Tag Archives: promise

Thievery, Shadows and Light [OR Why Matthew’s Year is Good News] Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalms]

Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

 

[sermon begins]

According to the stories of film, thievery is to be admired for all of its clever moves and precision timing.  Think Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job or Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist.[1]  We cheer on these anti-heroes as likeable scoundrels who are on the side of right – either against a truly evil villain or on a Robin Hood mission.  These storylines are one of my favorites as I wonder how the heist is going to be pulled off and feel the excitement of a braniac’s plan coming together.

In reality, being robbed is devastating.  It’s a total disruption of ownership and security.  One of our neighbors installed a house alarm after a break-in a few years ago.  It went off in the early morning hours yesterday, disturbing sleep and leaving me awake to wonder if there was an actual breach of hearth and home and how would any of us know if it was.  Those moments are neither fun nor intriguing in a good way.

Thievery is a strange metaphor in today’s Bible story.  Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful, staying awake like a homeowner ready to catch a thief in the night.  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  For those of us fed a steady diet of God’s grace from scripture, the metaphor doesn’t jive. It doesn’t help that some preachers have crafted a fearful rapture theology in the last couple hundred years from Bible verses like these.[2]

Jesus speech covers two chapters in the book of Matthew. Look closely at this small part of it.  We learn that God is in charge of the future and judgment.[3]  And he tells the disciples to keep awake and be ready.[4]  Ahhhh, here it is, that elusive good news. In judgment, Jesus offers hope.  Wait, what?!!  Yes, in words of judgment, Jesus offers hope.

As Christians, we sometimes act as if God’s arrival in Jesus has nothing to do with how much God loves the world.  Is God’s love so incomprehensible to us that we figure Jesus is going to show up someday in a really bad mood from that ugly cross incident?  Like Jesus is a time-limited offer akin to a Black Friday sale. If ever there was a corruption of the good news in Jesus, that would be it.

Isaiah as well as the psalmist may be able to shed some light on the connection between judgment and hope.  Isaiah describes many people going up to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.[5]  God is “judge” and “arbiter” among nations and people who end up beating swords into plowshares, striking war from their to-do list.  The psalmist sings of going up to the Lord’s house, to the thrones of judgment, and praying for peace.  Isaiah and the psalmist describe pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage meaning journey.  In their case, a journey towards God’s judgment with the end result of peace.  Peace between people. Peace between nations.

We are on a pilgrimage of sorts well, drawn here together in the Lord’s house. We begin the season of Advent today with the first of many readings from Matthew’s gospel over the next year.[6]  Matthew tends to focus on Jesus’ teaching in comparison to, say, Mark who highlights Jesus’ actions.[7]  Matthew amplifies the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching so that we hear historic promise as it applies to the present.  This includes the hope that God’s judgment will turn us around.  That somehow there will be redemption from the mess we have made.[8]  Seeing the light, we can’t hide in our own shadows, cloaked in ignorance that shields us from the messes we make.[9]

The very first chapter of Matthew opens with genealogy – person after person whose messy lives show up in the Hebrew Bible.[10]  Seeing their names makes me want to re-read their stories, the familiar and not so familiar. The full list includes patriarchs of the faith who verify Jesus’ Jewishness – Abraham, Isaac, Jesse, and King David.  The genealogy also includes, contrary to custom, four ancestresses whose Jewishness is contested – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[11] Just as Matthew begins Jesus’ story by naming them, I encourage you to read one, two, or more of their stories this week as advent begins.  The ancestresses and patriarchs named alongside each other reminds us that God disrupts expectations as the promises made to Abraham are expanded to all people through Jesus.

God is not laying out a program but making an announcement. Showing up wherever and however God would like to show up, on thief’s timing. That is the promise of judgment that we lean into this Advent.  The light of God’s judgment gives us hope that we can no longer hide in our own shadows.  Advent is a chance to think about why this is good news in our own lives and in the life of the world.  It’s a chance to ask questions as we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Why is a savior needed?  Why does God slipping into skin make any difference in my life or the life of the world?

As Jesus people, God emboldens us by faith to proclaim light and peace.  We need each other as church to remind us of God’s promise to show up and we are needed in a world desperate for good news.   Christ’s return means that there is more to our story and God’s story than what we’ve already experienced.[12]  As Christians, though, we don’t turn our attention solely beyond history.  Trusting in God’s mercy, Christian hope generates a commitment to the good of this world God loves so much, a commitment to the people God loves so much.

So we ask God to grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life.

Dear people, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.[13] No longer hiding in our own shadows but committed to the world that God so loves.

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

[1] The Italian Job (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317740/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Tower Heist (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0471042/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[2] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005). http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/90534.The_Rapture_Exposed

[3] Matthew 24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”

[4] Matthew 24:42…44  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[5] Isaiah 2:3

[6] Gospel of Matthew, Year A of the three year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. In general, I’m a fan of the lectionary because it highlights texts we might otherwise choose to ignore. It’s a good idea to also check out what is not included. Read more about the lectionary at http://www.elca.org/lectionary

[7] Arland Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary. “Preaching from Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” for Working preacher.org on December 3, 2007.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1639

[8] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, for Sermon Brainwave Podcast (SB512) on texts for the first Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=816

[9] Pastor Deb Coté, preacher text study gem.

[10] Matthew 1:1-17 does not appear in the Sunday readings for Year A (see note 5 above).

[11] Douglas R. A. Hare.  Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6.

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

[13] Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

For Berniece, A Celebration of Life at Her Funeral – 1 Corinthians 13 and John 14:1-4

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 5, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

1 Corinthians 13 1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

John 14:1-4  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

[sermon begins]

The morning after Berniece died, Arvid and two of their four children – Karen and Eric – sat at the kitchen table covered in papers of all kinds.  Some of those papers included Bible verses and hymns that Berniece and Arvid had discussed and written down in preparation for the days when their funerals would come.  There was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life even in the shock of Berniece’s death less than 18 hours before. Her death was, and is, a shock.  She’d been feeling a little more tired than usual but not sick.  After 90 years of life and 63 ½ years of marriage, the loss catches us off guard.

Around that kitchen table, in their home of 45 years, there were also stories to tell.  Stories of Berniece in her single years deciding where to go next as she enjoyed her friends while teaching short-hand and bookkeeping in Bottineau.  Stories of meeting Arvid over a pair of shoes sold and a first date that came at the not-so-subtle encouragement of his brother.  Stories of football and popcorn leading to a full decade of marriage and children arriving in the ‘50s with the big move to Denver that followed the four births.  Story after story that unfolds Berniece’s life and the love shared with family and friends.

