Category Archives: Preaching

My Three Dads [OR Jesus, Juneteenth, and Self-Justification] Luke 8:26-39, 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-29

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 19, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the 1 Kings reading about Elijah is at the end of this post]

Galatians 3:23-29 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 8:26-39 Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

[sermon begins]

My Three Sons was a T.V. show when I was little. I can still hum the opening music…[1] That show pops into my head whenever I talk about my three dads. It IS Father’s Day and, as someone who had more than their share of dads, it’s a relevant aside today. I learned a lot from each of my fathers. Dad, my first dad, is a faded memory a little like a dream.[2] I remember good and bad, echoes of love and fear. Dad died in 1989 although we hadn’t seen him in many years. Pops, my second dad, did the love and work of raising the five of us siblings after he had raised four children of his own. My stepsiblings were all young adults when Mom and Pops were married. Pops died in 2002.[3] Larry, my mother’s husband of 18 years, is a third dad of sorts. He nearly became a Catholic priest but married, had children, and became a college professor instead.[4] I carry gifts from each of my three dads in addition to the baggage. Seeing the gifts through the baggage is something I’ve worked on and treasure at this point in my life. One of the gifts of having three dads is experiencing different ways of being family, of knowing deep down inside that love expands even when people think love is finite. Having had these experiences where family norms changed up, it makes sense to me that we learn patterns of behavior that are as invisible to us as the air we breathe. We just think they’re normal because they’re normal to us.

The Gerasene demoniac in our Bible story had become a normal part of his community. Oh, sure, Legion was naked, unpredictable, dripping with demons, and living in the tombs when he wasn’t shackled and chained in town, but his community knew what to expect from him. He was their normal. They knew what to expect from the man until Jesus showed up. Jesus showed up, sent the demons into a herd of pigs who raced to the lake and drowned. It’s curious that the city folks were afraid when they saw the man sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus. Their fear was so great that they asked Jesus to leave town. Their normal had been disrupted with healing. It makes me wonder about our own comfort with the demons that we know versus the healing that we don’t know.

A lot is known about individual healing and transformation especially related to addiction and recovery. Less is known about how we might transform systems, whether that system is our family, our town, our country, or our world. The more people you add, the more complicated it gets. I’m interested in those systems and what it takes to fight through fear of the unknown future to leave behind the chains and shackles that bind us. I’m interested in how a God who loves the whole world animates us by the power of the Spirit. We know that those of us who face addiction and find healing in rooms of recovery like Alcoholics Anonymous process those experiences with an honest accounting of the hurt inflicted while making amends to those who have been hurt.

Notice that Jesus sent the healed man back into his community, back with his people. Restoring the man into relationships long thought irredeemable. I see that demoniac reconciled with his community, and I see our families, and cities, and country and I wonder, do I believe in a God of transformation or don’t I?

Racism and its effects on our country are hotly debated. We just passed the seventh anniversary of the Emanuel 9.[5] Nine black people were killed by a 21-year-old white man at a church Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. Two of the black people at that Bible study were educated in Lutheran seminaries. The killer was raised in an ELCA Lutheran Church. Racism is not a problem unique to the ELCA. It is a problem baked into the system of our country’s formation right through the practices and policies and laws today. The church, the body of Christ, is uniquely positioned to address racism and work on it in ourselves and within our faith community because we confess every Sunday to things we’ve done and left undone, not loving our neighbor with our whole heart.

This summer, Augustana’s Human Dignity Delegates ministry invites us to read How to Be an Antiracist.[6] All of us are invited to read it, wonder about Dr. Kendi’s arguments. Bring questions and thoughts to our check-in conversation in July and the larger conversation in August. We’ll critique the book from our different perspectives and wrestle with the content.

Today is Juneteenth[7] – a celebration of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 finally arriving in Texas over two years later on June 19, 1865, along with the Federal troops to announce and enforce the freedom of the enslaved people there. Juneteenth (short for June 19th), as of this year, is a state holiday in Colorado. It’s as good a time as any for us as Coloradans and as Lutherans to wonder about how we work for truth and reconciliation across differences of race that are unexamined and embedded – a.k.a. normal – in our policies and practices because it hadn’t occurred to us to look at them in that way.

