Tag Archives: Jesus

God’s Gift Unboxed by the Wise Men, A Sermon for Epiphany – Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi, c.1894 (oil on canvas), Tissot, James Jacques Joseph (1836-1902) / Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 5, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

Boxes. Sometimes pretty in their own right, boxes usually hold other things – storing things like grits or jewelry; or moving things like books or refrigerators. There are classes about designing boxes. Boxes are big business. Don’t even get me started on the packaging inside. That’s a whole other level. Here’s what started me thinking about boxes, especially in these days of Christmas and giving gifts to children. We carefully pick out something special for a kid, then pack it and wrap it for Christmas. The gift is given, the paper torn off, the gift is plucked out of the box and then ignored while the box is played with for days. It makes me wonder if, like other kids his age, Jesus played with the boxes that held the gifts from the wise men, ignoring the presents inside.[1] He was two years old or less according to the stories about big bad King Herod.[2]  Toddler Jesus likely had little interest in the wise men’s presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the boxes, now those would be a real treat. Stacking, climbing on, and filling them with dirt could occupy a good amount of time for self-respecting toddlers in any century.  In the 21st century, the crème-de-la-crème of boxes is the appliance box that transforms into a fort or a ship or a special hiding place.

There was no such hiding place for Jesus and his family. Apparently, they couldn’t quite miss being found with that torchlight of a star in the sky.  At least, the wise men found them and were able to drop off their gifts and ooohh and aaahh over Jesus before leaving. Herod had more trouble locating the toddler. The wise men ended up slipping out of town by a different road to avoid ratting out the holy family to the frightened King Herod.  The strange people from the East journeyed a long time for a quick visit. One thing their arrival signifies is that the very young Jesus is now revealed to more people than just his family and more people than Jews. Specifically, the wise men’s arrival reveals Jesus to the nations.  Note that the people bearing gifts are really the ones who found the gift of Jesus in a home – like opening another big box if you stop and think about it.  Yeah, I know, the box thing has a hold.

You know when you open a present partway and then you get an inkling of what’s in the box. Maybe you asked for something special. Or someone heard you mention something you’d really like a few months ago and they remembered.  You tear open the wrapping, slash through layers of tape (cuz if you’re a Trussell, you tape the heck out of the box as if the thing inside could escape by itself), you lift one box top panel to see something you recognize but didn’t for a moment expect and it was different than what you remember and maybe the better for your fuzzy memory. I wonder if the wise men had any of that anticipation and reaction. The star signaled something big. How could it not create anticipation as they journeyed? On departure, something special was clearly afoot because their dream protected the toddler and sent them out of their way to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod who was trapped in the even bigger box of his palace filled with fear. Herod may not have understood the complexity of what was happening, but he knew that that wise men showing up was problematic for him. Power emerging from within his empire but outside of himself must, indeed, have felt frightening.  It’s difficult to imagine those early rumblings of a faith that currently claims two billion followers. Herod’s imagination worked just fine.

Because Christianity is now a worldwide religion, it’s hard to remember that it began as an Eastern one – the original language was Greek; John, the gospel writer lived and died in Asia Minor; most of Paul’s work was in the fertile crescent also known as the Orient or Southwest Asia or the Middle East depending on your vantage point.[3] It was from the east the wise men came and into the east they arrived. The story is known to us and become westernized through our experience that it’s easy to forget the geography. Because Christmas has become a central holiday in the West, it’s hard to remember that Epiphany is centuries older than Christmas. The festival originated in Egypt and traditionally celebrated these events: the birth of Jesus, the wise men, the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus turning water into wine.[4]  In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is called the primary feast of the Incarnation (what we know as Christmas).  It had little to do with Jesus’ birth in early Christianity.[5]  We tend to get so locked in our box of time that it’s hard to imagine how our siblings in the faith may have experienced it differently and continue to experience it differently.

Kinda funny when you think about it. Epiphany is the manifestation of God shining to the nations through Jesus. The wise men embody the arrival of wisdom from the east paying homage to his arrival, kneeling deeply in reverence to the toddler King. The box is opened, the gift unleashed upon all people, and what do the people do? Well, they argue.  Argue about who Jesus is; who Jesus loves; who Jesus saves, doesn’t save, and what saves means. Honestly, we can make the shining gift of Jesus into the worst of ourselves. I’m not sure why that’s compelling and why we feel the need to do so. But we do it.  It’s like we can’t believe that the gift of Jesus isn’t one of our own making. We act like the birth-baptism-crucifixion-death-to-new-life-thing can be contained and taped securely by our wants, likes, and dislikes, or, worse, conforms to the shape of our self-interests and hatreds.  Odd how we want to close the lid on God’s love for the world and God’s forgiveness of sins.[6] Fortunately, for us and for the world, we’re not in charge of God’s gift unboxed to the nations so long ago.

Epiphany reminds us that the darkness inside our self-constructed boxes isn’t as powerful as the light marked by a star. Baptized into that light, we shine the light of Christ through good works so that God in heaven may be glorified. God builds our anticipation through the gift of Jesus and, on Epiphany, through the toddler Jesus who is reverenced by the strangers from a far-off land who seem to understand against all odds. Those of us in the West can give thanks for the wise men from the East who made a journey bearing gifts to the One who doesn’t fit in any box. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] “Scholars Now Believe Jesus Ignored Magi’s Gifts, Just Played With The Boxes They Came In (Satire).” December 26, 2019. Babylon Bee. https://babylonbee.com/news/biblical-scholars-claim-jesus-ignored-gold-frankincense-myrrh-just-played-with-the-boxes-they-came-in

[2] See Matthew 2:13-23.

[3] Christopher Hill. Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. (Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2003), 93.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 1:21

Christmas Day: Defiant Hope at the Speed of Light – John 1:1-14

**sermon art: Barbara Barnes, Untitled

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave. As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out. She remarried and every year those angels would go out. My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding and celebrating the baby Jesus. A few years ago, my mother and her third husband Larry gave the angels to me.  I think about those angels and my family’s story – the good, bad, and ugly.  I think about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle personally in families and collectively in world-wide crises. I also think about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – in bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But think about how fast the speed of light travels to us, whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things in the good, bad, and ugly.  We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as porcelain. Today, Christmas Day, the glimmer of light from the manger feels like a defiant hope. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [can not, never will] overcome it.” Amen and Merry Christmas!

