Tag Archives: Sin

The Sin of Certainty [OR Catholics and Lutherans’ Risk of Faith] John 9:1-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 26, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 9:1-41   As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.

[sermon begins]

We were assigned a classroom to robe before worship.  I was early so became part of a defacto welcome wagon for the next first arrivals. A few of my colleagues trickled in which made it feel a bit like old home week. Catching up with people who I hadn’t seen for a while.  The first Catholic priest showed up, then a Lutheran colleague or two, then a Catholic deacon, and so on.  We lined the walls of the room forming a circle of sorts. Introductions were repeated, echoing off the walls and each other.  The sound level rose as the room filled to hold about 35 of us who would walk together into the sanctuary for the Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer service held last Sunday over at Bethany Lutheran Church.  About a third of us were women.

In the last few minutes before the procession, a gentleman slipped into a gap between me and the next person.  After working as a lawyer in Paris, Father Luc was ordained through a more recent Catholic religious order call the Beatitudes – 50 years old in comparison to, say, the Benedictines whose order is 1,500 years old.  The Community of the Beatitudes understands their community as “a gift of God…for the unity of the Church.”[1]  Father Luc’s second career call into ordination through this unifying religious order resonates with my own second career call into ordination and Catholic roots.  My grandparents faithfully attended daily mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunk, Maine – Grammops’ mantilla and rosary faithfully at the ready.  My mother thought for a time she’d be a nun but my siblings and I are living proof that reveal the rest of that story. My First Communion was received in a Catholic parish in Virginia before my mother remarried my protestant step-father.  Because of all of these experiences, lining up for procession into the service with Catholic priests, vicars, and deacons defies prior experience.  It was surreal.

Surreal because over the last 500 years the Reformation divide often became an opportunity for derision, excommunication, and violence in both directions all over the world. Surreal because this is the first centennial commemoration of the Reformation that includes Catholics and Lutherans. Surreal because these moments of common ground are rare in our world today. Rare because unity across difference is hard work. Rare because the work develops relationships that shake up our certainty. And certainty puts us safely on the side of right.

I went back-and-forth about whether it’s helpful to hear all 41 verses of gospel reading for today.  Would people hear it?  Was there a way to condense it for easier hearing?  I have no idea.  Really.  So now this whole gospel story is in front of us – the man born blind, disciples’ off-base questions, Jesus’ muddy spit, eyes that can see, townspeople’s confusion, Pharisee accusations, the man’s identity, parents as witnesses, and Jesus’ authority.  Make no mistake, this is a trial.  Each person has a role to play in the trial after Jesus makes blind eyes see.

Jesus doesn’t ask the man born blind if he wants to see.  He just goes for it.  There may be a side-road to take about whether unrequested healing is okay but we’re not going there today.  Spit and dirt combine to make mud and Jesus smears it on the man’s eyes then sends him off to the pool for a rinse.  Jesus isn’t physically there when the healing happens.  And the trial begins.  Who saw what and when did they see it?  Who knows the man and can confirm his identity?  His parents worry about whether the man will be put out of the community because of Jesus’ healing.  They hedge their answer about who they think Jesus is because of this fear but the man is put out of the community by the religious leaders anyway.

The last few verses of the reading are the ones that have me most curious about the story:

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,’ your sin remains.”[2]

Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer uses this word “remains.”  Remains is “meno” in the Greek and is commonly translated as “abide” or “stay.” This is the only time you have meno used as a negative.[3] Rather than abiding in Jesus, the religious ones are abiding in sin.  Every so often Jesus will use this kind of flip to invert standard ways of thinking.  Let’s allow the end of this story to push on us, to challenge our ways of religious thinking.[4]  In Jesus’ challenge, it’s possible to hear him name the sin of certainty.  You heard that correctly, the sin of certainty.  The sin of certainty is being so certain that you are right at the expense of what God may be doing otherwise.  It’s one of the seductions of religion or of any thought that becomes a wedge rather than a bridge.  Once the mystery is organized, it is contained.  Once the mystery is contained, there is something about which to be certain.  And certainty menos with us, abides with us, cozies up to us and makes us feel safe.  Faith is different than certainty.  Faith is a trust that shakes things up.  Faith is risk – risking what seems so certain and the perks that go with it.[5]

Professor Peter Enns works with the difference between certainty and faith in his book, The Sin of Certainty.[6]   He argues that certainty is fragile, shaken by challenges of difficult Bible passages, modernity, pain and suffering, or confrontation with other religious.  Certainty is also shaken by ways that we become tyrannical about it.  Wielding certainty like a club.  On a practical level, this can look like the argument about which Christian tradition gets the gospel of Jesus right.  Faith, on the other hand, opens us up to hearing God’s voice differently.

My favorite part of last week’s Catholic/Lutheran Common Prayer was the Five Imperatives found in the document “From Conflict to Communion.”[7]  Five families of mixed Catholic and Lutheran identities lit five candles while each read an imperative.  It’s the first one that caught me.  A young boy read it out loud so clearly his voice rang like a bell through the sanctuary:

“Our first commitment: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced (#239).”[8]

After reading this Imperative, his two younger sisters lit the first candle of five.

In the document, the Five Imperatives follow the Lutheran and the Catholic confessions of sins against unity.[9]  Having confessed the sin of certainty that inflicts pain in both directions, the commitment is made to shake things up, to take a risk by faith toward unity.  These risks of faith move us from blindness to seeing, from coziness with our sin to abiding with each other.  These risks of faith proclaim the gospel as central.  What do we hear time and again by way of the gospel?  Jesus, by his death and resurrection, abides in us and we in him.  Jesus’ abides in us through water, wine, and word. This gospel promise is blessed assurance indeed.

Congregational singing of the hymn “Blessed Assurance” follows the sermon:

  1. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    • Refrain:
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long;
      This is my story, this is my song,
      Praising my Savior all the day long.
  2. Perfect submission, perfect delight,
    Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
    Angels, descending, bring from above
    Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.
  3. Perfect submission, all is at rest,
    I in my Savior am happy and blest,
    Watching and waiting, looking above,
    Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

__________________________________________

[1] Community of the Beatitudes website: http://beatitudes.us/the-unity-of-the-church

[2] John 9:39-41

[3] Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching and Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[4] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Seminary. Sermon Brainwave (podcast) #531 on John 9:1-41 for the 4th Sunday in Lent.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=864

[5] Peter Enns, Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University.  The Sin of Certainty. (Harper Collins Publisher: New York, 2016), 150.

