Tag Archives: God

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

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 28, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________

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

[2] John 3:16-17

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, December 24, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

 

Isaiah 9:2-9

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

_________________________________

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

[2] Luke 1:26-38

[3] Matthew 1:18-22

[4] 1 John 4:8

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

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Merry Christmas!

__________________________________________

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

[2] John 1:1

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

[4] John 1:14

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2023

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________________

[1] Mark 13:1-3

[2] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________

Psalm 80:1–4, 7, 17–19

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

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

Hope Shines in the Darkness [OR Christ’s Compassion Knows No Bounds]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 15, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

Matthew 22:1-14 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

[sermon begins]

Even in the age of AI, desperate students still have CliffsNotes that boil down long, sometimes tedious, novels into a few main points that can be used to write essays…or, as many a desperate student tells their parents, to better understand the story while reading said tedious novel. I was afraid to use them for fear of getting caught by teachers way smarter than my high school self. But, there is a valid argument for boiling down difficult ideas to make them more accessible. Here’s my attempt at the CliffsNotes version of Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel:

The kingdom of heaven is like the guy who saw the king’s petty and rageful true self and wouldn’t put on the king’s robe, which led to the king throwing that guy into the outer darkness. [Read that twice for good measure.]

This CliffsNotes version of Jesus’ parable makes perfect sense. Why on earth would you want to party with a king who lacks self-control and rages against his people when his ego is bruised? He invited party guests who didn’t want to come, so much so that they killed the king’s messengers. The king’s rage turned on them and he torched their cities. This is not a king of grace, mercy, or kindness. This king lets you know how much you’ve disappointed him by killing you and burning your house down. I wouldn’t want to wear that king’s robe either. At least, I hope I would have the courage not to put on the robe but I don’t think I’m that brave.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church, I often heard Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet interpreted as if the rageful king was God and the last people invited who wore the king’s robes were the baptized and the poor robe-less guy was thrown into the outer darkness to suffer for all of eternity for not putting on the dang robe. As Pastor Gail has emphasized over the last two weeks, we need to be really careful with Jesus’ parables, especially these last three from the last three Sundays. Jesus’ told these three parables after he entered Jerusalem towards his execution on a cross. Time was of the essence, and he was being challenged by religious leaders who wanted him dead. Parables don’t lend themselves to easy interpretations and, as listeners, we often want to align ourselves with the characters that we think are the winners. Who doesn’t want to win when it comes to God choosing you or not choosing you – especially if eternal outer darkness has anything to do it.

Let’s break down the story unfolding around this parable. Jesus entered Jerusalem where he made angry religious leaders even more angry. The religious leaders arrested Jesus, took him outside the city limits to be crucified, stretched out on a cross until he was dead. It’s more than possible that the guy who gets thrown into the outer darkness was a story that Jesus was telling about himself because his message of absurd hope, extravagant grace, and expansive love was just too much for the powers that be. The wedding banquet echoes the crucifixion, both ending with the outer darkness. The king, the one in power, threw a fit when his party went awry. The king doesn’t align with the God who Jesus reveals. God is revealed at the end of the gospel of Matthew with a crucified king. “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”[1] There was no Holy War outside the city walls to save Jesus from death. Instead, “darkness came over the whole land.”[2]

As Christians, there are ways we say that God is revealed to us. First and foremost, “through Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[3] We’ll also argue that God is visible through creation – the world and the wider universe a signature of the creator. But that first one, through Christ crucified, is important because we argue that God absorbs human violence, putting an end to violence as a solution to what ails humanity. Violence is not a solution. The cross is a shining example of the lost cause of violence and the darkness it perpetuates. Violence begets violence.

Violence replicates itself best, especially among humans. We struggle with the lesson of violence over and over again as we say things that hurt people or sometimes we actually hit people. Violence on the world stage is something we’re more than familiar with given Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Ukraine’s military defense against Russia. And again this week watching Hamas’ attack Israeli civilians and Israel’s military strike back. These cycles of violence are not just weeks or decades old. They’re centuries, even millennia old. People much smarter than me have made plenty of public comments regarding these violent conflicts. Those of us on the sidelines of them are often overwhelmed by compassion. Compassion means “to suffer together.”[4] We see people killed, bombs exploding, and buildings falling, and are moved by compassion, wanting to do something to alleviate the suffering and failing not because of lack of desire but because the problems are enormous, and the darkness is deep.

