Tag Archives: Working Preacher

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

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

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4b-5

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

[7] 2 Corinthians 5:21

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

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:8b-10

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

[11] Skinner, ibid.

 

Thievery, Shadows and Light [OR Why Matthew’s Year is Good News] Matthew 24:36-44, Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 Bible readings from Matthew, Isaiah, and Psalms]

Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Isaiah 2:1-5 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3 Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Psalm 122 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

 

[sermon begins]

According to the stories of film, thievery is to be admired for all of its clever moves and precision timing.  Think Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job or Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in Tower Heist.[1]  We cheer on these anti-heroes as likeable scoundrels who are on the side of right – either against a truly evil villain or on a Robin Hood mission.  These storylines are one of my favorites as I wonder how the heist is going to be pulled off and feel the excitement of a braniac’s plan coming together.

In reality, being robbed is devastating.  It’s a total disruption of ownership and security.  One of our neighbors installed a house alarm after a break-in a few years ago.  It went off in the early morning hours yesterday, disturbing sleep and leaving me awake to wonder if there was an actual breach of hearth and home and how would any of us know if it was.  Those moments are neither fun nor intriguing in a good way.

Thievery is a strange metaphor in today’s Bible story.  Jesus tells his disciples to be watchful, staying awake like a homeowner ready to catch a thief in the night.  “Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  For those of us fed a steady diet of God’s grace from scripture, the metaphor doesn’t jive. It doesn’t help that some preachers have crafted a fearful rapture theology in the last couple hundred years from Bible verses like these.[2]

Jesus speech covers two chapters in the book of Matthew. Look closely at this small part of it.  We learn that God is in charge of the future and judgment.[3]  And he tells the disciples to keep awake and be ready.[4]  Ahhhh, here it is, that elusive good news. In judgment, Jesus offers hope.  Wait, what?!!  Yes, in words of judgment, Jesus offers hope.

As Christians, we sometimes act as if God’s arrival in Jesus has nothing to do with how much God loves the world.  Is God’s love so incomprehensible to us that we figure Jesus is going to show up someday in a really bad mood from that ugly cross incident?  Like Jesus is a time-limited offer akin to a Black Friday sale. If ever there was a corruption of the good news in Jesus, that would be it.

Isaiah as well as the psalmist may be able to shed some light on the connection between judgment and hope.  Isaiah describes many people going up to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s path.[5]  God is “judge” and “arbiter” among nations and people who end up beating swords into plowshares, striking war from their to-do list.  The psalmist sings of going up to the Lord’s house, to the thrones of judgment, and praying for peace.  Isaiah and the psalmist describe pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage meaning journey.  In their case, a journey towards God’s judgment with the end result of peace.  Peace between people. Peace between nations.

We are on a pilgrimage of sorts well, drawn here together in the Lord’s house. We begin the season of Advent today with the first of many readings from Matthew’s gospel over the next year.[6]  Matthew tends to focus on Jesus’ teaching in comparison to, say, Mark who highlights Jesus’ actions.[7]  Matthew amplifies the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ teaching so that we hear historic promise as it applies to the present.  This includes the hope that God’s judgment will turn us around.  That somehow there will be redemption from the mess we have made.[8]  Seeing the light, we can’t hide in our own shadows, cloaked in ignorance that shields us from the messes we make.[9]

The very first chapter of Matthew opens with genealogy – person after person whose messy lives show up in the Hebrew Bible.[10]  Seeing their names makes me want to re-read their stories, the familiar and not so familiar. The full list includes patriarchs of the faith who verify Jesus’ Jewishness – Abraham, Isaac, Jesse, and King David.  The genealogy also includes, contrary to custom, four ancestresses whose Jewishness is contested – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[11] Just as Matthew begins Jesus’ story by naming them, I encourage you to read one, two, or more of their stories this week as advent begins.  The ancestresses and patriarchs named alongside each other reminds us that God disrupts expectations as the promises made to Abraham are expanded to all people through Jesus.

God is not laying out a program but making an announcement. Showing up wherever and however God would like to show up, on thief’s timing. That is the promise of judgment that we lean into this Advent.  The light of God’s judgment gives us hope that we can no longer hide in our own shadows.  Advent is a chance to think about why this is good news in our own lives and in the life of the world.  It’s a chance to ask questions as we wait to celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Why is a savior needed?  Why does God slipping into skin make any difference in my life or the life of the world?

