Tag Archives: Jesus

Hope for a Different Way [OR Epiphany and the Magi’s Star] Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Epiphany by Miki De Goodaboom

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 9, 2022

[sermon begins after Bible story]

Matthew 1:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

As Christmas decorations get packed away, they often leave bits of themselves around, finding their way into corners and carpet fibers – pine needles either real or fake, tiny gingerbread house candies, and shimmery tinsel. Tinsel sparkles like glitter, but unlike glitter that is teeny-tiny and sticks to just about anything, tinsel shimmers in very thin strips, like super chill tin foil.[1] Tinsel is sometimes long, its strands tied together into snake-like garlands that drape across ceilings or coil around a Christmas tree. Tinsel reflects nearby light and sparkles even when the lights are dim. It’s inexpensive and widely available so it’s not surprising that tinsel fell into the hands of the five of us siblings when we were little. Just having left my dad who was losing his fight with mental illness, Mom and the five of us kids were starting over and getting ready for Christmas. Like anyone’s memory from childhood, mine are a bit spotty. But I remember sitting at a table with tinsel, scotch tape, and a hanger – watching my sister tape tinsel garland to the wire hanger that had been shaped into a star for the top of our Christmas tree. I now have that star with its singed scotch tape. It hangs by a thick red ribbon from my ceiling in the kitchen every year from the four weeks before Christmas through its 12 days, from Advent through Epiphany.

Six weeks of the shimmering tinsel star in my kitchen hardly compares to the years long journey of the Magi in our Bible story today. They’re sung about as kings or talked about as wise men, but those translation choices were made well after Jesus’ birth.[2] The Magi is what they were called in Biblical Greek. They were from the East, which at that time meant out towards Persia or Babylon now modern-day Iran and Iraq. Guided by a star, their journey ended with gifts of gold and spices given to a toddler Jesus by the time they finally arrived. We include the Magi in our nativity sets for simplicity’s sake not for Biblical accuracy. Simplicity is helpful. It helps us shorten a story into manageable parts so that we can tell the story and understand it.

The Magi capture our imagination. Not just ours. Early Christian writers, preachers, artists, and singers too. In the Ancient Near East, the Magi were astronomers and magicians who advised kings. Their visit to Jesus and the Feast of the Epiphany are a time to celebrate the good news of Jesus to the great joy of all the people.[3] Magi represent the inclusive good news for “all the people” because they couldn’t have been more foreign to our Jewish cousins in the faith who first heard this story. These magical advisors to kings also reveal God working through unexpected people in the Bible yet one more time.

The Magi are unexpected people, and they do unexpected things…well, after they do the expected thing by checking in with King Herod. It makes sense as advisors to Eastern kings that they would consult with King Herod to continue searching for the King of the Jews. Herod is so frightened by the Magi’s news that Jerusalem was frightened with him. I wonder if Jerusalem was frightened knowing that Herod was afraid, because a fearful king is a terrifying king. Fearful kings do violent things as their fear turns to anger. Case in point, after the Magi left town a different way to avoid Herod, the holy family escaped to Egypt just before Herod “sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the [Magi].”[4] Herod was fearful and angry and violent to the point of killing children.

We too live in a time of violence, suffering and sickness. Caution is advised as we try to interpret God’s intentions or activity in any event. More recently we saw the carnage wrought by hundreds of insurrectionists in D.C. and a lone gunman closer to home, or the ashes of someone’s home destroyed by fire, or the deathbed of someone’s loved one in pandemic.[5] Proceed with caution when interpreting God’s intentions or activity in any event. We are not God. We can mistakenly imply that God was with some people and not others if we confuse God’s blessing with a house still standing after the fire or someone still breathing after an infection.[6] Epiphany isn’t only about the Magi’s star journey to see Jesus, the escape to Egypt, and the threat of Herod. It’s also about the Magi’s return home a different way after visiting Jesus. They first met Jesus when he was still little, the embodiment of hope not yet matured.  Scripture assures us that the King of the Jews’ birth, life, death, and resurrection means something different is happening along with what we see and experience. The short word for this is hope.

Kids have a way of making a way when it seems like all is lost. Like when my siblings and I made that star for the top of our Christmas tree. The tinsel star as reminder of resilience through trauma and making a way when all seems lost. For us, the child-like wonder of Christmas crafted a star of hope. Kids are great at making a way when the evidence presents a wall. Flash to the Magi who followed a star as months turned into years, finding their way through a perilous journey to give their gifts to Jesus. Christians through the centuries have also made a way through whatever the circumstances of the moment may be. On January 6 every year, Christians worldwide celebrate Epiphany. January 6 is also now recorded in our country’s history as one of violent conflict over power. As Jesus followers, we are offered a different way in the face of violence and power – the wonder of Christmas revealing Jesus as the star of hope.

We sang a Gathering Song at the beginning of worship today – Christ be our Light. The song led us in prayer as we praised Christ for lighting the way of peace, hope, and salvation. Quite often, maybe far too often, the ones we need saving from is ourselves. Prone to conflict, scape-goating, and violence as both catharsis and solution, Christ shines light on the futility of those ways while guiding us on a different way to love not just ourselves but our neighbors too; to love not just our neighbors but our enemies too. Christ shines the love of God first – the unconditional, ever-expanding love of God for you. Epiphany is a good day for hope as Christ shines Star-light on a different way for us. Thanks be to God and amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] Tinsel has a history dating back to the 1600s. Check it out at https://www.thefactsite.com/history-of-tinsel/

[2] Sandra Sweeney Silver. Early Church History: Who Were the Magi? “In the ancient Middle Eastern world these Magi were trusted advisors to kings, were learned men proficient in the knowledge of mathematical calculations, astronomy, medicine, astrology, alchemy, dream interpretation and history as well as practitioners of magic and paranormal arts.” https://earlychurchhistory.org/beliefs-2/who-were-the-magi/

[3] Luke 2:10

[4] Matthew 2:13-18 These few verses summarize the holy family’s escape to Egypt and what is known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The stories are worth reading because we don’t hear them in the regular schedule of Sunday worship scripture a.k.a. Revised Common Lectionary.

