Tag Archives: servant

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., 62.

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

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

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

 

 

Back to the Now – Mark 10:35-35

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

[sermon begins]

At some point during these last couple of years, some of you may have received an early morning e-mail from me and now know I’m an early riser.  For some unfathomable reason, my brain seems to like those pre-dawn hours best. Recently, on a second cup of coffee and well into my thoughts for the day, my husband Rob came walking into the kitchen searching for his first cup of coffee.  I was watching the sunrise as he casually asked, “What’s on your mind, honey?”  I answered, “I’m pondering the merits of hierarchical leadership versus the ‘liberal’ communal ideal.”  Ever the funny man, he turned on his heel to exit and said dryly, “I’m out.”  Hilarity, laughter until tears, ensued.  Fun, and funny, times.

The point of this story about coffee time in the kitchen is that there is a lot on my mind about leadership and systems – countries, families, and congregations.  Augustana especially.  No surprise there.  Pastor Pederson retired almost a year and a half ago.  Pastor Hytjan is our second interim pastor. We’re a large church in a call process for a Senior Pastor.

Reading the Bible verses today fits right into my current mode of thinking which is tricky territory for a preacher.  You’ll have to help double check my thinking on the way through. Jesus is with the twelve apostles.  They are a group of people, they have a leader.  They are a system.  And they are in an uncertain time.

In the verses just before the ones read today.  Jesus had pulled the twelve aside and told them for the second time that they were headed to Jerusalem where the Son of Man, Jesus, would be handed over to be condemned to death, killed, and would rise again on the third day.  The apostles are understandably concerned about what this means moving forward.  The future sounds terrible, making the current moment uncertain.

I’m curious about James and John.  They have some things right.  Their instinct is to move toward Jesus.  He’s a good place to start.  We learn this in Sunday School.  We sing it in our songs.  When it doubt, head towards Jesus.  If you pick up a pew Bible, and turn to the 10th chapter in Mark, you’ll find out that James and John come forward to Jesus immediately following his second speech about his death.  The two of them move lightning fast.  It’s like they fly right by the other ten apostles who seem to be frozen in place.  It makes me curious.  Were there conversations between James and John before that point?  Maybe after the first time Jesus talked about his death.  Had they already strategized between themselves to leave the ten out?  Or was it more of a flight or fight response?  Was it reactive rather than thoughtful?

It’s entirely possible that their adrenal glands were kicking into fight or flight and that they didn’t think.  Oh, James and John sounded thoughtful alright.  There were words involved after all.  Interesting aside, just because words are involved, doesn’t mean gray-matter thinking is involved. James and John said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

James and John want to be at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory.  This request of theirs compresses Jesus into a two-sided, two-dimensional paper cut-out figure.  More importantly, James and John are also looking to the future to feel secure.  Looking to some future glory, that they do not understand, for security in the moment. But Jesus was onto them.  He replied, “You do not know what you are asking.”  Silly apostles.

In Jesus’ words that follow, the other apostles unfreeze.  They become angry. Fight-or-flight hangover perhaps.  Cortisol hormone still flowing from the fear of Jesus speech about Jerusalem and death.  Nobody knows what to do with the ‘rising again’ comment.  But now the other ten apostles are unfrozen, angry, and they circle up with James and John around Jesus.  Jesus is their leader too after all.

And thank God for Jesus.  Because the apostles are all looking to an indefinable future to feel secure in the now.  Again, thank God for Jesus.  Because Jesus responds to James, John, and the other apostles three-dimensionally.  In effect, Jesus answers James and John’s need for a back to the future safety net by reorienting the apostles back towards each other in the now.  Jesus says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

I read an article recently about couples who tend to stay partnered well over time.[1]  There was some research done by The Gottman Institute along with the University of Washington on hundreds of couples to figure out why some couples do well and why some don’t.  They identified behaviors that could predict marital outcomes from staying married happily to staying married unhappily to being divorced.  I’ll save you some time.  And tell you that after years of observation that netted reams of data, these researchers identified kindness as the number one indicator for staying happily married.

There’s one behavior worth mentioning in light of the Bible reading today.  It has to do with “turning toward” and “turning away.”  The research suggests that, in part, good outcomes in a relationship are consistently about turning toward the other person when we’re under stress ourselves.  The all too easy route is to turn away when we are under stress.  To turn away to our phone, to our gardening, to our newspaper, to Facebook, to whatever it is, and to ignore the other person when we’re under stress.  This is true in marriage, in our place of work, in our school, in our churches. It’s true anywhere people are in groups and try to figure things out together.

When James and John are in an uncertain situation.  Their first instinct is to turn away from the other apostles.  We can call it fight or flight.  We can even cast a good intention to it and suggest that they were focused on Jesus.  But the bottom line is that they turned away from their people.  Under pressure, they were not in connection, they were not in a posture of kindness to the other apostles.

The Bible verses in Mark show James and John doing an end-run around the other apostles on their way to Jesus as they seek security in an unknown future.  They are right that Jesus is the person to turn to in an uncertain time.  But it’s the end-run around their people that was problematic.  Jesus reminds James and John and the other ten apostles to look around.  Reorienting them, turning them towards each other and serving like Jesus who came to serve.

To be clear, leadership is good.  A good leader makes a difference in every good system.  As our next Senior Pastor will most certainly be identified, called and make a difference in the future of our congregation for the sake of the gospel.  In the meantime, good people of Augustana, we continue as co-workers in the gospel, in the here and now.  As Jesus reorients James, John, and the ten into the task at hand, Jesus reorients us, too – to continue turning towards each other and to continue serving as Jesus who came to serve.

