All posts by caitlin121608

Mental Health Sunday and the Church Getting Out of God’s Way – John 13:31-35 and Acts 11:1-18

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 15, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 13:31-35 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Acts 11:1-18 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

[sermon begins]

It’s good to see that Peter is still getting into trouble after Jesus’ resurrection. Although it’s more accurate to say about this story in Acts that Peter had progressed to getting into good trouble, a bit different than his bumbling ways when Jesus was alive. Peter’s friends in Jerusalem called him out for staying in a certain Roman centurion’s home and eating there – a big no-no in Jewish circles at the time.[1] He told his friends about the vision he’d had from God, concluding his defense by asking his friends, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” The book of Acts tells the disciples’ stories after Jesus’ resurrection but it’s arguable that Acts was written down before the Gospel stories were – the Gospels framing the theology that was already being practiced by the early church. What had not changed was Peter being at key dinner parties.

In the Gospel of John reading, Peter was at another meal, the meal that turned out to be Jesus’ last meal. At that last supper, Jesus’ command to love one another comes right after Judas’ betrayal. Immediately before Jesus commandment, Judas left the dinner party and his friends watched him go. The friends must have been confused to see Judas leave, only then to hear Jesus talking about loving each other without Judas there with them. They’d been together for three years through the wringer of ministry. Those friendships formed in a similar intensity to the ones we form at camp together where a lot happens in a short period of time. Watching Judas leave under the threat of his betrayal was inconceivable to the friends who had his back and then saw that back disappear through a doorway before dinner. The friends carried Judas’ departure and death differently than Jesus’ departure and death for sure, but they still carried it with them.

I wonder if Peter also had his old friend Judas in mind when he had dinner with his new friend Cornelius. After all, God wastes nothing from our experiences where the gospel is concerned. It’s reasonable for Peter to remember Jesus’ command to love one another in the aftermath of the resurrection and the early days of the church. How could he forget Jesus’ command to love after Judas’ betrayal when he dined with unexpected people in unexpected places at God’s invitation only to hear accusations of betrayal from his Jerusalem friends. Except that it wasn’t a betrayal. But we can label things a betrayal when events surprise us and when unexamined assumptions are shattered. The shock takes our breath away.

Shock fits with mental health and illnesses too. Mental illness is surprising, and it can feel like a betrayal of our own body when it happens to us or a betrayal by someone else when mental illness happens to someone we love. As if we ourselves or the people we love could choose whether or not our minds lose control. Or, even worse, to doubt our own or someone else’s faith when minds succumb to mental illness, as if faith is protective of bad things happening. In our more rational moments, we know that faith doesn’t protect us from bad things happening. We see faithful people near and far struggling with all kinds of things including mental illness. On Mental Health Sunday, it’s a reminder we say out loud. Faith can certainly infuse us with courage and hope to think about mental illness differently. Faith also connects us with each other as church to do church differently. Much like Peter did with his friends in Jerusalem when he advocated for his new friend in Christ, Cornelius.

As a faith community, we can offer each other practical help. Yesterday, 24 Augustana people took First Aid Mental Health training through our E4 Ministry. 24 people gave time and energy, not only learning what to do in a mental health crisis but also learning about earlier warning signs. Their training makes visible the love that we have for each other at church, and it also sends trained people from Augustana into their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. We talk, sing, pray, and learn a lot about God’s love in the church. Being honest about mental health and illness and being prepared to intervene in a crisis is one way to take action in love. Although taking action can feel like betrayal to someone who is in a mental health crisis, taking action may mean the difference between life and death and giving someone a chance to heal.

Augustana’s E4 Ministry itself is another way to take action. E4 is an ongoing effort to Enlighten, Encourage, Educate, and Empower each other. Get it? There are Four Es – Enlighten, Encourage, Educate, and Empower. E4 meets on second Thursdays of the month at 7 p.m. here at the church. People who have friends or family or coworkers who deal with mental health diagnoses and also people who know first-hand the challenges of having a mental diagnosis themselves are welcome to E4 conversations. This means that pretty much everyone has a place in E4.

Humility is a helpful correction when we talk about ministry of any kind. It’d be cool to be like Peter asking his friends, “Who am I to hinder God?” But we’re often those friends in Jerusalem with a million questions about whether or not something will work or whether it’s right or wrong or some other ministry-limiting question. So it’s kind of cool that we get to be church together to occasionally break ministry loose from our questions and see what happens. The book of Acts is a bit different than the Gospel of John in this regard. The full name of the book the Acts of the Apostles. But really, it’s a book in which God’s initiative is front and center and the church simply follows God along and lives into the new thing that God is doing.[2] When Peter asks his friends about not hindering God, God had already broken down barriers, destroyed what the friends thought of as permanent walls, and it was up to Peter and his friends to simply respond in kind.[3]

Too often, mental illness becomes a barrier to community and to being a part of the church. Practicing a resurrection ethic means figuring out how to love each other through our trials and challenges. The church, like humans everywhere, has a tough time loving each other as Jesus commands. Being church means it’s going to be messy. Being church is also full of surprises because that’s what it looks like when we follow a God who loves us first. Thanks be to God, and amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Acts 10

[2] Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave podcast for May 15, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/844-fifth-sunday-of-easter-c-may-15-2022

[3] Ibid.

Jesus Hits the Beach – John 21:1-19 [OR Nibbling on Fish and Family Systems – A Sermon with First Call Pastors and Deacons

Opening Worship for First Call Theological Education, Office of the Bishop, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA

Caitlin Trussell on April 27, 2022, 7 p.m.

[sermon begins after this Bible reading]

John 21:1-19 After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

[sermon begins after this brief paraphrase of my adlib welcome]

I want to thank Chelsea for asking me to preach with you this evening. The high of finishing seminary and being ordained is one I remember well. She filled me in about the bumpy road of First Call Education over the last few years of pandemic and told me this is the first time you’ve been together synodically in this way, at least intentionally. We talked about the theme and practice of Family Systems thinking for your time togeher as well as hopes for these next couple of days too. It’s a joy to share this time with you. The gospel reading for this evening is the one for this coming Sunday. You’re welcome to use anything you hear this evening in preparation for Sunday. And you’re also welcome not to use it. Lastly, I bring you warm greetings from the sinner saints of Augustana Lutheran Church. Let’s get to it then…

[sermon actually begins]

We moved into a new house when my mom married my stepdad, Pops. He’d moved us from the East Coast to the West, from Catholicism to an austere, a capella, reformed faith tradition, and from subsidized housing to a single family home complete with olive and avocado trees, and a bird of paradise plant by the front door. My mother put dark brown carpet in the new house because the five of us kids, 4 to 13 years old, and my 17-year-old stepbrother and his friends brought in a lot of dirt and the occasional bleeding wound. Her solution was the darkest carpet short of black she could find. It ended up being a mess in the other direction because every pale piece of lint, paper, and dust showed in stark relief against the sea of brown.

Despite my mother’s best intentions getting us into family therapy after we left my mentally ill dad, some of my time was spent crying. Mom came up with a plan to make space for the tears. Vacuuming. Square footage of dark brown carpet awaited me. By the time I vacuumed my way from the dining room to the front hall, up and down the curved staircase, through the living room, and into the den, I had calmed down. Each tidy line that dark carpet reveals when vacuumed, like patterns in a Japanese sand garden, softened my reaction and organized my thinking. Mom had probably calmed down too because the vacuum drowned out the noise I was making. Then we could talk. Ah, the highs and lows of new life together knew no bounds.

Apparently, the new life of Jesus knew no bounds either. He really moved around in those early days of resurrection. Fresh from the tomb, Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener until Jesus said her name. That same Easter evening and a week later on the second Sunday in Easter, the disciples had a come-to-Jesus meeting with him in a locked room. Then Jesus hit the beach. “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” What is it with this guy and the number three? It’s not enough that he was raised on the third day, but he had to be sighted three times afterwards? Then he offers Peter a three-part absolution to mirror Peter’s three-part denial at Jesus’ trial – directing Peter’s love for Jesus to tending his flock.

