Tag Archives: God

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 22, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 15, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible readings]

John 18:1 – John 19:42 excerpts

So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 25bMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is
your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

Good Friday isn’t about only pointing away from ourselves at other people who cause suffering. It’s also a sacred space to wonder and confess the suffering that we cause as well. Confessions of sin extend to systems that we’re a part of – institutions, countries, governments, families, friendships, communities, etc. Systems that hold us captive to sin from which we cannot free ourselves. What does free us? The life-giving cross. Life-giving because the shame-game, the image game, the perfection game, the self-righteous game, all the games we play against each other shatter in the shadow of the cross.

Through the life-giving cross, Christ sees us with compassion. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke included Jesus’ words of compassion, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ words are not carte blanche for murder and mayhem. His prayer to forgive us reminds us that we often act without awareness of how our actions may hurt someone else. That’s why our worship confessions talk about things we’ve done and things we’ve failed to do. That’s why we talk about our sin. Sin gives us language for the way we hurt other people and ourselves with our actions – actions that separate from each other and God. Good Friday creates a slow-motion pause for us to experience life-giving compassion from the heart of God in the face of our sin. God’s compassion also reminds us that Jesus’ death isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. Jesus is a revelation to a weary world, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through self-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love.

God reveals the truth of our death dealing ways while reminding us that God’s intention for humankind is good.[3] Jesus was fully human and fully divine. His life’s ministry and his death on the cross reveal our humanity and the goodness for which we were created. The life-giving cross awakens us to that goodness. Jesus’ full and fragile humanity was displayed from the cross. He sacrificed himself to the people who killed him for his radical, excessive love, rather than raise a hand in violence against the people and the world that God so loves. Jesus’ self-sacrificing goodness clears our eyes to see God’s intention for our human life together.

Our connection with each other is also a Good Friday truth for the weary soul. From the cross, Jesus redefined connection, kinship, and companionship:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” [4]

Jesus connects people through suffering. This is not a reason for suffering. Simply a truth about it. When we suffer and feel most alone and weary to our souls, Jesus reaches out from his own suffering to remind us that we have each other. God’s heart revealed through the cross destroys the illusion of our aloneness and connects us to each other once more. In God we live and move and have our being through the life-giving cross. In each other, we’re given kinship and appreciation for the gift and mystery of being alive.

In the end, the cross isn’t about us at all. It’s about the self-sacrificing love of Jesus who reveals God’s ways to show us the logical end of ours – our death-dealing ways in the face of excessive grace and radical love. We simply can’t believe that God applies this grace and love to everyone. It hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves us. It’s downright offensive that God loves our greatest enemy as much as God loves us. But that is God’s promise for our weary souls on Good Friday. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. “Behold the life-giving cross on which hung the Savior of the whole world. Come let us worship him.”[5]

______________________________________________________________

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

[2] Matthew 27:46

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

[4] John 19:25b-27

[5] A sung chant for Good Friday.

_______________________________________________________________

Psalm 22

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

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

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

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

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

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

 

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

__________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 30, 2022

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________

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

In the Good News Column [OR Is Christmas Really “Good News of Great Joy for ALL the People?”] Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from Luke 2; Isaiah reading is at the end of the sermon]

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

[sermon begins]

In the good news column, it’s Christmas Eve. Comforted by an ancient story, we’re connected with billions of Christians across time who have also celebrated Christmas. We pray for peace on earth and sing for good will among people. We pause amid the hush that’s like the quiet after the chaos of labor when a baby is born. In our minds’ eyes, we each see a baby in a manger and new parents hovering, possibly surrounded by radiant angels, noisy animals, and dusty shepherds. The holy, earthy scene celebrates Mary’s survival through childbirth, which was never a given back in the day – another thing in the good news column. The holiness of the scene in our collective imaginations is deepened by the pure humanity of it all. Mary was a person. Jesus was a brand-new person. And people have bodies. This also make Christmas about bodies. Mary’s body – pregnant, laboring, and lactating. Jesus’ body – slimy, squirming, and suckling. Mary’s permission given to the angel Gabriel to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph’s participation in God’s plan as the adoptive parent, needed their bodies by definition.  Bodies are DEFINITELY in the good news column.

