Tag Archives: love

Division is Not a Call to Hate [OR When Jesus Said ‘Love Your Enemies,’ I’m Pretty Sure He Didn’t Mean Kill Them] Luke 12:48b-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 18, 2019

[sermon begins after Bible readings from Luke and Hebrews]

Luke 12:48b-56  From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. 49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

[sermon begins]

Way back in January, I received a text asking if I could preach at New Beginnings at the women’s prison on August 16th. Pastor Terry is the called pastor of that church and she was planning her sabbatical for this summer.  Chaplain Nicole was going to be covering the sabbatical and knew she was going to be gone this weekend so they were getting things dialed in early to be sure all was well eight months later.  I agreed to the date and put it on my calendar.  Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. I e-mailed Chaplain Nicole confirming my schedule with New Beginnings on August 16. Her reply included the news that she was not going to be away after all but she’d like for me to go ahead and preach as planned.  There’s another twist in this short tale.  Holly, an Augustana member, has been volunteering with New Beginnings and set up a four dates a year for other Augustana people to join her as worshiping visitors.  Providentially, August 16 was one of those dates.

When Holly shared the dates, my plan was to proceed with preaching the 16th regardless. Who could have known that I’d be preaching on a day that Holly picked arbitrarily?  When Nicole told me that she was going to be in town after all, and we knew there would be Augustana people in worship with the women, I asked if she’d be willing to preach and I could help in worship in other ways.  I figure you all get plenty of my preaching and it would be cool to hear someone else.  To make an already long story shorter, Nicole came up with the idea that we could preach together by having a dialogue of sorts.  The women of New Beginnings could hear me and the Augustana people could hear Nicole. A win-win, so to speak.  It ended up working out!  Nicole and I figured out some talking points ahead of time so that we’d actually wring some good news out of these freaky verses in Luke which, at the beginning of the week, felt like no small task.  What follows in my sermon is my best solo attempt at what was really a two person job.  So, shout out to Nicole Garcia and the women of New Beginnings – check!

Jesus talks to his disciples about fire and division among families before turning to the crowd, calling them hypocrites, and asking them why they can’t read the present time.  These are really tough verses in Luke.  It’s impossible to read them as a stand-alone story.  They at least deserve to be connected to the larger story in the Gospel of Luke.  Otherwise there’s a danger of turning Jesus into a fire and brimstone preacher when that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is talking about here.  So let’s talk about that fire.

Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist says something about fire.  John was out in the wilderness baptizing people and they were wondering if he was the Messiah.  John answered them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[1]  This is language about purification and refining by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that shows up in the book of Acts as tongues of fire resting on each Jesus follower of the day of Pentecost.[2]  Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 9, Jesus’ disciples wanted to rain fire down on some inhospitable Samaritans and Jesus rebuked those misguided disciples before they all left for another village.[3]  No fire of retaliation, Jesus reminds his people.

There’s another thing about fire in scripture. It’s a sign of God’s presence. Back in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Exodus, God calls Moses through a burning bush.  What happens to that bush?  Not a darn thing.  The bush isn’t consumed.[4]  The fire signifies to Moses that he’s in the presence of God. And again, as Moses and the Israelites wander in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt, “the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night.”[5]

In the fire is the presence of God and in the fire is the refining power of the Holy Spirit – also God.  When we look at the fire as good news, it’s like the preacher in our Hebrews reading says when we look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the one we look to shake loose “the sin that clings so closely” so that we can “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.[6]  The presence and power of God revealed in cross and in resurrection, in suffering and in victory over death.[7]  All those people listed by the preacher in Hebrews were of the great cloud of witnesses whose imperfection was part of how God was revealed by all that God did for, in and through them which loops us back into the Gospel of Luke and the division that Jesus is causing.  The division revealed by following Jesus because it’s a natural by-product of Jesus’ ministry of confronting the status quo – the status quo of sin that clings to us individually and collectively.  And stuff happens when the status quo is pushed.  Division happens.

The division isn’t a sudden turn or call into hatred.  Too easily we forget what Jesus said earlier in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount in chapter six. “Love you enemies…if you love those who love you what credit is that to you?…Love your enemies.”[8]  Jesus says it twice!  Preaching unconditional love and grace rankles people. Jesus was ultimately executed for it.  The message of God’s kingdom brings unbearable tension but the natural by-product of division should not be construed as a call to hatred.  Rather it is a call to be in the tension that comes with calling out sin.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr wrote a letter from jail and in it he talked about tension.  He said, “A negative peace is the absence of tension, a positive peace is the presence of justice.”[9]  In particular, Reverend King was calling out the sin of racism which created a heck of a lot of tension. He was assassinated in the midst of that tension too. And still, in the midst of that tension, he continued to preach non-violence saying that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” in a sermon about loving your enemies.[10]

I fear that we’re confused about this distinction between division and hatred. The entertainment value of feuds and hatred in reality T.V. is a case in point.  The sharper and snarkier the comments about the people you disagree with lands you higher in the hierarchies of entertainment and politics – fanning the flames of hatred across the country.  This IS true on all the sides.  We start to believe in the righteousness of our hateful words that lead to hateful action – creating false separations between us.

But a different leader claims us in baptism, my friends – One who arrived in humble beginnings and died in humiliation; One who preached love for the outcast and the poor while loving the whole world that God so loves.[11]  The One named Jesus, who knows a thing or two about shame and darkness, also knows a thing or two about the shame and darkness that clings closely to us as sin. But Jesus also endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and now is seated at the right hand of God.[12]  The same Jesus who flows through us as the refining fire of the Holy Spirit bestowed on us in baptism. It isn’t comfortable and it isn’t easy but it prepares us to walk into a wounded world and tell the truth about ourselves and the world that surrounds us – living into the division caused by the tension of God’s kingdom – not with hatred but with love.  Amen and thanks be to God!

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[1] Luke 3:16

[2] Acts 2:3 – the books of Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke left off.  Same authorship.

[3] Luke 9:51-56

[4] Exodus 3:3

[5] Exodus 13:21-22

[6] Hebrews 12:1-2

[7] Hebrews 12:2

[8] Luke 6:27, 32, and 35.

[9] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[10] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Loving Your Enemies” in Strength to Love: A Book of Sermons (New York: Harper & Row Pocket Books, 1968).

