Tag Archives: light

Helping Each Other See the Fullness of Life From Darkest-Dark through Lightest-Light to the Ordinary – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

**sermon art:  Embroidery Art by Pajnsy

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 13, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

[sermon begins]

Preachers have a strange privilege week to week.  We get to wonder with people about scripture, faith, and life in all kinds of ways.  We get to convict people and we get to lavish God’s good grace over people.  Over the last few weeks, I have become somewhat tangled up in my own thoughts about the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.  Last week I attended a funeral for a young man who ended his life in despair.  He grew up in church with my kids and was in youth group with my son.  My vantage point during the funeral was leaning against the back wall of the sanctuary next to a woman who’s been my friend for the last 21 years.  I don’t know about you but I call that a God thing since we hadn’t planned on attending together. The standing room only section was 4 rows deep.  Folding chairs had been brought out to create many more temporary rows of seating in front of the standing room only.  Every chair in the sanctuary was filled.  Together we created a group of just under 350 heartbroken people.  Worship bulletins had run out.  Some of us in the standing room only section tried to sing the hymns by heart.  “It is well…it is well…with my soul…with my soul…it is well…it is well…with, my soul…” and “How great thou art…” bubbled up in pockets through the back of the sanctuary as we celebrated his life and grieved his death.

And it IS well with my soul.  Over the last few years, when people ask, “How are you,” sometimes I’ll answer, “Existentially, I’m good.” That’s a soul answer.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  I believe that answer and I’ll proclaim it till Jesus comes again.  Yup, soul’s good, thanks.  The implication is that while the soul is good, the current moment is kind of challenging.  Sometimes we’ll chuckle knowingly at my answer.  So, if you were to ask me that question directly, right now, my answer is, “Existentially I’m good thanks, but my heart is broken.”  Soul good.  Heart broken.  Both good and broken.

At the end of the funeral, I turned to my friend and said, “We’re letting our young people down, we have to do better.”  And we talked about that for a few minutes – especially related culturally. Collectively all of us are in the culture.  We’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.  When I called my 21 year old son to tell him about the funeral, he brought up the state of the world.  Some of you know that I’ve spent my adult life working with children and adults in their last days of life. First as a nurse and now as a pastor.  Along that line, and in tune with where he was at in the conversation, I said to my son, “You know what people in their last days miss the most? They miss how certain things taste or how it feels to move their bodies or how it felt to take a trip to the grocery store. Ordinary, good moments of life that add up living.”  So, my son being used to these kinds of things from me, rolled with it and added to the list.

Someone recently messaged me a bit from the movie “The Life of Brian” that we should “always look on the bright side of life.”[1]  It’s a satirical, hilarious and cynical take about looking on the bright side of the crucifixion.  Just so there’s no confusion.  I’m not talking about ignoring the woes of the world to look on the bright side.  What I’m asking us to do in difficult times is help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything.

I bring amaryllis plants to children’s sermons and continue to connect kids to their current moment and, by extension, invite all of us to see beauty in the ordinary moments of a lifetime – no matter how long the life.  It’s a serious intention to see life in the ordinary, to laugh at my own quirks, to not take everything so seriously in life, and to see life in all its wonder even in the ordinary. It’s NOT hard to see life in the extraordinary for cryin’ out loud.  The baptism of Jesus does that really well.  The heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends bodily like a dove, and a voice comes from heaven.  The divine transcendent couldn’t be more majestic and mysterious in this story.  We hear a story like that and can easily think, “Well, ya, sure, if only that could happen, then my life would be clear as water.”  Someone do me a favor, grab a pew Bible.  Look up those missing verses that we didn’t hear in the Bible reading.  Luke chapter 3, verses 18 to 20.  Someone tell me what happens to John at the end of those verses?  … … … …

John is thrown in prison!  By Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas.[2]  These few verses that take on John’s imprisonment and Jesus’ baptism go from the darkest-dark to the lightest-light with just a sentence-ending period in between.  Most of what happens in life is more in the middle.  More in the ordinary zone between darkest-dark and lightest-lights.  Jesus entering into the fullness of our existence includes this moment of baptism.  He is baptized.  He didn’t need to be baptized.  We are baptized and we more than need it – to hear we’re beloved children of God, to hang on to its promised grace of forgiveness and transformation.  One way to think about his baptism is that Jesus was completing the circle of entering into human identity.  During baptism, transcendence happens with the heavens opening, the spirit descending, and the voice speaking. The very next thing that happens after his baptism is Jesus’ temptation in the desert.[3]

Jesus enters into the identity of being beloved by God and then into the life we all lead, temptations included.  A life lived with a fragile body that can be tempted by despair, power, and safety.  A fragile body tempted to believe things other than the love of God for us, and the power of life revealed in the ordinary.  Tempted to believe that the dark is greater than the light.

