Tag Archives: Joseph

No Permanent Enemies – No Permanent Allies [OR I’m Pretty Sure When Jesus Said, ‘Love Your Enemies,’ He Didn’t Mean Kill Them] Luke 6:27-38 and Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 20, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 6:27-38 [Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ ” 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

[sermon begins]

It’s easy to love an enemy. Maybe not in the way that Jesus means, but we love our enemy, nonetheless. Enemies make clear who’s in and who’s out. Enemies force us to create rules, establishing an order that can be a twisted logic but makes sense to us. It’s the reason why the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee have job security. We cheer for our hometown heroes and curse our enemies, making villains out of 15-year-olds. The cheering and the booing are simple in the sports arena. Our bodies respond to friend and enemy in predictable ways because our bodies’ physiology is designed for survival, and survivors need to quickly identify threat and safety. That’s it for today’s physiology lesson. But it’s an important lesson. Jesus tells his followers, “Love your enemies.” It’s an epic task. Some say it’s an impossible task. Jesus’ sermon on the “level place” began in the verses before our reading today. He outlined which blessings and woes belonged to whom. As Pastor Ann preached last week, most of us end up in both columns at some point, blessed or woeful depending on the situation. Right after that part, Jesus tells them to love their enemies. He tells them twice to love their enemies. It may be an epic task but Jesus, at the very least, is asking that we try.

“No permanent enemies – no permanent allies,” is a guiding principle in public work with elected leaders and appointed officials. These very human people make decisions about education, criminal justice, healthcare, hunger, and more. Making enemies out of the people who disagree happens all the time, but it doesn’t get us very far. Last Thursday was Lutheran Day at the Capitol. Seven Augustana folks from our Human Dignity Delegate ministry and I joined Lutherans from across the state online and in person. We learned about two bills being supported by the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Colorado. The first bill is a free lunch program for all school students and the other bill would make it law to automatically seal criminal records after 10 years for non-violent offenses so that jobs and housing are not impossible. Those of us who were in person met with our legislators about these bills. “No permanent enemies – no permanent allies” helps us keep the outcomes for people in need top of mind rather than our own squabbles.

Before our walk to the Capitol, Bishop Jim Gonia talked about the Joseph story that we get a snippet of in our first reading today. Joseph’s tale of woe started when he was an obnoxious younger brother, the favorite of his father out of the 12 brothers. He was so special that his father Jacob gave him a special coat. His brothers threw him in a pit. He was found by traders and sold into slavery in Egypt where he ended up rising to great power. I encourage you to read Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50. It’s one of the easier sections of the Bible to get through because it reads quickly and it’s a great story. Bishop Gonia pointed out that there are many unlikely allies in the story. There are also unlikely enemies who were once allies and vice versa. “No permanent enemies – no permanent allies.” There are just humans.

I wonder if this is part of what Jesus is getting at when he tells us to “love our enemies.” We know from other parts of the Bible that he’s not asking us to stay in abusive relationships or condone violence. Even on the cross, Jesus’ death is an example of the logical end of OUR violent inclinations, not God’s. Jesus’ command to “love our enemies” must mean more than setting us up for an impossible task. Epic examples of loving our enemies can get in the way of seeing what’s possible for us. Tales of Archbishop Desmond Tutu sincerely blessing a young man who screamed obscenities at him or murder victims’ parents forgiving the murderer seem superhuman, beyond most of our capacities and compassion. But if I was a betting kind of person, I’d bet a heap of money that there were smaller steps leading to those epic “love your enemy” moments and also some epic fails. Probably two steps forward, one step back efforts clouded with confusion, anger, regret, and embarrassment.

Three weeks ago, we heard about love more generally in the 1 Corinthians 13 reading – love is patient; love is kind; love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. I preached about practicing love – buying time between our first reactions and our loving response. That kind of love is hard enough without adding our enemies into the mix. But here we are, listening to Jesus demand more from his followers than sounds humanly possible. Love disrupts, redeems, transforms, and frees. Hate is never redemptive. Hate is a race to the bottom, trapping us in systems of power and forming us into mirror images of our enemies. Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies isn’t about our enemies as much as it is about being set free from them even when they retain their power. Hate often evolves into violence because hate dehumanizes our enemy, and it makes it all kinds of easier to do violence to them. Jesus leads his followers away from enemy-like violence.

A little later in the gospel of Luke, during Jesus’ arrest, he tells his follower to put away his sword as he heals the person injured by the guy’s sword. Loving your enemy has real-time consequences for them and for you. Love transforms the relationship by starting with ourselves. And love is the only thing that can drive out hate.[2] Many of the movements that changed the world have been non-violent, love-based movements – think Mahatma Gandhi, Rev. Dr. King and Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. There was unflinching resolve and deep love along with the conscious decision to not to turn into the spitting image of the enemy by returning violence for violence.

While sermons are targeted good news, they’re often the tip of the iceberg. Much gets left unsaid because they’re short. When we’re talking about enemies and non-violent ideals, there is incredible complexity here that is difficult to get at in twelve minutes. For instance, Hitler would never have stopped unless he was forcibly stopped – world wars defy simple solutions. But at the same time, there are organizations taking smaller steps in this regard. One is named With Honor. With Honor seeks the election of military veterans in part because, having experienced combat or combat related loss of friends and family, veteran legislators have a “significantly lower propensity to commit U.S. military forces to disputes overseas” and “veterans are more likely than non-veteran politicians to work with their colleagues across the aisle.”[1]  It’s hopeful that the soldiers who protect our freedoms come back from those experiences resolved to find non-violent, diplomatic, bipartisan solutions.

As with any incredibly complicated topic, it helps to make a small step, picking one thing we can work on together as a faith community during the week. Jesus suggests praying for our enemy as one way to love them. Let’s try that. Think of one person on a personal or national or international scale who you would call an enemy. Rather than sauce up the prayer with a bunch of words, let’s try something else. If it works for you, and it’s okay if doesn’t, close your eyes and picture that person. Now picture the light of God, like rays of sunshine above that person, and imagine that person being showered by God’s light…keep picturing them… …amen. You can open your eyes. Pray this prayer this week whenever you think of that person. In the interest of full-disclosure, I have to confess that this kind of prayer is not my gift. In fact, it’s often a last resort or I completely forget to do it altogether. Rob and I were discussing it while I was writing this sermon and he can confirm this fact if you require corroboration. So I’m going to be practicing this prayer along with you this week. The prayer rightfully places that person, our enemy, in God’s light and love when we are not ready to love them ourselves.

