even learn about love from a Samaritan, from the very people that James and John wanted to incinerate with heavenly fire.

The one-liners are extreme from Jesus but they get to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ words don’t seem to be philosophical teachings to mull over, journal about, and file away as “good in theory.”  Jesus invites followers to re-think the priorities of discipleship.  Wait a minute though, what about grace?  I can almost hear that question in the room as I write this sermon.  Of course, yes, grace.  Grace reminds us that we’ll misalign the priorities and that God loves us regardless of what we do or don’t do.  Grace also shows us real life moments where we can try again.

The Apostle Paul hones in on this very question of grace and discipleship priorities in the reading today from his letter to the Galatians.  He writes:

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You are free, Paul writes.  Be slaves to each other through love, Paul writes.  When James and John forgot the humanity of the Samaritans, Jesus rebuked them.  When his followers say they need time to get ready to follow, Jesus reminds them that discipleship is hard. When Paul tells the Galatians that they are free in Christ, at the same time he tells them that their freedom enslaves them to each other through the love of Christ.

Small scale enslavement to our neighbors through the love of Christ looks like the hospice staff and their loving care of my father-in-law as he was dying.  Large scale enslavement to our neighbors through love demands taking care of migrant children and families at the border through the love of Christ regardless of whatever you personally think is the political answer to the immigration question.  Those kids and their families are as equally deserving as anyone else of the fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Oh yeah, while we’re at it, those people who disagree with you, who reject your deeply held beliefs, the ones that seem so easy to de-humanize on media, in the work place, or in your own family, those people that we’d try to incinerate a la James and John, they are as equally deserving as anyone else of the fruits of the Spirit.  That’s the grace part.  The grace part that swings all the directions, across all of humanity, in the world that God so loves.  The love of God that reorganizes our priorities as disciples.  The love of God that set Jesus’ face to Jerusalem. The love of God that frees us. The love of God that calls us to follow.

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Song after the Sermon:

The Summons (Will You Come and Follow Me)[5]
John L. Bell & Graham Maule

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I’ll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

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[1] Luke 4:16-30

[2] Amy G. Oden. Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality, St. Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City, OK. Commentary on Luke 9:51-62 for June 30, 2019 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4101

[3] The Dalai Llama and Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy. (New York: Penguin, 2016), 106.

[4] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 30, 2019.

[5] Watch and Listen to the hymn sung here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zk6IUalJ3sk

Bit Parts, Cameos, and Congregation Land Campaign [OR Lydia – Small Role, Big Impact] Acts 16:9- John 14:23-29

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 26, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Book of Acts; John reading is posted below the sermon]

Acts 16:9-15 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

[sermon begins]

There are these moments when you’re hanging out, watching a movie, and suddenly – BAM – someone famous is on the screen that you didn’t expect to see.  But they’re on screen for such a brief moment that you weren’t sure it was them.  Surprise cameos often make the difference between a good movie and a great movie.  Those small moments catch us off guard and can flip the script in the middle of the action.  Some actors are known for cameos.  Samuel Jackson, Julie Andrews, Oprah Winfrey, and Dick Van Dyke are well known for adding that rare gem of gravitas in 30 seconds or less.  Different but similar to cameos are bit parts.  Bit parts are given to lesser known actors.  Bit parts can also make the difference between a good movie and a great movie.  By definition, cameos and bit parts are never the whole cast.  All the parts, big and small, are needed to tell the whole story.

Bible stories, especially in the books of Acts, make me wonder how many great directors and screen writers marinated in Biblical preaching growing up.  Sometimes, when I read certain parts of Acts, I wonder if I’ve ever read them before because they are wacky and surprise me all over again – like I never read them before.  These stories in Acts are filled with main characters, cameos, and bit parts essential to God’s whole story.  We’re well familiar with Paul.  Former persecutor of the church.  Murderer of Jesus’ followers.[1]  He literally had a come-to-Jesus meeting and started preaching the gospel.[2]  In the story today, a few chapters later, Paul has a vision.  The man from Macedonia in the vision could be considered a bit part but a bit part with big impact, sending Paul and Silas sailing toward Philippi in Macedonia.

We never hear about the man in the vision again.  Instead, Lydia shows up in her bit part.  Paul and Silas went ♬down to the river to pray.♪  Lydia was already down at the river to pray with other women in a place of prayer.  She’s from out of town too and also owns a business successful enough that she has her own household that gets baptized as well as hosts Paul and Silas.  I wish we knew more than the bit part we get about Lydia. Her story, the one where she’s the main character, would be fascinating. But we don’t.  The moment that stuck with me this time is the part about the Lord opening “her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  It stuck with me because it flips the script on how we usually think the gospel works.  We often think that we take the gospel out of the church doors and somehow are in charge of it.  We’re not far off.  We ARE called to share the gospel – to communicate with our lives and voices the unconditional love and grace of Jesus for each and every person.  What we tend to forget is how God goes ahead of us, guiding us with visions and opening our hearts, weaving the gospel story of bit parts with cameos of God’s own.

Here in Acts, we have the vision given to Paul and the Lord opening Lydia’s heart.  In the story here today, this equates in the story to a gospel call, gospel shared, and gospel received. Bit parts showing that there’s no such thing as a small role in the unpredictable imagination of the Holy Spirit.

