Tag Archives: Jesus

Agency Denied [OR Why Joseph is Our Guy] Matthew 1:18-25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

[sermon begins]

 

I listen to a lot of people talk about their lives.  While listening, I’m often struck by the magnitude of what someone says and the quiet, matter-of-fact way the story is shared.  There’s the older gentleman in the seat next to mine on the airplane.  The pilot was navigating around thunderstorms. The plane was shaking. I’m sure I was pale and looking worried.  The gentleman next to me asked me if I was nervous. (I thought to myself, “Hah! Are you kidding me?!”) “Yes,” is what I said. He told me that he doesn’t get nervous in planes because it doesn’t get worse than being shot down in the Pacific during World War II and waiting days in the water to get picked up.  The story was longer than that, of course.  He told me bits and pieces, regaling in calm tones and stark detail.  It had the quality of a story told many times.  I could picture it without feeling a need to take care of him while he talked.  He was open to curiosity and questions. His gift was one of distraction from my turbulence terror while he calmly shared his past.

The gentleman’s story, while unique in detail, is common in quality.  How many of us get used to telling our strange tales that have become normal in our own lives but surprise other people in the telling.  Jesus’ birth story is along this line for Christians. We tell a really strange tale, my friends.  We celebrate it in sacred scripture. We sing about it. We pop it up in our homes. I confess I have several such home scenes myself.  Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by various configurations of animals, angels, shepherds, and magi.  Wood, porcelain, and pottery that is carved, poured, and molded.  Dioramas of faith that proliferate across the land and in my home.

In some ways, it’s such a simple story.  So simple that even a child can tell it.  Last week our young friends here at Augustana put on costume and learned their lines.  They processed into the sanctuary and preached the story of Jesus through a narrated, live diorama.  Their telling of this good news is a mash-up from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and appropriately called, “Simply Christmas.”

The gospel writer today keeps it super simple, too:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

That’s it.  Nothing flashy. But there is someone who gets a newsflash. Joseph. His betrothed is pregnant and he is not the father.  If that’s not a kick in the gut that takes your breath away then I don’t know what would be.  A man’s proudest agency is taken from Joseph.  Confronted with the news, his initial plan is simple and legal.  Dismiss Mary.  Send her on her way quietly, saving her from public disgrace.  Joseph is justified in his position. Not only in his own mind but in the eyes of the law.  No harm, no foul.  He is good to go.  Simple and legal.  Justified. Resolved.  And then not so simple at all…

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”[1]

The angel, the Lord’s messenger, shows up thwarting Joseph’s justified resolve.  I hate when that happens.  When a good resolve swirls down the drain.  Resolve feels good.  It feels right.  It is powerful, knowing what to do.  Powerlessness?  Not so much.  And definitely not in the way a good resolve feels.  Here’s a clue to part of the good news today.  If there’s room for Joseph in the nativity story, then there is room for me, and there is room for you.[2]

There’s room for us in the Nativity story because Joseph is asked simply to stay and watch the story unfold.  Oddly enough, he asks no questions of the angel in his dream and he’s given no understandable explanation.  In essence, Joseph is told to take Mary as his wife and to name the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, “Jesus.”  That’s not a lot of information.  In fact, it doesn’t amount to any information he can share with his friends as justification for staying with Mary, especially in light of the vague paternity. And, still, he obeys the angel.

He obeys without any knowledge of what this will mean. Just around the corner, what he can’t see is the visit from the magi.  Those strange people from a faraway place who come to visit Jesus after he is born.[3]  He can’t see the magi’s decision to thwart King Herod.[4]  He can’t see King Herod’s edict to slaughter all the infant children less than two years old because they may or may not be the rumored Messiah.[5]  He can’t see his and Mary’s escape and refuge in Egypt.[6]  There’s so much that Joseph can’t see when he agrees to take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus.

James Harnish, a long-time Christian pastor, recalls a story from when he was in college.  He went to see a professor with a very intelligent friend who had a lot of questions about his faith and was frustrated by the simplistic answers people gave him.  His friend asked the professor, “How can I [follow] Christ when I don’t know all that it will mean?”  The professor answered, “None of us knows all that it’s going to mean, but we know enough [to follow Jesus] and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.”[7]

Joseph is obedient without an “i” dotted or “t” crossed.  Some of us see ourselves in Joseph because, like him, our proudest self-agency is also taken away from us.  We do not save ourselves. The name “Jesus” means “God saves” or “the Lord saves.”  He will be born and named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.”  Week-after-week we scratch the surface of what this means for us.  Some of us wonder about intellectual problems raised by scripture that don’t jive with our experience or knowledge.  Some of us struggle with the mystery and want it solved so that then we could have faith.  Some of us are drawn to action on behalf of people who need help but don’t know where to start or how to keep going.  For all of us in those moments, Joseph is our guy.

In light of Joseph’s lack of information, his obedience to the angel’s wild request is shocking, confusing, and disturbing.[8]  If we let it, our familiarity with Jesus’ birth story means that our quiet, matter-of-fact way of telling it can oversimplify what God is doing all around us. God’s audacity in slipping into powerless, vulnerable skin is echoed by Joseph’s powerless, vulnerability as well as our own – the breadth of divine power revealed in the depth of divine, self-giving love.  Like Joseph, we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to follow Jesus.  Like Joseph, we watch, wait, and wonder as Emmanuel, God with us, shows up and saves.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:20

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 20.

[3] Matthew 2:1-11

[4] Matthew 1:8 and 12

[5] Matthew 2:16-18

[6] Matthew 2:13-15

[7] Harnish, 23.

[8] Harnish, 19.

Thievery, Shadows and Light [OR Why Matthew’s Year is Good News] Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalms]

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.

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!

Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

 

[sermon begins]

According to the stories of film, thievery is to be admired for all of its clever moves and precision timing.  Think Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job or Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist.[1]  We cheer on these anti-heroes as likeable scoundrels who are on the side of right – either against a truly evil villain or on a Robin Hood mission.  These storylines are one of my favorites as I wonder how the heist is going to be pulled off and feel the excitement of a braniac’s plan coming together.

In reality, being robbed is devastating.  It’s a total disruption of ownership and security.  One of our neighbors installed a house alarm after a break-in a few years ago.  It went off in the early morning hours yesterday, disturbing sleep and leaving me awake to wonder if there was an actual breach of hearth and home and how would any of us know if it was.  Those moments are neither fun nor intriguing in a good way.

Thievery is a strange metaphor in today’s Bible story.  Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful, staying awake like a homeowner ready to catch a thief in the night.  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  For those of us fed a steady diet of God’s grace from scripture, the metaphor doesn’t jive. It doesn’t help that some preachers have crafted a fearful rapture theology in the last couple hundred years from Bible verses like these.[2]

Jesus speech covers two chapters in the book of Matthew. Look closely at this small part of it.  We learn that God is in charge of the future and judgment.[3]  And he tells the disciples to keep awake and be ready.[4]  Ahhhh, here it is, that elusive good news. In judgment, Jesus offers hope.  Wait, what?!!  Yes, in words of judgment, Jesus offers hope.

