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Sunday, March 27, 2016


Christ Jesus comes to us wherever we are – faithful or fearful – and gives us the gift of peace, so we know God’s resurrection life is true and real and changing the world, and our lives become credible witnesses to this.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Resurrection of Our Lord, year C
   texts: Luke 24:1-12; Isaiah 65:17-25

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

How do you know if something is an idle tale or not? 

It’s easy from here to criticize the male disciples, locked away in fear while the women disciples did what needed to be done. Because of their faithfulness, these women heard the good news first. But when they came to the locked Upper Room to tell the good news to their brothers, Luke says they were met with disbelief. “An idle tale,” they heard. “Nonsense. Foolishness.”

Actually, from our perspective, if we’re honest, we might agree with the men. Today we hear bold claims of healing and restoration, powerful promises of life in the midst of death, of God’s new creation of peace and love.

Yet sometimes doubt finds us even this morning. Sometimes we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen,” and don’t know what it means for us to reply, “Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” How do those beautiful words sometimes get stuck in our throats because of tears? Or doubts? What if this is an idle tale?

Outside that locked room was a frightening world, that’s why it was locked.

For us, too. If Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of Isaiah’s promised new creation, do we see that? We also fear our world. Every day there are terrorist attacks, and not just in Europe, where Americans only pay attention. Sisters and brothers of ours in this country live under oppression and constant threat of violence many of us do not know, because their skin is a dark color. Or because they weren’t born here. Injustice is as powerful and pervasive here as it ever has been. Wolves and lambs may eat together, Isaiah, but Muslims and Christians find it hard. Especially when American followers of Christ carry guns to church and to the market because they believe the Prince of Peace says they should. Locking ourselves in seems a wise precaution.

Or, if God’s new creation is actually a future thing to hope for, in a life to come, are we any surer of that? Some of you have lost dear ones to death since last Easter, and you long to believe the women’s story. Some of our losses from years past still pain us, and doubt and sadness sometimes still suprisingly wash over us, grief stabs at our hearts, and we wonder, “is this true?”

How do we know an idle tale from a true one?

Let’s start with this new creation.

Because if we pay attention to what Jesus actually said, it seems he expected it would begin here, in this world.

Jesus wasn’t a political Messiah; he didn’t come to lead revolution and overthrow the Roman government. Christ let both secular and religious government kill him.

But the way Christ taught and lived is deeply intended for the life we actually live here. He meant to bring the healing of the nations. He meant to begin a new creation here where not only wolves and lambs would share a meal but also human enemies. Where all had equal access to justice and peace, there was enough food for all, and humanity saw sisters and brothers in everyone. But Christ didn’t plan to achieve this through force, violence, or politics.

Christ Jesus came to win over the hearts of humanity, and so change the world. The love of the Triune God was so committed to this, the Son of God died to win us over in love. By changing the hearts of people – forgiving their wrongs and hatreds and sins, and transforming their hearts into Christ hearts – God’s Messiah intended to begin a new creation.

So maybe we can give a little slack to the disciples who were locked away this morning.

Peter tried to be brave. He came out of the room to see what the women saw. But after looking into the empty tomb, he went right back to the room with the others and locked the door again.

We get that. After leaving the beauty of this liturgy, when we’re back in our homes, and seeing the world be exactly as it was yesterday, it’s tempting to wonder if what we saw this morning meant anything. If it is true, that in rising from the dead, Christ Jesus is beginning a new creation in this life, the healing of the nations, and ending death’s power, it’s often hard to see.

But there is this good news today: Christ does not leave us alone in our fear and doubt, and this is where we learn the difference between the truth and an idle tale.

Everywhere his followers were, the Risen Christ came. That’s the wonder.

Yes, the women saw him first. They bravely went out on Sunday morning and got a great blessing, according to two of the evangelists, for he met them on the road.

But he remembered Peter and the other boys who double-bolted their door. That very evening he came to them, too, and gave peace. Thomas was missing, so a week later, Christ came again.

Then there were those two disciples living close by who weren’t in the Upper Room because they left early in sadness and confusion, and walked home to Emmaus. Christ visited them, too.

It doesn’t matter if we’re faithful or afraid, if we lock ourselves away or boldly go out into the streets, our risen Lord and God will come to us. Will bring us peace. And we will be changed.