[11] John 3:16-17

[12] Hebrews 12:2

 

 

Keshia Thomas, Anthony Ray Hinton, and You [OR Imago Dei, Real Image-of-God Type Stuff and The Good Samaritan] Luke 10:25-37

**photo credit: Keshia Thomas, 18 years old, by Mark Brunner (1996)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 14, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

[sermon begins]

Anthony Ray Hinton went to prison for a crime that he did not commit and sat on death row for 30 years. When he first went to prison, he was so angry and tired of not being believed that he stopped talking.  He wrote down his answers to the guards’ questions.  Going into his fourth year in prison, he heard a man crying in the cell next to his.  Mr. Hinton says that his mother’s compassion moved him to speak. Before long he was joking with the man.  After that night, Mr. Hinton spent the next 26 years trying to focus on other people’s problems.  He said he realized that the other inmates had not had the unconditional love that his mother had given him.  Family was created between the inmates.  54 people walked down the hallway by his cell on their way to be executed.  Mr. Hinton started the ritual with the other inmates to bang on the bars 5 minutes before the execution, letting them know that love walked with them.  Stories like Mr. Hinton’s are often lifted up as examples of the resiliency of the human spirit.  Very few of us will ever be put in a situation as dire as his to know how we would respond.  Regardless, his story has elements worth considering.  He was in a place of despair, angry and alone.  He was facing death.  But, he found meaning in sharing love and compassion that he himself had received from his mother.[1]

Mr. Hinton sharing compassion he himself received is why his story resonates with today’s Bible reading.  Verse 33 tells us that the Samaritan saw the naked, beaten, half-dead man on the side of the road and was “moved with pity.” This word “pity” is from a Greek word that is also translated as compassion elsewhere in Luke.  Luke uses this word only three times in the Gospel.[2]  In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it’s used 12 times and used specifically to either describe Jesus’ compassion or used by Jesus in parables to describe a major characters’ response.[3]  You may be asking why this translation gem gets a shout out.  It’s because this kind of compassion as it shows up in the gospels is quite specific.  More than a moral claim, one could say it’s almost holy.  One could even say it’s divine.  But if it’s divine, isn’t it out of reach for the common person?  I’m going to say no, it’s not.

In our tradition, we understand ourselves to be created in the image of God.[4]  Imago dei. Our humanity imprinted by God. One of the reasons we worship weekly is to remind ourselves of what we are and to whom we belong.  When we are reminded of what we are in the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear the parable in its rightful place.  Not as a moral action for the to-do list, rather as a divine reaction inspiring us across the road like the Samaritan.  Our bodies are created by divine compassion and also for divine compassion.  When we act compassionately, endorphins are released in our brains making us feel good.  When we act compassionately, the hormone oxytocin is released.  Oxytocin has health benefits like reducing inflammation in our hearts and circulatory systems.[5]  Additionally, compassion is contagious.  Social scientists have found that there’s a ripple effect.  If you are kind and compassionate, your friends, your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends have a greater inclination towards compassion.  Our bodies’ systems are wired to react positively to compassion and our community systems are wired to react positively to compassion.  This is one of those moments when faith and science come together like the thumb and index finger – between them we can grasp so much.

In the parable, Jesus reveals the compassion of the neighbor, the compassion that Jesus first and foremost reveals in himself as his own compassion is stirred by the people around him and ultimately his own compassion poured out at the cross.  Jesus’ compassion that is highlighted by Luke in Jesus himself and in the parables about Jesus is compassion stirred by death.  Compassion stirred by the death of the widow of Nain’s son in chapter 7, by the man left half-dead at the side of the road in the parable of the Good Samaritan, and by the prodigal son showing up after he was assumed dead.  In each of these instances, the compassion of Jesus transforms the ones who are dead, half-dead, or assumed dead.   We could say that the compassion of Jesus, the deathless one, draws him toward death because there is nothing left to fear.

I had a seminary professor who tapped his clergy collar during class and said that the collar would take us boldly into situations where no one else would dare to go. It was a daunting thing to hear.  In hindsight, that seems toplofty to me.  Instead, I would say that it is our baptism that takes us boldly into situations where no one else dares to go.  Our baptism that brings us alive together with Christ, aligning us with the image of God in ourselves and in other people.

Mr. Hinton was released from prison in 2015 after his case was picked up by the Equal Justice Initiative and it was discovered that the evidence against him did not match the crime scene evidence.[6]  His 30 years in prison transformed the experience for himself and the people around him.  First, his mother’s unconditional love and compassion touched his mind and then he was able share it with those around him.  The lawyer questioning Jesus gives the right answer about the law, the Torah – love God and love neighbor as self.  These are the main things, and Jesus agrees with him.  The parable of the Good Samaritan highlights the main things in a way that speaks to us because we’ve see the hesitation of the priest and the Levite rear up in ourselves when confronted by difference and need.  Perhaps the hesitation to cross the road has good logic.  On the other hand, perhaps it’s flawed logic that is primarily fear settling in for an extended stay.

Experiencing compassion ourselves might make us more inclined to cross the road in compassion. Even witnessing acts of compassion makes us more inclined to cross the road in compassion – especially across difference as the Samaritan did.  There’s an image that often comes to mind as an example.  Keshia Thomas was a young black teenage woman protecting a white supremacist middle-aged man from being beaten at a protest.[7]  She’s kneeling on the ground next to him, arms thrown out over him, ready to take the blows herself.  Turns out she’d be on the receiving end of violence in her young life and wishes someone had stood up for her.  She says her faith also played a part in protecting him. The man’s son approached her a few months later and thanked her.  The man remains anonymous.  Both the photographer, Mark Brunner, and another woman, Teri Gunderson, report that Keshia’s action affects them even today.  Ms. Gunderson keeps the picture of Keisha on her wall.

Keshia Thomas and Anthony Ray Hinton are compelling modern examples of compassion.  I would argue that they are contagious examples of compassion inspiring us to cross that road of difference and stare death in the eye like the Samaritan did.  Inspiring us to the compassion that is also in us as the image of God empowered by our baptism into the death and life of Jesus.  Remember that the compassion extended by Jesus includes you too.  Because we’re linear creatures it can be difficult to see love of God, neighbor, and self as all three of those things happening at once.  We’re tempted to say that we have to love ourselves before we can love our neighbor.  Or we have to love God before we can rightly understand love of self.  The actual experience is messier – more like football than baseball if you’ll allow the sports analogy.  A lot is happening at once.  Here’s one suggestion to begin breaking it down.  Take your worship bulletin home this week. Fold it open to this Bible reading. Take a couple minutes to read it as you start your day.  Wonder about it. Ask questions of it.  Pray over it.  Let it remind you.

Crossing the road in compassion breaks the cycle of shame and judgment that we inflict on ourselves and other people.  However compassion comes to you and through you, for today, know that the savior who claims us crosses the road into whatever ditch you currently find yourself in, pulls you out, tends your wounds, and reminds you who you are and to whom you belong.  Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Anthony Ray Hinton’s story can easily be found on any web search.  I encountered his story in the following:

Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. (New York: Avery, 2016), 261-262.  Mr. Hinton tells his own story in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (2018).  It’s now on my list of books to read.

[2] Luke 7:13 – Jesus was moved with compassion for the widow of Nain and her dead son; Luke 15:20 – the prodigal son’s father is moved with compassion when he see that his son has returned.

[3] Girardian Lectionary (Proper 10, Year C, Ordinary 15) on Luke 10:25-37, Exegetical Note #5 re Luke 10:33 (2013).

[4] Genesis 1:26-27

[5] The Book of Joy, 258.