[5] Without preaching the details, the shooter who recently shot and killed people across Denver and Lakewood, the 1/6/2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the Marshall fire in and around Boulder CO, and Covid deaths, are inferred.

[6] Ryan Warner interviews Isaac Sendros on Colorado Matters: When the evacuation order for the Marshall Fire came, the 600-member staff of Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville sprang into action. The hospital’s CEO Isaac Sendros recounts how they cleared everyone from preemies to COVID patients. https://www.cpr.org/show-segment/how-to-evacuate-a-hospital-the-story-of-clearing-out-avista-adventist/

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 24, 2021

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________

[1] Luke 1:3

[2] Luke 2:1-2

[3] Luke 2:10

_________________________________

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

Guard Your Hearts – Luke 21:25-37 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Like New Year’s Day but for the Church)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 28, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 21:25-36 [Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

[sermon begins]

 

 

Every so often scripture comes alive in an unexpected way. Most recently this happened for me on Thanksgiving. We watched a movie after dinner and before pie. King Richard. It’s a story about Venus and Serena Williams’ father. Richard and their mother, Oracene, coached them to become two of the world’s greatest tennis players of all time. This was their story. My scripture radar lit up in the scene when Richard makes the girls watch Cinderella after he felt that they’d crossed the line from celebrating into bragging. He asked them about the movie’s lesson. They guessed a few answers, none of which were what he was hoping for. He was about to make them watch it again when their mom caboshed him. Instead, he gave his own short sermon about being humble no matter what comes their way – disrespect, winning, or losing. And that they needed to keep their hearts clean.

When he said told them to keep their hearts clean, my mind translated it through the Luke reading. I thought I’d heard Richard say to the girls, “You got to guard your hearts!” I rewatched that scene a day later, as I was writing my sermon, and discovered that the gospel writer’s words weren’t in the movie as I’d thought. Which is also like when you think you heard the preacher say something in a sermon, so you mention it to them, and they assure you that it wasn’t in there. I chalk those moments up to the Holy Spirit’s mischief. Anyway, Richard’s admonition to them to keep their hearts clean carried several messages during the film – stay humble, stay off the streets, stay away from drugs. In other words, stay focused and guard your hearts.

Jesus also warned his disciples about their hearts. His words were a little different. Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” I like the Advent message in this verse. Advent, the start of the church year, is a time to get ready – only partly for Christmas and Jesus in the manger. Advent is more about trusting God’s promise that the kingdom comes fully when Jesus comes again.

This year, the first Sunday of Advent offers a Bible reading that sounds alarming but was a word of comfort to Jesus’ disciples with a message of hope. Chaos ruled their time. Rome was on the warpath. Oppression was rampant from the haves over the have nots. Jesus’ words in this reading comforted people with the promise of God’s kingdom in a world that felt like it was ending. During that chaos, Jesus taught them to guard their hearts against overindulgence. Because overindulgence, dissipation and drunkenness are an easy move when the world is in chaos and people are fainting in fear and foreboding. This year’s increased alcohol sales show just how easy it is to numb out of the chaos. Alcohol is only one way, and easy to measure, but we all know that there are other ways to avoid feeling the feelings and engaging with the world. Most of us can name our preferred mode of escape.

Jesus’ challenge to the disciples considers another way to live in the chaos while awaiting the kingdom of God. Guard your hearts from being weighed down with the worries of this life. Straightforward but not easy to do. Fortunately, we have some help. For starters, we have a framework called the Church Year, a.k.a. the Liturgical Year. The first Sunday of Advent is a timely reminder that there is a structure in place for guarding our hearts – like New Year’s Day, but for the church. Time is structured, first with Advent, then the 12 days of Christmas, then Epiphany and the following Sundays, and the rest that follows, to guard our hearts as we’re weekly and sometimes daily reminded who we are and who we belong to.

This Advent, you’re encouraged to do that with the daily devotion books on the tables at the doors.[1] You can also download an e-copy on your phone. Starting today there are short verses, readings and a prayer for each day that take us through the twelve days of Christmas. Whether you’ve done daily devotions many times or have never done daily devotions, there are touch points for faith each day that help us guard our hearts as individuals and connects us to each other as we daily reflect and pray the same devotions. Pick one up on your way out of worship this morning and get started.

Christianity has always been about engaging the world with hearts of compassion – and never about disengaging or escaping. Compassion guards our hearts against cynicism and the objectification of other people. We can tell when we’re objectifying folks when we start accepting their suffering as deserved or, at the very least, beyond our control. How many Sunday worship readings in the Church Year focus us on loving God and loving neighbor and that when we love our neighbor then we are also loving God? I don’t actually know the answer to that question but I’m going to go out on a limb and guesstimate that it’s a sizeable percent of Sunday readings during the year.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians edges toward this notion of loving God, loving neighbor, and loving neighbor to love God. Verses 12 and 13 of the reading go like this, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you; And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness…” 1 Thessalonians is considered to be Paul’s first recorded letter and may just be my favorite of his letters. There is an abundance of love between Paul and this church, a love from which he attempts to encourage them through their challenges. The language he uses about “strengthening hearts in holiness” could be problematic if he was telling them that they need to aim higher in their piety. But he isn’t. Paul’s words are a prayer, asking that God strengthen their hearts in the holiness that, of course, belongs first to God – that their hearts be guarded by God in their love for each other and for all people.

Good tips for guarding our hearts in today’s readings. Praying for each other. Loving each other and all people. Good tips for guarding our hearts at this Advent time of the Church Year. Daily Devotions. Sunday worship. And here’s one more. Pick a word to guard your heart during the Church Year. A word to guide your prayer and focus your thinking when chaos ramps up and the temptation to escape rather than act in love becomes strong. The word can be “love” or “hope” or any other word from scripture. You can use the readings from today or the readings from the daily devotions this week. Circle the words in the bulletin that resonate with your faith. Thanksgiving Eve’s readings had some great stuff for Advent words too. That bulletin can still be found at augustanadenver.org/worship.

You can get as involved or keep it as simple as you’d like in choosing your word. If there are too many choices, let me know and I can help narrow the options or even just assign you a word. Write the word on a sticky note or create daily calendar reminders that pop the word on your phone at different times of day, or create something cool with paint, markers, or colored pencils. Be as high or low tech as you’d like. Be as simple or as artsy as you’d like.

