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

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

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

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermon footnotes

[1] Genesis 1:1-2 “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

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

[6] John 1:4-5

[7] Genesis 1:3-4

[8] Koester.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John 1:4

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

[12] John 1:12

[13] John 1:13


Hebrews reading

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


Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot! [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline] Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Go Ahead, Laugh…A Lot!  [OR Laughter Is A Lenten Discipline]  Mark 8:31-38 and Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17[1]

Caitlin Trussell with New Beginnings Church at Denver Women’s Correctional Facility on February 27, 2015


[sermons begins after the two Bible readings]

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a aman who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

Mark 8:31-38 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


What kinds of things make you laugh?  Really, truly laugh.  The whole breathless, belly, can’t breathe, let go kind of laughter.  For me it’s often the general silliness that comes along with being a human on the planet.  Think Kim Wayans, Jimmy Fallon, Lucille Ball, Cheech and Chong bust-a-gut silly.  A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) was recently in a grocery store the day before the big snow of a few weeks ago.  Some were calling it Snowmageddon, some were rolling their eyes, some hunkered down to wait and see.  Many were in the grocery store.  It was packed with slow-moving carts, people pondering produce, precipitation, panic, and Lord only knows what else.

My friend left her cart over by the bakery so that she would take up less room in the busy bacon section.  When she came back to her cart, someone else’s cart was in its place.  She stood there, likely looking confused.  The woman in the bakery came out and asked her if something was wrong and if she needed help.  My friend explained the cart-napping.  The bakery woman then made a store-wide announcement sounding something like this, “With so many people in the store today, please take a minute to look down and make sure you have your cart and not someone else’s.”

In the meantime, a man came up to my friend, and told her that he thought she had his cart.  In those split seconds between the overhead announcement and the man’s cart-confusion, it dawned on my friend that she was the one who had stolen someone else’s cart.  After many apologies, she looped back and found her abandoned cart waiting peacefully among the fruits and veggies.  She called to tell me the story and we both laughed ourselves breathless.  For me, the overhead announcement was the punchline.  Even as I write this I can feel the laughter start to bubble up in my chest.  For her, laughing at herself was the punchline.

And then there’s Abraham in the Bible story from Genesis.  His big moment with the Lord.  During which God makes a promise, a promise so huge that it’s given the name of covenant.  When God makes a covenant with people it is an ‘unbreakable vow’ of sorts.[2]  A promise of epic proportions that affects generations of people.  Such is the case with Abraham.  Abraham knows this and his response is to fall on his face.

In the Hebrew Bible, falling on your face is no slap-stick move.  Rather it is a position of obedience.[3]  Abraham is aligning himself with the covenant.  Just a few sentences later in the story, Abraham falls on his face again, this time while laughing.  The Lord has just told him that he and his very old wife are going to have a baby.  Abraham makes the obedient move with his body, by falling on his face, but his mind hasn’t caught up, he laughs at the silliness of the plan, God’s plan.[4]  For Abraham, laughing at God is the punchline.  That’s Abraham, mind you, a paragon of faith who can’t keep his amused confusion bottled up.

As Abraham busts a gut, his obedience is still in play.  What plays out of it?  Well, Sarah and Abraham deny themselves a life that is safe, autonomous, secure, a life that is only about the two of them.[5]  They deny themselves that life, and are drawn into a life of big relationship with God, each other, their children, their children’s children…you get the picture.  A life uncontained is a life that necessarily gets messy – that messes with your self-ness, maybe even your alone-ness.

Might this be some of what Jesus means in his rant to the crowd about denying self.  Self-denial is a common catch-phrase for the pre-Easter season of Lent.  For Abraham and Sarah, self-denial carried with it a new relationship with God and a bunch of other people.  For the crowd and disciples listening to Jesus, self-denial means taking up crosses and following Jesus, getting drawn into God’s ludicrous plan with a bunch of other people who are following Jesus too.

Self-denial and taking up crosses looks a lot like what Karoline Lewis describes as “God choosing human relationships.”[6]  This shapes out first as God choosing human relationship with us through the humanity of Jesus.  Then it shapes out as we’re thrown against each other as people in the world, compelled to reconsider what the priorities are in those relationships.

