Tag Archives: Jesus

The Life of the Party [OR The Sabbath is for Delight, Worship, and Laying Aside Ordinary Work]

 

**sermon art: Pentecost Dance by Glenda Dietrich Moore at glendadietrich.com/brighter-pentecost-dance-web/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 2, 2024

[sermon begins after two Bible readings; there’s also one at the end of the sermon]

Mark 2:23 – 3:6 One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

[sermon begins]

I love a good party. Party clothes. Party food. Party drink. Party people. Laughter. Music. Dancing. New People. Longtime friends. Friendly strangers. I am still me, of course. We’re talking pretty chill parties. Party timing can be tough for us early to bed, early to rise peeps. One of my personal favorites was a sunrise party in late summer complete with classical guitar. Regardless, I love a party.

In our reading today, Jesus helps us imagine what it’s like at God’s party. God’s party, a.k.a. the Sabbath, was originally for Jews until the Christians crashed it. “From sundown on Friday until Saturday’s sunset, Jews encouraged one another to enjoy a day of delight (Nehemiah 8:9–12; Isaiah 58:13–14), worshiping the Lord (Isaiah 66:23; Ezekiel 46:3), laying aside ordinary work (Amos 8:5), and fighting only in self-defense (1 Maccabees 2:29–41).”[1] God’s party was a group identity. You knew who you were when you showed up. It said something about the Jews because the sabbath said something about God. For thousands of years before Jesus was born, it was quite unique that the sabbath was for every Jew and their animals and the strangers in their towns. The party wasn’t just for the fancy people. The party was for everyone.

Observing the Sabbath and keeping holy made the list of THE 10 Commandments. More than a recommendation to nap, the sabbath command is a surprising call to delight, to worship, and to lay aside ordinary work. 500 years ago, our denomination’s namesake, Martin Luther, argued that Christian worship is a celebration, not a sacrifice. For today’s purposes, I’d like to suggest that worship is a party. Granted, our style of worship makes for a pretty chill party, but it’s a party, nonetheless. See? Party clothes. Party food. Party drink. Party people. Laughter (even if it IS hiding behind our quiet smiles). Music. Dancing (can we call swaying “dancing?”). New People. Longtime friends. Friendly strangers.

Worship is a wide tent party. No invitations needed although invitations mean more people know that they can come to the party. Along that line, please note your announcement page for PRIDE events coming up. So many of our queer family, friends, and friendly strangers have a hard time trusting that the Jesus party is for them. And with very good reason as their lives have been threatened for much less. Yet even Jesus says that the sabbath is meant for humankind. God’s party is for everyone.

Here at Augustana, we say that, “Celebrating God’s grace, we welcome everyone to worship Jesus.” For us, God’s party IS a Jesus party. Each of us may have a slightly different idea about who Jesus is, but it’s possible that we could agree that Jesus is the Life of the Party. In that regard, it’s been interesting planning my Festival Blessing and Rite of Installation that we’re celebrating this Saturday. Some of our party guests are unchurched. Some of our party guests are multifaith, meaning they are a part of other religions that not Christianity. Is it possible to throw a Jesus party that is comfortable for everyone? Unlikely. But can we throw a Jesus party that gives non-Jesus people a glimpse as to why we throw a Sunday morning Jesus party every week? Maybe. We’ll see. We’re certainly going to try. It is really nice to have something fun to celebrate with a party Spirit.

My installation, just like every Sunday morning, will be traditionally Lutheran. And just like every Sunday morning, all of us Augustana folks are both guests and hosts. Guests because it’s really a Jesus party. We come for ourselves, to delight in God’s love and mercy for us. And we come to be challenged by God’s love to love our neighbors as ourselves as we confess where we fall short. More than guests, we are also hosts because we are a public church. Anyone can come to worship. Just like when we throw a party at our home and stick around to make sure that snacks are refilled and that extra ice is available, we as a congregation host new visitors and family members and neighbors who may walk through the door not knowing what to expect.

It may be hard to fathom but my pastoral conversations with people here run the gamut from people who are showing up to the Jesus party for the very first time to people who can trace their family’s generations back to small German churches where Martin Luther once preached. Those of you who have been around awhile, imagine not speaking the theological language of grace that we take for granted. Words and ideas that seem so simple are actually layered with subtext, interpretations, and complex theological histories over centuries, generated by brilliant academic minds and, we can only hope, faithful hearts.

