Tag Archives: Jesus

Cross, Kinship & Redemption – Mark 8:31-38

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 8:31-38  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Late night comedians would have a field day with Peter – the classic straw man, so easily critiqued. He’s perfected the theological equivalent of the prat fall. But Peter’s comments are often reasonable with a consistent logic. Just a couple of verses before the Bible reading from Mark, Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”[1] We can imagine Peter’s answer, filled with awe, love, and bumbling pride. “You are the Messiah,” he says. Only thing is that Jesus never calls himself the Messiah in Mark’s gospel.

A couple of verses after Peter’s “Messiah” answer, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man in our reading today. The Son of Man title comes from the book of Daniel and refers to a person who disrupts human powers from their questionable goals.[2]  Jesus’ self-reference as the Son of Man is in conflict with Peter naming him as the Messiah. In this light, Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is actually quite reasonable. The internal logic of identifying a Messiah means that a shameful death of said Messiah wouldn’t compute. Peter’s rebuke seems meant as a reminder to Jesus about the righteous path – or what Peter reasons out at as righteous.

The rebukes come quickly. Peter takes Jesus to the side and rebukes him. Jesus opens the conversation to include all the disciples and rebukes Peter. Peter is trying to rebuke the idea of Jesus’ death on a cross. Jesus is reporting the logical end of his work. His work includes tossing out demons, healing blind people, forgiving sins, and confronting the status quo of the powers that be. Jesus can only confront the powers that be for so long before the inevitable power play. In the first century, for Jesus, this meant an epic public smack down, a death on a cross, in return for his efforts. It’s not rocket science. It’s retribution.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[3] There are many a good sermon about personal crosses to bear. However, Jesus words here in Mark seem to connect to the public nature of crucifixion. People crucified in the first century had to literally carry their cross to the place of execution.[4] Jesus’ listeners would have seen in their mind’s eye this image of carrying the cross and heard the mocking taunts that accompany the procession.

Jesus is asking his disciples to pick up the cross. Choosing people over power, prestige, and even life itself. That’s a tall order. Pretty much the only one who’s able to fill the tall order is Jesus. In just a few short chapters, he’ll be carrying his cross with the help of Simon of Cyrene.[5] The disciples fall away the closer Jesus gets to the crucifixion. Mark’s gospel reminds everybody of the call of discipleship and what it means to follow the One who is actually faithful to the end.[6]  Jesus opens up the possibilities beyond what we can imagine. His faithfulness to his death and through his death fuels the fire of disciples. Their early stories are in the New Testament. But there are plenty of disciples alive today who continue to inspire. We see these people and see Jesus working through them.

Gregory Boyle is one such disciple. Thirty years ago he began working with young people in the heart of Los Angeles as they figured out life after gangs. He’s still doing it. His latest book is about radical kinship.  It’s called Barking to the Choir because one of the young people he worked with waved off Boyle’s comments with the comment, “Don’t sweat it bald-headed…Your barking to the choir.”[7]  Mixing his metaphors became an apt description for jostling the status quo of a world divided into us and them, into powers that be for themselves and not for everyone. Boyle encourages us with a gospel that Jesus took so seriously that he lost his life barking about it. And by barking, I mean the radical kinship embodied by Jesus – healing, forgiving, loving, and kicking those demons to the curb.  That kind of barking is hard to ignore because it’s about redemption.

Barking makes me think about my dog Sunny. When she’s determined about something, she barks. It’s her go to move and, when she’s about it, it’s difficult to pay attention to anything else. Boyle is specific about the kind of barking he’s talking about. He makes the point that the radical kinship embodied through the gospel of Christ is not one of anger. Anger continues to close the fists we end up shaking at each other.[8]  Radical kinship opens those fists and calls us together.

Notice that Peter takes Jesus off to the side and, in response, Jesus turns back to include the other disciples and then not just the disciples but he called the crowds with them, too. Jesus says to all of them that following him includes taking up their crosses and losing their life to gain their life. Their cross. Their life. A cross that comes through Jesus’ radical kinship. A cross that means each of us engaging in the way we’re empowered through baptism by the gifts of the Spirit to engage. This engagement does and will disrupt the status quo and the powers that be in our own lives and in the wider world. That’s what happens when the status quo is redeemed – redeemed out of what Boyle calls the status quo of “incessant judging, comparisons, measuring, scapegoating, and competition.”[9]

The status quo goes to town in each of us, showing up in unconscious behavior and attitudes. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving or outside of God’s love and acceptance. We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption is possible. There are a variety of situations that beg the question, “Do we believe in redemption or don’t we?” Our answer to that question is often “no” and we continue to judge, compare, measure, scapegoat, and compete; like Peter we continue to separate Jesus from the very people Jesus includes in ever widening circles of redemption.

Fortunately, the God of redemption is alive and well. Just look at Peter’s work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Peter became a preacher extraordinaire, tireless in his quest to share the good news. Or look at Gregory Boyle and the men and women who find redemption after gang life. Or look at you. In you, the God of redemption is alive and well, undiverted by your lack of will or understanding of what the cross means and who Jesus is.

Jesus reminds us that separation from each other isn’t true – even when we act like it is.

Jesus meets our separation with kinship, disrupting the status quo and enlivening us for the sake of the gospel.

By proclaiming the cross to his disciples, Jesus empowers us to take up the cross and follow him on the way of redemption for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.


[1] Mark 8:27-30

[2] Pastor John Petty. Lent 2:::Mark 8:31-38 on February 19, 2018. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/02/lent-2-mark-8-31-38.html

[3] Mark 8:34

[4] Petty.

[5] Mark 15:21

[6] David Lose. In the Meantime: Mark 8:34-38. July 4, 2012. http://www.davidlose.net/2012/07/mark-834-38/

[7] Gregory Boyle. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship.  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 1.

[8] Boyle, 6.

[9] Boyle, 10.