The “Good News Column” is how I’ve recently started talking about that that happen during the days, especially in a rough patch. It sounds like, “Well, there’s something for the good news column;” or just a simple, “In the good news column…” It’s unclear what it is about bad news that’s more compelling than good news. Perhaps for some of us it’s because if we keep an eye on bad news then at least it can’t surprise us. Or maybe our schadenfreude jolts us with glee when we learn bad news about people that we don’t like. Or maybe we just like the thrill of gossip and dishing the dirt. Whatever it is, we know that bad news hooks us in a way that good news doesn’t, which makes listing things in the good news column feel like an act of defiance.

In some ways, it IS defiance to even have a good news column in the face of so much bad news. Because it goes way beyond just the bad news that we pass on to each other for the glee of it. We know there are hard things jostling for space inside of us. We’ve brought it with us this evening into this place and time of comfort and joy. Some of us may feel guilty about the goodness of this moment when we or someone we know is hurting. There are people would give anything to live through their injury or disease but don’t live to see their next birthday. We honor their lives when we defiantly live into joy, listing something in the good news column that makes life all the richer because of our losses, not in spite of them. Which brings us back bodies. Another, lesser-known church term for Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation which specifically names and celebrates God’s delivery in a human body through a human body. The mystery of the Incarnation, of God with us bodily in Jesus, is one that inspires imagination, defies easy answers, and clouds faith with doubt even as it comforts with God’s promise to be with us.

Our bodies are a wonder! A wonder of which we become most aware when our bodies’ fragile substance breaks or gets sick, cells or limbs or minds go wandering and wayward. It doesn’t take much to remind us of our fragility or to feel afraid of our bodies’ betrayals. We’re reminded as we grieve the deaths of loved ones and as we adapt to the steady hum of disappointments in pandemic. Perhaps fragility, grief, and disappointment are also reasons why the angel tells the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” There’s so much for the shepherds to fear, not the least of which is an angel shining in the dark of night. The angel announces, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” That’s an incredible statement. Let’s dream for a minute. If you could dream up something for the good news column that would be good news of great joy for everyone in the world – not just for you in your day, and not just for your group of like-minded people – what would that good news be? We tend to answer this question with our limited thinking. We often funnel good news for all people into geo-political answers within country or neighborhood borders. Or into familial answers within our families of origin.

But the angel’s good news is for everyone – “…good news of great joy for all the people…” And the angel first announces that good news to the very people who were outside of everything acceptable and considered good – the stinky, shady shepherds. The shepherds raced to the manger-side to see the good news for themselves. It’s hard to imagine everything that Mary might be pondering in her heart, but it’s highly likely that she was wondering what the shepherds were even doing there. Even so, she treasured and pondered their words.

Most of us find something in the good news column to treasure and ponder this Christmas.

Good news of the Wonderful Counselor who calms the troubled mind.

Good news of the Prince of Peace who brings peace through non-violence in our troubled world.

Good news of the Mighty God who challenges the status quo, promising liberation.

Good news of the Everlasting Father whose promises are so radically inclusive that this tiny Messiah in a manger will grow up to hang from a cross, reassuring us that God suffers with us when we suffer grief and pain.

Good news of a Savior who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Good news of a God who empties tombs, welcomes all to eternal life, and holds your fragile moments of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

Regardless of which part of the good news of Christmas that you put in your good news column, the fullness of Jesus is present with you even if you’re barely holding onto Jesus or aren’t sure you even want to touch him. Because the reality is that Jesus holds onto YOU. In fragile, unexpected places like the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace this Christmas. We cradle his presence with our fragile hands as we receive communion, and inside our bodies as we eat. The perfect presence of Jesus remains despite our flaws or, just maybe, because of them. You are receivers of the good news, and you have first been loved by the One who is Good News. For this and for all that God is doing, we can put Christmas in the good news column, indeed. Amen and Merry Christmas!