Those dear Pharisees in the Bible story today were highly regarded in their Jewish communities. They were the keepers of the tradition in the first century, the patriarchs of rabbinic Judaism through which Jesus learned the Torah, what we call the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Torah contains the 10 Commandments including our First Reading from the Bible’s book of Deuteronomy. The Pharisees reaction against Jesus’ teachings parallel our own reactions when our theological hackles are raised. It’s easy to understand their conspiracy with the Herodians to rid themselves of the free-spirited Jesus when we too conspire against people’s ideas that seem the opposite of our own. And once we attach unwanted ideas to other people, it makes it easier to kick them out of the party. Instead of greeters to the celebration, we become bouncers. And it happens, just like that [snap].

So we hold our host status lightly at the Jesus party. After all, we are only hosts as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world. Five years ago, we were barely talking about livestream worship. Three Augustana folks began a quiet conversation about it in the summer and fall of 2019 in order to better serve our home-centered folks. The discussion and the quality of the cameras picked up steam when the pandemic hit. If you had asked me five years ago whether I’d be presiding over communion, in which livestream worshipers were invited to commune at home with bread or cracker and wine or juice, I would have said “no” and questioned the theological premise for such a thing. Today, I talk to people who utterly depend on livestream worship to be a part of our Jesus party. Their gratitude knows no bounds. I talk with other people for whom livestream worship is how they find us and get comfortable worshiping before they ever step through the doors. In a world where the church has done so much harm, it’s helpful for some to find a quieter worship entry.

We still need to be in person together as much as possible – to sing, to serve and receive communion, to greet, to usher, and to welcome new people to the party. Robust and thriving worship means showing up together and being community together. And…AND, much to my surprise, we’re trusting that the Holy Spirit can expand the Jesus party, the party food, into people’s bellies we don’t get to see or haven’t met yet. As the writer of Second Corinthians puts it, “For it is God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; but we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

In other words, what’s to stop the Holy Spirit from blowing where it will to include people in the Augustana community that we here in person don’t get to see? Nothing. The Holy Spirit will stop at nothing to shine God’s light into the darkness. It goes a long way to remember that we are both guests and hosts of the Jesus party on the sabbath. All of us enter the party by the grace of God. Every single one of us. It can be hard to remember that we host on behalf of the One who calls us to the sabbath to delight, to worship, and to lay aside ordinary work – the Holy One who is the Life of the Party…or, more accurately, the Life – Death – Life of the party. Thanks be to God. And amen.

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[1] C. Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ. Commentary on Mark 2:23—3:6 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary. For June 2, 2024.

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2 Corinthians 4:5-12 We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you.

 

Holy Friendship – John 15:9-17

**sermon art: Crucifixion in Yellow by Abraham Rattner (1953)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 5, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

John 15:9-17 [Jesus said to his disciples:] 9“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

[sermon begins]

Friends make life fun, and challenging, and good, and funny, and frustrating, and great. Friends can be around for the long haul or sometimes only for a particular season of life. Some people are inclined to talk about close friends as besties. Others simply let each friend defy description and hierarchy. Most people would say that friends are essential. We could argue that Jesus thought that friends were essential, too. Jesus said to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father; you did not choose me, but I chose you.”[1] No longer servants. Friends. That’s astounding for Jesus to say. And it’s a particular friendship. Jesus defines it. The disciples are Jesus’ friends because they’re in the know about God.

Jesus shared with them what he heard from God the Father. Bam. Friends! Friendship connected with God means something. It means something holy because God is the source of holiness and when we say something is holy, we mean it is something touched by God – whether that’s a person, thing, time, or place.[2] Holiness is not limited to the church. Of course, God is not restricted by such feeble constraints. Bible story after Bible story remind us that God acts where God will and with who God wills, not only in the places or people we think God should be acting. But when Jesus connected friendship and God, he was talking about holy friendship of a particular kind. It’s a good day to talk about what that means for being church because Jesus taught what it means in our reading today.

His teaching is part of what’s called the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, chapters 14-17. Jesus talked about what holy friendship means as he said farewell to his friends. He knew they would need that connection to sustain their witness as their day-to-day world became more challenging after his death. As they longed to have Jesus back with them, they would need to turn towards each other in the love of holy friendship with the deep conviction that their lives belonged first to God and by extension they belonged to each other.

