Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Ask the Complicated Questions [OR A Sermon for Reformation Day] John 8:31-36

**sermon photo: Nerina Fielding, Starling Mumeration [still captured from recording], Natomas, Sacramentao, California.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Prw9AZ9jw

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 31, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 8:31-36  Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

[sermon begins]

Mr. Mack sported a silver crew cut with his serious demeanor. He was retired military – United States Marine Corps. He commanded respect without demanding it. You could have heard a pin drop when he walked into the room, through the straight rows of desks. We were already hard at work copying his notes from the chalk board onto notebook paper, double-spacing them to leave room for notes from his lecture. He took his seat at his desk waiting until precisely 15 minutes after the bell. Then he stood and began his 10th grade history lecture on life, politics, and war while we scribbled wildly. We studied the notes and took the tests and moved on to 11th grade history. In Mr. Mack’s class, it was easy to believe that history was an ordered account of the facts – the lecture followed the notes that followed the textbook. In part, this was true. There are undeniable events that have dates and key historical figures to go with them. But what we know about history is that it’s less like a straight line and more like a murmuration of starlings.[1] Maybe you’ve seen these birds flying together in the hundreds of thousands –twisting and turning, pulsing together toward an unknown endpoint. The videos are mesmerizing. The only thing linear about history is the time that passes. Otherwise, there are hundreds of thousands of voices that give us a different perspective of the same story.

Our celebration today is one such many-voiced story. Reformation 500 years ago is often told in a way that makes Martin Luther, that ornery academic priest, out to be a lone wolf of faith and theology. (Although, in fairness to us, we’re repeatedly exposed to lone wolf storytelling in film and T.V.)  But Luther was the one who lived to tell the tale. Reformers before him were put to death. Luther survived because he was hidden away by a sympathetic prince who protected him. His story survived because of printing press inventors and his bestie Melancthon who negotiated the theology of grace with other pastors in wider church circles. Otherwise, Luther could have been just another pastor who posted good ideas on a church bulletin board that no one ever read – his ideas swallowed up by the 300,000 revolutionaries fighting the German Peasants’ War in 1525. But his ideas lived on in pamphlets, catechisms, and Bibles in the common language. Local pastors, sly politicians, and faithful parents joined the sweeping history in real-time that pulsed with new life and grace. There are Protestants in Christianity because there were meddling Lutherans who held the church of Rome accountable to its theology and the people hurt by it. (In fairness to our Catholic siblings in faith, many of Luther’s reforms have long since been put into place by the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, a little grace can go a long way.)

Digging into the back-story of the Reformation is similar detective work to digging into the Bible. The Bible includes many people and their stories pulsing together into the larger one. The highs and lows of our ancient Jewish cousins in the faith swooping into the 1st Century story of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi from a backwater town, and the ragtag men and women who followed him as disciples. It would take many lifetimes to exhaust the riches of God’s love story for the world, through Jesus who called himself the “truth” in the Bible reading from John. Which brings us to today. This moment. Us. And especially you guys who are affirming the promises of baptism in the milestone that we call Confirmation.

Confirmation is a rite of passage, a ritual that marks a moment into what came before and what comes after. A ritual that shifts the promises made at baptism from your parents to you. I’m just going to slip in the reminder that God’s promises are complete while our promises are fallible and imperfect even when they’re faithful. Confirmation is a big moment but it’s not a lone wolf moment. It’s a church-alive moment. You’re surrounded by people who are asking similar complicated questions that you ask:

  • Was the earth, the world, the universe really just created for humans?
  • How was the creation story written down if God was the only being at the beginning of the world?
  • How did our faith/this church start and evolve and do you think it will continue to change? If so, in what way?
  • How do we know that God is really there? Is it okay to doubt God?

These are complicated questions that many faithful Christians have asked at different times in their lives but especially at times of faithful ritual and often in times of struggle.

Last week I led a Bible Study at the women’s prison with 12 women on the Inside Council of New Beginnings Worshipping Community. We worked through the Bible readings and questions that their Pastor Terry had given us. It’s been a couple years or so since I’ve been with them and a few of the women I’ve known since I started volunteering there. Laughter and tears mix with some serious deep thinking.  I asked the women if they had any thoughts about doubt and faith that I could share with our youth at church who were going through the rite of Confirmation and affirming their baptisms. They want you to know that faith can feel hard but that it is also freedom – freedom to be who God made you to be, freedom to ask God to show you God’s presence, and freedom to ask to have an open heart. It’s really something to hear women in prison talking about freedom. Most of them will return to community alongside us at some point but for others it will be many years living within those walls.

The women are not talking about any old freedom and for them it’s more than poetry. They have found that freedom through the love and grace of Jesus. When Jesus says that sin enslaves us and he sets us free, these women deeply understand what that means. Those of us who live outside of prisons have a harder time admitting that we sin much less confessing it and our need for the very freedom Jesus offers through grace. But we know this much, we are free to ask questions. Free to ask questions about the Bible, about history, about the church, about Jesus, about our faith and our doubt, about the mystery of God. You name it and we are free to ask it.

Lutheran Christians have a 500-year history of asking, “What does this mean?” Literally, that question, “What does this mean?” (Although it was originally asked in German and now in most every known language – there are A LOT of Lutherans around the world.) The disciples in the Bible asked similar questions. The Jews living before the 1st century, through our Jewish neighbors today still ask questions about God, their history, and each other. We are part of this robust history of asking questions into our present-day moment of grace through faith.

Grace is God’s unconditional love for you.

Grace is God’s promises flowing over you in baptismal water – the promise to always be present, to always take you back, to make your life Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever.

Grace is this moment in time. Each one of us with a story of our own, drawn together by the Holy Spirit into God’s story. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say, thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________

Song after the Sermon

All Creation Sings (hymnal): #1005 “Ask the Complicated Questions”

1          Ask the complicated questions.

Do not fear to be found out;

for our God makes strong our weakness,

forging faith in fires of doubt.

 

2          Seek the disconcerting answers,

follow where the Spirit blows;

test competing truths for wisdom,

for in tension new life grows.

 

3          Knock on doors of new ideas,

test assumptions long grown stale,

for Christ calls from shores of wonder,

daring us to try and fail.

 

4          For in struggle we discover

truth both simple and profound;

in the knocking, asking, seeking,

we are opened, answered, found.

 

Text: David Bjorlin, b. 1984

Text © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc., giamusic.com.