While her death is a shock, her scripture choices come as no surprise.  A woman who loved out of her strength would know the cost of love described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church.  This is a deep and abiding love.  As Karen put it, the kids knew that their mother “loved us no matter what stupid thing we did.”  Karen’s description of Berniece is a sermon-in-a-sentence of First Corinthians 13 in which Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…love never ends.”  Berniece “loved us no matter what stupid thing we did.”  Such a love.

Such a love comes out of not only strength but also the clarity of imperfection, the clarity of humility, the clarity of grace.  You see, clarity about one’s own imperfection opens up the possibility of grace for someone else’s imperfection.  Out of the clarity of imperfection, one might say out of the clarity of our own sin, comes a bit of awareness of how much God must love us.  The kind of love we share pales in comparison to so great a love.  As Paul puts it, “now we see through a mirror dimly but then we will see face-to-face.” Paul not only describes love between individuals.  Paul describes the behavior of love expected in the church.  The behavior of love that serves as a bridge across differences.  The behavior of love that comes in person.  The behavior of love that is asked of us but, first and foremost, in the in-person love of Jesus on a cross.

To describe looking through the dim side of a mirror, Christians will often refer to living on “this side of the cross.”  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, 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 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.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John that Berniece chose are also from this side of the cross.  [Jesus says to the people with him,] “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”[1]  These words are a promise that we can understand only through a mirror dimly.  But these words are the promise today for Berniece who now knows God’s promise fully even as she is fully known by God.  She is taken fully into God and is at rest.  This is God’s promise for Berniece and this is God’s promise for you.

Amen and thanks be to God for new life.

[1] John 14:3

 

A Baptism in the P.I.C.U – John 12:1-8

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 13, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

There are Bible moments so absurd and disruptive that they are difficult to imagine.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus is one of them.  Oil and hair and fragrance are dripping, cascading, and emanating.  There is no ignoring this moment if you’re around that dinner table.

Lazarus is there, having just recently been raised from the dead by Jesus.  His story is told in the chapter just before the reading today.[1]  We can imagine this dinner as a celebration.  Lazarus is back and people are ready to party.  His sister Martha is serving. Judas is there enjoying the circle of friendship as a disciple of Jesus.  Then there’s Lazarus’ other sister, Mary of Bethany. Her exuberance knows no bounds. Her adoration of Jesus must be expressed.  And so it goes, with dripping oil, cascading hair, and emanating fragrance.  A feast of the senses at a table set for dinner.

How are we to understand this adoration she pours on Jesus?  The purity and price of the nard are emphasized.  A rare, imported Himalayan treasure.  A year’s wages.  The nard’s purity and price lead me to wonder about the purity of Mary’s adoration and the cost to herself as she disrupts the dinner party.

One cost is Judas’ poor opinion.  Judas feels free to give his opinion. He demeans her adoration with pious words.  He attempts to put her into her place and uses the poor to do so.  His argument is a vulgar appropriation of the poor – using them as a means to an end.  Jesus is having none of it and slams Judas’ argument.  There are plenty of other Jesus stories that assure us of his determination to eradicate poverty and not leave the poor to their subsistence or our hands clean of their plight.  Regardless of Jesus’ intervention, what does Judas’ poor opinion matter?  He can put it into pious language all he wants.  Mary’s joy will not be stolen by him or anyone else.  Judas’ disapproval is but a pittance.

A few years ago, a fellow seminarian said about Mary’s anointing of Jesus that if he had long hair this is what he would do for someone similarly important to him.  His comment opens the story slightly differently as the imagination plays across gender and time between Mary of Bethany and our moment in time today.  What does adoration look like on a personal level this century?  Set celebrity culture aside for a moment.  Groupies are a different conversation. Mary is in her home. Jesus is known to Mary and her family personally over the course of time.  Her adoration of Jesus is pure and costly.  And she is breaking gender barriers all over the place.  She is a woman of her time whose hair should be tucked away.  She should not be touching a man in the company of others.  In fact, it is life-threatening for her to do so. He, a man, would ordinarily rebuke her like Judas does.  Yet, there they are, oil dripping, hair cascading, and fragrance emanating.

There is something else happening in parallel to Mary’s adoration.  After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is now a target for death himself. The story of Lazarus raised from the dead is followed by the plot developing to arrest Jesus and kill him. [2] And then we get this dinner party. Mary of Bethany calls Jesus “Lord” in previous texts and now anoints him.  Jesus talks openly about his death when he says to Judas, “Leave her alone…She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”[3]  The implication is that she is anointing him for his death.

This past week I received a phone call from a man who asked me to come baptize his one month old son who was on life support.  They were at Children’s Hospital having been flown in by Flight for Life.  He was not expected to live. We arranged for me to come out that evening.  Via text, the father rescheduled our time for the following morning since the baby’s mother was arriving in the middle of the night from out-of-state.  When I arrived, they were both in the room along with the baby’s grandparents.

We talked briefly.  I assured them that, despite whatever we thought we were doing, this moment is first and foremost about God’s promise to be present for their baby even in this most painful time.  Then, with water from a clay bowl, this little one was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  His head dried with the linen baptismal napkin from the church.  I told him he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever while making the sign of the cross on his forehead with oil-lotion scented with frankincense and myrrh.

As the fragrant cross was made on his forehead, Mary’s anointing popped into my mind along with these words from Thanksgiving for Baptism in the funeral liturgy which begins, “When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.”[4]  These words took on new meaning for me in the P.I.C.U. this week.

After this little one was baptized, I handed the parents the un-lit baptismal candle and told them that his light was shining even in his short life and that God is with him.  The family and I shared the bread and wine of communion and then the grandfather asked if I would give this little one “last rites.”  I briefly explained that I would pray what we call the “Commendation of the Dying.” And so we did.  He died within the next few days.

The anointing of this little one in baptism echoes with Mary’s anointing of Jesus before he entered Jerusalem for the last time.  It also echoes the prayer and anointing for healing that you can choose to receive during this worship service.  The Health Minister will anoint your hands with olive oil and say this prayer for you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love…Amen.”

Lent invites reflection on our own baptism.  We reflect on the things that are being “put to death” in us so that something else, something we cannot imagine on our own, may come to life in us by the power of the Holy Spirit through each of our baptisms.  This is part of the healing for which we pray.

Jesus is about life and living.  Lazarus discovered it first-hand. Mary of Bethany adores and anoints Jesus.  She adores and anoints him for the life he brings even as she prepares him for the death he will face because there are those who find his life threatening.  But, even in Lent, we are an Easter people – celebrating that Jesus brings life even through the darkest times by way of his death on a cross.  We remember this promise at funerals with these words, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.”[5]  This new life is for today.  For you.  Our baptism is God’s daily promise by way of a cross and a savior in whom “we live and move and have our being.”[6]   All glory be to God for this indescribable gift![7]

 

[1] John 11:1-44 – These verses tell the story of Lazarus’ illness, death, and being raised from the dead by Jesus.