In the Bible Story from Mark’s book, Peter gets protective.  Call it worry, care, concern.  Call it whatever you want.  But Peter gets protective of Jesus.  Jesus is talking foolishness about his upcoming death and Peter can’t take it.  So, he does what any good friend would do.  He tells Jesus he’s wrong.  No belly laughs here as Jesus then calls Peter “Satan”, tells him to step aside, and then tells everyone there to get on board the self-denial train and depart toward the cross.

This moment for Peter and Jesus is like so many of our moments.  Things are going along pretty well, and then?  They’re not.  Peter’s is driven by protectiveness likely complicated by a dash of worry and a pinch of disagreement about the plan.  After all, what might it mean for Peter if Jesus’ suffering and execution actually happen.  Peter seems to want to save Jesus from his inevitable end.  But how much of Peter’s drive comes from wanting to save himself by saving his own ideas, his own timing, his own way.

How often do we do these kinds of things in our own relationships?  Resenting another person’s infringement on our ideas, our timing, our way by throwing a wrench into them with their own.  Suddenly this other person intrudes and requires negotiation, time, and an adjustment to our own plan.

You’ll hear me talk about the cross from time-to-time as something that pushes against our own ideas of the world and shatters them, as something that pushes against us and puts things to death in us so that other things have room to live.  This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  It’s not something that I can do all by myself.  Being pushed comes from being in relationships with other people.  Some of those we get to choose – like partners, best friends, counselors.  Others, we don’t get to choose – children, co-workers, church people, total strangers.  All of these people infringe on the notion that we get to do things our way.  There are moments when these people unravel us in utter frustration, not a punchline in sight.

Then there are other moments, those rare moments, those cross moments, when something in us simply crumbles, something dies.  Any investment we had in a particular outcome at the expense of a relationship is pushed into oblivion.   The recognition dawns that, more often than not, we’re with someone who is simply trying to be human just like we’re simply trying to be human.  The laughter coming a little more easily.

Jesus’ teaching in our story today teases us with the resurrection of Easter but also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[7]  As Jesus instructs the disciples to take up their cross, he’s saying in part that 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 to the new thing, the new life.  The cross invites honesty about what is dying and curiosity about what new life will look like.  So much so that it then becomes possible to stay in relationship with God and with other people.  Staying in relationship with the people closest to us rather than lashing out in fear or frustration and destroying those relationships.  With maybe even the freedom to laugh at ourselves as the punchline.


As we try to make some sense of the cross this Lenten season…

May grace run wild through Jesus’ life-death-life and through other people to shine light in your own dark places making space for new life.


And may Abraham’s laughter through obedience mirror your own as your mind is blown by the foolishness of the cross.[8]  Amen.


[1] This adds verse 17 to the Revised Common Lectionary verses for this week…because Abraham laughs, of course.

[2] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  An Unbreakable Vow is a binding spell sealing an oath so that they both parties die if the oath is broken.

[3] Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17 for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2384

[4] Ibid.

[5] Karoline Lewis. Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary texts for March 1, 2015 at WorkingPreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3542

[6] Ibid.

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

[8] Referencing 1 Corinthians 1:25 – “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom…”

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6 Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Mark 9:2-10; 2 Kings 2:1-12; and 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Trying to Bedazzle the Already Dazzling

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 15, 2015


[sermon begins after the two Bible readings]

Mark 9:2-10 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. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

2 Kings 2:1-12 Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. 7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.


[sermon begins]

In the last several weeks, different people from this congregation have asked me what I think of The Interim Process.  The number of times I’ve been asked is translates in my mind as a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of number; meaning that more of you likely have a similar question and just haven’t had a chance to ask it.  Let’s get everyone here up to speed on what is meant by “The Interim Process” before I tell you my answer to their question.

Last June 8th, Pastor John Pederson retired as the Senior Pastor of 15 years.  In late August, we welcomed Pastor Tim Drom as the Interim Senior Pastor.  In addition to working as the Senior Pastor, his main task is to guide a team of Augustana people in leading us through the transition to a calling a new Senior Pastor.  This team of people is appropriately named the Transition Team.  They are compiling information from questionnaires, staff interviews, committee interviews, and more, to be able to describe this congregation’s current moment and envision its future.  The Transition Team will hand off their work to a yet-to-be-formed Call Committee who will begin interviews.  The Interim Process ends when a newly called Senior Pastor begins their work here.