[6] Peter Enns, Ibid.

[7] From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation 2017; and Report of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagstanstalte, 2013).

[8] Ibid, 87.

[9] Ibid, 84-86.

 

Truth. Freedom. You Know, Just Small Topics. John 8:31-36

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 30, 2016 – Reformation Sunday

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 8:31-36 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I live with a 19 year old young man and a 17 year old young woman. It’s important for me to describe them this way from time to time as a reminder that they are their own people with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  That mash-up can be hard to experience and to witness. Oh sure, sometimes it’s comedy with lots of laughs from all of us.  But sometimes it’s tragedy and there really aren’t words or kisses to make it better.  Such is life for parents and for young people – just when you think you know something, many times either the thing changes or you do.

In that way, there are some similarities to spending time recently with Augustana’s young people in their last couple of months of Confirmation study.  Pastor Ann and I have the privilege of hanging out with them as a group in Sunday classes and tag-teaming visits with each one.  Each is their own person with their own God-given gifts and their own sins in which Jesus meets them.  There is comedy and there is tragedy – laughter and tears and sometimes both at once.  I sometimes wonder if the age of Confirmation in the early to mid-teens is the “right” time.  And then I end up wondering if it might not be the best time because their questions are enormous and honest.

Questions about self and God and the world.  Questions about fantasy and faith.  Questions about myth and truth.  At Confirmation the student takes on the promises of baptism that their parents made to them so long ago.  This is why we call it this ritual the Affirmation of Baptism. These young people will promise to continue asking questions of faith as baptized people.  If the last few weeks are any indication, they will continue asking some good, hard questions.

Jesus cuts to the chase about truth in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[1]  Truth and freedom. They’re compelling on a gut level.  Truth and freedom.  Compelling until you start trying to figure out the truth.  A little like Pontius Pilate a few chapters later.  He asks Jesus at the trial before the crucifixion, “What is truth?”  If we’re honest, a lot of us ask that question with Pilate.  We want to know the truth and understand it.

Jesus goes on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”[2]  Slavery language can make us uncomfortable when we use it to talk about ourselves.  It’s tough enough when we talk about historical or modern day slavery.  But about ourselves, we’re inclined to talk like the religious leaders in the Bible story.  We’ve never been slaves to anyone – what do you mean we’ll be made free?![3]

It’s interesting that the people questioning Jesus are more understandable than Jesus.  The religious leaders essentially asking Jesus, “What do you mean, ‘made free?”  Here, right here is where I press pause.  With this question, “What do you mean?”  At our youngest ages this question first comes out as, “Why?”  From then on, that question doesn’t stop.  We ask it over and over as children.  As people of faith, as people of church, we continue to ask it over and over. Questions seek answers.  More specifically, faith seeks understanding.[4]

In seeking understanding, our faith is formed.  Faith, given by God, is formed by experience and intellectual exercise, by comedy and tragedy, by people around us, and by more than I can think of right now.  How do we imagine that Martin Luther was able to hammer those 95 theses onto the door of a German church issuing a challenge that was a theological smack-down to the church leaders of his time?  Luther’s experience, intellect, friendships, suffering, and his determination to be in the Bible and wring good news from it all contributed to the world changing event of the Reformation.  Translating the Bible in everyday language was considered a crime against the Holy Roman Empire of Luther’s time. Theologians before and in Luther’s time were executed, even burned at the stake, for translating the Bible into the common language.[5]  Luther managed a full translation of the Bible into German while protected to do so.

The Bible is a library of 66 books written by many people over thousands of years.  When I talk to Confirmation Students about it, we talk about the imperfect people who wrote it and the disagreements they have with each other between books and sometimes in the same book.  These imperfect people writing about their experience of God, Jesus, and their stories in light of those experiences.  There is power there working through that book sitting almost casually in the pews and in our homes.  The Confirmation students and I also talk about how the book is not Jesus.  We do not worship this book that we call the Bible.

We may reverence the Bible but we do not idolize the Bible.  We do not say the Bible is God.  We experience it as God’s Word.  The Holy Spirit works through the Bible to form faith as the Holy Spirit works through our families and each other as the church to form faith.  Luther could do what he did in part because of his relationship with his family and his church.  He was formed by asking questions of faith and the church.  And then he turned the church of the Holy Roman Empire upside down with the clarity gained through his formation.  Never underestimate the power of asking, “What does this mean?”  The legacy gift here is that we do not function as an echo chamber of agreement.

To the Confirmation students today, keep asking “What does this mean?”  You spoke so much of your families as well as your Sunday school and Confirmation teachers.  You talked about the challenging questions and conversations for which your families and church school teachers held space if not always answers.  Remember their humility, faith, and time spent.  And remember your questions.  Keep asking them. There are people of all ages, times, and places asking similar questions. They are honest questions demanding good news.  Faith seeking understanding is faithful and good. It changes lives. It changes the world.

Tomorrow, October 31, marks the beginning of a year-long commemoration of the 500th Year of the Reformation.[6]  Pope Francis will worship with the Lutheran Church in Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran worship service.[7]  This is a striking moment of unity for churches who experienced literal murder and mayhem in the wake of the Reformation marked in the year 1517.  That there is unifying worship in Sweden and in many places around the world in the coming year is a sign of hope in our time filled with religious, political, race, and class divisions.

Jesus tells the religious leaders to continue in his word, assuring them that they will know the truth.  Part of this truth is that we are slaves to sin.  If I’m honest in my demand for truth, then I’m also honest about the truth of who I am and the enslavements that bedevil me.  Another part, maybe the harder part, is that we need a liberator.  Slaves do not typically free themselves.

Jesus frees us through our baptisms and God promises to:

Always be with us even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God.

Always take us back by grace, even when we turn away from God.

Always work to make our lives ever more Christ-shaped.

And to keep these promises forever.

Children of God, in baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.[8]  Jesus sets us free and we are free indeed.  Amen and thanks be to God.

