Tag Archives: Jesus

A Complicated Praise Simplified on Palm Sunday [OR First Responders and Hospital Workers Are Human Too] Matthew 21:1-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 5, 2020

[sermon begins after this Bible reading]

Matthew 21:1-11  When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

[sermon begins]

Ordinarily on Palm Sunday, we tackle the whole Passion story from Jesus’ palm parade into Jerusalem right onto the cross and into his burial in the tomb.  I can’t speak for you all right now, but my mind’s at a saturation point and I find smaller doses more helpful. So, a smaller dose it is. The rest of the story will unfold this week on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

In the story today, the people who came to Jerusalem with Jesus are the crowds who scatter palm branches and cloaks on the ground in front of him as he parades into Jerusalem on a colt and a donkey.[1] Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus knows what’s ahead of him in Jerusalem.[2] He’s been telling his followers what’s going to happen when he gets there. In other Bible stories, Jesus is often vague and mysterious. Not this time. His followers, the “crowds” who went ahead of him into Jerusalem throwing palm branches and cloaks, knew Jesus would be killed. It was the city folk in the turmoil of Jerusalem who didn’t know. These city folk ask, “Who is this?” It’s a fair question given the turmoil created by crowds of Jesus followers along with Jesus himself, the donkey, colt, palm branches, and cloaks.

“Who is this?” In Matthew’s gospel, God’s holiness is given through Jesus to people who didn’t fit the definition of holy or even worthy of holy consideration. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the meek… blessed are the merciful…blessed are those who are persecuted….blessed are you when people revile you…”[3]  Jesus’ words were NOT describing a typical in-crowd back in the Bible’s day. Jesus widened the circle – pulling in people who previously had no business showing up there. Jesus made holy the very people who were not considered holy. Making the unworthy people holy made the powers that be unhappy – murderously unhappy – with Jesus.

The people following Jesus, waving branches and throwing cloaks, were drawn into the expanded circle of previously unimaginable holiness. Perhaps that was part of their enthusiasm on entering Jerusalem. The enthusiastic gratitude of people who didn’t get it but were on their way to understanding what Jesus was doing for them.

When reading the gospel to write today’s sermon, the first thing that came to mind was the crowd lauding Jesus; but instead of palm fronds and cloaks, I saw masks and white coats being waved in the air and thrown down on the road. In the last couple of weeks, there’s been praise heaped on first responders and hospital workers of all kinds. It’s a complicated praise. Most of us don’t totally get what these paragons of healthcare virtue do but most of us are on the way to understanding it. These people, by their chosen work, are at greater risk to themselves and are also the very people we hope will be around to take care of us if we get sick.

The symbols of their self-sacrifice have become masks and personal protective equipment. As PPE supplies catch up to demand, a variety of manufacturers have converted their production lines into ventilator and N95 mask components, distilleries are making hand sanitizer, and seamstresses both amateur and professional have begun making homemade masks to help regular people and to help healthcare workers prolong the life of their N95s. Many of the rest of us are simply trying to stay out of the way to flatten the curve and lessen the demands on hospitals at any given point in time. These efforts acknowledge the daily risk of healthcare workers. They’re also the tangible, complicated praise of a society depending on their care when it’s most desperately needed. We are at the mercy of healthcare workers who are gifted to heal. Our praise is a complicated praise, indeed!

Please hear me say that these folks deserve our utmost respect and thoughtful actions. The videos of gratitude for them are overwhelming to watch. The stories from my family, friends, and colleagues in hospitals are awe-inspiring. I also want to encourage us to acknowledge their humanity, make space for their fear, and do what’s possible to mitigate the danger they face daily. Our adoration of folks, complicated by our potential need for them, is as tricky for the receivers of that praise as it is for those of us giving it.  What I’m trying to say is that a self-sacrificial act is, by definition, one in which the person doing the giving understands there is no capacity to make up for what is lost in the gift.

On Palm Sunday, we can barely understand what the humbled, servant king Jesus was headed towards. He knew and understood that God’s love was big enough for the whole world and personal enough to be experienced by each person. He knew that his ministry of sharing God’s love would not go unnoticed. For crying out loud, there were enough people cheering him on his way into Jerusalem to create turmoil in the city. These people had been touched by Jesus’ ministry of holy inclusion during a time when they had been, at best, ostracized, and, at worst, tortured and killed. They knew that his ministry to them put him in the murderous path of people who felt that they knew better how to apply God’s love to only the appropriate, worthy people.

