Tag Archives: love

Play with the Questions – Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

sermon photo: Playable Art Park – Sandy Springs, Georgia

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 19, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a  Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.4:
1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8aDraw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Mark 9:30-37  [Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

[sermon begins]

During the Children’s sermon on Labor Day, I asked kids what they thought their job was as children. One courageous young friend said, “Play.” Play was a great answer. We tend to think of playing as a children’s thing. Play is imagination, curiosity, happiness, and (often) energy lumped into an experience that doesn’t have to have a goal. Play is just play. Another thing kids do is ask questions – sometimes as if it’s their job. So many questions. “Why” questions seem to be a fan favorite of the curious child. Why-this and why-that launch at a rapid pace across all kinds of topics. Being at the receiving end of those kinds of questions is awesome until something else needs to get done. Then it’s difficult to end the stream of questions. There are times, though, when a well-placed question makes all the difference. Take Jesus’ question in the reading today when he asked his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?”

The disciples had been arguing on their way to Capernaum. It’s curious that Jesus didn’t interrupt their argument on the walk. Maybe he was waiting for the right moment or perhaps letting them get it out of their system. It’s even more curious that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching about his betrayal, death, and rising again and were afraid to ask a question about it. Or maybe it’s not that hard to understand. The last time Jesus taught about his death, Peter’s misguided speech to Jesus went poorly – so poorly that Jesus told Peter to get behind him and called him Satan. That couldn’t have made it easy for the disciples to get their courage on. Although, it may have gone better for Peter if he had asked some questions rather than debating Jesus. Regardless, here we are again. Jesus once again taught about his death and resurrection. The disciples didn’t get it and, not only that, they were also afraid to ask him question about it. It’s not clear that a Q & A would have addressed their questions. Jesus’ actual death and resurrection is hard to fathom after the fact. His disciples didn’t stand much chance of figuring it out ahead of time. Jesus likely knew this too.

So, he put a child among them and held that child while teaching them. Most of us need examples to learn, and the disciples were no different. Children in the first century had no standing in the community, no status whatsoever. For Jesus to acknowledge a child in his presence, much less use one as an example, was earth shattering in a way that’s difficult for us 21st century types to comprehend. To take a child with no standing, and stand the child among them, upended the disciples’ ordered world. Hierarchy is what they understood to be true. There’s a highest level of the hierarchy, a lowest level of the hierarchy, and there’s everything in between. Being at the top of the hierarchy meant being the greatest. And being the greatest was the goal. Hence the disciples’ argument. If they couldn’t understand Jesus’ teaching and were afraid to ask, maybe they could compensate by being the top of the heap, the greatest of all time. It’s neither hard to see the timelessness of Jesus’ teaching to be last and least, nor is it hard to see how the world would be a better place with a scooch more humility. It’s just hard applying Jesus’ teaching to our own lives and maybe harder to apply it to our children’s lives. When have you ever coached a child to be last as a life goal? When have you encouraged a friend to be a servant? When have you yourself decided to live into and through your most recent humiliation to find a lesson in the heartache?

Last week, Pastor Ann preached Jesus’ challenge for us to be bearers of the cross rather than its defenders. There are more than enough folks ready to battle it out, coming out swinging and defending their truth at any cost and against everyone else’s humanity. This week, Jesus continues to challenge us to be cross bearers, to be transformed through servanthood into Christ-shaped disciples – willing to be last of all and servant of all in obedience to the One we follow. Or, to summarize the James reading, do your works with gentleness born of wisdom from above. In these verses today, James continues to encourage a church struggling to be the church in a society that threatens to overwhelm its faith and obedience.[1] Warnings against partiality and hypocrisy and encouragement towards mercy and peacemaking are themes wound together with this Jesus’ actions in the Gospel reading from Mark.

What does gentleness born of wisdom look like? It looks like Jesus holding a child in front of his disciples after they’ve argued about greatness. What does peacemaking look like? It looks like Jesus standing firm about servanthood being the greatest. What does mercy look like? It looks like Jesus rejecting human violence, dying on a cross, and rising again in love not vengeance.

What does gentleness born of wisdom look like for us? Perhaps it looks like figuring out how to welcome someone with no social standing into a conversation at church, school, or work. What does peacemaking look like for us? Perhaps it looks like serving those people who we deeply believe do not deserve to be helped or are beyond help. What does mercy look like for us? Perhaps it looks like rejecting violence and vengeance as cross-bearers in our families and community by, at the very least, not celebrating when someone we disagree with tumbles from their pedestal in public humiliation.

Our world needs the church to be the body of Christ in the way that Christ asks us to do it – with Christ who lives in us and shows us a different way to move through the world. To do this we may have to take ourselves just a scooch less seriously and be more playful. Play as a theological posture fuels curiosity and imagination just like play does for our youngest siblings in Christ who come up for Children’s sermons. A thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury, encouraged the church towards “faith seeking understanding.” His encouragement reminds us that it’s not our thoughts about Jesus that save us. Jesus – who died on a cross and lives again – saves us.

One thing that the cross means is that there is nothing that you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. God’s love in Jesus frees us to be a courageous church who asks questions. So, ask “Why?” If you’d like to be more Luther-y about it, ask, “What does that mean?” Questions are important to faith and one way the church figures out our obedience to Christ. Jesus was the one in the Bible reading who asked a question. It wasn’t that the disciples didn’t have questions to ask Jesus. They were too afraid to ask them. Don’t be like that disciple. Be like Jesus – the one who inspires us to love by loving us first.

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[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship texts on September 19, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/802-17th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-25b-sept-19-2021

 

Disagreement by Design [OR Labor Day as a Call to Love] Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-10, 14-17

 

**sermon art: Unity by Joanne Holbrooke (read more below)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 5, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

James 2:1-10, 14-17 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Mark 7:24-37 [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

[sermon begins]

I’m part of a group of friends that gets together every month or so to catch up over supper. The pandemic slowed us down with the occasional zoom attempt filling the gap, but we eventually reconnected in person. Between us, we cover a wide range of politics, vocations, hobbies, and humor. Supper conversations include debates, questions, bad jokes, and fun facts. Only occasionally do we go off the rails, and love seems to get us back on track. I mention this because the Bible is kind of like Supper Club – an ongoing internal argument exists between the threads of agreement. Throughout the centuries, attempts have been made to resolve disagreements between the books of the Bible – and sometimes within a book itself when several authors seem to have written it – with a technique called “harmonizing.”[1] Harmonizing attempts to make the Bible agree with itself, smoothing over conflicting stories and theologies. Not only does harmonizing the Bible distort softer voices, but it’s a disservice to the writers who were each inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s a bit like telling my Supper Club friends that we’re all really saying and believing the same thing which simply isn’t true. Which is one way to introduce the Bible’s book of James.