Last week, Pastor Ann preached that the “doors of the church are open” through Peter’s experience of being called by the gospel to eat with people that his coworkers in the gospel thought were problematic.  When Peter was called to account for his reckless grace, he responded to his accusers with the memorable line, “Who am I to hinder God?”  A few chapters later, we find Paul in similar circumstances.  Sailing across the sea to Macedonia, encountering Lydia who was not from Macedonia but from Thyatira, also an out-of-towner.  Brought together in a place of prayer by the gospel, by God.  Neither one of those people could have imagined their encounter or the changes that would come from it.  Lydia’s household was baptized and she became recorded in history for her hospitality and generosity.  She’ll turn up one more time in next week’s Bible story from Acts after yet another plot twist for Paul and Silas.  Stay tuned…

As we play our bit parts, the challenge for us becomes listening with open hearts prepared by God.  We’ve all seen situations where the gospel has been used manipulatively to pump up egos and limit grace to a select few.  Bit parts like Lydia’s remind us that the unlimited grace of God moves outside the boundary lines we draw for ourselves and other people.  Paul meets her outside the city gate by the river, explicitly drawing us a picture of how the gospel works.  The city gates and the doors of the church are indeed open.  Much like today’s scripture, we can often get a glimpse of this reality by looking backwards to imagine forward.

Last spring, this congregation began a process to imagine where God might be calling us by the gospel.  A group of people that included Pastor Ann and me began meeting to plan strategically.  The congregation began talking and individually answering questions in the hopes of revealing common themes and a unified direction.  One of the things identified in that process was the congregation’s decade long history of vacant land that was originally slated for senior housing.  Congregation members long ago took out additional loans on their own homes to secure that land on behalf of the church’s commitment to the gospel.  For a variety of reasons, including the city of Denver at the time, the vision of senior housing didn’t materialize.  That very land continued to pulse with possibility even in its dormancy.  Transforming that land became a goal. A few congregation members in powerful bit parts of their own, attended a breakfast last fall hosted by Interfaith Alliance and discovered the Congregation Land Campaign.[3]  A Campaign that over the last few years identified almost 5,000 acres of unused land on faith community property that could be used for affordable housing.  One acre of that land sits at the bottom of the hill here, next to and behind our park on the slope. New meetings began here in the congregation that dovetailed the goal of Transforming Our Vacant Land and the Congregation Land Campaign.  Last week the congregation voted 98-7 to continue that process and figure out what Permanent Affordable Housing with a land lease could look like.  Those Holy Spirit cameos are inspiring a whole lot of bit parts adding up to exciting, unimaginable times for Augustana’s hospitality meeting deep need for people in our city.  Does it get any better than that?!

The Holy Spirit is already out of ahead of us.  Imagining. Inspiring. Softening hearts.  What we call a Strategic Plan is simply us trying to get a bead on where and how that’s happening. To get on board with what the Spirit is laying out ahead of us.  Next week on June 2, there’s a meeting between worship services for ministries in the congregation to strategize boldly because we are emboldened by God’s grace to continue to see what the Holy Spirit is imagining ahead of us.  Are we going to get it right?  Hardly.  Are we going to make every effort to be faithful?  You betcha.

It would be easy to sentimentalize our faith into solely a personal experience or to fall into despair for the wounded world.  We are made of stern stuff, my friends.  In water, wine, and bread we become what we receive – the risen Christ in the world.  We are emboldened by the grace of God into bit parts of the Spirit’s leading for the world God so loves.

Thanks be to God.  Amen! And Allelulia!

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[1] Acts 7:54-8:1

[2] Acts 9:1-22

[3] Congregation Land Campaign is a partnership between Interfaith Alliance and Radian Architecture (non-profit). https://interfaithallianceco.org/clc

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John 14:23-29Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

Entering the Easter Mystery [OR Life, Joy and Suffering] Luke 24:1-12

**sermon art: Resurrection by He Qi

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

[sermon begins]

Oh, these women – “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary mother of James and the others.” The things they’ve witnessed as part of Jesus’ ministry, especially in the last few days. They watched Jesus hang on a cross.  They watched Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus off the cross and put him in the tomb. They made a mental list of the spices and ointments with which they’d return after resting on the Sabbath “according to the commandment.”[1]  The women were faithful, courageous, and diligent through the previous days of tragedy, confusion, and grief.  When so many disciples fled, or otherwise fell apart, these women remained.  Here, Easter Sunday, at the tomb they face more confusion.  They had seen Jesus’ body laid in the tomb so they were ready for the dismal task of using those spices and ointments. Instead, they encounter a couple of razzle dazzle dudes of the divine kind. Luke uses the word dazzle to convey their divinity.  The women’s reaction signifies the same thing.  Rather than looking at the “two men in dazzling clothes,” the women bow their faces to the ground.

What the two dazzling men do next is fairly ordinary. They remind the women about what Jesus told them when he was alive.  Their reminder connects the women’s experience to and from the cross.  And, ohhhhh, now the confusion begins to clear a bit. The women witnessed ungodly violence and sift their experiences through what Jesus said before he died and through what the two dazzling dudes in the tomb are saying now which starts to help make some sense of things.  Which is the way that life generally works.  We hear something that gives our experience a new or different meaning– not explaining the grief away or making heinous suffering magically better, but reframing suffering and grief in a way that feels like a gift.

This gift is no small thing.  An old friend of mine recently gave me The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, in which they reflect on joy and suffering from their respective traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and Anglican Christianity.[2]  Neither they nor any of us here has to go very far personally or culturally to find tragedy, confusion, and grief. From arson destroyed black churches in Louisiana, to the immigrant crisis, to the 20th anniversary of Columbine, to whatever you’d like to add to the list, we totally get tragedy, confusion and grief.  We get it deep in our guts. The point of the book, besides the sheer delight of listening to these two wizened elders, is to help the reader see the possibility of living in deep joy even though we experience suffering. Sounds nice.  Actually a little better than nice.  And lots better than how we often handle suffering.  Suffering makes it easier to indulge in the sizzle-and-fizzle cycle of dopamine by way of food, alcohol, nicotine, or online zines.  The problem with the sizzle-and-fizzle cycle is that, by definition, it becomes repetitive.  We wrap ourselves up in them and entomb ourselves in the very things we think bring comfort.  Tombs of our own making that isolate us from each other and steal our joy.