Regardless of whether or not we understand the lengths to which God goes to get our attention; regardless of whether or not we can see that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had only one possible outcome given those who would do anything to maintain their power; and regardless of whether or not we can hold the complexity of a non-violent God who brings redemptive grace to shame-addled people; we can still offer our complicated praise to Jesus. Or, let’s try something else…we could simplify our praise because maybe it’s not complicated at all.

Our praise of Jesus is not transactional. It’s we who make it complicated because we often think of giving in terms of what we’ll receive in return. Give-and-take or quid pro quo are null and void. Our praise does not inspire greater love on God’s part. Either the love of God through Jesus is unconditional or it’s not. Either God so loves the world, the whole world, or God doesn’t. We’re the ones who complicate it by shaming ourselves or other people into unworthy categories. Thankfully, Jesus’ grace is not distributed based on a graded curve that rates only some of us as worthy of God’s love. Jesus flattens the curve all the way flat. It’s appalling to stop and think about who’s included next to us on the flat line. Appalling enough that what happens next to Jesus in Jerusalem is no surprise. It’s simply worthy of our praise.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

Now receive this blessing…

God almighty send you light and truth to keep you all the days of your life.

The hand of God protect you, the holy angels accompany you,

and the blessing of almighty God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit +,

be with you now and forever. Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] John Petty, retired pastor from All Saints Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO. Commentary on Matthew 21:1-11. March 30, 2020. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2020/03/palm-sunday-matthew-21-1-11.html?fbclid=IwAR3kZnjv3wuDSvn6x4iftOIMR08mPNT-6PDlJTiJxYVsnaepBa8fywsDJHI

[2] Matthew 16:21-23; 17:22-23; and 20:17-19

[3] Matthew 5:3-11

Faithful Debate to Challenge Assumptions [OR Rabbinic Machloket L’shem Shemayim/Disagreement for the Sake of Heaven]

**sermon art: Jesus and Nicodemus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899), oil on canvas. “The story of Nicodemus visiting Christ at night spoke to African American worship habits that Tanner remembered from his youth: After emancipation, freed slaves continued to meet at night, as they had done when their masters had forbidden them to read the Bible (Mosby, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1991).”

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading; Romans and Psalm reading at end of sermon]

John 3:1-17  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

[sermon begins]

Very few of us are gifted the amount of faith we wish we had. So much so that I wonder if that’s simply a normal part of faith – wishing we had more of it. It can be high praise to be described as having a strong faith. Not many people easily admit when their faith is flimsy or freshie or completely fails them – especially after reading the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans that makes a big deal out of the righteousness of faith. Nicodemus has often been considered a role model of flimsy faith. “Nicodemus just doesn’t get it,” the preachers gonna preach. Well to that, I say, shake it off.[1]

Look at what Nicodemus does and doesn’t do. He does seek Jesus out. He doesn’t shame Jesus in the temple with other religious leaders. He does acknowledge that Jesus is from God and that Jesus’ signs reveal the presence of God. He doesn’t try to give a negative explanation for Jesus’ signs. He does call him a teacher. He doesn’t succumb to name calling. Respect is evident even in Nicodemus’ approach. In Rabbinic tradition, debate and questioning are a sign of respect. 2,000 years ago in Jewish Mishnah, the House of Hillel and the House of Shimmai were engaged in “Machloket L’shem Shemayim,” meaning “Disagreement for the sake of heaven.”[2] Nicodemus and Jesus are participating in the kind of faithful exchange that continues to thrive today between our Jewish cousins in the faith. We’d do well to follow their example and reject the idol we make of unanimous agreement. Disagreement for the sake of heaven preserves the minority report along with the prevailing one because both bear fruit for ongoing learning over time.[3]