Jesus made holy friendship simple. Not easy. Simple. Lives shared in the witness of Jesus’ good news means the love of God is at its core. Jesus revealed God’s love in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Holy friendship includes sharing Jesus’ ways with each other, being Jesus to each other. We preach Christ crucified and we are the resurrected body of Christ in the world. This means that suffering doesn’t have the last word. Love does.

In the simplest of terms, Jesus showed up for milestones like a wedding and a funeral.[3] Pausing to observe life’s moments with holy friends recognizes God’s promise of presence with us in every situation, good or ill. Last Sunday in worship, we celebrated with our young holy friends graduating from high school. Lifting them in prayer during their time of transition. This coming Wednesday, 60+ Ministry will worship together and eat lunch afterwards. In one day last week, I met with three sets of holy friends – parents planning a baptism, another family planning a funeral, and a couple planning their wedding. (My first hat trick as a pastor.[4]) What do these things have in common? God is in the middle of these events with God’s promises of faith, hope, and love through celebration and suffering. Showing up for each other’s milestones builds community through the bonds of holy friendship, belonging to each other in the name of Jesus.

Right after the wedding of Cana in John chapter 2, where Jesus performed his miracle of turning water into wine, we’re invited into a different story. Jesus cleared the temple of bad business practices that hurt people and worked against the community.[5] The story of Jesus’ anger and how we think about the church helps us tend to the business of the church without turning the church solely into a business. Fiscal responsibility and attending to the business of the church is worthy, it’s just not the only or last word. Jesus’ teaching about holy friendship adds to that nuance. Stewarding our resources for both the good of this faith community and the wider community forms a tension from which we witness to Christ’s love for us and for the world. Our holy friendship as stewards isn’t easy. We have different ideas about how best to use the money, time, and talents that God first gave us.

Last week, Pastor Gail preached about Peter’s redemption and transformation after the resurrection in John, chapter 21.[6] In his fear during Jesus’ trial, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Each time, Peter said, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” That scripture, Peter’s longing for Jesus to hear him, wrecks me every time. Three denials. Three affirmations of love and a way to make amends as Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, to tend to the beloved people who belong to God and each other. Grace upon grace was bestowed on Peter in those moments. If Peter’s example is too lofty, let’s visit the woman caught in adultery in John, chapter 8.[7] She was a dead woman walking, about to be legally executed by stoning.  Jesus wielded reckless grace on her behalf while inviting the men around her into self-examination of their own sin. He said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With that grace-filled challenge, is any wonder that Jesus ended up executed himself?

We follow the example of Jesus in our life together. In our best moments, we love each other across healthy boundaries for our common good. Do we sometimes hurt each other by the things we do and the things we leave undone? You bet. Directly addressing hurt and shame with the people who hurt us is what holy friendship looks like. We as the church get to practice Jesus’ teaching over and over again. Holy conversations follow the example of Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and the woman at the well in John chapter 4. Holy conversations that name both how we are hurt and how we hurt others are a call to grace. Grace upon grace to know ourselves, too. To laugh at ourselves, shake our heads at ourselves, and open ourselves to something inside of us shifting by way of that grace so that we can better love each other, including loving our very own selves. That’s holy friendship, figuring out how to extend grace to each other because we are holy friends, yoked to Jesus by Jesus for each other.

We belong to each other through no work of our own as we do the work of belonging to each other. Jesus said, “…you did not choose me, but I chose you.” Through our baptisms by water, into Christ’s death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit works the wonders of transformation, giving us spiritual gifts for building up the body of Christ as a place of reckless belonging, a place of imperfect, holy friendship for God’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world. Amen.

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[1] John 15:15-16a

[2] Frederick Buechner, “Holy” in Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1973, 1993), 45.

[3] John 2: Jesus first miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana; John 11: The raising of Lazarus.

[4] A hat trick is a sports term that applies to achievements that happen in groups of three like a hockey player who scores three points in one game.

