Tag Archives: Karoline Lewis

Equality Is Not False Moral Equivalency (OR Those Meddling Midwives) Exodus 1:8-20a Romans 12:1-18 Matthew 16:13-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 27, 2017

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Exodus 1:8-20a    Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives

Romans 12:1-8   I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[sermon begins]

Conversation about eclipse glasses started weeks ago.  Mom would be visiting from Palm Springs so she’d offered to order enough for her, my family, and my sister’s family in Arvada.  Nine altogether.  Glasses in hand, she received the recall from Amazon that the glasses were bogus.  A kerfuffle developed in my safety conscious family until my sister the math teach connected with a science teacher down the hall.  Rest assured, these new ones would work.  And work they did.  I was here at the church during the eclipse.  My mom and I stood outside the sanctuary with our certified eclipse glasses and looked up, taking in 93% of totality beyond the bell tower.  Very cool.  And very fun to share this moment with Mom.

At a dinner party this week we heard from people who had seen the eclipse in totality – 100% of the moon in front of the sun.  They were able to remove their glasses for 2 ½ minutes and be wowed by the ring of the sun, solar flares, and a 360 degree sunset.  It sounds amazing.  One friend said that there is no comparison between totality and the 93% in town.  So while Mom and I were having our moment, other people were having a completely different one.  Apparently eclipse viewing is not created equal.  To be honest, this idea of equality has been on my mind recently.  No surprise that it would come to mind related to eclipse viewing.

It all started when a young friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago that he didn’t think people truly believed in equality.  Equality meaning that all people are of equal value in the human story.  Before these thoughts about equality were percolating, I’d already been thinking ahead about the Bible verses in Romans 12 and the Exodus story of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.[1]

The Romans letter gives us familiar reminders.  In verse 4, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” And, immediately in verse 5, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.”  The Apostle Paul writes that we are “many” and “one” at the same time while also reminding us that we “differ.”  We can almost hear the squabbling and power plays among those Roman Christians to whom Paul is writing.

As people of faith, Paul’s argument lays down a challenge for us.  Do we believe in the equal value of prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and the compassionate as laid out in next verses?  And, if we do believe in their equal value, how do not create false moral equivalencies?  Moral equivalency means that we would hear everything that every prophet, minister, or teacher SAYS as having equal value.  One of the ways that we do this is by saying things like, “Well, I’m a sinner so what right do I have to call out someone else’s sin?”  Or, “Who do you think you are to decide who is on the side of right?”  These are important and often faithful questions, to be sure.  But let’s also think about the way scripture sets these questions in tension with clear moral outcomes.  The midwives in Exodus are one such example.

The midwives’ story is the alternate first reading in the lectionary for this Sunday.  Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite Bible characters. I simply can’t resist them when they pop up on the schedule. They are Hebrew midwives commanded by the Egyptian king to kill boy babies delivered by the Hebrew women.  “But the midwives feared God…they let the boys live.”[2]  The king confronts them and asks, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” Shiphrah and Puah reply, “[the Hebrew women] are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”[3]  I laugh every time I hear their reply to the king. The midwives are called to the work of life and they find a way even when the king commands them to be instruments of death.  There is no moral equivalency as told by this story. The king’s demand to kill the boy babies is wrong.  The midwives saving these babies is right.

God calls us into the work of life, too.  Like the apostle Peter, we follow “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When we see death, God sees resurrection life.  When others rationalize people’s suffering as something deserved or beyond anyone’s help, Jesus tells us that they are God-given neighbors for whom we are to care.  Sometimes resurrection life means live-births midwifed by Shiphrah and Puah. Sometimes resurrection life means giving money for hungry people to both eat and work toward feeding themselves.  Sometimes resurrection life means calling out white supremacy as an egregious legacy of chattel slavery in America.

As much as the U.S. Constitution and Christianity had to do with advancing Civil Rights in this country, the same could be said in the other direction. The U.S. Constitution and Christianity also keep the 400 year legacy of racism alive and well with embedded racial biases. I have no trouble claiming that paradox because I see myself as a microcosm of it.  One of the confessional claims of our faith tradition is that we are simul iustus et peccator which means we are saint and sinner at the same time.  Why wouldn’t it be so when it comes to racism as well?

René Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity through his studies of mimetic theory, scapegoating, and the Bible.[4] He died in 2015 at the age of 91. Girard expected to find consistency between other ancient texts and the Bible when it came to scapegoating.  Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it.  He argued that scapegoating is a primitive urge for cathartic violence.  This simply means we feel better when we get rid of our identified bad guy(s). Violence escalates as the scapegoat is more clearly identified as the problem.  Peaceful feelings ensue once the scapegoat is removed or killed.  Problem solved.  Mr. Girard argued that Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat “condemned by all rightful authorities.”[5]  He also argues that the cross reveals scapegoating for its lie.  It doesn’t solve anything.

Let’s take scapegoating in our present moment.  For white supremacists, the scapegoats are black and Jewish. For other white people like me, white supremacists make easy scapegoats. By focusing on white supremacists, we absolve ourselves from the subtle ways we maintain racial bias in religion, government, law enforcement, real estate, education, and commerce.  The cross lifts a mirror towards all of us – convicting us of our own sin and turning us towards our neighbors. The cross of Christ levels the ground on which we stand. When we see hierarchy and power and race, God sees children – many children who make one body and who differ in their gifts by grace.

As God’s children, it’s good to wrestle with the question that Jesus asks, “…who do you say that I am?”[6] In fact, we are free to wrestle with that question because we are first and foremost children of God, baptized and set free. But God knows that the lives of our neighbors and, by extension, our own lives, are at stake in our answer to Jesus’ question.  Later in the Gospel according to Matthew we are challenged by Jesus to see his face on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, and the stranger – the scapegoats, if you will.  Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you might discern the will of God…”[7]  The Apostle Paul knows that we need reminding because we forget that we have a living God who shows up whenever death is chosen over life.[8]  Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?”  We confess and remind each other, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Amen.