_________________________________________________

[1] https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-murmuration

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.

______________________________________________________________

[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.”

Baseball’s Sacrifice Fly [OR Self-Sacrifice and Sinning Boldly by the Grace of God]   Mark 8:31-38

Photo credit:  Josh Rutledge #14 of the Colorado Rockies hits an RBI single during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on August 27, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 28, 2021

[sermon begins]

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

[sermon begins]

Spending time with my stepfather Pops often meant taking in a baseball game. The rare treat, a live game at the stadium, came with the bonus of Dodger dogs and peanuts. More typically, it meant hanging out on the couch, game on the television with the sound off, and Vin Scully calling the game on the radio. While my baseball speak is a little rusty, obvious excitement came from bases loaded and a homerun blasted out of the park. Personally, the drama of the sacrifice fly had me on the edge of my seat. The batter intentionally hits a ball, popping it up in the air, arcing it toward a fielder who catches it for the easy out, while the runners on base run like crazy to home to score in the meantime. The batter is out, sacrificed for the team to get ahead. The drama of it was the self-sacrifice. We could come up with real-life examples of self-sacrifice when someone dies to save someone else but the point is made. The self-sacrificing action is voluntarily taken by choice for the good of the whole.

Self-sacrifice is the name of the game in our Gospel of Mark reading today. It’s the first time in Mark that Jesus has taught about his death. Up to now, there have been healing after healing, calming storms, and feeding thousands. Jesus and the disciples were on a winning streak. The good news was easy marketing. Just before our reading today, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah. He was batting 1.000. His discipleship star was rising quickly. No risk of being traded. How quickly the momentum shifts.

As far as Peter was concerned, Jesus had just preached a three-strikes-you’re-out sermon that highlighted his suffering, rejection, and execution. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. Not a bad coaching strategy. If you have something tough to say, you create privacy to work it out. Jesus was having none of it. Jesus turned himself and Peter back to the disciples for an intense, public rebuke. Then he called the crowd in with the disciples, following up with another intense teaching moment in which he commands them to deny themselves and take up their cross if they want to follow him.

The key in Jesus’ teaching is the self-sacrifice. It’s obvious that going after the religious leaders and the power of Rome is not the path to hitting the salary cap in a multi-year contract. Jesus made choices along the way. Jesus chose. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because he himself came from a surprising choice. Just before Christmas, we heard the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and have a son named Jesus.[1] Although confused by how the plan was going to come together, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” At enormous risk to herself, she assented to the plan. In those days, turning up pregnant and unmarried could have meant death for her. But Mary said, “Let it be with me.” She said, “Let it.” Mary chose. Jesus chose.

Leading by example, Jesus commands his disciples in what smacks of another three-strikes-you’re-out teaching – deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.  A good agent would have told him that this is not an effective message for building a following and that Jesus should stick to healing and feeding. But the power of what Jesus teaches comes from his example. He wasn’t asking his disciples to choose anything that he wasn’t also willing to choose. The choice prohibits these verses from being used to justify abuse and suffering, used to keep someone in an abusive relationship. The self-defined choice makes all the difference.

Self-denial sounds Lenty and familiar. Giving up chocolate or another tasty treat is emblematic of the season of Lent. It makes sense that choosing to give up something that’s frequently enjoyed would serve as a reminder to pause, pray, and recenter our thinking around God’s presence and priorities. All good things. It’s more likely that Jesus’ command to the disciples to deny themselves meant giving up things like power, influence, ego, and control for discipleship priorities like compassion, mercy, faith, and hope. Things he preached and taught about regularly in his ministry. But it’s not self-denial for its own sake. There’s a purpose to self-sacrifice beyond accumulating discipleship stats. Also, a word of caution here. Jesus’ command is not a call to become mini saviors. Jesus’ consistent teachings across the gospel accounts calls his disciples into becoming neighbors. So, note to self: neighbors not saviors. An important distinction especially considering Jesus’ command to the disciples to take up their cross.

Taking up our crosses is informed by Jesus’ self-sacrificing example. It’s helpful to consider what we deny ourselves so that there’s space for a cross – letting some things go to make room for what’s being asked of us. Again, not self-sacrifice for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel which Jesus says saves lives. Our lives. There are no easy answers in a sermon that lasts minutes. It’s discipleship in the big leagues. Questions about self-denial can be brought to God both individually and congregationally. Individually we can pray, “God, what are you asking me to give up, making room for your will?” We can talk to people we trust, inviting counsel from faithful people in our lives. Sourcing ourselves with multiple perspectives helps prevent mini-savior errors. The same is true congregationally. We went through a strategic planning process over the last few years that helped us discern our collective discipleship internally as a faith community and externally as neighbors in the wider community. Today’s congregational meeting and vote about our vacant land being developed into affordable housing is one more step in the process.

At the end of the day, the cross we count on is not the one we take up as our own. The cross we count on is the one that Jesus taught about here in Mark. The cross on which he hung after great suffering and rejection. The cross was his own. His individual event. His choice. His self-sacrifice. Like Peter, we struggle to understand it but equally depend on it for the life given to us by the one who poured out his life. If you hear nothing else today, please hear this, we are set free in discipleship by the cross of Christ, which means that the road to God is not paved by any deeds or do-goodery on our part. God’s presence in our lives is given by the grace of Jesus through the cross of Jesus, undeserved and unearned by us. Martin Luther described this as the freedom to “sin boldly” for the sake of the gospel. Meaning that it is difficult, more like impossible, to tease apart our flawed motives from our faithful interpretation of God’s will. So we make choices as best we can, asking for forgiveness and celebrating God’s grace as we follow Jesus on the journey.

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[1] Luke 1:26-38 is formally called The Annunciation.

