Tag Archives: Sin

Ask the Complicated Questions [OR A Sermon for Reformation Day] John 8:31-36

**sermon photo: Nerina Fielding, Starling Mumeration [still captured from recording], Natomas, Sacramentao, California.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Prw9AZ9jw

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 31, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 8:31-36  Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They 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’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

[sermon begins]

Mr. Mack sported a silver crew cut with his serious demeanor. He was retired military – United States Marine Corps. He commanded respect without demanding it. You could have heard a pin drop when he walked into the room, through the straight rows of desks. We were already hard at work copying his notes from the chalk board onto notebook paper, double-spacing them to leave room for notes from his lecture. He took his seat at his desk waiting until precisely 15 minutes after the bell. Then he stood and began his 10th grade history lecture on life, politics, and war while we scribbled wildly. We studied the notes and took the tests and moved on to 11th grade history. In Mr. Mack’s class, it was easy to believe that history was an ordered account of the facts – the lecture followed the notes that followed the textbook. In part, this was true. There are undeniable events that have dates and key historical figures to go with them. But what we know about history is that it’s less like a straight line and more like a murmuration of starlings.[1] Maybe you’ve seen these birds flying together in the hundreds of thousands –twisting and turning, pulsing together toward an unknown endpoint. The videos are mesmerizing. The only thing linear about history is the time that passes. Otherwise, there are hundreds of thousands of voices that give us a different perspective of the same story.

Our celebration today is one such many-voiced story. Reformation 500 years ago is often told in a way that makes Martin Luther, that ornery academic priest, out to be a lone wolf of faith and theology. (Although, in fairness to us, we’re repeatedly exposed to lone wolf storytelling in film and T.V.)  But Luther was the one who lived to tell the tale. Reformers before him were put to death. Luther survived because he was hidden away by a sympathetic prince who protected him. His story survived because of printing press inventors and his bestie Melancthon who negotiated the theology of grace with other pastors in wider church circles. Otherwise, Luther could have been just another pastor who posted good ideas on a church bulletin board that no one ever read – his ideas swallowed up by the 300,000 revolutionaries fighting the German Peasants’ War in 1525. But his ideas lived on in pamphlets, catechisms, and Bibles in the common language. Local pastors, sly politicians, and faithful parents joined the sweeping history in real-time that pulsed with new life and grace. There are Protestants in Christianity because there were meddling Lutherans who held the church of Rome accountable to its theology and the people hurt by it. (In fairness to our Catholic siblings in faith, many of Luther’s reforms have long since been put into place by the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, a little grace can go a long way.)

Digging into the back-story of the Reformation is similar detective work to digging into the Bible. The Bible includes many people and their stories pulsing together into the larger one. The highs and lows of our ancient Jewish cousins in the faith swooping into the 1st Century story of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi from a backwater town, and the ragtag men and women who followed him as disciples. It would take many lifetimes to exhaust the riches of God’s love story for the world, through Jesus who called himself the “truth” in the Bible reading from John. Which brings us to today. This moment. Us. And especially you guys who are affirming the promises of baptism in the milestone that we call Confirmation.

Confirmation is a rite of passage, a ritual that marks a moment into what came before and what comes after. A ritual that shifts the promises made at baptism from your parents to you. I’m just going to slip in the reminder that God’s promises are complete while our promises are fallible and imperfect even when they’re faithful. Confirmation is a big moment but it’s not a lone wolf moment. It’s a church-alive moment. You’re surrounded by people who are asking similar complicated questions that you ask:

  • Was the earth, the world, the universe really just created for humans?
  • How was the creation story written down if God was the only being at the beginning of the world?
  • How did our faith/this church start and evolve and do you think it will continue to change? If so, in what way?
  • How do we know that God is really there? Is it okay to doubt God?

These are complicated questions that many faithful Christians have asked at different times in their lives but especially at times of faithful ritual and often in times of struggle.

Last week I led a Bible Study at the women’s prison with 12 women on the Inside Council of New Beginnings Worshipping Community. We worked through the Bible readings and questions that their Pastor Terry had given us. It’s been a couple years or so since I’ve been with them and a few of the women I’ve known since I started volunteering there. Laughter and tears mix with some serious deep thinking.  I asked the women if they had any thoughts about doubt and faith that I could share with our youth at church who were going through the rite of Confirmation and affirming their baptisms. They want you to know that faith can feel hard but that it is also freedom – freedom to be who God made you to be, freedom to ask God to show you God’s presence, and freedom to ask to have an open heart. It’s really something to hear women in prison talking about freedom. Most of them will return to community alongside us at some point but for others it will be many years living within those walls.