As Jesus people, God emboldens us by faith to proclaim light and peace.  We need each other as church to remind us of God’s promise to show up and we are needed in a world desperate for good news.   Christ’s return means that there is more to our story and God’s story than what we’ve already experienced.[12]  As Christians, though, we don’t turn our attention solely beyond history.  Trusting in God’s mercy, Christian hope generates a commitment to the good of this world God loves so much, a commitment to the people God loves so much.

So we ask God to grant to us who are still in our pilgrimage, and who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, the Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to God’s light and life.

Dear people, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.[13] No longer hiding in our own shadows but committed to the world that God so loves.

Amen and thanks be to God.

_______________________

[1] The Italian Job (2003) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317740/?ref_=nv_sr_2

Tower Heist (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0471042/?ref_=nv_sr_1

[2] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2005). http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/90534.The_Rapture_Exposed

[3] Matthew 24:36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.”

[4] Matthew 24:42…44  “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming…therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

[5] Isaiah 2:3

[6] Gospel of Matthew, Year A of the three year cycle of Bible readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. In general, I’m a fan of the lectionary because it highlights texts we might otherwise choose to ignore. It’s a good idea to also check out what is not included. Read more about the lectionary at http://www.elca.org/lectionary

[7] Arland Hultgren, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Luther Seminary. “Preaching from Matthew’s Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew” for Working preacher.org on December 3, 2007.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1639

[8] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, for Sermon Brainwave Podcast (SB512) on texts for the first Sunday in Advent. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=816

[9] Pastor Deb Coté, preacher text study gem.

[10] Matthew 1:1-17 does not appear in the Sunday readings for Year A (see note 5 above).

[11] Douglas R. A. Hare.  Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 6.

[12] Arland Hultgren, ibid.

[13] Isaiah 2:5 “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”

Romans 13:8-14  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

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.

Flawed People in a Wonderful World – Luke 17:5-10, Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4, 2 Timothy 1:1-14

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 2, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings, the 2 Timothy reading follows the sermon]

Luke 17:5-10 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

2:1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

[sermon begins]

Rob and I were engaged about 20 years ago.  We’d been in Colorado a little while at that point. We talked wedding possibilities that ran the gamut between eloping to having a full wedding, finally settling on a family wedding at The Chapel at Red Rocks.[1]  About 40 of our family from the East, West, and Mid-west attended.  The first dance music was to be “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.  It had made a resurgence around that time.  Even though we ultimately decided on a back yard reception without dancing, I still think of it as our wedding song.  The song opens with a rose-colored glasses moment perfect for a wedding:

“I see trees of green, red roses too

I see them bloom for me and you

And I think to myself what a wonderful world…”[2]

I’ve recently learned more of the story behind “What a Wonderful World.”  Originally released as a B-side single in 1967, it was a commercial flop.[3]  Armstrong was asked to sing the song by its two Jewish songwriters. Their hope was that Armstrong’s wide appeal would build bridges during a time when America was experiencing race riots and curfews in over 100 cities including attacks on Jewish shops.  The third verse of the song sets a different vision for living together:

“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

And also on the faces of people going by

I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do

They’re really saying I love you.”

Accusations flew that the song glossed over serious problems. [Here’s what] “Armstrong said as he introduced a live performance of the song – words which are best read with his gravelly delivery in mind…‘Some of you young folks been saying to me: “Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?” But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is: see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”[4]

Which is it?  Does the song gloss over real problems or does Armstrong sing about something real?  A similar question could be asked about the additional faith that the disciples are demanding from Jesus.  Does faith gloss over real problems or by faith are we proclaiming something real?  As a preacher and a pastor, this kind of question is regularly posed to me from people in all kind of situations.  I hear a lot about why faith is difficult for people.  And I wonder if, like the disciples in the Bible story from Luke, our ideas and questions about faith are generated from a misleading premise.

Just before the Bible verses in Luke we hear today, Jesus challenges his followers to see and help people who suffer, to not cause other people to stumble in their faith, and to forgive and forgive and forgive again.[5]   Then we get to the apostles pleading for more faith, literally in the Greek “add faith to us!”[6]  Who can blame them?  Jesus raises the bar high on discipleship telling them to relieve deep suffering, give away money and possessions, and forgive each other.  A bit more faith to get these things done would be awesome!  Most of us would like a heap more faith if it actually worked that way.