But Jesus roamed around for 33 years.  There was likely a spot or two of the ordinary betwixt and between the darkest-dark and lightest-light.  Here’s your homework this week.  Look for the ordinary things you would miss and talk about them with friends and family.  Speak up and speak out about the beauty you see around you. Help each other look on the fullness of life.  The dark and the light and the fuzzy stuff in between so that our line of sight captures more than just the dark which can cloud everything. Every so often I’m struck by how weird it is that we are here on an earth breathing and moving and being.  That’s crazy amazing, my friends.  And, yet we often roll out of bed unaware of our own embodied grace.

I’m going to take liberties with the Apostle Paul’s writings.  (Probably something I’m regularly guilty of.) Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians that we do not grieve as ones without hope.[4]  The liberty I’m going to take is to say that we do not live as ones without hope.  More simply put, we live as people with hope.  This hope gives us eyes to see and ears to hear by way of faith.  It’s a hope we carry as light into the world – not our own light but a light bestowed by Jesus the Christ.  A light that shines defiantly through the broken hallelujahs of the darkest-dark. A light that celebrates the extraordinary of the lightest-lights.  A light that experiences the ordinary as living fully too.  A light in the darkness that challenges despair with hope.  Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

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[1] All Things Monty Python, Facebook. “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” From Life of Brian. https://www.facebook.com/AllThingsMontyP/videos/2233060303630365/

[2] John Petty, Pastor, All Saints Lutheran Church.  Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 for January 13, 2019. https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2019/01/baptism-of-our-lord-luke-3-15-17-21-22.html

[3] Luke 4:1-13 The Temptation of Jesus

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Christmas: The Hope, History, and Mystery of God With Us – Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

**sermon art: The Nativity by Julius Gari Melchers, 20th century

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Gospel of John. The reading from the Gospel of Luke may be found at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

In those hope-filled moments and hours before a baby arrives, time slows down. One breath, then the next, and then the next.  Breath – hope – breath – hope… Breathing paced around a woman’s body doing the work of labor.  Beyond breath, muscles that aren’t doing the work of birthing can be rested in between contractions that run on their own timing with increasing urgency.  People around the birthing mother can make all the difference in mood and tricky delivery moments with umbilical cords and pushing at the right times, but the bottom line is that the baby arrives in its own time, refocusing our attention from mother to child.  Taking its first breath. Crying its first cry.  Swaddled in its first cloths.  Held in its first arms.

Here we are, Christmas Day, remembering when Jesus was born in time, focusing our attention on one small, holy, hope-filled family.  Mary who labored and birthed as a new mother.  Joseph who stood by as an earthly father.  Jesus who arrived, breathed, cried, and was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  This is the story we sing about at Christmas. The story in the Gospel of Luke that has all the memorable characters including angles, shepherds, and sheep.  The story where God shows up in time in what we call the incarnation – God taking human form to be the long-promised Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmastime is about God showing up at a particular moment in time.  It’s about the God of history.  The God of history that made promises through Abraham and Moses and then expanded those promises to all people with the birth of Jesus who is hope cradled in history.

History is something we like to know and investigate.  History is time-bound.  History makes us hope for Johnny-on-the-spot reporting so we can know things for certain.  This hope turns into things like the song, “Mary Did You Know?”  We want to know what Mary knew and when she knew it, the story behind the history.  Truly, though, we know so little even as we hope for so much.  Even the four gospel writers are somewhat contradictory in their stories.[1]   Which brings us to the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  To paraphrase Genesis, in the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[2]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[3]   If Luke gives us hope and history, John gives us hope and mystery with his cosmic poetry.  Talk of Word made flesh is full of hope. John’s “Word made flesh” language catches our attention because, well, who talks like that?! High stakes apparently call for attention grabbing poetry.

The stakes are high because we’re talking about God keeping God’s promise to be present in and for the world through the act and sustenance of creation.  Our life, our breath, our hope rest in these promises which are revealed from the grace of creation through the grace of God’s new creation in Jesus through the grace of his unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, or race through the grace of his death on the cross to the ultimate grace of new life together in the great cloud of witnesses from all times and places.  This litany of grace is hope.  As I wrote it, and as I speak it now, I inhale it like air that gives life.  We are not left to our own devices and the messes we make of things.  We are called into the grace of God who makes new life possible.  From cradle to cross to new life, there is the hope and mystery of God’s presence in the midst of our pain, hope and mystery of God infusing our day-to-day moments so that our joy may be complete, and hope and mystery of being with our loved ones again one day.