When Beauty Sustains [Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 50:1-6, and Romans 12:1-2]

**sermon image celebrates nature’s beauty through the photography of Jim Doty

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Psalm 50:1-6 The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. 3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. 4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. (Selah)

Romans 12:2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[sermon begins]

The Transfiguration readings from Mark and Psalm 50 have me thinking about beauty. Specifically the beauty of God that breaks through whatever normal thing is happening. The moments just before the transfiguration are normal enough. In Colorado, we might call it a hike among friends.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. They barely bag the peak when the light show begins.  Dazzling them and even terrifying them.[1]  Psalm 50 brings up the perfection of beauty and God shining through. The word perfection in this Hebrew usage means all-in-all or complete which has parallels to telos in Biblical Greek.[2]  The Psalmist refers to Zion as the conduit of beauty through which “God shines forth.”[3]

Beauty is thorny.  We often suspect that beauty is contrived or exploited for gain. I’ve met many people who are suspicious of the aesthetics of beauty because they’re troubled about who sets the definitions and principles of what is beautiful. Here’s what I suggest for today. Let’s let the Transfiguration guide us. The Transfiguration is a dazzling, terrifying moment that surprises the disciples. Peter, James, and John are thrown off-balance to the point that Peter wings out an absurd building plan to sustain the moment. But it seems that it’s not about sustaining the dazzling moment of beauty. It seems that the dazzling moment of beauty is about sustaining them.

Pastor Ann asked us a question last week out of the Isaiah reading.[4]  How does faith sustain you in the weary places?  Today, the Transfiguration shifts that question ever so slightly to wonder how glimpses of God’s beauty sustain us through Lent.[5] Ash Wednesday arrives in three days.  For today, tomorrow, and the next, I’m inviting us into a transfiguration not of our own making – a beauty makeover, a transformation of a different sort.  Because I think this is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  The word for transformed is a Greek word rarely used in the New Testament – only 4 times.[6] It’s translated “transfiguration” in Mark and Matthew; it’s translated transformed in Romans and in 2 Corinthians.  Let’s play with moments of God’s beauty that might transfigure us, renewing our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Here’s one such moment. I was talking with a friend early last week about this idea of God’s beauty surprising us. He was one week into teaching a two-week technical class that includes electrical safety and the like out at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. He told me about a class moment during which a woman’s attention was drawn to a book underneath her desk rather than on the class discussion. Stopping the class, he asked the woman what she was reading. Turns out it was the Bible. She had been to a worship service the evening before and wanted to keep going. My friend’s exact words to describe that moment were, “Beauty tore into life to dominate the day.” Poor class behavior notwithstanding, this woman’s Jesus moment would not be thwarted. My friend saw a glimpse of God’s sustaining beauty in that moment.

Here’s another one.  Last Sunday, our youngest choir called the Cherub Choir sang a song called, “God has made me wonderful.” What made it beautiful was not harmonious brilliance. The beauty was their exuberance in singing the message and the fact that they were singing the message at all. I would hasten to bet that the thought bubbles that pop up over your heads during the week about yourself and other people don’t exactly echo “God has made me wonderful.” Think about what does pop up in those thought bubbles in the grocery aisle, in the hallways, and in traffic. Now is probably not the best time for the turn-to-your-neighbor and have a conversation on that topic. When those kids were singing last week, it was a glimpse of the beauty of God. So much so that the beauty of it intruded my mind several times during the week.

Surprising glimpses of God’s beauty are pure gift that transfigure us, sustaining us in dark times. This is not to be confused with putting on rose-colored glasses to avoid bad news or the pain of trauma. This is about God’s beauty that sustains us through the pain. There is a centuries old Christian practice of iconography that trains the mind’s eye to see the beauty of God revealed in the world. Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians are so named, was no iconoclast.[7] He did not support or encourage the destruction of religious images and icons the way other 16th century reformers did. Icons were simply one more way to catch glimpses of God’s beauty in the world. They are paintings that often feature Christ or the infant Jesus and his mother Mary or other ancestors of the faith. They’re painted with precious metals and have many meanings painted into them by way of color, clothes, hand positions, halos, and more. I have a couple small icons in my home. One is of Mary and the baby Jesus. This icon hangs next to a crucifix so that I can regularly reflect on the mess and the beauty of the incarnation of God from a mother’s body in tension with the suffering of God on a cross. Icons engage the senses and imagination preparing the faithful to see the image of God in the world.[8]  The in-breaking of God’s image, God’s beauty that surprises and transfigures us.

Pictures that flood social media very often include sunsets, sunrises, mountains, trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Christians believe that nature in all its glory reveals the glory of God.[9] Referring to nature as creation reveals it as another icon of sorts – revealing God’s provision of food and water as well as the beauty of God that surprises, inspires, terrifies, and ultimately sustains. I believe that the beauty of God sustains us, my friends. But I also believe that sharing our glimpses of the beauty of God sustains other people especially when we see it in them. At a time when despair nips at our own heels and overwhelms people we love, we offer by faith the glimpses of God’s beauty that we experience by grace. Whether through prison Bible reading, a song by young children, or the icon of creation, God breaks through with glimpses of beauty so compelling, so dazzling, that we cannot look away.  Not only can we not look away, but we are sustained through bad news and trauma.

God has made you wonderful. You are living icons through whom God’s beauty is revealed and sustains. Be at peace. The light of Christ shines in you.[10] Thanks be to God. And Amen.


[1] Mark 9:3 and 6

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair in Scripture, Theology, and Ministry at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[3] Psalm 50:2

[4] Isaiah 40:31

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[6] Bible Hub. “3339. μεταμορφόω (metamorphoó).” Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18   http://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_3339.htm

[7] Anthony Ugolnik. The Illuminating Icon. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989), 59.

[8] Ugolnik, 61

[9] Romans 1:20

[10] This phrase is part of the worship liturgy called the Dismissal during this Sundays after Epiphany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Jonah 3:5

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

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] Jonah 4:3

[5] Inga Oyan Longbrake, ibid.

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


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

My Triple-Great Grandfather Owned Slaves* [OR What’s Under Your Fig Tree?] 

sermon image: Arrington James, 8, grabs the hand of a freed slave figure at the African-American history monument at the South Carolina Statehouse, in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

* Many thanks to my colleague Roshan Bliss for his guidance on telling the story.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 14, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be read at the end of the sermon

Psalm 139 may be read at the end of the sermon

[sermon begins]

I want to know what happened under that fig tree. Apparently, so do a lot of people throughout time.  Not surprisingly, Bishop Augustine of Hippo in 4th century Africa decided it was sin.[1] This was his go-to move for most things. He had epic struggles with his own sin. Take a look at his book Confessions some time. His point about the fig tree is well taken though. First he asks if the fig tree signifies anything.  Finding that Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves after doing what God had asked them not to do, St. Augustine concludes that Jesus knows Nathaniel’s sin.[2]  Thus exposed, Nathaniel comes to faith in the blink of an eye.  First he questions, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[3]  Then, Jesus announces the fig tree sighting. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Suddenly, Nathaniel goes all street preacher as he shouts, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”[4]

St. Augustine is arguably one of the most influential Christian thinkers through the last two millennia.  Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians derive their name, was an Augustinian monk. His own challenges with sin are no secret. Now, I’m game to talk about sin along with the best of them.  I’m committed to calling a thing what it is and sometimes that means acknowledging our darker natures. But I also think that this makes for a quick turn to condemnation. Condemnation that takes shape in the church as finger-pointing and accusation.

