Category Archives: Sermons

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

**sermon art: Choppy River by NearOf, 2014

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 18, 2024

Mark 1:9-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 28, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] John 3:16-17

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 7, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________

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

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

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

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

[5] Luke 2:46-55 Mary’s Magnificat

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

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

Christmas Really is All About Love [OR Malevolent Morality Isn’t Merry] Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-9

sermon art: Guatemalan Nativity by John Giuliani, 1990s. See more at jbgicon.com

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, December 24, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

Isaiah 9:2-9

2The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

[sermon begins]

Last week’s Christmas pageant during our Sunday worship service included 30 children, with practiced with comedic timing, playing the parts of angels, soldiers, shepherds, wise magi, King Herod, Mary, Joseph, and animals – including a horse who said “kneeee” (neighed), a tiger who said, “whoooohw,” (roared), and a rabbit who said, “hop-hop.”[1] The angel Gabriel moved their chair, stood on it, smiled a ginormous smile and told Mary about a having a baby who will be the son of God, and Mary said, “Oh, okay!”[2] Then the same angel moved their chair across the stage, stood on it, and told Joseph in a dream that Mary is going to have a baby from God, that it’s okay to marry her and take care of the baby, and Joseph said, “Oh, okay!”[3]

Those kids in the pageant performed their ever-loving hearts out as they were our preachers last Sunday – telling us during the sermon time about a love story so powerful in the way that only children can. The back and forth between those of us in the congregation listening and laughing at their intentionally funny lines, and those kids up here in costumes telling us all about it, really came down to it all being about love. Because it is, you know. Christmas really is all about love.

Love includes the sentimental kind that beelines to our emotions. Many of us don’t tap easily or often into those feelings, so sentimentality has its place, reminding us of our humanity and that we may not be as tough as we think we are. Sometimes we don’t trust the sentimental for that reason. It can feel like an intrusion through our thick skin. While sentimental love has its place in warming hearts, greeting cards and sappy movies, it doesn’t tend to change the world. Although the birth of the baby we celebrate today is really quite an odd plan for saving the world.

Newly birthed and lying in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, his parents at the ready, although exhausted by their travel to Bethlehem and overwhelmed by the birth that changed not only their world but the whole world. Even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the son of God, there is general agreement that Jesus arriving on the scene impacted life on this planet as Jesus followers alternately do dunderheaded, painful things to the world and its people; and also do unbelievably good, powerful things with and for our fellow humans.

How we get from a baby in a manger, who is supposed to save the world through love, to malevolent morality that isn’t at all merry. And by that, I mean the judgy things we do to ourselves and each other that dehumanize each other, that wage wars personal and political, and rob each other of worth and love. We limit God’s love by drawing lines between who’s lovable and unlovable, lines that have nothing to do with God and everything to do with who we don’t like. After all, this little baby Jesus, a.k.a. the Savior, a.k.a. the Prince of Peace, grows up to teach us to love our enemies because it’s the only way from war to peace. Jesus lived his life constantly expanding the circle that people use to limit who’s in and who’s out. He ate meals with unlovable people, he had public conversations with women no one spoke to, and he had secret conversations with religious leaders who opposed him by day. The list is endless of his ever-expanding circle of saving love.

It turns out that the Prince of Peace Savior that the angels sang about was born utterly dependent and vulnerable. That God meets our vulnerability, our fragile bodies, and our fickle natures by first arriving in a baby’s body – just about as fragile and vulnerable of a body as can be had. And from this baby’s body grew the Jesus who showed us how much we are loved by God and the lengths to which God goes to help us love ourselves and to help us love our neighbors. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to live in love. Perhaps because it’s easier to be afraid of each other or angry with each other or morally superior to each other, than it is to actually love each other. It’s easier to put ourselves and others down, than it is to see what God sees when God looks at us through Jesus’ eyes. We are broken and beloved humans with a God who loves us first. A God who loves us for the ways we are created good and a God who loves us despite the ways we make a mess of things. This is the Christmas story we get to tell each other like our children did in their pageant last week.

