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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Difficult to Accept?

Jesus offers us life with the Triune God – forgiven, restored, abundant, eternal life – and will change us from within to make this life, this relationship happen.  The question before us is whether or not we want the life enough to accept the changes Jesus will make.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 21, year B; texts: John 6:56-69; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

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

I’ll never forget the time I almost called off a wedding a week before it was to occur.  The couple and I were meeting for some last minute checking in, and suddenly we got into a conversation which literally was turning the bride’s face as white as a sheet.  We’d been dealing with some questions of where they’d live after the marriage, and somehow on this day the groom began talking about marriage in a way he hadn’t before.  He spoke strongly about how compromise was a word he didn’t believe in, how he didn’t expect to be changed in marriage, and how he felt he was being forced into something he didn’t want to be.  His somewhat stringent views of his life had come up before, and in general he was a really good guy.  But in this conversation it took a more radical turn than we’d discussed before.  It was as if he believed that he could be married to someone and not have to consider changing a single thing about his life, his daily schedule, his comfortable patterns.  Even his living arrangements.

Well, we kept talking, and after a couple hours we came to a place where I think he wanted to be, and certainly where his fiancĂ©e could consider going forward.  That was years ago, and the last I heard they have a good marriage and several children.

But anyone who’s been in a life-long, committed relationship of love and grace with another person knows how utterly unrealistic it is to expect to be the same as you were when you entered it.  Now, when a couple is considering such vows, I urge them to realize that they won’t be able to change their beloved; the package they now love is pretty much the deal they will have to face for the rest of their lives.  But the reality is that when we commit to love, forgive, respect, and be faithful to another person for the rest of our lives, we are committing to be changed profoundly in that relationship.  Or we have no business making such vows.

This is the problem Jesus faces with the disciples today, and with us.  He offers us the fullness of life with the Triune God, a restored relationship with our Creator which fills us, changes us from within into new people, and gives us life now, and life eternal.  Since the feeding of the thousands, Jesus has been trying to convince the crowds, and now even his disciples, that he has so much more to offer than material needs met, simple wants supplied, even such basic needs as food and shelter, water and clothing.  He has life to offer.

But such a relationship he offers, while freely given, will change us.  Profoundly.  Jesus means to change us from within, as we considered last week, because frankly, we need it.  Our broken human natures need to be restored to the Creator’s intent.  But Jesus will also not force us, or anyone, into this, something he will prove as he willingly goes to the cross.

And thus Jesus has a problem.  None of us really likes being changed from who we are.  Like the disciples in today’s story, we find this too difficult to accept.  Not too difficult to understand; we understand quite well.  We just are basically pleased with ourselves and who we are.  We’d like God’s grace and presence in our lives, but we’d rather not be changed by it.

And it’s critical to note that it is, in fact, disciples Jesus is talking to here.  People like us, not non-believers.

In Jesus’ ministry there were crowds who gathered where he was, sometimes following him to the next town.  These crowds would come and go, and in the case of this chapter of John, at one point there were thousands who were there at night, needing food.  Some of these were beginning to believe in Jesus; some would become disciples.  Many others were simply coming to see what this was all about, much in the manner of crowds throughout history to today.  When they chased Jesus down on the day after the miracle, these crowds wanted another show, and certainly another meal.

But there were also disciples who followed Jesus, literally followed him from place to place.  These were people who developed a special relationship with him as their teacher, who committed themselves to being his disciples, seeking the discipline this teacher had to offer.

And it was far more than twelve in this category.  Luke reports at one point Jesus sent 70 disciples out to preach and teach, in pairs.  At the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, there were 120 gathered together when the wind of the Spirit blew.  Disciples, not random crowds.

The expression for what they did was, “they went about with him.”  So this is Jesus’ crisis: not only the crowds have dissipated.  Many of his disciples have left him.  As John says it, “they turned back and no longer went about with him.”  This means they have severed their relationship with him as teacher.  They no longer feel bound to him.

So when Jesus asks the twelve if they, too, will leave, it is a critical question.  Is it possible that he will lose everyone because of his teaching?

This becomes a crisis for the Church as well, we who are baptized into this Body, we who “go about with Jesus.”  The same commitment Jesus invites, the same change from within he offers those who were with him then, he offers us.  Like them, we identify publicly with him, we claim his name.  We are “followers of Jesus.”  Christians, anointed to be Christ like our Lord Christ.  And we’re struggling with Jesus’ difficult teaching just as much as they.

It may be helpful to look back at two snapshots from Israel’s history to help us see a way ahead.

In our first reading, Joshua is challenging the Israelites on the edge of the Promised Land to swear allegiance to the LORD, the God of Hosts, who saved them from Egypt.

But it’s the verses we’re missing which really tell the full story.  In between verse 2 and 14, Joshua beautifully re-tells their whole salvation history, reminding them of what the LORD has done for them from the beginning until now.  In that context, Joshua tells them to choose whom they will serve, the LORD, or gods their ancestors served.  And of course the Israelites say they will serve the LORD.

But in the verses after our reading, Joshua throws their words back at them and says that they won’t be able to do it, they won’t be able to stay away from false gods.  And they say back that they will, they will, they promise to serve the LORD.  Finally, Joshua relents and cuts the covenant in stone for them, but also tells them that they then will need to get rid of their false gods.  It almost appears that while they’re swearing fealty to the LORD they’ve got idols in their saddlebags, and Joshua exasperatedly points out how clearly hard it will be for them to be faithful.

So that’s their crisis: living among people who worship other gods, even having some of their own, how will Israel learn to be faithful, to live into their commitment in such a way that they are changed, different?  Or will they want all the benefits of serving the LORD but none of the changes it will entail?

