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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Surprising Mercy

God’s love for us and for all people is constant and wide; letting go of our need to declare ourselves righteous, we find God ready to embrace our brokenness and name us truly righteous.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30 C
   Text: Luke 18:9-14

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“Jesus also told this parable, to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

It would be lovely if we weren’t among the people to whom Jesus told this parable. But in this time of polarization and hostility in our national conversation, an election season that seems worse than any we’ve experienced, we know we’re those people. Speaking only for myself, if at confession we were told to consider only this, “have we ever trusted in ourselves that we were righteous and regarded others with contempt?”, I would have multiple examples to confess from just the last six months.

In fact, it’s likely just in today’s telling of this parable many of us were thinking contemptuously of some others when we heard about this Pharisee and his braggadocious prayers. The trap in this parable is how easily we say after hearing it, “God, I thank you that I am not like them.” And then we realize we are.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. But why would Jesus tell us this parable if there was no hope for us or the Pharisee? If Jesus feels the need to tell us a parable, Jesus must intend us to hear it and be changed.

This situation is like another parable Jesus told a few chapters earlier.

It’s the story of a father and two sons, the elder one faithful and hardworking, the younger one less so. The heart of that story is the father’s welcoming home the younger brother after he’d squandered his inheritance and rejected his father and family. But notice: Jesus also told that parable to people who trusted in their own righteousness, and had contempt for those they considered “sinners.”

Our Pharisee is like the elder brother: he’s followed God’s rules and has been faithful, just as the elder followed his father’s rules. He also knows the tax collector hasn’t lived up to God’s law, just as the elder brother knew his younger sibling was worthless. It’s hard to miss the contempt of the elder or the Pharisee, and hard to miss their trust in their own righteousness.

In that other parable, the elder son is angry that he has been taken for granted, that his good hasn’t earned him anything, and that his brother’s sinfulness is rewarded by a feast. But the point of that parable was the unfailing, astonishing, prodigal love of the father for both his boys. The elder soncouldn’t see it; the younger son was overwhelmed by it.

This is key to Jesus’ hopes for today’s parable. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t that God doesn’t love him. God’s love is without limits and embraces him fully, just like the tax collector. The problem is the Pharisee can’t see his need for such mercy and love. And if he can’t see it, will he experience it?

If God’s love is the constant, then it’s this problem that needs our attention.

We know we too often trust in ourselves that we are righteous. We act confident in our own decisions, we justify our own behavior, even if deep down inside we doubt. We play the common human game of compare and compete. As long as we can compare ourselves to others who are worse, as long as we’re doing better than some, we seek no more introspection.

Jesus suggests we’re putting up a false fa├žade when we try to trust in ourselves and what we’ve done. We also know this is true. In the dark of the night all our self-defensiveness and self-assurance can melt away when we realize we aren’t always loving and faithful and well intentioned, as we seem to need to claim.

Jesus told us these parables so that in seeing the Pharisee and the elder brother, we might also realize that God’s love for us is constant and unwavering. Then, rather than trusting in ourselves, we might learn to trust God. Rather than trying to impress God with our list of accomplishments that we secretly fear aren’t enough, we might begin trusting God’s love for us that cannot be taken away.

The tax collector and the younger brother connect us to God’s grace.

They’re not exemplars of faithful living; no attempt is made to say they were good. But both know this, and come asking for mercy. This poor tax collector can’t even lift up his eyes to heaven. But God looks at him and says, “I just want to put my arms around him and love him.”

This is what it is to be declared righteous by God. That’s how the word “justified” should have been translated here, contrasting with our being self-righteous. When the only thing that matters is God’s love for us, the only declaration of “righteous” that matters is God’s declaration, not our own.

Far from having contempt for people who seem to fail and struggle, we should be grateful to them for revealing the depths of God’s love. If tax collectors and delinquents and even Pharisees can be loved by God, then we can, too.

The trap in this parable is a huge gift.

If Jesus had simply rebuked self-righteousness and exhorted us to confession, we might have missed the point. Instead he told a tricky story that was bound to trip us up so we’d realize we are the very ones we are mocking, we’re the ones we’re holding in contempt.

Jesus’ trap helps us see we and the Pharisee belong with the the tax collector, and that’s the best place to be. We have nothing to bring before God except a plea for mercy and grace, and then we’re surprised to learn we’re already surrounded by God’s loving embrace. We don’t need to trust in ourselves that we are righteous because the Triune God who made all things declares us righteous. We don’t need to brag to God in hopes of being loved, because at the cross God made it clear that we are loved beyond anything we could ever imagine.

