Tag Archives: Mary

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

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

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

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Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

 

Connection at the Cradle’s Edge [OR Two Women Preaching a Shared Vision] Luke 1:39-55

**sermon art:  The Visitation, James B. Janknegt, 2009, oil on canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Advent 4, December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]  In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

[sermon begins]

Ohhhh, cat fight!  Well, not really.  Not at all actually.  Mary and Elizabeth are two women in it together.  Both have slightly different jobs that work toward the same vision.  After Mary’s surprise pregnancy, she makes haste to the hills to her relative Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant in her old age.  Later we learn her visit to Elizabeth lasted about three months.[1]  Perhaps Mary was there when John was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah – helping her aging relative with a difficult labor and delivery and then heading home as her own belly grew heavy with pregnancy.  This is no small relationship between the two women.  In a world that often pits women against each other, imagining competition where there isn’t any, here we have one of many examples in which competition is simply not the case.  Not only was Mary welcomed by Elizabeth and the baby inside of her.  Mary was celebrated by them.  The baby leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit to proclaim to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Celebration, indeed.

The celebration continues after Elizabeth’s joyous welcome with Mary’s psalm in response.  Psalms are a form of song in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  Psalm songs in Luke lead us to up to and beyond cradle’s edge.  In addition to Elizabeth and Mary, the priest Zechariah sings of God’s faithfulness after the birth of his son who becomes John the Baptist, the angels sing to shepherds in a field of good news for all people, and the prophets Simeon and Anna praise God’s mercy for all people.[2] Their songs celebrate the faithfulness of God in the One soon to be cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  Song is a way to remember. Songs get trapped in our head differently and become available in our minds at times when other words fail us.  Songs of full of faith and Christmas promise can sustain our faith and remind us of what we easily forget in the day – that the world and our connection with other people is to be celebrated by way of God’s imagination not our own imagined state of competition.

In her psalm, Mary praises God for humbling the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting the lowly, and feeding the hungry.  One reaction to Mary’s psalm might be vengeful if you’re exhausted by oppression and survival. Another reaction to her psalm might be dread if you hear you’re about to lose something.  In a world that often pits people against each other, inciting competition, categorizing winners and losers, Mary’s psalm can be heard as either/or categories – either you’re the powerful at the top waiting to be toppled or you’re the lowly at the bottom waiting for your turn to be at the top.  For God’s sake, we know what happens to that cradled baby Jesus who grows into the ministry celebrated by his mother’s psalm.  The competition perceived by the political and religious powers took Jesus to trial and death on a cross.  But let’s remember for a moment, that the cross was good news both for the criminal who hung next to Jesus and for the Roman centurion nearby who praised God and confessed truth.[3]  Not either/or categories – both/and – all!

Okay, I’ve dabbled at the cross long enough. Let’s return to the cradle’s edge, shall we?  Pregnant expectation is where we’re at with Mary and Elizabeth.  Even the baby in Elizabeth’s belly is jumping for joy.  The women are joyous and hopeful as they greet each other.  Their psalms preach hope and promise, a vision jump-started by the Holy Spirit.  Two women, both preaching, both celebrating new life in the form of a baby but not yet a baby born.  Another word for this is hope.

Hope is my word for the church year. I chose it at the end of November before Advent began.  I chose the word hope as an antidote to the seemingly endless messages of despair.  With a word chosen to focus faith, I have a better shot at seeing life through the lens of God’s imagination and promise rather than human frustration and despair.  I have a better shot at living and sharing the hope that is within us by the power of faith.  Elizabeth and Mary’s moment is a case in point.  Mary left town in a hurry to go see Elizabeth.  She had a lot to fear in town.  Betrothed but not yet married to Joseph, young and pregnant, facing potential backlash from her community, she walks through Zechariah’s front door into safety and celebration with Elizabeth.  I imagine Mary showing up at Elizabeth’s home with the fatigue and nausea common to the first trimester of pregnancy and perhaps with some worry about the future.  Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit welcome is like a fresh breeze that smooths Mary’s furrowed brow and blows the dust off of her traveling feet and inspires Mary’s response in the Magnificat.