Take Jesus’ apostles who weren’t at the tomb with the women.  Having been through the confusion and grief of the last three days and thinking Jesus was still in the tomb, the apostles were hiding out, wondering if they were next up for the death penalty.  When Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the others shared what they had heard, the apostles called it an “idle tale” (the G-rated translation of that Greek word, by the way). Except…except…there’s the apostle Peter.  The very same Peter who denied that he knew Jesus three times during Jesus’ crucifixion trial.  It doesn’t add up that Peter would run to the tomb if he thought the women were telling an idle tale.  Or perhaps he was more concerned that the women were telling the truth.  Peter would likely wonder what his friend Jesus would have to say about Peter falling apart during that time of trial.  It could be hope or fear or maybe a little of both that sent Peter running.

Regardless, Peter’s room to tomb dash was dependent on the women’s story.  That can be a frustrating thing about resurrection faith.  We have no access to it outside of the witness of other people, the witness of the wider church.[3]  Like Peter, we’re dependent on other people for resurrection faith.  Like Peter looking into the tomb himself, ultimately the witness of the church is not enough and people have their own encounters with Jesus and the empty tomb. The point where our individual experiences connect with the resurrection faith of the church is part of what the empty tomb is about. Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Peter, we do not solve the mystery, we enter the mystery of resurrection faith – God bringing us through cross and tomb into new life because we are God’s children, broken and beloved.

New life literally abounds as Easter and Spring happen simultaneously this year.  Perennials pop up green and budding while birds fly back to our latitude for nesting.  Perhaps your suffering, confusion, and grief make it difficult to see life at all.  Sometimes our lives don’t align with the season of the earth or the season of the church. The prayers, practices, and people of the church’s resurrection faith cocoon us while we grieve or heal. Siblings in Christ pray for us when we can’t pray at all – as the risen body of Christ for each other and for the world. The good news of Easter reminds us that God does not leave us alone – the dazzling men in the tomb reminded the women that Jesus had told them this good news already; the apostles heard the good news of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and the others; and today, Easter Sunday, we share the good news with each other.  Our suffering is joined by the risen Christ who knows suffering, who rolls open the tombs we make for ourselves, and draws us into new life given to us by the risen Christ.  God brings us through cross and tomb into the joy of new life solely because we are beloved children of God.  Unconditionally beloved.  There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us anymore or any less. This is how it works. Thanks be to God for new life!  Alleluia!

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[1] Luke 23:50-56

[2] Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. (New York: Avery, 2016).

[3] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Podcast on Bible readings for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1129

I’m Kinda Over Mean People [OR Jesus Isn’t Kinda Over Anyone, Even You] John 13:1-17, 31b-34; Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14 for Maundy Thursday, Holy Week

**sermon art: Luke Allsbrook, Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet (2018) oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver on  April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday, Holy Week

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 13:1-17, 31b-34   Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14   The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.
11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

[sermon begins]

I’m kinda over mean people.  I’m so over mean people that I finally took Facebook up on its constant reminder to update my page and made it my bio line – I’m kinda over mean people.  I’m tired that meanness is celebrated as courage to speak truth.  That critique is venerated as intelligence.  That judgment is lauded as insight.  When I was in seminary, I made what I thought was an insightful comment about an author’s work.  The moment stays with me when my professor looked me in the eye and quietly invited me to immerse into the author’s thought and intent while reserving judgment on the author’s work, reserving judgment on what wasn’t there to be able to see what was there.  Because, of course, no person’s work – no person for that matter – can say all the things, hold all the things, and be all the things, we would wish them to say, hold, and be.  To be clear, there are times when critique is necessary and, as a society, we’re in the thick of deciding big moments in history without the benefit of future sight.  What I’m talking about, though, is meanness for meanness sake, meanness for power’s sake, meanness for our own sake.

Our young people who will be communing together with their families this evening, some for the first time, just went through Communion Instruction with the pastors.  They each received a book that tells the story of Jesus’s life in ministry along with his command to eat bread and wine while remembering him.[1] From just about the first page of the book, there are these crabby people that follow Jesus around.  Crabby, mean people who judge Jesus for eating with sinners who embezzle tax money, for healing people who don’t deserve it, for feeding people who are hungry, for, well, the list is endless for what these crabby, mean people are crabby about.  Ultimately, they’re crabby that Jesus threatens their power. How can they continue to hold onto power when Jesus keeps undermining their power with all that love stuff?  No wonder they were crabby and mean.  It’s tough to fight the power of love.  Weapons don’t work.  Even name-calling has a hard time against the power of love.

In the gospel reading from John, Jesus is all about the power of love. Make no mistake about the power he’s displaying in this foot washing scene. Power on display in his actions and how he moves.  He strips down much like a soldier did for battle in the first century.[2]  So similar were Jesus’ moves to that of a soldier: he stood up from the table to ready himself; took off his outer robe; and tied a towel around himself – girding himself around the waist with a cloth in same manner of a soldier of his time would do in preparation for battle.  However, he makes these power moves at the dinner table. So weird.  And, point of note, not a crabby person in sight.  Let’s take a look at who is in sight.  Judas and Peter are there.  Judas showing up with the other disciples, ready for dinner.  To all appearances, a good disciple and friend to Jesus. And Peter. Peter, faithfully enthusiastic, he says some kooky things and finally lets Jesus wash his feet. So do all the others. Including Judas the betrayer.

