Tag Archives: Jesus

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 26, 2019

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.  Amen! And Allelulia!

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[1] Acts 7:54-8:1

[2] Acts 9:1-22

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

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

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

**sermon art: Resurrection by He Qi

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[1] Luke 23:50-56

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] John 13:1

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

 

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

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

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hymn of the Day – sung after the sermon

Thee We Adore, O Savior ELW 476

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

__________________________________________________________________

[1] John 11:32

[2] Luke 10:38-42

[3] Psalm 100

[4] Deuteronomy 15:11

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

[6] John 12:32

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

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

 

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________

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

[1] Luke 12:56

[2] Luke 13:1

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

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

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

[6] Genesis 50:20

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

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! And Amen.

_________________________________________________________

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

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

[3] Luke 3:1-6

[4] Luke 1:52

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

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

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

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

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

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

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

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[1] Luke 4:16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running on Empty* [OR Water, Wine, and Weddings, with a Dash of Mary Oliver]

*Yes, invoking Jackson Browne here. Lyrics align with the sermon but I found it tricky to tie them in. Video is at end of sermon in case you’d like a listen.

**sermon art: Marriage at Cana, Jyoti Art Ashram, India

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 20, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Song of Solomon 8:6-7 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[sermon begins]

I love this wedding at Cana story.  I love that Jesus is at a wedding with family and friends.  I love that his mother is there.  I love that he listens to his mother (of course).  I love that the servants knew where the wine came from when the steward over them didn’t.  And, I love that the jars were for purification rituals and that, at first, they stood AS empty as the wine jars drained by the now drunk wedding guests.  Mary noticed that the wine gave out. It wasn’t so much that the guests needed more wine – they likely didn’t given the now empty wine jars and the steward’s comments to the bridegroom in verse 10.  The bigger problem was that the honor of the host was at stake.  The emptiness of the drained wine jars was shameful for the wedding host, the bridegroom.  A bridegroom running on empty and full of shame. Shame often happens when we’re running on empty – rushing in to fill our emptiness whatever the cause.

Mary flags the shame threat to Jesus.  She says to him, “They have no wine.”  He shrugs her off with the line about his “hour not yet come.”  Unfazed, Mary says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” From her comment, the miracle unfolds.  The steward is surprised that the good wine is served last and the party continues.  Jesus at the wedding of Cana, speaking of his hour and turning the water into wine, foreshadows the events of his death on a cross.  He is present at the wine crisis and he is present at the cross.  He is present at the wedding celebration and he is present at the resurrection.  Emptiness and abundance intertwine through Jesus’ life story epitomized in the wedding at Cana.

Weddings are wonderful.  Earnest vows of love and fidelity.  Ceremonies surrounding the couple with the support of friends and family.  Decorations blooming in floral splendor coordinating with gowns and suits.  Menus taste-tested months in advance.  Cakes frosted into works of art.  And, to my mind, there’s nothing like dancing at a wedding.  My siblings and I adore our cousins’ weddings for so many reasons but one big reason is the dancing.  Pastors are privy to the months before the wedding during the premarital counseling we get to do with couples as they prepare for marriage beyond the wedding day.  We get to hear about wedding details, what they mean and who they’re meaningful for.  We also get a snapshot of what a couple thinks make them work well together.  One of the goals that I have for premarital counseling is for couples to be thinking about the possibility that the day may come when they need help over a hurdle that is bigger than both of their expertise combined.  I was laughing with a younger friend at the gym who was celebrating her first wedding anniversary and joking about being an expert on marriage – to which I paused and said, well, you ARE an expert at your first year of marriage.

Along that line of being the expert, we may get to a year in our marriage when our level of expertise is not up to the challenge confronting us and we may need some help over the hurdle of feeling empty and ashamed. Help can be found talking to pastors or counselors you know, or counselors your friends have used and trust. What do you have to lose when so much feels lost already?  At the very least, there can be healing in the process no matter the outcome. This is true for individuals too, by the way. The wedding at Cana is as good a reminder as any to ask for help if you need it; to ask for help from someone who has some experience coaching couples through an empty spot in marriage that can fill itself with shame.  While that’s more than poetic sentiment, poetry can work its way into the mix.