________________________________________________

* Photo and quote of Albert Camus comes from an article he wrote in 1939 about freedom of the press.  Read more here: http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com/the_best_american_poetry/2012/07/camus-on-irony-when-does-the-truth-get-censored-.html

[1] John 8:31-32

[2] John 8:34

[3] John 8:33

[4] Sze Zeng, “Where Did the Phrase “Faith Seeking Understanding” Come From?”  theology + life on October 12, 2010. http://szezeng.blogspot.com/2010/10/where-did-phrase-faith-seeking.html

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner podcast conversation on John 8:31-36, October 25, 2015 for WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=805

[6] The Reformation is officially recognized as beginning on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg.

[7] Sylvia Poggioli. “The Pope Commemorates The Reformation That Split Western Christianity.” For NPR on October 28, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/28/499587801/pope-francis-reaches-out-to-honor-the-man-who-splintered-christianity

[8] Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Holy Baptism. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 231.

We Begin at the End [OR “YOU Are The Man”] Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3; Psalm 32; and 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15

 

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 12, 2016

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings; the King David story and the Psalm are at the end of sermon]

Galatians 2:15-21 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Luke 7:36-8:3 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

My mother has given each of us kids many things over the years.  There is one gift that is relevant today.  It’s a Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language.  I and my siblings each have one. Included with the gift is a metal or wooden book stand to put it on.  People walk into my living room, see the huge book on its wrought iron stand and assume it’s an old family Bible. Easy mistake when you walk into a pastor’s home.  It’s not a Bible.  But the dictionary came in at a close second to the Bible in my family.

When we’d hear a word and didn’t know what it meant, Mom would send us to the dictionary, always opened on the book stand, with a quick, “Go look it up.”  The equivalent of an old school web search except with legs and paper.  Off we’d go and come back to report our findings.  Words are a memorable part of my childhood.  Now words are the tools of my trade in the pulpit and beyond.

In the Galatians reading, we find Paul emphasizing certain words through repetition.  Paul redirects the church in Galatia using words like justification, law, works, and faith over-and-over.  Much as they were for Paul, these four words are tools of the trade for Lutheran preachers, too.  Justification. Law. Works. Faith.  Four words that make sense when, off we go, to look up and find Christ on the heavy wood of the cross.  To paraphrase Martin Luther in the introductory words of his Galatians lectures, we begin at the end.[1]

We begin at the end and the end is our justification – being made right with God through what God did in Christ.  This is passive on our parts.[2]  Simply receiving by faith what God has already done for us.

Luther argues this about Paul’s purpose in the letter to the Galatians: “Paul wants to establish the doctrine of faith, grace, the forgiveness of sins or Christian righteousness, so that we may have a perfect knowledge and know the difference between Christian righteousness and all other kinds of righteousness.”

Then Luther goes on to list various kinds of righteousness including:

Political righteousness that politicians, philosophers, and lawyers consider in regards to guilt, innocence, and justice.

Ceremonial righteousness that Christians consider in regards to preaching, worship, and sacraments.

Lastly, Luther emphasizes the righteousness of the Law, the commandments – righteous, indeed, but only after the passiveness of faith is given.

I care so much about this passive gift of justification we receive by faith.  I care about it personally for myself and for people like me who were raised in different faith traditions in which you never knew if you were good with God. A lot of how God and I were doing had to do with how well I could keep up with my own active righteousness in the Law.  I care a lot about it for people who have grown up in with the message of passive justification by grace through faith and leave the tradition without understanding the magnitude of this promise.

Here’s Luther again on this topic:

“Thus human reason cannot refrain from looking at active righteousness, that is, its own righteousness…”[3]  We’re an active people, after all.  Passive is a word used in the world that is often given a negative meaning.  But passive in terms of justification is something to revel in – floating in that baptismal promise until we get all pruny.

If there one thing I know, it’s people and their sin.  I’m difficult to surprise with the ways people hurt themselves, each other, and the planet.  If there’s one thing I know better, it’s me and my own sin.  I also know what Luther is talking about as he warns about how easily we fall into trusting our own works, our own active righteousness by which we try to justify ourselves.[4]

In the snippet of the story from Second Samuel, King David stands accused by Nathan.  David wants the woman who is married to Uriah.  He sends Uriah to battle in the front lines with the knowledge that he would die.  Then he marries Uriah’s wife.  Nathan is sent to challenge David with the truth.  Nathan tells him a story about a man who has acted unjustly.  So unjustly has the man acted that David’s “anger was greatly kindled against the man.”[5]  Nathan turns to him and says, “YOU are the man.”[6]

“YOU are the man.”  It’s crushing to stand accused and have the accusation be true.  It’s easy to try to explain it away even when our own culpability is so obvious.  Last week Pastor Ann preached about compassion.  She used the example of the mother whose child ended up in the gorilla enclosure and how quickly the critique and defense began – self-righteousness pouring in from all sides in the news and social media storm.  Pastor Ann encouraged us to remove ourselves from the bandwagon of accusing, pointing fingers.  Slow down our rush to judgment and consider ourselves – our reactions, our own moments of culpability.

This week many of us can’t look away from a rape trial that happened on the prestigious Stanford campus.  The accused is obviously guilty and his father’s justification for a lenient sentence is splattered across the media.  The hue and cry is so great that Congress plans to read the woman’s letter to the rapist into the congressional record.

The thing that gets me about this case is it’s irrefutable.  The crime was public, witnessed. The heroes caught the perpetrator and stayed with the woman while awaiting emergency personnel.  There is no he-said-she-said confusion on this one.  If Nathan were standing with the accused, he might say to him, “YOU are the man.”

The last few weeks, much has been discussed in public about rape on college campuses that includes the sexual assault scandal at Baylor University along with the separate incident at Stanford.  As recently as yesterday, a missing 18 year old woman was found dead in Larimer County – her ex-boyfriend the suspect.  The sense of entitlement that wounds and kills women is appalling.  The temptation to be Nathan and the Pharisee with accusing, pointing fingers is great.  I’ve certainly indulged in my own finger pointing along this line.

There is a challenge here from the scripture.  Jesus says to Simon the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?”  It’s a convicting question.  “Do you see this woman?”  Simon, so quick to point out the woman’s sin and shame, overlooks his own.  There are many ways we do this pointing and shaming similarly.  Actively justifying our goodness in the world.  “Active righteousness” as Luther would call it.  Stacking up the good-wins in a column.  What would happen if we put our efforts to name ourselves righteous to the side?  Put our fingers away for a moment.  Specifically, confessing the ways that we as both men and women participate in a culture and a world that preys on women.