[2] John 11:45-57 – These verses tell the story of the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death for bringing Lazarus to life.

[3] John 12:7

[4] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Funeral. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 280.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Acts 28:17

[7] 2 Corinthians 9:15

Burpees, Eye-rolls, and Other Moving Parts – Luke 4:14-21, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, and Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 24, 2016

[sermon begins after the Luke reading – two more readings follow the sermon]

Luke 4:12-21 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

[sermon begins]

There’s this thing called a burpee.  It’s a whole body effort that begins by standing.  There’s a quick move to bring the body flat to the floor with chest, stomach, knees, and toes all touching the ground. A quick pop back up to the feet to standing and then jumping in the air to finish.  The burpee was developed in 1940 by Royal H. Burpee, a physiologist in New York City, to assess physical health in non-active people by asking them to do four in a row and taking their heartrates.[1]  The American military picked up the move in 1942 and by 1946 required a one-minute test of max number of burpees.  41 reps was considered excellent and 27 was considered poor.

Burpees came to mind when reading these Bible texts for today. In three of the readings, there’s talk about body parts, whole bodies, movement, and even some weeping which isn’t out of the question when doing max rep burpees.

In story from Nehemiah, “all the people stood up” to hear the reading of the law.  “Lifting their hands” they responded to Ezra’s prayers with an “Amen, Amen.”  “Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”  That is a lot of body movement in unison by a large group.  Then the people wept, convicted as Ezra read the law “with interpretation…so that people understood the reading.”  The people hear the law, understand that they are caught by it, and they start to cry.  However, they are not left to their despair.

Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites tell the people that this is the Lord’s holy day.  The people are instructed to stop crying, to go eat fat and drink wine and “send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.”  Why?  Because “the joy of the Lord is their strength.”  Conviction by the law of God, by the knowledge that we have not been on the side of our neighbor, is unsettling.  Despair is inevitable if conviction by the law is the only word.

The reading from First Corinthians gives us a solid bit of law through the poetry of Paul.  Listen to Paul’s words again:

“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. . 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

Paul’s talk about eyes not needing hands or the head not needing feet infers that the church in Corinth is behaving in just such an exclusionary manner.  The talk of eyes getting rid of hands or the head getting rid of feet brings to mind the language of dismembering – taking a body apart.  Paul’s description using body parts is applicable because one of the Biblical descriptors of the church is the body of Christ.  He is especially focused on the discovery that some people are dis-membering certain other people from the church, from the body of Christ, for whatever reason that someone deems as non-need.

Lutheran Christian identity is as old as Christianity itself because it can identify its antecedents well before the 16th century Reformation.  However, the way the Reformation came down means that Lutheranism has dis-memberment as part of its ethos.  Meaning that the denomination formed on a foundation of disagreement that resulted in broken community.  We know what this looks like from the outside and from the inside.  It can make us quick to judge others through whether we think we need them or not.

This talk about church and denomination makes me want to broaden this conversation in the direction of politics.  It’s a political time and it’s simple to find dismembering kind of talk in public and in private.  Talk that makes the leap to who cares about this country and the Constitution and who doesn’t.  Talk that makes clear that if you care about this country you’ll believe certain things and act in certain ways.  Talk that includes a lot of eye-rolling up, down, and across the aisle.

As I think about the public dialogue that includes eye-rolling, I realize that even my eyes can get away from me.  My own eye rolls that communicate disbelief and disrespect in one fell swoop.  Eye rolls that disconnect people before their thought is even completed.  My sister and I talked a long while back about those eyes rolls and disrespect.  Whether it’s the eye roll that happens by a parent to teen or a teen to a parent.  Or maybe the eye roll at your spouse’s back.  Or even the eye-roll about a public servant, a politician.  All of this eye-rolling amounts to a cut direct that dismembers one person from another.  There’s a bit of homework for your week.  Catch yourself as you roll your eyes.  Think about why you’re doing it and the effect on what it means for you to listen and respond differently to someone.

For people of the church, people called into a body of Christ, Paul’s description is convicting and a possible antidote to the eye-roll.  Convicted by these words about holding together across differences.  We may not have equal passion about same things.  We may not believe the same things.  We are certainly not gifted for the same things.  This congregation is a group of people who are confronted by difference all the time.  That’s part of being the body of Christ.  We also don’t choose the people who are in the body with us.   Paul writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The Middle School youth of this congregation have some recent practice with Paul’s words.  Last weekend, at the Rocky Mountain Synod’s Middle School Youth Gathering, they had a chance to figure out what their spiritual gifts might be and how they add to mix in the body of Christ.  Some gifts that make the list in First Corinthians are forms of assistance, healing, prophesying, deeds of power, teaching, leadership, and interpretation.  Identifying their spiritual gifts give these young people a baptismal understanding of themselves beyond what the wider culture might have to say about them and what they offer the world.  This is something the church gives people by way of the Spirit.  Another possible antidote in a culture of celebrity, accumulation, and eye-rolling.

In Luke, it’s Jesus’ turn to make a stand – no jump and clap needed for added emphasis.  He stands as he reads in the synagogue.  Something he’s done all over Galilee before returning to his hometown “filled with the power of the Spirit.”

Luke tells us that, “Jesus unrolled the scroll [of Isaiah] and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In that synagogue and here today Jesus makes these promises.  He’s anointed by the Spirit to proclaim freedom, sight, and good news.  Not only to proclaim these things but has fulfilled them in his person.  Note Jesus uses the word “today.”  Fulfillment in the present tense so long ago.  We can make as much sense of his promises as did the people in the Nazorean synagogue.  And still, with confidence in those promises, we find that the joy of the Lord is our strength.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Sally Tamarkin, “A Brief History of the Burpee.” Huffpost Healthy Living, May 2, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/02/burpee-history_n_5248575.html

Two more of the Bible readings:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

1 Corinthians 12:12-30 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But strive for the greater gifts.

Football Sidelines and Neighbors – Luke 3:7-18 and Philippians 4:4-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 3:7-18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Philippians 4:4-7  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

John the Baptist’s speech has a sideline quality.  I’m talking football sideline.  There’s often a guy walking up and down among the other players.  Arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping, there is name calling, yelling.  The gist of speech is to bring people to the next level.  Up their game when they get on the field.  So much is still possible because there is still time on the clock.  There is an expectation that with a positive mindset, perfect timing, and the right mix of skills coming together at the right time that the win is in sight.

Sitting on the sideline means different things to different people.  Defense may be on the field protecting the end-zone so the offense is resting up and pumping up. Or there are players suited up who are lucky enough to take the field once a season.  Regardless of why players are on the sideline, it is powerlessness in the moment.  There are other players out on the field doing the actual work.