Jesus and Nicodemus give us their example as two teachers questioning and debating each other. Jesus’ words are more like Wisdom teaching that doesn’t give exact answers but leads to more questions, to deeper and deeper layers of understanding.  The opening words of the Gospel of John tell us that God’s love for the world brings life and light in the Word made flesh in Jesus. Here in his story with Nicodemus, we’re also reminded in verse 17 that Jesus came not to condemn the world. Oddly enough though, Jesus followers can turn to judgment just as quickly as anyone else. I don’t know if it makes us feel smarter or more in control but judging each other seems to be a go-to move for most humans. Christians often take the good Lord’s name in vain by judging and condemning people who disagree with them in the name of God. But Jesus’ posture towards Nicodemus in this story is one that I wish the church catholic, God’s whole universal church, would embody in our posture towards each other in the faith and towards people of other faiths or non-faiths.  An audacious goal for the church and certainly not one that can simply be announced and made so as if we were Captain Picard on the Star Ship Enterprise.[4] What, then, are well-meaning church folk to do to adopt Jesus’ posture of compassionate teaching and not condemnation?  You didn’t think I’d come without an idea, did you?

The Jesus Prayer dates back to at least the 5th century in Egypt. It goes like this…

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”[5]

The Jesus Prayer can be used in a daily practice of contemplative prayer like the one recommended by Richard Carter in his book, The City is My Monastery. [6] Breathe in to the first part “Lord Jesus Christ…”, hold your breath for “Son of God…” and breath out on the last part “have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is not a prayer I’ve prayed as any kind of regular spiritual practice prior to this Lenten season. I now pray it regularly along with the breathing. This is true especially when I’m awake in the middle of the night or find myself overthinking politics, or viruses,  or kids in cages, or tornadoes in Tennessee, or my own young adult children. I pray it because it reminds me that God is present in Jesus and that God shows me mercy first.

Reflecting on that prayer, I’ve wondered about our own experience of God’s mercy allowing us to be merciful with ourselves and with other people. And that perhaps in this small individual practice and others like it along with our worship together we could actually be a church whose posture towards other folks mimics Jesus’ posture towards the people he encountered in his ministry.

Nicodemus turns up again, you know. Twice more in the Gospel of John.  In Chapter 7, he speaks up for Jesus when other religious leaders were trying to have him arrested without a just hearing.[7] Then again in Chapter 19, Nicodemus appears with 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  We don’t hear a confession of faith from Nicodemus but we do witness these additional two moments after he and Jesus had their faithful debate. I like to think Nicodemus heard things that made him question his own motives and shook his assumptions about faith. He is a bit of a hero for those of us who are drawn slowly into faith through ordinary days and dark nights of the soul. There is no single grand epiphany for Nicodemus or for many of us. Just a gradual journey that winds and meanders while pointing us in the direction of Jesus one shaken assumption at a time.

There are many things that happen in the world that shake our assumptions. You name the change, a good change or a bad change, and there are faithful people struggling to understand their faith in the midst of it. Being called to faith doesn’t mean we’re immune to change or our reactions to change. Oh, how I wish it did. A few years ago, I was sitting in my counselor’s office and, in all earnestness, told him that I just wanted a couple of months where things didn’t change. I don’t remember exactly when, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been worn out by a series of rapid-fire changes. He did what he often does and asked me whether or not I’d like to hear what he thought about my comment. To which I usually say “yes.” He leaned forward in his chair and said, “Life IS change.” Which, of course, I know but apparently had to hear again.

To that, we can add that Christian life IS change. What else would we expect?! It’s what God does. That much seems clear from Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus as we are to be born from above. Another translation of the Greek is to be born anew. Transformation is a churchy word but it’s really just a fancy word for change, for being born anew. In that Spirit, receiving this blessing:

As you are born anew each day through the daily promise of your baptism, may you be given the grace, strength, and wisdom as your assumptions are challenged, and may you encounter the wideness of God’s mercy over your going out and coming in from this time onward and forevermore.[8] Amen.

 

hymn song after the sermon:

ELW 588 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kind judgment given.

There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

____________________________________________________

[1] Taylor Swift. Shake It Off. Album: 1989 (2014). Written by Taylor Swift, Max Martin, and Shellback.

[2] Daniel Roth. A short, animated video that explains: “Machloket L’shem Shemayim” – the power of constructive conflict. https://www.bimbam.com/machloket-lshem-shemayim/

[3] Leon Wieseltier. The Argumentative Jew. Winter 2015. https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/1491/the-argumentative-jew/

[4] Star Trek, The Next Generation, “Make It So” Compilation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FaLyasJPyUU

[5] Read more about The Jesus Prayer here: https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Jesus%20Prayer.html

[6] Richard Carter. The City is My Monastery (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2019), 11.

