Tag Archives: love

Mental Health Sunday and the Church Getting Out of God’s Way – John 13:31-35 and Acts 11:1-18

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on May 15, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

John 13:31-35 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Acts 11:1-18 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

[sermon begins]

It’s good to see that Peter is still getting into trouble after Jesus’ resurrection. Although it’s more accurate to say about this story in Acts that Peter had progressed to getting into good trouble, a bit different than his bumbling ways when Jesus was alive. Peter’s friends in Jerusalem called him out for staying in a certain Roman centurion’s home and eating there – a big no-no in Jewish circles at the time.[1] He told his friends about the vision he’d had from God, concluding his defense by asking his friends, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” The book of Acts tells the disciples’ stories after Jesus’ resurrection but it’s arguable that Acts was written down before the Gospel stories were – the Gospels framing the theology that was already being practiced by the early church. What had not changed was Peter being at key dinner parties.

In the Gospel of John reading, Peter was at another meal, the meal that turned out to be Jesus’ last meal. At that last supper, Jesus’ command to love one another comes right after Judas’ betrayal. Immediately before Jesus commandment, Judas left the dinner party and his friends watched him go. The friends must have been confused to see Judas leave, only then to hear Jesus talking about loving each other without Judas there with them. They’d been together for three years through the wringer of ministry. Those friendships formed in a similar intensity to the ones we form at camp together where a lot happens in a short period of time. Watching Judas leave under the threat of his betrayal was inconceivable to the friends who had his back and then saw that back disappear through a doorway before dinner. The friends carried Judas’ departure and death differently than Jesus’ departure and death for sure, but they still carried it with them.

I wonder if Peter also had his old friend Judas in mind when he had dinner with his new friend Cornelius. After all, God wastes nothing from our experiences where the gospel is concerned. It’s reasonable for Peter to remember Jesus’ command to love one another in the aftermath of the resurrection and the early days of the church. How could he forget Jesus’ command to love after Judas’ betrayal when he dined with unexpected people in unexpected places at God’s invitation only to hear accusations of betrayal from his Jerusalem friends. Except that it wasn’t a betrayal. But we can label things a betrayal when events surprise us and when unexamined assumptions are shattered. The shock takes our breath away.

Shock fits with mental health and illnesses too. Mental illness is surprising, and it can feel like a betrayal of our own body when it happens to us or a betrayal by someone else when mental illness happens to someone we love. As if we ourselves or the people we love could choose whether or not our minds lose control. Or, even worse, to doubt our own or someone else’s faith when minds succumb to mental illness, as if faith is protective of bad things happening. In our more rational moments, we know that faith doesn’t protect us from bad things happening. We see faithful people near and far struggling with all kinds of things including mental illness. On Mental Health Sunday, it’s a reminder we say out loud. Faith can certainly infuse us with courage and hope to think about mental illness differently. Faith also connects us with each other as church to do church differently. Much like Peter did with his friends in Jerusalem when he advocated for his new friend in Christ, Cornelius.

As a faith community, we can offer each other practical help. Yesterday, 24 Augustana people took First Aid Mental Health training through our E4 Ministry. 24 people gave time and energy, not only learning what to do in a mental health crisis but also learning about earlier warning signs. Their training makes visible the love that we have for each other at church, and it also sends trained people from Augustana into their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. We talk, sing, pray, and learn a lot about God’s love in the church. Being honest about mental health and illness and being prepared to intervene in a crisis is one way to take action in love. Although taking action can feel like betrayal to someone who is in a mental health crisis, taking action may mean the difference between life and death and giving someone a chance to heal.

Augustana’s E4 Ministry itself is another way to take action. E4 is an ongoing effort to Enlighten, Encourage, Educate, and Empower each other. Get it? There are Four Es – Enlighten, Encourage, Educate, and Empower. E4 meets on second Thursdays of the month at 7 p.m. here at the church. People who have friends or family or coworkers who deal with mental health diagnoses and also people who know first-hand the challenges of having a mental diagnosis themselves are welcome to E4 conversations. This means that pretty much everyone has a place in E4.

Humility is a helpful correction when we talk about ministry of any kind. It’d be cool to be like Peter asking his friends, “Who am I to hinder God?” But we’re often those friends in Jerusalem with a million questions about whether or not something will work or whether it’s right or wrong or some other ministry-limiting question. So it’s kind of cool that we get to be church together to occasionally break ministry loose from our questions and see what happens. The book of Acts is a bit different than the Gospel of John in this regard. The full name of the book the Acts of the Apostles. But really, it’s a book in which God’s initiative is front and center and the church simply follows God along and lives into the new thing that God is doing.[2] When Peter asks his friends about not hindering God, God had already broken down barriers, destroyed what the friends thought of as permanent walls, and it was up to Peter and his friends to simply respond in kind.[3]

Too often, mental illness becomes a barrier to community and to being a part of the church. Practicing a resurrection ethic means figuring out how to love each other through our trials and challenges. The church, like humans everywhere, has a tough time loving each other as Jesus commands. Being church means it’s going to be messy. Being church is also full of surprises because that’s what it looks like when we follow a God who loves us first. Thanks be to God, and amen.

_______________________________________________

[1] Acts 10

[2] Matt Skinner, Sermon Brainwave podcast for May 15, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/844-fifth-sunday-of-easter-c-may-15-2022

[3] Ibid.

Jesus Hits the Beach – John 21:1-19 [OR Nibbling on Fish and Family Systems – A Sermon with First Call Pastors and Deacons

Opening Worship for First Call Theological Education, Office of the Bishop, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA

Caitlin Trussell on April 27, 2022, 7 p.m.