The apostles plead for more faith as a group – “Increase our faith!”  They ask as a group.  This is unfamiliar ground for most of us.  We tend to think of faith as an individual rather than a group thing.  In an individual way, I can wonder if I have any faith or enough faith or certain faith. I can analyze faith as an equation, that faith = proof + certainty.  This is a misleading premise for faith.

And this is the premise I used for faith when Rob and I were married. We even found a minister that would do the wedding without mentioning Jesus. At that point, I’d been out of the church upwards of ten years.  Faith in Jesus was something that didn’t compute. I couldn’t figure out why he computed for other people. In the following few years we baptized our two kids in Rob’s Lutheran tradition and we started going to church (a story for a different day).  Confusion reigned for me for a while as the preacher talked about a God who loves us through Jesus without condition – flawed, fragile, and messed up as we are.

It began to compute but it was an unfamiliar calculus.  The quick sum total was this…faith wasn’t about me.  Well, of course, it was in some ways.  In the ways I became more comfortable confessing to hurts I cause, real struggles of being human and screwing things up but still needing God’s love in the face of those flaws, that sin. And in the ways God’s good work in me is revealed.  Sinner and saint.  But more and more, faith became something about God, the people of God, and the wonderful world that God loves – claimed by faith rather making a claim about faith.

Being claimed by faith sounds like Habakkuk’s cries against violence and trusting in God’s faithfulness.[7]  Being claimed by faith names the living faith of ancestors like Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.[8]  Being claimed by faith announces a wonderful world, created and sustained by God for all people.  At the same time, being claimed by faith tells the truth about suffering, our part in it and Jesus’ challenge to us to relieve suffering, prevent it when possible and be present with people when it’s not.

We remind each other that God’s faithfulness overflows in the grace given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[9]  Not alone and wondering if each of our individual faith-o-meters are full enough.  Rather, as a group called the church living the faith that claims us through the cross of Christ and then frees us towards God and each other.  Living faith that is smaller than a mustard seed as signs of God’s love for each flawed and fragile person in this troubled and wonderful world.

 

[1] The Chapel at Red Rocks: http://www.chapelatredrocks.com/

[2] George Davis Weiss as “George Douglas” and Bob Theile, songwriters. “What a Wonderful World.” 1967. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_a_Wonderful_World

[3] This paragraph and the Louis Armstrong quote that follows are referenced from, “Smashed Hits: How Political is ‘What a Wonderful World?” published December 10, 2011 on BBCnews.com. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16118157

[4] Ibid, BBC article above.

[5] In order: Luke 16:19-31 (challenge against indifference), Luke 17:1-2 (challenge to teach well), Luke 17:3-4 (forgive).

[6] Audrey West, Adjunct Professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago. Commentary on Luke 17:5-10 for WorkingPreacher.org, October 2, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3028

[7] Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4

[8] 2 Timothy 1:1-14

[9] 2 Timothy 1:9

Timothy 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

 

 

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Matthew 5:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17, and 1 John 3:1-3 – For That Is What You Are

Caitlin Trussell on All Saints Sunday – November 2, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

[sermon starts after these three Bible readings/paragraphs]

Matthew 5:1-13  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Revelation 7:9-17   After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

1 John 3:1-3   See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

 

[sermon begins]

Ahhhh, the Book of Revelation from which our first reading comes.  Such comfort, consolation, and encouragement to be found.  Seriously, though, it’s a shame we shy away from the Book of Revelation.  Granted, a lot of it is uninterpretable – although rapture theologians won’t let that stop themselves from trying to leave us behind.[1]  But the book itself is written to comfort people who have been through a “great ordeal.”  An ordeal that leaves them in need of a comfort only God can give.

And, oh, what a people.  The writer tells us that, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”   This text gives us no way to imagine a limitation because it is all inclusive – “be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, linguistic, economic, and on and on the list goes.” [2]

The last verses of the Revelation text reads, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”   It is easy and tempting to try to minimize this promise of comfort.  I was leading a Bible Study at the women’s prison a few years ago.  There I stood, waxing on about different takes on heaven, when a woman from the back row raised her hand.  She told me it was all well and good that I had time to play with those ideas but she believed in a place and time when there would be no more hunger, no more thirst, and no more tears.  She counted on it.  She ended up being the preacher God put in our midst that day.   And she is definitely a saint.