 

[1] Exodus 1:8-20a

[2] Exodus 1:17

[3] Exodus 1:19

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 16:15

[7] Romans 12:2

[8] Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher: “Speaking Up For A Living God.” On August 20, 2017 relating to lectionary Bible readings for August 27, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4955

Self-Sacrificing Love: Gives, Confronts, Connects – John 13:1-17, 31b-35; Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Maundy Thursday – April 13, 2017

**Sermon graphic: Ikebana Communion by Ben Morales-Correa

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; the Exodus and 1 Corinthian readings follow the sermon]

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

31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

[sermon begins]

Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  These words in John are sandwiched by two stories that are not part of what we just heard read out loud.  The glaring gap of verses in the middle of the reading is when Jesus foretells Judas’ betrayal.  Just following his command for us to love one another, he foretells Peter’s denial.  Jesus’ call to love is surrounded by betrayal and denial.  And, as if that’s not enough, the betrayal and denial come from his closest friends.

Footwashing begins Jesus’ last words and teachings to his disciples, Jesus’ farewell before his arrest and crucifixion.  His farewell opens with a fierce act of love that anticipates laying down his life.[1]  Footwashing is something that a slave does, not a host.  It is an act of utter devotion.[2] While washing the feet of his friends anticipates his death on the cross, it is also a culmination of the love that he’s already accomplished in the Gospel of John – showing up in Word made flesh, turning water into wine at a wedding celebration, meeting in the dark of night with the religious leader Nicodemus, surprising the Samaritan woman at the well, healing the man born blind, feeding the five thousand, walking on water as peace in the storm, and raising Lazarus from the dead.[3]  Each act of love connects to what comes before and what lies ahead.[4]  This is also true of the command to love one another.

Jesus’s command to love is not new.  Leviticus is the ancient Hebrew book of law still read today as part of the Torah by our Jewish cousins in the faith and read by Christians as part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.[5]  Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  The original command is to love neighbor as self.  The new commandment expands from the original to love as Jesus loves.[6]  Embodying the new commandment in footwashing, Jesus spends considerably more time revealing his own heart than the hearts of the betrayer and the denier.[7]  His love is both giving and confrontational, devoting himself to his disciples while turning the table on evil by an act of love – rejecting evil’s terms through his act of service.[8]  Jesus washes Judas’ and Peter’s feet along with everyone else’s feet.  No foot is left unclean.

The footwashing and Farewell Discourse anticipate the fullness of God’s glory at the cross, of life emptying out to fill us all through the self-sacrificing love of the One who lays his life down.  The self-sacrificing love that brings us to the Communion table.  The Communion students who will receive communion during this evening’s worship heard the story of the Passover a few weeks ago as part of their instruction.  We hear it again today.

Passover was celebrated this same week by our Jewish cousins in the faith. The Passover that led their Hebrew ancestors from slavery into freedom by the blood of a lamb.  As Jesus expanded the Levitical law into the new commandment of love for all, so Jesus expanded the Passover remembrance into a meal of life for all.  It’s important to note that God’s covenants with Jews through Abraham and Moses are not superseded by Jesus.[9]  The covenants are expanded to all, and therefore to us, through Jesus.[10]  This is important because God’s covenant expanded to include us non-Jews rejects any violence committed against our Jewish cousins in the faith, calling us to atonement and reconciliation with each other.

Reconciliation is a re-connection with each other and with God brought to us by Jesus through the cross.  It’s neither sentimental nor an echo-chamber of agreement.[11]  It’s the reality of community that contains betrayers like Judas and deniers like Peter.  It’s the reality of community that contains us.  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians challenges them through the reconciliation won by Christ on the cross. Their divisions across social standing is unacceptable.  Into their divisions, Paul shares the words of Jesus that we know as the Words of Institution said at the Communion table:

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”[12]

When we “share the peace” before we receive communion we are enacting the love that is first commanded in Leviticus and then commanded while embodied by Jesus.[13]  We embody the reality of community that contains us betrayers and deniers, us social dividers. Sinners the lot of us. All. At the same time, we embody the reality of community that contains beloved children of God.  All of us.

Along this line, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for videos that pop up on social media.  One in particular keeps coming to mind as I think about Jesus’ commandment to love and then his own self-sacrificing love.  It’s a recorded video of three-year old Leah and her mom.[14]  Leah is three, has a life-threatening illness and a feeding tube in place.  Her mom is asking her a bunch of questions. Favorite color? Pink. Favorite food? Yogurt. What is your favorite animal? Tigers.  What are you scared of? Tigers. Question-after-question, and then this one, “What does love mean?”  God. [mother pauses] What? God.  I watch something like that, someone like Leah and her mother, and it catches me.  There’s incomprehensible suffering alongside the naming of love and it doesn’t compute.

Fortunately, God’s love isn’t dependent on my or anyone else’s computational skills. God’s love empties through Jesus’ death on a cross to us through the communion table of mercy, through wine and bread.  Sharing this meal together proclaims Jesus’ death and contains his self-sacrificing loves just as it has in all times and places.[15]  Jesus’ meal is at the center of God naming us Beloved across whatever sin we dish out on our own including the lines we draw to divide ourselves.  Jesus’ meal re-connects us with God and each other. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

______________________________________

[1] Craig Koester. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 194.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gospel of John, chapters 1-12.  There’s more there than the abbreviated version above. It’s no secret that John is my favorite Gospel.

[4] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preacher and Marbury E. Anderson Chair of Biblical Preaching. Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Maundy Thursday scripture readings on April 13, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=867

[5] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

[6] Ibid., Koester.

[7] Robert Hoch, Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 for April 13, 2017 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3204

[8] Ibid., Koester.

[9] Supersessionism is the theory that Jesus fulfills, replaces, and therefore negates God’s covenant with Jews.  The explicit assertion in this sermon is the counter-argument to supersessionism.

[10] Krister Stendahl. Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

[11] Ibid., Koester, 195.

[12] 1 Corinthians 11:23b-26

[13] A worship leader says, “The peace of Christ be with you always.” The people respond, “And also with you.” Then everyone shares a sign of Christ’s peace with each other by shaking each other’s hands.

