Tag Archives: Life

Pops, Purity, and Promise [I Promise It’s Not What You Think] Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

[sermon begins]

I was 9 years old when Mom and my stepfather were married after dating long distance for about two years between Washington D.C. and Pasadena, California. While they were dating and into their marriage my four sibs and I called him Bill.  Eventually we started talking about what we could call him differently that would signify the relationship. His children called him Dad so that didn’t fit. Plus we already had a Dad.  We eventually settled on Pops.

Early on I thought Pops looked like John Wayne. He had the gruff and tough thing down anyway.  He took us on our first road trip from Pasadena to Springdale, Arkansas, to meet his folks, Grandma and Grandpa Cloer. Somewhere in New Mexico, Pops laid down the law about fewer bathroom breaks. I’m sure with five kids that pit stops had spun out of control. At one point Mom turned around and I had quiet tears running down my face. I absolutely did not want to be the one who forced the next stop and didn’t want to fess up.  Pops felt terrible. This is a tale that we told in our family for years.

Pops also had season tickets to the Dodgers. My brothers and sisters and I each had a chance to go solo with him to games. Dodger dogs, peanuts, the 7th inning stretch, and Toni Tennille’s autograph are just a few of the highlights.[1] I’m a nostalgic Dodger fan because of that time with Pops. (Truth be told, I’ve only just found the tiniest bit of compassion for Houston’s first time Championship win…you know, given the hurricane and all.)

Then I became a teenager…dunh, dunh, duuunnh. Teens are really good at naming parental faults. I was no exception. Pops and I shared many a word about each other’s faults. I was most definitely NOT seeing him as the John Wayne epic hero at that time. He was real and human and deeply flawed. Pops died just after Christmas in 2002.  His were rough last days. He’s a hero in my eyes still. Marrying a single mother of five children after raising four of his own is nothing short of heroic even if he loved her. He was also flawed and fragile, sinner and saint, imperfect and beloved. He was and is enfolded in the life of God.

In a line from the First John reading today we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”[2] It’s a word of promise. We are God’s children NOW. John goes on to talk about purifying “just as Christ was pure.”[3] The way I hear being pure in these verses is such a comfort. Called Beloved and named a child of God and then reading that in that mix there will be purity as Christ is pure?  Are you kidding me?!  Sign me up! And then, I pause…and think… Because our human minds set up purity codes pretty darn quick. The things that I hold near and dear and pure can quickly become how I assess someone else.  And before I know it, I don’t even measure up to my own purity code.

A blog writer wrote about her son’s decisions to do high school differently than his two older sisters who ended up at top universities.[4]  He sat his parents down toward the end of middle school to talk with them about his own ideas about academics, sports, and leadership that were vastly different than theirs. She wrote about learning how to “slowly and sometimes painfully put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.”  Her words call to mind the beatitudes we hear in the Matthew reading.

Jesus names the blessed as he lists the beatitudes to his disciples with the crowd listening in.[5]  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.[6]  Jesus upends the purity code of his time and also ours. He is addressing specific situations in his speech that we can hear speaking into our own.

If we re-wrote the beatitudes with what counts for blessing these days they might sound like this:

Blessed are the thriving, the joyful, the confident, and those who hunger for victory; blessed are the moral, the great, the tough, and the prosperous.

Hearing the opposite of the beatitudes can help us to hear them more clearly. The beatitudes as Jesus lists them are a word of grace in the face of our own high expectations.  It’s human to disappoint other people and to be disappointed by them; to hurt and be hurt even as we love and are loved.  And it’s human to ignore grace and make statements like, “I’m a good person.”  Or, to turn it into a question, “Am I a good enough person?”  This question begs another question. Good enough for what?  Good enough for you to love me?  Good enough for me to love you?  Or maybe the question in its ultimate forms: Good enough for God to love you?  Good enough to be received by God and enfolded in the life of God?

I’ve been to four funerals in the last two weeks. One for an Augustana member, two for colleagues both just 67 years old, and one for a friend whose cancer had recurred. I’ve heard eulogy after eulogy, and homily after homily and I ended up pretty cranky after feeling too many deep feels. These were good people and deeply flawed people. Imperfect and beloved people. Sinner-saint people. People like you and me.

A son of one my departed colleagues is also a theology professor.[7] His eulogy for his dad dabbled in homily but, man, I’m so glad he did. He talked about his dad being “enfolded in the life of God.” He also said, “Death is not the enemy. Death can never unlive the life that is lived.”  I would add that death cannot unlove a life that is already loved.  In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[8] But I think it’s what we unintentionally do. We end up unloving lives that are already loved by creating purity codes and attaching the name of God to them. No quicker than that happens do we then turn those purity codes onto ourselves. Who could possibly measure up? I’ve talked to people who’ve been Lutheran all their lives, who have heard about the unconditional grace of God their whole lives, and who still doubt the full measure of God’s love as they breathe into their last days.

Just so we’re clear, the full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year?  God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out.  As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross. Whatever defense you’re inclined to create for yourself or someone else as a good-enough-person is unnecessary.  You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own.  In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[9]

Alleluia! And Amen!

