Tag Archives: death

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.

Saints in Light [OR The Mystery of Connection Through Death] Matthew 5:1-12

sermon art: Communion of Saints by Elise Ritter

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran church on November 5, 2023

[sermon begins after the Bible reading – the 1 John reading is at the end of the sermon]

This Bible reading is often called “The Beatitudes” for the “Blessed.” My sermon is written in beatitude form – beginning with the concerns of the world and shifting to words of comfort…

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

[sermon begins]

What does the world want? I mean the world that doesn’t include opportunists, oppressors, and oligarchs. I mean us, people – young, old, sick, healthy; all genders, religions, and colors. Regular people all around the world. What does the world want? Well, I haven’t interviewed the world, but I read a lot, listen to people a lot, and wonder about this question A LOT. People seem to want similar things – including enough love, food, shelter, income, community, peace, and health to lead meaningful lives. These near-universal wants hit home at last week’s concert here in our sanctuary. 100 voices combined in song to sing Tuvayun, the nine verses of the Beatitudes that we heard in the Matthew reading today that begin with “Blessed.” [1]  Tuvayun is Aramaic for “blessed,” a language that Jesus spoke.

There was this moment in Tuvayun entitled “I Hope” when each member of our Chancel Choir and the Colorado Chorale spoke their own words of hope, first one at a time and then all at the same time. It was cacophony of words piled on words, hope piled on hope. Hope so full and urgent that it rang through our ears to our hearts until mine broke into sobs. (I think Rob was worried about me for a minute.) Through the tears and heart broken open, I thought that these could be the voices of just about everyone in the world, hoping upon hope that we could get our collective act together so that everyone could simply live.

Jesus sums up reality’s clash with hope in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the depressed, the grieving, the merciful, the pure heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the slandered. Folks who bear the burdens of despair, grief, persecution, justice, and pure hearts know the lament that comes with their heavy load. Jesus hears their cries and sees their suffering. His list of nine beatitudes is a precious gift as people’s pain is heard and seen. Jesus doesn’t stop there. He offers a word of hope.

Hope as blessings are revealed. There isn’t a lot of agreement about what “blessed” means in the Matthew reading. Because Jesus was Jewish and likely had some rabbinic training, I hang my hat with the rabbis on this one; that a blessing is something that already exists and occasionally we get a glimpse of the blessing that already exists. The rabbinic view is in opposition to our 21st century view that a blessing is like being tapped by a fairy wand and something good happens because of how deserving we are. The Jewish notion of “blessed” helps us see life in full, revealing not only God’s promises when we suffer but also our call as conduits of blessing when we encounter suffering around us.[2] God’s work. Our hands.

On All Saints Day, it’s important to note that the blessing is not the suffering itself. The church has done some damage over the years with this kind of thinking. Opportunists, oppressors, and oligarchs are the ones who don’t want what most of the world wants. They perpetuate injustice, suffering, and violence to disrupt and take advantage of the disruption to gain power and wealth over and against most of the people in the world. Let’s not confuse their corruption as something from God.

Let’s focus on the saints. In Lutheran Christianity, saints are regular people like you and me who are touched by the waters of baptism. We’re sainted by the power of the Holy Spirit and together we add up to the body of Christ. (Another weird bit of Christian math kind of like the Trinity.) Sometimes we do super special things and most of the time we don’t. Martin Luther called this being saint and sinner at the same time – simul iustus et peccator. I sometimes use this language when I welcome people at the beginnings of funerals or other events here. I’ll say something like, “Good morning, I’m Pastor Caitlin, and I welcome you on behalf of the sinner-saints of Augustana.” When I say this, I know that most people probably don’t know what it means but I like it because it’s true. Sinners the lot of us. And I want people to know that we know that, especially since some people have an experience of Christians as enamored with their own importance.

The other thing that’s said at funerals is a prayer of Commendation at the end of the funeral. There are different prayers of Commendation but the one that I say most goes like this…

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, __________. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

We say this prayer as a request, asking God to receive the person who died. But it’s a request to which we’ve been given the answer in baptism. God’s answer to this request is, “Yes.” God enfolds us in the life of God here and now. And God enfolds us in the life of God when we die. We’re enfolded in the life of God and “into the glorious company of the saints in light.” Now I don’t know what that means exactly. None of us does on this side of death. But it’s that glorious company of the saints in light that captures the imagination – seeing again much grieved for loved ones and friends. I’ve said prayers of Commendation many, many times as I touch urns or caskets. It’s the line about joining the saints in light that fills my heart with hope.

Last week, I was able to join by zoom the funeral of a dear colleague and friend, Andrea Doeden. Her congregation is in Trinidad, Colorado. As I watched the communion line that lasted for three full hymns and part of a fourth, I was struck by the mundane act of communion – coming forward, hands outstretched, bread and wine offered and eaten – and the mystical union that we have with Jesus and each other when we commune. We’re connected across time with the many who have come before us who make up the glorious company of the saints in light. We’re connect across time with Jesus and the saints who will come after us. Then I watched Bishop Jim commend Andrea to “the mercy of God, our maker and redeemer.” He put his hand on her urn, her photo next to it surrounded by flowers, and he prayed the prayer. Even in my sadness, I felt it, the mystery of communion with the saints in light.

Death cannot unlove a life that is loved. In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[3] The full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year, the people we commune with when we take communion, God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out. As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross – a wounded and beautiful Savior. You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own. In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[4]

Alleluia! And Amen!

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1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

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[1] The form of this sermon is written like a Beatitude, like Jesus’ “Blessed are…” statements in the gospel of Matthew reading. I begin with the cares and sufferings of the world and then proceed to the word of hope.

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Discussion on Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 5, 2023.

[3] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[4] 1 John 3:2

Practical Hope for Life Today [OR Listen, God is Calling] Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 11, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 6:14-29  King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Ephesians 1:3-14 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

[sermon begins]

Last Sunday, I stopped at the grocery store on my way home from church. This means that I was also still wearing my church clothes, including the collar. Choosing the zippiest checkout lane, I found myself in a line with a cashier I’d never met. She wasn’t new, by any means. She was waving at people who called out her to her, talking across lanes with other cashiers, directing the grocery bagger on how to help a customer with propane, and welcomed me to the party with a warm, “Hi honey, how are you?” As she handed me the receipt, she held onto it for a few seconds, leaned way over and quietly asked, “Are you a priest?”

“A pastor,” I replied.

“Will you pray for me?”

“Yes,” I said as I started looking for her name tag to commit it to memory.

