Tag Archives: Moses

Hearts Called to Goodness Struggle with the Question of Sin and Evil – Mark 7, James 1, Deuteronomy 4

**sermon art: Abstract Love by Billie Colson

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 29, 2021

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

Mark 7:1-7, 14-16, 20-23 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

James 1:17-27 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
6You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
9But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

[sermon begins]

Our young adult son was about 11 years old when he leaned over and whispered, “Why does he always make us sound so bad?”[1] We were in Sunday worship. His question came during the hymn after the sermon. Quinn’s question led to a conversation on the car ride home about sin. A little heavy-duty maybe, but it was good for us to wrestle with the topic together as a family. He was in good company. Most people don’t really like the word. In fact, I often use milder terms like flaws or imperfections to talk about sin because many people have been beaten up by the language of sin and pretty much stop listening when the word is uttered. You can see the risk I’m taking as a preacher by opening with it.

Using the word sin is also a risk because the word isn’t used in the four Bible readings today. Not once. Check it out. I read through them with care. Let me know if you can find the word because I couldn’t. Words that ARE used in the readings include defile, evil, sordidness, and wickedness. This sermon is slipping even further into touchy territory. Touchy because many people have been hurt by accusations of being irredeemable. Touchy because, like my son Quinn, many people question conversations and sermons that make them feel bad.

It’s possible that the categories of good and bad are not that helpful when it comes to what we experience as true. For instance, in the Mark reading, there’s a long list of pitfalls that come from the heart. To hear this list more personally we can ask a series of questions. Regarding folly, who among us has not only participated in the ridiculous but also the ridiculously foolish? Regarding pride, who among us has not believed themselves to be better than someone else? Regarding slander, who among us has not gossiped our way through a phone call? Regarding envy, who among us has not looked at someone else’s belongings without wanting any of them? Regarding deceit, who among us has not spent time figuring out how to withhold the full truth? Regarding adultery, who among us has not let a friendship teeter into the romantic because we’ve stopped caring who gets hurt? Regarding avarice and greed, who among us has not purchased more toilet paper than we need?

These questions are relational – meaning that these behaviors affect relationships between people. The questions that I listed help translate Jesus’ list into the here and now. Granted, I’ve kept the questions fairly nonthreatening. We could dive deeper with the questions and shift into the brutally honest but that’s neither wise nor kind since we’re not talking back-and-forth in this moment. Although, I’m game for that conversation if anyone would like to have it. The point of asking those questions is to reveal a truth about being human. We have the capacity for evil within us. We see it play out in our own lives and in other people’s lives near and far. Jesus’ challenge to his disciples at the end of the Mark reading reveals the limits of our own efforts to avoid the naughty column and list ourselves among the nice.

Jesus’ teaching also highlights the limits of religious tradition. He cautions us against creating doctrine out of traditions. It’s also a good moment to normalize the Jewish traditions in the reading of washing hands before eating and washing the dishes afterwards – things many of us do every day. The Pharisees and Jesus were debating the relevance of religious tradition in light of God’s commandments. It’s important to remember that God gave the Ten Commandments to sustain life among God’s people. They were life-giving. The Deuteronomy reading today emphasizes life in this part of the preamble to the Big Ten. Moses said, “…give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live…”

Jesus’ list of sins in the Mark reading describe what happens when the commandments aren’t followed, and we break our relational obligations to each other with sinful behavior. As Christians, we hear Paul’s letters in the Bible separating the law from salvation to the point that we forget that the law’s intention is life-giving. Christian scripture often reminds us that God’s relationship with us does not depend on tallying up points in our favor by following the law. God’s relationship with us depends on God’s goodness first and not our own achievements of obedience.

Which brings us to the reading from James. This Sunday we start five weeks in which our second readings in worship come from the book of James. Lutheran Christians can struggle with James because we often think it leads with action, calling for obedient action as evidence of a living faith. Martin Luther even called it the “epistle of straw” for its lack of emphasis on grace. You have guessed correctly if you anticipated my suggestion to read the short book of James this week. It’s not clear who James was written for, but it seems to be written as encouragement for a group of Jesus followers who are at risk from a hostile ruling class.[2] And the encouragement towards obedience and action seems intended to connect thoughts about faith with living the faith. It’s much easier to listen quietly than to live out our faith. The book of James challenges us to be more than hearers of the word by becoming doers of the word. We know from experience that our hearts contain more than the sins listed in Mark. Humans are creatures capable of great compassion, courage, and care. James connects those positive actions of the heart with God when he writes that, “Every generous act of giving, with every gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

When I pray, “We love you God, thank you for loving us first,” I’m reminded of God’s goodness as the ignition for my own actions – even the act of love. Quinn’s question about badness is only a piece of the story of the heart. Later in the 10th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people to circumcise their hearts, meaning that their identity is secured first by God’s love and only then becomes visible by their obedient acts of love.[3] Jesus similarly challenged his disciples, cracking open religious ritual to amplify the call on the heart to which we are also called. Our religious practices serve as an amplifier to our call as disciples. Then discipleship becomes a gift in our own and other peoples’ lives as we hear and do a life of faith. Faith that’s born from the God whose love makes goodness possible. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] I ALWAYS get permission to share someone’s story in a sermon – especially if they’re named and extra-especially if they’re family. Quinn gave me permission and thinks the story is a good fit for the direction of the sermon.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Lectionary Texts for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 29, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/799-14th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-22b-aug-29-2021

[3] Deuteronomy 10:16 but really 10:12-19. God’s love of the widow, orphan, and stranger calls us to the same.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? [OR Hope Flickering in the Darkness] John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 14, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Numbers 21:4-9  From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21  [Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

[sermon begins]

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” “I see a red bird looking at me.”

“Red Bird, Red Bird, what do you see?” “I see a yellow duck looking at me.”[1]

So goes the children’s book that I read infinity times to my children when they were little. It popped into my head as I was thinking about what the Israelites saw in the Bible story from the book of Numbers this morning.

Israelite, Israelite, what do you see? I see a poisonous serpent looking at me.

Poisonous Serpent, Poisonous Serpent, what do you see? I see a Moses man looking at me.

Moses Man, Moses Man, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

Bronze Serpent, Bronze Serpent, what do you see? I see scared Israelites looking at me.

One of the odder and more disturbing stories in the Bible, the Israelites whine and complain against Moses and God after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Their misery about the conditions in the wilderness brings out their smallest selves – impatient and afraid, they question their liberation, and they question God and Moses. Things go quickly from bad to worse with the arrival of the poisonous serpents. The Israelites confess their sin and are freed from death by looking at the bronze serpent on a stick. They look at the very thing that causes pain, making it visible to be able to see life itself.[2] Fighting their fear, the Israelites are saved by focusing on source of their injury. That’s the solution lifted up by God and Moses.

Scared Israelite, Scared Israelite, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

How many times have we heard the opposite? Someone giving advice to not look at the very thing that is scary, painful, or dangerous because it’s too upsetting. Look on the sunny side of life, they say. There’s truth enough in that encouragement. We can’t continuously indulge in the dark, wrapping our smallest selves around fear and pain, if we have any chance at a balanced life. Joy and hope are lost to us if that’s the plan. Although, taking time to directly assess the cause of our pain may be necessary time in the dark, finding a glimmer of hope flickering in the darkness.