Be Light Because You Are Light [OR Bridesmaids, Pandemic, and Election are NOT the End of the Story] Matthew 25:1-13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading – hang in there, the reading will get the full treatment in the sermon]

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

[sermon begins]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[1]

Liturgical geeks among us may be wondering why I’m echoing the season of Epiphany, singing from Tangled Blue’s lyrics pulled from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Well, for one thing, it’s easier to start there than in today’s reading. For another, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” In the verses following, he goes on to say the familiar words set in the baptism liturgy, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” With hard parables like this one about the bridesmaids, it’s good to be reminded about the main things before diving in. And the main thing today is that God’s promises flow from God to us. We don’t earn or generate God’s promises by our behavior. If that were possible, someone would have cracked that code long ago. It’s also not only easier to start in chapter 5, it’s an important key to how we read about the bridesmaids’ lamps.[2] In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount includes the beatitudes that we heard last week on All Saints Day. Jesus’ sermon is key to Matthew’s gospel and anchors us to his sermon to the faithful and his trial and crucifixion.[3]

Today we start Matthew’s 25th chapter for three weeks. Jesus’ challenges to the faithful are intensifying.[4] The Matthean community was experiencing conflict between insiders and outsiders, probably other Jewish groups, that called into question who had the proper authority to teach.[5] The community also likely had some internal conflict among themselves. It gives one pause to wonder about the writer’s biggest worry, the kind of pressure they were under. Curiosity about their 1st century distress lends compassion to this struggling faith community and the harsh parable in today’s reading.

A relevant side note here. Lyn Goodrum in our church office asked me recently if I’d fallen in love with Matthew’s gospel. Some of you may remember my confession last December in Advent that I’d had my own struggle with this particular book of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding. I was able to tell Lyn that I’ve not fallen in love with it but that I have grown to appreciate it. In part, this happened because I have a new appreciation for the Matthean community’s experience. Reading through that lens made room for more compassion. Our current cultural moment adds to that compassion. Division isn’t fun. Division that threatens potential violence, especially isn’t fun.

I wrote this sermon before Election Day and recorded it on Wednesday for today’s worship. There’s no telling what’s happened between Tuesday and today. Impossible to predict the status of the week’s stories. The Matthean community certainly didn’t know how their story ended either. In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus was pushing them and reminding them about what’s important regardless. He was pushing them to encourage their readiness. He was reminding them that he’d given them what they needed to endure what was coming. He was barking at them like a coach before game time so that they’d remember that light needs tending to endure what’s ahead. Jesus’ listeners knew that lamp oil lasts longer when the wicks are trimmed.[6] Back-up oil was needed in the story because the bridegroom’s timing was unpredictable, and every bridesmaid wore out and fell asleep. Waiting for something to change can feel long. Jesus challenged his followers to hang in there and be ready. In this parable, readiness included lamps that are lit with the long game in mind. Preparing the lamp includes a supply of oil and a trimmed wick to keep it burning slow and steady. Jesus’ challenge to his listeners means something about the Christian life over the long haul. For us, as a faith community, it’s a word of life in the midst of this prolonged meantime when we might miss opportunities as we’re tempted to wish this moment away.

My Pops used to warn me against wishing my life away when I was impatient for the next, long-anticipated event. I didn’t really understand what he meant for a good many years. But I hear his voice in my head, when I find myself wishing 2020 away as if 2021 is going to magically be better, as if we could fast-forward to our worship and community life together in person. Alas, fast-forwarding is neither possible nor would it be good news to do so. I’d be wishing away the life, light, and love of today. Also, we’re the church, the light of the world, for the long haul. The Augustana community is our tiny corner of God’s whole church. As the church, we can argue from here until kingdom come about what it looks like to be ready, to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. But Jesus is pretty clear in Matthew’s gospel about what trimming the lamp for the slow and steady burn looks like. We’re given images of the slow and steady burn in the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion. Jesus preaches about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. At the cross, Jesus is vulnerable, non-violent, and self-sacrificing – shining light through the darkness of the darkest moment.

The number of bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable implies that this wedding was a high-status affair. The bridesmaids appear to be more than just friends of the bride as they seem to serve in a necessary role.[7] We could argue that the role is not about works or faith but it’s about the life the beatitudes invites us into – a life centered on the cross that glorifies God, a life that makes it clear that God is the primary actor, the giver of life.[8] A life centered on the cross is a life that knows and endures suffering. Martin Luther names this as the Seventh Mark of the Church. “The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross,” he writes.[9] Luther argues that the church endures “hardship…temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says)…” and “becomes like its head, Christ.”[10]

He goes on to argue that the customs of the church are “necessary and useful…fine and proper” but they are not to be confused with the marks of the church. In this category of customs, he includes “times for preaching and prayer, and the use of church buildings, or houses, altars, pulpits, fonts, lights, candles, bells, vestments, and the like.”[11]  Our Augustana customs do not make us the church – the cross makes us the church.

Jesus’ intensity before his trial and crucifixion is understandable. His preaching in the parable of the bridesmaids is shocking and stark although his word fuels the endurance in his people who will falter, grow weak, fail in readiness, and then regroup to be the light of the world. Dear ones, as one tiny corner of God’s church catholic, we are “in holy possession of the Holy Cross.” There is much to endure in this waiting time but the bridesmaids are the not the end of the story – neither is the pandemic, nor the election.[12] As Jesus is pointed to the cross in this parable, so are we. Pointed to the cross where grace shines in light, where God brings life out of suffering and death. Where, by our baptism, we live “in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment.”[13]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[14]

________________________________________________________

[1] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

[2] Dirk Lange, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Switzerland. Commentary on Matthew 25:1-12 for November 9, 2008 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4620

[3] Ibid.

[4] If you get a chance this week, read Matthew 24 and 25. It’s a intensifying crescendo just before Jesus’ trial starts.

[5] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[7] Skinner, ibid.

[8] Lange, ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Everyone’s Luther: On the Councils and the Church (1539), 244. https://wolfmueller.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Work-on-Councils_100618.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Luther, 257-258.

[12] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Discussion on November 3, 2020, in Preacher’s Text Study of Metro East Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA.

[13] Lange, ibid.

[14] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

__________________________________________________________________

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 18, 2018

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold fast to the confession of our hope;

And provoke one another to love.”[8]

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

Listen to this last bit of 1 Corinthians 13:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.  And Amen.

________________________________________________________

 

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

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

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

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

[5] Mark 13:7-8

[6] Also Mark 18 verse 8.