She held up her name badge and told me her name. I repeated her name and told her again that I would pray for her. She thanked me and I went on my way. From entering her line to the prayer request couldn’t have been more than five minutes – a short, sincere, and significant scene.

Our Bible story today is a scene of a different kind. The gospel writer teased us in the first chapter with half a verse about John the Baptist’s arrest and in the third chapter with the Pharisees conspiring against Jesus with Herod’s followers, but waited until the sixth chapter to expand on the story.[1] It’s the full meal deal with John’s head served as the final course of the banquet at Herod’s party.[2] Gruesome and horrific, it’s like a scene in a movie that spotlights just how evil the evil ones can be. Herod had heard about Jesus and his apostles proclaiming repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick among the villages. When he heard about it, Herod was haunted by the idea that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised. Initially, Herod imprisoned John to protect him from his wife Herodias’ grudge. He liked listening to John’s perplexing teachings and confined him to a handy dungeon. But Herodias won the long game and trapped Herod in his oath-keeping and in his concern for what other people thought about him. Herod was “deeply grieved,” but apparently not grieved enough to do the right thing.

Herod executed John to save face and protect his power. His evil act haunted him when he heard about the things that Jesus and his apostles were doing, once again connecting John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries. At first, Herod’s deep regret stood out in this gruesome tale as something we can all relate to – even if we haven’t chopped off anyone’s head. But then, Jesus’ apostles and John’s disciples became more compelling. What were they doing around the edges of Herod’s evil acts? Mark, the gospel writer, bookends Herod’s story by first highlighting Jesus’ apostles preaching repentance, casting out demons, and curing the sick; and afterwards, recounting how “the apostles gathered around Jesus to tell him all that they had done and taught” before they got down to Feeding the Five Thousand.[3] Mark concludes John’s murder with a short note about his own disciples’ compassion and action. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his [beheaded] body, and laid it in a tomb.” Not only does laying John in a tomb further connect his ministry and its end to Jesus’ earthly ministry and its end, but John’s disciples and Jesus’ apostles are examples of people practicing hope in the face of institutional evil and corrupt power.

Last week, I was in a meeting in which the opening icebreaker was to share a sentence or two about where we see signs of hope in a violent world. As you might imagine, the answers were all over the board, but there was a unifying theme that could be described as the hopeful behavior that we see other people doing and that we ourselves try to do – people creating hope for themselves and others by working with other people creating hope for themselves and others. Not spinning illusory hope for someday but working towards practical hope for today. Working repentance and healing for abundant life for everyone. And this takes us to the Ephesians Bible reading.

This reading starts the first of seven weeks in Ephesians, so it’s a good time to read this very short book attributed to Paul, although more likely written by one of his students. Ephesus was located in what’s now the western coast of Turkey. The letter’s message praises God’s work in Jesus, freeing us from sin by grace through faith that creates us for good works. In these opening verses of the first chapter that were read today, we hear about the spiritual blessings in Christ. Included in the list of blessings is redemption in Christ. Redemption in Biblical times meant the equivalent of being freed from slavery.[4] Redemption from sin would mean being freed from sin. Now obviously, Jesus followers have as much problem with sin as anyone else. But redemption in Christ also gives us a faith community through our baptisms and through whom we experience the weekly and even daily call to surrender our sin at the foot of the cross and practice faith, hope, and love as adopted children of God through Jesus Christ.

It’s taken me more that my fair share of time to figure out that being adopted as a child of God through baptism has nothing to do with playing it safe. In fact, being named child of God in baptism draws us into acts of practical hope for today that often don’t align with the goals of leaders who hold institutional power. Was John the Baptist safe? No. Was Jesus safe? No. Were Jesus’ early followers safe? No. Are we safe? No, I’m afraid not. What we are is redeemed and freed by the gospel into the work of practical hope assigned by Jesus.

The cashier who asked for prayer sees Jesus people as a sign of practical hope. Each day our baptism works in us the practical hope of dying to sin and raising us to new life so that we’re less like Herod and more like Jesus. Living into a life that is ever more Christ-shaped as a Jesus follower, safety from corrupt power fades to black while acts of practical hope take center stage in public acts of the faithful. Advocacy is one way to do the work of practical hope; community organizing is another. Working through legislation and ballot initiatives that change people’s real lives now. It’s partly why Augustana has a fledgling Human Dignity Delegate ministry to address issues of human dignity in the public square. The next meeting is August 1. Let me know if you’d like more details.

In a moment we’ll sing “Listen, God is Calling.” In the language of Herod’s story, God calls us from our self-absorbed, death-dealing sin. God redeems us into freedom from those very sins and our inevitable regret for them. God’s call through the cross of Christ empowers us by the Holy Spirit into the unsafe, bold, and practical hope on behalf of the gospel for the sake of the world. It’s a good day to be reminded of this good news. Amen.

 

Song after the sermon:

Listen, God is Calling [Neno lake Mungu][5]

#513 Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006)

Refrain

Listen, listen, God is calling through the Word inviting, offering forgiveness, comfort and joy. (repeat)

Jesus gave his mandate; share the good news that he came to save us and set us free. [Refrain]

Let none be forgotten throughout the world. In the triune name of God go and baptize. [Refrain]

Help us to be faithful, standing steadfast, walking in your precepts, led by your Word. [Refrain]

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[1] Mark 1:14 and Mark 3:6

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave: Commentary discussion of Mark 6:14-29 for July 11, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/792-7th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-15b-july-11-2021

[3] Mark 6:30 immediately follows the gospel reading of Mark 6:14-29

[4] Lutheran Study Bible (NRSV). Ephesians 1:7 study note. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 1922.

[5] Austin Lovelace and Howard S. Olson (1968). Lutheran Theological College, Makumira, Tanzania, admin. Augsburg Fortress.

Knowing Enough to Hope [OR Knowing Enough to Be Dangerous] Romans 5:1-8

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 14, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Romans 5:1-8 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

[sermon begins]

“I know enough to be dangerous.” This is something people say when they don’t know much about a topic but they think that they have a gem to throw in the mix. I’m that way with art. A few trips through museums and suddenly I feel free to wax rhapsodic on Degas and da Vinci. Whatever my failings in knowledge, though, I make up for in enthusiasm. There are times when you look at a masterpiece and the effect is transcendent. For a moment your eye is captured, and your soul is filled with something “other.” Beauty has that effect. Closer to the ground, we’re cresting into late spring. Aspirations of green thumbs abound across many a beating heart while some blooms begin to fade, and heartier ones take their place.