[6] EJI. “Anthony Ray Hinton Exonerated After 30 Years on Death Row.” https://eji.org/anthony-ray-hinton-exonerated-from-alabama-death-row

[7] Catherine Wynne. “The teenager who saved the man with the SS tattoo.” BBC News Online on October 29, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24653643

I’m Kinda Over Mean People [OR Jesus Isn’t Kinda Over Anyone, Even You] John 13:1-17, 31b-34; Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14 for Maundy Thursday, Holy Week

**sermon art: Luke Allsbrook, Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet (2018) oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver on  April 18, 2019 – Maundy Thursday, Holy Week

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 13:1-17, 31b-34   Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14   The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.
11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

[sermon begins]

I’m kinda over mean people.  I’m so over mean people that I finally took Facebook up on its constant reminder to update my page and made it my bio line – I’m kinda over mean people.  I’m tired that meanness is celebrated as courage to speak truth.  That critique is venerated as intelligence.  That judgment is lauded as insight.  When I was in seminary, I made what I thought was an insightful comment about an author’s work.  The moment stays with me when my professor looked me in the eye and quietly invited me to immerse into the author’s thought and intent while reserving judgment on the author’s work, reserving judgment on what wasn’t there to be able to see what was there.  Because, of course, no person’s work – no person for that matter – can say all the things, hold all the things, and be all the things, we would wish them to say, hold, and be.  To be clear, there are times when critique is necessary and, as a society, we’re in the thick of deciding big moments in history without the benefit of future sight.  What I’m talking about, though, is meanness for meanness sake, meanness for power’s sake, meanness for our own sake.

Our young people who will be communing together with their families this evening, some for the first time, just went through Communion Instruction with the pastors.  They each received a book that tells the story of Jesus’s life in ministry along with his command to eat bread and wine while remembering him.[1] From just about the first page of the book, there are these crabby people that follow Jesus around.  Crabby, mean people who judge Jesus for eating with sinners who embezzle tax money, for healing people who don’t deserve it, for feeding people who are hungry, for, well, the list is endless for what these crabby, mean people are crabby about.  Ultimately, they’re crabby that Jesus threatens their power. How can they continue to hold onto power when Jesus keeps undermining their power with all that love stuff?  No wonder they were crabby and mean.  It’s tough to fight the power of love.  Weapons don’t work.  Even name-calling has a hard time against the power of love.

In the gospel reading from John, Jesus is all about the power of love. Make no mistake about the power he’s displaying in this foot washing scene. Power on display in his actions and how he moves.  He strips down much like a soldier did for battle in the first century.[2]  So similar were Jesus’ moves to that of a soldier: he stood up from the table to ready himself; took off his outer robe; and tied a towel around himself – girding himself around the waist with a cloth in same manner of a soldier of his time would do in preparation for battle.  However, he makes these power moves at the dinner table. So weird.  And, point of note, not a crabby person in sight.  Let’s take a look at who is in sight.  Judas and Peter are there.  Judas showing up with the other disciples, ready for dinner.  To all appearances, a good disciple and friend to Jesus. And Peter. Peter, faithfully enthusiastic, he says some kooky things and finally lets Jesus wash his feet. So do all the others. Including Judas the betrayer.

In the unseen verses around today’s reading, Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial just before and after Jesus lays down the new commandment.  Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  If this section of scripture could be described as a sandwich, Jesus lays down the hummus and veggies of his love commandment in between the flat bread that is Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.  Now we add betrayers and deniers to the list with the crabby, mean people, who stack up against Jesus.  We could try to say that we’re kinda over mean people, we’re kinda over betraying people, we’re kinda over denying people.  In the end, could we then say that we’re kinda over ourselves?  That’s where I am anyway.  Kinda over the ways I can be mean and critical, kinda over the ways that what I do and leave undone betrays other people to their fate, and kinda over my denials that exclude people from life.  So over it that today’s good news of Jesus lands right in the center of it.

To get at that center, sometimes we need to go to the edge.  In the edge of our view we can see Passover begins tomorrow for our Jewish cousins in the faith.  The reading from Exodus is the heart of the Passover story just before the Hebrews’ infamous hike through the Dead Sea on dry ground, from slavery in Egypt into freedom in the desert.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his friends before the festival of the Passover.[3]  This week, 21 centuries later, we line up with that timing.

When we see only the crabby, mean people in Jesus’ story, we often decide they are not us.  We can make the mistake of scapegoating them to their fate which is dreadfully similar to denying and betraying them to death.  Rather than seeing what Jesus did as an expansion of the covenant given to God’s people through Moses, we can see ourselves as taking over the covenant and leaving the original covenant holders in the dust, or even worse, grinding them into the dust.  Holy Week has a violent history of Christians against Jews when it is really through the Jews, through Jesus the Jew, by which he expanded the original covenant into the new covenant in his love so that we can now celebrate at Holy Communion. [4]

During communion instruction with the families and young people who will commune this evening, I invited everyone to stand in a circle facing each other, putting one arm out in from of them.  Then I asked us to walk forward until our hands all touched in the middle of the circle (it got super cozy) as one example of Jesus connecting us with each other as we commune.  Connecting us with the people around us now, the people who will commune in the future, and the people who communed in the past but also connects us to those earliest ancestors, our Jewish cousins in the faith.

The good news is that Jesus isn’t kinda over anyone – not mean people, not crabby people, not deniers, not betrayers, not you.  Jesus gave the new commandment to love one another as he loved – smack in the middle of crabby, mean people who were out to execute him and his friends who denied and betrayed him to that fate.  When we commune together, this is the love we receive, the love of Jesus Christ who shows no partiality, the love of Jesus Christ that is for the world God so loves, and for you.

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[1] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book (Daniel Erlander Publications, 1999).

[2] Craig Koester, Professor and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Chair of New Testament. Course lecture: Fall 2010.

[3] John 13:1

[4] Krister Stendahl’s concise and elegant interpretation of Paul is a helpful read in this regard. Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (1993)

 

Personal and Prophetic Grace. Yes, it’s both. – Luke 4:21-30, 1 Corinthians 13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 3, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; see end of sermon for last week’s reading from Luke that is the first part of Jesus’ sermon here]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

{sermon begins]

Oh, Jesus! Really?!! Upsetting your listeners again? How quickly things go downhill too.  Just before he’s nearly hurled off the cliff, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  If only Jesus had stopped with his gracious remarks before he launches with prophetic grace.  “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” Jesus. Timing is everything and Jesus’ timing with the people hearing his sermon was way off.  We hear the end of the story today begun in the Luke reading last Sunday.  Jesus “went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.”[1]  Of course it was his custom, being a first century Jew and all.  Jesus was Jewish through and through.  He stood to read from the scroll of Isaiah and sat to teach.  His named great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, alongside the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian.  Naaman and the widow were outsiders.  By telling those stories from Jewish history, Jesus pushes his home-town people hard on the outsider message.  A message long embraced by Jews about Elijah and Elisha who also summoned prophetic grace for outsiders.[2]  This was not a new message, although it was apparently an infuriating filled one.

Prophetic grace is not neutral.  There’s usually some kind of reaction.  People love it or people hate it.  Either way, prophetic grace often pushes people which means that people will often push back.  A couple weeks ago, I marched in the Marade celebrating the work and birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith leaders prayed about loving our neighbors by taking action; as politicians spoke with different perspectives on equality and freedom; and as I looked around at people of all ages and skin colors, I wondered if I would have had the courage to march with Dr. King over 60 years ago.[3]  Many white people thought he wanted too much, too fast, for black people and that his rhetoric was too risky for everyone.  Many moderate whites who were on his side in theory, couldn’t bring themselves to show up with him in actuality, although some did.[4] The same could be said of Harriet Tubman. She was a former slave, political activist, and conductor of the Underground Railroad that rescued slaves before the Civil War.[5]  It’s ironic that her image will grace the $20 dollar bill given that Ms. Tubman lived at a time when the economy depended on black slave labor who received none of the financial reward.  Both Ms. Tubman and the good Reverend King acted from deep faith.