The women are not talking about any old freedom and for them it’s more than poetry. They have found that freedom through the love and grace of Jesus. When Jesus says that sin enslaves us and he sets us free, these women deeply understand what that means. Those of us who live outside of prisons have a harder time admitting that we sin much less confessing it and our need for the very freedom Jesus offers through grace. But we know this much, we are free to ask questions. Free to ask questions about the Bible, about history, about the church, about Jesus, about our faith and our doubt, about the mystery of God. You name it and we are free to ask it.

Lutheran Christians have a 500-year history of asking, “What does this mean?” Literally, that question, “What does this mean?” (Although it was originally asked in German and now in most every known language – there are A LOT of Lutherans around the world.) The disciples in the Bible asked similar questions. The Jews living before the 1st century, through our Jewish neighbors today still ask questions about God, their history, and each other. We are part of this robust history of asking questions into our present-day moment of grace through faith.

Grace is God’s unconditional love for you.

Grace is God’s promises flowing over you in baptismal water – the promise to always be present, to always take you back, to make your life Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever.

Grace is this moment in time. Each one of us with a story of our own, drawn together by the Holy Spirit into God’s story. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say, thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________

Song after the Sermon

All Creation Sings (hymnal): #1005 “Ask the Complicated Questions”

1          Ask the complicated questions.

Do not fear to be found out;

for our God makes strong our weakness,

forging faith in fires of doubt.

 

2          Seek the disconcerting answers,

follow where the Spirit blows;

test competing truths for wisdom,

for in tension new life grows.

 

3          Knock on doors of new ideas,

test assumptions long grown stale,

for Christ calls from shores of wonder,

daring us to try and fail.

 

4          For in struggle we discover

truth both simple and profound;

in the knocking, asking, seeking,

we are opened, answered, found.

 

Text: David Bjorlin, b. 1984

Text © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc., giamusic.com.

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[1] https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-murmuration

Hearts Called to Goodness Struggle with the Question of Sin and Evil – Mark 7, James 1, Deuteronomy 4

**sermon art: Abstract Love by Billie Colson

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 29, 2021

[sermon begins after three Bible readings – hang in there]

Mark 7:1-7, 14-16, 20-23 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

James 1:17-27 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
6You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
9But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

[sermon begins]

Our young adult son was about 11 years old when he leaned over and whispered, “Why does he always make us sound so bad?”[1] We were in Sunday worship. His question came during the hymn after the sermon. Quinn’s question led to a conversation on the car ride home about sin. A little heavy-duty maybe, but it was good for us to wrestle with the topic together as a family. He was in good company. Most people don’t really like the word. In fact, I often use milder terms like flaws or imperfections to talk about sin because many people have been beaten up by the language of sin and pretty much stop listening when the word is uttered. You can see the risk I’m taking as a preacher by opening with it.

Using the word sin is also a risk because the word isn’t used in the four Bible readings today. Not once. Check it out. I read through them with care. Let me know if you can find the word because I couldn’t. Words that ARE used in the readings include defile, evil, sordidness, and wickedness. This sermon is slipping even further into touchy territory. Touchy because many people have been hurt by accusations of being irredeemable. Touchy because, like my son Quinn, many people question conversations and sermons that make them feel bad.

It’s possible that the categories of good and bad are not that helpful when it comes to what we experience as true. For instance, in the Mark reading, there’s a long list of pitfalls that come from the heart. To hear this list more personally we can ask a series of questions. Regarding folly, who among us has not only participated in the ridiculous but also the ridiculously foolish? Regarding pride, who among us has not believed themselves to be better than someone else? Regarding slander, who among us has not gossiped our way through a phone call? Regarding envy, who among us has not looked at someone else’s belongings without wanting any of them? Regarding deceit, who among us has not spent time figuring out how to withhold the full truth? Regarding adultery, who among us has not let a friendship teeter into the romantic because we’ve stopped caring who gets hurt? Regarding avarice and greed, who among us has not purchased more toilet paper than we need?

These questions are relational – meaning that these behaviors affect relationships between people. The questions that I listed help translate Jesus’ list into the here and now. Granted, I’ve kept the questions fairly nonthreatening. We could dive deeper with the questions and shift into the brutally honest but that’s neither wise nor kind since we’re not talking back-and-forth in this moment. Although, I’m game for that conversation if anyone would like to have it. The point of asking those questions is to reveal a truth about being human. We have the capacity for evil within us. We see it play out in our own lives and in other people’s lives near and far. Jesus’ challenge to his disciples at the end of the Mark reading reveals the limits of our own efforts to avoid the naughty column and list ourselves among the nice.