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[1] Toni Tennille of the 1970’s and 80s singing duo ‘Captain and Tenille.’ https://www.tonitennille.net/biography/

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 3:3

[4] Kristen Jones Neff. “I Wanted My Son To Be Happy But On My Terms.” Grown & Flown: Parenting Never Ends. https://grownandflown.com/wanted-son-happy-my-terms/

[5] John Petty. Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday. ProgressiveInvolvement.com on October 30, 2017. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/10/all-saints-sunday-matthew-5-1-12.html

[6] Matthew 5:3-10

[7] Eric Daryl Meyer. Assistant Professor – Theology. Carroll College, Helena, Montana. https://www.carroll.edu/faculty/meyer-eric

[8] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[9] 1 John 3:2

Suffering Defies Logic [OR Mondo Cozmo Answers the Religious Question] Matthew 16:21-28 Romans 12:9-21 Exodus 1:22-2:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 3, 2017

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

Matthew 16:21-28   From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

[sermon begins]

I often listen to music on the radio on the way to worship, Sunday Sunrise on KBCO is a favorite.  One parishioner heard the bass pounding as I pulled into the parking lot and, as I got out of the car, asked if I was getting my pastor jam on.  Hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess that’s part of it. One recent Sunday morning, a band I didn’t know was playing a song I’d never heard called “Then Came the Morning.”[1] Not a religious song, but I heard Psalm 30 in the music. Regaling my family with the concert video during dinner that evening, one thing led to another and suddenly Rob and I had concert tickets for a three-band evening at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. Being an early to bed person, I was super disappointed The Lone Bellow wasn’t on first. That slot was reserved for Mondo Cozmo, another unfamiliar band. It didn’t take too long before my ears perked up, though. The opening lines of their song Shine goes like this:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm

I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost.

Shine down a light on me and show a path

I promise you I will return if you take me back…[2] (my apologies to the band for my vocals on that one.)

The song has a great sound. The crowd of 500 was having a blast along with the band.  My ears perked up at the Jesus part.  (Shocker…I know.) Some of you have known me long enough to be unsurprised that I did some poking around about the band afterwards. One online interviewer asked an expletive-laced question about the song Shine and whether or not the singer was a religious man.[3]  Josh Ostrander answered, “I get asked this a lot, I’m not totally sure how to answer it ‘cause the song seems to be resonating with a lot of people, but for me it’s a song of hope.”  His answer seems reasonable answer given that the interviewer was aggressively negative in asking about being religious. Which also is fairly reasonable given that religious Christianity often shows itself in public spaces as ridiculous, repressed or radicalized and sometimes all three at once.  Let’s be honest, though. Jesus doesn’t especially help the cause in today’s Bible reading when he calls Peter, “Satan,” either.

It happens fast, too.  Just before this infamous Satan slam, Peter moves to the head of the class, getting an A+ for naming Jesus correctly.  Now? Not so much.  Let’s take a close look at the reversal.  The reading today begins, “From that time on…”[4]  We can hear this as: [From the time that Peter names Jesus correctly], “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[5]  Jesus BEGAN…  This is the first that Jesus’ friends hear about the cross. Those fishers turned disciples follow him around, listen to sermons on the mount, walk on water, and feed thousands.[6] Sure, John the Baptist’s murder was terrifying but that was a one-off.[7] Up to this point it’s been mostly positive.

Peter appeals for Jesus’ safety.  Who among us wouldn’t do the same for a friend? But in the temptation of Jesus way back in Matthew’s 4th chapter, Jesus’ self-preservation by avoiding his own suffering was deemed “satanic”.[8]  Hence, the name-calling here in the 16th chapter. The cross talk is confusing.  Jesus warns against self-preservation in the face of suffering as he tells his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him].” Jesus’ first disciples know that crosses kill slaves and political rebels who defy Rome at their peril.[9]  They haven’t seen crosses on top of church buildings and worn around people’s necks. Crosses become a Christian symbol in the 5th century.[10]

Jesus BEGAN to show his disciples’ about suffering and the cross. He knew his teaching about the cross would need some repetition. The cross of Christ isn’t something that’s easy to bear or to understand. We remind each other that the cross is the foundational story of our faith while spending a lifetime working out what it means.

This morning, Phoebe and Benjamin get wet with the waters of baptism. I meet with families several weeks ahead of baptism.  These conversations are chances to get to know a family just a bit and also to talk about God’s promises in baptism.  We talk about God promising to be present, to always forgive, to form lives that are ever more Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever. That first promise of being present is a biggie.

God promises to be present even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God is with us or don’t feel faithful or don’t feel worthy.  In baptism, God promises to be present with us despite any of our feelings to the contrary. This is sometimes called Theology of the Cross.  It means that Jesus shows up in our most confused, messiest, darkest places. The parts of ourselves we don’t like to talk about or show anyone. We all know that we don’t have to go looking for suffering. It seems to be a part of how the world works. Sometimes we do bring it on ourselves. But many times it comes from other people or from the natural world. The times when we seem inclined to say that God is absent is the very time when God promises to be present with us. God, who is Jesus. Jesus, who is God.

Jesus’ unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, race, or sin, led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God does not respond in violence. Later on in Matthew, the one who pulls out a sword to protect Jesus from being taken into custody by Roman soldiers is told by Jesus to put the sword away.[11]

Jesus’ death on the cross also means that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  For some of us, this promise through the cross of Jesus makes all the difference even as it defies logic. It’s how we survive in the face of unspeakable suffering and loss.[12] It’s how we sit with other people in the face of their unspeakable suffering and loss.  The cross tells the truth about how we experience life.