If Harriet Tubman and Dr. King are too much prophetic grace to contemplate, let’s try Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Pastor Bonhoeffer is often lifted up by Lutherans as an exemplar of prophetic grace.  He lived and died in Nazi Germany working to overthrow Hitler first by speaking out against him and then by trying to assassinate him.  He was executed days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp.  The good Reverend Bonhoeffer is obviously inspiring for what he was willing to risk and the faith that was his strength.  Similarly to my thoughts about Dr. King and Harriet Tubman though, I wonder how I would have responded to Pastor Bonhoeffer had I been a German Lutheran of his day.[6]

I wonder because of their inspiring lives that they risked daily.  I also wonder because of Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in the verses 18 and 19 from last Sunday.  When Jesus unrolled that scroll in the synagogue, and stood to read, here’s what is quoted from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ reading from Isaiah, echoes the Spirit filled words of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon earlier in Luke.  People will argue about whether Jesus’ words are meant personally or prophetically.  Aren’t we all on some level poor in spirit, blind to truth, captive to sin, and oppressed by shame?  We talk about those experiences regularly and I often preach Jesus’ promises for all people as a direct word of grace.  For God’s sake (literally), I experience comfort in Jesus’ personal grace myself for all those reasons.  But it’s difficult for me to imagine that Jesus only meant these words on a personal, spiritual level. If he did, what do we make of the likes of King, Tubman, and Bonhoeffer whose deep faith shapes actions on behalf of people who are actually poor, captive, and oppressed? One of the things I find fascinating about reviewing history is how it can help with perspective today.  Which leads to the other question I’ve been noodling. Who are the voices of prophetic grace are right now? Your homework this week is in the form of a question.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message?  Perhaps it’s a message that rankles and gets under your skin, makes you uncomfortable and antsy for some cliff hurling.  Let me know who you come up with and why.  Here’s the question again.  Who are the people you think give voice to prophetic grace even though it’s a tough message. Before we get too far on that homework, I’d like us to add to the mix of prophetic grace the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking with love. To paraphrase Paul, speaking without love ends up being a whole lot of noise for a whole lot of nothing.

Some of us have tasted this love that Paul is talking about.  We’ve experienced the grace of the gospel in the unconditional love of Jesus that means there’s nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  It’s deeply personal and it’s transformed our lives.  I first heard this gospel when I was 28 years old. As it fell into my ears week after week, I would sit in that sanctuary and wonder what the people around me were hearing. The gospel, my husband, and my congregation at the time, started nudging me to seminary.  Six years ago yesterday, I was ordained and installed here, with you, as a pastor.  You just never know what the gospel is going to do with you once it’s had its way transforming hearts with love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  This is true whatever your vocation. Gospel love is a personal grace.

Gospel love is also prophetic grace. There are moments when other people say hard things but we’ve still experienced this gospel love.  It’s harder to hear the love through a tough message but it’s in there.  We question motives and meaning before we even realize we’re doing it.  Consistently, Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because all people are included in the love of God – even that person you wouldn’t mind hurling off a cliff – prophetic or not.  Jesus’ voice of prophetic grace is for the outsider because Jesus loves the world, everything and everyone in it.  This means that grace in the form of unconditional, gospel love is personal for you and prophetic for everyone else.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say hallelujah…and amen.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Luke 4:16

[2] David Schnasa Jacobsen, Professor of the Practice of Homiletics and the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology. Commentary on Luke 4:21-30 for February 3, 2019 on Working Preacher, Luther Seminary. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3955

[3] Saja Hindi. “Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marade Sends Thousands Through Denver.” The Denver Post, January 21, 2019. https://www.denverpost.com/2019/01/21/martin-luther-king-day-marade-denver/

[4] Audio and Document to Letter From Birmingham Jail by Dr. King. Have a listen: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail

[5] Harriet Tubman. History. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/harriet-tubman

[6] Victoria Barnett. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/dietrich-bonhoeffer

___________________________________________________________________

Luke 4:14-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Subjects of Christ the King – Nope, Nothing Weird About That [OR Pick Your Word for the Church Year] John 18:33-37 (and 38a) and Revelation 1:4b-8]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christ the King Sunday, November 25, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 18:33-37 (and 38a) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Revelation 1:4b-8 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

[sermon begins]

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate in court.  They’re debating truth in weird slow-motion at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.  It matters who Jesus says he is because there are people, especially religious leaders, who have had it with him and simply want him to go away, squashed like a bug underfoot.  Here’s a sampling of the accusations against him…

There’s the Jesus who goes to weddings and gets frustrated with his mom but does what she says anyway – turning water into wine.

…the Jesus who wields a whip, clearing the temple of vendors who swindle the poor.

…the Jesus who talks new life with a fearful Pharisee in the middle of the night.

…the Jesus who meets a shady woman in the light of the noonday sun.

…the Jesus who heals and who feeds; who walks on water and who’s described alternately as being the word made flesh, the lamb of God, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, and the truth.

…the Jesus who quietly forgives and saves the woman caught in adultery from being executed, sending her on her way.

… the Jesus who cries with his friends Mary and Martha and who raises Lazarus from the dead.

…the Jesus whose feet are anointed with perfume in adoration.

…the Jesus who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, strips down to his skivvies to wash his friends’ feet, and prays for his disciples,

…the Jesus who is criminalized for all of these things and finds himself standing in front Pontius Pilate arguing about truth before he is sentenced to death as the King of the Jews.

There are a number problems with Jesus being and doing any one of these things much less all of them. The time has come to face the music.  He’s in front of Pilate. Pilate is on the emperor’s payroll. He’s not much interested in the petty, internal squabbles of the Jewish religious leaders. He is, however, very interested in keeping the peace.  Uprisings are costly for the emperor and Pilate would pay the piper for upsetting the emperor.  It’s a lesser of the evils in his book and his self-interest is staying alive, thank you very much.  What does it matter that the truth is standing right in front of Pilate as he asks, “What is truth?”

We tend to think of truth as telling a story accurately.  We don’t tend to think of it as the story itself.  We rarely think of truth in terms of a person.  I’m curious about this line of digging.  The archaeology of it.  If each of us IS a “truth” claim, then what is that truth?  In other words, each moment of my life reveals what I think is important in terms of other people, myself, time, money, and God.  What would that archaeological dig look like?  What could you learn about the truth that is me or the truth that is you?  We’re all invested in different things.  We could even say we’re ruled by different things, justifying our choices until we make some kind of sense to ourselves.  An archaeological dig of this kind reveals what runs and rules our lives, revealing our actual king.