[sermon begins after this Bible reading]

John 21:1-19 After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

[sermon begins after this brief paraphrase of my adlib welcome]

I want to thank Chelsea for asking me to preach with you this evening. The high of finishing seminary and being ordained is one I remember well. She filled me in about the bumpy road of First Call Education over the last few years of pandemic and told me this is the first time you’ve been together synodically in this way, at least intentionally. We talked about the theme and practice of Family Systems thinking for your time togeher as well as hopes for these next couple of days too. It’s a joy to share this time with you. The gospel reading for this evening is the one for this coming Sunday. You’re welcome to use anything you hear this evening in preparation for Sunday. And you’re also welcome not to use it. Lastly, I bring you warm greetings from the sinner saints of Augustana Lutheran Church. Let’s get to it then…

[sermon actually begins]

We moved into a new house when my mom married my stepdad, Pops. He’d moved us from the East Coast to the West, from Catholicism to an austere, a capella, reformed faith tradition, and from subsidized housing to a single family home complete with olive and avocado trees, and a bird of paradise plant by the front door. My mother put dark brown carpet in the new house because the five of us kids, 4 to 13 years old, and my 17-year-old stepbrother and his friends brought in a lot of dirt and the occasional bleeding wound. Her solution was the darkest carpet short of black she could find. It ended up being a mess in the other direction because every pale piece of lint, paper, and dust showed in stark relief against the sea of brown.

Despite my mother’s best intentions getting us into family therapy after we left my mentally ill dad, some of my time was spent crying. Mom came up with a plan to make space for the tears. Vacuuming. Square footage of dark brown carpet awaited me. By the time I vacuumed my way from the dining room to the front hall, up and down the curved staircase, through the living room, and into the den, I had calmed down. Each tidy line that dark carpet reveals when vacuumed, like patterns in a Japanese sand garden, softened my reaction and organized my thinking. Mom had probably calmed down too because the vacuum drowned out the noise I was making. Then we could talk. Ah, the highs and lows of new life together knew no bounds.

Apparently, the new life of Jesus knew no bounds either. He really moved around in those early days of resurrection. Fresh from the tomb, Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener until Jesus said her name. That same Easter evening and a week later on the second Sunday in Easter, the disciples had a come-to-Jesus meeting with him in a locked room. Then Jesus hit the beach. “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” What is it with this guy and the number three? It’s not enough that he was raised on the third day, but he had to be sighted three times afterwards? Then he offers Peter a three-part absolution to mirror Peter’s three-part denial at Jesus’ trial – directing Peter’s love for Jesus to tending his flock.

Love for Jesus leads us to so many unexpected places. Some of us end up following a call towards the kind of flock-tending that Jesus asked of Peter. The same Peter who’d just jumped wildly into to the water to get to Jesus while the rest of the disciples rowed the boat ashore. At this point in the disciples’ relationships, they must have all known each other well. Their foibles and follies recounted over meals and during the long walks between towns. Processing their experiences with each other to become better able to tell a story of their own to feed Jesus’ sheep.

About a year and a half into my now nine-year call, I had an interaction that didn’t go well. Suffice it to say that I’d just met a person who decided to project a bunch of assumptions onto me that didn’t apply. This person had enough power in the system that my confident, capable self was caught off guard. Soon afterwards, I was in my car, in a parking lot, in a full-on ugly cry – simultaneously feeling ridiculous while realizing that I needed help to think. I had enough wherewithal to recognize these tears as old ones, but it was going to take more than vacuuming lines into brown carpet to settle this down. A few of my colleagues at the time had talked about Family Systems work. How we grew up reacting and acting in ways that once served a purpose that no longer exists, but we still react and act in those unexamined ways given the right set of circumstances.

I’d dabbled in Family Systems thinking at the start of my call, but getting to know the church and my call was distracting those first few months and it fell off my radar. Fast-forward to the year and half mark, in that parking lot. I knew that the colleagues I most respected were regularly in some of kind of therapy or spiritual direction. So I found myself a family systems coach and I connected with a few like-minded colleagues who spoke systems language. The slow, painstaking work of figuring out old patterns and reactions began alongside training my brain to think in new ways. Not just synthesize data or process my emotions – although that’s important. Really think. The kind of thought that aligns new information and responses with deeply held values and principles. Using the squishy gray matter part of my brain to do what it was created to do. I’ll leave it there since I’m not here to give a neurophysiology lecture, although as a former nurse that would be super fun and is very tempting.

My love of Jesus, my love of the church, my love of self and neighbor, all the loves were not enough for me to feed Jesus’ lambs and sheep and keep my sanity. I’ve seen other colleagues get their emotions so tangled, their thinking so clouded, that they self-righteously blame their flock without any self-examination and leave their call. I don’t know how each of you would describe your experience these first months or years of your calls. Pandemic makes so many things harder and weirder. What I know is that having a strategy for thinking, whether it’s Family Systems or another strategy, has made the difference in my work and well-being. It’s also kind of fun being the least anxious person in the room from time to time.

We get to do so many wild and wooly things because we love Jesus AND the world God so loves so much that we accept calls into ministry. It’s an adventure that I wouldn’t trade for anything. When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?…Do you love me?…Do you love me?…”, Peter’s affirmations and ache are palpable – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus gave Peter the sheep and to the sheep he gave Peter. Our life together as church, starting with worship and expanding to the ministry mischief we each get up to in our different calls, is born of this love. Not a love blind to sin and fault, but an unconditional, open-eyed love to the human story lived in each one of us. Our human stories healed by Jesus in the love given to each one of us and, by the Spirit’s strength, the love we get to give others in Jesus’ name.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, alleluia! And amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The holy gospel according to St. John…Glory to you, O Lord.

After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This is the gospel of our Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

 

 

 

Good Friday is for Weary Souls [OR The Life-Giving Heart of God] John 18:1 – John 19:42 and Psalm 22

**sermon art: The Crucifixion by Laura James  https://www.laurajamesart.com/laura-james-bio/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on April 15, 2022

[sermon begins after the Bible readings]

John 18:1 – John 19:42 excerpts

So they took Jesus; 17and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. 18There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. 25bMeanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is
your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. 28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Psalm 22  may be found in full at the end of the sermon. Verse 1 is most relevant to the sermon: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

[sermon begins]

Today is a day for weary souls. Bone-tired souls who see Good Friday everywhere. We see it in the million deaths from Covid in our country and six million deaths around the world. In the murderous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In a subway station shootout in New York. In a traffic stop turned execution in Michigan. In each overdose death that breaks a family’s heart. In our own experience of loss and grief due to illness, addiction, or accident. Oh yes, we see the suffering and we struggle to make sense of it, to connect it with our faith, to take action against it or alongside it. We see and experience the suffering and our powerlessness and lack of resolve to stop it. Today is a day for weary souls.