[14] Video of Leah interviewed by her mother at https://www.facebook.com/Break/videos/10155078881787792/

[15] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Maundy Thursday scripture readings on April 13, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=867

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

1 Corinthians 11:23-36 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

 

The Acrobatics of Palms and Passion (Wait, A Colt AND A Donkey?!) Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 27:11-56, and Philippians 2:5-11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 9, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings, really it does. Philippians reading is at end of sermon]

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

Matthew 27:11-56  Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15 Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. 17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. 32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.’ ” 44 The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. 45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

[sermon begins]

 

Moving from Palm parade to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion during worship is nearly as acrobatic as Jesus sitting on the colt and the donkey. Somehow it gets managed but it’s a stretch.  Since no one is Jesus but Jesus, we’re going to start out on one thing while we’re together this morning.  And that is the notion of innocence.  Innocence jumps out of the Passion of Christ, the church’s way of describing Jesus’ suffering from arrest to crucifixion.[1]  At last Thursday’s Lenten soup supper, we talked about the Palm Sunday reading. Someone mentioned how the children parading in with palms for the Bible reading is affecting because of their innocence. And once again I was struck by this notion of innocence – what it means and who it describes.

Governor Pilate begins questioning Jesus.  Accusations fly from the religious leaders.  Jesus says very little and doesn’t respond to them.  Governor Pilate senses something is amiss.  Trying to find a way out, he follows his custom of releasing a prisoner, putting the choice before the crowd between Jesus the Messiah and the notorious Jesus Barabbas.  In the middle of the political jockeying, the governor’s wife and First Lady of Judaea sends word. “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”[2]

She called Jesus, “…that innocent man…”  What strikes me is that no one else can really wear that title.  Even the guy we might call the innocent bystander, Simon of Cyrene, is compelled to help carry the cross.  So is he innocent?  What about the women watching from a distance, the friends and disciples who followed and provided for him?  Are they innocent?  Who qualifies as innocent?  It’s a fair question.  Governor Pilate washes his hands and says to the crowd, “I’m innocent of this man’s blood;” yet when we confess the creed we still say, “…suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  His wife tries to intervene but to no avail.  Is she innocent?

At the end of the day Jesus is still crucified, still dead.  No one stopped it…including him.  The presence or absence of innocence seems irrelevant. Jesus’ near-silence in the story is such a contrast to the noise of everyone and everything else right down to the earth shaking and the rocks splitting.[3]  There’s a lot of noise from most everyone and everything but Jesus.  He gives only one set of what’s known as his seven last words in Matthew’s telling of the crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”[4]  During Good Friday evening worship, this one from Matthew and six more in other gospels will be sung by the choir.  For today, just one.  Prior to Jesus’ passion, he uses plenty of words in teachings, conversations, parables, healings, and prayers.  Now?  Not so much. Just quiet.  As the people around him turn up their volume, he grows quieter.

When we hear the crucifixion read to us we can think we already know what it’s telling us.  Some of us hear about Jesus’ death and reject it as having no importance to faith because caricatures seem too easily drawn about Jews or Romans or atonement theories in general.[5]  Some of us reject Jesus’ death as inhumane torture and on that basis then has nothing to tell us.  Some of us get lost in shame at the foot of the cross realizing there are no innocents and seem to make the cross all about ourselves, the other side of the coin of pride.  These are just a few of the ways we can get lost in the shadow of the cross.  So let’s try something else.

Paul writes to the Philippians:

“…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”[6]

We hear Paul’s confession of faith that Jesus in the form of God emptied himself by being born human, humbling himself, and ending up dead on a cross.  When we see Christ crucified, we see God.  We see God who suffers on behalf of the world.[7]

A few weeks ago I met with a Rabbi in my office here at the church.  We are doing some leg-work for the interfaith group we belong to and we were talking about sacred symbols and was there any one symbol that would work to represent the whole.  This was important because the larger group had previously discussed blowing a shofar, a ram’s horn, of sacred importance in the Jewish tradition of atonement.  To make a point of comparison as to how symbols have multiple interpretations, the rabbi pointed out the San Damiano cross icon on my wall and said it was a symbol of torture and death.[8]  I said, “Yes. And to me it is also a symbol of self-sacrifice.”  The rabbi nodded and said, “See?” My take-away from that moment is how our confessions of faith, beyond the Apostle’s Creed, find ways to be said out loud.

Holy Week worship continuing on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday gives us a chance to figure out our own words, our confession of faith.[9]  There was a time when Holy Week made no sense to me in all its dark mystery. I just begged for Easter already. Now, I can hardly wait.  Jesus said and did radical things that led to his death. His triumphal entry on the colt and donkey reveals a kingship.  It’s an odd sort of kingship.  One that empties and suffers and dies rather than raise a hand of violence.  One that cries out of pain, silence, and loneliness to meet us in our own pain, silence, and loneliness.  God’s suffering through Christ crucified is how God is made known to us.  Thanks be to God.

____________________________________________________________

[1] The Passion of Christ is from Late Latin: passionem meaning “suffering, enduring.”

[2] Matthew 27:19

[3] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  Working Preacher podcast on Matthew 27:11-54 for April 9, 2017.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=866

[4] Matthew 27:46

[5] Ibid., Working Preacher podcast. Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary.

[6] Philippians 2:6-8

[7] Ibid., Working Preacher podcast. Rolf Jacobsen, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary.

[8] San Damiano Cross meaning: https://www.monasteryicons.com/product/Story-of-the-San-Damiano-Crucifix/did-you-know

[9] There are Holy Week worship services everywhere. Augustana worship times are Thursday 11a/7p; and Friday 12p/7p.

Philippians 2:5-11 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The Sin of Certainty [OR Catholics and Lutherans’ Risk of Faith] John 9:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 26, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 9:1-41   As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

[sermon begins]

We were assigned a classroom to robe before worship.  I was early so became part of a defacto welcome wagon for the next first arrivals. A few of my colleagues trickled in which made it feel a bit like old home week. Catching up with people who I hadn’t seen for a while.  The first Catholic priest showed up, then a Lutheran colleague or two, then a Catholic deacon, and so on.  We lined the walls of the room forming a circle of sorts. Introductions were repeated, echoing off the walls and each other.  The sound level rose as the room filled to hold about 35 of us who would walk together into the sanctuary for the Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer service held last Sunday over at Bethany Lutheran Church.  About a third of us were women.

