The Life of the Party [OR The Sabbath is for Delight, Worship, and Laying Aside Ordinary Work]

 

**sermon art: Pentecost Dance by Glenda Dietrich Moore at glendadietrich.com/brighter-pentecost-dance-web/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 2, 2024

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; there’s also one at the end of the sermon]

Mark 2:23 – 3:6 One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

[sermon begins]

I love a good party. Party clothes. Party food. Party drink. Party people. Laughter. Music. Dancing. New People. Longtime friends. Friendly strangers. I am still me, of course. We’re talking pretty chill parties. Party timing can be tough for us early to bed, early to rise peeps. One of my personal favorites was a sunrise party in late summer complete with classical guitar. Regardless, I love a party.

In our reading today, Jesus helps us imagine what it’s like at God’s party. God’s party, a.k.a. the Sabbath, was originally for Jews until the Christians crashed it. “From sundown on Friday until Saturday’s sunset, Jews encouraged one another to enjoy a day of delight (Nehemiah 8:9–12; Isaiah 58:13–14), worshiping the Lord (Isaiah 66:23; Ezekiel 46:3), laying aside ordinary work (Amos 8:5), and fighting only in self-defense (1 Maccabees 2:29–41).”[1] God’s party was a group identity. You knew who you were when you showed up. It said something about the Jews because the sabbath said something about God. For thousands of years before Jesus was born, it was quite unique that the sabbath was for every Jew and their animals and the strangers in their towns. The party wasn’t just for the fancy people. The party was for everyone.

Observing the Sabbath and keeping holy made the list of THE 10 Commandments. More than a recommendation to nap, the sabbath command is a surprising call to delight, to worship, and to lay aside ordinary work. 500 years ago, our denomination’s namesake, Martin Luther, argued that Christian worship is a celebration, not a sacrifice. For today’s purposes, I’d like to suggest that worship is a party. Granted, our style of worship makes for a pretty chill party, but it’s a party, nonetheless. See? Party clothes. Party food. Party drink. Party people. Laughter (even if it IS hiding behind our quiet smiles). Music. Dancing (can we call swaying “dancing?”). New People. Longtime friends. Friendly strangers.

Worship is a wide tent party. No invitations needed although invitations mean more people know that they can come to the party. Along that line, please note your announcement page for PRIDE events coming up. So many of our queer family, friends, and friendly strangers have a hard time trusting that the Jesus party is for them. And with very good reason as their lives have been threatened for much less. Yet even Jesus says that the sabbath is meant for humankind. God’s party is for everyone.

Here at Augustana, we say that, “Celebrating God’s grace, we welcome everyone to worship Jesus.” For us, God’s party IS a Jesus party. Each of us may have a slightly different idea about who Jesus is, but it’s possible that we could agree that Jesus is the Life of the Party. In that regard, it’s been interesting planning my Festival Blessing and Rite of Installation that we’re celebrating this Saturday. Some of our party guests are unchurched. Some of our party guests are multifaith, meaning they are a part of other religions that not Christianity. Is it possible to throw a Jesus party that is comfortable for everyone? Unlikely. But can we throw a Jesus party that gives non-Jesus people a glimpse as to why we throw a Sunday morning Jesus party every week? Maybe. We’ll see. We’re certainly going to try. It is really nice to have something fun to celebrate with a party Spirit.

My installation, just like every Sunday morning, will be traditionally Lutheran. And just like every Sunday morning, all of us Augustana folks are both guests and hosts. Guests because it’s really a Jesus party. We come for ourselves, to delight in God’s love and mercy for us. And we come to be challenged by God’s love to love our neighbors as ourselves as we confess where we fall short. More than guests, we are also hosts because we are a public church. Anyone can come to worship. Just like when we throw a party at our home and stick around to make sure that snacks are refilled and that extra ice is available, we as a congregation host new visitors and family members and neighbors who may walk through the door not knowing what to expect.

It may be hard to fathom but my pastoral conversations with people here run the gamut from people who are showing up to the Jesus party for the very first time to people who can trace their family’s generations back to small German churches where Martin Luther once preached. Those of you who have been around awhile, imagine not speaking the theological language of grace that we take for granted. Words and ideas that seem so simple are actually layered with subtext, interpretations, and complex theological histories over centuries, generated by brilliant academic minds and, we can only hope, faithful hearts.

Those dear Pharisees in the Bible story today were highly regarded in their Jewish communities. They were the keepers of the tradition in the first century, the patriarchs of rabbinic Judaism through which Jesus learned the Torah, what we call the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Torah contains the 10 Commandments including our First Reading from the Bible’s book of Deuteronomy. The Pharisees reaction against Jesus’ teachings parallel our own reactions when our theological hackles are raised. It’s easy to understand their conspiracy with the Herodians to rid themselves of the free-spirited Jesus when we too conspire against people’s ideas that seem the opposite of our own. And once we attach unwanted ideas to other people, it makes it easier to kick them out of the party. Instead of greeters to the celebration, we become bouncers. And it happens, just like that [snap].

So we hold our host status lightly at the Jesus party. After all, we are only hosts as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. Five years ago, we were barely talking about livestream worship. Three Augustana folks began a quiet conversation about it in the summer and fall of 2019 in order to better serve our home-centered folks. The discussion and the quality of the cameras picked up steam when the pandemic hit. If you had asked me five years ago whether I’d be presiding over communion, in which livestream worshipers were invited to commune at home with bread or cracker and wine or juice, I would have said “no” and questioned the theological premise for such a thing. Today, I talk to people who utterly depend on livestream worship to be a part of our Jesus party. Their gratitude knows no bounds. I talk with other people for whom livestream worship is how they find us and get comfortable worshiping before they ever step through the doors. In a world where the church has done so much harm, it’s helpful for some to find a quieter worship entry.

We still need to be in person together as much as possible – to sing, to serve and receive communion, to greet, to usher, and to welcome new people to the party. Robust and thriving worship means showing up together and being community together. And…AND, much to my surprise, we’re trusting that the Holy Spirit can expand the Jesus party, the party food, into people’s bellies we don’t get to see or haven’t met yet. As the writer of Second Corinthians puts it, “For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of 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; but we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

In other words, what’s to stop the Holy Spirit from blowing where it will to include people in the Augustana community that we here in person don’t get to see? Nothing. The Holy Spirit will stop at nothing to shine God’s light into the darkness. It goes a long way to remember that we are both guests and hosts of the Jesus party on the sabbath. All of us enter the party by the grace of God. Every single one of us. It can be hard to remember that we host on behalf of the One who calls us to the sabbath to delight, to worship, and to lay aside ordinary work – the Holy One who is the Life of the Party…or, more accurately, the Life – Death – Life of the party. Thanks be to God. And amen.

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[1] C. Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ. Commentary on Mark 2:23—3:6 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary. For June 2, 2024.