The woman from the prison doesn’t fit the description of “saint” as it’s more commonly used to mean a “best-ever-super-great person.”   But she does fit into the saints who are part of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”  She is a saint who defiantly bears hope in the face of all things to the contrary.

Speaking of contrary things, Lutheran Confessions was a class I had to take in seminary to become a pastor.  The class isn’t quite as racy as the title makes it out to be.  For that you would have to turn to The Confessions of St. Augustine.[3]  But there were some gems.  One of them was the professor.  He liked a good argument and found plenty of them.  His passion for arguing was matched by his passion for walking into any situation regardless of the discomfort involved – his or anyone else’s.  At one point he whipped off his pastor’s collar, waved it around in the air, and told us that with this collar we were able to walk into any situation, bearing hope, where many would fear to go.  Well, I’d argue with him on that – which of course he’d love.

I’d argue that it is by our baptism into Christ that we are able to walk into any situation, EVEN IF we are afraid to go.  It’s not the collar.  It’s the cross that bears all things, even death. The author of the reading from First John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

As children of God we are saints by baptism, not by our own action.  At the same time we are sinners, bearing the hope that has been put in us through the Jesus’ death on a cross.  This sainthood is Christ’s to give and it is given freely.  Through his gift, we defiantly bear hope and bring peace in the face of all things to the contrary.

What are these contrary things, these things that would defy hope?  Let’s try those verses in Matthew to answer that question.  Jesus tells the disciples that the kingdom is revealed into through a poor spirit, grief, hunger, thirst, persecution, and false accusations.  How do we bear hope?  We bear hope by being with people.  I hear these stories from you time and again.

You’ve sat in the hallway at a nursing home waiting to visit someone and take the time to hear another resident’s story because they need to tell it to somebody.

You’re the one who’s child died and you let someone sit with you while you felt everything and nothing all at once.

You’ve been with a friend who spouse has left them.

You’re the one whose “no” meant “yes” to someone who hurt you and then you needed to trust somebody else to help you heal.

You’ve been with the undocumented family who has no home.

You’re the victim of war who was caught in the crossfire and taken to safety in a new place with new people.

You’ve been with each other in places that seem the most forsaken by God because, if the cross means anything, it means God shows up in the worst possible places and situations.

Grief, poor spirits, all the contrary things, are not mentioned by Jesus as things to achieve and wear as a badge of honor.  These are the hard things that just happen in life.  Hard things that we get to bear with each other and for each other.  I get to show up for you, you get to show up for me, we get to show up bearing hope for each other in situations that seem utterly hopeless.  This is true when we don’t have words that fix it.  Perhaps it’s true especially when we don’t have words that fix it.  What’s most important is showing up for people regardless.  Showing up, bearing hope, does not imply that we’re not afraid.  It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to pay some kind of emotional or physical price for showing up.  Showing up, bearing the suffering and bearing a defiant hope, is a gift we give each other in the face of really hard times; because it is a gift first given to us.

See what love the Father has given you, children of God, for that is what you are…

Jesus shows up for the multitude, in the multitude, for you, and in you.

Children of God, for that is what you are, be at peace – the kingdom of heaven is yours.



[1] Rapture theology is a fairly recent historical development dating to the early 1800s.

[2] Eric Mathis, Professor of Music and Worship, Samford University.  Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17 for November 2, 2014 at WorkingPreacher.org.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2182

[3] Saint Augustine.  The Confessions of Saint Augustine.  (Project Gutenberg, eBook, June 2002) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?”

Genesis 32:22–31; 33:1–12 “Improvement versus Healing – Is There a Difference?” [Psalm 17:1–7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:13-21]

Caitlin Trussell on July 27, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Genesis 32:22-31 through 33:1-12 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

33:1 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
4But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. 5When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” 6Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; 7Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. 8Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” 9But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” 10Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. 11Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
12Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.”

 

This is our fifth and final week with the story Jacob and Esau.[1]  A good time to press pause and recap the tale.  Jacob and Esau are twins, Jacob is born second and comes out clutching the heel of his brother.  As the boys grow up, they each become a favorite of one parent – Esau favored by his father, Isaac, and Jacob favored by his mother, Rebekah.  There are manipulations that begin with Esau selling his firstborn birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew and culminate with Jacob lying to his blind father, telling Isaac that he is Esau so that Jacob receives the deathbed blessing of their father.