[5] John 2:13-25

[6] John 21:15-19

[7] John 8:1-11

Worthy of Wonder, a sermon for Easter – Mark 16:1-8

**The Empty Tomb by Julia Stankova (2003) painting on wooden panel

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 31, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 16:1-8  When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint [Jesus’ body]. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[sermon begins]

There is classic question asked by Christians over the centuries. We regularly ask, “What does this mean?” The question invites wonder. We wonder about faith, scripture, Jesus, life, love, enemies, and more. Not only do we wonder, but sometimes we disagree. The disagreement isn’t always pretty – note that there are multiple flavors of Christians. But at its best, the question opens us to curiosity and wonder – “What does this mean?” The question is quite Biblical. In our Bible story this morning, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James, were in a whole heap of wonderment, reacting to the unknown and uncontrollable, and trying to make sense of a mystery. Because that’s what humans do. That’s what we do when we’ve been through the ringer like those women. It’s good to wonder.

The events leading up to Jesus’ death were shocking. He entered Jerusalem at the top of his game, his followers lined the parade route and waved palm branches, celebrating Jesus’ entrance into the city as if nothing could stop him. But he was stopped in dramatic fashion – betrayed, arrested, charged, tortured, denied, and nailed to a cross. Not just stopped. Stopped dead. Small wonder that the women at the empty tomb couldn’t wrap their heads around it, they had watched their teacher and friend die three days before.[1] Jesus wasn’t surprised. He’d been predicting his death. His death was the inevitable end to his ministry of unconditional love and grace. Hate’s last gasp, if you will, because God’s love is that powerful. Hate will always try to do away with reckless love because it’s just too threatening to the powers that be. Love is unpredictable. Love is a wonder.

Wondering about Jesus’ death before he left behind an empty tomb helps us remember that it was not the violence of his death that redeems us. Nor was his death planned to appease an angry God or a hungry devil. Jesus’ execution was unavoidable.

While it’s hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves you, it’s downright offensive that God loves your enemies as much as God loves you. This is what riled up the people who killed him. Even so, Jesus’ death reminds us that God will not raise a hand in violence against us, even when we try to kill God. Jesus is the incarnation of God, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through SELF-sacrifice, and revealing a divine love powerful enough to leave behind an empty tomb.

Those women at the tomb, what chance did they have describing such an unexplainable, wild thing after everything they’d just gone through. It’s no surprise that they fled the tomb in terror and wonder, silenced by their own fear. On Easter, we gather in wonder alongside those women. We are not so different from them, really. Making sense of an empty tomb? What does it mean? What could it mean? The empty tomb is a wonder.

The empty tomb was so full of wonder that it silenced the women. “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Fear and silence were their starting point, but we must assume that one of them finally broke. In the weeks, months, and years after Jesus’ birth, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, Jesus’ followers told the story bit by bit, sharing it with each other and then more people, and finally writing it down. Theirs was a similar process to ours. Shaky with doubt or trusting and celebratory this Easter, we seek to understand the promises of the cross and resurrection by asking what they mean. Slowly, a piece of evidence here, an observant comment there, a Bible story now aligning with a random story you heard but can’t remember where, finally an experience in your life that ties the pieces together. Our stories are a wonder.

There is a story for each of us. Of course there is, even if we don’t think of it that way. In fact, I’d guess that if I were to ask you whether your story is worthy, you may say, “yes,” but also silently wonder about whether it is truly worthy or whether you yourself are worthy. There are many messages out there that other people’s stories are more important than our own – at school, at work, on the medias, in the movies. Those messages that elevate others at the expense of our own story are lies.

Each of our stories is about a life that God so loves. If, as the Bible says, God so loves the world, and you’re in the world, your life is worthy of God’s love, and worthy of love period. There’s no Venn diagram. Just one big circle, well, more like a planet…or actually, no, bigger than a planet…let’s go with universe, yeah, that’s it, universe! You, your life, your story, no matter how beautiful or messy or messed up it may be, is worthy of the love of God. You are a wonder.

Sometimes that seems to be the hardest thing to believe – that you are worthy of love – deep down in the darkness, in whatever tomb you’ve enclosed yourself in, shrouded in the illusion of safety. The wonder of it all is that God loves you first. Before you wake up in the morning. Before you make your first move. When you make your first move. You are beloved. We make it all kinds of complicated, but it really is that simple. We cannot screw it up or alter God’s love in any way. People will try to tell you that you can. That there’s a limit to how much even God can love. But the message of the cross and the empty tomb is that there is no limit to how much God loves you. That is the Easter promise worth the wonder. Alleluia. And amen.