[7] John 7:37-52

[8] Psalm 121:8 and ELW hymn #588 There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

__________________________________________________

 

Look, Listen, and Lighten Up [OR Transfiguration of the Dazzling Light and Dead Ancestors Kind] Matthew 17:1-9

**sermon art: The Transfiguration of Christ by Earl Mott (b. 1949)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 23, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

I have a Christian friend who gets on a lot of high horses about things Christians tend to do without thinking about them. In the middle of whatever roll he’s on at the moment, he’ll often wing out an alternative option to whatever thing it is that we do. One such high horse has to do with bowing our head and closing our eyes to pray. [I know, nothing is off limits to this guy.]  His take is that we should look around or up during prayer because God is out there. As with a lot of my church friends, this guy gives me challenging things to think about. So, I gave some thought to why I close my eyes when I pray, or when the psalm is chanted, or when listening to a sermon, or when singing a familiar hymn. And here’s the God’s-honest-truth. It’s just too easy for me to get distracted and start thinking about other things when I really want to focus on that one thing. I close my eyes to focus on that one thing more closely before I’m razzle-dazzled into distraction. I close my eyes to see, focusing on the other senses and allowing a moment of thought without the visual distraction.

The festival of Jesus’ Transfiguration distracts with all its dazzle. It’s one of the weirder Bible stories with the light show and the dead ancestors making an appearance.  Some people just need to get through it. Skipping the entire story and moving on to the next one. I’m going to invite a different strategy. Confronted by dazzling light, the disciples fell on the ground cowering away from the light and the voice from heaven. But Jesus came over and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  When they looked up, everything and everyone was gone but Jesus. Jesus, the Beloved Son. Jesus, the One to whom we should listen. Listening takes focus – hence that “closing our eyes to see” thing. Listening also takes a lack of fear. We don’t listen well when we’re afraid. The movie Gifted has a scene that is an example of this kind of listening.[1] A single man, Frank, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary. At one point he tells her, “No more math today” and swoops her outside for some fresh air. They’re on a beach, silhouetted by the setting sun. Mary’s twirling and bending around as Frank holds her hand. She asks about God and receives a lot of “I don’t know” replies from her uncle. He doesn’t wig out. He doesn’t try to answer when he doesn’t know the answer. He stays chill as she asks her questions. Then she says, “What about Jesus?” Her uncle answers, “Love that guy; do what he says.”  Frank’s answer doesn’t come from a place of faith for the character. Just a calm and honest reply, “Love that guy; do what he says.”

The uncle’s words parallel the voice from the heavens that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.”  The uncle’s words. “Love that guy; do what he says.”  The Hebrew understanding of the word “listen” is linked to obedience – listening to obey what is heard.[2]  “Love that guys; do what he says.” What’s first thing Jesus says after the heavenly voice speaks? “Get up and do not be afraid.” Part of what we do for each other in worship together is exactly Jesus’ reminder. Week after week we remind each other to get up and not be afraid. Not because things aren’t scary. Not because we shouldn’t take our suffering neighbor seriously. But because Jesus calls us into life free of fear. In essence, Jesus tells us to look up and lighten up as we follow him into dire situations on behalf of our neighbor.

We’ve been in the season of Epiphany since after Christmas. Epiphany emphasizes the light of Christ shining in the darkness and now crescendos to a close today on a mountaintop in dazzling light. During this season, together we’ve confessed weekly in worship that, “We look to other lights to find our way.” The reason I mention this here is because we often look for light in all the wrong places to decrease fear. And there are so many shiny, dazzling lights out there promising to fix our fear or at least distract us from it. There are also the shiny, distracting lights out there that stoke our fear and tell us who to blame for it so that we both excuse ourselves from helping the people we feel don’t deserve our help and we need never look at the good, bad, and ugly of ourselves.  We humans can be so clever that way, blinding ourselves to the very things that Jesus calls us to see and do.

On the mountaintop, dazzled by Jesus’ light today, many of us wonder if there’s anything to the Transfiguration. Pausing on top of this mountain before our six-week journey through Lent to the cross that sits on a different hill.[3]  It’s one thing for Jesus to tell us to lighten up and to not be afraid. It’s another thing entirely to figure out being fearless together. And believe you me, figuring out fearless Jesus following in a 21st century urban setting full of shiny distractions is often a group project. So, what’s one thing a Jesus loving congregation can do? We’re going to roll down this dazzling mountain into Lent and into a book and conversation called “The City is My Monastery” by Richard Carter.