Love for Jesus leads us to so many unexpected places. Some of us end up following a call towards the kind of flock-tending that Jesus asked of Peter. The same Peter who’d just jumped wildly into to the water to get to Jesus while the rest of the disciples rowed the boat ashore. At this point in the disciples’ relationships, they must have all known each other well. Their foibles and follies recounted over meals and during the long walks between towns. Processing their experiences with each other to become better able to tell a story of their own to feed Jesus’ sheep.

About a year and a half into my now nine-year call, I had an interaction that didn’t go well. Suffice it to say that I’d just met a person who decided to project a bunch of assumptions onto me that didn’t apply. This person had enough power in the system that my confident, capable self was caught off guard. Soon afterwards, I was in my car, in a parking lot, in a full-on ugly cry – simultaneously feeling ridiculous while realizing that I needed help to think. I had enough wherewithal to recognize these tears as old ones, but it was going to take more than vacuuming lines into brown carpet to settle this down. A few of my colleagues at the time had talked about Family Systems work. How we grew up reacting and acting in ways that once served a purpose that no longer exists, but we still react and act in those unexamined ways given the right set of circumstances.

I’d dabbled in Family Systems thinking at the start of my call, but getting to know the church and my call was distracting those first few months and it fell off my radar. Fast-forward to the year and half mark, in that parking lot. I knew that the colleagues I most respected were regularly in some of kind of therapy or spiritual direction. So I found myself a family systems coach and I connected with a few like-minded colleagues who spoke systems language. The slow, painstaking work of figuring out old patterns and reactions began alongside training my brain to think in new ways. Not just synthesize data or process my emotions – although that’s important. Really think. The kind of thought that aligns new information and responses with deeply held values and principles. Using the squishy gray matter part of my brain to do what it was created to do. I’ll leave it there since I’m not here to give a neurophysiology lecture, although as a former nurse that would be super fun and is very tempting.

My love of Jesus, my love of the church, my love of self and neighbor, all the loves were not enough for me to feed Jesus’ lambs and sheep and keep my sanity. I’ve seen other colleagues get their emotions so tangled, their thinking so clouded, that they self-righteously blame their flock without any self-examination and leave their call. I don’t know how each of you would describe your experience these first months or years of your calls. Pandemic makes so many things harder and weirder. What I know is that having a strategy for thinking, whether it’s Family Systems or another strategy, has made the difference in my work and well-being. It’s also kind of fun being the least anxious person in the room from time to time.

We get to do so many wild and wooly things because we love Jesus AND the world God so loves so much that we accept calls into ministry. It’s an adventure that I wouldn’t trade for anything. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?…Do you love me?…Do you love me?…”, Peter’s affirmations and ache are palpable – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus gave Peter the sheep and to the sheep he gave Peter. Our life together as church, starting with worship and expanding to the ministry mischief we each get up to in our different calls, is born of this love. Not a love blind to sin and fault, but an unconditional, open-eyed love to the human story lived in each one of us. Our human stories healed by Jesus in the love given to each one of us and, by the Spirit’s strength, the love we get to give others in Jesus’ name.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, alleluia! And amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The holy gospel according to St. John…Glory to you, O Lord.

After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This is the gospel of our Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

 

 

 

Stories that Claim Us [OR God Sees Your Fear and Raises You by Grace] John 20:19-31

**sermon art: Doubting Thomas by Nick Piliero on F Barbieri (acrylic on canvas)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 24, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 20:19-31 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

[sermon begins]

My husband Rob has a group of friends from his hometown that stay in touch with each other. Life events and annual lake trips dot the calendar. There’s one friend that keeps everyone going in the right direction. We laugh that it’s because he’s a retired army officer, so he’s used to interdependence and complex logistics. I am somewhat envious of their life-long friendships. My story is littered with different homes, and towns, and schools. Even in the same town I switched schools between middle and high school so new friends were made. This is where the upside of social media makes a difference. Over the years, I’ve found people on social media from elementary, middle, and high school, and they’ve found me.

A couple of years ago, Ron Dawson, a friend from elementary school reached out because he was writing a memoir including stories from 5th and 6th grades. He wanted to check the story and use my name or an alias. We caught up with each other – cuz, you know, a lot’s happened since 5th grade. We didn’t really discuss my becoming a pastor. Just noted it and moved on. As social media goes, we’ve commented on each other’s posts. This will come as a shock, I know, but some of my posts are religious. My Easter Sunday post was an icon of Jesus flashing a fancy icon hand sign that cast an Easter bunny shadow puppet. Last week, Ron messaged me and asked if he could interview me for his podcast.[1] He’s doing a series about changes in his faith. The trendy word is deconstruction. His upbringing and adult faith experiences no longer fit his life experience. We talked via Zoom on Good Friday afternoon – a perfect time to talk about faith and lack of faith.

In that conversation, I mentioned something that Pastor John Pederson talked about in my first year as a pastor here. When people asked him about his faith, he would say that the Christian story is simply the one that claimed him. This is both a very Pastor Pederson and a very Lutheran thing to say – “…the story that claimed him.” When you think about it, we all have a story or multiple stories that claim us. Our family story, faith story, school story, work story, American story, human story, and more, usually lay their claims without a lot of self-awareness on our parts. Examining those stories takes time and energy, for sure, but it also takes courage. Because when you examine a story, ask questions about it, see if the story still fits with who you are now, you may find that the story has changed its claim on you.

Thomas is a solid example of a changing story. After the crucifixion, the disciples’ fear had them on lock down. Rightly so after the trauma of Jesus’ death and what could be next for them. Then Thomas’ friends had an experience with the risen Jesus that he missed out on. Maybe he didn’t trust their Jesus sighting because as a twin he had the look-alike prank down.[2] Who knows where he was when the resurrected Jesus showed up – food run, maybe? Anyway, Thomas wasn’t there. Everything was still so fresh. Maybe he hadn’t found his way back to the others after the chaos. It was still the same day that Mary Magdelene had just been at the empty tomb and saw Jesus, thinking he was the gardener until he said her name.[3]

Mary’s morning (mourning?) encounter and the disciples’ evening meeting with the risen Christ was the first Easter Sunday. Thomas had to wait a whole week, until the next Sunday, before HIS moment with the resurrected, wounded Jesus. That must have been a rough week, his friends crowing with confidence, claimed by a story that didn’t yet include him. Makes me wonder what story claimed him that week. Was it doubt? Was it hope? Fear? All the above? It makes me wonder what stories claim us. Doubt? Hope? Fear? Capitalism? Celebrity-ism? All the above? Maybe a better question is, do we dare examine the stories that claim us? Week after week, Sunday to Sunday, we take baby steps on a life journey that often includes questions about faith. 12th century thinker, Anselm of Canterbury, called this “faith seeking understanding.” Lutheran Christians are claimed by an origin story that includes thinking faith down to the last thought – changing our minds and wrestling with tough concepts. Repeatedly deconstructing ourselves within communities of faith as the risen Jesus repeatedly shows up in bread, wine, and each other to strengthen our faith and challenge our assumptions. Deconstruction and reconstruction are not once and done – but a daily process of dying and rising in our baptisms, trusting that God’s promises are bigger than any of our questions or struggles.

People of great faith are inspiring. Like the early adopters in the faith – Mary Magdalene, Peter, the other disciples, and yes even Thomas – we have people among us who are convinced of the resurrection beyond a shadow of a doubt. Most of us don’t fall neatly into either full faith or no faith. That’s a false choice. Most of us are on a continuum, sometimes even depending on the time of day. For something as big and mysterious as the resurrection, it’s a good thing that the Easter season is 50 days. We need lots of time to swim in the mystery, struggle with what it means to trust God even if the resurrection story feels like a step too far from the reality of cross and tomb.

