Tag Archives: grace

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.

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[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

Baseball’s Sacrifice Fly [OR Self-Sacrifice and Sinning Boldly by the Grace of God]   Mark 8:31-38

Photo credit:  Josh Rutledge #14 of the Colorado Rockies hits an RBI single during the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field on August 27, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 28, 2021

[sermon begins]

Mark 8:31-38  [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

[sermon begins]

Spending time with my stepfather Pops often meant taking in a baseball game. The rare treat, a live game at the stadium, came with the bonus of Dodger dogs and peanuts. More typically, it meant hanging out on the couch, game on the television with the sound off, and Vin Scully calling the game on the radio. While my baseball speak is a little rusty, obvious excitement came from bases loaded and a homerun blasted out of the park. Personally, the drama of the sacrifice fly had me on the edge of my seat. The batter intentionally hits a ball, popping it up in the air, arcing it toward a fielder who catches it for the easy out, while the runners on base run like crazy to home to score in the meantime. The batter is out, sacrificed for the team to get ahead. The drama of it was the self-sacrifice. We could come up with real-life examples of self-sacrifice when someone dies to save someone else but the point is made. The self-sacrificing action is voluntarily taken by choice for the good of the whole.

Self-sacrifice is the name of the game in our Gospel of Mark reading today. It’s the first time in Mark that Jesus has taught about his death. Up to now, there have been healing after healing, calming storms, and feeding thousands. Jesus and the disciples were on a winning streak. The good news was easy marketing. Just before our reading today, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah. He was batting 1.000. His discipleship star was rising quickly. No risk of being traded. How quickly the momentum shifts.

As far as Peter was concerned, Jesus had just preached a three-strikes-you’re-out sermon that highlighted his suffering, rejection, and execution. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him. Not a bad coaching strategy. If you have something tough to say, you create privacy to work it out. Jesus was having none of it. Jesus turned himself and Peter back to the disciples for an intense, public rebuke. Then he called the crowd in with the disciples, following up with another intense teaching moment in which he commands them to deny themselves and take up their cross if they want to follow him.

The key in Jesus’ teaching is the self-sacrifice. It’s obvious that going after the religious leaders and the power of Rome is not the path to hitting the salary cap in a multi-year contract. Jesus made choices along the way. Jesus chose. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because he himself came from a surprising choice. Just before Christmas, we heard the story of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and have a son named Jesus.[1] Although confused by how the plan was going to come together, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” At enormous risk to herself, she assented to the plan. In those days, turning up pregnant and unmarried could have meant death for her. But Mary said, “Let it be with me.” She said, “Let it.” Mary chose. Jesus chose.

Leading by example, Jesus commands his disciples in what smacks of another three-strikes-you’re-out teaching – deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me.  A good agent would have told him that this is not an effective message for building a following and that Jesus should stick to healing and feeding. But the power of what Jesus teaches comes from his example. He wasn’t asking his disciples to choose anything that he wasn’t also willing to choose. The choice prohibits these verses from being used to justify abuse and suffering, used to keep someone in an abusive relationship. The self-defined choice makes all the difference.

Self-denial sounds Lenty and familiar. Giving up chocolate or another tasty treat is emblematic of the season of Lent. It makes sense that choosing to give up something that’s frequently enjoyed would serve as a reminder to pause, pray, and recenter our thinking around God’s presence and priorities. All good things. It’s more likely that Jesus’ command to the disciples to deny themselves meant giving up things like power, influence, ego, and control for discipleship priorities like compassion, mercy, faith, and hope. Things he preached and taught about regularly in his ministry. But it’s not self-denial for its own sake. There’s a purpose to self-sacrifice beyond accumulating discipleship stats. Also, a word of caution here. Jesus’ command is not a call to become mini saviors. Jesus’ consistent teachings across the gospel accounts calls his disciples into becoming neighbors. So, note to self: neighbors not saviors. An important distinction especially considering Jesus’ command to the disciples to take up their cross.

Taking up our crosses is informed by Jesus’ self-sacrificing example. It’s helpful to consider what we deny ourselves so that there’s space for a cross – letting some things go to make room for what’s being asked of us. Again, not self-sacrifice for its own sake, but for the sake of the gospel which Jesus says saves lives. Our lives. There are no easy answers in a sermon that lasts minutes. It’s discipleship in the big leagues. Questions about self-denial can be brought to God both individually and congregationally. Individually we can pray, “God, what are you asking me to give up, making room for your will?” We can talk to people we trust, inviting counsel from faithful people in our lives. Sourcing ourselves with multiple perspectives helps prevent mini-savior errors. The same is true congregationally. We went through a strategic planning process over the last few years that helped us discern our collective discipleship internally as a faith community and externally as neighbors in the wider community. Today’s congregational meeting and vote about our vacant land being developed into affordable housing is one more step in the process.

At the end of the day, the cross we count on is not the one we take up as our own. The cross we count on is the one that Jesus taught about here in Mark. The cross on which he hung after great suffering and rejection. The cross was his own. His individual event. His choice. His self-sacrifice. Like Peter, we struggle to understand it but equally depend on it for the life given to us by the one who poured out his life. If you hear nothing else today, please hear this, we are set free in discipleship by the cross of Christ, which means that the road to God is not paved by any deeds or do-goodery on our part. God’s presence in our lives is given by the grace of Jesus through the cross of Jesus, undeserved and unearned by us. Martin Luther described this as the freedom to “sin boldly” for the sake of the gospel. Meaning that it is difficult, more like impossible, to tease apart our flawed motives from our faithful interpretation of God’s will. So we make choices as best we can, asking for forgiveness and celebrating God’s grace as we follow Jesus on the journey.