As Christians, we sometimes act as if God’s arrival in Jesus has nothing to do with how much God loves the world.  Is God’s love so incomprehensible to us that we figure Jesus is going to show up someday in a really bad mood from that ugly cross incident?  Like Jesus is a time-limited offer akin to a Black Friday sale. If ever there was a corruption of the good news in Jesus, that would be it.

Isaiah as well as the psalmist may be able to shed some light on the connection between judgment and hope.  Isaiah describes many people going up to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.[5]  God is “judge” and “arbiter” among nations and people who end up beating swords into plowshares, striking war from their to-do list.  The psalmist sings of going up to the Lord’s house, to the thrones of judgment, and praying for peace.  Isaiah and the psalmist describe pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage meaning journey.  In their case, a journey towards God’s judgment with the end result of peace.  Peace between people. Peace between nations.

We are on a pilgrimage of sorts well, drawn here together in the Lord’s house. We begin the season of Advent today with the first of many readings from Matthew’s gospel over the next year.[6]  Matthew tends to focus on Jesus’ teaching in comparison to, say, Mark who highlights Jesus’ actions.[7]  Matthew amplifies the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching so that we hear historic promise as it applies to the present.  This includes the hope that God’s judgment will turn us around.  That somehow there will be redemption from the mess we have made.[8]  Seeing the light, we can’t hide in our own shadows, cloaked in ignorance that shields us from the messes we make.[9]

The very first chapter of Matthew opens with genealogy – person after person whose messy lives show up in the Hebrew Bible.[10]  Seeing their names makes me want to re-read their stories, the familiar and not so familiar. The full list includes patriarchs of the faith who verify Jesus’ Jewishness – Abraham, Isaac, Jesse, and King David.  The genealogy also includes, contrary to custom, four ancestresses whose Jewishness is contested – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[11] Just as Matthew begins Jesus’ story by naming them, I encourage you to read one, two, or more of their stories this week as advent begins.  The ancestresses and patriarchs named alongside each other reminds us that God disrupts expectations as the promises made to Abraham are expanded to all people through Jesus.

God is not laying out a program but making an announcement. Showing up wherever and however God would like to show up, on thief’s timing. That is the promise of judgment that we lean into this Advent.  The light of God’s judgment gives us hope that we can no longer hide in our own shadows.  Advent is a chance to think about why this is good news in our own lives and in the life of the world.  It’s a chance to ask questions as we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Why is a savior needed?  Why does God slipping into skin make any difference in my life or the life of the world?

As Jesus people, God emboldens us by faith to proclaim light and peace.  We need each other as church to remind us of God’s promise to show up and we are needed in a world desperate for good news.   Christ’s return means that there is more to our story and God’s story than what we’ve already experienced.[12]  As Christians, though, we don’t turn our attention solely beyond history.  Trusting in God’s mercy, Christian hope generates a commitment to the good of this world God loves so much, a commitment to the people God loves so much.

So we ask God to grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life.

Dear people, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.[13] No longer hiding in our own shadows but committed to the world that God so loves.

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

[1] The Italian Job (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317740/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Tower Heist (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0471042/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[2] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005). http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/90534.The_Rapture_Exposed

[3] Matthew 24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”

[4] Matthew 24:42…44  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[5] Isaiah 2:3

[6] Gospel of Matthew, Year A of the three year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. In general, I’m a fan of the lectionary because it highlights texts we might otherwise choose to ignore. It’s a good idea to also check out what is not included. Read more about the lectionary at http://www.elca.org/lectionary

[7] Arland Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary. “Preaching from Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” for Working preacher.org on December 3, 2007.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1639

[8] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, for Sermon Brainwave Podcast (SB512) on texts for the first Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=816

[9] Pastor Deb Coté, preacher text study gem.

[10] Matthew 1:1-17 does not appear in the Sunday readings for Year A (see note 5 above).

[11] Douglas R. A. Hare.  Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6.

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

[13] Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Divine Indifference Is Not A Thing – Luke 21:1-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the book of Luke]

Luke 21:1-19 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
5When 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.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And 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.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there 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. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

[sermon begins]

A week and a half ago, a new Crock Pot turned up at my house. It sat on the counter for a few days, hanging out in its box.  My old Crock Pot was sitting there too.  Its clouded, plastic lid cracked beyond repair.  No replacement part available to prolong its use to be found online or in town. We received it as a wedding gift over 20 years ago and scooped from it many family meals and potluck offerings.  It shows its years in the pale blue floral pattern and other signs of wear beyond its broken lid.  Finally I pulled the new one out of its box on Tuesday morning and christened it with the evening meal. Here’s where the story takes a turn into the absurd.  I couldn’t part with the old one.  Besides my stubborn resistance to planned obsolescence, it is an object loaded with meaning through memories. I put it in my trunk rather than in the trash thinking that maybe I’ll discover a means to reuse or repurpose it.  That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, post-election, sentimentalism was put in its proper place.  Facebook was exploding in surreal contrasts of joy and despair.  It’s a wonder that my laptop didn’t split apart from the emotional output of so many people.  I looked at my laptop and wondered about all these people who were posting – family, friends, fellow clergy, and friends-of-friends.  Many of them I know and love.

So, there I sat, wondering if there was anything to say, if I had anything to say.  So, I did what I often do which is go to my faith. And I also did what a lot of people in my generation do and wrote a blog post.[1]  It was a mixture of testimony and confession.  That is to say, I wrote about my experience, Jesus, and what I was going to do by faith in the cultural turmoil even if not much else seems clear.

In the Bible reading today, Jesus tells his disciples that they will have an opportunity to testify.  Their opportunity to testify will come in times of massive upheaval as they’re arrested.  Some of them may not make it.  Some may die.  Jesus’ words are dire as they describe a dire time.  Their faithful testimony will not inoculate them against disapproval or death at the hands of kings or governors.

Generally speaking, testimony isn’t a big part of Lutheran-land.  It’s found a lot more in other Christian traditions.  Testimony is even odder when it’s given in non-Christian arenas like to the kings and governors.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will give them the words and wisdom for their testimony.

Right before this call to testimony, Jesus watches the widow walk humbly across the floor of the synagogue and put all that she has to live on in that treasury box.  Her presence is noted as Jesus watches her quietly give her gift.  Jesus’ witness means we remember her across time as an image of active trust in God.  She is identity bearing for us as the church.  As one congregation of people in God’s whole church catholic, our mission statement concludes with the words from the prophet Micah.[2]  We “walk humbly with our God.”[3]  We walk as the widow walks – right through the argument of the leaders.  We do as the widow does – giving our lives to God.