The center of these parables is the beating heart of God’s surprising mercy and love.

Only such love that is willing to die for us can break through our defensiveness and fears and embrace us, whether we’re hanging our heads in sorrow over our sin or whether we’re trying to put a brave, bragging front before God and declaring our goodness.

The truth Jesus would have us hear, the reason he told us this parable, is that God sees us as beloved children, forgives our wrongdoing, and embraces us with love and grace.

When our eyes are lifted up and we look into the loving face of the Trinity that Jesus has revealed to us, then we are able, with God’s help, to begin to live as the redeemed and loved people of God we really are. Then we’ll know what it is to go home justified, that is, declared righteous, and live that way in God’s love.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, October 16, 2016


God invites us into a relationship of prayer that is like wrestling, where we are privileged to fully engage in the life of God and are changed.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29 C
   Texts: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; Luke 18:1-8

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

When was the last time you did what Jacob did, spent a whole night wrestling with God?

Jacob was utterly alone. On his way to meet his brother Esau after twenty years of estrangement, having fled due to Esau’s death threats for stealing his birthright and inheritance, Jacob fears what tomorrow will bring. Esau has 400 men with him. For all Jacob knows, Esau plans to kill him the next day. Jacob has sent his family across the river, wives, concubines, children.

So this night he’s alone. And he meets a stranger who wrestles him until sunup, gives him a new name, “God-struggler,” and a limp. The text never identifies the mysterious opponent. But after this encounter, Jacob says in wonder, “I have seen God face-to-face.” Jacob, who struggled with everyone, spent the night trading moves with the God of his father and grandfather.

Maybe some here know Jacob’s struggle. But judging by how we tend to talk about prayer, we’ve domesticated the experience to a shadow of what Jacob knew. We endlessly discuss God answering prayer, as if prayer was some kind of ordering service like Amazon. We box prayer into specific times and places – at meals, first thing in the morning, last thing at night – and go on our way. But we don’t often hear people describe their prayer life as all-night wrestling matches with God.

Jesus has words of comfort today for those who do live into their relationship with God in a vigorous, constant, persistent way. If prayer is only our mild, carefully proscribed version, Jesus’ words won’t help much.

Also, when was the last time we took Psalm 121’s words about God seriously?

Have we stopped believing God actually cares about this world, means to participate in the life of this world, will keep us all from evil? We don’t often talk with each other as if we believe this.

Have we not only domesticated our prayer, but also domesticated God? Christians can talk about mission for hours without considering or naming God’s investment in it. I’ve been in conversation with pastors about issues of peace and justice and wondered whether we had confidence that God not only sought the same justice and peace but would strengthen and bless us in this work.

Apart from our prayers of intercession each Eucharist, in which we actually do call upon God for healing, intervention, strength for many people and many situations, do we sometimes shy away from asking God for help ourselves? Do we fear God might not want to help? Rather than struggling with God, do we back away and keep our prayers to ourselves?

Well, what if we emulated Jacob, and took heart from Jesus?

We might find joy in wrestling with God even as we took God’s promises to care for us seriously. We’d bring anything and everything to God in prayer, trusting in God’s unsleeping love our psalm sang about, and willing to stay in that conversation, struggling with God for understanding and hope.

Jacob reminds us wrestling requires two participants. When our prayer life is only us talking to God, we’re not there yet. In a wrestling prayer life we persistently struggle with God and God struggles with us, and both are changed, each learning the other’s heart and need.

A wrestling prayer life also means wrestling with God’s Word. Keeping at this gift God has given, digging, probing, reading, contemplating, wrestling with the words and with God in prayer to understand what God is trying to say. We learn things when we wrestle, we hear God’s voice. It might take all night, it might take years, but in that struggle we, too, see God face-to-face.

A wrestling prayer life means wrestling with each other, learning from our life together about God. When we struggle with each other’s pain, with the deep questions our world raises, with God’s involvement in our world, together we find greater insight than we could by ourselves. And a stronger faith.

And a wrestling prayer life means wrestling with ourselves, when God says things counter to what we want. It means struggling with our tendency to be self-centered. It means wrestling with the reality of our sin and willingly facing that struggle rather than ignoring it.

Such wrestling prayer helps us understand God and ourselves.

It’s astonishing that God wants such a relationship. That God gives us the invitation to pray, to struggle. That God meets us on the riverbank. The joy is that this gift teaches us so much.

When we struggle with God in prayer we learn that God does hear the cries of this world for justice and peace. That God hears all cries for help. That God is constantly working in this world for good. But we also learn God wants us to deal with this world. Ever since the first command in the first Garden, God has said, “this is your job to do.”