Jesus’ teaching also highlights the limits of religious tradition. He cautions us against creating doctrine out of traditions. It’s also a good moment to normalize the Jewish traditions in the reading of washing hands before eating and washing the dishes afterwards – things many of us do every day. The Pharisees and Jesus were debating the relevance of religious tradition in light of God’s commandments. It’s important to remember that God gave the Ten Commandments to sustain life among God’s people. They were life-giving. The Deuteronomy reading today emphasizes life in this part of the preamble to the Big Ten. Moses said, “…give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live…”

Jesus’ list of sins in the Mark reading describe what happens when the commandments aren’t followed, and we break our relational obligations to each other with sinful behavior. As Christians, we hear Paul’s letters in the Bible separating the law from salvation to the point that we forget that the law’s intention is life-giving. Christian scripture often reminds us that God’s relationship with us does not depend on tallying up points in our favor by following the law. God’s relationship with us depends on God’s goodness first and not our own achievements of obedience.

Which brings us to the reading from James. This Sunday we start five weeks in which our second readings in worship come from the book of James. Lutheran Christians can struggle with James because we often think it leads with action, calling for obedient action as evidence of a living faith. Martin Luther even called it the “epistle of straw” for its lack of emphasis on grace. You have guessed correctly if you anticipated my suggestion to read the short book of James this week. It’s not clear who James was written for, but it seems to be written as encouragement for a group of Jesus followers who are at risk from a hostile ruling class.[2] And the encouragement towards obedience and action seems intended to connect thoughts about faith with living the faith. It’s much easier to listen quietly than to live out our faith. The book of James challenges us to be more than hearers of the word by becoming doers of the word. We know from experience that our hearts contain more than the sins listed in Mark. Humans are creatures capable of great compassion, courage, and care. James connects those positive actions of the heart with God when he writes that, “Every generous act of giving, with every gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

When I pray, “We love you God, thank you for loving us first,” I’m reminded of God’s goodness as the ignition for my own actions – even the act of love. Quinn’s question about badness is only a piece of the story of the heart. Later in the 10th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people to circumcise their hearts, meaning that their identity is secured first by God’s love and only then becomes visible by their obedient acts of love.[3] Jesus similarly challenged his disciples, cracking open religious ritual to amplify the call on the heart to which we are also called. Our religious practices serve as an amplifier to our call as disciples. Then discipleship becomes a gift in our own and other peoples’ lives as we hear and do a life of faith. Faith that’s born from the God whose love makes goodness possible. Thanks be to God and amen.

________________________________________________________________

[1] I ALWAYS get permission to share someone’s story in a sermon – especially if they’re named and extra-especially if they’re family. Quinn gave me permission and thinks the story is a good fit for the direction of the sermon.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Lectionary Texts for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 29, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/799-14th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-22b-aug-29-2021

[3] Deuteronomy 10:16 but really 10:12-19. God’s love of the widow, orphan, and stranger calls us to the same.

Practical Hope for Life Today [OR Listen, God is Calling] Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 11, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 6:14-29  King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Ephesians 1:3-14 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

[sermon begins]

Last Sunday, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from church. This means that I was also still wearing my church clothes, including the collar. Choosing the zippiest checkout lane, I found myself in a line with a cashier I’d never met. She wasn’t new, by any means. She was waving at people who called out her to her, talking across lanes with other cashiers, directing the grocery bagger on how to help a customer with propane, and welcomed me to the party with a warm, “Hi honey, how are you?” As she handed me the receipt, she held onto it for a few seconds, leaned way over and quietly asked, “Are you a priest?”

“A pastor,” I replied.

“Will you pray for me?”

“Yes,” I said as I started looking for her name tag to commit it to memory.

She held up her name badge and told me her name. I repeated her name and told her again that I would pray for her. She thanked me and I went on my way. From entering her line to the prayer request couldn’t have been more than five minutes – a short, sincere, and significant scene.

Our Bible story today is a scene of a different kind. The gospel writer teased us in the first chapter with half a verse about John the Baptist’s arrest and in the third chapter with the Pharisees conspiring against Jesus with Herod’s followers, but waited until the sixth chapter to expand on the story.[1] It’s the full meal deal with John’s head served as the final course of the banquet at Herod’s party.[2] Gruesome and horrific, it’s like a scene in a movie that spotlights just how evil the evil ones can be. Herod had heard about Jesus and his apostles proclaiming repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick among the villages. When he heard about it, Herod was haunted by the idea that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised. Initially, Herod imprisoned John to protect him from his wife Herodias’ grudge. He liked listening to John’s perplexing teachings and confined him to a handy dungeon. But Herodias won the long game and trapped Herod in his oath-keeping and in his concern for what other people thought about him. Herod was “deeply grieved,” but apparently not grieved enough to do the right thing.