In contrast to the widow, we live in a world where politics often supplants faith as salvific. Politics becomes that which will save us from all manner of bad things. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us in her post-election remarks this week that, “No human candidate can guarantee our life and our future, that is the work that God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”[4]  While many of us may agree with that statement theoretically, our minds and bodies may have a more difficult time figuring out what it means. Especially because there are competing and emotionally-charged political views of people we’re sitting in the pews with right now. If the last few days are any indication, some of us are celebrating and some of us are afraid.  That’s a lot going on in a room of people much less a country of people.

Leading with the story of the widow, Jesus charges his disciples to give their testimony and tells them that it may cost their lives.[5] If we only had this reading, one could read this as a speech of indifference as to whether or not the disciples live. But nothing could be further from the good news of Jesus. In the first chapter of Luke, God slips on skin in solidarity with us[6]; Mary sings about God lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things[7]; and Zechariah prophesies about forgiveness of sins and the tender mercy of God giving light to those who sit in darkness and guiding our feet in the way of peace.[8]  Divine indifference is not a thing.  After Luke’s 21st chapter that contains the Bible reading today, come the last three chapters that include Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection during which Jesus’ prays for the people, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”[9]  Divine indifference is not a thing.

Bishop Eaton continued her post-election comments:  “So what do we do dear church? Three things.  Remember that all human beings are made in the image of God, even the ones who didn’t vote for your candidate.  Pray for our country, for those elected, for understanding.  And then we get back to work, doing the things the church has always done: welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, work for justice and peace in all the earth, all in the name of the one who is our hope, our life, and our peace, Jesus who set us free to serve the neighbor.”

Following up on Bishop Eaton’s question, I ask us, “How are we prepared to do these things, dear church?”  Our testimony on behalf of the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned need not wait until we’re dragged before a king or other world leader.  There are people right now who are riding the coattails of this election to intimidate and injure others.[10]  Swastikas and racist behavior are being reported by schools from around the country.[11]   We may testify right now against racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior – prepared by Jesus with the words, wisdom, and strength to do so on behalf of all people, ALL beloved children of God.

Healing prayers have been long-scheduled for worship this Sunday. Post-election, this now seems like providential timing – not to gloss over serious realities with sentimentalism but rather to be gifted strength to respond faithfully, to love our neighbor as ourselves.[12] Because divine indifference is not a thing.  In its ministry of healing, the church does not replace the gifts of God that come through the scientific community, nor does it promise a cure. The church offers and celebrates gifts such as these: God’s presence with strength and comfort in time of suffering, God’s promise of wholeness and peace, and God’s love embodied by the community of faith.[13]

Jesus’ death on the cross is evidence that God would not raise a hand in violence against the people God so loves. Claimed by this good news, we are set free to give our lives to God for the sake of our neighbor. Because of Jesus the Christ, the church’s indifference is not a thing.  Indifference is not an option.  Where people are hungry and thirsty, where people are suffering and hurting, where people are persecuted and threatened, Jesus people show up.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] “Tinted Purple” blog post link: http://caitlintrussell.blogspot.com/2016/11/tinted-purple.html

[2] Micah 6:8 – He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, seek kindness and walk humbly with your God.

[3] Augustana mission – Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ and walk humbly with our God.  http://www.augustanadenver.org/

[4] Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw2-f82fklc

[5] The Book of Acts tells stories of the disciples’ work, testimony and martyrdom.

[6] Luke 1:26-38

[7] Luke 1:46-56

[8] Luke 1:67-79

[9] Luke 23:34

[10] Jim Axelrod for CBS News on November 11, 2016. “Ugliness Sprouting Up Across The Country.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ugliness-sprouting-up-across-country-after-donald-trump-election-win/

[11] CBS News/AP on November 11, 2016. “Schools Nationwide Report Racially-Charged Incidents After Election.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/schools-nationwide-report-racially-charged-incidents-after-election/.

[12] Luke 10:27

[13] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Opening Rubric of “Brief Order for Healing.” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006). members.sundaysandseasons.com/library

 

Truth. Freedom. You Know, Just Small Topics. John 8:31-36

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 30, 2016 – Reformation Sunday

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 8:31-36 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I live with a 19 year old young man and a 17 year old young woman. It’s important for me to describe them this way from time to time as a reminder that they are their own people with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  That mash-up can be hard to experience and to witness. Oh sure, sometimes it’s comedy with lots of laughs from all of us.  But sometimes it’s tragedy and there really aren’t words or kisses to make it better.  Such is life for parents and for young people – just when you think you know something, many times either the thing changes or you do.

In that way, there are some similarities to spending time recently with Augustana’s young people in their last couple of months of Confirmation study.  Pastor Ann and I have the privilege of hanging out with them as a group in Sunday classes and tag-teaming visits with each one.  Each is their own person with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  There is comedy and there is tragedy – laughter and tears and sometimes both at once.  I sometimes wonder if the age of Confirmation in the early to mid-teens is the “right” time.  And then I end up wondering if it might not be the best time because their questions are enormous and honest.

Questions about self and God and the world.  Questions about fantasy and faith.  Questions about myth and truth.  At Confirmation the student takes on the promises of baptism that their parents made to them so long ago.  This is why we call it this ritual the Affirmation of Baptism. These young people will promise to continue asking questions of faith as baptized people.  If the last few weeks are any indication, they will continue asking some good, hard questions.

Jesus cuts to the chase about truth in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[1]  Truth and freedom. They’re compelling on a gut level.  Truth and freedom.  Compelling until you start trying to figure out the truth.  A little like Pontius Pilate a few chapters later.  He asks Jesus at the trial before the crucifixion, “What is truth?”  If we’re honest, a lot of us ask that question with Pilate.  We want to know the truth and understand it.

Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”[2]  Slavery language can make us uncomfortable when we use it to talk about ourselves.  It’s tough enough when we talk about historical or modern day slavery.  But about ourselves, we’re inclined to talk like the religious leaders in the Bible story.  We’ve never been slaves to anyone – what do you mean we’ll be made free?![3]

It’s interesting that the people questioning Jesus are more understandable than Jesus.  The religious leaders essentially asking Jesus, “What do you mean, ‘made free?”  Here, right here is where I press pause.  With this question, “What do you mean?”  At our youngest ages this question first comes out as, “Why?”  From then on, that question doesn’t stop.  We ask it over and over as children.  As people of faith, as people of church, we continue to ask it over and over. Questions seek answers.  More specifically, faith seeks understanding.[4]

In seeking understanding, our faith is formed.  Faith, given by God, is formed by experience and intellectual exercise, by comedy and tragedy, by people around us, and by more than I can think of right now.  How do we imagine that Martin Luther was able to hammer those 95 theses onto the door of a German church issuing a challenge that was a theological smack-down to the church leaders of his time?  Luther’s experience, intellect, friendships, suffering, and his determination to be in the Bible and wring good news from it all contributed to the world changing event of the Reformation.  Translating the Bible in everyday language was considered a crime against the Holy Roman Empire of Luther’s time. Theologians before and in Luther’s time were executed, even burned at the stake, for translating the Bible into the common language.[5]  Luther managed a full translation of the Bible into German while protected to do so.