Now to circle back, what do I think about The Interim Process?  I think it’s long.  Is it long enough?  I don’t know.  Is it too long?  I don’t know.  What I do know, is that it’s long.  I don’t know many people who are able to earnestly and honestly say, “Wow, transition is great…bring it on!”

Look at Elisha.  He’s about to enter a transition and those pesky prophets almost seem to apparate in Elisha’s path.[1] They pop up in Bethel to tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  They pop up in Jericho to tell Elisha again that Elijah is going to be taken away from him.  His reply?  “Yes, I know, keep silent.”  He longs to spend every last minute of the time remaining with his mentor, Elijah.  In no way, shape, or form is Elisha looking forward to being without Elijah.  It’s as if the council of prophets is already rubbing salt into Elisha’s fledgling wound.  Not a “bring it on” in sight.

Elisha’s longing to remain with Elijah is so great that he asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit before he is taken away.  Many of us can relate to the longing for the person who gives us a sense of place and belonging.  For Elisha, Elijah is that person.

Look at Peter and the other disciples.  Six days after Jesus teaches them for the first time about his being killed and rising to life again, they go mountain climbing with him.  What must the week before must have been like after Jesus dropped that bomb on them?  It’s as easy to imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations, nerves, and worry as it is to imagine their longing for time with Jesus to themselves.

And look at Jesus.  “He was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.[2]  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Elijah and Moses.  All that dazzling Jesus light spilling out onto Peter, James, and John lighting up their longing for hope and peace.

This is no subtle Epiphany – Jesus can and will be noticed.[3]  Peter’s reaction?  Terror.  Afraid and not knowing what to say, Peter babbles on about building tents for Jesus and the two prophets.  He wants to bedazzle the moment that is dazzling in its own right.  But this is not a moment to fix in time, setting up tents to keep the elements out.[4]  This is a moment that transfigures time, shredding the flimsy notion that protection is possible as past, present, and future collide on that mountaintop.  Past, in the form of Moses and Elijah; present, in the form of Peter, James, and John; and future, in the person of Jesus, beloved Son of the eternal God, all come together.

Transfiguration means change.  Or, more to the point for us today, transfiguration means transition which also includes the element of time.  The Interim Process that began with the retirement of one Senior Pastor and will transition again with the call of a new Senior Pastor includes the element of time.  Is it long?  Yup.  Is it long enough?  We don’t know.  Is it too long?  We don’t know.  Hindsight will get us closer to 20/20 on that answer.  In the meantime, our temptation is similar to Peter’s myopia.  We’re in the thick of the action which makes immediate perspective blurry at best.

Transfiguration reorients us to Jesus who seems to hold some sway in the time-space continuum.  And we are supposed to listen to Him just as the disoriented disciples in the fog on mountaintop are called to listen.  In addition to the disciples’ call to listen, I invite us to ask the question they asked amongst themselves on their way down the mountain. And that is this, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life look for this tiny corner of God’s church-catholic called Augustana?  Both during The Interim Process and beyond it?

Let’s bring that question even closer to home because the dazzling light of Jesus shines, here and now, on you.  So, given whatever is going on in your life, I ask again, “What could this rising from the dead mean?”  If God is a transfiguring and resurrecting God, then what might new life be looking like for you?  If you’re in a particularly blurry moment, like the disciples sitting in the fog on the mountaintop, disorientation rules the day but it doesn’t rule forever.

Paul words to the Corinthians are also then for us. “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart…For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake.  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”[5]

Our God is a reorienting, transfiguring, and resurrecting God.  “What could this rising from the dead mean?”

Alleluia and Amen.

[1] A nod to the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling.  “Apparate” means to instantaneously disappear and reappear somewhere else.