The sideline is a bit of wilderness.  There is wandering around. Sitting down.  Very little appears organized.  But those are appearances.

Check out a game. Maybe around 2:00 today when lots of people will be watching a particular game.  Take a gander at those sidelines.  Chances are good you will see a John the Baptist type – arms flapping, mouth flapping, hair flapping.

John is worked up.  He’s a wilderness guy.  This is his terrain.  And the crowds come.  Not just any crowds, this is the riff-raff – tax collectors, mercenaries, and people with too many coats.  The people come to see a man about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John yells at them, calls them names, and challenges them to, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  The crowds ask, “What shall we do?”  John hollers at them about playing fair and giving away their extra coats.  John’s answers are nothing earth shattering.  The crowds’ question, though, is compelling, “What shall we do?”

In one form or another, this is a question I ask myself and is also asked frequently by many in the congregation.  It is a sincere question.

John tells the riff-raff what to do.  The crowd is apparently hanging onto more than they need, the tax collectors are collecting for Rome but lining their own pockets by overcharging, and the soldiers of the time are mercenary bullies, extorting money from the people.  In short, John tells them to share, play fair, and be kind.  This is not rocket science.  This is standing with your neighbor rather than against them.[1]

We can so easily stand apart from the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, feeling grateful that those aren’t our particular sins.  However, I see us smack in the middle of this crowd wondering why we came in today only to hear John’s words push against us, too.  After all, it’s difficult to fully celebrate the arrival of a savior if you don’t see much need for one from the start.

John’s sideline coaching to the tax collectors and soldiers can be applied to the rest of us.  We can substitute our own roles and try to finish the sentence.  For me, this sounds like sentence starters of a particular kind:

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

The trouble is that the actions that fill in the blanks can become ways to validate myself.  And God becomes a theoretical instrument used merely to confirm my best impulses.

Despite the best efforts of wild-haired guy on the sidelines, here’s the reality on the field. The will be an interception, there will be a fumble, there will be a missed field goal, there will be failure to protect the blind side.  For me this translates to a sermon without the promise of good news, a missed hospital visit, inattentive listening to Rob and the kids, missing the mark on prophetic patriotism.  And those are just the easy ones to say out loud in a crowd.

What are fruits worthy of repentance?  The most helpful answer locates our behavior in the realm of worship, an act of praise. Behavior that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.  John the Baptist does this quite beautifully – yelling notwithstanding. He is often depicted in art with his finger literally pointing towards Jesus.  Listen to the end of the Bible reading one more time:

16 John answered [the expectations of the crowd] by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

The power of Pentecost is on fire just under the surface of this Advent text.[2]  The Holy Spirit, at work in Mary’s pregnancy, has more in mind than the gentle quiet of a nativity scene.  The Holy Spirit has us in mind, my friends.

John’s proclamation that “the one who is coming…will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit,” is indeed good news.  One of the ways John’s words help us today is by working us toward an understanding of this wild promise.   This begins with the distinction he makes between the wheat and chaff.  I see each of us here today as one of those grains – a grain sitting all warm and cozy within the chaff that surrounds it.

We get used to our chaff.  Some might even argue that we’ve made peace too easily with our chaff, our sin.  But part of the promise is that our repentance, our surrender to the one who has the power to forgive us, is that the sin gets called out in truth, gets forgiven and we are set free.  And once that happens, look out!  It is a salvation day in the here and now.   Salvation that frees us into a new future; one not defined by the past, by location, or by the perception of other people.

God’s freedom unleashed by the power of the Holy Spirit can also look more subtle.  It can look like people who rage, gossip, gloat, hoard, cheat and bully, in both clever and unaware ways, and those same people walking up to bread and wine, surrendering to the Holy Spirit’s forgiveness and hope. In short, it looks like people in need of a Savior, people who may or may not see or understand this need, and who celebrate his birth.

We are a people who need a Savior and who, very soon, will celebrate our Savior’s arrival.  Because we do not have a God who uses power to do us harm out of anger.  Rather, we have a God who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, came among us in skin and now comes among us in Word, water, bread and wine – forgiving us and refining us by the power of the same Spirit.  We are prepared to receive our Savior in this Advent time by “the One who is and who was and who is to come.”[3]

In light of this gift from God we still ask, “What shall we do?”  We shall worship.  We are drawn through worship to do all kinds of good for our neighbor in the name of Jesus. We confess a faith of Jesus Christ and, in our mission statement, we say that we “offer the hope and healing of Jesus Christ.”[4]  The congregation of Augustana regularly points to Christ, first and foremost through our repentant confession at the beginning of worship that is immediately met with the good news of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love.  Like John the Baptist, frank about our shortcomings and, in spite of them, we take action to help other people.  This care of our neighbor is worship, fruit worthy of repentance, an embodied act of prayer and thanksgiving.  Embodied action that points us and other people to the good news of Jesus, not to ourselves.

The things we do in Jesus’ name tumble out from worship as Christ orients us toward each other and the world for the good of our neighbor – sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes not – trusting in God’s promises regardless. With the apostle Paul, trusting that the Lord is near, rejoicing in the Lord, always, not worrying but worshiping and praying – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”[5]

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

[1] Neighbor is a fully-loaded theological term from the Bible meaning the person in the next room, the next town, or around the world.  Anyone who is not you is your neighbor.

[2] Karoline Lewis, WorkingPreacher.com, “Sermon Brainwave #267 – Lectionary Texts for December 16, 2012.”

[3] Revelation 1:8

[4] Looking back on 2015, the congregation of Augustana bore much fruit, pointing to the good news of Jesus all the while.  We baptize in Jesus’ name (20 adults and children this past year), we welcome in Jesus name (20 new members by transfer), we bury in Jesus’ name (19 members and 8 friends of Augustana), we help people eat in Jesus’ name (Metro Caring, ELCA World Hunger, Buying farms for people starting over), we care for the stranger in Jesus’ name (LWR Personal Care Kits for refugees oversees), we care for the sick and poor in spirit in Jesus’ name (Tender Loving Care home visitors, Home Communion, Pastoral Care, Health Ministry, King Soopers gift cards, Augustana Foundation), we care for children in Jesus’ name (Early Learning Center, Sunday School, Choirs, Children and Family Ministry), we care for people in prison in Jesus’ name (New Beginnings Worshiping Community), we worship and sing praise in Jesus’ name (Choir, Music Ministry, Augustana Arts), and so much more.

[5] From today’s reading in Philippians 4:4-7.

 

Mark 8:27-38 – I, Skeptic

Mark 8:27-38 – I, Skeptic

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church  on September 13

Mark 8:27-38 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 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.”