As you might imagine, hell hath no fury like a brother scorned.  Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s final betrayal includes his spoken vow to kill Jacob.  Rebekah catches wind of Esau’s plan so the next thing Jacob does is packs up and travels a long distance to Haran to get married.  On the way to Haran, he dreams his almost-famous Jacob’s ladder dream in which he hears from God.  In Haran, he spends seven years trying to marry Rachel, is sneakily married to Leah instead, and works another seven years to finally marry Rachel too.  Jacob stays in Haran and becomes father to 12 sons through Leah, Rachel, and their servants Zilpah and Bilhah.[2]

“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”[3]

We pick up the tale this morning after the passing of many years.  Jacob acquires wealth and status in Haran that includes his 12 sons as well as droves of animals of all kinds.  In the verses just before ours today, God tells Jacob it’s time to leave Haran and head back to his home country.  Anyone remember who and what Jacob left behind in his hometown?  Yup, Esau and his fury-laden vow to kill Jacob are still out there.

Jacob is afraid of Esau’s revenge.  Before heading out for his homeland, Jacob sends messengers ahead of him and his family.  These messengers take along droves of oxen, donkeys, flocks, and slaves as an attempt to curry favor with Esau.  The messengers return telling Jacob only that “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.”[4] Jacob sends more droves of animals to appease his brother Esau, this time including goats, cows, and camels.

And then Jacob is alone.  Alone with his thoughts and his fears.  But not alone for long as a wrestling match breaks out between Jacob and a man.  They wrestle the night away.   Jacob’s hip was put out of joint by the other man but still Jacob hangs on to the break of dawn.  Here’s one of my favorite parts of the whole story.  The man asks Jacob his name and Jacob says, “Jacob.”  Many years ago, when asked his name by his father, Jacob said, “I am Esau, your firstborn.”[5]  Now he comes full circle, Jacob is about to meet his brother after years of manipulation, including the latest gift of animal droves, and Jacob says his own name in a seemingly unprecedented moment of honesty.

“What is your name?”  “Jacob.”

This moment of naming himself is followed by a blessing from God and an emotional reunion with Esau.  This moment of naming himself followed by the forgiveness between the brothers has me wondering about the difference between improvement that comes with maturity versus being healed.  Is Jacob’s transformation simply because he is older, wiser, and afraid?  Or is Jacob’s transformation a healing?

My husband Rob and I just wrapped up watching a History of the Eagles[6] – the iconic American rock band that formed in the 1970s, disbanded, and regrouped in the 1990s to a lot of fan enthusiasm and more top-selling albums.  The retrospective includes the musicians themselves and those who know them dishing on the music as well as the egos, the money, and the drugs that fractured friendships and ultimately the band itself in its earlier days.  Toward the end of the documentary, the band is getting ready to launch its 1994 reunion tour.   Glenn Fry, one leader of the band, is asked this interview question: “How have you changed as musicians over the years, both as a group and individually?”  Fry replies, “Well, your whole mandate is just to improve, you know, life is about improvement  whether it’s as a musician or as a singer or as a songwriter or, you know, all the other different hats we all wear; hopefully we’re just getting better.”

In the throes of God wrestling Jacob this week, I am caught by Fry’s use of the words “improvement” and “getting better.”  I am caught because even in the face of what is going on for Jacob having to go meet Esau, he was still working all the angles in the hope of being forgiven.  And yet, in the end, healing for Jacob launched into the mix from outside of himself – from God’s hip-striking smack-down to Esau’s running embrace.

Joe Walsh, one of the Eagles’ guitarists and singers, talks in the documentary that he knew he was headed toward an early death from an addiction to alcohol and cocaine.  He describes his addiction beginning as an inspirational high and then the rest of the years spent chasing the high with no sign of inspiration in sight.  At the time of the Eagles reunion in ’94, Glenn Fry and Don Henley went to Joe Walsh, inviting him into the band’s reunion on the condition that he get sober.  Hearing their invitation as a last chance at life, Mr. Walsh takes them up on it and is driven to rehab.