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2 Corinthians 4:5-12 We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of 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.
7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

 

One Song [OR A Sermon for Ascension Sunday – An Odd Festival Indeed] Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:1-11, and Ephesians 1:15-23

 

**sermon art: Fabric Banner by Ken Phillips, Textile and Liturgical Artist in residence, Regis University, Denver, Colorado

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 12, 2024

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 24:44-53 [Jesus said to the eleven and those with them,] “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
50Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Ephesians 1:15-23 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The Acts reading is at the end of the sermon…

[sermon begins]

You may not yet know, but Augustana has a new senior pastor… … As your new Senior Pastor, working with you as people of the gospel, dear sinner-saints of Augustana in this time and place, is an honor and fills me with joy. Between last year and this year, my head is spinning, and my heart is full.

One of the funny wrinkles last week was identifying my start date as Senior Pastor. Having been here for eleven years as one of your pastors makes a start date sound absurd. Nonetheless, due diligence determined that last Sunday, May 5th, the day that you voted as a congregation to affirm my call, and my acceptance of that call, is the most accurate, memorable, and auspicious as it WAS Orthodox Easter 2024 AND Cinco de Mayo! Bishop Jim will be with us on Saturday June 8th for my formal Installation. I hope that you can be here with Rob, me, and even my mom to be a part of that blessing over this new season in Augustana’s life together.

While that story of the moment may be interesting, it will surprise no one here when I say that I find the gospel of Jesus THE most compelling story of all time. Who doesn’t love a good story? I know I do. And the best ones made their way into the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Way back in the day, stories told over and over by the best story tellers in the land, and handed down through the generations, would have made my heart sing while laughing and crying with the rest of the village who came out to hear them. In these modern times, novels and movies are also my jam. My favorites are re-read and re-watched both for comfort and to mine them anew for layered meanings and clever turns of phrase.

Imagine with me a movie scene set in a 1950s recording studio.[1] White walls, sparse furnishings, basic tech, and a small band made up of three quiet, clean cut men playing stringed instruments – an acoustic guitar, upright bass, and electric guitar. They were nervous. Eyes low. Voices quiet.

They were auditioning for music producer Sam Philips of Sun Studios. They started singing and strumming a well-known gospel song and had hardly sung a few lines before Sam stopped them and asked if that was all they had. Did they have any other songs besides a tired, worn-out gospel tune that said nothing new. A young Johnny Cash got angry and asked what was wrong with it. Sam said he didn’t believe it, didn’t believe them, and challenged Johnny to sing one song. One song that you would sing if you had only one chance to sing a song that told God and everyone what your existence means on earth. One song that would sum you up. A song that was different, real…a song you felt. A song that saves people.[2]

That scene is one of my favorites of all times. It mashes up themes of God, belief, meaning, gifts, and gospel and distills them down to essentials. Most of us know what it feels like to freeze or not know what to say when we’re backed into a corner to defend why we believe what we believe. It’s hard to know what we’d say, much less what we actually believe, unless the situation is dire. Within our Augustana community though, we can get our heads around the idea of the song. We’re a singing church in more ways than one, and our one song is Jesus.

  • This means that while we prioritize reaching out to new people, we are not a social club.[3]
  • This means that while we prioritize ancient-future liturgical worship and transcendent music, we are not a performing arts organization.
  • This means that while we prioritize generosity of time, property, and finances we are not a philanthropic organization.
  • And this means that while we prioritize robust community partnerships, advocacy, and antiracism, we are neither a community organizing nor a social service organization.

There may be times when we prioritize those things because we are led by the gospel AND the gifts we’ve been given to proclaim the gospel in thought, word, and deed, loving our neighbors, ourselves, and our enemies.[4] But WE are a gospel people. A Jesus people singing a song of good news of great joy for ALL people.[5]

The Ascension stories about Jesus that we heard today in the Luke and Acts readings are outlandish. The book of Acts picks up the story from the end of the Gospel of Luke. No surprise there. Like any good book series author, Luke reminds Theophilus where he left off the last book. Luke ends with Jesus “carried up to heaven” and Acts begins with Jesus “lifted up” into the clouds. An odd story indeed and, if we’re not careful, the mystery of Jesus’ withdrawal from resurrected life on earth can be twisted into triumphalism – a victory fraught with false positivity in which wounds no longer matter.[6] But Jesus’ ascension does not undo or minimize the experience of suffering on the cross. Suffering leaves its mark and will not be reduced or domesticated. His resurrected body reveals wounds on his hands and his feet. [7] We witness to his wounds as much as we witness to the wonder of the mystery. We are a “both/and” people. It’s part of the Jesus song.

In the creeds of the church, we say that “Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father,” while scripture also claims in the letter to the Ephesians that all things are under the Jesus’ feet and that he is the head over all the church who is his body. How’s that for a mystical mind bender? Jesus is resurrected in the body of Christ called the church. And it is the church, the resurrected body of Christ, that is equipped by the Holy Spirit for suffering and soaring, solace and Spirit, sinners and saints. Our witness to these things through repentance and forgiveness of sins signals a change of heart wrung from us by the grace of God. We sing a song of transformation.

Everyone loves a redemption story when it happens to someone else, inspiring us in TED talks and on TikTok. Our own redemption stories are harder to stomach. It’s more than saying we’re not perfect. It’s the offensive claim that we’re sinners in need of redemption and we cannot save ourselves. Nobody has a problem in sermons when other people’s sins are challenged. The going gets tough when our own sin is on the preaching page. But Jesus’ song in the church is gracious enough to meet our self-absorption in the shadow of the cross. The same cross from which love and forgiveness flow like blood and water from a wounded side. The song of the crucified One.

My friends in Christ, we help each other sing the song of Jesus. One song. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. The Spirit joins our voices whether we’re tone deaf, tongue-tied, or trilling like the angels. We’re here to sing for others who can’t find their voice or are in too much pain to use it. We sing the song of our own sin when we hurt others and are desperate for grace because we’ve failed again but are too proud to admit to it. We exist to witness to the wonders of Jesus and to welcome new voices to the song. A song that tells God and everyone what our existence means on earth. One song that sums us up. A song that is different, real…a song we feel deep in our souls. A song that saves people. May it be so. Amen.

 

Hymn of the Day:

Lord Jesus You Shall be My Song – ELW Hymn #808

 

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[1] Sam Philips’ scene in Walk the Line (2005): Walk The Line – Sam Philips Scene (youtube.com)

[2] Ibid., Walk the Line. This is my paraphrase of the scene.

[3] These four bullets are paraphrased from Augustana’s Vision Statement (2019).

[4] Luke 10:27 and Luke 6:27-28

[5] Luke 2:10 – The angel announced to the shepherds that a baby was born.

[6] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast #356 for Readings on Ascension Sunday, 2014. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/sermon-brainwave-356-ascension-day

[7] Luke 24:39-40

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Acts 1:1-11 [Luke writes:] 1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Holy Friendship – John 15:9-17

**sermon art: Crucifixion in Yellow by Abraham Rattner (1953)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 5, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 15:9-17 [Jesus said to his disciples:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

[sermon begins]

Friends make life fun, and challenging, and good, and funny, and frustrating, and great. Friends can be around for the long haul or sometimes only for a particular season of life. Some people are inclined to talk about close friends as besties. Others simply let each friend defy description and hierarchy. Most people would say that friends are essential. We could argue that Jesus thought that friends were essential, too. Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father; you did not choose me, but I chose you.”[1] No longer servants. Friends. That’s astounding for Jesus to say. And it’s a particular friendship. Jesus defines it. The disciples are Jesus’ friends because they’re in the know about God.