Take today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, for example.  The word translated “fornication” comes from the Greek “porneia.”[5]  It’s also translated “sexual immorality.” The word is vague enough that interpreters throughout time tend to put their cultural spin on defining its meaning.[6] Paul’s explanation is his letter to the Corinthians points at the 1st Century practice of visiting prostitutes.[7]  He’s making a distinction between the behavior of Corinthian men who were not-Jesus-followers and men who were Jesus-followers. Jesus-followers who were free men of Corinth and slaves to Christ. Paul’s argument seems pretty straight forward. And yet, I grew up in a different Christian tradition that winged around the words “fornication” and “sexual immorality” as the end-all-be-all of whether or not Jesus had any other interest for me or other people. My experience of the church at that time was that it had its finger out in condemnation. We can see how this happens. Look at Augustine again. Fig tree equals sin. Therefore, Jesus knew Nathaniel’s sin. Therefore, the body of Christ on earth sees and identifies other people’s sin. Before you know it, the church is off and running as sexual-immorality-sin-sniffer-outers and no one measures up…even the church by the way.

Please hear me clearly.  There is sexual sin that hurts ourselves and each other. Absolutely.  Some of the individual confessions I hear in my office are about sexual sin and the hurt people inflict through them. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are important for us to hear.  It’s the distortion of that message by the church that is concerning. The distortion between what’s make or break for whether or not Jesus is for us or against us. It’s a distortion of the gospel. If there’s anything that the cross teaches us, it’s that Jesus finds us in those dark places and offers us a way out of them. Here’s a thought in that regard.  It’s possible that Nathaniel’s story under the fig tree, the one that Jesus knows about, is of a different nature entirely.  The story that God knows about our whole story.

As the Psalm reading from today describes what God knows:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”[8]

I’ve been wondering lately about how our story fits into God’s call to us. Not just because of Nathaniel’s leap to faith – although his story has given me a way to think about it. It makes me wonder how the different parts of our story work into the call. Many of you know my religious background and church refugee status that led to my call to the pulpit. Added to this call is Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and my experience of call as a person of faith to work in the breach between Black and White people in this country. There’s a lot in the mix there for me.  When I moved to California from D.C. at 9 years old, my very first friend Kim Gammel was Black and so was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Gaines.  In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Lake – an amazing, strong Black woman – assigned the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racism in America during the Great Depression.[9]  I spent four years at John Muir High School in Pasadena. It was 10% White kids and predominantly Black and Latino kids with an additional minority of first and second generation Asian and Armenian kids.

Running in parallel to those details of upbringing is the picture of the South Carolina governor’s mansion hanging in my grandparents’ home because my Great-Great Grandfather, Hugh Thompson, was the governor of South Carolina.[10]  He led a battalion of Citadel cadets to fire some of the first shots of the Civil War against the North’s Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor.  And, on top of that infamy is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas B. Clarkson, Plantation man and owner of 300 slaves – men, women, and children.[11]

About a year and a half ago, my mother gave me a letter written by an abolitionist to my triple-great grandfather.  The letter congratulated him on his good care of the slaves. I suppose it’s good to know that he treated his slaves with some kindness. The bottom line for me is that he owned people. The odd thing is that I’ve known for many years that he was a plantation owner and it never once occurred to me that he owned slaves. Of course I’m not responsible for his choices but I am affected by them…and so are all of us here. There is always something to be learned. The legacy of slavery for all of us in this country, but especially for our Black brothers and sisters, is part of how I understand my call to the ministry of reconciliation in the second letter to the Corinthians.[12] Reconciliation understood as repairing our broken relationships between God and neighbors.

Last week, Pastor Ann asked the question, “Who do you think you are?” Through the story of Jesus’ baptism, she announced the good news that we are beloved children of God.[13]   So when I hear Jesus say to Nathaniel, “I saw you underneath the fig tree,” that opens up the question of Nathaniel’s whole story, not only his sin but everything that makes him him and ready for telling the story of Jesus though his own story.

Somehow, Nathaniel’s story moved him from the skepticism and contempt of his original question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel had a story under that fig tree. Jesus knew that story about Nathaniel and called him through it to faith. Apparently something good does come out of Nazareth…and from under fig trees. In the same way, Jesus calls us through our stories – whether the story is one of sin and darkness or one of family heritage or something else entirely or a combination of all those.  His call is an opportunity to get curious about our own stories and other people stories and how Jesus calls us through them…accepting us for who we are, what we’ve done, who our family was, what they’ve done, who our country is, and what we’ve done and drawing us to faith. Drawing us to faith and setting us free to tell Jesus’ story through the truth of our own story by the grace of God. Alleluia and amen.


[1] Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Tractate VII, Chapter 1 vv 34-51, Section 20. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.viii.html

[2] Geneses 3:1-7 [verse 7 is the moment of fig leaf couture.]

[3] John 1:46

[4] John 1:49

[5] Peter Liethart. “Porneia.” January 14, 2015. Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/porneia/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Maître de Conférence (Assistant Professor), Faculté Libre de Théologie Protestante, Paris, France.  Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for January 18, 2015 on Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2338

[8] Psalm 139:1-2

[9] Mildred D. Taylor. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).

[10] Hugh Smith Thompson (1836-1904). 51st Governor of South Carolina (1882-1886).  http://www.carolana.com/SC/Governors/hsthompson.html

[11] Suellen Clarkson Delahunty (my mother’s cousin). Information About Thomas B. Clarkson, Col. http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/d/e/l/Suellen-Clarkson-Delahunty-NC/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0001.html

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

[13] Jesus baptism by John is told earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.


1 Corinthians 6:12-20  “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

Tell An Imperfect Story [OR Small Wonder the Inns Were Full] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Imagine if you will, a young couple.[1] She’s very pregnant. Puffy cheeks and feet. He’s young too. Both just starting out in adulting and there hasn’t been a moment to catch their breath. Mary’s surprise pregnancy first sent her into hiding for several months at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hills.  Now she’s back with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. But that doesn’t last long either. Emperor Augustus calls for a registration census so that taxes can be collected. With his decree, Joseph and Mary travel the 80 miles to Bethlehem. There could have been a donkey to ride.  Although at many months pregnant, four days of donkey riding doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I imagine that they were slower than many of the other people on the long and winding road, taking more breaks along the way.  It’s no wonder that the inns were full by the time they arrived.