___________________________________________________________

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

 

 

 

 

What IS it about Mary? [OR God-Bearing and the Courage of Belonging] Luke 1:39-56

**sermon art: The Visitation by Jesus Mafa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 1:39-56 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said,
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
 and holy is his name.
 50His mercy is for those who fear him
 from generation to generation.
 51He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
 53he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty.
 54He has helped his servant Israel,
 in remembrance of his mercy,
 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
 to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

[sermon begins]

What IS it about Mary? As Jesus’ mother, and a key figure during Advent and Christmas every year, most of us have some opinion about her. She is divinized by some and romanticized by others. She is prayed to, sung to, questioned, underestimated, elevated, and celebrated.  We know nothing about her before her visit from the angel Gabriel. There are no character references or list of qualities that support her being chosen as Jesus’ mother. We simply get the announcement of being chosen, of Mary’s consent to God’s will, and then her dash to the hill country to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months.

Mary is newly pregnant. Elizabeth is six months along. Mary is pregnant too soon – not yet married. Elizabeth is pregnant too late – no longer young and had no other children.[1] What a pair they made in the first century when women’s sexuality was closely guarded and honor-bound. Both of their pregnancies were taboo, disrupting social norms with pregnancies that bore shame and humiliation. Earlier in the story we are told that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months after she conceived.[2] It was in the sixth month that the angel Gabriel announced God’s plans to Mary. Mary knew the lowliness she sang about in verse 48 because her consent to God’s will, to bear a holy child, shamed her honor and risked her life.

Mary and Elizabeth show us what courage looks like in the face of shame. It looks like connecting with someone else who knows a similar shame and humiliation. Hanging out with them. Belonging with them. Mary and Elizabeth show us what the church is. Not what it should be. What it IS. Yesterday our family attended the funeral of one of our longtime family friends. His name is Paul. His son gave one of the eulogies and talked about Paul’s ability to love unconditionally and how that was connected to his faith. It wasn’t that Paul was okay with whatever. It’s that he knew that people, including his children, were more valuable and vastly more important than whatever they had done. Facing the consequences for whatever happens, forgiving where forgiveness is needed, and staying connected through it all are the main things because people are the main thing. Mary and Elizabeth give us a first century example of what this looks like. Our friend Paul gave us a 21st century example of what this looks like. There are other examples too.

In the last few weeks, a number of people have talked with me about their worship experiences.  A couple of folks feel certain that communion has been key for them in overcoming deeply personal challenges. Others have mentioned that worship connects with their grief in ways that defy easy explanations. I’m sure that each of us would express our worship experiences quite differently – from the mundane to the mysterious and everything in between. The impression made by the Bible story and by people’s worship stories is one belonging. No matter how imperfect each of us are or how imperfect our life situations may be, we have a place to belong because we first belong to God and, because of God’s promises, we belong to each other. In belonging we are comforted in our humiliations but we also find courage for whatever comes next.

Courage in belonging is one of Mary’s gifts to us through the example of her and Elizabeth, and through the example of being called by God without character references. Our Welcome Connection ministry here at church focuses on belonging. The ministry team started meeting a few months before Covid was even a thing. Naming the group became of part of figuring out what we were up to. I’ve learned over time to step back and watch as group names form from the group members themselves. Ta-da! Welcome Connection evolved out of those conversations – the name of the ministry also named part of our goal. Welcome Connection reaches out and invites folks to belong as well as welcome and connect folks with each other. Because it’s one thing to worship together and it’s another to be church with each other.