There’s a special effect used in movies when the fast-paced, fast-forwarded action suddenly slows into second-by-second slow-motion. We watchers have enough time to see and absorb a key part of the story. Good Friday has that quality. It’s a sacred pause that reveals the crux of the matter, the truth of life and death, the heart of the story, the heart of God. Contemplating the cross, the Christ, each other, and ourselves, God cradles our soul-fatigue in God’s heart.[1]

Today is a day to remember that we are not alone. Good Friday signifies the suffering of the world and God suffering with us, God absorbing our suffering into God’s heart. But it’s also a day that God’s shared suffering with us often feels insufficient because suffering is exhausting and isolating, and we feel alone. Jesus’ cry from the cross could be our own, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”[2]

Good Friday tells the truth about suffering. The level we inflict suffering on each other, and on the earth and all its creatures, knows no bounds. Most of us are capable of just about anything given the right set of circumstances. But today isn’t about shame games. Jesus took shame with him onto the cross and shame died there too. The death of shame is life giving. The death of shame clears our eyes to see ourselves and each other with compassion, as Christ sees us with compassion. There’s a sung chant for Good Friday. The cantor sings, “Behold the life-giving cross on which was hung the Savior of the whole word.” The Savior of the whole world delivers us from evil – in ourselves and other people.

Good Friday isn’t about only pointing away from ourselves at other people who cause suffering. It’s also a sacred space to wonder and confess the suffering that we cause as well. Confessions of sin extend to systems that we’re a part of – institutions, countries, governments, families, friendships, communities, etc. Systems that hold us captive to sin from which we cannot free ourselves. What does free us? The life-giving cross. Life-giving because the shame-game, the image game, the perfection game, the self-righteous game, all the games we play against each other shatter in the shadow of the cross.

Through the life-giving cross, Christ sees us with compassion. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke included Jesus’ words of compassion, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’ words are not carte blanche for murder and mayhem. His prayer to forgive us reminds us that we often act without awareness of how our actions may hurt someone else. That’s why our worship confessions talk about things we’ve done and things we’ve failed to do. That’s why we talk about our sin. Sin gives us language for the way we hurt other people and ourselves with our actions – actions that separate from each other and God. Good Friday creates a slow-motion pause for us to experience life-giving compassion from the heart of God in the face of our sin. God’s compassion also reminds us that Jesus’ death isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. Jesus is a revelation to a weary world, taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through self-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love.

God reveals the truth of our death dealing ways while reminding us that God’s intention for humankind is good.[3] Jesus was fully human and fully divine. His life’s ministry and his death on the cross reveal our humanity and the goodness for which we were created. The life-giving cross awakens us to that goodness. Jesus’ full and fragile humanity was displayed from the cross. He sacrificed himself to the people who killed him for his radical, excessive love, rather than raise a hand in violence against the people and the world that God so loves. Jesus’ self-sacrificing goodness clears our eyes to see God’s intention for our human life together.

Our connection with each other is also a Good Friday truth for the weary soul. From the cross, Jesus redefined connection, kinship, and companionship:

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” [4]

Jesus connects people through suffering. This is not a reason for suffering. Simply a truth about it. When we suffer and feel most alone and weary to our souls, Jesus reaches out from his own suffering to remind us that we have each other. God’s heart revealed through the cross destroys the illusion of our aloneness and connects us to each other once more. In God we live and move and have our being through the life-giving cross. In each other, we’re given kinship and appreciation for the gift and mystery of being alive.

In the end, the cross isn’t about us at all. It’s about the self-sacrificing love of Jesus who reveals God’s ways to show us the logical end of ours – our death-dealing ways in the face of excessive grace and radical love. We simply can’t believe that God applies this grace and love to everyone. It hard enough to believe that there’s a God who loves us. It’s downright offensive that God loves our greatest enemy as much as God loves us. But that is God’s promise for our weary souls on Good Friday. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. “Behold the life-giving cross on which hung the Savior of the whole world. Come let us worship him.”[5]

______________________________________________________________

[1] @BerniceKing via Twitter, 7:38 PM – 13 Apr 22. Ms. King tweeted about “soul-fatigue” and Patrick Lyoya being shot by the police officer who pulled him over during a traffic stop. https://twitter.com/BerniceKing/status/1514417869861306374

[2] Matthew 27:46

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

[4] John 19:25b-27

[5] A sung chant for Good Friday.