I’d like to pause and point out what just happened here because I think it happens a lot.  We start out talking about Jesus and we end up talking about ourselves.  The sermon began with parts of Jesus’ story from the Gospel of John and how he ended up in front of Pilate.  Talking about Pilate, turns us toward the topic of self.  Naturally, it would.  Pilate is such a great human example of what not to do in the name of self-interest.  It’s hard to resist distancing ourselves from him even as we ask the same question about truth.  But why is it so hard to shift ourselves to look at Jesus?  Much less to adore Jesus?

Adoration is part of Christ the King Sunday but it’s not the whole story.  The Feast of Christ the King is young in the church calendar.  Begun in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, its purpose is to compel our hearts, minds, and lives into the reign of God on earth over and above the pull of power in the world.[1]  Not a bad idea given the political disasters and brief pause between world wars in the 1920s.  Not a bad idea given the timeless appeal of trading grace for power. Christ the King Sunday is to the church calendar a bit like New Year’s Eve is to the Common Era Gregorian calendar that we use every day.

Next Sunday begins a new church year with the first Sunday in Advent.  Last year during Advent, I told you about my friend and colleague’s Advent discipline of choosing a word to help her focus on God during life’s hubbub. Step 1, she chooses one word from scripture at the start of Advent.  Step 2, she keeps the word on her radar for the whole year.  She talks about listening for the word in her scripture study and also in her life.  The word serves to keep God on her radar.  This year, I’m giving you a jump on choosing your word for the new church year.  Here’s your homework. Find a Bible reading and think through whether any of the words are worth choosing as your word for this church year.   Let me know what word you pick – e-mail it to me or post it to the sermon post.  A word that could become part of your discipleship, keeping faith front and center, and reminding you that you’re a subject of the realm of Christ’s kingship.  Yes, weird language but good for challenging for our democracy-trained brains.  Subjects of the realm, subjects of Christ’s realm – challenged by language that is other than how we’d ordinarily describe something.

Thanks again to Pope Pius the XI, the church year culminates as our thinking is challenged by the trial of Jesus.  Like Pilate, we are challenged by the question of Jesus’ kingship while he awaits judgment.  Let’s assume for the moment that we’re all cool with the idea of Jesus as king, as Christ the King.  By his admission to Pilate, Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world.  It’s not about signs of spectacular power or prestige.  It’s a kingship that’s obedient as he listens to his mother at a wedding; it’s a kingship that’s grace-full as he hangs out with the shady woman at high noon; it’s a kingship that forgives unforgiveable human failing; it’s a kingship that cries with compassion at the pain of loss; it’s a kingship that’s non-violent through trial and execution, raising not one hand in violence against the people who inflict it; and, ultimately, it’s a kingship emptied out in self-sacrifice on a cross revealing the breadth of divine power in the depth of divine love.[2]

Our devotion, adoration, and praise are for this king revealed in the person of Jesus. In the words from Revelation, we praise this God who is and who was and and who is to come through Jesus who loves us and frees us.  In our little corner of God’s whole church, we tend to do adoration with a reserved, earnest reverence.  Feeling it on the inside while the hymns keep things dignified. Leaving external exuberance to other siblings in Christ – well, unless you count being a super-fan of your favorite band or musical.  Maybe, though, that’s a hint of what some of us feel for Christ the King.  The love and gratitude for what is happening through Christ in kingdom moments breaking through on earth.  Christ’s kingdom of obedience to the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when it doesn’t serve our own self-interest. Christ’s kingdom of being loved by friends, family, and enemies…and even God…when we’re at our worst and don’t deserve it, even if that love is the tough kind that demands we face the pain we cause as individuals or groups.  Christ’s Kingdom is truth in the person of Jesus Christ who loves us. Love that inspires our praise and draws us into deeper love and faith.

We love you Jesus, Christ the King.  Help us love you more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Lucy Lind Hogan, Hugh Latimer Elderdice Professor of Preaching and Worship, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C.  Commentary on John 18:33-37 for November 25, 2018.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885

[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).

 

Provoking Love [OR Little Red Corvette, Mondegreens, and Biblical Misinterpretation] Mark 13:1-8 and Hebrews 10:11-25

**sermon art:  1973 Red Corvette Stingray by Candace Nalepa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 18, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 13:1-8 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Hebrews 10:11-25 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

[sermon begins]

My family razzes me from time-to-time for singing the wrong lyrics to songs.  You’re all familiar with Prince’s 1983 hit, “Little Red Corvette?”[1]  Yours truly, hair-sprayed bangs and all, sang it wrong for much too long as “Cigarette Collect.” [sing “Cigarette Collect” to tune of “Little Red Corvette”].  See, it works in a weird sort of way but it sadly makes no sense whatsoever.  I’m a master at mishearing lyrics and singing them with gusto.  Try this question in a group of people, “What is a lyric you’ve sung wrong or the funniest lyric fail you’ve heard?”  The fails are epic and hilarious – a fun way to laugh at ourselves and each other that’s pretty harmless.  I looked up lyric fails this week and cracked up all over again reading them.  Except, they’re not called lyric fails.  They’re called Mondegreens.[2]  Mondegreens come from a 1950s mondegreen made by American writer Sylvia Wright listening to her mother read a favorite poem:

Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands/ Oh, where hae ye been?  They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.”[3]

Sylvia heard her mother say Lady Mondegreen when the actual poetry was that they had taken the Earl and Laid-Him-On-The-Green.  Similarly, some children think God’s name is Hal and begin their nightly prayers this way, “Our Father who art in heaven, Hal would (hallowed) be thy name…”  The possibilities for mondegreens are endless.

Mondegreens happen because our brains are quickly filling in blanks while processing information.  We hear sounds and combine them with context and knowledge.  This may partly explain why my young brain heard “cigarette collect” out of “little red corvette” – no context and limited knowledge.  Let’s go with that, shall we?  Regardless, something similar happens with scripture.  We hear the Bible’s words, slot them into our context and knowledge and poof(!) – interpretation and life application.  The resulting thought and behavior range from the hilarious to the glorious to the horrific.  Thank you, Martin Luther.  One of his great achievements was translating the Bible into the common language so that everyday people could read it and the priests could no longer control it – 16th century Power to the People.  Alongside this achievement, we can also lay Luther’s misguided anger with Jews based on how he misinterpreted the Bible and his anti-Semitic writings used by Hitler.  Hitler’s use of Luther’s work during the Holocaust led to the ELCA’s 1994 repudiation of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, expressing deep regret for their consequences, and reclaiming the desire to live in “love and respect for Jewish people.”[4]  Luther’s misinterpretation was no harmless mondegreen.

Mondegreen lyric fails are one thing.  Misinterpretation of scripture, armed for bear with our biases, is quite another – bringing us to the gospel reading from Mark. People read about these “wars, and rumors of wars…earthquakes…and famines” taking place and unconsciously connect them with Hollywood’s version of apocalypse.[5]  Some Christians even go so far as to see their task as bringing about this end-time blaze of glory.  This mission is not solely housed in fringe groups.  It shows up in political saber rattling and environmental apathy.  Think about it – if end times equal the end of the planet then everything is disposable.  Blaze-of-glory thinking makes faithful, thoughtful interpretation about this kind of scripture so critical. And makes Jesus’ closing words in verse 8 something to notice.  Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”[6]  Birth pangs.  Birth is a word of hope. Birth means something new is coming.  Something is being born.  Christian scripture sends a message of radical healing of creation – a new heaven and a new earth “brought together in a lasting embrace.”[7]  This New Testament message sees salvation “in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share that new and gloriously embodied reality.” Jesus’ talks about birth pangs with his disciples which focuses this lens.

