Tag Archives: God

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2021

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

**sermon art: The Visitation by Jesus Mafa

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 19, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________

[1] Luke 1:7

[2] Luke 1:24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________

[1] Luke 1:3

[2] Luke 2:1-2

[3] Luke 2:10

_________________________________

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 1, 2021

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________________________________

[1] John 6:14-15

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

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ephesians 4:1-3

[6] Ephesians 4:5

[7] Ephesians 4:12

[8] Ephesians:15-16

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Third Bible reading

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

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 16, 2021

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________

Song after the sermon:

Beautiful Savior (ELW #838)

1    Beautiful Savior, King of creation,

Son of God and Son of Man!

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

light of my soul, my joy, my crown.

 

2    Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands,

robed in flow’rs of blooming spring;

Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,

he makes our sorrowing spirit sing.

 

3    Fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight,

bright the sparkling stars on high;

Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer

than all the angels in the sky.

 

4    Beautiful Savior, Lord of the nations,

Son of God and Son of Man!

Glory and honor, praise, adoration,

now and forevermore be thine!

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

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] Infers 1 Corinthians 13:12

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

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? [OR Hope Flickering in the Darkness] John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 14, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Numbers 21:4-9  From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21  [Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

[sermon begins]

“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” “I see a red bird looking at me.”

“Red Bird, Red Bird, what do you see?” “I see a yellow duck looking at me.”[1]

So goes the children’s book that I read infinity times to my children when they were little. It popped into my head as I was thinking about what the Israelites saw in the Bible story from the book of Numbers this morning.

Israelite, Israelite, what do you see? I see a poisonous serpent looking at me.

Poisonous Serpent, Poisonous Serpent, what do you see? I see a Moses man looking at me.

Moses Man, Moses Man, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

Bronze Serpent, Bronze Serpent, what do you see? I see scared Israelites looking at me.

One of the odder and more disturbing stories in the Bible, the Israelites whine and complain against Moses and God after being freed from slavery in Egypt. Their misery about the conditions in the wilderness brings out their smallest selves – impatient and afraid, they question their liberation, and they question God and Moses. Things go quickly from bad to worse with the arrival of the poisonous serpents. The Israelites confess their sin and are freed from death by looking at the bronze serpent on a stick. They look at the very thing that causes pain, making it visible to be able to see life itself.[2] Fighting their fear, the Israelites are saved by focusing on source of their injury. That’s the solution lifted up by God and Moses.

Scared Israelite, Scared Israelite, what do you see? I see a bronze serpent looking at me.

How many times have we heard the opposite? Someone giving advice to not look at the very thing that is scary, painful, or dangerous because it’s too upsetting. Look on the sunny side of life, they say. There’s truth enough in that encouragement. We can’t continuously indulge in the dark, wrapping our smallest selves around fear and pain, if we have any chance at a balanced life. Joy and hope are lost to us if that’s the plan. Although, taking time to directly assess the cause of our pain may be necessary time in the dark, finding a glimmer of hope flickering in the darkness.

Hope flickering in the darkness brings us to the Gospel of John reading. We are not given all the verses in the story. The verses we hear today are part of a longer speech by Jesus to Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, a religious leader. Nicodemus visits Jesus “by night,” under the cover of darkness. We’re not told exactly why he visits Jesus in the dark of night, but the Gospel of John makes a big deal out of light and dark. The opening verses of the book tell us, “The lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[3]  Later in John, Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world.”[4] Nicodemus, in the dark of night, said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

Nicodemus, Nicodemus, what do you see? I see Rabbi Jesus looking at me.

Rabbi Jesus, Rabbi Jesus, what do you see? I see Nic-at-night looking at me.