Contrast this scene with one a few centuries later, when King David is confronted by the prophet Nathan over both his adultery with Bathsheba and his arranged murder of her husband Uriah.  If you remember the story, Nathan brilliantly doesn’t directly confront David, knowing his king well enough to know David might resent the accusations.  Instead, he re-tells the sins with another as the accused, and of course activates David’s keen sense of right and wrong, of the way of the LORD.

When David learns he has judged himself, remarkably he confesses.  He asks forgiveness from God in a beautiful psalm we sing to this day, Psalm 51.  But the astonishing thing about that confession, that psalm, is that David bypasses both crises we’re considering, that of the Israelites and that of the disciples.

He wants what they want, a relationship with the God of the universe, the one, true God.  He knows he needs, like them, forgiveness and grace to have it happen.  But he knows one more thing: he knows he will have to be changed.

When he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” he’s asking for a completely new heart, not just forgiveness.  “Create this in me,” he says.  He realizes now how unlike the LORD he is, how damaged he is, to have done such horrible things.

He knows it will take more than a forgiveness.  It will take a heart transplant, a complete change.  And that’s what he asks for in this psalm.  He asks for what the prophet Ezekiel later would promise, that God will remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh. (Ez. 36)

It’s what Jesus offers: complete transformation into new people of God.  And King David knew that’s what he needed, he who believed he was the servant of the LORD, God’s chosen, God’s anointed, he now realizes he’s completely broken and damaged.

And so we find ourselves standing next to Peter, hearing Jesus’ question: “Do you also wish to go away?”

And we hear Peter say, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  And that becomes our focus, our way ahead.  Do we have any other way to such life as Jesus offers?  Can anything we give our lives to offer this?  Can anything of our broken natures that we wish to keep, to hold on to, give us this?  Is there anything in the world that offers such life, such grace, such forgiveness?

David knew there wasn’t.  So did Peter.  And really, so do we.  Because as much as we want to cling to our old ways, and ask forgiveness while still hoping not to have to change anything about us, if we look even deeper we know we want such change.

We want to be the kind of people that look like Jesus.  That are Jesus.  We want to live in the world with such grace and hope that we are part of God’s changing of the world, part of God’s saving.  It’s only our outer shells that resist being different, that hesitate to let Jesus transform us.  Inside, in the quiet of our hearts, like David we know what needs to be done.

And we gather here each week because, honestly, we have nowhere else to go for the words of eternal life.

We come here for heart transplants, as painful as they are, because here we have found the heart of God, and have learned it beats in love for us, with us.  We come here for guidance and direction because we so easily fall back into our old ways and need reminders.  We desperately need to “go about” with Jesus because he knows where to go.  And we come here for food and life – not for the physical food value of the Lord’s Meal but for the gift of Jesus that it is which does the change inside us, and transforms us into completely new people.

Those folks were right.  This is a difficult thing to accept.

But even more, Peter and David were right.  This is the only way to life we’ve ever known to really give life.  It’s the only place we have found the true God and discovered that the true God was looking for us in love and grace.

Yes, the changes Jesus has in mind for us and for the Church will change us profoundly.  They will hurt sometimes.  But his are the words of eternal life, and there’s nothing else we want, nowhere else we hope to be found but with him always.

And thanks be to God, that’s exactly what he’s offering us.  And the whole world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Olive Branch, 8/20/12

Accent on Worship

Pentecost 21

     “Connectedness and inter-relatedness are inter-woven throughout the entire fabric of creation,” wrote theologian and Roman Catholic priest Diarmuid O’Murchu in his book Quantum Theology. Father O’Murchu is one of a number of Christian theologians who see Jesus as wisdom incarnate, the cosmic Christ, and as the God who dwells within all of creation. The kingdom of God is within us and we continue to nourish and sustain the kingdom of God when we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

     Jesus could be no more intimate with humankind than to become a part of our own body and blood. For this is the longing of God, the One who created interdependence to be essential for life.

     But the mystery of life comes from the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless” said Jesus in the Gospel for Pentecost 21. Our Creator dwells within all that has life. Without the indwelling of the spirit, there is no life. For us the intimacy of the physical eating and drinking of the Eucharist mirrors the intimacy of the Spirit. The work of Jesus cannot be separated from the spirit of God. Both body and spirit are needed for the work and witness to the God of love in this world. The outcome of Jesus’ indwelling of our bodies and spirits gives us the privilege to become co-creators with God toward a world of compassion, justice and peace, a world where God’s creation is respected and sustained. In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus’ words are hard, but what he calls us to be as his followers in the world are harder still.

- Donna Pususta Neste

Dusting and Polishing Day

     The Altar Guild is hosting a chancel-cleaning event this Saturday, August 25, beginning at 9:00 a.m. Bring your favorite duster and polishing rags, and help spiff up our worship space for the fall. Questions? Contact Beth Gaede at bethgaede [at] comcast [dot] com.

Help, Help, Help!

     Our next Community Meal, free to all who come in our doors, will be held on Saturday, September 1. Some of our regular Community Meal workers will be on vacation that day. If YOU can help with the meal (prep, feeding our guests, or clean up) please call Carol Austermann at 612-722-5123.

Regular Worship Schedule Resumes Soon

     Our summer schedule of one liturgy each Sunday will end on Labor Day weekend, September 2. Beginning the following Sunday, September 9, we will resume our regular worship schedule of two Eucharists each Sunday morning, at 8:00 and 10:45 a.m.