The bottom line is that guarding our hearts is ultimately about reminding ourselves and each other that our hearts are already guarded. We need reminders that our hearts are already guarded because the world is a noisy place, and we are forgetful humans. We need reminders to not faint from fear, to not numb ourselves with drunkenness, to not be weighed down with worry. Jesus reminds us to engage each other with compassion and gives us plenty of examples. Our hearts are already guarded by Christ Jesus – the Messiah for whom we wait at Kingdom Come and the One who arrives in, with, and under the bread and wine of holy communion. We wait with hope and anticipation because God remembers us according to his steadfast love.  Amen and Thanks be to God!

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[1] Heaven and Nature Sing: Devotions for Advent and Christmas 2021. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021). https://go.augsburgfortress.org/devotions-for-advent-and-christmas

Ask the Complicated Questions [OR A Sermon for Reformation Day] John 8:31-36

**sermon photo: Nerina Fielding, Starling Mumeration [still captured from recording], Natomas, Sacramentao, California.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Prw9AZ9jw

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 31, 2021

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

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]

Mr. Mack sported a silver crew cut with his serious demeanor. He was retired military – United States Marine Corps. He commanded respect without demanding it. You could have heard a pin drop when he walked into the room, through the straight rows of desks. We were already hard at work copying his notes from the chalk board onto notebook paper, double-spacing them to leave room for notes from his lecture. He took his seat at his desk waiting until precisely 15 minutes after the bell. Then he stood and began his 10th grade history lecture on life, politics, and war while we scribbled wildly. We studied the notes and took the tests and moved on to 11th grade history. In Mr. Mack’s class, it was easy to believe that history was an ordered account of the facts – the lecture followed the notes that followed the textbook. In part, this was true. There are undeniable events that have dates and key historical figures to go with them. But what we know about history is that it’s less like a straight line and more like a murmuration of starlings.[1] Maybe you’ve seen these birds flying together in the hundreds of thousands –twisting and turning, pulsing together toward an unknown endpoint. The videos are mesmerizing. The only thing linear about history is the time that passes. Otherwise, there are hundreds of thousands of voices that give us a different perspective of the same story.

Our celebration today is one such many-voiced story. Reformation 500 years ago is often told in a way that makes Martin Luther, that ornery academic priest, out to be a lone wolf of faith and theology. (Although, in fairness to us, we’re repeatedly exposed to lone wolf storytelling in film and T.V.)  But Luther was the one who lived to tell the tale. Reformers before him were put to death. Luther survived because he was hidden away by a sympathetic prince who protected him. His story survived because of printing press inventors and his bestie Melancthon who negotiated the theology of grace with other pastors in wider church circles. Otherwise, Luther could have been just another pastor who posted good ideas on a church bulletin board that no one ever read – his ideas swallowed up by the 300,000 revolutionaries fighting the German Peasants’ War in 1525. But his ideas lived on in pamphlets, catechisms, and Bibles in the common language. Local pastors, sly politicians, and faithful parents joined the sweeping history in real-time that pulsed with new life and grace. There are Protestants in Christianity because there were meddling Lutherans who held the church of Rome accountable to its theology and the people hurt by it. (In fairness to our Catholic siblings in faith, many of Luther’s reforms have long since been put into place by the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, a little grace can go a long way.)

Digging into the back-story of the Reformation is similar detective work to digging into the Bible. The Bible includes many people and their stories pulsing together into the larger one. The highs and lows of our ancient Jewish cousins in the faith swooping into the 1st Century story of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi from a backwater town, and the ragtag men and women who followed him as disciples. It would take many lifetimes to exhaust the riches of God’s love story for the world, through Jesus who called himself the “truth” in the Bible reading from John. Which brings us to today. This moment. Us. And especially you guys who are affirming the promises of baptism in the milestone that we call Confirmation.

Confirmation is a rite of passage, a ritual that marks a moment into what came before and what comes after. A ritual that shifts the promises made at baptism from your parents to you. I’m just going to slip in the reminder that God’s promises are complete while our promises are fallible and imperfect even when they’re faithful. Confirmation is a big moment but it’s not a lone wolf moment. It’s a church-alive moment. You’re surrounded by people who are asking similar complicated questions that you ask:

  • Was the earth, the world, the universe really just created for humans?
  • How was the creation story written down if God was the only being at the beginning of the world?
  • How did our faith/this church start and evolve and do you think it will continue to change? If so, in what way?
  • How do we know that God is really there? Is it okay to doubt God?

These are complicated questions that many faithful Christians have asked at different times in their lives but especially at times of faithful ritual and often in times of struggle.

Last week I led a Bible Study at the women’s prison with 12 women on the Inside Council of New Beginnings Worshipping Community. We worked through the Bible readings and questions that their Pastor Terry had given us. It’s been a couple years or so since I’ve been with them and a few of the women I’ve known since I started volunteering there. Laughter and tears mix with some serious deep thinking.  I asked the women if they had any thoughts about doubt and faith that I could share with our youth at church who were going through the rite of Confirmation and affirming their baptisms. They want you to know that faith can feel hard but that it is also freedom – freedom to be who God made you to be, freedom to ask God to show you God’s presence, and freedom to ask to have an open heart. It’s really something to hear women in prison talking about freedom. Most of them will return to community alongside us at some point but for others it will be many years living within those walls.

The women are not talking about any old freedom and for them it’s more than poetry. They have found that freedom through the love and grace of Jesus. When Jesus says that sin enslaves us and he sets us free, these women deeply understand what that means. Those of us who live outside of prisons have a harder time admitting that we sin much less confessing it and our need for the very freedom Jesus offers through grace. But we know this much, we are free to ask questions. Free to ask questions about the Bible, about history, about the church, about Jesus, about our faith and our doubt, about the mystery of God. You name it and we are free to ask it.

Lutheran Christians have a 500-year history of asking, “What does this mean?” Literally, that question, “What does this mean?” (Although it was originally asked in German and now in most every known language – there are A LOT of Lutherans around the world.) The disciples in the Bible asked similar questions. The Jews living before the 1st century, through our Jewish neighbors today still ask questions about God, their history, and each other. We are part of this robust history of asking questions into our present-day moment of grace through faith.