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

[8] Hebrews 10:22-24

[9] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

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

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

[12] Mark 12:38-44

My Triple-Great Grandfather Owned Slaves* [OR What’s Under Your Fig Tree?] 

sermon image: Arrington James, 8, grabs the hand of a freed slave figure at the African-American history monument at the South Carolina Statehouse, in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

* Many thanks to my colleague Roshan Bliss for his guidance on telling the story.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 14, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 1:43-51 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 may be read at the end of the sermon

Psalm 139 may be read at the end of the sermon

[sermon begins]

I want to know what happened under that fig tree. Apparently, so do a lot of people throughout time.  Not surprisingly, Bishop Augustine of Hippo in 4th century Africa decided it was sin.[1] This was his go-to move for most things. He had epic struggles with his own sin. Take a look at his book Confessions some time. His point about the fig tree is well taken though. First he asks if the fig tree signifies anything.  Finding that Adam and Eve dressed themselves in fig leaves after doing what God had asked them not to do, St. Augustine concludes that Jesus knows Nathaniel’s sin.[2]  Thus exposed, Nathaniel comes to faith in the blink of an eye.  First he questions, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[3]  Then, Jesus announces the fig tree sighting. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Suddenly, Nathaniel goes all street preacher as he shouts, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”[4]

St. Augustine is arguably one of the most influential Christian thinkers through the last two millennia.  Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians derive their name, was an Augustinian monk. His own challenges with sin are no secret. Now, I’m game to talk about sin along with the best of them.  I’m committed to calling a thing what it is and sometimes that means acknowledging our darker natures. But I also think that this makes for a quick turn to condemnation. Condemnation that takes shape in the church as finger-pointing and accusation.

Take today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, for example.  The word translated “fornication” comes from the Greek “porneia.”[5]  It’s also translated “sexual immorality.” The word is vague enough that interpreters throughout time tend to put their cultural spin on defining its meaning.[6] Paul’s explanation is his letter to the Corinthians points at the 1st Century practice of visiting prostitutes.[7]  He’s making a distinction between the behavior of Corinthian men who were not-Jesus-followers and men who were Jesus-followers. Jesus-followers who were free men of Corinth and slaves to Christ. Paul’s argument seems pretty straight forward. And yet, I grew up in a different Christian tradition that winged around the words “fornication” and “sexual immorality” as the end-all-be-all of whether or not Jesus had any other interest for me or other people. My experience of the church at that time was that it had its finger out in condemnation. We can see how this happens. Look at Augustine again. Fig tree equals sin. Therefore, Jesus knew Nathaniel’s sin. Therefore, the body of Christ on earth sees and identifies other people’s sin. Before you know it, the church is off and running as sexual-immorality-sin-sniffer-outers and no one measures up…even the church by the way.

Please hear me clearly.  There is sexual sin that hurts ourselves and each other. Absolutely.  Some of the individual confessions I hear in my office are about sexual sin and the hurt people inflict through them. Paul’s words to the Corinthians are important for us to hear.  It’s the distortion of that message by the church that is concerning. The distortion between what’s make or break for whether or not Jesus is for us or against us. It’s a distortion of the gospel. If there’s anything that the cross teaches us, it’s that Jesus finds us in those dark places and offers us a way out of them. Here’s a thought in that regard.  It’s possible that Nathaniel’s story under the fig tree, the one that Jesus knows about, is of a different nature entirely.  The story that God knows about our whole story.

As the Psalm reading from today describes what God knows:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”[8]

I’ve been wondering lately about how our story fits into God’s call to us. Not just because of Nathaniel’s leap to faith – although his story has given me a way to think about it. It makes me wonder how the different parts of our story work into the call. Many of you know my religious background and church refugee status that led to my call to the pulpit. Added to this call is Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow and my experience of call as a person of faith to work in the breach between Black and White people in this country. There’s a lot in the mix there for me.  When I moved to California from D.C. at 9 years old, my very first friend Kim Gammel was Black and so was my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Gaines.  In sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Lake – an amazing, strong Black woman – assigned the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry about racism in America during the Great Depression.[9]  I spent four years at John Muir High School in Pasadena. It was 10% White kids and predominantly Black and Latino kids with an additional minority of first and second generation Asian and Armenian kids.

Running in parallel to those details of upbringing is the picture of the South Carolina governor’s mansion hanging in my grandparents’ home because my Great-Great Grandfather, Hugh Thompson, was the governor of South Carolina.[10]  He led a battalion of Citadel cadets to fire some of the first shots of the Civil War against the North’s Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor.  And, on top of that infamy is my Great-Great-Great Grandfather, Thomas B. Clarkson, Plantation man and owner of 300 slaves – men, women, and children.[11]

About a year and a half ago, my mother gave me a letter written by an abolitionist to my triple-great grandfather.  The letter congratulated him on his good care of the slaves. I suppose it’s good to know that he treated his slaves with some kindness. The bottom line for me is that he owned people. The odd thing is that I’ve known for many years that he was a plantation owner and it never once occurred to me that he owned slaves. Of course I’m not responsible for his choices but I am affected by them…and so are all of us here. There is always something to be learned. The legacy of slavery for all of us in this country, but especially for our Black brothers and sisters, is part of how I understand my call to the ministry of reconciliation in the second letter to the Corinthians.[12] Reconciliation understood as repairing our broken relationships between God and neighbors.

Last week, Pastor Ann asked the question, “Who do you think you are?” Through the story of Jesus’ baptism, she announced the good news that we are beloved children of God.[13]   So when I hear Jesus say to Nathaniel, “I saw you underneath the fig tree,” that opens up the question of Nathaniel’s whole story, not only his sin but everything that makes him him and ready for telling the story of Jesus though his own story.

Somehow, Nathaniel’s story moved him from the skepticism and contempt of his original question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel had a story under that fig tree. Jesus knew that story about Nathaniel and called him through it to faith. Apparently something good does come out of Nazareth…and from under fig trees. In the same way, Jesus calls us through our stories – whether the story is one of sin and darkness or one of family heritage or something else entirely or a combination of all those.  His call is an opportunity to get curious about our own stories and other people stories and how Jesus calls us through them…accepting us for who we are, what we’ve done, who our family was, what they’ve done, who our country is, and what we’ve done and drawing us to faith. Drawing us to faith and setting us free to tell Jesus’ story through the truth of our own story by the grace of God. Alleluia and amen.

______________________________________________

[1] Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Tractate VII, Chapter 1 vv 34-51, Section 20. Homilies on the Gospel of John. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.viii.html

[2] Geneses 3:1-7 [verse 7 is the moment of fig leaf couture.]

[3] John 1:46

[4] John 1:49

[5] Peter Liethart. “Porneia.” January 14, 2015. Patheos. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2015/01/porneia/

[6] Ibid.

[7] Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Maître de Conférence (Assistant Professor), Faculté Libre de Théologie Protestante, Paris, France.  Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for January 18, 2015 on Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2338

[8] Psalm 139:1-2

[9] Mildred D. Taylor. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976).