Hope flickering in the darkness brings us to the Gospel of John reading. We are not given all the verses in the story. The verses we hear today are part of a longer speech by Jesus to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, a religious leader. Nicodemus visits Jesus “by night,” under the cover of darkness. We’re not told exactly why he visits Jesus in the dark of night, but the Gospel of John makes a big deal out of light and dark. The opening verses of the book tell us, “The lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[3]  Later in John, Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world.”[4] Nicodemus, in the dark of night, said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

Nicodemus, Nicodemus, what do you see? I see Rabbi Jesus looking at me.

Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, what do you see? I see Nic-at-night looking at me.

Nicodemus knew enough to know that Jesus had something important to say, which is why he called him Rabbi and teacher. Jesus does not disappoint. He teaches his heart out. The verses we hear today are the second half of his teaching to Nicodemus and contain one of the most well-known parts of the Bible beginning with, “For God so loved the world…” It’s obvious why the people putting together the three-year cycle of worship readings paired this passage with the Old Testament reading about Moses and the Israelites. Jesus compared himself being lifted up on the cross with the bronze serpent lifted up on a stick by Moses. And then Jesus talked about God so loving the world, sending the Son not for condemnation but “in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Greek word for “saved” here, sozo [σώζω / sode-zo], can mean to protect someone from danger or to heal and restore.[5]

Beloved World, Beloved World, what do you see? I see Jesus the Light looking at me.

Jesus the Light, lifted up on a cross, shines light in the darkness of man’s inhumanity to man, or Son of Man as the case may be. To look at the cross is to look at the damage we can do in our worst moments when we believe that grace doesn’t belong to anyone else. We look at the darkness within us, and know that by looking at it, by examining the darkness, healing becomes a possibility. We depend on the daily promise of our baptisms for the freedom to live each day by grace through faith. We trust that God loving the world means that God also loves each one of us which means that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less; that we are children of God.

Child of God, Child of God, what do you see? I see the God of grace looking at me.

Grace is what frees us to look at the causes of our pain and the pain we cause acting out of it. We don’t hurt ourselves or other people from our healed, larger selves. It’s from our smaller selves, wrapped around our pain, cozied up with our fear, that we inflict ourselves on each other. Healing can be a life-long process. As opposed to a self-help project, healing takes community, sometimes including professionals trained to help us work through specific trauma. Jesus shares the space with us when we end up confused in the dark. We call this the Theology of the Cross. Jesus suffers with us when we suffer, shining light on the broken places in need of healing. God’s grace, showing up in the person of Jesus, was so excessive and offensive that the people in power reacted by doing their worst and killing him. Untamed grace is simply that threatening. Untamed grace shines light in the darkness and pulls life out death. Who knows what then becomes possible?!

God of Grace, God of Grace, what do you see? I see the world I so love looking at me.

________________________________________________________

[1] Bill Martin Jr. (author) and Eric Carle (illustrator). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1967). Listen to the whole book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTr0eDESN7U

[2] Kari Reiquam, Interim Pastor, Holy Love Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO. Preacher’s Text Study for Metro East Conference of Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA. March 9, 2021.

[3] John 1:5

[4] John 8:12

[5] Bible Study Tools: Lexicon. “Sozo.” https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sozo.html

Pandemic Brain [OR An Honest Accounting of Binding Anxiety to Unhelpful Things] Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-8, and Matthew 22:1-14

**sermon art: The Golden Calf (2001) Oil on canvas by John Bradford (9’ X 14’)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 11, 2020

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings; find the Matthew reading at end of sermon]

Exodus 32:1-14 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Philippians 4:1-8 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

[sermon begins]

 

 

Anybody else here struggling with pandemic brain? I can’t say that pandemic brain is an actual term coined by anyone else beyond me. But you may recognize it as a higher tendency for your mind to wander, not as efficient as you once were, less patient with yourself and others, more tired than warranted by the amount of sleep you’re getting. There are likely a slew of other ways you’re experiencing pandemic brain. I’d like to go after a big one that I’m pretty sure is fairly widespread – anxiety…[cue foreboding music].

Our culture has pathologized anxiety to an extreme – as if we need any more help feeling anxious about feeling anxious. Here’s one gem of good news this week, anxiety is normal. At least a certain amount of anxiety is normal. It’s a normal function of the part of our brain called the limbic system, the part that processes our emotions.[1] We don’t do high level processing there. We simply react. It’s where fight-or-flight happens. It’s the part of our brain that keeps us alive without having to think about it. Emotions clue us into whether we feel afraid, or safe, or worried, or loved. Higher level processing takes place in the grey matter of our brain called the cortex. This is where we think, learn, and process our emotions, about the information our emotions give us.

Okay, neuroscience lesson over but why am I giving it? Well, for starters, it’s timely to World Mental Health Day on October 10.[2] It’s also timely to our current world moment. Most people I talk to are dealing with some level of anxiety spiraling in the wrong direction. Anxiety caused by events deeply personal and close to home or anxiety linked to everything going on in the world. One thing about anxiety is that it can fool us into thinking that we’re thinking but we’re not thinking, we’re just using a lot of words as we react.

Let’s take the Israelites in the Bible story from Exodus today. We’ve been following their story over the last couple of months starting with their oppression under Pharaoh, the birth of Moses, the call of the Lord to Moses to set his people free, their daring escape, their complaining in the wilderness, and now they’re at the base of Mt. Sinai up which Moses has disappeared to listen to God. They’re a traumatized people fleeing and fighting for their survival. Apparently, he was gone too long for their comfort and they did not know what had become of him (v1). They gathered around Aaron, a priest and also Moses’ brother, demanding that he make gods for them. The Hebrew word “to gather” might be better translated as to “gather against.”[3] Aaron was under pressure from the people to do what they asked. Probably feeling anxious about his own survival, he complied with their demand and made a golden calf around which the people first made sacrifices and then they ate, drank, and rose up to revel. They partied. And the Hebrew word translated as “revel” means that they partied hard.[4] The Israelites were stressed. They’d escaped slavery in Egypt, meandered in the wilderness, and now Moses was delayed in coming down the mountain. More than a few of us can probably appreciate their need to blow off some steam, drink away their troubles, and fall asleep without worrying about their leader. Who can blame them for binding their anxiety to the things that feel good.

“Binding the anxiety” is an expression that I learned from my therapist who I now see online about once a month whether I need it or not. These regular mental health tune-ups do a world of good in a world that isn’t always good. One of the things I’ve learned is that the anxiety we feel for all kinds of reasons finds a way to bind to things that make us feel better. These things run the gamut of good, bad, and ugly so subtly that we unconsciously sweet talk ourselves with them. We often leave our anxiety binds unexamined because the status quo is much easier than figuring out what IS good for us. We could invite our friends who’ve been through recovery with Alcoholics Anonymous to teach us a thing or two about binding anxiety with a perilous status quo. But there are lots of ways to bind anxiety that fly under the social radar. I bet if I polled all of you listening about what you bind your anxiety to that we’d come up with a fairly comprehensive list of how well we fool ourselves as well as healthy good options that are actually in our best interest.

Whether it’s the Israelites in the Exodus story, or the violent king in the parable in the gospel of Matthew, or Paul’s feuding co-workers of the gospel – Euodia and Syntyche, there are examples aplenty in today’s Bible readings to provoke us into difficult questions about our behavior and faith.[5] On the heels of World Mental Health day, there’s no time like the present to pause, think, self-examine, talk with trusted friends and therapists, reflect, pray, and repeat. Especially because over the next few weeks, the political, economic, and pandemic news as well as personal household stressors will increase the anxiety that highjacks our higher-level thinking and highjacks who we’re called to be as Jesus followers.