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[1] Luke 1:26-38 is formally called The Annunciation.

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.

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[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

Repentance – Not Sexy but Needed for National Healing — Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 24, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jonah 3:1-10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
6When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20  Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

[sermon begins]

Do-overs. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t wished for a do-over. That head-slapping, Homer Simpson moment of, “Doh!” followed quickly by, “I wish I hadn’t of done that.” [1a] Do-overs tap a longing for a chance to re-do a moment, a choice, or a behavior with a better frame of mind and more principled behavior. Every so often you’ll hear a celebrity or other public person say, “I have no regrets!” This is usually followed by the advice to not look back and that the only way to live life is to look ahead.

As with many such statements, there’s a shred of truth in it. But for a lot of us, it’s just simply not true about our own lives. Especially for Jesus followers, I think. Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark come after he’s baptized by John, after God announces Jesus as the Beloved Son, after the Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he’s tempted by satan and waited on by angels. Jesus’ first sentence in the Gospel includes a command to repent. It’s not a great hook. Imagine trying to start a new group and telling everyone that their first task is to list all their wrongs and change their behavior. Yeah, not too sexy.

Jonah knew that the method of introducing yourself with the command to repent was dead in the water. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and announce repentance to the King and all the people there. Imagine going to the people that you’re most afraid will hurt you and demanding their repentance. The Ninevites of Assyria were those people. They were militarily dominant in every way and vicious with their opponents, ultimately destroying the Northern Kingdom of Israel and oppressing the Southern Kingdoms.[1b] Jonah had every right to be afraid. He was also understandably angry that God would forgive his greatest enemies. He knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, abounding in steadfast love.”[2] He did not want God to be THAT God to the Ninevites.

Jonah ran away the first time God told him to go to Nineveh and demand their repentance. He was tossed over the side of a ship in a storm and ended up in the belly of a fish only to be thrown up on the shore after he did what? After he himself repented. Jonah was given a second chance by God to go preach to the Ninevites who did indeed themselves repent – covering every king, man, woman, child, and animal in sackcloth and ashes, crying out “mightily to God,” and turning from their evil ways and the violence in their hands.[3]

Our Jewish cousins in the faith read the book of Jonah “on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews confess their sins against God and neighbor.”[4] It’s short book. Four brief chapters. Go ahead and read Jonah this week. It’s the only time it bubbles up on the three-year lectionary cycle of Bible readings for worship. It’s an incredible example of the very human reactions that accompany both societal and individual repentance – including Jonah’s anger that his enemies would receive God’s grace. That’s the part of Jonah’s tale that is the most offensive. There’s a particular kind of happiness we feel when we see our enemies fall and the farther they fall the better. Jonah’s understandable anger for God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites mirrors our own. It’s too difficult to believe that God’s grace extends to those we hate. But God’s grace is indeed the last word.

Recently, an unchurched friend of mine texted to ask if I could hear their confession and we did so. Individual confession follows the general order of confession, discussion, and forgiveness. During the discussion, we talked about consequences for what was being confessed including making amends to the people affected by the confessed behavior. Grace is the last word in the confession and forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness frees us to navigate the consequences for our hurtful behavior.

Along that line, the question was asked recently in staff meeting about the role of the church during this time of national crises. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself off-and-on over the last couple of decades. There are books full of attempts to answer this question over the centuries. The general consensus is that if God so loves the world, then the church is not only about my personal, spiritual benefits from it. Several of our worship readings during the past few weeks gave a challenge of repentance including John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus’ call to the disciples to repent and follow him, and Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites to repent. We have heard plenty of it today as the Bible stories immerse us in repentance.

The role of the church in society is similar – although not as the bedroom vice-squad that polices who people are sleeping with, which is too often the case. The role of the church emphasizes Jesus’ example, the one whom we follow. Our own repentance for personal and collective sin holds us accountable and redirects our behavior. From our own accountability, we may challenge others to do the same. In times of national crises like the pandemic and the chaotic transition of presidential power, we may challenge elected officials and public leaders who have hurt people by what they have done and what they have left undone.

The church may hold powerful people accountable across the spectrum of partisanship and the roles of those involved for greed, indifference to the poor, harm inflicted, violence incited, and more – powerful people like former President Trump and other leaders who fanned the flames of violence to the ones who stormed the Capital seeking to harm those in Congress. The attack happened under the American flag, the Confederate flag, and symbols of the Christian church.

The symbols of the church were especially offensive because we follow Jesus. The Jesus who told Peter to put his sword away as Jesus was being arrested is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who called public leaders to account for the violence of failing to care for the widow and the poor is the Jesus we follow. The Jesus who would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves, is the Jesus we follow.

Ironically, our country’s violent roots began with people fleeing religious violence only to perpetuate that violence on the native people who already lived here and the enslaved people who were brought here – all in the name of white superiority and divine blessing. As a country, we continue to perpetuate violence in the name of God without pausing to repent for that violence, to collectively experience the consequences, and to make amends to the black and brown people who have borne the brunt of nationally sanctioned and inflicted violence. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Obviously, accountability is not the only role of the church. During national crises we also comfort people who are scared, grieving, alone, and hungry. We comfort each other in our congregation and reach out to comfort family, friends, and neighbors. There’s a saying that the church, the body of Christ, “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” following Jesus’ example and teaching.[5] That remains true in times of calm and in times of crises.

In Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark, he proclaims good news and repentance, and announces, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”[6] Repentance turns us away from our self-absorption towards the good news of Jesus. Good news that includes loving our neighbors (not always an easy task), loving ourselves (an often much harder task), and loving a God who loves us first, last, and in-between. A God who loves us so much that we are not left bound to the sin that clings so closely but free to live differently in the world because God loves us and our neighbor. A God who slipped on skin to show us how it’s done and forgives us when we fail. A God whose offensive, radical grace is the last word. Amen.