There is a slippery line between an invitation to life and a person’s response to the invitation.  Just like there is a slippery line between the way Glenn Fry talks about improvement versus the healing that Jacob experiences through being wrestled by God and embraced by Esau.  There is a tendency in some circles of culture to make the purpose of life about an improvement project some might call the pursuit of happiness, rather than the purpose of life being something else entirely.

As a pastor, people talk to me from time to time about their addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex…you name it and people are struggling with it.  Maybe you yourself are addicted or someone you love is struggling with addiction.  One of the big questions people ask is whether or not God actually forgives them for the pain inflicted from that person and their addicted place.  The answer to that question is an unequivocal, “Yes!”  The next question is often whether or not the people in their life are going to be able to forgive them too.  My answer that question is, “I don’t know.”  There are consequences to hurting people and the hard work necessary to make amends to those who have been hurt.  In the absence of chemical or other addiction, Jacob seems to understand that his impending meet-and-greet with Esau includes making amends.

There are consequences to non-addictive behaviors that hurt other people and there are consequences from the pain heaped on self and others by the illness of addiction.  Jacob’s story offers a glimmer of hope as he says his own name in the wrestling match and throws himself on the mercy of God and on the mercy of his brother.  The line between improvement and healing may be blurred but there is no line between God’s mercy and the healing that flows through it.  After the wrestling match, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face…”[7]  After the reunion with Esau, Jacob says to his brother, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”[8]

Like Jacob who holds onto God as a desperate act and won’t let go, today we pray with the Psalmist…

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior…[9]



[1] Amy Merrill Willis on Genesis 25:19-34 at WorkingPreacher.org on July 13, 2014.  “Genesis 25:19-43 begins a group of narratives that biblical commentators usually call “the Jacob Cycle” and which the Hebrew Bible calls “the toledot (generations or descendants) of Isaac” (25:19).  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2149

[2] One of my Hebrew Bible professors liked to tells us that stories like Jacob and Esau’s story survive through hundreds and thousands of years, in part, because they are really good stories.  The characters’ twists and turns capture us into the drama with them and we are able to see ourselves in the Biblical story.

[3] Days of Our Lives, a daytime television drama on NBC known as a “soap opera”, begins with these opening words.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98T3PVaRrHU

[4] Genesis 32:6

[5] Genesis 27:18-19

[6] http://www.eaglesband.com/store/product/history-of-the-eagles-3-dvd-set

[7] Genesis 32:30

[8] Genesis 33:10

[9] Psalm 17:6-7

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

February19, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Mark 9:2-9 – Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

 

 

I love the way the church marks time – around the life of Jesus and around the life of the Christian community.  I spent my early childhood in a Christian tradition that marked time in this churchy way but then grew up in one that didn’t and as a result now I’m very aware of being in time differently than many of my friends and family.  It took me awhile to get used to the liturgical year but I developed a love of this alternative way of moving through the world and moving through time.

The church year begins oh-so-softly with the flicker of candles in Advent, moves into the huge fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, of Emmanuel “God with Us”, followed by the festive 12 days of Christmas and then floods us these last seven weeks of Epiphany with all that Light, Light and more Light of Jesus’ life until we find ourselves here, at his Transfiguration, as Jesus’ very being dazzles on a mountaintop.

Jesus takes us with him and leads us up the mountain with Peter, James and John until we’re by ourselves and he is transfigured before our eyes, becoming dazzling white.  And, not only are we with Jesus, we’re with the heavy hitters of the past – Moses and Elijah who are, by their very being, challenging our ways of loving God and loving each other.  In the midst of all this, what has become of Peter, James and John?  Being there has terrified them because, well, who wouldn’t at least be on edge in this razzle-dazzle, time mash-up, supernatural Light show?

But Peter is reacting in this moment at a deeper level of terror too.  He is an observant Jew who celebrates the Feast of Booths, one of the three biblically mandated festivals in the Hebrew Scriptures that he himself celebrates year after year.[1]  He is also a good church historian one who is aware of the Jewish expectation laid out in Zechariah.  He remembers the temple talk about this “festival that was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom.”[2]

Put more bluntly, Peter is sure that Moses and Elijah being there is a sign of the end of the world as he knows it.  A world that God is now going to reclaim fully and completely in one massive, redeeming fell swoop.  On top of this mountain, Peter has caught the cosmic shift, and Peter is, quite respectfully, not going to let Moses and Elijah build their own booths for the big event – even if he is terrified!