If Mary’s response is anything, it’s a word of hope. So much more than greeting card worthy, the Magnificat is bold, rebellious, and full of joy.  It’s hope-filled because, as we’ll hear in a few days, this is good news of great joy for ALL people.[4]  Which means that the mighty cast down and the lowly brought up stand together with each other by the power of Jesus.  It’s not about putting the lowly in the mighty category and the mighty in the low to simply repeat the same bad news.  Mary’s psalm births the possibility that the baby growing inside of her will lead us into love that connects rather than competes.  Not sentimental love where we pat each other on the head and wish each other good luck.  Rather, it’s a love that means seeing each other as human relatives, celebrating each other as Mary and Elizabeth did.  Sometimes it’s a compassionate love that soothes and consoles us within the cradle of Christ’s presence.  Sometimes it’s a convicting love that helps us understand when we are in the wrong from the courage gained by Christ’s cross.  Mary’s psalm afflicts those of us who are comfortable while comforting those of us who are afflicted.  The cradle and the cross reveal a lot about us.

But mostly the cradle and the cross reveal the Christ.  From cradle through cross to new life, Jesus is grace that tells the truth about ourselves and each other, bending fear into courage and transforming hatred into love so that we live as people with hope.

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[1] Luke 1:56

[2] David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN. Commentary on Luke 1:39-55 for December 20, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=515

[3] Luke 23:39-47

[4] Luke 2:10-12 But the angel said to [shepherds], “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.”

 

Are You Ready?  [Hang With Me Here – It’s a Personality Test, Not a Scorecard]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”

Luke 1:68-79  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

[sermon begins]

“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile.  She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good.  Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future.  If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me.  Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy.  “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Some of you, I know, are all over it.  Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent.  Menus planned.  You name it and you’re on it.  You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness.  Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz.  What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season.  For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation.  I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago.  My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.

In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys.  We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much.  Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone.  All flesh.  All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.

Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter.  Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible.  In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today.  Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.

The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke.  The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story.  The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world.  One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God.  It wasn’t always tidy or easy though.  Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age.  The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born.  His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.

Why does any of this matter?  Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism.  The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine.  The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently.  The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.

Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus.  Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait.  We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John.  Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.  And amen.

 

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!

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[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/

Wally’s World [OR Into This World, This Demented Inn] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas

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]

 

Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things.  Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news.  When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear.  The inn was full in Bethlehem.  Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”[1]

The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper.  The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all.  But we imagine him.  We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays.  One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time.  James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:

“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.

Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them.  “Wait! You can have my room.”[2]  [end of Harnish story]

Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?”[3]  What would we do as the innkeeper?  He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family.  Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer.  Regardless of tone, the end is the same.  There is no room.  But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.

The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading.  Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem.  There are times for sentiment.  Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out.  All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story.  In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius.  The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

No room.  Full.  This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today.  Room in the schedule.  Room in the mind.  Room in the heart.  Room for compassion in the face of suffering.  Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry.[4]  Room for the glory of God.[5]  Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host.[6]  Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.[7]

Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time.  Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma.[8]  This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover.[9]  Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.

Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none?  Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available.  Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary?  Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”[10]

You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited.  We can say, “No room, go away.”  We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.”  We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives.  We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene.[11]  Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.”[12]  Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability.[13]  With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.

Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own.  We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.[14]  Thanks be to God and Amen.

_____________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:7

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.

[3] John Quinones. “What Would You Do?”  abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo

[4] Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53

[5] Luke 2:14

[6] Luke 2:14

[7] Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.

[8] Harnish, 34.

[9] Harnish, 34.

[10] Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.

[11] Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[12] Luke 2:11

[13] Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

[14] Ibid.

Agency Denied [OR Why Joseph is Our Guy] Matthew 1:18-25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

[sermon begins]

 

I listen to a lot of people talk about their lives.  While listening, I’m often struck by the magnitude of what someone says and the quiet, matter-of-fact way the story is shared.  There’s the older gentleman in the seat next to mine on the airplane.  The pilot was navigating around thunderstorms. The plane was shaking. I’m sure I was pale and looking worried.  The gentleman next to me asked me if I was nervous. (I thought to myself, “Hah! Are you kidding me?!”) “Yes,” is what I said. He told me that he doesn’t get nervous in planes because it doesn’t get worse than being shot down in the Pacific during World War II and waiting days in the water to get picked up.  The story was longer than that, of course.  He told me bits and pieces, regaling in calm tones and stark detail.  It had the quality of a story told many times.  I could picture it without feeling a need to take care of him while he talked.  He was open to curiosity and questions. His gift was one of distraction from my turbulence terror while he calmly shared his past.