What would happen if our starting place is passive righteousness?  As Paul says it in verse from Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  What would happen?  Would Christ in us free us to confess our culpability in this culture that preys on women?  Would we become part of a culture shift?  Would we find the relief that the psalmist describes so well?   The Psalmist writes, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin… You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”[7]

Passive righteousness is the end that serves as our beginning.  From there we begin living lives of courage.  We begin at the end – no longer content to let our own sin go unspoken.  This kind of courage is a bit thin in the culture at the moment and is an oh-so-desperately-needed gift.  This is a gift Christ offers through us for the sake of the world.  Claim the promise as you move through your week.  Say to yourself, “It is not I, but Christ who lives in me.”  This is most certainly true.

 

[1] Martin Luther. Introductory paragraph to Lectures on Galatians in Luther’s Works Volume 26, 1535.  (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), [3].

[2] Martin Luther, [4]

[3] Martin Luther, 5.

[4] Martin Luther, 9.

[5] 2 Samuel 12:5

[6] 2 Samuel 12:7

[7] Psalm 32:5, 7

 

Psalm 32 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Selah) 5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Selah) 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. (Selah) 8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you. 10 Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord. 11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,
12:1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” 7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” 15 Then Nathan went to his house. The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.

 

 

 

For: You, From: A Fleshy Word – John 1:1-14 and Hebrews 1:1-12

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Day, December 25, 2015

[sermon begins after the Bible reading, Hebrews reading is at end of post]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 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. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

Way back in Genesis, in the beginning of the Bible, the ancient writers describe a time before Earth-time. [1]  There is a dark, formless void that no one is quite sure about. Creation stories form out of that void as God speaks and God creates, “In the beginning…”  In the Bible reading this Christmas Day, the gospel writer of John takes us way back to that beginning. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Word and God, before time and in the beginning of time.

In the beginning, something happened that broke the relationship God created.   After plenty of millennia in which the world has struggled and continues to struggle through today, I’ve grown comfortable with calling whatever is broken “sin.”  Sin helps me name the struggle within myself.  You might use the language of flaw or weakness or challenge.  I’m pretty good with the language of sin.  It’s a word that digs deep and reveals much that is true in my own life.  Sin separates, hurts, and blocks me from seeing the good in me or anyone else, including God.  Sin has me justifying my actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, including God.

What does God to do restore the broken relationship with humankind that came through sin so soon after creation?  What does God do to free us from our sin that divides and destroys?  God needs to communicate with us on our own terms.  Communicating in a way that is suited to the human condition.[2] Thankfully, over and against my sin, is a Word from God.  A Word that brings life into being.  A Word that communicates and gives life.  A Word that forms, reforms and restores relationships.[3]  A Word made flesh.  A fleshy Word that the Gospel of Luke tells us is a baby in a manger announced by angels and surrounded by his young parents, shepherds, and animals.  A baby whom Mary is told will be called Son of God.[4]  A baby named Jesus.[5]

A baby named Jesus, a fleshy Word through whom all things were made and in whom is life – the life that is the light of all people, a light that darkness cannot overcome.[6]  And with these words of light and darkness we arc back through the creation story in Genesis one more time, sent sling-shot through darkness and light.  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light…and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”[7]

A baby named Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  Listening to the many layers of the Christmas story, and the Gospel of John’s prologue in particular, is like hearing many notes all at once in a musical chord.[8]  Like a complex chord, the effect moves through head and heart at the same time as we are moved through Genesis and John, through time and space, through light and dark, through Word and flesh, through God and Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Incarnation of the Word into flesh becomes God’s way of communicating with us in a manner suited to our human condition.[9]  Incarnation is the length to which God will go to get through to us.  We are sensate creatures – we see, we touch, we hear.  So God calls through the cry from a manger and the groans from a cross.  In the story of Jesus that follows his birth, God communicates in Jesus’ actions and also in his words.  Jesus enacts life-giving power. God’s radical, subversive action in terms we can grasp.

Christmas is the beginning of God coming to all people[10] – expanding the eternal covenant made long ago through an ancient people.  In that time, God spoke to the ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.[11]  Now God is speaking to us through the Word made flesh, Jesus the Son of God.

Through Jesus, the Son of God, the Holy Spirit makes us children of God.[12]  The adoption process of God’s wayward, sinful creatures begins in the beginning and arcs through the incarnation, the Word made flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees us from sin.  Set free from the business of justifying our actions and thoughts over and against anyone else, or against God.

This Christmas, for you is the gift of Jesus, Son of God, a fleshy Word who is the light of all people.  You are “children of God born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”[13]   Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________________________

In response to the sermon, the people sing a song called the Hymn of the Day.   Today we sing, “What Child is This”

Listen here: http://www.spiritandsong.com/compositions/399

1. What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Refrain
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

2. Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

3. So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king, to own him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

______________________________________

Sermon footnotes

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 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.”

[2] Craig R. Koester. Narrative Lectionary 106: Word Made Flesh. Podcast for “I Love to Tell the Story” at WorkingPreacher.org on December 15, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=450

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35  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.”

[5] Luke 1:30-31 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

[11] Hebrews 1:1-2 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13

___________________________________

Hebrews reading

Hebrews 1:1-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? 6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” 10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; 11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; 12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2015

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are a pastor so go and…

You are a wife so go and…

You are a mother so go and…

You are an American so go and..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Hallelujah!

 

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

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

[3] Revelation 1:8

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

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

 

Divorce, Grace, and Gospel – Mark 10:2-16

Divorce, Grace and Gospel – Mark 10:2-16

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 4, 2015

Mark 10:2-16  Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Grace and mercy are yours, now and forever, through Jesus the Christ…

Who wants to switch places with me and preach a sermon about marriage and divorce at this particular time in the United States?  Actually, some of you might. There are a lot of us who probably have our elevator speech well-honed and ready. The speech that we could give if we only had 30 seconds to explain our position on any particular topic.  We could give that speech and another person would know exactly where we stood.  Some of us may have listened to these Bible verses today and thought, finally, we’re going to get somewhere on the topic of marriage.  Here’s a bit of a spoiler for you.  We’re not.  What I’m going to do is start by talking about divorce. That what the Pharisees are talking about.  It’s what the disciples are talking about. And it’s what Jesus starts by talking about.