Today, we spend time together with all the baggage we brought into the sanctuary with us as we sing the familiar and well-loved songs of Christmas.  As we sing, pray, and share communion, we are filled with breath and hope by the God of history who was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms; and we are filled with breath and hope by the God of mystery who breathed life into being and is here with us now.  As people who receive this good news of history and mystery, we live as people of hope by the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.[4]

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[1] Christian scripture, known in the Bible as the New Testament, contains four books called the Gospels meaning “good news.”  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

[3] John 1:1, 4-5, and part of v14.

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Luke 2:1-20

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

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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

 

The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Never Will Overcome It – John 1:1-5, 14

Longest Night: A Service of Hope and Healing, offering a quieter time of reflection during the Christmas Season

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2018

[Reflection begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.                                         14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

We have an advent wreath in our home.  Sometimes there’s a little chaos when I, the pastor, am somehow caught off guard by the arrival of Advent and end up dashing through the town to find candles.  (The irony of racing around for candles to mark the quiet expectation of Advent is not lost of me.)  Our wreath is a bit makeshift but that has its own appeal.  When they’re finally in place, three purple and one pink candle gradually burn down in their descending lengths over the four weeks of Advent.  Some years, the candles are lit without fanfare.  Other years, when I’m feeling especially pious (you know…in a good way), I find prayers to accompany the Sundays.

This year, without any planning, I simply said something like, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not, never will overcome it.”   There’s something about the promise of that verse.  It’s simple and powerful.  Simple because most of us know the comfort of light when we’re afraid in the dark.  Powerful because it doesn’t take much light to lessen the darkness but darkness is a necessary part of seeing light. We know this cosmically by looking at the stars in a moonless sky.  We know this intimately by lighting a candle in a dark room when the power goes out. Last Sunday in Adult Sunday School, one question Pastor Ann asked us in the class was “in what or where do you find joy right now or generally in this Advent season.”  There were several answers about Christmas lights and quiet moments.  Mine is the Advent wreath in all of its soft light meeting the darkness at its edges.

A rabbi friend of mine recently opened a meeting of interfaith leaders with a devotion about darkness and light.  The co-revealing of both the light of the menorah candles celebrating Hanukkah and the darkness in which we sat was framed, on the one hand, by the recent loss of life at a Pittsburgh synagogue and, on the other, by the joy of our shared connections with each other in the room, shadows holding the light.  The symbolism and the power of what it was representing was as plain as the candles burning in the dark room.  Candles have that way about them.  A pastor friend of mine likes to wave the occasional caution flag about finding a new use for candles in worship because they become so dear so quickly.  The small flame speaks volumes when words simply fail us.  While we’re worshiping together, we’ll have an opportunity to light a candle in remembrance or in prayer – powerful when words fail us.

And words often do fail us in the mystery of faith.  Deep in our bodies, in the life force of our bones, the words of creation are embodied but not explained.  The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  In the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[1]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”   Our candles symbolize something so much deeper with their flames.  With them we remember the God of history. God who creates light in the darkness and new life in a young mother’s body as the baby Jesus, new life as God’s Word made flesh.  God also promises to be with us today in Jesus – shining light in the darkness and new life here, now, in us, in OUR flesh.  We don’t always have the words to use but many of us know something about the light of the one who breaks into our darkness.  Whether that’s the darkness of illness, fatigue, grief, or the mess we’ve made of things, we know and have experienced God’s promise of light – most often it’s much to our surprise.  Being surprised by the light is kind of the best way because we know, deep inside, that we don’t create the light.

The Light is given by the One who is the Light and opens our eyes in deep darkness, in the midst of suffering.

From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus lives forgiveness that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we too reflect the light, shining light into darkness. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, cannot, does not, never will overcome it.

Amen.