_______________________________________________________________

[1a] Oliver Libaw. “Doh! Oxford Dictionary Takes Homer Simpson.” ABC News, January 7, 2006.  https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=93098&page=1

[1b] Beth L. Tanner, Professor of Old Testament, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Jersey. Commentary on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 for January 25, 2009. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-jonah-31-5-10-2

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 3:8

[4]  Tanner, Ibid.

[5] Tim Stewart. “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” August 5, 2013. Dictionary of Christianese: The casual slang of the Christian church…authoritatively defined.           https://www.dictionaryofchristianese.com/god-comforts-the-afflicted-and-afflicts-the-comfortable/

[6] Mark 1:15

Be Light Because You Are Light [OR Bridesmaids, Pandemic, and Election are NOT the End of the Story] Matthew 25:1-13

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 8, 2020

[sermon begins after Bible reading – hang in there, the reading will get the full treatment in the sermon]

Matthew 25:1-13  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

[sermon begins]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[1]

Liturgical geeks among us may be wondering why I’m echoing the season of Epiphany, singing from Tangled Blue’s lyrics pulled from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Well, for one thing, it’s easier to start there than in today’s reading. For another, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” In the verses following, he goes on to say the familiar words set in the baptism liturgy, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” With hard parables like this one about the bridesmaids, it’s good to be reminded about the main things before diving in. And the main thing today is that God’s promises flow from God to us. We don’t earn or generate God’s promises by our behavior. If that were possible, someone would have cracked that code long ago. It’s also not only easier to start in chapter 5, it’s an important key to how we read about the bridesmaids’ lamps.[2] In Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount includes the beatitudes that we heard last week on All Saints Day. Jesus’ sermon is key to Matthew’s gospel and anchors us to his sermon to the faithful and his trial and crucifixion.[3]

Today we start Matthew’s 25th chapter for three weeks. Jesus’ challenges to the faithful are intensifying.[4] The Matthean community was experiencing conflict between insiders and outsiders, probably other Jewish groups, that called into question who had the proper authority to teach.[5] The community also likely had some internal conflict among themselves. It gives one pause to wonder about the writer’s biggest worry, the kind of pressure they were under. Curiosity about their 1st century distress lends compassion to this struggling faith community and the harsh parable in today’s reading.

A relevant side note here. Lyn Goodrum in our church office asked me recently if I’d fallen in love with Matthew’s gospel. Some of you may remember my confession last December in Advent that I’d had my own struggle with this particular book of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding. I was able to tell Lyn that I’ve not fallen in love with it but that I have grown to appreciate it. In part, this happened because I have a new appreciation for the Matthean community’s experience. Reading through that lens made room for more compassion. Our current cultural moment adds to that compassion. Division isn’t fun. Division that threatens potential violence, especially isn’t fun.

I wrote this sermon before Election Day and recorded it on Wednesday for today’s worship. There’s no telling what’s happened between Tuesday and today. Impossible to predict the status of the week’s stories. The Matthean community certainly didn’t know how their story ended either. In the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus was pushing them and reminding them about what’s important regardless. He was pushing them to encourage their readiness. He was reminding them that he’d given them what they needed to endure what was coming. He was barking at them like a coach before game time so that they’d remember that light needs tending to endure what’s ahead. Jesus’ listeners knew that lamp oil lasts longer when the wicks are trimmed.[6] Back-up oil was needed in the story because the bridegroom’s timing was unpredictable, and every bridesmaid wore out and fell asleep. Waiting for something to change can feel long. Jesus challenged his followers to hang in there and be ready. In this parable, readiness included lamps that are lit with the long game in mind. Preparing the lamp includes a supply of oil and a trimmed wick to keep it burning slow and steady. Jesus’ challenge to his listeners means something about the Christian life over the long haul. For us, as a faith community, it’s a word of life in the midst of this prolonged meantime when we might miss opportunities as we’re tempted to wish this moment away.

My Pops used to warn me against wishing my life away when I was impatient for the next, long-anticipated event. I didn’t really understand what he meant for a good many years. But I hear his voice in my head, when I find myself wishing 2020 away as if 2021 is going to magically be better, as if we could fast-forward to our worship and community life together in person. Alas, fast-forwarding is neither possible nor would it be good news to do so. I’d be wishing away the life, light, and love of today. Also, we’re the church, the light of the world, for the long haul. The Augustana community is our tiny corner of God’s whole church. As the church, we can argue from here until kingdom come about what it looks like to be ready, to keep our lamps trimmed and burning. But Jesus is pretty clear in Matthew’s gospel about what trimming the lamp for the slow and steady burn looks like. We’re given images of the slow and steady burn in the Sermon on the Mount and the crucifixion. Jesus preaches about the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, and the peacemakers. At the cross, Jesus is vulnerable, non-violent, and self-sacrificing – shining light through the darkness of the darkest moment.

The number of bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable implies that this wedding was a high-status affair. The bridesmaids appear to be more than just friends of the bride as they seem to serve in a necessary role.[7] We could argue that the role is not about works or faith but it’s about the life the beatitudes invites us into – a life centered on the cross that glorifies God, a life that makes it clear that God is the primary actor, the giver of life.[8] A life centered on the cross is a life that knows and endures suffering. Martin Luther names this as the Seventh Mark of the Church. “The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross,” he writes.[9] Luther argues that the church endures “hardship…temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says)…” and “becomes like its head, Christ.”[10]

He goes on to argue that the customs of the church are “necessary and useful…fine and proper” but they are not to be confused with the marks of the church. In this category of customs, he includes “times for preaching and prayer, and the use of church buildings, or houses, altars, pulpits, fonts, lights, candles, bells, vestments, and the like.”[11]  Our Augustana customs do not make us the church – the cross makes us the church.