The Bible is a library of 66 books written by many people over thousands of years.  When I talk to Confirmation Students about it, we talk about the imperfect people who wrote it and the disagreements they have with each other between books and sometimes in the same book.  These imperfect people writing about their experience of God, Jesus, and their stories in light of those experiences.  There is power there working through that book sitting almost casually in the pews and in our homes.  The Confirmation students and I also talk about how the book is not Jesus.  We do not worship this book that we call the Bible.

We may reverence the Bible but we do not idolize the Bible.  We do not say the Bible is God.  We experience it as God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit works through the Bible to form faith as the Holy Spirit works through our families and each other as the church to form faith.  Luther could do what he did in part because of his relationship with his family and his church.  He was formed by asking questions of faith and the church.  And then he turned the church of the Holy Roman Empire upside down with the clarity gained through his formation.  Never underestimate the power of asking, “What does this mean?”  The legacy gift here is that we do not function as an echo chamber of agreement.

To the Confirmation students today, keep asking “What does this mean?”  You spoke so much of your families as well as your Sunday school and Confirmation teachers.  You talked about the challenging questions and conversations for which your families and church school teachers held space if not always answers.  Remember their humility, faith, and time spent.  And remember your questions.  Keep asking them. There are people of all ages, times, and places asking similar questions. They are honest questions demanding good news.  Faith seeking understanding is faithful and good. It changes lives. It changes the world.

Tomorrow, October 31, marks the beginning of a year-long commemoration of the 500th Year of the Reformation.[6]  Pope Francis will worship with the Lutheran Church in Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran worship service.[7]  This is a striking moment of unity for churches who experienced literal murder and mayhem in the wake of the Reformation marked in the year 1517.  That there is unifying worship in Sweden and in many places around the world in the coming year is a sign of hope in our time filled with religious, political, race, and class divisions.

Jesus tells the religious leaders to continue in his word, assuring them that they will know the truth.  Part of this truth is that we are slaves to sin.  If I’m honest in my demand for truth, then I’m also honest about the truth of who I am and the enslavements that bedevil me.  Another part, maybe the harder part, is that we need a liberator.  Slaves do not typically free themselves.

Jesus frees us through our baptisms and God promises to:

Always be with us even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God.

Always take us back by grace, even when we turn away from God.

Always work to make our lives ever more Christ-shaped.

And to keep these promises forever.

Children of God, in baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.[8]  Jesus sets us free and we are free indeed.  Amen and thanks be to God.

________________________________________________

* Photo and quote of Albert Camus comes from an article he wrote in 1939 about freedom of the press.  Read more here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2012/07/camus-on-irony-when-does-the-truth-get-censored-.html

[1] John 8:31-32

[2] John 8:34

[3] John 8:33

[4] Sze Zeng, “Where Did the Phrase “Faith Seeking Understanding” Come From?”  theology + life on October 12, 2010. http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/10/where-did-phrase-faith-seeking.html

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner podcast conversation on John 8:31-36, October 25, 2015 for WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=805

[6] The Reformation is officially recognized as beginning on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg.

[7] Sylvia Poggioli. “The Pope Commemorates The Reformation That Split Western Christianity.” For NPR on October 28, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/28/499587801/pope-francis-reaches-out-to-honor-the-man-who-splintered-christianity

[8] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Holy Baptism. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 231.

Flawed People in a Wonderful World – Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 2, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings, the 2 Timothy reading follows the sermon]

Luke 17:5-10 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I were engaged about 20 years ago.  We’d been in Colorado a little while at that point. We talked wedding possibilities that ran the gamut between eloping to having a full wedding, finally settling on a family wedding at The Chapel at Red Rocks.[1]  About 40 of our family from the East, West, and Mid-west attended.  The first dance music was to be “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.  It had made a resurgence around that time.  Even though we ultimately decided on a back yard reception without dancing, I still think of it as our wedding song.  The song opens with a rose-colored glasses moment perfect for a wedding:

“I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world…”[2]

I’ve recently learned more of the story behind “What a Wonderful World.”  Originally released as a B-side single in 1967, it was a commercial flop.[3]  Armstrong was asked to sing the song by its two Jewish songwriters. Their hope was that Armstrong’s wide appeal would build bridges during a time when America was experiencing race riots and curfews in over 100 cities including attacks on Jewish shops.  The third verse of the song sets a different vision for living together:

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

They’re really saying I love you.”

Accusations flew that the song glossed over serious problems. [Here’s what] “Armstrong said as he introduced a live performance of the song – words which are best read with his gravelly delivery in mind…‘Some of you young folks been saying to me: “Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?” But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”[4]

Which is it?  Does the song gloss over real problems or does Armstrong sing about something real?  A similar question could be asked about the additional faith that the disciples are demanding from Jesus.  Does faith gloss over real problems or by faith are we proclaiming something real?  As a preacher and a pastor, this kind of question is regularly posed to me from people in all kind of situations.  I hear a lot about why faith is difficult for people.  And I wonder if, like the disciples in the Bible story from Luke, our ideas and questions about faith are generated from a misleading premise.

Just before the Bible verses in Luke we hear today, Jesus challenges his followers to see and help people who suffer, to not cause other people to stumble in their faith, and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.[5]   Then we get to the apostles pleading for more faith, literally in the Greek “add faith to us!”[6]  Who can blame them?  Jesus raises the bar high on discipleship telling them to relieve deep suffering, give away money and possessions, and forgive each other.  A bit more faith to get these things done would be awesome!  Most of us would like a heap more faith if it actually worked that way.

The apostles plead for more faith as a group – “Increase our faith!”  They ask as a group.  This is unfamiliar ground for most of us.  We tend to think of faith as an individual rather than a group thing.  In an individual way, I can wonder if I have any faith or enough faith or certain faith. I can analyze faith as an equation, that faith = proof + certainty.  This is a misleading premise for faith.

And this is the premise I used for faith when Rob and I were married. We even found a minister that would do the wedding without mentioning Jesus. At that point, I’d been out of the church upwards of ten years.  Faith in Jesus was something that didn’t compute. I couldn’t figure out why he computed for other people. In the following few years we baptized our two kids in Rob’s Lutheran tradition and we started going to church (a story for a different day).  Confusion reigned for me for a while as the preacher talked about a God who loves us through Jesus without condition – flawed, fragile, and messed up as we are.