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[1] Genesis 1:1-5

Jesus: Superhero? Antihero? Neither?  [John 3:14-21]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 11, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 3:14-21 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

[sermon begins]

Wonder Woman hit movie theaters last spring and tallied box office returns of $103 million for opening weekend and over $800 million in worldwide box office sales.[1] Black Panther opened in mid-February to the tune of $202 million and is currently well over $900 million in worldwide ticket sales.[2] It’s still in theaters so, who knows, a billion dollars is possible. Those are record breaking numbers. People not only enjoy the quality movie making, they also care deeply about these films – their characters and stories. I’m fascinated by how deeply people care. Every so often, I day dream about the doctoral program at DU called Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory.[3] Programs like this excavate the layers of experience and thought behind cultural phenomena. For now, there are experts in their fields who propose their own theories. TV critic Eric Deggans thinks that, “Superheroes answer this desire that a lot of us have to have somebody cut through all the nonsense in life, use extraordinary powers to bring justice to a situation, and I think that’s the appeal of these movies and these T.V. shows; To find somebody who can just sort of cut through all the nonsense and deliver justice very directly.”[4]

It’s not a stretch that we would want God to work in the ways of the superhero, too. Especially in the Gospel of John in which Jesus performs miracles and seems to have superman-like resolve from his baptism all the way through his death on the cross. While I do not think this means what we often think it means, there is something both super-human and all too human going on here. The human part is that we are prone to condemnation. We like to judge other people as if we could do better in the same set of circumstances.[5]  And we tend to pull God into our court to support our verdict. Along this line, I hung out with the first communion students and their parents on Wednesday evening. Their first communion book, written by Daniel Erlander, tells stories about the crabby people who were very, very crabby about Jesus.[6] They didn’t like the way he healed. They didn’t like the way he fed. They didn’t like the way he forgave.

They didn’t like that he ate with the wrong people. You get the idea. We worked through the first few pages of the book, regaled by stories about Jesus while the crabby people in the stories plotted to kill him. The crabby people were meting out their own kind of justice with a plan to hang Jesus on a cross. Class ended with this thought. I told the kids that there may be crabby people who pop up in our lives to ask us the question, “Do you know what God’s going to do to you?!” Then I told them how to answer it by saying, “Yes, God’s going to love me.”  We know this because all the way to the cross there was not one finger lifted by God against the very people who were part of the execution.

The love of God is part of these verses today as the world God so loves. It’s a reference from John 3:16 which begins, “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16 is well known to us – on signs at football games and quite possibly anywhere else you could imagine, the signs read either just chapter and verse or sometimes the sign-artist will write the whole thing. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I always hope that the next verse, John 3:17, will make it onto the sign too.

Listen to beginning os John 3:17 again, “”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…” The Son in these Bible verses is Jesus. In God’s mysterious way, those of us who confess a faith of Jesus, also say that Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The Gospel of John begins with this claim. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what came into being was life and the life was the light of all the people…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[7] The Gospel of John confesses Jesus’ divinity.

 

Jesus came not to condemn – came NOT to be the movie superhero doling out retributive justice. Yet that is the justice often claimed out of these verses. It’s the kind of justice we crave from our superheroes because it cuts through the nonsense and appeals to a sense of fairness that is satisfying. Satisfying, that is, when it’s someone else getting cut down. A little less satisfying when we’re the ones under judgment. But, our satisfaction is amplified when our connections with each other are made around a common enemy. Kind of like those crabby people in the first communion book who are united against their common enemy of Jesus. Why doesn’t Jesus come out swinging and deliver the final one-two punch? Jesus, while occasionally sarcastic and biting, is no anti-hero. He isn’t skulking around, isolated and cynical. He is walking around as the light. Shining light on the human condition by telling the truth about the deeds we do in the darkness and light that exist in the world.

Here’s the truth of it. We take turns in the darkness and light – by choice and by circumstance. Part of God loving the world is shining light on the truth of what we do. This isn’t necessarily joyful or easy. But shining the light on our rush to judgment without all the data, our call for retributive justice without compassion, or our determination to energize around a common enemy is exactly what’s needed. Shining a light on all of our attempts to end up at the top of the heap while condemning others around us.

In the Gospel reading we are told that, “The light has come into the world.” The very first verses of the Gospel of John tells us Jesus is “the light of all people.”[8]  During communion we hear the words of Jesus spoken over the wine:

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for ALL to drink saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.[9]

During the invitation to communion, we often say that if you are here you are welcome to Holy Communion. It is Christ’s table for all because Jesus is the light come into the world, the light of all people. Such is the welcome and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Neither superhero, nor anti-hero, Jesus is simply given to us by grace, for God so loves the world and continues to draw us into the light of Christ by this good news.

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[1] The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet. “Wonder Woman” as of March 10, 2018. https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Wonder-Woman-(2017)#tab=summary

[2] Ibid. “Black Panther” as of March 10, 2018 https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Black-Panther#tab=box-office

[3] DU/Iliff Joint PhD Program in the Study of Religion: Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory. https://www.du.edu/duiliffjoint/current-students/concentrations/theology-philosophy-cultural-theory.html

[4] Eric Deggans, NPR TV Critic. “Here and Now.” March 9, 2018. https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510051/here-x26-now

[5] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  “After Effects” (John 3:14-21) for Dear Working Preacher. Sunday, March 4, 2018.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075

[6] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book. 1999. http://danielerlander.com/apfy.html

[7] John 1:1, 3b-5, 14

[8] John 1:5

[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Holy Communion, Setting One. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 108.

