Tag Archives: redemption

Violence, Guilt, and Defiant Faith [OR Pillars of the Earth, American Vaudeville, and the Apostle Paul] Matthew 21:33-46 and Philippians 3:4b-14

**sermon art: “A Cubist Prayer One World One God” painting by Anthony Falbo

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 8, 2017

[Sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Matthew 21:33-46   “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Philippians 3:4b-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

[sermon begins]

I read Pillars of the Earth on vacation last week.[1] A gripping tale of love and hate, good and evil, set in the political intrigue of 12th century England. Cathedrals are built. Land battles and famine are constant. In the midst of it all is Prior Philip, a monk. He’s a character akin to the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians, very much very much aware of his gifts while pressing “on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[2] There are so many parallels it makes me want to buy the author, Ken Follett, a cup of coffee and talk faith, life, and theology. Prior Philip constantly questions his pride, care of his people, and God. He also constantly questions other people’s motives. Wrangling with kings, bandits, and bishops over decades the battle between good and evil wages. It’s classic American vaudeville. It’s wonderful. And like every good novel, it’s hard to turn the last page.

Sometimes the Bible reads like vaudevillian melodrama. Obvious villains arriving onstage to “boos” and “hisses” from the crowd.  The villains are bad and the heroes are good.  The moral of the story is simple. Wrongs are overcome and right wins the day.  At least that’s the feeling in the parable Jesus tells about the wicked tenants.  Let’s set the stage. Jesus is hanging out in the Jerusalem temple, home turf of the Pharisees, the religious elite. He’s done nothing to endear himself to them since his triumphal entry into the city, riding on a donkey, drawing cheering crowds who spread branches on the road in front of him.[3]  He’s dropped off at the temple where he flips over tables and chairs, driving out the money changers and sellers.[4]  Jesus leaves for a sleepover in Bethany and in the morning curses a fig tree on his way back to town.[5]  Busy guy. Busy challenging the status quo. He enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple leaders.  They basically say to Jesus, “Who do you think you are?!”[6]  He doesn’t answer them directly. Instead, out come the parables.

The parable we hear today is about the wicked tenants who beat, kill, and stone the landowner’s slaves as well as kill his son, tossing them all out of the vineyard.  Jesus talks and the Pharisees squirm. The parable makes it pretty obvious that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, he doesn’t mean kill them. Here’s the key verse this week. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”[7]  It’s that verse that caught my eye when I read it on Monday.  I like the way the Pharisees “realize” that Jesus has them in the hot seat. Their realization that Jesus is talking about them raises questions for us.  How do we know what we don’t know? How do we realize new awareness and not commit violence against other people?

It could be because I watched the new Martin Luther movie last week but guilt and awareness connect for me in this Bible reading.[8]  Hanging out with a bunch of (mostly) Lutherans and watching Luther’s journey as he answers the question, “Am I a good person?”  His question turned into a faith journey called the Reformation that changed daily life, church, and politics for the Western world 500 years ago.  Watching his story makes me aware of a couple of things.  First, in chaotic times, people do good, bad, and ugly things. Not so unusual, people are always doing good, bad, and ugly things.  Second, faith is transformative. Is faith always transformative?  Doesn’t seem to be.  Is faith sometimes transformative?  I’d say ‘yes.’

The day after the Luther movie, I’d planned to stay home and write sermons. One for a funeral on Friday and one for today.  It was supposed to be a full day of writing but at the last minute I ended up leading chapel in the Sanctuary with our Early Learning Center kiddos. Getting ready to leave home included brainstorming age-appropriate chapel ideas. My own kids came to mind, when they were preschool age long ago. Sweet-faced and chatty. A song then came to mind that I sang to my kids every night at bedtime.  So, during chapel, we sang:

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Singing broke my heart open, choking back tears as these beautiful, little people of all the song’s colors sang with me. It’s hard to describe. Words that come close are, simple…pure…faithful…defiant…a song loaded with defiant faith. A faith that refuses to let natural or man-made destruction be the last word.  And because I was writing a sermon, Jesus’s parable about the tenants’ violence came to mind on my way home from chapel to write.  Jesus loves all the children of the world, including those Pharisees. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the guilt of their behavior.  Quick distinction here between guilt and shame.  Guilt is about what I do. Shame is about who I am.  Guilt admits my responsibility. Shame immobilizes me in the dark.  Guilt inspires my redemption. Shame pushes me to hurt other people. [10]

Back to the Pharisees. Jesus calls out their guilt.  Similarly, our behavior and guilt are called out by Jesus.  When I read this Bible verse, my instinct is to challenge us to think about ourselves as the Pharisees.  Good, bad, and ugly.  What is Jesus calling us out on?  Our sisters at New Beginnings Worshipping Community lead us to an answer. On Friday evening, I attended a fundraiser for their church that worships inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. During the last few months, three people had a chance to speak one-on-one with a woman living there. Each woman’s story was then told by their visitor as if we were hearing from the woman herself.  Each woman owning up to the guilt of their crime and the pain they’d inflicted on people. Each woman talking about deep shame and pain they’d initially tried to numb with cocaine or meth.  Each woman experiencing redemption by faith that defies explanation, their lives transformed.  These women lead us because they don’t point fingers at everyone else. They know they can’t lie to God and they know they don’t have to. Theirs is a defiant faith through which Jesus refuses to let their guilt be the last word.  Real redemption in real time.