As a confessional church, we confess our faith in Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth, giver of radical grace and unconditional love. We also confess each Sunday that there is much we do and leave undone that hurts ourselves and our neighbors. Frankly, there’s not much difference between family systems like mine with my three dads, and larger cultural systems that bring both gifts and challenges. There are differences of scale and impact for sure. But there is no difference in the ways that most of us leave patterns of behavior unexamined and, if they are examined, we can end up justifying those patterns as just the way the world works. It’s just normal.

The Elijah Bible story we heard this morning, offers a few hints about continuing fearful, exhausting work with an unknown future. Elijah is on the run from a furious Queen Jezebel who wants to kill him. He hides in the wilderness in despair, thinking he’s better off dead. While hiding, he rests, and he eats, and he rests again. He is sent out to wait for God to pass by which God eventually does in the sound of “sheer silence.” Naps, snacks, and silence are examples of slowing down to figure out and do what we think God wants us to do. The world is a noisy place. Many voices clamor for attention and the fights often devolve into who can be first to humiliate whom. Jesus followers are offered a different path. We are free to get rid of things that have become normal that don’t serve us or our neighbors.

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatian church that we are free. Freed in Christ by faith so that all are one in Christ – no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female. Bible stories name differences all over the place and names us neighbors across difference – think the Syrophoenician woman[8], the Good Samaritan[9], and the Ethiopian eunuch[10] – although in fairness, race as we understand it is a much later 16th century social construct.[11]

While reassuring that Christ is the great leveler, hierarchies that divide us remain true our own minds. It takes practice to celebrate and not fear difference in other people – practice in prayer, practice in worship, practice in thought and conversation, and practice in relationship with all of kinds of people. As people freed by Jesus, without any reason to have to justify ourselves, we are free to practice as the body of Christ so that all may freely live without fear. Happy Juneteenth and amen.

 

Song after the Sermon:

Healer of Our Every Ill

Refrain
Healer of our ev’ry ill,
light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

1 You who know our fears and sadness,
grace us with your peace and gladness;
Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts. Refrain

2 In the pain and joy beholding
how your grace is still unfolding,
give us all your vision, God of love. Refrain

3 Give us strength to love each other,
ev’ry sister, ev’ry brother;
Spirit of all kindness, be our guide. Refrain

4 You who know each thought and feeling,
teach us all your way of healing;
Spirit of compassion, fill each heart. Refrain

_______________________________________________________

[1] My Three Sons opening credits and music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpEsDaOuiyk

[2] Captain Larry Brien Palm, Ph.D. (9/1/1938-7/28/1989). We left my Dad when I was small because his mental illness devolved him into violence. Dad’s gravestone may be viewed here: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/113725753/larry-brien-palm

[3] John William Cloer (1/3/1929-12/28/2002) https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/latimes/name/john-cloer-obituary?pid=691002. Pops’ gravestone may be viewed here: https://billiongraves.com/grave/John-William-Cloer/12973585

[4] Lawrence P. Ulrich, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Dayton. https://udayton.edu/directory/artssciences/philosophy/ulrich_lawrence.php. See Larry’s Curriculum Vitae here: https://academic.udayton.edu/LawrenceUlrich/UlrichCV.html

[5] “South Carolina Lutheran Pastor: Dylann Roof was Church Member, His Family Prays for Victims.” June 19, 2015. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dylann-roof-religion-church-lutheran_n_7623990

[6] Ibram X. Kendi. How to Be an AntiRacist. https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/june/ibram-x-kendi-definition-of-antiracist.html

[7] What is Juneteenth? https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth

[8] Mark 7:24-30 Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

[9] Luke 10:25-37 The parable of the Good Samaritan

[10] Acts 8:26-39 Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

[11] The History of the Idea of Race https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human/The-history-of-the-idea-of-race

_______________________________________________________ ___________________

1 Kings 19:1-15a  Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” [5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” ] 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. 9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15aThen the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

A Trafficked Girl Freed, A Jailer Saved from Suicide, and Local Leaders Called to Account – Nope, Not a Newpaper, It’s the Bible. [OR What Does Montgomery, Alabama Have to Do With It?] Acts 16:16-34 and John 17:20-26

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 28, 2022

[sermon begins after one Bible story; the John reading is posted at the end of the sermon]

Acts 16:16-34 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

[sermon begins]