The news of the world is too much for most of us and especially for those of us who struggle with mental illness. News can serve as a tipping point into deep darkness especially when a compassionate urge to help is thwarted by a large-scale event. We’re not wired to manage the sensory overload from next door and around the world constantly pumped through our phones, computers, and TVs. Reminding each other to unplug from time-to-time, to recharge with quieter experiences and messages of hope is critically important. Today is one such message of hope. During the song after the sermon, we’ll light candles as we shine light into the darkness of mental illness. We’ll pray for those of us who struggle with mental illness and those people we love who struggle with mental illness. While faith can be a comfort, faith doesn’t prevent suffering. Our E4 Ministry for mental health is helping us learn to be a church that meets the suffering of mental illness with compassion and hope. When you come up and light a candle, you’re invited to take one of the smooth stones that says hope or compassion. You can hold the stone as a prayer when you’ve run out of words to pray.

Jesus knows the suffering in the outer darkness which means that Jesus has compassion for our own deep darkness and gives us a future with hope. Lutheran Christianity describes this as the Theology of the Cross. The Theology of the Cross means that there is nowhere that God is more available, more present, more loving than in our suffering, in our experience of darkness. Our ancient Jewish cousins in the faith knew this too in Psalm 23. We sang together, “Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The valley of the shadow of death is more directly translated as deep darkness. God has always been in the darkness with God’s people. Jesus Christ expanded God’s promise of presence, of hope and compassion, to include the world that God loves. When we bear persistent pain, Christ’s compassion knows no bounds. Thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 27:37

[2] Matthew 27:45

[3] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[4] Greater Good Magazine: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Compassion Definition | What Is Compassion (berkeley.edu)

Red Carpet Treatment [OR Who are You Wearing?] Matthew 18:15-20 and Romans 13:8-14

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 10, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Matthew 18:15-20 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Romans 13:8-14 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

[sermon begins]

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “red carpet?” Do you see cars, stars, and celebrities getting the royal treatment? Are you thinking of Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, or People’s Choice? Years of watching red carpet entrances makes me think about gowns. Eye catching gowns ranging from vintage to vixen, vanilla to vermilion, Versace to Veronica,[1] and photographers yelling, “Who are you wearing?!”[2] Stars and celebrities shout out the gown’s designer and, in doing so, they pay for the privilege of wearing a one of a kind, once and done, gown. “Who are you wearing?” Great question. Although not a question directed at those of us wearing these goldenrod-colored t-shirts the ELCA selected for “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday.[3] Eye catching? Totally. Couture? Certainly not. Imagine it for a second. Walking along in one of these t-shirts and someone shouting, “Who are you wearing?” I checked. They’re Fruit of the Loom (not to be confused with fruit of the Spirit).[4]

While our wardrobe choices may not be red carpet worthy, the red-carpet question is worth walking with – “Who are you wearing?” Paul’s take in our Romans reading this morning is kinda cool when he tells readers to “…put on the armor of light.” Although he gets pretty Jesus-y with it a few verses later when he says to, “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Lutheran Christians can get twitchy when there’s a call to “put on” something because of our utter dependence on God’s grace. God’s grace means that our faith is about what God does for us regardless of our ability or merit. We don’t climb to God on the goodness of our works. God comes down to us because of the goodness of our God. No works righteousness in this crowd, thank you very much. WE cling to the righteousness of God. That’s all well and good. It aligns with how I think about God. Taking this a step further, it’s how baptism is understood. Through the waters of baptism, Jesus is put on us daily by the power of the Holy Spirit, not once and one. Daily we die and rise in Christ’s death and resurrection, and we’re named children of God. For baptized people, this means that Jesus is the answer to the question, “Who are you wearing?”