Matthew writes, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[13]  In this verse, we also hear the truth about how we experience joy.  God is a God of resurrection life, too.  We heard this in last week’s Bible story about the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh and let the Hebrew babies live.[14]  We hear it again this week as Pharaoh’s daughter conspires with Moses’ sister and mother to keep him alive.[15] We hear it in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples that he would be raised on the third day.  We hear it in Paul’s letter to the Roman church:

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…life peaceably with all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[16]

God is a God of resurrection life through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

______________________________________________________

[1] The Lone Bellow performs “Then Came the Morning” live on the Honda Stage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4szaR8CJvA

[2] Mondo Cozmo – Shine (Live from Bardot) on December 9, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN0H6dpa9nU

[3]  Mondo Cozmo interview by Jeff Laufner for RockBandsofLA.com on November 30, 2016. http://www.rockbandsofla.com/mondo-cozmo-shine-and-devine-intervention/

[4] Matthew 16:21a

[5] Matthew 16:21b

[6] Matthew 5-7 and 14 are the chapters that cover these stories.

[7] Matthew 14

[8] John Petty. Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28 on August 28, 2017 for Pentecost 13. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew 26:50-52

[12] Matthew Skinner. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Posted August 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=919

[13] Matthew 16:21

[14] Exodus 1:8-20a

[15] Exodus 1:22-2:10

[16] Romans 12:12-13, 15, 18b, 20a, 21. (I picked a few of the many beautiful exhortations from Paul in the reading for today.)

_________________________________________________________

Exodus 1:22-2:10  Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”  2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:9-21  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

Spiritual and Religious – Acts 2:14a, 22-32 and John 20:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 23, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Acts 2:14a, 22-32  But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, “He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

In Genesis 1, the first account of creation, God’s spirit moved over the waters and created humankind in the image of God.  In Genesis 2, another account of creation, the Lord God breathed the breath of life into the first human.[1]  In the 18th book of the Hebrew Bible, Job writes, “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”[2]  Eleven books later, in the book of Joel, “…the Lord said:  …I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [and] your old men shall dream dreams…”[3]  In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”[4]  And in the Acts reading we just heard, Peter preaches on the breath of the Spirit just received on Pentecost.[5]  That’s so much Spirit in one sermon-opening it would be easy to think your pastor was ordained by Pentecostals![6]  Although I’m guessing some of you may still be back at “the first account of creation” and “another account of creation.”

These creation stories caught me in seminary.  First semester, first assignment in Hebrew Bible we had to read Genesis 1 and 2 and write a brief exegesis.  Not once in the prior 38 years had it occurred to me that these are two accounts.  Needless to say, my exegetical commentary didn’t go over very well with the professor.  It was a rude awakening for me on several levels, letter grade notwithstanding. The gift in it was a new experience of the Bible.  66 books written over many thousands of years by faithful people trying to understand God, their faith, and each other.  Recently I gave a Lutheran Study Bible to a new friend along with a brief introduction to what’s in it and an invitation to come back around with any questions that come up.  I also said, “It’s a weird book, sometimes the people writing it disagree amongst themselves.”  Internal disagreement is one of the things I love about the Bible as it echoes conversations about faith we have right up through today.  Although, discovering these biblical wrinkles can be one of the things that shakes up faith.  Faith can also be shaken by challenges of modernity, by confrontations with other religions, or by suffering we see and experience ourselves.[7]  Just ask Thomas.

Thomas experienced trauma through the suffering and death of Jesus. He missed the first sighting of Jesus with the other disciples so they’re in a different place of faith than Thomas is himself. Jesus arrives and starts showing off his resurrected wounds in a way that reminds me of the scar scene from the movie Jaws, mesmerizing yet gruesome.[8]  Some of us crave a similar moment of certainty with Jesus, an unequivocal, supernatural revelation that proves faith once and for all time.  Most of us experience Jesus differently, the power of the Spirit moving slowly and methodically like water on stone.  The gospel of John calls this movement of the Spirit, “Word,” – “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”[9]  The Word proclaimed by John is continuous with the breath of God at creation,[10] continuous with the Word made flesh in the earthly ministry of Jesus ending in glory on a cross,[11] continuous with Peter’s sermon inspiring the early church, and continuous with the Word we hear and speak today.  Therein lies the question.  How does the Word find us today? As Genesis tells it, the whole world is enlivened by the breath of the spirit. The assertion makes all people spiritual by definition, if not by confession. This aligns with nursing science that describes well-being as physical, emotional, and spiritual.  It also aligns with people who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious.”  But what about those of us who are religious?  How is the religious understood in continuity with the spiritual?  Just ask Thomas, and maybe Peter too.

Thomas is caught.  His friends are talking about something he hasn’t experienced first-hand.  These people are his people but he’s on the outside even though he’s in the same room with them.  It makes me think of the conversation that I have with new and continuing visitors – that there are as many different reasons for being here together as there are people here.  Gathered by the Holy Spirit into this time and place, we receive faith through Word and sacrament and we practice faith through worship with other people.  Continuous with the faith of the early church enlivened by the Spirit and proclaimed by Peter.  Religious Christianity involves a people and a practice that proclaims something about Jesus, something lively, something universal for the world, and something particular for each person.  For all and for you.