We’re called to gratitude, rejoicing, prayer, and in those activities “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus.” And in our Augustana community of faith, as in the church at Philippi, we help each other understand ourselves and our neighbors as beloved so that we can hear the things that Jesus followers are encouraged to do. Let’s listen to those verses one more time:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and receive and heard and seen…and the God of peace will be with you.”

The good news is that we have a Savior who was bound, battered, and thrown into the darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth – on a hill, far away, on an old rugged cross.  A few chapters beyond the today’s parable in Matthew is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.[6] During the events leading up to his crucifixion, through the crucifixion itself, we are told of one who is tossed out. The one who is silent in the face of challenge[7], the one who is mocked for being in the wrong clothes[8], the one who is bound hand and foot[9], the one who is hung on a cross where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth[10], the one who is forsaken,[11] the one who hangs under a sign announcing his kingship[12], and the one who is finally announced as God’s Son.[13]

Jesus knows threat, trauma, and fear because the lies of powerful people were exposed by his message of justice, peace, grace, love, and faith. Our Savior frees us to be honest about our fragile anxieties and yokes us to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can speak the truth of our failures while also seeing the way out of an empty tomb into healing and new life not only for ourselves, but in support of each other too, pandemic brains and all. There are big and small ways to take a step towards mental health. The first step is an honest accounting of our personal moment. As Christians, we’re encouraged to do that anyway. The second is to reach out, talk it through with trusted people, and make a plan that holds us accountable to thinking on honorable, just, and commendable things while binding our anxieties to a cross and a Savior that promises hope and life in the here and now. Thanks be to God and amen.

Song after the sermon; ELW 362 At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing

1 At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
praise to our victorious king,
who has washed us in the tide
flowing from his wounded side.
Alleluia!

2 Praise we Christ, whose love divine
gives his sacred blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast —
Christ the victim, Christ the priest.
Alleluia!

3 Where the paschal blood is poured,
death’s dread angel sheathes the sword;
Israel’s hosts triumphant go
through the wave that drowns the foe.
Alleluia!

4 Praise we Christ, whose blood was shed,
paschal victim, paschal bread;
with sincerity and love
eat we manna from above.
Alleluia!

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[1] For brief and surprisingly thorough one-minute videos about this anatomy, check out “The Triune Brain: at https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/the-triune-brain/

[2] World Federation for Mental Health https://wfmh.global/world-mental-health-day-2020/

[3] Vanessa Lovelace, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Seminary, Lancaster Theological Seminary, PA. Commentary of Exodus 32:1-14 for October 11, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4611

[4] Ibid.

[5] Today’s Bible readings: Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14

[6] For my full sermon on this parable and line of thought go here: http://caitlintrussell.org/2014/10/12/matthew-221-14-a-haunted-house-and-a-flashlight-or-of-a-king-and-a-son-and-a-thrown-out-one/

[7] Matthew 26:63

[8] Matthew 27:28,

[9] Matthew 27:31b

[10] Matthew 27:33

[11] Matthew 27:46

[12] Matthew 27:37

[13] Matthew 27:54

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Matthew 22:1-14 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

Expectations, Envy, and Complaint [OR That’s God and That’s Good] Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:2-15

**sermon art: Manna in the Wilderness by Paul Oman

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 20, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Psalm is at the end]

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

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

[sermon begins]

What does it look when you’re fragile and whiny? My own pity parties are inelegant at best and downright annoying at worst. Even I get tired of myself when I’m in the depths of one. In our family, we have an epic pity party that we still talk about. I have our 21-year-old daughter’s permission to share it with you. Taryn was little, maybe three or four years old. She had developed an escalating habit of inconsolable meltdowns. We instituted a family policy that meltdowns could happen in the privacy of her room and she could come out of her room anytime she was ready to be around people. Her door was wide open. My sister was over one day, and Taryn had a meltdown. Off to her room she was sent. From the kitchen we could hear Taryn crying, “Anybody loves me…ANYBODY LOVES ME!” Critique of our parenting aside, Taryn was onto something true. When we’re in the throes of a pity party, we can wonder if anybody loves us. Taryn’s meltdown subsided enough that she and I could do the needed mop up and reassuring loves and snuggles.

The Israelites complaints weren’t as epic as Taryn’s in this mother’s eyes, but they were substantial enough that they would rather have died as fed slaves in Egypt than continue another day hungry in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron had listened to their complaining without the luxury of being able to send them to their room to regroup. That’s okay though, because God heard their complaining and arranged for manna to collect like frost on the ground every morning. To which the Israelites asked, “What is it?” It’s their question that captures me.

“What is it?” is an appropriate question when you get what you need but not what you hope for or expect. The Israelites were nostalgic for their slavery and full bellies after a month of being free and hungry in the wilderness. They were in uncharted territory both literally and metaphorically. Their identity as a people had undergone a seismic shift that would take time and learning to navigate.[1] In the meantime, they complained…and complained…and complained…and complained. They threw an epic pity party blaming Moses and Aaron. God heard their complaint and responded. God showed the Israelites that they did not travel alone through the wilds of the wilderness and neither do we. It’s just that in the wilderness, it becomes more difficult to believe that God’s giving, sustaining, and prayer-hearing are true.[2]

One of my seminary professors tells a story about a friend of his.[3] She was going through an incredibly hard time sustained by the grace of the church around her. Their love, prayer, and encouragement didn’t make the situation any less difficult. When he asked her how she was doing she said, “Well, the Lord’s given me manna.” Closer to home in real time, we had a Church Council meeting this past week. Our meetings open with a devotion from a member of the Council and last week’s was led by our youth representative, Grace. She briefly described her experience since the pandemic began, her needed break at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp this summer, and the daily devotions from her week at camp. How God sees the good – the good in us and the good in other people that we have a hard time seeing. The campers were challenged to take the week’s messages back down the mountain. For Grace, the message lasted more than her usual week or two after camp and it’s still percolating in her as she’s able to see things like a sunset in her rearview mirror on a frustrating drive to soccer practice and say, “That’s God and that’s good.” She then asked Council to share moments when we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.” As I listened and shared, it occurred to me that Grace had answered the Israelite’s manna question. They asked, “What is it?” When Moses replied that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” he could just as easily have answered, “That’s God and that’s good.”

My professor’s friend described her experience of being sustained by the grace of her church people as the manna in the Bible story. “The Lord’s given me manna,” she said. She was sustained by what was needed even if not wanted or expected. Our expectations can catch us by surprise as they escalate unconsciously. Sometimes we’re not even aware we have expectations until they’re dashed. Take the workers in the vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew reading. Why did the workers who’d been in the vineyard all day expect that they would get paid more than their peers who came to work at the end of the day? They were filled with envy and complaint rather that being able to say, “That’s the manna that the Lord has given me,” or “That’s God and that’s good.”

This isn’t about ignoring injustice and using the name of God in vain to justify inequity. This is about what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us about ourselves and about God’s radical grace that defies our expectations – especially in our daily wilderness walk through pandemic, politics, and race. And maybe more specifically, what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us in our experience of being the church in the daily wilderness walk of being separated for now to keep each other healthy and well. Is our manna a few brief weeks of outdoor worship – masked, silent, and distanced during worship together? Is our manna weekly online worship with monthly communion at home if we have that access, or a weekly mailing of scripture, sermon, and a monthly home communion liturgy if we aren’t online?[4] Is our manna the online One at 1:00 devotions recorded by staff every Tuesday and Thursday? Is our manna talking over the phone to check-in with each other rather than in-person to keep each other safe? Is our manna conducting ministry meetings online with Zoom to continue the ministry of the church?

