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The Sweet Relief of Ashes – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 6:1 As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! 3 We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7 truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

[sermon begins]

 

Piety can be heard as a judgmental word. People often use piety to mean something that is put on as a religious exaggeration, hypocritical rather than authentic.  The reading from Matthew begins, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  Another way to translate the word used in Matthew for piety is righteousness.[1]  Jesus says, “Beware practicing your righteousness before others in order to be seen by them.”  Jesus is critiquing the motivation for public esteem, not the acts of righteousness themselves. This is still the Jesus who’s preaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to do righteous “acts of mercy, make peace, to be transforming salt and light, to seek reconciliation, for men to treat women justly without lust, to honor marriage commitments, to practice integrity, to resist evil creatively and non-violently, and to love enemies.” [2]  Given Jesus’ words against hypocritical piety, it can give us pause as we worship together on Ash Wednesday.  But, lest you think that we are here simply practicing personal piety, think again.[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to a church that has become bogged down in leadership issues, embarrassed by the socially low, and repelled by Paul’s culturally awkward focus on Jesus’ crucifixion.[4]  He begs them to be reconciled to God on behalf of Christ.  He begs them as a group, emphasizing their shared experience of enduring “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger.”[5]  This part of Paul’s letter highlights how the crucified Christ shapes the life of God’s people “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”[6]  Similarly, as baptized people, our lives become ever-more Christ-shaped through the crucified one.

Paul uses the same word for righteousness used by Matthew.  But instead of the caution against parading around in our own righteousness, Paul reminds the church that they are “becoming the righteousness of God.”[7]  It’s important to note that this is not happening in what we would consider signs of success.[8]  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Paul tells them:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”[9]

Paul’s speech is pure theology of the cross.  Meaning, that it is exactly in the mess of things where Christ meets us.  One might even say on Ash Wednesday that it is in the dustiest, death-loving corners of ourselves where Jesus says, “Yeah, I’ll meet you in that corner…that’s where God’s righteousness will begin.”  We begin Lent together on Ash Wednesday because our sight is limited when we’re by ourselves.  We struggle to see God’s righteousness through our failures.  When we go after this by ourselves, we tend to let shame immobilize us.  When we go after this together, we have a better chance at discerning God’s presence, God’s righteousness, in the midst of the mess.

One of things we’re doing together to see God’s righteousness is the daily lent devotions from the book called Free Indeed.[10]  Sold out in hard copy, there are a few left at the sanctuary entrances for you to pick up after worship and the e-book is still available online.  In today’s devotion for Ash Wednesday, the question is asked, “What are you most afraid of losing?”  Like I told the parents in Sunday school a few weeks ago, for me it’s my kids. For many things, I can look to God and wonder how God is going to work through whatever mess is happening.  When it comes to my kids, not so much.  That thing that we’re most afraid of losing?  That’s the thing we’ve put in God’s place.  That is our idol. Thankfully, God’s righteousness is something God does. Not us. The cross of ashes are placed on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This reminder is sweet relief.  God is God.  We are not.  The world may see failure. We may see shame.  But today we are reminded what God sees. God sees the world that God so loves.  God sees and loves us.  God sees and loves you.

The ministry of reconciliation, of bringing us back to God, begins with God’s self-sacrifice on the cross.  How do we recognize our reconciliation to God and to each other?  According to Paul, the evidence is in the brokenness that we endure.  And, in that brokenness, the hope that the gospel brings new life through the cross.[11] Our repentance today turns us to that cross.  We hold God to God’s promise of new life even though our tendency is to choose death over life. More specifically, through the cross of Christ, God chooses life for us when we’re not inclined to choose it for ourselves.  Thanks be to God and amen.

[1] Warren Carter, Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School. Commentary: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3173

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Ficke, Preacher’s Text Study on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 for Ash Wednesday on March 1, 2011.

[4] Brian Peterson, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Commentary: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 for March 1, 2017 on WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3180

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5

[6] Brian Peterson, ibid., and 2 Corinthians 5:6-7a.

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[8] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary.  Sermon Brainwave podcast for Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=594

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10

[10] Javier Alanis. Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017. (Augsburg: Minneapolis, 2016), Day 1.  https://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/product/22245/Free-Indeed-Devotions-for-Lent-2017-Pocket-Edition

[11] Skinner, ibid.