The gentleman’s story, while unique in detail, is common in quality.  How many of us get used to telling our strange tales that have become normal in our own lives but surprise other people in the telling.  Jesus’ birth story is along this line for Christians. We tell a really strange tale, my friends.  We celebrate it in sacred scripture. We sing about it. We pop it up in our homes. I confess I have several such home scenes myself.  Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by various configurations of animals, angels, shepherds, and magi.  Wood, porcelain, and pottery that is carved, poured, and molded.  Dioramas of faith that proliferate across the land and in my home.

In some ways, it’s such a simple story.  So simple that even a child can tell it.  Last week our young friends here at Augustana put on costume and learned their lines.  They processed into the sanctuary and preached the story of Jesus through a narrated, live diorama.  Their telling of this good news is a mash-up from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and appropriately called, “Simply Christmas.”

The gospel writer today keeps it super simple, too:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

That’s it.  Nothing flashy. But there is someone who gets a newsflash. Joseph. His betrothed is pregnant and he is not the father.  If that’s not a kick in the gut that takes your breath away then I don’t know what would be.  A man’s proudest agency is taken from Joseph.  Confronted with the news, his initial plan is simple and legal.  Dismiss Mary.  Send her on her way quietly, saving her from public disgrace.  Joseph is justified in his position. Not only in his own mind but in the eyes of the law.  No harm, no foul.  He is good to go.  Simple and legal.  Justified. Resolved.  And then not so simple at all…

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”[1]

The angel, the Lord’s messenger, shows up thwarting Joseph’s justified resolve.  I hate when that happens.  When a good resolve swirls down the drain.  Resolve feels good.  It feels right.  It is powerful, knowing what to do.  Powerlessness?  Not so much.  And definitely not in the way a good resolve feels.  Here’s a clue to part of the good news today.  If there’s room for Joseph in the nativity story, then there is room for me, and there is room for you.[2]

There’s room for us in the Nativity story because Joseph is asked simply to stay and watch the story unfold.  Oddly enough, he asks no questions of the angel in his dream and he’s given no understandable explanation.  In essence, Joseph is told to take Mary as his wife and to name the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, “Jesus.”  That’s not a lot of information.  In fact, it doesn’t amount to any information he can share with his friends as justification for staying with Mary, especially in light of the vague paternity. And, still, he obeys the angel.

He obeys without any knowledge of what this will mean. Just around the corner, what he can’t see is the visit from the magi.  Those strange people from a faraway place who come to visit Jesus after he is born.[3]  He can’t see the magi’s decision to thwart King Herod.[4]  He can’t see King Herod’s edict to slaughter all the infant children less than two years old because they may or may not be the rumored Messiah.[5]  He can’t see his and Mary’s escape and refuge in Egypt.[6]  There’s so much that Joseph can’t see when he agrees to take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus.

James Harnish, a long-time Christian pastor, recalls a story from when he was in college.  He went to see a professor with a very intelligent friend who had a lot of questions about his faith and was frustrated by the simplistic answers people gave him.  His friend asked the professor, “How can I [follow] Christ when I don’t know all that it will mean?”  The professor answered, “None of us knows all that it’s going to mean, but we know enough [to follow Jesus] and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.”[7]

Joseph is obedient without an “i” dotted or “t” crossed.  Some of us see ourselves in Joseph because, like him, our proudest self-agency is also taken away from us.  We do not save ourselves. The name “Jesus” means “God saves” or “the Lord saves.”  He will be born and named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.”  Week-after-week we scratch the surface of what this means for us.  Some of us wonder about intellectual problems raised by scripture that don’t jive with our experience or knowledge.  Some of us struggle with the mystery and want it solved so that then we could have faith.  Some of us are drawn to action on behalf of people who need help but don’t know where to start or how to keep going.  For all of us in those moments, Joseph is our guy.

In light of Joseph’s lack of information, his obedience to the angel’s wild request is shocking, confusing, and disturbing.[8]  If we let it, our familiarity with Jesus’ birth story means that our quiet, matter-of-fact way of telling it can oversimplify what God is doing all around us. God’s audacity in slipping into powerless, vulnerable skin is echoed by Joseph’s powerless, vulnerability as well as our own – the breadth of divine power revealed in the depth of divine, self-giving love.  Like Joseph, we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to follow Jesus.  Like Joseph, we watch, wait, and wonder as Emmanuel, God with us, shows up and saves.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:20

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 20.

[3] Matthew 2:1-11

[4] Matthew 1:8 and 12

[5] Matthew 2:16-18

[6] Matthew 2:13-15

[7] Harnish, 23.

[8] Harnish, 19.