We’re not going to say the right things and get this message perfectly communicated. But we can try to talk about the love that God has for us and what’s it means to us. At the end of the day and at the end of our lives, that’s what we get. The good news of the Christmas baby is that we are loved beyond measure by a God who keeps trying to get our attention. What better way to get our attention than to show up in a baby. Babies are hard to ignore and remind us of the care we all need at various times in our lives. Our pain, our suffering, and our need for love are part of what we wrap our thick skin around, thick skin that keeps out the love we may need most. It really is all about love. About God loving us first and freeing us to love each other. So simple and yet we make it so complicated when it really is all about love.

Last Sunday, as I was presiding over Holy Communion, the manger from the Christmas pageant was in my line of sight below the altar as I chanted the prayer. It was visual poetry, a reminder that in fragile, unexpected places like the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of love this Christmas. We cradle his presence with our fragile hands as we receive communion. You are here and you are welcome. It really is all about love.

That first Christmas Day, we received a great gift in the tiny child, Jesus. A baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth, a love letter enveloped in skin and solidarity, reminding us that God’s love is good news of great joy for all the people – loving us for ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less because God is love.[4] It really is all about love. Amen. And Merry Christmas!

 

_________________________________

[1] Watch our pageant here [minute 27:20]: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqAEsYXvFR4

[2] Luke 1:26-38

[3] Matthew 1:18-22

[4] 1 John 4:8

Cosmic Surrender (For “A Quieter Christmas Service”) John 1:1-5, 14 and Luke 2:1-20

Sermon Art: Creator of the Cosmos in a Manger by Hyatt Moore, oil on canvas, 2015. This is a cropped photo. See full painting here:   Christ of the Cosmos – The Blank Canvas blog by Hyatt Moore — Oil painter

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 20, 2023, 6:15-7 p.m.

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 1:1-5, 14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

[sermon begins]

At the manger-side, we’re drawn in a quieter way into the company of other people and the promises of God. Whether by temperament or circumstance we find ourselves in a reflective moment at a worship service. Christmas is a funny thing. It’s religious. It’s cultural. It’s festive. And it comes at just about the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. There’s some history in those developments. The church long ago tried to figure out how to exist alongside earth-based, indigenous celebrations that were rowdy and a lot of fun. Time of year and some of the trimmings were combined from those celebrations and remain today. I’m cool with that. Christian faith has always lived in people’s lives while being translated by people’s lives.[1] This means that all kinds of things make their way into the mix.

There is also the story told in scripture. At Christmas, we celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light in the darkness, a birth that changes the world by way of love. God was active in history long before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of his birth to God’s entire history, the gospel writer of John uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”[2] These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible.[3] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus – a spiritual genealogy of sorts.

While Luke spends time on the human story of shepherds and a manger, John spends time in the cosmos. Where Luke’s words are a quiet love story of a holy family, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery. We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights. We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as heady and inaccessible. Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh – vulnerable, beloved, tiny newborn flesh. A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh that pours out love to the whole world. God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth.  Or, as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[4]

God living among us through the love of Jesus is cause for reflection. Not simply because God showed up but because God entered human fragility, surrendering cosmic power to reveal the depth of divine love. As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Light moving in the dark; day against night. This language may be poetic but we understand it by way of our experience.

The darkness of living with a mental illness that defies cure.

The darkness of grieving someone we love and the confusion it brings to daily life.

The darkness of disease, whether our own or someone we love, seems to take up more space than anything else.

The darkness of war in the world, killing fragile people to gain political power.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love. Into these real struggles, this darkness, Jesus is born. Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God’s love in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that shines a defiant hope.

