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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Midweek Lent 2017 + Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly with God

Week 3: “It Is Not So Among You”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen; Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Texts: Galatians 3:26-29; Luke 24:1-12

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

James and John were feeling pretty good about themselves.

They were in the leadership group of the disciples, top three with Peter. They were, they liked to think, Jesus’ right-hand men. In a singularly misguided moment, the brothers asked a favor of Jesus: when he came into glory, could they have the seats of honor, at his right and left? We know the story.

But we need to hear Jesus’ response clearly: You know, he said, that among the nations, the Gentiles, the world, their leaders lord it over the others. “It is not so among you,” he said. (Mark 10:43) “Whoever wishes to be great must be a servant.”

“It is not so among you.” In just a few words Jesus forever declares Christian life counter-cultural, not like the others, not like the world. There’s a new order of how we relate to each other when we are brought into Christ’s life in baptism. We are different than the world.

The great tragedy is the Church of Christ has far too easily kept the ways of the world rather than the ways of Christ. Many times the Church has even justified the world’s way as if Christ demands it, it’s how things were meant to be. One of the Church’s greatest sins in this is the treatment of women for most of the Church’s life.

“Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God.”

Micah’s command shapes our midweek Lenten worship this year. This is the faithful response God seeks from us. This Lent we are looking at five areas in our life where these words challenge us, where we ask if we’re doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.

Three of these are amply commanded in Scripture: welcoming the stranger, the immigrant; caring for those who are poor and hungry; loving our enemies. It’s impossible to read the Scriptures and not find these clear mandates. The other two, the issues of race and gender, are less clearly delineated. Maybe that’s why it took nearly 2,000 years for the Church to face its sin of racism and its sinful treatment of women. Maybe that’s why the Church still struggles with these two things, and in many places hasn’t even begun to address them.

But the more we carefully read Scripture the more we see God views all people and genders as equally beloved, valuable, gifted, and needed. There is ample clarity if we have eyes to see. And none are clearer than the apostle Paul.

Paul’s ringing declaration of the new reality in Christ is a sun shining over the whole of Scripture.

In Christ you all are children of God through faith, Paul says. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The radical love of God in Christ reveals that God views all of us as children, without distinction.

This isn’t just rhetoric for Paul. Though many translators, pastors, and theologians try to mask this truth, Paul clearly regarded women as equal co-workers in the faith, using the same terms he used for male leaders. Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia, for example, were all clearly the same kind of leaders as any of the men in Paul’s congregations.

Jesus obviously treated women as he did men, radically against the culture. He debated theology with them, treated them as equals in conversation, gave them apostolic callings. A number of his disciples, including leaders, were women.

So ask yourself: why have we only noticed this recently?

When you hear the phrase, “Jesus’ disciples,” what first comes to mind? Twelve men? Why is that? What does that say about how you’ve been taught to read the Scriptures? It took until the 1970s for Lutherans to ordain women as pastors, even with the evidence from Paul’s communities. What happened?

It seems clear that, by the end of the first century, women were being sidelined from leadership roles in the Church. We can see evidence in the Timothy letters, supposedly from Paul, but clearly coming from a time decades after his death. The Church may have started to feel its radical acceptance of women was so counter-cultural it was hindering their mission. Maybe people couldn’t handle that women were key Christian leaders.

But our culture shapes us without our being aware of it. The Church was born in a deeply patriarchal society. It may be the next generation of male Christian leaders themselves just got squeamish about having women in leadership. Jesus and Paul, close to the beginning of the movement, started to fade a little into the background, and old habits lingered.

But don’t we see this human nature already in Luke’s Easter story?

The four Gospels clearly agree that the women disciples faithfully watched Jesus’ burial and came, by themselves, with no men, on Sunday morning. They were the first witnesses, and they were sent to declare the good news, to be apostles, to their fellow disciples.

But when they witness, the male disciples dismiss them, calling their story “an idle tale.” The word means “foolishness,” “nonsense.” They didn’t trust that the women were reliable. They were just babbling idiocy. The men had to see for themselves.

Ask any woman today if she’s ever experienced the same situation, where she said something and no one paid attention, but later in the same conversation a man said the same thing and everyone picked up on it and agreed with it. It happens all the time.