Last week, it was the pale pink peonies that frothed in a profusion of petals. 2020 is a perfect year for them. The right amount of sun and water fell, and the hail didn’t. After my usual hemming and hawing about leaving them outside or bringing them in, I clipped a bouquet and have been enjoying them all week. I posted a picture of them on the media, attempting poetry about “air for the soul.” (Again, I know enough to be dangerous.) The thing about beauty is it reminds us that our humanity is part of something – something both essential and transcendent. For me, this is especially necessary when times are difficult, when everyone seems to know enough to be dangerous and when suffering seems inescapable.

Suffering is a universal human experience. There was plenty of it in my early kid years when my family was blown apart by mental illness and domestic violence. And more, during my years as a pediatric oncology nurse. And more, over time as a pastor. Here’s one of the things I know about suffering from all those years. Suffering cannot be compared. It’s a lot like beauty that way. What’s more beautiful – Degas’ elegant sculpture of “La Petit Danseuse” or the riotous tumble of pink peonies? It’s a ridiculous question. Suffering is similar. Being with someone who is suffering for any reason is NOT a time to get into qualifying their experience, giving a different take on it, or redirecting them to someone else’s experience of suffering. That stuff is the opposite of helpful. Being with someone who is suffering IS a time to listen and to wonder. It’s a time to share their burden by holding space for it without rushing to comfort. Sharing the burden lightens the suffering without imagining that it can be taken away.

Suffering is something the Apostle Paul seems to understand. How often do you suppose he cried out to God withOUT a pen in hand? It must have been a lot given his turn from the one giving punishment to the one on the receiving end of being beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.[1] For him to write about suffering like that, he knew it intimately, like a friend, just like he knew God. Listen again to a few of the verses from his letter to the Roman church.

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

The Apostle Paul is talking to all of us. One reason his words about suffering resonate so strongly is because he describes what he knows and what we know. And he knows way more than enough to be dangerous. He knows enough to be comforting. Comfort is no small thing. It’s not appeasement – meaning I’m not making you feel better so that I feel better. Comfort is deep knowing shared across our human experience. Most of us have experienced suffering and still we live on. Some of us not so elegantly but still we live. Paul’s account of moving from suffering to endurance to character to hope is a description not a strategy. He describes what we know by faith and experience about how suffering works. There are days in the midst of it that we wonder how it’s possible to make it through. Days in which we’re not sure who we are anymore. And then, in the body of Christ, the church, we’re reminded once again of the main things – God’s promises to us no matter what is happening.

For our congregation, one such moment was Matthias’ baptism in the last couple of weeks. Long on the worship calendar, his baptism on Pentecost couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. Masks and quiet sanctuary notwithstanding, water flowed off Matthias’ head in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We prayed for the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and joy. And he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In baptism God promises to be present, to form us as disciples, to always take us back, and to be the eternal One in our lives every day. In baptism, we “have obtained access to this grace on which we stand.” We were buried with Christ in baptism so that we too might live in newness of life. Today. Right now, even in suffering, we are pulled through the cross of Christ.

The cross frames suffering in a different way. The cross promises the presence of God in suffering. We know Jesus’ body broke and died which means that God knows suffering and suffers with us. God’s alignment with our suffering promises endurance through to hope. Hope does not come at the expense of false optimism where we close our eyes and wish everything away. False optimism is knowing enough about hope to be dangerous. Rather, hope comes from being planted at the foot of the cross while awaiting new life and continuing to do the hard work of grieving and the hard work of reconciliation with each other. Simply put, the cross binds us to the hard work of love in the midst of suffering – loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbor in such a time as this. By our baptism, our gracious heavenly Father frees us into hope and forms us into instruments of cross and resurrection in the name of the one who is, who was, and who is to come, Jesus Christ our Lord.[2] Amen and thanks be to God.

And now receive this blessing…

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son,

and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

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[1] Acts 7 (when Paul was still Saul); Acts chapters 9, 13, 14, 16, 18, 21, 22, and 23.

[2] A paraphrase of Revelation 1:8

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The Gospel Reading for worship today:

Matthew 9:35-10:8 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Daring to Gather Around the Light (OR Perspective of Great Age, Suffering and Peace) Luke 2:22-40

**sermon art: Simeon en Anna by Jan van ‘t Hoff b.1959

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

February 2, 2020 – Presentation of Our Lord and Candlemas

[sermon begins after Bible reading; it’s a meaty story – hang in there]

 

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

[sermon begins]

When I was a kid, not sure quite how old, I was walking down the street with my grandmother. Time alone with Grammops feels like it was rare. She could be a little intimidating too – almost regal in her bearing. I used to joke that if you had the manners to dine with Grammops, you could easily dine with the Queen. Walking alongside Grammops, armed with the ignorance of youth, I dared to ask how old she was. She told me that it was NOT a question to be asked, her body language speaking volumes, and we just kept right on walking. Clearly her response made an impression since I remember this story. I wished she’d simply said, “Caitlin, I am of a great age” and kept right on walking. A “great age” is how our Bible story describes the prophet Anna who lived in the Temple. So, to our friends of a great age, feel free to use this one. If someone asks you what it means you can tell them to check out the Bible’s second chapter of Luke in the 36th verse. Not only will it be Biblically accurate, you can also remain mysterious about said great age if that’s how you roll.

Anna and Simeon’s great age, in contrast with the 40-day-old baby Jesus, is part of what I love about this story. Artwork inspired by this Bible story captures the smooth newborn and the texture of age along with a radiant light. The contrast also frames a faithful perspective on peace and suffering. Simeon scoops Jesus into his arms and celebrates God’s long-awaited promise fulfilled with a song of peace. In the next breath, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will piece her own soul too.” (Probably not what you want to hear when you’re a first-time mom showing off your new baby in the Temple.)[1]

The widow prophet Anna follows Simeon’s speech with her own praise and talks about Jesus to anyone who would listen. Contrasts are vividly shaped in a matter of moments – old and young; life and death; peace and soul-piercing pain. Two faithful people of great age in the story are an audacious portrait of peace and suffering. You don’t arrive at a great age without experiencing things that you wish you hadn’t. Perhaps Anna and Simeon’s perspective can lead us to dare similarly, to gather around the light when death is ever present in the world.[2]

The light of Christ is part of what is celebrated annually on February 2 in the festival of Presentation of Our Lord and the accompanying ritual of Candlemas, also celebrated today. Blessing candles for use this evening and year-round invokes Simeon’s words as he held Jesus and praised God for “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The candlelight reminds us that the light of Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not overcome it.[3] Anna and Simeon lead by their example of showing up in sacred space where God’s promise is more readily remembered. They would find it hard to imagine how counter-cultural it is in the 21st century to self-identify as religious.