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[1] John 1:1

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

[3] John 1:14

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

**sermon art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

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

[sermon begins]

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! I’ve been known to blurt this out in a mix of people and places. Most of the time, it’s because someone has shared some good news. Praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus is not a phrase my family used, nor was it ever said even one time during my ten years away from church. But somewhere along the way, someone said it and it wove into my praise and prayer. I don’t remember when it started happening that people would respond with raised eyebrows and outright laughter to praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus, and then mention a movie they saw and assume that’s where I picked it up. It wasn’t. But as this Christmas Eve sermon started percolating and the phrase came to mind, it made sense to check out that movie scene before preaching it.[1] Turns out, it’s NOT the exact same phrase. The scene is a family argument that erupts over the table prayers during Christmas dinner. As the dad prays repeatedly to the baby Jesus, the mom stops the prayer and they argue about whether or not it’s okay for him to be praying to the baby Jesus. To this, the dad replies that she’s welcome to pray to whichever Jesus she likes – grown-up, teen-aged, or bearded Jesus – but that he likes “the Christmas Jesus best.”  The scene is waaay over the top but it gets something right theologically when it comes to this evening’s Bible readings.

The Luke reading announces the birth among farm animals as the child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in the manger that feeds those animals. Angels herald the baby as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, while sending the shepherds to the manger-side praising God. Bible verses before our reading announce the child as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.”[2] The Bible verse that follows our reading announces that the baby’s name is Jesus.[3] In the Isaiah reading, there are other names given to “a child born for us, a son given to us” – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[4]  One tiny newborn, so many names; and so many more names to come as he grows up and out of that manger – prophet, teacher, friend, and king.  We can ponder in our hearts why there are so many names for one divine human being.  Perhaps it’s possible to treasure ALL these names as we ponder and wonder and wander through the 12 days of Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s one name for Jesus that you like best.

When the many names for Jesus come up, disagreement CAN happen about which name is more applicable, or which name is the right name, or which name we should use when we’re being the most faithful, or which name gets at the authentic Jesus the best.  Seems like a moot argument.  All the names listed in the scripture have value in the fullness of Jesus.  Here’s one way to think about it.  I’m a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, weightlifter, community organizer, preacher, pastor, and more.  Am I any one of those things in negation of the other? No.

You may be a peacemaker, student, activist, friend, athlete, gamer, employee, reader, dancer, singer, and more.  Are you any one of those things in negation of the other? No. Are you sometimes more of one of those things than another?  Most likely, depending on the moment.  Are you still ALL YOU in any given moment?  Of course.  Who we are in any one of our roles adds to the breadth of our human experience and the depth of our humanity.  Similarly, so goes the divine humanity of Jesus.

The beauty of specifically celebrating the baby Jesus at Christmas is that we’re reminded just how much God loves us first.  Meaning that before we ever had an inkling that there might even be a God, God arrived physically in the world to be present with us in the most vulnerable way possible – as a squishy, squeaky newborn. For some of us, that’s more than enough because maybe you need the sweet baby Jesus as the Christmas gift, meeting you beyond the overfull inn where everyone inside seems cozy and snug while you’re on the outside looking in.

But others may be in a different space this evening.

Maybe you need the Wonderful Counselor Jesus who calms the troubled mind.

Or maybe Prince of Peace Jesus who calms a troubled world.

Maybe you need the prophet Jesus who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Maybe you need the suffering Jesus on a cross who reassures you that God suffers with us in the darkest moments of life.

Or maybe you need the Savior Jesus who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Maybe you need the Easter Jesus, shining and shimmering with life eternal, sharing your moment of joy as you shout “Hallelujah.”

Or perhaps you need that other Easter Jesus who holds your fragile moment of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which name for Jesus calls to you, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re holding onto Jesus by the barest thread with only your fingernails. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like tonight in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and praise the sweet baby Jesus!

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[1] Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Scene: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. (Columbia Pictures, 2006: PG-13).

[2] Luke 1:32 and 35

[3] Luke 2:21

[4] Isaiah 9:6

From Friendly Competition to Celebrating Completion on the Third Sunday in Advent – Matthew 11:2-11 and Isaiah 35:1-10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 11:2-11 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Isaiah 35:1-10  The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

[sermon begins]

Nothing like a little friendly competition. We, in fact, just wrapped one up in the congregation on Thanksgiving Eve. Those Augustana Early Learning Center children collected chili like crazy and we collected chili like crazy. All together we collected 1,555 pounds of chili over the month of November. The goal was to out-do each other in the name of filling food pantries for Metro Caring and George Washington High School. Friendly competition makes us better in ways we never thought possible – challenging each other to be the best of who we’ve been created to be. We see this in sports when two athletes or two teams allow their rivalry to create deep respect and thrill-a-minute fun. A little like the Heisman trophy finalists Justin Fields and Chase Young who play football for the same team and have each other’s back during the hype and interviews; who play better ball because of each other.[1] The opposite is also true, sometimes we get worried that we’re not going to keep up, or that someone is going to come along and usurp our position. We know when we see the latter – the fits, the whining, the yelling, the lack of eye contact between teammates. We also know when we’re watching the former. When a ballgame winds down to the last seconds and no one knows who going to end up with the winning score but after the game the players laugh and smile in those handshakes and hugs after the game. You know they’ve had a blast. You know the losing team is disappointed. But still the joy of the game is mirrored in the teams’ demeanor towards each other.

The question of competition arises between commentators who study John the Baptist and Jesus. There seems to be agreement that John had a very large following of disciples, enough to have power that threatened King Herod. It’s how he ended up incarcerated as a political prisoner. John’s power is one reason his question from prison is so powerful. John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  It’s a humble question open to the possibility of Jesus’ greatness – not as threat but as hope. It’s also an Advent kind of question – filled with expectation on the one hand, and with lack of certainty on the other. A simple “yes” or “no” answer would have been easier to take back to John.

But Jesus didn’t give a “yes” or “no” answer. He gave an answer more like a spy movie’s exchange of coded messages. First spy on the inside of the door says, “The milkman delivered chocolate instead of half-and-half;” then the spy outside says, “Cookies would have been better,” which opens the door to let the spy in. Anyone listening can’t decipher the cryptic communication. Maybe Jesus wanted to protect John in the prison cell. Hard to say. It’s possible Jesus knew that John would know the Isaiah reading about the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame leaping, and the speechless singing. They could have been working together like the spies in the old movies passing cryptic messages through their knowledge of Hebrew scripture.