This is both our grace and our urgency, that Jesus says it is not so among us. We must make that true.

Women in our culture are regularly harassed sexually, often assaulted. Women are paid on average 20% less than men in our society for doing the same work. Many jobs are still denied women, even if it isn’t openly stated, because they are not seen as capable. We who are men must face this truth: our sisters and daughters and mothers and aunts, equal in God’s eyes, fully gifted as we, consistently face discrimination, harassment, and diminishment.

In Galatians Paul makes an unassailable claim that overrides all other claims about distinctions. It is a travesty of life in Christ that the Church took nearly 2,000 years finally to be dragged into doing what it was already doing at its birth. We still deal with the legacy of a patriarchal culture in our structures, our leadership. We still have serious language issues with regard to women. We still have the reality that, though Jesus called the First Person of the Trinity “Father,” we have too often ascribed maleness to the whole of the Triune God, which is not only heretical but unscriptural. The Church has much to do to live into Jesus’ reality and Paul’s breathtaking claim.

And we need to pay attention to this before we can be a true witness in the world to these injustices. If we are meant to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,” the Church needs to work on the culture and society to fully welcome all genders into equality of life in all phases. We can start on that now. But we have to clean our own house as we go, and be willing to look into all the dark corners of our prejudice and blindness.

“It is not so among you.” That’s our hope.

In Christ we are drawn into a life where all God’s children, in all our marvelous variety and diversity, are seen and welcomed and treated as equal, as beloved, as blessed, as gifted. We are all made in the image of God. And Christ is life and hope for the whole world because in Christ all are loved, everyone, without exception. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

That’s the hope the Church has held for 2,000 years, even if we’ve struggled to live it, even if we’ve done sinful things to work against that hope.

But we are in Christ. The Spirit is moving in us, changing us. If we stop resisting the Spirit, and look clearly at the places we need to see uncomfortable truths about ourselves, if we seek as truthfully as we can to be faithful to the mind of Christ, we will together find the path Paul says is the path of life. A path where all are needed and loved, where all are one in Christ Jesus, and in the love of God for this world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Midweek Lent, 2017: Justice, Kindness, Humbly Walking

Week 2: “Our Heart”

Vicar Kelly Sandin
   Texts: Luke 16:19-31 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The truth is, most of us take eating for granted. We wake up, grab our coffee or tea, have toast, oatmeal, eggs or green smoothies of spinach and mangoes, and begin our day. Lunch is assumed. It’s simply a matter of what. Do we pack it for work, eat at home, find snacks in our office, or do we run to a local restaurant for a quick bite to eat? In fact, after this liturgy there will be a lovingly prepared lunch of soup, bread, and other treats to satisfy our hunger. That’s our tradition. It’s expected. We’ll then go on in our day and afterwards we’ll plan something for dinner. Whether that’s a home-cooked meal, going out, or coming back for soup and bread before evening vespers, there will be food and, likely, snacks before we ever lay our heads in warm beds.

Lazarus had none of this. No food or warm bed. He lay sick and hungry at the gate of a very rich man. The contrast between these two characters in the parable is extreme. The nameless rich man feasted sumptuously every single day, meaning his meals were of great expense. They were lavish and taken for granted. With such exquisite meals it’s curious to know what his reaction would be if his servants didn’t prepare his food to his liking, every day, and whether or not they got to eat this food, too.

Certainly, the rich man had food waste. There would have been plenty to feed many hungry mouths. The problem this parable sets up for us is that the rich man either didn’t have eyes to see Lazarus because of his own self-absorption, or he saw him and didn’t care. Either way, Jesus brings this to our attention as a human condition that is utterly contrary to the way of God. Compare rich man with the dogs in the parable. They had more mercy for Lazarus than any human. They kept him company in his misery and soothed his sores. Perhaps they knew what it was like to be rejected and only saw and sensed a kindred spirit needing love.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t give details about how Lazarus got to this state. That’s not the point. All we know is he’s poor, covered in sores, and longing to fill the void of hunger with whatever falls from the rich man’s table. Obviously, he’s helpless to feed himself. Jesus isn’t judging Lazarus. He simply points out his needs that the rich man could have attended to, but didn’t. Simple food and help for his sores would have been nothing for the rich man to give, yet Lazarus was ignored and eventually died. Starvation and disease took his life.