Nicodemus knew enough to know that Jesus had something important to say, which is why he called him Rabbi and teacher. Jesus does not disappoint. He teaches his heart out. The verses we hear today are the second half of his teaching to Nicodemus and contain one of the most well-known parts of the Bible beginning with, “For God so loved the world…” It’s obvious why the people putting together the three-year cycle of worship readings paired this passage with the Old Testament reading about Moses and the Israelites. Jesus compared himself being lifted up on the cross with the bronze serpent lifted up on a stick by Moses. And then Jesus talked about God so loving the world, sending the Son not for condemnation but “in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Greek word for “saved” here, sozo [σώζω / sode-zo], can mean to protect someone from danger or to heal and restore.[5]

Beloved World, Beloved World, what do you see? I see Jesus the Light looking at me.

Jesus the Light, lifted up on a cross, shines light in the darkness of man’s inhumanity to man, or Son of Man as the case may be. To look at the cross is to look at the damage we can do in our worst moments when we believe that grace doesn’t belong to anyone else. We look at the darkness within us, and know that by looking at it, by examining the darkness, healing becomes a possibility. We depend on the daily promise of our baptisms for the freedom to live each day by grace through faith. We trust that God loving the world means that God also loves each one of us which means that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less; that we are children of God.

Child of God, Child of God, what do you see? I see the God of grace looking at me.

Grace is what frees us to look at the causes of our pain and the pain we cause acting out of it. We don’t hurt ourselves or other people from our healed, larger selves. It’s from our smaller selves, wrapped around our pain, cozied up with our fear, that we inflict ourselves on each other. Healing can be a life-long process. As opposed to a self-help project, healing takes community, sometimes including professionals trained to help us work through specific trauma. Jesus shares the space with us when we end up confused in the dark. We call this the Theology of the Cross. Jesus suffers with us when we suffer, shining light on the broken places in need of healing. God’s grace, showing up in the person of Jesus, was so excessive and offensive that the people in power reacted by doing their worst and killing him. Untamed grace is simply that threatening. Untamed grace shines light in the darkness and pulls life out death. Who knows what then becomes possible?!

God of Grace, God of Grace, what do you see? I see the world I so love looking at me.

________________________________________________________

[1] Bill Martin Jr. (author) and Eric Carle (illustrator). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1967). Listen to the whole book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTr0eDESN7U

[2] Kari Reiquam, Interim Pastor, Holy Love Lutheran Church, Aurora, CO. Preacher’s Text Study for Metro East Conference of Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA. March 9, 2021.

[3] John 1:5

[4] John 8:12

[5] Bible Study Tools: Lexicon. “Sozo.” https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sozo.html

Heaven is the Place of God (which probably isn’t what any of us think it means) – A sermon for Ash Wednesday – Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 17, 2021

Livestream online worship at 7 p.m. this evening can be found on Augustana’s YouTube  page here.

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21  [Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

[sermon begins]

A couple of months ago, I preached about the choices we make about who we listen to in books, movies, politics, etcetera, and whether or not the voices we listen to point us to the light, to the voice of Jesus – a voice that promises grace, challenge, struggle, hope, and love of God, self, and neighbor.[1] A couple of days later, a parishioner emailed a recommendation for a favorite book series by Louise Penny.[2] Mysteries about the “light and dark in each person, love of family and community, laced with humor” went the email. Long story short, I’m on book seven. In the novels, Chief Inspector Gamache leads a crack team of homicide detectives. More importantly, he mentors them, teaching them the importance of using four key phrases, “I don’t know. I need help. I’m sorry. I was wrong.”[3] These four phrases bubble up in the series to consider the characters’ motivations and behaviors. The phrases are a good summary of Ash Wednesday too – I don’t know, I need help, I’m sorry, I was wrong. At least, it’s a good summary of the human side of the equation on Ash Wednesday.