We’re in the second of five weeks of James’ readings during Sunday worship. Here’s a reminder to go ahead and read the book. It’s five brief chapters that read kind of like the book of Proverbs or wisdom literature in the Old Testament. But these blurbs about right living are delivered with strong words and severe consequences. Jesus’ second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is quoted in the James’ reading today.[2] Except, here in James, it’s called “the royal law.” And goes on to say that “faith without works is dead.” If you were handed the book of James as your introduction to the Bible, you might pause to wonder who could possibly attain the pure life it demands. Martin Luther even rejected it as an “epistle of straw” for its lack of grace, preferring instead Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the second chapter, that emphasizes being saved by grace through faith and not by works, so that no one may boast.[3]

Regardless of Luther’s frustration with it, the book of James has its place in the Bible. It has its place when there’s so much need that we turned inward. It has its place when our faith becomes a wall, blocking out other people for any reason. Like a hero in a movie gripped by hysteria, a hero who is slapped across the face and shocked into calm and courage, James is the persuasion that we sometimes need to keep going on behalf of our neighbor. James brooks no argument and accepts no excuses while making Christian vocation crystal clear.

There’s no time like Labor Day weekend to talk about vocation. For most folks, vocation means the work we do at our jobs. In church, vocation describes our calling as Christians. Martin Luther’s interpretation of scripture in the early 16th century leveled the playing field between clergy and everyone else.[4] Back in his day, there was no holier calling than a vocation as a priest in the church. Luther argued that all Christians are priests belonging to the “priesthood of all believers;” called by Christ into the holy work of being Christ in the world through their vocations. Jobs of every kind are Christian vocations because Christians have all kinds of jobs – custodian, student, accountant, journalist, politician, homemaker, nurse, cashier, soldier, and so on; and Christian vocations are also calls on us through our relationships – parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, and grandparent are all vocations.

Like our ancestors in the faith who wrote the Bible, today’s Christians often disagree about what Jesus calls his disciples to do vocationally. Interpretations of parables and stories vary wildly. James’ high standards for faithful Christian vocation and Mark’s story about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are one example. To hear James tell it, the only way to live out Jesus’ call to us is by the purest level of works on behalf of the neighbor in Jesus’ name. But the story in Mark argues that God’s purposes are manifested in the actions of unexpected people without a confession of faith. The Syrophoenician woman was a Greek by religion and language who lived at the seashore miles away from Galilee. The Gospel of Matthew says she was a Canaanite but we’re not going to get hung up on that discrepancy.[5]  (Although, it’d be fun to argue whether or not that’s an important distinction.) The woman was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who demanded that Jesus help her. Two ways to read this text include a sly Jesus or an earnest Jesus.[6] If sly, Jesus knew just what to say to draw this woman into speaking her mind. If earnest, Jesus shared a bias with his peers and needed a push to learn and respond to her in love.

Some people, including me, find it difficult to think that Jesus needed to learn anything and prefer thinking that sly Jesus had the whole interaction figured out, mostly because the way he calls her a dog sounds incredibly offensive. While other people love the idea that earnest Jesus had something to learn as his ministry grew and this Gentile woman was key to that process as an outsider. Regardless, does her faithful act qualify as a work according to James? She didn’t confess Jesus as Lord. She bowed to him and then argued that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the kids’ table. That was it. Then Jesus healed her daughter because of what she said. It’s such an odd and offensive story that theologians will likely debate it until kingdom come. One thing seems clear though. Jesus both pushed, and was pushed into, an ever-expanding ministry that included unlikely people. It’s why when some of us read the royal law in James, to love your neighbor as yourself, it becomes the cross-heavy hill we’re willing to die on because it’s the vocation we think Jesus calls us into through stories like the Syrophoenician woman’s.

Labor Day is intended as a rest from the vocational labors that fill our days. I hear it from a different angle this Sunday through these particular Bible readings. I hear it as an invitation to consider our vocations through Jesus’ call. As we labor, we love our neighbor as ourselves in our workplaces, in our family relationships, and in our local and global relationships. Ultimately, though, Jesus is bigger than our arguments about vocation and greater than our limited capacity to live it out. Jesus’ disciples are a Supper Club of a different kind –sustained by a simple meal of bread and wine while the waters of baptism wash over us daily, freeing and forming us into lives that are ever more Christ-shaped. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Bart Ehrman (James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill). “Harmonizing the Gospels.” September 11, 2013. The Bart Ehrman Blog: The History & Literature of Early Christianity. https://ehrmanblog.org/harmonizing-gospels/#

[2] Jesus’ second greatest commandment can be found in Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, and Luke 10:27.

[3] Ephesians 2:8-9

[4] Art Lindsley, Vice President of Theological Initiatives, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. “The Priesthood of All Believers.” October 15, 2013. https://tifwe.org/resource/the-priesthood-of-all-believers/#:~:text=When%20Luther%20referred%20to%20the%20priesthood%20of%20all,a%20%E2%80%9Cvocation%E2%80%9D%20and%20milking%20the%20cow%20was%20not.

[5] Matthew 15:22

[6] John Marboe, Pastor, Zion Lutheran Church, St. Paul, MN. Mark 7:24-37, September 2, 2021. God Pause: A Daily Devotion by Alumni of Luther Seminary. www.luthersem.edu/godpause/2021/09/02/

**sermon art:  https://fineartamerica.com/featured/unity-joanne-holbrook.html

“Unity was painted during worship and praise on May 28, 2019. There can be a tendency in religious circles to create one way for how things should be done or seen. We make everything one flavor, color. The apostle Paul reveals that this tendency misses God’s intent for His church, which is to make known the manifold wisdom of God to rulers and authorities in heavenly realms, Ephesians 3:10. The word manifold means variegated, marked, with a great variety of colors.”