It could be, though, that Jesus simply understands one more thing better than us.  “Yes” or “no” answers are limiting when talking about Jesus. When John’s disciples go back to prison to pass along Jesus’ message, they’re supposed to talk about what they see and hear. Not competition but conversation and even celebration of what they see and hear. Let’s say someone comes up to you and asks, “Do you really believe God was born as Jesus on Christmas?” Rather than answer “yes” or “no” as the question is framed, there’s another way to answer the question by simply saying, “Here’s what I do know.” And following that up with your story of faith in Jesus, with what you see and hear.

Maybe you have a story of feeling unlovable and finally believing that the unconditional love of Jesus for all people actually does include you. Is that anything like the deaf hearing? Maybe you’ve found meaning in life’s vicissitudes – the highs and lows and in-betweens filled in by the grace of Christ with meaning beyond imagining. Is that anything like the blind seeing? Maybe you found yourself in recovery, confessing all the pain your addiction caused and finding forgiveness, fully dependent on God’s power after you hit bottom with a behavior that you thought would eventually kill you. Is that anything like the dead being raised? Maybe you’ve volunteered or advocated or walked alongside someone whose poverty was immobilizing and now there’s money to pay rent. Is that anything like the poor having good news brought to them?  Maybe you’ve been a faithful churchgoer all your life, finding hope and love in the good news of Jesus no matter what’s going on around you.  Is that anything like not taking offense at Jesus?

John and Jesus’ moment offers us a chance to wonder about where we see Jesus in life – whether it’s our own life or someone else’s. Many of us have heard the Jesus stories for so long that we know by heart the transformations of the blind, deaf, speechless, lame, diseased, and dead. We’ve even experienced those transformations  personally or communally. Which brings us to Jesus’s speech about John after his disciples deliver the message from Jesus to the prison.  Jesus challenges the crowds about what they were doing heading out to hear John in the wilderness. There are subtle references to King Herod whose monetary coin had a reed embossed on it and who wore the soft robes of royalty.[2] Jesus’ references to the king’s power are subtle but acknowledge the threat that John posed to Herod and the reason John ended up in prison. The people were not going out to the wilderness to praise the King. Once again, Jesus highlights John’s gifts and power not in competition but in celebration. In Jesus’ words, the crowds were looking for a prophet. Prophets tell the truth, even the uncomfortable truths, about what’s wrong in the world needing to be made right. As did John, a messenger prophet who would prepare the people for the way.

Isaiah called the way the “Holy Way,” where even the most directionally challenged traveler will be able to stay the path.[3]  On the Holy Way, fear becomes hope and there’s a reversal of everything that competes for the win. Instead, there is only celebration. Humanity is reconciled to God and so is all creation: Blind see, deaf hear, lame move, speechless sing, deserts blossom, water pours in wilderness, and predators vanish.[4]  From crocus to all creation, the Holy Way is the completion of the glimpse we’ve had of Jesus, the one for whom we wait in celebration of all he was yesterday in a baby, today in a living Word, and tomorrow in an eternal God.  Amen.

_________________________________

[1] Ohio State University, 2019. Justin Fields, Quarterback, and Chase Young, Defensive End.

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[3] Rolf Jacobsen, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

[4] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave for the Third Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1205

A Manger – Flawed and Real Luke 2:1-20 [Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 12, 2019

Advent/Christmas Worship with our Home-Centered Folks: Today’s worship is the first of its kind for our congregation. Recently retired folks and people who work from home are hosting our home-centered folks by bringing them to a brief worship and communion service followed by lunch and then returning them home.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

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

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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

[sermon begins]

Put us all together and, between us, we know A LOT of Christmas music.  We could hear a medley of carols and know most of them.  At the very least, we know the music enough to be comfortable with it, to play with it, to give voice to it. In the kitchen or humming as we tuck in for the night, our caroling is as imperfect as it is joyous. Our spontaneous carols likely have a few flaws but they’re real. And these carols tell a story. A story that gathers us together here today.  A story that had its first tellers long ago.  Storytellers for whom the story is personal and real.

The first storytellers were the shepherds in the field. These men who heard the angels sing were shady characters. The closest example of these men in the 21st century would be people who camp under bridges and call it home. THESE are the people for whom the angels sing. They are given first dibs on the story by the angel who tells them – “to you is born this day…a Savior…a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[1]  They head out fast to go see this baby, this Savior.  After all, THEY clearly need one.  When they get to the manger, they talk about what’s been told to them.  Imagine for a moment the way they tell the story.  At best, they tell it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, they tell the story because it’s first and foremost for them.  The shepherds need a Savior; it’s obvious that they need one – a Savior on their side, a Savior for them.

So, because the Savior is for them, the shepherds tell Mary and Joseph the story, and apparently anyone else who will listen, because, “…all who heard it were amazed.”[2]  What amazes them?  The story itself?  That the shepherds are the ones telling it?  That a Savior is born?  That angels came, spoke, AND sang?  It’s pretty much all amazing! The truly amazing part is that Mary heard the shepherds out. The scripture makes a distinction in verse 19: “All who heard it were amazed but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”[3]  She’s just had a baby in a barn, laid that squishy, squeaky baby in a manger used for animal food, and she’s treasuring the words of these wild, shady shepherds in her heart.

Who does that?!  For Mary, this story told by the shepherds somehow made sense.  At best, perhaps because she heard it in a way that’s personal and real; at best, because…just maybe…it’s a story for her too.  Perhaps Mary needs a Savior, a Savior on her side, a Savior for her.

The Bible tells story after story about deeply flawed people whose lives are oh so real. People who regularly hurt other people or hurt themselves.  But it doesn’t take a 2,000-year-old look back in time to see this play out.  Our lives reveal a truth that we don’t often share with ourselves and try to avoid sharing with anyone else.  Despite our best intentions to “do better next time,” despite the reassurances that we give ourselves about being “good people,” the truth remains: anywhere people show up, so do flaws…real and personal.

Into the mix of flawed people, God shows up.  God shows up, of all places, in a manger.  A manger that has a splinter here and a cracked peg there – a manger that is flawed and real; a manger that cradles and reveals God showing up in Jesus.  The manger that reveals the Savior who came under a star in skin and solidarity, into a fragile humanity, to show up personally into our very real lives.