Vicar Cannon Arrives Sunday

     We welcome our new vicar to Mount Olive on Sunday, Aug. 26.  Neal Cannon, a student at Luther Seminary, will serve his internship at Mount Olive for this next year.  He and his fiancĂ©e Mary will be at worship Sunday, where we’ll commission his Internship Committee for the year and commit to work with him and support him as a congregation.  Neal is a graduate of Augustana College, and grew up in Illinois, Ohio, and Utah.  He worked as youth director at Roseville Lutheran Church for six years prior to entering seminary.  He and Mary will be married on Sept. 8.

     On Sunday, Sept. 2, the Internship Committee will serve the coffee, and Neal will be at the Forum where he will introduce himself and the congregation will have an opportunity to talk with him and get to know him.  Members of the Internship Committee for next year are Steve Manuel, Miriam Luebke, Ro Griesse, John Crippen, Peggy Hoeft and Warren Peterson.

Book Discussion Group
     Mount Olive’s Book Discussion group meets on the second Saturday of each month at 10:00 a.m. For the September 8 meeting they will read The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. For the October 13 meeting they will read Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier. All readers welcome!

Garden Party and Picnic

     Mark your calendars now for Wednesday, August 29, the date set for the annual Mount Olive Women Garden Party and Picnic, to be held at the home of Gail Nielsen, 4248 12th Avenue South, Minneapolis, starting about 4:30 p.m.  In order to plan for enough food, please RSVP to Leanna Kloempken at 952/888-1023, or to the church office, by or before Monday, August 27.  And yes, Gail says "men are welcome too!"

New Olive Branch Publication Schedule: Fridays in the Fall

     When The Olive Branch publication schedule returns to weekly issues after Labor Day, the publication date is moving from Mondays to Fridays.  The result will be that members will receive news of the congregation and other information just prior to Sunday’s liturgies and fellowship, which is more timely, and copies of the newsletter may also be given to visitors at worship and still be fresh information that morning.

Eat Local, Eat Organic
     Community Table Cooperative is a food cooperative made up of Twin Cities farmers markets, farmers and small businesses in partnership with the Alliance for Sustainability. The vegetables are locally and organically grown.

     Community Table Cooperative is now selling shares for 16 or 8 pounds of fresh produce every Saturday for 10 weeks that is dropped off at various locations. The closest one to the church is at the Global Market. The full or half shares will be pro-rated for you, because pick-ups started on August 4.  

     If you would like to participate in this food share you are invited to sign up online at  or,  or call Paris Dunning at 952-994-3746.  Also, there are two sheets of information on the Neighborhood Ministries bulletin board directly down the stairs near the elevator that you are invited to take.

     This is not only a wonderful way to eat locally and organically, but also to help support our local Hmong, Latino, and African farmers!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

You Are What You Eat (or Drink?)

What we eat and drink changes our bodies, changes who we are from within.  Today Jesus invites us to take him in, be filled with him, eat him – and we also will be changed, from the inside out, into different people, people like Jesus.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 20, year B; texts: John 6:51-58; Ephesians 5:15-20; Proverbs 9:1-6

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

This is where it gets really difficult, isn’t it?  For some weeks we’ve been working through this sixth chapter of John, and a grouping of Jesus’ teachings about himself and his life for the world.  We’ve heard people compare him to Moses who gave them manna, and we’ve heard his response that he isn’t Moses, he’s the bread from heaven, the new manna.  He’s called himself the bread of life, and said that those who come to him will never be hungry.  All this after miraculously feeding thousands with only a few loaves and fish.  This has challenged us.  But today’s words really cross a line.

Now he says that the bread he will give is his flesh.  And then he says, “very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  Five times today he tells those who follow him that they are to eat him.  Even drink his blood.  And in Greek, the verbs change from a regular verb for eating in the first instance to later uses of a verb that is better translated “gnaw, crunch, munch.”  So the language gets more intense as the passage goes on.  Don’t just eat and drink me, Jesus says, chew on me, gnaw on me.  This is really hard stuff to hear, to comprehend, to understand.

Now, it seems obvious that we tie this passage to our understanding of the Eucharist.  Surely this is what we mean in the Lord’s Supper when we say that we eat and drink the body and blood of our Lord.  We use this language.  It seems likely that John’s community, for whom this Gospel was written, would have made connections of their own to their practices of sharing the Lord’s Meal when they heard this.  But it may be too easy and too quick to jump to the Eucharist right away.  Martin Luther, in a sermon on John 6, says this cannot refer to the Sacrament because Jesus promises eternal life in this eating and drinking and some people have eaten of the Sacrament and still faced damnation. [1]

Well, that may not be an argument we want to make.  But I do want to hold off thinking of Holy Communion for a moment and focus on this very real, very disturbing, but potentially life-giving image Jesus is laying before us.  What does it mean to eat him, drink him?  Why such visceral language here?  It’s so powerful, such strong language, that perhaps it is meant to signify something equally powerful, equally strong, and worthy of our attention.

We have this expression, “You are what you eat.”  And we know from science that is literally true.

Originally it seems to have come from nineteenth and twentieth century healthy food initiatives.  People were encouraged to eat healthily so that they would also be healthy.  There wasn’t a sense that you became the thing that you ate, though.

But increasingly I’ve read of studies which show that what we eat actually does have a serious effect on us, changes us.  The chemicals we take in our food, for example, show up in our cell structure, and change our systems, from our immune system to our nervous system.  We know that if we eat fatty foods, we’ll have fatty deposits in our blood vessels.  But now it looks like some things we ingest literally change our body into something different.

I’m now straying to the edge of my scientific knowledge on this subject, but here’s my point: if in fact what we eat changes us even at a cellular level, maybe that’s our inroad into what Jesus is saying, to his metaphor today.  And while we hold that thought, let’s consider the drinking imagery of the other readings for a moment.