Religious ritual helps us to remember our center when the culture at large fails to do so. The grief for Kobe Bryant’s death is one such moment. The many layers and voices in the mix of what happened to Mr. Bryant, his daughter, and the other people in the helicopter make it difficult for us to remember that all of them are beloved children of God.  As the two women (not of a great age) in our congregation, who died recently and unexpectedly in different situations on the same day are also beloved children of God. As the people that you’ve lost to death and on your hearts and minds are also beloved children of God. And, as such, there is nothing they could do or not do to make God love them any more or any less.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross, hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s refusal to raise a hand in violence against the world God so loves. The empty tomb of Easter, also hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s promise to swallow death up into God, into holy rest with all the company of the saints in light perpetual. It’s tough to remember all those words when we need to hear them. It’s not tough to light a candle, say our loved ones’ names in prayer, and to remember God’s promise of love and light in Jesus – to comfort the afflicted with peace that passes all our understanding and to remember that we dare to gather around the light when death is ever present in our world.

Simeon’s praise and speech doesn’t end once he announces his own peace. He keeps right on going. Anna also keeps right on talking to all who will listen. Apparently, even at a great age, there’s more for them to say about Jesus. Do they keep going because there is little time to waste? Or do they keep going because their perspective gives them a vantage point that people of a lesser age can’t see? Regardless, our 21st century world of media and nation states would be unimaginable to them. Our ability to impact our world through a representative government would shock them. But the call of Jesus to disrupt any status quo – private, political, local, global, or otherwise – that ignores the pain of our neighbor remains the same.[4]

Anna and Simeon are saints in the faith as their stories are recorded in Luke for us to learn and gain strength from. We can look to them anytime or anticipate this day annually on February 2. Their story is easy to find. Whether you’re afflicted and needing comfort or whether you’re too comfortable and need to be agitated out of that comfort for your own good or for the good of your neighbor, the day that Jesus was presented in the Temple is your day. Jesus shows up both as a promise of peace and as a sign that will be opposed; as both a consoler and an agitator. We are people of faith drawn together by the Holy Spirit, daring to gather around the light when death and suffering are ever present in our world. Jesus, our light, our life and our peace, leads us on the journey.  Amen.

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Blessing for your home candles (Adapted  by Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake from ELW Occasional Services)

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, O God, creator of the universe, for you have enriched our lives with every good gift, and you have invited us to praise you with lives of love, justice, and joy.

Send your blessing on these candles, which we set apart today; may they be to us a sign of Christ, the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

To you, O God, be all glory and honor through your Son, Jesus Christ,in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave on Luke 2:22-40. December 25, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=252

[2] Ibid. David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.

[3] An emphatic paraphrase of John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

[4] Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Pops, Purity, and Promise [I Promise It’s Not What You Think] Matthew 5:1-12 and 1 John 3:1-3

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

1 John 3:1-3 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

[sermon begins]

I was 9 years old when Mom and my stepfather were married after dating long distance for about two years between Washington D.C. and Pasadena, California. While they were dating and into their marriage my four sibs and I called him Bill.  Eventually we started talking about what we could call him differently that would signify the relationship. His children called him Dad so that didn’t fit. Plus we already had a Dad.  We eventually settled on Pops.

Early on I thought Pops looked like John Wayne. He had the gruff and tough thing down anyway.  He took us on our first road trip from Pasadena to Springdale, Arkansas, to meet his folks, Grandma and Grandpa Cloer. Somewhere in New Mexico, Pops laid down the law about fewer bathroom breaks. I’m sure with five kids that pit stops had spun out of control. At one point Mom turned around and I had quiet tears running down my face. I absolutely did not want to be the one who forced the next stop and didn’t want to fess up.  Pops felt terrible. This is a tale that we told in our family for years.

Pops also had season tickets to the Dodgers. My brothers and sisters and I each had a chance to go solo with him to games. Dodger dogs, peanuts, the 7th inning stretch, and Toni Tennille’s autograph are just a few of the highlights.[1] I’m a nostalgic Dodger fan because of that time with Pops. (Truth be told, I’ve only just found the tiniest bit of compassion for Houston’s first time Championship win…you know, given the hurricane and all.)

Then I became a teenager…dunh, dunh, duuunnh. Teens are really good at naming parental faults. I was no exception. Pops and I shared many a word about each other’s faults. I was most definitely NOT seeing him as the John Wayne epic hero at that time. He was real and human and deeply flawed. Pops died just after Christmas in 2002.  His were rough last days. He’s a hero in my eyes still. Marrying a single mother of five children after raising four of his own is nothing short of heroic even if he loved her. He was also flawed and fragile, sinner and saint, imperfect and beloved. He was and is enfolded in the life of God.

In a line from the First John reading today we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”[2] It’s a word of promise. We are God’s children NOW. John goes on to talk about purifying “just as Christ was pure.”[3] The way I hear being pure in these verses is such a comfort. Called Beloved and named a child of God and then reading that in that mix there will be purity as Christ is pure?  Are you kidding me?!  Sign me up! And then, I pause…and think… Because our human minds set up purity codes pretty darn quick. The things that I hold near and dear and pure can quickly become how I assess someone else.  And before I know it, I don’t even measure up to my own purity code.

A blog writer wrote about her son’s decisions to do high school differently than his two older sisters who ended up at top universities.[4]  He sat his parents down toward the end of middle school to talk with them about his own ideas about academics, sports, and leadership that were vastly different than theirs. She wrote about learning how to “slowly and sometimes painfully put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.”  Her words call to mind the beatitudes we hear in the Matthew reading.

Jesus names the blessed as he lists the beatitudes to his disciples with the crowd listening in.[5]  Blessed are the poor in spirit, the grieving, the meek, and those who hunger for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.[6]  Jesus upends the purity code of his time and also ours. He is addressing specific situations in his speech that we can hear speaking into our own.

If we re-wrote the beatitudes with what counts for blessing these days they might sound like this:

Blessed are the thriving, the joyful, the confident, and those who hunger for victory; blessed are the moral, the great, the tough, and the prosperous.

Hearing the opposite of the beatitudes can help us to hear them more clearly. The beatitudes as Jesus lists them are a word of grace in the face of our own high expectations.  It’s human to disappoint other people and to be disappointed by them; to hurt and be hurt even as we love and are loved.  And it’s human to ignore grace and make statements like, “I’m a good person.”  Or, to turn it into a question, “Am I a good enough person?”  This question begs another question. Good enough for what?  Good enough for you to love me?  Good enough for me to love you?  Or maybe the question in its ultimate forms: Good enough for God to love you?  Good enough to be received by God and enfolded in the life of God?