It’s the human side of the equation that Jesus challenged his disciples about in the Gospel of Matthew reading. He challenged their motivations and behaviors as he told them not to engage in hypocritical rituals, practicing their piety on street corners in order to be seen by other people.[4] One sure way to make sure that’s absolutely not the case is to practice the rituals privately as Jesus then encouraged them to do. However, Jesus does assume that his disciples will give alms, pray, and fast. He said to the disciples, “When you give alms…; When you pray…; When you fast…” He reassured them that in their private moments of self-discipline and ritual piety of giving alms (also known as sacrificial giving), praying, and fasting, that God was with them – for which we can thank the grown-up bearded Jesus in these physically distanced times. We’ve relied heavily on God’s promise of presence in so many new and different ways over the last year.

A year ago, I’m not sure I would have believed you if you had told me that I’d be standing in front of the church building with Pastor Ann placing ashes on people’s foreheads outside of a worship service. I know I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me I’d be presiding over communion via online worship. But if there’s one thing I know about theology, it’s that it’s at its best when it ends up being quite practical. Speaking of practical, anyone wondering what the skipped verses in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew contains? The reading jumps from verse 6 to verse 16 without missing a beat. It’s okay if you’re not wondering about those missing verses. I’m going to let you in on the secret. Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in those verses. Jesus says to his disciples:

Pray in this way:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.[5]

In the middle of his speech to the disciples about avoiding hypocrisy, Jesus gives them a practical prayer to help them do so – the Lord’s Prayer. We’re immersing in the Lord’s Prayer as a congregation during Lent guided by Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry’s book, Thy Will Be Done.[6]

The Lord’s Prayer starts in heaven. Heaven, according to the prayer, is the place of God, some would even say the heart of God. Heaven is impossible to imagine although many of us have certainly tried. Time-limited, finite beings cannot comprehend the infinite. It’s a  physical impossibility. On Ash Wednesday, we lean into the place of God, into heaven, as we ponder our fragile mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we hear as ashes mark the sign of the cross. The underlying promise is that God breathes life into dust. The cross shaped with ash echoes the cross placed on our foreheads in our baptism. While we’re leaning into the truth of our mortality, we’re also leaning through that mortality into the place of God, into the embrace of God. The cross symbolizes the reality that there is nothing we can do or not do to make God love us any more or any less. This means that when we take our last breath, God’s embrace holds us in heaven, in the place of God. This is God’s resurrection promise through the cross of Christ for our death someday, whenever our someday comes. But this isn’t only about someday.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[7] Your heart will be in heaven, in God’s place, in God’s heart. Not only someday. TODAY. What are the treasures of heaven? Compassion, mercy, grace, forgiveness, generosity, and more. Treasures of heaven are the things that Jesus spends so much time challenging his listeners about in scripture. Practical things that we participate in right now. Or maybe they’re impractical. Not sure. We can argue about that another time. Regardless, treasures of heaven are unearned, undeserved, and permanent. They do not fade away and cannot be taken away. They are eternal. They are of heaven.

God’s promise, God’s side of the equation on Ash Wednesday, frees us into the challenges that Jesus gives his disciples, the challenges we take up today, continue through the six weeks of Lent, and in our lives of faith year-round.  A challenge of humility when we say, “I don’t know.” A challenge of imperfection when we say, “I need help.” A challenge of repentance when we confess to God and each other, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”  We’re free to tell the truth because God promises us a place in the place of God, in heaven, today and someday. Thanks be to God, and amen.

__________________________________________________

[1] Caitlin Trussell. Sermon: “World Building with Light” with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 13, 2020. http://caitlintrussell.org/2020/12/13/world-building-with-light-john-6-8-19-28/

[2] Louise Penny official site – https://www.louisepenny.com

[3] Louise Penny. Still Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.), 84.

[4] Matthew 6:1

[5] Matthew 6:9-13

[6] Stephen Cherry, Dean of King’s College Cambridge. The 2021 Lent Book: Thy Will Be Done (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021).