That’s the other way we know a true story. By the changed lives of the witnesses.

Wherever the disciples first met the risen Christ, they were changed. Within weeks they dared stand before judges and risk their lives to tell others about the new creation begun in that empty tomb. About what it means that death can’t stop God’s love.

But the world around them looked exactly the same. Still filled with frightening things, frightening people. Still filled with death.

Yet they were changed. Resurrection, God’s life, filled them, and they witnessed bravely and beautifully by their lives to what God is doing.

We still see lives of credible witness to the resurrection of Christ everywhere we look today.

In those beloved elder saints whose lives and words witnessed by hope and faith in God’s resurrection life, even when their lives were hard and painful, those who first taught us to believe, in their eyes we saw the light of Christ’s resurrection as they witnessed.

In the person without a home who came here hungry on a Good Friday evening, forty minutes before liturgy, and found a Cantorei member happy to cook a hot meal for him and make sandwiches to take with him, we see Christ’s resurrection in that witness. So did he, as he witnessed in the note he left behind: “God was here today; gracias por la comida.” “Thank you for the food.”

In those of different faiths who refuse to bend to fear but reach out to each other in the love of the God they both worship, we see God’s resurrection in their witness. In those who stand under oppression in our own city and boldly cry for justice, and expect to see it, we see God’s resurrection in their witness.

In our loved ones who entered death in peace and hope, trusting the women’s story, who knew there is life to come and died witnessing to their faith, we see Christ’s resurrection in their witness.

Our lives are full of people who have seen the Risen Lord and whose lives witness to God’s new creation. That’s how we can tell the truth.

And here is a deeper joy: what we see in those witnesses is happening to us.

Christ comes to us, risen, with life and hope. Like before, Christ’s visits aren’t always long, and there are moments of fear and doubt in between. Those first disciples, while changed, still had moments of doubt afterward. They weren’t superheroes, nor are we. But Christ continues to come to us, give us peace, and tell us all things are being made new. And we are changed.

Even if the world looks the same, we are changed. We become credible witnesses ourselves, as we live lives of resurrection and hope, instead of lives bound by fear and hatred. We have met Christ Jesus, and we know his life. And in the Spirit’s grace our lives are witnesses, and the story goes further into the world.

But if any of you still feel fear or doubt this morning, remember those beautiful words you will say are in bold print in our service folder. We say them together. If “Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia,” gets stuck in your throat for fear or sadness, we will say it with you. Together we will witness to this life we have seen, this new creation we know is coming, and is already begun.

Christ is risen, indeed. And nothing will ever be the same for us again.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Blessed, Unexpected Intimacy

On the night of his betrayal by his own friends, our Lord Christ reveals the depths of the intimacy of the community of faith he creates: no barriers, no privacy, nothing between us in Christ.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   Maundy Thursday
   texts: John 13:1-17, 31b-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

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

Feet are awkward and ugly. They often smell bad. That’s the point.

Pay attention to this thing Jesus does, because it makes us feel uncomfortable. How many churches won’t do foot-washing today because it’s too awkward, it makes them uncomfortable? Many worship planners try to imagine a new ritual comparable to what Jesus did, a “foot-washing” for our day that conveys how shocking this was.

We don’t need to invent a comparable intimacy. We don’t have slaves who regularly wash feet dusty from walking dirt roads in sandals. But deep down we know that other people washing our feet makes us squirm. And that’s Jesus’ point.

Calling bread and wine “body and blood” is kind of disgusting. That’s the point.

Pay attention to this thing Jesus does, because we should feel uncomfortable. We say these shocking words so often we don’t hear them carefully, but the early Church’s neighbors knew how uncomfortable they were. “Those Christians eat flesh and drink blood at their worship,” people said.

Every time we eat of this bread and drink of this cup, Paul says, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. We come to this altar and are given bread, but we are told, “This is the body of Christ, given for you.” We come to this altar and are given wine, but we are told, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Every time we eat this meal we eat our Lord’s death. That’s so uncomfortable we hardly ever think it. And that’s Jesus’ point.

Passing a cup to share is something we don’t do except here. That’s the point.

Pay attention to this thing Jesus does, because it’s uncomfortable. How many churches won’t share one cup because they’re afraid of germs, because it doesn’t seem civilized? If you ate at my house, I wouldn’t take a glass, drink from it, and pass it to you as if that were normal. I would, however, share a glass with a close family member.