When Welcome Connection regrouped a few months ago and started meeting again, the first priority was reaching out to congregation members and re-connecting with them. Phone calls were made to let people know we were back in person for worship. Deepening our sense of belonging after being disconnected was a top priority. After all, reaching out and inviting goes better if there are connecting points in place. Welcome Connection’s urgency also grows from the awareness that 53 new continuing visitors in 31 households have begun worshipping more recently.[3] Some of you who are continuing visitors started worshipping via livestream and now are in person. Others of you found worship in person with the awareness of hoping for a place and people of connection, faith, and meaning. Whatever the reason, Welcome Connection’s ministry is finding ways to help folks connect with each other.

Obviously, everyone can’t know everyone in a congregation like ours. But there are ways to belong to groups and ministries that help us get to know each other and have a place to belong. Some ways of belonging are established, like Sunday lunches after 10:30 worship, and other ways are just beginning like Men’s Bible Study which is starting because someone suggested the idea and there’s a willing leader for it. Thanks Erin and Brian! Everyone’s creative ideas and experiments are invited by the Welcome Connection ministry. Feel free to brainstorm with each other and bring ideas to the team along with who can lead it. In a disconnected world, Elizabeth and Mary’s example of belonging is one worth pondering for our congregation.

Additionally, there’s a special name for Mary that comes from the Greek Orthodox Church – Theotokos (Θεοτόκος).  Theotokos means God-bearer. Mary became a God-bearer when she consented to God’s plan for her to conceive a child and name him Jesus. When Mary calls herself “his servant” in verse 46, she echoes verse 38 when she called herself “a servant of the Lord” in her consent. Missing in the English is the closer translation from the Greek for δούλη[doule] which means slave to the full expression, “slave of the Lord.” “Slave of the Lord” aligns with the Jewish use of the honorary title “slave of God” used to describe Moses, Joshua, Abraham, David, Isaac, the prophets, Jacob, and one woman – Hannah.[4]

Mary singing about lowliness describes her humiliation, while in the same breath singing about being a “slave of God” places her within a long line of ancestors who were called by God. She is simultaneously elevated by her connection with the ancestors, even as she’s humiliated by her God-bearing body outside of the accepted social norms. Quite differently, but along similar lines, we become God-bearers when we are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – bearing God’s love into the world through labors of love for our neighbors. As God-bearers, we are given opportunities to consent to God’s will, to gain courage from belonging to each other, and to take risks that may humiliate us on behalf of each other and our neighbors.

In the Hymn of the Day after the sermon, we’ll sing the Magnificat, Mary’s song of justice and deliverance in verses 46 to 55 from the Luke reading today. Singing the Magnificat gives us time to think about how we bear God to each other and to the wider world. Would you use words like Mary’s? Or would you use other words to describe what bearing God’s will into the world would look like for you? Regardless, you ARE God-bearers. Blessed are YOU among people as you’re blessed by the power of the Holy Spirit for your own sake and the sake of the world. Amen.

________________________________________________

[1] Luke 1:7

[2] Luke 1:24

[3] Discover Augustana classes are scheduled on Sundays January 9, 16, 23, and 30 between worship services for folks who would like to learn more about Augustana or are thinking about becoming members.

[4] Jane Schaberg, Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, MI. Women’s Bible Commentary: Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 372-373.

Christmas *Time* – A Sermon for “Bless the Years” Worship and Holy Communion Luke 2:1-20 and Isaiah 9:2-7

“Bless the Years” worship is a mid-week Advent and Christmas service for our home-centered folks, their family, and friends to experience a calm, peaceful, and intimate time to welcome the Christ Child and celebrate the holidays

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Thursday, December 9, 2021, 11 a.m.