[7] Matthew 6:19-21

Expectations, Envy, and Complaint [OR That’s God and That’s Good] Matthew 20:1-16 and Exodus 16:2-15

**sermon art: Manna in the Wilderness by Paul Oman

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 20, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; the Psalm is at the end]

Exodus 16:2-15 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’ ” 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’ ”
13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Matthew 20:1-16 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

[sermon begins]

What does it look when you’re fragile and whiny? My own pity parties are inelegant at best and downright annoying at worst. Even I get tired of myself when I’m in the depths of one. In our family, we have an epic pity party that we still talk about. I have our 21-year-old daughter’s permission to share it with you. Taryn was little, maybe three or four years old. She had developed an escalating habit of inconsolable meltdowns. We instituted a family policy that meltdowns could happen in the privacy of her room and she could come out of her room anytime she was ready to be around people. Her door was wide open. My sister was over one day, and Taryn had a meltdown. Off to her room she was sent. From the kitchen we could hear Taryn crying, “Anybody loves me…ANYBODY LOVES ME!” Critique of our parenting aside, Taryn was onto something true. When we’re in the throes of a pity party, we can wonder if anybody loves us. Taryn’s meltdown subsided enough that she and I could do the needed mop up and reassuring loves and snuggles.

The Israelites complaints weren’t as epic as Taryn’s in this mother’s eyes, but they were substantial enough that they would rather have died as fed slaves in Egypt than continue another day hungry in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron had listened to their complaining without the luxury of being able to send them to their room to regroup. That’s okay though, because God heard their complaining and arranged for manna to collect like frost on the ground every morning. To which the Israelites asked, “What is it?” It’s their question that captures me.

“What is it?” is an appropriate question when you get what you need but not what you hope for or expect. The Israelites were nostalgic for their slavery and full bellies after a month of being free and hungry in the wilderness. They were in uncharted territory both literally and metaphorically. Their identity as a people had undergone a seismic shift that would take time and learning to navigate.[1] In the meantime, they complained…and complained…and complained…and complained. They threw an epic pity party blaming Moses and Aaron. God heard their complaint and responded. God showed the Israelites that they did not travel alone through the wilds of the wilderness and neither do we. It’s just that in the wilderness, it becomes more difficult to believe that God’s giving, sustaining, and prayer-hearing are true.[2]

One of my seminary professors tells a story about a friend of his.[3] She was going through an incredibly hard time sustained by the grace of the church around her. Their love, prayer, and encouragement didn’t make the situation any less difficult. When he asked her how she was doing she said, “Well, the Lord’s given me manna.” Closer to home in real time, we had a Church Council meeting this past week. Our meetings open with a devotion from a member of the Council and last week’s was led by our youth representative, Grace. She briefly described her experience since the pandemic began, her needed break at Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp this summer, and the daily devotions from her week at camp. How God sees the good – the good in us and the good in other people that we have a hard time seeing. The campers were challenged to take the week’s messages back down the mountain. For Grace, the message lasted more than her usual week or two after camp and it’s still percolating in her as she’s able to see things like a sunset in her rearview mirror on a frustrating drive to soccer practice and say, “That’s God and that’s good.” She then asked Council to share moments when we can say, “That’s God and that’s good.” As I listened and shared, it occurred to me that Grace had answered the Israelite’s manna question. They asked, “What is it?” When Moses replied that “it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” he could just as easily have answered, “That’s God and that’s good.”

My professor’s friend described her experience of being sustained by the grace of her church people as the manna in the Bible story. “The Lord’s given me manna,” she said. She was sustained by what was needed even if not wanted or expected. Our expectations can catch us by surprise as they escalate unconsciously. Sometimes we’re not even aware we have expectations until they’re dashed. Take the workers in the vineyard from the Gospel of Matthew reading. Why did the workers who’d been in the vineyard all day expect that they would get paid more than their peers who came to work at the end of the day? They were filled with envy and complaint rather that being able to say, “That’s the manna that the Lord has given me,” or “That’s God and that’s good.”

