Tag Archives: light shines in the darkness

Mental Health Sunday [OR Preaching for the First Time About My Postpartum Depression] Luke 18:1-8 and Psalm 121

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 16, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 18:1-8  Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?

2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.

8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

[sermon begins]

These past few days, morning walks with Rob and our dog Sunny have been glorious (poop bags not so much). Bluebird skies, wisps of white clouds, sunlight blooming off leaves turned red, orange, pink, and yellow, hills in the distance with hints of the brighter colors close by. During one of these walks, I mentioned how much better I feel when I’ve made the effort to get myself out of the door. The cool breeze lightens burdens and heavier thoughts, and at the same time makes space for lifting people to God in prayer. Times like these walks, when thoughts are clearer and life is calmer, foster so much of the gratitude that Pastor Ann talked about last week. Gratitude that changes perspective and improves mental health. Gratitude for things that aren’t always seeable.

It’s hard to describe the darkness of mental illness. My experience with postpartum depression gave me a glimpse of how dark and out of control it feels. Things were tough after our first was born but the depression went into overdrive after our second child.  A mind hijacked by shame, I felt unworthy of love and the life I had. Everyone else seemed so happy as new parents and I was drowning in anger, losing my cool over the smallest things. Most of you wouldn’t recognize the me that I was then. I was able to camouflage my distress except from those closest to me who felt hurt and helpless. Therapy and time and getting more sleep and my husband’s determination and my eventual honesty about what I was going through and my apologies to the people who care about me and having a weekly reminder at worship of God’s grace and unconditional love, all worked together towards healing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned coming from generations of family who struggle with mental health, it’s that healing from mental illness is never just one thing. Healing is layered. It took a few years to fully recover my light and my confidence and to trust that I was loved. I am most fortunate to have had the support and the resources to make it through that dark time. I do wonder what the outcome would have been if I’d hadn’t had the support and resources.

Support and resources are part of what Mental Health Sunday is about. As we sang in our Gathering Song, we “build a house where love can dwell, and all can safely live.”[1] Part of the building this house is our honesty.

– Honesty that there are no quick fixes to mental illness.

– Honesty that our faith is a layer of healing – mental illness is NOT caused by lack of faith nor fixed by more faith as many of us were taught.

– And honesty that we need other people, some of whom are a congregation and some mental health professionals.

– Honesty that mental illness is a set of real diseases that are sometimes beyond our control to heal ourselves and sometimes beyond anyone’s control to heal completely.

– And honesty that our mental illnesses create pain for ourselves and the people we love.

We start worship with a word of confession about ourselves and hear God’s good word of forgiveness because both are true – we are broken and do hurtful things out of our own pain AND God’s mercy endures forever. Today’s parable of the widow and the unjust judge is a great illustration of both.

“God is everything the unjust judge is not.”[2] This is not a parable that slides God into the power role. But God is present. The widow’s urgent persistence is fueled by God’s promises of justice, by God’s alignment with orphans and widows who are lifted up throughout scripture as worthy of the community’s energy, money, and protection. She has nothing to fear from the unjust judge because her life is on the line. Death is her outcome should her plea for justice fail. The widow is a good example of why the church has a role in advocating for justice of all kinds so that support and resources are broadly available. Today, that means spotlighting mental health and the factors that help and harm.

Our society is dealing with a tsunami of mental illness. Some of it, like my postpartum depression, is situational and familial. But the level of mental illness that we’re experiencing as a country is uncharted territory. This is no longer a discussion about a few individuals who struggle because of genetics and family systems. It is no longer a private health issue. Our culture destabilizes mental health to such an extent that it’s become a public health issue. We’re not going to fix this overnight but, like the persistent widow, we can persistently work on injustices in housing, healthcare, hunger, education, and employment because we know that these are factors that cause stress which can destabilize mental health. It’s not about individuals working harder on self-care to cure themselves in an unjust society working against mental health. It’s about our collective will, working together so that the more fragile among us have a shot at mental health through support, resources, and treatment. Even better would be a society less in need of those things to begin with because it’s less dog-eat-dog and more glorious days of dog walking.

Today’s Psalm 121 is a real fan favorite here in Colorado. It’s often read at funerals as a psalm of faith and trust in God. We sang it as a hymn earlier in worship. “I lift my eyes to the hills,” the psalmist wrote, “from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” The imagery in this psalm isn’t hard for us to imagine at the foot of the Rockies. What is hard is remembering that God’s help comes in the form of people through relationship. From the beginning, the Bible’s stories often focus on people’s responsibility to each other as God continues to show up for them. When the Old Testament covenants between God and God’s people are broken, they are broken by God’s people not taking care of most vulnerable among them – the widow, orphan, and stranger.