[sermon begins after the Luke reading; Isaiah reading is at the end of the sermon.}

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

[sermon begins]

My Grandma Ruth was one of my favorite people. I loved spending time with her. At 13 years old, she was taken by her parents to live at an orphanage. She met my grandfather when they were both college students. She was very tall and gentle and cozy. Being the town librarian, she was also very wise. When I was little, I thought Grandma Ruth knew everything. She certainly knew the importance of books and reading. She taught us to love being at the library, passing time in the smell of the books, the quiet, the endless stories and information. Looking back, Grandma Ruth taught me so many things. She taught me was what patience and perspective looked like when time seemed like the enemy. I don’t remember how old I was when I broke one of her special porcelain angles from Heidelberg, Germany. I also don’t remember how it all happened. Knocked over, the angel was suddenly armless. I don’t even remember Grandma Ruth’s reaction. I only ever remember being loved by her. After both she and Granddad died, my older brother and sister went back to help my aunt work on the house. My sister called to ask me if I wanted anything from the house and my only request was for her two Heidelberg angels. Unwrapping the angels and seeing the one with her arms glued back on sent me back in time. Something so long ago seemed like yesterday. Time is funny that way.

Our gospel writer this morning knew a thing or two about telling time. Luke’s “orderly account” of the good news often includes time markers like the one we heard today:[1]

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.[2]

Luke then tells us about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem to be registered just in the nick of time to have the baby Jesus. In our mind’s eye, we can see the story unfolding into the night with angels shining bright over shepherds who wasted no time racing to the manger-side to see the baby for themselves. Time is of the essence. This is “good news of great joy for ALL the people” so the story needs as many people to tell it as are willing to tell it through the generations.[3] Because this story is a person-to-person story – from the angel to the shepherds and so on. In fact, it was a person-to-person story from way before Jesus’ birth too. From imperfect person to imperfect person, the story was passed. Both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew include genealogies that go waaaaay back in time, linking Jesus through his adoptive father Joseph to sinful and repentant King David, and then even further back to flawed and faithful Father Abraham.

You see, this good news didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s good news that expands the circle of God’s promises each time to include even more imperfect people across time. God’s promise never shrank to exclude. God’s promise grew outward to include. As the angel said, “Good news of great joy for all the people.” The generations that led to Jesus carried God’s promise across time and finally into time for everyone. In Luke, the time of Jesus’ birth was marked and celebrated.

Christmas time makes me wonder about the ways we mark and celebrate time…and even grieve time. I can’t count the number of people who have lived many decades and who’ve said to me, “I feel the like the same person on the inside as I’ve always been,” while the mirror tells them a different story about time. Our bodies certainly mark time for us even when we may not be paying attention to time passing. But while that transformation is happening, things happen in real time that must be grieved and others that must be celebrated. In fact, the time we spend in grief often makes the times of celebration even more precious. Advent and Christmas are often bittersweet because grief and celebration intertwine, becoming rich, complicated emotions with the gift of perspective. Grandma Ruth wasn’t the only one to have that gift. Even so, each of us remain a work in progress. Flawed and imperfect and in need of a Savior, we’ve become tellers of the good news of great joy for all the people passed down from the angel through the generations.

We are tellers of the good news because we were first receivers of the good news.

Good news of the Wonderful Counselor who calms the troubled mind.

Good news of the Prince of Peace who brings peace through non-violence in our troubled world.

Good news of the Mighty God who challenges the status quo promising liberation.

Good news of the Everlasting Father whose promises are so inclusive and radical, that this tiny Messiah in a manger will grow up to hang from a cross, reassuring us that God suffers with us when we suffer grief and pain.

Good news of a Savior who promises new life out of the hot mess you’ve made of yours.

Good news of a God who empties tombs, welcomes all to eternal life, and holds your fragile moments of faith and doubt, reassuring you that there is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less.

In real time and in unexpected places like the manger of communion bread and wine, Jesus’ presence is promised to you as a gift of grace today. You are receivers of the good news, and you have first been loved by the One who is Good News. It’s always a good time to celebrate Christmas. Thanks be to God and amen.