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[1] Mark 15:40-41

The Goodness of Good Friday – The Gospel of John, chapters 18 and 19

**sermon art: The Crucifixion with Jesus Mother and the Beloved Disciple by Laura James.

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 29, 2024

John 18 and 19 – read the whole thing elsewhere if you’d like – sermon begins after this brief excerpt:

John 19:17–18, 25b–27 So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

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

[sermon begins]

How are we to understand the goodness of Good Friday? A violent execution seems an odd thing to commemorate much less celebrate, especially in a time when the world is wrestling with disturbing violence and deep pain. It’s really important today to understand that it’s not the violence of the cross that is redemptive. It’s not the pain of Jesus that saves us. It’s easy to get lost in the message of the cross because the earliest Jesus followers who wrote down their experiences couldn’t quite figure it out either.

The goodness of Good Friday has to do with God. More specifically, the goodness of Good Friday has to do with who God is in Jesus. The Gospel of John argues that God is Jesus and Jesus is God. The love of God in Jesus, the audacity of grace personified in Jesus, the ultimate power of that love, so enraged his enemies and fueled the mob mentality that ultimately killed him. Jesus ate meals with unlovable people, he had public conversations with women no one spoke to, and he had secret conversations with religious leaders who opposed him by day. The list of his ever-expanding circle of grace and love is endless. Finally, when the threat of his grace, the threat about who is included in the love of God, became too great, he was killed for it. Grace and unconditional love were just too threatening. When Jesus predicted his death, it was the inevitable end that could be anticipated. Hate’s last gasp, if you will, because love is the greatest power and hate will always try to do away with it.

The goodness of Good Friday reminds us that we are not left alone in suffering. God suffers with us. God absorbs our suffering into God’s heart. Good Friday also tells the truth about suffering caused by violence. Large acts of violence are obvious. There are also the smaller acts of violence that destroy relationships and murder people’s spirits and our own spirits – lies, gossip, passive aggression, dissing someone’s body rather than debating their ideas or confronting their hurtful behavior…the list of our violent ways is as endless as we are creative in inflicting ourselves against the ones we love and the ones we hate.  The level we inflict suffering on each other, and on the earth and all its creatures, knows no bounds.

The goodness of Good Friday reminds us that the cross is the place where we struggle in the darkness and the very place where God meets us. We live in this darkness in different ways – failure, addiction, confusion, doubt – our darkest places that we don’t tell anyone about. Most of us are capable of just about anything given the right set of circumstances. The goodness of Good Friday isn’t about pointing away from ourselves at other people who cause suffering. It’s also a sacred space to wonder and confess the pain that we cause as well.

Confessions of sin extend to systems that we’re a part of – institutions, countries, governments, families, friendships, communities, etc. Systems that hold us captive to sin from which we cannot free ourselves. What does free us? Jesus on the cross. Jesus on the cross holds up a mirror in which we can see our own reflections. Reflections that reveal the sin we inflict on each other and cannot justify. Oh sure, we try riding that high horse, cloaking our sin in self-righteousness. But the cross tells us otherwise. The cross also surprises us with grace in the face of sin.

We often act without awareness of how our actions may hurt someone else. That’s why our worship confessions talk about things we’ve done and things we’ve failed to do. That’s why we talk about our sin. Sin gives us language for the way we hurt other people and ourselves with our actions – actions that separate us from each other and God. Good Friday’s goodness creates space to experience life-giving compassion from the heart of God in the face of our sin. God’s SELF-sacrifice in Jesus also reminds us that Jesus’ death isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. Jesus is a revelation of the goodness of God, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through SELF-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love.

God reveals the truth of our death dealing ways while reminding us that God’s intention for humankind is good.[1] Jesus was fully human and fully divine. His life’s ministry and his death on the cross reveal our humanity and the goodness for which we were created. The cross awakens that goodness. Jesus’ full and fragile humanity was displayed on the cross. He sacrificed himself to the people who killed him for his radical, excessive love. He would not raise a hand in violence against the people and the world that God so loves. Jesus’ self-sacrificing goodness clears our eyes to see God’s intention for our human life together.