Divine Indifference Is Not A Thing – Luke 21:1-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the book of Luke]

Luke 21:1-19 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

[sermon begins]

A week and a half ago, a new Crock Pot turned up at my house. It sat on the counter for a few days, hanging out in its box.  My old Crock Pot was sitting there too.  Its clouded, plastic lid cracked beyond repair.  No replacement part available to prolong its use to be found online or in town. We received it as a wedding gift over 20 years ago and scooped from it many family meals and potluck offerings.  It shows its years in the pale blue floral pattern and other signs of wear beyond its broken lid.  Finally I pulled the new one out of its box on Tuesday morning and christened it with the evening meal. Here’s where the story takes a turn into the absurd.  I couldn’t part with the old one.  Besides my stubborn resistance to planned obsolescence, it is an object loaded with meaning through memories. I put it in my trunk rather than in the trash thinking that maybe I’ll discover a means to reuse or repurpose it.  That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, post-election, sentimentalism was put in its proper place.  Facebook was exploding in surreal contrasts of joy and despair.  It’s a wonder that my laptop didn’t split apart from the emotional output of so many people.  I looked at my laptop and wondered about all these people who were posting – family, friends, fellow clergy, and friends-of-friends.  Many of them I know and love.

So, there I sat, wondering if there was anything to say, if I had anything to say.  So, I did what I often do which is go to my faith. And I also did what a lot of people in my generation do and wrote a blog post.[1]  It was a mixture of testimony and confession.  That is to say, I wrote about my experience, Jesus, and what I was going to do by faith in the cultural turmoil even if not much else seems clear.

In the Bible reading today, Jesus tells his disciples that they will have an opportunity to testify.  Their opportunity to testify will come in times of massive upheaval as they’re arrested.  Some of them may not make it.  Some may die.  Jesus’ words are dire as they describe a dire time.  Their faithful testimony will not inoculate them against disapproval or death at the hands of kings or governors.

Generally speaking, testimony isn’t a big part of Lutheran-land.  It’s found a lot more in other Christian traditions.  Testimony is even odder when it’s given in non-Christian arenas like to the kings and governors.  Jesus tells his disciples that he will give them the words and wisdom for their testimony.

Right before this call to testimony, Jesus watches the widow walk humbly across the floor of the synagogue and put all that she has to live on in that treasury box.  Her presence is noted as Jesus watches her quietly give her gift.  Jesus’ witness means we remember her across time as an image of active trust in God.  She is identity bearing for us as the church.  As one congregation of people in God’s whole church catholic, our mission statement concludes with the words from the prophet Micah.[2]  We “walk humbly with our God.”[3]  We walk as the widow walks – right through the argument of the leaders.  We do as the widow does – giving our lives to God.

In contrast to the widow, we live in a world where politics often supplants faith as salvific. Politics becomes that which will save us from all manner of bad things. Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminds us in her post-election remarks this week that, “No human candidate can guarantee our life and our future, that is the work that God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”[4]  While many of us may agree with that statement theoretically, our minds and bodies may have a more difficult time figuring out what it means. Especially because there are competing and emotionally-charged political views of people we’re sitting in the pews with right now. If the last few days are any indication, some of us are celebrating and some of us are afraid.  That’s a lot going on in a room of people much less a country of people.

Leading with the story of the widow, Jesus charges his disciples to give their testimony and tells them that it may cost their lives.[5] If we only had this reading, one could read this as a speech of indifference as to whether or not the disciples live. But nothing could be further from the good news of Jesus. In the first chapter of Luke, God slips on skin in solidarity with us[6]; Mary sings about God lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things[7]; and Zechariah prophesies about forgiveness of sins and the tender mercy of God giving light to those who sit in darkness and guiding our feet in the way of peace.[8]  Divine indifference is not a thing.  After Luke’s 21st chapter that contains the Bible reading today, come the last three chapters that include Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection during which Jesus’ prays for the people, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”[9]  Divine indifference is not a thing.

Bishop Eaton continued her post-election comments:  “So what do we do dear church? Three things.  Remember that all human beings are made in the image of God, even the ones who didn’t vote for your candidate.  Pray for our country, for those elected, for understanding.  And then we get back to work, doing the things the church has always done: welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, work for justice and peace in all the earth, all in the name of the one who is our hope, our life, and our peace, Jesus who set us free to serve the neighbor.”

