Tag Archives: Peter

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.

 

Money in Motion, So Goes the Heart – Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 7, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 12:32-40 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Genesis 15:1-6 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

[sermon begins]

Right after Jesus’ lovely speech we just heard, Peter says, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?”[1]  It’s a classic question.  Is Jesus’ speech a general kind of “all y’all” or is Jesus talking to me?  As if I’ll fly under the radar just as long as I don’t make eye contact with Jesus on this one.

We don’t get to hear Peter’s reply to Jesus in the Bible reading today although it comes as the very next verse in Luke.  Jesus is still talking to the crowd of thousands.  In the verses just before ours today, he warns the crowds.  “Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He wraps up those verses telling them not to worry about their lives but to strive for the kingdom.

Right away, though, Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

This is one of the challenges in the way we read the Bible Sunday-to-Sunday.  If left with the striving of last week’s verses, we could assume wrongly that striving is the whole plan.  It’s an easy move from striving to earning.  Earning God’s pleasure.  Earning God’s salvation.  And with earning comes deserving.  I deserve God’s pleasure.  I deserve God’s salvation.  Until, suddenly, I’m left wondering if I’ve strived enough, earned enough, and am deserving enough.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   In scripture, “do not be afraid” is the clue that we’re going to hear about God’s power and promise; God’s mighty deeds.[2]  We hear it multiple times in Luke.  Abram hears it in the Genesis reading.  These promises come from God to Abram, to Luke, and to us – unconditional promise.

Last week, I challenged us to keep our fingers pointing at ourselves to confess our own greed rather than pointing away from ourselves to someone else.  This week, Jesus is offering another way to be on guard against the greed he warns about in the earlier verses.  Jesus says:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

It is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom!  This means that through this promise, disciples can guard against all kinds of greed and resist the urge to worry 24/7.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and then directs us to be generous with money.[4]  Telling us that where our treasure, our money, goes then our hearts will follow.

For Rob and I, this kind of giving starts with our family’s congregations and moves beyond it.  10% of my income comes to Augustana and 5% of his income goes to Lutheran Church of the Master with more going to other non-profits and NGOs.  At this point, we know our money goes to the work of the church impacting not only congregational ministry but also passing through to local, national, and global efforts like Metro Caring in Denver and Lutheran World Relief worldwide.  This has long been important to us although we started off low and slow – well before I began working toward becoming a pastor.  Our giving was about 2.5% when we started into it.

Why does any of that detail matter?  It matters because there’s a tendency to be private about money in a way that becomes unhelpful to anyone.  Money impacts everyone on the planet and we talk gingerly around the topic.  Funny how hesitant we can be as Jesus followers because Jesus didn’t mess around talking about money:

16 out of the 38 parables told by Jesus dealt with money and possessions.

1 out of 10 Gospel verses, 228 verses in all, talk about money directly.[5]

I get it.  The church across denominations worldwide gets into problems with money. Sinners, the lot of us.

As a group of Jesus followers who make up this congregation, we have ongoing opportunities to talk about money and its impact.  Certainly we do in our own households as we grapple with Bible verses like today’s story on our way home after worship.  The opportunities to talk about money also exist congregationally – Stewardship Committee, Congregational Council or Council’s appointed Finance Support Committee.  Recently, in fact, the Finance Support Committee put forward a recommendation to consolidate and track funds differently.  They did a ton of work.  They talked to many people in the congregation.  Council voted unanimously to adopt the recommendation.  Leadership in this congregation is aware of the accountability and works hard on it.

Jesus’ words give us pause to talk about giving and generosity – each of us in our households as well as disciples together congregationally.  This could mean that our assumptions get tossed about a bit.  Jesus is especially good at flipping over assumptions and messing with the way we think things are true.  Being the church, the body of Christ in this place together means that we span pretty much the entire socio-economic spectrum among our households.  It’s a good opportunity to have our assumptions flipped.

As with many things Jesus has to say, there are a couple of ways to hear them.  In regards to generosity, people can easily hear law.  We can hear it as “we must,” or in commandment language, “you shall.”  The other way to hear Jesus words is as “gospel.”  When we hear things as gospel promise we can hear it as “we get to.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Jesus gives faith along with the promise of God’s kingdom.  From his gift of faith to us – Jesus frees us to live generously, less anxiously, and into a future of God’s mercy not based on human merit.[6]  A future toward which the watchfulness commanded by Jesus is not one of uneasy anticipation but rather an secure confidence.[7]

God calls you through your baptism back to God and to neighbor.  God also knows that where your money goes, so goes your hearts.  A heart that is real, beating inside of you, and oxygenating your body is the heart through which God draws us towards each other and into the kingdom life that God gives in the here and now.

To answer Peter’s question, yes, Jesus is talking to you.  This is good news, indeed – for you, for your neighbor, and for the world.  Thanks be to God.

___________________________________________

Link: Lutheran World Relief

Link: Metro Caring

[1] Luke 12:41

[2] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[3] Luke 12:33-34

[4] Luke 10:25-37 Parable of the Good Samaritan: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

[5] Howard L. Dayton, Jr.  Sermon Illustration: Statistic: Jesus’ Teaching on Money.  (Preaching Today, 1996). http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Economic_LifeSS.pdf?_ga=1.79714647.1553381420.1424715443

[6] David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Commentary on Luke 12:32-40 for WorkingPreacher.org, August 8, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=729

[7] Ibid.