In death, Lazarus gets to be at the bosom of Abraham. That would be the better translation. He’s carried away by angels to be held in the warmth of Abraham’s bosom. He’s comforted and soothed. He’s cradled and loved. He’s given what he never got in his earthly life. In his death he gets eternal care and affection. He gets more than what he had hoped for at the gate of the rich man.

As opposed to Lazarus, the rich man had his fill in life and in death is tormented. Yet, while dead, and in the agony of flames, the rich man acts with a certain superiority. He sees Lazarus and speaks his name, but only so Lazarus can be of service to him by cooling his burning tongue. Even in torment, the rich man looks at Lazarus as being beneath him. He can’t see him in any other way but less than.

Of course, Father Abraham will not let Lazarus do this. There is a reversal of roles in the parable that recalls the sermon on the plain, earlier in this gospel, where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

Jesus has preferential treatment for the hungry and poor and this parable is a wake-up call. The difference between Lazarus and the rich man in their death, with the huge chasm between them and the inability to ever get across that bridgeless divide, is vivid and startling. It reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge in the Christmas Carol and the ghosts who showed him what would become of him if he continued in his loveless ways.

Our parable today is told as a warning about our indifference, our inaction, our judgement toward the poor and hungry. It’s an opportunity to be introspective and acknowledge, with honesty, our disposition toward those who live in poverty.

As a society we’ve been taught that hard work pays off. That we are to rely upon our own resources and pull our own selves up. Therefore, those who are poor, hungry, or on the streets are often viewed as lazy or just looking for handouts. That they ought to get a job and take care of themselves and that we owe them nothing. We are skeptical of many, thinking they’re conning us and taking advantage. We’ve all been there as to whether or not to do something. And when we don’t our inaction gnaws at us when we walk by and ignore them. That’s God working within us. We do have hearts and it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know what to do or don’t want to be fooled, so more often than not we do nothing and then try to justify it.

When I was in Portland, Oregon the homeless were in abundance. They were allowed to lie in front of stores and were not shooed away. There were times I felt I had to step over them. I was overwhelmed with how in my face it was and it was, quite frankly, disturbing. I was asked for money at every turn, so I kept dollar bills ready for when I was. I’ll admit, my motives were less than pure. I was on vacation. It was easier to give than to be harassed or to deal with the integrity issue of saying I didn’t have cash when, in fact, I did. I kept this up for a week. But, if I actually lived there, how could I afford to do that every day? This is what many of us contemplate in the areas we live and in the neighborhood of Mount Olive. We feel helpless to fix or change the chronic circumstances of others and, if we’re truthful, we really don’t want to see it. We want to go on with our lives free from dealing with the impact of poverty in our society. Yet, this parable speaks. God calls us to do something. Our inaction or indifference is noted.

We may not feed every person on the street, but we have voices to fight for and support affordable housing, decent wages, insurance coverage for all, free community gardens, and grocery stores in urban food deserts. This parable is asking for more than quick hand-outs to those who come to our church doors or a dollar bill given to someone begging, as helpful as that might be. It’s deeper than this. It’s about our attitude toward others. It’s about our heart. It’s about whether or not we love our neighbor. Whether or not we can truly look another in the eye and feel the hurting person inside. This is what God is looking for in us. That we love as God loves. That we care as God cares. Jesus’ parable gives space for reflection on our Lenten journey, but also reminds us there’s room for all to be rocked in the bosom of God’s love.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Unseen, Untrodden, Unknown

God has called us to step forward in faith, not knowing what is ahead, and so we do, trusting God is always with us, even if the road ahead is unknown and frightening.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Second Sunday in Lent, year A
   Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

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

Imagine that first night on the road.

Out in the wilds, in tents, with temporary corrals for the animals, what were Abraham and Sarah thinking? Why did we leave our city home to go . . . where? How did Abram talk me into this? Did I really hear God’s voice?