One of my seminary professors said that every faith argument plays a mystery card or two. To that I reply, “I see your mystery card and raise you a heresy.” Mystery cards, like the resurrection, are one thing. Any faith in any story relies on mystery cards. Whether that story is religious, or economic, or political, or scientific, there are assumptions, hypotheses, and mystery cards aplenty. Our Lenten Adult Forums on Faith, Science, and the Theology of the Cross, are just one recent example of how mystery functions in the world of science. Don Troike did a beautiful job leading us through the gifts, answers and limitations of science and faith. Very cool stuff.

Church offers us conversation partners who offer context, history, and compassion – kind of like the disciples did for Thomas. Anyway, on to heresies. Heresies are arguments that we make within a faith story that may not line up with accepted ideas or doctrine. This is super common. Mostly argued about by theology nerds. But sometimes the fear of heresy locks us into not thinking, or not engaging the mystery whatsoever. That’s no fun. Half the fun of the church is getting to wonder, wander, and ponder our way through what it means to be Jesus followers and the risen body of Christ. How do we get there if we don’t place a demand or two like Thomas did into the mix?

Thomas was open to the idea that he too could see Jesus’ resurrected wounds – as weird and icky as that sounds. He’d already experienced some pretty incredible things to date – healings, exorcisms, Lazarus walking out of a tomb. Why not one more? The story that claimed these early siblings of faith is weird. It’s the story of a lifetime. It’s a story that takes courage to examine, question, and live into. Ultimately, though, it’s Christ’s story that claims, consoles, and connects us to each other and to God. God’s longing sees your locked rooms and fears and raises you by grace. Alleluia and amen.

____________________________________________

Hymn after the Sermon:

Ask the Complicated Questions

1. Ask the complicated questions,
do not fear to be found out;
for our God makes strong our weakness,
forging faith in fires of doubt.

2. Seek the disconcerting answers,
follow where the Spirit blows;
test competing truths for wisdom,
for in tension new life grows.

3. Knock on doors of new ideas,
test assumptions long grown stale;
for Christ calls from shores of wonder,
daring us to try and fail.

4. For in struggle we discover
truth both simple and profound;
in the knocking, asking, seeking,
we are opened, answered, found.

Text: David Bjorlin, b.1984; © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc.

____________________________________________

[1] Ron Dawson, Dungeons ‘n’ Durags: One Black Nerd’s Epic Quest of Self-Discovery and Racial Identity. https://dungeons-n-durags.com/podcast/

[2] David Peters, Vicar, St. Joan of Arc Episcopal Church, TX. Paraphrasing Jeremiah Griffin’s sermon about Thomas @dvdpeters on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dvdpeters/status/1517219990809858050

[3] John 20:1-18

Good Friday is for Weary Souls [OR The Life-Giving Heart of God] John 18:1 – John 19:42 and Psalm 22

**sermon art: The Crucifixion by Laura James  https://www.laurajamesart.com/laura-james-bio/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 15, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible readings]

John 18:1 – John 19:42 excerpts

So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 25bMeanwhile, 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. 28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Psalm 22  may be found in full at the end of the sermon. Verse 1 is most relevant to the sermon: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

[sermon begins]

Today is a day for weary souls. Bone-tired souls who see Good Friday everywhere. We see it in the million deaths from Covid in our country and six million deaths around the world. In the murderous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In a subway station shootout in New York. In a traffic stop turned execution in Michigan. In each overdose death that breaks a family’s heart. In our own experience of loss and grief due to illness, addiction, or accident. Oh yes, we see the suffering and we struggle to make sense of it, to connect it with our faith, to take action against it or alongside it. We see and experience the suffering and our powerlessness and lack of resolve to stop it. Today is a day for weary souls.

There’s a special effect used in movies when the fast-paced, fast-forwarded action suddenly slows into second-by-second slow-motion. We watchers have enough time to see and absorb a key part of the story. Good Friday has that quality. It’s a sacred pause that reveals the crux of the matter, the truth of life and death, the heart of the story, the heart of God. Contemplating the cross, the Christ, each other, and ourselves, God cradles our soul-fatigue in God’s heart.[1]

Today is a day to remember that we are not alone. Good Friday signifies the suffering of the world and God suffering with us, God absorbing our suffering into God’s heart. But it’s also a day that God’s shared suffering with us often feels insufficient because suffering is exhausting and isolating, and we feel alone. Jesus’ cry from the cross could be our own, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”[2]

Good Friday tells the truth about suffering. The level we inflict suffering on each other, and on the earth and all its creatures, knows no bounds. Most of us are capable of just about anything given the right set of circumstances. But today isn’t about shame games. Jesus took shame with him onto the cross and shame died there too. The death of shame is life giving. The death of shame clears our eyes to see ourselves and each other with compassion, as Christ sees us with compassion. There’s a sung chant for Good Friday. The cantor sings, “Behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the Savior of the whole word.” The Savior of the whole world delivers us from evil – in ourselves and other people.

Good Friday isn’t about only pointing away from ourselves at other people who cause suffering. It’s also a sacred space to wonder and confess the suffering 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? The life-giving cross. Life-giving because the shame-game, the image game, the perfection game, the self-righteous game, all the games we play against each other shatter in the shadow of the cross.

Through the life-giving cross, Christ sees us with compassion. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke included Jesus’ words of compassion, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ words are not carte blanche for murder and mayhem. His prayer to forgive us reminds us that 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 from each other and God. Good Friday creates a slow-motion pause for us to experience life-giving compassion from the heart of God in the face of our sin. God’s compassion 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 to a weary world, 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.[3] 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 life-giving cross awakens us to that goodness. Jesus’ full and fragile humanity was displayed from the cross. He sacrificed himself to the people who killed him for his radical, excessive love, rather than 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 a Good Friday truth for the weary soul. From the cross, Jesus redefined connection, kinship, and companionship:

“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.” [4]

Jesus connects people through suffering. This is not a reason for suffering. Simply a truth about it. When we suffer and feel most alone and weary to our souls, 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 the life-giving 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 simply can’t believe that God applies this grace and love to everyone. It 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 for our weary souls on Good Friday. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. “Behold the life-giving cross on which hung the Savior of the whole world. Come let us worship him.”[5]

______________________________________________________________

[1] @BerniceKing via Twitter, 7:38 PM – 13 Apr 22. Ms. King tweeted about “soul-fatigue” and Patrick Lyoya being shot by the police officer who pulled him over during a traffic stop. https://twitter.com/BerniceKing/status/1514417869861306374

[2] Matthew 27:46

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

[4] John 19:25b-27

[5] A sung chant for Good Friday.