Jesus shared with them what he heard from God the Father. Bam. Friends! Friendship connected with God means something. It means something holy because God is the source of holiness and when we say something is holy, we mean it is something touched by God – whether that’s a person, thing, time, or place.[2] Holiness is not limited to the church. Of course, God is not restricted by such feeble constraints. Bible story after Bible story remind us that God acts where God will and with who God wills, not only in the places or people we think God should be acting. But when Jesus connected friendship and God, he was talking about holy friendship of a particular kind. It’s a good day to talk about what that means for being church because Jesus taught what it means in our reading today.

His teaching is part of what’s called the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, chapters 14-17. Jesus talked about what holy friendship means as he said farewell to his friends. He knew they would need that connection to sustain their witness as their day-to-day world became more challenging after his death. As they longed to have Jesus back with them, they would need to turn towards each other in the love of holy friendship with the deep conviction that their lives belonged first to God and by extension they belonged to each other.

Jesus made holy friendship simple. Not easy. Simple. Lives shared in the witness of Jesus’ good news means the love of God is at its core. Jesus revealed God’s love in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Holy friendship includes sharing Jesus’ ways with each other, being Jesus to each other. We preach Christ crucified and we are the resurrected body of Christ in the world. This means that suffering doesn’t have the last word. Love does.

In the simplest of terms, Jesus showed up for milestones like a wedding and a funeral.[3] Pausing to observe life’s moments with holy friends recognizes God’s promise of presence with us in every situation, good or ill. Last Sunday in worship, we celebrated with our young holy friends graduating from high school. Lifting them in prayer during their time of transition. This coming Wednesday, 60+ Ministry will worship together and eat lunch afterwards. In one day last week, I met with three sets of holy friends – parents planning a baptism, another family planning a funeral, and a couple planning their wedding. (My first hat trick as a pastor.[4]) What do these things have in common? God is in the middle of these events with God’s promises of faith, hope, and love through celebration and suffering. Showing up for each other’s milestones builds community through the bonds of holy friendship, belonging to each other in the name of Jesus.

Right after the wedding of Cana in John chapter 2, where Jesus performed his miracle of turning water into wine, we’re invited into a different story. Jesus cleared the temple of bad business practices that hurt people and worked against the community.[5] The story of Jesus’ anger and how we think about the church helps us tend to the business of the church without turning the church solely into a business. Fiscal responsibility and attending to the business of the church is worthy, it’s just not the only or last word. Jesus’ teaching about holy friendship adds to that nuance. Stewarding our resources for both the good of this faith community and the wider community forms a tension from which we witness to Christ’s love for us and for the world. Our holy friendship as stewards isn’t easy. We have different ideas about how best to use the money, time, and talents that God first gave us.

Last week, Pastor Gail preached about Peter’s redemption and transformation after the resurrection in John, chapter 21.[6] In his fear during Jesus’ trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Each time, Peter said, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” That scripture, Peter’s longing for Jesus to hear him, wrecks me every time. Three denials. Three affirmations of love and a way to make amends as Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, to tend to the beloved people who belong to God and each other. Grace upon grace was bestowed on Peter in those moments. If Peter’s example is too lofty, let’s visit the woman caught in adultery in John, chapter 8.[7] She was a dead woman walking, about to be legally executed by stoning.  Jesus wielded reckless grace on her behalf while inviting the men around her into self-examination of their own sin. He said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With that grace-filled challenge, is any wonder that Jesus ended up executed himself?

We follow the example of Jesus in our life together. In our best moments, we love each other across healthy boundaries for our common good. Do we sometimes hurt each other by the things we do and the things we leave undone? You bet. Directly addressing hurt and shame with the people who hurt us is what holy friendship looks like. We as the church get to practice Jesus’ teaching over and over again. Holy conversations follow the example of Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and the woman at the well in John chapter 4. Holy conversations that name both how we are hurt and how we hurt others are a call to grace. Grace upon grace to know ourselves, too. To laugh at ourselves, shake our heads at ourselves, and open ourselves to something inside of us shifting by way of that grace so that we can better love each other, including loving our very own selves. That’s holy friendship, figuring out how to extend grace to each other because we are holy friends, yoked to Jesus by Jesus for each other.

We belong to each other through no work of our own as we do the work of belonging to each other. Jesus said, “…you did not choose me, but I chose you.” Through our baptisms by water, into Christ’s death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit works the wonders of transformation, giving us spiritual gifts for building up the body of Christ as a place of reckless belonging, a place of imperfect, holy friendship for God’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world. Amen.

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[1] John 15:15-16a

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Holy” in Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1973, 1993), 45.

[3] John 2: Jesus first miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana; John 11: The raising of Lazarus.

[4] A hat trick is a sports term that applies to achievements that happen in groups of three like a hockey player who scores three points in one game.

[5] John 2:13-25

[6] John 21:15-19

[7] John 8:1-11

Worthy of Wonder, a sermon for Easter – Mark 16:1-8

**The Empty Tomb by Julia Stankova (2003) painting on wooden panel

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 31, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 16:1-8  When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[sermon begins]

There is classic question asked by Christians over the centuries. We regularly ask, “What does this mean?” The question invites wonder. We wonder about faith, scripture, Jesus, life, love, enemies, and more. Not only do we wonder, but sometimes we disagree. The disagreement isn’t always pretty – note that there are multiple flavors of Christians. But at its best, the question opens us to curiosity and wonder – “What does this mean?” The question is quite Biblical. In our Bible story this morning, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James, were in a whole heap of wonderment, reacting to the unknown and uncontrollable, and trying to make sense of a mystery. Because that’s what humans do. That’s what we do when we’ve been through the ringer like those women. It’s good to wonder.

The events leading up to Jesus’ death were shocking. He entered Jerusalem at the top of his game, his followers lined the parade route and waved palm branches, celebrating Jesus’ entrance into the city as if nothing could stop him. But he was stopped in dramatic fashion – betrayed, arrested, charged, tortured, denied, and nailed to a cross. Not just stopped. Stopped dead. Small wonder that the women at the empty tomb couldn’t wrap their heads around it, they had watched their teacher and friend die three days before.[1] Jesus wasn’t surprised. He’d been predicting his death. His death was the inevitable end to his ministry of unconditional love and grace. Hate’s last gasp, if you will, because God’s love is that powerful. Hate will always try to do away with reckless love because it’s just too threatening to the powers that be. Love is unpredictable. Love is a wonder.

Wondering about Jesus’ death before he left behind an empty tomb helps us remember that it was not the violence of his death that redeems us. Nor was his death planned to appease an angry God or a hungry devil. Jesus’ execution was unavoidable.

While it’s hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves you, it’s downright offensive that God loves your enemies as much as God loves you. This is what riled up the people who killed him. Even so, Jesus’ death reminds us that God will not raise a hand in violence against us, even when we try to kill God. Jesus is the incarnation of God, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through SELF-sacrifice, and revealing a divine love powerful enough to leave behind an empty tomb.