This isn’t about ignoring injustice and using the name of God in vain to justify inequity. This is about what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us about ourselves and about God’s radical grace that defies our expectations – especially in our daily wilderness walk through pandemic, politics, and race. And maybe more specifically, what the Israelites and the vineyard workers can teach us in our experience of being the church in the daily wilderness walk of being separated for now to keep each other healthy and well. Is our manna a few brief weeks of outdoor worship – masked, silent, and distanced during worship together? Is our manna weekly online worship with monthly communion at home if we have that access, or a weekly mailing of scripture, sermon, and a monthly home communion liturgy if we aren’t online?[4] Is our manna the online One at 1:00 devotions recorded by staff every Tuesday and Thursday? Is our manna talking over the phone to check-in with each other rather than in-person to keep each other safe? Is our manna conducting ministry meetings online with Zoom to continue the ministry of the church?

Manna can be a term to describe anything that’s a gift yet feels insufficient because a year ago our lives looked very different whether we’re in school, working, unemployed, retired, or in our last years. We’re in that slog of in-between time, squeezed between the departure from those old norms and arrival at our destination post-pandemic. Much like the Israelites who left what they knew behind when they departed Egypt and had yet to arrive at their destination.[5] We’re challenged as a faith community to see the manna and say, “That’s God and that’s good.”

We’re similarly challenged as individual Jesus followers praying for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. We can pause to identify what God sees as good in our neighbor rather than meticulously cataloguing our neighbor’s faults. Maybe just as important, we can pause to glimpse what we can describe as “That’s God, and that’s good.” And as a faith community, we can help each other, our children, and our neighbors do that too so that we can say from our own experience and with the confidence of the Psalmist, “God is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”[6] Thanks be to God, and amen.

Song after the Sermon

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy – ELW Hymnal #588

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heav’n.
There is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgment giv’n.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and a promised grace made good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

3 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make this love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 ‘Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
it is something more than all:
greater good because of evil,
larger mercy through the fall.
Make our love, O God, more faithful;
let us take you at your word,
and our lives will be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[2] Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15 for September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4573

[3] Rolf Jacobson. Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1296

[4] Online worship with Augustana can be found at AugustanaDenver.org/worship or https://www.facebook.com/augustanadenver/

[5] Chan, ibid.

[6] Psalm 145:1-8

_____________________________________________________

Psalm 145:1-8

1I will exalt you, my | God and king,
and bless your name forev- | er and ever.
2Every day | will I bless you
and praise your name forev- | er and ever.
3Great is the Lord and greatly | to be praised!
There is no end | to your greatness.
4One generation shall praise your works | to another
and shall de- | clare your power. 
5I will speak of the glorious splendor | of your majesty
and all your | marvelous works.
6They shall tell of the might of your | wondrous acts,
and I will re- | count your greatness.
7They shall publish the remembrance of | your great goodness;
they shall sing joyfully | of your righteousness.
8The Lord is gracious and full | of compassion,
slow to anger and abounding in | steadfast love.

Psalm 23, A Faithful Essential [OR What Might It Mean That God “Prepares a Table Before Me In The Presence of My Enemies” In Light of Covid19] and John 10:1-10

**sermon art: Jesus Eats with Tax Collectors & Sinners — Sieger Köder d. 2015

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

Good Shepherd Sunday – May 3, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Psalm 23 (King James Version)

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

See end of sermon for John 10:1-10

[sermon begins]

[Spoken in a British accent]

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth…[1]

[Spoken in my regular voice.]