We don’t have to go very far to find what’s broken. But think about how fast the speed of light travels to us, whether from the next room or from a star a million miles away. We don’t move a muscle and light comes. Just so, God comes down to us in a flash of light, fleshy and fragile, right to the heart of things. We don’t move a muscle and God shows up. In the company of other people this evening, we remind each other that this is God’s promise to us and to world.  Some days that promise feels as fragile as candle flame. Tonight, the glimmer of light from the manger also feels like a defiant hope, a cosmic surrender revealing God’s love for broken world. No matter our feelings on any given day, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, [cannot, never will] overcome it.”

Amen and Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________

[1] “Syncretism” is the fancy word for weaving together traditions, including Christianity.

[2] John 1:1

[3] Genesis is the first book of the Bible’s 66 books. Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

[4] John 1:14

A sermon for Bless the Years, A Christmas Service – Luke 2:1-20

Sermon Art: John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.

Bless the Years is a worship service that we hold for our eldest elders and their friends and families. It’s shorter than a typical worship service and followed by lunch, giving folks a chance to connect with longtime friends that they no longer see weekly.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 14, 2023

[sermon begins after the Bible reading that’s a little long but stick with it, it’s one of the best ones]

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Babies have a way of being themselves from the get-go. They sleep when they should be awake and they’re awake when they should be sleeping. They eat on their own schedule. They look like themselves even though we try to connect them with who they might favor – parent, grandparent, sibling, or cousin. The Christmas baby is no different although possibly more himself from the get-go, if there’s even such a thing as being more himself. My friends who are older than me have taught me a lot about being yourself because it’s really all that you have anyway. I’ve had more than one conversation that includes an older friend telling me that they feel the same on the inside as they did when they were younger. Their bodies changing, skin softening, hair lightening, while they continue to feel like themselves as they’ve been all along life’s way.

The baby in the manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, is no different from us in many ways. Born from a mother’s body, whatever dramatic labor story takes place, is how we all begin even if we’re raised in an adoptive family. Babies demand attention because their very lives are at stake, dependent on their parents for food and protection. It turns out that our Savior is no different, utterly dependent and vulnerable. It’s really quite an odd plan for saving the world. Newly birthed and lying in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth, his parents at the ready although exhausted by their travel to Bethlehem and the birth that changed not only their world but the whole world. Even if people don’t believe in Jesus as the son of God, there is general agreement that Jesus arriving on the scene impacted life on this planet as Jesus followers alternately do dunderheaded, painful things to the world and its people; and also do unbelievably good, powerful things with and for our fellow human travelers.

While we may feel the same inside as we always have, this baby means that we are not. When God slipped on skin in solidarity with us, dropping into time and sharing human experiences with us, this baby showed us a different way to be human together. And the shepherds were not only the first ones outside of his family to see him, they were also the first people to preach about him. That took some guts and a hefty dose of angel inspiration for them to turn up in Bethlehem at the baby’s manger-side and tell HIS PARENTS a thing or two about THEIR newborn – as if Jesus’ parents weren’t already a bit awestruck by the appearance of an angel to Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, and the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary before she even became pregnant.

When I was diagnosed with lymphoma this past March, I made the decision to hear people’s comments as messages of love from them. We don’t always know what to say when people are sick or struggling so we often say the first thing that comes to mind. In any given moment, our comments can be helpful or not at all helpful. But my experience of people’s comments felt like a love language unto itself, no matter what people actually said.

The only time I responded with an alternative view was when people would say, “God has a plan,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” I would reply to those two comments with something like this, “I know that some people find that comforting, but for me, it’s more helpful to think about how God’s love is revealed in my very human struggle right now…I don’t think that God has given me cancer but God’s love can be revealed in my story.” Now that I’ve been in remission for four months, I’m even more convinced that people’s comments received as a love language was even more important than I knew at the time. More important partly because thinking about folks as messengers of God’s love no matter their faith tradition or no tradition, is how God’s love shows up in the world.