Those women at the tomb, what chance did they have describing such an unexplainable, wild thing after everything they’d just gone through. It’s no surprise that they fled the tomb in terror and wonder, silenced by their own fear. On Easter, we gather in wonder alongside those women. We are not so different from them, really. Making sense of an empty tomb? What does it mean? What could it mean? The empty tomb is a wonder.

The empty tomb was so full of wonder that it silenced the women. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Fear and silence were their starting point, but we must assume that one of them finally broke. In the weeks, months, and years after Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, Jesus’ followers told the story bit by bit, sharing it with each other and then more people, and finally writing it down. Theirs was a similar process to ours. Shaky with doubt or trusting and celebratory this Easter, we seek to understand the promises of the cross and resurrection by asking what they mean. Slowly, a piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, a Bible story now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, finally an experience in your life that ties the pieces together. Our stories are a wonder.

There is a story for each of us. Of course there is, even if we don’t think of it that way. In fact, I’d guess that if I were to ask you whether your story is worthy, you may say, “yes,” but also silently wonder about whether it is truly worthy or whether you yourself are worthy. There are many messages out there that other people’s stories are more important than our own – at school, at work, on the medias, in the movies. Those messages that elevate others at the expense of our own story are lies.

Each of our stories is about a life that God so loves. If, as the Bible says, God so loves the world, and you’re in the world, your life is worthy of God’s love, and worthy of love period. There’s no Venn diagram. Just one big circle, well, more like a planet…or actually, no, bigger than a planet…let’s go with universe, yeah, that’s it, universe! You, your life, your story, no matter how beautiful or messy or messed up it may be, is worthy of the love of God. You are a wonder.

Sometimes that seems to be the hardest thing to believe – that you are worthy of love – deep down in the darkness, in whatever tomb you’ve enclosed yourself in, shrouded in the illusion of safety. The wonder of it all is that God loves you first. Before you wake up in the morning. Before you make your first move. When you make your first move. You are beloved. We make it all kinds of complicated, but it really is that simple. We cannot screw it up or alter God’s love in any way. People will try to tell you that you can. That there’s a limit to how much even God can love. But the message of the cross and the empty tomb is that there is no limit to how much God loves you. That is the Easter promise worth the wonder. Alleluia. And amen.

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[1] Mark 15:40-41

The Goodness of Good Friday – The Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19

**sermon art: The Crucifixion with Jesus Mother and the Beloved Disciple by Laura James.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 29, 2024

John 18 and 19 – read the whole thing elsewhere if you’d like – sermon begins after this brief excerpt:

John 19:17–18, 25b–27 So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

[sermon begins]

How are we to understand the goodness of Good Friday? A violent execution seems an odd thing to commemorate much less celebrate, especially in a time when the world is wrestling with disturbing violence and deep pain. It’s really important today to understand that it’s not the violence of the cross that is redemptive. It’s not the pain of Jesus that saves us. It’s easy to get lost in the message of the cross because the earliest Jesus followers who wrote down their experiences couldn’t quite figure it out either.

The goodness of Good Friday has to do with God. More specifically, the goodness of Good Friday has to do with who God is in Jesus. The Gospel of John argues that God is Jesus and Jesus is God. The love of God in Jesus, the audacity of grace personified in Jesus, the ultimate power of that love, so enraged his enemies and fueled the mob mentality that ultimately killed him. Jesus ate meals with unlovable people, he had public conversations with women no one spoke to, and he had secret conversations with religious leaders who opposed him by day. The list of his ever-expanding circle of grace and love is endless. Finally, when the threat of his grace, the threat about who is included in the love of God, became too great, he was killed for it. Grace and unconditional love were just too threatening. When Jesus predicted his death, it was the inevitable end that could be anticipated. Hate’s last gasp, if you will, because love is the greatest power and hate will always try to do away with it.

The goodness of Good Friday reminds us that we are not left alone in suffering. God suffers with us. God absorbs our suffering into God’s heart. Good Friday also tells the truth about suffering caused by violence. Large acts of violence are obvious. There are also the smaller acts of violence that destroy relationships and murder people’s spirits and our own spirits – lies, gossip, passive aggression, dissing someone’s body rather than debating their ideas or confronting their hurtful behavior…the list of our violent ways is as endless as we are creative in inflicting ourselves against the ones we love and the ones we hate.  The level we inflict suffering on each other, and on the earth and all its creatures, knows no bounds.

The goodness of Good Friday reminds us that the cross is the place where we struggle in the darkness and the very place where God meets us. We live in this darkness in different ways – failure, addiction, confusion, doubt – our darkest places that we don’t tell anyone about. Most of us are capable of just about anything given the right set of circumstances. The goodness of Good Friday isn’t about pointing away from ourselves at other people who cause suffering. It’s also a sacred space to wonder and confess the pain that we cause as well.

Confessions of sin extend to systems that we’re a part of – institutions, countries, governments, families, friendships, communities, etc. Systems that hold us captive to sin from which we cannot free ourselves. What does free us? Jesus on the cross. Jesus on the cross holds up a mirror in which we can see our own reflections. Reflections that reveal the sin we inflict on each other and cannot justify. Oh sure, we try riding that high horse, cloaking our sin in self-righteousness. But the cross tells us otherwise. The cross also surprises us with grace in the face of sin.

We often act without awareness of how our actions may hurt someone else. That’s why our worship confessions talk about things we’ve done and things we’ve failed to do. That’s why we talk about our sin. Sin gives us language for the way we hurt other people and ourselves with our actions – actions that separate us from each other and God. Good Friday’s goodness creates space to experience life-giving compassion from the heart of God in the face of our sin. God’s SELF-sacrifice in Jesus also reminds us that Jesus’ death isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. Jesus is a revelation of the goodness of God, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through SELF-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love.

God reveals the truth of our death dealing ways while reminding us that God’s intention for humankind is good.[1] Jesus was fully human and fully divine. His life’s ministry and his death on the cross reveal our humanity and the goodness for which we were created. The cross awakens that goodness. Jesus’ full and fragile humanity was displayed on the cross. He sacrificed himself to the people who killed him for his radical, excessive love. He would not raise a hand in violence against the people and the world that God so loves. Jesus’ self-sacrificing goodness clears our eyes to see God’s intention for our human life together.

Our connection with each other is also revealed in the goodness of Good Friday. From the cross, Jesus redefined connection, kinship, and companionship. Hear these words again from the gospel reading:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” [2]

From the cross, with some of his last breaths, Jesus did this incredible thing. It’s amazing. Jesus connects people through suffering. This is not a reason for suffering. Simply one truth about it. When we suffer and feel most alone, Jesus reaches out from his own suffering to remind us that we have each other. God’s heart revealed through the cross destroys the illusion of our aloneness and connects us to each other once more. In God we live and move and have our being through God’s goodness in Jesus on the cross. In each other, we’re given kinship and appreciation for the gift and mystery of being alive.

In the end, the cross isn’t about us at all. It’s about the self-sacrificing love of Jesus who reveals God’s ways to show us the logical end of ours – our death-dealing ways in the face of excessive grace and radical love. We struggle to believe that God applies this grace and love to everyone. It’s hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves us. It’s downright offensive that God loves our greatest enemy as much as God loves us. But that is God’s promise in the goodness of Good Friday. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. God loves you through the cross, in the darkest places that you don’t tell anyone about. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.[3] God’s arms are opened to all in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, receiving us by God’s reckless grace because God is love.[4] The goodness of Good Friday is that God loves us. God loves you. Amen.

