Tag Archives: Matthew Skinner

When Beauty Sustains [Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 50:1-6, and Romans 12:1-2]

**sermon image celebrates nature’s beauty through the photography of Jim Doty

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Psalm 50:1-6 The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. 3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. 4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: 5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” 6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. (Selah)

Romans 12:2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

[sermon begins]

The Transfiguration readings from Mark and Psalm 50 have me thinking about beauty. Specifically the beauty of God that breaks through whatever normal thing is happening. The moments just before the transfiguration are normal enough. In Colorado, we might call it a hike among friends.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. They barely bag the peak when the light show begins.  Dazzling them and even terrifying them.[1]  Psalm 50 brings up the perfection of beauty and God shining through. The word perfection in this Hebrew usage means all-in-all or complete which has parallels to telos in Biblical Greek.[2]  The Psalmist refers to Zion as the conduit of beauty through which “God shines forth.”[3]

Beauty is thorny.  We often suspect that beauty is contrived or exploited for gain. I’ve met many people who are suspicious of the aesthetics of beauty because they’re troubled about who sets the definitions and principles of what is beautiful. Here’s what I suggest for today. Let’s let the Transfiguration guide us. The Transfiguration is a dazzling, terrifying moment that surprises the disciples. Peter, James, and John are thrown off-balance to the point that Peter wings out an absurd building plan to sustain the moment. But it seems that it’s not about sustaining the dazzling moment of beauty. It seems that the dazzling moment of beauty is about sustaining them.

Pastor Ann asked us a question last week out of the Isaiah reading.[4]  How does faith sustain you in the weary places?  Today, the Transfiguration shifts that question ever so slightly to wonder how glimpses of God’s beauty sustain us through Lent.[5] Ash Wednesday arrives in three days.  For today, tomorrow, and the next, I’m inviting us into a transfiguration not of our own making – a beauty makeover, a transformation of a different sort.  Because I think this is what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Romans when he writes, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds…”  The word for transformed is a Greek word rarely used in the New Testament – only 4 times.[6] It’s translated “transfiguration” in Mark and Matthew; it’s translated transformed in Romans and in 2 Corinthians.  Let’s play with moments of God’s beauty that might transfigure us, renewing our minds so that we “may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Here’s one such moment. I was talking with a friend early last week about this idea of God’s beauty surprising us. He was one week into teaching a two-week technical class that includes electrical safety and the like out at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. He told me about a class moment during which a woman’s attention was drawn to a book underneath her desk rather than on the class discussion. Stopping the class, he asked the woman what she was reading. Turns out it was the Bible. She had been to a worship service the evening before and wanted to keep going. My friend’s exact words to describe that moment were, “Beauty tore into life to dominate the day.” Poor class behavior notwithstanding, this woman’s Jesus moment would not be thwarted. My friend saw a glimpse of God’s sustaining beauty in that moment.

Here’s another one.  Last Sunday, our youngest choir called the Cherub Choir sang a song called, “God has made me wonderful.” What made it beautiful was not harmonious brilliance. The beauty was their exuberance in singing the message and the fact that they were singing the message at all. I would hasten to bet that the thought bubbles that pop up over your heads during the week about yourself and other people don’t exactly echo “God has made me wonderful.” Think about what does pop up in those thought bubbles in the grocery aisle, in the hallways, and in traffic. Now is probably not the best time for the turn-to-your-neighbor and have a conversation on that topic. When those kids were singing last week, it was a glimpse of the beauty of God. So much so that the beauty of it intruded my mind several times during the week.

Surprising glimpses of God’s beauty are pure gift that transfigure us, sustaining us in dark times. This is not to be confused with putting on rose-colored glasses to avoid bad news or the pain of trauma. This is about God’s beauty that sustains us through the pain. There is a centuries old Christian practice of iconography that trains the mind’s eye to see the beauty of God revealed in the world. Martin Luther, from whom Lutheran Christians are so named, was no iconoclast.[7] He did not support or encourage the destruction of religious images and icons the way other 16th century reformers did. Icons were simply one more way to catch glimpses of God’s beauty in the world. They are paintings that often feature Christ or the infant Jesus and his mother Mary or other ancestors of the faith. They’re painted with precious metals and have many meanings painted into them by way of color, clothes, hand positions, halos, and more. I have a couple small icons in my home. One is of Mary and the baby Jesus. This icon hangs next to a crucifix so that I can regularly reflect on the mess and the beauty of the incarnation of God from a mother’s body in tension with the suffering of God on a cross. Icons engage the senses and imagination preparing the faithful to see the image of God in the world.[8]  The in-breaking of God’s image, God’s beauty that surprises and transfigures us.

Pictures that flood social media very often include sunsets, sunrises, mountains, trees, flowers, animals, and birds. Christians believe that nature in all its glory reveals the glory of God.[9] Referring to nature as creation reveals it as another icon of sorts – revealing God’s provision of food and water as well as the beauty of God that surprises, inspires, terrifies, and ultimately sustains. I believe that the beauty of God sustains us, my friends. But I also believe that sharing our glimpses of the beauty of God sustains other people especially when we see it in them. At a time when despair nips at our own heels and overwhelms people we love, we offer by faith the glimpses of God’s beauty that we experience by grace. Whether through prison Bible reading, a song by young children, or the icon of creation, God breaks through with glimpses of beauty so compelling, so dazzling, that we cannot look away.  Not only can we not look away, but we are sustained through bad news and trauma.

God has made you wonderful. You are living icons through whom God’s beauty is revealed and sustains. Be at peace. The light of Christ shines in you.[10] Thanks be to God. And Amen.

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[1] Mark 9:3 and 6

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament and Alvin N. Rogness Chair in Scripture, Theology, and Ministry at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[3] Psalm 50:2

[4] Isaiah 40:31

[5] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. Transfiguration of Our Lord on February 11, 2018. Sermon Brainwave podcast. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=977

[6] Bible Hub. “3339. μεταμορφόω (metamorphoó).” Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18   http://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_3339.htm

[7] Anthony Ugolnik. The Illuminating Icon. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1989), 59.

[8] Ugolnik, 61

[9] Romans 1:20

[10] This phrase is part of the worship liturgy called the Dismissal during this Sundays after Epiphany.

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 12, 2017

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

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Dubov, Ibid.

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

[8] Matthew 5:17

[9] Matthew 5:1-12

[10] Matthew 5:14-16

[11] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

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

[13] Ibid.

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

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

[16] Matthew 25:16-20

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