In Proverbs, Wisdom personified offers a feast, a rich banquet, for those without sense, those who are immature.  And she invites them to drink of her wine she has mixed.  To take in Wisdom’s wine in this image is to become wise, to become mature.  To become what you drink. But just as we’re thinking we’ve been told to have a little wine, Paul slams that door shut in Ephesians: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”

So Wisdom says, “come, drink my wine.”  And Paul says, “Don’t get drunk on wine.”  But this inspires a little word play.  It seems that what these two readings offer is a distinction between intoxication (being drunk) and inspiration (being filled with the Spirit of Wisdom.)

Intoxication has the word “toxic” in it – it means that we are literally poisoned, filled with toxins to the point of inebriation, where we act differently than normal, we are different.  It’s easy to see why Paul would advocate against it.

But inspiration is being filled by the Spirit to the point of becoming something different, too.  Only instead of poison we are filled with God’s Spirit of life, and so we are acting differently in a way that brings life and grace.  To use Proverbs’ image, we’re filled with wisdom when we drink of Wisdom’s wine.  We are given a new mind, not new knowledge, but wisdom to know how we are to be in the world, to know and trust in God’s providence for the world, wisdom to see God’s hand in all things.

So the question before us today seems to be: what is it we take in ourselves of Jesus that gives life, and what is it we take in ourselves of the world that leads away from life, to death?

Surely this is the critical point Jesus is making here: we are invited to be reshaped from within by him, and not by the world.

If we think of what we eat and drink, or, more broadly, what we consume in the world that is not healthy, the list is long.  And it’s not just food, though that’s on the list.

We fill our minds with media that may or may not be edifying and uplifting.

Our society obsesses on commercialism and a consumer culture, where we are bombarded, and truthfully we permit ourselves to be bombarded by endless messages of what we lack, what we need, why our lives would be better if we only had this thing.  And so we live in abundance as if we lack everything.

We’re constantly spending our time and our lives on things that do not bring us to God, that distract us from the needs of the poor and needy, that fill us but only last minutes after the fill, and we need more and more.

When Paul cautions against drunkenness, he certainly would look at such a list and call it the same thing.  The prophet Isaiah named this nearly three millennia ago, when he said, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Is. 55:6)  Why, indeed?

Let’s change metaphors to see if this helps.  We can consider what happens when a computer gets a virus.  Software is written which runs a computer, tells it what to do, when to do it.  Modern software can have a computer do marvelous things.  But someone can write a virus which if implanted in the computer completely rewrites its programming and tells it to do things differently.  Even to the point of destruction.

What do we consume, seek, spend our lives and time on that does that, re-writes how we think, act, live in the world?  And is it good, or ill?  Of the Spirit or toxic?  That’s the question.

So when Jesus invites us to eat him, drink him, he’s really saying that we are to take him in us in such a way that we are changed at the cellular level, at our core software, at our deepest roots.  To take in his teachings, his wisdom, his grace, his love, his warnings, his life, his very person, and be changed by it.  What he’s saying is that following him is not following an abstract idea, a good set of teachings.

It’s taking him into ourselves until we look like him.  Until we are him.

So this is what Jesus means by “abiding” in him, something he says a lot in John’s Gospel.  And it’s a matter of life and death, that we abide in him until we become him.

We know this because he says it today: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  That’s what’s at stake here, the life of the world.  Take him into yourself and you will have life.  Or don’t, and you will find death.  And that life is meant to restore the whole world.

But of course being changed into Christ is a matter of life and death, too.  We know this.  If our spiritual DNA is rewritten by Jesus, if our internal programming is reformatted, if our cells are changed in their composition by taking Jesus in – whatever metaphor we want to use, we are changed.  We lose things, even while we gain.  Why else would Jesus describe discipleship as “losing one’s life to save it”?  (Matt. 10:39, 16:25 and parallels)

What we gain is life, eternal life now and always, abundant life now and always, life lived in the grace and love of the Triune God.

But we will be changed.  Our selfish natures will be transformed into giving natures.  Our destructive natures will be changed into creative natures.  Our hateful natures will be re-made into loving natures.  All that sounds good, but let’s not underestimate our desire to cling to some of those bad natures and what they seem to offer us.

And now we can finally come to the Lord’s Table.  Because even though we Lutherans teach that our Lord Jesus is truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine, is truly present in his Body and Blood, I’m not sure in practice we don’t fall into the habit of thinking it only a symbol.  We don’t imagine crunching or gnawing Jesus when we come to the Table, even though he uses those words.  We’ve sanitized it to the point of even getting nervous about crumbs going in the wrong places.

But in fact, Incarnation, flesh, is messy.  God becoming flesh for us was incredibly messy.  Even bloody, as Jesus was crucified for us.  Maybe we need to open our minds and eyes to consider the truth that Jesus gives: we are eating and drinking him.  In all the messiness that implies.  And in so doing, we are taking in his very essence and are being changed, bit by bit, day by day.

We are becoming what we eat, and what we drink.

I realize that this is an uncomfortable thing to think about this way.  But that’s what Jesus has left us with, this graphic image.

And in the end, it actually is so powerful an image it’s the only thing that conveys properly what Jesus expects to happen.  That we become changed from the depths of our being into him, into children of God, into the people God had in mind from the beginning.  Let’s not fear the changes Jesus will make.  Let’s eat, and drink, and welcome the transformation in store for us and for the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s works, vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, p. 118.  (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Being Bread for Life

In baptism we are washed into Christ, into love that lets us begin anew.  And in baptism we are given work to do, our mission in Christ to love God, to care for one another, and to serve our neighbors.  We need the bread of life, Jesus Christ, who strengthens us to take on our baptismal call together, following the cross of Christ, and serving in the world around us.