A Celebration of Life for Carol and Charlie – John 2:1-11 and Romans 8:35, 37-39

Caitlin Trussell with family and friends in Grand Lake

July 20, 2021

[reflection begins after two Bible readings]

Romans 8: 35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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

[reflection begins]

In the Bible story about the wedding at Cana, we remember that Jesus’ ministry came to life during a celebration of marriage. The wedding is part of what makes this a great story to celebrate Carol and Charlie’s lives and their life together. Married at 18 and 19 years old, their adult lives were shaped by each other. Sometimes fun and sometimes fiery and other times everything in between, many of us sitting here today are here because they found each other.

My first encounter with them was at a wedding on the west coast. When Rob and I pulled into the parking lot, Charlie and Carol were standing on the sidewalk waiting for us. Charlie was smiling and calm, and Carol was smiling with mischief in her eye and sassily showing a bit of leg. Rob said, “Yup, that’s my mom.” At that same wedding, she also told me that she wanted brown-eyed grandchildren although she’d end up having to wait until the great-grandchildren arrived to get her wish.

Weddings are about hope. We all know the highs and the lows are coming. But the day itself is about hope. It’s fitting that Jesus’ first miracle happened at a wedding. It’s surprising that we get to talk about good wine by the gallon – especially because Mary had to step in with firm motherly encouragement. Jesus tried to tell his mother that it wasn’t his time.  Apparently he thought he had some living to do when he said that his “hour had not yet come.”  Jesus, speaking of his hour and turning the water into wine, foreshadows his death on a cross – when he drinks sour wine from a cloth just before the hour of his death.

We heard a Thanksgiving for Baptism this morning. Our baptism immerses us in Christ’s death and unites us with Christ in his resurrection.  The wedding at Cana gives us a glimpse of this connection between Jesus’ life and death and life, with Carol and Charlie’s completion of their baptismal journey through the cross of Christ.  As he did at the wedding, Jesus celebrates our joys, our highpoints and our relationships with us.  And Jesus’ life, ending on a cross, brings life and hope to our suffering through that very same cross.  How does this hope take shape?  First by naming suffering for what it is – just like in the reading from the book of Romans that names tragedy as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, nakedness, sword; just like our reason for being here today is Charlie and Carol’s lives and their deaths.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in their lives too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the struggle of not having them with us.

The last dinner that Charlie ate was ice cream – which surprises absolutely no one. The hospice had a connection with a family candy business that also made ice cream. He was asked how it was and Charlie said, “It’s worth dying for.” There was this pause in the room and then we all just cracked up.  That moment was quintessential Charlie, a classic one-liner that lightened the mood.

As we share stories to celebrate Carol and Charlie, there’s a temptation at funerals we can accidentally veer towards. Before we know it, our stories try to prove their goodness before God and position them in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He does NOT tally.

If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask “BUT what about WHAT I’M supposed to do?! Have I done enough to make myself right with God?! Has Charlie? Has Carol?” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is enough for us and for them to live into God’s future of hope.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut.

The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.

The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.

Those are hard truths, but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, failure, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Bible emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

Through the suffering of self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and, through an empty tomb, now catches death up into God, drawing Carol and Charlie into holy rest where suffering is no more, and joy never ends.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.  Nothing separates Charlie and Carol from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to them.  In day-to-day living, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more. In the twinkling of an eye, Jesus catches death up into God and draws Charlie and Carol into holy rest.  This is God’s promise for them, and this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

Surrender, Breath, and Being Made New [OR Be Gentle with Yourself] Mark 4:26-34 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 13, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 4:26-34 [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

[sermon begins]

Here’s a pro-tip conversation starter: Ask someone about their experience on the roads around the Denver area. It’s come up in conversation more in the last couple of weeks than I can remember it before. And that’s saying A LOT. Traffic here has long blended rural and city drivers that mix as well as oil and water and makes for good stories. More recently though, driving has inarguably reached wackadoodle proportions.[1] It’s like we’ve entered a video game that we didn’t download. Local police twitter (yes, I follow them too) tweets with the latest top speeds, flipped cars, and fatal accidents. I have found myself reacting to the chaos before realizing that I’m also contributing to it. Want to do something counter-cultural? Drive as if you have all the time in the world – except not too slowly or you become a problem on the other end of the spectrum which is a significant part of the chaos too. Anybody else feel themselves ramping up just talking about it?

Let’s take a different tack then, shall we? Our bodies are wired in such a way that they can be reminded to respond differently. Intentional breathing can reset our nervous systems and reduce anxiety.[2] Let’s try it together. In just a minute, I’m going to invite you to breathe in for a count of two, hold that breath for a count of three, and breathe out for a count of four. References abound on this kind of breathing with different breath and hold counts but, in the interest of time and everyone’s different experiences with this kind of breathing, we’re going to stick to the count of breathing in for two, hold for three, out for four. You can close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so. We’re going to go through the cycle three times. Ready, close your eyes. Here we go:

Breathe in one-two…

Hold one-two-three…

Breathe out one-two-three-four. [repeat for three times total]

Okay, you can open your eyes – if I haven’t lulled you into sleep, that is. Risky thing for a preacher to do, I suppose. 😉

This relaxed breathing is brought to us, in part, by the Gospel of Mark. Mark generally moves at an intense pace with lots of “immediately” this and “immediately” that.[3] But today, the pace slows down. Dare I say that it’s even gentle. The Markan community was confronted by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and what action they should take to get along in the world.[4] They had two obvious options. Should they take up arms and join a revolution? Or should they go along with Roman authority to get along and live another day? The Gospel of Mark offers a third response to the crisis of the day – to follow Jesus in the self-giving way of the cross, to trust God’s faithfulness, and to recognize God’s promises taking “a dramatic and subversive turn in Jesus.”[5]

Mark’s urgency and crisis response takes a pause in our two parables today, telling us stories about how the Kingdom of God expands by God’s power and not our own. We have the parable of the growing seed that sprouts and grows without us needing to know how – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” And then the parable of the mustard seed that is the tiniest of seeds, producing the greatest of all shrubs and providing shade for the birds. In these stories, we’re reminded that the Kingdom of God is first an act of God. We strategize ideas and take action on them hoping that we’re on the right track, but God’s kingdom will grow. We don’t know how. This is Mark’s version of taking a deep breath, easing the urgency caused by the crisis to remember the main thing. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out.