Were they frightened? Excited? Probably both. Nicodemus, too, as he stepped out of the shadows edging the street and came to Jesus’ door: What if another Pharisee sees me? Why am I here? The others say he’s a blasphemer, but I sense something. Should I knock?

Abraham and Sarah. Nicodemus. Hearing the voice of God, they stepped out in faith. They followed its leading. But it had to be as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

Faith was no easier for them than it is for us. Their stepping forward in faith was just as frightening as any step we take. But we have the gift of their story, their testimony. If we sit with them in that critical night of their first steps, we can find light for our own paths ahead.

We find the beginning of light in Jesus’ redirection of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus wants to talk about whether Jesus is from God. But Jesus wants to talk about new birth. Birth from above. Birth in water and the Holy Spirit.

The gift is that Jesus calls this a birth, not an ending. The Spirit gives us birth in baptism’s water, but she doesn’t reveal everything that is to come. Birth is beginning.

We don’t remember our physical birth. We entered the world with nothing but future, nothing but potential. Our present was living, breathing, eating, sleeping. Others cared for us, cleaned us, fed us. Everything we would become was yet to come.

So Jesus says our life of faith begins: in baptism the Spirit bears us into newness of life, as Christ ourselves, anointed ones. What we will be, where we’ll go, what we’ll do as Christ, is unknown.

Just as it was that night for Abraham and Sarah. For Nicodemus.

When Eric Milner-White, dean of King’s College at Cambridge, wanted a prayer reflecting Abraham’s faith that night on the road, he focused on the unknown Abraham faced.

He wrote, “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.” [1]

That’s our faith. Born into new life in Christ, even if some of us have years living into our baptism by now and some only months, the future is still unseen, untrodden, unknown.

What do these faithful ones today tell us that gives us hope and encouragement, instead of fear?

They listened to God’s voice.

Abraham’s task was hard: in his world no one believed there was only one God, unseen, all-creating. People didn’t hear their many gods speak to them. But somehow Abraham heard God’s voice, and listened. And credit to Sarah, who didn’t hear herself. Her faith was to trust Abraham.

Nicodemus is more like us: he had Jesus, the Son of God, to seek out and hear. We sometimes romanticize how great it would be to hear God’s voice directly like Abraham or Noah. But we forget that in Christ Jesus we see the face of the Triune God, and in Christ’s words from the Scriptures and given into our hearts through the Spirit, we can hear God ourselves.

So here is our first task: are we listening to God’s Word speak, and discerning what it means for our path? They heard things that challenged them to leave what was comfortable and go into what was unfamiliar. But they trusted they were hearing God’s true voice.

So first we open our ears.

Then they took a step.

They not only heard challenging words from God, they acted on them. Abraham and Sarah became the parents of a great nation, models of faith. Nicodemus moved from secret discipleship to openly declaring his faithfulness at Jesus’ death, claiming his body for burial.

They weren’t perfect. They made mistakes along the way. They had no idea where the path was leading them. But they took that one step. They did this one day at a time. They started a venture they could not see the end of, headed down paths they’d never walked before, and faced dangers they couldn’t predict. All of that could have crushed their faithfulness at the start. But they didn’t focus on that. They took one step.

So can we. When we hear God call us to follow, to become Christ, we can start with the first step. The first night on the road, fearful and excited. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

And they stepped forward because they trusted they weren’t alone.

Jesus says the Spirit goes with us, unseen, but always there. Nicodemus eventually trusted he wasn’t alone, trusted in the God whose love for the cosmos sent Jesus into the world to save it, not judge it.
Abraham and Sarah were told to go “to a place that I will show you.” God promised to go with them and guide them.

We are never sent down the path of faith alone. “God will not let your foot be moved, neither will the one who watches over you fall asleep,” we sang with the psalmist this morning. Our help comes from the One who made the heavens and the earth, we sang. We look to the one who “justifies the ungodly,” Paul told us today, so we know even in our failure we aren’t abandoned on the road.

With the faith God gives us, we can trust, as we pray, that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us. These faithful forebears aren’t heroes. They’re like us. Ordinary people, wanting to know where God is, listening for God, and stepping out in faith, trusting they are walking with God.