[sermon begins]

 

Weekly staff meetings here at the church are a mixed bag.  There’s some very practical business.  We go through the calendar.  Identify all the community groups that will be in the building that week. Who’s using what rooms. Figure out what needs to get set up. Talk about mutual projects.  There’s details for the upcoming Sunday with the staff involved in worship.  Not so different than many of your staff meetings.  Just exchange the content for that of your work place.

One possible difference between your staff meeting and ours might be the devotions at the beginning of ours.  “Devotions” is a churchy word that usually means time spent in scripture, prayer, and talking about faith and life. The responsibility for devotions rotates among the staff. We all bring our different personalities to the mix.  Lyn was up last week.  She asked us all to take a minute to write down on a piece of paper what we think the gospel is and then she asked us to share it… … …  Yup.  Write it down and share it.  Should be simple.  But somehow it didn’t feel simple.

I preach the gospel on Sundays and at funerals.  I talk about it with people who wonder about it – both people who call themselves Christians and those who don’t.  But there was something about looking at a blank half sheet of paper and picking up a #2 pencil to write down the gospel that gave me pause.  And I don’t get text anxiety!  I’m not going to spend more time then I should navel gazing on this one.  But I do think it’s interesting.  And it was interesting to go around the room and listen to everyone else’s answers too.  It was a 30 second, gospel-drenched sermon.

Jesus does something similar in the Bible story today.  He tells the gospel of his own suffering, death, and resurrection in the smallest amount of time possible.  It takes even less time for Peter the skeptic to show up.  It’s funny how that works.  For someone to say something earth shattering and for the skeptic to show up.

About a year ago, Augustana member Barb Watts asked me something almost casually about “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday.  This is a church-wide emphasis for ELCA Lutherans.  It includes doing good and practical things for our local and global neighbors while wearing these wild yellow t-shirts. I don’t remember exactly what Barb said but it was close to, “Would something like that ever be something we would do here?”  My response was supportive of the idea while investigating her interest and passion for helping lead it.  “I’m game…do you want to be a part of seeing what’s possible?”

Honestly, though? My inner skeptic had long been at work.  In the ELCA’s first year of “God’s work. Our hands. Sunday”, 2013, I balked at the idea.  Augustana had just called me as a pastor and we were getting to know each other slowly but surely.  The e-mail from church-wide came in the summer.  Discover Augustana ministry fair was already in place and going strong on the second Sunday in September.  The second year, 2014, was the summer following Pastor Pederson’s retirement and, quite frankly, God’s work for my hands had filled them plenty full.

These excuses worked those first couple of years mostly because I was skeptical of the project.  Here’s a confession for you.  As a general rule, I’m fairly skeptical of Christian projects.  How’s that for a paradox in a collar?  Part of the skepticism is that Christian projects take on various forms.  These forms can have the effect of trying to dress up the gospel, turning it into something else entirely.  So that you no longer hear that Jesus died on a cross and lives again for the unconditional forgiveness of the world.

Like Peter taking Jesus aside and rebuking him for saying he would suffer, die, and rise again.  It becomes so easy to take the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection and pile something else on top of it.  Making the gospel contingent and conditional. Whether it’s moral conservatism or liberal moralism or some other –ism entirely.  You’ve likely heard the language.  Fill in this blank, “You’re really a Jesus follower if you _______________.”

Christian projects have a way of turning into these contingent, conditional sentences.  And these sentences have a way of turning into self-righteous weapons that truly hurt other people and cut-off relationships.  So as benign as these yellow t-shirts look, I could see their short-sleeved shadows.

Anybody notice what happens to the skeptic in the Bible story today?  Yeah, doesn’t end up so well for Peter.  Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  These are important words for us as church.  And important words for this person standing here in front of you, yellow-shirted today.  As Jesus people, we say that we are baptized into Christ’s death and raised to new life in Christ.

By this baptism, we are the Body of Christ in the world.  The waters of baptism drown the skeptic.  Skepticism can be occasionally helpful and sometimes fun.  But there are issues of justice that need attention.  More immediately, people need to eat.  So, the waters of baptism drown the skeptic and send us to participate in the practical.  We tend to the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the healing of the sick, and offering hope to the hopeless.

Barb Watts asked her curious question and the possibility of it simmered for a while as we agreed to pick it back up in the spring. The congregation welcomed our new Interim Senior Pastor.  A few more months went by. 2015 flipped on the calendar.

Julie MacDougall started working in the office as the Volunteer Coordinator, bringing her years of Augustana membership, relationships, and formidable skills from the business arena along with her.  She was more than game for “God’s work. Our hands. Sunday.” We started the conversation with Barb Watts and Lyn Goodrum, Augustana’s communications specialist.  Slowly but surely many, many people added their gifts to the mix from Global Mission and Social Ministry Committees, Children and Family Ministry, Health Ministry, Prayer Shawl Ministry, Music Ministry, Barbeque Ministry and many more.

This is the punch of “God’s work. Our hands. Sunday.”  It’s like setting up a magnifier over the ministry of the baptized.  On the other 364 days of the year, the ministry of the baptized hums along in our homes and our places of work in our daily vocations of relationships, work, and volunteerism.  The ministry of the baptized hums along in our worship in white robes and street clothes. Sometimes we know the good we do but most of the time we really don’t. It’s often hidden from us and it’s mostly hidden from others.  And that is likely a good thing because otherwise the ministry of the baptized so easily becomes our project and not God’s.

Today, Jesus puts the skeptical behind him and draws our participation into the practical.  When Jesus talks about taking up crosses, it’s more than a picking and choosing ceremony. Christianity is more than opting for which cross to take up. Taking up crosses is what happens to us by way of the cross of the Christ.  There is a kind of promise here that taking up your cross is what is going to happen TO you as a Jesus follower.

As we are conscripted by our baptisms, be assured by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians…

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Amen. And thanks be to God!

Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 “A Matter of Life and Death in the Here and Now [Or This Preacher Tackles Those Adultery and Divorce Verses]”

Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 “A Matter of Life and Death in the Here and Now [Or This Preacher Tackles Those Adultery and Divorce Verses]”

February 16, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Matthew 5:21-37 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder'; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

 

Let’s get a few things straight about these verses right from the get-go.  If we think this is some kind of Jesus-versus-sinner smack down that includes only some people, let’s think again.  It looks to me like the final score would be Jesus: 7 billion; people: 0. Borrowing Paul’s words from the Corinthians reading, there is no milk for children here, it’s all solid food.

Over and over in these verses Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you…”

It isn’t enough not to murder; Jesus orders us to choose our words oh so carefully.

It isn’t enough not to commit adultery; Jesus orders us see other people as people, not objects.

It isn’t enough not to divorce; Jesus orders us not to throw people away on a whim.

It isn’t enough not to lie; Jesus orders us to live so truthfully that we’ve no need to make an oath.