Poetry like that found in our reading from the Bible’s Song of Solomon can sometimes add to those feelings of emptiness.  The Song of Solomon’s poetry celebrates a bride and bridegroom with the enthusiasm and romance of newlyweds.  Very little of it ends up printed in worship bulletins because the ancient, sensual metaphors must have been determined to be too much for listeners.  The wildly popular tattoo and jewelry engraving, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” is from the sixth chapter of Song of Solomon. Biblical commentaries interpret the book in various ways – from the bride is Israel and the bridegroom is God to the bride is the church and the bridegroom is Jesus to the bride is a bride and the bridegroom is a bridegroom.[1]

When the Bible offers us poetry whether in the Song of Solomon or another book, there’s an opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes through an ancient lens, not our own.  Mary Oliver, American poet, and Pulitzer Prize winner, died this week.  Her poetry generally helps us to see the world with fresh eyes through a contemporary lens, not our own. She had a special gift of celebrating life’s ordinary moments. Her poem “When Death Comes” specifically invokes the bride and bridegroom imagery.  She writes:

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”[2]

Mary Oliver and the Song of Solomon similarly invoke the wonder and joy of newlyweds. Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine transformed the looming shame of the newlywed bridegroom into the wonder and joy of abundance at a wedding.

Notice who benefits from Jesus’ transformation of emptiness to abundance, though. It’s the bridegroom but it’s not ONLY the bridegroom.  There’s a bride there somewhere. There are Jesus’ friends and likely other friends and family of the newlyweds. There’s the steward who was probably supposed to keep tabs on things like the wine supply.  There are servants who were fully in the know.  Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine during the wedding at Cana touched the people there in different ways.  ALL this and still his “hour [had] not yet come.”  In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ “hour” refers to the time that he will hang on a cross.[3]  The tasty wedding wine relates to the sour wine given to quench Jesus’ thirst on the cross.[4]  Jesus’ mother is called “the mother of Jesus” in the Gospel of John and shows up in the gospel only twice – once at the wedding at Cana and then again at the cross.[5]  From his first sign of turning water into wine, the cross where Jesus’ life will be emptied is already in play.  Curiously, though, Jesus is at a party…maybe even dancing.  (At least I like to think he was dancing.)

Turning water into wine and other things happening at the wedding at Cana point us to the cross but it also points us THROUGH the cross.  The emptiness that can so easily fill with shame is taken to and through the cross by Jesus, transforming us into new life.  Like the people at the wedding at Cana, the abundance of new life looks different for each of us.  For some of us, new life seems miraculously immediate, gushing to overflowing; for others of us, we need to ask for help and take one next right step after another as new life fills our empty places one drop at a time.  One thing is true, regardless.  Jesus’ meets us in our most empty places. It’s part of what the cross means.  It is from that place of emptiness that shame loses ground, hope is born, and life is restored.  Hallelujah and thanks be to God.

 

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[1] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Assoc. Prof. of Old Testament. Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7 for August 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2511

[2] Mary Oliver. When Death Comes.  Library of Congress (© 1992 by Mary Oliver, from New & Selected Poems: Vol 1. Beacon Press, Boston).  https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/102.html

[3] John 16:32

[4] John 19:28-29

[5] John 19:25-27

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Song after the sermon:

Jesus, Come! For We Invite You (ELW Hymn #312)

1 Jesus, come! for we invite you,
guest and master, friend and Lord;
now, as once at Cana’s wedding,
speak and let us hear your word:
lead us through our need or doubting,
hope be born and joy restored.

2 Jesus, come! transform our pleasures,
guide us into paths unknown;
bring your gifts, command your servants,
let us trust in you alone:
though your hand may work in secret,
all shall see what you have done.

3 Jesus, come! in new creation,
heav’n brought near by pow’r divine;
give your unexpected glory,
changing water into wine:
rouse the faith of your disciples —
come, our first and greatest Sign!

4 Jesus, come! surprise our dullness,
make us willing to receive
more than we can yet imagine,
all the best you have to give:
let us find your hidden riches,
taste your love, believe, and live!

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Helping Each Other See the Fullness of Life From Darkest-Dark through Lightest-Light to the Ordinary – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

**sermon art:  Embroidery Art by Pajnsy

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 13, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[sermon begins]

Preachers have a strange privilege week to week.  We get to wonder with people about scripture, faith, and life in all kinds of ways.  We get to convict people and we get to lavish God’s good grace over people.  Over the last few weeks, I have become somewhat tangled up in my own thoughts about the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.  Last week I attended a funeral for a young man who ended his life in despair.  He grew up in church with my kids and was in youth group with my son.  My vantage point during the funeral was leaning against the back wall of the sanctuary next to a woman who’s been my friend for the last 21 years.  I don’t know about you but I call that a God thing since we hadn’t planned on attending together. The standing room only section was 4 rows deep.  Folding chairs had been brought out to create many more temporary rows of seating in front of the standing room only.  Every chair in the sanctuary was filled.  Together we created a group of just under 350 heartbroken people.  Worship bulletins had run out.  Some of us in the standing room only section tried to sing the hymns by heart.  “It is well…it is well…with my soul…with my soul…it is well…it is well…with, my soul…” and “How great thou art…” bubbled up in pockets through the back of the sanctuary as we celebrated his life and grieved his death.