There’s almost no day that goes by without someone wondering with me about what they “should be doing” or how they think they should be “handling it.” Heck, I wonder about these things for myself, too. It doesn’t even matter what “it” is. It could be intense personal grief. Or a changing job situation. Or financial difficulty. Or emerging from pandemic ready for normal and not finding it. Quite often, I find myself saying things like, “give yourself some grace” or “be gentle with yourself.” I know from personal experience that this is easier said than done. But when I hear people say it to me, I find it easier to remember that I’m only human. And when I say it to other people, I’m reminded that they are too. Each breath connecting us to every other fragile, wondrous, vulnerable, and impatient creature.

Which brings us to the new creation promised in the second Corinthains reading. My lord, what promise! “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[6] Immediate deliverance. No waiting. New! This baptismal reality in Christ is like the growing seed in the parable – first the stalk, then the head, then the new grain in the head. We do not know how.

You are simply new. Not a romanticized, perfect new version of yourself, though. You are a new through a cross. Through THE cross. You are no longer living for yourself but for the one who died and was raised for you. The one who loves so deeply with divine love that this love changes everything, even you. Unconditional love that accepts you for who you are is freedom to surrender to that love and become what you have received from Christ.

Being the body of Christ means that we are death and resurrection people, coaching and encouraging each other, celebrating and grieving with each other. New. New means that there is something old, something former, and something to let go. Letting go creates space. Letting go gives us space to breathe. To abandon our illusion of control. To slow down our thinking in an anxious time in the world. To acknowledge our gifts and run with them. To acknowledge our sins against self and others and reconcile across them.

Letting go surrenders us to the one who loves so deeply with divine love that we are changed, made new – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” We do not know how. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God. And Amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] “Wackadoodle” is a more recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary. https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2014/03/wackadoodle-makes-oxford-english-dictionary#

[2] Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D. “How to Reduce Anxiety with Every Breath.” October 22, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201910/how-reduce-anxiety-every-breath

[3] This is a fun article comparing the use of “immediately” across the New Testament, the gospels, and Mark in particular. https://livingroomtheology.com/immediately-used-much-gospel-mark/

[4] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for June 13, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/788-third-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-11b-june-13-2021

[5] Ibid.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:17

The Blame Game [OR What Does “Queer Eye” Have Do with the Church?] Genesis 3:8-15 and Mark 3:20-35

**photo: Ryan Collerd/Netflix

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 6, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Genesis 3:8-15 [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

Mark 3:20-35 [Jesus went home;] 20and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and the disciples] could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

[sermon begins]

Ah, the Blame Game. It’s a tale as old as Adam and Eve’s tragic story of trading the Garden of Eden for the lie that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then they could be “like God.”[1] They were both present for the tempter’s invitation. They both ate the fruit. They both suddenly realized that they were naked and covered themselves with fig leaves. Given the simultaneous sin for both, it’s curious that the history of interpretation shouldered Eve with a singular burden as if Adam’s culpability were incidental. I highly recommend reading the opening verses of Genesis chapter 3 that lead into our story today. I do not think they mean what we think they mean based on what most of us have in our heads about Eve. History scapegoated her as THE Temptress with arguments that are frankly unobservant, misogynistic, and sexist.

Eve’s scapegoating comes in part from Adam’s blame of her when God looks for them in the garden. Biblical interpreters responded to Adam’s blame of Eve and said, “Ye-ah, ye-ah, that’s the ticket… Adam would have been just fine if it weren’t for Eve.” What’s followed is millennia of Blame Game against women – their actions, their motivations, and their role as scapegoats used against them for someone else’s gain.

This is not to say that Eve is off the hook. She caved to temptation. And while Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and they all ended up suffering for it.[2] He’s a blamer – she’s a blamer – wouldn’t you say that you’re a blamer too?[3] After all, their story is our story. Their story is an attempt to understand something about the origin of suffering and a broken creation. Their story also includes all too familiar themes of superiority and scapegoating as certain people are blamed as the problem by other people who blame them as the bigger sinners. The ultimate, go-to stunt when you’re trying to win the Blame Game is to tell someone that they’re of the devil. And that’s precisely what we encounter in our return to the Gospel of Mark today after spending the Easter season in the Gospel of John.

Quick refresher. Mark is EXTREMELY interested in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s good news. In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus proclaims that, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[4] Jesus being at the center of this good news is assumed, announced, and reinforced by the gospel writer. So far in Mark, up to our story today, the demons are the only ones who have correctly identified Jesus.[5] But knowledge about Jesus is quite different than faith, trust, and hope in Jesus. Okay, refresher over – on to the story!

Jesus had just appointed his twelve apostles including “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” and “then he went home.” Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters worry that he’s out of his mind and try to keep him home. The Jerusalem scribes, who are likely temple-based religious leaders, show up in Nazareth and accuse him of the demonic.[6] Jesus embarrasses the scribes and redefines family, dangerous actions at that time in Judea and partly why he ends up killed.[7] He flips the attack from the scribes, telling them that they judged God’s good news as evil when they accused him being possessed by an unclean spirit.[8]  Why does any of this matter? It matters because calling God’s good news evil happens all the time. In this regard, the church has much to confess and apologize for our part in the Blame Game.

A recent example of the church’s need to confess and apologize can be found in season five of Queer Eye.[9] Queer Eye is a television show that identifies a worthy “hero” and updates their home, wardrobe, and style, along with enriching their mental and physical health. In said episode, Pastor Noah Hepler of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement was nominated by his Congregation Council to be helped by Queer Eye’s Fab 5. He’s an ELCA pastor who is gay. He attended seminary and came out later in his life. Noah talked about the pain he experienced as a closeted, gay teenager in a church that preached about homosexuality as a sin. He also preached an amazing sermon at the end of the episode during his congregation’s 125th Anniversary; Noah celebrated who God created him to be as a gay man and he apologized on behalf of the church who have hurt so many people based on gender and sexuality.