Caught With Their Lamps Down [OR Peace As A Destination]  Matthew 25:1-13, Wisdom 6:12-16, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 12, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Thessalonian reading is at the end of the sermon.]

Matthew 25:1-13  ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps.8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.*

Wisdom 6:12-16 
12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her. 
13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 
14 One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate. 
15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 
16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

 

[sermon begins]

Before the age of GPS and voice directions, there were TripTik maps[1].  A small, narrow flip map, spiral bound at the top, showed page for page how I was going to make the trip.  Paper TripTiks are still available although now there’s an app for that. In the paper version, you flip the pages as you drive the miles. Construction alerts, hotels, and rest stops were part of the trip plan. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandma Ruth’s house I drove. Each page flipped meant I was that many miles closer. Pit stops were strategic for food, facilities, and fuel.  Of course, knowing the destination is essential to receiving the right map.

Jesus has a destination in mind as he tells a story to his disciples about bridesmaids. The destination is the wedding banquet and the bridesmaids need enough oil for their lamps to follow the bridegroom. The oil fuels the lamps through the midnight-hour.  Five of the bridesmaids get caught with their lamps down.  They are the foolish ones.  I want to know what makes the foolish ones foolish.[2]  If we’re supposed to hear that people who aren’t ready, who miss the mark somehow, or who don’t have enough faith are the problem then that pretty much includes most of the disciples who were listening to Jesus. The same disciples who abandon him at the cross.  If that’s the definition of foolish then it also includes most of us which hardly qualifies as good news.

It may be more accurate to say that the foolish bridesmaids are accused of being passive and neglectful.[3]  All ten bridesmaids knew the bridegroom was coming. They all fell asleep in the darkness. Only five were prepared with lamp oil to make the trip. Up to this point in the gospel book of Matthew, Jesus talked at least three times about his death and resurrection.  He also repeatedly scolded the religious leaders about their priorities. Just a short time before the Matthew reading today, Jesus chews out the religious leaders for neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”[4]  The religious leaders had lost sight of the destination.

In Judaism, there is a destination called the End of Days. The End of Days is a messianic era marked by world peace with no wars or famine, and enough for everyone to live on. Rabbi Dubov writes that “even in his darkest hour, [the Jew] hopes and prays for a brighter future – a world of peace and spirituality.”[5] Biblical prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, and Hosea repeatedly point to the End of Days messianic era.[6]  Christians were the ones in the 1800s who concocted doom-filled rapture theology.[7]  Because, you know, that’s so much better.

Here’s why any of this matters. It matters because our understanding of God’s vision for humanity at the End of Days affects the many days between now and then. It matters because people of faith tend to interpret God’s will for today in light of what they think will happen in God’s tomorrow.  It matters because what we say about Jesus’ return impacts the lives of people here and around the world today – the very people Jesus tells us to care about because he cares about them.

In the 5th chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[8] Jesus says this right after the Beatitudes.[9] It’s also right after he tells his disciples that they are the light of the world and that lighting a lamp gives light all around it.[10]  Disciples are the light of the world; wise bridesmaids have lamp oil to light the darkness. In a couple more passages after the bridesmaids’ tale, the plot to kill Jesus begins his trip to the cross. Dark times indeed. But the letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that we do “not grieve as others who have no hope.”[11]  There are things happening that cause grief that can lead to despair.  Whether it’s large-scale violence that sends refugees fleeing or interpersonal violence like the abuse coming to light in Hollywood and Washington, we can shut down in despair. Despair can lead to neglect and passivity. The very things for which the foolish bridesmaids stand accused.

The mapped history of humankind hangs in my kitchen. It’s four feet tall and two feet wide with vertical lines showing what was happening to world peoples at the same time. Who was impacting whom and the outcome of those impacts – whether or not a group of people ended up annihilated or subsumed into another group or whether they remained independent. Many victories are on the map.  Many dark times are on the map. Passive despair in the face of human violence is understandable. Jesus is a different destination.