_______________________________________________________________

Psalm 22

1My God, my God, why have you for- | saken me?
Why so far from saving me, so far from the words | of my groaning?
2My God, I cry out by day, but you | do not answer;
by night, but I | find no rest.
3Yet you are the | Holy One,
enthroned on the prais- | es of Israel.
4Our ancestors put their | trust in you,
they trusted, and you | rescued them. R
5They cried out to you and | were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not | put to shame.
6But as for me, I am a worm | and not human,
scorned by all and despised | by the people.
7All who see me laugh | me to scorn;
they curl their lips; they | shake their heads.
8“Trust in the Lord; let the | Lord deliver;
let God rescue him if God so de- | lights in him.” R
9Yet you are the one who drew me forth | from the womb,
and kept me safe on my | mother’s breast.
10I have been entrusted to you ever since | I was born;
you were my God when I was still in my | mother’s womb.
11Be not far from me, for trou- | ble is near,
and there is no | one to help.
12Many young bulls en- | circle me;
strong bulls of Ba- | shan surround me. R
13They open wide their | jaws at me,
like a slashing and | roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water; all my bones are | out of joint;
my heart within my breast is | melting wax.
15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; my tongue sticks to the roof | of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the | dust of death.
16Packs of dogs close me in, a band of evildoers | circles round me;
they pierce my hands | and my feet. R
17I can count | all my bones
while they stare at | me and gloat.
18They divide my gar- | ments among them;
for my clothing, | they cast lots.
19But you, O Lord, be not | far away;
O my help, hasten | to my aid.
20Deliver me | from the sword,
my life from the power | of the dog.
21Save me from the | lion’s mouth!
From the horns of wild bulls you have | rescued me.
22I will declare your name | to my people;
in the midst of the assembly | I will praise you. R
23You who fear the Lord, give praise! All you of Jacob’s | line, give glory.
Stand in awe of the Lord, all you off- | spring of Israel.
24For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither is the Lord’s face hid- | den from them;
but when they cry out, | the Lord hears them.
25From you comes my praise in the | great assembly;
I will perform my vows in the sight of those who | fear the Lord.
26The poor shall eat | and be satisfied,
Let those who seek the Lord give praise! May your hearts | live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn | to the Lord;
all the families of nations shall bow | before God.
28For dominion belongs | to the Lord,
who rules o- | ver the nations. R
29Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow | down in worship;
all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel be- | fore the Lord.
30Their descendants shall | serve the Lord,
whom they shall proclaim to genera- | tions to come.
31They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people | yet unborn,
saying to them, “The | Lord has acted!” R

Mary of Bethany’s Story is a Feast for the Senses [OR No One Likes Funerals] John 12:1-8

**sermon art: Unction of Christ by Maria Stankova, 2-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 3, 2022

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 12:1-8  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

[sermon begins]

On a Sunday morning like most others, I was standing around in my home church’s lobby (mysteriously called the narthex).  Two people burst through the doors in tears. Our pastor happened onto the scene and guided them into his office. My imagination ran wild with whatever could have happened. Big emotions poured through those doors and out of their eyes. Later we found out that their beloved Australian shepherd had suddenly died. It was tough to make sense of their emotion. I wasn’t raised with dogs and our Australian family dog, Romi, was very much alive and kicking and wreaking havoc. It wasn’t until her diagnosis of cancer and her death a month later that the heartbreak made sense to us. Barb and Barney, our neighbors who we exchange dog-sitting with, brought over a small rose plant with fiery orange roses that matched Romi’s fierce and sweet soul. I’ve long since planted it outside and every year Romi’s rose blooms again around her death date in July.

Barb, Barney, and other sweet people taught me a lot about how to respond when other people’s pets die. We had Romi cremated. It took a few months to figure out where to spread her ashes and we settled on the open space that she was notorious for adventuring through whenever she foiled our efforts to keep her in the yard. It was just Rob, me, and the kids. Each of us said something about Romi. One of us mentioned being grateful for her love of our family. And then I prayed. Our son instinctively found a large stone nearby, lugged it over, and plonked it on the spot. Then we walked back to the house.

Funny thing about Romi’s death was how much it heightened other personal and professional losses in my life. As a 19-year-old brand new Registered Nurse, my first dear young patient died. Cherisse was 8 years old. She started sleeping most of the time, and with closed eyes she quietly whispered that I didn’t smell good, her mom clarifying right away that it was because I didn’t smell like perfume. Then 6-year-old Aaron. We called each other “Toots” and laughed a lot. My Dad died when I was 20 and my stepdad Pops died when I was 32. I’d been to many, many, many funerals before I started leading funerals as a pastor.

Remembering and grieving, gratitude and love, guilt and anger, and many other emotions both small and large tangle together when someone dies. Today’s gospel story from John poignantly paints these jumbled emotions. Jesus was visiting Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany six days before the Passover. Mary of Bethany was the one who had already cried once at Jesus’ feet, after Lazarus had died but before Jesus raised him from the dead.[1] Lazarus’ wild death-to-life story and the associated plot to kill Jesus are in the chapter just before our reading today.

In today’s story, Jesus has returned to Bethany to be with his friends again. A special dinner was held in his honor. During dinner, Mary breaks open the nard – a fragrant, greasy ointment that my young patient Cherisse would have loved because it “smells good.” Nard, a pricey import from the Indian Himalayas, was used medicinally, and it was also used to prepare bodies for burial because of its strong fragrance. In Old Testament times, nard was burned as an incense offering to God by the Hebrew people.[2] It was a household treasure.

As Judas points out, it was worth a fortune. Mary opened the nard, “anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.” Typical of John’s gospel, there are layers to what is happening in the story. It’s possible that Lazarus still smelled like nard from his burial because its scent lingers and lingers and lingers in the skin thanks to the oils in the ointment. Everyone in the home was reminded of recent events by the nard’s unique fragrance swirling with the recent emotions of grief, gratitude, joy, guilt, anger, and God knows what else. As if the expense and the smell weren’t enough, Mary’s hair draped over Jesus’ feet were another shock to the senses. The sight of her hair, the smell of the nard, the memory of death, the presence of life, and a death yet to come, made a many layered moment. The fragrance alone would be in her hair for weeks. To top it all off, Jesus was likely crucified and buried with the fragrance of nard still radiating from his feet through the skin and wounds inflicted there. Mary was simultaneously remembering Lazarus’ funeral and preparing for Jesus’ funeral with an excessive, fragrant celebration of life.

I don’t know anyone who says that they like funerals (if I had a dollar for every time someone’s told me that they don’t like funerals…). Of course, no one like funerals. Someone has died and that’s awful. Funerals are reminders of other losses in our lives and our own mortality. That is difficult and disruptive. But their meaningful layers create a space to celebrate life. We celebrate the life of the person who died, and, by extension, we celebrate the gift of life. Funerals are a sacred pause even if we don’t agree with whatever theology (or lack thereof) is framing them.

We attend some funerals because they’re not optional. A close friend or family member dies, and we are supposed to be there. I invite you to think about attending funerals that seem optional. When your co-worker’s mom dies, go. When your neighbor’s daughter dies, go. When the person you sit next to in the pew but you don’t know very well dies, go. There may be a lot of reasons why it’s not possible to go to a particular funeral. But if it’s possible, go.

The algorithm you create in your mind about how well you knew the person who died doesn’t matter. I’ve never heard a deceased person’s family wonder why someone else was at a funeral. I’ve only ever heard extreme gratitude and sometimes surprise from the family for everyone who’s taken the time to be there. Funerals can feel awkward and quirky. Eulogies can go wildly awry. Sermons can be weird. And, at the same time, funerals can offer grace moments even when our own grief is dusted off to reveal our memories. We simply honor life by showing up when death happens.

That’s kind of a good summary of Holy Week leading into Easter as well. We honor life by showing up after death happens. As did Mary of Bethany in this strange story about a fragrant dinner party. During Lent and especially Holy Week, we remember the baptismal promise of daily dying and rising with Christ – drowning our sin in the depths of forgiveness and grace unbounded. Like the fragrance of the nard, our baptisms are a reminder of death AND life. Our death and life. Jesus’ death and life. All the promises, pain and joy that a life contains.

Next Sunday, a week from today, Holy Week begins with Palm and Passion Sunday – waving palm branches in celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and hearing the story of his death in Luke’s gospel; then comes Jesus’ commandment to love each other along with Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday; and remembrance of his self-sacrificing crucifixion on Good Friday. We attend Jesus’ funeral to celebrate and remember the life-giving cross, but ultimately, we attend the funeral in anticipation of Easter’s empty tomb. Because the empty tomb is God’s promise to us that, in the face of death, love and life are the last word.

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[1] John 11:32

[2] “What is pure nard in the Bible?” https://religionandcivilsociety.com/catholics/what-is-pure-nard-in-the-bible.html

God is Love [OR It Can’t Just Be About Love…Can It?] Luke 13:1-9 and 1 John 4:7-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Luke 13:1-9   At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

 

1 John 4:8b-21  God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

[sermon begins]

♪♫ “There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us.