Jesus’ intensity before his trial and crucifixion is understandable. His preaching in the parable of the bridesmaids is shocking and stark although his word fuels the endurance in his people who will falter, grow weak, fail in readiness, and then regroup to be the light of the world. Dear ones, as one tiny corner of God’s church catholic, we are “in holy possession of the Holy Cross.” There is much to endure in this waiting time but the bridesmaids are the not the end of the story – neither is the pandemic, nor the election.[12] As Jesus is pointed to the cross in this parable, so are we. Pointed to the cross where grace shines in light, where God brings life out of suffering and death. Where, by our baptism, we live “in the light of the cross, in mercy not judgment.”[13]

♬You are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world.

So shine, shine, shine where you are…

You are the light of the world.♬[14]

________________________________________________________

[1] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

[2] Dirk Lange, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Relations, The Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Switzerland. Commentary on Matthew 25:1-12 for November 9, 2008 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4620

[3] Ibid.

[4] If you get a chance this week, read Matthew 24 and 25. It’s a intensifying crescendo just before Jesus’ trial starts.

[5] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[6] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for November 8, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1309

[7] Skinner, ibid.

[8] Lange, ibid.

[9] Martin Luther, Everyone’s Luther: On the Councils and the Church (1539), 244. https://wolfmueller.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Work-on-Councils_100618.pdf

[10] Ibid.

[11] Luther, 257-258.

[12] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO.  Discussion on November 3, 2020, in Preacher’s Text Study of Metro East Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA.

[13] Lange, ibid.

[14] Give a listen to Tangled Blue’s full song here: https://tangledblue.bandcamp.com/track/light-of-the-world (2003). Words and Music by Cathy Pino © Cathy Pino.

__________________________________________________________________

Oh, The Places You’ll Go…Or Not [OR God Transforms Unholy Places] Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36 Reformation Sunday

**sermon art: /r/Place canvas as of April 3, 2017   Place is a collaborative canvas that any registered reddit user could ‘draw’ on one pixel at a time. In order to draw another pixel on the canvas there was a 5 minute wait time. ‘Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more,’ is Place’s motto.  https://twistedsifter.com/2017/04/what-is-reddit-place/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 25, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Romans 3:19-28 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

John 8:31-36 Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

[sermon begins]

Oh, the places you’ll go…or not go, depending on who else is there, whether or not masks are required, and how much or how little you need to see people. As those things get figured out, “place” takes on new meaning in our lives. Our favorite places usually qualify as favorites because they’re fun or beautiful or peaceful or sacred or we find our favorite people there. These days, the places we go are often necessary and cannot be avoided, or meaningful and we bend to accommodate them.  Adjustments have also been made to meaningful places like the way we worshiped under a tent in the courtyard over the last few months. Last week, place was also shifted for our Confirmation students who were affirming their baptismal promises in the Rite of Confirmation. Annually celebrated on Reformation Sunday, we held a brief ritual with the youth and their families and recorded it to be celebrated with all of us here in online worship. It was a unique Confirmation, as the few of us who gathered together represented the fullness of the congregation in the Sanctuary, our community’s sacred place.

Place is important to what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John reading as he says that, “the son has a place [in the household] forever; so if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus’ place brings freedom that cannot be created on our own. This is good news if you don’t like the new place in which you find yourself, feeling displaced by a pandemic.[1] Jesus’ freedom can also sound like good news if you’ve been displaced or excluded by other people for reasons like income, disability, skin color, or education level.

The 16th century Reformation took place in complicated socio-political times that parallel our own. Martin Luther was not the first reformer of his day, but he was the first reformer that lived long enough to disrupt the systems of church and state applying pressure to both the pope who controlled the church and the princes who controlled the city-states of their time. While Luther condemned the institutional church for its extortion of the poor and manipulation of the faithful; he also challenged the princes against exploitation of the peasants. Luther and other Reformation preachers were adamant that princes and leaders address systemic issues.[2] Luther wrote, ““For so to help a man that he does not need to become a beggar is just as much of a good work and a virtue as to give alms to a man who has already become a beggar.”[3] Lutheranism has long since preached justice-oriented community engagement on behalf of our neighbors alongside the grace of salvation “by faith apart from works.”[4] In fairness though, this grace-and-justice preaching had its place long before Luther.

In the Romans reading, check out verse 25. The execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans gets flipped into the language of sacrifice.[5] The 1st century listener would have been like, “Whaaaat?!!” Everybody knew that sacrifices offered to God meant specific animals, killed in the temple, by a priest. No one would have equated a Roman execution of a Galilean rabbi, on a hill outside of town, with sacrifice. More specifically, the Greek word “hilasterion,translated here as “sacrifice of atonement,” is more accurately translated “mercy seat.” The early listeners in Greek would have heard that “the redemption in Christ Jesus” was put forward by God as a “mercy seat through faith in his blood.”[6]  This is BIG, so hang with me here. The mercy seat was known to be in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple where the high priest entered once a year to sprinkle blood over it on Yom Kippur for the atonement of all of Israel.[7] This section of the Romans reading transforms the unholy place of the cross into the Holy of Holies, the center of God’s reconciling grace; the place where the unholy, non-Jewish Gentiles are transformed into holy Christ believers and God’s servants. These verses claim that God transforms the unholy place into a place of holy transformation. Transforming the unholy into the holy. Put a place-holder there, we’re going to come back to it.