For all the drama that’s easy to imagine, the story is sparsely told. It’s told in almost bullet points. You and I both know that it couldn’t have been that simple. There’s a saying in the news business that, “All news is local.”  I would say that all news is about people. People in situations often beyond their control. The Bible couldn’t be less like a newspaper.  It neither follows modern journalistic guidelines nor could it ever hope to meet those standards. But Mary and Joseph’s story shows local people trying to live during a time when religious and political events are well beyond their control.

It makes me wonder if it’s a similar lack of control that fuels the latest “Christmas miracle” craze. I’ve heard the term in the past. But this December it seems to pop up everywhere describing good news big and small.[2] Christmas miracles are listed in the news as melt-in-your-mouth recipes, pet adoptions, inspiring health recoveries, snow in Texas, and even includes a tongue-in-cheek report of an ER staff who performed surgery on an Elf on the Shelf named Sam after the family’s dog went rogue. I’m totally on the band wagon. It feels really good to throw my arms in the air and announce, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Sometimes it’s celebration and sometimes it’s snark but it feels good and it makes me laugh every time.

Naming things a Christmas miracle seeks to name the good – from small things like not burning forgotten toast to big moments of joy that defy explanation. One thought is that we name them miracles because we want to see the transcendent in something tangible, relatable, and real. Who wouldn’t want a Christmas miracle?! Apparently the shepherds are game to see one – although the “good news of great joy” comes from an angel that’s hard to ignore and quite terrifying to boot.[3]

What about this savior that the angel announces?  What is one way we can think about that savior today in light everything that happens beyond our control? The Bible story goes on to tell us that the child who is born is named Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus.  Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness leads him to an execution on a cross.  But before we’re privy to those parts of the story, God begins with a baby.  Perhaps God knows what most us know.  Not many can resist a baby.  Babies get our attention. A baby certainly grabbed the shepherds’ attention – with a little help from the angel.

Rallying through their angel terror, the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to see the child. The new, young parents hear an earful from the shepherds about what the angel told them. The story tells us that, “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”  Like Mary, we are left to ponder their story in our hearts.  It’s a funny thing what happens when left to pondering. We notice random things when they would otherwise slip by.  For instance, my husband and I watch the show The Voice.  It’s a weekly singing competition. Four superstar performers act as coaches and judges. Viewers cast the winning votes. In the live, top 8 performances this season, superstar Jennifer Hudson says to one of the contestants, “Allow yourself to feel it…stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story; you should pretty much be on your knees when you get done.”[4]  Because this sermon was on my mind, my first thought when I heard Ms. Hudson’s say that was, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”  No, but seriously, she was my Christmas preacher in that moment.

“Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.”  How many of us are trying to sing a perfect song to cover for our imperfect story?  Want to hear a real Christmas miracle?  Your imperfect story, everything that is out of control and beyond your control, is exactly where God begins with you.  This is where God’s transcendence becomes tangible, relatable, and real because God meets us right where we live – shoving aside that perfect song we try to sing about ourselves and, instead, tells our imperfect story.  So, we can just leave that perfect song to the angels and heavenly host.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Bible is an imperfect story told by and about imperfect people that reveal the Christ perfectly. It’s like the manger that holds the baby Jesus. Maybe it has a bent nail or a few splinters, but Jesus is in there.[5]  Revealing the One who came under a star in skin and solidarity.  Revealing the One who comes in vulnerability – fragile, dependent, and hungry. Revealing the One whose story is imperfectly told so that we might see that our imperfections, our vulnerability, our fragility are revealed and held by God who also sees and names the good in you, calls you beloved, and names you children of God. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.

Thanks be to God!



[1] “Imagine if you will…” is a line of narration used in The Twilight Zone.

[2] Here’s a link to a websearch of key words “Christmas miracle.” https://www.google.com/search?q=christmas+miracle+2017&tbm=nws&source=univ&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi965GngP3XAhUI2WMKHSoiBucQt8YBCEQoAQ&biw=1366&bih=662

[3] Luke 2:9

[4] Jennifer Hudson to Davon Fleming, direct quote, minute 23:50 as televised with commercials. The Voice: Live Top 8 Performances. Season 13, Episode 24, December 11, 2017, on NBC.

[5] Martin Luther paraphrased from the Preface to the Old Testament (1523/1545) quoted by Timothy Lull in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd Ed, Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 114.  https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/dear-is-the-treasure-who-lies-in-them-by-martin-luther/

Pick a Word, Any Word [OR Sl**p Happens] Mark 13:24-37 and 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:24-37 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

1 Corinthians 1:3-9  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

[sermon begins]

Hanging from my car’s rearview mirror is a string with six colored beads tied into it – green, red, and white.  My daughter, Taryn, made it about ten years ago.  She gave me her gift and said it was the liturgical year. It’s hung in my cars ever since and now has that priceless quality of sweet nostalgia. She made it and gave it to me knowing that the liturgical year means something to me – which is funny because there was a time when I had no idea what it was. Here we now sit, on the first day of the new liturgical year. The term simply means church time. The church keeps time around the life, death, and life of Jesus and calls it the liturgical year. Today, we could easily greet each other with a joyous, “Happy New Year!” Advent begins the new church year today. We mark Advent during the four Sundays before Christmas.  At the same time, we turn the page from the Gospel of Matthew to the Gospel of Mark.

I, for one, am relieved.  Matthew highlights the tension between the early church and Temple Judaism so much that it can be challenging to preach with all of that wailing and teeth-gnashing about who’s in and who’s out.  The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the four gospels at 16 chapters. This means that the Gospel of John shows up more in Sunday readings which, for this preacher, is heaven on earth. Get it? Word made flesh (John 1:14)? [I’m throwing in my own chuckle on this one thereby reifying my kids’ perception that I laugh far too easily at my own jokes].