Along that line, when it comes to the Christmas story, I’ve wondered what it might be like to have an angel visitation. Angel means messenger. Since their first words are often, “Do not be afraid,” I assume that being visited by an angel must be terrifying. I’ve probably seen one too many paintings of shepherds and angels floating in the air over them because I feel like it’s the first time that I noticed that the angel stood in front of the shepherds. The angel stood on their level to tell them the good news of great joy, shining the glory of the Lord around them in that dark field, fully embraced by light that shines in the darkness.

The good news that the shepherds heard and preached is the same good news that we hear preached. That God meets our vulnerability, our fragile bodies, and our fickle natures by first arriving in a baby’s body – just about as fragile and vulnerable of a body as can be had. And from this baby’s body grew the Jesus who showed us how much we are loved by God and the lengths to which God goes to help us love ourselves and to help us love our neighbors. I’m not sure why it’s so difficult to live in love. Perhaps it’s because it’s easier to be afraid of each other or angry with each other than it is to love each other. It’s easier to put ourselves and others down, than it is to see what God sees when God looks at us through Jesus’ eyes. We are broken and beloved humans. We get to take this Christmas message to other people just like the shepherds did.

We’re not going to say the right things and get this message perfectly communicated. But we can try to talk about the love that God has for us and what’s it means to us. At the end of the day and at the end of our lives, that’s what we get. The good news of the Christmas baby is that we are loved beyond measure by a God who keeps trying to get our attention. What better way to get our attention than to show up in a baby. Babies are hard to ignore and remind of us of the care we all need at various times in our lives. We’ve received the greatest gift of all in the tiny child, Jesus. A baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth, a message of love wrapped in skin and solidarity, reminding us that God’s love is good news of great joy for all the people – loving us for ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less. Merry Christmas everyone.

Advent’s Sweet and Fragile Flame [OR “Come, Emmanuel” May Not Mean What You Think It Means]

*Advent includes the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated as the start of the church’s new year by many Christians around the world. Advent wreathes traditionally have four candles. One is lit on the first Sunday. Two are lit on the second…and so on

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; two more readings are at the end of the sermon]

Isaiah 64:1-9

1O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

Mark 13:24-37

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
 [sermon begins]

Advent begins with lighting a single candle. Sweet and fragile is its flame. A ritual signifying a beginning, its soft light ironic given Jesus’ intensity with his disciples. And so begins our church year, plunked into the beginning of the end of Mark’s gospel, just before Jesus’ anointing by an unknown woman and his last Passover meal with his friends before the crucifixion – the beginning of Jesus’ end.

Jesus had been teaching at the temple. As he was leaving, one of his followers struck up a conversation with him. They walked to the Mount of Olives, across from the temple, and took a seat. A few more people from Jesus’ inner circle joined them – Peter, James, John, and Andrew.[1] He talked with them about dark and chaotic times just before the events of the cross began.[2] Jesus’ taught them about the upcoming chaos for which the disciples were to keep awake. Much of what Jesus is alluding to seems to be about the cross as the apocalyptic revelation.[3] As one example, he tells time the same way that the crucifixion story does – evening, midnight, cockcrow, or dawn.[4]  And, in the very next chapter of Mark, after telling them to stay awake as he prayed in a garden, Jesus caught these very same disciples asleep.[5]

What is a well-intended Jesus follower to make of his teaching? Stay awake even though you won’t be able to? That can’t be right. Or, if it is right, it’s only partly right. It is true that staying awake and being vigilant all the time isn’t humanly possible, so we’ve got that going for us. The events of the cross likely seemed like the end times to the disciples. But, more importantly, the cross promises that the end of all things is also a beginning that we cannot imagine.

God’s imagination, now that’s something worth anticipating and worth waiting for. In Advent, we sing Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God with Us. We call on God to come now. Our call is laced with dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and disgust over our current predicament. Yet again, we are caught in sin and systems that seem beyond anyone’s capacity to reimagine. But there are moments, glimmers of possibility, sweet and fragile as an Advent flame.