Our present time is all too real. A few days ago I used the word surreal but that doesn’t describe what’s at stake in the carnage and grief in Las Vegas, in hurricane after hurricane, or in Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police violence against black people.[9]  It’s all too real that patriotism and the common good are being shaped in ongoing debates about protests, guns, race, health care, immigration, media, diplomacy, aid, education, gender, incarceration, taxes, and more.  All of this to say that a defiant faith is what fuels my hope, prayer, and actions. It’s easy to give up and hide. It’s easy to disrespect other people, a violence of its own kind, while turning up the volume on my opinions. It’s impossible to lie to God about that violence.

Martin Luther King Senior came home from a trip to Germany and renamed himself and his son after learning about Martin Luther’s 15th century commitment to non-violence as a way to turn self-interest and corruption upside-down so that all people could live. No small thing, that name change. I’m committed to non-violence right down to the way I talk with you. Do I get it right every time? Not by a long shot. Do I get angry? You bet.

If Jesus loves all the children of the world, then that means you and I are in this together whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean keeping the peace for the benefit of the status quo while people suffer. It means leaning into the chaos of our time and speaking up on behalf of our neighbor – red and yellow, black and white. Taking action while acknowledging the guilt that is ours for violence large and small against self and others so that we do not perpetuate violence like the wicked tenants in Jesus parable.  Realizing our guilt, we become instruments of peace with a defiant faith bound by Jesus’ love. We are redeemed and set free to live.

___________________________________________________

[1] Ken Follett. Pillars of the Earth. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

[2] Philippians 3:14

[3] Matthew 21:1-10

[4] Matthew 21:12-16

[5] Matthew 21:17-22

[6] Matthew 21:23-32

[7] Matthew 21:45

[8] Boettcher and Trinklein, Inc. (2017) “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed The World.”

[9] Snopes. “Did a U.S. Veteran Influence Kaepernick’s ‘Take a Knee’ Protest of Police Brutality?” Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer confirmed he convince the quarterback to “take a knee,” rather than sit, during the national anthem. http://www.snopes.com/veteran-kaepernick-take-a-knee-anthem/

[10]  I’ve heard shame and guilt compared in different ways by different people. Lately, Brene Brown is one go-to expert on the topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqGFrId-IQg

Sending Song  at end of worship:  CHRIST, BE OUR LIGHT

1. Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

Longing for truth, we turn to you.

Make us your own, your holy people,

Light for the world to see.

Chorus:

Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.

Shine through the darkness.

Christ, be our light! Shine in your Church

Gathered today.

2. Longing for peace, our world is troubled.

Longing for hope, many despair.

Your word alone has power to save us

Make us your living voice.

Chorus

3. Longing for food, many are hungry.

Longing for water, many still thirst.

Make us your bread, broken for others,

Shared until all are fed.

Chorus

4. Longing for shelter people are homeless.

Longing for warmth, many are cold.

Make us your building, sheltering others,

Walls made of living stone.

Chorus

5. Many the gifts, many the people,

Many the hearts that yearn to belong.

Let us be servants to one another,

Making your kingdom come.

Chorus

– Bernadette Farrell

 

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.

________________________________________

[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and alleluia.

 

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

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

[3] John 18:15-27

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

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

[6] Acts 13:9

[7] Exodus 20:1-17

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

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

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11 – God All Up In Our Voids

Caitlin Trussell on January 11, 2015 with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

[sermon begins after these two Bible readings]

Genesis 1:1-5  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

[sermon begins]

There are wild, unimaginable things happening in this Genesis creation story.  Formlessness and void of the earth.  Imagine that for a moment – formless…void…utter darkness.  Nothing to distinguish one part from another.  Nothing through which to capture any imagining of its future.  A wind in the form of breath, as the Spirit of God blows over the mystery and threat of the deep.  Sound in seismic proportions.  No quiet or tame God picking up a bit of clay and pottering away.  From our human-sized perspective, this is massive.  This is earth and heavens – loud, windy and wild.  This story doesn’t allow us to cozy up into a calm, domesticated God.   This is the sheer power of God beyond our imagining, beyond our understanding.