Grace is God’s unconditional love for you.

Grace is God’s promises flowing over you in baptismal water – the promise to always be present, to always take you back, to make your life Christ-shaped, and to keep these promises forever.

Grace is this moment in time. Each one of us with a story of our own, drawn together by the Holy Spirit into God’s story. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say, thanks be to God, and amen.

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Song after the Sermon

All Creation Sings (hymnal): #1005 “Ask the Complicated Questions”

1          Ask the complicated questions.

Do not fear to be found out;

for our God makes strong our weakness,

forging faith in fires of doubt.

 

2          Seek the disconcerting answers,

follow where the Spirit blows;

test competing truths for wisdom,

for in tension new life grows.

 

3          Knock on doors of new ideas,

test assumptions long grown stale,

for Christ calls from shores of wonder,

daring us to try and fail.

 

4          For in struggle we discover

truth both simple and profound;

in the knocking, asking, seeking,

we are opened, answered, found.

 

Text: David Bjorlin, b. 1984

Text © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc., giamusic.com.

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[1] https://www.wonderopolis.org/wonder/what-is-a-murmuration

A Sermon for Mental Health Sunday – Mark 10:[32-34]35-45

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 16, 2021

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Mark 10:[32-34] 35-35  [They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”]

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

[sermon begins]

“Mommy, Daddy’s crazy.” I don’t remember saying those words when I was very little, but my mother tells this story as an example of my father’s decline into mental illness. We were in the car. Dad was driving and talking about becoming President of the United States. I piped up from the back seat while Mom cried. There’s a lot of stories that follow that moment. Dad ended up dissociating from reality almost completely. He self-medicated with alcohol and ultimately became homeless and died when he was 50. Mom and her brothers were able to relocate her and the five of us kids to safety. In the years that followed, my mother gave us a gift by telling us that, “Dad was sick,” while also reminding us that he was brilliant and loving before his illness took over. Back in that day, there was little that could help him get better even if he was able to commit to treatment. Mom also gave us the gift of knowing that counselors could help us. We went to family counseling once things stabilized a bit and she regularly encouraged us to get help when things don’t feel right – something my siblings and I have done over time to look in the rearview mirror on Dad’s and our experiences.

Fast-forwarding 40 years, our niece encountered similar but different struggles with mental illness. Fortunately, my sister’s a doctor and she found experimental treatment at a research university that was able to help. We believe that the treatment saved my niece’s life, and we hope and pray that that research launches healing treatment for many. I called her the other day to ask her if I could share her story in the sermon. To which she gave an excited, “Yes!” We talked about how she’s doing. Her still daily challenges with mental illness – although it’s way better that it was. And her upcoming wedding in November. There’s a lot to celebrate after those scary times even if the healing is incomplete. And she’s grateful that our church is talking openly about mental illness. She “wants people to know that more people struggle with mental illness than we know, battling with their minds on a daily basis.” And that, “It’s an invisible illness needing more community education.”

Untreated mental illness, and the suffering of the one who’s sick and those who love them, creates panic. And panic doesn’t help us think well. We often ask the wrong questions. Not unlike James and John who panicked when Jesus talked about his upcoming death sentence as the Son of Man being mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed.[1] (This happens in the verses in Mark just before the ones we read today.) James and John’s response is out of touch with what Jesus just said but the panic is understandable. They asked to be at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory. Jesus didn’t say no. He just told them that they don’t know what they’re asking. Spoiler alert: At the end of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is crucified with a bandit on his right and a bandit on his left.[2]  James and John, confronted with Jesus’ Son of Man claim of impending death, think that the solution is power over the situation. They’re living in a time of chaos – Rome’s military is executing revolutionaries, there’s a civil war in Judea killing hundreds of thousands, and Jerusalem is being destroyed along with the temple.[3] Suffering is everywhere. Jesus reminds James and John that the response to suffering isn’t more power and tyranny. The response to suffering is to serve. This is the same verb in Greek when the angels serve Jesus in the wilderness and when Simon Peter’s mother-in-law serves after she is healed.[4] The doctor who came up with our niece’s treatment was similarly a servant. God rest his soul.

Corporations can also be such a servant. The Indianapolis Colts’ “Kicking the Stigma” campaign is one example.[5] During NFL games, the Colts’ ads feature players and owners talking about mental illness. Linebacker Darius Leonard, wearing a t-shirt that says, “It’s okay to not be okay,” while he talks about his own mental illness is powerful.

In 2012, our denomination – the ELCA – published a social message called “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness.”[6] Social messages are published after a lengthy process of study, reflection, critique, rewrites, and discussions with many people. The messages are informed by scripture, tradition, science, and experience. The one about mental illness encourages actions that can be taken by and with people who are mentally ill. One of my favorite parts of the social message is the research that mental illness often has genetic and biological causes at their root, while “many still believe sufferers just need to ‘think positive’ or work harder to ‘snap out of it’ when what they really need is treatment, therapy, and support.”[7] Here at Augustana, our Faith Community Nurse Sue Ann and the Health Ministry Team has started the E4 ministry to Enlighten, Encourage, Educate, and Empower individuals and families about mental health in a faith community. If you or anyone you work or live with has mental illness or symptoms of mental illness, please consider attending Augustana’s E4 meetings on the second Thursday of each month.

It’s tempting to think that people like my dad, with his Ph.D. in Leadership, could have used those smarts to outsmart mental illness. It just doesn’t work that way. If he could have healed himself, he would have. As a child, it took some time for me to talk about the trauma. And as an adult, it’s taken some time to heal from that trauma and find helpful ways to talk about suffering especially when there is really no explanation for it. My mother’s gift to us in both naming his mental illness and making it an acceptable topic of conversation gave us a way forward without shame.

Jesus exposes shame for the lie that it is from his humiliation on the cross. Shame is a lie that isolates and destroys us as individuals by separating us from community when connection and community are the very things we need the most to counter shame. In our Gathering Song, we sang:

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you,

pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

I will hold the Christ light for you, in the nighttime of your fear.