Vicar Erik Doughty, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 19, year B; text: John 6:35, 41-51

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

Baptism, bread of life, life together, mission and service.  That is what the texts and the liturgy bring to us today.  Children of God, eating this bread of life you will live forever; and so now how will you live?

We prayed last Sunday for farmers in drought, for the hungry poor, for all those in need.  And as we were praying, a misguided man was headed to a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, to do terrible violence.  Meanwhile, the Olympics is going on, dedicated to the potential of humanity in sport.  Curiosity landed on Mars, sending back data and photos.  We are a human family with incredible potential, and with terrible weaknesses.

We understand that combination, that reality of our humanity, not just from the news but from our own journeys in life.  Along the course of our lives, including our lives in the church, we know of the absolute transcendent moments of music, of liturgy, of relationships; and we become aware, if we weren’t before, of the faults, weaknesses, and sins within us as individuals, within our congregation as a whole and within our entire society, our world.

We become aware of our fear of other people, our hunger to be in control or our wish to completely abdicate responsibility.  We realize our own racism, sexism, we see the assumptions we make about other people and at the same time we see how difficult it is to change; and we experience how slowly society changes – and when society changes, or even when our liturgical practice changes, we get anxious.  We get mad.  We feel somehow betrayed, we focus in on our fears and wants, and we get defensive, possessive.  “Curved in upon the self,” is one apt description . . . of our brokenness.  Our sin.  Our need to begin fresh.

Our journey together in Christ begins at baptism, then.  With Water and Word, we wash away that selfish, control-minded, other-blaming, defensive, shamed and anxious self; we are washed right into the arms of love; Christ’s arms, holding us close with pierced hands.  We’re flooded with the presence of the whole Triune God, sheltered under the savior’s Holy Wings.  And it is wonderful there, safe and warm, at home with the love that brought us to life, to which we will be borne at death, back to that holy love with all the sinner-saints, Olympians of the faith and average everyday folks too.

But you know, eventually you – we – have to leave that warm nest, to go out on our own road.  Once washed with grace and warmed with divine love, we are given a baptismal vocation, a mission, a job to do.  As simple as a lemonade stand and as complex as a visioning process, there is always something we are invited to do:  “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .”  Feed the poor.  Learn Spanish and welcome the neighbors in their own language.  Teach about liturgy.  Pick up trash along Franklin Avenue.  Give the homeless guy sleeping on the church lawn a cup of coffee.  Help somebody afford diapers or a load of laundry.  Or maybe Christ will happen across your path as someone who needs a listening ear; as someone who is depressed; as a couple of guys who want to be legally married to one another; as a drug addict; as a friend saying, “Can I talk to you about something?”  Or Christ may show up in your path as someone who names your life as a blessing to them, when you did not realize it.

Christ is always in our path in the friends and sojourners here at Mount Olive; and also in our neighbor, Christ asking us to follow, calling us to love and serve; giving us opportunities to practice the sort of life Paul talks about in Ephesians.  The sort of life where we live together in love; where we avoid speaking evil; life together where we put away bitterness, wrath, and slander.  Life together where we forgive.  Life together where we remember we are sealed by the Holy Spirit for redemption, members of one another in Christ.
All of this is much easier said than done.  Life together is work!

You and I are on an in-between place; we are still walking together on the journey of life together.  We have begun, in baptism into Christ.  The end – the homecoming, and the great reunion with all who belong to love, all whom Christ wills blessing and marks with the cross – is sure; but in the meantime,  the road does go off into the horizon.  Our sister Katie is preparing to teach at Valpo in Indiana; I am going back to school at Luther Seminary, and in the process leading toward ministry of word and sacrament.  Your next vicar, Neal Cannon, is preparing for his wedding and his vicarage here, soon.  You surely have stuff going on in your own life!  And this whole congregation, just yesterday, began thinking and praying and discerning what life on the path together; what mission – what baptism! – means.

Here are the questions before us:  What does it mean for us, for Mount Olive, to be a faithful community of the baptized, working at life together, to eat bread of life that is given for the life of the world?  What does it mean for us to be those whose lives together are held in love, washed in Christ, bearing the bread of life for the life of the whole world, here at this corner in the city?  I don’t know; God knows, you are in the beginning process of discerning it, together.  But it will take all of your prayers and all of your service and all of your gifts and all of your failures; it will take all of you, to work, intentionally, cognitively and prayerfully, liturgically and lovingly, to serve Christ in the poor and needy of this neighborhood, to serve one another as you build community on this corner in Christ, to figure it out faithfully.

Now in this visioning process you together can say,”Yes, by the help of God, we will undertake this mission, working for the kingdom of God and the love of God and the love of neighbor,” here, now.  Reverently, radiantly, musically, gladly.  Life together in Christ, bearing the bread of life to this neighborhood and one another will mean that you cannot be curved in upon the self – the individual self, or the “self” that is Mount Olive.

It will mean you will have to face down the spectre of Death, and hopelessness, and cynicism.  It will mean we say to our neighbors in our neighborhoods, and our neighbors in this neighborhood, at least two things:

First, You Are Welcome.  And Second, life in Christ, life fed by the bread of life, is life in community – life together.

So we who are in Christ just have to forgive.  We have to build one another up.  We have to share with those hungry in need of bread; we have to share with those hungry who need the bread of life.  We have to check in with, and take care of, one another.  We have to serve the neighborhood around us.  We do all this because of our faith; we do all this in response to the grace of our baptism; we do all this because the bread of life from heaven has made us strong enough to go out and do it!