Herod executed John to save face and protect his power. His evil act haunted him when he heard about the things that Jesus and his apostles were doing, once again connecting John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries. At first, Herod’s deep regret stood out in this gruesome tale as something we can all relate to – even if we haven’t chopped off anyone’s head. But then, Jesus’ apostles and John’s disciples became more compelling. What were they doing around the edges of Herod’s evil acts? Mark, the gospel writer, bookends Herod’s story by first highlighting Jesus’ apostles preaching repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick; and afterwards, recounting how “the apostles gathered around Jesus to tell him all that they had done and taught” before they got down to Feeding the Five Thousand.[3] Mark concludes John’s murder with a short note about his own disciples’ compassion and action. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his [beheaded] body, and laid it in a tomb.” Not only does laying John in a tomb further connect his ministry and its end to Jesus’ earthly ministry and its end, but John’s disciples and Jesus’ apostles are examples of people practicing hope in the face of institutional evil and corrupt power.

Last week, I was in a meeting in which the opening icebreaker was to share a sentence or two about where we see signs of hope in a violent world. As you might imagine, the answers were all over the board, but there was a unifying theme that could be described as the hopeful behavior that we see other people doing and that we ourselves try to do – people creating hope for themselves and others by working with other people creating hope for themselves and others. Not spinning illusory hope for someday but working towards practical hope for today. Working repentance and healing for abundant life for everyone. And this takes us to the Ephesians Bible reading.

This reading starts the first of seven weeks in Ephesians, so it’s a good time to read this very short book attributed to Paul, although more likely written by one of his students. Ephesus was located in what’s now the western coast of Turkey. The letter’s message praises God’s work in Jesus, freeing us from sin by grace through faith that creates us for good works. In these opening verses of the first chapter that were read today, we hear about the spiritual blessings in Christ. Included in the list of blessings is redemption in Christ. Redemption in Biblical times meant the equivalent of being freed from slavery.[4] Redemption from sin would mean being freed from sin. Now obviously, Jesus followers have as much problem with sin as anyone else. But redemption in Christ also gives us a faith community through our baptisms and through whom we experience the weekly and even daily call to surrender our sin at the foot of the cross and practice faith, hope, and love as adopted children of God through Jesus Christ.

It’s taken me more that my fair share of time to figure out that being adopted as a child of God through baptism has nothing to do with playing it safe. In fact, being named child of God in baptism draws us into acts of practical hope for today that often don’t align with the goals of leaders who hold institutional power. Was John the Baptist safe? No. Was Jesus safe? No. Were Jesus’ early followers safe? No. Are we safe? No, I’m afraid not. What we are is redeemed and freed by the gospel into the work of practical hope assigned by Jesus.

The cashier who asked for prayer sees Jesus people as a sign of practical hope. Each day our baptism works in us the practical hope of dying to sin and raising us to new life so that we’re less like Herod and more like Jesus. Living into a life that is ever more Christ-shaped as a Jesus follower, safety from corrupt power fades to black while acts of practical hope take center stage in public acts of the faithful. Advocacy is one way to do the work of practical hope; community organizing is another. Working through legislation and ballot initiatives that change people’s real lives now. It’s partly why Augustana has a fledgling Human Dignity Delegate ministry to address issues of human dignity in the public square. The next meeting is August 1. Let me know if you’d like more details.

In a moment we’ll sing “Listen, God is Calling.” In the language of Herod’s story, God calls us from our self-absorbed, death-dealing sin. God redeems us into freedom from those very sins and our inevitable regret for them. God’s call through the cross of Christ empowers us by the Holy Spirit into the unsafe, bold, and practical hope on behalf of the gospel for the sake of the world. It’s a good day to be reminded of this good news. Amen.

 

Song after the sermon:

Listen, God is Calling [Neno lake Mungu][5]

#513 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006)

Refrain

Listen, listen, God is calling through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy. (repeat)

Jesus gave his mandate; share the good news that he came to save us and set us free. [Refrain]

Let none be forgotten throughout the world. In the triune name of God go and baptize. [Refrain]

Help us to be faithful, standing steadfast, walking in your precepts, led by your Word. [Refrain]

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[1] Mark 1:14 and Mark 3:6

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave: Commentary discussion of Mark 6:14-29 for July 11, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/792-7th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-15b-july-11-2021

[3] Mark 6:30 immediately follows the gospel reading of Mark 6:14-29

[4] Lutheran Study Bible (NRSV). Ephesians 1:7 study note. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1922.