I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.[8]

In that spirit, you can choose to come forward while we’re singing our next song if you would like to light a candle in prayer for someone with mental illness and their family or for yourself. We’ll hold the Christ-light for each other as we sing and pray.

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[1] Mark 10:32-34 – These are the verses just before James and John ask to be at his left and right hand.

[2] Mark 15:27

[3] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul. MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast on Mark 10:35-45 for preaching October 17, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/806-21st-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-29b-oct-17-2021

[4] Ibid. Karoline Lewis, Professor of Homiletics and Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

[5] https://www.colts.com/community/kicking-the-stigma. There’s a lot to critique about the National Football League but this one falls in plus column.

[6] http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Mental_IllnessSM.pdf

[7] Ibid., The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, page 17.

[8] Richard Gellard. The Servant Song. Text and music © 1977 Scripture in Song/ASCAP

Play with the Questions – Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

sermon photo: Playable Art Park – Sandy Springs, Georgia

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 19, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a  Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.4:
1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8aDraw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Mark 9:30-37  [Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

[sermon begins]

During the Children’s sermon on Labor Day, I asked kids what they thought their job was as children. One courageous young friend said, “Play.” Play was a great answer. We tend to think of playing as a children’s thing. Play is imagination, curiosity, happiness, and (often) energy lumped into an experience that doesn’t have to have a goal. Play is just play. Another thing kids do is ask questions – sometimes as if it’s their job. So many questions. “Why” questions seem to be a fan favorite of the curious child. Why-this and why-that launch at a rapid pace across all kinds of topics. Being at the receiving end of those kinds of questions is awesome until something else needs to get done. Then it’s difficult to end the stream of questions. There are times, though, when a well-placed question makes all the difference. Take Jesus’ question in the reading today when he asked his disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?”

The disciples had been arguing on their way to Capernaum. It’s curious that Jesus didn’t interrupt their argument on the walk. Maybe he was waiting for the right moment or perhaps letting them get it out of their system. It’s even more curious that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching about his betrayal, death, and rising again and were afraid to ask a question about it. Or maybe it’s not that hard to understand. The last time Jesus taught about his death, Peter’s misguided speech to Jesus went poorly – so poorly that Jesus told Peter to get behind him and called him Satan. That couldn’t have made it easy for the disciples to get their courage on. Although, it may have gone better for Peter if he had asked some questions rather than debating Jesus. Regardless, here we are again. Jesus once again taught about his death and resurrection. The disciples didn’t get it and, not only that, they were also afraid to ask him question about it. It’s not clear that a Q & A would have addressed their questions. Jesus’ actual death and resurrection is hard to fathom after the fact. His disciples didn’t stand much chance of figuring it out ahead of time. Jesus likely knew this too.

So, he put a child among them and held that child while teaching them. Most of us need examples to learn, and the disciples were no different. Children in the first century had no standing in the community, no status whatsoever. For Jesus to acknowledge a child in his presence, much less use one as an example, was earth shattering in a way that’s difficult for us 21st century types to comprehend. To take a child with no standing, and stand the child among them, upended the disciples’ ordered world. Hierarchy is what they understood to be true. There’s a highest level of the hierarchy, a lowest level of the hierarchy, and there’s everything in between. Being at the top of the hierarchy meant being the greatest. And being the greatest was the goal. Hence the disciples’ argument. If they couldn’t understand Jesus’ teaching and were afraid to ask, maybe they could compensate by being the top of the heap, the greatest of all time. It’s neither hard to see the timelessness of Jesus’ teaching to be last and least, nor is it hard to see how the world would be a better place with a scooch more humility. It’s just hard applying Jesus’ teaching to our own lives and maybe harder to apply it to our children’s lives. When have you ever coached a child to be last as a life goal? When have you encouraged a friend to be a servant? When have you yourself decided to live into and through your most recent humiliation to find a lesson in the heartache?

Last week, Pastor Ann preached Jesus’ challenge for us to be bearers of the cross rather than its defenders. There are more than enough folks ready to battle it out, coming out swinging and defending their truth at any cost and against everyone else’s humanity. This week, Jesus continues to challenge us to be cross bearers, to be transformed through servanthood into Christ-shaped disciples – willing to be last of all and servant of all in obedience to the One we follow. Or, to summarize the James reading, do your works with gentleness born of wisdom from above. In these verses today, James continues to encourage a church struggling to be the church in a society that threatens to overwhelm its faith and obedience.[1] Warnings against partiality and hypocrisy and encouragement towards mercy and peacemaking are themes wound together with this Jesus’ actions in the Gospel reading from Mark.

What does gentleness born of wisdom look like? It looks like Jesus holding a child in front of his disciples after they’ve argued about greatness. What does peacemaking look like? It looks like Jesus standing firm about servanthood being the greatest. What does mercy look like? It looks like Jesus rejecting human violence, dying on a cross, and rising again in love not vengeance.

What does gentleness born of wisdom look like for us? Perhaps it looks like figuring out how to welcome someone with no social standing into a conversation at church, school, or work. What does peacemaking look like for us? Perhaps it looks like serving those people who we deeply believe do not deserve to be helped or are beyond help. What does mercy look like for us? Perhaps it looks like rejecting violence and vengeance as cross-bearers in our families and community by, at the very least, not celebrating when someone we disagree with tumbles from their pedestal in public humiliation.

Our world needs the church to be the body of Christ in the way that Christ asks us to do it – with Christ who lives in us and shows us a different way to move through the world. To do this we may have to take ourselves just a scooch less seriously and be more playful. Play as a theological posture fuels curiosity and imagination just like play does for our youngest siblings in Christ who come up for Children’s sermons. A thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury, encouraged the church towards “faith seeking understanding.” His encouragement reminds us that it’s not our thoughts about Jesus that save us. Jesus – who died on a cross and lives again – saves us.

One thing that the cross means is that there is nothing that you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. God’s love in Jesus frees us to be a courageous church who asks questions. So, ask “Why?” If you’d like to be more Luther-y about it, ask, “What does that mean?” Questions are important to faith and one way the church figures out our obedience to Christ. Jesus was the one in the Bible reading who asked a question. It wasn’t that the disciples didn’t have questions to ask Jesus. They were too afraid to ask them. Don’t be like that disciple. Be like Jesus – the one who inspires us to love by loving us first.