The Pharisees’ ask the question like this, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  The lawful part of the question refers to the Law of Moses. The Torah. The question goes after the faithful response to the law.  Everybody sitting there knows the answer is, “Yes.”  A man could divorce his wife.  Women were property.  Women were property in the few millennia B.C.E., through the time of Jesus, and in too many centuries after Jesus.  It was legal for a husband to divorce himself from his property, his wife.

I have a dear young friend who loves Jesus.  He would stop me right here and challenge this cultural reading of the Bible.  However, this first century cultural view gives us a stepping stone to Jesus’ answer as we struggle with it culturally now.

The simply answer to the Pharisees’ question is, “Yes.”  Thankfully, for me anyway, there is nothing simple about Jesus.  Jesus’ response is intense.  His intensity fits with other stories about Jesus when people are left vulnerable by other people.  First century women had few options.  Extreme poverty was the likeliest outcome.  When confronted by questions like these, Jesus regularly ups the intensity and response in the answer.

Bible verses like these are called “Law.”  Not just because the Law of Moses is being discussed.  Although that can be a clue.  They are called law because they convict us.  It’s as if the text has a finger pointed out of it, at us.  If we leave them unexamined, Bible stories such as these become a way for us to see ourselves as okay or not okay, without sin or with sin.  Or, even worse, to decide if someone else is okay or not okay, without sin or with sin.  The danger comes when the move gets made to who is inside and outside of God’s mercy.  Law texts often go unchallenged.  As if there is no other response but to convict.  As if they answer to no other verses in the Bible but stand along, a law unto themselves.

The Christian church over time has had the same inclination.  To designate who is inside and outside of God’s mercy based on interpretation of the law.  Jesus’ intense response is one of the classic ways he responds to law questions throughout the gospels.  It’s as if Jesus wants to challenge the person challenging him.  So you think you’re justified by your reading of the law?  Think again.  There is always a way to be convicted by law – unmarried, married, or divorced.  The overwhelming message is that the law cannot save you.  If you attempt to leave someone outside of God’s mercy, there is always one more interpretive move someone else can make after you that will leave you on the outside looking in.

Perhaps we could agree that there is such a thing as being divorced responsibly and there’s such a thing as being divorced irresponsibly.  Many of us have witnessed or experienced the spectrum.  And perhaps, we could also agree that the pain of broken relationship, including divorce, is not God’s intention for human relationship.

The Bible verses on divorce are followed by the disciples speaking sternly to the people who are trying to get their children to Jesus so that he could touch them.  This is pure gospel in these verses. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  This means, in part, that there is no other way to receive the kingdom than as gift.  Receiving the kingdom of God is about our need and dependence NOT our perfection in keeping the law.  Some people call this grace.  Other people call this gospel.  When we want to corrupt the law into the final word, the Spirit works through gospel, convicting by the law and breathing out a word of mercy, a word of grace.

This word of grace includes all of us – unmarried, married, or divorced.  As it says in First John (1:8), “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

The verses today from the Letter to the Hebrews is quite ecstatic about the gospel of Jesus.  I’m right there joining in the ecstatic praise along with the mysterious poetry.  The wonder of it all.  I am not blind.  At least in part, I can see the way my sin hurts me and other people, especially people close to me.  I see my need for a savior and am grateful to God who it upon God’s self to be fleshy, and in the world, in the person of Jesus.

Everything we do as a congregation is in service to this gospel – from the sacraments of baptism and communion, to worship and praise, to welcoming each other to worship, to helping our neighbors locally and globally, to educating pre-school children, to turning on the lights, to updating the back-flow prevention in the main plumbing, to being present at hospital bedsides and in quiet living rooms, to printing bulletins, to paying bills, to hanging out with youth, to Bible studies, to making sure the roof is water-tight.  Granted, some of these things are by far sexier projects than others.  But ultimately, these activities and their associated costs are in service to the gospel or we should just not be doing them.

One of the tasks I get to do as part of my work here is to meet with the Stewardship Committee. The members of the Stewardship Committee work with the congregation on the Christian practice of giving money, time, and skills.  Helping us think about our own need to give as a faithful response to the gospel.  You should all be so lucky to sit with this group regularly.  We laugh a ton. We take money seriously.  We take the gospel even more seriously. We laugh some more. We love the congregation of Augustana.  All you people.  And we each fit into it in different ways and are sent out from it to live faithful lives in the world.

Kim, Nick, Dwight, Andy, and Braxton are interested in helping us keep stewardship simple in the midst of full lives.  This is why are four Sundays to turn in your Money, Time & Skills cards during the offering in worship.  Next week is the last Sunday.  This is why there is a challenge to you to enroll in regular, automated giving through a bank account of your choice since few people are likely to carry money and checks into worship with them.  The committee members are open to conversations – both of the easy question and challenging topic varieties.  They are available between worship services today and next week.  Come and meet them.  Talk with them.  Teach them something they may not know and learn a little something you may not know.

How am I doing?  I just talked about divorce and money in almost the same breath?  Are you still with me?  These have become tricky subjects in churches because of the well-documented sins of the wider church through time up through today.  There is a fragility to the conversations based on these sins.  People have been hurt.  People already torn and broken by divorce have often encountered a lack of grace from their church.  People who have no financial means from which to give have been manipulated emotionally and theologically to do so.  These are true sins of the wider church and many of us have personal experience with them.

The challenge as gospel people is to continue to hold the gospel as the main thing.  WE don’t always get it right.  But grounded in the gospel, we are a people set free in a world hungry for a shred of good news.  We gather in worship hungry for this good news ourselves, we remind each other that God’s promises are for us and for the world, and then we are sent our as living, breathing, fleshy reminders that God’s good news is for all.  Amen and hallelujah!

 

 

[More of the Bible readings from today]

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2:5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. 6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? 7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, 8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, 9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Genesis 2:18-24 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 “Freedom is Complicated [or A Very Expensive Bowl of Soup]”

Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 “Freedom is Complicated [or A Very Expensive Bowl of Soup]”

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church on July 6, 2014

 

Genesis 25:19-34   This is the account of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.