The good Reverend Carter is an Episcopalian priest who was trying to understand a life of faith in the razzle-dazzle of downtown London to live more deeply into the promises of peace offered by Jesus.[4] He found himself in London after living monastically for 15 years in the Solomon Islands. After the peace and quiet of the islands, he began to question if feeling the peace of Christ and the presence of God was possible in the 24/7 sirens and other city noise, in his ministry to the homeless and refugees, and in the bustling wonder of living among so many other humans. Out of his own monastic practices, he suggests rules of life that are actually life-giving. Prayers, stories, and ideas that hope to inspire our own faith and ideas, to discover the deeper values and the things that give us life.  Whether or not you read the book, there will be facilitated conversations between worship services or after 10:30 worship over soup to dig deeper into these rules of life together and ask questions along the way.

Loving Jesus, listening to him, and doing what he says can be a dicey proposition because for so many people it quickly becomes a way of validating ourselves and invalidating other people.  Rather than lightening up, we become heavy-handed and perpetuate the very fear that Jesus frees us from. The Transfiguration, in its weird, dramatic dazzle, is a moment in Jesus’ story that defies any attempt at certainty because it is pure mystery. The time-space continuum bends as ancestors and friends share space and light on the top of mountain. Whether we close or open our eyes, the Transfiguration resists explanation while drawing us to the light of God in Jesus and reminding us to look up, listen up, and lighten up.

Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Gifted. (2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndaomDF4DMY

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Podcast for the Transfiguration on February 23, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232

[3] Ash Wednesday is Wednesday, February 26 this year. Lent ends April 11 with Easter on April 12.

[4] Richard Carter swapped a life of simplicity with an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands for parish ministry in one of London’s busiest churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Here’s a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaK6l4_Dqf8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0j4au_LTkGekE-o8lbvzzSN0xyZ-pHXjxKeR1ZDdFoyYwKEfb4lGlFYqM

A Celebration of Life for Liz Heins (1935 – 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2020

Psalm 23   The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

John 10:14-18 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

[sermon begins]

 

Liz and I shared a time of prayer the day before she died.  Our Parish Nurse, Sue Ann, had visited in the days prior. They sang hymns and selected Liz’s favorites for today’s service. Sue Ann knew that Liz’s body didn’t have many days left to live.  When I walked in her room and said her name, she woke right up and smiled, saying “hi” in welcome. I reminded her who I was, and she said she remembered me.  She said that, yes, she’d like the prayers that we pray in people’s last days.  She reached out and gently held my hand as the prayers unfolded during the next several minutes, speaking several words of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 with me.  Truly, it was one of the sweetest end-of-life moments I’ve encountered over the last 30 years. It was made all the more sweet because I’ve known Liz for the last seven years. Many of us here today knew her to be a tough, straight-talking person without much of a need to soft-shoe anything she had to say.

A few days after she died, Rich and I were able to share the wonder of those last weeks of Liz’s life that seemed to soften her. After months of decline, there was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life. But the conversation also felt like a pause. A pause that allowed some time to reflect on how Liz moved through the world for so many years and how that shifted and softened.  In a few hand-written letters that Rich gave Sue Ann, it was touching to read how much one of her students missed her after the student moved away.  It’s good to remember all the facets of Liz as she lived her 84 years.

It’s good to remember because there’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He doesn’t 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 promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask, “Have I done enough to make myself right with God?!”  It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love as Jesus lays his life down. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, because we have peace and grace we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when we “will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Liz into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Liz.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

Daring to Gather Around the Light (OR Perspective of Great Age, Suffering and Peace) Luke 2:22-40

**sermon art: Simeon en Anna by Jan van ‘t Hoff b.1959

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

February 2, 2020 – Presentation of Our Lord and Candlemas

[sermon begins after Bible reading; it’s a meaty story – hang in there]

 

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

[sermon begins]

When I was a kid, not sure quite how old, I was walking down the street with my grandmother. Time alone with Grammops feels like it was rare. She could be a little intimidating too – almost regal in her bearing. I used to joke that if you had the manners to dine with Grammops, you could easily dine with the Queen. Walking alongside Grammops, armed with the ignorance of youth, I dared to ask how old she was. She told me that it was NOT a question to be asked, her body language speaking volumes, and we just kept right on walking. Clearly her response made an impression since I remember this story. I wished she’d simply said, “Caitlin, I am of a great age” and kept right on walking. A “great age” is how our Bible story describes the prophet Anna who lived in the Temple. So, to our friends of a great age, feel free to use this one. If someone asks you what it means you can tell them to check out the Bible’s second chapter of Luke in the 36th verse. Not only will it be Biblically accurate, you can also remain mysterious about said great age if that’s how you roll.