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[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship texts on September 19, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/802-17th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-25b-sept-19-2021

 

Disagreement by Design [OR Labor Day as a Call to Love] Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-10, 14-17

 

**sermon art: Unity by Joanne Holbrooke (read more below)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 5, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

James 2:1-10, 14-17 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Mark 7:24-37 [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

[sermon begins]

I’m part of a group of friends that gets together every month or so to catch up over supper. The pandemic slowed us down with the occasional zoom attempt filling the gap, but we eventually reconnected in person. Between us, we cover a wide range of politics, vocations, hobbies, and humor. Supper conversations include debates, questions, bad jokes, and fun facts. Only occasionally do we go off the rails, and love seems to get us back on track. I mention this because the Bible is kind of like Supper Club – an ongoing internal argument exists between the threads of agreement. Throughout the centuries, attempts have been made to resolve disagreements between the books of the Bible – and sometimes within a book itself when several authors seem to have written it – with a technique called “harmonizing.”[1] Harmonizing attempts to make the Bible agree with itself, smoothing over conflicting stories and theologies. Not only does harmonizing the Bible distort softer voices, but it’s a disservice to the writers who were each inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s a bit like telling my Supper Club friends that we’re all really saying and believing the same thing which simply isn’t true. Which is one way to introduce the Bible’s book of James.

We’re in the second of five weeks of James’ readings during Sunday worship. Here’s a reminder to go ahead and read the book. It’s five brief chapters that read kind of like the book of Proverbs or wisdom literature in the Old Testament. But these blurbs about right living are delivered with strong words and severe consequences. Jesus’ second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is quoted in the James’ reading today.[2] Except, here in James, it’s called “the royal law.” And goes on to say that “faith without works is dead.” If you were handed the book of James as your introduction to the Bible, you might pause to wonder who could possibly attain the pure life it demands. Martin Luther even rejected it as an “epistle of straw” for its lack of grace, preferring instead Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the second chapter, that emphasizes being saved by grace through faith and not by works, so that no one may boast.[3]

Regardless of Luther’s frustration with it, the book of James has its place in the Bible. It has its place when there’s so much need that we turned inward. It has its place when our faith becomes a wall, blocking out other people for any reason. Like a hero in a movie gripped by hysteria, a hero who is slapped across the face and shocked into calm and courage, James is the persuasion that we sometimes need to keep going on behalf of our neighbor. James brooks no argument and accepts no excuses while making Christian vocation crystal clear.

There’s no time like Labor Day weekend to talk about vocation. For most folks, vocation means the work we do at our jobs. In church, vocation describes our calling as Christians. Martin Luther’s interpretation of scripture in the early 16th century leveled the playing field between clergy and everyone else.[4] Back in his day, there was no holier calling than a vocation as a priest in the church. Luther argued that all Christians are priests belonging to the “priesthood of all believers;” called by Christ into the holy work of being Christ in the world through their vocations. Jobs of every kind are Christian vocations because Christians have all kinds of jobs – custodian, student, accountant, journalist, politician, homemaker, nurse, cashier, soldier, and so on; and Christian vocations are also calls on us through our relationships – parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, and grandparent are all vocations.

Like our ancestors in the faith who wrote the Bible, today’s Christians often disagree about what Jesus calls his disciples to do vocationally. Interpretations of parables and stories vary wildly. James’ high standards for faithful Christian vocation and Mark’s story about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are one example. To hear James tell it, the only way to live out Jesus’ call to us is by the purest level of works on behalf of the neighbor in Jesus’ name. But the story in Mark argues that God’s purposes are manifested in the actions of unexpected people without a confession of faith. The Syrophoenician woman was a Greek by religion and language who lived at the seashore miles away from Galilee. The Gospel of Matthew says she was a Canaanite but we’re not going to get hung up on that discrepancy.[5]  (Although, it’d be fun to argue whether or not that’s an important distinction.) The woman was a Gentile, a non-Jew, who demanded that Jesus help her. Two ways to read this text include a sly Jesus or an earnest Jesus.[6] If sly, Jesus knew just what to say to draw this woman into speaking her mind. If earnest, Jesus shared a bias with his peers and needed a push to learn and respond to her in love.

Some people, including me, find it difficult to think that Jesus needed to learn anything and prefer thinking that sly Jesus had the whole interaction figured out, mostly because the way he calls her a dog sounds incredibly offensive. While other people love the idea that earnest Jesus had something to learn as his ministry grew and this Gentile woman was key to that process as an outsider. Regardless, does her faithful act qualify as a work according to James? She didn’t confess Jesus as Lord. She bowed to him and then argued that even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the kids’ table. That was it. Then Jesus healed her daughter because of what she said. It’s such an odd and offensive story that theologians will likely debate it until kingdom come. One thing seems clear though. Jesus both pushed, and was pushed into, an ever-expanding ministry that included unlikely people. It’s why when some of us read the royal law in James, to love your neighbor as yourself, it becomes the cross-heavy hill we’re willing to die on because it’s the vocation we think Jesus calls us into through stories like the Syrophoenician woman’s.

Labor Day is intended as a rest from the vocational labors that fill our days. I hear it from a different angle this Sunday through these particular Bible readings. I hear it as an invitation to consider our vocations through Jesus’ call. As we labor, we love our neighbor as ourselves in our workplaces, in our family relationships, and in our local and global relationships. Ultimately, though, Jesus is bigger than our arguments about vocation and greater than our limited capacity to live it out. Jesus’ disciples are a Supper Club of a different kind –sustained by a simple meal of bread and wine while the waters of baptism wash over us daily, freeing and forming us into lives that are ever more Christ-shaped. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] Bart Ehrman (James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at UNC Chapel Hill). “Harmonizing the Gospels.” September 11, 2013. The Bart Ehrman Blog: The History & Literature of Early Christianity. https://ehrmanblog.org/harmonizing-gospels/#

[2] Jesus’ second greatest commandment can be found in Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, and Luke 10:27.