There is a longing in our hearts for love, we only find in you, O God.”[1] ♫♪

We are singing this song in Lent in place of the usual Kyrie, a prayer for God’s mercy. We sing and claim that God is love. We hear that ‘God is love’ in scripture like the 1 John reading today. The Psalmist’s lips praise God’s “steadfast love [as] better that life.” God is love. Do we believe it? Is God really love? We say to each other in word and deed, “It can’t just be about love.”

We doubt that God is love. We perform mental gymnastics to explain some of the more troubling parts of the Bible – contorting God’s love into strange shapes that none of us would recognize as love. It’s a little unclear as to how we benefit from these mind games. In these theologies, God gets set up as unpredictable, angry, and insecure, one who could lash out in condemnation at any moment. “You better watch out” doesn’t sound like love to me. It sounds more like Stockholm syndrome when victims develop feelings of affection and trust for their kidnapper.

In a sermon a couple of weeks ago, I said that “the death of Jesus was the logical end of human anger, not God’s.” This means that the cross holds up a mirror to the violence in us, not in God. More than one of you had questions about that, bringing up the Old Testament and wondering about God’s anger and God’s love and what you’ve been taught about it. Stories like the one in our Gospel reading from Luke today are a good way to talk it through. Jesus had been teaching the crowds and the disciples for quite some time before the question about the Galileans was raised.

 

The Galileans, whose blood was defiled by Pilate, were quite possibly known by Jesus.[2] Galilee was not a big place. His statement wasn’t an abstraction about somewhere far away. These people were his neighbors who died violently and unexpectedly. In Luke’s Gospel, Pilate comes up throughout the story of Jesus (3:1), and at the end he will mix the blood of Jesus the Galilean with the Passover sacrifices. Pilate used the power of government to inflict suffering – NOT the power of God.

According to Jesus, neither the Galileans’ executions nor the eighteen folks crushed by the Tower of Siloam were punishment for sin. Explanations for suffering are always inadequate but it’s interesting how often suffering is attributed to divine retribution, punishment for sin through catastrophe. Jesus rejects the argument that suffering and catastrophe are divine punishment for sin. Jesus said, “No.” Yet still, we find it hard to believe that God is love, finding it much easier to believe that God is anger.

Let’s put a placeholder there for just a moment and talk about people as an example. It’s often easier for us to believe that people are mad at us or that we’re in trouble – yet one more example of the continuum between adolescents and adults. We get older but don’t really change all that much. We’re quicker to assume that people are mad at us, or just don’t like us, than we are to assume that people love and accept us. Is it possible that we’re also quicker to assume God is mad at us than that God loves us, projecting our assumptions onto God? It can’t just be about love…can it?

 

Take notice when Jesus tells a parable in response to a question. Parables are never direct answers. Parables don’t offer certainty. Parables invite creativity.  In this parable about the fig tree, we can play with who might be the man with the vineyard, the gardener, the tree, the fruit, the manure, or the calendar. Okay, who wants to be the manure? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Playing with a parable means there can be multiple lessons in any one story. So, if God is love, where is God in the story? The gardener? The fruit? Could Jesus be the tree and Pilate be the vineyard owner? Could God be the calendar in the reference to time? I have my own thoughts about the story but it’s helpful for us to be uncomfortable before jumping to quick answers. Parables disrupt our assumptions and invite our curiosity. Could disruption and curiosity be love? It can’t just be about love…can it?

In addition to Pilate’s appearances throughout the gospel, Luke prioritizes fruit-bearing.[3] In chapter 3, John the Baptist calls everyone to bear fruits worthy of repentance (3:8). In chapter 6, Jesus preaches that good hearts produce good fruit (6:43-45). In chapter 8, he explains that honest and good hearts “bear fruit with patient endurance (8:15).”

Before telling the parable about fig trees and fruit bearing, Jesus invites his listeners to repent, in the plural. Meaning that repentance in this story is a group activity. How many of you like homework that are group projects? Me neither. Too much unpredictability when a grade is on the line. But here is Jesus, using the plural of repent and assigning a group project. Some Jesus followers took him at his word, named the group project of repentance and called it Lent. Lent can’t just be about love…can it?

 

Repentance means to change our minds, to change our thinking. Changing our thinking does not mean 100% agreement. But putting our minds together, repenting together, can lead to deep discernment of what it means that God is love and THAT repentance, discernment, and love can transform the world. It can’t just be about love…can it?

The mystery of God is voluminous, unknowable it it’s totality. Thank God that Jesus was given as the shorter, Spark Notes version of God.[4] Jesus is the summary of God’s love. The Bible stories of Jesus’ earliest followers are part of the group project. What is God’s love? Jesus. Jesus bridges the gap created by our self-preservation through hoarding prosperity, power, and protection. Self-preservation over and against our neighbors, also known as sin, is the opposite of fruit-bearing and looks nothing like love.

 

1 John reminds us that Jesus reveals God’s love so that we might live. Jesus is called the “atoning sacrifice,” but he isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. It’s not love. Oh no, Jesus is not payment. Jesus is a revelation to a world, to a people, to us, that needed to be loved and shown how to love. Taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through self-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love, Jesus shows us that God’s judgement of the living and the dead clarifies where we fall short in loving God, self, and neighbor. Judgement is neither condemnation nor punishment. Judgement is a call to love, a restoration of love – restoration not retribution.

1 John tells us that there is nothing to fear because there is no punishment – “Perfect love casts out fear.” The word “perfect” in 1 John is perhaps better translated as “complete,” as in “God’s love is made complete in us.” Whatever God’s reasons are, God, who is love, “…first loved us,” and God’s love is made complete. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us…”

We love you God. Thank you for loving us first. Amen.

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[1] Listen to “There is a Longing in our Hearts” by Anne Quigley’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP9BBz6fRkk

[2] Jeremy L. Williams, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, TX. Commentary on Luke 13:1-9 for https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-131-9-5

[3] Williams, ibid. Dr. Williams highlights these passages in Luke in his commentary.

[4] Cliff Notes and Spark Notes are similar. They’re the easy, incomplete summary of a full book or area of study.

Lent’s Mystery and Invitation (OR What the heck is happening?!!!) Luke 4:1-14a

**sermon art: The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

First Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 4:1-14a Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
11and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.  14Then Jesus, filled with thte power of the Spirit, returned to Galiliee.

[sermon begins]

Ah Lent. Neither Biblical nor traceable to our first century ancestors in the faith, we sing, pray, and talk about the 40 days of Lent as if it’s been this way since Jesus’ death and resurrection. It just feels like the way it’s always been even though my own experience didn’t include Lent for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until more recent decades that American Lutherans included the imposition of ashes in Ash Wednesday worship. Why would I share this fun fact on the first Sunday in Lent? Just a few days into our 40 days? Because most of what we do in worship celebrates our freedom in Christ. Jesus didn’t prescribe our worship liturgy. Our worship developed from our Jewish ancestors in the faith and their traditions since the earliest Christians were Jewish because Jesus was a Jew. Our worship and the church year developed from these ancient Jewish practices and God’s bigger story as a way for Christians to experience Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the foundational story of our lives in the midst of other noisier, flashier stories. Jesus’ story reorients us to truths like: each life is treasured and loved by God regardless of what any one of us thinks about that life; and the death of Jesus was the logical end of human anger, not God’s. At the end of the day, or at the end of Lent as the case may be, what’s important is returning to the promises of God as the tie that binds us as church.

Our First Century church friends were eagerly focused on Jesus’ resurrection. For you church history buffs, early church controversies (because who doesn’t love a good controversy) included when Easter should be annually celebrated finally settling the Western debate in 325 C.E. at the Council of Nicaea.[1] Get this, the Council decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (March 21). This means that Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 to April 25. There was a recent, 21st century attempt between larger world denominations to pick a Sunday to make it the same time every year but so far it hasn’t worked. I’m a little glad about that because the mystery of how Easter is picked and when Lent falls is kind of cool.