_______________________________________________________________

Psalm 22

1My God, my God, why have you for- | saken me?
Why so far from saving me, so far from the words | of my groaning?
2My God, I cry out by day, but you | do not answer;
by night, but I | find no rest.
3Yet you are the | Holy One,
enthroned on the prais- | es of Israel.
4Our ancestors put their | trust in you,
they trusted, and you | rescued them. R
5They cried out to you and | were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not | put to shame.
6But as for me, I am a worm | and not human,
scorned by all and despised | by the people.
7All who see me laugh | me to scorn;
they curl their lips; they | shake their heads.
8“Trust in the Lord; let the | Lord deliver;
let God rescue him if God so de- | lights in him.” R
9Yet you are the one who drew me forth | from the womb,
and kept me safe on my | mother’s breast.
10I have been entrusted to you ever since | I was born;
you were my God when I was still in my | mother’s womb.
11Be not far from me, for trou- | ble is near,
and there is no | one to help.
12Many young bulls en- | circle me;
strong bulls of Ba- | shan surround me. R
13They open wide their | jaws at me,
like a slashing and | roaring lion.
14I am poured out like water; all my bones are | out of joint;
my heart within my breast is | melting wax.
15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; my tongue sticks to the roof | of my mouth;
and you have laid me in the | dust of death.
16Packs of dogs close me in, a band of evildoers | circles round me;
they pierce my hands | and my feet. R
17I can count | all my bones
while they stare at | me and gloat.
18They divide my gar- | ments among them;
for my clothing, | they cast lots.
19But you, O Lord, be not | far away;
O my help, hasten | to my aid.
20Deliver me | from the sword,
my life from the power | of the dog.
21Save me from the | lion’s mouth!
From the horns of wild bulls you have | rescued me.
22I will declare your name | to my people;
in the midst of the assembly | I will praise you. R
23You who fear the Lord, give praise! All you of Jacob’s | line, give glory.
Stand in awe of the Lord, all you off- | spring of Israel.
24For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither is the Lord’s face hid- | den from them;
but when they cry out, | the Lord hears them.
25From you comes my praise in the | great assembly;
I will perform my vows in the sight of those who | fear the Lord.
26The poor shall eat | and be satisfied,
Let those who seek the Lord give praise! May your hearts | live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn | to the Lord;
all the families of nations shall bow | before God.
28For dominion belongs | to the Lord,
who rules o- | ver the nations. R
29Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow | down in worship;
all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel be- | fore the Lord.
30Their descendants shall | serve the Lord,
whom they shall proclaim to genera- | tions to come.
31They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people | yet unborn,
saying to them, “The | Lord has acted!” R

God is Love [OR It Can’t Just Be About Love…Can It?] Luke 13:1-9 and 1 John 4:7-21

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver, Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022

[sermon begins after 2 Bible readings]

Luke 13:1-9   At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

 

1 John 4:8b-21  God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

[sermon begins]

♪♫ “There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us.

There is a longing in our hearts for love, we only find in you, O God.”[1] ♫♪

We are singing this song in Lent in place of the usual Kyrie, a prayer for God’s mercy. We sing and claim that God is love. We hear that ‘God is love’ in scripture like the 1 John reading today. The Psalmist’s lips praise God’s “steadfast love [as] better that life.” God is love. Do we believe it? Is God really love? We say to each other in word and deed, “It can’t just be about love.”

We doubt that God is love. We perform mental gymnastics to explain some of the more troubling parts of the Bible – contorting God’s love into strange shapes that none of us would recognize as love. It’s a little unclear as to how we benefit from these mind games. In these theologies, God gets set up as unpredictable, angry, and insecure, one who could lash out in condemnation at any moment. “You better watch out” doesn’t sound like love to me. It sounds more like Stockholm syndrome when victims develop feelings of affection and trust for their kidnapper.

In a sermon a couple of weeks ago, I said that “the death of Jesus was the logical end of human anger, not God’s.” This means that the cross holds up a mirror to the violence in us, not in God. More than one of you had questions about that, bringing up the Old Testament and wondering about God’s anger and God’s love and what you’ve been taught about it. Stories like the one in our Gospel reading from Luke today are a good way to talk it through. Jesus had been teaching the crowds and the disciples for quite some time before the question about the Galileans was raised.

 

The Galileans, whose blood was defiled by Pilate, were quite possibly known by Jesus.[2] Galilee was not a big place. His statement wasn’t an abstraction about somewhere far away. These people were his neighbors who died violently and unexpectedly. In Luke’s Gospel, Pilate comes up throughout the story of Jesus (3:1), and at the end he will mix the blood of Jesus the Galilean with the Passover sacrifices. Pilate used the power of government to inflict suffering – NOT the power of God.

According to Jesus, neither the Galileans’ executions nor the eighteen folks crushed by the Tower of Siloam were punishment for sin. Explanations for suffering are always inadequate but it’s interesting how often suffering is attributed to divine retribution, punishment for sin through catastrophe. Jesus rejects the argument that suffering and catastrophe are divine punishment for sin. Jesus said, “No.” Yet still, we find it hard to believe that God is love, finding it much easier to believe that God is anger.

Let’s put a placeholder there for just a moment and talk about people as an example. It’s often easier for us to believe that people are mad at us or that we’re in trouble – yet one more example of the continuum between adolescents and adults. We get older but don’t really change all that much. We’re quicker to assume that people are mad at us, or just don’t like us, than we are to assume that people love and accept us. Is it possible that we’re also quicker to assume God is mad at us than that God loves us, projecting our assumptions onto God? It can’t just be about love…can it?

 

Take notice when Jesus tells a parable in response to a question. Parables are never direct answers. Parables don’t offer certainty. Parables invite creativity.  In this parable about the fig tree, we can play with who might be the man with the vineyard, the gardener, the tree, the fruit, the manure, or the calendar. Okay, who wants to be the manure? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Playing with a parable means there can be multiple lessons in any one story. So, if God is love, where is God in the story? The gardener? The fruit? Could Jesus be the tree and Pilate be the vineyard owner? Could God be the calendar in the reference to time? I have my own thoughts about the story but it’s helpful for us to be uncomfortable before jumping to quick answers. Parables disrupt our assumptions and invite our curiosity. Could disruption and curiosity be love? It can’t just be about love…can it?

In addition to Pilate’s appearances throughout the gospel, Luke prioritizes fruit-bearing.[3] In chapter 3, John the Baptist calls everyone to bear fruits worthy of repentance (3:8). In chapter 6, Jesus preaches that good hearts produce good fruit (6:43-45). In chapter 8, he explains that honest and good hearts “bear fruit with patient endurance (8:15).”

Before telling the parable about fig trees and fruit bearing, Jesus invites his listeners to repent, in the plural. Meaning that repentance in this story is a group activity. How many of you like homework that are group projects? Me neither. Too much unpredictability when a grade is on the line. But here is Jesus, using the plural of repent and assigning a group project. Some Jesus followers took him at his word, named the group project of repentance and called it Lent. Lent can’t just be about love…can it?

 

Repentance means to change our minds, to change our thinking. Changing our thinking does not mean 100% agreement. But putting our minds together, repenting together, can lead to deep discernment of what it means that God is love and THAT repentance, discernment, and love can transform the world. It can’t just be about love…can it?