 

Redemption: Vader, Peter…you?  John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-20

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 10, 2016

[sermon begins after two chunky Bible stories from John and Acts]

John 21:1-19 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Acts 9:1-20 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

[sermon begins]

Picture a dinner table.  My husband Rob and my almost 17-year-old daughter Taryn are eating and chatting.  I get to talking about how I’ve been thinking about redemption lately.  (I’m pretty fun at a dinner table, let me tell you.) I talk a little about wondering what redemption means today and what redemption stories make sense to people across groups.  And then I say, “So I’ve been thinking about Darth Vader.”[1]  Without even a pause to blink, Taryn turns to her dad and says, “I thought she was going to say something about Jesus.”  Much hilarity ensues.

But she wasn’t far off in her assumption.  I’d been pondering the upcoming Bible verses that we heard read in worship today.  I’ve known they’ve been coming for a few weeks.  Deciding what to preach on Good Friday from Jesus’ Passion came from looking ahead to see when this story about Peter and Jesus would be told.[2]  There it was, scheduled for today.

The Good Friday sermon just before Easter Sunday emphasized the part of the Passion story when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.[3] Peter is one of the original twelve disciples. He knows Jesus very well. Peter’s pledge of allegiance to the death was still warm when he started telling people he didn’t know Jesus.[4] Peter’s denials happen in the dark of night, over a charcoal fire, during Jesus’ crucifixion trial.  He chooses camouflage over courage and saying the easy thing over the right thing.  His denials of Jesus are an epic fail.  And Peter knows it.

In the Bible verses today, there’s Jesus standing on the beach just after daybreak.  Having apparently worked up quite the appetite after his resurrection, he cooks breakfast over a charcoal fire.  He passes around loaves and fish.  Everyone eats.  Then Jesus and Peter have their moment that includes questions, love, and ways to make amends.

Three denials from Peter before the crucifixion. Three pledges of love following the resurrection.  And Jesus in between those denials and pledges.  Jesus opens up a moment of redemption for Peter.  Interesting that Peter didn’t instigate this moment.  He didn’t launch into explanation or confession or ask for forgiveness.  Interesting that he’s hurt when Jesus keeps asking about the love.  Although Jesus would have at least three reasons to doubt what a profession of love from Peter means on the ground.  And, still, redemption comes whether or not Peter instigates it or understands it.

Saul’s story from the Acts reading is also one of redemption.  This man known as Saul zealously guards the faith of his ancestors to the point of attending the stoning of Jesus followers.  He watches the coats of the witnesses during the stoning and approves of the killing.[5]  He was hunting “anyone who belong to the Way, men or women,” so that “he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  Saul is frightening and poses real threat to people who don’t agree with him.  He is blinded on his way to do terrible things and Ananias is sent to him to heal him.

Ananias has no interest in being with the man who very recently was part of butchering Jesus followers.  Who can blame him?  But Ananias goes and does what is asked of him.  Saul immediately became a preacher.  Saul is “also known as Paul.”[6]  He ends up starting churches of Jesus followers and encouraging them with his visits and the letters we now read as part of the New Testament.  He is, in short, a man redeemed.

What is it about redemption?  People doing horrible things and seeming beyond all help.  Something happens.  And they are on a new course.  Relating differently to the people around them.  I wasn’t kidding when I said that I’d been thinking about Darth Vader.  The story of Star Wars is a long arc to Vader’s redemption.  (I’m not addressing the 7th film in this statement).  Audiences cheer it.  Fans argue about it.  There’s something about redemption that captures our imagination.

For Peter and Paul, and one could argue Vader, there are people involved in these redemption stories.  For Peter, there is Jesus in his resurrected body.  For Paul, there is Ananias who is fearful and faithful.  For Vader, there is Luke.  Bottom line: There are other people involved in the redemption.

As part of my work at the women’s prison, I met a woman we’ll call Jane.  During the Bible Study before Friday evening worship, the group of women and I were discussing the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus.[7]  Jane eventually raised her hand and said that she had broken every one of the commandments.  She looked at the Bible verses again, nodded, and said, “Yup, every one.”  She talked about Jesus’ love and the church in which she heard about it, not believing it could be for her.  Until, one day, she did.

I attended a parole hearing for Jane who was to serve a life sentence for murdering her lover’s wife.  The family of the woman who was murdered was outraged that the hearing was even happening.  Jane did not receive parole at that time.  She did eventually.  Jane’s story is not an easy one. There is carnage in her history.  Her redemption is messy, fragile, and uncomfortable – for her victim’s family and, therefore, for her.  You can’t pretty it up with a bow or a Hollywood movie or a sermon.

What about those of us who may not have as big of a story as Jane, Peter, or Paul?  What about redemption stories that simmer quietly and are still in their “before” moment?  Some of us know what I’m talking about.  Whether it’s quiet addictions that are slowly breaking relationships – a favored chemical or porn or incessant gaming.  Or behind-the-scenes behavior that can be masked in public – rage and abuse that is verbal or violent or sexual.  Or public behavior that is deemed acceptable but destroys people – jonesing after power by way of gossip or ridicule or racism.

Redemption doesn’t erase the reality or consequence of what we’ve done.  Redemption allows for a different way of living moving forward – consequences and all.  After Jane’s parole was denied, her reaction was disappointment and also some clarity that ministry does and will continue to happen in the prison.  Her conversion did not negate the reality of the murder she committed.  The woman she murdered is still dead and missed by her family.  Neither did Saul’s conversion negate what he did. Thomas, the Jesus follower, was still dead by stoning.