There is no other way to accomplish our baptismal call, our vocation as Christians alive in Christ, together in the world.  The life of service formed in faithful, forgiving, gracious and welcoming community, centered on baptism and Eucharist – It is what the life of the Church, the life of the baptized-into-Christ, is.  It is discipleship and mission, the journey of the communal, baptized body of Christ, which we are washed into at the font.  That is the life Elijah John will begin with us today.

All of us, together in Christ, need something to sustain us, or the journey will be too much.  So we journey into this holy space, led by the life-giving cross.  We come to gather around grace in water, in the Word proclaimed, in bread and wine.  We eat the bread of life at this altar, it nourishes us into forgiven and strengthened children of God; and we process back out, still following the life-giving cross of Christ.    Following with purpose: to serve the Lord individually and together, one in our baptismal mission in Christ.

Right now, we are, along with friends and sojourners, on that path of life together behind Christ’s cross.  Right now we are gathered with all our gifts and needs, with one another.  Take and eat, beloved, because you all need your strength; and more important you all need Jesus Christ, the bread of life.  This bread of life, Jesus Christ, will nourish you and me unto our next steps, through our next challenges.  It will give to us Christ’s own life.  It will make us strong enough to enter into faithful mission, together and apart.  Christ’s body becomes ours; we become Christ’s body in the community here and beyond these doors.  Baptism was the gracious beginning; now Christ’s mission is waiting for Elijah John and for you, too.

Children of God, eating this bread of life you will live forever; and so now how will you live?  This bread of life from heaven is for you and for all, Jesus for the journey.  Take and eat.  Live and serve, together in Christ’s mission and grace.  Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Real Hunger

We have great needs, the world has great needs, and we wonder why God doesn’t seem to provide for all.  Instead of giving us what we think we need, Jesus offers us himself, what we and the world truly need, and through him, life abundant and eternal.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 18, year B; texts: John 6:16-35 (adding 16-21 from last week); Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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

Last week I was reading on the Internet about a magician who invented an astonishing card trick back in the 1970s, a man named David Berglas.  Once he hands the deck to the people from the audience who’ve volunteered to help, he never touches it again, yet is able to predict the card they will pick.  What’s interesting is that no one has ever been able to figure out how he does it, not even professional magicians, and the only other person who does this trick is his close friend, whom most assume he taught.  Berglas has said he will never reveal how he does it.

Of course, that’s the only way he keeps it valuable and impressive, isn’t it?  Sleight-of-hand artists aren’t interesting except for the tricks they do that amaze and befuddle us.  The trick is everything; once we know how he or she does it, it seems easy, the mystery is gone.

What we learn today is that Jesus is exactly the opposite.  The last reason he’d want anyone to follow him is because of his miraculous signs.  He makes no attempt to hide that his power comes from God, in fact, through what he does people begin to believe that he is himself God.  But what he makes clear in today’s story is that he’d rather people believe in him for his own sake.  The sign, the miracle, is not important to what the people need.  He, however, is.

And that’s something of a challenge for us, even today.  When Jesus says things like, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” we tend to get confused.  What exactly is he offering us?  How is it possible never to hunger?  Like the woman at the well a couple chapters earlier in John’s Gospel who wanted never to be thirsty and for Jesus to provide a never-emptying pitcher, we wonder what all this means.  How is he our food?

We have company.  This entire sixth chapter of John, which provides the Gospel readings for the whole month of August this year, tells of people struggling to understand what Jesus is saying, even his closest disciples.  It’s an exploration of what Jesus is offering and what people would rather have, an examination of the difficulty in believing in Jesus instead of magic tricks, and a beginning of a series of promises in John’s Gospel that whatever Jesus is offering, it is life for us.

And we start by talking about signs.  Because John seems to suggest that signs are important, but at the same time, they’re not the point.

You may recall that John is the only evangelist who uses the term “signs” to refer to Jesus’ miracles.  It’s intentional.  In his Gospel, he tells far fewer of these stories, but each in more detail, and claims that these things Jesus did were signs to lead to faith.  Water becomes wine, a man blind from birth now sees, even a dead man lives.  If John is to be understood properly, these signs point us to the Son of God, present with the Father from the beginning of time, who is come to give us life.

But the confusing thing is that John also seems to ask for and commend faith without signs.  Thomas, who wants to see Jesus’ wounds before believing him alive, is told that those who believe without seeing are the blessed ones.  And in today’s story, immediately following last week’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, an admittedly enormous sign, Jesus dismisses those who have come to find him because of their meal yesterday.  “You are looking for me,” he says, “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Well of course that’s why they’re looking for him.  But what does he mean, they didn’t see signs?  And apparently he’s right, because even though they’ve witnessed that awe-inspiring miracle of bread and fish, here the next day they ask him, “What sign are you going to give us?”

The point seems to be that the signs themselves are not the point.  Believe in me, Jesus says, and find life.  In other words, if you’re only looking for the miracles you’re missing the point of everything.  Someone at Tuesday’s Bible study suggested, and I think they’re correct, that when they ask for a sign in today’s story, it isn’t that they didn’t think the miraculous feeding was a sign.  It’s that they want it again.

They bring up Moses, whom we heard about in our first reading, and through whom God provided manna, bread from heaven, not once only, but daily for years in the desert.  For hungry, poor people, one meal only fills your stomach for one day.  It makes sense that they were hoping for another round.  That’s why they wanted to make him king, as we heard last week.