In churchy language, baptism both justifies us by making us right with God and baptism sanctifies us by making us holy and set apart for God’s purposes. Justification and sanctification happen at the same time in baptism. Great. Good. We can all go home now. You’ve heard the good news. And it is good news. God’s promise of grace in Jesus Christ is our hope and salvation. That answers the question about, “Who are you wearing?” But there’s a question that deeply concerns Jesus once you’re reassured by God’s promise and know who you’re wearing. The question is, “How are you living?”

A wordier version of Jesus’ question would be, “Are you living in a way that loves your neighbor as yourself?” In our gospel of Matthew reading, Jesus is concerned about how conflict is handled between church people. In the verses before and after our Matthew reading today, Jesus is concerned about his people being stumbling blocks to others, being able to forgive each other, and being gracious and patient with people who are in their own struggle.[5] In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus teaches his listeners to follow the commandments and to love your neighbor as yourself.[6] Three chapters later, Jesus repeats himself as he teaches ‘love of neighbor as self’ as the second greatest commandment next to loving God.[7] Jesus’ is concerned for how his followers live and treat other people.

Many of us have had church experiences that haven’t gone well. Jesus’ lessons about conflict are not without examples in our own congregation or in other churches around the world. Those of us who still go to church or have returned to the church know many people who will never darken the door of another church. Their stories are difficult to hear. Pain inflicted by well-intended Jesus-people is bad enough. Pain inflicted by malicious people in the name of Jesus is anathema to the gospel itself. But as we hear in the Ezekiel reading, “God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” (Ezekiel 33:7-11)

Our experience and example as church people, as Jesus people, mean a lot in the world. This includes the virtual world of social media.[8] Virtual community is real community. Real people are involved. (Let’s leave bots out of the discussion for now). It can be argued that what’s portrayed on social media isn’t reality or is a limited view of reality but the people posting are real people. Our posts and comments to other people’s posts are read not only by those reacting to them but also by people scrolling by them. It’s a little lofty to think about Jesus as our editor. Perhaps a step in the right direction is to wonder if our posts and comments accurately reflect a love of neighbor as love of self especially given that our churchwide slogan of “God’s work. Our hands.” implicates our hands whether they’re keyboarding or repackaging rice and beans for Metro Caring’s grocery shelves.[9]

And, just like that [snap], we’re back to the big question, “Are you living in a way that loves your neighbor as yourself?” We may disagree about the particulars when it comes to answering this question as the church. There may be occasional conflict about what being a Jesus follower means or how we as the church work together to be God’s hands in the world or if it’s even right for us to try. Some of us may be more comfortable working with our neighbors in poverty. Some of us may be ready to dive into advocacy and legislative efforts. Some of us may have gifts for showing up for people in crisis. The list goes on and on. Regardless of tasks, it’s worth walking with the question as a church.

Which brings us back to love. I thought I knew a lot about love. And I did. But I’ve learned more about love in the last few months. Being diagnosed with cancer and discovering how much I’m capable of loving life, other people, and this small, revolving planet makes me wonder even more about how much God must love us. Us. Broken, misbehaving wonders of creation. Created good yet challenged to be good. Beloved yet disbelieving just how much we are loved. Our identity as baptized children of God means daily dying to the way we hurt ourselves and each other and rising into the way that Jesus’ love triumphs over pain and suffering. “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday is a touchpoint that reminds us of who we’re wearing every day as we look to God to teach us God’s ways of loving through suffering and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Thanks be to God and amen.

____________________________________________________

[1] Veronica Beard, that is.

[2] Karoline Lewis (Preaching) and Matt Skinner (New Testament), Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Discussion about Romans 13:14 and “Putting on Jesus Christ.” Sermon Brainwave podcast for September 10, 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/920-15th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-23a-sept-10-2023

[3] Today is a church-wide emphasis of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) uniquely embodied by each ELCA congregation. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton invites us to be “church together” in this way, on this day, to remind us of our baptismal identity in the world.

[4] Galatians 5:22-23 …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

[5] Stumbling block (Matthew 18:6-14), forgiving (Matthew 18:21-22); gracious and patient (Matthew 18:23-35).