Back to our early church friends, Easter was where it was at and what everything was about. Sunday worship celebrated the Easter resurrection every week. Even through today, Sundays in Lent are considered “little Easters” and are not counted in the 40 days. Find me later if you want to have a conversation about Christian math. The annual celebration of Easter Sunday evolved through Christian communities and quickly became the opportune time of year for adult baptisms. The pre-baptismal teaching and preparation time, sometimes called the catechumenate, originally varied in length, and grew into the 40 days of Lent.

When more and more people became Christians and Christendom expanded into medieval times, there were far fewer adult baptisms and Lent became penitential, focused on Christ’s suffering and death and human sinfulness. In recent times, the church holds both traditions while lifting the baptismal emphasis that resonates with Martin Luther’s concept of ongoing baptismal renewal, of daily dying and rising with Christ. In that spirit, we began worship today with a Thanksgiving for Baptism that holds the tension between the Lenten celebration of baptism and a season of repentance. In Lent, we return to the Lord our God who is gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love.[2] Lent focuses us on the great love of God – who we see incompletely in Jesus and who mostly remains a mystery.

Last Sunday, Pastor Ann invited us into the mystery of Jesus’ mountaintop, razzle dazzle Transfiguration rather than trying to fit it into a box. Today’s mysterious moment in scripture is darker, tainted by temptation and a scripture smack down between Jesus and the devil. As we listen to the story, our mind tries to fit it into a box for it too. But try explaining who this tester (the devil) is and why it’s necessary for Jesus to be tested in the first place. No box can contain it. What we CAN see in the story is that Jesus is offered prosperity, power, and protection if he turned away from God. We know from our own experiences how tempting the promises of prosperity, power, and protection can be. We see their horrors in real time in Russia’s war on Ukraine, in the increasing numbers of our unhoused neighbors, and in the widening divide between the few people who hold extreme wealth and the many millions of adults and children who are living and dying in extreme poverty.

One of the things I appreciate most about Lent is truth-telling. Truth about ourselves and the world. I know we argue about truth as if it’s also a mystery but there are actually things we know. We know that cilantro can taste like heaven or it can taste like hell depending on your DNA. We know that if a few people hoard toilet paper, then there’s not enough for everyone’s bathrooms. And we know, even if we don’t talk about it out loud, that given the right set of circumstances, we can prioritize ourselves as the most necessary and worthy human on the planet before each and everyone else.

Lent is a time to struggle with the truth about ourselves without rejecting ourselves in shame and defeat. Self-rejection does not honor God’s promises embodied by Jesus who claims each one of us as beloved. [3] Here’s the beauty in the story about Jesus’ temptation in case you missed it.[4] The Spirit went with Jesus into the wilderness and Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit as he left the wilderness. Jesus was part of the community when he was baptized, before he went into the wilderness, and rejoined his community in Galilee as he came out of it. The power of the Holy Spirit is on the journey of Lent with us. The lie is that we’re solitary and alone. The truth is that we’re embedded through baptism into the body of Christ, this community of faith and the church catholic in all times and places.[5]

Our foundational story of Jesus life, death, and resurrection, into which we are baptized, is the core promise that inspires courage in temptation, offers comfort in grief, imparts strength in dark times, and stirs joy found in the gift of life. Baptism’s promise is daily. Daily we are promised that we die with Christ and rise to new life, rising beyond fear with each new dawn – imperfectly and beloved. God’s unbounded grace in Jesus Christ is the good news that shines light in the darkness. Given everything going on in the word right now, we have Lent as a gift. Thanks be to God and amen.

____________________________________________________

[1] Find a brief history of Easter here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Easter-holiday

[2] Psalm 145:8

[3] Henri Nouwen quoted in grace unbounded: Devotions for Lent 2022. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), 6-7.

[4] Grateful for Pastor Nic Leither, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, pointing out the story’s bookends of the Spirit and community in our weekly Preacher’s Text Study.

[5] The lower case “c” of catholic means universal. God’s whole church unrestricted by geography, time, and doctrine.

No Permanent Enemies – No Permanent Allies [OR I’m Pretty Sure When Jesus Said, ‘Love Your Enemies,’ He Didn’t Mean Kill Them] Luke 6:27-38 and Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:27-38 [Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ ” 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

[sermon begins]

It’s easy to love an enemy. Maybe not in the way that Jesus means, but we love our enemy, nonetheless. Enemies make clear who’s in and who’s out. Enemies force us to create rules, establishing an order that can be a twisted logic but makes sense to us. It’s the reason why the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee have job security. We cheer for our hometown heroes and curse our enemies, making villains out of 15-year-olds. The cheering and the booing are simple in the sports arena. Our bodies respond to friend and enemy in predictable ways because our bodies’ physiology is designed for survival, and survivors need to quickly identify threat and safety. That’s it for today’s physiology lesson. But it’s an important lesson. Jesus tells his followers, “Love your enemies.” It’s an epic task. Some say it’s an impossible task. Jesus’ sermon on the “level place” began in the verses before our reading today. He outlined which blessings and woes belonged to whom. As Pastor Ann preached last week, most of us end up in both columns at some point, blessed or woeful depending on the situation. Right after that part, Jesus tells them to love their enemies. He tells them twice to love their enemies. It may be an epic task but Jesus, at the very least, is asking that we try.

“No permanent enemies – no permanent allies,” is a guiding principle in public work with elected leaders and appointed officials. These very human people make decisions about education, criminal justice, healthcare, hunger, and more. Making enemies out of the people who disagree happens all the time, but it doesn’t get us very far. Last Thursday was Lutheran Day at the Capitol. Seven Augustana folks from our Human Dignity Delegate ministry and I joined Lutherans from across the state online and in person. We learned about two bills being supported by the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Colorado. The first bill is a free lunch program for all school students and the other bill would make it law to automatically seal criminal records after 10 years for non-violent offenses so that jobs and housing are not impossible. Those of us who were in person met with our legislators about these bills. “No permanent enemies – no permanent allies” helps us keep the outcomes for people in need top of mind rather than our own squabbles.

Before our walk to the Capitol, Bishop Jim Gonia talked about the Joseph story that we get a snippet of in our first reading today. Joseph’s tale of woe started when he was an obnoxious younger brother, the favorite of his father out of the 12 brothers. He was so special that his father Jacob gave him a special coat. His brothers threw him in a pit. He was found by traders and sold into slavery in Egypt where he ended up rising to great power. I encourage you to read Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50. It’s one of the easier sections of the Bible to get through because it reads quickly and it’s a great story. Bishop Gonia pointed out that there are many unlikely allies in the story. There are also unlikely enemies who were once allies and vice versa. “No permanent enemies – no permanent allies.” There are just humans.

I wonder if this is part of what Jesus is getting at when he tells us to “love our enemies.” We know from other parts of the Bible that he’s not asking us to stay in abusive relationships or condone violence. Even on the cross, Jesus’ death is an example of the logical end of OUR violent inclinations, not God’s. Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” must mean more than setting us up for an impossible task. Epic examples of loving our enemies can get in the way of seeing what’s possible for us. Tales of Archbishop Desmond Tutu sincerely blessing a young man who screamed obscenities at him or murder victims’ parents forgiving the murderer seem superhuman, beyond most of our capacities and compassion. But if I was a betting kind of person, I’d bet a heap of money that there were smaller steps leading to those epic “love your enemy” moments and also some epic fails. Probably two steps forward, one step back efforts clouded with confusion, anger, regret, and embarrassment.

Three weeks ago, we heard about love more generally in the 1 Corinthians 13 reading – love is patient; love is kind; love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. I preached about practicing love – buying time between our first reactions and our loving response. That kind of love is hard enough without adding our enemies into the mix. But here we are, listening to Jesus demand more from his followers than sounds humanly possible. Love disrupts, redeems, transforms, and frees. Hate is never redemptive. Hate is a race to the bottom, trapping us in systems of power and forming us into mirror images of our enemies. Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies isn’t about our enemies as much as it is about being set free from them even when they retain their power. Hate often evolves into violence because hate dehumanizes our enemy, and it makes it all kinds of easier to do violence to them. Jesus leads his followers away from enemy-like violence.