If you spend any time around a Lutheran church, it won’t take too long before someone would say that Jesus is talking about “law” in these verses.  To which some of us could nod and agree and move on as if we understood what that means.  Hanging around the same Lutheran church you might hear over time that the law “leads to death while the gospel gives life.”[1]  Another catchy phrase but I wonder if it has lost some punch over time; wildly misinterpreted to mean the law doesn’t matter so domesticated into spiritual milk, not solid food.  Let’s try to stay squarely in the solid food category here this morning shall we?

I’ve been on a tear about these verses this week.  They come on the heels of my family attending a funeral for the young adult son of some friends of ours.  He took his own life after physically surviving a tour in Afghanistan.  Hearing Jesus’ words through Eric’s despair, gives those words urgency.  We are a people who are given new life and freedom in Jesus.  Out of this new life and freedom we are called to “offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ”.[2]  If this is a given, then Jesus’ words are directed to us and into our relationships with other people.

No longer self-centered, we are made Christ centered – made free to look deeply into the cracks and fractures of those relationships for our own culpability.  And Jesus gives us four places to start looking: Anger – Adultery – Divorce – Oaths.

None of these places are comfortable and there are easy ways to end up in the proverbial ditch along the way.  But I believe that Jesus words have life and death implications for us in the here and now which makes the risk of the ditch worth it.  I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll try to avoid any ditches and you can tell me me if you think I ended up in one (pastor.caitlin.trussell@gmail.com).

Have you ever been angry with someone?  That deep, simmering kind of anger that may even have had a righteous origin?  But somewhere along the way the righteousness part of the anger was lost and now it hangs around like a bitter, old friend. The anger simmers on a slow, inside burn that keeps us away from the one who made us angry but also cuts us off from everyone else.  Making us prisoners of our own anger, our own private hell on earth.   Perhaps it is because there is no life in this anger that Jesus is so adamant about reconciliation.  Not to be confused with a bland acceptance of the status quo, reconciliation is a commitment to stay in relationship across intellectual disagreement and injured feelings.  Because, left unchecked, anger has a way of infecting families, communities, institutions, and countries.  Any of this sounding familiar?

In the adultery verses, Jesus focuses on those of us doing the looking.  He challenges our treatment of people as objects that exist for our pleasure.  What’s the harm, we might ask?  Just as anger destroys relationship and creates hell on earth, treating people as objects denies relationship and creates hell on earth.  On a smaller scale, once we make an object of someone, someone who exists for our pleasure, then what’s to stop us from hurting them when they make us unhappy?  The violence of partner and child abuse has at its roots the objectification of people.  So too does the modern day human trafficking and slavery crisis.  Jesus’ hyperbole about gouging out our eyes and cutting off our hands if they lead us to make people into objects is attention getting.   People are not to be treated as objects and it seems that Jesus is challenging us to consider the ways in which we are doing so and to stop doing it.

A few things need to be said right off the bat about this divorce text.  First, Jesus is likely talking here about the practice of divorce that left women and children vulnerable both physically and financially.  And second, the church across time and place has done a miserable job on the topic of divorce and has inflicted the pain of isolation on many families already devastated by divorce – in fact the church could stand to do some confession in this regard.  Please hear this clearly, there are times when divorce is the least broken choice.  If we are all broken people, then any of our decisions are also broken.  A few obvious examples are marriages that end due to addictions, mental health issues, and abuse.

All of that being said, what challenge might those of us who are married hear from Jesus’ words?   Maybe it helps to hear that courage is possible, remembering that we are made free by Jesus to look deeply into the cracks and fractures of our marriages for our own culpability.  Some of us may need to confess our part in the mess.  Some of us might need a coach or counselor to help us engage with indifference or mediate the anger.  For some of us, our marriages still may not make it but reconciliation around certain issues may give co-parenting or healing after divorce some traction.

At first glance, the fourth challenge laid out by Jesus may seem almost anticlimactic.  However, many of us are involved in daily work that puts pressure on us.  Our jobs put food on the table and a roof over our heads.  Dealing honestly in our work environments can sometimes feel precarious.  What Jesus is asking here is often not easy and may be difficult to tease apart during a work day filled with contract negotiations or sales figures.  In fact, we could go so far to say that the temptation here may be similar to adultery – that to deal falsely with someone might start with making an object out of them, making them a means to an end.

Jesus is talking life and death issues in this text today; life and death in the here and now for us and for other people.  He is laying down the law that brings life through the gospel.   May we, who are made free by Christ, be unleashed into the costly discipleship that brings life to each other.  Amen.



[1] One interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3:1-11 focusing on verse 6.

[2] Augustana Luther Church mission statement: Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.  http://augustanadenver.org/pages/aboutus/aboutus.html

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Matthew 24:36-44 A Future With Hope [or Enough With the Rapture Already]

Matthew 24:36-44 A Future With Hope [or Enough With the Rapture Already]

December 1, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

For one long summer, I was a day-camp counselor.  Not the super-fun-guitar-strumming kind – just kick that little bit of counselor stereotype right on outta here.  Oh no, I was the 17-year-old-in-charge-of-a-large-group-of-5-year-old-girls kind of counselor.  I was more the protector-against-mortal-peril kind of counselor – think mother hen.  Our location was cool but slightly tricky for herding 12 little girls.  It was a dried out river arroyo near Pasadena, California.  Water hadn’t run through it in eons and it was full of scrub oak and draught-resistant trees and the constant threat of poison oak.  We built a group fort and created a group flag which means that there was fort raiding and flag stealing going on.  It was utter triumph to show up at the end of the day flag ceremony with another group’s flag – a sign of a successful raid.

Victory and shame were the two-sides of that stolen flag event.  The ultimate in victory was to show up at the flag ceremony with another groups’ kid – but for the counselor with the missing kid, it was the ultimate shame.  Any of you want to guess who one of those shamed camp counselors was at the end of the day?  Yup, yours truly.  Oh, the ultimate shame…knowing your kid was taken and knowing the return would be anything but a triumph.  After all, even in this fairly innocent form, being taken was not a good thing…

Being taken is rarely a good thing.  In fact, our gospel writer seems to have a strong bias against being taken, a problem so big that no one would ever knowingly opt into it.  Revisiting the flood story reveals this negative bias.  The people swept away in the flood story, the ones not on the ark, were leading their normal lives until they suddenly were not.  Through the story of those lost in the flood, the gospel writer is setting up the negative lens of being taken.

The negative lens of being taken is the set up to read the next verses.  There are two workers in the field, one taken the other not; and the two women grinding meal together, one taken and one left.  Through the lens of the flood story, being taken out of the field or away from the grinding are big problems in this text.  And of course that’s problematic!  Who would want to be living life in one moment and only to be taken out of it the next?!