Mark is writing at a time when Rome’s power destroyed the temple.[1] The political and the religious crossed swords regularly.  Mark preaches an engaged discipleship in troubled times that rejects violence on the one hand and timidity on the other.[2] Jesus opens and closes the reading today with descriptions of dark and chaotic times. We are listening in as Jesus teaches his disciples just before the events of the cross begin.[3] Jesus’ teaching reveals the cross as the apocalypse for which the disciples are to keep awake. He does this by using the language of time in verse 35 that matches the language of time in crucifixion story – evening, midnight, cockrow, or dawn.[4]  Let’s take evening as one example, Jesus catches these same disciples asleep in the garden as he prays.[5]

Yes, sleep happens. Knowing that sleep happens, let’s talk about the discipline of keeping awake and engaged.  For me, long before the pulpit stint, it was first about the Eucharist. Receiving weekly communion has been food for the soul revealing both my complete dependence on God and the strength needed for whatever God is calling me into. The Eucharist, of course, sits in the middle of the worship liturgy after the preaching that convicts, forms, and frees us as disciples.  Beyond the discipline of worship, there are daily opportunities for keeping awake.

A friend and colleague, Pastor Margot Wright, talked about her Advent discipline when we met in Preacher’s Text Study this week. Step 1, she chooses one word from scripture at the start of Advent.  Step 2, she keeps the word on her radar for the whole year.  She talks about listening for the word in her scripture study and also in her life.  The word serves to keep her awake and engaged.  In the spirit of word choosing, I’m asking each of you to open your worship bulletin to the 1 Corinthians reading and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. As I read the 1 Corinthians out loud, circle the words that jump out for you.  As an example, it could be the word “grace” or the name of “Jesus.” Circle as many or as few as you’d like – whatever jumps out to you. Here we go…

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]

Here’s your homework. Take this reading home and think through whether any of these words are worth choosing as your word for this church year.  A word that could become part of discipleship, keeping you awake and engaged in these troubling times.

Keep in mind that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is being sent because they are going through a difficult time. They were doing just fine when Paul left them as a mission start congregation but have fallen into disarray, squabbling about all kinds of things.  The reading from Paul’s letter lists truths about discipleship regardless of chaos because they are promised by God, not dredged up within ourselves – grace, peace, strength, speech, knowledge, spiritual gifts, and more, given by God.

Pick a word, any word, as a discipline for this next church year. Pick it from 1 Corinthians or 1 John or wherever scripture leads you. Mine is from Psalm 126 but I’ve had since Tuesday to think about it.  Tape it to your bathroom mirror, hang it from your car mirror, write it on a bookmark and use it in whatever book you’re reading at the moment, paint it on your fingernails, or use fingernail polish to paint it on your shop bench. Get creative. Keep awake. Be engaged in this moment in time.

Time is a funny thing.  I heard a Radio Map podcast yesterday called, “When Brains Attack.”[6]  “In this episode, strange stories of brains [are told] that lead their owners astray, knock them off balance, and, sometimes, propel them to do amazing things.” Diane Van Deren, a Coloradoan, lost her sense of time after part of her brain was removed to treat a seizure. Since her surgery, she can’t remember who she met this morning. Also since her surgery, she’s become one of the best ultra-endurance runners in the world, covering hundreds of miles in extreme conditions. Because she has no sense of time passing, she just keeps going. She talks about numbering her 8-minute pace as she runs, “1 – 2 – 3 – 4 * 1 – 2 – 3 – 4…” She calls the numbers her music, her flow, to her athlete’s’ ear.  The interviewer narrates, “Think about it, if you don’t know where you are in time, you don’t know how much further you have to go, where you’ve been.”[7]

The disciples listening to Jesus also don’t know where they are in time, how much further they have to go. Jesus gives his disciples time clues beyond their understanding. The clues sound like they’re way out in the future but the cross sneaks up on them. Jesus tells them, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.”[8]

Jesus gives the disciples a word of life in the fig tree’s timing nestled in between his talk about the timing of the cross. In his words about the fig tree, he also gives us discipleship that speaks a challenging, good word to a world seeming bent on words of contempt and acts of violence. We do not know where we are in time or how much further each one of us will go. God’s good word reveals God’s tomorrow in the life we live today. This is the good Word first given to us in the life of Jesus for whom we wait and for whom we keep awake. Thanks be to God for God’s good Word.


[1] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. “Advent Time.” For Working Preacher on November 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5007

[2] Matthew L. Skinner. Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. “Preaching Mark in Times of Strife (Part 1 of 2).  Working Preacher on November 14, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4999

[3] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

[4] Mark 14:32-52 (evening in the garden); Mark 14:53-65 (midnight, examined by the high priest); Mark 14:66-72 (cockrow, denied three times by a friend); Mark 15:1-20 (dawn, condemned to die); Mark 15:33 (Jesus’ crucifixion, death on the cross, and burial: Mark 15:21-47).

[5] Mark 14:32-42 The disciples fall asleep three times in the garden as Jesus is praying.

[6] Diane Van Deren interviewed by Mark Phillips. When Brains Attack: Head Over Heels. On Radio Map http://www.radiolab.org/story/217567-head-over-heels/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark 13:28

The Indescribable Gift [OR “I’m Tired of Doing the Impossible for the Ungrateful”] – Luke 17:11-19, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and Psalm 100

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Thanksgiving Eve, November 19, 2017, 7:00 p.m.

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; Psalm is at the end]

Luke 17:11-19  On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

[sermon begins]

My mama raised me to write thank you notes. The rule I remember is that they had to be more than two sentences.  When I taught my own kids to write thank you notes, I added a rule about throwing in a comment unrelated to the gift.  The comment could be newsy – an update about life.  Or the comment could be a memory that includes the person they’re writing to.  Or the comment could be a question about the recipient’s life. I’ll be honest and tell you that I’m hit and miss when it comes to thank you notes these days. I’m often in the camp with the nine lepers.  Someone made the comment in Adult Sunday School this week that he’s often in the camp with the nine lepers, too. Going about his life, gratitude can occur to him months or even years later. He imagined the nine lepers in a similar moment. The nine head off to see the priest and then back to their families and communities from which they’d likely been separated for a long time. Who knows if or when it occurs to those nine people to say thank you? It’s possible gratitude occurs to them at some point. But it’s also possible that it doesn’t.

Jesus wonders about the nine others with the returning man.  He asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”[1]  It’s a bit like Jesus wondering about a thank you note. Notice that he didn’t assume ingratitude. He didn’t say, “Those ungrateful swine, I’m taking the healing back and never healing anyone again.”  Along this line, a recent movie preview caught my ear. I tend to pay attention when Denzel Washington’s in a new movie. His character is a defense attorney who’s passionate and burned out. Mid-preview is the line, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”[2]  “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”  It’s such a great line. So frustrated. So human. The movie preview uses this line to lead into self-isolating and justifying behavior on the part of the lawyer.  In thank you note land, it would be like not sending any more gifts because there were never any thank you notes in return.  And, just like that, gift-giving becomes transactional.  Whether it’s the gifts we use for the good of the world or the gifts we give as presents, we can be quick to decide who is worthy of receiving them.  It’s difficult to imagine God saying, “I’m tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.”