[10] Hugh Smith Thompson (1836-1904). 51st Governor of South Carolina (1882-1886).  http://www.carolana.com/SC/Governors/hsthompson.html

[11] Suellen Clarkson Delahunty (my mother’s cousin). Information About Thomas B. Clarkson, Col. http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/d/e/l/Suellen-Clarkson-Delahunty-NC/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0001.html

[12] 2 Corinthians 5:11-21

[13] Jesus baptism by John is told earlier in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

_____________________________________________________

1 Corinthians 6:12-20  “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

Tell An Imperfect Story [OR Small Wonder the Inns Were Full] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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]

Imagine if you will, a young couple.[1] She’s very pregnant. Puffy cheeks and feet. He’s young too. Both just starting out in adulting and there hasn’t been a moment to catch their breath. Mary’s surprise pregnancy first sent her into hiding for several months at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hills.  Now she’s back with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. But that doesn’t last long either. Emperor Augustus calls for a registration census so that taxes can be collected. With his decree, Joseph and Mary travel the 80 miles to Bethlehem. There could have been a donkey to ride.  Although at many months pregnant, four days of donkey riding doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I imagine that they were slower than many of the other people on the long and winding road, taking more breaks along the way.  It’s no wonder that the inns were full by the time they arrived.

For all the drama that’s easy to imagine, the story is sparsely told. It’s told in almost bullet points. You and I both know that it couldn’t have been that simple. There’s a saying in the news business that, “All news is local.”  I would say that all news is about people. People in situations often beyond their control. The Bible couldn’t be less like a newspaper.  It neither follows modern journalistic guidelines nor could it ever hope to meet those standards. But Mary and Joseph’s story shows local people trying to live during a time when religious and political events are well beyond their control.

It makes me wonder if it’s a similar lack of control that fuels the latest “Christmas miracle” craze. I’ve heard the term in the past. But this December it seems to pop up everywhere describing good news big and small.[2] Christmas miracles are listed in the news as melt-in-your-mouth recipes, pet adoptions, inspiring health recoveries, snow in Texas, and even includes a tongue-in-cheek report of an ER staff who performed surgery on an Elf on the Shelf named Sam after the family’s dog went rogue. I’m totally on the band wagon. It feels really good to throw my arms in the air and announce, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Sometimes it’s celebration and sometimes it’s snark but it feels good and it makes me laugh every time.

Naming things a Christmas miracle seeks to name the good – from small things like not burning forgotten toast to big moments of joy that defy explanation. One thought is that we name them miracles because we want to see the transcendent in something tangible, relatable, and real. Who wouldn’t want a Christmas miracle?! Apparently the shepherds are game to see one – although the “good news of great joy” comes from an angel that’s hard to ignore and quite terrifying to boot.[3]

What about this savior that the angel announces?  What is one way we can think about that savior today in light everything that happens beyond our control? The Bible story goes on to tell us that the child who is born is named 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 and forgiveness leads him to an execution on a cross.  But before we’re privy to those parts of the story, God begins with a baby.  Perhaps God knows what most us know.  Not many can resist a baby.  Babies get our attention. A baby certainly grabbed the shepherds’ attention – with a little help from the angel.

Rallying through their angel terror, the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to see the child. The new, young parents hear an earful from the shepherds about what the angel told them. The story tells us that, “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”  Like Mary, we are left to ponder their story in our hearts.  It’s a funny thing what happens when left to pondering. We notice random things when they would otherwise slip by.  For instance, my husband and I watch the show The Voice.  It’s a weekly singing competition. Four superstar performers act as coaches and judges. Viewers cast the winning votes. In the live, top 8 performances this season, superstar Jennifer Hudson says to one of the contestants, “Allow yourself to feel it…stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story; you should pretty much be on your knees when you get done.”[4]  Because this sermon was on my mind, my first thought when I heard Ms. Hudson’s say that was, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”  No, but seriously, she was my Christmas preacher in that moment.

“Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.”  How many of us are trying to sing a perfect song to cover for our imperfect story?  Want to hear a real Christmas miracle?  Your imperfect story, everything that is out of control and beyond your control, is exactly where God begins with you.  This is where God’s transcendence becomes tangible, relatable, and real because God meets us right where we live – shoving aside that perfect song we try to sing about ourselves and, instead, tells our imperfect story.  So, we can just leave that perfect song to the angels and heavenly host.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Bible is an imperfect story told by and about imperfect people that reveal the Christ perfectly. It’s like the manger that holds the baby Jesus. Maybe it has a bent nail or a few splinters, but Jesus is in there.[5]  Revealing the One who came under a star in skin and solidarity.  Revealing the One who comes in vulnerability – fragile, dependent, and hungry. Revealing the One whose story is imperfectly told so that we might see that our imperfections, our vulnerability, our fragility are revealed and held by God who also sees and names the good in you, calls you beloved, and names you children of God. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.

Thanks be to God!

______________________________________________________________

 

[1] “Imagine if you will…” is a line of narration used in The Twilight Zone.

[2] Here’s a link to a websearch of key words “Christmas miracle.” https://www.google.com/search?q=christmas+miracle+2017&tbm=nws&source=univ&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi965GngP3XAhUI2WMKHSoiBucQt8YBCEQoAQ&biw=1366&bih=662

[3] Luke 2:9

[4] Jennifer Hudson to Davon Fleming, direct quote, minute 23:50 as televised with commercials. The Voice: Live Top 8 Performances. Season 13, Episode 24, December 11, 2017, on NBC.

[5] Martin Luther paraphrased from the Preface to the Old Testament (1523/1545) quoted by Timothy Lull in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd Ed, Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 114.  https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/dear-is-the-treasure-who-lies-in-them-by-martin-luther/

Eating Is A Radical Act [OR The Lord’s Prayer: Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread] Luke 12:22-34, Isaiah 58:6-11a, Psalm 107:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 6, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; other two readings are at end of sermon]

Luke 12:22-34  He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

Isaiah 58:6-11a

[The Lord says,] Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.