The God of creation is not to be tamed.  And yet, for many of us, our first inclination is to tone God down.  As if we can make God easier on the heart and mind if we craft just the right language about God.  Or at the very least we can distract ourselves from the problem of the power of God if we spend our time arguing about the accuracy of the story.

Several years ago, when my daughter Taryn was in preschool, I had only been back in church as an adult for a few years.  Taryn’s preschool was attached to our church and some of the school’s parents seemed to know that I was involved in the church too.  It was common to have conversations with other parents during the dropping off and picking up times.  One day after dropping Taryn off, I was sneaking a peek into the classroom to watch her.  One of the dads hung back too.  A few minutes went by and he sidled over to chat.  He confirmed that I went to the church and then, without any preamble or build-up, he asked, “If God is all about love then why do some people say they fear God?”  I fumbled and stumbled around the idea of God’s power for a minute or two but clearly was not passing muster on any kind of answer that settled this man’s mind.  And there’s the problem, right there, when it comes to God’s awesome, creating power, there is nothing that settles our mind.  No matter how many days or millennia you think it took, the creative force of it is mind-blowing – and it blows our soft and squishy imaginings right out the window with it.

Here’s the thing.  When we’re tempted to talk about God as exclusively merciful and loving and forgiving, we forget the fearsome breath of God that moves over a formless, dark void; the Spirit of God that moves over what Jurgen Moltmann calls “creation-in-the-beginning.”[1]  When we soften or negate the power of God in any way, we don’t have to ask the question, “What would happen if God does this again?”

So let’s hang onto the fearsome power of God and ask that question.  “What would happen if God uses that kind of power again?” Oh…wait…God does do it again.  Anyone hear that part of the baptism of Jesus where the heavens are torn open?  The Spirit of God that moves over formless, dark voids, is the same Spirit who tears apart the heavens and descends, untamable, into the wild, over a river, onto a person, and names him “Beloved.”[2]  This baptism of Jesus is a revelation of the redemption to come and the unmitigated power infusing that redemption.

Moltmann talks about the “creation-in-the-beginning” being in continuity with the redemption of all things.  In the whole Bible, “the words used for the divine act of creating are also used for God’s liberating and redeeming acts (e.g. Isaiah 43:19); redemption is the final new creation of all things…”[3]

Oh, how we long for the redemption of all things – all our formless, dark voids in need of the fearsome breath of God.  Voids in which we struggle and wonder about.  Voids in which we lose ourselves, not knowing which way to turn or to take the next right step.  Voids in which we lose the people we love or lose strangers in Paris who other people love.  Voids in which freedom suffers under political tyranny or disintegrating terror.

Into these voids comes the Spirit of God.  The same Spirit of God who breathes light into the darkness.[4]  Light into the darkness, now think about that one.  God spoke these words, “Let there be light” as God’s breath rushed over the mystery and threat of the deep.   What does creation of light sound like?  Is there a crack of thunder as light creates heat?  Is there a deep and resounding vibration that would quake us to the core and make us aware of every cell in our bodies?  What does even a single blaze of light through unfathomable darkness look like as it bounds through creation with power strong enough to sustain life through all the mornings and evenings of the millennia?

We know a lot about light, or at least the scientists do, but did you know that we still don’t know what it is?  Einstein spent a lot of his time researching the interplay between light and time, challenged the orthodoxy of the previous 100 years of physics and won a Nobel Prize.[5] Einstein did all this and yet we still really don’t know what it is.  We mimic it but we cannot create it. [6]  Light is more than a convenient nuance in our days.  Light is sustaining, life giving energy.  It shows us how limited we are as creatures that we still don’t understand it.

God’s breath, God’s Spirit, creates light and life out of formless, dark voids.  And God gives this same sustaining breath to you as you move through your days.  God’s power and imagination creates an earth out of no earth.  God’s power and imagination makes a way out of no way.

This same, fearsome God breathes that power into redemption for you.  This same, fearsome God breathes that power into love for you.  The magnitude of God’s power is not simply a show of sound and light to wow us all and leave us shaking in shoes.  The magnitude of God’s power is the same sheer power of God that breathes grace, forgiveness and love into you.  And your God-infused life and breath bear witness to God, as the power of God’s Spirit moves through Christ in you for the sake of the world.  There is hope in the power of God’s redemption.  What might be possible if we go out and live it?



[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3459

[3] Moltmann, 9.

[4] Kathryn Shifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-5 for WorkingPreacher.org https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Richard Harris.  “Albert Einstein’s Year of Miracles: Light Theory” for NPR on March 17, 2005.  http://www.npr.org/2005/03/17/4538324/albert-einsteins-year-of-miracles-light-theory

[6] Troy Wanek, Renewable Energy Faculty, Red Rocks Community College, personal conversation, November 8, 2010.