This isn’t arbitrary or capricious. The more we struggle with God the more we learn this is the only way we can become who God means us to be. We need to deal with the unjust judges of the world, with the unjust systems, with our unjust neighbors, with our own unjustness, because it’s our job to do so. We’re meant to deal with all that makes this world broken and evil and unsafe. We’re designed to care for this world for God.

 That’s what God needs from us. To help us become fully human.

Much of the Word of God we heard throughout the summer could easily take us to guilt and anxiety. But God doesn’t mean to teach us to feel guilty for not doing enough, guilty for not serving and loving as we are called to do.

We learn through persistent wrestling with God that God means us to grow through struggle. If we are to become fully human, God can’t learn our lessons for us, take our conflicts for us, magically solve all our problems for us. Imagine a parent of a baby praying, “God, you take care of this child for me and raise it.” Or someone at a job saying, “God, you do this work for me.” Only by trying, working, doing, will we grow and become the people God made us to be. We see this in Jesus, who easily could’ve avoided all he faced, but modeled true humanity in becoming fully human, facing struggle, even to the point of death.

Wrestling with God in prayer helps us grow and learn about God and ourselves. Struggling to live faithfully in this world changes us, too. It’s how God created us.

But over all this remember: Jesus’ words are so we “do not lose heart.”

That’s why he told a parable of persistent, wrestling prayer. Because it can be discouraging to realize that prayer isn’t about getting easy answers or everything we order up, it can be frustrating to seek understanding from God and know it might take years.

But remember Jacob. As the sun rose, he still faced uncertainty and danger. He didn’t know if he’d survive the day. It turns out Esau welcomed him in love, but at dawn Jacob didn’t know anything would change. But he knew he’d met God face-to-face. He’d learned from God and taught God, and he was different. He had a new name, and he was more than he was before. And he knew he wasn’t alone.

You see, the joy is in the wrestling, because we are with God. We’re not alone by the side of the river, afraid, wondering. We’re with the Triune God who loves us enough to die for us, and the more we wrestle, the more that love enfolds us. When we’re wrestling with God, we’re never alone.

So we do not lose heart. We rise in the breaking dawn and rejoice that we have a new name from God, “Child of God,” “beloved,” and we face the day knowing whose we are and who will always be with us, in all our going out and our coming in, from this time forth and forevermore.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, October 9, 2016

There Were Ten Lepers

We come to Christ together, wounded, seeking healing and love, and are bound together in Christ in our salvation and life, and to the whole of the creation.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28 C
   Texts: Luke 17:11-19; 2 Kings 5:1-15c

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

There were ten lepers. That’s the wonderful thing.

Leprosy was a terrible disease. It maimed your body, filled you with pain, took away flesh. It was horrible suffering. It was also contagious, so you couldn’t live with your family, those who could love and support you. Since leprosy’s destruction was so visible, there was no hiding and hoping to stay in your life.

But there were ten lepers in this village. Ten people who found each other, walked with each other, made community with each other. Ten people who understood suffering and pain, loneliness and rejection, sadness and fear, and who shared that life with each other when no one else could.

Naaman also had a community. Maybe because he was rich and important, maybe because his religion didn’t have the same taboos on uncleanness that Judaism had, it appears he was still in his household, and with people who loved him. He didn’t travel to Israel alone, either, but with people who cared for him.

But these communities did more than support. They carried each other to the healing love of God.

Naaman’s servants, who could have hated him for their life, shared their suffering with his, loved him enough to want him well. Even the Israelite girl, stolen by his army from her family, wanted him to know about the power of the God whom Israel worshipped, and a prophet who could offer healing from that God. When Naaman balked at the method of healing offered, his servants gently urged him to follow the prophet’s instructions. They carried him to God’s healing with kindness and wisdom.

The ten lepers did this together, too. They banded as a group of broken, suffering people and were stronger as a result. But when Jesus came to the village, this little community did what they most needed. Together, they turned to the Son of God and asked for mercy, for healing, for hope. Together, they cried out to Christ and sought the healing of God.

There were ten lepers. Naaman wasn’t alone. This is our truth.

Like every community, our community here is made up of people suffering from many different things, people who also have joys and hopes. What is remarkable about our community is that we have a deep sense that no one here is normal. We have no expectations there are people here who have it all together, people without sin, people without pain, people here who have never suffered rejection or loss or sadness. I’ve never heard anyone say about another member of this community, “That’s just not normal.” We expect we’re all in need, and we love each other because of it.