The gospel of Mark was first written to Jesus followers who lived through the actual destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Rome was on the rampage, annihilating Jews and the earliest Jewish Christians.  It’s truly a wonder that the early church lived through Rome’s campaign against them.  Jesus’ words of hope give his followers something to hang on to during confusing and terrifying times without falling into despair.  Jesus’s words of hope also give us, his followers today, something to hang on to during challenging times without falling into despair.  The preacher in the Hebrews reading makes suggestions for the Jesus follower during challenging times as well. Listen once more to these verses:

“Approach [God] with a true heart in assurance of faith;

Hold fast to the confession of our hope;

And provoke one another to love.”[8]

Hmmm….faith, hope, and love…we might suspect that the preacher of Hebrews knew about 1 Corinthians 13.

Listen to this last bit of 1 Corinthians 13:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[9]

In Hebrews, faith in what God is doing on our behalf, on behalf of all creation, opens up our approach to God with confidence won through Jesus Christ.  This is not an invitation to meek humility.  We’re invited into bold confidence that Christ’s victory over sin allows our approach to God.  Not that sin is removed from our experience.  Rather, Christ allows for the possibility that sin could be removed from our experience.  This is a faith focused on God, the object of our faith, the means by which we catch glimpses of God as God draws us ever closer.[10]

These glimpses of God through the window of Christ inspire us to what the Hebrews preacher calls a confession of hope.  The Christ whose self-sacrificing death begins the birth pangs signaling God’s radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is not certainty. Our confession of hope is that God’s last word is life – life for you, me, everyone else, and all of creation.

If “our faith is what God has done; [and] our hope is what we confess,” so what of love? [11]  We hear in 1 Corinthians that out of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.  The writer of Hebrews tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  Provoke love.  That’s not very flowery or prettied up for a wedding.  The love in 1 Corinthians 13 is patient and kind; not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful; does not insist on its own way; does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth.  This love bears, believes, endures, and hopes all the things. How do we understand this love in tension with provoking one another to love?  This is one example that is ripe for the type of misinterpretation that’s no mondegreen when we read our context and knowledge into the text rather than hearing Jesus out of the text.

Last week’s gospel reading from Mark had Jesus taking the religious leaders to task for exploiting poverty stricken widows, leaving them homeless. He stood to the side and directed his disciples to notice the widow giving “all she had to live on.”[12]  Was he provoking them to love?  What makes you feel provoked to love?  What kind of provocation to love wears you out when you hear it one more time?  Perhaps it’s the plight of coal workers whose jobs are gone or threatened by the new energy economy.  Perhaps it’s when someone raises the issue of income inequality as the wealthy get wealthier around the world while the poor get poorer as they’re paid non-living wages.  Perhaps it’s the desperation of farmers who can’t figure out how to get affordable food to your table while paying themselves and their migrant workers.  Perhaps it’s the issue of racial diversity, equality, and acceptance, around issues like corporate hiring or college admissions.  Or maybe it’s altogether closer to home – a spouse who asks for love from you only to be ignored; or a child who really just needs you to put away your phone and hang out for the evening.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to think about when you’re provoked to love and why that message bugs you so much.  Press pause on considering the problems with the message or the messenger who is provoking you.  Instead, ask what misinterpretations of this provocation to love might you be making? We’re all reading the Bible – the possibilities for misinterpretation are endless.  If we only read 1 Corinthians 13 and occasionally hear it at weddings, we may not know that the preacher in Hebrews is simultaneously urging us to provoke each other to love and good deeds.  We also tend to assign ourselves the role of provocateur when we think about provoking love.  We generally like to be the sender rather than the receiver who is provoked to love.

Here’s the deal though, the preacher of Hebrews is asking us to regularly meet together, encouraging each other through the difficulties and joys of faithful living in difficult times.  It’s easy to misinterpret scripture and, by extension, the One ultimately provoking us to love.  But our confession of hope points to the One who brings the radical healing of creation.  Our confession of hope is a gift to each other and a gift we bring the world in difficult times while we provoke each other to love.

Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

________________________________________________________

 

[1] Prince. Little Red Corvette. Album: 1999.

[2] Mondegreens, pronunciation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0FIISNVR7U

[3] Maria Konnikova. “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.”  The New Yorker, December 10, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/science-misheard-lyrics-mondegreens

[4] ELCA Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. Online Resources: Interfaith Resources. www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Online-Resources

[5] Mark 13:7-8

[6] Also Mark 18 verse 8.

[7] N.T. Wright. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 19, 122, 142-144, 197

[8] Hebrews 10:22-24

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[10] Douglas John Hall. Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 248-254.

[11] Katherine A. Shaner, Asst. Professor of New Testament, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, N.C. Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-25 for November 18, 2018.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3909

[12] Mark 12:38-44

Memorial to Victims of Violence [Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh]

**sermon art is Star of David by Ram Coenca, arcrylic on canvas, coenca-art.com

Caitlin Trussell with the residents of Kavod Senior Life in Denver and other faith leaders by invitation of Rabbi Stephen Booth-Nadav, on October 30, 2018

[Rabbi Steve invited our remarks and prayers to reflect unity in diversity as well as to offer comfort to residents of each faith leader’s tradition. He notes that the deaths in Pittsburgh hit Kavod’s residents in “some unique ways, including: Most of the victims in Pittsburg were over 60 as are our residents; a little under half of our residents are Jewish; our non-Jewish residents feel a special closeness, and vulnerability, with our Jewish community.”]

[Remarks begin]

I am Pastor Caitlin Trussell and I bring you greetings from my colleague Pastor Ann Hultquist, who is traveling, and the good people of Augustana Lutheran Church, your neighbors one mile to the east.

Over lunch on Tuesday a week ago, a rabbi friend of mine talked about his fear about being a Jew in America [2]. Then Saturday came and, with it, the murder of Jews in Pittsburgh. Twenty-four years ago my brother married a lovely Jewish woman. They raised their children at Congregation Or Ami in California.  My brother converted to Judaism more recently.  When I heard about the shootings, weighing heavily on my heart and mind were those who died, their friends and family, my Jewish friends and colleagues, as well as my brother, his family, and their Jewish congregation.

In Christian scripture, the Gospel of John, the 14th chapter, Jesus says to his disciples:

“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.”

I suppose that’s easy for Jesus to say.  Not so easy for us.  We can get lost in the details of Jesus’ words because, in the aftermath of Saturday’s killings of our Jewish cousins in faith, we see all too clearly how the world gives, which troubles our hearts and makes us afraid. Christians sometimes refer to our life here on earth as living on “this side of the cross” – meaning that we live in a world in which we so clearly see and experience suffering.