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[1] Genesis 1:26-31 God creates “humankind.”

[2] John 19:25b-27

[3] Romans 8:38-39

[4] 1 John 4:7-21

Who has been Jesus for you? John 3:14-21 [OR Would Someone Please Put John 3:17 on the Poster, Too?]

**sermon art: Jesus Washes the Disciples Feet by Luke Allsbrook, oil on canvas (2018)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 10, 2024

Ugh, you know, the thing I don’t like about Jesus is that he was always telling his followers to get their revenge, to trash talk, to really stick it to people. He was super mean all the time. He didn’t like weddings. And little children really got under his skin. I should probably stop there on the slight chance that anyone thinks I’m serious. Obviously, Jesus was none of those things. The stories we have about Jesus and the things he said reveal an incredible human. Non-Christians say how great life would be if Christians actually lived like Jesus lived. Many people who aren’t Christians try to live their lives as Jesus lived. Just as those of us who say we follow Jesus try to follow his example.

When we welcome new members into Lutheran churches like this one, we call it affirmation of baptism. There are promises we make as part of the affirmation of baptism when we join a church. The last few weeks we’ve covered a few of our promises: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim God in Christ through word and deed. Today, we’re highlighting our promise, “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” Our Bible readings today help us remember a very important part of this promise. Jesus is Jesus and we are not, even if we are called to follow his example.

Verse 17 of the John reading takes that one step further. If Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, then why would any Jesus follower think it’s their job to condemn people? I shared at Evening Prayer last Wednesday that I was raised in two denominations that painted the scariest portrait of God you could imagine, and that God sent Jesus to police the planet for evil deeds of any size. When I left home, I left Jesus behind. Why take him to the party if he was just going to frown away? And then I married a Lutheran Christian. We baptized our babies and made the promises to them that you hear me ask parents or baptized adults to make at our baptismal font. What changed? God didn’t. I did.

John 3:16 and 17 were written as a continuous thought in the original Greek.[1] “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus is good news because it reveals God’s goodness and light. Jesus was not sent to condemn the world but to save it. Salvation in John’s gospel is focused on life. Eternal life today because God is eternal, and God abides with us right now as we abide with God right now. How would it change Jesus’ message for you to think about salvation that way rather than a dividing line at death? Why would a God whose love for the world, who draws all people to God, suddenly turn against people when they die? Have we projected our own fear about dying onto God?

These questions are relevant to today’s reading because people have used verse 16 over the centuries to blast people beyond God’s love. It’s what happens when verse 16 is separated from verse 17. It’s what happens when belief is set as the highest power above even God’s grace, as if the power of God’s grace could be limited by our beliefs and doubts which is, of course, ludicrous. In case we think too highly of our own power, hear the reminder from Ephesians – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith as a gift from God, by definition, means that belief cannot be a work. We don’t dredge belief and faith up in ourselves. That’s a real mind bender, isn’t it?

We haven’t focused on the Hebrew Bible’s stories of the Old Testament much over the last few weeks. Those readings in worship have emphasized the covenants that God makes to God’s people. Each covenant God made is evidence that the promise to some was for the benefit of many. From God’s covenant with Abraham would come blessing for the whole world.[2] From God’s covenant with the Hebrews led by Moses, would come life-giving commandments that brought peace among neighbors.[3] And from God’s covenant with the whole world through Jesus, would come a love so powerful that it transforms hearts and minds.[4]

Which brings us back to the baptismal promise we make “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” We don’t make this promise to serve in order to grow the church or to win souls for God or to prove how cool our theology is. We serve following the example of Jesus because as the Ephesians reading tell us, “…we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

I’d like you think for a minute about the people who have served you like you imagine Jesus served people in the Bible stories. Call to mind names and faces and what happened. It may be someone who prayed for you.[5] It may be someone who healed you like a chiropractor or physician or counselor.[6] It may be someone who didn’t let a past harm define you.[7] It may be someone who has more grace for your flaws than you ever could for yourself and doesn’t condemn you.[8] It may be someone who stayed up with you late at night, talking when you needed it most.[9] It may be someone who fed you when you had no way to pay them back.[10] As I prepared this sermon, so many faces and names swam through my mind.

Most recently, it was my friend, Lee McNeil. Lee and I worked on human dignity policies and legislation with Together Colorado especially related to race and justice. I called her Sister Lee as did many others who knew her. It was an honorary title of respect for a beloved and wise elder. As the great granddaughter of an enslaved person, and the triple-great granddaughter of someone who owned African people, our friendship evolved over the ten years of working together. A few weeks ago, we were asked to write an opinion piece together supporting the Racial Equity Study bill moving through the Colorado legislature that will increase understanding of the generational impact of law and policy on Black Coloradans. Sister Lee and I wrote it in my office here at the church. First we reminisced over people we knew because we hadn’t talked in over a year. Then we kept right on talking while I typed and read out loud and we talked more and edited the letter together.

At the end of our conversation that day, I told her how grateful I am for our friendship and for her grace while I learned things I could never have learned without her loving instruction and willingness to just talk. We hugged. She told me she loved me and I told her back. There were a flurry of emails back and forth with final edits and I submitted our letter to the paper. A week later I found out that Lee died suddenly. A long life well lived. I was stunned and heartbroken and incredibly grateful to know her and unbelievably grateful to have seen her right before she died. Sister Lee was kind and thoughtful and fierce. She loved Jesus and she served people following the example of Jesus.

I’ve watched many of you love each other similarly. Oh sure, there are disappointments, disagreements, and sometimes frayed nerves. We are human after all. But we’re reminded time and again how much God loves us and we’re reminded that Jesus commanded us to love each other and then showed us how to do it. The list of things that Jesus did for people is long. If there’s not someone coming to mind at the moment who has been Jesus to you, take this question out of worship with you today. Who has served you as Jesus served and, in some small way, helped you understand just how much God must love you? Because that’s what our service to other people does, it reminds them that God loves them too. This reminder is no small thing in a world that is in desperately in need of Jesus’ transforming love.

Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Bible readings on Sunday, March 10, 2024. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/952-fourth-sunday-in-lent-mar-10-2024

[2] Genesis 12:1-5 The Call of Abram

[3] Exodus 20:1-17 The Ten Commandments

[4] Acts 9:1-22 The Conversation of Saul/Paul

[5] John 17:1-26 Jesus’ Prays for his disciples.

[6] See all of Jesus’ healing stories.

[7] John 8:1-11 Woman caught in adultery.

[8] Luke 22:54-62 Peter denies Jesus.

[9] John 3:1-21 Nicodemus visits Jesus by night.