And here, as if we were family, we follow our Lord’s command and do that. It’s a little uncomfortable. And that’s Jesus’ point.

Pay attention  to the things Jesus asks of us that are uncomfortable, awkward, make us anxious. They are the doorway to life.

If others washing our feet is off-putting, Jesus says, “that’s just the start of it.” If we worry about sharing a cup, Jesus says, “you’ve only begun to understand.” If we quail at the gross language of eating flesh and drinking blood, Jesus says, “now you are starting to see.”

Jesus has proclaimed a life of love of God and love of neighbor for three years. Now, the night before his death, with little time left, he tries once more to get these women and men who have followed him to understand.

The Incarnate One reveals the true life of God’s children: it is a life with no barriers between people. No “us” and “them.” Not even between us and God, who took on our body.

Jesus gives one, last, most critical commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” When we let others wash our feet, when we share this meal together, when we say, “this is Christ’s body and blood,” we begin to understand what “as I have loved you” means.

Because if we aren’t even willing to wash each others’ feet, how will we find the courage and will to die for each other? How will we learn to lose all to find true life?”

These rituals are gifts of awkward discomfort, for they reveal this deeper truth and shape our hearts over years to understand truly what love of God and neighbor means.

The beauty of these gifts is we readily understand them and get uncomfortable.

The only time we permit anyone to wash us is when we cannot stop them. When we are infants. When we are incapable due to age or illness. “Now you see,” Jesus says, “that’s the intimacy I need you to find always.” The only time we share glasses and plates with people is with our closest family. “Now you see,” Jesus says, “that’s the way it is to be among you always.”

In our willingness to love each other without barriers, our willingness to let others love us – which we often resist the most – we find this intimacy.

In this new creation Christ Jesus is making, we are brothers and sisters in such a profound way there are no barriers between us of privacy, no barriers of personal space. That’s both wonderful and deeply troubling. But how will we know God’s abundant life for us if not where God reveals?

When we risk such intimacy we are deeply, frighteningly, vulnerable.

Jesus knows he will be betrayed by the people in this room, not just Judas. Yet he takes a towel and humbly washes their feet. He shares a cup with those who will turn on him, as if they were family. This is the entrance to the new community Jesus is making.

Jesus knows his betrayal will lead to a brutal death the next day. So he changes the Passover meal. He says, when you eat this bread you are eating my life, my body. When you drink this cup, you are drinking my life, my blood. This is the utter vulnerability of God’s love for us and for the world.

These rituals Jesus gave us, the washing of feet, the sharing of a cup, the eating and drinking of his death for us, are dangerous if we don’t want to be changed. They have power to move us into a new place. To make sisters and brothers out of “other people,” who are so vital to our lives there is nothing we wouldn’t do for them.

And then, Jesus says, once you’ve learned that here, I’ll open these doors and send you out into the world to learn it with everyone, even those you do not know. Even those you fear. Even those who are different from you. Even your enemies.

Jesus asks tonight, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

We could spend our lives on that question.

And the only way we’re going to know, to see where he is leading, is to do. To get on our knees and wash, and permit others to do the same to us. To share the gift of Christ’s death with each other as if we are the closest of relatives.

Tonight Jesus shows us what love of neighbor looks like, when neighbor becomes sister and brother, and there is nothing between us. Tomorrow he will show us the end of that road, that such love leads to willingness to lose everything for the sake of the other.

And Lord Jesus, we are afraid of this love. We are afraid to let others inside. We are afraid of what you have done to us.

But the one who so calls us, who has done this, loves us, loves you, beyond death itself. There is nothing to fear, for we are loved forever and in the power of that divine love, we are given hearts like Christ, hearts big enough to love the whole world, hearts daring enough to let the world truly know and love us.

Do we know what Christ has done to us? Not fully. But we’re starting to see.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What do we do now?

When ask this question, we both speak to our experience of sadness, or guilt, or grief, or fear over Jesus’ death, but we also anticipate the new future that God is working in the world. After all, there is only one way this story can end—with an empty tomb and a risen Christ.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   Sunday of the Passion, year C
   text: Luke 22:14-23:56

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What do we do now?