In the last few minutes before the procession, a gentleman slipped into a gap between me and the next person.  After working as a lawyer in Paris, Father Luc was ordained through a more recent Catholic religious order call the Beatitudes – 50 years old in comparison to, say, the Benedictines whose order is 1,500 years old.  The Community of the Beatitudes understands their community as “a gift of God…for the unity of the Church.”[1]  Father Luc’s second career call into ordination through this unifying religious order resonates with my own second career call into ordination and Catholic roots.  My grandparents faithfully attended daily mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, Maine – Grammops’ mantilla and rosary faithfully at the ready.  My mother thought for a time she’d be a nun but my siblings and I are living proof that reveal the rest of that story. My First Communion was received in a Catholic parish in Virginia before my mother remarried my protestant step-father.  Because of all of these experiences, lining up for procession into the service with Catholic priests, vicars, and deacons defies prior experience.  It was surreal.

Surreal because over the last 500 years the Reformation divide often became an opportunity for derision, excommunication, and violence in both directions all over the world. Surreal because this is the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation that includes Catholics and Lutherans. Surreal because these moments of common ground are rare in our world today. Rare because unity across difference is hard work. Rare because the work develops relationships that shake up our certainty. And certainty puts us safely on the side of right.

I went back-and-forth about whether it’s helpful to hear all 41 verses of gospel reading for today.  Would people hear it?  Was there a way to condense it for easier hearing?  I have no idea.  Really.  So now this whole gospel story is in front of us – the man born blind, disciples’ off-base questions, Jesus’ muddy spit, eyes that can see, townspeople’s confusion, Pharisee accusations, the man’s identity, parents as witnesses, and Jesus’ authority.  Make no mistake, this is a trial.  Each person has a role to play in the trial after Jesus makes blind eyes see.

Jesus doesn’t ask the man born blind if he wants to see.  He just goes for it.  There may be a side-road to take about whether unrequested healing is okay but we’re not going there today.  Spit and dirt combine to make mud and Jesus smears it on the man’s eyes then sends him off to the pool for a rinse.  Jesus isn’t physically there when the healing happens.  And the trial begins.  Who saw what and when did they see it?  Who knows the man and can confirm his identity?  His parents worry about whether the man will be put out of the community because of Jesus’ healing.  They hedge their answer about who they think Jesus is because of this fear but the man is put out of the community by the religious leaders anyway.

The last few verses of the reading are the ones that have me most curious about the story:

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.”[2]

Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer uses this word “remains.”  Remains is “meno” in the Greek and is commonly translated as “abide” or “stay.” This is the only time you have meno used as a negative.[3] Rather than abiding in Jesus, the religious ones are abiding in sin.  Every so often Jesus will use this kind of flip to invert standard ways of thinking.  Let’s allow the end of this story to push on us, to challenge our ways of religious thinking.[4]  In Jesus’ challenge, it’s possible to hear him name the sin of certainty.  You heard that correctly, the sin of certainty.  The sin of certainty is being so certain that you are right at the expense of what God may be doing otherwise.  It’s one of the seductions of religion or of any thought that becomes a wedge rather than a bridge.  Once the mystery is organized, it is contained.  Once the mystery is contained, there is something about which to be certain.  And certainty menos with us, abides with us, cozies up to us and makes us feel safe.  Faith is different than certainty.  Faith is a trust that shakes things up.  Faith is risk – risking what seems so certain and the perks that go with it.[5]

Professor Peter Enns works with the difference between certainty and faith in his book, The Sin of Certainty.[6]   He argues that certainty is fragile, shaken by challenges of difficult Bible passages, modernity, pain and suffering, or confrontation with other religious.  Certainty is also shaken by ways that we become tyrannical about it.  Wielding certainty like a club.  On a practical level, this can look like the argument about which Christian tradition gets the gospel of Jesus right.  Faith, on the other hand, opens us up to hearing God’s voice differently.

My favorite part of last week’s Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer was the Five Imperatives found in the document “From Conflict to Communion.”[7]  Five families of mixed Catholic and Lutheran identities lit five candles while each read an imperative.  It’s the first one that caught me.  A young boy read it out loud so clearly his voice rang like a bell through the sanctuary:

“Our first commitment: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced (#239).”[8]

After reading this Imperative, his two younger sisters lit the first candle of five.

In the document, the Five Imperatives follow the Lutheran and the Catholic confessions of sins against unity.[9]  Having confessed the sin of certainty that inflicts pain in both directions, the commitment is made to shake things up, to take a risk by faith toward unity.  These risks of faith move us from blindness to seeing, from coziness with our sin to abiding with each other.  These risks of faith proclaim the gospel as central.  What do we hear time and again by way of the gospel?  Jesus, by his death and resurrection, abides in us and we in him.  Jesus’ abides in us through water, wine, and word. This gospel promise is blessed assurance indeed.

Congregational singing of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” follows the sermon:

  1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    • Refrain:
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long;
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long.
  2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
    Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
    Angels, descending, bring from above
    Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
  3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
    I in my Savior am happy and blest,
    Watching and waiting, looking above,
    Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

__________________________________________

[1] Community of the Beatitudes website: http://beatitudes.us/the-unity-of-the-church

[2] John 9:39-41

[3] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[5] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[6] Peter Enns, Ibid.

[7] From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation 2017; and Report of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagstanstalte, 2013).

[8] Ibid, 87.

[9] Ibid, 84-86.

 

Football Sidelines and Neighbors – Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality.  I’m talking football sideline.  There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players.  Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling.  The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level.  Up their game when they get on the field.  So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock.  There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.

Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people.  Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season.  Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment.  There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.

The sideline is a bit of wilderness.  There is wandering around. Sitting down.  Very little appears organized.  But those are appearances.

Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game.  Take a gander at those sidelines.  Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.

John is worked up.  He’s a wilderness guy.  This is his terrain.  And the crowds come.  Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats.  The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?”  John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats.  John’s answers are nothing earth shattering.  The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”

In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation.  It is a sincere question.

John tells the riff-raff what to do.  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.[1]

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us.  We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence.  For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself.  And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.

Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side.  For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism.  And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.  John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus.  Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:

16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[2]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.

We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free.  And once that happens, look out!  It is a salvation day in the here and now.   Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.

God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]

In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?”  We shall worship.  We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.”[4]  The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.  Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people.  This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving.  Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.

The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

[1] Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world.  Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.

[2] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Revelation 1:8

[4] Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while.  We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.

[5] From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.