And on it went in my 9th grade drama class – The Road Less Traveled by Robert Frost in Queen’s English. The assignment was to memorize a written passage and recite it in an accent not our own. I chose this poem because it was in a handy book on a shelf at home AND it was short. In a surprising economy of words, poetry completes a topic in a puzzle of order and wildness.[2] For instance, here’s a fun fact about the poem that is Psalm 23 – it’s written with only 55 Hebrew words.[3] Another fun fact, the 28th word in the very middle is the word “you” as in “you [the Lord] are with me.” One more, the word “Lord” is repeated in the opening and closing lines with an otherwise unusual lack of repetition for a psalm.[4]

Poetically, it’s as if the psalmist was given a fifty-five key word jumble and challenged to communicate how the Lord is with us at the beginning, middle, and end of our lives. With extreme brevity, the psalmist doesn’t pull any punches. While there’s warmth and light, there’s also a valley of shadow and death, the presence of enemies, and courage in the face of evil. This is NOT false optimism. Psalm 23 is a psalm of trust – trust in God during the full experience of crisis.[5] It’s beloved sacred scripture for Jews and Christians. It’s also well-known in pop culture as it turns up in movies and memes. The poetic craft alone is impressive even if it wasn’t one of the essentials in a life of faith.

Essential has new meaning in these Covid days. The debate is intense about what qualifies as essential. For Christians, one essential listed in the Gospel of John reading is Jesus’ encouragement to know his voice. We learn to recognize his voice in Gospel readings Sunday after Sunday AND in texts that have stood the test of time across the generations of the faithful. Psalm 23 is one such text. Many of our elders in the faith were taught to memorize and recite it. Even with significant memory loss, this psalm and Lord’s Prayer can be easily recalled. Psalm 23 is a poem and prayer of trust that we can turn to in times that make no sense. Times like today.

Given today’s pandemic, there’s one line in the psalm that nags at me. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What might it mean for God to set a table for us in the presence of Covid19 – a microscopic enemy? There have been pages and pages and memes and articles written about this particular enemy. By enemy, I don’t mean that the virus has conscious evil intentions. Viruses, like all living things, simply function to keep living. It’s a stretch to ascribe malice to them. But Covid19 is an enemy to our bodies and to our life together. We depend on everyone working in harmony to lessen the risk of infection for the most vulnerable and ease the burden on hospital workers. We learn terms like R0 (R0 or R-naught) to understand how many people each of us can potentially infect.[6] We’ve learned quickly that people we love can carry this enemy just as easily as people we don’t like at all. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

I was talking with one of my favorite checkers in the grocery store last week. Through our masks, we gave each other quick updates and shared frustrations. She told me about a customer who started screaming at other shoppers who were not wearing masks. He escalated to a point just shy of a 911 call. The manager talked him into leaving the store. On top of the viral threat for essential workers, they’re also vulnerable to people’s frayed nerves and overreactions. And, just like that [snap], people become the enemy instead of the virus.

In that light, what might it mean for God to prepare a table before us in the presence of our coronavirus enemy?  In our Gospel reading today, Jesus says that he came so that those who hear his voice “may have life and have it abundantly.” More broadly in the Gospels, Jesus loves, heals, and challenges the people he encounters. His voice is consistent with these actions while also compassionate and confident. He did not respond to mockery and suffering with insult and threat – he trusted God in all things.[7] And he continued to love people despite our self-serving, wicked ways. In his voice echoing through our baptism as the Body of Christ, he calls us to love people too – despite our and everyone else’s self-serving, wicked ways. In this way, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies and guides us there by Jesus’ voice. It’s a table of trust in God, set with compassion for others, and filled with confidence to say hard things in love.

As a Jew, Jesus prayed the Psalms. They were essential. He knew them inside and out – even quoting Psalm 22 from the cross.[8] When we learn the psalms and pray them, we join the praying Christ.[9]  And we learn to hear his voice. Psalm 23 is short. It’s in a Bible or cell phone near you. Memorize it this week. Pray it daily. Make it a part of your faithful essentials. It’s a psalm of trust which means that it evokes God’s promise of being with us even in the face of invisible enemies, suffering, and trauma.[10] Through Psalm 23 we learn Jesus’ voice AND we are assured that the valley of the shadow of death does not have the last word. God does.

Now receive this blessing

With the Lord as your shepherd, may your heart be quieted as your soul is restored.

May your fear be comforted even through the shadowed valley of death, as God is with you.