In the unseen verses around today’s reading, Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial just before and after Jesus lays down the new commandment.  Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  If this section of scripture could be described as a sandwich, Jesus lays down the hummus and veggies of his love commandment in between the flat bread that is Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.  Now we add betrayers and deniers to the list with the crabby, mean people, who stack up against Jesus.  We could try to say that we’re kinda over mean people, we’re kinda over betraying people, we’re kinda over denying people.  In the end, could we then say that we’re kinda over ourselves?  That’s where I am anyway.  Kinda over the ways I can be mean and critical, kinda over the ways that what I do and leave undone betrays other people to their fate, and kinda over my denials that exclude people from life.  So over it that today’s good news of Jesus lands right in the center of it.

To get at that center, sometimes we need to go to the edge.  In the edge of our view we can see Passover begins tomorrow for our Jewish cousins in the faith.  The reading from Exodus is the heart of the Passover story just before the Hebrews’ infamous hike through the Dead Sea on dry ground, from slavery in Egypt into freedom in the desert.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his friends before the festival of the Passover.[3]  This week, 21 centuries later, we line up with that timing.

When we see only the crabby, mean people in Jesus’ story, we often decide they are not us.  We can make the mistake of scapegoating them to their fate which is dreadfully similar to denying and betraying them to death.  Rather than seeing what Jesus did as an expansion of the covenant given to God’s people through Moses, we can see ourselves as taking over the covenant and leaving the original covenant holders in the dust, or even worse, grinding them into the dust.  Holy Week has a violent history of Christians against Jews when it is really through the Jews, through Jesus the Jew, by which he expanded the original covenant into the new covenant in his love so that we can now celebrate at Holy Communion. [4]

During communion instruction with the families and young people who will commune this evening, I invited everyone to stand in a circle facing each other, putting one arm out in from of them.  Then I asked us to walk forward until our hands all touched in the middle of the circle (it got super cozy) as one example of Jesus connecting us with each other as we commune.  Connecting us with the people around us now, the people who will commune in the future, and the people who communed in the past but also connects us to those earliest ancestors, our Jewish cousins in the faith.

The good news is that Jesus isn’t kinda over anyone – not mean people, not crabby people, not deniers, not betrayers, not you.  Jesus gave the new commandment to love one another as he loved – smack in the middle of crabby, mean people who were out to execute him and his friends who denied and betrayed him to that fate.  When we commune together, this is the love we receive, the love of Jesus Christ who shows no partiality, the love of Jesus Christ that is for the world God so loves, and for you.

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[1] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book (Daniel Erlander Publications, 1999).

[2] Craig Koester, Professor and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament. Course lecture: Fall 2010.

[3] John 13:1

[4] Krister Stendahl’s concise and elegant interpretation of Paul is a helpful read in this regard. Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1993)

 

Mary of Bethany is Worth Knowing [OR Unrestrained Adoration Finds a Place] John 12:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 7, 2019 – Fifth Sunday in Lent

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

 

 

Mary of Bethany is gloriously unrestrained at Jesus’ feet.  Fragrance fills the room as oil pools on the floor. The senses are engaged – sight, sound, smell, and touch. She’s impossible to ignore. Being there must have been wild. Socially awkward, for sure. She was touching a man, lavishing him with adoration and oil in plain sight of everyone else at Lazarus’ back-from-the dead dinner. Just before the sensual ritual of anointing feet with hair and perfume, Mary’s brother Lazarus had died. She wept at Jesus’ feet at the edge town.[1]  When Jesus finally showed up, she ran to meet him and knelt on the ground – holding him accountable for not being there as Lazarus took his last breath.  Jesus cried with her.  And then he raised Lazarus from the dead. The Gospel of Luke describes yet another moment when Mary of Bethany was at Jesus’ feet.[2]  This time, though, her pose was scholarly as she listened to what he was saying.  In that moment in Luke, Jesus affirmed her spot on the floor as a good thing.

Mary of Bethany spent a lot of time at Jesus’ feet.  She learned at his feet.  She wept at his feet.  She oiled his feet in adoration, anointing him for death.  I’ve been wondering what Mary of Bethany’s adoration looks like for us today. There are things we do in worship that infer adoration.  We turn toward the cross as it is carried in and out of the Sanctuary.  Our praise-filled hymns and psalms raise a joyful noise of adoration.[3]  Some of us meditate on various crosses during worship while we sing, or commune, or confess the faith of the church.  Some of us kneel as we’re able to receive Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Being in worship together is a moment to adore Jesus in ways as old as God has been worshipped.  Surrendering as Mary did to the unconditional grace of Jesus. Not solving the mystery of God in human form but entering into the mystery by faith.

It’s a wonder that Mary of Bethany doesn’t get more of our attention.  Scholarly, passionate, and unrestrained, she’s a gift to all of us who struggle to embody the liveliness of the faith within us.  I can make a few guesses as to why but it’s probably better to let Judas have a go at it.  Honestly, I don’t really want to give Judas the time of day in this sermon. He can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. It’s boo-and-hiss the moment Judas opens his mouth.  Information about betrayal and thievery stuck in those parentheses in the reading incite that reaction.  Judas’ words sound like a noble church leader guiding the flock to do-goodery on behalf of people living in poverty. But. Jesus. Knows. Better.  Jesus paraphrases a bit of Deuteronomy that talks about the people who will never cease to be in need and the Lord’s command to “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”[4]  Then Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone.  We can comfortably point at Judas the way he was pointing at Mary.  But I want to spend a little time in Judas’ shoes.  Let’s wonder about the way he portrays righteousness to hide whatever is dark inside.