This is remarkable because the thing about leprosy is you can always tell if someone has it.  But what ails all of us isn’t always so evident. It takes years of a community learning to love those who are hurting, those who have been turned away elsewhere, those who suffer silently, to understand that one of the things that binds us is that what is normal is our woundedness. We don’t have to pretend we’ve got it together, we don’t have to lie to ourselves that people won’t love us if they knew the messes we had, we don’t have to fear that if our truths were told we’d no longer be welcome.

Those ten lepers never had to be embarrassed to look at one another, worried about how they appeared. When all are wounded, it’s not a big deal to admit one’s wounds. We are a band of lepers, gathered together in the grace that we can be of help to each other, we can love each other, we share a reality we don’t need to be ashamed of.

It’s not only our shared woundedness that binds us, though. That’s the real Gospel here.

In both these stories today, the community led those in need of healing to the healing love of God. We are, of course, members of the same family in our baptism into Christ. But often that hasn’t seemed enough in the world for Christians to love each other. Here we recognize Christ’s family as the wounded family, just like Christ Jesus himself. Our shared sense of need for God has led us to this place because here is where we are healed. Here we meet Christ at this table and are given love and life, together. Our little band of lepers shows up here on a Sunday morning and together says, have mercy on us, God! Hear our prayer, O Christ! Come to us and heal us!

And the healing we receive in this place, the welcome of God, the love and forgiveness of God, has taught us to love each other, to band together with each other, to be Christ to each other, and to always be ready to welcome others into this group of wounded, sinful, needy people who come here for healing and life.

In this community, Christ is teaching us a far deeper meaning to salvation.

“Salvation” in the Greek of the Gospels is a word that also means healing. To be saved is to be made well, made whole, healed. Our community of faith stretches back 2,000 years, and those who were wiser than we are and thought even more deeply than we yet do, have witnessed to us that being in Christ is always being in each other. They have said salvation is healing when it’s shared. They’ve witnessed that such healing and wholeness is possible even when individual pains aren’t taken away, because in Christ and in each other we find healing of our souls together.

So St. Paul can be content in any and all circumstances, even after praying that his suffering be removed and not having that happen, because he has become part of Christ, part of Christ’s family, and Christ moves in him and in those who love him, and he knows peace the world can’t give.

And so we, who know so many whose physical or mental illnesses aren’t removed, who know that each of us struggles with sin and a need for forgiveness daily, who know that everyone here is wounded, inside or out, find salvation and wholeness not as individuals but in the deeper healing of God’s love that has made us one and whole in Christ. And yes, a love that also broke death’s power and promises to restore us all into the community of the healed wounded ones who surround the throne in the life to come.

But Christ is also teaching us a deeper meaning of community.

In Christ, the Triune God would draw all people and all creation into the life and love of God. The Risen Christ whom we turn to for life wants all to be a part of this group of healed lepers. Our community is more than Mount Olive. It’s the whole creation.

Imagine we looked at everyone with the same understanding as those we know here, with the same compassion, expecting them to be wounded as well, wanting to walk with them and help and be helped. Some are so far away we can only do this in prayer and political action. Others live in our city and are part of us. Their joys and their pains are ours, as much as any here.

When we understand this breadth of God’s love, that salvation not only isn’t individual to us, but that it’s not even limited to this community, that God’s healing is meant for all, all sorts of teachings of Jesus become clear. We understand why we’re commanded to pray for our enemies. Praying for them admits they’re part of us, they belong, so they are no longer enemies. And our compassion for their pain leads us to pray for the removal of their hate, so they can be whole and healed in God as we are.

We haven’t talked about gratitude yet. Maybe we don’t need to.

Naaman overflowed with gratitude for his healing. One of the ten lepers broke from his group and ran back and gave thanks to Jesus. We don’t know about the other nine, what they did or felt, but it’s not the point.

The truth is that when we understand the amazing gift of healing and wholeness that we have by being in Christ and in each other, the last thing we need to worry about is whether we’re going to be grateful for it. Not a day goes by without me being thankful to God for all of you, for this community of wounded people who walks with me in my woundedness, and are Christ to me, who, with me, gathers at this Table seeking forgiveness and life and wholeness. I don’t need a reminder to be deeply grateful for that. And the more we understand the connectedness God has made between us and everything else in creation, the more we find joy and hope in that, too, and again, being thankful is pretty obvious.

We are blessed to be joined to each other in Christ, who heals us of our deepest need and brings a wholeness to our life together and to this world, a peace nothing else can. The more we know this, the more our gratitude to God will pour out, trust me.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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