I’ve been to four funerals in the last two weeks. One for an Augustana member, two for colleagues both just 67 years old, and one for a friend whose cancer had recurred. I’ve heard eulogy after eulogy, and homily after homily and I ended up pretty cranky after feeling too many deep feels. These were good people and deeply flawed people. Imperfect and beloved people. Sinner-saint people. People like you and me.

A son of one my departed colleagues is also a theology professor.[7] His eulogy for his dad dabbled in homily but, man, I’m so glad he did. He talked about his dad being “enfolded in the life of God.” He also said, “Death is not the enemy. Death can never unlive the life that is lived.”  I would add that death cannot unlove a life that is already loved.  In fact, nothing can unlove a life that is already loved because love is from God.[8] But I think it’s what we unintentionally do. We end up unloving lives that are already loved by creating purity codes and attaching the name of God to them. No quicker than that happens do we then turn those purity codes onto ourselves. Who could possibly measure up? I’ve talked to people who’ve been Lutheran all their lives, who have heard about the unconditional grace of God their whole lives, and who still doubt the full measure of God’s love as they breathe into their last days.

Just so we’re clear, the full measure of God’s love is that God loves you into life and God’s loves you through your last breath. The people listed in the bulletin today, the people named because they took their last breath in the past year?  God loved them into life and God loved them on the way out.  As you live and breathe today, God loves you. As you live through your last breath, God loves you. You are enfolded in the life of God, created in God’s image, and beloved through God’s death in Jesus on the cross. Whatever defense you’re inclined to create for yourself or someone else as a good-enough-person is unnecessary.  You are sainted by God’s activity, not your own.  In the words of the First John reading:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.”[9]

Alleluia! And Amen!

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[1] Toni Tennille of the 1970’s and 80s singing duo ‘Captain and Tenille.’ https://www.tonitennille.net/biography/

[2] 1 John 3:2

[3] 1 John 3:3

[4] Kristen Jones Neff. “I Wanted My Son To Be Happy But On My Terms.” Grown & Flown: Parenting Never Ends. https://grownandflown.com/wanted-son-happy-my-terms/

[5] John Petty. Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Sunday. ProgressiveInvolvement.com on October 30, 2017. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2017/10/all-saints-sunday-matthew-5-1-12.html

[6] Matthew 5:3-10

[7] Eric Daryl Meyer. Assistant Professor – Theology. Carroll College, Helena, Montana. https://www.carroll.edu/faculty/meyer-eric

[8] 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” NRSV.  A few verses later is 1 John 4:12 which is actually my favorite verse of all time. “No one has ever see God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [God’s] love is made complete in us.” When I couldn’t pick up a Bible after many years out of the church, this was the verse that drew me back in.

[9] 1 John 3:2

Suffering Defies Logic [OR Mondo Cozmo Answers the Religious Question] Matthew 16:21-28 Romans 12:9-21 Exodus 1:22-2:10

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 3, 2017

[sermon begins after Bible reading; Exodus and Romans reading at end of sermon]

Matthew 16:21-28   From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

[sermon begins]

I often listen to music on the radio on the way to worship, Sunday Sunrise on KBCO is a favorite.  One parishioner heard the bass pounding as I pulled into the parking lot and, as I got out of the car, asked if I was getting my pastor jam on.  Hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah, I guess that’s part of it. One recent Sunday morning, a band I didn’t know was playing a song I’d never heard called “Then Came the Morning.”[1] Not a religious song, but I heard Psalm 30 in the music. Regaling my family with the concert video during dinner that evening, one thing led to another and suddenly Rob and I had concert tickets for a three-band evening at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. Being an early to bed person, I was super disappointed The Lone Bellow wasn’t on first. That slot was reserved for Mondo Cozmo, another unfamiliar band. It didn’t take too long before my ears perked up, though. The opening lines of their song Shine goes like this:

Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm

I’ve come to you in search of something I have lost.

Shine down a light on me and show a path

I promise you I will return if you take me back…[2] (my apologies to the band for my vocals on that one.)

The song has a great sound. The crowd of 500 was having a blast along with the band.  My ears perked up at the Jesus part.  (Shocker…I know.) Some of you have known me long enough to be unsurprised that I did some poking around about the band afterwards. One online interviewer asked an expletive-laced question about the song Shine and whether or not the singer was a religious man.[3]  Josh Ostrander answered, “I get asked this a lot, I’m not totally sure how to answer it ‘cause the song seems to be resonating with a lot of people, but for me it’s a song of hope.”  His answer seems reasonable answer given that the interviewer was aggressively negative in asking about being religious. Which also is fairly reasonable given that religious Christianity often shows itself in public spaces as ridiculous, repressed or radicalized and sometimes all three at once.  Let’s be honest, though. Jesus doesn’t especially help the cause in today’s Bible reading when he calls Peter, “Satan,” either.

It happens fast, too.  Just before this infamous Satan slam, Peter moves to the head of the class, getting an A+ for naming Jesus correctly.  Now? Not so much.  Let’s take a close look at the reversal.  The reading today begins, “From that time on…”[4]  We can hear this as: [From the time that Peter names Jesus correctly], “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[5]  Jesus BEGAN…  This is the first that Jesus’ friends hear about the cross. Those fishers turned disciples follow him around, listen to sermons on the mount, walk on water, and feed thousands.[6] Sure, John the Baptist’s murder was terrifying but that was a one-off.[7] Up to this point it’s been mostly positive.

Peter appeals for Jesus’ safety.  Who among us wouldn’t do the same for a friend? But in the temptation of Jesus way back in Matthew’s 4th chapter, Jesus’ self-preservation by avoiding his own suffering was deemed “satanic”.[8]  Hence, the name-calling here in the 16th chapter. The cross talk is confusing.  Jesus warns against self-preservation in the face of suffering as he tells his followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow [him].” Jesus’ first disciples know that crosses kill slaves and political rebels who defy Rome at their peril.[9]  They haven’t seen crosses on top of church buildings and worn around people’s necks. Crosses become a Christian symbol in the 5th century.[10]

Jesus BEGAN to show his disciples’ about suffering and the cross. He knew his teaching about the cross would need some repetition. The cross of Christ isn’t something that’s easy to bear or to understand. We remind each other that the cross is the foundational story of our faith while spending a lifetime working out what it means.