On the first Christmas, God showed up as a baby, a living and breathing hope.  “…hope [that] rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is,” has done and is doing.[4]  That’s the hope we cling to by faith, even if sometimes it’s by the barest thread with the tips of our fingernails. Regardless of how tightly you cling, the reality is that Jesus holds on to YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like today in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and amen!

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[1] Luke 2:11-12

[2] Luke 2:18

[3] Luke 2:19

[4] W. Dennis Tucher Jr., “Lectionary for November 27, 2011: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx

Waiting on Emmanuel, the Non-Violent One [A Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent ]Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5

**sermon art:  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54228

Title: Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares
Notes: “The bronze sculpture “Let Us Beat Our Swords into Ploughshares,” was created by Soviet artist Evgeny Vuchetich, and presented to the United Nations on 4 December 1959, by the Government of the USSR. The sculpture, depicting the figure of a man holding a hammer aloft in one hand and a sword in the other, which he is making into a ploughshare, is meant to symbolize man’s desire to put an end to war, and to convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of mankind. It is located in the North Garden of the United Nations Headquarters. 1/Oct/2001. UN Photo/Andrea Brizzi.” — (from Flicker.com)
Date: 1959
Artist: Vuchetich, Evgeniy Viktorovich, 1908-1974

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 1, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

Wreath, check.

Candles, check.

Flickering candlelight, check.

Catchy Adventy tune, check.

One candle lit and we’re on our way OR, as our song went today, God’s kingdom is on its way, and, in fact, God’s kingdom is already here. Whew! Thank God! Because to hear our readings might give one pause to fear something terrible and rash is about to happen. Immersed in a culture that pivots around the idea that people get what they deserve – whether its wealth or punishment – it’s easy to become people who hope that other people get what they have coming to them.  Not us, though. Funny how that works. That wishing that other people get what they have coming never includes those of us who think those thoughts. Oh sure, grace is a good theory, but it’s not actually how the world works, we think to ourselves. Or perhaps that thought isn’t even conscious. Our unconscious thought is that grace doesn’t or can’t really function in the world.  With a gospel book like Matthew, that line of thinking may be understandable.

One of my favorite theologians is Rene Girard.[1] Originally an anthropologist and an atheist, he began to study the writings of major world religions for their practices of scapegoating. Scapegoating is the way groups identify someone in their midst who must be expelled for the group to survive. Group anxiety goes up. A source for that anxiety needs to be identified. Once identified, the source, the scapegoat, needs to be destroyed or at least kicked out of the group. Girard specialized on the topic through his study of apes and wanted to see how humans went about it.  Late in life, Girard concluded that Christianity was unique among world religions for its vehement rejection of scapegoating and the assertion that the human family was called to move beyond it – the parable of the Good Samaritan loving-neighbor-as-self is the case in point.[2] As Girard’s argument goes, Jesus was the ultimate and final scapegoat through his self-sacrifice on the cross. His nonviolent consent to his death subsumed the violence inflicted on him into himself and negated it. At the same time, Jesus’ death reveals our tendency to inflict violence and justify scapegoating.

We find ourselves scapegoating right down to our least favorite books of the Bible. Well, perhaps you don’t.  I’ll speak for myself.  I scapegoat right down to my least favorite books of the Bible.  The Gospel of Matthew falls in the top tier.  I find its focus on who’s in and who’s out a bit exhausting. No surprise, really, given how I was raised in a different denomination that preached the heck out of misguided rapture theology.  Recently, the Girardian Lectionary website encouraged readers to lean into the books of the Bible in which we struggle, the books we’re inclined to scapegoat. No time like the present given that today, December 1, begins a new church year centered by the Gospel of Matthew.  We’ll get a lot of Matthew over the next year. Happy New Year, people! Here’s the thing. Lutherans claim that the Holy Spirit shapes us through scripture, shattering our tightly held assumptions, and reforming us. This claim is true even in my hesitation about Matthew. I’d even go so far as to say it’s especially true about the Bible books we feel need not apply to our lives.

The Gospel of Matthew was likely written late in the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, fifty years after Jesus’ death. The Matthean community seems to have been primarily Jews who believed Jesus was their long-awaited savior. Initially a part of life in the synagogue, a conflict began with either other Jews, or with Roman authorities, or both, that escalated to the point of the Matthean group splitting off to form its own community.[3]  The book is deeply concerned about true and false belief and God as the final judge. The verses today are a good example of the divide as well as illuminates what we think we already know about these verses.  For instance, in this story, is it better to be taken or left behind?  The comparison with the people swept away by the flood in the Noah story indicates that being left behind might be the better outcome. If it’s the case that being left behind is the better option, it brings up another question. Who is doing the taking? The verses aren’t clear which opens the possibility that there’s a group, perhaps Roman agents, who is taking some people while others remain – not unheard of in the Roman Empire or modern empires for that matter.  If it’s possible that Rome is snatching people, why are we so quick to read it as divine judgment.

It’s curious that we’re more inclined to believe in divine punishment than mercy. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’re cool if that punishment applies to someone else. Out of that desire for retribution, even if we know better than to say it out loud, we can see how it’s possible to create God in our own violent image. But the birth we celebrate on Christmas and the return we actively wait for both hinge on the cross of the Savior who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world beloved by God. Isaiah envisions a Peaceable Kingdom with these words – “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  No more learning war.  Perhaps John Lennon’s song “Imagine” had a bit of Biblical influence imagining a future in which non-violence becomes possible.  For Matthew’s Gospel it was difficult to imagine even though Jewish scriptures run throughout the whole thing. This Gospel is deeply connected to the Jewish covenants through Abraham and following.[4]  When you get a chance, read Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew. Web search those names to find their story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more legal than biological as Matthew goes on to tell Jesus’ birth story. But among the stalwart patriarchs in the list of names are surprising characters, including five women, that become part of God’s story through unexpected or unconventional ways.[5]  Actually, don’t stop at the genealogy, read the whole book of Matthew as we begin our year within its chapters. Underline things you like. Jot a question mark by things that are confusing or troubling. The gospel of Matthew was written in a community that experienced polarization and tension about their Jesus claims with other groups.