The mystery of God is voluminous, unknowable it it’s totality. Thank God that Jesus was given as the shorter, Spark Notes version of God.[4] Jesus is the summary of God’s love. The Bible stories of Jesus’ earliest followers are part of the group project. What is God’s love? Jesus. Jesus bridges the gap created by our self-preservation through hoarding prosperity, power, and protection. Self-preservation over and against our neighbors, also known as sin, is the opposite of fruit-bearing and looks nothing like love.

 

1 John reminds us that Jesus reveals God’s love so that we might live. Jesus is called the “atoning sacrifice,” but he isn’t payment to an angry God or a hungry devil. That’s just divine child abuse. It’s not love. Oh no, Jesus is not payment. Jesus is a revelation to a world, to a people, to us, that needed to be loved and shown how to love. Taking violence into himself on the cross, transforming death through self-sacrifice, and revealing the depth of divine love, Jesus shows us that God’s judgement of the living and the dead clarifies where we fall short in loving God, self, and neighbor. Judgement is neither condemnation nor punishment. Judgement is a call to love, a restoration of love – restoration not retribution.

1 John tells us that there is nothing to fear because there is no punishment – “Perfect love casts out fear.” The word “perfect” in 1 John is perhaps better translated as “complete,” as in “God’s love is made complete in us.” Whatever God’s reasons are, God, who is love, “…first loved us,” and God’s love is made complete. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us…”

We love you God. Thank you for loving us first. Amen.

__________________________________________________________

[1] Listen to “There is a Longing in our Hearts” by Anne Quigley’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gP9BBz6fRkk

[2] Jeremy L. Williams, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, TX. Commentary on Luke 13:1-9 for https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-131-9-5

[3] Williams, ibid. Dr. Williams highlights these passages in Luke in his commentary.

[4] Cliff Notes and Spark Notes are similar. They’re the easy, incomplete summary of a full book or area of study.

Love Takes Practice [Or Mirabel: Truth-Telling Saves the Miracle] Luke 4:21-30 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

sermon art: Madrigal family from the movie Encanto https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2953050/

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 30, 2022

[sermon begins after two Bible readings – reading the Corinthians reading is a real boost so go for it]

Luke 4:21-30 Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

[sermon begins]

Mirabel had a problem. The Madrigals, Mirabel’s family in the animated movie Encanto, were so focused on protecting their home that they struggled to tell the truth about their challenges. Challenges big and small that meant the Madrigals weren’t perfect. Mirabel could see the problem. She could see that the family was struggling. She could see that their house, in which they all lived as one big generational family, was cracking under the pressure of this really big problem that no one would talk about. Luisa wasn’t as strong as everyone thought. Abuela wasn’t as certain. And Bruno’s visions of the truth were such a threat that he left the family, and no one talked about Bruno – no, no, no. The Madrigals story is an allegory about the pressures that immigrants face to excel and be perfect so that they can keep their new homes. Their story also applies to families more generally – who gets to speak, who gets heard, and how the truth is told or not told. While Bruno was the one with the visions, Mirabel ended up being the truth-teller. Even her Abuela, her grandmother, finally listens to her but it was a tough sell. Mirabel paid a heavy price for being the Madrigals’ truth-teller.

Truth-teller is another word for prophet. Biblical prophecy is more about truth-telling, God’s truth in particular, and not about seeing the future. Jesus knew this when he said to his friends and family in Nazareth, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Truth-tellers often bear the burden of push-back from people who don’t want to hear it, or in Jesus’ case, the threat of being pushed off a cliff. We heard the first part of Jesus’ story in the Nazarene synagogue last week when his friends and family were amazed to hear Jesus’ words and celebrated his teaching. Oh, how quickly the tide turned against him because he then said something they were not ready to hear. He changed gears on them, flipped the script, inverted the priorities (as Pastor Ann preached about last week). Jesus turned their expectations of him upside down and they were furious. Their rage had them ready to commit murder, to kill Jesus by hurling him off a cliff. The story is not clear how, “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”  Truth-tellers attract painful encounters because people will go to great lengths to avoid and push-back at the truth.

One trick about telling the truth is not being a jerk about it. Part of Mirabel’s effectiveness in the movie story is how much she loves her family. Her love for them and their love for each other made space for the truth. Each member of the Madrigal family has a gift, even Mirabel. Their gifts each serve a greater purpose in the story than they’re able to see at the beginning. It becomes a story wider than just their family and greater than only saving their home. It kind of makes you wonder if the movie writers knew Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Tucked in the middle of Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14, is this stunning section about love in chapter 13 – one of the most well-known parts of scripture because it’s often chosen as a reading at weddings. But Paul isn’t preaching at a wedding, he is writing to the church in Corinth. This Corinthian church had been arguing among themselves about all kinds of things, setting up hierarchies of leadership, gifts, and insiders and outsiders. Paul’s letter opens in gratitude for these wayward, faithful people and then unfolds a counter proposal to these hierarchies and their behavior around them. By nesting the love chapter within the gifts, Paul points to love as the reason for the gifts. Love is THE gift, the greatest of all. The gifts point to love. To paraphrase Paul, if I sing like an angel but without love, I’m just making noise; if I can solve every mystery and have oodles of faith but no love, it amounts to nothing; and if I give everything I own away without love, nothing is gained.