In New Member class last week we talked about Christian freedom.  A great question was asked about personal responsibility when it can seem so easy to claim freedom by way of forgiveness. From that perspective there’s nothing to stop anyone from doing anything they want if they’re just going to be forgiven for it anyway. Jesus’ parable about the bridesmaids holds that tension between freedom and consequence, between self-determination and obedience.  He makes demands of the disciples through the parable and really through the whole book of Matthew. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets so, by that measure, Jesus embodies peace. Not a negative peace that is the “absence of tension.”[12] Rather, Jesus is a positive peace that is the presence of justice.[13] Jesus creates plenty of tension by naming neglect and passivity as unacceptable and calls us to a positive peace as light-bearers in the world today.

Jesus’ call to urgency challenges church people’s quietism.  Quietism that looks like passive withdrawal from the world by relying on divine action alone.[14]  Quietism that sounds like when people say, “It will all work out in the end.” Quietism that simply watches events unfold without considering that our passive withdrawal amounts to complicity in what we fail to do. Quietism that puts foolish bridesmaids in tension with the wise.

This tension between the bridesmaids gives us a glimpse into the conflict of the first century Matthean Christian community as well as holds up a mirror to our time in history.  However, we are on the other side of the cross and resurrection unlike the disciples listening to the parable.  The very disciples who abandoned Jesus at the cross, whose lamps were empty when “darkness came over the whole land” as Jesus died.[15]  The same disciples who afterwards encounter the risen Christ and are given the destination of “all nations” for teaching and baptizing as they are reassured by Christ’s presence to “the end of the age.”[16]

One reason we worship is to remind each other what we so quickly forget in dark and confusing times. Ours is a world in need of constructive tension witnessing to the destination of peace. To the End of Days, Jesus lights up our discipleship, embodying peace and a living hope for the sake of the world God so loves. Thanks be to God.

_____________________________________________

[1] Here’s a link if you’re curious about TripTik https://midatlantic.aaa.com/travel/maps-directions

[2] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Facebook post on the Parable of the Bridesmaids, November 7, 2017.  https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=matthew%20l%20skinner

[3] Ibid. Dr. Skinner’s comment to original post.

[4] Matthew 23:23-24 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

[5] Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK. “What is the ‘End of Days’?” for Chabad.org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108400/jewish/The-End-of-Days.htm

[6] Dubov, Ibid.

[7] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct, a recent biblical interpretation.

[8] Matthew 5:17

[9] Matthew 5:1-12

[10] Matthew 5:14-16

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

[12] Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963). https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[13] Ibid.

[14] Quietism: Religious Doctrine. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Quietism  “A doctrine of Christian spirituality that, in general, holds that perfection consists in passivity (quiet) of the soul, in the suppression of human effort so that divine action may have full play.”

[15] Matthew 27:45 [The Death of Jesus] From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

[16] Matthew 25:16-20

_______________________________________

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18   But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 5 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

 

 

Darkness is Not Dark to God [Longest Night reflection] – John 1:1-5, 14 and Psalm 139:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 21, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; Psalm 139 is at the end of sermon]

John 1:1-5, 14  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then my father got sick.  Schizophrenia.  A late psychotic break.  Life wasn’t so good and we had to leave.  As a single mother, mom kept putting those angels out.  She remarried and every year those angels would go out.  My stepfather died and the angels still stood, surrounding the baby Jesus.  On Saturday, my mother and her third husband Larry took the angels to UPS.  The angels are heading to my home, yet to arrive.  Talking with her later in the day, she told me that she “burst into tears” when she got in the car after the UPS stop.  She talked about how the angels were from a happy time and she was happy that I will have them.  I’ve been thinking about the angels, my mom, first dad, siblings, and me – the good, bad, and ugly. I’ve also been thinking about this Longest Night worship.  I’ve been thinking about people and their stories, about light in the darkness, about how we struggle with personal family struggles and with world-wide crises. I’ve also been thinking about God slipping on skin and how that makes all the difference in my own life and faith – bright times and broken times.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken.  But I’ve been thinking about how the speed of light travels to us whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away.  We don’t move a muscle and light comes. God comes down to us, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things.  We don’t move a muscle and God comes down to us.  In the company of other people today, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to you, to me, and to world.  Some days that promise feels like a fragile thread and other days it feels like a defiant hope.  No matter our feelings on any given day, “darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [God].”[4]  Amen.

_________________________________________

[1] John 1:1

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

[3] John 1:14

[4] Psalm 139:12

__________________________________________

Psalm 139:1-12

 

 

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

 

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Isaiah 2:3

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

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

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

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

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

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

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

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

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

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

For: You, From: A Fleshy Word – John 1:1-14 and Hebrews 1:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Day, December 25, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading, Hebrews reading is at end of post]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

Way back in Genesis, in the beginning of the Bible, the ancient writers describe a time before Earth-time. [1]  There is a dark, formless void that no one is quite sure about. Creation stories form out of that void as God speaks and God creates, “In the beginning…”  In the Bible reading this Christmas Day, the gospel writer of John takes us way back to that beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Word and God, before time and in the beginning of time.