[10] Mark 6:30-44

Dropped In Choppy Waters [OR Gathered by Promises] Mark 1:9-15

**sermon art: Choppy River by NearOf, 2014

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 18, 2024

Mark 1:9-15

Pat Milberry is a pro snowboarder and artist who was born and raised in Colorado’s Eagle River Valley.[1] He knows the roads and respects the weather that changes road conditions within minutes. In January, he was driving his art to donate at a charity event in Silverton. His route went over Red Mountain Pass on the Million Dollar Highway. Blizzard conditions iced the road and obscured visibility. As Pat was inching along, he felt both his driver’s side tires slip off the edge of the highway. He knew that if he tried to steer back towards the road that his truck would flip and roll down the mountain. So what did he do? He cranked his steering wheel as hard as he could to turn into the abyss. He said that, “I just decided to drop in.” He dropped in like he would have if caught in an avalanche! Straight down the mountain! Hitting trees. Shattering glass. Until, two large trees stopped his careening descent. He walked away from that one. What hardly computes is that “dropping in” saved him after edging off of the cliff.

Some of you may see where this is going. Our theme for Lent gathers us by the promises of baptism. This makes sense because, historically, Lent was a time when converts into Christianity prepared for Easter baptisms. We join them to make a hard turn to drop in those choppy baptismal waters and we’re going to see where it takes us. The baptism ritual is beautiful and powerful but underlying the still water is the Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel story today is sparsely narrated. If Mark had used any fewer words, we’d be in bullet point territory. Yet a lot is happening here. Mortal peril abounds. After John baptized Jesus, John was arrested while Jesus resisted evil in the wilderness. Even with the chaos of John being arrested, Jesus’ preached the good news of God, “The time IS fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” This three-part story, brief as it is, dropped Jesus’ into his ministry of healings, forgiveness, transformation, and liberations from the bondage of evils.[2] The heavens ripped apart and the Spirit landed on a soggy Jesus in the Jordan River and he was dropped in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels for company. This story is wild and thrilling. The calm waters of our baptismal fonts veil the raw power of Spirit who anoints us with the good news of God’s promises. God promises to always be present even, and maybe especially when we don’t feel worthy; to always take us back through forgiveness when we turn our backs on God; to make our lives ever more Christ-shaped as disciples; and to keep these promises forever as the eternal God.

The first promise we make in response to God, just before we’re baptized is “to live among God’s faithful people.” I, for one, am grateful that it doesn’t say perfect people. Faithful is hard enough. But the same Spirit alive in our baptisms is the Spirit who bestows faith in us. So we promise for our babies or for ourselves as we’re baptized to live among God’s faithful people. It’s easy to lose sight of the radical nature of our lives together as the church. But baptism steers us toward a hard turn to drop in those choppy baptismal waters.

Last week we celebrated our volunteers and we did something we don’t ordinarily do. We asked everyone who volunteers their time within this congregation in any capacity to move into the aisles and towards the front. It was messy and confusing and took time, none of which is part of how we usually roll here. But what it did was make visible the often-invisible work of the church. What you may have missed was the blessing at the end, when I moved 360 degrees to speak the blessing over everyone whether sitting or standing. You see, to live among God’s faithful people means all of us. The Spirit touches all of us no matter what we do or don’t do. God has a sense of humor that way. God’s good news means that anything we do is in response to what God has already done. Remember the Bible story? Jesus preached that the time IS fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near. The Spirit isn’t just a cheerleader for Jesus. The Spirit instigates the dismantling of power to make room for the kingdom of God to take hold.

We promise to live among God’s faithful people because God is faithful to us. Gathered by God’s promises, we worship and celebrate the extravagant grace squandered on us unconditionally. Our worship is counter cultural. Meaning that we willingly show up to sing among friendly strangers, or strange friends as the case may be. Our singing praises a God who is revealed in the 2,000-year-old ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We give our money to the project of God’s good news of unconditional love and then we show up to hear preaching that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Who does that?!! God’s faithful people, that’s who. Making a hard turn to drop into the choppy waters of baptism is a wild ride.

Our life together is a promise we make to God. Our life of unity in the gospel isn’t one of uniformity. It’s easy to forget that because our worship liturgy unites our voices in scripture, prayers, creeds, and song. While we worship the same God, we are not the same. God’s faithful people are diverse which means we likely disagree as much as we agree. Our gifts and skills are different. Our ideas are different. Combining these differences into our life together as the church takes trust and courage as much as it takes humility and forgiveness. Thankfully, we have Jesus who led as a loving servant, not as an arrogant overlord. Perhaps his time being served by angels in the wilderness, with wild beasts as his companions, gave Jesus a taste for service and encouragement as a survival skill which he then passed on to us. Hang on folks, dropping in the waters of baptism calls us into connection and showing up for each other.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General has declared an Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in an 82 page, 2023 report.[3] Loneliness affects our health and accelerates our deaths. The antidote? The “Healing effects of social connection and community.” As we promise to live among God’s faithful people, we have the opportunity to encourage, serve, and connect with each other as Jesus taught us. As we are encouraged by each other, we increase our capacity to serve and encourage other people. This is how living among God’s faithful people works. Dropped in the choppy waters of baptism, the power of the Holy Spirit connects us to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In turn, we get to do the same for the world God so loves. Hang on tight. This thing could get out of control.

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[1] Jason Blevins, “Pat Milberry felt his tires tip off the precipitous Red Mountain Pass in a snowstorm. So he dropped in.” The Colorado Sun – February 7, 2024. Pat Milbery felt his tires tip off the precipitous Red Mountain Pass in a snowstorm. So he dropped in. – The Colorado Sun

[2] David Schnasa Jaocobsen, Bishops Scholar in Homiletics and Preaching; Director of the Homiletical Theology Project, Boston University School of Theology.

[3] Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community, 2023.  Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation (hhs.gov)

The Wonder of It All [OR Hope Dazzles on a Mountaintop] Mark 9:2-9

**sermon art: The Transfiguration by Armando Alemdar Ara, 2004

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 11, 2024 – Transfiguration of our Lord

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9As 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.

[sermon begins]

After being ordained and called here 11 years ago on February 2nd, my very first sermon was on February 10th and was about Jesus’ transfiguration. I synthesized scripture from Jesus’ baptism to the transfiguration, did theological flips from the transfiguration mountaintop to the rugged cross on a hill faraway, and was generally pretty pleased with my first effort. That was before we used to process the cross at the beginning and end of worship, so after worship I was walking down the pulpit side aisle to go shake hands. Walking in front of me were two women, dear friends to each other and over the years they became dear to me. They were disappointed in my sermon. Yup. Right down to shaking their heads about it. They wanted to enjoy Jesus’ Transfiguration for itself, not for what came before and what came after. I learned a few important lessons that day. One, don’t lurk behind folks after worship unless you want to know what they really think. Two, not every sermon is for everybody. And three, maybe it’s worth it to stay in the wonder of it all when given the chance.

Wonder helps us stay in the moment. Rather than ask “why” about the past and “what now” or “what’s next” about the future, we so often leave wonder in the side aisle. Maybe you can relate. We know that the church world is rife with analyzing the past and dreaming into the future. We ask often, “what went well and what could we do better next time?” Ministry volunteers and staff just wrote 2023 annual reports that we’ll talk about in next Sunday’s Lunch & Learn (a shameless plug, in case you’re curious). Just last week we had a liturgy planning meeting that took us through Pentecost Sunday at the END OF MAY. My siblings and I are planning a trip for NEXT JANUARY 2025. You each have your own pasts and your own future plans so, just for today, for this moment, I’m going to ask that we enjoy the transfiguration and hang out with Jesus on the mountaintop and be dazzled by the wonder of it all.