Our connection with each other is also revealed in the goodness of Good Friday. From the cross, Jesus redefined connection, kinship, and companionship. Hear these words again from the gospel reading:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” [2]

From the cross, with some of his last breaths, Jesus did this incredible thing. It’s amazing. Jesus connects people through suffering. This is not a reason for suffering. Simply one truth about it. When we suffer and feel most alone, Jesus reaches out from his own suffering to remind us that we have each other. God’s heart revealed through the cross destroys the illusion of our aloneness and connects us to each other once more. In God we live and move and have our being through God’s goodness in Jesus on the cross. In each other, we’re given kinship and appreciation for the gift and mystery of being alive.

In the end, the cross isn’t about us at all. It’s about the self-sacrificing love of Jesus who reveals God’s ways to show us the logical end of ours – our death-dealing ways in the face of excessive grace and radical love. We struggle to believe that God applies this grace and love to everyone. It’s hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves us. It’s downright offensive that God loves our greatest enemy as much as God loves us. But that is God’s promise in the goodness of Good Friday. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. God loves you through the cross, in the darkest places that you don’t tell anyone about. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.[3] God’s arms are opened to all in the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, receiving us by God’s reckless grace because God is love.[4] The goodness of Good Friday is that God loves us. God loves you. Amen.

__________________________________________________

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

[2] John 19:25b-27

[3] Romans 8:38-39

[4] 1 John 4:7-21

Who has been Jesus for you? John 3:14-21 [OR Would Someone Please Put John 3:17 on the Poster, Too?]

**sermon art: Jesus Washes the Disciples Feet by Luke Allsbrook, oil on canvas (2018)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 10, 2024

Ugh, you know, the thing I don’t like about Jesus is that he was always telling his followers to get their revenge, to trash talk, to really stick it to people. He was super mean all the time. He didn’t like weddings. And little children really got under his skin. I should probably stop there on the slight chance that anyone thinks I’m serious. Obviously, Jesus was none of those things. The stories we have about Jesus and the things he said reveal an incredible human. Non-Christians say how great life would be if Christians actually lived like Jesus lived. Many people who aren’t Christians try to live their lives as Jesus lived. Just as those of us who say we follow Jesus try to follow his example.

When we welcome new members into Lutheran churches like this one, we call it affirmation of baptism. There are promises we make as part of the affirmation of baptism when we join a church. The last few weeks we’ve covered a few of our promises: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, and to proclaim God in Christ through word and deed. Today, we’re highlighting our promise, “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” Our Bible readings today help us remember a very important part of this promise. Jesus is Jesus and we are not, even if we are called to follow his example.

Verse 17 of the John reading takes that one step further. If Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn the world, then why would any Jesus follower think it’s their job to condemn people? I shared at Evening Prayer last Wednesday that I was raised in two denominations that painted the scariest portrait of God you could imagine, and that God sent Jesus to police the planet for evil deeds of any size. When I left home, I left Jesus behind. Why take him to the party if he was just going to frown away? And then I married a Lutheran Christian. We baptized our babies and made the promises to them that you hear me ask parents or baptized adults to make at our baptismal font. What changed? God didn’t. I did.

John 3:16 and 17 were written as a continuous thought in the original Greek.[1] “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. 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.”

God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus is good news because it reveals God’s goodness and light. Jesus was not sent to condemn the world but to save it. Salvation in John’s gospel is focused on life. Eternal life today because God is eternal, and God abides with us right now as we abide with God right now. How would it change Jesus’ message for you to think about salvation that way rather than a dividing line at death? Why would a God whose love for the world, who draws all people to God, suddenly turn against people when they die? Have we projected our own fear about dying onto God?

These questions are relevant to today’s reading because people have used verse 16 over the centuries to blast people beyond God’s love. It’s what happens when verse 16 is separated from verse 17. It’s what happens when belief is set as the highest power above even God’s grace, as if the power of God’s grace could be limited by our beliefs and doubts which is, of course, ludicrous. In case we think too highly of our own power, hear the reminder from Ephesians – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith as a gift from God, by definition, means that belief cannot be a work. We don’t dredge belief and faith up in ourselves. That’s a real mind bender, isn’t it?