Last Wednesday, a multifaith service of quiet, music, and candle lighting was held in our Sanctuary. All of us there numbered 113. Included in that attendance were Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili Muslims, a variety of Christians, Palestinians, and several rabbis and a few of their congregants. We were quite a mix of humanity. Few words were spoken. There are things to learn and do differently if there is a next time. But it was really something to watch people of that many different backgrounds light candles and stabilize them in the sand next to each other. Those moments together were a paradox of being at the heart of the struggle and buffered from it. A risk as sweet and fragile as an Advent flame.

Risking an unknown future is part of what it means to call on God’s imagination while singing Come Emmanuel. As the prophet Isaiah calls on God to tear open the heavens and come down, there’s a risk taken alongside the confession of the people’s sin. Inviting God to call us to account is no small thing. We are not left unchanged when God shows up. Protected parts of ourselves that we cradle in mangers of our own making are laid bare in front of a God who knows what we keep tucked away from public view. Layers of self-protection are as dried hay through Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Our strains of Come Emmanuel harmonize with the psalmist’s song, “Restore us, O God, let your face shine on us, and we shall be saved.” We could use more than a little saving from ourselves right about now. Collectively we keep missing the mark on the basics of humanity. There are around 2,500 billionaires in the world while somewhere between 1 – 2 billion people live in poverty.[6] We’re all a part of this world. To sing Come Emmanuel, to ask God’s face shine on us, is to illuminate powers and principalities in which we’re accidental or actual participants as the high-tech fibers in paper money shimmer in Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Advent is strangely short on time this year. We typically light four Advent candles for the four Sundays before Christmas Eve. This year Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, three weeks from now. The churchy, liturgical way to say this is that Advent 4 is in the morning and Christmas Eve is, well, in the evening. This year, we’ve chosen to have only Christmas Eve services on Sunday the 24th starting at 11 a.m. Here’s your invitation to light that fourth Advent candle at home on Christmas Eve morning. Even if you don’t have anything that resembles an Advent wreath, just light one candle, any color. Before the fullness of the day, before the tracking of Santa’s sleigh, there is a larger more subversive claim in Advent’s sweet and fragile flame.

Those sweet and fragile flames are deeply subversive. Lighting Advent candles is also a ritual of comfort. Advent is a paradox. We sing with longing, Come Emmanuel, while we’re assured of Christ’s presence with us in bread, wine, and baptismal waters, and while we’re assured of Christ’s presence with us in God’s call “into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” as 1 Corinthians describes it. We are not alone. God IS with us. It may just be less like chestnuts roasting on an open fire and more like the light of Advent’s sweet and fragile flame. Come, Emmanuel.

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[1] Mark 13:1-3

[2] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

[3] See my full sermon on the cross as apocalypse here: November | 2014 | Caitlin Trussell

[4] Mark 14:32-52 (evening in the garden); Mark 14:53-65 (midnight, examined by the high priest); Mark 14:66-72 (cockcrow, denied three times by a friend); Mark 15:1-20 (dawn, condemned to die); Mark 15:33 (Jesus’ crucifixion, death on the cross, and burial: Mark 15:21-47).

[5] Mark 14:32-42 The disciples fall asleep three times in the garden as Jesus is praying.

[6] www.forbes.com/billionaires/ and www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/societal-poverty-economics-development-finance-sdgs/

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Psalm 80:1–4, 7, 17–19

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock;
shine forth, you that are enthroned up on the cherubim.
2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3Restore us, O God;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
4O Lord God of hosts,
how long will your anger fume when your people pray? 
5You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6You have made us the derision of our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
17Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one you have made so strong for yourself. 
18And so will we never turn away from you;
give us life, that we may call upon your name.
19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved. 

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thank God (at the very least for tambourines) [Or What Do We Thank God For?] A sermon for Thanksgiving Eve

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 22, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings – Psalm and Colossians readings are at the end of the sermon]

Exodus 15:20-21a Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously.”