Religious Christian practice necessarily involves people’s stories about faith and life like Thomas and Peter’s stories. How else do people come to faith otherwise? This struck me again recently during Lenten worship on Thursdays. Different people each week chose Bible verses and talked about why they chose them related to their life of faith. Hearing about their faith and experience was powerful. Along this line, I recently invited a few people to be interviewed for a video about this congregation.[12]  The questions were simple.  What drew them here and what keeps them here? Now, of course, as a pastor I believe the Holy Spirit ultimately draws us all together. But the Spirit draws us by how we hear God’s voice.  I’ve made the comment to visitors and members alike to listen for the ways they hear God’s voice during worship and time with a congregation.  I also tell them that I know good colleagues and good congregations elsewhere if they’re still working on figuring that out.

In the video interviews, we hear people who worship as part of this congregation reflect on how being a part of this religious people and practice enlivens their faith. Again, hearing from each one of them talk about their faith and experience is powerful.  At one point, Nick makes the comment that being part of this congregation allows he and his family to talk about faith and “the time that it’s challenged, and the time that it’s raised up, the time that it’s evident, and the time that it’s absent.”[13]  Thomas and Peter both could speak to this fluidity of faith.  Thomas, trying to figure out faith in the aftermath of trauma.  Peter, a denier of Jesus during his trial in one moment and a public preacher in the next.  On any given day, in any given minute, our faith can be challenged or raised up or evident or absent.  Jesus meets us by the power of the Spirit in any and all of those moments.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  In large part, the faith we are called to share deals not in what we see but what we experience in our lives of faith.  Jesus encounters us through the practices of bread, wine, water, Word, and each other as God’s voice is heard through people’s flawed and faithful stories.  As God enlivens all things by the breath of the Spirit, may God enliven you by faith, joining in the prayer of the Apostle Paul:

“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”[14]

[1] Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 2:7

[2] Job 33:4

[3] Joel 2:28

[4] John 20:22

[5] Acts 2:1-13

[6] Pentecostal [def] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Pentecostal

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

[8] Jaws Movie CLIP HD – Scars (Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures, 1975).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLjNzwEULG8

[9] John 1:14

[10] John 1:1

[11] John 13:31-31 and John 17:4-5

[12] “Why Augustana?” published March 30, 2017 and produced by Ken Rinehart for Augustana Lutheran Church.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up03qnMqB-0

[13] Nick Massie, Ibid.  Video: “Why Augustana?”

[14] Ephesians 3:14-19

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

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

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

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

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

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

A Baptism in the P.I.C.U – John 12:1-8

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

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

[sermon begins]

There are Bible moments so absurd and disruptive that they are difficult to imagine.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus is one of them.  Oil and hair and fragrance are dripping, cascading, and emanating.  There is no ignoring this moment if you’re around that dinner table.

Lazarus is there, having just recently been raised from the dead by Jesus.  His story is told in the chapter just before the reading today.[1]  We can imagine this dinner as a celebration.  Lazarus is back and people are ready to party.  His sister Martha is serving. Judas is there enjoying the circle of friendship as a disciple of Jesus.  Then there’s Lazarus’ other sister, Mary of Bethany. Her exuberance knows no bounds. Her adoration of Jesus must be expressed.  And so it goes, with dripping oil, cascading hair, and emanating fragrance.  A feast of the senses at a table set for dinner.

How are we to understand this adoration she pours on Jesus?  The purity and price of the nard are emphasized.  A rare, imported Himalayan treasure.  A year’s wages.  The nard’s purity and price lead me to wonder about the purity of Mary’s adoration and the cost to herself as she disrupts the dinner party.

One cost is Judas’ poor opinion.  Judas feels free to give his opinion. He demeans her adoration with pious words.  He attempts to put her into her place and uses the poor to do so.  His argument is a vulgar appropriation of the poor – using them as a means to an end.  Jesus is having none of it and slams Judas’ argument.  There are plenty of other Jesus stories that assure us of his determination to eradicate poverty and not leave the poor to their subsistence or our hands clean of their plight.  Regardless of Jesus’ intervention, what does Judas’ poor opinion matter?  He can put it into pious language all he wants.  Mary’s joy will not be stolen by him or anyone else.  Judas’ disapproval is but a pittance.

A few years ago, a fellow seminarian said about Mary’s anointing of Jesus that if he had long hair this is what he would do for someone similarly important to him.  His comment opens the story slightly differently as the imagination plays across gender and time between Mary of Bethany and our moment in time today.  What does adoration look like on a personal level this century?  Set celebrity culture aside for a moment.  Groupies are a different conversation. Mary is in her home. Jesus is known to Mary and her family personally over the course of time.  Her adoration of Jesus is pure and costly.  And she is breaking gender barriers all over the place.  She is a woman of her time whose hair should be tucked away.  She should not be touching a man in the company of others.  In fact, it is life-threatening for her to do so. He, a man, would ordinarily rebuke her like Judas does.  Yet, there they are, oil dripping, hair cascading, and fragrance emanating.