Remember Adam and Eve at the beginning of the sermon? Those two served as handy poster children for historical interpretations that did not serve women. They also have millennia of historical burden placed on their shoulders for what love should look like. This burden continues to lead to the scapegoating, abuse, and murder of queer folks that we sometimes describe with the catchall acronym of LGBTQIA+ which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual/Aromantic/or Agender.[10] So much of our culture, including church culture, has tilted in favor of heterosexual norms that it makes it difficult to see how much pain it’s produced unless you have a queer friend or family member, or you yourself are queer.

In point of fact, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard these words used positively in church, not to mention the idea that we can celebrate all of who God created someone to be, including their gender and sexuality. You know how many times Jesus talked about anything related to being queer or gay? Zero. Just for kicks this week, look up how many times he talked it this week and then look up how many times he talked about money, poverty, hunger, or love. The other few Bible verses that have been interpreted as against homosexual behavior are more likely warning against abuse and idolatry. One sermon is not going to cover all this content down to the last thought but it’s part of a conversation. A conversation that we’re willing and want to have. Let me know if you’d like to talk more about it.

The ultimate good news is that each one of us, each one of you, are beloved by God. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. The more we embrace that good news for ourselves, the more we can embrace that good news for other people. We complicate life and hurt ourselves and others when we create artificial boundaries as if they were set by God and when we judge things as evil that God calls good. This is especially troubling when Jesus himself commands us first to love God and second to love your neighbor as yourself.[11] Jesus risked everything, even his own life, to love and to announce God’s love to ever expanding groups of people. For crying out loud, the church exists today because of Jesus’ love and inclusion of non-Jews. As the church, the body of Christ, we would do well to risk love over anything else, too. Blaming and scapegoating were nailed to the cross with Jesus who was the ultimate and final scapegoat. We don’t have to play the Blame Game anymore because the need for it was swallowed up in Christ’s victory over death. Christ’s death and resurrection brings freedom, light, life, and healing through forgiveness into the world’s brokenness, binding us to God and each other through self-sacrificing love that risked everything. Thanks be to God! And amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Genesis 3:5

[2] Genesis 3:14-19 This is a few extra verses after our reading today.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvCTaccEkMI

[4] Mark 1:14-15

[5] Mark 1:23-24

[6] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, MN. Podcast: Mark 3:20-35 for Sermon Brainwave for June 6, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/787-second-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-10b-june-6-2021

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark 3:30

[9] The highlighted episode can be watched on Netflix. Living Lutheran published an interview with Pastor Noah Hepler here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2020/06/how-noah-hepler-found-reawakening-in-queer-eye/

[10] LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersexual, Asexual/Aromantic/Agender https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/LGBTQIA

[11] Mark 12:28-34

Friends in Joy, Love, and Sorrow (OR Wondering about Mother and Daughter Friendships) John 15:12-17 and Acts 10:44-48

**An Artist’s Canvas by Stacey Zimmerman, A Painting Inspired by Friendship: Birds of a Feather

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 9, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 15:12-17 [Jesus said:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I 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. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I 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. 16You 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. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46for 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?” 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

[sermon begins

At some point in high school, my daughter noticed that a lot of people described their moms as their best friend. (A relevant aside, I always ask my kids before they show up in a sermon.) Somewhere in that chat about moms being best friends, she and I talked about our own relationship and whether we would describe it that way. I don’t remember the details, but we both remember me saying something like, “You have a lot of friends, but you only have one Mom, it’s important to me that I’m your Mom more than your friend.” The topic came up again recently as she wraps up college. She asked if I thought my answer about our friendship was different now. My conversation with my daughter is timely as Mother’s Day converges with Jesus’ speech to his disciples about being friends with him. Friendship back in Jesus’ day meant something specific. Friendship in the First Century meant direct speak and bold action absent of flattery or distracting social tics. Ultimate friendship also included a noble death on behalf of the friend in both classical and popular philosophy back in Jesus’ day. John’s readers would have understood this definition of ultimate friendship. When Jesus talked about the greatest love exemplified in the one who would lay down one’s life for one’s friend, he was naming a widely accepted moral claim. Curiously, Jesus is not referred to as “friend” in the Gospel of John. He alternately refers to himself as the Son of Man, the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, AND the vine. He doesn’t say, “I AM the friend.” And his disciples don’t call him friend. He names the disciples as his friends when they love each other as he loves them. He defines the greatest love as being willing to lay down one’s life down for a friend. And then he walks the bold talk all the way to the cross. He launched the disciples into friendship modeled on his own friendship with them. Which brings us to Jesus’ friend Peter in the Acts reading today. Taking place well after the crucifixion and resurrection, this short reading is a fragment of the longer Cornelius’ story, the Italian centurion. Read his full story in Acts 10 and 11 this week. He was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who was a God-fearer associated with a Jewish synagogue. Cornelius invited Jesus’ friend Peter to come and teach at his home in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea. This means that Cornelius and his household weren’t just Gentiles, they were really, really Gentiles. And he had invited his friends and relatives to listen to Peter’s teaching so there were A LOT of Gentiles there. According to Jewish custom, eating with Gentiles was prohibited. There are visions and prayers and angels in the longer story that clarify the contradictions. Suffice it to say that Peter was divinely directed to this party. It was a party thrown in Peter’s honor and, like any good preacher, he didn’t waste his opportunity to say a few words. He preached about Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit, and the forgiveness of sins. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone listening…” The story says that the circumcised believers who had come to Caesarea with Peter “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” It was a wild moment. They couldn’t believe their eyes, nor could they have foreseen that this was where friendship with Jesus was taking them. Except that wasn’t true for everyone. Peter, yes, the same Peter who bumbled his way through many a Gospel story before Jesus’ death, seems to have finally caught up with Jesus’ agenda. Peter’s question about withholding baptismal water from the Gentiles was rhetorical. Of course, the baptisms would happen. But that’s not where the trouble brewed anyway. It’s what happened after the baptisms that got everyone’s knickers in a knot. It’s that last quiet verse in our reading as chapter ten ends. “Then they invited [Peter] to stay for several days.” If we keep reading just a few verses into Chapter 11, we get to the crux of the matter. Peter went up to Jerusalem and was criticized by the Jesus’ followers there – not for baptizing the Gentiles, but for going to the Gentiles and eating with them. Hospitality moved in both directions at different parts of the story. Early on, Peter invited Cornelius’ messengers in and gave them lodging. In our verses today, Cornelius and friends invited Peter to stay for several days. Peter was the kind of friend to Cornelius that Jesus encouraged the disciples to be – walking the talk and boldly widening the circle despite what other people assumed were the natural limits of the circle. I did answer my daughter’s question, by the way. When she asked if my answer about our friendship was different now than it was in high school. I said, “yes,” that as she’s moved into adulthood, it’s become more mutual. Though the truth remains that I’m still her mother. There’s simultaneous mutuality and hierarchy. Before anyone gets antsy, I’m in no way saying that my relationship with my daughter is like Jesus’ friendship with the disciples. I am definitely NOT like Jesus and she would be the first to tell you that she is NOT my disciple. But there is a parallel, albeit limited, in my mother/daughter example that helps us get at the simultaneous hierarchy of Jesus as the Messiah AND the mutuality of Jesus as our friend. Man, I would love to have been in those original conversations with Jesus and his disciples – to see him boldly walk the talk, to hear his instructions firsthand, to wonder about his teachings with the other disciples who were just as lost in his ministry as I was, to hear him call me friend. Not to sentimentalize it, just to capture what those moments might have been like. Imagine that with me. There are moments in various conversations with you all that are hints of what that experience must have been like. The church is, after all, the body of Christ. We are Easter people who support, encourage, and pray for each other when it’s neither easy nor convenient. We hold each other in faith when one of us struggles to get comfortable with doubt. We work together with neighbors on problems in the community hoping that we’re on the right track. In our various ways, we lay down our lives because Jesus first loved us as friends and continues to love us still. The mutuality of friendship is a wonder, located in the middle of Jesus’ farewell to his friends. Made all the more poignant because he’s shared his final meal with them, he’s suffered the betrayal of Judas, and he’s anticipating Peter’s denial. In the midst of sorrow, his command to love, woven with his friendship, is the foundation of joy. Jesus infuses the mutuality with joy in the sorrow of saying goodbye. He said to his friends, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Love and joy are complete in us through the friend we have in Jesus, and through the friendship by which he widens the circle of his love and binds us together in his name.