In the context of the gospel of Matthew, being taken is a bad deal.  At the time of its writing, chaos was in full force.  The Roman occupation left the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, there were wars and rumors of wars, and many people were suddenly being taken away, kidnapped either to be killed or enslaved.[1]  In this text being taken is a bad deal.  For people curious about or hurt by rapture theology, this begs a critical question? [2] If being taken is a bad deal, might the gospel be suggesting that being left behind is the better deal?

For some of us long told otherwise about being left behind, just asking this question of scripture can be good news indeed.  And, for some of us, it may be the only good news needed today.  However, in the interest of full disclosure on the Bible text today, there’s more…you just have to wait for it – which is appropriate because Advent is a time of waiting.

As Advent begins, the first Sunday is filled with the image of actively waiting and keeping watch.  This scripture argues for watchfulness in the midst of life being lived.  Notice that the list of activities of those washed away in the flood were simply normal activities, not tied to judgment – “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”  The workers in the field and the women grinding meal are doing the work of daily living.  So, by their example, we are also encouraged to be living and working and taking care of the things of daily life even, and maybe especially, in the midst of the chaos of the times.

This is part of the reassurance of this text.  There is a lot that cannot be controlled.  But there is still life to live.  And into the chaos, the wars, the kidnappings, and just as equally into the work, the life, the events of the day, comes the Son of Man.  The Son of Man is also called “the Son” as well as “Lord” in these verses.  All of these labels mean Jesus.  Jesus is the Son; Jesus is Lord; and Jesus is the Son of Man.  It’s important to spell this out because there seems to be a temptation to disconnect the Son of Man in this passage in Matthew from the Jesus revealed in the gospels as a whole.  As if somehow Jesus lived, loved, healed, and died, and then resurrected in a seriously bad mood ready to wield some divine wrath upon a fallen humanity.

It is not so difficult to fathom how idea of the Son of Man became disconnected from the Jesus who died on the cross.  It is the same disconnect made by the criminal on the cross from our gospel reading last week, hanging next to Jesus who was also on a cross and challenging him to save them both if he was the actually Messiah.  Regardless, the one who hung on the cross is also called the Son of Man.  And this is a word of comfort and hope to Jesus followers during the confusing times of the first century and the equally if not more confusing times of the 21st century.

Because, as Pastor Pederson reminded us yesterday at Nina Forgo’s memorial service, Christian people model life not on one particular morality or philosophy or piety.  In relation to this text today, I would add that Christian people do not model life on panic or fear either.

Rather, Christian people’s lives hinge on promise, God’s promise.

God’s promise that insists there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already.

God’s promise that the Son of Man, for whom we wait and stay watchful this Advent, is the Christ who walked the earth as healer of those in need and died on a cross for all.[3]

God’s promise that draws us into the fullness of the future, a future with hope.[4]



[1] Barbara R. Rossing.  The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.

[2] Ibid.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct.

[3] Arland Hultgren.  Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44 on WorkingPreacher.com. [http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1912

[4] Jeremiah 29:11 – For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Luke 9:28-43a “Collapsing Time into Promise”

Luke 9:28-43a “Collapsing Time into Promise”

February 10, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

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. 37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

 

We tell time in all kinds of ways.  Some of us take that slightly sideways-downward glance at our wrists to check the watch that has been in the family for years – perhaps to see how much longer the preacher might go (while you think the preacher doesn’t notice).  Others of us whip out the latest cell-phone and touch a screen for the time to light up along with text messages clamoring for a response.  For others of us, time registers more physically – our eyes open, it’s time to get up; our stomachs growl, it’s time to eat.  Regardless of how we do it, we are creatures that tell time and respond to it.

We are also creatures who know how our time is to be spent.  Time is prioritized and reorganized, lost and found.  It is so a part of who we are and how we move through the world that there is very little challenging our assumptions about it.  And this is why I love church-time, otherwise known as liturgical time.   Churchy, liturgical time comes up against and pushes through the way we spend our days – pointing us in a different direction than the one that ordinarily grabs our focus.

The church year begins in advent with the paradox of apocalyptic prophecy and soft candlelight as we wait for the Christmas birth and revel in the 12 days post-partum.  Epiphany comes in on a star as the Christ-child is revealed to the magi and then Sunday after Sunday we bathe in Epiphany’s light, light and more light until we arrive here, this day, this Transfiguration-of-our-Lord day.  This day when the light becomes so bright that time bends around it, collapsing in on itself and bringing Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together on the mountaintop in a wild, Judeo-Christian Hall of Fame line-up.

This time-bending light show bends Peter’s brain.  He tries to think of the appropriate response, comes up with one, puts it out there and gets shut down.  His faithful exuberance doesn’t get him very far.  In fact he is silenced for the rest of the story.  Silenced like the chastised, mid-wave, Mile High super-fans of Peyton Manning.  Because what else can be meant by God’s emphatic command to, “Listen to Him,” other than a resounding, “Be Quiet!”  Although most likely the message here is stronger, something more a bit more emphatic than a blue and orange arm-flapping gesture!

This time-bending light show bends Peter’s brain – and perhaps in a similar way bends our minds as we are confronted by this text.  What was he, and what are we, to make of this shiny Jesus and his shiny friends?  The light show and the big three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus seem to say something about the Law and the Prophets and Jesus being the fulfillment of both of them.  They connect Jesus, and therefore us, through God’s work in the world before this moment and into the moment of now.  But if we simply stay in the time-bending moment on the mountaintop, we risk being disconnected from the point.

My Uncle Larry came out from Massachusetts for my ordination.  We talked a lot about a lot things, including my new call here at Augustana.  We had time for one more chat over a cup of coffee before he left Tuesday morning.  My uncle is wonderful at delivering meaningful messages.  And as he was encouraging me about my work here he remembered hearing President Lyndon Johnson once say, “You aren’t learning anything when you’re talking.”  Oh, sure, we could have fun challenging the statement, but in general there is some truth here.  If I want to increase the odds of learning about who you are and what you are about then some silence on my part would be a good place to start.

Peter could have used this lesson from my Uncle Larry before filling the air with this reaction and being silenced by God.  But he gets a lesson nonetheless.  This one is from Jesus.  God’s command to silence allows Peter to look and listen in a new way without being burdened by the content of his response to the time-bending on the mountaintop that bends his mind along with it.  After all, he is not left behind on the mountaintop in all of its dazzle and terror.

“On the next day,” Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain.  They are met by a crowd and confronted by a desperate father who asks Jesus to heal his demon-possessed son.  And Jesus does.  Jesus looks evil in the eye and overwhelms it.  And I imagine his disciples standing in a circle around this scene saying, “Huh.”  Or maybe even a few of them, including Peter, James, and John, saying, “Ohhhhh…”

What the disciples don’t get to see at this point in the story is how Jesus does for us, for all of us, what he did for the boy with the demon.  This coming week, we’ll get together again on Ash Wednesday which drops us into six weeks of Lent reorienting us much the same way that the disciples were reoriented coming off of that mountain.  More churchy, time-keeping that comes up against and pushes through the way we spend our days – pointing us in a different direction than the one that ordinarily grabs our focus.