Matthew 11:25-30 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

[sermon begins]

 

Just when you think the gospel of Matthew cannot be endured for one more minute, when the prophetic words of judgment rail mightily against those who are stumbling blocks to God’s mercy, Jesus says something that melts your heart and unfurrows your brow – “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Whew, thank God. We need this good word from the “gentle and humble of heart” Jesus, the One who draws us to himself. We need this word because the fear of missing out and the fear of messing up can be overwhelming. Matthew’s harsh urgency must also be lined up against these verses where Jesus talks about rest, humility, and gentleness.[1] To 1st century ears, Jesus’ encouragement to rest would have sounded odd. Daily work and wages were not a given. Food was as unpredictable as the weather. (And we know a thing or two about unpredictable weather in Colorado.) At least in this country, many of us lay around a lot more than our 1st century friends but I’m not sure we can call it rest. And when do we find rest for our souls? Probably even less often.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I have said in the past that, “Existentially, I’m good, but life is pretty full.” Meaning that when it comes to the meaning of life, our existence, my existence, on the planet, I am actually pretty good. I thank God for that gift. Sometimes the day-to-day can still get wild. Emotions can still spring out of nowhere, egged on by our survival-oriented brainstems, but there’s a soul place that’s sustained by the Holy Spirit. I cannot explain it but I do trust it. Thank God.

“Thank God.” That’s a common phrase. It bubbles up from me in a flash. “Thank God.” Sometimes we ARE thanking God. Sometimes it’s a profound sense of relief that may or may not have anything to do with anything God has done or is doing. A green light when you’re in a hurry, or the last spoonful of mayonnaise in the jar for your egg salad sandwich, may not be in the realm of divine activity even if we thank God for the moment. Shocking, I know. Thanksgiving Eve is a good time to pause and wonder about what we thank God for.

In our Bible readings, Miriam – a prophet and Moses and Aaron’s sister – thanks God for deliverance from slavery into freedom. Moses had just led the Hebrews from enslavement in Egypt, on dry ground in the parting of the Red Sea, safely to the other side. Miriam and all the other women danced, sang, and played tambourines to give glory to God for delivering them into freedom – a boisterous, celebratory, “Thank God!” Time and again in scripture, there is a resounding theme of freedom from oppression and from the opportunistic tyrant of sin.[2] There’s an underdog quality to the celebration of freedom either way. Although the freedom of forgiveness and redemption are less exciting on paper, the liberation from being locked into death-dealing patterns is a time to say, “Thank God!” Just ask any of our friends who have survived addictions through the rooms of recovery. Their surrender to a power beyond themselves and their profound gratitude for their recovery knows no bounds.

So, we thank God for rest. We thank God for freedom and forgiveness. Which is fun to celebrate with tambourines like Miriam but we do it more often here with organ music, piano, bells, trumpets, and flutes. All good things that amplify to our gratitude. Here’s a funny. After I’d drafted this sermon, Andy, our Director of Music was walking through the halls with tambourine, and I asked him if it was for tonight. It wasn’t. But it IS for this Sunday! Thank God? Maybe not, but it was cool timing.

We sang Psalm 65 tonight and joined with nature in praising God for life, food, earth, and animals – remembering that our existence on this unique blue planet is an amazing, interconnected gift. Astounding, really. Sustained by our human cooperation – from seed in dirt, to harvest, to stores, to kitchens, to table. Many hands make food possible. Thank God!

Praise and thanks to God for being human. Our Colossians reading reminds us of how love moves from God through Jesus to us and back to God. I often pray with people and thank God for the love that we know through each other because the love we share gives us the smallest taste of how much God must love us. At our best, it’s what being church together means as we remind each other just how important each of us are in the kingdom of God. And not just us, our neighbors too. Thanks God!

The magnitude of the love of God is beyond words. We glimpse parts of God’s love in Jesus’ ministry and in his death as he refused to raise a hand in violence, continuing to connect the people he loved even as he hung from a cross.[3] (Although you have to turn to the gospel of John for that story.) In a time when division clamors for our attention, Jesus’ love sustains us across suffering and boundaries of our own making, liberating us towards each other, and saving us from ourselves and each other. Thank God!