It began to compute but it was an unfamiliar calculus.  The quick sum total was this…faith wasn’t about me.  Well, of course, it was in some ways.  In the ways I became more comfortable confessing to hurts I cause, real struggles of being human and screwing things up but still needing God’s love in the face of those flaws, that sin. And in the ways God’s good work in me is revealed.  Sinner and saint.  But more and more, faith became something about God, the people of God, and the wonderful world that God loves – claimed by faith rather making a claim about faith.

Being claimed by faith sounds like Habakkuk’s cries against violence and trusting in God’s faithfulness.[7]  Being claimed by faith names the living faith of ancestors like Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.[8]  Being claimed by faith announces a wonderful world, created and sustained by God for all people.  At the same time, being claimed by faith tells the truth about suffering, our part in it and Jesus’ challenge to us to relieve suffering, prevent it when possible and be present with people when it’s not.

We remind each other that God’s faithfulness overflows in the grace given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[9]  Not alone and wondering if each of our individual faith-o-meters are full enough.  Rather, as a group called the church living the faith that claims us through the cross of Christ and then frees us towards God and each other.  Living faith that is smaller than a mustard seed as signs of God’s love for each flawed and fragile person in this troubled and wonderful world.

 

[1] The Chapel at Red Rocks: http://www.chapelatredrocks.com/

[2] George Davis Weiss as “George Douglas” and Bob Theile, songwriters. “What a Wonderful World.” 1967. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Wonderful_World

[3] This paragraph and the Louis Armstrong quote that follows are referenced from, “Smashed Hits: How Political is ‘What a Wonderful World?” published December 10, 2011 on BBCnews.com. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16118157

[4] Ibid, BBC article above.

[5] In order: Luke 16:19-31 (challenge against indifference), Luke 17:1-2 (challenge to teach well), Luke 17:3-4 (forgive).

[6] Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. Commentary on Luke 17:5-10 for WorkingPreacher.org, October 2, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3028

[7] Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4

[8] 2 Timothy 1:1-14

[9] 2 Timothy 1:9

Timothy 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

 

 

The Church Alive: Called to Action Through Easy Indifference – Luke 16:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 25, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 16:19-31 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

[sermon begins]

The first thing to note about this parable is that it validates dogs’ reputations for giving unconditional love. That dogs show up in a parable should come as no surprise to Coloradans.  There are so many dogs that each household could have two if they were spread out evenly.[1]  The dogs in the parable nurse Lazarus’ wounds and likely keep him company.  If anyone is looking for a theology of dogs – there you go.  Jesus gives them airtime…and in the gravitas of a parable, no less.

The second thing to note about this parable and parables in general is that they are generally considered exhortative, not predictive.  Many a Bible reader has attempted to predict and describe the afterlife based on this parable and other choice verses.  More than one Bible scholar would invite us to resist this impulse to predict and describe.[2]  Rather, we can hear this as an exhortation by Jesus which means there’s dire urgency that requires action now, here, in the present.

For the entire gospel of Luke, Jesus increases the intensity around caring for those who are suffering.  Time and again Jesus is either easing someone’s suffering himself or talking to his disciples about it.  Jesus also ratchets up his challenge about money, about how money can create distance between the moneyed people and the people who don’t have any money.  The parable today is a case in point.

The only thing the rich man and Lazarus have in common is proximity to the gate.  The rich man is walking inside it and Lazarus is lying outside it.  The gate binds them together and yet they are worlds apart.  The contrast between the two men is stark.  The rich man is covered with purple and linen.  Lazarus is covered with sores.  The rich man feasts sumptuously while Lazarus longs to satisfy his hunger with food that falls from the rich man’s table.  Jesus problem with the rich man doesn’t seem to be his wealth.  It seems to be with the rich man’s indifference as evidenced by Lazarus’s continued suffering at the gate.

If Facebook emoticons are any indication, people are moved by stories of people spontaneously helping people.  Starbucks just set up a media company led by a former Washington Post senior editor.  This company will focus on “stories featuring Americans who have inspired and shown extraordinary measures of compassion and citizenship in their own lives.”[3]  Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond with deep emotion particularly when someone risks something to help another person.  On the flip-side, there’s deep offense when someone doesn’t.  Jesus’ audience of disciples and Pharisees likely share these very human reactions.

Last week, Pastor Ann and I spent some time worshiping and swapping stories with clergy colleagues. Augustana is one of 166 congregations in the Rocky Mountain Synod of ELCA Lutheran Christians.  The Synod is made up of El Paso Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.  The bishop convenes us for Theological Conference every fall.  This year we had the privilege of hearing from Andy Root, Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary.[4]  Dr. Root is convinced that the church is called to engage deeply with people’s stories.  Not to offer solutions to someone’s deep pain but to be present in the face of that pain.

At the same time, Dr. Root was telling story after story of his own and other people’s as examples of being present when someone is feeling deep pain. There was one story that came alive quietly for part of the room.  Dr. Root was going into detail about a wife and mother of two babies who had to identify the body of her husband at the morgue.  Some of us were sitting around a colleague whose husband died suddenly several years ago.  She too had to identify her husband in a morgue.  She sat quietly with her hand over her eyes as she listened to the story with the rest of us.  The colleague next to her put a hand on her back and continued to sit with her.

Similarly, there are some stories that hit deeply this past week.  It’s one thing to talk about someone dying in the abstract and it’s quite another to witness someone’s death – either in person or recorded.  As a country, we’re trying to talking about these deaths as a racial abstraction when for many people these deaths are real blood on the ground.  After reading and watching and reading more, I’m not sure what we’re going to do as a people.  What I am sure about is that indifference to the pain of our black brothers and sisters as well as the fear of police officers is not an option for the church.

With these large scale human issues, helplessness can immobilize people from responding.  Jesus’ brings it down to two people – the rich man and Lazarus.  The chasm that separates them is paper thin in life and cavernous in death.  Let’s look at how this parable ends.  Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[5]  Luke’s audience for this parable would be in on the joke as they listened to this end of the parable because they know the end of the story.[6]

At the end of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is executed on a cross, dies and is buried.[7]  Three days later, at early dawn on the first day of the week, the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb to find it empty – no body to identify.[8]  At first, their grief and terror know no bounds. Then they are reminded of Jesus’ words to them while he was with them – “Remember how he told you that the son of man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women go tell the apostles only to be told that it is an “idle tale.”[9]

When Jesus finally appears more widely to his disciples, he has this to say…

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Can you hear the bookend with the parable there?  Father Abraham invokes Moses and the prophets in the parable.  Jesus, after his resurrection, invokes their fulfillment and says that forgiveness is for all the nations.  In the simplest of terms, Jesus on the cross hangs over and against the parable… There…Is…No…Chasm.