Jesus does not just hand out a to-do list.  Jesus just handed out a done-for-you list.  This reorientation toward each other is done for us by Jesus.  A done-for-you list, done by Jesus, at Jesus’ own expense, on a cross.  This is a freedom toward each other for our own sake and for the sake of the world.

Christian freedom means that what Jesus has done for you on the cross, Jesus has done for you today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and for all the days ever.  You are made free in Jesus.  James and John were looking to secure their future in an uncertain time.  The promise of God in Jesus is that your future is secure.  You live free today in the love of God, forgiven by the very one who created you, and sent back to the now.  Thank God for Jesus.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Masters of Love.  Emily Esfahani Smith.  The Atlantic.  June 12, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Luke 1:26–38 and Romans 16:25–27 – Questions, Courage, and Christ-Bearing

Caitlin Trussell on December 21, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church

 

[Two Bible readings before the sermon]

Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Romans 16:25-27  Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

 

[sermon begins]

 

There’s a pretty good chance that something is happening in your life right now that has a lock on your mind.  Something that nags at the gray matter.  Something that is looking for a solution.  And life keeps moving along with its time-tables and decisions and final exams and projects.  Or at the very least there is something from which you need a break.  A place to rest.   To unhook from the daily dose of fear, inadequacy, and even shame.  A pause in the action to find a little room to breathe.

Breathing allows a little space and time for being.  For a moment to be flesh and blood and little else.  Breathing allows for calm.  The calm may be in the eye of the storm but for this moment, in this sanctuary, we are in the calm.

And here is Mary.  Mary’s day-to-day is likely one of survival.  She is, after all, a lowly one.  Daily decisions and dangers – true threats to her creaturely, flesh and blood existence.  And dropping in for a visit is Gabriel, the angel.  Mary is “perplexed.”  Great word.

Gabriel’s words, and Mary’s perplexed pondering, birth the question, “How can this be…?”[1]   This is an assertive question.  A bold question.  She puts her question to Gabriel but he’s simply the messenger.  Her question is pointed squarely at God.  “How can this be…?”

Such a flesh and blood question from Mary.  Mary who is perplexed, and ponders, and asks for answers from her place and time.  In her world that is plagued by poverty and political unrest.  Mary who is trying to understand what she is being told.  And also trying to understand how she fits into it.

It’s a pretty quick leap from the question of “how” to the question of “why.”   From, “How can this be?”  To, “Why is this happening?”  In one form or another we ask this question a lot.  We ask this question thinking that the gray matter is going to finally kick in and we’ll finally figure it out.  All that nagging worry will finally pay off in reasons for the thing happening in the first place.  We hop on the merry-go-round of our flawed humanity thinking that we’ll get that gold ring and make everything all right.

Things are flying by so quickly that everything’s a blur.  How might God go about getting our attention while things are moving so quickly?  What are all the ways in which that may have been possible?  God needs to speak in human terms.  But God, at some point, also needs to communicate in a way that bypasses our human defenses. So, through Mary the Christ-bearer, God shows up.  After all, who can resist a baby?  A baby whose life and death ultimately changes everything.  It’s delightfully subversive on God’s part.  Because, quite frankly, we’re just not that good at intervening on our own behalf.

In a startling move, Mary becomes the Christ-bearer.  The one who birthed God into skin and solidarity among us.

Including today’s Bible reading from Luke, the gospels confess, time and again, that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The lowly birth we look forward to celebrating, in just a few days’ time, bears into being this incarnation of God, this flesh and fragile Jesus.

Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary’s answer is so certain that it resonates with a fierce determination to do God’s will, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[2]  The One who Mary bears into the world, is the One who is focused on the goal of bringing us back into God.  This self-sacrificing love of God, given in the incarnation but given most completely on the cross, draws us back. [3]  Through the cross, you and I become Christ-bearers too.  Different from Mary, we are Christ-bearers of the crucified and risen One.

We await the party of the Christmas birth because we celebrate the One who shows up.  The One who shows up knowing full well we are afraid, confused, and asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.  As Christ-bearers, we are in a sweet-spot of sorts.  We are in the sweet-spot between “How can this be?” and “Here am I, a servant of the Lord”; in the sweet-spot between asking God questions and fiercely set on God’s will.

Echoing between our questions and God’s will are Gabriel’s words, “Do Not Be Afraid.”[4]  Our fearful confusion is offered a place of calm.  Fragile and flawed, we are given a bit of space to breathe…to be.  “Do Not Be Afraid.”  We can move from the ‘how’ and ‘why’ to the ‘what now’ with a bit more courage knowing that God is with us.  God is with us confronting our sin, holding us accountable to each other, and giving us to each other to be Christ-bearers for each other and the world.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of forgiveness.  As Christ-bearers, we are set free to meet each other’s fear and confusion with a word of hope.

Paul’s reassurance to the Romans is also for us.  [There is a] “God who is able to strengthen you…and the proclamation of Jesus Christ…the revelation of the mystery…to the obedience of faith…through Jesus Christ.”  The revelation of mystery has us asking, “How can this be?”  The “obedience of faith” has us saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  And “…through Jesus Christ” we are not alone, not afraid.  The Hope born of Mary in the fragility of flesh and blood is the One born for you and for the sake of the world.  Thanks be to God.



[1] Check out the ponderings of my friend and colleague Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on the perplexing topic of the virgin birth: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/12/the-virgin-birth-fact-fiction-or-truth/

[2] Luke 1:38

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

[4] Luke 1:30