Manna can be a term to describe anything that’s a gift yet feels insufficient because a year ago our lives looked very different whether we’re in school, working, unemployed, retired, or in our last years. We’re in that slog of in-between time, squeezed between the departure from those old norms and arrival at our destination post-pandemic. Much like the Israelites who left what they knew behind when they departed Egypt and had yet to arrive at their destination.[5] We’re challenged as a faith community to see the manna and say, “That’s God and that’s good.”

We’re similarly challenged as individual Jesus followers praying for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pause to identify what God sees as good in our neighbor rather than meticulously cataloguing our neighbor’s faults. Maybe just as important, we can pause to glimpse what we can describe as “That’s God, and that’s good.” And as a faith community, we can help each other, our children, and our neighbors do that too so that we can say from our own experience and with the confidence of the Psalmist, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[6] Thanks be to God, and amen.

Song after the Sermon

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy – ELW Hymnal #588

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[2] Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 for September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573

[3] Rolf Jacobson. Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[4] Online worship with Augustana can be found at AugustanaDenver.org/worship or https://www.facebook.com/augustanadenver/

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

_____________________________________________________

Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de- | clare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.

The Next Right Thing [OR Pharaoh’s Fury, Meddling Midwives, and Moses’ Birth] Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Matthew 16:13-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 23, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; hang in there with the Exodus reading – it’s worth the story]

Exodus 1:8-2:10  Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Matthew 16:13-20 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

[sermon begins]

Why doesn’t Pharaoh know the history of Joseph? You know, Joseph, his father’s favorite son and the recipient of that fancy coat; Joseph, the Israelite who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers; Joseph, who ended up second in command to the Pharaoh back in his day and ended up saving the Egyptians and others in the region from starvation. Why doesn’t the Pharaoh of this new time in Egyptian history remember Joseph? Someone, or many someones, stopped telling Joseph’s story and a key piece of the history between the Egyptians and the Israelites was lost. Their relationship that once centered on shared interest in mutual survival became one of fear. Our Bible reading from Exodus begins describing a king who “arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” This new king, the new Pharaoh, devised a plot to set taskmasters over the Israelites to “oppress them with forced labor.” Only it didn’t work. The Israelites grew in number. So Pharaoh concocted an even more diabolical plan. He ordered the Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah to kill the boy babies when they were born.

Pharaoh didn’t know who he was dealing with in those midwives. Shiphrah and Puah were God-fearing women. The two of them concocted their own plan to let the baby boys live. The most powerful person in the land was undermined by two of the least powerful. I wonder if they found courage in each other to continue letting the babies live. Imagine being called before Pharaoh to answer for the living, breathing Israelite babies. Their response to him is a much needed moment of comic relief and a good reminder to laugh in heavy times. The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Such a clever team, those two midwives. And “God dealt well with [them]” for their efforts. Notice that God’s action was in the least powerful people in the story.

The story goes on to describe Moses’ birth, his mother placing him in a basket in the river, his sister watching over him, and the Pharaoh’s daughter saving him through adoption. Each woman had a significant role in making sure Moses lived. Each woman found themselves doing the next right thing which was against the wishes of their king. Here’s where interpretation gets risky. There’s this term that been coined called “Disney Princess theology.” It describes reading scripture and placing ourselves in the hero or princess role rather than in the villain or clown roles. I don’t know about you but I want to think of myself as one of those scrappy midwives doing anything I could to save those babies. But it’s important to pause before we start down that road of Disney Princess and wonder about what lives in each one of us that is more like Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That there are times when we are more the people who are worried about our own children before we worry about anyone else’s children. More like the people who are in power than the powerless aided by God. More like the people who may not like the Pharaoh’s plan of oppression and forced labor but what can we really do about it anyway.

It’s easy to feel powerless to make change so we ignore what may need changing. Let’s take the mostly hidden, contemporary example of prisons. We may drive by them as there are a few in Metro Denver. Many are tucked away in rural towns of Colorado. The prison population in the United States in 1985 was 40,000, by 1997 it was 500,000, and is now approximately 2.2 million. Our country has 4% of the world population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The prison rate has grown faster that the country’s population. There were laws passed in the 1980s, especially related to drug use, that swelled the prison population. Laws that our legislators enacted on our behalf. And don’t get me started on the racial inequalities related to incarceration where black and brown folks are imprisoned well beyond their percent of the population. And don’t get me started on money made by corporations on prison labor, laboring people who receive little by way of compensation or benefits.

We’re in a country that has this prison system and we’re in a faith tradition in which Jesus says to release the captives and let the oppressed go free.[1] How we reconcile those competing realities is on us. Laws that our legislators enact are on us. Incarceration is one example of how easy it is to ignore the power we have and don’t use on behalf of people who are considered throw-aways by society. This is what I mean by taking the example of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people and wondering about parallels in our 21st century way of living.

We are not left only in the Pharaoh’s side of the story though. We also have the examples of those wonderful women who are doing the next right thing within their power to thwart the power of Pharaoh. The midwives deliver the babies anyway. The Levite mother saved her baby by hiding him in a basket on the river. His sister followed him, watched Pharaoh’s daughter find him, and concocted a plan for him to be nursed by his birth mother. Pharaoh’s daughter went against Pharaoh’s power to keep Moses alive and ultimately raise him as her own. Each woman did the next right thing in her power and the Israelite baby survived his childhood to deliver his people from slavery into freedom.

These five women are great examples of being faithful in the moment, of doing the next right thing. This powerful story in our faith history can call us into what it means to be faithful in the moment as we try to do the next right thing. Our view of the next right thing as faithful people has a lot to do with who we think Jesus is. That’s why the question Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew is a good one for us to answer as well. First, he asks about the latest gossip when he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” There’s a smattering of answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  Then Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter gets an A+ answer for once when he replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. He had time with Jesus and his teaching. He was also going to deny his relationship with Jesus as things heated up around Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity over time was as imperfect as Peter. It’s important to remember his imperfection because not getting things right doesn’t change Jesus’ identity. Not getting things right keeps us humble as we wrestle with how we describe Jesus and, frankly, may offer comic relief and laughter along the way of faith.

The scripture ultimately turns Jesus’ question towards each one of us. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s an important question. It’s also important to remember that our trust in Jesus, our faith in him, rests on who Jesus actually is and not what we say about him. Even though Jesus is still Jesus despite our imperfect confessions about him, who we think Jesus is, means something about our next faithful step as individual people of faith and as a congregation who cares for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. We know and confess our faith congregationally that Jesus frees us from sin and death into new life through no doing of our own but simply by the grace of God. In that freedom given by Jesus, we are liberated from our perceived powerlessness into the power of God. This freedom is for God’s sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of the world. And, like the midwives, the mother, the sister, and the daughter, we’re empowered by God to do the next right thing and trust that something wonderful is being born. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Luke 4:16-21

Into the Mystic [OR Christian Mystics On The Love of God] Matthew 17:1-9

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Exodus 24:12-18 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

[sermon begins]

Wow.  Mind-blowing is the right description.  There is a ton happening in this short Bible story about the transfiguration of Jesus.[1]  The layers of thought are astounding.  Connections between Moses, Mount Sinai, and the 10 Commandments made with Jesus and his disciples’ ascent up the high mountain.  Shining Jesus on the high mountain parallels shining Moses after his mountain encounter with God.[2]  Dazzling white clothes of the divine are found in both the Old and New Testaments.[3]  And then there’s Elijah, the beloved, long-awaited, and oh-so-wise prophet.  Elijah who also encountered God and who anointed kings and prophets many hundreds of years previously.[4]  There are more time-bending parallels in this short story.[5]  The parallel that I invite us to hone in on today are the dwellings.