Whatever is dark inside takes cover in those parentheses.  Like those parts about Judas’ betrayal and his embezzlement from the common purse.  He has some pretty big things going on in those parentheses.  What I want us to consider is that we have parentheses of our own.  The dark inside ourselves that struggles to love God, love self, and love neighbor.  The dark place that kick starts its own agenda while looking pretty righteous on the outside.  The part that takes other people down because their unrestrained adoration is too much for us to bear.  Extravagant grace is often label as offensive or, at the very least, not normal.  Think back to last week and the father running with flying elbows and flapping robes toward his wayward son.  Undignified right through the massive hug and undeserved party including a main course of fatted calf.  Like Judas, we see an act of grace and define it as excessive.  This puts it far away from us in a category of giving we label as extreme.  As in, not part of how we see ourselves. Judas’ petty righteousness stands in stark contrast to Mary’s lavish devotion.[5]

Mary’s lavish devotion fills the room and the senses.  At the same time, she points us toward a death on cross that won’t smell near as pretty.  The Gospel of John repeats a similar logic of contrast from its opening verses to its ultimate message of Jesus lifted on a cross and drawing all people to himself.[6]  Bringing Lazarus back to life intensifies the pace to that cross as some are drawn to faith and others begin to plot Jesus’ death.  Today’s reading tells us that Passover, the night on which Jesus is betrayed, is only six days away.  The story is building to Jesus’ inglorious end that reveals his glory. Next Sunday we’ll hear about his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Then he’s just a foot-washing away from being taken into custody to stand trial.

In the meantime, we witness Mary’s moment of adoration of Jesus right down to the tips of her hair. One way into adoration for us is poetry.  Psalms and hymns are poetry.  As are the haikus we’ve been invited to write leading up to Holy Week.  Haiku is short, non-rhyming verse made up of three lines – five syllables in the first, seven syllables in the second, back to five syllables in the third and last verse.  Those details are also in the worship announcement page, Friday’s e-mailed E-pistle, and the April Tower newsletter.[7]  Take a few moments this week to write a haiku in adoration of Jesus with whom we travel to and through the cross into new life.  Mary of Bethany’s excess also invites our own extravagance toward Jesus in this season.  Lent is a time of sacrificial giving and a time of adoration.  Both of which Mary exemplifies in her discipleship.

But her discipleship is not an end unto itself.  Through the curtain of hair and the dripping oil is the One who is worthy of adoration.  Jesus empties himself extravagantly to bring life through death – unconditional grace when the darkness inside of us is overwhelming.  Longing for his goodness, mercy, and peace we discover that Jesus already gives us all that and more.  Now we sing to Jesus and adore…

 

Hymn of the Day – sung after the sermon

Thee We Adore, O Savior ELW 476

Thee, we adore, O Savior, God most true,
thy glory clothed in bread and wine anew;
our hearts to thee in true devotion bow,
in humble awe, we hail thy presence now.

O true remembrance of Christ crucified,
the bread of life to us for whom he died;
lend us this life then; feed and east our mind,
be thou the sweetness we were meant to find.

Fountain of goodness, Jesus, Lord and God,
cleanse us, O Christ, with thy most cleansing blood:
increase our faith and love, that we may know
the hope and peace which from thy presence flow.

Jesus, by faith we see thee here below;
send us, we pray thee, what we thirst for so:
some-day to gaze upon thy face in light,
blest evermore with thy full glory’s sight.  Amen.

 

Holy Week Haiku
Submit a haiku or two about Holy Week anytime between Sunday, March 31 and Good Friday, April 19. Haiku is a 17-syllable verse form consisting of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Haiku will be shared via Augustana’s printed and online publications.

Submit your haiku online here: http://www.augustanadenver.org/holy-week-haiku/

OR e-mail it to Lyn Goodrum (goodrum@augustanadenver.org).

 

Hark! It is finished!
Heard upon that wooden cross.
No! It’s just begun . . .
–Robert Herbst
 

__________________________________________________________________

[1] John 11:32

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[3] Psalm 100

[4] Deuteronomy 15:11

[5] Matthew Skinner. Commentary on John 12:1-8. March 21, 2010. Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=544

[6] John 12:32

[7] https://mailchi.mp/190dfe517438/augustana-e-pistle-april-5-2019?e=705114770e

Repentance, A Little Perspective [OR Schadenfreude Stinks for Someone] Luke 12:54-56, 13:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 12:54-56, 13:1-9   He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

13:1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ 6 Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” 

Isaiah 55:1-11  Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. 
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. 
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. 
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples. 
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. 
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near; 
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

 

 

[sermon begins]

You all may not be aware that a bomb cyclone recently blew through town.  Anyone NOT in the loop on that one?  We know the drill.  The meteorologists start getting excited days in advance when the low pressure system starts to exhale above Colorado.  Eventually many of us realize an urgent need for bread and milk and the grocery store aisles go gridlock.  I can’t really blame the weather people.  The weather does get exciting at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains. We live its wildness and can feel slightly tougher than other parts of the country because of it.  But when Wednesday morning, the day of the big weather event, rolled around and the reporting was still over the top, I needed help with perspective.  There was to be a funeral here in the Sanctuary on Thursday morning for a gentleman who was a three-time Purple Heart in the Korean War.  His grandnephew is a Navy Seal deployed to parts unknown without security clearance and he’d arrived in town on Tuesday with special approval to attend his uncle’s funeral.

I confess that my anxiety was up about whether or not this funeral could happen and not much else.  Changing channels across different news stations, Marty Coniglio was just beginning his report.  He explained rapidly moving pressure systems resulting in intense wind which leads to blowing snow that causes problems even if snow amounts seem minimal.  Then came what I needed to hear.  And that is that we’ve experienced these before but we usually call them blizzards.  And that this one would finish blowing in Metro Denver by late Wednesday as recovery and clean up began.* Ahhhh, a little perspective.