In the beginning, something happened that broke the relationship God created.   After plenty of millennia in which the world has struggled and continues to struggle through today, I’ve grown comfortable with calling whatever is broken “sin.”  Sin helps me name the struggle within myself.  You might use the language of flaw or weakness or challenge.  I’m pretty good with the language of sin.  It’s a word that digs deep and reveals much that is true in my own life.  Sin separates, hurts, and blocks me from seeing the good in me or anyone else, including God.  Sin has me justifying my actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, including God.

What does God to do restore the broken relationship with humankind that came through sin so soon after creation?  What does God do to free us from our sin that divides and destroys?  God needs to communicate with us on our own terms.  Communicating in a way that is suited to the human condition.[2] Thankfully, over and against my sin, is a Word from God.  A Word that brings life into being.  A Word that communicates and gives life.  A Word that forms, reforms and restores relationships.[3]  A Word made flesh.  A fleshy Word that the Gospel of Luke tells us is a baby in a manger announced by angels and surrounded by his young parents, shepherds, and animals.  A baby whom Mary is told will be called Son of God.[4]  A baby named Jesus.[5]

A baby named Jesus, a fleshy Word through whom all things were made and in whom is life – the life that is the light of all people, a light that darkness cannot overcome.[6]  And with these words of light and darkness we arc back through the creation story in Genesis one more time, sent sling-shot through darkness and light.  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”[7]

A baby named Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  Listening to the many layers of the Christmas story, and the Gospel of John’s prologue in particular, is like hearing many notes all at once in a musical chord.[8]  Like a complex chord, the effect moves through head and heart at the same time as we are moved through Genesis and John, through time and space, through light and dark, through Word and flesh, through God and Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Incarnation of the Word into flesh becomes God’s way of communicating with us in a manner suited to our human condition.[9]  Incarnation is the length to which God will go to get through to us.  We are sensate creatures – we see, we touch, we hear.  So God calls through the cry from a manger and the groans from a cross.  In the story of Jesus that follows his birth, God communicates in Jesus’ actions and also in his words.  Jesus enacts life-giving power. God’s radical, subversive action in terms we can grasp.

Christmas is the beginning of God coming to all people[10] – expanding the eternal covenant made long ago through an ancient people.  In that time, God spoke to the ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.[11]  Now God is speaking to us through the Word made flesh, Jesus the Son of God.

Through Jesus, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit makes us children of God.[12]  The adoption process of God’s wayward, sinful creatures begins in the beginning and arcs through the incarnation, the Word made flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees us from sin.  Set free from the business of justifying our actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, or against God.

This Christmas, for you is the gift of Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  You are “children of God born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[13]   Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________________________

In response to the sermon, the people sing a song called the Hymn of the Day.   Today we sing, “What Child is This”

Listen here: http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/399

1. What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Refrain
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

2. Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

3. So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

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Sermon footnotes

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

[2] Craig R. Koester. Narrative Lectionary 106: Word Made Flesh. Podcast for “I Love to Tell the Story” at WorkingPreacher.org on December 15, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=450

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

[5] Luke 1:30-31 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

[11] Hebrews 1:1-2 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13

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Hebrews reading

Hebrews 1:1-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”

 

Paradox of Powerlessness and Light – John 6:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 15, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 6:1-21  After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

[sermon begins]

 

The Bible story today could be an early edition of “Where’s Waldo?” with Jesus as the hidden one.  We pick up the story after a healing.  Jesus is trying to stay one step ahead of the crowds.  They saw him heal.  They heard him teach.  He has drawn a following.  He leads quite a chase.  Perhaps not high speed, but a chase nonetheless.  He even goes so far as to head to the other side of the sea of Tiberius and climb a mountain.  No rest for the weary, though.  When he looks up, there’s the crowd.  The trek through the wilderness does not shake them.  The people simply keep following him.

As Jesus sits down, he looks up.  He sees the crowd.  I wonder what he sees when he looks at them.  They’ve been chasing him for a while at this point.  Do they look confused?  Jesus is a healer and yet so hard to pin down.  Do they look tired?  Jesus led quite a chase.  Have some in the crowd started to wonder why Jesus just can’t stay put?  He asks for the crowd to sit down.  There is a “great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down.”  Enough room for everyone to rest.