[5] Austin Lovelace and Howard S. Olson (1968). Lutheran Theological College, Makumira, Tanzania, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Seek. Find. Joy. Repeat. [OR What’s Up in the Lost and Found?] Luke 15:1-10 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17

**sermon art:  “Lost Sheep – Lost Coin” by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube.

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 15, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 15:1-10  Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

1 Timothy 1:12-17 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16 But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

[sermon begins]

My son made me a bracelet.  The class assignment had to be an original design and solder two kinds of metal together.  He chose copper and silver, balanced symmetry and asymmetry in the design, soldered and sanded the metals, and presented me with the finished product.  The bracelet had a toggle clasp to hold it on my wrist.  A toggle clasp is cool looking, but it can slip loose if you jostle it just so.  On my way home from Costco one day, hands in that 9-and-3 on the steering wheel, I realized it was no longer on my wrist.  Almost home, I ran my groceries inside and headed back to Costco where I retraced my path.  Didn’t find it.  Went to customer service and, lo and behold, someone had found it and turned it in.  I could NOT believe it!  Happy-happy-joy-joy!  A small thing but a whole lotta love embedded in it. Search. Found. Joy.  (And, yes, toggle clasp out, new clasp in.)

Joy is one of the highlights in the gospel reading today.  The shepherd rejoices over the lost sheep (v6).  The woman who finds her lost coin, a day’s wage gone missing, rejoices with her friends (v9).  And we haven’t even gotten to the story of the Prodigal Son that comes in the next verses and completes the trifecta of lost and found things in the next few verses.[1]  Take a peek at Luke 15 in the pew Bible in front of you.  Note how chapter 15 ramps up the lost stories each time.  There is so much joy that it can’t help but be shared. The shepherd who finds his sheep “calls together his friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with him.  The woman who finds her coin “calls together her friends and neighbors” inviting them to rejoice with her.  The father runs wildly to his returning son, kisses him, kills the fatted calf, and celebrates with a dance party.

Friends, neighbors, and households are not the only ones partying in these parables.  Jesus adds that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  We heard a bit about the joy of the angels in our Confession and Forgiveness at the beginning of worship today.  We heard that “For the sake of Jesus Christ ☩ your sins are forgiven” and then were invited to “rejoice with the angels at this good news.” Now THAT is a cool image – angels celebrating on our behalf. It’s counter-cultural to jump into anything with a confession of wrongdoing on our lips.  So much so that some people ask why we have a part of our worship that makes us sound so bad.  I argue that we start with the truth and the truth is that we can be as dumb as that sheep, as slippery as that coin, and as disobedient as that son. We’re sinners and we know it.  Sin is deeper than the hurtful things we do to others and ourselves. Sin is the breach, the distance, that is between us and God. Sin has us thinking we can save ourselves by finding ourselves.

Along the line of finding ourselves, a tourist group in Iceland lost track of a fellow traveler at a volcanic landmark.  A search was organized once the woman was verified missing.  50 members of the tour group joined the search while the Icelandic coast guard scrambled a helicopter.  They searched well into the night until one woman in the search and rescue group realized that everyone was searching for her and told the local police who called off the search.  It was about 3 o’clock in the morning.  The problem occurred when she had broken off from the group earlier in the day to change her clothes.  Her description was generic enough that she didn’t recognize herself in it.  The news headline was spot on:  “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After an Intense Search.” [2]  It’s a perfect headline for our topic at hand, really.

The language of “finding ourselves” is an old one.  We thrive on thinking things through to the essence of self.  Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Among the Intellectuals,” gets at this tendency to think things down to the last thought.  He describes being “thought-provoking, as if thought were an animal” to be poked with a stick.  After illustrating his own experience of intellectual posturing, he writes:

Inevitably, you find out you are lost, really lost;
blind, really blind;
stupid, really stupid;
dry, really dry;
hungry, really hungry;
and you go on from there.[3]

The poet’s words strike a chord in the current culture of snark posing as savvy and irony masquerading as intelligence.  The dizzying intellectual acrobatics leave in their wake a longing for earnest joy and hoping for a moment of the absurd and even ridiculous.  Sublime is good but sometimes silly is what’s needed.  And that’s what we get in Jesus’ parables.  Jesus asks, “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  You know what the answer is to that ridiculous question?  No shepherd would do that.  It’s absurd to even consider leaving your livelihood of 99 sheep in the wilderness to hunt down a single lost sheep.  Then Jesus asks, “…what woman having ten sliver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?”  The answer?  No woman would spend more money on lamp oil worth more than the coin she is looking for.  It’s ridiculous even to consider being that wasteful.