We ask this question following a life-changing event, like a death or diagnosis, the birth or adoption of a child, the loss of a job. This question speaks to our fear, our grief, our guilt, our vulnerability. It addresses our need to do something—whatever that might be—in the midst of an experience we don’t yet understand and perhaps can’t quite believe has happened. Even in the uncertainty, we know that things have changed, that the world is different now, that the future will bring something new.

This question must have crossed the minds of those who witnessed Jesus’ death, those who saw firsthand the brutality, the terror, the pain. What do we do now? Now that Jesus—the Savior of the world—has been put to death? What do we do? The one who came to bring good news to the poor, who proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, who let the oppressed go free, and who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, he is dead. He died on the cross. So what do we do now?

Luke captures a variety of responses to that question. The centurion feels the need to share his feelings about the situation by praising God and exclaiming, “Certainly this man was innocent!” The crowds, on the other hand, are confused, sad, and possibly frightened, so they return home, perhaps hoping to escape for a moment the reality of what has just taken place or maybe even to hide, afraid about what might soon be unleashed on them. And then there are Jesus’ friends—his acquaintances and a group of women—who stand together at a distance and watch the scene unfold, their unwavering presence a sign of their love and devotion.

During Holy Week, it’s easy for us to identify with this group of friends because we too stand at a distance. Jesus died a long time ago, in a land that feels far away from us. But as we hear the Passion story, we come together with these witnesses and watch the events unfold. We stand together with all the people of God to reflect and wonder. And in light of Jesus’ death, we try to answer that question for ourselves: what do we do now?

Perhaps we can take a clue from these faithful women who continue to follow Jesus, even to the place of his burial, to that “rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.” These women are devout and law-abiding Jews. They have work to do! They follow Joseph of Arimathea to this tomb so they know where Jesus will be buried and they discover that he is placed in an empty tomb. There are no other bodies here. This will be an important detail when the women return to anoint Jesus’ body.

The women must go back home after seeing the tomb, however, because the Sabbath is beginning and as practicing Jews, they must refrain from doing work. So the women leave to prepare spices and ointments that they will plan to use when they return to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. But for now, they rest, according to the commandment. Even in their grief, they fall back on the rituals and traditions they know best.

So what about us? What do we do now? Now that we have heard this story again and have stood together with these witnesses?

When we ask this question during Holy Week, we both speak to our experience of sadness, or guilt, or grief, or fear over Jesus’ death, but we also anticipate the new future that God is working in the world. We can trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled because we know how this story ends. After all, there is only one way it can end—with an empty tomb and a risen Christ.

But today, and in the days ahead, we’re invited to stand with these women, to visit the tomb and see where Jesus is buried, to linger in the space between death and resurrection. To enter into our own rituals and traditions—like the procession of the palms, the footwashing, the sharing of a meal together. Like the women, we too are invited to observe this Sabbath rest by immersing ourselves in the story of God, which also happens to be the story of our lives. This story is a story of promise, hope, a story where God makes all things new.

What do we do now?
We watch. We wait. We witness together as the events unfold.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Olive Branch, 3/16/16

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

Midweek Lent, 2016: Love does no wrong to a neighbor

Week 5: Love fulfills the law of God

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   Texts:  Romans 12:1-3; 13:8-10; John 8:2-11

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

There’s no question this woman did wrong.

Let’s be clear. There’s little defense when you’re caught in the act, whether it’s adultery or taking a cookie from the jar.

It’s also clear the scribes and Pharisees aren’t interested in this woman’s fate. They want her stoned to death, since by law her sin deserved that. But they’ve got bigger fish to fry. They want to expose Jesus as a fraud.

So they haul her into the Temple grounds – this is no street corner – and stand her before Jesus as he teaches.

Here’s another clear thing: Jesus lives out of a reality and awareness radically different from this woman and her accusers. He neither attacks her nor falls for their trap.

Instead, he completely changes the question. Here’s a humiliated, vulnerable woman, and a harassed and slandered rabbi. With a few drawings on the ground and an offhand remark, suddenly the accusers become the uncomfortable and embarrassed ones.

This was supposed to be the woman’s trial. And also Jesus’ trial.

But in this story we realize neither of them are on trial.