Jesus’ reminder to love our enemies is also the reminder that God loves them as God loves us. That’s the simultaneous offense and comfort of Jesus’ grace and the gospel. Jesus’ promise to be with us when we take two steps forward, one step back, or fall down completely is what strengthens us to try loving our enemy, especially when all else fails. Thanks be to God and amen.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Read more about With Honor at https://withhonor.org/purpose/

[2} Rev Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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.

Daring to Gather Around the Light (OR Perspective of Great Age, Suffering and Peace) Luke 2:22-40

**sermon art: Simeon en Anna by Jan van ‘t Hoff b.1959

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver

February 2, 2020 – Presentation of Our Lord and Candlemas

[sermon begins after Bible reading; it’s a meaty story – hang in there]

 

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

[sermon begins]

When I was a kid, not sure quite how old, I was walking down the street with my grandmother. Time alone with Grammops feels like it was rare. She could be a little intimidating too – almost regal in her bearing. I used to joke that if you had the manners to dine with Grammops, you could easily dine with the Queen. Walking alongside Grammops, armed with the ignorance of youth, I dared to ask how old she was. She told me that it was NOT a question to be asked, her body language speaking volumes, and we just kept right on walking. Clearly her response made an impression since I remember this story. I wished she’d simply said, “Caitlin, I am of a great age” and kept right on walking. A “great age” is how our Bible story describes the prophet Anna who lived in the Temple. So, to our friends of a great age, feel free to use this one. If someone asks you what it means you can tell them to check out the Bible’s second chapter of Luke in the 36th verse. Not only will it be Biblically accurate, you can also remain mysterious about said great age if that’s how you roll.

Anna and Simeon’s great age, in contrast with the 40-day-old baby Jesus, is part of what I love about this story. Artwork inspired by this Bible story captures the smooth newborn and the texture of age along with a radiant light. The contrast also frames a faithful perspective on peace and suffering. Simeon scoops Jesus into his arms and celebrates God’s long-awaited promise fulfilled with a song of peace. In the next breath, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will piece her own soul too.” (Probably not what you want to hear when you’re a first-time mom showing off your new baby in the Temple.)[1]

The widow prophet Anna follows Simeon’s speech with her own praise and talks about Jesus to anyone who would listen. Contrasts are vividly shaped in a matter of moments – old and young; life and death; peace and soul-piercing pain. Two faithful people of great age in the story are an audacious portrait of peace and suffering. You don’t arrive at a great age without experiencing things that you wish you hadn’t. Perhaps Anna and Simeon’s perspective can lead us to dare similarly, to gather around the light when death is ever present in the world.[2]

The light of Christ is part of what is celebrated annually on February 2 in the festival of Presentation of Our Lord and the accompanying ritual of Candlemas, also celebrated today. Blessing candles for use this evening and year-round invokes Simeon’s words as he held Jesus and praised God for “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The candlelight reminds us that the light of Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, cannot, will not overcome it.[3] Anna and Simeon lead by their example of showing up in sacred space where God’s promise is more readily remembered. They would find it hard to imagine how counter-cultural it is in the 21st century to self-identify as religious.

Religious ritual helps us to remember our center when the culture at large fails to do so. The grief for Kobe Bryant’s death is one such moment. The many layers and voices in the mix of what happened to Mr. Bryant, his daughter, and the other people in the helicopter make it difficult for us to remember that all of them are beloved children of God.  As the two women (not of a great age) in our congregation, who died recently and unexpectedly in different situations on the same day are also beloved children of God. As the people that you’ve lost to death and on your hearts and minds are also beloved children of God. And, as such, there is nothing they could do or not do to make God love them any more or any less.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross, hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s refusal to raise a hand in violence against the world God so loves. The empty tomb of Easter, also hinted at in Simeon’s words, is God’s promise to swallow death up into God, into holy rest with all the company of the saints in light perpetual. It’s tough to remember all those words when we need to hear them. It’s not tough to light a candle, say our loved ones’ names in prayer, and to remember God’s promise of love and light in Jesus – to comfort the afflicted with peace that passes all our understanding and to remember that we dare to gather around the light when death is ever present in our world.

Simeon’s praise and speech doesn’t end once he announces his own peace. He keeps right on going. Anna also keeps right on talking to all who will listen. Apparently, even at a great age, there’s more for them to say about Jesus. Do they keep going because there is little time to waste? Or do they keep going because their perspective gives them a vantage point that people of a lesser age can’t see? Regardless, our 21st century world of media and nation states would be unimaginable to them. Our ability to impact our world through a representative government would shock them. But the call of Jesus to disrupt any status quo – private, political, local, global, or otherwise – that ignores the pain of our neighbor remains the same.[4]

Anna and Simeon are saints in the faith as their stories are recorded in Luke for us to learn and gain strength from. We can look to them anytime or anticipate this day annually on February 2. Their story is easy to find. Whether you’re afflicted and needing comfort or whether you’re too comfortable and need to be agitated out of that comfort for your own good or for the good of your neighbor, the day that Jesus was presented in the Temple is your day. Jesus shows up both as a promise of peace and as a sign that will be opposed; as both a consoler and an agitator. We are people of faith drawn together by the Holy Spirit, daring to gather around the light when death and suffering are ever present in our world. Jesus, our light, our life and our peace, leads us on the journey.  Amen.

______________________________________________________

Blessing for your home candles (Adapted  by Pastor Inga Oyan Longbrake from ELW Occasional Services)

Let us pray.

We give you thanks, O God, creator of the universe, for you have enriched our lives with every good gift, and you have invited us to praise you with lives of love, justice, and joy.