Peter wants to build three dwellings – “one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”[6]  What is it about these dwellings that are so important?  Parallels are again made to the Exodus where encounters between the Lord God and God’s people happened in dwellings called the tent of meeting and the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant.[7] Peter’s understanding is that dwellings are tents where we meet God.  Jesus’ transfiguration is how God meets and dwells with us through the beloved son.[8]

God dwelling with us through Jesus is what Christian mystics encounter throughout the centuries.  Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, the list seems endless.  To be clear, mystics are not playing a theological mystery card whenever something is hard to understand.  Rather, God dwelling with us, God’s claim on us, is part of what mystics understand by faith as a promise from God.

Peter understands God dwelling. Peter, the rock on whom Jesus builds the church.[9]  Peter, one of the first Christian mystics. Peter’s understanding of God’s dwelling starts him talking about building dwellings.  Peter’s understanding is simply limited.  His architectural plans are shut-down by the voice from the blinding cloud but he is not rebuked for wanting to build these dwellings.  Then look what happens.  “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.”  From Jesus touch, the disciples are able to look up from their fear.  The dwelling does not happen through Peter’s hands.  Dwelling comes from Jesus’ touch.  Jesus touches the three of them.  One way Christians have talked about God dwelling with us is by talking about God’s love.

Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic in the 1300s.  Her faith was informed by the Bible and the church’s teachings.[10]  Her book was entitled, Revelations of Divine Love.  She writes:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.  It is only with the help of [God’s] grace that we are able to persevere…with endless wonder at [God’s] high, surpassing, immeasurable love.”[11]

Julian’s faithful witness emphasizes that God’s action comes first, before our action of loving.  Her prayers include the desire “to live to love God better and longer.”[12]  Prior to Julian, Bernard de Clairvaux lived at the turn of the first Millennia.[13]  He too wrote down his witness as a Christian mystic and leader in the history of the church.  The title for his major work is On the Love of God.  Bernard wrote about four degrees of love.  In the fourth degree of love, he writes:

“This perfect love of God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength will not happen until we are no longer compelled to think about ourselves…it is within God’s power to give such an experience to whom [God] wills, and it is not attained by our own efforts.” [14]

Bernard’s witness informed the faith of Martin Luther.[15]  So did Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, also a Christian mystic.  Augustine thought that our core human problem, our sin, is that we use God and love things rather than loving God and using things.  Martin Luther was a 16th century Augustinian monk.  Parallels abound between Augustine and Luther.  Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Small Catechism are one example. They each begin with the statement, “We are to fear and love God…”  I find myself wondering about loving God through this Augustinian lens as we hear Peter talk about dwellings and Jesus’ touch that redirects Peter’s understanding.

Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, the part of the Apostle’s Creed when we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, reads, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…”  Luther is speaking from a really low theological anthropology here, meaning that we are drawn to faith by God not by our own intellectual striving – again, very Augustinian.  Just as we are brought to faith in Jesus by God’s power through the Holy Spirit, we also love God by God’s power through the same Spirit.

I often end my public prayers at the children’s sermon, in meetings, or pastoral care by saying, “We love you God, help us love you more, amen.” I picked it up several years ago from a faith-filled friend.  This prayer aligns with the witness of Christian mystics, including Luther’s explanation of the Third Article, because it is only with God’s help that we are able to love God. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less.  God already dwells with us through the beloved son.

Loving God and asking for God’s help to love acknowledges our need to move from using God to loving God – redirected only by God’s help.  May we all be so redirected by God’s self-sacrificing love in Jesus as we’re drawn into faith and dwell in the love of God.  We love you God, help us love you more.  Alleluia and amen.

 

 

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School.  Commentary: Matthew 17:1-9 for Working Preacher on February 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3172

[2] Exodus 34:29

[3] Daniel 9:1 and Mark 16:5

[4] 1 Kings 19:11-16

[5] Matthew 3:17 (at Jesus’ baptism)  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

[6] Matthew 17:4

[7] Exodus 33:7-10 and Exodus 40:2, 17-22

[8] Matthew 17:5

[9] Matthew 16:18 [Jesus said] “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

[10] Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith. Devotional Classics. (HarperCollins: New York, 1993), 68.

[11] Ibid., 71.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 40

[14] Ibid., 42.

[15] Ibid., 40.

 

“I do not think it means what you think it means” (*) – Luke 4:1-13 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Pastor Caitlin with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, on February 14, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading; the Deuteronomy reading is at the end of the sermon]

Luke 4:1-13  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11 and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

[sermon begins]

Last week the sermon began with the question, “What is it you seek?”  Someone suggested to me after worship that it may have been the wrong question to ask the same day as the Broncos were taking the field for the Super Bowl.  It’s possible some listeners drifted off to pondering whether or not the defense was really up to the challenge of Carolina’s offensive surge.  Now, a week later, we know the ending to that tale.

The Broncos’ celebration with a million fans coincided with Mardi Gras this year, the eve of Ash Wednesday.  Peyton Manning added one more career highlight to an already long list which leaves me wondering what data the NFL doesn’t collect. The flip-side is that Manning’s 39-year-old body is no longer as willing or able as his mind. The Broncos’ win really did take a team of “53” even though his leadership is included in that number.  Cam Newton’s smile and swagger, ordinarily contagious and larger than life, collapsed under disappointment.  The Carolina Panthers’ loss shrunk Newton into a shadow of himself. So much so that the criticism of his press conference behavior has become an intellectual sport.[1]

The fragility of Manning and the shadow of Newton in contrast with their accomplishments opened up Lent this year.  Opening up an honesty about ourselves that includes acknowledging our fragility and our brokenness.  I told my coach at the gym on Ash Wednesday morning that, “I love Ash Wednesday.”  She asked me, “Why?”  I told her that I like its honesty about so little I actually control, that it’s a break from striving.  The irony of being in the gym as I talked about this was not lost on me.  But it’s also not lost on me how much my 20-something gym friends are able to do over and above the 40-something me.

We enter Lent with honesty about our fragile bodies and brokenness.  In the Bible story today, Jesus enters the wilderness with his fragile body, eating nothing for forty days.  The translation we’re using says he’s “famished.” A more accurate description after forty days without food would be “wasting away.”  He must look pretty beat-up at that point – rail thin and bone weary.  The story doesn’t fill in all the temptations offered to Jesus. It’s more like game highlights of the red-zone plays.

The temptations are like a triumvirate – the big three of power, prestige, and prominence:[2]

Jesus, in his hunger, is tempted with the power to change stones to bread.

Jesus, in his weakness, is tempted with the prestige of authority over kingdoms.

Jesus, in his isolation, is tempted with the prominence of surviving death.