This morning, Phoebe and Benjamin get wet with the waters of baptism. I meet with families several weeks ahead of baptism.  These conversations are chances to get to know a family just a bit and also to talk about God’s promises in baptism.  We talk about God promising to be present, to always forgive, to form lives that are ever more Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever. That first promise of being present is a biggie.

God promises to be present even, and maybe especially, when we don’t feel God is with us or don’t feel faithful or don’t feel worthy.  In baptism, God promises to be present with us despite any of our feelings to the contrary. This is sometimes called Theology of the Cross.  It means that Jesus shows up in our most confused, messiest, darkest places. The parts of ourselves we don’t like to talk about or show anyone. We all know that we don’t have to go looking for suffering. It seems to be a part of how the world works. Sometimes we do bring it on ourselves. But many times it comes from other people or from the natural world. The times when we seem inclined to say that God is absent is the very time when God promises to be present with us. God, who is Jesus. Jesus, who is God.

Jesus’ unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, race, or sin, led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means that God does not respond in violence. Later on in Matthew, the one who pulls out a sword to protect Jesus from being taken into custody by Roman soldiers is told by Jesus to put the sword away.[11]

Jesus’ death on the cross also means that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  For some of us, this promise through the cross of Jesus makes all the difference even as it defies logic. It’s how we survive in the face of unspeakable suffering and loss.[12] It’s how we sit with other people in the face of their unspeakable suffering and loss.  The cross tells the truth about how we experience life.

Matthew writes, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[13]  In this verse, we also hear the truth about how we experience joy.  God is a God of resurrection life, too.  We heard this in last week’s Bible story about the Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh and let the Hebrew babies live.[14]  We hear it again this week as Pharaoh’s daughter conspires with Moses’ sister and mother to keep him alive.[15] We hear it in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples that he would be raised on the third day.  We hear it in Paul’s letter to the Roman church:

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers…Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…life peaceably with all…if your enemies are hungry, feed them…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[16]

God is a God of resurrection life through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

______________________________________________________

[1] The Lone Bellow performs “Then Came the Morning” live on the Honda Stage. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4szaR8CJvA

[2] Mondo Cozmo – Shine (Live from Bardot) on December 9, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN0H6dpa9nU

[3]  Mondo Cozmo interview by Jeff Laufner for RockBandsofLA.com on November 30, 2016. http://www.rockbandsofla.com/mondo-cozmo-shine-and-devine-intervention/

[4] Matthew 16:21a

[5] Matthew 16:21b

[6] Matthew 5-7 and 14 are the chapters that cover these stories.

[7] Matthew 14

[8] John Petty. Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28 on August 28, 2017 for Pentecost 13. http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Matthew 26:50-52

[12] Matthew Skinner. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Posted August 26, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=919

[13] Matthew 16:21

[14] Exodus 1:8-20a

[15] Exodus 1:22-2:10

[16] Romans 12:12-13, 15, 18b, 20a, 21. (I picked a few of the many beautiful exhortations from Paul in the reading for today.)

_________________________________________________________

Exodus 1:22-2:10  Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”  2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.  5 The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7 Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10 When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:9-21  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 

The Church Alive: Called to Action Through Easy Indifference – Luke 16:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 25, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 16:19-31 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

[sermon begins]

The first thing to note about this parable is that it validates dogs’ reputations for giving unconditional love. That dogs show up in a parable should come as no surprise to Coloradans.  There are so many dogs that each household could have two if they were spread out evenly.[1]  The dogs in the parable nurse Lazarus’ wounds and likely keep him company.  If anyone is looking for a theology of dogs – there you go.  Jesus gives them airtime…and in the gravitas of a parable, no less.

The second thing to note about this parable and parables in general is that they are generally considered exhortative, not predictive.  Many a Bible reader has attempted to predict and describe the afterlife based on this parable and other choice verses.  More than one Bible scholar would invite us to resist this impulse to predict and describe.[2]  Rather, we can hear this as an exhortation by Jesus which means there’s dire urgency that requires action now, here, in the present.

For the entire gospel of Luke, Jesus increases the intensity around caring for those who are suffering.  Time and again Jesus is either easing someone’s suffering himself or talking to his disciples about it.  Jesus also ratchets up his challenge about money, about how money can create distance between the moneyed people and the people who don’t have any money.  The parable today is a case in point.

The only thing the rich man and Lazarus have in common is proximity to the gate.  The rich man is walking inside it and Lazarus is lying outside it.  The gate binds them together and yet they are worlds apart.  The contrast between the two men is stark.  The rich man is covered with purple and linen.  Lazarus is covered with sores.  The rich man feasts sumptuously while Lazarus longs to satisfy his hunger with food that falls from the rich man’s table.  Jesus problem with the rich man doesn’t seem to be his wealth.  It seems to be with the rich man’s indifference as evidenced by Lazarus’s continued suffering at the gate.

If Facebook emoticons are any indication, people are moved by stories of people spontaneously helping people.  Starbucks just set up a media company led by a former Washington Post senior editor.  This company will focus on “stories featuring Americans who have inspired and shown extraordinary measures of compassion and citizenship in their own lives.”[3]  Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond with deep emotion particularly when someone risks something to help another person.  On the flip-side, there’s deep offense when someone doesn’t.  Jesus’ audience of disciples and Pharisees likely share these very human reactions.

Last week, Pastor Ann and I spent some time worshiping and swapping stories with clergy colleagues. Augustana is one of 166 congregations in the Rocky Mountain Synod of ELCA Lutheran Christians.  The Synod is made up of El Paso Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.  The bishop convenes us for Theological Conference every fall.  This year we had the privilege of hearing from Andy Root, Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary.[4]  Dr. Root is convinced that the church is called to engage deeply with people’s stories.  Not to offer solutions to someone’s deep pain but to be present in the face of that pain.

At the same time, Dr. Root was telling story after story of his own and other people’s as examples of being present when someone is feeling deep pain. There was one story that came alive quietly for part of the room.  Dr. Root was going into detail about a wife and mother of two babies who had to identify the body of her husband at the morgue.  Some of us were sitting around a colleague whose husband died suddenly several years ago.  She too had to identify her husband in a morgue.  She sat quietly with her hand over her eyes as she listened to the story with the rest of us.  The colleague next to her put a hand on her back and continued to sit with her.

Similarly, there are some stories that hit deeply this past week.  It’s one thing to talk about someone dying in the abstract and it’s quite another to witness someone’s death – either in person or recorded.  As a country, we’re trying to talking about these deaths as a racial abstraction when for many people these deaths are real blood on the ground.  After reading and watching and reading more, I’m not sure what we’re going to do as a people.  What I am sure about is that indifference to the pain of our black brothers and sisters as well as the fear of police officers is not an option for the church.