There is something else happening in parallel to Mary’s adoration.  After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is now a target for death himself. The story of Lazarus raised from the dead is followed by the plot developing to arrest Jesus and kill him. [2] And then we get this dinner party. Mary of Bethany calls Jesus “Lord” in previous texts and now anoints him.  Jesus talks openly about his death when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone…She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”[3]  The implication is that she is anointing him for his death.

This past week I received a phone call from a man who asked me to come baptize his one month old son who was on life support.  They were at Children’s Hospital having been flown in by Flight for Life.  He was not expected to live. We arranged for me to come out that evening.  Via text, the father rescheduled our time for the following morning since the baby’s mother was arriving in the middle of the night from out-of-state.  When I arrived, they were both in the room along with the baby’s grandparents.

We talked briefly.  I assured them that, despite whatever we thought we were doing, this moment is first and foremost about God’s promise to be present for their baby even in this most painful time.  Then, with water from a clay bowl, this little one was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  His head dried with the linen baptismal napkin from the church.  I told him he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever while making the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil-lotion scented with frankincense and myrrh.

As the fragrant cross was made on his forehead, Mary’s anointing popped into my mind along with these words from Thanksgiving for Baptism in the funeral liturgy which begins, “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.”[4]  These words took on new meaning for me in the P.I.C.U. this week.

After this little one was baptized, I handed the parents the un-lit baptismal candle and told them that his light was shining even in his short life and that God is with him.  The family and I shared the bread and wine of communion and then the grandfather asked if I would give this little one “last rites.”  I briefly explained that I would pray what we call the “Commendation of the Dying.” And so we did.  He died within the next few days.

The anointing of this little one in baptism echoes with Mary’s anointing of Jesus before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  It also echoes the prayer and anointing for healing that you can choose to receive during this worship service.  The Health Minister will anoint your hands with olive oil and say this prayer for you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love…Amen.”

Lent invites reflection on our own baptism.  We reflect on the things that are being “put to death” in us so that something else, something we cannot imagine on our own, may come to life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through each of our baptisms.  This is part of the healing for which we pray.

Jesus is about life and living.  Lazarus discovered it first-hand. Mary of Bethany adores and anoints Jesus.  She adores and anoints him for the life he brings even as she prepares him for the death he will face because there are those who find his life threatening.  But, even in Lent, we are an Easter people – celebrating that Jesus brings life even through the darkest times by way of his death on a cross.  We remember this promise at funerals with these words, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.”[5]  This new life is for today.  For you.  Our baptism is God’s daily promise by way of a cross and a savior in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6]   All glory be to God for this indescribable gift![7]

 

[1] John 11:1-44 – These verses tell the story of Lazarus’ illness, death, and being raised from the dead by Jesus.

[2] John 11:45-57 – These verses tell the story of the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death for bringing Lazarus to life.

[3] John 12:7

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Acts 28:17

[7] 2 Corinthians 9:15

John 2:1-11 – Best Bible Story Ever (or maybe just this preacher’s favorite, come and see)

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

Take a walk down a grocery store aisle with me.  Imagine it.  Laminate tile floors. Bright fluorescent light.  A slow, very relaxed shopper in front of us.  A parent telling their child “no” as they walk by the soda.  We’re making a quick stop at an unfamiliar store because it’s our job to show up with water.  We’re checking aisle signs so we can get in and get out of the store quickly.  Down at the end of the next aisle we can see the sign for water.  Arriving at our destination under the water sign, there is row upon row upon row of wine bottles.  Three shelves high, wine bottles in rows underneath the sign for water.  And you turn to me and say dryly, “Jesus was here.”[1]  Not only do I have a little envy that you thought of it first but, more importantly, we laugh like crazy about one of my favorite Bible stories.

Which leads me to the point that this Bible story is difficult for me to preach.  Not because it’s in the Gospel of John.  Not because of any need to try and explain how or if the supernatural sign occurred.  Not because of its links to Hebrew scripture and God’s covenant with God’s people that’s compared to marriage vows.  And not because I’m left wondering why the wine steward doesn’t seem to have any of that bad wine to serve the drunk wedding guests.  (Do those drunk people really need more wine?)  It’s difficult for me to preach because it is dear to me.  It’s dear to my experience of faith and my experience of life.  A dear taste of grace in scripture when other verses can be so puzzling.  When something is so dear and well-worn, it makes preaching trickier.

Regardless, we begin at a wedding.  Joy and celebration abound.  Jesus is there.  His mother is there.  It’s an epic party where the wine is flowing until it runs out.  The celebration seems fitting.  Jesus’ ministry is inaugurated by the events at this wedding.  Parties are commonplace at inaugural events but how often do inaugural events happen at parties?  During a party like this one, I can imagine someone saying, “I feel like I shouldn’t be having fun when there is so much suffering in the world.”  Why can I imagine that question?  Because people say that kind of thing to me fairly regularly.

It is in this tension between joy and suffering that the Wedding at Cana really shines.  Jesus is at a wedding celebration.  He is embodied grace smack in the middle of it.  His presence and activity at the wedding does not obscure the very real problem of Roman oppression or the pain that is experienced in everyday living.  He is an example of celebrating life in spite of Rome and in spite of day-to-day suffering.  He is also more than an example.