“What would you fight for?” No small question on Memorial Day weekend as we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, dying for our country while in military service. Since we’re in this weekend of remembering those who literally fought and died, I want to be careful not to confuse their deaths with my question. Well, really it was the Call Committee’s question to me when I interviewed with Augustana. “What would you fight for?” I answered, “The Gospel.” The life of Jesus, especially his resurrected life through death on a cross, proclaims the gospel of peace as the book of Ephesians calls it.[1] Since I talked a lot about God’s peace last week, I’ll condense it here to say only that the Gospel brings peace because Jesus unconditionally loves us. Loves us so much that his self-sacrificing death was inevitable; inevitable because radical grace is as offensive as it is disarming, because it dismantles power as the world understands it. Jesus’ gospel is the great leveler, lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty.[2] Right-sizing humanity through his radical grace and unconditional love, Jesus conscripts the church to go and do likewise – right-sizing us in the world as children of God and reminding other people that they are beloved children of God too.

 

The apostle Paul docked in Philippi with his friends Silas and Thomas. We heard that story last Sunday including the baptism of Lydia and her household in the river by the place of prayer. Naming them children of God and baptizing them into God’s promises to always be present, to always take them back through forgiveness, to form them into Christ-shaped disciples, and to keep God’s promises forever. After Lydia and her household’s baptisms, Paul and his friends were again heading to the place of prayer in our reading this morning from the book of Acts. They didn’t make it very far before being followed and yelled at by a girl who was enslaved as a money-maker for her owners. She followed Paul and the guys for days and days, proclaiming their call from God at the top of her lungs, which she knew because a spirit of divination held her captive along with her enslavers.

Paul, the story tells us, was very much annoyed and finally cast the spirit out of her. The bottom line was an actual bottom line for her enslavers who’d lost their source of income. Furious with Paul and Silas, her owners accused them in front of the town’s authorities who had them flogged and thrown into prison, ordering the jailer to secure them. The obedient jailer “put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in stocks.” In the dark of night, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns while the other prisoners listened. Just when you think the story couldn’t be weirder, an earthquake opened the prison doors and unfastened everyone’s chains. The jailer woke up, saw the doors open, and was about to kill himself until Paul shouted through the darkness, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” That same night, after he’d washed their wounds, the jailer and his entire family were baptized without delay. But we don’t get the next part of the Bible story in our reading this morning. The next day, the police sent word to the jailer to let Paul and Silas go. But they didn’t leave quickly or quietly. They accused the magistrates of mishandling them as Roman citizens and the magistrates apologized and asked them to leave town. Instead, Paul and Silas went back to Lydia’s house, encouraged their siblings in Christ there, and then they left for Thessalonica.

Paul and Silas were instruments of the gospel in their day, freeing the girl not only from the spirit of divination but also from her enslavers, freeing the jailer from his shame and suicide attempt, and freeing the magistrates by holding them accountable for their crimes against Roman citizens. Paul and Silas carried a gospel of peace with their hands and feet along with their prayers and songs. The two ways of carrying the gospel were inseparable. The gospel is not a choice between either the promise of God’s eternal presence and unconditional love OR a promise of freedom for the lowly and the powerful. The gospel of Jesus is Both/And – BOTH God’s eternal promise, AND God’s promise of freedom now.

Late February, I was invited to join a group of faith leaders heading to Montgomery, Alabama. A rabbi, a priest, a pastor, a Baháʼí, a Mormon, an African-Methodist-Episcopal, a Buddhist, another rabbi… you get the idea… No punchline here, just a few multi-race, multifaith leaders from Colorado who visited The Legacy Museum (about the history of American slavery and its impacts on mass incarceration today), the National Memorial for Peace and Justice sometimes informally called the lynching museum, and more. On June 12, I’ll present a few highlights about the trip including these four-year old museums, and answer questions as they come up – there will be snacks if that tempts anyone. I couldn’t resist the multi-faith aspect of the trip and I decided to go as part of my continuing education as a pastor of this congregation, and because six generations ago, my triple-great-grandfather enslaved Africans on plantation workcamps in South Carolina. My main question throughout the trip was how people structure societies in which they can still call themselves good while hurting other people and maintaining systems that allow them to do so. No better place to take those questions than Montgomery, the heart of the Freedom Movement led by Rev. Dr. King and so many others.