In a similar way, Jesus challenges the crowds around him about their weather forecasting abilities before laying down the bigger challenge.  We hear that we’re not so different from his first century listeners when Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”[1]  He accuses them about the time and energy they spend on the weather to their lack of attention on the main thing.  As Jesus is ramping up, “there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingles with their sacrifices.”[2]   They told Jesus gruesome news about Governor Pilate’s killing of these religious pilgrims.  The people wondered about the killings.  About the people killed.  Is there a way for them to avoid the same fate?  Is there a way for them to understand why they died in the way they died?  Jesus gives them a Job answer.[3]  Meaning that there is no way to understand suffering as being deserved by sin.  We simply can’t pin it on the sinfulness of the ones who died as if they were the reason it happened to them.

Pinning suffering on the sufferers is such a human response.  Even more human is creating distance between ourselves and people who are suffering.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the phenomenon called schadenfreude – the pleasure we feel at the suffering of others, the relief we feel that it wasn’t us.[4] Schadenfreude happens a lot in competitive arenas like sports and politics.  We might even say that team owners and politicians bank on schadenfreude.  When the other team loses, we feel better.  I heard a bit about schadenfreude on the Hidden Brain podcast during some car time last Saturday.  The podcast host interviewed experts on the topic of envy, malicious envy, and schadenfreude – how it makes us feel good when people we don’t like are brought down in some way.  It could be argued that some in the crowd around Jesus felt a bit of schadenfreude that the Gentile pilgrims met such a humiliating death.

My mind caught when host asked the chilling question, “How much can our pain prompt us to find pleasure and how much can this pleasure prompt us to cause pain?”  Individually, the social consequences are small scale.  When it comes to group behavior the consequences can be enormous.  “If I feel good every time I watch a bad thing happen, maybe next time I’ll make a bad thing happen.”

Schadenfreude may turn our caring off when it comes to certain groups and community decisions we make. Schadenfreude can also be a gateway to unspeakable acts.  Let’s ask the question from the crowd around Jesus into our times today.  Listen to it this way:

There were some present who told him about the Muslims whose blood the shooter had mingled with their prayers.

These violent tragedies don’t happen in a vacuum but they can happen in echo chambers where groups dehumanize other groups.  Before any of us go getting on our high horses, think about what person or people that you wouldn’t mind coming to harm.  And might even secretly celebrate it.  See…not so far-fetched.

The podcast also covered how we know that schadenfreude isn’t socially acceptable so we tend to keep it locked up inside.  At the very end of the podcast, the host got down to the antidote for schadenfreude.  You’ll never guess…confession. Talking out loud about the inner conflict of feeling good when others feel bad. It seems important to make the point that confession is different than gleefully celebrating someone’s downfall with like-minded people which is typically what we do watching a favorite talk show host. Confession is a clarity that something is amiss. Confession comes on the heels of repentance.

One way to think about repentance is that our perspective is changed.  Very often the perspective change happens TO us.  A little like our friend the fig tree in Jesus’ parable. The tree grows not one piece of fruit that the owner can claim as success.  Then comes the grace of the gardener and manure in the story.  Manure happens. And there is the additional grace of time.  While we’re watching the weather, Jesus reminds us about the main thing, the grace of time.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Ann preached Joseph’s story from the Bible book of Genesis.[5]  His brothers sold him into slavery because they were tired of him being their father’s favorite. It’s not hard to imagine both their schadenfreude and their guilt. In the last chapter of Genesis, at the very, very end of the story, Joseph’s brothers confess their wrong to him, fall on their knees, and weep. Joseph tells his brothers that God brought good through the evil they inflicted on him.[6]

For us, the resolution seems incomplete.  We get no satisfaction through revenge.  The brothers don’t pay for their crime against Joseph.  Instead, just like our friend the fig tree ends up with more time from the gardener as a random grace, so did the brothers.  This is the offense and the good news of grace.

When Jesus challenges us to see the time we’re in, he challenges our perspective and pushes us to repent of our part in the time.  We don’t live in isolation, no matter how many ways we try to close ourselves off from each other.  We live together on this tiny blue dot, utterly dependent on each other and the world that God so loves.  For God’s sake, and by God’s grace, we have time to bear fruit from manure.  Thanks be to God.

________________________________________________

*The bomb cyclone is major weather that neighbors near and far are still reeling from.  Floods in multiple states, not to mention around the world are devastating.  Lutheran Disaster Response spends dollar for dollar given to these events because congregational mission support pays for the admin.  Feel free to donate here:  https://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/

[1] Luke 12:56

[2] Luke 13:1

[3] The Bible’s book of Job takes on the question of why people suffer and ultimately comes up with no satisfactory answer. We are to simply live as God’s people regardless of what’s happening around us.  Not rejoicing in suffering but rather rejoicing in God’s promise to be present with us in the face of it (theology of the cross).

[4]  Shankar Vedantam. “Feeding the Green-Eyed Monster: What Happens When Envy Turns Ugly” for Hidden Brain: A Conversation About Life’s Unseen Patterns, February 26, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/26/586674547/feeding-the-green-eyed-monster-what-happens-when-envy-turns-ugly?fbclid=IwAR0g35VsT3i58qLH468KN9hcvoXZ8KbNl6s2aT3ob-4wJNzdyaWK_ZpYIJs

[5] The Joseph novella runs from Genesis chapters 37-50.