This past Wednesday, Pastor John and Malise de Bree, our Senior Ministry Evangelist, guided us through the funeral and interment of Bob Safe, a long-time friend and member of Augustana – a poignant moment of remembering his life and commending him to God, a time-bending moment where time stands still as we witness his ashes being placed into the ground right in front of us, just outside of this sanctuary, on the breath of our prayers and under the weight of God’s promise.

We stood together, forming a circle alongside his wife and children who miss him the most.  We stood there with the stunning bronze cross completing the circle on its north end and the burnished statue of Jesus in the middle of our circle looking at the cross.  And as we stood in vigil, time collapsed in on itself.

Time collapses because this is where the shiny Jesus and the cross meet in the fullness of the story – the dazzle of Jesus on the mountaintop shines it light toward the darkness of another hilltop where the truth of death is simultaneously revealed and overcome.

To stay in the dazzle of the mountaintop until the resurrection glory of Easter is tempting but doing so robs us of the fullness of Christ’s work in us and for us; Christ’s work in Bob Safe and for Bob Safe; and Christ’s work in you and for you.

So, today we dance in the dazzle as it illuminates the cross.

Today Christ’s shining light illuminates his promise in you and for you.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

John 10:11-18 “A Good God is a Dead One?!”

April 29, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

House for All Sinners and Saints as well as Lutheran Church of the Master

John 10:11-18  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

 

 

I have this memory of an image from childhood.  I’m not sure where it comes from or how old it is.  You may know the kind.  It’s a little hazy around the edges and slightly out-of-focus but a couple of things come through in crisp outline and color.  It pops into my head of its own accord when I hear Jesus talking about being the Good Shepherd.  In this image, Jesus is laughing in a group of children who are also laughing and he is holding a little lamb.  And, after my initial freak-out about overly-sentimentalized religion that would domesticate God, this image rings true for me as I think about the story a friend of mine tells about his Hebrew Bible professor tucking in her children at night.[1]  When she tucks them in she asks them, “Who are you?”  And they reply, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” – a sweet image of mothering and bedtime as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep.  And it rings true for me when I sit with families during funeral planning and they choose Psalm 23 time and time again.  I can hear the psalmist crying out through the families’ tears and from their broken hearts, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

 

And, for some of us, there are times when it is enough and sometimes quite necessary to allow those texts to wrap around us in the sweet, simple comfort of being cherished and celebrated as Jesus cradles us in light.  But what else might these texts have to say to us?

 

Wondering about Jesus’ claim of being a Good Shepherd is a good place to begin.  Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse into one of early Judaism’s understandings of God as shepherd.  And the words of Jesus echo deeply from within this tradition as he says, “I AM the good shepherd.”  The ante is upped as Jesus also says the words, “I AM”.  The “I AM” at the beginning of his words is the same “I AM” used in the divine claim by God, by Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus statement is infused with so much divinity it simply spills out all over. In fact, it is THE claim that sets the cross in motion.  The bottom line for us today?  God is made known in Christ.[2]  But how so according to John?

 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.”   Jesus is the good shepherd who died.  There’s a leadership model that would climb the bestseller list today.  A good leader is a dead one?  Why is this?  How is this a good thing?  How is the good shepherd the one who would lay his life down?  Why does the church call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” anyway?  I know, that last question seems a bit out of order in this exuberant season of Easter resurrection but I will take the liberty of asking it anyway.  How is any of this good?  It is good because God in Jesus, dead on the cross, reveals the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God will go to wrap us into God.  Belonging to a crucified God doesn’t mean that God is dead but that death is now captured up in the living God.

 

Jesus tells the story of the good shepherd not in an idyllic, cozy, safe location as my determined memory of the smiling image of Jesus from childhood would suggest.  In this story, there is howling that warns of threat and danger and hired hands who run away in fear, leaving the sheep to the wolf, leaving the sheep to death.  Ultimately the wolf means death in this story.  This infuses quite a different urgency into the mother tucking in her child at night and asking, “Who are you?”  And the child saying, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”  The sweet image of mothering at bedtime, as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep, reverbs within a fiercer promise of love and protection.  And the wolf’s howl intensifies the prayers of a family and a community as they pray the words of Psalm 23 together during a funeral – “yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, (through the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil.”

 

One of the things that I am privileged to do with my time over the last year while awaiting a call to a congregation is funerals – lots of them.  All excepting one have been the kind where I receive the call from the funeral director that a family is asking for a Christian minister to be the officiant for their loved one’s funeral within the following three to five days.  Either they or the person they have lost to death are often long unaffiliated with or never been part of any faith community and the element of having a Christian minister seems important.

 

One could argue lots of things – that there request for a minister is simply an example of a family hedging their bets or covering their bases or whatever might work as a metaphor for thinking their motivations shallow.  Or it could be that it is something that is a supposed-to-be-done.  In some of the stories these lines of thinking might be true.

 

But as I speak with these families, often torn open by their person’s death and their own grief, there is something more going on.  That something more has to do with the ways in which meaning in their lives had been suddenly shattered into a million pieces.  What had once made sense from the sum of their experiences and gave life meaning, no longer does.  Something more is needed.  This “something more” that is needed is a word that comes from outside of their own experience.  The story of the good shepherd offers meaning not crafted from within ourselves.  Rather it comes from beyond our experience – gifted to us from outside of ourselves through the cross of the one who laid his life down.

 

As the conversation about the funeral continues with the family, two things quickly become important as the life story about person who died takes shape – having the body or the ashes at the funeral and the commendation at the end of it.  Having the body there speaks a truth about the death that has happened, just as Jesus and the commendation speaks a promise of new life directly into the heart of that truth.  The commendation is a prayer that acknowledges God’s welcome of the person who died.  The prayer of commendation sounds like this…

“Into your hands, O merciful God, we commend your child. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.”

 

When I pray this prayer on behalf of the one who has died, I take quite seriously in our text today, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

 

In the Gospel of John we hear over and over and over again how Jesus came for sake of the world.  In day-to-day living, many, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more.

 

So hear this gift, the promise of the good shepherd for you this day of Easter resurrection…

By the power of the Holy Spirit of the risen one who first laid his life down,  Jesus draws you through the cross of Christ into faith, into meaning, into new life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life and took it up again for you.

Death is now caught up into God, for you.

New life is here and now, in you and for you, by the power of the risen Christ!

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Justin Nickel, personal conversation, April, 24, 2012.

[2] Craig Koester. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 297.