With these large scale human issues, helplessness can immobilize people from responding.  Jesus’ brings it down to two people – the rich man and Lazarus.  The chasm that separates them is paper thin in life and cavernous in death.  Let’s look at how this parable ends.  Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[5]  Luke’s audience for this parable would be in on the joke as they listened to this end of the parable because they know the end of the story.[6]

At the end of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is executed on a cross, dies and is buried.[7]  Three days later, at early dawn on the first day of the week, the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb to find it empty – no body to identify.[8]  At first, their grief and terror know no bounds. Then they are reminded of Jesus’ words to them while he was with them – “Remember how he told you that the son of man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women go tell the apostles only to be told that it is an “idle tale.”[9]

When Jesus finally appears more widely to his disciples, he has this to say…

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Can you hear the bookend with the parable there?  Father Abraham invokes Moses and the prophets in the parable.  Jesus, after his resurrection, invokes their fulfillment and says that forgiveness is for all the nations.  In the simplest of terms, Jesus on the cross hangs over and against the parable… There…Is…No…Chasm.

My friends, we have a God who goes to hell and back in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are reminded by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church that:

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.[10]

A God who goes to hell and back for you…and for the nations; with you and with the nations.  Jesus death on the cross is where the story of our deepest pain is held and met by God.  Not only our pain but the pain of the world because darkness is not dark to God. [11]  Darkness is where light is born.[12]  As Church we are alive in Christ as we hear and proclaim this good news.  This is our call to action through easy indifference, by our baptisms through the cross of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Dogs Vs. Cat Map of the United States. November 2, 2015. Brilliant Maps: Making Sense of the World, One Map at a Time. Link: http://brilliantmaps.com/dog-vs-cat/

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matthew Skinner.  Working Preacher podcast on Luke 16:19-31 for Sunday, September 25, 2016.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795

[3] Aamer Madhani, “Starbucks CEO Dipping Toe Into Media Content” USA Today, September 7, 2016.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/09/07/starbucks-ceo-dipping-toe-into-media-content/89922526/

[4] Andrew Root, Biography and Work, Luther Seminary. https://www.luthersem.edu/faculty/fac_home.aspx?contact_id=aroot

[5] Luke 16:31

[6] A word of thanks to Dr. Matt Skinner and Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, who makes the connection between the parable and the end of Luke on the Working Preaching podcast for September 25, 2016.

[7] Luke 23:1-56

[8] Luke 24:1-12

[9] Luke 24:11

[10] Ephesians 2:4

[11] Psalm 139:12

[12] Genesis 1:1-5

Hymn sung together following the sermon:

ELW 655 Son of God, Eternal Savior

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
you, our Head, who, throned in glory,
for your own will ever plead,
fill us with your love and pity,
heal our wrong and help our need.

As you, Lord, have lived for others
so may we for others live;
freely have your gifts been granted,
freely may your servants give.
Yours the gold and yours the silver,
yours the wealth of land and sea,
we but stewards of your bounty,
held in solemn trust will be.

Come, O Christ, and reign among us,
King of Love and Prince of Peace,
hush the storm of strife and passion,
bid its cruel discords cease;
by your patient years of toiling,
by your silent hours of pain,
quench our fevered thirst of pleasure,
shame our selfish greed of gain.

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
by your praying, by your willing
that your people should be one,
grant, O grant our hope’s fruition:
here on earth your will be done.


Words: Somerset Corry Lowry (1855-1932), 1893

MIDI: Everton (Henry Thomas Smart (1813-1879)

 

Esther: Fate? Luck? A Story for Our Time – Esther 4:12-17, Romans 14:7-10, and John 14:25-27

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 17, 2016

[sermon begins after 3 short Bible readings]

Esther 4:12-17 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

Romans 14:7-10 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

John 14:25-27 [Jesus said to his disciples]  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But 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. 27 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.

[sermon begins]

I went to a play called “Sweet and Lucky” about a month ago.[1]  Not your usual play in which you walk into a theater, sit down, and watch the actors on a stage.  “Sweet and Lucky” guides the audience in small groups, out of sequence from each other, across many rooms and sets as it tackles the idea of memory and how it works.

A relevant aside, I just found out last week that the show’s New York director, Zach Morris, is a confirmed son of the Augustana congregation. I mean that in the ritual sense.  Years ago, he affirmed his baptism in the rite of Confirmation here. His mother Maggie and sister Katelynn continue to worship here regularly.  Maggie handed me an article last Sunday about the play.  Funny how things happen like that and a connection can be seen only in hindsight.

And that takes us back to the play and why it may be at least loosely relevant to the sermon today.  At one point, an actor asked me if I believe in luck.  I said, “No.” She then asked if I believe in fate.  I said, “No…I think there’s an option that we aren’t able to understand.”  Just her luck that she got to talk with me, eh?  But her questions are onto something.  We are meaning-making beings.  Things need to mean something. If they don’t mean something, we’re stymied.  If they mean something terrifying, we’re still stymied.  We throw everything we can at situations to find some kind of answer to feel better about them. Whether it’s luck, fate, karma, God’s will, free will, or something else I can’t think of at the moment. Things happen and we start asking “why?” We want answers.  We are answer mongers and meaning makers.  When things happen, either we find answers or we make them up.

This reasoning out the “why” is the surface appeal of the Book of Esther.  Esther is an orphan 500 years before Jesus.  Not just any orphan, she’s descended a few generations from the Jewish people who were rounded up in Jerusalem and carted off into Persia by the king of Babylon. Esther is adopted by her cousin Mordecai and raised as his own daughter.[2]

Through a series of circumstances, Esther becomes the Queen of Persia, married to King Ahasuerus.[3]  She remains a Jew but this secret is kept from even the king himself.  Then comes Haman, second in power only to the king.  Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman so Haman plots to murder Mordecai, and I quote the Bible story here, “by giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews…”[4]

Mordecai catches wind of Haman’s orders to kill the Jews. What follows are a number of servant delivered messages between Mordecai and Esther.[5]  Mordecai challenges Esther to save her people. Esther argues back that the king could have her put to death if she shows up uninvited.  And then comes Mordecai’s message back to her, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews…Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Even Mordecai is looking for an answer to the “why” question while he’s looking for an answer to help his people.  The way he asks Esther to help implies that it is either her fate or God’s will or some combination of the two.  In the end, she resolves to help even through it could mean her death and she says, “…if I perish, I perish.”[6]

Esther’s story is cleaned up quite a bit for the G-rated worship musical the kids are preaching through this morning’s 10:30 worship. To get the full story takes reading this Bible book laced with dark humor and questionable outcomes. While reading, it’s engaging to wonder about your own life as reflected in Esther’s self-sacrificial courage, Mordecai’s righteous determination, Haman’s fearful self-preservation, and King Ahasuerus’ detached ignorance.