How do you suppose Peter took the news that Jesus came back?  Given his denial of Jesus during the trial, Peter’s initial thoughts about resurrection likely included some fear.  But there was Jesus.  Offering redemption and a way to make amends.

Amends are often insufficient and suspect, especially for the people who are hurt by our behavior.  But there’s Jesus, giving Peter something to do in the face of what he has done.  Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus’ offer is on the table for you.  Even though you haven’t asked for it and maybe aren’t ready for it.  Do you think because you screwed up that you don’t deserve a second chance?[8] Forgiveness is the “gracious irritant” that leads to redemption.[9]  Notice again that redemption isn’t self-made and it doesn’t happen in the dark.  Other people are involved.  It happens in the light of day.  There is honesty.  There are consequences.  There is also freedom.

Amen and alleluia.

 

[1] George Lucas. Star Wars I-VI. http://lucasfilm.com/star-wars

[2] ELCA Lutherans, as a general rule, follow the Revised Common Lectionary that schedules scripture readings over a three year cycle. Read about the RCL at http://www.elca.org/Lectionary

[3] John 18:15-27

[4] John 13:37 Peter said to [Jesus], “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

[5] Acts 7: 558 and 8:1 “Then they dragged [Thomas] out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.”

[6] Acts 13:9

[7] Exodus 20:1-17

[8] Diablo Cody. Ricki and the Flash. (Clinica Estetico, LStar Capital, and TriStar Pictures, 2015). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3623726/companycredits?ref_=tt_ql_dt_5

[9] L. Gregory Jones. Embodying Forgiveness. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), xvi.

It Seemed to Them an Idle Tale [OR How Idle Tales DO Pile Up] – Luke 24:1-12

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday – March 27, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

[sermon begins]

 

Note-taking. Now there’s a topic filling sanctuaries across the land today.  You know, note-taking…jotting something down to remember something for later. It shows up in our day-to-day in one form or another.  In a meeting a work.  In a class at school. In a kitchen at home.  Or, even, in a church sanctuary near you.  One of the things I get to do with this church is read sermon notes written by our confirmation students who are in the 6th through 8th grade.

Yvonne and I both read their notes and write comments or ask another question in response to what’s been written.  These sermon notes are treasures.  As students, there’s a time to be honest about what is heard. As families, there’s a chance to talk about faith in a different way.  As a preacher, I learn a lot about how my sermons are heard – or are not hearable.  As a pastor, I learn a lot about what these young people are thinking about life, faith, and church – beyond what they tell me during the Children’s Sermons on these steps every Sunday.

There are some great questions in the most recent batch of sermon notes.  One of my favorites is, “How does taking notes help have a better connection with God?”  That’s a fair question especially if you’re the one who’s taking notes. It remains to be seen whether or not my answer about the value of listening differently to sermons is legit.  This is where it gets personal for me. I started going back to church as an adult after being a religious refugee for about a decade. My own notes filled the margins of the worship bulletins during the sermon.  Partly so I could remember what was said. And just maybe so I could ask the pastor about it later if I had the chance.  I had a lot of questions about what I had long set aside as an “idle tale.”[1]

These intrepid women from Galilee. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others were are there.  We’re told just earlier in the story that “the women who followed him from Galilee” were lurking about at the crucifixion, watching Jesus take his last breaths “from a distance.”[2]  We’re told that these women who “had come with him from Galilee” were watching when Jesus is taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea.  “They saw the tomb and how his body was laid.”[3]   Apparently, he was laid to rest without the rituals of burial because these intrepid women of Galilee left the tomb and “prepared spices and ointments” in the time remaining before the required rest on the Sabbath.

We pick up the story on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath, when the women from Galilee return to the tomb to pack Jesus’ body in spices.  His body is not there.  The tomb is open and empty which they find perplexing.  Angels dazzle them and the women drop face down in terror. The angels ask them that great question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is risen.”  Then the angels go on to say this really great thing, “Remember how he told you in Galilee…?”  And they remind the women that Jesus had told them he would die and rise again.  It made no sense the first time they heard it from Jesus.  Standing in the empty tomb, it’s sinking in just a little differently.   Then they remember what Jesus had said while still alive.  Isn’t that the way of hindsight?  We often don’t know what to make of something until more time passes and more information is available. Until we are reminded and have others to offer a new perspective on what we think we already know.

The intrepid women from Galilee head out from the tomb to tell the guys what happened.  “They told all this to the eleven and to all the rest…But these words seemed to be an idle tale and they did not believe them.”  Idle tale is a cleaned up version of the Greek word leros – garbage, drivel, baloney are euphemisms that get close.  Keep adding to the list and you’ll start adding words that are more like the salty speech of sailors or what farmers cart around as fertilizer. [4]  You can almost hear the eleven and the others saying to the women and each other, “That’s leros!”  The only time it’s used in scripture is right here, in Luke.[5]  A pithy, disrespectful response to the women’s report.

Those closest to Jesus can’t fathom the resurrection.  Jesus had told them about it during his ministry. They had been in Jerusalem and either watched or knew about Jesus’ execution. They knew he was dead, entombed.  But, regardless of what Jesus told them when he was alive, they know that the dead stay dead.  Of course they do.  It’s what makes sense.  Yet, the intrepid women of Galilee start chipping away at that truth.

In response to “that leros,” Peter races to the tomb and returns home amazed.  The story says nothing about his belief.  Another confirmation sermon-note writer recently asked, “Is it okay to be skeptical about God and his works?”  To which I would answer that skepticism finds good company with Peter this week…and next Sunday also as we’ll hear about Thomas’ unbelief.