It’s a truth we understand deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain. However, Christians see along with that truth that the cross means that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God loves unconditionally.  Not only that, the cross also reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer, revealing life in the midst of that suffering through the love we share with each other; and through the love and solidarity we share with people of no faith and people of all faiths in our collective determination and actions to prevent future suffering.

It is in the spirit of love and solidarity that I offer this prayer from my faith tradition…

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, you have brought us this far along the way.

In times of bitterness you did not abandon us, but guided us into the path of love and light.

In every age you sent prophets to make known your loving will for all humanity.

The cry of the suffering has become your own cry; our hunger and thirst for justice for all people is your own desire.

You entered our sorrows in Jesus our brother. He was born among the poor, he lived under oppression, he wept over the city. With infinite love, he meets us in our suffering.

O God most merciful, our comfort and our hope, graciously tend those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love.

O God most majestic, you are breath and fire, our strength and our song, you show us a vision of a tree of life with fruits for all and leaves that heal the nations.

Grant us such a life as you make us instruments of your peace.[1]

Amen.

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] The prayer above is modified from Prayers for Worship VIII and X as well as the Funeral Prayer of the Day in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Hymnal).  (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 67, 69, and 281.

[2] This same rabbi friend encourages the use of the word Jew acknowledging that non-Jews are squeamish about it given the pejorative use in history up through today.

Disruptive Love with an Indulgent Dash of Lyle Lovett [Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 6, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings. If you only have patience for one, read the Acts reading.]

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

1 John 5:1-6 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, 4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. 5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

[sermon begins]

In a hilarious song called “Church,” there’s a preacher whose sermon is running waaayy long and

“…everyone was getting so hungry

that the old ones started feeling ill

and the weak ones started passing out

and the young ones they could not sit still.”[1]

Lyle Lovett sings from the viewpoint of a child whose stomach is growling for the potluck but the preacher keeps on preaching. At one point…

“…the preacher he stopped preaching

and a hush the church did fill

and then a great white dove from up above

landed on the window sill.”[2]

You’ll have to listen to the song to hear what happens next but suffice it say that everyone gets to go eat soon after getting disrupted by a great white dove and the preacher’s own hunger pangs.  Apparently that preacher isn’t the only preacher ever disrupted by the Holy Spirit from saying more.

Peter’s sermon in the reading from Acts gets shut down too. Except he hasn’t been preaching all that long – maybe a minute or two by the word count. He had been summoned by a man named Cornelius who “had called together his relatives and close friends” to hear about God.[3] Cornelius is “a centurion of the Italian cohort,”[4] NOT a circumcised Jew like the disciples with Peter. Peter’s sermon starts in the verses before our reading today with these words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…”[5]  He continues preaching BUT, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”[6]  Confusion and chaos ensued. Into that disruption Peter asks the disciples with him, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? So [Peter] ordered [Cornelius, his family, and his friends] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”[7]  Wait a minute, did the Holy Spirit come on those people before baptism?  Don’t we usually say the Holy Spirit is given in baptism?  Which is it?  Before?  After?  Both?  You may wonder who the heck cares about such things but there are Christian denominations that were started on less vexing questions.

Let’s do a quick review to catch us up along with the disciples with Peter. Way, way, way back in Genesis 12, near the very beginning of the Bible, God makes promises to man named Abrahm, later re-named Abraham. God told Abraham that, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[8]  God’s promises to Abraham are called the Abrahamic covenant.[9]  Circumcision was given at that time as a sign of God’s covenant.  Fast-forward through Moses and the 10 Commandments, through the prophets, and through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, to the baptism of Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends.  This is the moment that the larger Biblical story is careening toward.  This is the moment that God’s life in Jesus disrupts into the wild abandon of the Holy Spirit.  This is THE moment.  It’s not the only moment though.  We know that, of course.  But this moment is easy to miss because we don’t hang around in the book of Acts very often.

Disruptive love sees other people as equally beloved.  This can be tough because it reframes a lot of our interactions.  Small example. I was in the middle of drafting this sermon about disruptive love during the last few days at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly. I was taking my suitcase to the car and trying to get to breakfast and, most importantly, to that first cup of coffee. As I was winging through the hotel door, a gentleman saw my tell-tale green name tag.  He stopped me and asked me how I was enjoying the “conference.”  He then went on to tell me his church history and asked me about the Lutheran church.  Even in that moment, I found it ironic that I had just come from writing about the disruption of the Spirit and there I was, salivating at the thought of coffee, and obstructed in a doorway by someone who wanted to talk about faith and church.  That wily Holy Spirit has some sense of humor.

But there are other times that are more frustrating than humorous.  There are some of us who know disruptive love very well.  Parents in the pews who are worshiping with their little kiddos, for the sake of their kiddos, while they themselves are only catching every 5th word of the liturgy.  Others of us struggle to encounter other people with vulnerability and connection. The Gospel of John and the First John reading lead us into the even harder moments.  Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[10]  Seems to me that death is the ultimate disruption – both for the dead and the living.  Jesus commands us to love out of his own self-sacrificing love.  Disruptive love is risk.  Risking reputation, comfort, and safety for people besides ourselves.

Peter gets a taste of these side effects of disruptive love – risking his reputation, comfort, and safety on behalf of the newly baptized Gentiles.  Peter and the disciples baptize Cornelius, his family, and friends and the newly baptized invite Peter “to stay for several days.”  Then Peter heads back to Jerusalem.  Criticism from his friends welcomes him.  Apparently it’s all fun and games until you start baptizing Gentiles and eating with them.  I invite you into a little homework for the week.  Read the chapters of Acts 10 and 11.  Go ahead and grab a pen from the pew pocket in front of you. Write it down – Acts chapters 10 and 11. Think about who you believe belongs in the church and who doesn’t.  Also think about who you believe is worthy of attention by the church and who isn’t.  The Holy Spirit not only disrupts our ideas about good order; the Spirit also disrupts our biases. While you’re reading Acts 10 and 11, think about what God is doing through faithful people to disrupt what other faithful people think and do.

It’s tough to know the difference between sheer human agenda with a hefty dose of ego versus what might be the God thing. Chances are good that the God thing of disruptive love is incredibly uncomfortable for the people doing the God thing.  Remember, Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  That’s a pretty hefty amount of personal discomfort if you’re the ones laying your lives down.  Pick a word, any word, to describe the discomfort. Here’s a few…weird, nauseous, uncomfortable, scary, exposed, patronized, compromised, denied, betrayed, beaten, abandoned, assassinated…  Quite a list. Because when you do the self-sacrificing thing and not the self-protective thing, it’s not often that cozy warm-fuzzies await you.  That’s not the way it works. It’s not the way any of this works.  Although, let’s remember that it’s also not simply disruption for disruption’s sake.

Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Jesus reminds us that this love shatters orthodoxy or creeds.  Much blood has been spilled over the centuries as various groups of Christians go after each other about right teaching and good order.  Jesus invites you into the love of the Father by loving you.  This is anti-orthodoxy.  It moves you beyond the attempt at right thinking and pulls you into the love of the God and love of Jesus, sending you to be what you’ve received by abiding in their love.  Your flesh and bone born of water and blood embodies the faith of Jesus for the sake of the world.[11]  You did not choose.  You, beloved of God, have been chosen.[12]  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.  Amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Lyle Lovett. “Church” in Joshua Judges Ruth (MCA/Curb, 1992). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZI0zO2TS1Y

[2] Ibid.