And when our pilgrimage on earth is done, from our birth to the setting sun, we close our eyes as if it’s night, to join the glorious company of the saints in light.

Tonight, on Thanksgiving Eve, we sing and pray and remember in gratitude all that God continues to do for us, tambourines notwithstanding. Thank God. And amen.

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[1] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. July 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/910-fifth-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-13a-july-2-2023-2

[2] Ibid.

[3] John 19:25b-27

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Colossians 3:14-17 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Psalm 65 Praise is due to you,
 O God, in Zion;
 and to you shall vows be performed,
 2O you who answer prayer!
 To you all flesh shall come.
 3When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
 you forgive our transgressions.
 4Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
 to live in your courts.
 We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
 your holy temple.
 5By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
 O God of our salvation;
 you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
 and of the farthest seas.
 6By your strength you established the mountains;
 you are girded with might.
 7You silence the roaring of the seas,
 the roaring of their waves,
 the tumult of the peoples.
 8Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
 you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
 9You visit the earth and water it,
 you greatly enrich it;
 the river of God is full of water;
 you provide the people with grain,
 for so you have prepared it.
 10You water its furrows abundantly,
 settling its ridges,
 softening it with showers,
 and blessing its growth.
 11You crown the year with your bounty;
 your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
 12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
 the hills gird themselves with joy,
 13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
 the valleys deck themselves with grain,
 they shout and sing together for joy.

Courage, Good People – Fear Gets Us Nowhere [Matthew 25:14-30 and Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

 

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 19, 2023

[sermon begins after one Bible reading – see end of sermon for the Zephaniah reading]

Matthew 25:15-30 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ”

[sermon begins]

As gospel writers go, Matthew weaves subtlety with shock value which can make it hard to see his point. Matthew begins his gospel with a mind-numbing list of names that add up to fourteen generations of Jesus’ ancestors.[1] No angels, shepherds, or manger in his story, that’s for sure. Yet, if your attention drifts away from the names even for a moment, you’d miss major plot twists, including a woman who wasn’t born Jewish and a woman who was a prostitute. Our 21st century minds aren’t shocked but our 1st century friends may have been. In our Matthew reading today, the opposite happened. Our ancient friends may have been lulled into complacency by the trope of a powerful person trusting their underlings as a test of character.[2] These stories were common in the first century as regular people had a chance to shine. Jesus subtly wove this well-known trope with the shock value of an enormous amount of money, a talent was 15 years of wages, and the fearful slave who buried his talent, having nothing to show the master when he came back from his journey, and was thrown into the outer darkness. The man who went on a journey was excessive in money and trust.

What is a Jesus follower to make of his last few teachings in Matthew’s gospel? Each parable tops the last. Next Sunday, they’ll crescendo in intensity. Jesus was wound up tighter than a ranting Bronco fan. Although let’s give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, shall we? These intense parables continue to escalate because time was running out. He was about to be arrested. I wonder how desperate Jesus was for his disciples to understand his urgency. Things were about to get as real as they were horrific. Still, Jesus’ teaching was first about how generous the man was, how much he wanted to share with his slaves, and how much he trusted them to carry on his work in his absence. The man’s excessive expectation inspired the first two slaves into action and froze the last one in fear. Remember the limits of parable. These parabolic stories only take us so far in teasing apart God’s action in Jesus and in the world. It’s highly likely that Jesus’ parable of the talents is meant more to inspire us than to make us afraid. Fear is not freedom and is not consistent with Jesus’ message in Matthew in which he says many times, “Do not be afraid.” Fear doesn’t get anyone anywhere especially in the kingdom of God that Jesus said is about mercy.