At the very least, the crowd must look hungry. Jesus talks to the disciples about feeding the crowd and the disciples’ confusion is understandable.  Where are they going to get the food to feed all of these people?

Andrew found a boy who has some loaves of bread and some fish but it’s not near enough.  Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.”

Andrew says, “There is a boy here…”  It starts with this one boy.  The disciples become part of the distribution. Jesus handles the feeding of the crowd.  A tired, hungry, and confused crowd.

We often do a particular thing when we talk about children.  We talk about children as becoming something.  The conversation shifts to the future.  We ask questions like, “What will you be…?” The conversations infers that children are in formation now to become who they really are later.

Andrew’s comment, however, makes the boy and what he offers, quite immediate.  He says, “There is a boy here…”

A few decades ago, there was a growing urge within Augustana to begin educating children during the week.  A few Augustana people started thinking about how the congregation could begin and sustain an early learning center for the community.  Like Andrew’s observation about the boy, people at Augustana were saying, “There are children here, in the community…”  Here we are today, several decades later after those initial ideas.  Like the boy’s gift of the loaves and fishes, the Augustana Early Learning Center children have grown in number over the years.  This is one of the ways ministry works and is good reason to celebrate.

The theme of the day is celebrating Augustana Early Learning Center as a mutual ministry of the congregation.  We celebrate its conception, high quality learning, and accessibility to the community including affordable tuition and scholarships.  Additionally, we celebrate all that the Early Learning Center gives back to the congregation on a daily basis.  These children bring energy and a fresh way of seeing the world.  The staff along with director Chris Baroody give of their considerable years of skill and consistently highlight who the children are today.  The Early Learning Center is also a strong community presence and impacts daily life for so many children and families.  This is a lot of mutual ministry that is like the exponential effect of loaves and fishes.

The immediacy of who children are right now is evident across the whole of Augustana.  On any given Sunday, there are children on the steps of the sanctuary or chiming in during worship in the chapel.  There are children in Sunday School, and in choirs.  Children this month are collecting canned Chili for Metro Caring.  In the last few months they have put together personal care kits for refugees and portioned out beans and rice for Metro Caring’s grocery store.  Children actively shape the ministry of the congregation now, today.

In the midst of tension and heartache unfolding in Paris, and already too well known in Syria and Beirut, it is especially important that we take a moment to see the places of light.  And there is a lot of light in the children’s ministries.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[1]

Often, like today for Alice, there is a baptism – a life changing encounter with water and the Holy Spirit.  A baptism into the death and life of Jesus.

In baptism, we are received in our powerlessness.  This is true whether we are a child or an adult.  If you read to the end of the Bible Story today, the crowds around Jesus want to make him king.  He left them before they could accomplish their goal.  In his absence, he said, “No.”   He said no to their ambitions and delusions of control.[2]   It’s easy to relate to the desires of the crowd around Jesus who want to make him king.  As video, photos, and information continue to come out of Paris, there is quite a crowd of people all around the world whose confusion is loaded with shock and grief.  In the moment of shock and grief, God is present by way of the cross.  For where else would God be but with those who are hurting and confused in their despair.  Conversely, there are a lot of people thinking about how to use power in response to the murders.

In the meantime, here…today, we are received in the waters of baptism and at the table of communion in our powerlessness, so much beyond our control.  The good news of Jesus is that the self-sacrificing love of God is given to us freely.  God’s love comes to us.  We don’t attain it or acquire it under our own steam.   There is nothing we do or leave undone that makes God love us any more or any less.   This is the gospel, the good news.

This is the gospel lived out in the ministries that assure children that they are loved and accepted for who they are today.  There is nothing they can do that makes God love them more or any less.  And this is the gospel promise for you.  There is nothing you can do that makes God love you any more or any less.

When you come to communion today, you receive the love of God unconditionally.  At the table of communion, Jesus says “no” to the way we try to use power, “no” to the way we hurt ourselves, and “no” to the way we hurt other people.  Then Jesus says “yes.”  Jesus says “yes,” you are loved unconditionally for the person you actually are…the person for whom Jesus died…for you, a beloved and hold child of God.  Jesus says “yes,” God’s love is for you and for world.  Strengthened by the love of God, we become light-bearers in dark places, serving where we are drawn to serve for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr.  http://www.thekingcenter.org/blog/mlk-quote-week-sticking-love-0

[2] David Lose.  In the Meantime: Pentecost 9B, Visible Words. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-9-b-visible-words/

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

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

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

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

[3] Moltmann, 9.

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

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

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