Love is as counter cultural as it gets right now in the United States – especially in public. It’s like there’s a $100 million dollar contest for who can be the meanest and most self-absorbed. It doesn’t help that most of our news sources dust up as much controversy as possible because there’s a very human inclination to find out what the fuss is about. And a riled-up, hateful community is more profitable than a calm, loving one. The algorithms, and the artificial intelligence behind the algorithms, lead us to topics that we’re already inclined to believe based on the choices we’ve been making, funneling us to ever more polarizing and agitating content. Here’s the thing. If we practice anger, we’re going to get really good at anger. Same thing with envy and arrogance. Want to be the best at being rude? Keep being rude. We’re not complicated creatures. We tend to do what we practice doing. Paul called his church folks to practice love based on Christ’s example because what they’d been doing was taking them down the wrong road. We’ve seen what it looks like when spiritual gifts are used to manipulate people. Charisma without love can rob people blind. It’s more than noisy gongs and clanging symbols. It’s dangerous. People will get hurt.[1]

Love is not ‘going along to get along.’ It’s neither unity through muting differences, nor is it giving up on finding solutions to problems because it’s too hard. Love means that each person is valuable. No one is expendable. Paul describes love as behavior. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love rejoices in the truth. Love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. Here’s your homework for the week. Take home your bulletin. Read 1 Corinthians 13. Underline verses and make notes in the margins. What does love already look like in your life? How has who God created you to be, including your gifts, help point you to love? How can you practice love this week? Here’s a pro-tip. Buy yourself time. Ask for time if the situation allows for it. Time between your first reaction to something and how you would respond in love. For some that means counting or praying in their heads. Others might set a timer on their phone. Others may take a literal time out and move to a different room or take a bathroom break. However you do it, make time between your instinctive reaction, the reaction that only you are privy to because it happens in your mind and body, and how you want to respond if love is indeed the greatest of all things. Our bodies can’t go where our mind hasn’t gone. Sometimes we must buy time for our minds to prioritize love before we can respond in love. It’s a choice. Love takes practice.

We don’t know what other people are going through. We can’t know their whole situation. We see other people’s situations dimly and see God even more dimly. Paul reminds us that someday we’ll see God but, in the meantime, we are fully known by God. In the mess of who you actually are, God promises to love you no matter what. One of the things we do at church is practice God’s love through Jesus, imitating it and reminding each other about it. We confess the truth of our flaws and fragility and hear God’s love and forgiveness in return. We listen to scripture and the preacher’s interpretation. We welcome children and listen to them. We share peace and then we share the communion meal to which everyone is invited, even the newest visitor among us may come to Christ’s table of bread and wine. We sing in prayer and praise to God who knows us fully and has always loved us because God loves the world.

God loves us first. From God’s promise of love, we’re asked to practice God’s love with each other, our neighbors and our enemies. A patient, kind, and truthful love that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things – the greatest of all gifts indeed.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Dear Working Preacher: Staggering Love (re: 1 Corinthians 13). January 23, 2022. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/staggering-love

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

sermon photo: Playable Art Park – Sandy Springs, Georgia

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 19, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________

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

 

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

 

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

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 5, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

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

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

[sermon begins]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________

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

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

[3] Ephesians 2:8-9

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

[5] Matthew 15:22

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

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

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

A Celebration of Life for Carol and Charlie – John 2:1-11 and Romans 8:35, 37-39

Caitlin Trussell with family and friends in Grand Lake

July 20, 2021

[reflection begins after two Bible readings]

Romans 8: 35, 37-39  Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

John 2:1-11  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

[reflection begins]

In the Bible story about the wedding at Cana, we remember that Jesus’ ministry came to life during a celebration of marriage. The wedding is part of what makes this a great story to celebrate Carol and Charlie’s lives and their life together. Married at 18 and 19 years old, their adult lives were shaped by each other. Sometimes fun and sometimes fiery and other times everything in between, many of us sitting here today are here because they found each other.

My first encounter with them was at a wedding on the west coast. When Rob and I pulled into the parking lot, Charlie and Carol were standing on the sidewalk waiting for us. Charlie was smiling and calm, and Carol was smiling with mischief in her eye and sassily showing a bit of leg. Rob said, “Yup, that’s my mom.” At that same wedding, she also told me that she wanted brown-eyed grandchildren although she’d end up having to wait until the great-grandchildren arrived to get her wish.

Weddings are about hope. We all know the highs and the lows are coming. But the day itself is about hope. It’s fitting that Jesus’ first miracle happened at a wedding. It’s surprising that we get to talk about good wine by the gallon – especially because Mary had to step in with firm motherly encouragement. Jesus tried to tell his mother that it wasn’t his time.  Apparently he thought he had some living to do when he said that his “hour had not yet come.”  Jesus, speaking of his hour and turning the water into wine, foreshadows his death on a cross – when he drinks sour wine from a cloth just before the hour of his death.

We heard a Thanksgiving for Baptism this morning. Our baptism immerses us in Christ’s death and unites us with Christ in his resurrection.  The wedding at Cana gives us a glimpse of this connection between Jesus’ life and death and life, with Carol and Charlie’s completion of their baptismal journey through the cross of Christ.  As he did at the wedding, Jesus celebrates our joys, our highpoints and our relationships with us.  And Jesus’ life, ending on a cross, brings life and hope to our suffering through that very same cross.  How does this hope take shape?  First by naming suffering for what it is – just like in the reading from the book of Romans that names tragedy as hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, nakedness, sword; just like our reason for being here today is Charlie and Carol’s lives and their deaths.  And also by naming the good and the love and the hope lived in their lives too.  Naming the celebration of life and naming the struggle of not having them with us.

The last dinner that Charlie ate was ice cream – which surprises absolutely no one. The hospice had a connection with a family candy business that also made ice cream. He was asked how it was and Charlie said, “It’s worth dying for.” There was this pause in the room and then we all just cracked up.  That moment was quintessential Charlie, a classic one-liner that lightened the mood.

As we share stories to celebrate Carol and Charlie, there’s a temptation at funerals we can accidentally veer towards. Before we know it, our stories try to prove their goodness before God and position them in right relationship with God with a list of the good. The list becomes a bit like Santa’s naughty and nice tally.  But Jesus doesn’t give as the world gives.  He does NOT tally.

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

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

The truth that being human involves real suffering and pain.

The truth of God’s self-sacrificing love.

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

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

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

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

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

Through the suffering of self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down on a cross and, through an empty tomb, now catches death up into God, drawing Carol and Charlie into holy rest where suffering is no more, and joy never ends.

Nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to us.  Nothing separates Charlie and Carol from the love of God in Christ Jesus because the movement is from God to them.  In day-to-day living, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more. In the twinkling of an eye, Jesus catches death up into God and draws Charlie and Carol into holy rest.  This is God’s promise for them, and this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

Surrender, Breath, and Being Made New [OR Be Gentle with Yourself] Mark 4:26-34 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 13, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Mark 4:26-34 [Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

[sermon begins]

Here’s a pro-tip conversation starter: Ask someone about their experience on the roads around the Denver area. It’s come up in conversation more in the last couple of weeks than I can remember it before. And that’s saying A LOT. Traffic here has long blended rural and city drivers that mix as well as oil and water and makes for good stories. More recently though, driving has inarguably reached wackadoodle proportions.[1] It’s like we’ve entered a video game that we didn’t download. Local police twitter (yes, I follow them too) tweets with the latest top speeds, flipped cars, and fatal accidents. I have found myself reacting to the chaos before realizing that I’m also contributing to it. Want to do something counter-cultural? Drive as if you have all the time in the world – except not too slowly or you become a problem on the other end of the spectrum which is a significant part of the chaos too. Anybody else feel themselves ramping up just talking about it?

Let’s take a different tack then, shall we? Our bodies are wired in such a way that they can be reminded to respond differently. Intentional breathing can reset our nervous systems and reduce anxiety.[2] Let’s try it together. In just a minute, I’m going to invite you to breathe in for a count of two, hold that breath for a count of three, and breathe out for a count of four. References abound on this kind of breathing with different breath and hold counts but, in the interest of time and everyone’s different experiences with this kind of breathing, we’re going to stick to the count of breathing in for two, hold for three, out for four. You can close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so. We’re going to go through the cycle three times. Ready, close your eyes. Here we go:

Breathe in one-two…

Hold one-two-three…

Breathe out one-two-three-four. [repeat for three times total]

Okay, you can open your eyes – if I haven’t lulled you into sleep, that is. Risky thing for a preacher to do, I suppose. 😉

This relaxed breathing is brought to us, in part, by the Gospel of Mark. Mark generally moves at an intense pace with lots of “immediately” this and “immediately” that.[3] But today, the pace slows down. Dare I say that it’s even gentle. The Markan community was confronted by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and what action they should take to get along in the world.[4] They had two obvious options. Should they take up arms and join a revolution? Or should they go along with Roman authority to get along and live another day? The Gospel of Mark offers a third response to the crisis of the day – to follow Jesus in the self-giving way of the cross, to trust God’s faithfulness, and to recognize God’s promises taking “a dramatic and subversive turn in Jesus.”[5]

Mark’s urgency and crisis response takes a pause in our two parables today, telling us stories about how the Kingdom of God expands by God’s power and not our own. We have the parable of the growing seed that sprouts and grows without us needing to know how – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” And then the parable of the mustard seed that is the tiniest of seeds, producing the greatest of all shrubs and providing shade for the birds. In these stories, we’re reminded that the Kingdom of God is first an act of God. We strategize ideas and take action on them hoping that we’re on the right track, but God’s kingdom will grow. We don’t know how. This is Mark’s version of taking a deep breath, easing the urgency caused by the crisis to remember the main thing. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out.

There’s almost no day that goes by without someone wondering with me about what they “should be doing” or how they think they should be “handling it.” Heck, I wonder about these things for myself, too. It doesn’t even matter what “it” is. It could be intense personal grief. Or a changing job situation. Or financial difficulty. Or emerging from pandemic ready for normal and not finding it. Quite often, I find myself saying things like, “give yourself some grace” or “be gentle with yourself.” I know from personal experience that this is easier said than done. But when I hear people say it to me, I find it easier to remember that I’m only human. And when I say it to other people, I’m reminded that they are too. Each breath connecting us to every other fragile, wondrous, vulnerable, and impatient creature.

Which brings us to the new creation promised in the second Corinthains reading. My lord, what promise! “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”[6] Immediate deliverance. No waiting. New! This baptismal reality in Christ is like the growing seed in the parable – first the stalk, then the head, then the new grain in the head. We do not know how.

You are simply new. Not a romanticized, perfect new version of yourself, though. You are a new through a cross. Through THE cross. You are no longer living for yourself but for the one who died and was raised for you. The one who loves so deeply with divine love that this love changes everything, even you. Unconditional love that accepts you for who you are is freedom to surrender to that love and become what you have received from Christ.

Being the body of Christ means that we are death and resurrection people, coaching and encouraging each other, celebrating and grieving with each other. New. New means that there is something old, something former, and something to let go. Letting go creates space. Letting go gives us space to breathe. To abandon our illusion of control. To slow down our thinking in an anxious time in the world. To acknowledge our gifts and run with them. To acknowledge our sins against self and others and reconcile across them.

Letting go surrenders us to the one who loves so deeply with divine love that we are changed, made new – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” We do not know how. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God. And Amen.

___________________________________________________________

[1] “Wackadoodle” is a more recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary. https://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2014/03/wackadoodle-makes-oxford-english-dictionary#

[2] Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D. “How to Reduce Anxiety with Every Breath.” October 22, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201910/how-reduce-anxiety-every-breath

[3] This is a fun article comparing the use of “immediately” across the New Testament, the gospels, and Mark in particular. https://livingroomtheology.com/immediately-used-much-gospel-mark/

[4] Matthew L. Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, MN. Sermon Brainwave Podcast for June 13, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/788-third-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-11b-june-13-2021

[5] Ibid.

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:17

The Blame Game [OR What Does “Queer Eye” Have Do with the Church?] Genesis 3:8-15 and Mark 3:20-35

**photo: Ryan Collerd/Netflix

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on June 6, 2021

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Genesis 3:8-15 [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.9But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

Mark 3:20-35 [Jesus went home;] 20and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and the disciples] could not even eat. 21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

[sermon begins]

Ah, the Blame Game. It’s a tale as old as Adam and Eve’s tragic story of trading the Garden of Eden for the lie that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then they could be “like God.”[1] They were both present for the tempter’s invitation. They both ate the fruit. They both suddenly realized that they were naked and covered themselves with fig leaves. Given the simultaneous sin for both, it’s curious that the history of interpretation shouldered Eve with a singular burden as if Adam’s culpability were incidental. I highly recommend reading the opening verses of Genesis chapter 3 that lead into our story today. I do not think they mean what we think they mean based on what most of us have in our heads about Eve. History scapegoated her as THE Temptress with arguments that are frankly unobservant, misogynistic, and sexist.