[3] Acts 10:24

[4] Acts 10:1

[5] Acts 10:34

[6] Acts 10:44

[7] Acts 10:47-48

[8] Genesis 12:1-3

[9] Genesis 15 includes more promises and the ritual of the covenant.

[10] John 15:13

[11] 1 John 5:6

[12] John 15:16

 

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!

__________________________________________________________

[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

Mr. Irrelevant 2017 is a Denver Bronco [OR The Last Will Be First…Thank God!] Matthew 20:1-16 and Jonah 3:10-4:11

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 24, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings from the books of Matthew and Jonah – hang in there]

Matthew 20:1-16  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Jonah 3:10-4:11 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5 Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

[sermon begins]

Some of you know of my hope to someday call an NFL game in the booth with Chris Collingsworth and Al Michaels. Word-sparring with Al and arguing biases with Chris would be tons of fun. Alas, not only would my inability to accurately call pass interference hold me back, but then I learn something else I didn’t know about American football and wonder if I would even have the courage to speak. The courage question will go unanswered as Al’s retirement will happen eventually and NBC hasn’t called. The latest NFL knowledge to pop on my radar is Mr. Irrelevant.[1] Are there people here that know this is a thing? Since 1976, the last player chosen in the annual NFL draft is given the title of Mr. Irrelevant.[2]  There’s a big-buildup as the draft comes to a close. The chosen player receives a team jersey. On the back, in big bold, letters, is Mr. Irrelevant.  This year, that team jersey was Bronco Orange.[3]  Anybody here that can name the player? … … Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, quarterback, 253rd overall pick of the draft.  Mr. Kelly apparently has an abundance of talent that is shadowed by health and character. What fascinates me is that regardless of his draft title, he’s still part of the team. He has the same shot as everyone else to make it happen. There’s even such a list as the top 5 Mr. Irrelevants who have gone on to make names for themselves in the sport.[4]

Mr. Irrelevant is a limited metaphor for Jesus’ parable today but it leans us toward it. (It also ups the odds that scripture comes to mind during today’s Bronco game. You’ll have to let me know.)  Regardless of its limits as a metaphor, this notion of the last chosen seems to be a main concern. Those last workers are at least the main concern of the first workers – especially the salary scale.  It’s easy to get lost in the levels of employment.  Into what level is each worker slotted as the landowner goes back out and gets more workers?  9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm.

One move we could make would be to think through the parable economically. We could ask about the landowner’s wealth and generosity in terms of our own biases about economic systems and merit pay.  A pure capitalist might ask about the landowner’s business plan if this turns into HR policy.  A pure socialist might ask why land ownership was necessary.

Another move we could make is to rank the workers against our own scale of worthiness.  In the Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship, we say together:

“Living God, source of all life, we confess that we struggle to believe that your grace sets us free. You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it. We turn the church inward, rather than following you in the world. Forgive us. Stir us. Reform us. Amen.” [5]

“You love us unconditionally, yet we expect others to earn it.”  When we confess together in worship, it’s a chance to slow our thinking down and acknowledge our behavior.  While we’re on the topic, though, might I go a step further and suggest that we also think WE need to earn God’s love and grace.  Oh, I know, many of us have been Lutheran Christians a long time, some from the cradle.  So we know we’re not supposed to talk about earning God’s grace. But I’m here to tell you that in my world it’s not uncommon to hear people wondering if God is happy with them.  I hear questions like:  Am I worth it?  Do I know enough?  Have I read enough?  Am I kind enough?  Apparently, there is no limit to the ways in which we can torture ourselves.  No limit to the ways we can feel shame ourselves and inflict it on other people.  And, in the meantime, limit God.

For some reason, I’m hesitant to let the landowner off the hook in Jesus’ parable.  Maybe I’ve read too much Jonah and his lament against God. I want the landowner in the lineup with everyone else and ask him hard questions. I want to lump him into the problem of envy that the parable taps. And then, to go a step further, I want to erase everyone out the parable.  The parable is too complicated as allegory and, at the same time, oversimplifies humanity. Who is that landowner and why is the manager even there?  Can’t everyone just go home to live, work, and eat another day without reacting to the landowner’s behavior?  What if Jesus had simply said, “The kingdom of heaven is like…the last will be first and the first will be last.”[6]   The kingdom of heaven is the first being last.

Perhaps the first being last is like those nefarious Ninevites so despised by Jonah.[7]  He has every reason to avoid them. They were first in the land, top dogs, part of the Assyrian Empire that captured, killed, or carried away Jonah’s people to the north. They did bad, bad things. Jonah was sent by God to pronounce God’s mercy to the Ninevites so that they might repent and receive forgiveness. Jonah did NOT want to announce God’s mercy to the Ninevites because he knew about God’s slow anger and steadfast love. He knew that God would forgive them and Jonah did not want them forgiven.

The story wraps up with Ninevah’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. We share this story this week with our Jewish cousins in the faith who read the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, their highest holy day of the year. Yom Kippur begins before sunset this Friday and ends after nightfall on Saturday. Jews ask for other people’s and God’s forgiveness and praise God’s mercy and steadfast love as they reflect on Jonah’s story. It’s an incredibly offensive forgiveness.  God forgives the Ninevites their kidnapping and murder of the northern tribes. We heard read this morning the closing verse of the book of Jonah as God asks Jonah, “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”[8]

Perhaps…perhaps…the first being last means that the landowner ends up as the last.  If the parable being told by Jesus infers God as the landowner, then one possibility is that Jesus ending up dead on a cross is definitely ending up last. The Roman Empire’s own version of Mr. Irrelevant playing out in first century politics, on a hill, far away. Except, theirs is not the last word.

At the end of the book of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”[9]  Here’s the good news. God is not limited to our finite understanding of first and last.  We’re well beyond landowners, managers, and workers.

This God is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  This is the God you hear from after your confession at the beginning of worship as God’s good forgiveness is announced to you.  “God hears your cry and the Spirit sets you free; your sins are forgiven, + in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”[10]

No small thing, God’s forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness turns lasts into firsts, and firsts into lasts, turning despair into defiant hope.  You are forgiven and set free.  Thanks be to God.

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[1] Sundays and Seasons. Day Resources for Sunday, September 24, 2017. https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources#resources

[2] Foxsports.com.“The NFL Draft’s Top 5 “Mr. Irrelevants” of the Modern Era. April 26, 2016 http://www.foxsports.com/nfl/story/nfl-draft-mr-irrelevant-successes-042616

[3] Max Meyer. “Broncos Tab Chad Kelly as 2017’s “Mr. Irrelevant.” April 20, 2017. NFL.com http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000805002/article/broncos-tab-chad-kelly-as-2017s-mr-irrelevant

[5] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.

[6] Matthew 20:1a and 16b

[7] I recommend reading all of Jonah.  It is four chapters and a fun read.

[8] Jonah 4:11

[9] Revelation 22:13

[10] Confession and Forgiveness modified from Sundays and Seasons online: Seasonal Texts for Fall 2017.