________________________________

[1] Luke 1:3

[2] Luke 2:1-2

[3] Luke 2:10

_________________________________

Isaiah 9:2-7 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
3You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
4For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Being Human and Divine Being [OR Jesus Would Have Made a Great Nurse] John 6:24-35, Exodus 14:2-4, 9-15, and Ephesians 4:1-16

**Sermon Art: The Nurse by Jose Perez (American, b. 1929) Oil on Canvas

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 1, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings…the third one from Ephesians can be found at the end of the sermon]

John 6:24-35 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were [beside the sea,] they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Exodus 14:2-4, 9-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

[sermon begins]

 

Nursing school is quite the thing. From bedpans, to injections, to wound care, to calculating dose per pound, to nearly passing out in the operating room, nursing school wades through human frailty, one fragility at a time. Underlying the instruction about caring for the body, is a constant reminder that people are more than their current diagnosis and more than bodies to be treated. People are social, emotional, spiritual beings too. None of this is surprising news. We could easily add to that short list about what makes people, people. What is surprising is how often we forget that this is true. We forget our own complexity and we definitely forget other people’s many layers. Thankfully, nurses are trained to assess the whole person, chart their assessments accordingly, make a plan, and take action.

Jesus would have made a great nurse. Last week, at the beginning of John’s sixth chapter, a very practical Jesus responded to the crowd and the disciples’ growling stomachs with bread and fish and leftovers to spare. Their physical hunger was the pressing need of the moment. Jesus assessed their need, made a plan, acted on the plan, and continued his assessment as they continued to follow him thinking they could make him their king.[1] He was quick to clear up their misunderstanding although their confusion about Jesus mirrors our own. We constantly try to define Jesus as one thing – teacher, prophet, priest, or king – and misunderstand the magnitude of all that Jesus came to be as the Son of God. Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of South Africa, makes this point when he’s asked about whether he preaches a Social Gospel, the question suggesting that Jesus came to only feed people and liberate people so we should focus only on that too. Bishop Tutu said:

I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.[2]

Perhaps Desmond Tutu would also have made a good nurse as he celebrates Jesus’ concern for the whole person. Or perhaps he’s just agreeing that Jesus would have made a good nurse. Regardless, Jesus actually fed people. And, to his point in the Bible reading today, Jesus came to do more than actually feed people.

As humans, we are more than our need for food and safety but it’s easy to forget when our food or safety are threatened. The Israelites are prime examples of such forgetfulness in the reading from Exodus. Under Moses’ leadership, they had been freed from slavery in Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness – tired, hungry, and exposed to the elements. They were aimless examples of the human condition. A human condition which can be summed up in this story as having short memories and being afraid.[3] It’s odd that this story was written down. It was quite unique in ancient times to record a story that failed to assess the heroes as consistently strong, virtuous, and victorious.[4] In their remembrance of this humbling story, our Jewish cousins in the faith remember the presence and provision of God alongside their own ancestors’ fragile faith caused by fear and hunger.

The crowd following Jesus remembered Moses, and the manna to munch on, to frame the miracle that fed the 5,000 and to ask for more. Jesus reminded them that both the manna and the miracle were signs that point to God. He named himself the Bread of Life while naming spiritual hunger and thirst. We know that Jesus cared for hungry people by feeding them and asks us to do the same. In fact, Jesus taught that when we feed hungry people, we’re feeding Jesus.

We also know that the church, by definition, is the body of Christ, through which Jesus gives himself to us as the Bread of Life and we pray to become what we receive in Holy Communion. We gather in worship to tell these stories of our ancestors by faith that both comfort and challenge us by their humbling similarities to us. We witness through our confession of sin that our failure to trust God and love each other has consequences for ourselves and other people. And we’re reminded that God’s unconditional forgiveness isn’t simply a reason to keep on sinning and being jerks – or worse. God’s unconditional forgiveness humbles us to the reality of our human condition and promises not to leave us there. Through forgiveness, and through surrender to the one who shows us mercy, we are promised that our past sins do not define our future and do not define the world’s future. Something else, dare I call it transformation, becomes possible – transformation of ourselves and our world as we cling less tightly to our self-absorption and more tightly to God.