[Please note the Matthew and Romans scripture are available at the end of the sermon post.]

 

Being a middle child of five kids sandwiched me between an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister.  My younger sister is 5 years younger than me.  The two of us began sharing a room very early on.  Initially she was folded in with my older sister Hilary and me.  Until the day we moved into the house where there was a bed nook just big enough for Hilary’s bed and her things connected to the room Izzy and I shared.

Mostly this room-sharing worked out okay.  There were big belly laugh moments like the time Hilary and I were talking after Izzy had already fallen asleep on the top bunk, only to watch her sail by in slow motion on her way to the floor while falling out of bed asleep.  (She was fine.)  There were the typical off-limits kinds of things between siblings and over-time her tidier nature meant she had to have some patience for her big sister.  And, of course, there were times when having my little sister around was just one too much to bear.

In my pre-teen years, we developed a ritual, Izzy and I.  I would be doing homework or reading or generally hanging around and in would enter her five-year-old energy wanting to connect and play.  I would walk over to my desk, open the drawer, pull out a few possessions I could part with and told her she could choose and keep what she wanted if she went away and left me alone.  I was then free to continue whatever it was I doing without her being there.  A negotiated freedom that happily met my own ends – I had what I wanted and Izzy got a win out of the deal too.  Or so I thought.

Jacob and Esau, in the Genesis story today, are well into an age where sibling shenanigans aren’t quite as innocent.  Although we might be able to argue that the underlying motivations are similar.  Esau’s apparently been quite unsuccessful in the latest hunt and arrives home with a fierce hunger.  He’s looking for freedom from his hunger.  A hunger that blocked everything else from his mind and creates immediate need regardless of the consequences.  Esau walks into the house and rides the smell of warm soup and fresh baked bread right on into the kitchen.  And right into Jacob who is also nursing a desire for freedom.  Freedom from his place as the second sibling; freedom into the rights of the firstborn.  This moment between brothers is a perfect storm of self-interest that frees one brother from a raging hunger but at the cost of his birthright.  A perfect storm that leaves the other brother free from his social location as the second in line but at the cost of relationship with his brother.   The brothers’ freedom from their original problems came poorly thought through by one and highly manipulated by the other.

With freedom as a front and center topic this week, my first remembered Fourth of July came to mind.  It was the Bicentenniel celebrated in 1976.  200 years had passed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and just a few months had passed since we began living in Washington DC.  It was like a red, white, and blue factory had exploded and the shrapnel blanketed the city.  There were American flags both historic and current of all sizes.  There were banners made of cloth, paper, and ribbons.  There were fireworks, fireworks, and more fireworks.  To my seven-year-old mind, everything around me was about the colors and sounds of Independence Day.  At the same time that was happening outside of me, everything inside of me was aware of the new freedom that my family had found by our move to D.C.  Having just left my mentally ill and violent father in Pennsylvania a few months before, we had a new found freedom from him and from the fear of him.  My single mom and the five of us kids were negotiating that freedom in the face of our poverty.  I learned early on that freedom is complicated.

That first memory of the 4th of July is a microcosm of the complexity of freedom on a larger scale.  During the American Revolutionary War, thousands of people gave their lives for freedom from tyranny of all kinds – political, religious, moral, and financial.   The Declaration of Independence describes the new freedom gained by the ultimate sacrifice of those who died and also served as the basis for freeing slaves well on into the Civil Rights movement.  The flip-side is that these freedoms were gained on land where there were people already here enjoying it as their birthright.  Freedom is indeed complicated.

Given my family’s experience with the mental illness of my first father and now my 19 year old niece, it comes as no surprise that I’m interested in mental health diagnosis and treatment.   I recently attended a meeting of Together Colorado which is an interfaith group of leaders whose efforts include the issue of mental health.  Several of the people at the meeting were Christian clergy who had just attended a walking pilgrimage at the site of the Sand Creek Massacre.[1]  In 1864, 150 Cheyenne and Arapahoe women, children, and elders were murdered and mutilated by 700 soldiers of the Colorado State militia.  One of the pastors led a conversation with our group of 15 people about his experience at the site.  He discussed the Christian faith of the perpetrators led by Colonel Chivington who was a soldier and a Christian minister; someone who considered himself a “good Christian.”  He suggested that perhaps what the world needed were “bad Christians.”  I piped up and said, “That’s where the Lutherans come in.”  There was general laughter all around.  Why?  What did that inter-faith group of people think they knew about Lutherans?

Perhaps it’s because Lutherans experience sin and talk about sin as something real.  It’s why we confess our sin when we gather for worship, knowing that God is using us in spite of our sin.  The freedoms we negotiate between ourselves and by ourselves are fraught with the complication of sin.  Whether it’s my 10 year old self trying to be free from my little sister; Esau and Jacob negotiating freedom between hunger and a birthright; my first father’s violence that sent my mother and us running for freedom; or the people of the United States fighting for their freedom in the 18th century even as they declared a country on land that other peoples already called home.

Sin is in bodies. Paul’s language for this in the reading from Romans is that it exists in the flesh.  Sin exists in us.  This is true for us as individuals, which by extension makes it true for us as church and true for us as country.  We can be just as group-serving as we can be self-serving.  Perhaps even more so when we’re grouped together, cloaked in anonymity.   In a group it’s so much easier to justify our same sin when other people dealing with the same sin are giving us the thumbs up.  In the same way, it’s easier to call out another’s sin over and above our own.  Using their sin against them to dehumanize them while elevating ourselves as the arbiters of only the good.

Looking back to the 18th century, the good and the sinful are perhaps more easily recognized than looking back to last week to separate the good and the sinful.  It is there regardless.  The gift, or what Matthew calls “the good soil”, is to have our sin called out by the Spirit of Christ.[2]  This conviction comes from Christ who came in a body, in the flesh, and puts our sin to death through his body put to death on a cross.  Christ’s humiliation on the cross saves us from ourselves and each other, collapsing our differences into a sobering oneness of the flesh.  Through his humbled body on the cross, Christ infuses us with the humility that comes from such a death.  So humbled, we are free to recognize the ways we are more like Jacob and Esau than not like them, the ways we are more like Colonel Chivington than not like him.[3]  Our need for Christ laid bare at the foot of the cross and in the public square – for his sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world.