Jesus seems to have no such concerns about ingratitude. He goes on to heal a blind beggar after healing the lepers.[3]  Which makes me think a little more about the leper who returned. According to the story, Jesus is out in nowhere-ville between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem for the main event. He’s passing through a “middle space” where there is likely ethnic and religious tension. [4] The healed guy is not only a former leper but he’s also a Samaritan who Jews considered way outside of worthiness and God’s activity.  But there he is both healed and praising God.

Adult Sunday School was talking about the healed lepers on Sunday because the originally scheduled programming is to be rescheduled due to a death in the speaker’s family.  People showed up to class on Sunday expecting to hear from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a Mormon speaker.  It’s part of the World Faith Series that we’re doing throughout this year.  Speakers from various religious traditions present information with the goal of increasing our understanding of world faiths. Rabbi Bernie Gerson gave us an overview of Jewish law, traditions, and beliefs, through the lens of God, Torah, and Israel.  Imam Karim AbuZaid spoke to us about Islam in America which covered Islamic traditions and beliefs through the lens of the Bible and the Koran.  If there’s anything that this story of the Samaritan, former leper teaches us, it’s that God can speak a word of grace through whomever God chooses, often taking us outside of our comfort zone – religiously, racially, and pretty much all the other “-lys” you could list here.

A word of grace from the outside can be challenging for 21st century religious Christians just as it was in the life and times of first century religious Jews.  And I use the word “religious” in the best of possible ways.  Take this evening’s worship for example.  We’re here, singing thanks and praise to God for God’s indescribable gifts.[5]  When we do this together, we are being religious about our living faith.  We can naturally feel protective about the faith which for many of us is foundational to who we are in the world. Again, we are much like 1st century Jews who would be hearing this story of Jesus and the Samaritan leper.  For my part, I can not only feel protective but I can also get complacent and content with my understanding of faith and grace.

There is theological language that I hold dear and that makes sense to me in describing healing as I’ve experienced it by God’s grace. A few weeks ago, I fumbled and bumbled around trying to answer a question in new member class.  I had described my experience of first hearing about the love of God in Jesus during a time in my life when postpartum depression had me feeling my most unlovable and unworthy.  The message I heard was something like “there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less than God already loves us.”  This message of pure grace is dear and powerful and transformative in my own life. The question asked was asked by someone without a church background and was about what that looked like for me. There were so many things I wanted say and I couldn’t put them together into anything that made sense in the moment.  That’s how cozy I’ve become with my favorite words that can end up sounding churchy and incomprehensible to people not in the church world.  It was totally humbling.

As part of my scramble to lead Sunday School last Sunday, I came across a video by Brené Brown.[6] She’s a well-known, well-published anthropologist who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for the last 15 years.  This 2 minute video is her answer to the question, “What is grace?”  Dr. Brown highlights a line in the Amazing Grace hymn – “ ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.”  She talks about a time in her life when she didn’t know how to be afraid and, in fear, she would “get perfect, get controlling, get blaming, get mean, run, do anything that [she] could do.”   She’s making a distinction between about how she instinctively protected herself in fear and how she lives differently today by way of grace.  For me, hearing Dr. Brown talk about grace is a bit of a blindside.  It’s not how I usually give words to it but, man, they make a lot of sense.  And it came out of nowhere, knocking me out what’s become a kind of complacent understanding of grace.

Jesus, the giver of grace, knocks the Samaritan, former leper, out of his complacency by healing him. The word “heal” in the Bible story can also be translated as healed, made well, saved, or whole.[7]  Jesus made the lepers whole through their relationship of healing.  Someone also pointed out in Sunday School about this text that the gratitude is relational. In this case, between Jesus and the former leper. Like a thank you note, gratitude is between the two parties – it could be two people or a group of people.  Like prayer and praise, gratitude is between us and God.

God, who finds us in our complacency and makes us whole through the grace of Jesus. Loving us at our most unlovable and healing us.

God, whose grace through Jesus makes us whole in the face of our fear, across the boundaries of “otherness” and difference.

And we, like the apostle Paul, can say, “Thanks be to God for [this] indescribable gift!”[8]


[1] Luke 17:17

[2] Dan Gilroy, writer and director. Movie: Roman J. Israel, Esq.  (Columbia Pictures, 2017). Movie Preview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGVIKqbEtdU  [Quoted Line comes a minute 1:16]

[3] Luke 18:35-43

[4] David Lose. Luke 17:11-19 Commentary for Working Preacher, October 10, 2010.  Dr. Lose points out that Luke’s designation of this area is not as accurate topographically as it is theologically. The main point being that it’s an in between place where this significant story happens amidst significant tension. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=783

[5] 2 Corinthians 9:15

[6] Brené Brown. “Grace and Fear.” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery and Transformation. http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/grace-and-fear

[7] Lose, Ibid.

[8] 2 Corinthians 9:15


Psalm 100

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 12, 2017

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

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

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


[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Dubov, Ibid.

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

[8] Matthew 5:17

[9] Matthew 5:1-12

[10] Matthew 5:14-16

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

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

[13] Ibid.

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

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

[16] Matthew 25:16-20


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



Pops, Purity, and Promise [I Promise It’s Not What You Think] Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

[sermon begins]

I was 9 years old when Mom and my stepfather were married after dating long distance for about two years between Washington D.C. and Pasadena, California. While they were dating and into their marriage my four sibs and I called him Bill.  Eventually we started talking about what we could call him differently that would signify the relationship. His children called him Dad so that didn’t fit. Plus we already had a Dad.  We eventually settled on Pops.

Early on I thought Pops looked like John Wayne. He had the gruff and tough thing down anyway.  He took us on our first road trip from Pasadena to Springdale, Arkansas, to meet his folks, Grandma and Grandpa Cloer. Somewhere in New Mexico, Pops laid down the law about fewer bathroom breaks. I’m sure with five kids that pit stops had spun out of control. At one point Mom turned around and I had quiet tears running down my face. I absolutely did not want to be the one who forced the next stop and didn’t want to fess up.  Pops felt terrible. This is a tale that we told in our family for years.