Spiritual assessment takes stock of our denial, despair, fear, and suffering, as well as our hope, faith, trust, and love. A humble and honest assessment takes stock of our human condition and our reaction to it. The reading from Ephesians is just such an invitation to each of us as individuals to assess our spiritual lives. But the letter to the Ephesians is more than that too. It’s a letter to the faithful church. The first verse of the first chapter says, “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” By extension as the body of Christ here and now, we can imagine it as written, “To the saints who are in Augustana, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Is that as shocking to hear as it felt to write? Regardless, this letter is also written to us today. A call to the church “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”[5]

Sunday worship and Faith Formation, ministry meetings and funerals, baptisms and Bible Studies, are all opportunities for us to practice this calling, to assess how we’re doing spiritually, and to be called to the one hope of our calling, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”[6] Many of us have been on the planet long enough to know that there is no arrival to any kind of holy perfection. That, in and of itself, is a gift and a big relief. But Christ does infuse our being human with divine being – in baptism, in gathering in his name, and in holy communion as the Bread of Life. We rely on his gift of himself for spiritual transformation from despair to hope, from denial to truth, from self-absorption to trust, and from hatred to love. And we rely on Jesus’ gift of himself to use our many gifts for the good of the whole and “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”[7] In our life of ministry as the church, we are called to speak the truth in love as we grow into Christ, who joins us together to promote our growth in love.[8] And that is good news indeed, for us and for the world. Thanks be to God. And amen.

__________________________________________________________________

[1] John 6:14-15

[2] Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu. https://www.biographyonline.net/spiritual/quotes/desmond-tutu-quotes.html

[3] Rolf Jacobsen, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Conversation about Exodus 16 on Sermon Brainwave for August 1, 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ephesians 4:1-3

[6] Ephesians 4:5

[7] Ephesians 4:12

[8] Ephesians:15-16

____________________________________________________________

Third Bible reading

Ephesians 4:1-16 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.”
9(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

 

Winging It With What We Know [OR The Church Year and Our Weird Jesus Stories] Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension of our Lord

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 16, 2021

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings. The books of Luke and Acts are by the same author. The first reading ends Luke and the second reading opens Acts.}

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

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

[sermon begins]

Jesus followers spend our days like most other people. We get up when we’re done sleeping. Our waking hours are filled with lives, food, and activities as varied as there are people around the world. At some point, we sleep again. Jesus followers also frame our days and human doings through the extra Jesus lens and splice the church year into a highlight reel of the life and times of Jesus. While the Bible regularly shatters our assumptions, reforms our faith, and comforts our afflictions, the church year structures our societal and self-examination by spotlighting the life of God in the person of Jesus. On Sundays, and even daily, we hold up God’s priorities against our own as we wing it. Okay, the “we” may be too strong. I’ll confess that I wing it. Oh sure, I have a to-do list and a schedule for the day. But there are other humans involved in my day which often means reshuffling the order of things, going with the flow, and winging it. More to today’s point, God is also involved in my day which means that every day is basically a new day to wing it as God’s priorities often disrupt my own.

Today’s new day finds us celebrating the Ascension of Our Lord in the church year. As Jesus followers, we recall the weirdest stories about Jesus in festive high holy days – Christmas (a.k.a. Nativity of Our Lord), we celebrate God with us in the baby Jesus, Easter (a.k.a Resurrection of our Lord) we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead…you get the picture. Today locates us in the very last verses of Luke’s Gospel and the very last Sunday of the Easter season, which presses pause even as we lean towards Pentecost next week when we celebrate the birth of the church. Today we find ourselves with the earliest disciples, looking up into the sky at an ascending, departing Jesus. Talk about winging it.

Before he lifts off, Jesus tells them to wait in the city for the Holy Spirit. The reading from the first verses of the book of Acts retells Jesus’ ascension story but includes two men in white robes who ask the disciples why they’re still looking up. The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are thought to be written by the same author. Luke covers the life and times of Jesus while Acts (a.k.a. Acts of the Apostles) covers the life and times of the early church – a sequel of sorts. Ascension of Our Lord is the overlapping story that connects the two books. The disciples were mesmerized, watching Jesus lift up and away. Understandably so. Imagining the disciples’ shocked eyes refocusing down to ground level and being told to get a move on by those random dudes makes me chuckle at the physical comedy. They’re reminded to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit to wing in while they wing it in the meantime.