[6] Genesis 50:20

The Logic of Leveling vs. Scarcity and Scapegoating [OR Jesus, Pops, and Pithy Sayings] Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10

**sermon art: Jesus Christ Preaching by Jose Trujillo (oil on canvas)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:17-26  He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. 6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. 7 Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. 8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it? 10 I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

[sermon begins]

Growing up in my house meant growing up with a step-dad who would spout pithy sayings often in the form of warnings.  I’ve shared a few of Pops’ sayings with you in the past.  It’s surprising how the sayings come to mind as preachable given the amount of eye-rolling and foot-stomping that greeted them at the time.  One such saying bubbled up when I’d want to go do something with friends. Pops would then give me grief, I’d respond by telling him that my friends were allowed to go, and he’d say, “Would you rob a bank if you friends were doing it too?”  Classic.  I never saw much use in that particular logic as my friends never invited me to rob a bank. Nor did I ever think I would tag along on such a quest even if they did.  Regardless, Pops felt it necessary to regularly warn me of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  Warnings are often wasted on the wayward.  We don’t like the flaws in our logic challenged so we roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit the messenger. Pops likely didn’t deserve my disdain.  Similarly, Jesus’ likely didn’t deserve the contempt he received in response to his warnings either.

Warning is one way to think about what we hear today in the “woes” recorded in Luke’s gospel.[1]  There are connections between the language of woe that Jesus uses and the language of woe used by Old Testament prophets.  Prophets didn’t pull any rhetorical punches either.  They wanted people to hear the bad news about their current behavior and call people to repentance, to new ways of being in the world as God’s people.  The woes that Jesus lays down are for those of us who are rich, full, laughing, or admired.  Sure, we have options.  We could roll our eyes and stomp our feet and discredit Jesus or the Bible or the preacher in the pulpit, wasting Jesus’ warning for the wayward.  Or, we could let the warning of the woes settle over us.  Let the warning of the woes challenge our wayward living much like the prophets used to do.  The prophet Jeremiah challenges his listeners not to trust in mere mortals.  By extension, this means we can treat our inherently wayward opinions and circumstances with a bit of mistrust; with a healthy, well-deserved dose of skepticism.

Let me give one small example of what I mean by a healthy dose of skepticism.  Periodically, those of us preachers who show up for preachers’ text study will debate the pros and cons of sharing personal stories.  In this small example of an ongoing debate, it makes sense to wonder why we preachers tell stories about ourselves.  After all, the goal is to point to Jesus in the act of preaching.  It goes without saying that it’s not about spotlighting the preacher.  A healthy dose of skepticism can help challenge the privilege of the pulpit while also trying not to end up the hero of our own stories and sending sermons off the rails – an important, mostly behind-the-scenes task.  Similarly, Jesus’ woes to the rich, full, laughing, and admired can instigate a need to self-justify.  We can find ourselves saying things like, well, I’m not that rich. Or I used to be poor.  Or even more problematic, we can find ourselves trying to justify why other people are NOT rich or full or laughing or admired.  It’s like we read the four blessings and the four woes listed by Jesus as a particular challenge for us to see where we end up in his list. In the meantime, while we’re justifying things all over the place for ourselves and other people, the opening verse of the reading says that “[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed all the leveling language in Luke’s Gospel in quite the same way before.  Maybe it’s because we only get Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, during Year C of the Lectionary Readings when Easter is almost as late in the Spring as it can be.[2]  The last time that it came up in Sunday’s worship readings was in 2004, fifteen years ago.  While preparing and thinking about Jesus coming down to the level place, John the Baptist’s quotes from Isaiah came to mind about smoothing rough ways, filling valleys, and lowering mountains and hills.[3]  Mary’s Magnificat also came to mind about bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly.[4]  The leveling is NOT a reversal of bringing the low high and the high low only to change places and repeat the same bad news. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in Luke’s Gospel enacted what was proclaimed and sung by John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother Mary.

Jesus came down and stood on a level place with the twelve, and also with “a great crowd of disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.” Naming those locations means that the crowds were full of Jews as well as non-Jews otherwise known as the Gentiles.  Crowds of people showed up from all over, some were Jesus followers, some were Jews, and some were Gentiles.  It’s chaos. People reaching out and touching Jesus, people unbound from the social norms of their day milling around a level place.

Leveling works against our primitive urge for scapegoats. Rene Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity late in life after studying scapegoating and the Bible.[5]  Girard expected to find consistencies in scapegoating between other ancient manuscripts and the Bible.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.

The Gospel of Luke in general, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, on the level place, in particular is a prime example of how the Bible levels the highs and lows of social norms that we tend to describe as “just the way things are.”  This is especially true in societies like ours where “the blessed” are often considered to be the rich or full or laughing or admired while “the woed” are the poor or hungry or weeping or reviled.  Somehow, we misinterpret blessings and woes as deserved and bestowed by God – subconsciously justifying each person’s social location.  The problem is that we end up treating our neighbors based on what we think they deserve rather than on the greatest commandment, so named in all four Gospels.  The greatest commandment goes like this: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’[6]  In Luke, the 10th chapter, we’ll hear this greatest commandment coming up in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus, preaching on the level place, is able to name the blessings of the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled not because of a far off someday but because he calls and invites us all to be a part of the leveling here on earth – seeing each other as siblings in Christ over and above our primitive urges toward scarcity and scapegoating. The primitive urges that increase the risk of becoming a blind follower into the shenanigan of the day.  The good news is that Jesus meets us in the chaos of the level place.  Rather than recycle the same bad news with a new set of faces, he invites us into the good news of our shared humanity, beloved as children of God, and freed into loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Alleluia! And Amen.