Pops also had season tickets to the Dodgers. My brothers and sisters and I each had a chance to go solo with him to games. Dodger dogs, peanuts, the 7th inning stretch, and Toni Tennille’s autograph are just a few of the highlights.[1] I’m a nostalgic Dodger fan because of that time with Pops. (Truth be told, I’ve only just found the tiniest bit of compassion for Houston’s first time Championship win…you know, given the hurricane and all.)

Then I became a teenager…dunh, dunh, duuunnh. Teens are really good at naming parental faults. I was no exception. Pops and I shared many a word about each other’s faults. I was most definitely NOT seeing him as the John Wayne epic hero at that time. He was real and human and deeply flawed. Pops died just after Christmas in 2002.  His were rough last days. He’s a hero in my eyes still. Marrying a single mother of five children after raising four of his own is nothing short of heroic even if he loved her. He was also flawed and fragile, sinner and saint, imperfect and beloved. He was and is enfolded in the life of God.

In a line from the First John reading today we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”[2] It’s a word of promise. We are God’s children NOW. John goes on to talk about purifying “just as Christ was pure.”[3] The way I hear being pure in these verses is such a comfort. Called Beloved and named a child of God and then reading that in that mix there will be purity as Christ is pure?  Are you kidding me?!  Sign me up! And then, I pause…and think… Because our human minds set up purity codes pretty darn quick. The things that I hold near and dear and pure can quickly become how I assess someone else.  And before I know it, I don’t even measure up to my own purity code.

A blog writer wrote about her son’s decisions to do high school differently than his two older sisters who ended up at top universities.[4]  He sat his parents down toward the end of middle school to talk with them about his own ideas about academics, sports, and leadership that were vastly different than theirs. She wrote about learning how to “slowly and sometimes painfully put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.”  Her words call to mind the beatitudes we hear in the Matthew reading.

Jesus names the blessed as he lists the beatitudes to his disciples with the crowd listening in.[5]  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.[6]  Jesus upends the purity code of his time and also ours. He is addressing specific situations in his speech that we can hear speaking into our own.

If we re-wrote the beatitudes with what counts for blessing these days they might sound like this:

Blessed are the thriving, the joyful, the confident, and those who hunger for victory; blessed are the moral, the great, the tough, and the prosperous.

Hearing the opposite of the beatitudes can help us to hear them more clearly. The beatitudes as Jesus lists them are a word of grace in the face of our own high expectations.  It’s human to disappoint other people and to be disappointed by them; to hurt and be hurt even as we love and are loved.  And it’s human to ignore grace and make statements like, “I’m a good person.”  Or, to turn it into a question, “Am I a good enough person?”  This question begs another question. Good enough for what?  Good enough for you to love me?  Good enough for me to love you?  Or maybe the question in its ultimate forms: Good enough for God to love you?  Good enough to be received by God and enfolded in the life of God?

I’ve been to four funerals in the last two weeks. One for an Augustana member, two for colleagues both just 67 years old, and one for a friend whose cancer had recurred. I’ve heard eulogy after eulogy, and homily after homily and I ended up pretty cranky after feeling too many deep feels. These were good people and deeply flawed people. Imperfect and beloved people. Sinner-saint people. People like you and me.

A son of one my departed colleagues is also a theology professor.[7] His eulogy for his dad dabbled in homily but, man, I’m so glad he did. He talked about his dad being “enfolded in the life of God.” He also said, “Death is not the enemy. Death can never unlive the life that is lived.”  I would add that death cannot unlove a life that is already loved.  In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[8] But I think it’s what we unintentionally do. We end up unloving lives that are already loved by creating purity codes and attaching the name of God to them. No quicker than that happens do we then turn those purity codes onto ourselves. Who could possibly measure up? I’ve talked to people who’ve been Lutheran all their lives, who have heard about the unconditional grace of God their whole lives, and who still doubt the full measure of God’s love as they breathe into their last days.

Just so we’re clear, the full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year?  God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out.  As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross. Whatever defense you’re inclined to create for yourself or someone else as a good-enough-person is unnecessary.  You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own.  In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[9]

Alleluia! And Amen!


[1] Toni Tennille of the 1970’s and 80s singing duo ‘Captain and Tenille.’ https://www.tonitennille.net/biography/

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 3:3

[4] Kristen Jones Neff. “I Wanted My Son To Be Happy But On My Terms.” Grown & Flown: Parenting Never Ends. https://grownandflown.com/wanted-son-happy-my-terms/

[5] John Petty. Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday. ProgressiveInvolvement.com on October 30, 2017. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/10/all-saints-sunday-matthew-5-1-12.html

[6] Matthew 5:3-10

[7] Eric Daryl Meyer. Assistant Professor – Theology. Carroll College, Helena, Montana. https://www.carroll.edu/faculty/meyer-eric

[8] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[9] 1 John 3:2

Violence, Guilt, and Defiant Faith [OR Pillars of the Earth, American Vaudeville, and the Apostle Paul] Matthew 21:33-46 and Philippians 3:4b-14

**sermon art: “A Cubist Prayer One World One God” painting by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 8, 2017

[Sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Matthew 21:33-46   “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Philippians 3:4b-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

I read Pillars of the Earth on vacation last week.[1] A gripping tale of love and hate, good and evil, set in the political intrigue of 12th century England. Cathedrals are built. Land battles and famine are constant. In the midst of it all is Prior Philip, a monk. He’s a character akin to the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians, very much very much aware of his gifts while pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[2] There are so many parallels it makes me want to buy the author, Ken Follett, a cup of coffee and talk faith, life, and theology. Prior Philip constantly questions his pride, care of his people, and God. He also constantly questions other people’s motives. Wrangling with kings, bandits, and bishops over decades the battle between good and evil wages. It’s classic American vaudeville. It’s wonderful. And like every good novel, it’s hard to turn the last page.

Sometimes the Bible reads like vaudevillian melodrama. Obvious villains arriving onstage to “boos” and “hisses” from the crowd.  The villains are bad and the heroes are good.  The moral of the story is simple. Wrongs are overcome and right wins the day.  At least that’s the feeling in the parable Jesus tells about the wicked tenants.  Let’s set the stage. Jesus is hanging out in the Jerusalem temple, home turf of the Pharisees, the religious elite. He’s done nothing to endear himself to them since his triumphal entry into the city, riding on a donkey, drawing cheering crowds who spread branches on the road in front of him.[3]  He’s dropped off at the temple where he flips over tables and chairs, driving out the money changers and sellers.[4]  Jesus leaves for a sleepover in Bethany and in the morning curses a fig tree on his way back to town.[5]  Busy guy. Busy challenging the status quo. He enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple leaders.  They basically say to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?!”[6]  He doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, out come the parables.