[6] Matthew 19:16-19

[7] Matthew 23:34-40

[8] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching and Academic Dean, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Sunday, September 10, 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/920-15th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-23a-sept-10-2023

[9] www.metrocaring.org

Jews, Jesus, and God’s Promises [OR Longing and Wrestling with God]

sermon art: Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Edward Knippers (b. 1946), 2012 – oil on panel – 8 feet by 12 feet.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 6, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Genesis 32:22-31 [At night Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Romans 9:1-5 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

The Matthew reading of the Feeding of the 5,000 is at the end of the sermon.

 

 

[sermon begins]

I was a letter writer in middle school. I wrote to my cousin and my grandmothers and to a boy whose grandmother went to my church. He visited her occasionally. And we wrote letters. I wish I had them, those letters. Lord only knows what was in them. They are lost to time. But I would love to know what I thought was important at 13 years old, what was worth remembering and sharing. Many of the letters we used to write are long gone unless you’re a historical figure of some importance like the Apostle Paul who wrote a lot of what we consider to be the New Testament in the Christian Bible. He wrote at least seven of the thirteen letters attributed to him and the other six are likely written by his students. We wing around Paul’s name so much that sometimes I wonder if people who are new to church may not know he was a Jewish religious leader responsible for deaths of the earliest Christians. His conversion to Christianity is told in the book of Acts. It’s flashy, dramatic, and memorable – maybe even Hollywood worthy. His skills as a religious leader came in handy as he planted churches, moved on to plant another one, and started writing them letters telling them he loved them and addressing any concerns.

Paul’s letter to the Roman church became the Bible book of Romans. My Bible at home runs 15 pages for the letter to the Roman church. Imagine opening up that one back in the 1st century day. In Paul’s time, Greek writing ran together without spaces or punctuation and no chapters and verses. In our reading today from Romans 9, Paul had just finished writing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. He then goes on to wrestle with what this means for Jews, for his people, his kindred in the flesh. Turns out that Jesus’ message wasn’t as well-received as his followers would have hoped.[1] Paul rambled but he wasn’t coming up with satisfactory answers. He wrote, “…my kindred according to the flesh; they are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever, amen.” Or as Pastor Gail likes to say, “Bless their hearts.” Paul means it like she does, for real.

The Israelites, the Jews, are blessed by God. And who are they? We can get this confused too. In our times, Israel is a country. In our Bible story from the book of Genesis today, Israel is a person, a person who name was changed from Jacob after he wrestled “with God and with humans and prevailed.” From the Hebrew people freed from Pharoah by Moses, to the people Israel named after Jacob, to the Jews – generations of people to whom God made promises, promises in the form of a covenant through which the whole world would be blessed through a new covenant that includes everyone.

In Lutheran Christianity, we talk about God’s promises quite a bit. At the communion table, we hear God’s promise through Jesus as the “new covenant in my blood.” God also makes promises to us in our baptism. God promises to be present with us in suffering and in celebration, to always take us back through forgiveness, to make us ever more Christ-shaped as disciples, and to keep these promises forever. We trust God to keep God’s promises. Like Jacob, we sometimes wrestle with God and demand to be blessed by the promises. Holding God accountable for the promises God has made. God’s promises are forever. Paul could have argued that Christianity is over and against Judaism, but HE DIDN’T. For good reason. Paul knew that either God keeps God’s promises or God isn’t trustworthy to keep any promises. The new covenant is an extension of the covenant that God made with the Jews, not erasure.

God’s promised covenant with the Jews matters today as much as it ever has. Antisemitism is the word that describes hatred for Jews and antisemitism is on the rise all around the world and here at home in Denver. How we talk about our Christian faith becomes a matter of life and death for our Jewish family, friends, and neighbors. Out of 8 billion people on the planet, only 15-20 million are Jews, 0.2% of the world’s population. Meanwhile there are over 2 billion Christians. We carry weight in the world – political and practical weight that impact issues of life and death. As we call the modern state of Israel to account for its treatment of Palestinians, we need to take care that we don’t paint Judaism with the broad brush of antisemitism as demands escalate for peace in that region. It’s very complicated and it’s all too real with Palestinian and Jewish people’s lives at stake. We work for peace with people there even as we long for it.