And may Christ’s compassion and confidence guide you at God’s table prepared in the presence of your enemies,

as goodness and mercy follow you all the days of your life, and the Lord + dwells with you your whole life long.  Amen.[11]

_______________________________________________________

[1] Robert Frost (1874 – 1963). Complete Poems of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1949), 131.

[2] Ibid., vi.  It’s worth reading Robert Frost’s full reflections about poetry in his introduction “The Figure A Poem Makes.”

[3] James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern University. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – July 19, 2015. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2531

[4] Ibid. These fun facts are summarized from Dr. Mead’s commentary.

[5] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary. Commentary on Psalm 23 for Working Preacher – March 26, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3185

[6] Robert Pearl, M.D.  “3 Coronavirus Facts Americans Must Know Before Returning to Work, School” – April 21, 2020 Forbes Online.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertpearl/2020/04/21/3-coronavirus-facts/?fbclid=IwAR01vkcKTgHC2d3ZGXPTGCe9Gg73RHaw2_ehbjqDQ3AXPNQqmNJwFPufkOk#77169f114721

[7] Janette Ok, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University. Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25 for Working Preacher – May 3, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4447

[8] Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 46-47.

[10] Ibid., Jacobson.

[11] I wrote this blessing by paraphrasing Psalm 23.

________________________________________________________________

John 10:1-10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Look, Listen, and Lighten Up [OR Transfiguration of the Dazzling Light and Dead Ancestors Kind] Matthew 17:1-9

**sermon art: The Transfiguration of Christ by Earl Mott (b. 1949)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 23, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 17:1-9 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

[sermon begins]

I have a Christian friend who gets on a lot of high horses about things Christians tend to do without thinking about them. In the middle of whatever roll he’s on at the moment, he’ll often wing out an alternative option to whatever thing it is that we do. One such high horse has to do with bowing our head and closing our eyes to pray. [I know, nothing is off limits to this guy.]  His take is that we should look around or up during prayer because God is out there. As with a lot of my church friends, this guy gives me challenging things to think about. So, I gave some thought to why I close my eyes when I pray, or when the psalm is chanted, or when listening to a sermon, or when singing a familiar hymn. And here’s the God’s-honest-truth. It’s just too easy for me to get distracted and start thinking about other things when I really want to focus on that one thing. I close my eyes to focus on that one thing more closely before I’m razzle-dazzled into distraction. I close my eyes to see, focusing on the other senses and allowing a moment of thought without the visual distraction.

The festival of Jesus’ Transfiguration distracts with all its dazzle. It’s one of the weirder Bible stories with the light show and the dead ancestors making an appearance.  Some people just need to get through it. Skipping the entire story and moving on to the next one. I’m going to invite a different strategy. Confronted by dazzling light, the disciples fell on the ground cowering away from the light and the voice from heaven. But Jesus came over and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  When they looked up, everything and everyone was gone but Jesus. Jesus, the Beloved Son. Jesus, the One to whom we should listen. Listening takes focus – hence that “closing our eyes to see” thing. Listening also takes a lack of fear. We don’t listen well when we’re afraid. The movie Gifted has a scene that is an example of this kind of listening.[1] A single man, Frank, is raising his child prodigy niece Mary. At one point he tells her, “No more math today” and swoops her outside for some fresh air. They’re on a beach, silhouetted by the setting sun. Mary’s twirling and bending around as Frank holds her hand. She asks about God and receives a lot of “I don’t know” replies from her uncle. He doesn’t wig out. He doesn’t try to answer when he doesn’t know the answer. He stays chill as she asks her questions. Then she says, “What about Jesus?” Her uncle answers, “Love that guy; do what he says.”  Frank’s answer doesn’t come from a place of faith for the character. Just a calm and honest reply, “Love that guy; do what he says.”