A little later in the gospel of Luke, during Jesus’ arrest, he tells his follower to put away his sword as he heals the person injured by the guy’s sword. Loving your enemy has real-time consequences for them and for you. Love transforms the relationship by starting with ourselves. And love is the only thing that can drive out hate.[2] Many of the movements that changed the world have been non-violent, love-based movements – think Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. King and Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. There was unflinching resolve and deep love along with the conscious decision to not to turn into the spitting image of the enemy by returning violence for violence.

While sermons are targeted good news, they’re often the tip of the iceberg. Much gets left unsaid because they’re short. When we’re talking about enemies and non-violent ideals, there is incredible complexity here that is difficult to get at in twelve minutes. For instance, Hitler would never have stopped unless he was forcibly stopped – world wars defy simple solutions. But at the same time, there are organizations taking smaller steps in this regard. One is named With Honor. With Honor seeks the election of military veterans in part because, having experienced combat or combat related loss of friends and family, veteran legislators have a “significantly lower propensity to commit U.S. military forces to disputes overseas” and “veterans are more likely than non-veteran politicians to work with their colleagues across the aisle.”[1]  It’s hopeful that the soldiers who protect our freedoms come back from those experiences resolved to find non-violent, diplomatic, bipartisan solutions.

As with any incredibly complicated topic, it helps to make a small step, picking one thing we can work on together as a faith community during the week. Jesus suggests praying for our enemy as one way to love them. Let’s try that. Think of one person on a personal or national or international scale who you would call an enemy. Rather than sauce up the prayer with a bunch of words, let’s try something else. If it works for you, and it’s okay if doesn’t, close your eyes and picture that person. Now picture the light of God, like rays of sunshine above that person, and imagine that person being showered by God’s light…keep picturing them… …amen. You can open your eyes. Pray this prayer this week whenever you think of that person. In the interest of full-disclosure, I have to confess that this kind of prayer is not my gift. In fact, it’s often a last resort or I completely forget to do it altogether. Rob and I were discussing it while I was writing this sermon and he can confirm this fact if you require corroboration. So I’m going to be practicing this prayer along with you this week. The prayer rightfully places that person, our enemy, in God’s light and love when we are not ready to love them ourselves.

Jesus’ reminder to love our enemies is also the reminder that God loves them as God loves us. That’s the simultaneous offense and comfort of Jesus’ grace and the gospel. Jesus’ promise to be with us when we take two steps forward, one step back, or fall down completely is what strengthens us to try loving our enemy, especially when all else fails. Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Read more about With Honor at https://withhonor.org/purpose/

[2} Rev Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Love Takes Practice [Or Mirabel: Truth-Telling Saves the Miracle] Luke 4:21-30 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

sermon art: Madrigal family from the movie Encanto https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2953050/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 30, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings – reading the Corinthians reading is a real boost so go for it]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

[sermon begins]

Mirabel had a problem. The Madrigals, Mirabel’s family in the animated movie Encanto, were so focused on protecting their home that they struggled to tell the truth about their challenges. Challenges big and small that meant the Madrigals weren’t perfect. Mirabel could see the problem. She could see that the family was struggling. She could see that their house, in which they all lived as one big generational family, was cracking under the pressure of this really big problem that no one would talk about. Luisa wasn’t as strong as everyone thought. Abuela wasn’t as certain. And Bruno’s visions of the truth were such a threat that he left the family, and no one talked about Bruno – no, no, no. The Madrigals story is an allegory about the pressures that immigrants face to excel and be perfect so that they can keep their new homes. Their story also applies to families more generally – who gets to speak, who gets heard, and how the truth is told or not told. While Bruno was the one with the visions, Mirabel ended up being the truth-teller. Even her Abuela, her grandmother, finally listens to her but it was a tough sell. Mirabel paid a heavy price for being the Madrigals’ truth-teller.

Truth-teller is another word for prophet. Biblical prophecy is more about truth-telling, God’s truth in particular, and not about seeing the future. Jesus knew this when he said to his friends and family in Nazareth, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Truth-tellers often bear the burden of push-back from people who don’t want to hear it, or in Jesus’ case, the threat of being pushed off a cliff. We heard the first part of Jesus’ story in the Nazarene synagogue last week when his friends and family were amazed to hear Jesus’ words and celebrated his teaching. Oh, how quickly the tide turned against him because he then said something they were not ready to hear. He changed gears on them, flipped the script, inverted the priorities (as Pastor Ann preached about last week). Jesus turned their expectations of him upside down and they were furious. Their rage had them ready to commit murder, to kill Jesus by hurling him off a cliff. The story is not clear how, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”  Truth-tellers attract painful encounters because people will go to great lengths to avoid and push-back at the truth.

One trick about telling the truth is not being a jerk about it. Part of Mirabel’s effectiveness in the movie story is how much she loves her family. Her love for them and their love for each other made space for the truth. Each member of the Madrigal family has a gift, even Mirabel. Their gifts each serve a greater purpose in the story than they’re able to see at the beginning. It becomes a story wider than just their family and greater than only saving their home. It kind of makes you wonder if the movie writers knew Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Tucked in the middle of Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14, is this stunning section about love in chapter 13 – one of the most well-known parts of scripture because it’s often chosen as a reading at weddings. But Paul isn’t preaching at a wedding, he is writing to the church in Corinth. This Corinthian church had been arguing among themselves about all kinds of things, setting up hierarchies of leadership, gifts, and insiders and outsiders. Paul’s letter opens in gratitude for these wayward, faithful people and then unfolds a counter proposal to these hierarchies and their behavior around them. By nesting the love chapter within the gifts, Paul points to love as the reason for the gifts. Love is THE gift, the greatest of all. The gifts point to love. To paraphrase Paul, if I sing like an angel but without love, I’m just making noise; if I can solve every mystery and have oodles of faith but no love, it amounts to nothing; and if I give everything I own away without love, nothing is gained.

Love is as counter cultural as it gets right now in the United States – especially in public. It’s like there’s a $100 million dollar contest for who can be the meanest and most self-absorbed. It doesn’t help that most of our news sources dust up as much controversy as possible because there’s a very human inclination to find out what the fuss is about. And a riled-up, hateful community is more profitable than a calm, loving one. The algorithms, and the artificial intelligence behind the algorithms, lead us to topics that we’re already inclined to believe based on the choices we’ve been making, funneling us to ever more polarizing and agitating content. Here’s the thing. If we practice anger, we’re going to get really good at anger. Same thing with envy and arrogance. Want to be the best at being rude? Keep being rude. We’re not complicated creatures. We tend to do what we practice doing. Paul called his church folks to practice love based on Christ’s example because what they’d been doing was taking them down the wrong road. We’ve seen what it looks like when spiritual gifts are used to manipulate people. Charisma without love can rob people blind. It’s more than noisy gongs and clanging symbols. It’s dangerous. People will get hurt.[1]

Love is not ‘going along to get along.’ It’s neither unity through muting differences, nor is it giving up on finding solutions to problems because it’s too hard. Love means that each person is valuable. No one is expendable. Paul describes love as behavior. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love rejoices in the truth. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Here’s your homework for the week. Take home your bulletin. Read 1 Corinthians 13. Underline verses and make notes in the margins. What does love already look like in your life? How has who God created you to be, including your gifts, help point you to love? How can you practice love this week? Here’s a pro-tip. Buy yourself time. Ask for time if the situation allows for it. Time between your first reaction to something and how you would respond in love. For some that means counting or praying in their heads. Others might set a timer on their phone. Others may take a literal time out and move to a different room or take a bathroom break. However you do it, make time between your instinctive reaction, the reaction that only you are privy to because it happens in your mind and body, and how you want to respond if love is indeed the greatest of all things. Our bodies can’t go where our mind hasn’t gone. Sometimes we must buy time for our minds to prioritize love before we can respond in love. It’s a choice. Love takes practice.