 



[1] There are many resources that offer a full treatment of the Sand Creek Massacre.  Here is one of them from Northwestern University: http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/john-evans-study/study-committee-report.pdf.

[2] Matthew 13:23; Romans 8:11

[3] Augustans Lutheran Church mission statement: “Guided by the Holy Spirit we gather in Christian community, reach out and invite, offer hope and healing in Jesus Christ, and walk humbly with God.”

Micah 6:8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

Romans 8:1-11   There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

John 18:1-19:42 “Think Again” [a sermon for Good Friday]

John 18:1-19:42 “Think Again”

March 29, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Pick a spot, any spot, in Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are many places to sit, stand or lie down.  We can betray, deny, judge, rant, abandon or despair.  Go ahead, pick a spot, because those characters are us.  Those characters who run amok and rail against Jesus, ridicule him, or despair in his death are us.  The irony of being a part of this cast of characters is that the person who hangs on the cross is the precisely the one who saves us.  Jesus was tried, crucified, dead and buried.  In every way that the cross could be offensive, it does indeed offend.

 

It offends the sophisticated thought of modern people to think that the cross, and Jesus hanging there, was necessary or effective in any way.  That we even need saving offends our enlightened sensibilities.  That this appalling execution can change anything about real life seems at worst a massive deception and at best an utter folly.  And yet, alarmingly, and quite surprisingly, it does.  Jesus death on the cross changes everything.  Jesus insists, time and again in the gospel, that God and Jesus are one.  Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus.

 

Think on this for a moment.  How might God go about getting our attention?  What are all the ways in which that may have been possible?  God, at some point, needs to grab us in ways that we might have some shot at understanding.  God needs to speak in human terms.  When we hear of someone who dives into a raging river to save someone from drowning, saves that person but succumbs and dies in the flood waters, what are our first thoughts?  What kinds of things do we say to honor the soldier who returns again and again to the firefight to save fallen friends?  Wow!  Spectacular save!  How selfless!  And on and on goes the praise and adoration.  Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  After all, how much more can be given?[1]

 

In the Gospel of John as a whole, and in this reading from John on this Good Friday, Jesus is aware and focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  Somewhere along the way, as human creatures we lost our way.  Rather than living into the image of God we became much more interested in placing ourselves in the center of things and holding God to the outskirts, leaving us free to make God into whatever image we choose – distorting God.[2]  It is in that re-creation of God that we are separate from God, powerless to repair what has happened.  This separateness, this breach, this distance between us and God is called sin.  Out of that separateness, that breach, that distance, that sin, comes all the ways in which we hurt each other and ourselves; inflicting sins against each other, ourselves, and God.

 

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

 

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

 

Not only does Jesus draw us into relationship with God through the cross but Jesus redefines our relationship with each other at the foot of the cross – standing with the cross between us, Jesus intercedes for us on each other’s behalf.  Drawn back into the relationship with God our Father, Jesus the Christ turns us towards each other in new ways.  Here, at the cross, love is freely taken up for us and for the sake of the people standing next to us.  In the same moment we have everything to do with what happened at the cross and we have nothing to do with it.

 

We are, first and foremost, passive spectators who are being handed a radical realization of our powerlessness.  As people in and around the story of the crucifixion, we think we know what’s happening and that the power is ours to create the story.  It is our turn on this day to hear God say, “Think again.”

 


[1] Craig Koester, class notes, Luther Seminary: Gospel of John class: John’s Theology of the Cross.  December 1, 2010.  I am sincerely grateful for Dr. Koester’s faithful witness as a master of holding aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and work in formative tension.  His work is beautiful, articulate, and draws me more deeply into faith and love of Jesus.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 113.  This is a great text for deepening into the theological reflection on the “The Fall” that breached God’s intention for the creature as imago dei, in the image of God.

[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).

 

Luke 13:1-9 “The Promise of Judgment”

Luke 13:1-9 A sermon for this 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 3, 2013

March 3, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

Luke 13:1-9 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

 

Those poor, poor Galileans.  Those poor, misguided religious pilgrims who walked and prayed and sacrificed as they put one foot in front of the other to acknowledge the God of their ancestors as they put their faith into action.  We can picture the earthy, rural Galileans laughing and crying with each other, with their families, while the rest of the city moves about its business.  And, then, out of nowhere, comes Pontius Pilate. The villain extraordinaire, the ne’er-do-well to end all ne’er-do-wells – the Pharaoh to the enslaved Israelites, the Osama bin Laden to millions of people both living and dead, the shooter in Newtown to our beloved children and teachers.  We can almost hear the hiss of the crowd as Jesus mentions his name.

And what about those poor people who were flattened by the tower of Siloam?  What of them?  We can imagine the thoughts of the people listening to Jesus.  The people for whom this was a fresh event and who could probably name some of the people killed that day.   We can imagine them thinking with relief that they were not standing by that tower on that day.  We can imagine them wondering about God in the midst of that tragedy.  Their attention is drawn to the death and destruction like bees to honey as they try to answer the question, “Why?”

Jesus speaks to them with the well-known traumas of the day fresh on everyone’s minds.  The people are pulsing with fear and survivor guilt as Jesus revisits the stories.  The people are looking for a comforting word – ears tuned, necks craned toward Jesus. And what does he do?  He disappoints them.

It’s important to note that what Jesus is doing here is separating the sin of the people from the calamities that befall people.  There is no connection between the horror that Pilate inflicts and the sin of the people that he inflicts it upon.  There is no connection between the Tower of Siloam and the sin of the people in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tower falls.  Jesus disconnects the sin of the people from the calamity that befalls them and, for all intents and purposes, tells the people to stop gawking in that direction.  They aren’t going to find any good news about themselves through the misfortune of others.  Nor are they going to find a God that is against others and, therefore, for themselves.  God’s judgment is not doled out as calamities in our lives.

Jesus is separating sin from calamity but Jesus is NOT separating sin from judgment.  Judgment has simply been moved to a different place away from the punishment of calamity.  Jesus says, “…unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”  Hmmmm…“Just as they did…just as they did.”  Jesus is separating sin from punishment and, in the same breath, he is comparing the people who are dead to the people who are listening to him.  The comparison being that those who have died were unrepentant just as the people standing before him are unrepentant.  They are unable to see all the ways in they work against God and work against each other.  And until they can see this, acknowledge this work against God and each other, they are unrepentant.