Anna and Simeon’s great age, in contrast with the 40-day-old baby Jesus, is part of what I love about this story. Artwork inspired by this Bible story captures the smooth newborn and the texture of age along with a radiant light. The contrast also frames a faithful perspective on peace and suffering. Simeon scoops Jesus into his arms and celebrates God’s long-awaited promise fulfilled with a song of peace. In the next breath, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will piece her own soul too.” (Probably not what you want to hear when you’re a first-time mom showing off your new baby in the Temple.)[1]

The widow prophet Anna follows Simeon’s speech with her own praise and talks about Jesus to anyone who would listen. Contrasts are vividly shaped in a matter of moments – old and young; life and death; peace and soul-piercing pain. Two faithful people of great age in the story are an audacious portrait of peace and suffering. You don’t arrive at a great age without experiencing things that you wish you hadn’t. Perhaps Anna and Simeon’s perspective can lead us to dare similarly, to gather around the light when death is ever present in the world.[2]

The light of Christ is part of what is celebrated annually on February 2 in the festival of Presentation of Our Lord and the accompanying ritual of Candlemas, also celebrated today. Blessing candles for use this evening and year-round invokes Simeon’s words as he held Jesus and praised God for “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The candlelight reminds us that the light of Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not overcome it.[3] Anna and Simeon lead by their example of showing up in sacred space where God’s promise is more readily remembered. They would find it hard to imagine how counter-cultural it is in the 21st century to self-identify as religious.

Religious ritual helps us to remember our center when the culture at large fails to do so. The grief for Kobe Bryant’s death is one such moment. The many layers and voices in the mix of what happened to Mr. Bryant, his daughter, and the other people in the helicopter make it difficult for us to remember that all of them are beloved children of God.  As the two women (not of a great age) in our congregation, who died recently and unexpectedly in different situations on the same day are also beloved children of God. As the people that you’ve lost to death and on your hearts and minds are also beloved children of God. And, as such, there is nothing they could do or not do to make God love them any more or any less.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross, hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s refusal to raise a hand in violence against the world God so loves. The empty tomb of Easter, also hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s promise to swallow death up into God, into holy rest with all the company of the saints in light perpetual. It’s tough to remember all those words when we need to hear them. It’s not tough to light a candle, say our loved ones’ names in prayer, and to remember God’s promise of love and light in Jesus – to comfort the afflicted with peace that passes all our understanding and to remember that we dare to gather around the light when death is ever present in our world.

Simeon’s praise and speech doesn’t end once he announces his own peace. He keeps right on going. Anna also keeps right on talking to all who will listen. Apparently, even at a great age, there’s more for them to say about Jesus. Do they keep going because there is little time to waste? Or do they keep going because their perspective gives them a vantage point that people of a lesser age can’t see? Regardless, our 21st century world of media and nation states would be unimaginable to them. Our ability to impact our world through a representative government would shock them. But the call of Jesus to disrupt any status quo – private, political, local, global, or otherwise – that ignores the pain of our neighbor remains the same.[4]

Anna and Simeon are saints in the faith as their stories are recorded in Luke for us to learn and gain strength from. We can look to them anytime or anticipate this day annually on February 2. Their story is easy to find. Whether you’re afflicted and needing comfort or whether you’re too comfortable and need to be agitated out of that comfort for your own good or for the good of your neighbor, the day that Jesus was presented in the Temple is your day. Jesus shows up both as a promise of peace and as a sign that will be opposed; as both a consoler and an agitator. We are people of faith drawn together by the Holy Spirit, daring to gather around the light when death and suffering are ever present in our world. Jesus, our light, our life and our peace, leads us on the journey.  Amen.