And where do they wing it? In the temple. Praising God. Luke’s gospel starts and ends in the temple. In Chapter One, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he went about his priestly duties, offering incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Right then and there in the temple, Gabriel announced his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with their son John. John would be known later in life as John the Baptist who preached repentance and prepared the way for Jesus. Here we are at the end of Luke. The earliest Jesus followers had been through the lows and highs of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Before he lifted off, he told them that they were his witnessess and would proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. Their eyes followed him to the sky before they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” to continually praise God in the temple, basically winging it until they “have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no real idea what it would look like to be clothed from on high or when that would happen or how they’d get to witness and proclaim. They were winging it with what they knew.

Unlike those earliest disciples, we have more of the Jesus story even though we still only see it dimly at the best of times.[1] But like the disciples, there’s only so much that we can know at any given time to take action. Such is the way of us re-gathering in-person for worship. Augustana’s Reopening Taskforce sifts through the headlines most of us see, into the fine print of CDC, state, and local guidelines that most of us never investigate. Thank God for the taskforce folks and may the Spirit continue to guide their leadership.[2] As much as the taskforce is helping us figure out how to worship in these ever-evolving times, this is the first time any of us have emerged from a pandemic so there is an element of winging it with what we know until more is revealed.

May 2nd was our first outdoor, in-person worship this Spring. There were a few favorite moments, like chatting with folks after worship and getting caught up each other’s latest news. The moment that most surprised me was was saying the Lord’s Prayer in unison with everyone. I guess I should add that it didn’t sneak up me, I know it’s part of the communion liturgy. What surprised me was my reaction. Last Fall, we didn’t speak the liturgy together and now we know enough science to know that we can. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

Tears pricked my eyes and my throat tightened up. I don’t have words to describe the emotions or experience, but you know me enough to know that I’m going to try anyway. Standing over communion and with you all who attended that morning and praying with confidence as Jesus taught us to pray, our voices joined together in a very ordinary and indescribably transcendent moment. Joy filled my heart. The church geek in me wishes that I could describe it better. The Christian mystic in me is delighted that I cannot. There are experiences that defy description, that no one can take away, and this is one will buoy my faith for a while. At the very least, it was on my mind when I read the verse in Luke that the disciples returned to Jerusalem and the temple with great joy.

Joy as we worship and praise God is one of our oldest Christian traditions. It looks and sounds different around the world but it’s the essence of our worship even in the midst of tragedy. Joy fills us as we know that God is with us, God’s promises are trustworthy, God loves us consistently no matter what we do or don’t do, and that God’s grace will follow us all of our days until, at our last breath, God wings us up into God. We know more of the Jesus story than our First Century siblings in Christ but, as we wing through our days by faith gifted on the wings of the Spirit, we worship and praise God in joy, through our beautiful Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

______________________________________________

Song after the sermon:

Beautiful Savior (ELW #838)

1    Beautiful Savior, King of creation,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Truly I’d love thee,  truly I’d serve thee,

light of my soul, my joy, my crown.

 

2    Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands,

robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;

Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,

he makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

 

3    Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,

bright the sparkling stars on high;

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer

than all the angels in the sky.

 

4    Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Glory and honor, praise, adoration,

now and forevermore be thine!

Text: Gesangbuch, Münster, 1677; tr. Joseph A. Seiss, 1823-1904

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] Infers 1 Corinthians 13:12

[2] Augustana’s Reopening Taskforce includes Augustana’s Faith Community nurse as well as our Building Use Coordinator. Additionally, there are two doctors, one lawyer, one retired biology professor, one retired English professor, and one professional singer who also serves as the Covid safety officer on a different organization.