When we join them in that night of their first steps, we find companions.

Each of us individually hears challenges from God to who we are, that pull us into places God would have us grow and change. We each are drawn to become something new and unknown and perhaps frightening to us, for the sake of God’s love that fills us.

And we have these same experiences together, as community. We listen here not just for ourselves alone, but for ourselves together, as Christ’s body. Together we will see new paths of following Christ open up before us that we can’t predict, that seem a little scary.

But we share this journey with Abraham and Sarah, with Nicodemus, with each other. We help each other listen for God’s voice and hear. In our fear, we encourage each other to take the individual steps each of us is called to take as we become Christ, and the larger steps together we are called to take.

It’s like being born; the future is unknown. But it’s being born from above, Jesus says, from the love of the Triune God for the universe that caused God to come and be one of us, be lifted up on the cross for the sake of all people, so no one will perish. That’s where we’re born from, and that’s where our paths of faithfulness ultimately return.

So we go forward in faith, not knowing where we go, but only that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us. That’s enough for today’s step.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Daily Prayer, ed. Eric Milner-White, G.W. Briggs; Oxford University Press, 1941; p. 14 (with modernized language from various sources)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Midweek Lent, 2017: Justice, Kindness, Humbly Walking

Week 1: “You Were, Once”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Matthew 2:13-15

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

Alien. Stranger. Sojourner.

Nearly 100 times the Hebrew Scriptures uses these words, with this mandate: welcome, befriend, offer kindness to them. With due respect to some current Christian leaders, immigration is very clearly a Bible issue. And there’s no question where the Scriptures stand.

At the core, the Scriptures tell the story of a world of immigrants and aliens, wandering people who are found by the God of all people and welcomed. Even the Son of God became a refugee when he was only a child. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus look exactly like the refugee families fleeing famine and war and persecution in the Middle East today.

“You shall love the stranger,” Moses says today, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the heart of the Biblical witness to our identity: remember who you were before you were found by God’s love. Remember that you, too, or maybe your forebears, were an outsider, a stranger. You didn’t belong, and people didn’t welcome you. Now you know you are loved by God forever, offer that love to everyone else.

If once you’ve been welcomed out of the storm into a warm room, with a fire and food and kindness, don’t bar the door behind you. Take turns watching to see if anyone else is lost out there needing to come in.

This is a huge problem in our country right now. It’s one of our oldest problems.

We gladly recite Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But it’s not true. It’s not how we behave most times.

In 1798, John Adams’ government passed four Alien and Sedition Acts, making it harder for immigrants to become citizens, giving the president authority to deport or imprison non-citizens who were deemed dangerous or who came from nations the U.S. considered hostile, and giving sweeping power to shut down any who spoke against the government. After Jefferson became president, three of these were repealed. But the law permitting deportation and imprisonment of immigrants who belong to nations we consider enemies remains on the books.

It was picked up again in 1918 and broadened to include even citizens, causing many German-Americans grief and persecution. German language newspapers in the Midwest were bombed, their presses destroyed. People on both sides of my family changed the spelling of their last names so they seemed less German.

FDR picked it up again in World War II to justify the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Americans and the theft of their lives and property. This is who we truly are. Muslim immigrants are only the latest iteration of our fear of the stranger.

And even without these laws, every wave of immigrants, including many of our grandparents and great-grandparents, faced discrimination, hatred, abuse, simply for being different.

If the words on the Statue of Liberty were actually true of our national character, we would be right in proclaiming them. It’s hard to find an era in our history where the truth wasn’t the exact opposite of these words.

We must be honest with ourselves as the Church, too.

Franklin Graham isn’t the only Christian leader supporting a ban on immigration and the deportation of illegal aliens. Throughout history the Church is commonly on the side of the powers in charge, the side of the status quo, and leaves the stranger, the immigrant, out in the cold.

It’s a basic human challenge: we band together in groups. We were made for companionship. But pretty quickly we act as if the group is only valuable and safe if we control who’s in and who’s out. If we can close the doors to some people, somehow we feel better about who we are.