[3] Ephesians 2:8-9

[4] Art Lindsley, Vice President of Theological Initiatives, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. “The Priesthood of All Believers.” October 15, 2013. https://tifwe.org/resource/the-priesthood-of-all-believers/#:~:text=When%20Luther%20referred%20to%20the%20priesthood%20of%20all,a%20%E2%80%9Cvocation%E2%80%9D%20and%20milking%20the%20cow%20was%20not.

[5] Matthew 15:22

[6] John Marboe, Pastor, Zion Lutheran Church, St. Paul, MN. Mark 7:24-37, September 2, 2021. God Pause: A Daily Devotion by Alumni of Luther Seminary. www.luthersem.edu/godpause/2021/09/02/

**sermon art:  https://fineartamerica.com/featured/unity-joanne-holbrook.html

“Unity was painted during worship and praise on May 28, 2019. There can be a tendency in religious circles to create one way for how things should be done or seen. We make everything one flavor, color. The apostle Paul reveals that this tendency misses God’s intent for His church, which is to make known the manifold wisdom of God to rulers and authorities in heavenly realms, Ephesians 3:10. The word manifold means variegated, marked, with a great variety of colors.”

Hearts Called to Goodness Struggle with the Question of Sin and Evil – Mark 7, James 1, Deuteronomy 4

**sermon art: Abstract Love by Billie Colson

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 29, 2021

[sermon begins after three Bible readings – hang in there]

Mark 7:1-7, 14-16, 20-23 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus], 2they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
7in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
8You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”
14Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

James 1:17-27 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.
6You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
9But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

[sermon begins]

Our young adult son was about 11 years old when he leaned over and whispered, “Why does he always make us sound so bad?”[1] We were in Sunday worship. His question came during the hymn after the sermon. Quinn’s question led to a conversation on the car ride home about sin. A little heavy-duty maybe, but it was good for us to wrestle with the topic together as a family. He was in good company. Most people don’t really like the word. In fact, I often use milder terms like flaws or imperfections to talk about sin because many people have been beaten up by the language of sin and pretty much stop listening when the word is uttered. You can see the risk I’m taking as a preacher by opening with it.

Using the word sin is also a risk because the word isn’t used in the four Bible readings today. Not once. Check it out. I read through them with care. Let me know if you can find the word because I couldn’t. Words that ARE used in the readings include defile, evil, sordidness, and wickedness. This sermon is slipping even further into touchy territory. Touchy because many people have been hurt by accusations of being irredeemable. Touchy because, like my son Quinn, many people question conversations and sermons that make them feel bad.

It’s possible that the categories of good and bad are not that helpful when it comes to what we experience as true. For instance, in the Mark reading, there’s a long list of pitfalls that come from the heart. To hear this list more personally we can ask a series of questions. Regarding folly, who among us has not only participated in the ridiculous but also the ridiculously foolish? Regarding pride, who among us has not believed themselves to be better than someone else? Regarding slander, who among us has not gossiped our way through a phone call? Regarding envy, who among us has not looked at someone else’s belongings without wanting any of them? Regarding deceit, who among us has not spent time figuring out how to withhold the full truth? Regarding adultery, who among us has not let a friendship teeter into the romantic because we’ve stopped caring who gets hurt? Regarding avarice and greed, who among us has not purchased more toilet paper than we need?

These questions are relational – meaning that these behaviors affect relationships between people. The questions that I listed help translate Jesus’ list into the here and now. Granted, I’ve kept the questions fairly nonthreatening. We could dive deeper with the questions and shift into the brutally honest but that’s neither wise nor kind since we’re not talking back-and-forth in this moment. Although, I’m game for that conversation if anyone would like to have it. The point of asking those questions is to reveal a truth about being human. We have the capacity for evil within us. We see it play out in our own lives and in other people’s lives near and far. Jesus’ challenge to his disciples at the end of the Mark reading reveals the limits of our own efforts to avoid the naughty column and list ourselves among the nice.

Jesus’ teaching also highlights the limits of religious tradition. He cautions us against creating doctrine out of traditions. It’s also a good moment to normalize the Jewish traditions in the reading of washing hands before eating and washing the dishes afterwards – things many of us do every day. The Pharisees and Jesus were debating the relevance of religious tradition in light of God’s commandments. It’s important to remember that God gave the Ten Commandments to sustain life among God’s people. They were life-giving. The Deuteronomy reading today emphasizes life in this part of the preamble to the Big Ten. Moses said, “…give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live…”

Jesus’ list of sins in the Mark reading describe what happens when the commandments aren’t followed, and we break our relational obligations to each other with sinful behavior. As Christians, we hear Paul’s letters in the Bible separating the law from salvation to the point that we forget that the law’s intention is life-giving. Christian scripture often reminds us that God’s relationship with us does not depend on tallying up points in our favor by following the law. God’s relationship with us depends on God’s goodness first and not our own achievements of obedience.

Which brings us to the reading from James. This Sunday we start five weeks in which our second readings in worship come from the book of James. Lutheran Christians can struggle with James because we often think it leads with action, calling for obedient action as evidence of a living faith. Martin Luther even called it the “epistle of straw” for its lack of emphasis on grace. You have guessed correctly if you anticipated my suggestion to read the short book of James this week. It’s not clear who James was written for, but it seems to be written as encouragement for a group of Jesus followers who are at risk from a hostile ruling class.[2] And the encouragement towards obedience and action seems intended to connect thoughts about faith with living the faith. It’s much easier to listen quietly than to live out our faith. The book of James challenges us to be more than hearers of the word by becoming doers of the word. We know from experience that our hearts contain more than the sins listed in Mark. Humans are creatures capable of great compassion, courage, and care. James connects those positive actions of the heart with God when he writes that, “Every generous act of giving, with every gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

When I pray, “We love you God, thank you for loving us first,” I’m reminded of God’s goodness as the ignition for my own actions – even the act of love. Quinn’s question about badness is only a piece of the story of the heart. Later in the 10th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people to circumcise their hearts, meaning that their identity is secured first by God’s love and only then becomes visible by their obedient acts of love.[3] Jesus similarly challenged his disciples, cracking open religious ritual to amplify the call on the heart to which we are also called. Our religious practices serve as an amplifier to our call as disciples. Then discipleship becomes a gift in our own and other peoples’ lives as we hear and do a life of faith. Faith that’s born from the God whose love makes goodness possible. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] I ALWAYS get permission to share someone’s story in a sermon – especially if they’re named and extra-especially if they’re family. Quinn gave me permission and thinks the story is a good fit for the direction of the sermon.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for Lectionary Texts for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost on August 29, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/799-14th-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-22b-aug-29-2021

[3] Deuteronomy 10:16 but really 10:12-19. God’s love of the widow, orphan, and stranger calls us to the same.