Paul longed for full knowledge. His letters are filled with longing to see the fullness of God. In another letter he writes about being human as seeing through a mirror dimly.[2] We simply cannot see the big picture. Every so often we get glimpses of it, but our human highs and lows distract us. We get lost in our own thinking. Especially when we suffer. Last Sunday, I woke up on the ornery side of the bed. That’s an especially hard place to be as a pastor who leads worship. But, as I was telling Rob about it, I also said that this is why I need worship and singing and praying and listening (thank God Pastor Gail preached last week.) I’ve experienced it many times both as not a pastor and as a pastor where being in worship drops me into a collective longing for God’s promises to comfort and challenge us.

As Jacob wrestled for God’s blessing, we too can wrestle with God. The story before and after the part about Jacob wrestling with God and with humans is about Jacob’s fear of his brother Esau. Esau had been furious with Jacob for good reason. Jacob hoped to woo Esau into a better mood with gifts upon gifts. When Jacob limped away from his wrestling match, he was anticipating Esau’s wrath. “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept…Jacob said, ‘…truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.’” Let’s recap. Jacob wrestled with God and with humans, limped away with a hip out of joint towards his brother Esau who he thought wanted to kill him. Instead, they were reconnected through Esau’s forgiveness, so much so that Jacob saw the face of God in Esau’s face.

Last week, Pastor Gail preached about the invasive extravagance of God’s kingdom. This week, Paul and Jacob’s stories give us permission to wrestle and long for the abundance Jesus revealed in the feeding of the 5,000. The longing to be useful disciples who miraculously were able to do what Jesus asked them to do, and the longing to be filled as the ones who were fed. On any given day, each of our longings are different. Lately, and to no one’s surprise, I long for healing through the wisdom and hands of doctors and nurses. I wrestle more with myself than I do with God. There are signs of the kingdom and the peace of God’s promises throughout my story. But there is also fear and darkness. To say there isn’t, wouldn’t be telling the truth.

Today’s Bible readings encourage us to wrestle with God as we acknowledge our longings. What wrestling are you doing with God? What do you long for? Today is a day to trust God’s promises and to hold God accountable to them. There may be someone who is the face of God for you as Esau was for Jacob in the act of loving forgiveness. There may be a Jew who you can walk alongside as a cousin in the faith as Paul did for his people, his kinsmen in the flesh, acknowledging God’s unbreakable promise for them. There may be someone who encourages and loves you until your empty, broken heart is filled. On any given day, and maybe especially on Sundays, we help each other glimpse God’s kingdom coming near even if it’s not fully here yet.[3] May it be so. Amen.

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[1] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for August 6, 2023.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[3] Matthew 4:17

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Matthew 14:13-21 Now when Jesus heard [about the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Fragile, Fallible, and Impatient [OR Let’s Have Some Fun]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on July 16, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Romans reading is at the end of the sermon]

Genesis 25:19-34  These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
24When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
27When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23  That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”

18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

 

[sermon begins]

Addiction counseling uses an acronym to help people pause before taking action – H.A.L.T.  H is for Hungry. A is for Angry. L is for Lonely. T is for Tired. Hungry – Angry – Lonely – Tired. Pausing gives your brain a moment to assess your survival instinct in the race to do something. Impulsive actions that feel like survival can have disastrous consequences. Just ask Esau, the impulsive, impatient older brother in our Bible story today. He could have used the H.A.L.T. acronym before swapping his birthright for a bowl of stew. He wasn’t just hungry. He was famished. Hard to say how hungry he actually was but it’s safe to say that he was hungry enough to not be thinking clearly, hungry enough that impatience for a bowl of stew was his undoing.

If Esau paused, he may have thought to ask important questions. Was Jacob the only one who had food or was someone else’s stove just a tad inconvenient? Was he really hungry enough to die? Was filling his hunger worth trading his inheritance? Esau’s decision to eat from his brother’s kitchen changed Esau life. Jacob likely knew his brother’s weaknesses and exploited them to trick him out of his birthright. We can clean it up a bit by appreciating Jacob’s determination to extract a blessing from God and by justifying it with Esau taking his birthright for granted, but the brothers’ story is not an easy one. Parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and sly scheming, reveals a family like many of our own. Theirs is not a perfect family. Good to know that dysfunction isn’t new. We didn’t just make it up in the 21st century. There are other stories in the Bible that push back on bad behavior but for now, let’s just see the family’s story for what it is.