 

Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot! [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline] Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot!  [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline]  Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Caitlin Trussell with New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on February 27, 2015

 

[sermons begins after the two Bible readings]

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a aman who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

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

 

What kinds of things make you laugh?  Really, truly laugh.  The whole breathless, belly, can’t breathe, let go kind of laughter.  For me it’s often the general silliness that comes along with being a human on the planet.  Think Kim Wayans, Jimmy Fallon, Lucille Ball, Cheech and Chong bust-a-gut silly.  A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) was recently in a grocery store the day before the big snow of a few weeks ago.  Some were calling it Snowmageddon, some were rolling their eyes, some hunkered down to wait and see.  Many were in the grocery store.  It was packed with slow-moving carts, people pondering produce, precipitation, panic, and Lord only knows what else.

My friend left her cart over by the bakery so that she would take up less room in the busy bacon section.  When she came back to her cart, someone else’s cart was in its place.  She stood there, likely looking confused.  The woman in the bakery came out and asked her if something was wrong and if she needed help.  My friend explained the cart-napping.  The bakery woman then made a store-wide announcement sounding something like this, “With so many people in the store today, please take a minute to look down and make sure you have your cart and not someone else’s.”

In the meantime, a man came up to my friend, and told her that he thought she had his cart.  In those split seconds between the overhead announcement and the man’s cart-confusion, it dawned on my friend that she was the one who had stolen someone else’s cart.  After many apologies, she looped back and found her abandoned cart waiting peacefully among the fruits and veggies.  She called to tell me the story and we both laughed ourselves breathless.  For me, the overhead announcement was the punchline.  Even as I write this I can feel the laughter start to bubble up in my chest.  For her, laughing at herself was the punchline.

And then there’s Abraham in the Bible story from Genesis.  His big moment with the Lord.  During which God makes a promise, a promise so huge that it’s given the name of covenant.  When God makes a covenant with people it is an ‘unbreakable vow’ of sorts.[2]  A promise of epic proportions that affects generations of people.  Such is the case with Abraham.  Abraham knows this and his response is to fall on his face.

In the Hebrew Bible, falling on your face is no slap-stick move.  Rather it is a position of obedience.[3]  Abraham is aligning himself with the covenant.  Just a few sentences later in the story, Abraham falls on his face again, this time while laughing.  The Lord has just told him that he and his very old wife are going to have a baby.  Abraham makes the obedient move with his body, by falling on his face, but his mind hasn’t caught up, he laughs at the silliness of the plan, God’s plan.[4]  For Abraham, laughing at God is the punchline.  That’s Abraham, mind you, a paragon of faith who can’t keep his amused confusion bottled up.

As Abraham busts a gut, his obedience is still in play.  What plays out of it?  Well, Sarah and Abraham deny themselves a life that is safe, autonomous, secure, a life that is only about the two of them.[5]  They deny themselves that life, and are drawn into a life of big relationship with God, each other, their children, their children’s children…you get the picture.  A life uncontained is a life that necessarily gets messy – that messes with your self-ness, maybe even your alone-ness.

Might this be some of what Jesus means in his rant to the crowd about denying self.  Self-denial is a common catch-phrase for the pre-Easter season of Lent.  For Abraham and Sarah, self-denial carried with it a new relationship with God and a bunch of other people.  For the crowd and disciples listening to Jesus, self-denial means taking up crosses and following Jesus, getting drawn into God’s ludicrous plan with a bunch of other people who are following Jesus too.

Self-denial and taking up crosses looks a lot like what Karoline Lewis describes as “God choosing human relationships.”[6]  This shapes out first as God choosing human relationship with us through the humanity of Jesus.  Then it shapes out as we’re thrown against each other as people in the world, compelled to reconsider what the priorities are in those relationships.

In the Bible Story from Mark’s book, Peter gets protective.  Call it worry, care, concern.  Call it whatever you want.  But Peter gets protective of Jesus.  Jesus is talking foolishness about his upcoming death and Peter can’t take it.  So, he does what any good friend would do.  He tells Jesus he’s wrong.  No belly laughs here as Jesus then calls Peter “Satan”, tells him to step aside, and then tells everyone there to get on board the self-denial train and depart toward the cross.

This moment for Peter and Jesus is like so many of our moments.  Things are going along pretty well, and then?  They’re not.  Peter’s is driven by protectiveness likely complicated by a dash of worry and a pinch of disagreement about the plan.  After all, what might it mean for Peter if Jesus’ suffering and execution actually happen.  Peter seems to want to save Jesus from his inevitable end.  But how much of Peter’s drive comes from wanting to save himself by saving his own ideas, his own timing, his own way.

How often do we do these kinds of things in our own relationships?  Resenting another person’s infringement on our ideas, our timing, our way by throwing a wrench into them with their own.  Suddenly this other person intrudes and requires negotiation, time, and an adjustment to our own plan.

You’ll hear me talk about the cross from time-to-time as something that pushes against our own ideas of the world and shatters them, as something that pushes against us and puts things to death in us so that other things have room to live.  This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It’s not something that I can do all by myself.  Being pushed comes from being in relationships with other people.  Some of those we get to choose – like partners, best friends, counselors.  Others, we don’t get to choose – children, co-workers, church people, total strangers.  All of these people infringe on the notion that we get to do things our way.  There are moments when these people unravel us in utter frustration, not a punchline in sight.

Then there are other moments, those rare moments, those cross moments, when something in us simply crumbles, something dies.  Any investment we had in a particular outcome at the expense of a relationship is pushed into oblivion.   The recognition dawns that, more often than not, we’re with someone who is simply trying to be human just like we’re simply trying to be human.  The laughter coming a little more easily.

Jesus’ teaching in our story today teases us with the resurrection of Easter but also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[7]  As Jesus instructs the disciples to take up their cross, he’s saying in part that the way to new life is through the cross.  I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.”  And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”

 

The cross is the way through to the new thing, the new life.  The cross invites honesty about what is dying and curiosity about what new life will look like.  So much so that it then becomes possible to stay in relationship with God and with other people.  Staying in relationship with the people closest to us rather than lashing out in fear or frustration and destroying those relationships.  With maybe even the freedom to laugh at ourselves as the punchline.