The trick with the Big 3 temptations is that they are hard to confront in ourselves because there are cultural aspirations that support those temptations.  My older teenaged children are marinating in those cultural aspirations as they figure out their next right steps.  Mother Theresa’s words are an antidote.  She said, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”[3]  Faithful, not successful.  Her words are good for us as celebrity and specialness seem to be the epitome of success.  I’m not sure which part of endless opportunity in the pursuit of happiness was once true.  But it was truer in recent history than it is now.  And right now in the story, we see Jesus who cannot be tempted at his weakest and most isolated.

Jesus is isolated.  But is he alone?  Jurgen Moltmann, renowned systematic theologian, would say most definitely not.  Moltmann’s faith came to him as an adult. He was a German soldier in a Belgian prisoner of war (POW) camp in 1945.  Raised in a non-religious home, he started reading the New Testament and Psalms out of boredom as a POW.  Faith hooked him.  After the war, he received his doctorate in theology, becoming a pastor and a professor.[4]

Moltmann argues that Jesus’ temptations are “not levelled at his human weakness…they are aimed at his relationship to God.” This challenge comes in the opening statement of the temptations: “If you are the Son of God then…”[5]  More importantly, Moltmann notes that, “…if the Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus, then the Spirit accompanies him as well…and if the Spirit accompanies him, then it is drawn up into his sufferings, and becomes his companion in suffering.”[6]  Why does this matter?  Because Jesus has the Spirit with him in the wilderness as well as through his suffering on the cross.  Isolated, not alone.  We are baptized by the power of the same Spirit into Jesus’ death. This same Spirit accompanies us as we encounter temptations that are ultimately the temptation to forget that God is in relationship with us.

What does Jesus do when he’s tempted?  He skips the argument and confesses scripture.  By confessing in this way, he claims his dependence on God and their relationship.  Something similar happens in the Deuteronomy story.  While Moses coaches the Israelites on their giving, he also instructs them on their confession.  When they take their gifts to the priest, they align with the powerless. They confess their ancestors’ affliction, oppression, and tears along with God’s redemption.[7]  They confess God’s relationship with them even at their weakest.

In the face of temptation, Jesus remembers God.  Jesus confesses God. Ironically, the things offered to him already belong to him.  But there’s a big difference between the temptation to power, prestige, and prominence versus God’s freedom.  As Moltmann puts it:

“True dominion does not consist of enslaving others but in becoming a servant of others; not in the exercise of power, but in the exercise of love; not in being served but in freely serving; not in sacrificing the subjugated but in self-sacrifice.”[8]

Jesus freely serves in self-sacrificing love.  This is the Jesus into whose life and death we are baptized.  And by the power of the Spirit, the Jesus through whom our lives become ever more Christ-shaped.  As baptized people we worship and remind each other about God’s promises and, in turn, are able to confess the love of God in Jesus.  It’s simple.  It’s weird.  It’s faithful.  It’s freedom.

The sober addicts in the room know this freedom.  The freedom that comes through our dependence on a higher power much bigger than ourselves to resist temptation.  Last week I started with the question, “What is it you seek?”  This week I end with the opposite question. What is it that seeks you?  In other words, what comes up in your life that tempts you to forget that God is in relationship with you?  It certainly could be power, prestige, and prominence.  It could also be something else.  You know what it is.  And it may isolate you.  Know this, you are not alone.  As people of God, we confess Jesus is the Lord.  We confess this together as the church and remind each other when we are tempted to forget.  In our fragility and brokenness, Jesus is with us and for you by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen and thanks be to God.

 

(*) Rob Reiner, screenwriter. The Princess Bride: Quote from character Inigo Montoya. (Iver Heath, UK: Pinewood Studios, 1987).

[1] Dr. Kimberly D. Manning. “Mom: Be Careful with Your Cam Newton Narrative.” Weekend Express: February 10, 2016. http://www.hlntv.com/shows/weekend-express/articles/2016/02/09/op-ed-how-to-talk-about-cam-newton-with-your-kids

[2] Another way to think about these three temptations are: control (power), respect (prestige), and celebrity (prominence).

[3] Mother Theresa. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/329513-god-does-not-require-that-we-be-successful-only-that

[4] Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology: Jurgen Moltmann. http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/moltmann.htm

[5] Jurgen Moltmann. The Spirit of Life. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 61.

[6] Ibid., 62.

[7] William Yarchin. Commentary: Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Working Preacher for February 14, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2761

[8] Jurgen Moltmann.  The Church in the Power of the Spirit. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977),103.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5 you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7 we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

 

 

Mystery, Merton and a Mountaintop – Luke 9:28-36

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 7, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[sermon begins]

What is it you seek?  What is the thing you are sure would make you solidly more you in the world?  The situation or the feeling or the skill that would make your life complete.  For you it might look like finding a life partner.  Or dead-lifting your next PR. Or that ACT score.  Or that next job.  Or that next exotic destination.  Do you dress up the thing you seek in noble terms?  Do you pursue peace?  Wisdom?  Happiness?  Love?  Or maybe, just maybe, do you even seek faith?  Faith…noble seeking, indeed.

One such noble seeker was Thomas Merton. He lived as a Trappist Monk for almost thirty years in the middle decades of the 1900s.[1]  His raucous younger years ended in his 20s when he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani – a strict, ascetic monastic order.  Brother Merton traveled all of the world to speak.  He wrote over 60 books as well as poems and articles.  He’s known for seeking world peace and civil rights.  His biography is compared to Augustine’s Confessions.  He’s also known for seeking God.  One writer defines Brother Merton as a “spiritual seeker” rather than a spiritual “settler.”[2]

A few years ago, my third father, Larry, gave me Brother Merton’s book, A Dialogue with Silence, published almost three decades after he died.  The book is filled with Brother Merton’s personal prayers and drawings.  Each time I pray these prayers, I’m struck by the longing in his seeking.  The longing to find.  The longing to find God.  The longing to find faith.  The longing to find himself by finding God.  The first prayer in the book prays this way:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I’m following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does I hope in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [3]

Brother Merton’s prayers are a seeker’s prayers.  He is looking, longing for something.  Part of his looking and longing takes shape in following.  Following the rules of the monastic order.  Following Jesus through prayer.

Peter, John, and James also find themselves following Jesus through prayer.  The mountain-high praying expedition comes eight days after Jesus talks to them about his death and resurrection.[4]  Up the mountain they go, feeling more than a bit tired by the time Jesus’ starts praying.  “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”  Through the haze of heavy eyes comes the dazzling, beacon of Jesus. His ancestor friends Moses and Elijah join him appearing “in glory.”  A surreal, dazzling flashpoint that embodies the law, prophets, and grace in a single moment.  A Judean who’s-who that highlights the what’s-what for the Jesus.  His disciples are merely sleepy bystanders who witness it.

So much for witnesses. Bagging the peak, kneeling in prayer, and dazzling the disciples, ends in their silence about Jesus’ transfiguration.  We’re told the disciples keep silent in those days.  Their silence begs a question.  For whom does the light show take place?  It’s easy to make this about the disciples.  Their experience.  Their clarity about the Messiah.  Perhaps that is a happy side effect.  There may be more.

I know there are some of us in the congregation who can speak to having had or witnessed a mysterious experience.  Some of you tell me about them.  The conversation often begins hesitantly and very often happens at a bedside of someone who is dying.  The person who is within a few days of dying begins talking to people who have died before them.  Sometimes it’s a full conversation between the person dying and the one who has already died.  Sometimes people point.  Sometimes people will ask if you can see them too.