But if we pay attention, John seems to be telling this story in a way that he downplays the importance of the miracle in order to point to the importance of Jesus.  We get a hint of that in the walking on water story with which we began.  It was assigned to finish last week’s Gospel, but I moved it to this week because it makes more sense to split the story this way, and start today with the episode on the sea.

But if you look at how John tells this story compared to Matthew and Mark, he almost implies it wasn’t a miracle.  He uses the same expression in John 21 where it’s always translated Jesus walked “beside the sea.”  Commentators are split over whether he even wants to suggest Jesus walked on water here, very unlike the other Evangelists who clearly tell that he did.

And look what he does emphasize: when Jesus says, “it is I,” then they want to receive him, take him into the boat.  Then they believe in him.  They do what Jesus asks of the crowds after the feeding today: the disciples believe in Jesus, not the sign.

In fact, that expression “it is I,” “I’m the one,” is the big clue here.  The phrase in Greek is “ego eimi” and it can be translated “it is I,” or, “I am he,” or simply, “I am.”  By it John ties Jesus to Moses’ experience at the burning bush when God’s name was revealed as “I am.”  When Jesus persistently uses this expression, his hearers would clearly connect him to God.  It occurs about 25 times in John’s Gospel, including seven great “I am” statements, the first of which we have here, “I am the bread of life.”

With the incident by the sea, it could simply be read as identification.  They’re afraid, he says, “it is I,” and they are relieved.  But once he starts saying it with these images – here bread, and in later chapters, light, resurrection, life, Good Shepherd, vine, way, truth – he makes it clear.  He is the one we are to believe in.  As he says to the people today, the only work they need to do is believe in the one whom God has sent.  As for Moses, he says, Moses didn’t give you daily manna, God did.  And I’m not a prophet like Moses, I’m the bread from heaven itself.

And this is the hard place we find ourselves: Jesus says, I am.  It is I.  I’m the answer from God, not miraculous signs.  And we say, “What do you mean?  It’s incredibly abstract.  How are we to make sense of this?  Jesus says, “I am.  “I am food.  I am bread.  And I will keep you from hungering ever again.”  He says “don’t worry about miracles, don’t focus on them.  Focus on me.  I am life for you.”  And that’s what we need to understand.

The problem we have comes from not knowing what we really want or need.

The request of the people here is reasonable.  They’re poor, hungry.  He fed them.  They’d like this daily.  If we were to compare ourselves to these people, it would be on less dire grounds.  We’re not starving or desperately poor.  But we do live by the same sense, that there are things we need from life, from God, from others, from ourselves, that will make it all worthwhile.  How often do we say to ourselves, “If I only had this, or that, then all would be well.”  “If only these things were different, if only this blessing were mine, then I’d have what I need.”

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t dismiss these things as foolish, at least in this story.  After all, before ever getting into this conversation he feeds the crowd first.  The miracle came first.  Then he said, “But what you really need is not more bread.  You really need me.”

So that becomes our great question: what does it mean for us to really need Jesus more than anything else?  To receive him as the disciples did, as the great I AM from God, the one who answers all our deepest needs?

It all has to do with life, real life.  That’s what Jesus is offering here.  And it’s only the start for Jesus.

In all seven of the great I Am statements in John (and remember, today’s is the first), life is a part of the promise in one way or another.  Abundant life, he calls it in John 10 when he says “I am the Gate of the sheep.”  The gift Jesus offers in each of these is life, full life.  Abundant life.  In fact, the key to this seems to come in chapter 5, just before this whole episode we’re focusing on this month.  Jesus is involved in a dispute with some Jewish authorities who are unfavorably comparing him to Moses, a theme which we heard continue today.  And Jesus says this: “You search the scriptures because you think that is where you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  (5:39-40)

It’s all there, he says, in the scriptures, which point to him.  Yet somehow we don’t know how to come to him to have life.  Somehow we’re settling for second best, for less than life.  So what is this life he offers?  How does this life look among us?  Or maybe we should ask, “what do we really need?  What truly sustains life?”

Of course the physical things: food, clothing, shelter.  Without these we would die.  But what makes life truly worth living?

Well, look at the things Jesus has given us in the Church, in our discipleship and we begin to understand.

He has given us the gift of community, people around us who make life worth living, people who support and pray for us, who are life to us.  Without the fellowship of the community of believers, would we know life?

He has given us the gift of forgiveness and restoration to God.  Regardless of whether or not we’re always ready to admit our brokenness or failings, the incredible gift of God to us in Jesus is the forgiveness of our sin, and the way to healing of our lives and of this world that this gives.  That in forgiving us God restores our relationships with each other and with God is a tremendous source of life.

And he has given us the gift of eternal life, life with God in relationship that begins now and continues with God even after we die, for we are brought into newness of life.  There is meaning and purpose to this life and a promise of life with such meaning and purpose in the world to come.  This is the greatest part of the gift of life Jesus gives.

And that, my friends, is our bread.  These gifts are life to us.  Without them, we’d starve.  It’s true that people can live without knowing this life from Jesus.  But we who know it would claim that knowing these gifts makes life abundant, powerful, different.  It feeds our heart, our soul, our spirit – in ways that nothing else can.

And that also doesn’t mean that we don’t care about people’s physical and emotional needs, the things that literally fill stomachs, quench thirst, provide shelter and clothing, provide love.  It’s pretty hard to think about abundant life if you’re starving to death, or oppressed and persecuted, or homeless.  The letter of James helps make that clear.

But it’s our job to take care of those things.  Jesus, before feeding the 5,000, tells the disciples to give the crowd something to eat.  In John’s version, he asks them what they should do.  That’s their job.  It’s our job.  As Jesus said in this very Gospel after the resurrection to Simon Peter: if you love me, feed my lambs.  So our job is to help people meet those needs.  And to point to Jesus.  Because once those needs are met, we can introduce the One who really gives life.