 

As we try to make some sense of the cross this Lenten season…

May grace run wild through Jesus’ life-death-life and through other people to shine light in your own dark places making space for new life.

 

And may Abraham’s laughter through obedience mirror your own as your mind is blown by the foolishness of the cross.[8]  Amen.

 



[1] This adds verse 17 to the Revised Common Lectionary verses for this week…because Abraham laughs, of course.

[2] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  An Unbreakable Vow is a binding spell sealing an oath so that they both parties die if the oath is broken.

[3] Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karoline Lewis. Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#

[8] Referencing 1 Corinthians 1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom…”

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6 Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 15, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-10 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

 

[sermon begins]

In the last several weeks, different people from this congregation have asked me what I think of The Interim Process.  The number of times I’ve been asked is translates in my mind as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of number; meaning that more of you likely have a similar question and just haven’t had a chance to ask it.  Let’s get everyone here up to speed on what is meant by “The Interim Process” before I tell you my answer to their question.

Last June 8th, Pastor John Pederson retired as the Senior Pastor of 15 years.  In late August, we welcomed Pastor Tim Drom as the Interim Senior Pastor.  In addition to working as the Senior Pastor, his main task is to guide a team of Augustana people in leading us through the transition to a calling a new Senior Pastor.  This team of people is appropriately named the Transition Team.  They are compiling information from questionnaires, staff interviews, committee interviews, and more, to be able to describe this congregation’s current moment and envision its future.  The Transition Team will hand off their work to a yet-to-be-formed Call Committee who will begin interviews.  The Interim Process ends when a newly called Senior Pastor begins their work here.

Now to circle back, what do I think about The Interim Process?  I think it’s long.  Is it long enough?  I don’t know.  Is it too long?  I don’t know.  What I do know, is that it’s long.  I don’t know many people who are able to earnestly and honestly say, “Wow, transition is great…bring it on!”

Look at Elisha.  He’s about to enter a transition and those pesky prophets almost seem to apparate in Elisha’s path.[1] They pop up in Bethel to tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  They pop up in Jericho to tell Elisha again that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  He longs to spend every last minute of the time remaining with his mentor, Elijah.  In no way, shape, or form is Elisha looking forward to being without Elijah.  It’s as if the council of prophets is already rubbing salt into Elisha’s fledgling wound.  Not a “bring it on” in sight.

Elisha’s longing to remain with Elijah is so great that he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit before he is taken away.  Many of us can relate to the longing for the person who gives us a sense of place and belonging.  For Elisha, Elijah is that person.

Look at Peter and the other disciples.  Six days after Jesus teaches them for the first time about his being killed and rising to life again, they go mountain climbing with him.  What must the week before must have been like after Jesus dropped that bomb on them?  It’s as easy to imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations, nerves, and worry as it is to imagine their longing for time with Jesus to themselves.

And look at Jesus.  “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.[2]  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Elijah and Moses.  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Peter, James, and John lighting up their longing for hope and peace.

This is no subtle Epiphany – Jesus can and will be noticed.[3]  Peter’s reaction?  Terror.  Afraid and not knowing what to say, Peter babbles on about building tents for Jesus and the two prophets.  He wants to bedazzle the moment that is dazzling in its own right.  But this is not a moment to fix in time, setting up tents to keep the elements out.[4]  This is a moment that transfigures time, shredding the flimsy notion that protection is possible as past, present, and future collide on that mountaintop.  Past, in the form of Moses and Elijah; present, in the form of Peter, James, and John; and future, in the person of Jesus, beloved Son of the eternal God, all come together.

Transfiguration means change.  Or, more to the point for us today, transfiguration means transition which also includes the element of time.  The Interim Process that began with the retirement of one Senior Pastor and will transition again with the call of a new Senior Pastor includes the element of time.  Is it long?  Yup.  Is it long enough?  We don’t know.  Is it too long?  We don’t know.  Hindsight will get us closer to 20/20 on that answer.  In the meantime, our temptation is similar to Peter’s myopia.  We’re in the thick of the action which makes immediate perspective blurry at best.

Transfiguration reorients us to Jesus who seems to hold some sway in the time-space continuum.  And we are supposed to listen to Him just as the disoriented disciples in the fog on mountaintop are called to listen.  In addition to the disciples’ call to listen, I invite us to ask the question they asked amongst themselves on their way down the mountain. And that is this, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life look for this tiny corner of God’s church-catholic called Augustana?  Both during The Interim Process and beyond it?

Let’s bring that question even closer to home because the dazzling light of Jesus shines, here and now, on you.  So, given whatever is going on in your life, I ask again, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life be looking like for you?  If you’re in a particularly blurry moment, like the disciples sitting in the fog on the mountaintop, disorientation rules the day but it doesn’t rule forever.

Paul words to the Corinthians are also then for us. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake.  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Our God is a reorienting, transfiguring, and resurrecting God.  “What could this rising from the dead mean?”

Alleluia and Amen.



[1] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  “Apparate” means to instantaneously disappear and reappear somewhere else.

[2] Mark 9:3-4

[3] Matt Skinner.  Commentary on Mark 9:2-9 for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341

[4] Karoline Lewis.  “Why We Need Transfiguration” for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3527

[5] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Caitlin Trussell on January 11, 2015 with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

[sermon begins]

There are wild, unimaginable things happening in this Genesis creation story.  Formlessness and void of the earth.  Imagine that for a moment – formless…void…utter darkness.  Nothing to distinguish one part from another.  Nothing through which to capture any imagining of its future.  A wind in the form of breath, as the Spirit of God blows over the mystery and threat of the deep.  Sound in seismic proportions.  No quiet or tame God picking up a bit of clay and pottering away.  From our human-sized perspective, this is massive.  This is earth and heavens – loud, windy and wild.  This story doesn’t allow us to cozy up into a calm, domesticated God.   This is the sheer power of God beyond our imagining, beyond our understanding.

The God of creation is not to be tamed.  And yet, for many of us, our first inclination is to tone God down.  As if we can make God easier on the heart and mind if we craft just the right language about God.  Or at the very least we can distract ourselves from the problem of the power of God if we spend our time arguing about the accuracy of the story.