These conversations between the dead and dying have happened often enough in my hospice and pastoral work that I will give families a heads up so that they are prepared if it happens.  These conversations between the dead and the dying are inexplicable.  Those of us still living have no idea what it means although it’s tempting to try and explain the experience.

The 18th century Enlightenment of Western thought opened up the possibility of explanation for experience. 19th century Modernity promised that human ingenuity would result in inalienable truth and certainty.  Neurological and psychological explanations get trotted out to try and explain phenomena like the one experienced by people who are dying.  The 21st century shift towards Postmodernity is disillusioned with the modern promise, having experienced the limits and the threats of human understanding.  The timeline is not as tidy as this brief history of Western thought would make it seem.  Postmodern mystery is in tension with modern certainty as evidenced daily in the public square.

I, for one, am delighted to be a student of scripture in the postmodern context. You see, modernity trains all of us to be good scientists.  To make a hypothesis and see if enough evidence stacks up in support of it so that it can be true.  Postmodernism often leaves an open question with just a bit more room for the transcendent, for mystery.

One example of making room for mystery comes by way of Jesus’ transfiguration.  A modern might try to come up with an explanation of what happened or ask whether it did happen.  A postmodern revels in its transcendence – allowing for possibilities

A colleague of mine was in Augustana’s sanctuary and made the comment that its architecture communicates the transcendent even as is grounded by human experience.  From the long aisle that moves through the worshipers on a level floor to the stairs that go up to the first landing of the chancel to more stairs that go up to the communion table to the cross moving the eyes up to the high ceiling.  There is a sense of connection to the transcendent but also a sense of the limits of understanding it.

Peter, John, and James’ are connected to the transcendent with very little ability to understand it.  They witness the razzle, dazzle Jesus and his two long ago dead ancestors in the faith.  Jesus is a dead-man walking at this point in the story.  He’s just about to enter his last human days.  He starts talking to people who have died before him.  What if this dazzling moment is about Jesus and for Jesus in his few remaining human days?  What if it has nothing to do with his disciples or with us?

One of the charges of pastoral ordination from First Corinthians goes like this, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”  Another charge is to not give “false security or illusory hope.”  These may as well be charges to the priesthood of all believers.  All Christians.  There are times when what happens in Jesus is just simply not about us, our experience, or what we make of it.  It’s about Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  The disciples on the mountain with him are disoriented in a cloud of silence.  From the cloud comes God’s voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The disciples listen and remain silent.

In the words of preacher Gerhard Forde, “For who has heard of such a thing—that one is made right with God just by stopping all activity, being still and listening? What the words say to us, really, is that for once in your life you must just shut up and listen to God, listen to the announcement: You are just before God for Jesus sake!”[5]

Pastor Forde’s point, that we are justified for Jesus’ sake, raises more questions than answers.  One big question is, “Why?”  Scripture asserts that Jesus’s death on the cross is for you and for all.  Today, the mystery of the transfiguration seems to be about Jesus.

Christian mystics are a postmodern thread throughout history.  Perhaps these mystics are helpful conversation partners for us now.  The mystics, who have died before us, are in conversation with us through their writings today.  Brother Merton is one of them. He listened to God in silence. He prayed in silence. Here is one more of his prayers:

“…I feel as if everything has been unreal. It is as if the past has never existed. The things I thought were so important – because of the effort I put into them – have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what is was that mattered. That, perhaps is part of Your unanswerable question!”[6]

For today, let’s turn Jesus’ shiny moment over to him.  Let it be for his sake.  And, for today, let Jesus be for you…for his sake.  Alleluia and amen.

 

[1] Thomas Merton Biography. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx

[2] Anthony E. Clark. “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” Catholic Answers Magazine: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton

[3] Thomas Merton. Dialogues with Silence. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), vii.

[4] Luke 9:21-22

[5] Clint Schnekloth. “How I Learned to Be a (post)Lutheran.” October 28, 2015.  http://www.clintschnekloth.com/how-i-learned-to-be-a-postlutheran/

[6] Merton, 77.

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?!] Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

To Do or Not To Do [OR Whose List Is This Anyway?]  Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 8, 2015

 

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Exodus 20:1-17 Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15 You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

John 2:13-22 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

[sermon begins]

I was early to the Worship Committee meeting this past Tuesday evening.  A couple other people were already there.  Typical of pre-meeting conversations, we meandered through each other’s lives, getting updates on home and work until stumbling into a conversation about calendars.  I was feeling thankful for having a cloud version on what I like to call my not-so-smart-phone.  If I need to put something on the calendar, it’s right there with me. This morphed into a virtues of electronic and paper calendars and then moved into the various ways we keep to-do lists.  One of us is all-electronic, one is all-paper, and one a hybrid of the two.

This conversation has me thinking about why we make lists at all.  In my world, there is one continuous list that I simply add to over time.  Things get marked off as done and added on to be done.  People get contacted, visits get made, articles get written, meetings get scheduled, and errands get run.  Lists are practical.  Things need to get done.  And lists are emotional.  People need to be remembered.

One of the all-time classic lists is The Ten Commandments.  Like many of our own lists, The Ten Commandments reflect something already in play long before the list itself was put together.  Different than our own lists, though, these are not 10 new things given to the people of Israel as if they have never heard them before or done them before.  Rather, they are a list of convenience. The Ten Commandments are practical.   A way to make the law handy to remember it.[1]   And The Ten Commandments are emotional.  These people in the desert need to remember God and for God to remember them.

Here’s where things get murky.  Remembering the list somehow turns into memorializing the list.  And memorializing the list cements it into a to-do list.  Not just any old to-list, but one given to us from an unpredictable, high-maintenance God.  And when we turn it into that kind of to-do list, the list turns on us.  Pretty soon, the list becomes more than a handy reminder.  The list itself becomes the very kind of idol we are warned about in the list.  Ironic.

For a little help, let’s back up to Genesis, the first book in the Bible just before Exodus.  In the very first chapter of the creation story in Genesis, the very first command is given in the pre-sin Garden.[2]  Law was not an original idea first conceived for The Ten Commandments.  Law came before those commandments.  Furthermore, The Ten Commandments are listed again with a slight variation a few books later in the Bible in Deuteronomy.[3]  Terence Fretheim argues that The Ten Commandments seem “to require adaptation in view of new times and places.”

The quick summary in list form?

1)      Law came before The Ten Commandments in Exodus.

2)      The Ten Commandments started changing after they were written in Exodus.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are in the 21st century trying to be faithful Christians alongside people from all walks of life, some of whom are fellow Christians.  And The Ten Commandments turn into an occasion of sin against God and neighbor as if their use keeps the high-maintenance God-of-our-imagination happy.  We sorely miss the point when we beat each other up using the Ten Commandments or, for that matter, beat each other up using Jesus or a bad decision or socio-political differences or religious commitments.