My friends, we have a God who goes to hell and back in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are reminded by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church that:

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.[10]

A God who goes to hell and back for you…and for the nations; with you and with the nations.  Jesus death on the cross is where the story of our deepest pain is held and met by God.  Not only our pain but the pain of the world because darkness is not dark to God. [11]  Darkness is where light is born.[12]  As Church we are alive in Christ as we hear and proclaim this good news.  This is our call to action through easy indifference, by our baptisms through the cross of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Dogs Vs. Cat Map of the United States. November 2, 2015. Brilliant Maps: Making Sense of the World, One Map at a Time. Link: http://brilliantmaps.com/dog-vs-cat/

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matthew Skinner.  Working Preacher podcast on Luke 16:19-31 for Sunday, September 25, 2016.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795

[3] Aamer Madhani, “Starbucks CEO Dipping Toe Into Media Content” USA Today, September 7, 2016.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/09/07/starbucks-ceo-dipping-toe-into-media-content/89922526/

[4] Andrew Root, Biography and Work, Luther Seminary. https://www.luthersem.edu/faculty/fac_home.aspx?contact_id=aroot

[5] Luke 16:31

[6] A word of thanks to Dr. Matt Skinner and Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, who makes the connection between the parable and the end of Luke on the Working Preaching podcast for September 25, 2016.

[7] Luke 23:1-56

[8] Luke 24:1-12

[9] Luke 24:11

[10] Ephesians 2:4

[11] Psalm 139:12

[12] Genesis 1:1-5

Hymn sung together following the sermon:

ELW 655 Son of God, Eternal Savior

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
you, our Head, who, throned in glory,
for your own will ever plead,
fill us with your love and pity,
heal our wrong and help our need.

As you, Lord, have lived for others
so may we for others live;
freely have your gifts been granted,
freely may your servants give.
Yours the gold and yours the silver,
yours the wealth of land and sea,
we but stewards of your bounty,
held in solemn trust will be.

Come, O Christ, and reign among us,
King of Love and Prince of Peace,
hush the storm of strife and passion,
bid its cruel discords cease;
by your patient years of toiling,
by your silent hours of pain,
quench our fevered thirst of pleasure,
shame our selfish greed of gain.

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
by your praying, by your willing
that your people should be one,
grant, O grant our hope’s fruition:
here on earth your will be done.


Words: Somerset Corry Lowry (1855-1932), 1893

MIDI: Everton (Henry Thomas Smart (1813-1879)

 

People of Courage

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 4, 2016

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Philemon 1:1-21 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Luke 14:25-33 Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

[sermon begins]

What is your deepest prayer?  The longing of your heart?  Can you even put it into words?  Some of us can and some of us can’t.  My public prayers come out in a somewhat organized way so that others have a shot a following along.  The silent prayers of my heart and mind?  Not so much.  Those prayers take flight like a hummingbird – first here, then there, then over there – a jumble of images, people’s faces, sentence fragments, sometimes just a single word.  It’s why I occasionally pray prayers written by other people.  Their words can chill out my search for words and help me let go into prayer.

Paul’s writings can land and lift like prayers.  Certainly not every word he’s written, but there are moments.  When I started reading Philemon a couple weeks ago it was that kind of experience.  The way he opens in greeting with grace and peace giving thanks for his friends.  His “appeal to [Philemon] on the basis of love” on behalf of Onesimus.[1]  Challenging Philemon about who a co-worker in the gospel can be.

Paul’s words to Philemon flutter at us.  There’s a sweetness on one side and steel on the other.  Love, love, love and do, do, do.  Paul loves Philemon AND Onesimus.  He wants them to get along in a new way. In Christ.  So he writes a letter.  From prison.  So many powerful words have come from sitting in captivity.  Bonhoeffer wrote in a concentration camp, Dr. King in a Birmingham Jail, and, apparently, prison inspired Paul to write too.

Writing in prison is definitely a thing.  In prison there’s time.  A lot of time.  When freedom is stripped away and there’s no room for choice, time opens up.  These people that I just named wrote before they were in prison as well.  It’s just that some of their most memorable writings came from prison.  Prison’s stark reality seems to bring a different kind of clarity.  If there’s little more to lose then for some people there seems to be even more to say.

I’d like to see Philemon’s response to Paul.  And then I wish we had a transcript from Onesimus. I want to know what these three men are thinking as this negotiation takes shape.  I can imagine all kinds of thing about Philemon.  Just like I can imagine that Onesimus has a bunch of opinions too.  Regardless, Paul has a lot to say to Philemon about changing his behavior.

How does someone stop doing something and start doing something else?  What are the ways and means that that happens?  Ideally, it comes from the inside.  Self-awareness of something and then a strategy for change.  There’s something more palatable about that process.  I get to identify my problem.  Wail and gnash teeth behind the scenes.  Make a plan.  And get going.  It sounds so tidy.  It’s part of the American ethos.  I get to become a better version of myself and no one’s the wiser because the process is internal, mostly private.

Internal self-improvement and privacy don’t seem to be a part of the Kingdom of God in the scenario between Paul and Philemon.  The letter is addressed to Philemon, some friends, and their church.  Eugene Peterson, a retired pastor and writer, asks this question:

What does it mean to represent the Kingdom of God in a culture devoted to the Kingdom of the Self?[2]

Well, for one thing, it seems to mean not doing things perfectly.  Representing the Kingdom of God looks like the cross that Jesus is talking about in Luke.  Listen to what Jesus tells the people following him on the road to Jerusalem: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [3]

How many tower builders and kings do you think are in the crowd following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem?  How many in the crowd know what it feels like to decide to go to war or to design a building?  I’m going to guess with you that there aren’t many.  The people in the crowd have a greater chance of working in the tower as it is being built or being sent to the front lines in battle.  They’ve likely seen and known what it means when decisions about those things are made poorly.  Because people die when a tower falls or war goes badly.  It’s good for kings and tower architects to know what they’re doing.  The people in the crowd know that much.

What the people in the crowd don’t know is the extent of what the cross means.  They couldn’t.  The cross is more like towers that fall and wars that are lost.  Ironically, Jesus is talking to them about towers that stand and wars thoughtfully considered.  The cross is a shameful end.

In the honor-shame culture of the first century, shame and avoiding it is something that the people know about.  When Jesus asks them if they’re willing to hate their families, the word he uses for hate means disgrace rather the emotional state of hate we think of today.[4]  There are first century letters from parents complaining about their son or daughter joining the Christians.[5]  This was not good news in families.

I’ll say it again.  The people in the crowd do not know what the cross means.  Ironically, Jesus is talking to them about towers that stand and wars thoughtfully considered.  Yet, the cross is a shameful end.  More like towers that fall and wars that are lost.  Picking up a cross is not a recipe for success.  It’s a burden of shame.