Jesus’ parables don’t leave the lost to find themselves.  Lost things simply don’t have that kind of capacity.  The seeking begins with God – from the cosmic to the particular in the person of Jesus; from Creator to creation to creature; from God to us.  God is not irresistible.  Many of us wander off, slip away, or run from God.  Our self-centeredness knows no bounds.  But God relentlessly pursues us through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.  And God’s joy is exuberant when reconciliation happens between us and God.  Joy is part of God’s character and the angels rejoice in kind.

Finding the lost, no matter the cost, makes the angels jump for joy with the one who searches and finds.  One wonders if the search and the celebration cost more than the lost objects were worth.[4]  In that regard, the opening line of the gospel reading is even more compelling.  “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].”  Not just some. All. Not only the tax collectors. Also, the sinners. It’s an absurd excess of people.  I’m sure the grumbling religious elite WERE perturbed by the party crashers. But imagine what the sinners and tax collectors felt by being included around Jesus’ table. Just for a moment, imagine their joy. If imagining the joy of the sinners a stretch, take a look at Paul writing to Timothy in our second reading today.  Here he confesses to perpetrating violence. Elsewhere, we are told he was killing Jesus followers.  Then he had a come to Jesus moment.[5]  He had his own story of being lost and found, his own story of joy.  I’ve heard some of your stories including your joy.  There’s nothing like those moments of being found.

Rarely is being found a once and done experience.  Oh sure, our baptisms happen once.  But the experience of being in a push me/pull you with God happens over a lifetime. Often the stories defy being put into words that make sense to other people although I’d argue we should keep trying to find those words.  Often our own stories parallel elements of Jesus’ parables either by being dumb as a sheep, slippery as a coin, or disobedient as a son. Sometimes, our stories include all three.  Our joy at being found is a drop in the bucket of the joy of God who searches for us, risking God’s whole self in the search.  We are never beyond God’s relentless grace.

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[1] Luke 15:11-32

[2] Casey Glynn. “Missing Woman ‘Finds Herself’ After Intense Search.” CBS News. August 30, 2012. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/missing-woman-finds-herself-after-intense-search/

[3] (Many thanks to John Pederson for posting this gem.)  Tony Hoagland (1953-2018). “Among the Intellectuals.” The New Yorker: September 2, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/02/among-the-intellectuals

[4] Amanda Brobst-Renaud, Assistant Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University. Commentary on Luke 15:1-10 for September 15, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165

[5] Acts 9:1-19

Just Poking Around [OR Longing for Restoration] John 20:19-31, Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 8, 2018

[sermon begins after three Bible readings]

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Acts 4:32-35 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 John 1:1-2:2 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

[sermon begins]

 

I’m caught between generations who like to shop – a sandwich generation of a different sort.  Both my mom and my mother-in-law as well as my daughter like to dabble in the aisles, across shelves, and around carousel racks to find the finds. Me, not so much. But their enthusiasm is contagious. So I tag along for the company and you just never know what the find will be. This is especially true when I shop with my mother-in-law, Carol. When store clerks ask her if she needs help finding something in particular, Carol replies, “No thanks, we’re just poking around.” Her non-committal answer, and the meandering that goes with it, opens up space to see what finds might be lurking on the next shelf.  I have a couple favorites from the hospice consignment shop in Grand Junction that include an antique porcelain bud vase and a silver filigreed shell dish. Must-haves in any household, I’m sure. The point being that sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.

Which leads me to Thomas. Some scholars will tell you that he’s not the doubter he’s claimed to be by church tradition and centuries of painters. I don’t really have a problem naming him a doubter but if that title troubles you we can lean toward skeptic or find some other label that edges us toward his non-committal, wary attitude. Thomas’ friends had an experience with the resurrected Jesus and he hasn’t. He’s a bit guarded about their reports. Perhaps it’s news that’s too creepy or too weird or too good to be true. Whatever the reason, he’s not about to accept his friends’ reports about Jesus. He seems to want his own moment with Jesus. Because the friends who first see Jesus in the locked room are privy to more than a sighting. Jesus gives them something. Peace, for starters. Then he sends them on their way by breathing the Holy Spirit on them.