Another dilemma in the English is that the word for justice and righteousness is the same word in Greek – dikaiosyne. 1st century listeners would have heard this word to simultaneously mean “righteousness (right relationship with God) and justice (right relationship with one’s neighbor).”[8] There was no choice needed to be made about meaning like there is in English. The place of justice for our neighbor IS the place of righteousness with God. There are many people who celebrate the Reformation solely as an event in history that revealed God’s reconciling grace within each individual believer. What often gets missed, is that it was simultaneously an event that turned the believer away from self towards the neighbor. This reading from Romans is the perfect place to open up God’s word in the fullness of the Reformation and to allow it to open us up as God’s word finds a place in us.

Grace was at the heart of the 16th century Reformation and love of neighbor completed the freedom granted by Christ’s grace. Luther also wrote, ““Poverty, I say, is not to be recommended, chosen, or taught; for there is always enough of that by itself, as [Jesus] says (John 12:8): ‘The poor you always have with you,’ just as you will have all other evils. But constant care should be taken that, since these evils are always in evidence, they are always opposed.”[9]

I’m going to let you in on a well-kept secret…we have an election coming up. Democracy and voting would have been inconceivable to Luther and his peers, not to mention to our 1st Century siblings in Christ, but they all would have understood justice and neighbor-love as required by God.[10] We’ve spent the whole last church year in the book of Matthew in which Jesus lifts up the vulnerable and oppressed as our faithful priority. And just around the corner in Advent, we’ll hear Mary sing about lifting the lowly, filling the hungry, and sending the rich away empty.[11] Voting is one more place to help our neighbor as we examine ballot issues, judges, and elected leaders. Remember to pray for yourself and each other as we vote.

Remember also that the mercy seat of Christ dwells within you by the power of the Holy Spirit in your baptism. When we were baptized into Christ, we were baptized into his death, and into the mercy seat of God.[12] The unholy places in you are the very places that God redeems and makes holy for your sake in God’s righteousness and for your neighbor’s sake in God’s justice. Today on Reformation Sunday, we celebrate that everyone has a place in the household because Christ is the mercy seat through which God redeems us and sends us in freedom to love and serve our neighbor. Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Pastor Margot Wright, Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church, Centenniel, CO. Metro East Preacher’s Text Study, Rocky Mountain Synod (ELCA), on October 20, 2020.

[2] Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee (Eds.). The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation. (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016), 24.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Romans 3:28

[5] This section of the sermon relies heavily on this work of Jane Lancaster Patterson, Associate Professor of New Testament, Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX. Commentary on Romans 3:19-28 for October 25, 2020 on WorkingPreacher.org. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4605

[6] Patterson, Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lindberg and Wee, Ibid.

[10] Micah 6:8 “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

[11] Luke 1:46-55

[12] Romans 6:3-11

Celebrating the Life of Cameron Rivera (April 22, 1996 – March 10, 2020)

Caitlin Trussell at Wings Over the Rockies Museum/ Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery (Centennial Airport)

[Sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Jeremiah 29:11  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Romans 8:35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[sermon begins]

Michelle and I have been talking about today since March when the pandemic shutdown the city. Trying to figure out where and when we could gather to celebrate Cameron’s life in this way was not easy. I know today is one of several times some of you have been together. The first time being the day Cameron died, during the hours long wait for the coroner’s arrival on the scene. Another being the balloon release the week after he died. It’s difficult to not let his tragic death overshadow the light Cameron brought in life and the light he continues to bring as you remember him. When I spoke with Rob and Michelle about today, I heard so many wonderful things about Cameron that make me wish I knew him as you did. We’ve already heard some of those memories today and there are so many more on your hearts and minds. His smile, loyalty, kindness, athleticism, perpetual motion, love of a challenge, and love of the Buffalo Bills all come with many stories. These are gifts that Cameron shared with you all who love him.

As a son, cousin, first grandchild and great-grandchild, friend, best friend, employee and more, Cameron brought a lot of joy. His adulting plans included his flight lessons with the goal of flying for UPS someday. It’s part of the reason we’re gathered here at the airport and will celebrate with a flyover. More immediately, he had plans to be in London in April. After he died, Cameron’s heart ventricles and corneas were able to be donated. One of his corneas ended up gifted to a recipient in London. Rob told me that while Cameron didn’t see London while he was alive, he was able to make it there after he died to see through someone else’s eyes.

Jesus says in the Bible, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Jesus knows that your hearts are troubled.  How could they not be?  The end of Cameron’s 23 years old life is a tragedy. And tragedy brings the question, “Why?!!”  And the attempts to answer that question also come.  Attempts that don’t answer the question of “why” and often leave us hurting each other or hurting ourselves.  We hurt each other and ourselves as we try to figure out what Jeremiah means by God’s plan for us and we wonder if that God had a direct hand in Cameron’s death.  Above and beyond the grief, we say things like, “Well if that’s the plan that God has then I want nothing to do with that God.”

But listen to the promise of Jeremiah once more… “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  Not for harm…for hope.

How does this hope take shape in the face of real pain?  First by naming the tragedy for what it is – just like in the reading from the book of Romans that names tragedy as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, nakedness, sword; just like our reason for being here today is Cameron’s death at such a young age.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in his life too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the pain.

There’s a temptation at funerals to try to look back and prove our worthiness before God.  To think that we have to prove our own goodness or the worthiness of the person who died, and position ourselves in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He does NOT tally.

If his death on the cross means anything, it means that God is not in the sin accounting business. Another way to say it is that it’s not about what we’re doing, it is all about what Jesus does for us.  God’s promises through Jesus.  We hear these promises and still we’re tempted to ask “BUT what about WHAT I’M supposed to do?! Have I done enough to make myself right with God?! Has Cameron?” It’s hard for us to believe that what Jesus accomplished on the cross is the last word for us and for Cameron.