The uncle’s words parallel the voice from the heavens that says, “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.”  The uncle’s words. “Love that guy; do what he says.”  The Hebrew understanding of the word “listen” is linked to obedience – listening to obey what is heard.[2]  “Love that guys; do what he says.” What’s first thing Jesus says after the heavenly voice speaks? “Get up and do not be afraid.” Part of what we do for each other in worship together is exactly Jesus’ reminder. Week after week we remind each other to get up and not be afraid. Not because things aren’t scary. Not because we shouldn’t take our suffering neighbor seriously. But because Jesus calls us into life free of fear. In essence, Jesus tells us to look up and lighten up as we follow him into dire situations on behalf of our neighbor.

We’ve been in the season of Epiphany since after Christmas. Epiphany emphasizes the light of Christ shining in the darkness and now crescendos to a close today on a mountaintop in dazzling light. During this season, together we’ve confessed weekly in worship that, “We look to other lights to find our way.” The reason I mention this here is because we often look for light in all the wrong places to decrease fear. And there are so many shiny, dazzling lights out there promising to fix our fear or at least distract us from it. There are also the shiny, distracting lights out there that stoke our fear and tell us who to blame for it so that we both excuse ourselves from helping the people we feel don’t deserve our help and we need never look at the good, bad, and ugly of ourselves.  We humans can be so clever that way, blinding ourselves to the very things that Jesus calls us to see and do.

On the mountaintop, dazzled by Jesus’ light today, many of us wonder if there’s anything to the Transfiguration. Pausing on top of this mountain before our six-week journey through Lent to the cross that sits on a different hill.[3]  It’s one thing for Jesus to tell us to lighten up and to not be afraid. It’s another thing entirely to figure out being fearless together. And believe you me, figuring out fearless Jesus following in a 21st century urban setting full of shiny distractions is often a group project. So, what’s one thing a Jesus loving congregation can do? We’re going to roll down this dazzling mountain into Lent and into a book and conversation called “The City is My Monastery” by Richard Carter.

The good Reverend Carter is an Episcopalian priest who was trying to understand a life of faith in the razzle-dazzle of downtown London to live more deeply into the promises of peace offered by Jesus.[4] He found himself in London after living monastically for 15 years in the Solomon Islands. After the peace and quiet of the islands, he began to question if feeling the peace of Christ and the presence of God was possible in the 24/7 sirens and other city noise, in his ministry to the homeless and refugees, and in the bustling wonder of living among so many other humans. Out of his own monastic practices, he suggests rules of life that are actually life-giving. Prayers, stories, and ideas that hope to inspire our own faith and ideas, to discover the deeper values and the things that give us life.  Whether or not you read the book, there will be facilitated conversations between worship services or after 10:30 worship over soup to dig deeper into these rules of life together and ask questions along the way.

Loving Jesus, listening to him, and doing what he says can be a dicey proposition because for so many people it quickly becomes a way of validating ourselves and invalidating other people.  Rather than lightening up, we become heavy-handed and perpetuate the very fear that Jesus frees us from. The Transfiguration, in its weird, dramatic dazzle, is a moment in Jesus’ story that defies any attempt at certainty because it is pure mystery. The time-space continuum bends as ancestors and friends share space and light on the top of mountain. Whether we close or open our eyes, the Transfiguration resists explanation while drawing us to the light of God in Jesus and reminding us to look up, listen up, and lighten up.

Amen.

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[1] Gifted. (2017, Fox Searchlight Pictures). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndaomDF4DMY

[2] Joy J. Moore, Associate Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary. Podcast for the Transfiguration on February 23, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1232

[3] Ash Wednesday is Wednesday, February 26 this year. Lent ends April 11 with Easter on April 12.

[4] Richard Carter swapped a life of simplicity with an Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands for parish ministry in one of London’s busiest churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Here’s a short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaK6l4_Dqf8&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0j4au_LTkGekE-o8lbvzzSN0xyZ-pHXjxKeR1ZDdFoyYwKEfb4lGlFYqM