[2] Mark 9:3-4

[3] Matt Skinner.  Commentary on Mark 9:2-9 for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341

[4] Karoline Lewis.  “Why We Need Transfiguration” for WorkingPreacher.org, February 15, 2015. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3527

[5] 2 Corinthians 4:1, 5-6

Mark 1:14-20 – A Divine Dare [OR When Good Plans Bite The Dust]

Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5,10 –  A Divine Dare [OR When Good Plans Bite The Dust]

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 25, 2015


[sermon begins after this Bible story]

Mark 1:14-20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


[sermon begins]

Living with a couple of teenagers, there are these things that happen in my home loosely called “homework parties.”  Sometimes they’re more party than homework although homework seems to get done somehow.  They happen on various days throughout the week around the dinner table.  There’s the requisite books, pencils, calculators that I’ve come to think of as homework camo.  There’s typically food involved – sometimes dinner, sometimes snacks, but always food.  Often I’m in the kitchen/family room either reading, writing, or watching TV.  An occasional teenager will migrate through on a quest for more food and we’ll have a bit of a chat.  Since some of these teenagers are high school seniors, the chats include tidbits about what’s next after high school.  The answers vary.  Some will continue onto college, some will find work, some aren’t sure yet.

What seems to be consistent, though, is this growing sense of urgency to figure it out.  That makes sense.  We’ve cruised through the beginning of the New Year and graduation is only part of a semester away.  Sometimes, if one of the kids seems to be lingering and the chat keeps going, I’ll share a bit of my own first try at the post-high school life.

I had just turned 17 that August before heading out the door to college.  The short of it is that it didn’t go well.  Friends were far more interesting than physics.  In June, at the end of the school year, I was still 17.  My parents came out to my college town, took me to lunch, and told me that the last 9 months had been “a poor return on their investment.”  I was invited home where the offer was to get a job and hit the books at the City College to finish my nursing degree there.  At the time, I was devastated.  Ten years later, I could see my culpability and had a vague appreciation that they had done what they thought was best.  Now as a parent of a high-school senior, I have some sense of their frustration that led to the courage it took on their part to do what they did.

When I tell this story to the teens who move in and out of my kitchen, it ends with something like this, “Remember, there are a lot of ways through this life.”  Some ways are created by our choices and some ways we figure out as things happen to us out of the blue.  Regardless, there are a lot of ways through this life.

Today’s Bible story is triggered by a trauma.  John the Baptist has just been arrested.  Prior to his arrest, John was baptizing a lot of people, including Jesus. John’s arrest starts the action.  John and Jesus are known to each other and also to the Galileans – Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Matt Skinner suggests that the four fishers had likely grown up around each other.  They had probably heard John and Jesus teaching as well as simply known each other as locals.[1]  So the action that John’s arrest instigates is connected backwards into history and relationship even as it moves forward.  And forward it does.

Jesus walks by the sea, calling the fishers off of their boats.  There’s no explanation in the text for it really.  It’s the shortest persuasive street preaching outside of Jonah’s eight word sermon to the people of Ninevah.[2]  Too bad Jonah isn’t available for some preaching here with us today.  For all intents and purposes, Jesus tells the fishers that the time is now and the kingdom of God is brushing by them – meaning, God is present.  The fishers’ are immediately inspired to leave their nets and their boats and follow.[3]  They are one more example of the many ways through this life as a Jesus follower.

Today at worship we are installing the newly elected and called members of our Congregational Council who help lead the congregation somewhat like a Board of Directors might.  A few months ago, we installed the called members of our Transition Team.  These people are collecting information from all of us in the congregation so that we might be able to describe Augustana as we are now, while trying to describe a future as we go through a call process for the next Senior Pastor.  There is some attention to detail needed while leading a congregation or calling a new pastor.  In the midst of those details, there are also things that require immediate action.  The trick for Jesus followers is figuring out a direction through the many ways our life together could go while keeping the main thing, the main thing.  The main thing being what Jesus calls “the good news of God”.  Sometimes we also call it the “gospel”.

It is the good news of God that sustains a lot of us as we figure out our way through this life.  For some of us, this may mean simply muddling through today.  There is something reassuring to me about the immediacy of Jesus-following along the lines of the Galilean fishers who likely started out with a different plan for their day that didn’t include leaving behind nets, boats, and father to follow Jesus.  How many times have you started out your day, your week, or your year with a plan?  You have a good, doable plan only to have it subverted by an entirely new thing that seems neither good nor doable?