As Americans, we’re asking similar, systemic questions about our society related to race, guns, and more, in the aftermath of the mass murders of elder black citizens in a Buffalo, New York grocery store as well as Latino and white children and their teachers in a Uvalde, Texas school. The Bible was written in a time by people that couldn’t have imagined guns or cars or modern medicine much less democracy – so much of what we take for granted in 21st century America. We tease apart these stories like this one about Paul, Silas, the enslaved girl, her owners, the jailer, and the magistrates to see what light they might shed on in our lives of faith. I see the Jesus followers, Paul and Silas, figuring out their actions through their faith including baptizing the founding members of the church in Philippi which included Lydia, the jailer, and their households. While they did so, they ended the exploitation of the enslaved girl, saved the jailer from suicide, and demanded accountability from the town magistrates before they left town. BOTH baptizing, AND lifting up the lowly while bringing down the mighty.

As Christians here in worship this morning, we confessed our sin in the presence of God and of one another, and heard in response that God’s forgiveness makes us alive together with Christ. There is no person, system, or institution in the world untouched by sin – whether it’s our own selves, our families, our church, or our government. We are forgiven by God’s grace and set free to question and seek life-giving change in our own lives and in our institutional systems like church and government. Paul and Silas did it in this morning’s Bible story. Jesus did the same with religious leaders and public leaders to raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty.

Jesus also prayed for his followers before he died. Called the High Priestly Prayer in the Gospel of John, he prayed that the love of God with which God loved Jesus may be in us. The same love of God that loved us even when we were dead in sin. The same love of God that makes us alive together with Christ, saving us by grace. So maybe the question, “What would you fight for,” would be more aligned with Jesus’ prayer if we asked, “What would you love for?” I had to really think about this question. “What would you love for?” What and who are you called to love with the same love of God that loved us even when we were dead in sin? The love that we share as the body of Christ called the church is a love first given to us by God – a love that binds us together and sets us free to love.

Thanks be to God and amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Ephesians 6:15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

[2] Luke 2:52 Mary’s Magnificat: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.

____________________________________________________________

John 17:20-26 [Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Peace for Today [OR Check Out Lydia’s Bible Story – She’s Cool] John 14:23-29 and Acts 16.9-15

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 22, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 14:23-29 Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot),] “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”

Acts 16.9-15 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

[sermon begins]

I want to follow up on something in my sermon from last Sunday when I talked about faith not protecting us from bad things happening. We can look around the room and around the world and see that that’s true. Bad stuff happens to faithful people as much as it happens to everyone else. We don’t know why. We just know it’s the way the world works. A lot of time and energy is spent on trying to answer the “why” question though. I’m more interested in the “what now” question. Maybe I gave that away when I went on to mention how faith strengthens us and gives us courage. When I read the scripture readings for this Sunday, Jesus’ words jumped out at me:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  Jesus’ words have been true for me. Not in a stoic way – as if emotions don’t happen or don’t matter. Not in a disengaged way – as if I now have permission to check out of the world’s troubles. Jesus’ words are true for me in a deep-down way – where life is intensely meaningful because it’s life. The other day I had one of those moments during the lunar eclipse. We had chairs lined up in our driveway and our neighbors set up a second row behind us. Watching the earth’s shadow cast itself slowly over the moon until the moon was fully shadowed, gave the moon a 3D look with a spooky reddish-brown color. It struck me, not for the first time, how odd and beautiful our existence is, not to mention our planet and our universe which transcends into the divine.

Jesus speaks from a divine abiding place when he talks about peace. He mentions the Father who will make a home with them as well as the Advocate, the Holy Spirit that will remind and teach – a combined transcendent power that coalesces in the person of Jesus. The mystery of the universe and the mystery of Jesus are similar mysteries to me. Sure, you can explain black holes and string theory to me while I explain theology and Christian ethics to you, but at the end of the day both the Blood Moon and the fully-human-fully-divine Jesus are ineffable. Our explanations simply can’t do justice to our experience of them.