_________________________________________________________

[1] Rolf Jacobson. Sermon Brainwave podcast #648 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany for February 17, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1106

[2] Easter is scheduled annually on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/determining-easter-date.html

[3] Luke 3:1-6

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard

[6] Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34–40; Matthew 22:46; Luke 10:25–28

Personal and Prophetic Grace. Yes, it’s both. – Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; see end of sermon for last week’s reading from Luke that is the first part of Jesus’ sermon here]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

{sermon begins]

Oh, Jesus! Really?!! Upsetting your listeners again? How quickly things go downhill too.  Just before he’s nearly hurled off the cliff, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  If only Jesus had stopped with his gracious remarks before he launches with prophetic grace.  “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” Jesus. Timing is everything and Jesus’ timing with the people hearing his sermon was way off.  We hear the end of the story today begun in the Luke reading last Sunday.  Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”[1]  Of course it was his custom, being a first century Jew and all.  Jesus was Jewish through and through.  He stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah and sat to teach.  His named great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, alongside the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman and the widow were outsiders.  By telling those stories from Jewish history, Jesus pushes his home-town people hard on the outsider message.  A message long embraced by Jews about Elijah and Elisha who also summoned prophetic grace for outsiders.[2]  This was not a new message, although it was apparently an infuriating filled one.

Prophetic grace is not neutral.  There’s usually some kind of reaction.  People love it or people hate it.  Either way, prophetic grace often pushes people which means that people will often push back.  A couple weeks ago, I marched in the Marade celebrating the work and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders prayed about loving our neighbors by taking action; as politicians spoke with different perspectives on equality and freedom; and as I looked around at people of all ages and skin colors, I wondered if I would have had the courage to march with Dr. King over 60 years ago.[3]  Many white people thought he wanted too much, too fast, for black people and that his rhetoric was too risky for everyone.  Many moderate whites who were on his side in theory, couldn’t bring themselves to show up with him in actuality, although some did.[4] The same could be said of Harriet Tubman. She was a former slave, political activist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad that rescued slaves before the Civil War.[5]  It’s ironic that her image will grace the $20 dollar bill given that Ms. Tubman lived at a time when the economy depended on black slave labor who received none of the financial reward.  Both Ms. Tubman and the good Reverend King acted from deep faith.

If Harriet Tubman and Dr. King are too much prophetic grace to contemplate, let’s try Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Pastor Bonhoeffer is often lifted up by Lutherans as an exemplar of prophetic grace.  He lived and died in Nazi Germany working to overthrow Hitler first by speaking out against him and then by trying to assassinate him.  He was executed days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp.  The good Reverend Bonhoeffer is obviously inspiring for what he was willing to risk and the faith that was his strength.  Similarly to my thoughts about Dr. King and Harriet Tubman though, I wonder how I would have responded to Pastor Bonhoeffer had I been a German Lutheran of his day.[6]

I wonder because of their inspiring lives that they risked daily.  I also wonder because of Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in the verses 18 and 19 from last Sunday.  When Jesus unrolled that scroll in the synagogue, and stood to read, here’s what is quoted from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ reading from Isaiah, echoes the Spirit filled words of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon earlier in Luke.  People will argue about whether Jesus’ words are meant personally or prophetically.  Aren’t we all on some level poor in spirit, blind to truth, captive to sin, and oppressed by shame?  We talk about those experiences regularly and I often preach Jesus’ promises for all people as a direct word of grace.  For God’s sake (literally), I experience comfort in Jesus’ personal grace myself for all those reasons.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus only meant these words on a personal, spiritual level. If he did, what do we make of the likes of King, Tubman, and Bonhoeffer whose deep faith shapes actions on behalf of people who are actually poor, captive, and oppressed? One of the things I find fascinating about reviewing history is how it can help with perspective today.  Which leads to the other question I’ve been noodling. Who are the voices of prophetic grace are right now? Your homework this week is in the form of a question.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message?  Perhaps it’s a message that rankles and gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable and antsy for some cliff hurling.  Let me know who you come up with and why.  Here’s the question again.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message. Before we get too far on that homework, I’d like us to add to the mix of prophetic grace the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking with love. To paraphrase Paul, speaking without love ends up being a whole lot of noise for a whole lot of nothing.

Some of us have tasted this love that Paul is talking about.  We’ve experienced the grace of the gospel in the unconditional love of Jesus that means there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  It’s deeply personal and it’s transformed our lives.  I first heard this gospel when I was 28 years old. As it fell into my ears week after week, I would sit in that sanctuary and wonder what the people around me were hearing. The gospel, my husband, and my congregation at the time, started nudging me to seminary.  Six years ago yesterday, I was ordained and installed here, with you, as a pastor.  You just never know what the gospel is going to do with you once it’s had its way transforming hearts with love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  This is true whatever your vocation. Gospel love is a personal grace.

Gospel love is also prophetic grace. There are moments when other people say hard things but we’ve still experienced this gospel love.  It’s harder to hear the love through a tough message but it’s in there.  We question motives and meaning before we even realize we’re doing it.  Consistently, Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because all people are included in the love of God – even that person you wouldn’t mind hurling off a cliff – prophetic or not.  Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because Jesus loves the world, everything and everyone in it.  This means that grace in the form of unconditional, gospel love is personal for you and prophetic for everyone else.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say hallelujah…and amen.

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[1] Luke 4:16

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology. Commentary on Luke 4:21-30 for February 3, 2019 on Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955

[3] Saja Hindi. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade Sends Thousands Through Denver.” The Denver Post, January 21, 2019. https://www.denverpost.com/2019/01/21/martin-luther-king-day-marade-denver/

[4] Audio and Document to Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King. Have a listen: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[5] Harriet Tubman. History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman

[6] Victoria Barnett. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

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Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”