As I continued to read Philemon during the last few weeks, I was drawn to what Paul isn’t saying.  He isn’t saying slavery is wrong.  He isn’t challenging the status quo of owning people.  He is challenging Philemon to treat his slave as a brother in Christ. Upwards of 35-40% of people were enslaved in the 1st century Greco-Roman world.[6]

Turns out the letter to Philemon and others of Paul’s writings were more recently used in history to support over 250 years of American Christian ownership of slaves.[7]  Even as a representative of the Kingdom of God, Paul’s reveals the limitations of his own humanity.  There is confession of sorts in Paul’s letter.  He can see only so far into kingdom freedom for Onesimus and Philemon.

As Jesus asks those following him to count the costs, he also knows our limitations.  Our comfort with the status quo can blind us to the suffering we inflict on ourselves and each other.  If Jesus’ death on the cross says anything it shows just how far we’ll go to keep things the same.

Jesus know this about us and gives us to each other like Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon – appealing to each other in love.  Not a sappy, sentimental kind of love.  The hard kind of love that inspires the courage both to speak and to listen.  The kind of love that saturates the life of Jesus, that leads to the self-sacrificing love of Jesus on a cross.  The same cross that shatters a culture devoted to the Kingdom of Self. The cross that heralds the Kingdom of God and draws us toward each other through the love of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Philemon 1:9

[2] Eugene H. Peterson. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1992), 50.

[3] Luke 14:27

[4] John Petty.  Pentecost 16:::Luke 14:25-33 Commentary for September 4, 2016 http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2016/08/pentecost-16-luke-14-25-33.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Christian A. Eberhart, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Houston. Commentary on Philemon for September 4, 2016 at WorkingPreacher.org http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1767

[7] Peter Gomes. The Good Book. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996), 89.

Sharon Draper. Timeline of Slavery in America: 1501-1865. https://sharondraper.com/timeline.pdf

[8] Eugene H. Peterson. Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1992), 50.

My Young Friend the Bat Mitzvah [OR Jesus Argues Torah, Not Promise to Abraham]

Painting credit: “Reading the Torah” (ink and acrylic) by Martina Shapiro

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 21, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 13:10-17 Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

[sermon begins]

Two weeks ago, on a blue-skied, puffy-white-clouded Saturday morning, Rob and I drove up to Congregation Beth Evergreen to celebrate a longtime friends’ daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah. Between my brother’s Jewish family and these longtime Jewish friends of ours, I’ve been to several such services.  After many months of preparation, the 13 year old Bat Mitzvah helps to lead the Shabbat service – chanting prayers and scripture in Hebrew. They are joyous and reverent services. Family and friends come together to celebrate her as she comes of age.

The prayers bounce around in my head for  days and days afterwards:

[chanting] Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam…

This prayer means, “Praised are You, the Eternal One our God.”[1]  It’s sung throughout Shabbat services and leads into a variety of other prayers and scripture readings. I’m ask for forgiveness from our Jewish cousins in the faith for any clumsy moves here.

Shabbat means Sabbath, literally in Hebrew a “rest” or “ceasing.”  Many times during the Shabbat service we are greeted with “Shabbat shalom” and the response together is, “Shabbat shalom.”  Shalom is Hebrew for “peace.”[2]  More specifically it means the peace of God.  The greeting exchange of “Shabbat Shalom” hopes for each other the peace of God on the day of rest.

In Leviticus 23, is the command to recognize the Sabbath:  “For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.”[3]

“A holy convocation.” A holy gathering.  It is in a holy gathering on the Sabbath that we enter the story with Jesus. He is teaching in one of the synagogues – a Jewish teacher’s weekly ritual.  In walks the woman as she’s been doing for 18 years – bent over, quite unable to stand up straight.[4]  Jesus calls her over.  Notice that she doesn’t approach him.  She’s on her way to do her usual thing.  He is teaching and calls her over.  One could argue that in calling her over to his location that he is continuing his teaching or, at the very least, redirecting his teaching to include her.  The woman becomes a living, breathing teaching story.

There is someone there who argues with Jesus.  Arguing over teaching of the Torah is a robust tradition in synagogues. Torah are the Five Books of Moses that include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Christians call these five books of the Bible the Pentateuch.

Back to argument that’s brewing in the Bible story.  The argument is about the essence of what Jesus does by healing the woman.  The leader of the synagogue starts it.  Another teacher.  The argument from the synagogue leader’s point of view is that healing is work and that work belongs on the other six days of the week.  “There are six days on which the work ought to be done.”[5]  This word “ought” is translated from a verb that indicates divine necessity – a command.[6]  So the synagogue leader is arguing that work happens the other six days by divine necessity.

Jesus counters the argument. Jesus argues that freedom from bondage is the higher divine necessity with that same word – “ought.”  “…ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham…be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”[7]  By calling her a daughter of Abraham, Jesus is identifying the woman as part of God’s covenant with Abraham.  He is also identifying her as a part of the holy gathering on the Sabbath.  She is part of her community as they gather and healed within it.

Professor David Jacobsen of Boston University says that this is evidence that Jewishness is not being superseded by Jesus.[8]  Rather, Jesus is expanding the circle of God’s promises to Abraham.  God’s promise to the Jewish people remains.  Jesus does not negate God promise to them.  Also by healing the woman, Jesus shows that God doesn’t separate us from each other within holy gatherings but deepens us into those connections.

My young friend, the Bat Mitzvah, gave her prepared speech toward the end of leading the Shabbat service.  She talked about being a difficult student as she thanked her Hebrew teacher.  The same Hebrew teacher who bestowed the Bat Mitzvah certificate while congratulating her on accomplishing the impossible.

My young friend talked about her own significant issue that affects the people around her and the way her family and her congregation loves her while challenging her to grow through her issue.  I was struck, not for the first time, how communities of faith form us and heal us.  Like the woman in the Bible story who was bent over or my young friend the Bat Mitzvah, we are changed by the people drawn into these holy gatherings.  Sometimes this can take a long time.  Often, it takes a long time.

I remember telling my kids from time-to-time that they were taking advantage of how much their church people love them.  My kids, now 17 and 19 years old, are who they are today, in part, because of the love shared as part of the holy gathering of church people of all ages.  It hasn’t always been easy but it has been part of forming them into the young adults they are today.

The formation and healing through community isn’t reserved for the young.  All of us, at any age, can find ourselves loved and challenged through our issues.  It’s that paradox of being made free by God’s promises in the holy gathering and also made free for each other.  In the freedom for each other we are formed and healed by each other.  Straightened from being curved in on ourselves.