If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

[sermon begins]

Thursday morning, Rob and I met our niece and her family of six for an early breakfast on their airport layover.  The kids range from small to school-aged.  We are named to be their legal guardians in the event of tragedy.  This legal reality deepens our times together over the muffin crumb carnage on the floor.  We shared stories, time, and food. In the language of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, we were given ‘this day our daily bread.’[1]

Later that morning, a radio interview with Judith Jones was re-aired, commemorating her death the day before at the age of 93.[2] She was a long-time book editor for the likes of Ann Frank’s diary, John Updike, Anne Tyler, and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Ms. Jones also published her own memoir cookbook after her husband of 45 years died – The Pleasures of Cooking for One.  In the interview, she talked about the pleasure of smelling garlic cooking, things sizzling, feeling at home again in her own kitchen, pouring a glass of wine, lighting candles, listening to music, honoring her past with her husband, feeling “happy, special, grateful.”  Again, because I was sermon writing in my head, my thoughts turned to ‘our daily bread.’

In the same news radio line-up was an update on the Venezuelan political crisis.  Towards the end of the report, a man was interviewed about the lack of meat available. Recently plentiful, nourishing meals have become rice and a few beans in the course of just a few years.[3] Again, my thoughts turned to ‘our daily bread.’

In my Facebook feed on Thursday morning were two different articles about food.  One was about the life-long challenges one author faces with food, body-acceptance, and health.[4]  Not too long later in the newsfeed was an article about the famine in South Sudan caused by drought and civil war.[5]  Again, my thoughts turned to ‘our daily bread” and the different ways food comes up in the day-to-day.

These experiences and information about food came through in one morning.  I wasn’t looking for them.  Although, thinking about ‘Our daily bread’ helped me hear them all differently.  All have bits and pieces of the big picture of food. The big picture?  There’s enough food for everyone in the whole world. Today. Right now.[6]  ‘Our daily bread’ for everyone is available if not for drought, war, and politics.

With real concerns about how to connect available food with hungry people we hear from the Gospel of Luke:

“And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”[7]

In light of hunger concerns, the Luke reading and Judith Jones’ food stories can first come off a bit like the princess who declared of the starving peasants, “Let them eat cake!”[8]  Telling someone who’s hungry that the Bible tells them not to worry about food is obscene.  This Luke reading is not part of the regular three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings for Sundays. It follows Jesus’ parable – a cautionary tale of greed about a farmer with a bumper crop who builds bigger barns to store the crop rather than distributing it.[9]

In the Luke reading today, Jesus’ teaching moves beyond worrying to living, moves beyond greed to kingdom generosity.  The math is simple. People living generously means their neighbor lives with less need.  Living generously don’t mean only giving charitably, although, it does mean that too; it also means paying a living wage. Living generously means that we may go without something so that others may live.  Living generously means praying for our daily bread to include all people while shattering the cycle of generational poverty…working with people caught in that cycle…seeing dignity in all the children of God with whom we pray for ‘our daily bread.’

Martin Luther writes a thing or two about what we mean when we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  In the style of the Small Catechism, we ask the question, “What then does daily bread mean?”  Here’s what Martin Luther taught in the 16th century was included in daily bread:

“Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.”[10]

That’s quite a list of pretty much everything our bodies might need to live well and to live in stability with the people around us.  Hunger and poverty are destabilizing to the extreme.  I often wonder what I would do if I were desperate to feed my family.  I imagine different scenarios that involve what people around the world and in my neighborhood are experiencing.  Would I migrate? Would I apply for SNAP benefits?  Would I work two jobs?  Would I steal?  Would I stand in line for hours?  Would I walk miles for water?  Would I starve to feed my children?  Very few of us know what we would actually do. I certainly don’t.  At this point in time, Rob and I have plenty to feed our family, seeing to our needs and then some.  We can eat and savor in the manner that Judith Jones talks about the pleasure of food.

Wendell Berry, author, poet, and farmer, writes that:

“Eating with the fullest pleasure…is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection to the world. We experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and power we cannot comprehend.”[11]

Mr. Barry’s words caught me off guard in last week’s staff meeting devotion and conversation about Luther’s Table Blessing After Meals. (Pretty cool that we get to do those kinds of things as a church staff.)  I’d not thought much about eating as an experience and celebration of dependence.  If I’m honest about it, I think it surprised me because to my mind having food means having independence.  But that independence is a story made up out of whole cloth, an unconscious fiction that helps me sleep better at night. The Gospel of Luke would align with Mr. Barry.  Things like food and clothing are given by God and received by us.  There is nothing we create by ourselves. Sure, seeds can be planted but the ground for planting needs to be there first and seeds need to be garnered from plants that already exist.  See where this is going?  Eating is an act of utter dependence, whether it’s in desperate starving gulps or savoring sips.  We confess our dependence on the planet and on each other with every act of eating.

As Christians, every act of eating confesses our dependence on God. This includes our eating of Holy Communion.  We physically confess with our hands cupped and held out to receive the grace of God that we cannot create on our own.  “We are beggars, this is true.”[12]  We are dependent on the grace of God in Christ Jesus for all that we have, for all that we are, and for all that we can be to each other so that all people may eat and live.  As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, our light rises in the darkness as we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; and the Lord guides us continually, making us like a spring of water whose water never fails.[13] Thanks be to God and amen.

[1] Sunday, August 6, is week three of five of Augustana’s sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer.

[2] Remembering Judith Jones. NPR Here and Now on August 3, 2017. http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/08/03/remembering-judith-jones

[3] For more on Venezuelan food shortages see “Banging on Empty Pots, Venezuelans Protest Food Shortages,” at http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-idUSKBN18U0SO.

[4] Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Losing It In the Anti-Dieting Age. The New York Times. August 2, 2017. https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/magazine/weight-watchers-oprah-losing-it-in-the-anti-dieting-age.html?smid=fb-share&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fm.facebook.com%2F

[5] Learn more about South Sudan famine and how to help at https://www.elca.org/en/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/Our-Impact/South-Sudan-Relief

[6] Updated 2016 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics can be read at http://www.worldhunger.org/2015-world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/

[7] Luke 12:29-31

[8] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/let-them-eat-cake.html

[9] Meda Stamper, Presbyterian minister in Leicestershire, England. Commentary on Luke 12:1-21 for Working Preacher on July 31, 2016 (a ministry of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN). http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2923

[10] Martin Luther. Luther’s Small Catechism in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2016), 50.

[11] Luther, 91. “Table Blessing After Meals.”

[12] Last words attributed to Martin Luther on his death bed.

[13] Isaiah 58:10-11, paraphrased.