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus’ teaching on the nine Beatitudes.[3] He began each Beatitude with “Blessed are…” and he shocked his listeners by listing experiences that don’t seem at all blessed and connecting them with mercy, comfort, and the kingdom of heaven. (This is another example of the subtlety and shock value of Matthew’s gospel.) Today’s parable invites action by the journeying man’s abundance not anger. In the verses after our parable today, the ones for next Sunday, Jesus doubles down on God’s mission of mercy. And God’s mercy doesn’t have time for fear. Fear gets us nowhere.

Last Thursday, I was part of a Multi Faith Leadership Forum conversation with about 20 other faith leaders. Jews, Muslims, Christians, and more, spoke carefully and honestly about our own emotions and thoughts about October 7 and the Hamas attack that victimized innocent Israeli men, women and children – mostly Jews but also people from other places – and about the Israeli military response that victimizes innocent Palestinian men, women, and children. Words are failing them. Our collective words are failing them and have been failing them. So much so that violence is increasing in our own country and in our own city against Jews, Muslims, and Arabs. While many are demonstrating and while many others are protesting, words continue to fail.

I myself love words and I struggle to find the right ones as adults and children and families continue to fall and to be afraid. I have Jewish family and friends. I have Palestinian friends and colleagues. I am no fan of the current Israeli government. I am no fan of Hamas. Sides are being taken and demanded. But still, there are Israeli and Palestinian families of the fallen who are searching for a way beyond sides. There are other Palestinian-Israeli groups looking for a way beyond sides. There are multi faith leaders who are searching for a way beyond sides. And in today’s reading, I hear Jesus tell a story, a parable, about a man whose generosity inspires some and whose trust terrifies others. One interpretation of this parable is that Jesus’ mission of mercy is meant to expand, not to be buried in the ground.

It’s in that spirit that Augustana is hosting a service for the multi faith community. As words fail, we are invited to create a sacred space with our shared humanity across religious and political differences. This service was generated by conversations with faith leaders and lay people – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – who are in pain, grieving, and unable to see a way forward from war to peace, from death to life, from despair to hope. Their feedback supported the attempt of such a service, recognizing that any effort to hold space for everyone’s grief and humanity will be insufficient for some. Invitations to this service are between faith leaders and their communities. No publicity. No livestream. Only people and presence. You’re invited. As words fail us, we’ll gather in the silence of our shared presence and in the presence of God. This building, the quiet, the music, and the candles are merely a container for the heartbroken and for the determined to hold space for our shared humanity made in the image of God.

Last Sunday, Pastor Gail mentioned compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is real. Our fragile bodies aren’t built to feel the feels about everything that’s happening in the world all at the same time. That’s a fast track to despair. Neither are we to be complacent in the suffering, to shrug off another human’s pain, to hide from suffering or to bury our heads in the ground as if it doesn’t exist. The reading from the prophet Zephaniah is the only reading we ever get from this prophet’s small book in the minor prophets of the Old Testament. There’s a great line about God’s frustration with God’s people in which the Prophet Zephaniah accuses the people who “rest complacently on their dregs.” Jesus’ way of mercy resists complacency and self-righteousness.

Jesus asks his followers to risk within and beyond the Christian freedom and abundance we’ve been given as his body in the world for the sake of the world. May God give us light to see the way, courage to take a risk, and trust in the love that transforms death into life. Thanks be to God. And amen.

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[1] Matthew 1:1-15

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on the Bible readings for November 19, 2023. Sermon Brainwave Podcast. workingpreacher.org/podcasts/932-25th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-33a-nov-19-2023

[3] Matthew 5:1-12

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Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

7Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests.

12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
13Their wealth shall be plundered,
and their houses laid waste.
Though they build houses,
they shall not inhabit them;
though they plant vineyards,
they shall not drink wine from them.

14The great day of the Lord is near,
near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter,
the warrior cries aloud there.
15That day will be a day of wrath,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlements.

17I will bring such distress upon people
that they shall walk like the blind;
because they have sinned against the Lord,
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
18Neither their silver nor their gold
will be able to save them
on the day of the Lord’s wrath;
in the fire of his passion
the whole earth shall be consumed;
for a full, a terrible end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.