God’s Love in a Body Means Something for Black, Brown, and White Bodies [OR Jesus’ Farewell Commands Us to Love] John 14:15-21

**photograph: Ahmaud Arbery and his mother Wanda Cooper Jones. KSLA News on May 7, 2020. ksla.com/2020/05/07

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 17, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 14:15-21  [Jesus said to his disciples] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

[sermon begins]

“Be safe, have fun, use your power for good.” My poor kids and their friends heard me say goodbye this way countless times. It is short, to the point, and includes the main things. It is a fond farewell. The Gospel of John reading today is a continuation from last Sunday and it too is part of a fond farewell. So much so that chapters 14 through 17 are called Jesus’ Farwell Discourse. Jesus doesn’t quite boil it down with my motherly efficiency but it’s possible that he has a little more on his mind. In chapter 13, he wrapped up the last meal that he would eat with his friends before his trial and death. Jesus washed the feet of the friend who would betray him, the feet of another one who would deny knowing him, and the feet of the rest of his friends who would desert him as he’s executed.

Jesus explained their clean feet by telling them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”[1] In Jesus’ Farwell Discourse, he continued to explain it to them. Because when you say goodbye, it’s important to cover the main things. The main things in our reading today being Jesus’ commandments that will be kept in love by his followers AND that another Advocate besides Jesus will be given to them while they keep the commandments. Remember that the commandment Jesus gave them was to love each other as Jesus loved them. Remember that Jesus loved the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters as he washed their feet.

Their clean feet are an important preface to the reading today. Jesus’ commandments aren’t easy-peasy virtue points. Jesus’ example of love is what led to his execution. Thank God we’re given the Holy Spirit as an Advocate on our way or we’d never even get close to what Jesus demands of us. Because Jesus’ demand comes with a lot of grace that we’re not going to get it right even as we take the next right step. Grace allows us to be in motion when we’re not sure what’s being asked of us. The reminder of grace in our regular worship in the form of confession and forgiveness has been missing these last few weeks of distancing. Those beautiful moments of honesty at the beginning of worship when we speak the truth of who we are as fragile, failed creatures and hear a word of God’s good forgiveness and grace in reply. The Spirit helps us in our weakness to acknowledge our failures and to strengthen us for the love demanded of us.

Failures that we call sin are both individual and societal. There are moments when our solitary action or inaction creates real pain for someone nearby – a family member or a friend or a stranger in the store. Those kinds of sins are sometimes easy to identify. Remember the betrayer, the denier, and the deserters? We can give them names – Judas, Peter, and the other disciples. We know what they did. They know what they did. None of it’s a secret.

Identifying societal sins is more difficult because we set up camps that justify our self-righteous behavior. The louder that one side rants about the other is heard as validation. We might be right, goes the distorted logic, if that other group we hate is screaming at us about how wrong we are being. A contradictory validation but one that is alive and well at the moment. Let’s go back in time a bit. Oh, I don’t know, say, 66 years.  66 years ago today, on May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional even if they happened to be equal in every other way. This landmark decision is known as Brown vs. Board of Education.[2] Some of you lived this history. Segregation was normal, agreed upon by society, until suddenly it wasn’t normal.

Segregation was systemic sin getting named for its failure. A few years later, white adults on the news were screaming at black teenagers as they entered school under the protection of the National Guard.[3] This is a scene that many Americans look back on in horror. Personally, I can’t imagine my education in Pasadena, California, without my school friends and teachers who covered the spectrum of race and skin color from the whitest white to the blackest black. Here’s where the murkiness starts though. The self-righteousness as we justify our own moment and behavior as acceptable without seeing the systemic sin that survives alive and well inside ourselves creating norms in society at large.