For today, though, the intrepid women from Galilee are the real standouts.  They stuck around at the cross.  They showed up at the tomb. They go from perplexed, to terrified, to preaching, within a short period of time.  They remember what Jesus told them before he died and are no longer looking for the living among the dead.  A greater truth has broken through.  Death is now the idle tale.  By the power of God, the dead don’t stay dead.

In many ways the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real times of suffering and pain.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.

Resurrection. Now that’s little more slippery.  A God who brings life out of death is unpredictable…destabilizing.  Here’s what I know.  Twenty years ago I had spent a decade outside of the church and was a decade into my work as a nurse. I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be a Christian preacher.  There was a lot that had to die inside of me and God is not done yet.  You see, idle tales are easy. The leros piles up everywhere and we love getting out our shovels to heap it higher.  We tell idle tales in our personal lives as we hide our secrets.  We tell idle tales as we form our families with unrealistic standards of perfection.  We tell idle tales at school and work as the striving creates unlivable pressure cookers out of our lives.  We tell idle tales as we talk politics.

In contrast, the truth that God loves the world so much that “the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again” is a story that saves in the here-and-now.  The saving story is the love of God who lived and died and lives again as Jesus the Christ.  That leros that you protect so carefully? Watch out, God wastes nothing as despair is turned to hope and as death is turned to life.

Amen and alleluia!

 

[1] Luke 24:11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

[2] Luke 23:49

[3] Luke 23:50-56

[4] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Moment on WorkingPreacher for June 2, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

Worthiness Is Off The Table [OR Good Friday IS “Just About Love”] John 18:15-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Good Friday – March 25, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 18:15-27   Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. 19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” 24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. 25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

[sermon begins]

The cross tells the truth. The truth about living. The truth about dying. The truth about God.  And the truth that we can’t handle the truth.

I don’t mean truth as hypothesis-and-supporting-points true.  I mean truth as we know it in our guts true.  The truth that gets lived out in the day-to-day.  The kind of truth we know when we worry about the assassination of someone who puts themselves at risk in the world for the good of the world over what’s good for themselves.  The kind of truth that knows suffering is real over the false optimism that denies real pain.

A few months ago, a young man very dear to me was sitting in my kitchen telling me about God and church. He told me that, “It can’t just be about love.”  But here’s the thing…it can just be about love because it is the truth.  God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the very people ready to crucify.  God would rather die than point an accusing finger at his friends caught in the kiss of betrayal and cowardice of denial.  Love of this kind is beyond comprehension.  The truth is that we can’t handle the truth.

Peter certainly can’t get his head around it.  A murder trial is in the works and Peter is a bestie of the accused.  Peter is so close to Jesus that he follows him to the trial.  He’s also so close to Jesus that he doesn’t want people to know the truth of how close.  When the bonds of friendship are tested, Peter fails. Epically.  Peter had just said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”  Peter’s pledge of allegiance to the death was still warm and then this happened:

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

[The slaves and the police standing around the charcoal fire with Peter] asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.”

One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

In John’s gospel, Peter’s denials are interrupted by Jesus’ testimony to Annas, the high priest.  Jesus is composed during the questioning.  He resists false accusations by the priest and protests excessive use of force by the police. [1]  Throughout the story of his passion, Jesus moves toward the cross with the courage that clarity brings.  The clarity of one who loves the world so much that death is preferable to raising a hand against it – a self-sacrificing love of the highest order.  You see, it CAN “just be about love” when it’s the truth about God’s love for the world.

Peter’s failure is written about in each of the four different gospels.  There are different twists each time but it’s in there four times. This story was very important to the early church.[2]  Why might that be so? In other Bible verses, Peter is described by Jesus as the one on whom the church will be built.  Peter’s failure is an important story because “heroic faith is not a requirement to be a disciple.”[3]

The cross is the natural end-point of Jesus being Jesus and us being ourselves.  When left to our own devices, we prioritize camouflage over courage and say the easy thing over the true thing.  Fortunately, Jesus’ death on the cross has no bearing on worthiness.  If it did, how would anyone know if they were ever worthy enough?  Worthiness is off the table…or off the cross, as the case may be. What’s left?  Jesus.  On a cross.  For you.

Jesus lives and dies the truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Your qualifications of worth are not on trial.

Do you leave Jesus hanging when you have a chance to confess him?  This love is for you.

Don’t think you love God enough to do the right thing for someone else?  This love is for you.

Not being honest about the doubt that plagues you?  This love is for you.

It IS “just about love.” The truth is that we are people who can’t handle the truth of God’s love.  The truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.[4]  Not even us. Because in the end, it’s about Jesus.  On a cross. For you.

 

 

[1] David Lose. John 18:24-27…in the Meantime. March 4, 2015. http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/john-18-24-27/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Romans 8:35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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.

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 (but the whole chapter is worth the read)

Friends, Failures and The Gasp – John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48 {really, go read the whole chapter)

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 10, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

John 15:9-17 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Acts 10:44-48  While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

 

[sermon begins]

In the reading from John this morning, Jesus is talking to his disciples before he is very soon to be killed on the cross. This is an intense conversation in an intense time.  Smack in the middle of this conversation Jesus says something that likely had his listeners gasp.[1]  You know, the kind of gasp that you do when you’re truly surprised. You wonder if the people around you heard the same thing but you can’t interrupt the flow of the person speaking even to make eye contact with the person next to you.  But it’s hard to keep listening because you’re still back in the moment of what you heard.  This is where the mindful among us would want to coach us about staying in the moment.  But you know what I mean. Staying mindful after a big announcement is truly for the rare, gold-medal mindful.  Most of us averagey-mindful simply are not up to the task.