I don’t know about you, but the breath of a three-day-dead, freshly resurrected guy doesn’t sound that appealing.[1] Regardless, it seems to cause something big. This rag-tag band of Jesus followers that were locked in a room become something so much more.[2] They become the church. Except Thomas. He’s not sure about anything now that his friends had an experience that he hasn’t had. But sometimes you need to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for.  In Thomas’ case, it’s Jesus whose hands and side are made available.

A Bible story to poke around in is one thing but let’s think about what it looks like today to poke around to find what you didn’t know you were looking for. On March 24, a woman named Jennifer Reali died of cancer. Twenty-eight years ago she was convicted of murder in Colorado Springs. I’ll refrain from the gory details. They’re available online. Some of you may even remember the case. She is guilty of killing Diane Hood.

I first met Jen 11 years ago in a Friday evening worship service at New Beginnings Church in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Honest and blunt, she was clear that she cut short Diane’s life, causing pain and grief for Diane’s family and friends. She would also say that Jesus found her in prison. For the skeptics among us, her confession of faith seems convenient, easily dismissed as one manipulation among many. Regardless, her sentence was commuted in 2011 by then Governor Ritter making her eligible for parole. Jennifer was released to a halfway-house in 2014, diagnosed with cancer soon afterwards, granted parole on the fourth try, and released on December 12, 2017.  One of Jennifer’s original songs has this line, “If you knew my dark side, would you sense the hands of Christ?”[3]

The hands of Christ were on display for the disciples in the locked room as the resurrected Jesus showed them his hands and his side. “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit…If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”[4]  While we’re poking around, we could consider that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to forgive even Jennifer. Make no mistake, her act of evil is neither forgotten nor condoned. Diane and her family deserve more than that. Rather, we proclaim by faith that evil is NOT more powerful than the good.[5]  Or, in the words of the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[6]

Restoration is what the resurrection makes possible.  Restoration that turns a murderer into a repentant, zealous Jesus follower. Restoration that turns a fearful, ragtag band of Jesus followers into the church.  A church that went from hiding in the darkness to walking in the light, from hiding the truth of sin to confessing it.  A church of fellowship who completed each other’s joy as told by the First John reading.[7]  A church of shared resources who testified to the resurrection with great grace upon them as told by the Acts reading.[8]

For some, like Thomas and his friends, there was a quick turnaround from fear to courage. For others, it took time for the early, first century church to get its act together. Time for the way women were respected in Christianity as they weren’t in classical culture. Time for life in the way of Jesus to crack through social class and tribal lines. Time for the selflessness of caring for all the sick, not just their own, in the age of plagues.[9]

The disciples’ and Jennifer’s stories are uncommon – drawing both attention and disbelief. Ordinary people seldom have such gripping tales to tell or even interesting sin. Although, when it comes down to it, there are common threads of grief, fear, sin, and skepticism that lead to poking around to find what we didn’t know we were looking for. A lot of people are looking for something, poking around into all kinds of things. Longing, hoping for restoration. I run into these people everywhere. They tell stories of pain. Personal pain inflicted by themselves or other people. Public pain experienced in the very churches where great grace should be upon them.

Healing from grief, fear, sin, and skepticism can take time. You may be one of these people. Perhaps you’ve had an experience of Christianity not letting go of you or you’re unable to let go of it. So I’ll tell you what I tell these people. I have amazing colleagues all over town in all kinds of parishes with all kinds of people in the congregations. Find a pew. Let the hymns and prayers wash over you. Receive communion. Heal. Talk with God, not about God. Listen for God’s voice. Don’t look for anything in particular while you’re just poking around.

Jesus’ resurrection makes restoration possible. The Holy Spirit is breathed on us by the risen Christ in ways that cannot be described, only experienced. God is not irresistible. We can and do screw things up regularly. Here’s the promise though, God’s presence and pursuit of you is relentless – through the cross, grave, and back again. God’s restoration is for you.  Alleluia and amen.

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[1] Mary Beard’s research includes the investigation into what made ancient Romans laugh – apparently bad breath is among the topics which makes me wonder how early Christian listeners in the Roman Empire heard this bit of scripture. This historical gem is in an article about Beard’s work by Rebecca Mead, “The Troll Slayer: A Roman Classicist Takes On Her Sexist Detractors.” The New Yorker, September 14, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer

[2] George Wiegel. The Saturday Essay: The Easter Effect and How It Changed the World. The Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-easter-effect-and-how-it-changed-the-world-1522418701

[3] Michael Roberts. “Fatal Attraction” Killer Jennifer Reali Finally Granted Parole.” Westword: November 8, 2017. http://www.westword.com/news/fatal-attraction-killer-jennifer-reali-seeks-parole-for-fourth-time-9590521

[4] John 20:22-23.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project. Video posted on September 21, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

[6] John 1:5

[7] 1 John 1:3-4

[8] Acts 4:32-35

[9] Wiegel, ibid.