So the Church too often has been on the wrong side of history. We who have been welcomed by God in Christ without our doing anything have then tried to shut the door to anyone else, at least anyone who isn’t like us. We’ll deal with this more in a couple weeks, but our history on race and slavery is just one example of Christians happily accepting the Good News of the grace of God and just as happily refusing it to others. In the history of immigrants in this nation, it’s most often Christians leading the charge against the outsiders, even against fellow Christians. My Irish Catholic forebears were hated by good American Lutherans, some of whom were probably my relatives, too.

We shut the doors to others because we are afraid.

Our fear of the other is deep-rooted, and until we name it and face it, it will continue to drive us. We fear those we don’t understand, those who behave differently than we, those with different cultures and customs. We struggle to shake that fear, so much so that once we get used to one group, we’ll find another to fear.

So Christ first always tries to ease our fear. We hear “do not be afraid” often, and it is more than just words. Trusting we belong to God’s love forever means we can learn, through the grace of the Spirit, to let go of our fear of the other, and be welcoming to all.

This congregation has learned that over the years and it’s almost second nature to us. But we still have times when we’re challenged to keep that hospitality. Our old fears crop up just when we thought they’d gone forever.

As we are filled with God’s grace in this place, we pray that we are also given a spirit of peace and hope, and not one of fear. So we can love. And so we can deal with the question of barriers and doors more hopefully and honestly.

Because Christ blows open all doors, and not just on Easter Day.

Here, in this place, we are welcomed in God’s love, even if we felt outsiders before. We belong.

But Christ never lets us stop there. To follow Christ is to break down all barriers between all people. Jesus frequently got into trouble for talking to and welcoming people he wasn’t supposed to welcome. To belong to the family of Christ is to belong to a family with no doors, no walls, no barriers. As Paul has said, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

But that’s also our great joy: if there are no walls, doors, or barriers, we also can never be left out in the cold. Once we’ve found God’s warmth and love, how then can we likewise envision ever leaving someone else out in the cold? And once we’ve enjoyed the freedom of this country, how can we refuse it to others?

This is a non-negotiable truth for any who wish to follow Christ: all are neighbors to us, all are loved by God, and all are welcome.

It is the very love of God in Christ that we know that breaks open our hearts. That love takes away our fear of the stranger. That love can open our doors, take down our walls, and help us reach out to those who are strange to us. When we do that here, and in our daily lives, we can also work with others in this country to make our nation live up to what we hope is its destiny as a home for any who seek a home.

You once were strangers yourselves, God says to us. But now you belong, and are welcomed, loved, forgiven, graced. Go, and be that love and welcome and forgiveness and grace to the stranger. There is room enough for all in God’s reign.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

The Olive Branch, 3/8/17

Click here to read this week's issue of The Olive Branch.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Time of Trial

Jesus’ temptation mirrors and informs our own: it is how we grow to become who God means us to be, and we are always with God’s grace, strength, and presence throughout.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The First Sunday in Lent, year A
   Texts: Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

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

We can’t avoid temptation in our lives. We really don’t want to.

Two stories of temptation shape our worship today. Hearing them, we wish we didn’t have to face such testing ourselves. But these stories teach us a different truth, that we can’t become who God means us to be without such trials.

The Hebrew story of human sin and our origins reveals a belief that temptation and testing are part of God’s original human design. Adam and Eve haven’t sinned yet, but already they face the suffering of being tempted to disobey. It’s not arbitrary of God. They’ll only become who they were created to be by facing and making hard choices.

And so the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism, not to give him temptation, but to encourage him to face the inevitable. This testing wasn’t arbitrary, either. Jesus will only become who he is meant to be if he faces and makes these hard choices.

These stories have much to say to us about our temptation and testing.

Here we note that, facing temptation, knowing who you are matters.

Adam and Eve, standing here for all humanity, are unsure of who they truly are. They live in God’s good creation, beloved children of God. They depend on God for all good, and are asked to trust that God knows good and evil, and obey.

But they are tempted to forget they are the creatures, and want to be God themselves, in control. They want to name things as good and evil, and do what they want, instead of obeying. They forget the joy of walking with God, and are tempted to choose a path where they put themselves above God.

They are us.