Those tensions between the groups play out in some big language and rhetoric. But other, deeper tensions are also playing out in Matthew’s story of Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – “between the expected and unexpected, between the old and the new, between sternness and mercy, and between respectability and scandal.”[6]  Through these stories, the Holy Spirit brings new life to fragile faith and heals soul deep wounds. The whispers of hope have begun this Advent during which we’ll hear the promise to Mary – that she’ll conceive and bear a son, name him Emmanuel which means “God is with us.”[7] Hope arriving through the baby we’ll celebrate and the return of Emmanuel who showed us the natural end of our violent scapegoating while showing us a different, peace-filled way forward as we stay awake and watchful.  Thanks be to God and Amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Read more about Rene Girard and his work at girardianlectionary.net

[2] Luke 10:25-37 (Matthew 22:34-40 gives the greatest and second commandment on which hang the law and prophets.)

[3] Matthew L. Skinner. The New Testament: The Gospels and Acts. “The Gospel of Matthew.” (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2017), 114-115.

[4] Matthew 1:1-17 see Jesus’ genealogy and note both the stalwart and surprising players in the list.

[5] Skinner, 109-111 regarding Jesus’ genealogy.

[6] Ibid, 111.

[7] Matthew 1:23

Uncle Larry’s Miracles – A Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve [OR Check Pockets Before Washing] John 6:3-14, Genesis 50:15-21, and Philippians 4:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2019 at 7:00 p.m.

[sermon begins after 3 oh-so-worth-reading Bible stories]

John 6:3-14 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

Genesis 50:15-21  Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Philippians 4:4-9  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

[sermon begins]

Yesterday was not my finest moment.  I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  Tried to snow shovel my bad mood away to minimal effect.  Pulled my worship robe a.k.a. alb out of the wash only to discover dark blue spots of ink across its whiteness because I’d left a pen in my pocket.  Borrowed bleach from a neighbor.  Had a meltdown during ink blotting with rubbing alcohol because my in-laws gave me the alb when I was ordained.  The same in-laws who completed their baptismal journeys in the last year and are now at rest in the company of the saints in light.  The same in-laws who spent Thanksgivings with us every year for over 20 years.  The same mother-in-law who was my go-to spot and stain advisor.  That woman could get any kind of stain out of any kind of thing breaking all the stain-blasting rules while she did it. She was like a stain miracle worker.  Which brings up the topic of miracles, my planned Thanksgiving Eve sermon theme.

The reason miracles have been on my mind is because of my Uncle Larry.  Rob and I recently visited him during a journey through Massachusetts.  My good uncle feels deeply and thinks broadly.  He’s funny and intense and full of love.  And he has this thing he does when he tells a story.  As an opener, he lists the number of miracles involved.  He told one particular story in which the lead comment was this, “There were FIVE miracles!” (hand held up, five fingers out).  I was so enamored with the way he unpacked his tale around these five miracles.  “First miracle,” he said with corroborating details.  “Second miracle,” he said.  More details.  Finally, the fifth miracle rolled around.  The story rich with feeling and color commentary.  I loved it so much that I called him last Saturday to ask him if I could talk about the way he talks about miracles.  We discussed my intentions.  He said, “Yes.”  And then we talked for almost an hour about miracles and so much more.

We could have a theologians’ argument about what constitutes a miracle…supernatural events that defy scientific explanations, et cetera, et cetera…and what doesn’t constitute a miracle.  But what appeals to me about my uncle’s story telling is the gratitude that pours through his miracle stories. Gratitude for the surprising turn of events that lead to the good and unexpected ending.  Our Bible stories from Genesis and the Gospel of John both include surprising turns of events leading to good and unexpected endings.  The culmination of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers years before becomes what we hear this evening as his brothers ask for his forgiveness.  If Joseph were here with us, how many miracles would he name in the same way Uncle Larry might?  How many moments added up to that singular moment of his brother’s forgiveness?  And the disciples’ consternation about how to feed all those people is solved unexpectedly by Jesus with a boy’s sack lunch.  How would the disciples name the miracles leading up to the big miracle of 5,000 meals plus leftovers?  How many fingers would they hold up as they listed them?

Pointing to miracles is different than saying that everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reasons things happen is because of our sin.  Joseph’s brothers had jealousy, anger, and sin on their minds when they sold him into slavery.  God brought good from their evil intentions for Joseph but it’s an injustice to name God as the agent of the brother’s sin.  Pointing to miracles is also different than saying that our material goods are blessings.  Miracles, as in the Gospel of John, are signs that reveal the love of God through Jesus.

In that light, and the awareness of my own imperfections in this regard, I’d like to suggest a bit of miracle-telling.  Not a crowd-share time, but a moment of remembering the miracles in a story.  Here’s my example. Please listen with a bit of grace.

There were FIVE miracles.  First miracle, my in-laws gave me an alb that I wore without incident for almost seven years as a pastor.  Second miracle, their love and pride of my work meant that they readily incorporated my parish commitments into our family traditions. Third miracle, and maybe the most important, my mother-in-law wrote down her pumpkin pie recipe and baked it with me many times so now I’m able to bake it for our family dinner. Fourth miracle, my husband and our daughter were able to reach through my ink-blotting meltdown to give their encouragement and love.  Fifth miracle, that there are tears of love to cry in grief for in-laws. Five miracles, a lot of love, and ultimately love in the form of other people on the planet who give us the tiniest glimpse of how much God loves us.

Jesus was deeply concerned with feeding people, freeing prisoners, loving enemies, healing the sick, serving the vulnerable, disrupting the comfortable, and so much more. In the forefront of the gospel is that it is “good news of great joy for all the people.”[1] It’s why we do things like  donate to ELCA World Hunger and the Chili Challenge for Metro Caring and George Washington High School’s food pantries. It’s also why I would never want to minimize or short-change the love of Jesus to the exclusion of anyone else or to the pain that is real and present in the world.  But Jesus also loves us personally.  For my part, in this year of firsts without Rob’s parents, there are miracles that reveal God’s love in the story of their lives and ours.  If you’re in need of such moments, by all means frame your story – meltdowns and all – on the miracles woven through them that reveal God’s love.  As the encouragement goes in the letter to the Philippians, “if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Happy Thanksgiving and amen.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:8-11 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball [OR Full-Throated, Joyful Noise in the Playbook] Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

**sermon photo: Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones, Wide Receiver, Atlanta Falcons.  The Washington Times (Associated Press) August 7, 2018.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Psalm 98 O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. 2 The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

[sermon begins (Luke reading is at end of sermon)]

“Keep your eye on the ball.”  Wise words whether you’re up to bat with a fast-ball pitcher on the mound, launching up the line on the soccer field awaiting the sweet send, or hauling down the field and turning right when the quarterback’s pass is about to arc just so.  Wise words, indeed.  And you ball players among us can tell us just how hard it is to stay in the moment and keep your eye on the ball so that the bat connects with the ball before that mad dash to first (base), so that the ball goes from toe to toe for the boot into the goal, and so the pass lands in your hands before you shift toward the end zone.