What does Jesus say to derail the disciples’ mindful listening?  He tells them they are no longer servants, but now are his friends.  He ups the ante on them. The suggestion of mutuality is shocking! This is one of the few places in scripture that talks about friendship.  Especially notable in the story is Jesus saying, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Last week we heard a good word preached from two of Augustana’s high school seniors.  Both preachers challenged us with scripture and they also challenged us with their personal stories of what it means to be faithful in their own lives. They opened up the Bible readings for us and talked about Jesus’ vine metaphor.  Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” Last week’s scripture reading happens just before Jesus’ words of friendship in our story today.  He is the vine, he names the branches.  And these branches will bear the fruit of friendship.

It’s important to remember that the friends sitting around as Jesus speaks to them are the same friends who deny, betray, and run away in the tough time around the cross.  The friends’ have little ability to stick it out with Jesus immediately following his poetry of vine, branches, and abiding together in friendship. Keeping commandments that are given in a peaceful time are that much more challenging to keep in a difficult time. Dying for one’s friends means something when those friends fail you. Jesus did this in real time days after talking with them about being friends. And Jesus died for his friends to come in the future.

The bridge between Jesus words of friendship then and now is a crazy thing called death and resurrection.  This Easter season we’ve been asking the question, “What could this rising from the dead mean?” Asking the Easter question in this way keeps our feet connected to the ground while we, quite literally, speed through the cosmos.

For Peter, this rising from the dead means that he ends up in Cornelius’ home.  Cornelius is a Caesarean.  More specifically he is a centurion of the Italian cohort.  All of that is to say the BIG thing – that he is a Gentile. A short-hand way of saying that he is not part of the Jewish sect following Jesus.  Just as Jesus ups the ante with the disciples by calling them his friends, the Spirit ups the ante by instigating Gentile baptisms.  Baptizing Gentiles in the name of Jesus, into his death and into his new life. For Peter and the circumcised believers with him, this is a cosmic shift…on the ground…with actual people.  This is enough of a cosmic shift that Peter wonders about whether anyone can withhold the water for baptizing people who have received the Holy Spirit.

From time-to-time, I get calls to schedule a baptism. There are details to scheduling in terms of picking a date and worship time for the baptism itself and setting a date to meet with me at some point before the baptism. I get to know people, a little about their families and their faith. In turn, people in baptism meetings get to know a little about me.  These conversations are good.  In fact, some of the staff can verify that I say out loud that, “I love baptism meetings.” While it’s fun getting to know people, what I really love is reveling in God’s promises.  And as several of you can attest, there is a place in the baptism conversation about the promise that the congregation makes to the baptized on behalf of the whole church catholic and the communion of saints in every place and time.  You know the one.  You hear the words, “People of God, do you promise to support the baptized and pray for them in their new life in Christ?”

People of God.  It has a nice ring to it.  It’s both cosmic and personal. Cosmic because we’re talking about God.  Personal because we’re talking about us. The ‘People of God’ label is also quite relevant given the Bible readings from both John and Acts today.  The book of John begins cosmically with the mysterious Word existing before time and immediately becomes personal as the Word is made flesh in Jesus. Our particular reading from the book of John get even more personal as Jesus calls the disciples friends. In the book of Acts, the mysterious Holy Spirit gets personal quickly, acting on Cornelius and his household as Peter and the circumcised believers gasp and start baptizing.  Peter stays with Cornelius for a few days afterwards.

The story talks about Peter staying a few days almost as an afterthought. But could this be the fruit that the disciples are told they would bear?  It’s also one answer to what this rising from the dead means.  These two people, so different, both bringing past failures and prejudices to their time together.  Now they are both people of God – friends of Christ and each other through baptism.

Baptism brings the baptized into the body of Christ also known as a congregation.  A congregation is simply a collection of baptized people who remind each other through worshiping, communion, baptism, preaching and each other that God’s promises are for them.  I imagine Peter and Cornelius and the household reminding each other of God’s promises as Peter visited with them for several days. In a similar way, it’s what we do here as the congregation of Augustana.

As part of the body of Christ of Augustana, we bring along with us our failures, prejudices, and differences to our time together much like Peter and Cornelius. The Holy Spirit ups the ante and brings us together as friends of Christ.  This happens every time we get together in the many ways we get together. Whether it’s women’s circles, health ministries, choir rehearsal, Sunday School, Over the Top giving parties, staff meetings, Chapel Prayer, Middle School drop-in, Senior lunches, or some other group of people connected through Augustana.

The Holy Spirit gathers us as friends of Christ in worship, too.  We confess sins that include failures and prejudices at the beginning of worship and hear God’s forgiveness pronounced; and we sit next to each other reaching through our strange differences to another friend in Christ.

People of God, Jesus just called you friend. [Gasp] It couldn’t be more personal. We live in the cosmic strength and in the human frailty of this friendship together here this morning. Now strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through Christ’s friendship with us, we live it in the world this afternoon.  Thanks be to God.