Send your blessing on these candles, which we set apart today; may they be to us a sign of Christ, the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

To you, O God, be all glory and honor through your Son, Jesus Christ,in the unity of the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Amen.

________________________________________________________

[1] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary. Sermon Brainwave on Luke 2:22-40. December 25, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=252

[2] Ibid. David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN.

[3] An emphatic paraphrase of John 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

[4] Luke 10:25-37 The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Uncle Larry’s Miracles – A Sermon for Thanksgiving Eve [OR Check Pockets Before Washing] John 6:3-14, Genesis 50:15-21, and Philippians 4:4-9

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 27, 2019 at 7:00 p.m.

[sermon begins after 3 oh-so-worth-reading Bible stories]

John 6:3-14 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

Genesis 50:15-21  Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Philippians 4:4-9  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

[sermon begins]

Yesterday was not my finest moment.  I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.  Tried to snow shovel my bad mood away to minimal effect.  Pulled my worship robe a.k.a. alb out of the wash only to discover dark blue spots of ink across its whiteness because I’d left a pen in my pocket.  Borrowed bleach from a neighbor.  Had a meltdown during ink blotting with rubbing alcohol because my in-laws gave me the alb when I was ordained.  The same in-laws who completed their baptismal journeys in the last year and are now at rest in the company of the saints in light.  The same in-laws who spent Thanksgivings with us every year for over 20 years.  The same mother-in-law who was my go-to spot and stain advisor.  That woman could get any kind of stain out of any kind of thing breaking all the stain-blasting rules while she did it. She was like a stain miracle worker.  Which brings up the topic of miracles, my planned Thanksgiving Eve sermon theme.

The reason miracles have been on my mind is because of my Uncle Larry.  Rob and I recently visited him during a journey through Massachusetts.  My good uncle feels deeply and thinks broadly.  He’s funny and intense and full of love.  And he has this thing he does when he tells a story.  As an opener, he lists the number of miracles involved.  He told one particular story in which the lead comment was this, “There were FIVE miracles!” (hand held up, five fingers out).  I was so enamored with the way he unpacked his tale around these five miracles.  “First miracle,” he said with corroborating details.  “Second miracle,” he said.  More details.  Finally, the fifth miracle rolled around.  The story rich with feeling and color commentary.  I loved it so much that I called him last Saturday to ask him if I could talk about the way he talks about miracles.  We discussed my intentions.  He said, “Yes.”  And then we talked for almost an hour about miracles and so much more.

We could have a theologians’ argument about what constitutes a miracle…supernatural events that defy scientific explanations, et cetera, et cetera…and what doesn’t constitute a miracle.  But what appeals to me about my uncle’s story telling is the gratitude that pours through his miracle stories. Gratitude for the surprising turn of events that lead to the good and unexpected ending.  Our Bible stories from Genesis and the Gospel of John both include surprising turns of events leading to good and unexpected endings.  The culmination of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers years before becomes what we hear this evening as his brothers ask for his forgiveness.  If Joseph were here with us, how many miracles would he name in the same way Uncle Larry might?  How many moments added up to that singular moment of his brother’s forgiveness?  And the disciples’ consternation about how to feed all those people is solved unexpectedly by Jesus with a boy’s sack lunch.  How would the disciples name the miracles leading up to the big miracle of 5,000 meals plus leftovers?  How many fingers would they hold up as they listed them?

Pointing to miracles is different than saying that everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes the reasons things happen is because of our sin.  Joseph’s brothers had jealousy, anger, and sin on their minds when they sold him into slavery.  God brought good from their evil intentions for Joseph but it’s an injustice to name God as the agent of the brother’s sin.  Pointing to miracles is also different than saying that our material goods are blessings.  Miracles, as in the Gospel of John, are signs that reveal the love of God through Jesus.

In that light, and the awareness of my own imperfections in this regard, I’d like to suggest a bit of miracle-telling.  Not a crowd-share time, but a moment of remembering the miracles in a story.  Here’s my example. Please listen with a bit of grace.

There were FIVE miracles.  First miracle, my in-laws gave me an alb that I wore without incident for almost seven years as a pastor.  Second miracle, their love and pride of my work meant that they readily incorporated my parish commitments into our family traditions. Third miracle, and maybe the most important, my mother-in-law wrote down her pumpkin pie recipe and baked it with me many times so now I’m able to bake it for our family dinner. Fourth miracle, my husband and our daughter were able to reach through my ink-blotting meltdown to give their encouragement and love.  Fifth miracle, that there are tears of love to cry in grief for in-laws. Five miracles, a lot of love, and ultimately love in the form of other people on the planet who give us the tiniest glimpse of how much God loves us.

Jesus was deeply concerned with feeding people, freeing prisoners, loving enemies, healing the sick, serving the vulnerable, disrupting the comfortable, and so much more. In the forefront of the gospel is that it is “good news of great joy for all the people.”[1] It’s why we do things like  donate to ELCA World Hunger and the Chili Challenge for Metro Caring and George Washington High School’s food pantries. It’s also why I would never want to minimize or short-change the love of Jesus to the exclusion of anyone else or to the pain that is real and present in the world.  But Jesus also loves us personally.  For my part, in this year of firsts without Rob’s parents, there are miracles that reveal God’s love in the story of their lives and ours.  If you’re in need of such moments, by all means frame your story – meltdowns and all – on the miracles woven through them that reveal God’s love.  As the encouragement goes in the letter to the Philippians, “if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”  Happy Thanksgiving and amen.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:8-11 In 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 Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Christmas: The Hope, History, and Mystery of God With Us – Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-14

**sermon art: The Nativity by Julius Gari Melchers, 20th century

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 25, 2018

[sermon begins after the Bible reading from the Gospel of John. The reading from the Gospel of Luke may be found at the end of the sermon]

John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 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.

[sermon begins]

In those hope-filled moments and hours before a baby arrives, time slows down. One breath, then the next, and then the next.  Breath – hope – breath – hope… Breathing paced around a woman’s body doing the work of labor.  Beyond breath, muscles that aren’t doing the work of birthing can be rested in between contractions that run on their own timing with increasing urgency.  People around the birthing mother can make all the difference in mood and tricky delivery moments with umbilical cords and pushing at the right times, but the bottom line is that the baby arrives in its own time, refocusing our attention from mother to child.  Taking its first breath. Crying its first cry.  Swaddled in its first cloths.  Held in its first arms.