Oh sure, those of us on the sidelines can easily declare that you should have had it.  But you all know how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball.  There are defenders rushing toward you, fans cheering, music blaring, refs in your way, coach’s threat to pull you out of the game, the urges to move toward scoring before you actually have the ball, and who knows what else on your mind to prevent you from keeping your eye on the ball. But there are those moments when all the blood, sweat, and tears of practice and past games come together, and the right things happen. Those moments when the joy of the game makes it fun.  For those of us watching, we’re often trying to read the signs as to whether or not the team has the focus, grit, and spirit to play strong through the last seconds.  Or whether they will give up.  We can see it in their eyes, that giving up.  They kind of disengage and glaze over – no longer energized by what’s happening on the field because eventually that last second will come and the game will be over.  Sweet relief.

Perhaps we could call that beleaguered team, um, I don’t know, hmmm. Let’s go with Thessalonians. I know, some of you have a different beleaguered team on your minds.  Regardless, we’ll call this team the Thessalonians.  The Thessalonians were awaiting a Second Coming to save them. Jesus’ Second Coming, that is, not a new quarterback.  As they waited, they grew idle in their community.  It’s not totally clear why. Regardless, they sat out of the work and were getting challenged by friends in the letter.

These comments to the Thessalonians have been used in so many wrong ways over the years to prove one view or another about who deserves food.  However, this letter is not about identifying the lazy people to justify sticking it to them.[1] The focus is on Jesus followers giving up on working together for what is right as Jesus taught them to do because they felt that Jesus was coming soon so their work didn’t matter.  Perhaps in the face of real persecution they’d simply shut down in the hope that Jesus was coming soon.  Whatever the reason, they were being challenged in verse 13 to “not be weary in doing what is right.”  They had taken their eye off the ball and quit the game before it was over.  Disengaged, eyes glazed, they had forgotten that doing what is right matters and that God has never called the church to withdraw into isolation and sectarianism.

Can we really fault the Thessalonians?  With wars, insurrections, plagues, and famines common in their time as in ours, their temptation to connect these signs with what God must be up to in Jesus was possibly like what Jesus was warning his disciples about in the Gospel of Luke.  Maybe not so different from us as we react to the extraordinary and disappointing events in our time.  More than react, we interpret these events as if they were certain signs from God.[2]  Time and again Jesus tells us not to interpret the signs.  We do it anyway. I certainly do. This often comes from a trusting, faithful place. I’m good with that. But it makes the reminder given to idle Thessalonians even more relevant to us – “…do not grow weary in doing what is right.” Is that a Christian faith checklist item then?  Not weary – check!  I wonder how many of us could check that box today…

If “not growing weary in doing what is right” isn’t a checkbox then it’s likely something else.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may have something to do with faith being more like a team sport than a solo effort, maybe even more like a team sport if we talk about keeping our eyes on the ball, on doing what is right without wearying.  Perhaps it has something to do with what God is up to when we’re together as we are today in worship. Here’s where the psalmist gets unusual top billing in the program.

Psalm 98 slices through the mayhem of Malachi, the last days in Luke, and the lethargy of the Thessalonians, to focus on God.  Not ignoring the realities of suffering but rather sustaining us through those realities and strengthening us for the work of engaging them. With the psalmist, we remember God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, first through God’s covenant with Israel and then to the nations, which is to say, to us through the ever-expanding, radically inclusive new covenant of Jesus Christ.  Because the cross breaks down the barriers we create with the illusions of certainty, safety, and permanence.  In place of our illusions, God gives faith and liberation into an unknown future with the reassurance of God’s prodigal grace, steadfast love, and righteousness.

For these marvelous things, we sing a new song to the Lord.  Our full-throated, joyful noise joins with the oceans’ roar and the singing hills as we praise God.[3]  God doesn’t need our unending praise. Rather, we need to praise God so that we can keep our eye on the ball and not grow weary of doing what is right. Not because God demands your praise and do-goodery in exchange for the perceived need for a golden ticket.  If any kind of golden ticket is needed at the imagined pearly gates it was attained on through the self-sacrificing death of Jesus on the cross anyway…and not by you (just to be clear about that). God demands your do-goodery on behalf of your neighbor who God loves just as much as God love you. Appalling isn’t it? God’s love for all people is especially appalling when you think about those super unlikable people that you’d rather weren’t on the planet the same time as you.

God’s love is the source of our focus, grit, and spirit with which we do “not grow weary of doing what is right.”  We join the psalmist’s celebration of God’s marvelous things, including the wonder of God’s radically inclusive love, which are worthy of our praise with a new song. Thanks be to God for this and for all that God is doing!

Song after the Sermon: Earth and All Stars

1 Earth and all stars! Loud rushing planets!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Oh, victory! Loud shouting army!
Sing to the Lord a new song!

Refrain
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!

2 Hail, wind, and rain! Loud blowing snowstorm!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Flowers and trees! Loud rustling dry leaves!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

3 Trumpet and pipes! Loud clashing cymbals!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Harps, lute, and lyre! Loud humming cellos!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

4 Engines and steel! Loud pounding hammers!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams! Loud building workers!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

5 Classrooms and labs! Loud boiling test tubes!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band! Loud cheering people!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

6 Knowledge and truth! Loud sounding wisdom!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Daughter and son! Loud praying members!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Ending
I too sing praises with a new song!

Herbert F. Brokering, b. 1926 © 1968 Augsburg Fortress

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[1] Thanks Matt Skinner, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1197

[2] Skinner, ibid.

[3] In Psalm 98: 4 and 6, “Joyful noise” is the translation of the NRSV and King James Versions of the Bible (among others). The psalmody in the worship bulletin today translates it as “shouts of joy.”  Matt Skinner is also the source of that whole “full-throated” descriptor in the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Good word!