 

Hymn of the Day, sung together after the sermon: ELW 636 How Small Our Span Of Life


[1] Matt Skinner, Associate Professor for New Testament, Luther Seminary,  for Sermon Brainwave – John 15:9-17, May 13, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=293

Dry Bones and Delight, An Easter Paradox – John 20:1-18, Ezekiel 37:13, and Romans 6:3-6

Dry Bones and Delight, An Easter Paradox – John 20:1-18, Ezekiel 37:1-3, and Romans 6:3-6

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Ezekiel 37:1-3 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

John 20: 1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

[sermon begins]

Have you ever had that moment when you realize you’re talking with someone you’re supposed to know?  Not recognizing them for whatever reason – maybe it has been awhile since you’ve seen them, maybe you’ve just met them only a couple of times, or maybe you went to elementary school with them a few years ago.  Then there’s that moment when something clicks and you realize you share a history with this person, however small it might be, and suddenly you’re in a different kind of conversation.  You might have people or stories in common so there are things to talk about beyond the small talk.  It’s a funny sweet spot between almost-friends and enough-strangers that you might even give each other some of the harder stuff from each other’s lives – getting laid off from work, marriage trouble, or child trouble.  When the conversation is over, you part ways, wondering about the moment of honesty.

It’s those moments of honesty that can feel like air to the dry and dusty places we don’t tell many people about.  Let’s face it, there are moments in life when things going on around us and in us feel like that valley of the dry bones in the reading from Ezekiel.  In the story, the Lord asks the question, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  And receives the answer, “Oh, Lord God, you know.”

What does God know?  One way to get at a small piece of that answer is to look to Jesus. In Jesus, God knows what bodies know from being born and growing up.  God knows what it feels like to be warm, cold, loved, betrayed.  God knows what it feels like to laugh and to hope.  God knows what it means to be afraid, to be in pain, and to die. God knows what it feels like to come to life in a tomb and walk around looking like a gardener whose been digging in the dirt.

What do we know?  Like Peter and the other disciple, we can know what we see but it doesn’t mean we understand very much.  The Bible story tells us that they see the tomb is empty and believe but “as yet they did not understand the scripture.”[1]  The evidence of tomb is examined.  It is indeed empty.  And then they go home believing what exactly?  That the tomb is empty?

Mary Magdelene stays in the garden. It’s mentioned four times that she is weeping. Her eyes, already puffy from lack of sleep during the crucifixion, must be an absolute mess as she walks around the garden crying.  The body of her teacher who was killed is now missing.  She runs into a stranger…maybe he’s the gardener…and she asks him whether or not he took the body somewhere else.  Confusion rules the moment.  It’s difficult to know what to believe.

Last Sunday afternoon, I left church in time to get my daughter over to her behind-the-wheel drive time.  I might add that I have her permission to share this story with you.  Still in my suit and pastor’s collar, the driving instructor asked me a few questions about Taryn’s driving followed by a few extra questions about whether I am called priest or pastor and where my church is located.  In turn, I learned a little about how he became a driving instructor.  Then off the two of them went in the well-marked student driver car.

Picking her up afterwards, we talked a little about her drive.  After a lull in the conversation, she told me that the instructor asked her this question, “If you could describe religion in one word, what would it be?”  She told him, “Hope.”  I asked her if he came up with a word.  He apparently chose, “Comfort.”  There are many things that I think are interesting about the two of them having this conversation.  The relevant one today is that neither one of them picked words like ‘truth’ or ‘certainty’ or ‘goodness’.  They did, however, pick words that capture the essence of the Easter story.

Like the disciples at the tomb, we see and believe in our experiences but don’t really understand them all that well.  Like Mary Magdalene, we have trouble recognizing the resurrected Jesus.  He had to recognize her first, calling her out of her moment of despair and calling her into his resurrected life.

This is all well and good for Mary.  She was confident enough in her encounter with the risen Jesus that she ran off to tell the other disciples.  But what about us, here, today?  Apparently the resurrection obscures who God is until God reinitiates contact by recognizing us and calling us by name.[2]  Calling us by name out of our place of sin or, like Mary, out of our place of despair.

One of the ways this happens is among people like all of us together here today. We know what some of our flaws are, the sin that hurts others people and ourselves.  And we know we know what some of the good in us is, created in the image of God.  We bring our worst and our best into the time we worship God.  We are almost-friends and enough strangers to be in some honest conversation.  Part of that honesty is recognizing that the mystery of what God does through the cross, tomb, and resurrection has little to do with a method for living life.   Cross, tomb, and resurrection are how we experience life – the pain of it AND the joy of it.  We know what God knows – these dry bones most certainly can live!

The church is the body of Christ, people of the cross and resurrection given new life in the waters of baptism, new life through Christ in the bread and wine of communion, and new life in each other.  Jesus Christ, who was crucified, God has raised! In that resurrection God gives us hope, the promise of life, the promise that God is with us now, and that even death cannot defeat the power of God for us and for all the world![3]

Thanks be to God!

Romans 6:3-6 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

[1] John 20:9

[2] Rolf Jacobsen, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast about John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday, April 2009 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=61

[3] David Lose, President of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  Sermon Brainwave podcast about John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday, April 2009 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=61

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason [OR Radical Inclusion is the Religious Freedom of the Cross] – John 18-19

Called Good (Friday) for a Reason – John 18-19

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Good Friday on April 3, 2015

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings excerpted from John 18-19]

John 18:15-18, 25b-27   Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. 17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

John 19:16-18, 25b-30, 40-42 Then [Pontius Pilate] handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40 [Joseph of Arimathea] took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 

[sermon begins]

 

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday confronted with our own mortality.  Ashes are smeared on our foreheads in the sign of the cross and we are told, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  A glaring reminder that life on the planet, our baptismal journey, ends in death.