Turning water into wine and other things happening at the Wedding at Cana points us somewhere.  It’s a little bit like echolocation that bats and whales use.  Those animals make a sound and they can figure out their position in relation to another location based on the echoes that return.  If fact, when I preach from these verses at weddings and funerals, I often use the word “echoes” to describe what’s happening between the wedding celebration and Jesus’ death on the cross.

Some of the words in the story echo back from the cross.  The story itself begins “On the third day” which echoes Jesus’ resurrection.[2]  Jesus references his “hour not yet come.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ hour refers to the time that he will hang on a cross.[3]  Even the tasty wedding wine itself echoes back from the sour wine given to quench Jesus’ thirst on the cross.[4]  Jesus’ mother is not named in the Gospel of John.  She is called “the mother of Jesus.”  She shows up in the gospel only twice – once at the Wedding at Cana and then again at the cross.[5]  Jesus’ mother is another echo.  From his first sign of turning water into wine, the cross is already in play.  Suffering is on the horizon.  And curiously, Jesus is at a party.

The Wedding at Cana is how life works.  There are moments of joy and there are moments of suffering.  Neither joy nor suffering are completely absent while the other is present.  Both are human.  Both are faithful.  I want to be clear here that I’m not talking about blind optimism in the face of suffering.  As if everything is fine despite all evidence to the contrary.  I’m talking about faithful joy in the gift of life while being honest about the truth of suffering and working to alleviate it as Jesus calls us to do.

Jesus is at a party where the wine steward knows how things usually work in the world.  After Jesus turns the water into wine, the wine steward goes to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine after the guests have become drunk; but you have kept the good wine until now.”  I read this as the place where sin shows up in the story.  “Everyone” tries to hide what they’re doing and get away with substandard wine late in the wedding celebration.  This shenanigan is the norm.  But not this time.  Not this wedding.  Not this Jesus.

Jesus’ turning of water into wine toward the end of the wedding party throws the reverse switch on how things often work in the world.  Jesus’ sign reverses what we expect as normal.  Like the wine steward, expecting that people will protect their own interests at the expense of people who are unaware of the mischief at their expense.

Tomorrow this country celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and ministry.  He stands among the saints as an example of throwing the reverse switch against the accepted cultural norms of racism and poverty in his day. He believed people could do better in the face of black people suffering at the hands of white people.  He believed that racism makes everyone less than human – victims and perpetrators alike.  He believed this from a place of faith that is unequivocal about God loving all people.  All people.  And God’s love for all people inspired a movement of human dignity that continues through today.  People of all colors continuing to throw the reverse switch against the cultural norms of racism and poverty. He believed this from a place of faith that is unequivocal about God loving all people.  All people.

There is a relevant aside about MLK Jr. to add to our conversation about living in joy while being honest about suffering and our own hand in it.  He is attributed as saying, “It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart.”[6]  This from a man who saw and experienced raw suffering as racist cultural norms were viciously protected.

We sing songs and pray prayers of praise, joy, and thanksgiving in worship today as our bodies turn toward the processional cross as well as face the cross at the front during worship.  Our worship mirrors the tension between joy and suffering at the Wedding at Cana.  Our worship mirrors life.  Life that Jesus gives as he shows up with us in both celebration and suffering.

Jesus gives life by way of his own life.  Life that showed up in the skin of a baby.  Life that laughs with joy at a wedding party.  Life that knows suffering.  Life that is given for all people.  Life that is given for you despite your own efforts to live on your own terms.  That’s the promise God makes to you.  Let’s celebrate.

 

[1] Meme posted: http://dailypicksandflicks.com/2012/05/20/daily-picdump-464/jesus-was-here-wine-on-water-aisle/

[2] John 21:11-20

[3] John 16:32

[4] John 19:28-29

[5] John 19:25-27

[6] Martin Luther King Jr.  http://martinlutherkingjrquotes.org/martin-luther-king-jr-quotes-bootstraps.html

Looking Backward to Move Forward – John 11:32-44

[sermon begins after the 3 Bible readings]

John 11-32-44  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Isaiah 25:6-9 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Reveleation 21:1-6a  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

[sermon begins]

One of the things I get to do at Augustana is work with a Faith Community Nurse as part of the staff here.  Sheryl is so titled because (a) she’s a nurse and (b) she works in a faith community.  See how that works?  She has a Master’s Degree. She’s a Nurse Practitioner.  She has worked in an ICU.  She has worked in an outpatient clinic. She has a passion for wellness.  She has a heart for the gospel.  She brings an amazing amount of knowledge to the congregation.  We all benefit.  She’s on vacation this week so I get to brag on her all kinds while she’s out of town.  That has to be some kind of reverse gossip, #Lutheranhumility, right?

Sheryl is part of our weekly Care Team meeting that also includes our Children and Family Minister and the pastors.  Two weeks ago she told us about a conference she attended to prepare for the upcoming Grief Support Group at Augustana.  The conference was led by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transitions in Fort Collins and known for healing and grief.[1]  Sheryl summarized Dr. Wolfelt’s three main points in this way – we need to say hello to the person who died before we can say goodbye, we need to sit in the darkness before we see the light, and we need to look backwards before we can go forward.