Esau and Jacob, his parents Rebekah and Isaac, were complicated people, just like us.[1] Esau gives us a snapshot of the power of our flesh as Paul writes about it his letter to the Romans, our second reading in worship today. The recipients of his letter, the 1st century house churches in Rome, would be familiar with stories like Jacob and Esau’s. Bible stories about complicated people through whom God is still able to bless the entire world. After all, the original covenant that God made with Abraham, the grandfather of Jacob and Esau, is ultimately about blessing the whole earth. There were many twists and turns in the story, and those fallible moves continue right through today.

Esau has me thinking about patience. First and foremost, he makes me think about God’s patience. As fragile and fallible people go, Esau is right up there. This may come as a shock to you, but I’m not outdoorsy when it comes to hunting or farming. Either one of those pursuits would take a steep learning curve on my part. But I know from my hunting and farming friends that both take an incredible amount of patience day-to-day and year-to-year. Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower and I hear how patient God must be as the seeds fly and either die or thrive. The parable validates the power of anxiety, greed, and persecution as obstacles to faith.[2] Rather than think about these experiences individually, and telling everyone to go be better soil (cuz that’ll work), I invite us to consider how our congregation may function as a buffer to the many kinds of soil any of us are on any given day.[3]

Jesus points out that anxiety, greed, and persecution are toxic to faith. We only have to look at ourselves or the people around us or the social medias to see how quickly we’re shaken off of our high horses and our behavior is not what we’d like it to be.  So how do we help each other pause when this is the case? How do we help each other pause when we’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (see H.A.L.T. at the beginning of the sermon)?

Confession and forgiveness give us a good start. There’s a reason we begin worship in this way for most of the year. When we give voice to the weakness of our flesh, confessing how we hurt ourselves, each other, and the earth, the truth about our fallibility and God’s goodness is laid before us. We’re right sized alongside each other, neither elevating ourselves over and against nor self-deprecating ourselves into something unworthy. Neither over-apologizing nor under-apologizing, we hold ourselves accountable to what we have done and what we have left undone because God is a God of faith, hope, and love.

The pastoral transition we’re in after Pastor Ann’s retirement is enough to cause anxiety to bubble up here and there. Add my cancer to the mix and we can easily forget to pause and trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the process. It’s way too easy to come up with what we each individually think is the perfect solution or timing or staffing model. It’s very easy to become impatient and lose sight of our collective wisdom. Collaboration takes time. Listening takes time. Process takes time.

The Transition Team meets tomorrow evening and part of their work will be to set dates for Listening Circles. Listening Circles will give everyone an opportunity to talk about our congregation – who we’ve been, who we are now, and who we dream of being. Watch for more information about the Listening Circles. Pick one to attend. They’re small. Just a few people in each group each time to give each person a chance to talk. It takes all of us to run the church because the church is all of us. The Congregation Council will also lead in this regard. They meet on Tuesday to begin brainstorming various leadership models alongside the process of the Listening Circles. Churches that attend well to transitions and the process are better equipped to move into what comes next. They also have more fun.

As Paul wrote to the Romans, “…you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”[4] Since, as Paul writes, the Spirit makes its home in us, there’s a chance that the variety of dirt that Jesus talked about becomes less of an issue. On any given day, anxiety about the future may get the best of some of us. We may feel joy one minute and choke the next. But we can hope that others of us will be having a better day. Setting our minds on the Spirit, according to the letter to the Roman Church, brings life and peace which sounds a whole lot better than anxiety and greed having their way.

It’s been my experience that no one sermon is for everyone. When a sermon doesn’t resonate for me, I figure it must be for someone else. Same as when I preach. For some, it was just what they needed to hear. For others, it’s a shrug and a bit puzzling. The sermon was for someone else. It’s similar with scripture. While the Bible is for all of us all the time, there may be parts of it that leave us scratching our heads while other parts leave us with filled hearts or shattered assumptions that change our hearts.