We Can’t Handle the Grace, A Sermon for Good Friday [John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 30, 2018

Good Friday

[sermon begins after Bible reading; when you get a chance read the whole of John 18 and 19. It’s worth it.]

John 19.16-18 and 25b-30 and 40-42

Then Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew* is called Golgotha.18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

25b Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

 [sermon begins]

Good Friday takes us deep. Frailty, self-absorption, and pain repeatedly clash with the power of grace in the moments leading up to the crucifixion. Some theologians will say that each one of us holds the hammer that drove the nails through the hands and feet of God. That theology seems a bit overwrought to me, not to mention impossible on the time-space continuum. What does resonate is that we can’t handle the grace. (Yes, I’m invoking Jack Nicholson’s line delivery in A Few Good Men).

Grace is a handy, go-to word because it means a lot things all at once. Grace means God’s unconditional love, forgiveness, and redemption. Grace means that we are created in the image of God.  And grace means so much more.  When I say we can’t handle the grace, I mean that when confronted with the grace of God in Jesus we would and do reject its fullness. We reject it time and again for ourselves and other people.  We put grace to death. Think about the ways you keep beating yourself up over past actions as if you’re beyond God’s redemption. Think about the ways you decide that other people are undeserving. Think about the way you nurse that grudge that holds you captive to anger and resentment. There are many situations in our lives that beg the question, “Do we believe in grace or don’t we?”

We tend to draw a line around where God’s redemption by grace is possible. Lent pushed us through those lines over the brink into Good Friday when we confess by faith that God hung dead on a cross – the cross being the ultimate moment of our human determination to reject grace. And what does God do?  Well, I’ll tell you what God doesn’t do. There is not a hand lifted against the people who see fit to hang Jesus on that cross. From the people most directly involved who organized the murderous scheme to the disciples, Jesus’ friends, who couldn’t stop it, all of them were unscathed, retribution not even a thing. In fact, in the Bible reading from the Gospel of John, we hear that from the cross, there came yet one more grace before Jesus died.  Listen again…

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’”[1]

Jesus uses his last breaths to reorient his mother and the disciple’s relationship with each other. Everything that led to his crucifixion – healing the sick, exorcising demons, welcoming sinners, feeding the hungry, challenging corruption, naming greed – everything Jesus did that hung him there is continuous with the conversation he’s having with his mother and his friend. He gets in one more grace before he announces, “It is finished.”[2]  He reconciles his friend and his mother to each other even as he’s reconciling the world with God.  We confess this very thing by faith with the words of the Apostle Paul and say in the way only Paul can say it that, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”[3]

On Good Friday we are asked several things but one of the things we are not asked is whether or not we’re sinners. The truth of our capacity for self-absorption, dehumanizing violence, denial, running away when times get hard, watching bad things happen from a distance, and not getting involved, is more than evident. Telling the truth of our sin is like giving air to a wound that needs healing. We don’t fool anyone with our “I’m a good person” routines. Thank God the “good person” thing isn’t even a thing.[4] Here’s why it’s not a thing. God is NOT in the sin accounting business. God is in the covenant business. What’s the difference? The cross as covenant pulls the truth of ourselves into the hands of the one who opens his arms to all as he is crucified. God does the heavy lifting of cross-beams and reconciliation to set us free into God and toward each other.

God is in the covenant business. Yet there’s this tendency to act as if Jesus is going to resurrect from the nastiness of the cross in an incredibly bad mood and start hurting the very world God professes to love. God is reduced to a capricious, malevolent taskmaster who requires appeasement. My friends, we reduce God to the worst of ourselves.

Thank God that the power of God is not diverted by our lack of will, our misguided distortions, or our inability to comprehend the relentless force of grace. Today we are simultaneously convicted and set free. Today our trespasses are not counted against us. Today God’s covenant is sealed, finished on a cross. Today is Friday. Let’s call it Good.  Amen.

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[1] John 19:26

[2] John 19:30

[3] 2 Corinthians 5:19

[4] Nadia Bolz-Weber. “Forgiveness.” The Nantucket Project, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9RTvRhXATo

 

 

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!

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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.

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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

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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.”