Jesus kind of proves the leaders right, so he skips his trial. He doesn’t seem to care that she broke God’s law. (He actually does, but that comes later.) He mostly cares that they want to judge and make an example of her. So he avoids putting her on trial, too.

It turns out the leaders are on trial. That means things are about to get uncomfortable and embarrassing for us, too. Because unless we can relate to being publicly humiliated for a bad sin we have done, there’s one obvious role for us in this story.

We’re the leaders, and we’re also on trial. We come to Jesus with the sins of other people, certain we’re right, and he says, “What about you? How are you handling dealing with sin in your life?”

What, then? Don’t we ever get to judge others?

If people do sinful things, we’re just supposed to ignore that?

Jesus doesn’t say that. He just asks the judgers about their sinfulness, exposing them. They really don’t care about sin here, or they wouldn’t have stopped with her. Remember, this woman was caught “in the very act” of adultery, it says. Not to be indelicate, but someone else was there and involved. Why wasn’t he dragged into the Temple grounds?

They’ve got an agenda to prove Jesus can’t be from God because he doesn’t follow God’s law. They judge this woman to see if Jesus will, too. If not, he’s illegitimate.

If we were honest, we’d admit we often have another agenda, too. We pick and choose, as they did, whom we judge. Some people get a free pass. Others don’t.

If what Jesus thinks matters to us, we might ask, whenever we want to judge someone else, “why this one and not another? And what sin will Jesus see in me when I judge this person? Could I stand before him, stone in hand, confident in my judgment?”

Instead of judging our neighbor, Jesus seems far more interested that we judge ourselves.

Jesus also seems more concerned about how we love each other than about individual sins.

We may want further conversation with Jesus about whether there are any appropriate times we can say, “this isn’t right.” He likely would say sometimes that’s a thing his followers should do.

But when it comes to our relationship with our neighbor, he’s clear: to fulfill God’s law, (which we presumably support when we judge), loving our neighbor is the only way. Paul agrees in Romans: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

These Lenten Wednesdays we’ve considered the many ways we in Christ are called to love those who are not us, our neighbor. Most of the situations we’ve seen – poverty, different faith, our own discomfort with connecting with people, sickness, hunger – are challenges to us to love, but aren’t sinful things our neighbor is doing.

Today, the sin is without question. And our Lord Christ still says it’s not relevant to our call. We love our neighbor, even when our neighbor is sinful.

Well, that’s not going to happen unless something changes in us.

The only way we can follow Jesus is if we enter into his reality, his world, his way of being. If we become like him.

 “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” Paul says, “so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Jesus’ radical way simply doesn’t fit in our world as our world is built. We can’t live or understand it in our minds as they normally think and process. The only way we can live and love like Jesus is if we become Jesus.

If we’re transformed, changed by the Holy Spirit into the Christ we are called to be. There’s no other way to get our minds and hearts around this radical love of neighbor that is the heartbeat of following Christ.

Then we become people who finally, simply, consistently love God and neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Who don’t argue with God about this, or test God about this, or petulantly try to preserve a tiny piece of our self-righteousness. We become new creations.

This episode in the Temple turned out to be our trial, our test.

If you’re like me, you probably failed it. Or have failed it. Or will fail it.

Let’s be clear about that. We’ve been caught in the act of being unloving, of judging our neighbor. There’s no defense if you’re caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

Which means we get to change roles in this story, and hear Jesus’ last words: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.”

When we’re the guilty ones, that’s the answer of the Son of God. I do not condemn you, either. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore. Let me transform you. Let me make you new, so you are like me.

No surprise, the best place to be when you’re caught red-handed is in front of the Son of God, whose love cannot be stopped even by death. Because there your new life begins, like the rising of the sun, and the love of God fills you to the core.

And whatever you might imagine that woman felt as she walked out of the Temple grounds that day, that’s our Lord’s gift to you, to me.

And we are transformed.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Do You Perceive It?

When we finally perceive what the Triune God is doing in Christ Jesus, God’s Son, and what the cross means to God and to love and to life, we will respond as Mary did, with extravagant, boundless worship and offering of all we have in love.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fifth Sunday in Lent, year C
   texts: John 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14

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

What did Mary do that was so shocking?

The perfume cost a huge amount, nearly a year’s wages. But it was hers to give.