But before we’re dazzled, it’s good to acknowledge that Bible stories like Jesus’ transfiguration are weird. The weirdness, the other worldliness, the mystical elements can leave us wanting to know what actually happened up on that mountain. Inquiring minds want to know. It’s just how we’re built. At my gym, we start class with warmups during which we share our name and answer a Question of the Day. Last week, the question was asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?” I answered, “My name is Caitlin and I would have dinner with Jesus, I know that’s a little cliché coming from me, but I just want to hear Jesus talk about himself, his experiences and what he thought he was doing.” As I finished my answer, one gym friend earnestly said, “That’s exactly what I was going to say, I want to know those things.” He settled on having dinner with Jesus’ mother Mary to fill in the knowledge gaps. After the workout, we chatted a bit more and I learned that my workout friend is an atheist. It was a very cool conversation and we agreed that faith and atheism are both unprovable, two sides of the same faith coin. Although here, today in church, the things we take on faith can open our eyes to the wonder of it all.

Since we have our dinner with Jesus during holy communion, we take the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on faith. Time collapsed in a dazzling light show. Even Jesus’ clothes took on heavenly shine. Moses and Elijah, long dead, talked with Jesus. That undead discussion is eerie and otherworldly. So much so that Peter spoke without knowing what to say. His terror at the vision before him was so overwhelming that he reacted with a plan for what came next rather than pause in awe of the transcendent mystery. It’s common to critique Peter – to laugh at him and say don’t be like him. But we are Peter. Our brains are busy, and we want to make sense of things, to feel bigger than the mystery or somehow in control of it. Transfiguration is a good reminder that mystery will have its way whether we’re ready for it or understand it. It’s a good reminder of the wonder of it all.

Today’s spotlight on the many volunteers who make the work of the church work, reveals an astounding mystery unto itself. People so committed to God, each other, and the world God loves, that you give an hour or two or more a week to the ministries you hold dear. Ministries of welcome and worship. Ministries of leadership and love of neighbor. Ministries that deepen faith and offer hope and healing regardless of cure. Hours upon hours of volunteering that reject a self-centered view of the world in the face of a struggling world. Unbelievable things inspiring unbelievable things. How do we even get our heads around the wonder of it all?!

Last Sunday, Pastor Gail preached that church is a ready-made house of hospitality and socialization and purpose. We could add that church worship is ready made space for transcendent mystery. Maybe not every week for everyone but there are moments when mystery has its way. For me it’s when songs soar from the choir or when we all sing together raising the roof, but it’s also that moment when the song stills into silence. That heartbeat or two before the next sounds begin, when your heart fills until tears brim onto your eyelashes. Or sometimes, the connection with Jesus and all that is holy during communion has no words to describe it. The meal where no one is asked to stay away. Everyone can eat! A meal leaving you not knowing what to say in the mystery of unconditional divine love. Or even in those moments when you drift out of a sermon, tuning out the words, only to receive an overwhelming sense of love and hope that are beyond words. Oh, the wonder of it all!

Worship is otherworldly. It isn’t logical. It’s kinda weird. Worship connects us with an ancient world and a future hope, collapsing time and connecting our stories with Jesus followers long ago and those yet to come. Sometimes hope feels fragile, clouded by our unanswerable questions and reactive plans. And sometimes hope shines like a dazzling Jesus. We pause our day-to-day lives to gather, to sing, pray, and eat together in faith and doubt, fear and hope, suffering and love, while we’re transformed by Jesus, the wonder of it all…

Nothing Like a Good Exorcism to Get our Attention [OR Control is Overrated] Mark 1:21-28

**sermon art: Jesus performs an exorcism with a demon escaping a woman’s mouth. A scene from the abstinence cloth in the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria (1458)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 28, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 1:21-28 [Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

[sermon begins]

Nothing like a good exorcism to get our attention. Things happen fast in Mark’s gospel. No time for baby Jesus, or baby anyone. No magi men or maternity manger or magnificent Mary. Mark’s gospel opens with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and BAM, off to the river. A few lines about John the Baptist, then Jesus’ divine dip in the river Jordan by John. Jesus’ baptism is a big deal in Mark, and it only gets three verses including the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus while a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Two verses about his temptation in the wilderness, a few verses about calling disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John, and here we are, today, Chapter 1, verse 21. Good thing that Jesus had that dose of the Spirit down in the river, because the first act of his ministry was to rebuke and expel a possessive unclean spirit. Spirit is as spirit does. Jesus’ Spirit bestows astounding authority. The possessive spirit takes over an anonymous man’s body and voice, crying out in fear of destruction.

We could argue about the validity of demonic possession in the 1st century and Hollywood’s imagination running wild on the big screens. But it’s more interesting to wonder about what Jesus is doing in his first act of ministry. Each of the four gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – begin Jesus’ ministry differently. How they choose to begin says something essential about Jesus’ ministry in that gospel book.[1] In Mark, Jesus’ first act is not healings or a sermon or water into wine. Jesus first act is an exorcism – the power of the Holy Spirit wielded with authority over an unclean spirit.

Biblical talk of unclean spirits and demonic evil can make our 21st century minds really uncomfortable. It’s partly why the renouncements in the baptism liturgy are so powerful. During the renouncements, you all are standing, and as the pastor, I ask three questions:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each question, you all have the chance to say, “We renounce them.”

“We renounce them!” Renouncing the big three – evil forces, rebellious powers, and sin – we say we reject working against God. Caution is encouraged here. As is humility. We often take the things we hate and apply them to God. We get lazy with the Bible, picking out one verse that supports our particular hatred, rather than looking at the overarching story of God’s love for the world.[2] We think we know enough to be powerful but instead we know just enough to be painful.

Jesus’ exorcism of the unclean spirit takes place in the synagogue. A place of learning and surrender to God’s authority. People there to learn got more than they bargained for that morning. Jesus’ teaching alone astounded them. The unclean spirit disrupted class and also got more than they bargained for. Jesus rebuked them, silenced them, and sent them away. In this story, Jesus serves the community by serving the man with the unclean spirit. We don’t hear from the man himself. Only from his community who reacts to what Jesus is doing.

Do we still see God active on this level?[3] It’s not just about what happened way back then in a Capernaum synagogue. As church, we bear witness to the God who arrived in Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and who we say really does change reality. Or do we compartmentalize what’s okay for God to be involved in and what we’ll take care of ourselves, thank you very much. The unclean spirit’s opening words in the actual Greek draw a line in the sand. It’s a strange phrase that directly translates into, “What’s yours; what’s mine?”[4] The unclean spirit started a turf battle with Jesus and lost.

Last year was really quite something for our congregation. Pastor Ann’s retirement, leading through my lymphoma and remission, a new transition model that brought us Pastor Dominic as a consultant and Pastor Gail as a Bridge Pastor, administrative changes in Augustana’s Early Learning Center, and the list goes on. So many things on that list could have been at least a distraction and at worst destructive. Yet, here we are, singing, praying, and giving generously, while ministering within our congregation and outside in our community.  That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been concern, or questions, or disagreement about how best to proceed with our life together. It just means that we didn’t break under pressure. Instead, we thrived. The Holy Spirit was with us last year and is with us now.