Several years ago, when my daughter Taryn was in preschool, I had only been back in church as an adult for a few years.  Taryn’s preschool was attached to our church and some of the school’s parents seemed to know that I was involved in the church too.  It was common to have conversations with other parents during the dropping off and picking up times.  One day after dropping Taryn off, I was sneaking a peek into the classroom to watch her.  One of the dads hung back too.  A few minutes went by and he sidled over to chat.  He confirmed that I went to the church and then, without any preamble or build-up, he asked, “If God is all about love then why do some people say they fear God?”  I fumbled and stumbled around the idea of God’s power for a minute or two but clearly was not passing muster on any kind of answer that settled this man’s mind.  And there’s the problem, right there, when it comes to God’s awesome, creating power, there is nothing that settles our mind.  No matter how many days or millennia you think it took, the creative force of it is mind-blowing – and it blows our soft and squishy imaginings right out the window with it.

Here’s the thing.  When we’re tempted to talk about God as exclusively merciful and loving and forgiving, we forget the fearsome breath of God that moves over a formless, dark void; the Spirit of God that moves over what Jurgen Moltmann calls “creation-in-the-beginning.”[1]  When we soften or negate the power of God in any way, we don’t have to ask the question, “What would happen if God does this again?”

So let’s hang onto the fearsome power of God and ask that question.  “What would happen if God uses that kind of power again?” Oh…wait…God does do it again.  Anyone hear that part of the baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open?  The Spirit of God that moves over formless, dark voids, is the same Spirit who tears apart the heavens and descends, untamable, into the wild, over a river, onto a person, and names him “Beloved.”[2]  This baptism of Jesus is a revelation of the redemption to come and the unmitigated power infusing that redemption.

Moltmann talks about the “creation-in-the-beginning” being in continuity with the redemption of all things.  In the whole Bible, “the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God’s liberating and redeeming acts (e.g. Isaiah 43:19); redemption is the final new creation of all things…”[3]

Oh, how we long for the redemption of all things – all our formless, dark voids in need of the fearsome breath of God.  Voids in which we struggle and wonder about.  Voids in which we lose ourselves, not knowing which way to turn or to take the next right step.  Voids in which we lose the people we love or lose strangers in Paris who other people love.  Voids in which freedom suffers under political tyranny or disintegrating terror.

Into these voids comes the Spirit of God.  The same Spirit of God who breathes light into the darkness.[4]  Light into the darkness, now think about that one.  God spoke these words, “Let there be light” as God’s breath rushed over the mystery and threat of the deep.   What does creation of light sound like?  Is there a crack of thunder as light creates heat?  Is there a deep and resounding vibration that would quake us to the core and make us aware of every cell in our bodies?  What does even a single blaze of light through unfathomable darkness look like as it bounds through creation with power strong enough to sustain life through all the mornings and evenings of the millennia?

We know a lot about light, or at least the scientists do, but did you know that we still don’t know what it is?  Einstein spent a lot of his time researching the interplay between light and time, challenged the orthodoxy of the previous 100 years of physics and won a Nobel Prize.[5] Einstein did all this and yet we still really don’t know what it is.  We mimic it but we cannot create it. [6]  Light is more than a convenient nuance in our days.  Light is sustaining, life giving energy.  It shows us how limited we are as creatures that we still don’t understand it.

God’s breath, God’s Spirit, creates light and life out of formless, dark voids.  And God gives this same sustaining breath to you as you move through your days.  God’s power and imagination creates an earth out of no earth.  God’s power and imagination makes a way out of no way.

This same, fearsome God breathes that power into redemption for you.  This same, fearsome God breathes that power into love for you.  The magnitude of God’s power is not simply a show of sound and light to wow us all and leave us shaking in shoes.  The magnitude of God’s power is the same sheer power of God that breathes grace, forgiveness and love into you.  And your God-infused life and breath bear witness to God, as the power of God’s Spirit moves through Christ in you for the sake of the world.  There is hope in the power of God’s redemption.  What might be possible if we go out and live it?



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3459

[3] Moltmann, 9.

[4] Kathryn Shifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Richard Harris.  “Albert Einstein’s Year of Miracles: Light Theory” for NPR on March 17, 2005.  http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4538324/albert-einsteins-year-of-miracles-light-theory

[6] Troy Wanek, Renewable Energy Faculty, Red Rocks Community College, personal conversation, November 8, 2010.

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

Caitlin Trussell for Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2014

[sermon begins after these three Bible readings]

John 1:6-8, 19-28 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

 

[sermon begins]

Like many of you, my family has a few traditions when dressing up our home to get ready for Christmas.  The first part of our tradition is to panic a bit about when we’re going to get started. This year it’s especially delayed because I went to California for a few days to go see Mom and Larry right after Thanksgiving.  So, for now, Advent candles sit in a wreath on the dining room table and one of my favorite Nativity sets in the living room.  Eventually, there will be a tree with white lights and a few other treasured family mementos.  Things like the kitschy plastic, “stained-glass” Santa with the green beard. And things like the silver tinsel star taped together on the frame of a bent-up wire clothes hanger.  All these things in our home point to the birthday of the one was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Here at church, we have traditions of dressing up the sanctuary to get ready for Christmas, too.  Trees and stars and the blue cloth to convey the sense of hope during Advent.  Today we include in the mix children dressing up to sing and point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.  And this evening we include the in the mix the Chancel Choir and Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra whose dressed up music and singing also point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Isaiah does his fair share of dressing too:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”[1]  It’s important to note here that Isaiah talks about a garland, oil, and mantle specifically using those things to dress the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is elected by the people of the ELCA denomination of which this congregation is a part.[2]  She extended an invitation made to all churches by the historic American Black Churches. Their invitation is to dress in black clothing today as a sign of solidarity. Given the short notice, some of us are dressed in black and some of us aren’t. Some may be excited to respond to the invitation.  Some of us may be relieved we didn’t know about it to have to make the decision whether or not to dress in black.

Regardless, the language of solidarity used in the invitation from the American Black Churches is an important one.  Solidarity is not sameness.  Solidarity is reaching out to connect through difference.  Solidarity is relationship across difference even if it’s not entirely clear where we’re all headed together.  Make no mistake, in solidarity or not, we are in this creaturely existence together.  Perhaps we are even here in this place for such a time as this to see what might be possible in solidarity rather than separation.