____________________________________________

Psalm 107: 1-9

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever. 
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
those he redeemed from trouble 
3 and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.*


4 Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town; 
5 hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them. 
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress; 
7 he led them by a straight way,
until they reached an inhabited town. 
8 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind. 
9 For he satisfies the thirsty,
and the hungry he fills with good things.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

God’s Kingdom and Will? No sweat. (OR The Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done On Earth As It Is In Heaven) John 18:33-38 Romans 5:1-10 Jeremiah 29:11-13a Psalm 145:8-17

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 30, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the two other readings may be found at the end of the sermon]

Romans 5:1-10   Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

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

[sermon begins]

There’s a kind of conversation that happens when two people think they’re clear as a bell and really there are two different conversations happening at the same time.  My husband and I had one of those just the other day.  Rob had to leave the house early to meet clients in Cheyenne.  Before he hopped in the shower, he said to me, “Don’t turn off the coffee pot, okay?”  My clear-as-a-bell reply was, “How many cups of coffee have I had?”  He tipped his head a bit at me with that classic expression that silently asks, “Whaaat?!”  I made perfect sense to myself because I was wondering how likely it would be that I would even think about turning off the coffee at that early hour.  Meanwhile, Rob just needed quick reassurance that the coffee pot would remain on while he rallied to leave.  Twenty-seven years into our relationship and there are still moments of confusion in the small and big conversations.

The dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate falls into the big conversation category.  Any prior relationship or benefit of the doubt or warm laughter between them is unlikely.  This is serious business. Jesus is on trial.  Pilate summons him to a private conversation after questioning the people who brought him in.  Jesus is brought to Pilate for a legal verdict.  Honestly?  He’s brought to Pilate for a guilty verdict. Pilate is caught between the crowd, Roman law, job security, and Jesus’ innocence. Whatever you may think of his actions, Pontius Pilate is a compelling character. His question about truth is compelling.  And it’s a very old question.  “What is truth?”  Great question all on its own.  Philosophers and neuroscientists have a field day talking about the origins of reality and truth.

“What is truth?” is also a great question when it comes to God’s kingdom and will.  There are lots of people who invoke God’s will for all kinds of things. The good that happens?  God’s will. The bad that happens?  God’s will. I’m more cautious when it comes to claiming God’s will.  This caution is due to something called bondage of the will.  Bondage of the will means that the human inclination is to think about the self first and think about everything else second. Including God.  Not only are we anthropocentric thinking that humans are the center of all reality; I am self-centered thinking that I am origin of truth.  There’s a Latin expression for this self-centeredness. Incurvatus in se. The expression means that we are curved in on ourselves.  In Christianity, we could say that the cross pulls our noses out of our belly buttons aligning us with God and God’s kingship.

God’s kingship brings us to the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  “Thy kingdom come.”  Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.”[1]  To think about the kingdom, we look at the king.  Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus deflects the question by answering with a question.  Pilate then asks Jesus, “What have you done?”  Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world…”  Ah, Pilate thinks he has Jesus now.  “So you ARE a king?”  Again, Jesus hedges his answer by saying that he “came into this world to testify to the truth.”  Once again, two people having two different conversations at the same time.  Although, for our purposes today, Jesus does point us toward his kingdom.

Jesus’ kingdom talk is interesting.  Pilate isn’t off-base asking about a king when Jesus testifies that his kingdom is not from this world.  Asking for the identity of the king makes sense.  The problem is that this king is unlike other kings.  This king is standing trial in front of an insignificant governor of an obscure Roman outpost.  This king isn’t rallying power to fight and win.  This king is surrendering.  He is preparing for the ultimate self-sacrifice on behalf of friends and enemies alike.  This king reveals the breadth of divine power poured out in the depth of divine love.[2]  Jesus testifies to his kingdom with unexpected behaviors for a king. Unexpected behaviors for a king but perhaps not unexpected behaviors for THIS king.  Remember that this king spent his time on earth meeting with outcasts and strangers, healing the untouchables, feeding the hungry, and offending the powers that be by calling for love of God, neighbor, and enemy.  Remember that he ends up offending almost everyone.  Remember that he gets killed for his kingdom’s work, proclamation, and ministry.

In his ministry, Jesus teaches us to pray the third petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come in and among us.”[3] Dr. Alicia Vargas writes that this in this prayer “we acknowledge our obedience to divine authority.”[4]  We pray that our own will yields to God’s will as sovereign, as king.

God’s kingdom and will seem to be revealed through Jesus’ kingdom ministry and inevitable execution which gives one possibility as we pray for God’s will. God’s will is for God to love us.  God’s will is first about God and what God is doing through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God creates, sustains, shows up, dies, and lives again in love for us.  In verse 5 of the Romans reading, the Apostle Paul says it this way, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[5]  The love of God is revealed in and among us…the church…the body of Christ in the world. God commissions us through baptism to the ministry and proclamation of this good news.

So, God’s will is first for God to love us.  Not just some of us.  All of us.  I remember when this became shockingly clear to me. Six or seven years ago I was at a middle school volleyball tournament.  The seating for fans was in an oval one level above the game on the floor.  It was packed.  It was loud.  I remember looking around at everyone there – mixed in age, race, and class, faces scrunched up and lungs unleashed in competitive intensity.  And I remember thinking, God loves all you people.  I found this remarkable.  Stunning, really.  Feel free to try this yourselves at any sporting event.  Or at any time really. Look around school.  God loves all those people.  Look around work.  Look around government.  God loves all those people.  Look around the grocery store and the gym.  God loves all those people.  Look around your neighborhood and your home.  God loves all those people. You see them.  God loves them.

Look around these pews.  God loves all you people.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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[1] Martin Luther. Luther’s Small Catechism in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2016), 44.

[2] Dr. Craig Koester said this repeatedly during in his class on The Gospel of John, Fall 2010.  Luther Seminary.

[3] Martin Luther, 46.

[4] Alicia Vargas, The Third Petition in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2016), 46.

[5] Romans 5:5

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Jeremiah 29:11-13a  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me.

Psalm 145:8-17   The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  9 The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. 10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. 11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, 12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. 14 The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. 15 The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16 You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing. 17 The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.