All three points are worth addressing.  And Sheryl will facilitate the Grief Support Group beginning on Sunday, November 15th between worship services.  I encourage you to take advantage of it.  However, it was the last point that really caught my attention.  “We need to look backwards before we can go forward.”

The story of Lazarus is a long story in the Bible.  We are only privy to part of it in the reading today.  Lazarus has died.  Jesus takes his time getting there.  Martha, Lazarus’ sister, is in tears.  Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, is also tears.  The Jews are in tears.  Jesus ends up in tears.  There are a lot of tears.  The Isaiah and Revelation verses reference no more tears but we are not there yet.  We are in the Gospel of John with a lot of tears.  Mary says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary is looking backwards.  She is looking backwards on the event of her brother’s death with Jesus by her side and with her people, the Jews, by her side.  She is doing the work of grief and the people around her are doing the work with her.

Funerals happen here in Augustana’s Christ Chapel and Sanctuary.  Sometimes the funeral is for a member of the congregation.  Sometimes they are not.  As a pastor, I make no distinction between member or not.  We are a visible church on a busy road and a lot of people know people connected to the people here.  Sometimes they just know that the building is here.  Sometimes they know the Early Learning Center is here.  Regardless, this congregation offers hope and healing in Jesus Christ and there is no more significant moment in which God’s promise is more alive than at the time of death.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Todd was the officiant for one such funeral here in Augustana’s Christ Chapel. The Early Learning Center children were on their way to lunch.  I was headed downstairs as they were headed up.  Their teacher was reminding the children to walk quietly with the funeral going on upstairs.  I crouched down and whispered to the kids, “There are people upstairs who are sad because someone they love died a few days ago…can you all help them by being quiet on your way to lunch?”  They all nodded at me, big-eyed, some serious, some smiling, some telling me their names, some waving wildly.  The children became part of the community doing the work of grief with the people at the funeral.  They started ever so quietly on their way to lunch while looking backwards up the stairs before moving forward.

There is sometimes a misconception that tears show a lack of faith. Or that funerals should be only a celebration of life – no sadness allowed.  Indeed, funerals are a celebration of the person who lived.  But they also make space for our loss and surround us with people who also feel that loss.  In the Lazarus story, Jesus cries with Mary and the people with her.  When people we love die, Jesus cries with us too.  There is indeed a time for tears to be cried and we do well to let our bodies do what bodies do cry them.  When we allow the tears to come, we are looking backward to move forward.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  Today we remember by name those who have died as part of the Augustana congregation or loved by those in the congregation over the last year.  Some of us are in worship today to hear a particular name.  Like Mary, there are people with and around us.

Today is All Saints Sunday so we also remember the saints who came before us in last two millennia.  Today there is a sign marking the stairs to the choir loft.  It reads, “No seating upstairs in the choir loft for worship today. We leave them empty in remembrance of our ancestors in the faith.”   I like the idea of seats held empty in remembrance of the people who came before us.

Saints, so named by their baptism, whose lives and voices proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ so that we might live in faith today.  Some of whom went on to lead extraordinary lives that we can look to as examples for our own lives of faith. Looking back toward the saints, we look forward in faith.  We can look as far back as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Slightly more recently through history to Hildegard of Bingen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rosa Parks.  We look backward and hear them crying with grieving people, proclaiming Christ crucified and risen for you, and setting the captives free.

In the Lazarus story, Jesus cries with Mary and the people with her.  There is a time for grief.  Jesus spends time looking backward with them.  And, only then, Jesus looks forward.  He rejoins them with Lazarus raised from the dead.

Jesus is the one who turns death into life.  Jesus turns death into life for Lazarus.  Jesus turns death into life for you.  This is an unconditional promise made by the power of the Holy Spirit through the cross of Jesus Christ, through Christ crucified and risen, for you.

God, the Alpha and the Omega, cries with us and opens our future through Jesus Christ.  “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

Amen and thanks be to God!

 

[1] Alan D. Wolfelt. Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart.  (Fort Collins: Companion Press, 2003).

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:3 and John 14:1-6

A funeral homily for E.J.: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – Matthew 5:1-4 and John 14:1-6a

Matthew 5:1-4  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

John 14:1-6a “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Elizabeth Jane, E.J. – a daughter, a niece, a sister, a cousin, an aunt, a friend, a flight attendant.  All of these titles belong to E.J.  And all of these titles communicate a relationship of one sort or another.  Born and baptized in Fargo, E.J.’s life was filled with relationship both through what I like to call the accident of family and through the choices of friends and work.

These relationships sustained E.J. through thick and thin.  Her work for the airline fueled and fed her love of travel as well as gave her access to the art that brought her joy.  Her work also brought her enduring friendships that stuck through long hours in the air, on the ground, and over the holidays. Friendships with Marianne and Wendy sustained her through to the end. And her work brought her stories.  Stories that engaged the funny bone and entertained many of you over the years.  Leaving you with the satisfied feeling that only shared laughter with someone who loves to laugh can gift you.

The relationships of family carried E.J. through some tough times, including her last years when her health took a turn.  Some of the organizing and conversations were hard on everybody, including E.J.  But, this case, family sticks together even amid the practical challenges of E.J.’s outer world and the darker effect of E.J.’s inner world.