Here we are, Christmas Day, remembering when Jesus was born in time, focusing our attention on one small, holy, hope-filled family.  Mary who labored and birthed as a new mother.  Joseph who stood by as an earthly father.  Jesus who arrived, breathed, cried, and was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms.  This is the story we sing about at Christmas. The story in the Gospel of Luke that has all the memorable characters including angles, shepherds, and sheep.  The story where God shows up in time in what we call the incarnation – God taking human form to be the long-promised Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmastime is about God showing up at a particular moment in time.  It’s about the God of history.  The God of history that made promises through Abraham and Moses and then expanded those promises to all people with the birth of Jesus who is hope cradled in history.

History is something we like to know and investigate.  History is time-bound.  History makes us hope for Johnny-on-the-spot reporting so we can know things for certain.  This hope turns into things like the song, “Mary Did You Know?”  We want to know what Mary knew and when she knew it, the story behind the history.  Truly, though, we know so little even as we hope for so much.  Even the four gospel writers are somewhat contradictory in their stories.[1]   Which brings us to the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John opens with the same words as Genesis, the first book in the Bible.  “In the beginning…”  To paraphrase Genesis, in the beginning all was formless void in deep darkness until there was also light.[2]  John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…full of grace and truth.”[3]   If Luke gives us hope and history, John gives us hope and mystery with his cosmic poetry.  Talk of Word made flesh is full of hope. John’s “Word made flesh” language catches our attention because, well, who talks like that?! High stakes apparently call for attention grabbing poetry.

The stakes are high because we’re talking about God keeping God’s promise to be present in and for the world through the act and sustenance of creation.  Our life, our breath, our hope rest in these promises which are revealed from the grace of creation through the grace of God’s new creation in Jesus through the grace of his unconditional love for all people regardless of class, gender, or race through the grace of his death on the cross to the ultimate grace of new life together in the great cloud of witnesses from all times and places.  This litany of grace is hope.  As I wrote it, and as I speak it now, I inhale it like air that gives life.  We are not left to our own devices and the messes we make of things.  We are called into the grace of God who makes new life possible.  From cradle to cross to new life, there is the hope and mystery of God’s presence in the midst of our pain, hope and mystery of God infusing our day-to-day moments so that our joy may be complete, and hope and mystery of being with our loved ones again one day.

Today, we spend time together with all the baggage we brought into the sanctuary with us as we sing the familiar and well-loved songs of Christmas.  As we sing, pray, and share communion, we are filled with breath and hope by the God of history who was cradled in a manger and his mother’s arms; and we are filled with breath and hope by the God of mystery who breathed life into being and is here with us now.  As people who receive this good news of history and mystery, we live as people of hope by the grace of God.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.[4]

__________________________________________________________

[1] Christian scripture, known in the Bible as the New Testament, contains four books called the Gospels meaning “good news.”  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

[2] Genesis 1:1-5

[3] John 1:1, 4-5, and part of v14.

[4] 2 Corinthians 9:15

___________________________________________________________

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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!”

[15 When 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

 

Tell An Imperfect Story [OR Small Wonder the Inns Were Full] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 2: 1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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!”
15 When 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

Imagine if you will, a young couple.[1] She’s very pregnant. Puffy cheeks and feet. He’s young too. Both just starting out in adulting and there hasn’t been a moment to catch their breath. Mary’s surprise pregnancy first sent her into hiding for several months at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home in the hills.  Now she’s back with Joseph in the town of Nazareth. But that doesn’t last long either. Emperor Augustus calls for a registration census so that taxes can be collected. With his decree, Joseph and Mary travel the 80 miles to Bethlehem. There could have been a donkey to ride.  Although at many months pregnant, four days of donkey riding doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.  I imagine that they were slower than many of the other people on the long and winding road, taking more breaks along the way.  It’s no wonder that the inns were full by the time they arrived.

For all the drama that’s easy to imagine, the story is sparsely told. It’s told in almost bullet points. You and I both know that it couldn’t have been that simple. There’s a saying in the news business that, “All news is local.”  I would say that all news is about people. People in situations often beyond their control. The Bible couldn’t be less like a newspaper.  It neither follows modern journalistic guidelines nor could it ever hope to meet those standards. But Mary and Joseph’s story shows local people trying to live during a time when religious and political events are well beyond their control.

It makes me wonder if it’s a similar lack of control that fuels the latest “Christmas miracle” craze. I’ve heard the term in the past. But this December it seems to pop up everywhere describing good news big and small.[2] Christmas miracles are listed in the news as melt-in-your-mouth recipes, pet adoptions, inspiring health recoveries, snow in Texas, and even includes a tongue-in-cheek report of an ER staff who performed surgery on an Elf on the Shelf named Sam after the family’s dog went rogue. I’m totally on the band wagon. It feels really good to throw my arms in the air and announce, “It’s a Christmas miracle!” Sometimes it’s celebration and sometimes it’s snark but it feels good and it makes me laugh every time.

Naming things a Christmas miracle seeks to name the good – from small things like not burning forgotten toast to big moments of joy that defy explanation. One thought is that we name them miracles because we want to see the transcendent in something tangible, relatable, and real. Who wouldn’t want a Christmas miracle?! Apparently the shepherds are game to see one – although the “good news of great joy” comes from an angel that’s hard to ignore and quite terrifying to boot.[3]

What about this savior that the angel announces?  What is one way we can think about that savior today in light everything that happens beyond our control? The Bible story goes on to tell us that the child who is born is named 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 and forgiveness leads him to an execution on a cross.  But before we’re privy to those parts of the story, God begins with a baby.  Perhaps God knows what most us know.  Not many can resist a baby.  Babies get our attention. A baby certainly grabbed the shepherds’ attention – with a little help from the angel.