______________________________________________________

Blessing for your home candles (Adapted  by Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake from ELW Occasional Services)

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, O God, creator of the universe, for you have enriched our lives with every good gift, and you have invited us to praise you with lives of love, justice, and joy.

Send your blessing on these candles, which we set apart today; may they be to us a sign of Christ, the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

To you, O God, be all glory and honor through your Son, Jesus Christ,in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave on Luke 2:22-40. December 25, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=252

[2] Ibid. David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.

[3] An emphatic paraphrase of John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

[4] Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Celebrating the Life of Cindy Brogren (August 21, 1946 – January 19, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on January 31, 2020

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 25:7-9 And [the Lord of hosts] will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

John 14:1-7  [Jesus said] ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?* 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’* 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know* my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

[sermon begins]

Cindy’s warmth and encouragement seemed in endless supply through the years and across her relationships. Especially as a mother, she had a knack for knowing just how to encourage Katie and Anton in many situations. Her support carried all kinds of people through difficult times. This was true from her closest relationships to people she didn’t even know. When I walked into her hospital room on the Sunday afternoon she died, stories were already being told about her way of getting into the mix of people needing help. If fact, the family’s invitation to give in honor of Cindy to Metro Caring, a frontline anti-hunger organization in Denver, aligns with how she moved through the world.  Curt puts it this way, “Cindy had unconditional love; she didn’t judge, she served.”  Such love and support come from not only strength but also from the clarity of one’s own imperfection.  You see, clarity about one’s own imperfection frees grace for someone else’s imperfection. Out of that clarity of faith comes an awareness of just how much God must love us.

Because Cindy’s death was unexpected, the stories about her that reflect who you each knew her to be are so important. Not to idealize perfection but rather to continue loving her in the fullness of herself – loving her in the way she loved others. When I pray out loud with people, I often say a prayer of thanksgiving for the way God shows God’s love for us through other people.  Cindy was one such person through whom a small fraction of the love that God has for us was experienced. In that spirit, remember to offer grace to yourselves and each other in the coming days and weeks as the experience of her loss shifts in and out of focus.

In the Bible story from John 14, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus often said things like this when he knew that the people around him were definitely troubled. He acknowledges the truth of the troubled moment. I don’t know how easy it was for Jesus to offer encouragement to un-trouble ourselves.  I do know that it’s easy for us to get lost in the details of Jesus’ words just like Thomas. Jesus promises to prepare a place and Thomas unravels. In effect he asks, “Way?  What way?  Where?  How will we know?”  It is tempting to think that we have to know and prove the way, be able to explain the way and point ourselves in the right direction on the right way. There’s an additional temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, positioning them in right relationship with God with a list of the good.  In effect, we try to create the way – as if the life and virtues of a person can be mixed into cement of sorts, paving the way between us and God.

But if Jesus’ death on a cross means anything, it means that God is neither in the sin accounting business nor the proof of worthiness business.  Earlier in the Gospel, in John 3:17, we hear the promise that God did NOT send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, or what Cindy did, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  Because what Jesus does, is promise that there is nothing Cindy could do or not do to make God love Cindy any more or any less.

Listen again to Jesus’ promise to Thomas in his distress, Jesus’ promise to those of us who grieve.  Listen to how many things Jesus is doing, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  Jesus makes a promise and Thomas immediately panics.  “Ahhh, what about WHAT I’M supposed to be doing?!”  Jesus replies, “I am the way” – which can be heard as Jesus saying to us, “It is not about you doing anything, it is all about what I do for you.”  It’s like Jesus reminding us that, “There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.”

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus who came not to condemn the world but to save the world that God so loves.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer which means that the cross meets our grief with hope – allowing space at the foot of the cross for sadness and loss while also celebrating the goodness of life in the person who died.

Christians will sometimes refer to living on “this side of the cross.”  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves. The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love. The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures. Those are hard truths, but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The resurrection side of the cross, the empty tomb of Easter, means that we are not left forever in the shadow of the cross. The empty tomb reminds us that there will come a day when God, as Isaiah writes, “will swallow up death forever…and will wipe away the tears from all faces.” The empty tomb reminds us that Jesus laid his life down in self-sacrificing love, and now catches death up into God, drawing Cindy into holy rest with the company of all the saints in light perpetual. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cindy.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God! And amen.

 

 

 

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.

_________________________________________________________

[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.

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[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