It didn’t make sense for the Galilean fishers to follow Jesus.  Frankly, it may not make much sense for us either.  There may be ways in which our plans are being challenged and destabilized – plans that are biting the dust either by our own fault, somebody else’s fault, or merely by happenstance. Jesus dares us to trust in God’s presence regardless, in the kingdom of God coming near no matter what else comes.

Jesus calls us to follow regardless of our plans today or tomorrow.  We can’t follow perfectly in this world.  Not even those Galilean fishers can pull it off when the going gets tough around the cross.   The time is now and the kingdom of God is brushing by you, meaning God IS present.  That’s why the call to follow is connected to the good news of Jesus.   We know now what the Galilean fishers did not know then, this does end well. Thanks be to God.

[1] Matt Skinner.  Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  Mark 1:14-20, Sermon Brainwave on WorkingPreacher.org for Sunday, January 25, 2015.

[2] Jonah 3:4

[3] Again from Matt Skinner [see footnote 1]: Following Jesus is one of the main messages in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark, Jesus wants followers. In contrast with John’s gospel in which Jesus wants witnesses and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is after disciples.


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

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

Caitlin Trussell for Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2014

[sermon begins after these three Bible readings]

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

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

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


[sermon begins]

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

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

Isaiah does his fair share of dressing too:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Isaiah 61:1-3

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

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

[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Matthew 22:15-22 – On Alien Annihilation, Attack Ads, and Alternatives

Matthew 22:15-22 – On Alien Annihilation, Attack Ads, and Alternatives

Caitlin Trussell on October 19, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church


Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


Nothing draws people together like a common enemy.  Some of my go-to movies are a prime example.  Independence Day is one of them – a film in which a really creepy, roach-like alien species drops in to annihilate the world.  They hope to chew up the planet’s resources, spit it out when they’re done, and move on to the next planet a few galaxies over.  But those nasty aliens didn’t count on Captain Steve Miller – plucky marine pilot, or David Levinson – brilliant computer systems analyst.  Even more, those aliens didn’t count on all the sworn enemies of the world uniting to work together to get rid them.  Once the aliens’ ships ignite, explode, and fall to the earth, the movie-goer shares in the vicarious thrill of victory – treated to scene-after-scene of people from all kinds of countries jumping up and down in shared celebration.

Similarly, but with fewer special effects, the Pharisees and the Herodians unite against the common enemy they find in Jesus.[1]  The Pharisees have had it with Rome and the tax that is at punishing levels.  The Herodians are Roman loyalists who support the tax and are snooping around for evidence of treason against the state so they can report it back to Rome.  Together the Pharisees and Herodians have concocted the perfect trap.  If Jesus speaks positively about the tax, he’s doomed; if Jesus speaks out against the tax, he’s doomed.[2]  We can almost hear the political attack ad, complete with the music of doom and the woman’s voice-over that sounds like the same person from ad to ad:

“Jesus, who is he really?  Why won’t he pick a side and stick to it?” [Dum-da-da-dum]

Jesus goes on to evade the trap and flip it back on the ones who laid it.   The Pharisees and the Herodians were quite smart about at least one thing.  The money conversation can easily be used a trap.  A trap that many of us get caught in whether it’s about taxes or spending or giving or receiving or something else about money entirely.

In the Metro East Pastors’ Text Study this week we talked about Jesus, Pharisees, and Herodians, and the trap.  Many of us hear Jesus’ stories about money.  We hear directions to sell everything then give it all to the poor, invest wisely, do not hoard money.  We hear these stories and feel trapped by these stories along with Pharisees and Herodians.  Hearing the stories invokes feelings of panic, disconnect, moral superiority, or utter inadequacy.   We find ourselves thinking we should be saving more and investing more and giving more. Looking closely at these stories of Jesus, one of the discoveries is that we are not so much trapped by them as we are named in them.

A Lutheran Christian might call these feelings being convicted by the “law”; meaning that there is no way to give or spend or invest money without sin showing up.  Whether conversations about money trap us in shame or superiority, the root of the problem is the same.  Money becomes the lens through which we think about ourselves and our lives.  But rather than deal with the sin, confess to it, meet it head-on, we look for the common enemy.   Sometimes that common enemy is the church.  Sometimes that common enemy is the state.  Sometimes that common enemy is a faraway place or a mistrusted people. Regardless of how the common enemy is identified, they are the ones who come between people and money.