Jesus, the one who saves us from ourselves and expands our love of self towards God and our neighbor, was raised in the Biblical, Jewish tradition of caring for the vulnerable, and expands God’s earliest covenant to the Jews around us through the very same Jesus. If I had a whiteboard here with me, I would draw ever expanding circles, first with Abraham, then with Moses, and then with Jesus. Each covenant getting larger, including more people across a wider world. When we are tempted to exclude, God keeps drawing a bigger circle. Because God’s circle is ever-expanding, Mental Health Sunday expands the circle for us as a congregation too.

“I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.” These words are also about being able to take our joy, our pain, our anger, and our longings straight to God. God whose disconnect and despair was embodied in Jesus as he hung on a cross. Imagining Jesus on the cross was part of my own prayers for healing when I couldn’t see through the dark. Many times, I didn’t have the words to pray but I could see Jesus’ feet and felt comforted by God who was in the shadow with me. Digging out of the darkness was painstaking and took a lot of other people working with me, along with God’s promise that there IS light in the darkness and the darkness cannot, will not, never will overcome it.[3]

Thanks be to God. And amen.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Evangelical Book of Worship (ELW), 641: All Are Welcome. Marty Haugen b. 1950, (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994).

[2] Francisco J. Garcia, Ph.D. Candidate in Theological Studies, Ethics and Action, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville, TN. Commentary on Luke 18:1-8 for Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-3/commentary-on-luke-181-8-5

[3] John 1:5, although, read all of John 1:1-14, its powerful promise of God’s presence is noteworthy.

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

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

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________

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

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

[3] John 1:5

[4] John 8:12

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

John 1:1-14 “The Birth, Our Birth”

John 1:1-14  “The Birth, Our Birth”

December 25, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

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.

 

This morning we come to celebrate a birth.  Not just any birth…but a birth that shines light into the darkness, a birth that changes the world.  God has been active in history before the birth of Jesus. Connecting the moment of this birth to all of God’s history, the gospel writer uses those powerful words, “In the beginning…”  These words that John uses to introduce the Word can also be heard in the very first verse of Genesis. [1] This connection draws a huge arc through time, space, and place, between the birth of creation to the birth of Jesus.

So while Luke spends time on the human details of shepherds and a manger, John spends time on the cosmic ones.  Where Luke’s words are a simple story, John’s words elevate us into poetic mystery.  We could leave it there, in those mysterious heights.  We could keep at a distance this mysterious poetry that many discard as too heady or inaccessible.  Many theologians do.  Except…except…John doesn’t leave it dangling out in the mystery of the cosmos, untouchable or inaccessible.

John brings the Word straight to the ground.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  This God who created…who made promises through Abraham, who brought freedom through Moses, who instigated challenge through the prophets, who gave guidance through kings…this God became flesh.  A mysterious, inaccessible, cosmic God becomes a God that is part of our common humanity, through common flesh.  God taking on flesh to join us in our humanity is the birth we celebrate this morning.  It is why some people call today the Festival of the Incarnation rather than Christmas.  God incarnate simply means God in a body – or as John likes to put it, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

God living among us in Jesus is a cause for celebration this Christmas.  Not simply because God showed up but because God immerses in the struggle of humanity.  As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Light moving in the dark; day against night.  This language may be poetic but we get it when someone talks about their darkness:

The darkness of someone we love living with a mental illness that is difficult to treat.

                The darkness of grief and the confusion it brings to daily life.

                The darkness of disease, acute or chronic, that seems to take up more space than anything else.

If we could sit and talk about the darkness, each one of us could name a way that it affects our lives or the life of someone we love.  It is into this real struggle, this darkness, that Jesus is born.  Jesus who continues to bring light that reveals God in the midst of the worst that life brings – a light that brings hope as we are born children of God.

Our birth as children of God is ‘not of blood.’  This birth gives us hope that “we will not be subject to the frailties of human flesh forever.”[2]  Our birth as children of God is “not of the will of the flesh”.  This birth gives us hope that “we are more than our desires.”[3]  Our birth as children of God is not “of the will of humans.”[4]   This birth gives us hope that “we will not always be subject to the whim and will of others.”  As children of God, our lives have meaning over against anything we can come up with to say they don’t

Our birth as children of God allows us to see the transcendent, cosmic God up close and personal in the person of Jesus.  So that when we celebrate Emmanuel (God with us) we celebrate the hope that is given to us as we are born children of God.  To this and to all God is doing we can say, “Merry Christmas!”

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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

[2] David Lose on Working Preacher, December 25, 2010.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=857

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.