Perhaps this is where the fig tree can help us out. You all know this one right?  The parable of the barren fig tree has to be in the, what, top five most favorite parables ever?  Okay, so…no, not a well-known parable.  But this parable seems to follow Jesus’ calamity stories as some kind of explanation.

The vineyard owner is angry about a tree that has not borne fruit in three years and he wants to cut it down.  The gardener stalls the owner’s anger and asks for more time for the tree.  Take note that it is not more time for the same disappointing barrenness.  This is not a stay that delays an inevitable execution.  The gardener promises to tend this tree with fertilizer, giving it the chance to bear fruit, fruit that is worthy of the repentance from which it springs.

The people to whom Jesus is speaking are called out.  They are called out as unrepentant.  In the Psalmist’s words we sang earlier, they are called out as dry.  Today, we are being called out as well, called out as dry as the barren fig tree.  Repentance begins in this moment of being called out.  A word comes from outside ourselves and reverberates with truth as it moves inside.  There is nowhere to hide from the reality in us that is being named; the reality of the ways in which we move away from and work against God and each other, the reality of our sin.

This is one of the reasons why speaking out loud the confession and forgiveness when we gather for worship feels like air to some of us.  Not by way of shaming but by way of naming, we confess and are brought together in the light of truth – the truth about ourselves, our need and our God.   Being named for who we are and what we have done is called judgment.  And as we listen to Jesus in the text today, Jesus very much connects sin and judgment.  This, of course, is totally fine when it’s someone else’s sin that gets questioned or named or judged.  It feels more than a little difficult when it’s our own.

During the Apostle’s Creed we name Jesus as the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  This isn’t a far off threat.  This is a promise here, in the moment of now.  We speak these words in spite of the bad rap that surrounds the notion of judgment.  Quite possibly one of the worse things to be labeled is “judgmental.”  And, yet, it is exactly judgment when God names something about us that is true, something we are in no rush to confess about ourselves.  It is God’s judgment that convicts us and draws us to the surrender of repentance.  And it is at that point where the gardener nourishes us.

This is a moment when the whole creed becomes so important.  Because then what do we say together?  We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins…wait, wait a second now, what was that…the forgiveness of sins?!

God judges and God forgives.

God judges and God forgives in the proclamation of forgiveness.

God judges and God forgives in the waters of baptism.

God judges and God forgives in the bread and wine from Christ’s table.

God judges and God forgives in the reconciliation one to another in this body of Christ, this church.

God judges and God forgives as the one who resuscitates us and births divine love in our lives.

 

This IS the nourishment that is laid down around our dryness in the face of God’s judgment;

Nourished here, in this place, by this God so that our lives are a testament to the one who sustains us.  Nourished here, we can then bear the fruit of Christ in us, serving our neighbors – for the sake of our neighbors and for our own sake as others turn to serve us.

Nourished here, we can then sing with the Psalmist, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.  3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips 6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

John 2:13-22 “Using God and Loving Things”

John 2:13-22 “Using God and Loving Things”

March 9, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility

 

John 2:13-22 – The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

 

A long, long time ago, in the year 350, there lived a man named…Augustine.  He tells his story in a book titled The Confessions – he simply pours it all out, the good, the bad, and the ugly…saint and sinner…all of it…and how God met him in the middle of it.  Fast-forwarding sixteen hundred years to this past Sunday, I was preaching at a congregation that I had preached at one other time, one year ago.  A woman came up to me before worship began and told me that she needed to speak with me.  So we arranged to meet back up after the service.   We sat together in the back of sanctuary, the worship space.  This was her 3rd time visiting this congregation and she told me that had spent very little time in church throughout her 60 years.  In the span of just a few minutes and speaking quickly, she spoke of the sin in her life, some of which had happened over 30 years ago.  She then told me that she was too much of a sinner to be in church and then she fell quiet.

 

“First,” I said, “you need to know that God forgives you all your sins.”  She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and began to tear up and said, “Oh, that feels good.”  After a few moments of quiet, the second thing I said to her was that, “One of the things I love about being in Lutheran-land is that we all come before God as sinners, all of us are level with each other at the foot of the cross…so, as a sinner, you’re in the right place.”

 

So, you may be asking yourself, what do St. Augustine and this woman have in common – across time, gender and life situation? St. Augustine wrote, all those many years ago, that sin can be described as what comes from the mixing up of what God has given us to use and what God has given us to love.  His argument is that God means for us to love God and use things but somewhere along the way we use God and love things…we use God and love things.  We have mixed up use and love.

 

Today’s scene in the temple started me wondering about this mix up between what we use and what we love.  Jesus is furious.  The temple has become a marketplace, a place where God is being used and everyone is part of using everyone else as a commodity, as currency, as cash.  Relationship has been transaction.

 

If we’re not very careful in this story, we end up standing behind Jesus, cheering him on, placing ourselves on his side, comfortable that our opinions about God and Jesus are the blameless ones.  I wonder, though, if our rightful place in this story is in the position of the sellers – the ones who use God and love things so much so that in our use of God we end up using each other in such as way that our relationships are transactions.  We see this time and again, right?  The ways in which we use each other, and the ways others use us, create deep pain.  Let’s be clear, while we’re at it, that this is not only a problem magnified within these walls, this is a problem within this world, inside all of us!  And it is into the mixed up mess of use and love that Jesus comes crashing in to clean house.

 

Jesus cleans house by first taking the problem into his own body.  In the Bible story for today, Jesus says that his body is the temple which will be destroyed – hung on a cross – and that he will raise it again three days later.  There is hope after all because Jesus does what we cannot do when left on our own – first in his body and then in ours.  Jesus fights this fight in us daily by virtue of our baptism.  Jesus attacks our sin and sends it packing, right out the door like the sheep and the cattle of the temple.

In his clearing of the temple, Jesus challenges us to look at the way in which we use and the way we love.

In his dying on the cross, Jesus destroys the power of sin and its death dealing way.

And in his rising again, Jesus heals us into new life.

In the name of Jesus Christ, may you be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that you may know the healing power of the Spirit.  Amen.