Fast-forward to Ahmaud Arbery’s killing this past February. He was a black man. The men who shot him were white. Arguments abound about who was right and wrong. It’s exhausting. But, once again, we can look to that case and call it a problem between individuals. Frankly, that’s too easy. We live in a country where living while black can be a death sentence no matter what black people are doing; a country where black and brown folks are dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate then their percentage of the population.[4] We have some explaining to do.

And I don’t mean explaining it away by blaming the people who are dying. I mean looking at the unconscious and conscious agreements we make as a society to protect white bodies and sacrifice black and brown bodies to essential tasks with higher risks for COVID-19 exposure. This is where Christian language of sin and evil is important because we can do something about it when we give it a name.

Naming sin and evil as sin and evil is especially vital when it’s systemic and deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives. We know something is seriously wrong when I as a white mother can say something simple to my kids – be safe, have fun, and use your power for good – while my friends who are black mothers say something entirely different about safety to their children when they leave the house – keep your hands visible when you’re pulled over and follow the police officer’s directions. Ask your black friends in your town about getting pulled over. Another exhausting part of this whole thing is that we white folks play a part in racism even if we think we’re doing really well. We explain it away rather than confessing and confronting the racism in our own behavior and the public policies we support on education, healthcare, criminal justice, housing, and infrastructure.

When Martin Luther explains the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, he says we’re not only guilty of breaking this commandment when we do evil to our neighbor but we break it when we fail to defend, protect, and prevent their bodily harm. [5] Along this line, we let white friends get away with racism in our casual conversations about certain neighborhoods, or immigrant cultures, or how certain people of color dress or cut their hair. As if any of that is available to our interpretation and something we can weigh in on; as if any of that adds no societal harm to black and brown bodies.

Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” His command to love was first embedded in his own body – the body that was the Word made flesh, the body that washed feet and forgave, the body that died on a cross, and the body that was raised to new life on the first Easter morning. Jesus also says to his followers, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God’s love had body.[6] We too have bodies in which Jesus promises to live as the Advocate of the Holy Spirit strengthens us to keep Jesus’ commandment to love each other as he first loved us. As he first loved us when we were betrayers, deniers, and deserters, and as he continues to love us just the same.

Beloved bodies of God, go in peace to love and serve your neighbor. You won’t be safe, you might have fun, and the Spirit’s power will be used for good. Thanks be to God. And amen.

 

And now receive this blessing adapted from the worship Confession and Forgiveness…

Blessed be the holy Trinity, ☩ one God,

Who forgives sin and brings life from death.

May Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May God forgive your sins, known and unknown, things you have done and failed to do.

May you be turned again to God, upheld by the Spirit,

So that you may live and serve God in newness of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

God, who is rich in mercy, loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved. In the name of ☩ Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Almighty God strengthen you with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ may live in your hearts through faith. Amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John 13:34

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for the Sixth Sunday of Easter posted May 9, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1262

[3] Little Rock Nine, 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html

[5] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Lutheran Church. The Fifth Commandment [189]. http://bookofconcord.org/lc-3-tencommandments.php

[6] Ibid., Moore.

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

**sermon art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Praise the Sweet Baby Jesus! I’ve been known to blurt this out in a mix of people and places. Most of the time, it’s because someone has shared some good news. Praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus is not a phrase my family used, nor was it ever said even one time during my ten years away from church. But somewhere along the way, someone said it and it wove into my praise and prayer. I don’t remember when it started happening that people would respond with raised eyebrows and outright laughter to praise-the-sweet-baby-Jesus, and then mention a movie they saw and assume that’s where I picked it up. It wasn’t. But as this Christmas Eve sermon started percolating and the phrase came to mind, it made sense to check out that movie scene before preaching it.[1] Turns out, it’s NOT the exact same phrase. The scene is a family argument that erupts over the table prayers during Christmas dinner. As the dad prays repeatedly to the baby Jesus, the mom stops the prayer and they argue about whether or not it’s okay for him to be praying to the baby Jesus. To this, the dad replies that she’s welcome to pray to whichever Jesus she likes – grown-up, teen-aged, or bearded Jesus – but that he likes “the Christmas Jesus best.”  The scene is waaay over the top but it gets something right theologically when it comes to this evening’s Bible readings.

The Luke reading announces the birth among farm animals as the child is wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in the manger that feeds those animals. Angels herald the baby as Savior, Messiah, and Lord, while sending the shepherds to the manger-side praising God. Bible verses before our reading announce the child as “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.”[2] The Bible verse that follows our reading announces that the baby’s name is Jesus.[3] In the Isaiah reading, there are other names given to “a child born for us, a son given to us” – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[4]  One tiny newborn, so many names; and so many more names to come as he grows up and out of that manger – prophet, teacher, friend, and king.  We can ponder in our hearts why there are so many names for one divine human being.  Perhaps it’s possible to treasure ALL these names as we ponder and wonder and wander through the 12 days of Christmas. Or maybe, just maybe, there’s one name for Jesus that you like best.

When the many names for Jesus come up, disagreement CAN happen about which name is more applicable, or which name is the right name, or which name we should use when we’re being the most faithful, or which name gets at the authentic Jesus the best.  Seems like a moot argument.  All the names listed in the scripture have value in the fullness of Jesus.  Here’s one way to think about it.  I’m a wife, mother, friend, sister, daughter, weightlifter, community organizer, preacher, pastor, and more.  Am I any one of those things in negation of the other? No.

You may be a peacemaker, student, activist, friend, athlete, gamer, employee, reader, dancer, singer, and more.  Are you any one of those things in negation of the other? No. Are you sometimes more of one of those things than another?  Most likely, depending on the moment.  Are you still ALL YOU in any given moment?  Of course.  Who we are in any one of our roles adds to the breadth of our human experience and the depth of our humanity.  Similarly, so goes the divine humanity of Jesus.

The beauty of specifically celebrating the baby Jesus at Christmas is that we’re reminded just how much God loves us first.  Meaning that before we ever had an inkling that there might even be a God, God arrived physically in the world to be present with us in the most vulnerable way possible – as a squishy, squeaky newborn. For some of us, that’s more than enough because maybe you need the sweet baby Jesus as the Christmas gift, meeting you beyond the overfull inn where everyone inside seems cozy and snug while you’re on the outside looking in.