The Finish Line Keeps Moving [OR Breaking News: Naps and Snacks for Grownups are Biblical!]

**sermon art: Eternal Nap by Roland Kay (oil)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 8, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

1 Kings 19:4-8 [Elijah] went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”5Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” 6He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. 7The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” 8He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

John 6:35, 41-51 Jesus said to [the crowd,] “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

[sermon begins]

The other night Rob and I watched Olympic men’s swimming. I gotta say that the 50-meter freestyle is one of my favorites. During the 50-meter freestyle, the swimmers don’t take a breath. It’s a sprint down the lane as fast as humanly possible for about 20 seconds. Imagine what would happen if the pool was suddenly 60 meters long. Yeah, I know, that’s impossible. Just imagine it though. You’re swimming and you know how long it takes, how much power to burn, and might even know how many strokes you need. 1…2…3…4…  But, the wall isn’t there. The pool stretched. The finish line changed. Imagine any race or sport or game when suddenly, the finish line changes.  Any shift in the finish line would bring chaos because everything’s organized to a set end point.

In the pandemic, on top of the personal loss and grief that some of us have experienced, the shifting finish line causes fatigue and frustration. It’s a race against time alright, including plenty of both screaming and encouragement. Although it’s a race unlike any that we’ve encountered in our lifetime. And the finish line keeps moving.

Elijah knew a thing or two about moving finish lines and consuming despair when life is changing fast. Queen Jezebel threatened to kill him, and he fled into the wilderness. Tucking himself into the shade of a broom tree, he prayed that he would die and then he falls asleep. When he woke up from his nap, he ate cake fresh from the hot stones, prepared by the angels. And he took another nap. It’s amazing what a snack and a nap can do to adjust perspective and improve the mood. Elijah’s situation hadn’t changed. Queen Jezebel still wanted him dead, and the finish line was nowhere in sight. Taking a break gave Elijah what he needed to see straight for the next leg of his journey.

It’s pretty obvious when a kid needs a nap and a snack – behavior melts down and whining amps up. As grown-ups, we’re less likely take advantage of what Elijah discovered about resting and eating when we’re tired and stressed out. And we’re less likely to encourage each other to get some down time when it’s pretty obvious to everyone else that we need it. Human bodies need to rest and eat and many of us stink at one or the other or both. Next time you’re melting down and maybe even whining, see if you can squeeze in a short nap. Perhaps it helps knowing that naps and snacks are biblical and not just for toddlers.

Perhaps it also helps that we’re at a rest stop in the 6th chapter of John. We’re in the middle of five weeks of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse that happens every three years during the year that we focus on the Gospel of Mark. Mark is a short book and offers the perfect chance to take a break from the urgency in Mark to drift with Jesus around the Sea of Galilee in the 6th chapter of John and talk about bread – actual fish and bread as he feeds 5,000 people, as well as himself as the Bread of Life – hence the name, Bread of Life discourse. Anyway, here we are with Jesus and the crowds and some of the Jews who knew him before he was the miracle man. His message confuses them because they knew him and his parents from the old days.

His message is a simple one. He sets the finish line as being “raised on last day.” It’s a simple message that creates complaining not just in the Bible story. Jesus’ message creates complaining and arguments aplenty right up through today. Arguments about who gets to be with Jesus after death. Arguments about what “belief” means or doesn’t mean. Arguments about what “eternal life” means or doesn’t mean. But we’re going to take a break from those arguments today too. And we’re simply going to rest in Jesus’ assurance to his followers that the finish line that he calls “the last day” is promised to us as eternal life because of who he came to be. In the first few verses of John’s gospel, we’re told that:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And 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.”[1]

Jesus’ promise to us is an unmovable finish line not because of who we are but because of who Jesus came to be from beyond time – for us and for the world. His promise is bigger than we can imagine and includes more people than we can imagine. The Gospels including John, repeatedly describe the grace and inclusion of Jesus’ ministry. Over and over again we hear about someone else included in his expanding ministry of grace and truth. The Gospel of John 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. Through the suffering of self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and, through an empty tomb, he catches death up into God, drawing those who have died into eternal life where suffering is no more, and joy never ends.

Jesus’ promise is not meant as escapism. He repeatedly asks his followers to love others as he loved us in the fleshy mess, mystery, and magnificence of this life. The Christian life is not meant to be one of detachment. We’re called to deep attachment as Jesus attached with the world as the Word made flesh. But Jesus’ promised finish line means, in part, that we can navigate the changes to our shifting earthly finish lines with the resilience and perspective of faith.

I don’t know about you, but the second year of the pandemic has been rougher than I imagined. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I know, with every fiber of my being, I know better than to say things like, “Things will be easier when this happens; or things will be calmer when that happens.” There’s no quicker road to despair than to make up a finish line that does not exist. And even though I know better, I’ve realized that I was making up finish lines without being aware that I was doing so. There is wisdom in holding our imagined finish lines lightly, even as we take seriously the Christian life and ministry that Jesus calls us into.

Jesus’ promised finished line on the last day can help us live into the moving parts of life with each other – in the fleshy mess, mystery, and magnificence of this life.  As the Bread of Life, he is food for our journey. Food that I don’t know what I would do without in the ups and downs of life. And I mean this literally in the experience of Holy Communion where Jesus promises to be present and in worship where Jesus promises to be present when two or more are gathered in his name. Worship is a place of rest and refreshment in ways that are worth discovering. And, just like that, we’re back to a nap and a snack overseen by angels. A spiritual nap and snack amounting to an earthly encounter with the eternal and shifting our view just enough to maintain a faithful perspective.

The good news is that Jesus’ finish line is constant and unconditional. His promise as the Bread of Life sustains us in our life together, in our individual lives, and in company with all the saints in life eternal. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] John 1:1 and 14