And it IS well with my soul.  Over the last few years, when people ask, “How are you,” sometimes I’ll answer, “Existentially, I’m good.” That’s a soul answer.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  I believe that answer and I’ll proclaim it till Jesus comes again.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  The implication is that while the soul is good, the current moment is kind of challenging.  Sometimes we’ll chuckle knowingly at my answer.  So, if you were to ask me that question directly, right now, my answer is, “Existentially I’m good thanks, but my heart is broken.”  Soul good.  Heart broken.  Both good and broken.

At the end of the funeral, I turned to my friend and said, “We’re letting our young people down, we have to do better.”  And we talked about that for a few minutes – especially related culturally. Collectively all of us are in the culture.  We’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.  When I called my 21 year old son to tell him about the funeral, he brought up the state of the world.  Some of you know that I’ve spent my adult life working with children and adults in their last days of life. First as a nurse and now as a pastor.  Along that line, and in tune with where he was at in the conversation, I said to my son, “You know what people in their last days miss the most? They miss how certain things taste or how it feels to move their bodies or how it felt to take a trip to the grocery store. Ordinary, good moments of life that add up living.”  So, my son being used to these kinds of things from me, rolled with it and added to the list.

Someone recently messaged me a bit from the movie “The Life of Brian” that we should “always look on the bright side of life.”[1]  It’s a satirical, hilarious and cynical take about looking on the bright side of the crucifixion.  Just so there’s no confusion.  I’m not talking about ignoring the woes of the world to look on the bright side.  What I’m asking us to do in difficult times is help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything.

I bring amaryllis plants to children’s sermons and continue to connect kids to their current moment and, by extension, invite all of us to see beauty in the ordinary moments of a lifetime – no matter how long the life.  It’s a serious intention to see life in the ordinary, to laugh at my own quirks, to not take everything so seriously in life, and to see life in all its wonder even in the ordinary. It’s NOT hard to see life in the extraordinary for cryin’ out loud.  The baptism of Jesus does that really well.  The heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends bodily like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven.  The divine transcendent couldn’t be more majestic and mysterious in this story.  We hear a story like that and can easily think, “Well, ya, sure, if only that could happen, then my life would be clear as water.”  Someone do me a favor, grab a pew Bible.  Look up those missing verses that we didn’t hear in the Bible reading.  Luke chapter 3, verses 18 to 20.  Someone tell me what happens to John at the end of those verses?  … … … …

John is thrown in prison!  By Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas.[2]  These few verses that take on John’s imprisonment and Jesus’ baptism go from the darkest-dark to the lightest-light with just a sentence-ending period in between.  Most of what happens in life is more in the middle.  More in the ordinary zone between darkest-dark and lightest-lights.  Jesus entering into the fullness of our existence includes this moment of baptism.  He is baptized.  He didn’t need to be baptized.  We are baptized and we more than need it – to hear we’re beloved children of God, to hang on to its promised grace of forgiveness and transformation.  One way to think about his baptism is that Jesus was completing the circle of entering into human identity.  During baptism, transcendence happens with the heavens opening, the spirit descending, and the voice speaking. The very next thing that happens after his baptism is Jesus’ temptation in the desert.[3]

Jesus enters into the identity of being beloved by God and then into the life we all lead, temptations included.  A life lived with a fragile body that can be tempted by despair, power, and safety.  A fragile body tempted to believe things other than the love of God for us, and the power of life revealed in the ordinary.  Tempted to believe that the dark is greater than the light.

But Jesus roamed around for 33 years.  There was likely a spot or two of the ordinary betwixt and between the darkest-dark and lightest-light.  Here’s your homework this week.  Look for the ordinary things you would miss and talk about them with friends and family.  Speak up and speak out about the beauty you see around you. Help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything. Every so often I’m struck by how weird it is that we are here on an earth breathing and moving and being.  That’s crazy amazing, my friends.  And, yet we often roll out of bed unaware of our own embodied grace.

I’m going to take liberties with the Apostle Paul’s writings.  (Probably something I’m regularly guilty of.) Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians that we do not grieve as ones without hope.[4]  The liberty I’m going to take is to say that we do not live as ones without hope.  More simply put, we live as people with hope.  This hope gives us eyes to see and ears to hear by way of faith.  It’s a hope we carry as light into the world – not our own light but a light bestowed by Jesus the Christ.  A light that shines defiantly through the broken hallelujahs of the darkest-dark. A light that celebrates the extraordinary of the lightest-lights.  A light that experiences the ordinary as living fully too.  A light in the darkness that challenges despair with hope.  Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

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[1] All Things Monty Python, Facebook. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” From Life of Brian. https://www.facebook.com/AllThingsMontyP/videos/2233060303630365/

[2] John Petty, Pastor, All Saints Lutheran Church.  Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 for January 13, 2019. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2019/01/baptism-of-our-lord-luke-3-15-17-21-22.html

[3] Luke 4:1-13 The Temptation of Jesus

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

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

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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