But others may be in a different space this evening.

Maybe you need the Wonderful Counselor Jesus who calms the troubled mind.

Or maybe Prince of Peace Jesus who calms a troubled world.

Maybe you need the prophet Jesus who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Maybe you need the suffering Jesus on a cross who reassures you that God suffers with us in the darkest moments of life.

Or maybe you need the Savior Jesus who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Maybe you need the Easter Jesus, shining and shimmering with life eternal, sharing your moment of joy as you shout “Hallelujah.”

Or perhaps you need that other Easter Jesus who holds your fragile moment of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which name for Jesus calls to you, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re holding onto Jesus by the barest thread with only your fingernails. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like tonight in the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We imperfectly cradle his presence with our hands as we receive communion and inside ourselves as we eat. However, the perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. For this and for all that God is doing right now and right here, we can say Merry Christmas and praise the sweet baby Jesus!

_________________________________________________________

[1] Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Scene: Dear Lord Baby Jesus. (Columbia Pictures, 2006: PG-13).

[2] Luke 1:32 and 35

[3] Luke 2:21

[4] Isaiah 9:6

Uncle Larry’s Miracles – A Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve [OR Check Pockets Before Washing] John 6:3-14, Genesis 50:15-21, and Philippians 4:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2019 at 7:00 p.m.

[sermon begins after 3 oh-so-worth-reading Bible stories]

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

Genesis 50:15-21  Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Philippians 4:4-9  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

[sermon begins]

Yesterday was not my finest moment.  I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  Tried to snow shovel my bad mood away to minimal effect.  Pulled my worship robe a.k.a. alb out of the wash only to discover dark blue spots of ink across its whiteness because I’d left a pen in my pocket.  Borrowed bleach from a neighbor.  Had a meltdown during ink blotting with rubbing alcohol because my in-laws gave me the alb when I was ordained.  The same in-laws who completed their baptismal journeys in the last year and are now at rest in the company of the saints in light.  The same in-laws who spent Thanksgivings with us every year for over 20 years.  The same mother-in-law who was my go-to spot and stain advisor.  That woman could get any kind of stain out of any kind of thing breaking all the stain-blasting rules while she did it. She was like a stain miracle worker.  Which brings up the topic of miracles, my planned Thanksgiving Eve sermon theme.

The reason miracles have been on my mind is because of my Uncle Larry.  Rob and I recently visited him during a journey through Massachusetts.  My good uncle feels deeply and thinks broadly.  He’s funny and intense and full of love.  And he has this thing he does when he tells a story.  As an opener, he lists the number of miracles involved.  He told one particular story in which the lead comment was this, “There were FIVE miracles!” (hand held up, five fingers out).  I was so enamored with the way he unpacked his tale around these five miracles.  “First miracle,” he said with corroborating details.  “Second miracle,” he said.  More details.  Finally, the fifth miracle rolled around.  The story rich with feeling and color commentary.  I loved it so much that I called him last Saturday to ask him if I could talk about the way he talks about miracles.  We discussed my intentions.  He said, “Yes.”  And then we talked for almost an hour about miracles and so much more.

We could have a theologians’ argument about what constitutes a miracle…supernatural events that defy scientific explanations, et cetera, et cetera…and what doesn’t constitute a miracle.  But what appeals to me about my uncle’s story telling is the gratitude that pours through his miracle stories. Gratitude for the surprising turn of events that lead to the good and unexpected ending.  Our Bible stories from Genesis and the Gospel of John both include surprising turns of events leading to good and unexpected endings.  The culmination of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers years before becomes what we hear this evening as his brothers ask for his forgiveness.  If Joseph were here with us, how many miracles would he name in the same way Uncle Larry might?  How many moments added up to that singular moment of his brother’s forgiveness?  And the disciples’ consternation about how to feed all those people is solved unexpectedly by Jesus with a boy’s sack lunch.  How would the disciples name the miracles leading up to the big miracle of 5,000 meals plus leftovers?  How many fingers would they hold up as they listed them?

Pointing to miracles is different than saying that everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reasons things happen is because of our sin.  Joseph’s brothers had jealousy, anger, and sin on their minds when they sold him into slavery.  God brought good from their evil intentions for Joseph but it’s an injustice to name God as the agent of the brother’s sin.  Pointing to miracles is also different than saying that our material goods are blessings.  Miracles, as in the Gospel of John, are signs that reveal the love of God through Jesus.

In that light, and the awareness of my own imperfections in this regard, I’d like to suggest a bit of miracle-telling.  Not a crowd-share time, but a moment of remembering the miracles in a story.  Here’s my example. Please listen with a bit of grace.

There were FIVE miracles.  First miracle, my in-laws gave me an alb that I wore without incident for almost seven years as a pastor.  Second miracle, their love and pride of my work meant that they readily incorporated my parish commitments into our family traditions. Third miracle, and maybe the most important, my mother-in-law wrote down her pumpkin pie recipe and baked it with me many times so now I’m able to bake it for our family dinner. Fourth miracle, my husband and our daughter were able to reach through my ink-blotting meltdown to give their encouragement and love.  Fifth miracle, that there are tears of love to cry in grief for in-laws. Five miracles, a lot of love, and ultimately love in the form of other people on the planet who give us the tiniest glimpse of how much God loves us.

Jesus was deeply concerned with feeding people, freeing prisoners, loving enemies, healing the sick, serving the vulnerable, disrupting the comfortable, and so much more. In the forefront of the gospel is that it is “good news of great joy for all the people.”[1] It’s why we do things like  donate to ELCA World Hunger and the Chili Challenge for Metro Caring and George Washington High School’s food pantries. It’s also why I would never want to minimize or short-change the love of Jesus to the exclusion of anyone else or to the pain that is real and present in the world.  But Jesus also loves us personally.  For my part, in this year of firsts without Rob’s parents, there are miracles that reveal God’s love in the story of their lives and ours.  If you’re in need of such moments, by all means frame your story – meltdowns and all – on the miracles woven through them that reveal God’s love.  As the encouragement goes in the letter to the Philippians, “if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Happy Thanksgiving and amen.

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[1] Luke 2:8-11 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

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