Dressing in black clothing points us and other people towards the ones with whom we are in solidarity.  This is just one way to do it. There are many.  Dressing up our homes, our churches, and ourselves to get ready for Christmas points to the One who dressed in skin to walk in solidarity with us.  This is just one way to do it.  There are many.

John, the man sent from God in our reading today, is someone who understands his job of pointing.   John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  This is not a self-esteem crisis.  Rather it’s a declaration of John’s clarity.  Nope, not Elijah, not the Messiah, not the prophet.  His simple, “I am not,” is the negative declaration to all those “I AM” declarations by Jesus in the Gospel of John.[3]   John is telling them to stop asking him for answers.  As John is pointing them to the One who is the answer.

We dress our homes, our churches, and ourselves to do all this pointing.  In the meantime, first and foremost, we rely on God’s act of solidarity to walk on the planet in the person of Jesus.   We do not create the solidarity with God by dressing up; God creates the solidarity with us by showing up.  God dresses us.

God dresses us.  Isaiah puts it this way, “ I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for [God] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, [God] has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

These are the clothes of freedom, my friends.  Because when God dresses us there is nothing to fear.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk around the mall or sit at our sports events or in these pews or even around our kitchen tables and marvel that God loves ALL of those people too.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk into worship and be held accountable through confession that we have not loved those people as we love ourselves.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk out of here forgiven and free people who are accountable to those people because God showed up in skin and solidarity with us and for us…for the sake of the world.

As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, may you also receive this blessing, dressed by God…

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”[5]



[1] Isaiah 61:1-3

[2] ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  “Evangelical” is an historic term that means “good news” at its simplest.  “Lutheran” is a strand of the Christian church that was inadvertently kick-started by Martin Luther’s reform attempt of the Church in the 1500s.

[3] Karoline Lewis on Sermon Brainwave for Third Sunday in Advent 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=565

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

Luke 3:7-18 “God’s Righteous Wrath Rocks On”

December 16, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

Luke 3:7-18   John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

 

I’m going to skip right over the question about how many of you even knew there was a prophet named Zephaniah and whether or not you knew there is a book in the Bible with his name on it.  Not one of our more commonly referenced prophets, the book is only three chapters long and filled with fierce, angry, wrath of God type stuff.  Somewhere along the way, this God who gets angry fell out of favor and not often discussed.  Because really, who’s in favor of being on the receiving end of anyone’s anger, much less God’s? [1]

So this brings me to a question – one that you could answer easily, unlike the Zephaniah Bible quiz.  Have you ever had someone stand beside you and get angry on your behalf?  You’ve been down and out through no fault of your own or cheated or bullied and someone stands with you railing against the injustice of it all.  Your friend is angry for you and maybe even with you.  Well, this is a small scale way of appreciating the wrath of God message of the prophets – an historic tradition of people who call attention to injustices perpetrated by people against each other and against God.  There is a temptation we need to be careful to avoid as we compare our friend’s righteous anger and God’s righteous anger.  The temptation is that we often view ourselves on the side of God over and against whatever is happening that we may dislike – as opposed to standing apart from God along with everyone else.

I, for one, want a God who gets angry – a God who gets angry about the horror in Newtown, Connecticut rather than being absent or apathetic.  Because a God who died on a cross is there in these crises.  Where else would God be but with those who are suffering and dying at the hands of an evil act?  And now, likewise, with those who are suffering and grieving in its aftermath.  A God who gets angry shows up in defiant compassion and righteous truth.

Zephaniah’s words of hope come at the very end of a two and a half chapter prophetic rant.  And it includes a beautiful promise about God.  Zephaniah says, “He will renew you in his love.” Hear this again, please… “He will renew you in his love.”  How easy would it be view this promise through the soft, filtered light of a dewy, spring morning?  Too easy, if you ask me.   Too quickly, we are inclined to move to a sentimental notion of renewal that leaves the power of God dull and lifeless in our own minds.  And has us saying things like, “I’m not sure I like that Old Testament God.”  Or, “The Old Testament God came out for war and the New Testament God came out for a game of golf.”  In the desire to distance ourselves from the anger, we disconnect God’s story into two distinct pieces rather than appreciating the continuity of  God from the Hebrew Scriptures into the good news of the Gospel.  And sometimes I wonder if we’re not leaving out the better part.

Well, John the Baptist didn’t get the memo.  Listen to him! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?”  John’s words reveal him to be part of the continuity between what happened as described by the prophets of old and what is happening now to the crowds who are swarming out to meet him.[2]  Although, after John’s greeting, I would guess that a few of them were wondering why they made the trip.

But John gives more than accusation and threat.  He says to them, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” It is good to pause here to remember all that is embedded in repentance.  Repentance assumes that God’s mercy is available.  Repentance assumes that God’s grace will come.  Repentance then also assumes our need for both of those things.  What good is repentance if God is not merciful?  What good is repentance if God’s grace is unpredictable and easily or capriciously withheld?

Another way to think about repentance is through this lens of being renewed in God’s love, being revealed in all that we are in the fullness of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The crowd, tax collectors and soldiers ask, “What then should we do?”  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is renewal that stands you with your neighbor rather than against them.

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

But then John lobs out a power-filled promise of God’s renewal and I’m left breathing deeply and overflowing with hope:

“16 John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[3]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.  We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sinful selves.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to renew us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and gets worked with.  And once that happens, look out!  This kind of renewal is more than a spa day – it is a salvation day in the here and now.

There are all kinds of ways God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit looks in people’s lives.  It can look utterly dramatic on the outside – like the woman with whom I’ve worshiped who killed her lover’s wife and has been incarcerated in Denver Women’s Correctional Facility for the past 20 years.  This woman sits in a Bible Study about the 10 commandments and confesses to breaking all of them.  She has a powerful ministry within the walls, reaching out in faith to other offenders –taking responsibility for her crime and living with the consequence as she sings of Christ’s freedom at Friday evening worship.  Renewal for her is being freed into a new future; one not defined by her past or the perception of those around her or even her location.

God’s renewal in God’s love by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s power to renew us in forgiveness and hope.   In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and solidarity under star and comes among us now in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”[4]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Abram Heschel, “The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath” in The Prophets (New York: Harper &Row, 1962), 358-382.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[4] Revelation 1:8