Esther’s story is meaningful and relevant to the current moment in the world. She begins in the royal court, a place of comfort tainted by episodic fear and indifference. Rattled by Mordecai’s truth, her acceptance of risking death has a self-sacrificial purpose – neither fatalistic nor nihilistic. She listens to him, formulates a dubious plan, and goes into action on behalf of her people.  And the parts of the story you just heard happen in only four short chapters with a little over half the book to go.

Mark George, my Hebrew Bible professor was asked why the stories in these earliest writings are the ones that remain.  Dr. George resisted pious or academic answers.  He said with high intensity, “Because they’re GOOD stories!”  He might have even had a fist in the air when he said it.  There was that much emphasis.  “Because they’re GOOD stories!”

They’re good partly because the stories they tell are about complicated people. Trusty Noah?  Read what happens after the flood when he builds a vineyard and makes wine.[7]  Faithful Abraham?  Lied about Sarah being his sister to save his own skin not once but twice![8] Biblical heroes are often as flawed as they are faithful.  That makes for good story.

It also makes for something more than a good story.  It means that we have a shot at seeing our particular iteration of flawed and faithful in the pages of the Good Book.

Esther is no exception to Dr. George’s “GOOD story” category.  In the face of Haman’s treachery and King Ahasuerus’ indifference, Esther is challenged to save her Jewish people, putting her life at risk to do so.  But the reality is that while we aspire to Esther, we’re regularly caught in moves that smack of King Ahasuerus’ ignorance or Haman’s power grab.  Comparing Esther’s self-sacrificial resolve to Christ’s self-sacrifice may get us a little further.  Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is good for this comparison.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ death on the cross is the inevitable outcome to his life-giving ministry.  Inevitable because the life he offers is one of mercy, freedom, and peace which is perceived as a threat by the people around him.  In his death no hand is raised against the people God so loves. Rather, Jesus is resolved to see it through. Resolve that ends in self-sacrifice on a cross.

Jesus’ resolute self-sacrifice means that Christians are neither nihilists nor fatalists.  Nihilists argue that life is meaningless. Fatalists argue that life is determined by an impersonal fate.  Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans reflect a Christian’s take on life – “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”

Paul’s words are a confession of faith.  Not a faith that protects us against the struggles of life and death.  Rather, a faith that confesses Jesus’ resolve to make redemption and healing known even from the most difficult situation.[9]  And still we may not see the redemption and healing except for time passing and hindsight, if we get to see it at all.

The readings today from Esther, Romans, and John, offer slightly different perspectives on fear, death, and peace.  In John, Jesus promises peace as the One whose ultimate self-sacrifice on the cross is purposeful rather than nihilistic – gathering us around the tree of the cross, transforming death into life as well as our self-preservation and indifference into action for the sake of the world God so loves.

________________________________________

[1] Zach Morris. Sweet and Lucky, a collaboration between Third Rail Projects and Denver Center for Performing Arts Off-Center.

[2] Esther 2:7

[3] Esther, chapters 1 and 2

[4] Esther, chapter 3. Direct quote is from verse 13.

[5] Esther, chapter 4

[6] Esther 4:16

[7] Genesis 9:20-27

[8] See Genesis chapters 12 and 20.

[9] David Lose. “Faith, Forgiveness, and 9-11.”  Dear Working Preacher… September 4, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1595

For Berniece, A Celebration of Life at Her Funeral – 1 Corinthians 13 and John 14:1-4

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 5, 2016

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

John 14:1-4  “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

[sermon begins]

The morning after Berniece died, Arvid and two of their four children – Karen and Eric – sat at the kitchen table covered in papers of all kinds.  Some of those papers included Bible verses and hymns that Berniece and Arvid had discussed and written down in preparation for the days when their funerals would come.  There was a readiness to finish the planning that would become part of the celebration of her life even in the shock of Berniece’s death less than 18 hours before. Her death was, and is, a shock.  She’d been feeling a little more tired than usual but not sick.  After 90 years of life and 63 ½ years of marriage, the loss catches us off guard.

Around that kitchen table, in their home of 45 years, there were also stories to tell.  Stories of Berniece in her single years deciding where to go next as she enjoyed her friends while teaching short-hand and bookkeeping in Bottineau.  Stories of meeting Arvid over a pair of shoes sold and a first date that came at the not-so-subtle encouragement of his brother.  Stories of football and popcorn leading to a full decade of marriage and children arriving in the ‘50s with the big move to Denver that followed the four births.  Story after story that unfolds Berniece’s life and the love shared with family and friends.

While her death is a shock, her scripture choices come as no surprise.  A woman who loved out of her strength would know the cost of love described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthian church.  This is a deep and abiding love.  As Karen put it, the kids knew that their mother “loved us no matter what stupid thing we did.”  Karen’s description of Berniece is a sermon-in-a-sentence of First Corinthians 13 in which Paul writes, “Love is patient; love is kind…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…love never ends.”  Berniece “loved us no matter what stupid thing we did.”  Such a love.

Such a love comes out of not only strength but also the clarity of imperfection, the clarity of humility, the clarity of grace.  You see, clarity about one’s own imperfection opens up the possibility of grace for someone else’s imperfection.  Out of the clarity of imperfection, one might say out of the clarity of our own sin, comes a bit of awareness of how much God must love us.  The kind of love we share pales in comparison to so great a love.  As Paul puts it, “now we see through a mirror dimly but then we will see face-to-face.” Paul not only describes love between individuals.  Paul describes the behavior of love expected in the church.  The behavior of love that serves as a bridge across differences.  The behavior of love that comes in person.  The behavior of love that is asked of us but, first and foremost, in the in-person love of Jesus on a cross.

To describe looking through the dim side of a mirror, Christians will often refer to living on “this side of the cross.”  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems.  In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut. The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.  The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love. The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.  The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.  Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John that Berniece chose are also from this side of the cross.  [Jesus says to the people with him,] “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”[1]  These words are a promise that we can understand only through a mirror dimly.  But these words are the promise today for Berniece who now knows God’s promise fully even as she is fully known by God.  She is taken fully into God and is at rest.  This is God’s promise for Berniece and this is God’s promise for you.

Amen and thanks be to God for new life.

[1] John 14:3