Whether shame or superiority is the driving force behind finding a common enemy, we need the reminder of the gospel.  Last week’s sermon reminded us that Jesus, thrown onto a cross in a place of shame, frees us from shame.  Frees us from shame that immobilizes us.   Frees us into the gospel that enlivens us.  For some of us, this freedom means taking a money class here on Monday nights to study and talk frankly with each other about faith, life, and money.   For others of us, this freedom means confessing a secret pile of debt to a partner and getting some help to figure that out.  For others of us, this freedom means that the word “money” takes its place alongside other things we publicly talk about and act on.  As a people called the church, this means we also talk about giving money and act on it.

For some of us in the church, giving money is practical.  Money is part of the cost of doing ministry within the congregation of Augustana.  These costs can be broken down into money given to charitable organizations, international ministry efforts, youth ministry, music ministry, building maintenance, ministry staff salaries, to name but a few.  These are ALL good things!  Some people are faithful givers as a practicality; meaning that they are connected with the Augustana congregation and so they estimate their giving for the year and give consistently.

For others of us in the church, giving money is theological.  Some say with the Psalmist that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live it…”[3]  If this is so, then money also belongs to God first before it belongs to any of us.  So then giving money becomes an act of praise and gratitude.

And still for others of in the church, giving money is relational.  People before us gave money as keepers of the faith, as stewards of God’s mysteries.  Therefore, some give money now as stewards of the faith so that the faith is available to future generations as it is to us right now.

None of these reasons to give money are mutually exclusive, nor is this an inclusive list for the all the reasons people give money to their congregation.  The point is that the Gospel promise holds even in our conversations about money.  The “law” convicts us in all kinds of ways including the ways we use money.  At the same time the gospel frees us – frees us to consider our underlying assumptions about money, giving, church, charity, stewardship, faith, all of it, as the gospel also frees us to give.  Thanks be to God.



[1] Lance Pape, Granville and Erline Walker Assistant Professor of Homiletics, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, Texas.  Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 for Sunday readings, October 19 2014. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2201

[2] Ibid.

[3] Psalm 24:1

Matthew 14: 22-33; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “The Logic of Hatred”

Matthew 14: 22-33; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “The Logic of Hatred”

Caitlin Trussell on August 3, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver


[sermon follows the Bible readings of Genesis and Matthew]

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob.  Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel [aka Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel [aka Jacob] said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.


Matthew 14:22-33    Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
[sermon starts here]

A few years ago, before I started seminary, a friend of mine and I thought it would be fun to teach a class in Lent.   We picked a book and spread it out over the Wednesdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  It was John Ortberg’s book, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”[1]  It worked because it was set up to teach over six weeks.  That right there was have the curriculum battle already won.  It also worked because Lent is a time of reflection.  The gist of the book is to consider how to take faith out for a spin, or a walk on water if-you-will, and see what Jesus will reveal about you and your faith in the midst of it all.  A good time was had by some.

In the 10 or so years since then, I’ve continued to think about faith and life and the idea of taking faith out for a spin. You can see how this metaphor works in combination with the Gospel text.  Peter climbs out of the boat during a storm, panics, starts to sink, and Jesus reaches out and pulls him up from the water.

This story of Christ’s command, Peter’s response, and his failed attempt at water-walking without Jesus is one that lends itself quickly to the metaphor spun out by Pastor Ortberg.  But I’d like to throw a line under the metaphor a bit and fish out one of the assumptions at work.  Specifically hooking an assumption about how we read the text as preparation for metaphorical water walking.  This assumption has to do with agency.

Agency is one way of thinking about whether a person is able to assert themselves into a situation and act in the world.[2]   Peter is living out of what tends to be interpreted as his own agency.  Meaning that he sees Jesus walking on the water, he wants to join Jesus on the water, so he asks Jesus to command him onto the water.  Peter’s agency results in action in the world.