Christians refer to living on “this side of the cross” to mean our life here on earth.  The resurrection-side of the cross is simply too much to fathom in a world in which we can so clearly see real problems. In this way, the truth of the cross is closer to home than the resurrection. It’s a truth we get deep in our gut.

The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

The truth that God would rather die than raise a hand in violence against the world that God so loves.

The truth that forgiveness comes from the cross as Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The truth about the unflinching love of God in the face of our failures.

Those are hard truths but we can get at them from our own experiences of love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, pain, suffering, and death.  We can get at them from this side of the cross.

The Bible emphasizes the power of God in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Another truth of the cross is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  Not to say that we rejoice because we suffer but rather, we are reassured of God’s love even in the midst of our suffering.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and now catches death up into God, drawing Cameron into holy rest where suffering is no more.  Jesus is focused on the goal of bringing people back into relationship with God.  The self-sacrificing love of God, given fully on the cross, draws us back into relationship with God. [1]  Jesus has already opened up whatever we perceive the barrier to be between us and God.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.

Nothing separates Cameron from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to Cameron.

And because it is God’s movement to us, God’s movement to Cameron, God gives us a future with hope as God also brings Cameron into a future with God.

On his earthly birthday, we celebrate Cameron’s life as we celebrate his new life with God. Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Cameron. And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

______________________________________

[1] Koester, course notes, 12/1/2010.  For further study see: Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

 

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.

Follow the Breadcrumbs [OR Prophetic Witness and Celebrating Queer Inclusion] Isaiah 56:1-8 and Matthew 15:10-28

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 16, 2020

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Isaiah 56:1-8 Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. 2Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 6And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— 7these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. 8Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:10-28  Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” 13He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” 15But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” 16Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

[sermon begins]

Jesus and a shouting Canaanite woman. What’s the picture in your head? Who is she? What color are her eyes, her hair, her skin? Is she rich or poor? We know that she’s a mother because her daughter is tormented. Jesus comes to town and she shows up shouting. I love this image in part because she has everything to gain and nothing to lose by shouting her broken heart at Jesus. His guys want Jesus to send her away for all the noise she’s making. Jesus doesn’t send her away though. He talks to her. He blows up the conversation by calling her a dog. Some theologians think he’s giving voice to what the disciples are thinking and trying to teach them a lesson because he is somehow in the know about what the Canaanite woman is going to do. After all, he IS the teaching Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. And here he seems to be teaching his disciples what not to do. Could he have known that she was in on the lesson with him? Was it because she called him “Son of David?” She knew the lingo, maybe she knew the rest of his genealogy too. It’s possible she had heard about the Canaanites in Jesus’ family tree listed in Matthew’s opening chapter to the gospel – Rahab the courageous prostitute, Tamar the righteous trickster, and Ruth the loyal daughter-in-law and great-grandmother to King David.[1] [2] Or perhaps Jesus had a physical feature that identified the Canaanite blood that also flowed in his veins through his family tree. Maybe she took one look at him and immediately knew they shared Canaanite blood.[3]

We’ll never know whether she knew but it’s possible that that she did and it’s possible that Jesus knew about the non-Jew, Canaanite women in his genealogy. Jewish heredity follows the mother because mothers are obvious, pregnant links. It’s likely no mistake that it’s this point in Matthew’s Gospel at which Jesus’ ministry expands to include non-Jews. Up to now, he’s instructed his disciples to stay within certain Jewish boundaries. Now they’re in Tyre and Sidon getting shouted at and possibly feeling a little defeated after all they’ve been through. First John the Baptist was killed, then they fed over 5,000 men, women, and children who were also on the move after John’s death, then they spent a terrifying night on a boat at sea in a storm before debarking in Gennesaret, until their trek to Tyre and Sidon where they’re shouted at in welcome. Let’s follow the breadcrumbs through that maze, shall we?

Jesus first follows the breadcrumbs when he said to the crowd and his disciples, “…it is not what goes into his mouth that defiles a person.” Just before he said this, the religious leaders who followed Jesus from Jerusalem accused the disciples of being unclean because they didn’t observe the ritual of handwashing before they ate. It makes me wonder if the religious leaders were spying from behind trees, watching the disciples feed the over 5,000 hungry people in our Bible story two weeks ago who probably didn’t wash their hands either.[4] Perhaps they were hoping to reduce the power of the feeding miracle on a religious technicality. (A little like reversing a flashy touchdown with an offsides penalty.) But the religious leaders’ stale plan couldn’t have worked. Leftover food collected after that meal for thousands filled twelve baskets with the broken pieces. Crumbs, sifting through the baskets, were left as evidence all over the field where the thousands ate. There’s no way the religious leaders could sweep those crumbs under the rug. That’s a significant breadcrumb trail to follow.

Teeny tiny breadcrumbs were probably still embedded in the disciples’ clothes while they were shouted at by the Canaanite woman who was empowered by her broken heart. When she knelt before Jesus, she said, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (What is up with calling this woman a dog?!) Jesus’ comment vexes the faithful in every age. Jews didn’t historically keep or love dogs the way that their Greek and Roman counterparts did.[5] In antiquity, dogs were found in the households of all classes of people and were a symbol of loyalty in art and literature.[6]  Jesus’ dog accusation was flipped by the Canaanite woman who likely had a love of dogs much like dog lovers in our 21st century households.[7] Dogs in her town were fed under the table as beloved family members – crumbs falling over the table’s edge and lapped up by adored canine companions. Whatever this odd exchange between Jesus and the woman actually means, Jesus ends up rewarding the persistent loyalty of the woman by celebrating her faith and fulfilling her wish. His ministry expanded to include a non-Jew, a Canaanite sibling by blood, under the watchful gaze of his disciples. Before we get self-righteous about how Christianity is uniquely inclusive, let’s turn to our Isaiah reading.