One way to keep The Ten Commandments in perspective is to see the larger story.  Two weeks ago, we were regaled with the covenant God made with Noah; last week, we heard about God’s covenant with Abraham; and this week we are treated to epic Moses moment of God’s covenant with the Israelites.  Each covenant God makes builds upon and includes the covenant that came before.  Do we ever once hear from God, “Okay, scratch that covenant, let’s make a new one that erases the old one.”  No, we don’t.  In fact, we hear reminders from God: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  This history, these relationships, are an important part of each covenant God makes.  Not erasing the past and people.  Rather expanding to make room for the people here now.  With each new covenant, God ups the ante

Look at our Gospel reading from John today.  Look closely at it.  Who gets booted from the temple?  “Both the sheep and the cattle.”  That’s it.  “The sheep and the cattle.” The domesticated animals get booted.  Left in the temple are the undomesticated Jesus and the people.  This is no accident in the Gospel of John.  The sacrificial system is disrupted with the sending of the animals.  Jesus is the disrupter, anticipating the time when his death and resurrection would expand God’s covenant through Abraham and Moses to all people.  A covenant atoning for us today through the crucified and risen one.  One more time, God ups the ante again, this time with God’s very self in the person of Jesus.  When we sing in worship about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, this is who we’re singing about.[4]  The one who lets the sheep and cattle live another day, is also the one who gives us life through his very death.

Just a moment ago, I talked about The Ten Commandments being turned into an occasion of sin for us when we imagine a high-maintenance God that we’re making happy with us by following the commandments as God’s to-do list.  Here’s the twist.  WE are the high-maintenance ones.  To paraphrase an old movie – we’re the worst kind; we’re high maintenance but we think we’re low maintenance.[5]   God comes through time and again, with covenant after covenant.  The Ten Commandments is a short-hand list about loving our God more and loving other people more.  Really, God?!  We need to be reminded to stay faithful to our partners?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to explain each other’s actions in the kindest of ways?  Yes.  We need to be reminded to love you, God?  Yes.

People often ask me what I think God’s will is in many kinds of situations.  Here’s what I know for sure.  God wants us to love God and love each other.  That’s our to-do list.  To love God in spite our high-maintenance need to be certain and to love each other in spite of our high-maintenance need to be right.

The first words in the reading from Exodus today are words of redemption… “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” [6]

God’s to-do list?  To be your God.

To be your God in spite of all the ways you run away, hide from, ignore, and make fun of God.

To be your God by slipping into skin and disrupting the status quo through loving and healing you.

To be your God by dying because all of that loving and healing threatens your own to-do lists.

To be your God by living again and living in you.



[1] Terence Fretheim.  Commentary: Exodus 20:1-17 for March 8, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org

[2] Genesis 1:28 “Be fruitful and multiply…”

[3] Deuteronomy 5:6-21.  More from Fretheim: Verse 21 – “(W)ife is exchanged with house and given her own commandment, perhaps reflecting a changing role for women in that culture.”

[4] Craig R. Koester.  Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 84.

[5] When Harry Met Sally (1989).  Quotes from the movie:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098635/quotes

[6] Exodus 20:2 – More from Fretheim: “God’s own introduction to these words is important for an appropriate understanding: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Ten Commandments are not a law code, a body of laws that are meant to float free of their narrative context. This introductory line [is] about redemption…”

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6 Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 15, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-10 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. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

 

[sermon begins]

In the last several weeks, different people from this congregation have asked me what I think of The Interim Process.  The number of times I’ve been asked is translates in my mind as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of number; meaning that more of you likely have a similar question and just haven’t had a chance to ask it.  Let’s get everyone here up to speed on what is meant by “The Interim Process” before I tell you my answer to their question.

Last June 8th, Pastor John Pederson retired as the Senior Pastor of 15 years.  In late August, we welcomed Pastor Tim Drom as the Interim Senior Pastor.  In addition to working as the Senior Pastor, his main task is to guide a team of Augustana people in leading us through the transition to a calling a new Senior Pastor.  This team of people is appropriately named the Transition Team.  They are compiling information from questionnaires, staff interviews, committee interviews, and more, to be able to describe this congregation’s current moment and envision its future.  The Transition Team will hand off their work to a yet-to-be-formed Call Committee who will begin interviews.  The Interim Process ends when a newly called Senior Pastor begins their work here.

Now to circle back, what do I think about The Interim Process?  I think it’s long.  Is it long enough?  I don’t know.  Is it too long?  I don’t know.  What I do know, is that it’s long.  I don’t know many people who are able to earnestly and honestly say, “Wow, transition is great…bring it on!”

Look at Elisha.  He’s about to enter a transition and those pesky prophets almost seem to apparate in Elisha’s path.[1] They pop up in Bethel to tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  They pop up in Jericho to tell Elisha again that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  He longs to spend every last minute of the time remaining with his mentor, Elijah.  In no way, shape, or form is Elisha looking forward to being without Elijah.  It’s as if the council of prophets is already rubbing salt into Elisha’s fledgling wound.  Not a “bring it on” in sight.

Elisha’s longing to remain with Elijah is so great that he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit before he is taken away.  Many of us can relate to the longing for the person who gives us a sense of place and belonging.  For Elisha, Elijah is that person.

Look at Peter and the other disciples.  Six days after Jesus teaches them for the first time about his being killed and rising to life again, they go mountain climbing with him.  What must the week before must have been like after Jesus dropped that bomb on them?  It’s as easy to imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations, nerves, and worry as it is to imagine their longing for time with Jesus to themselves.

And look at Jesus.  “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.[2]  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Elijah and Moses.  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Peter, James, and John lighting up their longing for hope and peace.

This is no subtle Epiphany – Jesus can and will be noticed.[3]  Peter’s reaction?  Terror.  Afraid and not knowing what to say, Peter babbles on about building tents for Jesus and the two prophets.  He wants to bedazzle the moment that is dazzling in its own right.  But this is not a moment to fix in time, setting up tents to keep the elements out.[4]  This is a moment that transfigures time, shredding the flimsy notion that protection is possible as past, present, and future collide on that mountaintop.  Past, in the form of Moses and Elijah; present, in the form of Peter, James, and John; and future, in the person of Jesus, beloved Son of the eternal God, all come together.

Transfiguration means change.  Or, more to the point for us today, transfiguration means transition which also includes the element of time.  The Interim Process that began with the retirement of one Senior Pastor and will transition again with the call of a new Senior Pastor includes the element of time.  Is it long?  Yup.  Is it long enough?  We don’t know.  Is it too long?  We don’t know.  Hindsight will get us closer to 20/20 on that answer.  In the meantime, our temptation is similar to Peter’s myopia.  We’re in the thick of the action which makes immediate perspective blurry at best.

Transfiguration reorients us to Jesus who seems to hold some sway in the time-space continuum.  And we are supposed to listen to Him just as the disoriented disciples in the fog on mountaintop are called to listen.  In addition to the disciples’ call to listen, I invite us to ask the question they asked amongst themselves on their way down the mountain. And that is this, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life look for this tiny corner of God’s church-catholic called Augustana?  Both during The Interim Process and beyond it?

Let’s bring that question even closer to home because the dazzling light of Jesus shines, here and now, on you.  So, given whatever is going on in your life, I ask again, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life be looking like for you?  If you’re in a particularly blurry moment, like the disciples sitting in the fog on the mountaintop, disorientation rules the day but it doesn’t rule forever.

Paul words to the Corinthians are also then for us. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake.  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Our God is a reorienting, transfiguring, and resurrecting God.  “What could this rising from the dead mean?”

Alleluia and Amen.



[1] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  “Apparate” means to instantaneously disappear and reappear somewhere else.

[2] Mark 9:3-4

[3] Matt Skinner.  Commentary on Mark 9:2-9 for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341

[4] Karoline Lewis.  “Why We Need Transfiguration” for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3527

[5] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6