Rallying through their angel terror, the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to see the child. The new, young parents hear an earful from the shepherds about what the angel told them. The story tells us that, “Mary treasured all [their] words and pondered them in her heart.”  Like Mary, we are left to ponder their story in our hearts.  It’s a funny thing what happens when left to pondering. We notice random things when they would otherwise slip by.  For instance, my husband and I watch the show The Voice.  It’s a weekly singing competition. Four superstar performers act as coaches and judges. Viewers cast the winning votes. In the live, top 8 performances this season, superstar Jennifer Hudson says to one of the contestants, “Allow yourself to feel it…stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story; you should pretty much be on your knees when you get done.”[4]  Because this sermon was on my mind, my first thought when I heard Ms. Hudson’s say that was, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”  No, but seriously, she was my Christmas preacher in that moment.

“Stop singing a perfect song and tell an imperfect story.”  How many of us are trying to sing a perfect song to cover for our imperfect story?  Want to hear a real Christmas miracle?  Your imperfect story, everything that is out of control and beyond your control, is exactly where God begins with you.  This is where God’s transcendence becomes tangible, relatable, and real because God meets us right where we live – shoving aside that perfect song we try to sing about ourselves and, instead, tells our imperfect story.  So, we can just leave that perfect song to the angels and heavenly host.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The Bible is an imperfect story told by and about imperfect people that reveal the Christ perfectly. It’s like the manger that holds the baby Jesus. Maybe it has a bent nail or a few splinters, but Jesus is in there.[5]  Revealing the One who came under a star in skin and solidarity.  Revealing the One who comes in vulnerability – fragile, dependent, and hungry. Revealing the One whose story is imperfectly told so that we might see that our imperfections, our vulnerability, our fragility are revealed and held by God who also sees and names the good in you, calls you beloved, and names you children of God. It is, indeed, a Christmas miracle.

Thanks be to God!

______________________________________________________________

 

[1] “Imagine if you will…” is a line of narration used in The Twilight Zone.

[2] Here’s a link to a websearch of key words “Christmas miracle.” https://www.google.com/search?q=christmas+miracle+2017&tbm=nws&source=univ&tbo=u&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi965GngP3XAhUI2WMKHSoiBucQt8YBCEQoAQ&biw=1366&bih=662

[3] Luke 2:9

[4] Jennifer Hudson to Davon Fleming, direct quote, minute 23:50 as televised with commercials. The Voice: Live Top 8 Performances. Season 13, Episode 24, December 11, 2017, on NBC.

[5] Martin Luther paraphrased from the Preface to the Old Testament (1523/1545) quoted by Timothy Lull in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd Ed, Ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005), 114.  https://tollelege.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/dear-is-the-treasure-who-lies-in-them-by-martin-luther/

Wally’s World [OR Into This World, This Demented Inn] Luke 2:1-20

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church for Christmas

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And 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!” 15 When 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[sermon begins]

 

Generally speaking, we tend to think of full things being good things.  Full refrigerators. Full bellies. Full bank accounts. Full lives. But full is not always good news.  When you’re a laboring woman, “no vacancy” at a full inn is not the news you want to hear.  The inn was full in Bethlehem.  Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn.”[1]

The Bible story doesn’t talk about the innkeeper.  The one who has to deliver the bad news isn’t mentioned at all.  But we imagine him.  We are entertained by children playing the innkeeper during Christmas plays.  One such story has made its way through the preaching circles over time.  James Harnish, long-time pastor and writer, tells it this way:

“It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids on the playground. Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line. All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room. Go away.” Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes, and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.

Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.” Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way, and we are tired from the journey.” Again Wally called out, “No room. Go away.” With all the dramatic emotion the nine-year-old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby. Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary. Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy. Sadly, they began to walk off the stage. But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take. He shouted after them.  “Wait! You can have my room.”[2]  [end of Harnish story]

Wally’s story inspires a bit of wondering, kind of like that television show, “What Would You Do?”[3]  What would we do as the innkeeper?  He is sometimes imagined as an over-worked, short-tempered guy who snarls at the holy family.  Other times he is depicted as humble and hospitable, offering the holy family what he has to offer.  Regardless of tone, the end is the same.  There is no room.  But then there’s sort of a room…out in the back with the animals.

The question of Jesus and roominess has been on my mind about this Bible reading.  Whether or not we cotton to the idea of an innkeeper – it’s fairly easy to become sentimental about Bethlehem.  There are times for sentiment.  Give me a candle, a dimmed sanctuary, start singing Silent Night and watch out.  All I’m saying is that there may be room for more than sentiment in this beautiful, 2,000 year old story.  In the Bible story, there is political unrest, a registration is ordered by Emperor Augustus while Syria is governed by Quirinius.  The Emperor’s order results in a massive migration of people that uproots the holy family and sends them to Bethlehem where Jesus is born and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

No room.  Full.  This makes me wonder about room for Jesus in our lives and in our world today.  Room in the schedule.  Room in the mind.  Room in the heart.  Room for compassion in the face of suffering.  Room for Mary’s vision of God scattering the proud, casting the powerful from their thrones, and feeding the hungry.[4]  Room for the glory of God.[5]  Room for the peace proclaimed by the angel and the heavenly host.[6]  Room for peace between nations, for peace between peoples.[7]

Roominess may be as much in short supply in our time as in the holy family’s time.  Luke uses the word “room,” the Greek word kataluma.[8]  This same word translated as “room” in Luke chapter 2 is translated as “upper room” in Luke chapter 22, describing the place where Jesus shares the Last Supper with the disciples at Passover.[9]  Shares the meal that prefigures the meal we share in Holy Communion today.

Might Luke’s double use of kataluma mean that Jesus claims room where there once was none?  Claiming room in spite of what was originally offered as available.  Showing us from manger to upper room, from cross to grave to new life, that there are no lengths to which God will not go to get to us despite our best efforts to the contrary?  Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk, says it this way: “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited…It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving.”[10]

You see, while we like to imagine ourselves as the innkeeper, as a gatekeeper of sorts, Jesus arrives uninvited.  We can say, “No room, go away.”  We can even be prompted by the people around us to say, “No room, go away.”  We can point away from ourselves to an outlying manger that is removed from our everyday lives.  We can think ourselves tucked into secure space away from a meddling God.  Here’s the good news.  Jesus is born anyway. Jesus, Emmanuel “God with Us,” arrives on the scene.[11]  Jesus arrives in our world, our demented inn, as “a Savior who is the Messiah.”[12]  Arriving in “mean estate,” of lowly birth and social class, God slips into skin and vulnerability.[13]  With his fragile humanity, Jesus pursues a relentless ministry of love and life at the cost of his own.

Celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remind each other of God’s promise to come to us whether or not we think there’s room, of God’s promise to come to us uninvited through no virtuous merit or roominess of our own.  We remind each other that God is born as this child, Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; as this child, the Word made flesh, the babe, the son of Mary.[14]  Thanks be to God and Amen.

_____________________________________________

[1] Luke 2:7

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 37.

[3] John Quinones. “What Would You Do?”  abcNEWS: http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo

[4] Harnish, 35, regarding Luke 1:51-53

[5] Luke 2:14

[6] Luke 2:14

[7] Marty Haugen. “Litany and Prayers” in Holden Evening Prayer. (Illinois: GIA Publications, 1986), 10.

[8] Harnish, 34.

[9] Harnish, 34.

[10] Harnish, 35, from A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell (Doubleday, 1974), 365 and 367.

[11] Matthew 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

[12] Luke 2:11

[13] Hymn fragments from “What Child is This,” #296 in Evangelical Book of Worship. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

[14] Ibid.

Agency Denied [OR Why Joseph is Our Guy] Matthew 1:18-25

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 18, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

[sermon begins]

 

I listen to a lot of people talk about their lives.  While listening, I’m often struck by the magnitude of what someone says and the quiet, matter-of-fact way the story is shared.  There’s the older gentleman in the seat next to mine on the airplane.  The pilot was navigating around thunderstorms. The plane was shaking. I’m sure I was pale and looking worried.  The gentleman next to me asked me if I was nervous. (I thought to myself, “Hah! Are you kidding me?!”) “Yes,” is what I said. He told me that he doesn’t get nervous in planes because it doesn’t get worse than being shot down in the Pacific during World War II and waiting days in the water to get picked up.  The story was longer than that, of course.  He told me bits and pieces, regaling in calm tones and stark detail.  It had the quality of a story told many times.  I could picture it without feeling a need to take care of him while he talked.  He was open to curiosity and questions. His gift was one of distraction from my turbulence terror while he calmly shared his past.

The gentleman’s story, while unique in detail, is common in quality.  How many of us get used to telling our strange tales that have become normal in our own lives but surprise other people in the telling.  Jesus’ birth story is along this line for Christians. We tell a really strange tale, my friends.  We celebrate it in sacred scripture. We sing about it. We pop it up in our homes. I confess I have several such home scenes myself.  Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus surrounded by various configurations of animals, angels, shepherds, and magi.  Wood, porcelain, and pottery that is carved, poured, and molded.  Dioramas of faith that proliferate across the land and in my home.

In some ways, it’s such a simple story.  So simple that even a child can tell it.  Last week our young friends here at Augustana put on costume and learned their lines.  They processed into the sanctuary and preached the story of Jesus through a narrated, live diorama.  Their telling of this good news is a mash-up from the gospels of Luke and Matthew and appropriately called, “Simply Christmas.”

The gospel writer today keeps it super simple, too:

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engage to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

That’s it.  Nothing flashy. But there is someone who gets a newsflash. Joseph. His betrothed is pregnant and he is not the father.  If that’s not a kick in the gut that takes your breath away then I don’t know what would be.  A man’s proudest agency is taken from Joseph.  Confronted with the news, his initial plan is simple and legal.  Dismiss Mary.  Send her on her way quietly, saving her from public disgrace.  Joseph is justified in his position. Not only in his own mind but in the eyes of the law.  No harm, no foul.  He is good to go.  Simple and legal.  Justified. Resolved.  And then not so simple at all…

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”[1]

The angel, the Lord’s messenger, shows up thwarting Joseph’s justified resolve.  I hate when that happens.  When a good resolve swirls down the drain.  Resolve feels good.  It feels right.  It is powerful, knowing what to do.  Powerlessness?  Not so much.  And definitely not in the way a good resolve feels.  Here’s a clue to part of the good news today.  If there’s room for Joseph in the nativity story, then there is room for me, and there is room for you.[2]

There’s room for us in the Nativity story because Joseph is asked simply to stay and watch the story unfold.  Oddly enough, he asks no questions of the angel in his dream and he’s given no understandable explanation.  In essence, Joseph is told to take Mary as his wife and to name the baby conceived by the Holy Spirit, “Jesus.”  That’s not a lot of information.  In fact, it doesn’t amount to any information he can share with his friends as justification for staying with Mary, especially in light of the vague paternity. And, still, he obeys the angel.

He obeys without any knowledge of what this will mean. Just around the corner, what he can’t see is the visit from the magi.  Those strange people from a faraway place who come to visit Jesus after he is born.[3]  He can’t see the magi’s decision to thwart King Herod.[4]  He can’t see King Herod’s edict to slaughter all the infant children less than two years old because they may or may not be the rumored Messiah.[5]  He can’t see his and Mary’s escape and refuge in Egypt.[6]  There’s so much that Joseph can’t see when he agrees to take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus.

James Harnish, a long-time Christian pastor, recalls a story from when he was in college.  He went to see a professor with a very intelligent friend who had a lot of questions about his faith and was frustrated by the simplistic answers people gave him.  His friend asked the professor, “How can I [follow] Christ when I don’t know all that it will mean?”  The professor answered, “None of us knows all that it’s going to mean, but we know enough [to follow Jesus] and we spend the rest of our lives finding out what it means.”[7]

Joseph is obedient without an “i” dotted or “t” crossed.  Some of us see ourselves in Joseph because, like him, our proudest self-agency is also taken away from us.  We do not save ourselves. The name “Jesus” means “God saves” or “the Lord saves.”  He will be born and named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins.”  Week-after-week we scratch the surface of what this means for us.  Some of us wonder about intellectual problems raised by scripture that don’t jive with our experience or knowledge.  Some of us struggle with the mystery and want it solved so that then we could have faith.  Some of us are drawn to action on behalf of people who need help but don’t know where to start or how to keep going.  For all of us in those moments, Joseph is our guy.