As we continue through the gospel of Matthew and the parables that Jesus’ told, we’ll be challenged to wring a good word from them as we set our minds on the Spirit who brings us life and peace.

Being church is counter-cultural in that our collective wisdom is knowingly balanced by our collective flaws. It’s a practiced humility as we celebrate God’s Spirit making a home in us giving us life and peace. Impatience may trip us up from time to time, but it serves to remind us of our fallibility. As such, we’re reminded to look to each other, right-sizing us alongside one another.

Ultimately, we’re reminded to look to God’s Spirit who bears fruit in us for the sake of the world. The covenant God made with us through Jesus Christ expands the covenant God made to Abraham which, despite our fallibility and impatience, is about blessing the whole earth. Blessing the whole earth means blessing each other which also means that each of us will be blessed. So, we pray that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

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[1] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for July 16, 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/912-seventh-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-15a-july-16-2023

[2] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for July 16, 2023. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/912-seventh-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-15a-july-16-2023

[3] Ibid.

[4] Romans 8:8

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Romans 8:1-11  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Cousins in the Faith: Jews and Christians [OR Be Salty & Shiny (Not That Kind of Salty[1])] Isaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, and Matthew 5:13-20

**Photo: Cantor Zachary Kutner, January 27, 2023. See this photo and more in the Facebook post here: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Kavod Senior Life.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, February 5, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the 1 Corinthians reading may be found at the end of the sermon]

Isaiah 58:1-9a  Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9aThen you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Matthew 5:13-20   [Jesus said:] 13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

[sermon begins]

 

Salt makes the world a better place. Those of us who have ever been put on a salt restriction know that salt becomes obvious when it’s missing. I was talking with an Augustana friend recently who relocated to a Senior Living near her son. When I asked how the food was, she said it was okay but that in meeting the various residents’ health needs there was a lack of salt and seasoning in the food. Saltshakers are not on the table and so she brings her own salt shaker to the meal. (I have filed this smart tip away for use at a later date.) Salt is one of those things for which a little goes a long way. I’ve ruined a perfectly good egg salad sandwich or two being heavy handed with the shaker. Salt, though, when applied properly, works with food to make it better.[2] Light is similar. Light brightens what already exists to help us perceive the world around us.[3]

When Jesus calls his followers “salt” and “light,” he is calling them “salt” and “light” as a group. We’ve talked before about how our Southern friends do better translating the plural “you,” as in “y’all,” or “all y’all” for emphasis. Here’s a quick example. Continuous with the Bible reading from last Sunday on the Beatitudes to today’s reading, we hear Jesus say to his disciples:

All y’all are the salt of the earth…all y’all are the light of the world…let all y’all’s light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” [Matthew 5:13-14, 16]

When we sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” we don’t ordinarily sing it by ourselves. Does anyone do that? I can think of one person who probably does. Most of us have maybe hummed it a time or two in our heads as it echoes there after worship. Feel free to let me know if I got this one wrong. I have to admit that I don’t sing it by myself. I sing it in children’s time in worship or with Augustana’s Early Learning Center kids during their chapel time. Every so often we’ll sing it after the sermon as a Hymn of the Day in response to the sermon.[4] Mostly we sing it together. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” I like that it’s a together thing because it gets at what Jesus announces to his disciples.

Notice that Jesus isn’t telling them what to do. He’s describing something, not prescribing it.[5] Jesus is telling them what they already are – salt and light. Be salty (a note to the gamers among us, not the kind of salty that means bitter). Don’t hide your light. Let your light shine and, in doing so, the good works that come from the light will point to God. It’s a subtle point but it’s an important one. We talk a lot in Lutheran Christian circles about God’s movement to us. God showing up in Jesus. We don’t build a ladder to God. God brings God’s self to us.  When we hear this, more than a few of us might be thinking, “Ruh roh, I don’t think I’m salt and light, God must have missed me with the saltshaker because I can be a real jerk.” This may be your good news day because of course we can be jerks. But God calls us back by our baptisms, over and over again, to remind us that we are salt and light and that we are free to be salt and light. We, the church, all y’all, are salt and light together. Being salt and light is a group experience that leads to group projects. The church word for group project is ministry.