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Luke 21:5-19  When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Sinner-Saints, Non-Violence, and God’s Promises [OR All Saints Sunday Sermon] Luke 6:20-31 and Ephesians 1:11-23

**sermon art: “Golden Rule” by Norman Rockwell, 1960. Original at Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday – November 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings – hang in there]

Luke 6:20-31 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. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Ephesians 1:11-23  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

[sermon begins]

T: “Mama, God must have a special skin machine.”

Me: “What do you mean, T?  What for?”

T: “For after we die and when we get to heaven and get our new bodies. We’re going to need skin.”

This is a bedtime conversation that my daughter Taryn and I had when she was little.  Turned out that she’d been giving some thought to the “resurrection of the body” part of the worship service in the Apostle’s Creed.  She was trying to understand how God might make that work. That’s not so different than so many of us who are curious about what happens next for us or for the people we love when we’re done with this material body.  For some of us there’s a lot of wondering and for others of us it’s easier to let it go into the category of things we don’t control.  But this question of material bodies, of something physical happening, taps into the reading from Luke this morning.  Jesus goes right for our material concerns with the Blessed and Woe statements.  These kinds of statements aren’t anything new in the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus flips the script from Mary’s Magnificat in chapter 1.  The Blessed and Woe statements are a continuation of the good news of Jesus’ birth that lifts the lowly, fills the hungry, and sends the rich away empty.[1]

Especially in the Woe statements, we’re left to wonder what the warning is about.  That’s one way to think about this use of “woe” here.  It’s more like someone yelling, “Look out!”  It’s a not so subtle warning about the material things in our lives, about the power of material things to lull us into complacency and away from needing God.  Being lulled into complacency in the reading today means that our vision is clouded with certainty when really the material things we crave and hang onto are illusory – whether those material things are food, finances, or fellowship of admiring friends.  We can let the material things define us when Jesus is talking about something else here.

Jesus tells his followers to watch out when they’re wealthy, fed, and admired, because those are not the blessings that society believes them to be.  In our time, the word blessing is often synonymous with those very things – being wealthy, fed, light-hearted, and admired.  But here, blessings are not the material things.  What are the non-material blessings that Jesus lays out?  Jesus begins to list them: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…; and he wraps us the list by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  These verses have been used wrongly over time to justify abuse.  There’s plenty of Jesus’ teachings here and elsewhere through which we know that these are not words meant to compel victims of violence into staying with people who hurt them.  Rather, his words give us pause to consider what the blessings of God’s kingdom look like, to consider an alternative way of living with each other.

Much violence is done in the name of protecting material things – whether that violence be large-scale like governments fighting over borders or small-scale like a family fighting over Grandma’s wedding ring after her death.  Both these large-and-small scale examples get tied up in the concept of inheritance and what we believe is ours over and against someone else.  But Jesus’ words are intriguing.  Material things like food and money are instrumental for people who are hungry and poor but hazardous for those who are fed and wealthy.  So hazardous that Jesus goes on to say that the most important thing is non-violence.  He said don’t retaliate.  Be non-violent.

There’s a group of American Christian denominations crossing theological and political divides who are taking these words of Jesus to heart. ELCA Lutherans, American Baptist Churches USA, National Latino Evangelical Association, the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops, and more, have launched an initiative called “Golden Rule 2020: A Call for Dignity and Respect in Politics.”[2]  Not meant to mute simultaneous calls for justice, the idea is to speak respectfully with and about each other across our differences. There’s even a place online for people to sign on to the initiative. A noble goal, to be sure, and one that certainly can’t hurt.  After all, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Another way to think about it is to not become the very people who cause suffering even in the midst of your own.

In fact, claimed by Jesus, those early followers watched him do just that.  He died on a cross rather than raise a hand in violence against the people who killed him.  It was through his self-sacrificing death by violence that he conquered the very power of death by non-violence.  And through Christ’s death, raised by God into resurrected life, as Paul writes in our reading from Ephesians.

Paul calls this our inheritance in Christ.  And, while there may indeed by a skin-machine of some kind, we don’t know what the promise of resurrected life looks like for us and our loved ones.  We hope by faith and we see in part now what we will someday see face-to-face.[3]  We experience life on this side of the cross and trust in the communion of saints in light on the other side. When I pray out loud with families before walking them into the funeral of a loved one, I often say a prayer of thanksgiving for the way God shows God’s love for us through other people. In some ways, I think this is how we often think about the “saints” among us. Someone whose list of virtues includes a loving nature among all the other virtues we can name about them.  We give them the label of saint to show our appreciation for who they were in our lives. We then call the person who died a “good person” which does some violence to who they were as a whole sinner-saint person.

The thing that I think goes awry with a virtue list is that it somehow becomes a way to position the person who died in right relationship with God. The list becomes like Santa’s naughty and nice tally. But here’s the thing, Jesus does NOT tally. If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us – God’s promise through Jesus that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  The promise is a non-violent, non-material inheritance for sinner-saints, for us. An inheritance that pours through the waters of baptism. Here’s the way the funeral liturgy gives thanks for baptism.

“When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a resurrection like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”[4]

The baptismal promise is one that sinner-saints trust as a promise of life now.  Christ’s promises new life that is an alternative to living in the woes of material illusions and violence over and against each other. Christ’s promise of living in the blessings of loving our enemies and doing to others as you would have them do to you.  And Christ promises that we can indeed celebrate as we complete our baptismal journeys through death here on earth.  Not fearing but actually trusting a God of non-violence to receive us into holy rest, to bring us into peace – a promise of joining the company of all the saints in light as we gather at the river…

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Song After the Sermon

ELW 423: Shall We Gather at the River

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain: Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.[Refrain]

Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.[Refrain]

Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace. [Refrain]

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[1] Luke 1:52-53

[2] Emily McFarlan Miller. “One Year Before Election, Christian Leaders Cross Divides to Call for Respect.” Religion News Service, October 31, 2019.  https://religionnews.com/2019/10/31/one-year-before-election-christian-leaders-cross-divides-to-call-for-dignity-and respect/?fbclid=IwAR2jhFCdKhxNRQCietvp8GcfGozvpsTzubWidV8PAxgrgShveIHJ7NheH-w

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Life Passages: Funeral. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 280.