We haven’t focused on the Hebrew Bible’s stories of the Old Testament much over the last few weeks. Those readings in worship have emphasized the covenants that God makes to God’s people. Each covenant God made is evidence that the promise to some was for the benefit of many. From God’s covenant with Abraham would come blessing for the whole world.[2] From God’s covenant with the Hebrews led by Moses, would come life-giving commandments that brought peace among neighbors.[3] And from God’s covenant with the whole world through Jesus, would come a love so powerful that it transforms hearts and minds.[4]

Which brings us back to the baptismal promise we make “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus.” We don’t make this promise to serve in order to grow the church or to win souls for God or to prove how cool our theology is. We serve following the example of Jesus because as the Ephesians reading tell us, “…we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

I’d like you think for a minute about the people who have served you like you imagine Jesus served people in the Bible stories. Call to mind names and faces and what happened. It may be someone who prayed for you.[5] It may be someone who healed you like a chiropractor or physician or counselor.[6] It may be someone who didn’t let a past harm define you.[7] It may be someone who has more grace for your flaws than you ever could for yourself and doesn’t condemn you.[8] It may be someone who stayed up with you late at night, talking when you needed it most.[9] It may be someone who fed you when you had no way to pay them back.[10] As I prepared this sermon, so many faces and names swam through my mind.

Most recently, it was my friend, Lee McNeil. Lee and I worked on human dignity policies and legislation with Together Colorado especially related to race and justice. I called her Sister Lee as did many others who knew her. It was an honorary title of respect for a beloved and wise elder. As the great granddaughter of an enslaved person, and the triple-great granddaughter of someone who owned African people, our friendship evolved over the ten years of working together. A few weeks ago, we were asked to write an opinion piece together supporting the Racial Equity Study bill moving through the Colorado legislature that will increase understanding of the generational impact of law and policy on Black Coloradans. Sister Lee and I wrote it in my office here at the church. First we reminisced over people we knew because we hadn’t talked in over a year. Then we kept right on talking while I typed and read out loud and we talked more and edited the letter together.

At the end of our conversation that day, I told her how grateful I am for our friendship and for her grace while I learned things I could never have learned without her loving instruction and willingness to just talk. We hugged. She told me she loved me and I told her back. There were a flurry of emails back and forth with final edits and I submitted our letter to the paper. A week later I found out that Lee died suddenly. A long life well lived. I was stunned and heartbroken and incredibly grateful to know her and unbelievably grateful to have seen her right before she died. Sister Lee was kind and thoughtful and fierce. She loved Jesus and she served people following the example of Jesus.

I’ve watched many of you love each other similarly. Oh sure, there are disappointments, disagreements, and sometimes frayed nerves. We are human after all. But we’re reminded time and again how much God loves us and we’re reminded that Jesus commanded us to love each other and then showed us how to do it. The list of things that Jesus did for people is long. If there’s not someone coming to mind at the moment who has been Jesus to you, take this question out of worship with you today. Who has served you as Jesus served and, in some small way, helped you understand just how much God must love you? Because that’s what our service to other people does, it reminds them that God loves them too. This reminder is no small thing in a world that is in desperately in need of Jesus’ transforming love.

Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________

[1] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for Bible readings on Sunday, March 10, 2024. www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/952-fourth-sunday-in-lent-mar-10-2024

[2] Genesis 12:1-5 The Call of Abram

[3] Exodus 20:1-17 The Ten Commandments

[4] Acts 9:1-22 The Conversation of Saul/Paul

[5] John 17:1-26 Jesus’ Prays for his disciples.

[6] See all of Jesus’ healing stories.

[7] John 8:1-11 Woman caught in adultery.

[8] Luke 22:54-62 Peter denies Jesus.

[9] John 3:1-21 Nicodemus visits Jesus by night.

[10] Mark 6:30-44

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

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

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

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 28, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________

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

[2] John 3:16-17

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

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

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

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

Caitlin Trussell at Augustana Lutheran Church, December 24, 2023

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

 

Isaiah 9:2-9

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Luke 1:26-38

[3] Matthew 1:18-22

[4] 1 John 4:8

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

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

 

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and Merry Christmas!

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

[2] John 1:1

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

[4] John 1:14

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

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 3, 2023

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

Isaiah 64:1-9

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

Mark 13:24-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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[1] Mark 13:1-3

[2] Mark chapters 14 and 15.

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

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

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

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

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Psalm 80:1–4, 7, 17–19

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

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