In light of Joseph’s lack of information, his obedience to the angel’s wild request is shocking, confusing, and disturbing.[8]  If we let it, our familiarity with Jesus’ birth story means that our quiet, matter-of-fact way of telling it can oversimplify what God is doing all around us. God’s audacity in slipping into powerless, vulnerable skin is echoed by Joseph’s powerless, vulnerability as well as our own – the breadth of divine power revealed in the depth of divine, self-giving love.  Like Joseph, we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what it means to follow Jesus.  Like Joseph, we watch, wait, and wonder as Emmanuel, God with us, shows up and saves.  Thanks be to God.

______________________________________

[1] Matthew 1:20

[2] James Harnish. When God Comes Down. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 20.

[3] Matthew 2:1-11

[4] Matthew 1:8 and 12

[5] Matthew 2:16-18

[6] Matthew 2:13-15

[7] Harnish, 23.

[8] Harnish, 19.

Matthew 14: 22-33; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “The Logic of Hatred”

Matthew 14: 22-33; Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 “The Logic of Hatred”

Caitlin Trussell on August 3, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

 

[sermon follows the Bible readings of Genesis and Matthew]

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob.  Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel [aka Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
12Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. 13And Israel [aka Jacob] said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” 14So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, 15and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” 16“I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” 17The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” 21But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father. 23So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; 24and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
25Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

Matthew 14:22-33    Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
[sermon starts here]

A few years ago, before I started seminary, a friend of mine and I thought it would be fun to teach a class in Lent.   We picked a book and spread it out over the Wednesdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter.  It was John Ortberg’s book, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.”[1]  It worked because it was set up to teach over six weeks.  That right there was have the curriculum battle already won.  It also worked because Lent is a time of reflection.  The gist of the book is to consider how to take faith out for a spin, or a walk on water if-you-will, and see what Jesus will reveal about you and your faith in the midst of it all.  A good time was had by some.

In the 10 or so years since then, I’ve continued to think about faith and life and the idea of taking faith out for a spin. You can see how this metaphor works in combination with the Gospel text.  Peter climbs out of the boat during a storm, panics, starts to sink, and Jesus reaches out and pulls him up from the water.

This story of Christ’s command, Peter’s response, and his failed attempt at water-walking without Jesus is one that lends itself quickly to the metaphor spun out by Pastor Ortberg.  But I’d like to throw a line under the metaphor a bit and fish out one of the assumptions at work.  Specifically hooking an assumption about how we read the text as preparation for metaphorical water walking.  This assumption has to do with agency.

Agency is one way of thinking about whether a person is able to assert themselves into a situation and act in the world.[2]   Peter is living out of what tends to be interpreted as his own agency.  Meaning that he sees Jesus walking on the water, he wants to join Jesus on the water, so he asks Jesus to command him onto the water.  Peter’s agency results in action in the world.

In the West, agency is a big deal because it often means that we have choices and can make decisions that affect our lives.[3]  It is common to hear assumptions of agency in the language that we use in the West.

Joseph’s story is a counter-example to the popular reading of Peter.  Joseph’s brothers strip him of his agency as they strip his coat off of his shoulders.  The brothers’ frustration and jealousy boil over into a plan that first hopes to leave Joseph for dead, then switches to leave him in a pit, and finally ends up with Joseph sold into slavery and on his way to Egypt.  There is no choice, no action, no chance for Joseph to exercise agency in this situation.

If we look closely at the verse numbers we heard today, we can also see that there are verses in the middle of the story that we don’t get to read or hear.   Old Testament scholar Cameron Howard points out that these missing verses, “highlight the escalating animosity between Joseph and his brothers.”[4]  Three times the brothers hate Joseph – first because:

Jacob loves him the most; then they hate Joseph “even more” because he has special dreams, and yet again they hate Joseph “even more because of his dreams and his words”. He predicts his whole family will one day bow to him, and he is obnoxiously delighted to report that information. Even Jacob takes Joseph to task for this hubris.[5]

In the missing verses, Howard highlights, “Joseph’s culpability in the growing rift in his relationship with his brothers; the dysfunction in Joseph’s family stems not from any one source, but rather from the brokenness of all parties.”[6]

It’s the “brokenness of all parties” in Dr. Howard’s comments that caught my attention.  In part I’m thinking about the “brokenness of all parties” because there is a lot going on in the world that begs not only our attention but begs us to be part of constructive conversation and action – not the least of which is the current war in Israel and Palestine.  A crisis where there is a lot of talk about who’s right and who’s wrong; a lot of hatred disguised as logic – and children, CHILDREN, are being put in and caught in the crosshairs.  I’m thinking of “brokenness of all parties” because this kind of language is part of public rhetoric when we want to neutralize culpability, when we want to level the playing field in such a way so we don’t have to decide who might really be in the wrong.  We use the statement that “we’re all broken” and suddenly we excuse ourselves from taking a stand.

Joseph’s brothers hate Joseph because he is arrogant and obnoxious.  Their hate fuels a plan to commit murder that is then downgraded by an enterprising brother into the lesser charge of human trafficking…wait…what?!  It is a “brokenness of both parties” that culminates in an 11 against 1 forced trip to Egypt?   The danger here is that pretty soon someone is going to say that Joseph deserves it.  Many of us will look the other way as the caravan moves on down the road, believing that Joseph is a free agent who played his agency right into his own enslavement.

It is fair to say that our hatreds get tangled into our thinking.  The danger is when we start justifying our hatred as reasonable.  Hatred hides itself inside of something we now call logic.  It’s likely that our own hatreds disguised as logic aren’t as obvious as Joseph’s brothers.  But the effects of justifying our logical hatred can be just as devastating – in our own families and half-way around the world.

Peter has a moment in that boat when he wants to join Jesus on the water.  His reasons are not given.  Peter’s reasons are often imagined by Biblical readers as noble – just look how much Peter wants to be close to Jesus. But Peter’s reasons could just as easily be fueled by arrogance or showmanship.  He says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”   Peter ties his own water-walking ambition to a word of faith and he sinks like a stone.