In the West, agency is a big deal because it often means that we have choices and can make decisions that affect our lives.[3]  It is common to hear assumptions of agency in the language that we use in the West.

Joseph’s story is a counter-example to the popular reading of Peter.  Joseph’s brothers strip him of his agency as they strip his coat off of his shoulders.  The brothers’ frustration and jealousy boil over into a plan that first hopes to leave Joseph for dead, then switches to leave him in a pit, and finally ends up with Joseph sold into slavery and on his way to Egypt.  There is no choice, no action, no chance for Joseph to exercise agency in this situation.

If we look closely at the verse numbers we heard today, we can also see that there are verses in the middle of the story that we don’t get to read or hear.   Old Testament scholar Cameron Howard points out that these missing verses, “highlight the escalating animosity between Joseph and his brothers.”[4]  Three times the brothers hate Joseph – first because:

Jacob loves him the most; then they hate Joseph “even more” because he has special dreams, and yet again they hate Joseph “even more because of his dreams and his words”. He predicts his whole family will one day bow to him, and he is obnoxiously delighted to report that information. Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for this hubris.[5]

In the missing verses, Howard highlights, “Joseph’s culpability in the growing rift in his relationship with his brothers; the dysfunction in Joseph’s family stems not from any one source, but rather from the brokenness of all parties.”[6]

It’s the “brokenness of all parties” in Dr. Howard’s comments that caught my attention.  In part I’m thinking about the “brokenness of all parties” because there is a lot going on in the world that begs not only our attention but begs us to be part of constructive conversation and action – not the least of which is the current war in Israel and Palestine.  A crisis where there is a lot of talk about who’s right and who’s wrong; a lot of hatred disguised as logic – and children, CHILDREN, are being put in and caught in the crosshairs.  I’m thinking of “brokenness of all parties” because this kind of language is part of public rhetoric when we want to neutralize culpability, when we want to level the playing field in such a way so we don’t have to decide who might really be in the wrong.  We use the statement that “we’re all broken” and suddenly we excuse ourselves from taking a stand.

Joseph’s brothers hate Joseph because he is arrogant and obnoxious.  Their hate fuels a plan to commit murder that is then downgraded by an enterprising brother into the lesser charge of human trafficking…wait…what?!  It is a “brokenness of both parties” that culminates in an 11 against 1 forced trip to Egypt?   The danger here is that pretty soon someone is going to say that Joseph deserves it.  Many of us will look the other way as the caravan moves on down the road, believing that Joseph is a free agent who played his agency right into his own enslavement.

It is fair to say that our hatreds get tangled into our thinking.  The danger is when we start justifying our hatred as reasonable.  Hatred hides itself inside of something we now call logic.  It’s likely that our own hatreds disguised as logic aren’t as obvious as Joseph’s brothers.  But the effects of justifying our logical hatred can be just as devastating – in our own families and half-way around the world.

Peter has a moment in that boat when he wants to join Jesus on the water.  His reasons are not given.  Peter’s reasons are often imagined by Biblical readers as noble – just look how much Peter wants to be close to Jesus. But Peter’s reasons could just as easily be fueled by arrogance or showmanship.  He says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”   Peter ties his own water-walking ambition to a word of faith and he sinks like a stone.

The word of faith we proclaim can so quickly attach itself to our own plans, ambitions, and hatreds.  Effectively twisting faith to justify our own ends.  It is a common enough occurrence that many people on the outside of faith want no part of it.  Thankfully, time-and-again, Jesus continues to reach through the storm, dragging us toward life as we flail around to find footing.  Jesus secures us through a community of the cross, a group of people who in various ways cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!”   And, across the spectrum of our faith and doubt, Jesus saves…

[1] John Ortberg. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).  http://www.johnortberg.com/books/if-you-want-to-walk-on-water-youve-got-to-get-out-of-the-boat-participants-guide-with-dvd/

[2] Please note that this is a loose definition complicated by all the concepts hanging around the edges of agency such as automony, free-will, theological anthropology, ontology, bondage of the will, etc.

[3] The concept of agency holds whether it means Western thought of the 21st century or the Wild, Wild, American West.

[4] Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 at Luther Seminary’s WorkingPreacher.org for August, 3, 2014.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2167

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.