Death leaves us longing for the spiritual. But in the meantime, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet.  From where we sit on this side of death there is no dressing it up.  At the bedside or roadside or war-side, wherever we encounter death, it is stark, austere, and unnerving in its lack of immediate meaning.  Death is simply absence.  Gone.  On this side of death, it is nothing more.

We begin Lent faced with our own mortality and a sign of the cross.  At the end of Lent this Good Friday, we are confronted by the cross itself.  Longing for the spiritual, we are stunned by its lack.  There is no heartbeat, no breath.  All is quiet after the betrayal, denial, ridicule, and execution.  The adrenalin fades.  The frantic hype is gone.  “It is finished.”  Jesus’ last words.  Finished.  All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.

But the quiet of death breeds disquiet. Unnerved by the immediate lack of meaning the attempts to make meaning begin immediately.  Centuries of Christian thought have produced atonement theory after atonement theory.  Some more satisfactory than others.  Regardless, Gerhard Forde argues that all of these theories hold us “in a false relation to God,” most often reducing Jesus’ death to an unsatisfactory commercial transaction.[1]

Time and again in the New Testament, Jesus’ death is explained simply as “for us”.[2]  That is all.  “For us.”  Which necessarily means that Jesus died “for you.”  Jesus died for you.

Jesus died for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Because isn’t that what Jesus did in his life here on earth?  With the authority of God, he announced forgiveness time and again, and time and again, until finally he was killed for it.  Forgiveness, already available, already announced by Jesus, was that for which Jesus was killed.  He spoke a word of forgiveness until he hung on a cross for it.  For you.

The hands of the betrayer, the hands of the denier, the hands of the ridiculer, the hands of the executioner.  Those hands are ours hands in all the ways we take things into our own hands.  Determined to put conditions on what God’s gives to us unconditionally, we cannot hear this word of forgiveness.  We can’t hear it for other people.  And we can’t hear it for ourselves.

The cross is God’s answer to the re-imagining of God that we do. That re-imagining that leaves us separate from God.  Oh, so you think you know who God is?  Well, what about a God who hangs dead on a cross and gets buried in a tomb rather than use divine power over and against the very creatures whom God loves. Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”  Jesus on the cross simultaneously reveals the scope of divine power poured out to reveal the depth of divine love as we are drawn toward God.  When the self-sacrificing love of God, given fully, is made known to you, when this message of divine love gets through to you, you are drawn by God back into relationship. [3]

With great intention, Jesus hangs on the cross.  And, in one of his final acts while still breathing, does something radical.  Jesus turns to his own mother and then to the beloved disciple and redefines their relationship with the cross in between them.  “‘Woman, here is your son…then he says to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”

Not only does Jesus draw us into relationship with God through the cross but Jesus redefines our relationship with each other at the foot of the cross – standing with the cross between us, Jesus intervenes.  Drawn back into the relationship with God our Father, Jesus the Christ turns us towards each other in a new way.  And God knows the world needs us to be with each other differently than we are at the moment.  Look as close as the cranky person next door or exclusion laws masquerading as religious freedom in several of these United States.  And look as far away as murder by plane crash in the French Alps or execution across religious differences at the Garissa University in Kenya.  We need every bit of help we can get to stand down and stand with each other.  As Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”[4]

At the cross, love is freely taken up for us and for the sake of the people next to us.  In the same moment, we have everything to do with what happened at the cross and we have nothing to do with it.  We are culpable AND we are passive spectators who are being handed a stark realization of our common powerlessness.  In this way, the cross cannot be used as a method to live life.  The cross is the way we experience life.  Longing for the spiritual, we are often stunned by its lack.  Yes, the cross is the way we experience life.  Humbled by our participation in a death on a cross, made confident through the self-sacrificing love of God.  The cross is radically inclusive of all people which necessarily includes you.

Jesus says, “It is finished.”  Can you hear the whisper?  Finished.  His final moment. All that’s left is to put him in a tomb and leave him there.[5]

 



[1] Gerhard O. Forde.  A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism (Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2004), 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

[4] Anne Lamott.  Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

[5] On Good Friday, cross and tomb are the focal point so that hope is reflected out of suffering that is real rather than as false optimism denying painful realities.

Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot! [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline] Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot!  [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline]  Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Caitlin Trussell with New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on February 27, 2015

 

[sermons begins after the two Bible readings]

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a aman who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

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

 

What kinds of things make you laugh?  Really, truly laugh.  The whole breathless, belly, can’t breathe, let go kind of laughter.  For me it’s often the general silliness that comes along with being a human on the planet.  Think Kim Wayans, Jimmy Fallon, Lucille Ball, Cheech and Chong bust-a-gut silly.  A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) was recently in a grocery store the day before the big snow of a few weeks ago.  Some were calling it Snowmageddon, some were rolling their eyes, some hunkered down to wait and see.  Many were in the grocery store.  It was packed with slow-moving carts, people pondering produce, precipitation, panic, and Lord only knows what else.

My friend left her cart over by the bakery so that she would take up less room in the busy bacon section.  When she came back to her cart, someone else’s cart was in its place.  She stood there, likely looking confused.  The woman in the bakery came out and asked her if something was wrong and if she needed help.  My friend explained the cart-napping.  The bakery woman then made a store-wide announcement sounding something like this, “With so many people in the store today, please take a minute to look down and make sure you have your cart and not someone else’s.”