We don’t know what other people are going through. We can’t know their whole situation. We see other people’s situations dimly and see God even more dimly. Paul reminds us that someday we’ll see God but, in the meantime, we are fully known by God. In the mess of who you actually are, God promises to love you no matter what. One of the things we do at church is practice God’s love through Jesus, imitating it and reminding each other about it. We confess the truth of our flaws and fragility and hear God’s love and forgiveness in return. We listen to scripture and the preacher’s interpretation. We welcome children and listen to them. We share peace and then we share the communion meal to which everyone is invited, even the newest visitor among us may come to Christ’s table of bread and wine. We sing in prayer and praise to God who knows us fully and has always loved us because God loves the world.

God loves us first. From God’s promise of love, we’re asked to practice God’s love with each other, our neighbors and our enemies. A patient, kind, and truthful love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things – the greatest of all gifts indeed.

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[1] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Dear Working Preacher: Staggering Love (re: 1 Corinthians 13). January 23, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/staggering-love

Hope for a Different Way [OR Epiphany and the Magi’s Star] Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Epiphany by Miki De Goodaboom

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 9, 2022

[sermon begins after Bible story]

Matthew 1:1-12 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]

As Christmas decorations get packed away, they often leave bits of themselves around, finding their way into corners and carpet fibers – pine needles either real or fake, tiny gingerbread house candies, and shimmery tinsel. Tinsel sparkles like glitter, but unlike glitter that is teeny-tiny and sticks to just about anything, tinsel shimmers in very thin strips, like super chill tin foil.[1] Tinsel is sometimes long, its strands tied together into snake-like garlands that drape across ceilings or coil around a Christmas tree. Tinsel reflects nearby light and sparkles even when the lights are dim. It’s inexpensive and widely available so it’s not surprising that tinsel fell into the hands of the five of us siblings when we were little. Just having left my dad who was losing his fight with mental illness, Mom and the five of us kids were starting over and getting ready for Christmas. Like anyone’s memory from childhood, mine are a bit spotty. But I remember sitting at a table with tinsel, scotch tape, and a hanger – watching my sister tape tinsel garland to the wire hanger that had been shaped into a star for the top of our Christmas tree. I now have that star with its singed scotch tape. It hangs by a thick red ribbon from my ceiling in the kitchen every year from the four weeks before Christmas through its 12 days, from Advent through Epiphany.

Six weeks of the shimmering tinsel star in my kitchen hardly compares to the years long journey of the Magi in our Bible story today. They’re sung about as kings or talked about as wise men, but those translation choices were made well after Jesus’ birth.[2] The Magi is what they were called in Biblical Greek. They were from the East, which at that time meant out towards Persia or Babylon now modern-day Iran and Iraq. Guided by a star, their journey ended with gifts of gold and spices given to a toddler Jesus by the time they finally arrived. We include the Magi in our nativity sets for simplicity’s sake not for Biblical accuracy. Simplicity is helpful. It helps us shorten a story into manageable parts so that we can tell the story and understand it.

The Magi capture our imagination. Not just ours. Early Christian writers, preachers, artists, and singers too. In the Ancient Near East, the Magi were astronomers and magicians who advised kings. Their visit to Jesus and the Feast of the Epiphany are a time to celebrate the good news of Jesus to the great joy of all the people.[3] Magi represent the inclusive good news for “all the people” because they couldn’t have been more foreign to our Jewish cousins in the faith who first heard this story. These magical advisors to kings also reveal God working through unexpected people in the Bible yet one more time.

The Magi are unexpected people, and they do unexpected things…well, after they do the expected thing by checking in with King Herod. It makes sense as advisors to Eastern kings that they would consult with King Herod to continue searching for the King of the Jews. Herod is so frightened by the Magi’s news that Jerusalem was frightened with him. I wonder if Jerusalem was frightened knowing that Herod was afraid, because a fearful king is a terrifying king. Fearful kings do violent things as their fear turns to anger. Case in point, after the Magi left town a different way to avoid Herod, the holy family escaped to Egypt just before Herod “sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the [Magi].”[4] Herod was fearful and angry and violent to the point of killing children.

We too live in a time of violence, suffering and sickness. Caution is advised as we try to interpret God’s intentions or activity in any event. More recently we saw the carnage wrought by hundreds of insurrectionists in D.C. and a lone gunman closer to home, or the ashes of someone’s home destroyed by fire, or the deathbed of someone’s loved one in pandemic.[5] Proceed with caution when interpreting God’s intentions or activity in any event. We are not God. We can mistakenly imply that God was with some people and not others if we confuse God’s blessing with a house still standing after the fire or someone still breathing after an infection.[6] Epiphany isn’t only about the Magi’s star journey to see Jesus, the escape to Egypt, and the threat of Herod. It’s also about the Magi’s return home a different way after visiting Jesus. They first met Jesus when he was still little, the embodiment of hope not yet matured.  Scripture assures us that the King of the Jews’ birth, life, death, and resurrection means something different is happening along with what we see and experience. The short word for this is hope.

Kids have a way of making a way when it seems like all is lost. Like when my siblings and I made that star for the top of our Christmas tree. The tinsel star as reminder of resilience through trauma and making a way when all seems lost. For us, the child-like wonder of Christmas crafted a star of hope. Kids are great at making a way when the evidence presents a wall. Flash to the Magi who followed a star as months turned into years, finding their way through a perilous journey to give their gifts to Jesus. Christians through the centuries have also made a way through whatever the circumstances of the moment may be. On January 6 every year, Christians worldwide celebrate Epiphany. January 6 is also now recorded in our country’s history as one of violent conflict over power. As Jesus followers, we are offered a different way in the face of violence and power – the wonder of Christmas revealing Jesus as the star of hope.

We sang a Gathering Song at the beginning of worship today – Christ be our Light. The song led us in prayer as we praised Christ for lighting the way of peace, hope, and salvation. Quite often, maybe far too often, the ones we need saving from is ourselves. Prone to conflict, scape-goating, and violence as both catharsis and solution, Christ shines light on the futility of those ways while guiding us on a different way to love not just ourselves but our neighbors too; to love not just our neighbors but our enemies too. Christ shines the love of God first – the unconditional, ever-expanding love of God for you. Epiphany is a good day for hope as Christ shines Star-light on a different way for us. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Tinsel has a history dating back to the 1600s. Check it out at https://www.thefactsite.com/history-of-tinsel/

[2] Sandra Sweeney Silver. Early Church History: Who Were the Magi? “In the ancient Middle Eastern world these Magi were trusted advisors to kings, were learned men proficient in the knowledge of mathematical calculations, astronomy, medicine, astrology, alchemy, dream interpretation and history as well as practitioners of magic and paranormal arts.” https://earlychurchhistory.org/beliefs-2/who-were-the-magi/

[3] Luke 2:10

[4] Matthew 2:13-18 These few verses summarize the holy family’s escape to Egypt and what is known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The stories are worth reading because we don’t hear them in the regular schedule of Sunday worship scripture a.k.a. Revised Common Lectionary.

[5] Without preaching the details, the shooter who recently shot and killed people across Denver and Lakewood, the 1/6/2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Marshall fire in and around Boulder CO, and Covid deaths, are inferred.

[6] Ryan Warner interviews Isaac Sendros on Colorado Matters: When the evacuation order for the Marshall Fire came, the 600-member staff of Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville sprang into action. The hospital’s CEO Isaac Sendros recounts how they cleared everyone from preemies to COVID patients. https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/how-to-evacuate-a-hospital-the-story-of-clearing-out-avista-adventist/