Eve’s scapegoating comes in part from Adam’s blame of her when God looks for them in the garden. Biblical interpreters responded to Adam’s blame of Eve and said, “Ye-ah, ye-ah, that’s the ticket… Adam would have been just fine if it weren’t for Eve.” What’s followed is millennia of Blame Game against women – their actions, their motivations, and their role as scapegoats used against them for someone else’s gain.

This is not to say that Eve is off the hook. She caved to temptation. And while Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent and they all ended up suffering for it.[2] He’s a blamer – she’s a blamer – wouldn’t you say that you’re a blamer too?[3] After all, their story is our story. Their story is an attempt to understand something about the origin of suffering and a broken creation. Their story also includes all too familiar themes of superiority and scapegoating as certain people are blamed as the problem by other people who blame them as the bigger sinners. The ultimate, go-to stunt when you’re trying to win the Blame Game is to tell someone that they’re of the devil. And that’s precisely what we encounter in our return to the Gospel of Mark today after spending the Easter season in the Gospel of John.

Quick refresher. Mark is EXTREMELY interested in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s good news. In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus proclaims that, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[4] Jesus being at the center of this good news is assumed, announced, and reinforced by the gospel writer. So far in Mark, up to our story today, the demons are the only ones who have correctly identified Jesus.[5] But knowledge about Jesus is quite different than faith, trust, and hope in Jesus. Okay, refresher over – on to the story!

Jesus had just appointed his twelve apostles including “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him,” and “then he went home.” Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters worry that he’s out of his mind and try to keep him home. The Jerusalem scribes, who are likely temple-based religious leaders, show up in Nazareth and accuse him of the demonic.[6] Jesus embarrasses the scribes and redefines family, dangerous actions at that time in Judea and partly why he ends up killed.[7] He flips the attack from the scribes, telling them that they judged God’s good news as evil when they accused him being possessed by an unclean spirit.[8]  Why does any of this matter? It matters because calling God’s good news evil happens all the time. In this regard, the church has much to confess and apologize for our part in the Blame Game.

A recent example of the church’s need to confess and apologize can be found in season five of Queer Eye.[9] Queer Eye is a television show that identifies a worthy “hero” and updates their home, wardrobe, and style, along with enriching their mental and physical health. In said episode, Pastor Noah Hepler of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Atonement was nominated by his Congregation Council to be helped by Queer Eye’s Fab 5. He’s an ELCA pastor who is gay. He attended seminary and came out later in his life. Noah talked about the pain he experienced as a closeted, gay teenager in a church that preached about homosexuality as a sin. He also preached an amazing sermon at the end of the episode during his congregation’s 125th Anniversary; Noah celebrated who God created him to be as a gay man and he apologized on behalf of the church who have hurt so many people based on gender and sexuality.

Remember Adam and Eve at the beginning of the sermon? Those two served as handy poster children for historical interpretations that did not serve women. They also have millennia of historical burden placed on their shoulders for what love should look like. This burden continues to lead to the scapegoating, abuse, and murder of queer folks that we sometimes describe with the catchall acronym of LGBTQIA+ which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, and Asexual/Aromantic/or Agender.[10] So much of our culture, including church culture, has tilted in favor of heterosexual norms that it makes it difficult to see how much pain it’s produced unless you have a queer friend or family member, or you yourself are queer.

In point of fact, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard these words used positively in church, not to mention the idea that we can celebrate all of who God created someone to be, including their gender and sexuality. You know how many times Jesus talked about anything related to being queer or gay? Zero. Just for kicks this week, look up how many times he talked it this week and then look up how many times he talked about money, poverty, hunger, or love. The other few Bible verses that have been interpreted as against homosexual behavior are more likely warning against abuse and idolatry. One sermon is not going to cover all this content down to the last thought but it’s part of a conversation. A conversation that we’re willing and want to have. Let me know if you’d like to talk more about it.

The ultimate good news is that each one of us, each one of you, are beloved by God. There is nothing you can do or not do to make God love you any more or any less. The more we embrace that good news for ourselves, the more we can embrace that good news for other people. We complicate life and hurt ourselves and others when we create artificial boundaries as if they were set by God and when we judge things as evil that God calls good. This is especially troubling when Jesus himself commands us first to love God and second to love your neighbor as yourself.[11] Jesus risked everything, even his own life, to love and to announce God’s love to ever expanding groups of people. For crying out loud, the church exists today because of Jesus’ love and inclusion of non-Jews. As the church, the body of Christ, we would do well to risk love over anything else, too. Blaming and scapegoating were nailed to the cross with Jesus who was the ultimate and final scapegoat. We don’t have to play the Blame Game anymore because the need for it was swallowed up in Christ’s victory over death. Christ’s death and resurrection brings freedom, light, life, and healing through forgiveness into the world’s brokenness, binding us to God and each other through self-sacrificing love that risked everything. Thanks be to God! And amen.

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[1] Genesis 3:5

[2] Genesis 3:14-19 This is a few extra verses after our reading today.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvCTaccEkMI

[4] Mark 1:14-15

[5] Mark 1:23-24

[6] Matthew Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, MN. Podcast: Mark 3:20-35 for Sermon Brainwave for June 6, 2021. https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/787-second-sunday-after-pentecost-ord-10b-june-6-2021

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark 3:30

[9] The highlighted episode can be watched on Netflix. Living Lutheran published an interview with Pastor Noah Hepler here: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2020/06/how-noah-hepler-found-reawakening-in-queer-eye/

[10] LGBTQIA+: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersexual, Asexual/Aromantic/Agender https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/LGBTQIA

[11] Mark 12:28-34