In the meantime, a man came up to my friend, and told her that he thought she had his cart.  In those split seconds between the overhead announcement and the man’s cart-confusion, it dawned on my friend that she was the one who had stolen someone else’s cart.  After many apologies, she looped back and found her abandoned cart waiting peacefully among the fruits and veggies.  She called to tell me the story and we both laughed ourselves breathless.  For me, the overhead announcement was the punchline.  Even as I write this I can feel the laughter start to bubble up in my chest.  For her, laughing at herself was the punchline.

And then there’s Abraham in the Bible story from Genesis.  His big moment with the Lord.  During which God makes a promise, a promise so huge that it’s given the name of covenant.  When God makes a covenant with people it is an ‘unbreakable vow’ of sorts.[2]  A promise of epic proportions that affects generations of people.  Such is the case with Abraham.  Abraham knows this and his response is to fall on his face.

In the Hebrew Bible, falling on your face is no slap-stick move.  Rather it is a position of obedience.[3]  Abraham is aligning himself with the covenant.  Just a few sentences later in the story, Abraham falls on his face again, this time while laughing.  The Lord has just told him that he and his very old wife are going to have a baby.  Abraham makes the obedient move with his body, by falling on his face, but his mind hasn’t caught up, he laughs at the silliness of the plan, God’s plan.[4]  For Abraham, laughing at God is the punchline.  That’s Abraham, mind you, a paragon of faith who can’t keep his amused confusion bottled up.

As Abraham busts a gut, his obedience is still in play.  What plays out of it?  Well, Sarah and Abraham deny themselves a life that is safe, autonomous, secure, a life that is only about the two of them.[5]  They deny themselves that life, and are drawn into a life of big relationship with God, each other, their children, their children’s children…you get the picture.  A life uncontained is a life that necessarily gets messy – that messes with your self-ness, maybe even your alone-ness.

Might this be some of what Jesus means in his rant to the crowd about denying self.  Self-denial is a common catch-phrase for the pre-Easter season of Lent.  For Abraham and Sarah, self-denial carried with it a new relationship with God and a bunch of other people.  For the crowd and disciples listening to Jesus, self-denial means taking up crosses and following Jesus, getting drawn into God’s ludicrous plan with a bunch of other people who are following Jesus too.

Self-denial and taking up crosses looks a lot like what Karoline Lewis describes as “God choosing human relationships.”[6]  This shapes out first as God choosing human relationship with us through the humanity of Jesus.  Then it shapes out as we’re thrown against each other as people in the world, compelled to reconsider what the priorities are in those relationships.

In the Bible Story from Mark’s book, Peter gets protective.  Call it worry, care, concern.  Call it whatever you want.  But Peter gets protective of Jesus.  Jesus is talking foolishness about his upcoming death and Peter can’t take it.  So, he does what any good friend would do.  He tells Jesus he’s wrong.  No belly laughs here as Jesus then calls Peter “Satan”, tells him to step aside, and then tells everyone there to get on board the self-denial train and depart toward the cross.

This moment for Peter and Jesus is like so many of our moments.  Things are going along pretty well, and then?  They’re not.  Peter’s is driven by protectiveness likely complicated by a dash of worry and a pinch of disagreement about the plan.  After all, what might it mean for Peter if Jesus’ suffering and execution actually happen.  Peter seems to want to save Jesus from his inevitable end.  But how much of Peter’s drive comes from wanting to save himself by saving his own ideas, his own timing, his own way.

How often do we do these kinds of things in our own relationships?  Resenting another person’s infringement on our ideas, our timing, our way by throwing a wrench into them with their own.  Suddenly this other person intrudes and requires negotiation, time, and an adjustment to our own plan.

You’ll hear me talk about the cross from time-to-time as something that pushes against our own ideas of the world and shatters them, as something that pushes against us and puts things to death in us so that other things have room to live.  This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It’s not something that I can do all by myself.  Being pushed comes from being in relationships with other people.  Some of those we get to choose – like partners, best friends, counselors.  Others, we don’t get to choose – children, co-workers, church people, total strangers.  All of these people infringe on the notion that we get to do things our way.  There are moments when these people unravel us in utter frustration, not a punchline in sight.

Then there are other moments, those rare moments, those cross moments, when something in us simply crumbles, something dies.  Any investment we had in a particular outcome at the expense of a relationship is pushed into oblivion.   The recognition dawns that, more often than not, we’re with someone who is simply trying to be human just like we’re simply trying to be human.  The laughter coming a little more easily.

Jesus’ teaching in our story today teases us with the resurrection of Easter but also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[7]  As Jesus instructs the disciples to take up their cross, he’s saying in part that the way to new life is through the cross.  I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.”  And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”

 

The cross is the way through to the new thing, the new life.  The cross invites honesty about what is dying and curiosity about what new life will look like.  So much so that it then becomes possible to stay in relationship with God and with other people.  Staying in relationship with the people closest to us rather than lashing out in fear or frustration and destroying those relationships.  With maybe even the freedom to laugh at ourselves as the punchline.

 

As we try to make some sense of the cross this Lenten season…

May grace run wild through Jesus’ life-death-life and through other people to shine light in your own dark places making space for new life.

 

And may Abraham’s laughter through obedience mirror your own as your mind is blown by the foolishness of the cross.[8]  Amen.

 



[1] This adds verse 17 to the Revised Common Lectionary verses for this week…because Abraham laughs, of course.

[2] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  An Unbreakable Vow is a binding spell sealing an oath so that they both parties die if the oath is broken.

[3] Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karoline Lewis. Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#

[8] Referencing 1 Corinthians 1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom…”