It was E.J.’s inner world that became her greatest challenge.  Beginning in her teens and lasting through her life, anxiety and depression were regular companions.  Her attempts to quiet the anxiety and mask the depression with alcohol only made matters worse for her and for the people who love her.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  This is the verse out of the Matthew reading that came to mind as I listened to stories about E.J.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in this reading.

Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to the different view that a blessing is something akin to being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are.

The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see E.J.’s life in full, revealing what belongs to her even though she herself could not see it as one who was “poor in spirit.”  Hers is the kingdom of heaven.  In the John reading, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He says this because he knows that your hearts already are troubled.  How could they not be?  Along with the laughter that E.J. shared with you was her struggle with herself.  Also in the reading, Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going…how can we know the way?”  Jesus’ reply? “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  What is Jesus’ way?  Jesus’ way goes through a cross.

And the cross is God speaking in human terms.  The human terms of self-sacrifice to save someone else.  For instance, when we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters themselves, our first thoughts are often respect and awe.  We also honor the soldiers who return again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends and then die in the firefight themselves. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it is.

It’s offensive to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was effective in any way.  That we even need saving is offensive.  That Jesus’ execution can change anything about real life seems a deception at worst and an utter folly at best.  And yet, quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus’ self-sacrificing death on the cross changes everything.  Time and again in the gospel, we hear that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus.  And Jesus focuses on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.

The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [2]  Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that he has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.  The poor in spirit often experience life as a series of barriers in one form or another.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus calls the poor in spirit blessed because their relationship with God is not dependent on their own mindset and agency.  The poor in spirit are blessed because their relationship with God already exists through no effort of their own.

We do not make a way out of no way on our own.  Like Thomas, we do not know the way.  Jesus makes the way to God through the cross on our behalf.  The way is made by Jesus which means that the movement is from God to us, from God to E.J.  And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to E.J., God gives us a future with hope as God also brings E.J. into a future with God.

_______________________________________________________________________

[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

 

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Ash Wednesday Greeting Card [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17]

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 Ash Wednesday Greeting Card [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 51:1-17]

March 5, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

 

Matthew writes, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1]

In Joel, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

The psalmist writes, “The sacrifice that is acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

For all this talk of hearts, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent couldn’t be less sentimental. Imagine a greeting card:   “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, treasures consumed by moth and rust…”  It just doesn’t work.  Lent doesn’t translate into simple sentimentality.  Oh how glad I am that it doesn’t.   Because who among us hasn’t felt like the psalmist who offers God a broken spirit.  It’s something that we may not confess as readily as the psalmist but many of us have been there or are there right now.

Broken spirits come from being acted upon.  This is a tough one for a lot of us.  That we are in bondage to something, anything, can be insufferable – and in fact often is insufferable.  A spirit broken open is the opposite of self-control or self-determination; and it’s not the same thing as lack of self-esteem.

Some of us have brushed by a thin place that breaks our spirits open.  It can happen in a flash, and suddenly it seems as though everything around us has shifted just ever so slightly while the light in the room has changed.  Breaking open can happen in a living room when a dear friend blurts out they have cancer and it’s not treatable.  It can happen when a child becomes so beloved that the parent realizes they are watching a piece of their heart walk around on the outside of themselves.  It can happen looking up at the night sky, in the millisecond of awareness in which we feel our actual size.  There are a lot of us in the room right now and, for as many of us as are here, there are hundreds and thousands of ways that this looks in our lives.

These events and people and moments that break us open have a way of reminding us of our fragility.  Ash Wednesday is also such a moment.  As ashes are placed on our foreheads, we are acted upon once again and brush by the thin place.  It is not to dangle us over an abyss of perverse self-deprecation.  But rather to uncover that which is already made known in our lives – our inability to save ourselves from ourselves…and God’s ability to do so.

And it is God who is being made known.  Not in the abstract but in the particular person of Jesus.  This is what Paul is getting at in Second Corinthians when he writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Our spirits are broken open and are a mercy seat for Christ.

Paul helps us get at this as he writes, “…be reconciled to God.”   Another, less churchy, way to say this is, “Be forgiven.”  Paul is talking about Christ’s action that makes God’s presence real before any action on our part.  God is not irresistible.  We can certainly run away.  Being reconciled simply means that God is at your heels.  God is there because Christ has already done the work of reconciliation, of bringing us back into God.

Paul’s laundry list of activities, after his comment about reconciliation, isn’t what brings the reconciliation.  His and others actions simply come from life on the planet.  Life as it’s lived in paradox – amid seemingly opposite things that are true at the same time.  Paraphrasing Paul, we ARE living while we’re dying; we ARE rejoicing while sad.  This list of paradoxes reveals the gifts of the reconciliation that are made known to us in the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

The people of this congregation that interviewed me before I came here asked me a great question.  They asked me many but this is one stands out in my memory.  “What would you fight for?”  My answer?  “I would fight for the gospel.”   The message that God takes our broken spirits, all we actually have to offer God, and brings us back into God through Christ.

Ash Wednesday lays this good news bare.  Lent creates space and time for the magnitude of the gospel, the good news, to reflect off the darkness of the cross, off of the crucified One.  This is a paradox of faith.  Come with your broken spirit and be filled with hope.



[1] All Bible passages are from the New Revised Standard Version.

 

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21  “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ ”

Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.