 

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.

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

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

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

 

[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

John 1:6-8, 19-28; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 – Dressing Points to Skin and Solidarity

Caitlin Trussell for Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2014

[sermon begins after these three Bible readings]

John 1:6-8, 19-28 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
8 For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. 9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil. 23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

 

[sermon begins]

Like many of you, my family has a few traditions when dressing up our home to get ready for Christmas.  The first part of our tradition is to panic a bit about when we’re going to get started. This year it’s especially delayed because I went to California for a few days to go see Mom and Larry right after Thanksgiving.  So, for now, Advent candles sit in a wreath on the dining room table and one of my favorite Nativity sets in the living room.  Eventually, there will be a tree with white lights and a few other treasured family mementos.  Things like the kitschy plastic, “stained-glass” Santa with the green beard. And things like the silver tinsel star taped together on the frame of a bent-up wire clothes hanger.  All these things in our home point to the birthday of the one was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Here at church, we have traditions of dressing up the sanctuary to get ready for Christmas, too.  Trees and stars and the blue cloth to convey the sense of hope during Advent.  Today we include in the mix children dressing up to sing and point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.  And this evening we include the in the mix the Chancel Choir and Musica Sacra Chamber Orchestra whose dressed up music and singing also point us toward the one who was birthed in skin and solidarity among us.

Isaiah does his fair share of dressing too:

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”[1]  It’s important to note here that Isaiah talks about a garland, oil, and mantle specifically using those things to dress the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the prisoners.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton is elected by the people of the ELCA denomination of which this congregation is a part.[2]  She extended an invitation made to all churches by the historic American Black Churches. Their invitation is to dress in black clothing today as a sign of solidarity. Given the short notice, some of us are dressed in black and some of us aren’t. Some may be excited to respond to the invitation.  Some of us may be relieved we didn’t know about it to have to make the decision whether or not to dress in black.

Regardless, the language of solidarity used in the invitation from the American Black Churches is an important one.  Solidarity is not sameness.  Solidarity is reaching out to connect through difference.  Solidarity is relationship across difference even if it’s not entirely clear where we’re all headed together.  Make no mistake, in solidarity or not, we are in this creaturely existence together.  Perhaps we are even here in this place for such a time as this to see what might be possible in solidarity rather than separation.

Dressing in black clothing points us and other people towards the ones with whom we are in solidarity.  This is just one way to do it. There are many.  Dressing up our homes, our churches, and ourselves to get ready for Christmas points to the One who dressed in skin to walk in solidarity with us.  This is just one way to do it.  There are many.

John, the man sent from God in our reading today, is someone who understands his job of pointing.   John says, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  This is not a self-esteem crisis.  Rather it’s a declaration of John’s clarity.  Nope, not Elijah, not the Messiah, not the prophet.  His simple, “I am not,” is the negative declaration to all those “I AM” declarations by Jesus in the Gospel of John.[3]   John is telling them to stop asking him for answers.  As John is pointing them to the One who is the answer.

We dress our homes, our churches, and ourselves to do all this pointing.  In the meantime, first and foremost, we rely on God’s act of solidarity to walk on the planet in the person of Jesus.   We do not create the solidarity with God by dressing up; God creates the solidarity with us by showing up.  God dresses us.

God dresses us.  Isaiah puts it this way, “ I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for [God] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, [God] has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

These are the clothes of freedom, my friends.  Because when God dresses us there is nothing to fear.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk around the mall or sit at our sports events or in these pews or even around our kitchen tables and marvel that God loves ALL of those people too.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk into worship and be held accountable through confession that we have not loved those people as we love ourselves.  In the clothes that God gives, we can walk out of here forgiven and free people who are accountable to those people because God showed up in skin and solidarity with us and for us…for the sake of the world.

As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, may you also receive this blessing, dressed by God…

“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”[5]



[1] Isaiah 61:1-3

[2] ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  “Evangelical” is an historic term that means “good news” at its simplest.  “Lutheran” is a strand of the Christian church that was inadvertently kick-started by Martin Luther’s reform attempt of the Church in the 1500s.

[3] Karoline Lewis on Sermon Brainwave for Third Sunday in Advent 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=565

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24