Isaiah 56 begins what’s known as 3rd Isaiah because of the time period in which it’s thought to have been written. In our reading, the prophet welcomes two groups of people into the congregation – foreigners and eunuchs.[8]  These two groups of people had been excluded based on the law in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible in the Old Testament. Foreigners and eunuchs had been kept out of the Jewish faith community by law. Foreigners is an understandable concept to us. Eunuchs maybe not so much. Eunuchs in the Bible are commonly understood to mean those who were intentionally castrated to become guards and protectors of women and wealth. However, this is a narrow definition that keeps preaching safely contained. In the ancient world, eunuchs were broadly understood as men who didn’t respond to women in a traditional, heterosexual way.[9] 21st century language now describes eunuchs as queer and part of the spectrum of LGBTQIA+.[10] The prophet witness of Isaiah welcomes the foreigner and the queer into the “reign of Shalom.”[11] He writes:

1aThus says the Lord: 3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree…” 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”[12]

Before any of us cast this passage off as an unusual wrinkle in the Old Testament, we could turn to the New Testament book of Acts when Philip, led by an angel, baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch who “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home…reading the prophet Isaiah,” the 53rd chapter.[13] After his baptism, now adopted as a child of God, the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” And we celebrate this good news with him and all our queer siblings in Christ.

Anyone’s mind blown yet? Can you feel grace tumbling down like breadcrumbs over the edge of a table? God’s grace cannot be contained by the religious leaders in Matthew’s Gospel who want to trap Jesus in an argument about ritual defilement. Instead, Jesus flips the conversation from ritual to right hearts. Much like the Canaanite woman turns the table on Jesus with her broken-hearted demand for the crumbs fed to the dogs and is praised by Jesus for her faith. These Bible readings are a breadcrumb trail that guide us into the ever-expanding ministries of the prophet Isaiah and the Lord Jesus. Ministries that include the diversity of human siblings in skin along with our Savior who slipped on Jewish and Canaanite skin to show us the right-hearted direction. Ministries fueled by an extravagant, perplexing grace that cannot be contained by religious leaders, bread baskets, or tables.  For this, and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.

Song after the Sermon:

Healer of Our Ever Ill (ELW 612)

(Refrain)Healer of our every ill,
Light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

  1. You who know our fears and sadness,
    grace us with your peace and gladness.
    Spirit of all comfort, fill our hearts (Refrain)
  2. In the pain and joy beholding
    how your grace is still unfolding,
    give us all your vision, God of love (Refrain)
  3. Give us strength to love each other,
    every sister, every brother.
    Spirit of all kindness, be our guide (Refrain)
  4. You who know each thought and feeling,
    teach us all your way of healing.
    Spirit of compassion, fill each heart. (Refrain)[14]

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:3-6 Jesus’ genealogy [Tamar: Genesis 38; Rahab: Book of Joshua, Chapter 2; Ruth: Book of Ruth]

[2] Mitzi J. Smith, Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 15:10-28. Sermon Brainwave Podcast posted August 20, 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4542

[3] Pastor Barbara Berry Bailey, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[4] Matthew 14:13-21

[5] Francis D. Lazenby. Greek and Roman Household Pets. The Classic Journal: Vol.44, No. 4 (Jan. 1949), 245-252 and Vol 44., No. 5 (Feb. 1949), 290-307. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CJ/44/4/Household_Pets*.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., Smith.

[8] Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave 738: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 19, 2020.   https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1288

[9] Pastor Reagan Humber, House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver, CO. Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, Metro East Preacher’s Text Study on August 11, 2020.

[10] LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexed, Asexual, Ally, and (+) other

[11] Ibid., Jacobson.

[12] Isaiah 56:1a, 3, and 5

[13] Acts 8:26-40; in verse 32 we learn that the eunuch is studying Isaiah 53:7-8.

[14] Sing along with music and lyrics here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdItMxllvN4

Sitting In The Grass [OR Small, Simple Things and Grace Beyond Our Imagination]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 2, 2020

Below is the sermon that I preached in our outdoor worship today. Pastor Ron Glusenkamp preached in our online worship that can be found here: https://www.augustanadenver.org/worship/   Pastor Ron is not only the husband of Augustana’s Faith Community Nurse Sue Ann, he is the churchwide national Director of the Campaign that includes projects for ELCA World Hunger.

[sermon begins after the Bible story]

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

[sermon begins]

This week, I heard a news report about the Lipstick Index, a term coined to describe how people buy small, simple things to treat themselves during tough times.[1] Well, masks have smeared lipstick sales but nail polish sales are looking shiny. When I heard this news gem, I wondered more about how people treat themselves to small and simple things during difficult times. And then I wondered about how we treat ourselves to small, simple spiritual things. And then I wondered how often we feel the need to muster up spiritual treats from inside of ourselves as if our spiritual well-being depends solely on ourselves. I especially wonder about self-spiritual-mustering during tough times. It’s handy that our Bible reading from Matthew’s Gospel has something to say about this very thing.

Jesus feeds the 5,000 in the story immediately following the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist at King Herod’s dinner party. After he gets the news of John’s death, Jesus gets in a boat to find some deserted quiet. His pursuit of quiet is foiled by the crowds who follow him on foot around the water’s edge. When he goes ashore and sees the people, he’s filled with compassion. The Greek work for “compassion” here means that he felt for them deep in his belly. Seeing the need in the crowd was gut-wrenching for Jesus. In their desperation, they had followed him to a deserted place. Perhaps they too were grieving and even afraid after John’s murder. At the very least, it was a tumultuous time for Jesus followers.