For instance, there’s a thing that happens to me when someone repeatedly comes to mind. I call it a Holy Spirit nudge because when I call and check in with that person there’s often a really good reason that the call’s timing was important. It’s never 100% reliable. (PSA: Don’t try this at home – call me if you need to talk with me.) I can’t explain the feeling but I’m familiar enough with it now that ignoring it feels uncomfortable, like I’m missing an important appointment. We could argue until kingdom come about whether that feeling is experience playing into instinct or whether it’s the Holy Spirit but my way of explaining the mystery of it is to call it the Holy Spirit.

I wonder if this is a bit like what the Apostle Paul and his friends experienced when they set sail after Paul’s vision of a man in Macedonia who begged them to come and help. Paul’s vision is a heck of lot more dramatic than my nagging feeling to give someone a call. This story in the book of Acts charts quite a course – from Troas to Samothrace to Neapolis until landing in Philippi located in the northeast of what is modern day Greece. Thank God for the Sabbath which gave Paul, Silas, and Timothy a chance to catch their breath, recentering themselves in a place of prayer outside the gate by the river. The place where they met Lydia. Her story is just a few verses so it’s slightly irrational how much I love it. There are a few gems worth noting. Lydia was likely an independent businesswoman since she and her household weren’t named with a husband. Purple cloth was difficult to make, highly prized by royalty, and quite expensive. Lydia was faithful and generous – hosting her new Jesus-following friends after she and her household were baptized. Lydia’s story is one of several in the Bible that describes household baptisms which are part of how the church included infant baptism in its practice.

I wonder how Lydia would have described her experience with the new guys at the place of prayer. She may not have had the churchy words to use at first, but I wonder if she was able to find more words looking back at her time before and after her river baptism. Or if the mystery of her experience was difficult to fully explain. Whatever her explanation, Lydia and her household’s baptisms were foundational to the church in Philippi. The church to which Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians. As I was writing this sermon, I read the opening of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and found that reading it in light of Lydia’s conversion changed my hearing of it. Next Sunday’s Acts reading tells one more significant story about Paul, Silas, and Timothy’s time in Philippi before departing to Thessalonica.

Man, I love the Bible. I love that we have these early stories at first only shared verbally and then finally written down to be shared across faith communities across time. Sometimes we get lost in the nitty gritty of the accuracy of the stories or the legitimacy of the claims. For me, teasing each story apart, putting it back together, and finding gems that apply to my life is the teaching and reminding work of the Holy Spirit that Jesus talks about in our reading today. We never fully arrive to a conclusion about a Bible story. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that a Bible story is never fully done with us. They are gifts that keep on giving across our lives. It took some courage for me to even begin my way back into the Bible as adult. I’d been out of its loop for about ten years and only very tentatively began to turn its pages. Jesus’ encouragement to have untroubled hearts, and to be fearless, are part of what has helped me enjoy the layers of meaning in any given verse or set of verses as well as the subtle perspective shifts and not so subtle disagreements between writers of the different books of the Bible.

I know that I say this in sermons with some regularity but it’s important to understand that God’s salvation in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith is not based on our right thinking or on orthodoxy or doctrine. The words that we give our experiences by faith are important for sure. Paul and Lydia’s story is a case in point. But God’s power is greater than anything I might say or anything you might do. It’s one of the reasons I’m grateful that communion comes after the sermon. No matter what mess I may make of things from the pulpit, God gets the last word. That’s a life lesson too. No matter what mess I may make of my life, God gets the last word. Today, God’s last word comes from Jesus in a blessing of peace.

I don’t know about you, but I need Jesus’ peace this week. The divine peace that sustains existentially through the day-to-day joys, sorrows, and everything in between. Paradoxically, this is the very peace that’s needed to stay deeply engaged with the world and all its problems. As I’ve been connecting with people on a recent continuing ed trip to Montgomery (Alabama), then connecting with people in Loveland at Synod Assembly, here at church, at the gym, in my family, with my friends, I don’t think I’m the only one who needs Jesus’ peace. There’s an emotional defcon level across our culture that seems unsustainable. Those reactive emotions tend to dampen joy that’s ours because life is meaningful simply because it’s life. Today, in this very moment, and in the next month, and for life eternal, Jesus gives you peace by the power of the Holy Spirit through the mystery of an ineffable God. May God’s peace untrouble your hearts and give you strength and courage on this Sabbath day. Thanks be to God and amen.

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

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.

____________________________________________

[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.

__________________________________________________________

[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.

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[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.

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[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.”