The word of faith we proclaim can so quickly attach itself to our own plans, ambitions, and hatreds.  Effectively twisting faith to justify our own ends.  It is a common enough occurrence that many people on the outside of faith want no part of it.  Thankfully, time-and-again, Jesus continues to reach through the storm, dragging us toward life as we flail around to find footing.  Jesus secures us through a community of the cross, a group of people who in various ways cry out with Peter, “Lord, save me!”   And, across the spectrum of our faith and doubt, Jesus saves…



[1] John Ortberg. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).  http://www.johnortberg.com/books/if-you-want-to-walk-on-water-youve-got-to-get-out-of-the-boat-participants-guide-with-dvd/

[2] Please note that this is a loose definition complicated by all the concepts hanging around the edges of agency such as automony, free-will, theological anthropology, ontology, bondage of the will, etc.

[3] The concept of agency holds whether it means Western thought of the 21st century or the Wild, Wild, American West.

[4] Cameron B.R. Howard.  Commentary on Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 at Luther Seminary’s WorkingPreacher.org for August, 3, 2014.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2167

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

Luke 2:22-40 “Simeon, Spirit, Stay Tuned…”

February 2, 2014 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Luke 2:22-40  When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

Mary and Joseph are on the move again.  The first time – travel-worn and likely in the early stages labor, they made their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.[1]  In our story today, they are parents of only 40 days.  And they are also faithful Jews.  So they take a very, very long walk to Jerusalem, more specifically to the Temple, with their first-born son.  It’s time for Mary’s purification and for Jesus’ presentation to the Lord.

Joseph and Mary have been busy with details – from the earthy to the civic to the religious.[2]  They move into the temple cradling this child as carefully and as proudly as Julius Thomas carrying the ball into the end zone.[3] (Bet you though I couldn’t sneak in a Super Bowl reference…)

As they move into the Temple, what happens?  Simeon, having waited his whole life for this moment and guided by Holy Spirit, swoops into the Temple and scoops up the baby.   The parents likely didn’t know Simeon.  The story tells us that he was a man in Jerusalem, righteous and devout – a member of the congregation but not its designated clergy.  This was the man who swooped in, “took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.”[4]

Simeon is fascinating.  A long-time member of the parish, he is guided by the Holy Spirit into the temple that day and starts talking about God’s salvation in Jesus.[5]  Simeon’s song sounded a certain way because of the congregation in which he was formed.  Throughout the centuries since Simeon, the personal and congregational witness of God’s whole church looks thousands of different ways – from home churches to prison congregations to cathedrals and everything in between.

In the face of such diversity between churches we are tempted to set up ideal notions of church.  Whether it’s high-church or low-church or big church or small church or rock-band church or liturgically traditional church, we all seem to have opinions one way or another about which is better.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his short, wonderful book Life Together, reminds us that ideal Christian communities do not exist but that Christ-centered ones do.[6]  Most of God’s churches are simply groups of people, very often relative strangers to each other, who are guided by the Holy Spirit and suddenly find Jesus in their arms.

Finding Jesus in their arms, in light of Simeon’s song, can sound like a lovely, soft metaphor.  Simeon’s joy, and the new life of the Christ-child, can be the unbearable lightness of being that resonates for some of us.  But in the midst of his joy, Simeon speaks challenging words too – “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”[7]

Simeon then tells Mary, “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  The metaphor of finding Jesus in our arms is not such a soft one in light of those words.  Finding Jesus in their arms in light of those words is more like Michelanglo’s Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Jesus – grief-stricken and shocked.

This is a complex metaphor to be sure, but what does it mean in this place, here in the congregation of Augustana with these people – some whom you may know and likely many that you do not.  Having been called among you as a pastor one year ago today, I’d like to share a little about what I see.

Augustana’s 135 year history is a bit of a rarity this far west of the Mississippi.  Some of you sitting in the pews have a generational history here that includes parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, being baptized, confirmed, married, and buried here.  And some of you relocated to Denver years ago, discovered Augustana, and have been members for years.  There is a rich regard for the history of this congregation as a place where community has been forged by the work of many of you over time, through the power of the Spirit.  This is the hard-won kind of community that builds over time.  The kind of community that naturally includes both friendships and truces, joys and disappointment, plenty and want…because, of course, there are people involved.

And many of you have been guided into this congregational community more recently.  Some of you come to heal – to sit quietly and be consoled by the sacraments of communion and baptism as well as scripture and song while Christ and his body, the church, create space for you to heal over time.  Some of you come ready to connect, roll up your sleeves and revel in doing the work of congregational and community ministry.  And some of you come dubiously, wondering what everyone seems so excited about when there is so much to believe and disbelieve in the church and outside of it.

Whatever shape we show up in and for however much time we’ve been here, we are much like Simeon.  All of us are guided by the Spirit to be together in this particular way on this particular day of church; made new again today as Jesus is handed into our arms and waiting to see what happens next.

Simeon’s song of praise as well as his words to Mary emphasize that is it the Spirit who’s in charge of what happens next.  It is the Spirit who gifts each one of us for particular work in God’s world that also includes the church.  This is good news.    So stay tuned…

Today, February 2nd, is formally called Presentation of Our Lord.  This is a day every year when the church celebrates Jesus’ moment with Simeon and Anna in the Temple and bursts into praise.  The Prophet Anna’s words are not given to us in our story today.  In a few moments we’ll sing a song of praise.  Lending our voices to Anna, we sing praise to God for the redemption of all, through the power of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

[Congregation sings the hymn, “How Great Thou Art”]

 



[1] Luke 2:1-7

[2] Joy J. Moore. A Working Preacher commentary on Luke 2:22-40, January 1, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1180

[3] I couldn’t resist.  It IS Super Bowl Sunday in Broncos country after all.  This is a nod toward my now not-so-secret dream to guest commentate with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

[4] Luke 2:28

[5] Luke 2:27, 30

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 26-27.

[7] Luke 2:34-35