Listen to what Peter says when he doesn’t know what to say because of his terror, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.”  I imagine Peter thinking that it’s good to be with Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the same time that it is good to be witnesses to this great cosmic moment in God’s time.  I can imagine him thinking that, “it is good to be me in this place with these people because I’ve been prepared to know what’s happening and I know what to do.”  I can imagine this because I have felt that clarity of being in the right place at the right time.  And I have also felt the longing of wanting to be there.  And then I began to wonder how much of Peter’s clarity about it being good to be there is born of Peter’s longing to be in the right place at the right time.  And then I began to wonder about how good it is for Peter to be up there on the mountain with the big three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  Peter, named by Jesus as the Rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, up there on that mountain in terror and this was good?  Peter, the Rock of the Church, terrified.

This Transfiguration story, especially Peter’s terrified role in it, has me wondering about the church in our time.  There’s a six-minute video making the rounds on Facebook this week of Diana Butler Bass’ perspective on the church in our uncertain age.[3]  She studied and taught American Religious History for many years and has been thinking a lot about being church in the 21st century.  The point that I carried away from her interview is that there are many outside of the church that still want to connect with God and still love the tradition of the church in some way but are not finding the connection.  She argues that faith is in the longing of everyone around us – us being the church.  While I think she and I would have a wonderful conversation about the origin of faith, more importantly in this moment, I want to suggest that we in the church long as well – perhaps similarly to Peter on that mountaintop.

We long for God to fulfill God’s promises – or at least our understanding of them – and we want the traditions of our ancestors to point us in the right direction.

We long for the task at hand to be straightforward and doable.  Like Peter, right? – Age of Shalom, Festival of Booths, let’s build some booths!

I hear this longing from pastors about the upcoming bishop election for this synod – that we need to elect someone who can imagine us into a new future for the church and tell us how to get there in a straightforward and doable way.

Let’s check back in on the mountaintop.  After Peter’s moment of brilliant clarity, while the terror is still a fresh, metallic taste on his tongue and his words about the good of “being here” hang in awkward silence, the cloud overshadows them – clouding out the vision, the light and Peter’s words – shrouding the small band on the mountain.  A cloud with supernatural sound effects no less, as the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  And the terror continues as they look around and see only Jesus.

So, like Peter, some in the church are made aware of God’s ultimate freedom to act in ways that dazzle the senses whether on a mountaintop or otherwise.  And, like Peter, some in the church are looking around and seeing only Jesus.  Jesus, who leads them down from the mountain to a very different hill – one loaded with crosses, and to a very different kind of terror – one loaded with death.   And, as church, we join Peter in this tension, caught between God’s dazzling power and God’s death on a cross, wondering what it is that we’re supposed to do now.

And it is right here, smack dab in the middle of that tension, that the Spirit gifts us in the scripture.  Jesus is the one who takes Peter, James and John and leads them up the mountain and back down again.  And Jesus is the one who tells them they can tell the story only after he has risen from the dead.  Jesus’ caution to the disciple teases us with resurrection of Easter but the trip down the mountain also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[4]  The way to new life is through the cross.  I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.”  And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”   The cross is the way through.  Peter is right.  It IS good for us to be here both tethered by tradition and set free…because Jesus is Lord and he unleashes freedom through the cross.  Jesus gifts freedom and the Spirit’s inspiration to imagine what might be next for you and for the church including the freedom to fail along the way.

Jesus, God with us full of life and light, stood on a holy precipice, a point of no return on his way to a death that reveals God who relinquished that life so that new life is possible.

Jesus, God with us, reassures us that we do not stand alone when staring downhill at the crosses that would claim us – whether they are ones upon which the church or we ourselves hang.

 

Jesus’ dazzles when he hangs with us in our terror,

shedding light in our darkest nights,

comforting us when we fall,

revealing the truth of our weakness, and

illuminating our need so that, when the cloud lifts,

we see only Jesus.

 

 

 



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot

[2] Sarah Heinrich on Working Preacher 2012 for Mark 9:2-9. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012

[3] Diana Butler Bass on Day1http://day1.org/3655-does_the_church_have_a_future__diana_butler_bass

[4] Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#