As 21st century Jesus followers, we are learning a thing or two about our own tumultuous times. We feel our own grief and fear. And we see desperation in our own homes, down the street, and around the world. In particular though, the pandemic destabilizes fragile social structures that leave some people especially vulnerable. Hungry communities in certain parts of the world are being pushed into famine.[2] It’s tempting to look away because the despair is heart breaking and our emotional resources feel maxed. But we can also pause and see the people as people and allow their desperation to stir our gut-wrenching compassion. This congregation has a long history of mutual ministry with ELCA World Hunger both domestically and internationally. They know what to do when it comes to feeding people as emergency response and when it comes to helping communities plan into their own self-sustaining future. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Even a small gift of money adds up to big possibilities in combination with gifts from other people. Join me in giving today to ELCA World Hunger at augustanadenver.org and clicking “Donate Online” [or clicking the link below if you’re reading this sermon].[3] 100% of our gifts go to hungry communities because congregations around the country pay the administrative costs. We can be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Even closer to home, the conversation has just started to try and figure out if our annual rice and bean breakdown for Metro Caring’s food pantry will work this year.[4] It may be here in the Fellowship Hall although it would like different. Or it could be at Metro Caring’s new warehouse set up for that purpose. Stay tuned for updates as we cruise toward the second Sunday in September when we would typically celebrate “God’s work. Our hands.” Sunday by separating large bags of rice and beans into household sized portions for their pantry shelves. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can donate food to Metro Caring and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.[5]

One step closer to home is Augustana’s Soup Shelf, an honor system food shelf on the covered porch of our Sanctuary. Donating only canned food only food protected from nature’s critters. The motto “Leave what you can; take what you need” allows for the possibility that someone may be picking up food for themselves or for several neighbors at once. We are not powerless in the face of hungry people. Remember that we can leave canned food on the porch of the Sanctuary and be instrumental in people eating dinner today.

Speaking of people eating dinner, just before Jesus prepares dinner for thousands of his followers, he asks them to sit down on the grass. Actually, he “orders” them to sit down in the grass. This is not a happy go lucky moment for the people or for Jesus. John’s execution by the king is a public act of political theater that traumatized the people. Now they sit together in the grass for what amounts to a funeral reception. There are fish and bread and grass and each other. Instead of treating themselves, the people are treated to a moment of refreshment from Jesus. In the midst of the impossibilities, there is a moment of peace.

Here we sit outside…in the grass. We’re masked and distanced while shaded by a canopy. Nowhere near 5,000, we’re limited in numbers with registration requested. We press pause on the seeming impossibilities of our time to simply be together and to receive. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who needs the reminder that we don’t muster up all that we need spiritually from inside of ourselves. It’s easy to either get caught up in the myth of the rugged individual or to curl up in despair when left to our own devices. For now, we gather when we can, in the ways we can – whether worshiping online or outside sitting in the grass. Here outside today, our communion is cradled in small condiment cups. In a few minutes, when we very briefly remove our masks, we’ll commune together at the same time before putting our masks back on. We commune in as simple way as possible. We commune in “one kind” with a wafer of bread only, pondering the mystery that in this small, simple wafer we receive the fullness of Christ’s grace, forgiveness, strength, and peace.

I hope that is what our time together here is, right now. A moment of peace when we’re reminded that Jesus turns to the desperate crowd and has compassion for them. Just as Jesus turns to us in these times of impossibility and has compassion for us – for our humanity, for our noise, and for the mess we find ourselves in. Jesus reminds us to sit, to pause, to eat, and to remember how important it is to receive. For today, there is a Sabbath invitation to stop or reduce our “doom scrolling” through the social medias or “news binging” shows on our favorite channel, as if the next bit of information is going to save us, and to surrender to Jesus’ compassion.

Surrendering to Jesus’ compassion understands that Jesus knows the trauma of losing close friends in the midst of political chaos. He knows the instinct to find quiet in a deserted place when bad things happen. He is the Word made flesh who experienced pain, surrender, hope, and joy. Following Jesus means we can surrender to his compassion for us when we don’t know where we’re headed next. Our surrender is sometimes marked by small, simple things like setting a table at home for online communion or holding ready a wafer in a condiment cup as we sit in the grass together. Hope for today is kindled and fueled as we receive grace beyond our imagination in a small, simple thing like the grace and peace of Christ in a communion wafer from the One who is, who was, and who is to come.[6] Amen.

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[1] Ailsa Chang and Ari Shapiro. “Pandemic Puts An End To The ‘Lipstick Index,’” National Public Radio: July 27, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/07/27/895867487/pandemic-puts-an-end-to-the-lipstick-index

[2] Lori Hinnant and Sam Mednick. “Coronavirus-Linked Hunger Tied To 10,000 Child Deaths Each Month,” HuffPost Online: July 27, 2020. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coronavirus-hunger-child-deaths_n_5f1f7e9ac5b638cfec48e471

[3] https://www.augustanadenver.org/giving/

Start by clicking the “Donate Online” option and make sure to designate your gift for “ELCA World Hunger.” 100% of donations to ELCA World Hunger go directly to hungry people. Administrative costs are covered by donations from ELCA congregations around the country including Augustana.

[4] Learn more about Metro Caring’s ministry and/or give food or money here: https://www.metrocaring.org/

[5] Turn into Augustana’s parking lot from the west-most Alameda entrance and follow the signs to the Sanctuary porch. Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 East Alameda Avenue, Denver, CO, 80246.

[6] Revelation 1:8.