Following up on Bishop Eaton’s question, I ask us, “How are we prepared to do these things, dear church?”  Our testimony on behalf of the stranger, the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned need not wait until we’re dragged before a king or other world leader.  There are people right now who are riding the coattails of this election to intimidate and injure others.[10]  Swastikas and racist behavior are being reported by schools from around the country.[11]   We may testify right now against racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior – prepared by Jesus with the words, wisdom, and strength to do so on behalf of all people, ALL beloved children of God.

Healing prayers have been long-scheduled for worship this Sunday. Post-election, this now seems like providential timing – not to gloss over serious realities with sentimentalism but rather to be gifted strength to respond faithfully, to love our neighbor as ourselves.[12] Because divine indifference is not a thing.  In its ministry of healing, the church does not replace the gifts of God that come through the scientific community, nor does it promise a cure. The church offers and celebrates gifts such as these: God’s presence with strength and comfort in time of suffering, God’s promise of wholeness and peace, and God’s love embodied by the community of faith.[13]

Jesus’ death on the cross is evidence that God would not raise a hand in violence against the people God so loves. Claimed by this good news, we are set free to give our lives to God for the sake of our neighbor. Because of Jesus the Christ, the church’s indifference is not a thing.  Indifference is not an option.  Where people are hungry and thirsty, where people are suffering and hurting, where people are persecuted and threatened, Jesus people show up.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] “Tinted Purple” blog post link: http://caitlintrussell.blogspot.com/2016/11/tinted-purple.html

[2] Micah 6:8 – He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, seek kindness and walk humbly with your God.

[3] Augustana mission – Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ and walk humbly with our God.  http://www.augustanadenver.org/

[4] Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw2-f82fklc

[5] The Book of Acts tells stories of the disciples’ work, testimony and martyrdom.

[6] Luke 1:26-38

[7] Luke 1:46-56

[8] Luke 1:67-79

[9] Luke 23:34

[10] Jim Axelrod for CBS News on November 11, 2016. “Ugliness Sprouting Up Across The Country.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ugliness-sprouting-up-across-country-after-donald-trump-election-win/

[11] CBS News/AP on November 11, 2016. “Schools Nationwide Report Racially-Charged Incidents After Election.” http://www.cbsnews.com/news/schools-nationwide-report-racially-charged-incidents-after-election/.

[12] Luke 10:27

[13] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Opening Rubric of “Brief Order for Healing.” (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006). members.sundaysandseasons.com/library

 

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon footnotes

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

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

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13

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Hebrews reading

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

 

Turning and Re-turning – Luke 2:39-56

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, December 20, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 2:39-56 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

[sermon begins]

So much in life turns on a single moment.  These turns are defining.  People we meet, plans we make, can take us in a whole new direction.  We play the game in my family occasionally reflecting on those turns.  It’s a game of “what ifs.”  A lot of the what-ifs are benign.  Some of them aren’t.  You know this game.  In one way or another we all do it.  Imagining whatever is happening in life differently because of the turns we make either voluntarily or because something happens to us.

Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary happens a few moments before her departure to the Judean hill country.  She was left perplexed and pondering the angel Gabriel’s greeting.  He reassured her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Gabriel announces that she is to have a holy child called “Son of God.” Mary receives and accepts the annunciation by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Then the angel leaves her.  Mary’s life now takes a major turn.  There is no going back to the way things were before.  The what-ifs are futile.

Right away, Mary turns and heads out the door.  “In those days Mary set out and went with haste…”  Why is she in a hurry?  Why make haste?   An easy answer might be that she’s excited.  Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant.  Mary could simply want to spend some time with her.  But let’s imagine Mary’s situation more thoroughly.  Regardless of her actual age, Mary is likely a very young woman.  She’s newly engaged.  In first century terms, she is as good as married.  Now she’s unexpectedly pregnant.  And she makes haste to Elizabeth.

Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid but who wouldn’t be?  I find that when the Bible pops up with the reassurance not to fear that there’s already something scary happening.  Anyone would be afraid given the circumstances.  It is no different here.  Not only does an angel show up but Mary’s life is at risk.  Whether it’s at risk because someone might hurt her due to her pregnancy or at risk because she could be turned out of her home with very few options.

Mary’s life is at risk.  She goes to Elizabeth.  They greet.  And Mary speaks.  What follows as she speaks is significant theologically for two reasons.  The first has to do with God’s purpose in Jesus.[1] The second is what God brings to bear through Mary herself.

In Jesus, God purpose extends to non-Jews the covenantal promises made long ago through Abraham.[2]  Mary says, “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  Culturally, there has been violence carried out against the Jews through the millennia.  The violence has often been supported and instigated by Christians literally leading the march based on one interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus.   As Anne Lamott says — ‘You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.’  Interpretation matters as the pages of the Bible turn.