I Can See No Way Out But Through** [OR Leviathan’s Lesson on Playfulness] John 14:15-17, 25-27, Acts 2:1-21, and Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

**Robert Frost’s poem “A Servant to Servants” (1915)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church June 4, 2017 – Pentecost Sunday

[sermon begins after three Bible readings – hang in there]

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. 26 There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it. 27 These all look to you to give them their food in due season; 28 when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. 30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground. 31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works— 32 who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. 33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord.
35b Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

John 14:15-17, 25-27 “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.
25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

[sermon begins]

In the Bible reading today, Peter’s preaching is nothing short of extraordinary, not because of what he says but because he’s preaching at all. Let’s talk about Peter for a minute.  His story is ripe for a made-for-T.V. movie.  Or maybe even a Hollywood blockbuster if the casting and writing goes well.  A man of simple means, a fisherman, Peter is called into service by the itinerant preacher Jesus who used to be a carpenter.[1]  Traveling around Judea together with a few more men and women added to the mix, they preached as they healed, gathered and fed.  It doesn’t last. It ends in a mess of scattered betrayal, denial, and death on a cross.  Peter is a complicated person.  Many of us take great comfort from the way he blurts out wild ideas or tries to boss Jesus around.[2]  Some of us even take comfort from the way Peter denies knowing Jesus during his trial.[3]  Regardless, Peter is preaching on the rush of the Spirit at Pentecost. His preaching is immediately complicated by people’s perception of what’s happening and how people make sense of it.  Some people think he and his other preaching friends are drunk.  But, no, simply human.

It’s an interesting time to be a human in the world.  It’s also an interesting time to be a preacher. Many of my longer-tenured colleagues of various denominations talk and write regularly about this unprecedented moment in time.  There simply is no sweet spot between Jesus’ emphases of loving God, self, neighbor, and enemy and the current political rhetoric.  To ignore world and national events puts preaching in an artificial bubble that “separation of church and state” never intended. To incorporate said events into a sermon leads to contradictory feedback that it either didn’t go far enough or it went too far into political conversation.  It’s even become so tricky that to simply preach Biblical language is interpreted politically by listeners; think “welcoming the stranger” and current immigration issues.[4]

What is a preacher to do?  Keep preaching.  The prophet Isaiah writes that the word of the Lord goes out and accomplishes its purpose while the Lord’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor the Lord’s ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8-11).  I take comfort in the human limitation implied by Isaiah and God’s word succeeding despite a preacher’s well-intentioned bumbling.  As Robert Frost wrote in his poem, A Servant to Servants, “I can see no way out but through.”[5]

What’s a congregation to do?  Keep being the church lit up and winded by the Holy Spirit.  Baptize. Commune. Preach.  Pray.  Visit the sick and home-centered. Remind each other of God’s promises. And live the gospel freedom to sin boldly on behalf of God and neighbor.  Sinning boldly is not a free-for-all but rather a “freedom for” which unleashes Christians to work on behalf of our neighbors knowing that we will bumble through the work.  Web-search “Freedom of a Christian pdf” or visit Augustana’s library to read Luther’s no-nonsense take on this one.[6] In it, Luther lays down two propositions:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.

Frost’s servant poem applies again, “I can see no way out but through.”

What’s Augustana to do specifically?  For today, there’s a couple things on my mind.  Welcoming new members is one of them. People and families for whom a variety of reasons accompanies the call of the Spirit to connect through this congregation.  The other thing on my mind today? Keep moving for hunger. Our congregation has a long history of supporting ELCA World Hunger accompanies people from poverty to self-sufficiency in the U.S. and around the world – from health clinics to microloans, water wells to animal husbandry, community meals to advocacy. ELCA World Hunger is something that has made sense over time to a lot of people in this congregation.

The 500 year anniversary of the Reformation ramps up our partnership as the Rocky Mountain Synod’s (ELCA) Hunger Network is challenging congregations to commemorate the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation with “500 Years On The Move For Hunger” that each congregation is able to construct from their particular gifts and personalities.  Augustana’s goal is to increase movement and raise a congregational total of $15,170 for ELCA World Hunger over 150 days – June 4 – October 29, Pentecost to Reformation Sunday.  Individuals or Teams are encouraged to “Move” physically by walking, biking, running, etc., or to “Move” spiritually by spending time volunteering for hunger organizations, praying for others, meditating, etc. (15 minutes = 1 mile). Participating individuals or teams will keep track of their “miles” and either give or raise money, based on their miles, toward ELCA World Hunger.

Naturally, with a serious issue such as hunger, we get so serious, so quickly. Or maybe it’s just me. But in serious times it’s easy to forget to laugh, to enjoy the gift of life, “to sport” in creation like the Leviathan in the psalm.[7]  “500 Years On The Move for Hunger” is a fun way to celebrate life while working towards life for all.  “I can see no way out but through.”

Most importantly, what’s Jesus to do?  Here’s the amazing thing. Jesus keeps doing what Jesus does – forgiving, strengthening, inspiring, leading, connecting, healing and loving.  Towards the end of the gospel of John, the risen Christ has a come-to-Jesus meeting with Simon Peter who had denied him three times during the crucifixion trial, the same Peter preaching at Pentecost.[8]  Jesus asks Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”[9]  …“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  …“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Each time, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.”[10]  First and foremost, Peter experiences grace from Jesus after the pain and disappointment of his denials. Only then does Jesus put him to work.

In today’s gospel of John reading, Jesus is still alive, before the crucifixion.  He promises the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to his disciples BEFORE Peter’s bumbling denials and the other disciples’ abandonment during the crucifixion. His promise to them isn’t connected to points for good behavior.  First and foremost, they receive grace through a promise from Jesus. …“I can see no way out but through.”…Jesus doesn’t play the game of retributive justice. He isn’t out for revenge. His disciples receive grace through a promise. They receive the Holy Spirit as promised and so do we. Jesus’ promise to the disciples is also his promise to us:

“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[11]

Amen.

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[1] Luke 5:1-11 The story of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to follow him.

[2] Matthew 16:21-23 (Get behind me satan), Luke 9:28-36 (Transfiguration)

[3] John 18:15-27

[4] Matthew 25:43-45, Hebrews 13:2, Exodus 22:21, etc.

[5] Robert Frost.  “A Servant to Servants” in the Complete Poems of Robert Frost. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1949), 83.

[6] Martin Luther. Freedom of a Christian (1520) in Luther’s Works 31.: Eds. Harold J. Grimm and Helmutt T. Lehmann; online at http://www.spucc.org/sites/default/files/Luther%20Freedom.pdf

[7] Psalm 104:24-26 O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. 26There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it

[8] John 18:15-18, 25-27 – The story of Peter’s denials.

[9] John 21:15-21

[10] John 21:17

[11] John 14:26-27