But Jesus walks into the wilderness wet from his baptism. He also knows he is the beloved Son of God, he just heard it. In his temptations that’s put to the test, too, but he remains dependent upon his Father’s grace and love and so withstands the trial. He chooses obedience over doing what he wants. His answer at Gethsemane, “not my will but yours,” begins in this desert.

The settings here are also important, a lush garden and a desert.

Remarkably, the one who faithfully resists was in the desert. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, perhaps to remove him from distractions, from the world’s noise, from his cares and daily needs, to focus on listening to God, and facing what paths lay ahead. Not weakened by his forty days in the desert, spiritually Jesus was strengthened, ready to face Satan, ready to consider who he is to be, free of distraction.

Adam and Eve have a rich life of pleasure, but they didn’t make the right decision. Maybe they were too comfortable. We also struggle, maybe because we live in God’s lush creation, privileged with much of God’s riches, and have even more distractions. When do we deprive ourselves of any comforts or pleasures? When are we free of noise? When are we silent, and not listening to news or music, or checking social media, or watching television, or feasting richly?

Our puny idea of “giving up something” for Lent waters down the deep wisdom of our ancestors in faith who understood this wilderness. They realized that only by letting go of things that pull at us, demand of us, distract us, can we hear God. Only by going into the wilderness and getting away from the noise, can we hear God. If you’re giving anything up, let it be a true fasting for this time, so you can focus. Or even something you won’t pick up again at Easter, but leave forever at the edge of the wilderness as you walk toward your testing.

Third, these trials and temptations are core to being human, being faithful.

These stories aren’t about being tempted to run a stop-sign, or cheat in a card game. These trials deal with life and death. That helps us. Because here we see the challenges before us. The questions of who we are, and of whether we can focus on God. And then there are Jesus’ three great tests.

Jesus is asked to turn stone into bread, to use his power to save himself.

At Gethsemane he has the same decision: will the Messiah save himself? He can’t set aside his power and face the cross if he doesn’t first do it at the beginning of his ministry on this lesser thing.

How will we make the right choice ourselves, to sacrificially offer ourselves to another in all sorts of ways, if we don’t first face this core question? If we insist on using all our wealth and resources to take care of ourselves instead of sharing for our neighbor, we will find the greater sacrifices even harder.

Jesus is asked to jump off the Temple, to show he trusts his Father.

To test God is with him before he will obey. At the cross, Jesus will face the ultimate test of that trust. At one point there he cried his doubt and fear out loud, before finding that trust at the end. But this first trust in the desert helped him trust at the cross.

Likewise, we are tempted to test if God really loves us, supports us, before we risk obedience. We want proof that all will work out before we try to obey, and use our lack of such evidence as an excuse to do nothing. We must learn to step out in faith, trusting God, on everyday things, so we can have the courage for the much larger steps needed to really change the world.

Jesus is asked to give up his core identity, and he can rule the world.

Sent here to bring us all back into God’s rule, Jesus can short-cut that and take over the world with political power. Three years later in Jerusalem, he will have the same decision. Will he destroy Roman power, overthrow the leaders of his people? Will the Messiah will use power to get what he wants? This desert decision matters, because accepting arrest and what follows will be a much harder decision.

This is critical for us. Politically, do we support and encourage our leaders to use force and dominance to get what we think is good? Personally, will we manipulate others, try and get what we want however we can, even if it means we aren’t loving? Do the ends justify the means? Jesus helps us see that the wrong means always lead to bad ends. It’s the every day choices we face where we learn this hard path and prepare for the larger ones.

These are the tests we face. How we face them determines which turns we take and who we become.

As we face these choices, we remember today that we are God’s beloved. We, like Jesus, walk into our path wet from our baptism, and like Jesus, God is always with us on our path. Remember, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and was always with him.

And we would do well to seek wilderness, get rid of competing voices and distractions, so we can hear God’s voice, and know God’s presence.

And last, we remember we are loved by God in Christ who has faced these same trials, died for them, and is risen to new life. Nothing can separate us from that love.

We can’t avoid testing or temptation. It’s how we are made to grow into the beautiful beings God intended us to be. When we remember what we see here, then we’ll find we have God’s strength to make these hard choices, and God’s grace to learn and grow from them.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

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