As the Body of Christ called Augustana, there are ways we bring this healing to each other.  Last Sunday, I met with the Sunday worship Prayer Leaders who pray weekly in worship for the concerns of the world and the congregation.  The leaders’ faith and prayers are a gift to this congregation because it’s an example of faith to strengthen our own.  The Sunday prayers are continued into Monday morning Chapel Prayer and even further into the weekly e-mailed Prayer Chain.  We pray for hope and healing for so many people for so many reasons – illness, mental health, job loss, etc.  It’s one more way that we’re honest about our frail human bodies and fragile lives.  It’s one more way that we bring healing to each other through our challenges.

By way of Christ, we are drawn into a holy gathering in worship this morning.  Trusting that Jesus is here.  Like the synagogue in the Bible story, we are not an echo chamber of agreement.  There are challenges to work through just as there are causes for celebration.  And still, God brings healing through the holy gathering.  We are challenged and we celebrate as we, along with the crowd in the Bible story rejoice in all that [Jesus] is doing through the holy gathering for the sake of the world:[9]

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam…  Amen.

Praised are You, the Eternal One our God…  Amen.

 

[1] Jill Suzanne Jacobs. A Basic Blessing in Hebrew part of Hebrew for Dummies® Cheatsheet. http://www.dummies.com/languages/hebrew/a-basic-blessing-in-hebrew/

[2] Karol Thonton-Remiszewski, translator. “What Does Shabbat Shalom mean?” https://www.quora.com/What-does-Shabbat-Shalom-mean

[3] Leviticus 23:3

[4] Luke 13:11

[5] Luke 13:14

[6] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and Director of the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, Mass..  Commentary on Luke 13:10-17 for August 21, 2016 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2956

[7] Luke 13:16

[8] Jacobsen, ibid.

[9] Luke 13:17 – paraphrased to conclude the sermon

Money in Motion, So Goes the Heart – Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 7, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 12:32-40 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Genesis 15:1-6 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

[sermon begins]

Right after Jesus’ lovely speech we just heard, Peter says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”[1]  It’s a classic question.  Is Jesus’ speech a general kind of “all y’all” or is Jesus talking to me?  As if I’ll fly under the radar just as long as I don’t make eye contact with Jesus on this one.

We don’t get to hear Peter’s reply to Jesus in the Bible reading today although it comes as the very next verse in Luke.  Jesus is still talking to the crowd of thousands.  In the verses just before ours today, he warns the crowds.  “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He wraps up those verses telling them not to worry about their lives but to strive for the kingdom.

Right away, though, Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

This is one of the challenges in the way we read the Bible Sunday-to-Sunday.  If left with the striving of last week’s verses, we could assume wrongly that striving is the whole plan.  It’s an easy move from striving to earning.  Earning God’s pleasure.  Earning God’s salvation.  And with earning comes deserving.  I deserve God’s pleasure.  I deserve God’s salvation.  Until, suddenly, I’m left wondering if I’ve strived enough, earned enough, and am deserving enough.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   In scripture, “do not be afraid” is the clue that we’re going to hear about God’s power and promise; God’s mighty deeds.[2]  We hear it multiple times in Luke.  Abram hears it in the Genesis reading.  These promises come from God to Abram, to Luke, and to us – unconditional promise.

Last week, I challenged us to keep our fingers pointing at ourselves to confess our own greed rather than pointing away from ourselves to someone else.  This week, Jesus is offering another way to be on guard against the greed he warns about in the earlier verses.  Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!  This means that through this promise, disciples can guard against all kinds of greed and resist the urge to worry 24/7.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and then directs us to be generous with money.[4]  Telling us that where our treasure, our money, goes then our hearts will follow.

For Rob and I, this kind of giving starts with our family’s congregations and moves beyond it.  10% of my income comes to Augustana and 5% of his income goes to Lutheran Church of the Master with more going to other non-profits and NGOs.  At this point, we know our money goes to the work of the church impacting not only congregational ministry but also passing through to local, national, and global efforts like Metro Caring in Denver and Lutheran World Relief worldwide.  This has long been important to us although we started off low and slow – well before I began working toward becoming a pastor.  Our giving was about 2.5% when we started into it.

Why does any of that detail matter?  It matters because there’s a tendency to be private about money in a way that becomes unhelpful to anyone.  Money impacts everyone on the planet and we talk gingerly around the topic.  Funny how hesitant we can be as Jesus followers because Jesus didn’t mess around talking about money:

16 out of the 38 parables told by Jesus dealt with money and possessions.

1 out of 10 Gospel verses, 228 verses in all, talk about money directly.[5]

I get it.  The church across denominations worldwide gets into problems with money. Sinners, the lot of us.

As a group of Jesus followers who make up this congregation, we have ongoing opportunities to talk about money and its impact.  Certainly we do in our own households as we grapple with Bible verses like today’s story on our way home after worship.  The opportunities to talk about money also exist congregationally – Stewardship Committee, Congregational Council or Council’s appointed Finance Support Committee.  Recently, in fact, the Finance Support Committee put forward a recommendation to consolidate and track funds differently.  They did a ton of work.  They talked to many people in the congregation.  Council voted unanimously to adopt the recommendation.  Leadership in this congregation is aware of the accountability and works hard on it.

Jesus’ words give us pause to talk about giving and generosity – each of us in our households as well as disciples together congregationally.  This could mean that our assumptions get tossed about a bit.  Jesus is especially good at flipping over assumptions and messing with the way we think things are true.  Being the church, the body of Christ in this place together means that we span pretty much the entire socio-economic spectrum among our households.  It’s a good opportunity to have our assumptions flipped.

As with many things Jesus has to say, there are a couple of ways to hear them.  In regards to generosity, people can easily hear law.  We can hear it as “we must,” or in commandment language, “you shall.”  The other way to hear Jesus words is as “gospel.”  When we hear things as gospel promise we can hear it as “we get to.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Jesus gives faith along with the promise of God’s kingdom.  From his gift of faith to us – Jesus frees us to live generously, less anxiously, and into a future of God’s mercy not based on human merit.[6]  A future toward which the watchfulness commanded by Jesus is not one of uneasy anticipation but rather an secure confidence.[7]

God calls you through your baptism back to God and to neighbor.  God also knows that where your money goes, so goes your hearts.  A heart that is real, beating inside of you, and oxygenating your body is the heart through which God draws us towards each other and into the kingdom life that God gives in the here and now.

To answer Peter’s question, yes, Jesus is talking to you.  This is good news, indeed – for you, for your neighbor, and for the world.  Thanks be to God.

___________________________________________

Link: Lutheran World Relief

Link: Metro Caring

[1] Luke 12:41

[2] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[3] Luke 12:33-34

[4] Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

[5] Howard L. Dayton, Jr.  Sermon Illustration: Statistic: Jesus’ Teaching on Money.  (Preaching Today, 1996). http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Economic_LifeSS.pdf?_ga=1.79714647.1553381420.1424715443

[6] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[7] Ibid.

 

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.

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[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595