That’s why Jesus’ speech about the law and commandments follow the salt and light comments. Not as a way to lord righteousness over our neighbors or as a performance to get their attention. [6] Rather, commandments are given to us as a way to live well with our neighbors, to be who God says we are in relationship with our neighbors. The Gospel of Matthew can be tricky because it appears that there was stress within the 1st century Matthean community between Jews and Jewish Christians. Some readings like ours today are an example of that 1st century stress and can be misconstrued to be anti-Jew or anti-law, as if somehow Jesus found the Jewish tradition obsolete and in need of an overhaul.[7] The verses about following the law connect Jesus’ teaching with Moses – not as a split, as an extension of the covenant.[8] Our reading from the book of Isaiah says that feeding the hungry, covering the naked, and loosening the bonds of injustice by freeing the oppressed shall break forth your light like the dawn.

In the last few weeks, one of my Rabbi friends and I were in a conversation about a public comment that I had made about Christians and Jews being “cousins in the faith.” It’s something I’ve said before in different places, but I suddenly questioned my thinking out loud and added that I’d need to double check that statement. In our follow-up conversation, Rabbi Brian aligned with the expression, “cousins in the faith” because it acknowledges that both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew like branches from the trunk of the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. Rabbinic Judaism grew like one branch while Christianity grew like another branch at about the same time during the 1st century.[9]

A few weeks after this conversation with Rabbi Brian, I brought your congregational greetings from Augustana to the residents of Kavod Senior Life, a Jewish hosted residence for older adults just a few blocks west from our building. It was Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, a concentration camp during World War II, and honoring the lives of over 6 million Jews who were murdered along with millions of non-Jews – Poles, Russians, Roma, disabled people, political opponents, and LGBTQ folks – and the many who survived to live and remember, including honoring a few survivors who were there that day. The event at Kavod was reverent and hopeful. Rabbi Steve, Kavod’s chaplain, organized the event and invited me as both a Christian pastor of a neighboring congregation and as a resource for their Christian residents.[10] One of the leaders during the event was Cantor Zachary Kutner, a 97-year-old holocaust survivor who sang the signature prayer of remembrance (El Malei Rachamim). His voice was as boldly life-filled as it was mind-blowing, chanting from quiet meditation to loud exuberance and back again. As we continue this year’s journey through the Gospel of Matthew, it matters how we talk and think about our Jewish cousins in the faith. Let’s keep talking and thinking.

“All ya’ll are salt and light,” Jesus said. Together as the church, we dip back into this baptismal promise on a daily, sometimes minute-to-minute, basis – resting not on human wisdom but on the power of God made vulnerable in Christ Jesus and him crucified.[11] The light of Christ shining through the cross is not permission to do whatever the heck we want when we want to. Christ’s light gives us freedom to experience the transforming power of faith through our congregation, through all y’all.

Freedom that free us to admit when we’ve been jerks.

Freedom to experience forgiveness and try again to love God, love neighbor, and love ourselves.[12]

Freedom to be salt and light for the sake of this world God so loves.

Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] “Salty” is a word used as urban slang to mean bitter or upset. https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/salty#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20Online%20Etymology%20Dictionary%2C%20the%20U.S.,as%20%22looking%20stupid%E2%80%A6%20because%20of%20something%20you%20did%22.

[2] Melanie A. Howard, Associate Professor and Program Director of Biblical and Theological Studies, Fresno Pacific University, CA. Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20 for Workingpreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-513-20-5

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hymn of the Day is the song sung after the sermon, usually connected to one of the Bible readings or the preacher’s sermon.

[5] Howard, Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Rabbi Brian Field, Denver, CO. Founding and Former Rabbi of Judaism Your Way.

[10] Rabbi Steve Booth-Nadav, Chaplain, Kavod Senior Life, and Director of Multifaith Leadership Forum in Denver.

[11] 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

[12] Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 10:27 – Once again Jesus teaches within the Jewish tradition, “love your neighbor as yourself.

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12  When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
6Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, as it is written,
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.