Seek. Find. Joy. Repeat. [OR What’s Up in the Lost and Found?] Luke 15:1-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17

**sermon art:  “Lost Sheep – Lost Coin” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

[sermon begins]

My son made me a bracelet.  The class assignment had to be an original design and solder two kinds of metal together.  He chose copper and silver, balanced symmetry and asymmetry in the design, soldered and sanded the metals, and presented me with the finished product.  The bracelet had a toggle clasp to hold it on my wrist.  A toggle clasp is cool looking, but it can slip loose if you jostle it just so.  On my way home from Costco one day, hands in that 9-and-3 on the steering wheel, I realized it was no longer on my wrist.  Almost home, I ran my groceries inside and headed back to Costco where I retraced my path.  Didn’t find it.  Went to customer service and, lo and behold, someone had found it and turned it in.  I could NOT believe it!  Happy-happy-joy-joy!  A small thing but a whole lotta love embedded in it. Search. Found. Joy.  (And, yes, toggle clasp out, new clasp in.)

Joy is one of the highlights in the gospel reading today.  The shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep (v6).  The woman who finds her lost coin, a day’s wage gone missing, rejoices with her friends (v9).  And we haven’t even gotten to the story of the Prodigal Son that comes in the next verses and completes the trifecta of lost and found things in the next few verses.[1]  Take a peek at Luke 15 in the pew Bible in front of you.  Note how chapter 15 ramps up the lost stories each time.  There is so much joy that it can’t help but be shared. The shepherd who finds his sheep “calls together his friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with him.  The woman who finds her coin “calls together her friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with her.  The father runs wildly to his returning son, kisses him, kills the fatted calf, and celebrates with a dance party.

Friends, neighbors, and households are not the only ones partying in these parables.  Jesus adds that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  We heard a bit about the joy of the angels in our Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship today.  We heard that “For the sake of Jesus Christ ☩ your sins are forgiven” and then were invited to “rejoice with the angels at this good news.” Now THAT is a cool image – angels celebrating on our behalf. It’s counter-cultural to jump into anything with a confession of wrongdoing on our lips.  So much so that some people ask why we have a part of our worship that makes us sound so bad.  I argue that we start with the truth and the truth is that we can be as dumb as that sheep, as slippery as that coin, and as disobedient as that son. We’re sinners and we know it.  Sin is deeper than the hurtful things we do to others and ourselves. Sin is the breach, the distance, that is between us and God. Sin has us thinking we can save ourselves by finding ourselves.

Along the line of finding ourselves, a tourist group in Iceland lost track of a fellow traveler at a volcanic landmark.  A search was organized once the woman was verified missing.  50 members of the tour group joined the search while the Icelandic coast guard scrambled a helicopter.  They searched well into the night until one woman in the search and rescue group realized that everyone was searching for her and told the local police who called off the search.  It was about 3 o’clock in the morning.  The problem occurred when she had broken off from the group earlier in the day to change her clothes.  Her description was generic enough that she didn’t recognize herself in it.  The news headline was spot on:  “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After an Intense Search.” [2]  It’s a perfect headline for our topic at hand, really.

The language of “finding ourselves” is an old one.  We thrive on thinking things through to the essence of self.  Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Among the Intellectuals,” gets at this tendency to think things down to the last thought.  He describes being “thought-provoking, as if thought were an animal” to be poked with a stick.  After illustrating his own experience of intellectual posturing, he writes:

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;
blind, really blind;
stupid, really stupid;
dry, really dry;
hungry, really hungry;
and you go on from there.[3]

The poet’s words strike a chord in the current culture of snark posing as savvy and irony masquerading as intelligence.  The dizzying intellectual acrobatics leave in their wake a longing for earnest joy and hoping for a moment of the absurd and even ridiculous.  Sublime is good but sometimes silly is what’s needed.  And that’s what we get in Jesus’ parables.  Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  You know what the answer is to that ridiculous question?  No shepherd would do that.  It’s absurd to even consider leaving your livelihood of 99 sheep in the wilderness to hunt down a single lost sheep.  Then Jesus asks, “…what woman having ten sliver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  The answer?  No woman would spend more money on lamp oil worth more than the coin she is looking for.  It’s ridiculous even to consider being that wasteful.

Jesus’ parables don’t leave the lost to find themselves.  Lost things simply don’t have that kind of capacity.  The seeking begins with God – from the cosmic to the particular in the person of Jesus; from Creator to creation to creature; from God to us.  God is not irresistible.  Many of us wander off, slip away, or run from God.  Our self-centeredness knows no bounds.  But God relentlessly pursues us through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  And God’s joy is exuberant when reconciliation happens between us and God.  Joy is part of God’s character and the angels rejoice in kind.

Finding the lost, no matter the cost, makes the angels jump for joy with the one who searches and finds.  One wonders if the search and the celebration cost more than the lost objects were worth.[4]  In that regard, the opening line of the gospel reading is even more compelling.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].”  Not just some. All. Not only the tax collectors. Also, the sinners. It’s an absurd excess of people.  I’m sure the grumbling religious elite WERE perturbed by the party crashers. But imagine what the sinners and tax collectors felt by being included around Jesus’ table. Just for a moment, imagine their joy. If imagining the joy of the sinners a stretch, take a look at Paul writing to Timothy in our second reading today.  Here he confesses to perpetrating violence. Elsewhere, we are told he was killing Jesus followers.  Then he had a come to Jesus moment.[5]  He had his own story of being lost and found, his own story of joy.  I’ve heard some of your stories including your joy.  There’s nothing like those moments of being found.

Rarely is being found a once and done experience.  Oh sure, our baptisms happen once.  But the experience of being in a push me/pull you with God happens over a lifetime. Often the stories defy being put into words that make sense to other people although I’d argue we should keep trying to find those words.  Often our own stories parallel elements of Jesus’ parables either by being dumb as a sheep, slippery as a coin, or disobedient as a son. Sometimes, our stories include all three.  Our joy at being found is a drop in the bucket of the joy of God who searches for us, risking God’s whole self in the search.  We are never beyond God’s relentless grace.

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[1] Luke 15:11-32

[2] Casey Glynn. “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After Intense Search.” CBS News. August 30, 2012. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-woman-finds-herself-after-intense-search/

[3] (Many thanks to John Pederson for posting this gem.)  Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). “Among the Intellectuals.” The New Yorker: September 2, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/among-the-intellectuals

[4] Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Assistant Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University. Commentary on Luke 15:1-10 for September 15, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165

[5] Acts 9:1-19