And that’s the point: in our love for each other and the world we make it a place where all physical needs are met, and in our love for God we become part of God’s love for the world in Jesus which gives life.  Abundant, rich life, in spite of any circumstances.

Maybe Jesus shouldn’t have fed the 5,000 at all, since it obviously distracted people from what he wanted them to know about him.

But of course he did it because his compassion compelled it.  And that’s our reason for working for justice and peace in this world in his name.  And these signs can mislead and distract, that’s true.  But they also can point us to the One who gives us, and the world, life.

Because that’s ultimately what we want to remember: there is nothing that gives us what we need that is comparable to life with our Lord Jesus.  He feeds and fills us in ways nothing else can.  It’s why we can go from here to make a difference in this world, because we’ve been fed abundant life by the risen Lord of all, and there is nothing else we need.  Our deepest hunger has been filled, and that gift is ours to share with the whole world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Olive Branch, 8/3/12

Accent on Worship

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

     It has been a full year.  Well, not quite.  A full year minus a few weeks.  But my time at Mount Olive as your Vicar has been full of challenges and opportunities and learning and growth.  I am thankful to you and I am thankful to God for all of it.  I am thankful for you, each of you.  Thanks to Cha, thanks to the Vestry and to Cantor Cherwein, and to William, our sexton.  Thanks, especially, to Pastor Crippen, and to my intern committee members, for their specific guidance and support during my vicarage.      I have grown in my skills and perspectives and hopes.  I am not the same person who sat in the pew on September 4, 2011.  And I suspect you are not the same congregation that I first encountered that day!  I trust that the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has been actively working in all of us.  Thinking about God active in us is a bit scary and a lot inspiring, don’t you think?  Imagine where God will bring us next!

     That same Triune God will hold all of us in grace and will and guide all of us -- me, as I return to Luther Seminary for my senior year; and also you, the congregation of Mount Olive, as you welcome Vicar Neal Cannon to the Vicar’s office and ministry.  I know you will be as gracious to him as you were to me.

     Thank you, thank you, thank you.

- Vicar Erik Doughty

Sunday Readings

August 5, 2012 – Time after Pentecost, Sunday 18
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 + Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16 + John 6:16-35

August 12, 2012 – Time after Pentecost, Sunday 19
1 Kings 19:4-8 + Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2 + John 6:35, 41-45

August 19, 2012 – Time after Pentecost, Sunday 20
Proverbs 9:1-6 + Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20 + John 6:51-58

Phil Knutson Reception This Sunday

     Phil Knutson, the ELCA representative in South Africa and friend of Mount Olive, will be visiting the Twin Cities. All Mount Olive members and friends are invited to a reception for Phil Knutson at the home of Donn and Bonnie McLellan,  Sunday, August 5, 5:00 p.m.

     Mount Olive has sponsored Phil Knutson's work in South Africa for many, many years.  He has experience working for the ELCA during the apartheid era as well as now in post-apartheid South Africa. He has been a good friend and partner to Mount Olive. Phil will share information about his work and answer questions, and we, in turn, can offer him encouragement, support, and hospitality.

     All who are interesting in attending the reception at Donn and Bonnie McClellan's home should please RSVP to Donn and Bonnie at  or call 952-452-2049.

     Donn and Bonnie McLellan will send directions. It will be a very fun, very casual reception. Thank you to Donn and Bonnie for hosting.

Book Discussion Group

     Mount Olive’s Book Discussion group regularly meets on the second Saturday of each month at 10:00 a.m. For the August 11 meeting they will read The Razor's Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, and for September 8, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. All readers welcome!

Mary, Mother of Our Lord
Wednesday, August 15
Holy Eucharist, 7:00 pm
Gethsemane Episcopal Church
Minneapolis, MN

     For a number of years Mount Olive has joined with our sisters and brothers at Gethsemane Episcopal Church in downtown Minneapolis for a shared liturgy on the feast day of St. Mary, the mother of our Lord, August 15.  Every year one congregation hosts and the other provides a preacher.  This year we are at Gethsemane, Wednesday, August 15, at 7:00 p.m. for this Eucharist.

Men's Ensemble

     Men are invited to join together to sing for the August 12 Eucharist.  There will be one rehearsal, on THURSDAY, August 9, at 7:00, for one hour.  This group will also sing several liturgical things and an anthem for men's voices.  Cantor Cherwien will lead this ensemble.

Garden Party and Picnic

     Mark your calendars now for Wednesday, August 29, the date set for the annual Mount Olive Women Garden Party and Picnic, to be held at the home of Gail Nielsen, 4248 12th Avenue South, Minneapolis, starting about 4:30 p.m.  In order to plan for enough food, please RSVP to Leanna Kloempken at 952/888-1023, or to the church office, by or before Monday, August 27.  And yes, Gail says "men are welcome too!"

Keep the Vestry in Prayer

     The Vestry will meet on Saturday, Aug. 11, from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. for conversation and discernment regarding the direction God is leading Mount Olive.  This visioning session will consider our mission and ministry in this place, and what God would have us become.  Please keep your Vestry in prayer as they do this important and exciting task!

Wingspan Uganda Project Benefit

     Peterson Toscano, a highly regarded theatrical performance activist, will perform twice to benefit Wingspan’s Uganda Project, supporting Bishop Christopher Senyonjo’s efforts to secure safety & dignity for GLBT persons in Uganda. Events are on August 9 and 10.

For more information and tickets, visit


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