When people ask me about our congregation, I often talk about how much you love the gospel, the good news of Jesus. But if I were to poll each of you, there would be many views about what’s best for what’s next. While it’s tough to trust the transition process because we just want to control the heck out of it, like we’re God or something, the process is what we have. A process in the church means we do our best to involve multiple people who think differently from each other. And then we trust the Holy Spirit – the one who descended at Jesus’ baptism and who shows up in our baptisms. The Holy Spirit who shows up not just once and done when the water touched our head but daily in our pilgrimage of faith.

We need to watch for the ways we figure out just how far we’ll trust God’s transformational ways in our church and in our lives, and help each other take next faithful steps no matter how imperfectly. As the resurrected body of Christ in the world, the church in every time and place has made a mess when we trust ourselves more than God. Like the unclean spirit, it’s easier to fear destruction than to be courageously faithful.

And yet, Jesus reminds us that, through the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses us with wisdom and understanding and joy in God’s presence. Our songs and praise rise to the rafters Sunday after Sunday. Sometimes our singing is so powerful it feels like we’ll blow off the roof. We baptize, commune, and welcome new adults and children looking for good news and hope. We remind each other that God’s love is reckless, unconditional, and always available especially when we find it hard to love ourselves or each other. We surrender our lives to this Holy One, who casts out from each one of us our own efforts to control and who transforms our lives with love. Thanks be to God. And amen.

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[1] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/945-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-jan-28-2024

[2] John 3:16-17

[3] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/945-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-jan-28-2024

[4] Matt Skinner, Profess of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/945-fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-jan-28-2024

Majestic Magi Priests Subvert a King’s Cruelty [OR An Epiphany Sermon: Celebrating the “Wise Men” Beyond Nativity Sets and Christmas Pageants]

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi c.1894, oil on canvas, Jacques Josepha “James” Tissot, 1836-1902, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 7, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

The promise of Christmas, of good news of great joy for all people, of a light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome, is eclipsed ever so slightly by the celebration of Epiphany today.[1] Epiphany is a celebration of divine light that reveals Jesus and who God is through Jesus.[2] We move from a baby in a manger to a toddler on his mother’s lap. We move from shepherds, angels, and animals to magnificent Magi priests from the east.[3] Oh sure, our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants compress time and include the Magi in the birth story. That makes sense. The Magi following a star and worshiping the toddler Jesus embody the Christmas promise. Jesus is such good news of great joy for all people that even the Magi came to see the good news for themselves.

Magi is the Greek word for the people named wise men in our gospel reading. These Magi are likely from what is now western Iran but what used to be called Babylon in the Persian empire thousands of years ago. The Magi were from a tradition that read the stars and interpreted dreams. They were from the place where the Jews had been held in exile hundreds of years before Jesus, until King Cyrus of Persia freed them and sent them back to Jerusalem. The Magi came from a place with their own history and their own religious practices. When they saw Jesus’ star at its rising, the King of the Jews’ star, the time had come to bring him gifts and pay him homage.

Consistent with Jesus’ story even before birth, the good news of great joy for all people was now revealed to the unlikeliest people – stargazers and dreamers from the land that once held Jews captive. The Magi enter the story and continue to teach us what God may be up to in this special birth.

The twelve days of Christmas are over, and we pause on Epiphany to remember the Magi, even celebrate them. We’re so used to their story it’s fun to remember how crazy it is. The exotic Magi priests from the east followed a star and showed up in Jerusalem asking about the King of the Jews which “frightened [King Herod] and all of Jerusalem with him.” King Herod, not the last politician to play at being religious, called for the Magi to hear their story and then asked that they report back to him so he could also pay homage to the child king – a lie with a deadly goal. This is the same King Herod who, not too much later, unleashed a murderous rampage on Bethlehem that killed all the boys under the age of 2 years old.[4] He was a scared, cruel king who did scary, cruel things. Thankfully, the Magi escaped his clutches. This is no bedtime story.

The Magi’s story is a subversive one. They are a good reminder that God is interested in people outside of our in-group – sometimes calling them by the stars. The Magi give gifts and pay homage to a toddler Jesus whose mother sang about a God who topples tyrants and feeds the hungry, a God whose mercy is known across generations.[5] This God’s radical grace and expansive love revealed in Jesus was seen as a threat. The Magi’s gifts to Jesus drew their loyalty to him, so much so that they are willing to risk death by avoiding King Herod on their way out of Bethlehem.[6]

Unfortunately, the upcoming national election in 2024 cannot be similarly avoided. Although the election has nothing on the drama that played out between Jesus, Herod, and the Magi, it’s setting up to be a doozy. Yet the Magi’s story gives us a place to begin our thinking and engage our faith before we get drawn into the ugliness of what’s to come, before we get scared and become cruel without even realizing that we’re doing it. In just a few short chapters after the Magi’s story, an adult, likely bearded, Jesus teaches his disciples about being merciful peacemakers.[7] Not glossing over issues of justice but encouraging them to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

In the spirit of being claimed by the light of Christ this Epiphany while avoiding the trap of Christian Nationalism, 60+ ministry is hosting a four-week series for all adults called Coffee Talk: Examining Faith and Citizenship. The details are in your Announcement Page this morning. Like the Magi, we could wait for directions to come in a dream but it’s good to have a daytime, in-person option just in case.

Another opportunity to see what God may be up to in Jesus comes next Sunday during worship. Professor Harry Waters Jr., who parents Harry and Betty are members of our congregation, will preach part of a sermon from Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of his birthday. The full version is Baptist-preaching-long, so Professor Waters has taken great care to distill it into the main things. Reverend King spoke and preached often about racial equality, care for the poor, and non-violence. He prioritized nonviolence to subvert scary, cruel systems and create change for black folks and so that we may all be free from the bondage of racism’s sin. He preached from Augustana’s sanctuary pulpit during Holy Week in 1962. Professor Waters’ time with us includes a class between worship services to lead us in wrestling with Reverend King’s faith and theology and our own.

Our faith is a gift, perhaps a fragile one today for you. Is it any wonder that faith can be a struggle with so much suffering and violence in the world, not the least of which centers around modern-day Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Holy Land. Pausing to celebrate Epiphany allows our faith to keep time differently because of who God continues to be despite our doubts and questions in the face of horrific violence. The Magi help us do so as they embody more than the sweet scenes in our nativities and the glittery golden bottles carried by children in Christmas pageants. They subverted the power of a tyrant king, buying time for a small, holy child to grow up and shine light on more than anyone bargained for. A child who lived, died, and resurrected as good news of great joy for all the people. Alleluia and amen.

___________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:10-11 and John 1:1-5, 14.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/941-epiphany-of-our-lord-jan-6-2024

[3] Scholars think that they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia located in what is now modern-day Iran.

[4] Matthew 2:16-18 Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

[5] Luke 2:46-55 Mary’s Magnificat

[6] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/941-epiphany-of-our-lord-jan-6-2024

[7] Matthew 5:1-12 Read the full list of Jesus’ beatitudes here.

Pastor, Preacher, Speaker