The parable we hear today is about the wicked tenants who beat, kill, and stone the landowner’s slaves as well as kill his son, tossing them all out of the vineyard.  Jesus talks and the Pharisees squirm. The parable makes it pretty obvious that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he doesn’t mean kill them. Here’s the key verse this week. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”[7]  It’s that verse that caught my eye when I read it on Monday.  I like the way the Pharisees “realize” that Jesus has them in the hot seat. Their realization that Jesus is talking about them raises questions for us.  How do we know what we don’t know? How do we realize new awareness and not commit violence against other people?

It could be because I watched the new Martin Luther movie last week but guilt and awareness connect for me in this Bible reading.[8]  Hanging out with a bunch of (mostly) Lutherans and watching Luther’s journey as he answers the question, “Am I a good person?”  His question turned into a faith journey called the Reformation that changed daily life, church, and politics for the Western world 500 years ago.  Watching his story makes me aware of a couple of things.  First, in chaotic times, people do good, bad, and ugly things. Not so unusual, people are always doing good, bad, and ugly things.  Second, faith is transformative. Is faith always transformative?  Doesn’t seem to be.  Is faith sometimes transformative?  I’d say ‘yes.’

The day after the Luther movie, I’d planned to stay home and write sermons. One for a funeral on Friday and one for today.  It was supposed to be a full day of writing but at the last minute I ended up leading chapel in the Sanctuary with our Early Learning Center kiddos. Getting ready to leave home included brainstorming age-appropriate chapel ideas. My own kids came to mind, when they were preschool age long ago. Sweet-faced and chatty. A song then came to mind that I sang to my kids every night at bedtime.  So, during chapel, we sang:

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Singing broke my heart open, choking back tears as these beautiful, little people of all the song’s colors sang with me. It’s hard to describe. Words that come close are, simple…pure…faithful…defiant…a song loaded with defiant faith. A faith that refuses to let natural or man-made destruction be the last word.  And because I was writing a sermon, Jesus’s parable about the tenants’ violence came to mind on my way home from chapel to write.  Jesus loves all the children of the world, including those Pharisees. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the guilt of their behavior.  Quick distinction here between guilt and shame.  Guilt is about what I do. Shame is about who I am.  Guilt admits my responsibility. Shame immobilizes me in the dark.  Guilt inspires my redemption. Shame pushes me to hurt other people. [10]

Back to the Pharisees. Jesus calls out their guilt.  Similarly, our behavior and guilt are called out by Jesus.  When I read this Bible verse, my instinct is to challenge us to think about ourselves as the Pharisees.  Good, bad, and ugly.  What is Jesus calling us out on?  Our sisters at New Beginnings Worshipping Community lead us to an answer. On Friday evening, I attended a fundraiser for their church that worships inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. During the last few months, three people had a chance to speak one-on-one with a woman living there. Each woman’s story was then told by their visitor as if we were hearing from the woman herself.  Each woman owning up to the guilt of their crime and the pain they’d inflicted on people. Each woman talking about deep shame and pain they’d initially tried to numb with cocaine or meth.  Each woman experiencing redemption by faith that defies explanation, their lives transformed.  These women lead us because they don’t point fingers at everyone else. They know they can’t lie to God and they know they don’t have to. Theirs is a defiant faith through which Jesus refuses to let their guilt be the last word.  Real redemption in real time.

Our present time is all too real. A few days ago I used the word surreal but that doesn’t describe what’s at stake in the carnage and grief in Las Vegas, in hurricane after hurricane, or in Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police violence against black people.[9]  It’s all too real that patriotism and the common good are being shaped in ongoing debates about protests, guns, race, health care, immigration, media, diplomacy, aid, education, gender, incarceration, taxes, and more.  All of this to say that a defiant faith is what fuels my hope, prayer, and actions. It’s easy to give up and hide. It’s easy to disrespect other people, a violence of its own kind, while turning up the volume on my opinions. It’s impossible to lie to God about that violence.

Martin Luther King Senior came home from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son after learning about Martin Luther’s 15th century commitment to non-violence as a way to turn self-interest and corruption upside-down so that all people could live. No small thing, that name change. I’m committed to non-violence right down to the way I talk with you. Do I get it right every time? Not by a long shot. Do I get angry? You bet.

If Jesus loves all the children of the world, then that means you and I are in this together whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean keeping the peace for the benefit of the status quo while people suffer. It means leaning into the chaos of our time and speaking up on behalf of our neighbor – red and yellow, black and white. Taking action while acknowledging the guilt that is ours for violence large and small against self and others so that we do not perpetuate violence like the wicked tenants in Jesus parable.  Realizing our guilt, we become instruments of peace with a defiant faith bound by Jesus’ love. We are redeemed and set free to live.


[1] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[2] Philippians 3:14

[3] Matthew 21:1-10

[4] Matthew 21:12-16

[5] Matthew 21:17-22

[6] Matthew 21:23-32

[7] Matthew 21:45

[8] Boettcher and Trinklein, Inc. (2017) “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World.”

[9] Snopes. “Did a U.S. Veteran Influence Kaepernick’s ‘Take a Knee’ Protest of Police Brutality?” Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer confirmed he convince the quarterback to “take a knee,” rather than sit, during the national anthem. http://www.snopes.com/veteran-kaepernick-take-a-knee-anthem/

[10]  I’ve heard shame and guilt compared in different ways by different people. Lately, Brene Brown is one go-to expert on the topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGFrId-IQg

Sending Song  at end of worship:  CHRIST, BE OUR LIGHT

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

Longing for truth, we turn to you.

Make us your own, your holy people,

Light for the world to see.


Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.

Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light! Shine in your Church

Gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled.

Longing for hope, many despair.

Your word alone has power to save us

Make us your living voice.


3. Longing for food, many are hungry.

Longing for water, many still thirst.

Make us your bread, broken for others,

Shared until all are fed.


4. Longing for shelter people are homeless.

Longing for warmth, many are cold.

Make us your building, sheltering others,

Walls made of living stone.


5. Many the gifts, many the people,

Many the hearts that yearn to belong.

Let us be servants to one another,

Making your kingdom come.


– Bernadette Farrell