Mary’s words in the Magnificat create a pause in which to wonder about anti-Semitic violence supported by supersessionist Christian self-righteousness – a self-righteousness that would attempt to usurp God’s righteous eternal covenants.  Genesis 21 gives a similar pause as we live alongside our cousins of faith in Islam. God’s blesses Ishmael who is Abraham’s son by Hagar.  Ishmael is in the genealogy of Muhammed.[3]  God tells Hagar regarding Ishmael that, “I will make a great nation of him.”  Once again, interpretation matters as the pages of the Bible turn.

On December 8th, Religion News Service ran an article about Orthodox rabbis signing a document acknowledging Christianity as an expansion of God’s covenant with the Jewish people through Abraham.[4]  Here’s a direct quote from the article:

“We understand that there is room in traditional Judaism to see Christianity as part of God’s covenantal plan for humanity, as a development out of Judaism that was willed by God,” said Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a signatory to the statement, titled “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians.”

In the same Religion News article, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a 20th century Orthodox rabbi held in high esteem, was quoted as having said, “each faith community is unique and entitled to the integrity of its own positions, which are neither negotiable, nor able to be fully understood by people from other faith traditions.”  I’m inclined to agree with Rabbi Soloveitchik. There are such things as religious commitments by way of faith.  But Mary’s words about God who scatters the proud and brings down the powerful from their thrones might challenge us lest we get too high and mighty by way of our own opinion and interpretation.

Mary praises God for calling her to be a God-bearer.  She accepts God’s call at great risk to herself.  Mary turns toward the safety of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home for a while.  Not forever.  The story tells us that she stays there about three months before returning to her home.  The time comes to turn back the way she came.

Advent Adventure was here a couple of weeks ago.  Food, service project, and crafts filled the Fellowship Hall.  I had the chance to tell a story.  My goal was to keep the story short and focused.  I learned my lesson after last year’s book time with kiddos was discombobulated by everything happening around us and the cookies inside of us.  The kids and I talked about what makes an adventure.  We talked about Mary’s Advent adventure and what makes an adventure – Star Wars being one example that came to mind easily for everyone.  Story time was super fun although the word “adventure” doesn’t quite fit.  It’s too romantic of a word for what she goes through on her own to Elizabeth’s home and then with Joseph to Bethlehem and, later, Egypt to escape Herod.  Mary makes tough decisions, determined to live into what God is calling her toward.  She protects herself and her pregnancy by turning toward Elizabeth and she returns home a few months later risking everything.

By baptism, we are God-bearers along with our ancestor in the faith, Mary – the lowly servant and the blessed mother of Jesus.  Like Mary we realize that faith often involves risk over safety.  You see, as Christians, we do not live as people without hope.  As Christians, we get to live as people of good courage as we are turned by God toward the people around us.  Called by God into a life of faith, into this world that God so dearly loves, we turn toward God realizing that God is already turned toward us.  God turned to us in skin and solidarity by way of a blessed mother’s body through the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world and for you – imperfections, gifts, and all.  With Mary, our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.  For God so loves the world and God so loves you.  Amen.

[1] Robert C. Tannehill.  The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 20-32.

[2] Genesis 15

[3] Rosemary Pennington. “Ishmael and Islam.” Muslim Voices, December 10, 2008. http://muslimvoices.org/ishmael-islam/

[4] Lauren Markoe. “Orthodox rabbis’ statement calls Christianity part of God’s plan.” December 8, 2015.  http://www.religionnews.com/2015/12/08/orthodox-rabbis-letter-calls-christianity-part-gods-plan/

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In response to the sermon, the people sing a song called the Hymn of the Day.  Today’s we sing verses one and two of “Canticle of the Turning” based on Mary’s Magnificat.  Link to full lyrics:

http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/30269

 

Canticle of the Turning

  1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
    that the God of my heart is great,
    And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
    that you bring to the ones who wait.
    You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
    and my weakness you did not spurn,
    So from east to west shall my name be blest.
    Could the world be about to turn?Refrain
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
    Let the fires of your justice burn.
    Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
    and the world is about to turn!

    2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
    you work great things in me,
    And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
    to the end of the age to be.
    Your very name puts the proud to shame,
    and to those who would for you yearn,
    You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
    for the world is about to turn.

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

[sermon begins after the 3 Bible readings]

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and thanks be to God!

 

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