It was an intimate, emotionally intense gesture, making others uncomfortable. But Mary apparently was that way.

So why criticize her? John, who often paints Judas badly, says only he complained, and since he was a thief, John says, we can ignore his pretended compassion. But Mark, writing earliest, said “others” there were angry, and called it a waste. Matthew clarifies the others as “the disciples.” She’s surrounded by friends upset at her.

But everyone there loved Jesus. They saw him at least as Master and they cared for him. How could they complain – especially out loud – that Mary honored him in this intimate, extravagant way?

Isaiah may help answer that. God says through the prophet, “I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it?” That new thing is that the Triune God faces suffering and death at human hands to bring about this new creation.

Mary’s different because she perceives this. This dinner party is in Holy Week, and only Mary seems to see clearly. God’s doing this new thing in Jesus’ coming death, and she responds.

And if we don’t share Mary’s outpouring of love and extravagance toward God for what God is doing at the cross, maybe we don’t perceive God’s new thing any more than the others.

Oddly, even at this dinner (to say nothing of us) there should have been clarity about Jesus.

Peter had already confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Martha confessed the same thing only days before this meal. They knew who Jesus was. Why didn’t all honor him?

The disciples also knew that coming south to raise Lazarus was a risk. They argued against it, knowing the leaders wanted Jesus dead. Now, a couple weeks later, it’s hard to believe they didn’t sense the tension in the city, and in Jesus. He walked toward Good Friday with a great deal of pain and sadness they ought to have felt.

It’s likely most of them couldn’t admit what was coming. Whenever Jesus told them he was going to be killed, they were uncomfortable, sometimes angry. Peter was harshly rebuked when he told Jesus a proper Christ doesn’t get himself killed. They were clear who he was. They weren’t ready for what he felt he had to do.

Whatever their problem, Jesus deeply appreciates Mary’s gift.

He says, in effect, “I’ve been telling you that I will die for a long time, and now I’m facing death and in pain, and Mary gets it. Leave her alone.”

Mary feels Christ’s pain and responds to God’s lavish love with all she has, this extravagant, foolish gift. She risks ridicule, and gets it. She’s utterly vulnerable before her Lord, and risks he won’t want it. Days before he will himself kneel at the feet of all these disciples and wash their feet, Mary gets it: she loves her Lord, and will serve him, take the weight of his pain if she can.

And Jesus loves her for it. Imagine the burden of giving yourself to so many, being constantly poured out for people you love, and knowing you’ll die for that. To have this woman understand, and seek to ease his pain, must have meant the world to him.

But weren’t the disciples right? Lots of people could have been helped by that money.

In answer, Jesus says something that still shocks people: “You’ll always have the poor with you; you won’t always have me.” But if we think he’s indifferent to the poor, we’re still not perceiving God’s new thing.

All along Jesus has said the will of the Triune God is that we love God with all we are and have – our heart, soul, mind, strength – and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s the center of his teaching.

Here Jesus says, thank you, Mary, for loving me, your Lord and God, with all you have, giving me this extravagant gift, focusing on me.

Nothing else changes. There will always be neighbors, poor people. Of course we’re to love them, care for them, as Christ.

But apparently it’s good for God to be loved, too. It’s good for us to love God with all we have. To offer extravagant beauty and praise, like Mary. The others let their proper concern for the poor distract them from facing the deeper truth about what God is doing, and what that means for God.

We might be the same.

We have a hard time facing what it means that God’s new thing results from God facing death.

When we think of the cross, we most often separate Jesus from the Trinity, we see him at the cross alone. But if he is the Son of God, then – and this is mystery beyond our pay grade and mental capacity and imagination – then Father, Son, and Spirit are bound up in the cross.

Somehow, the Triune God is making a new thing by allowing humanity to execute the Incarnate One, who is one with the Father, and whose Spirit renews the earth.

We’re not very far from Peter and the others in struggling with how this can be God’s answer, to lose to us, to kneel down as a servant but also as a sacrifice to our self-centeredness and arrogance and need to be in control.

But this is the new thing God invites us to perceive: this is the right path for God because it’s the only way love is preserved. This is how God can love us and bring us into the life we were meant to live. Because if this is God’s way to a new thing, then this is our way, too.

Mary shows us God’s new thing comes with that invitation.

In her vulnerable offering of herself, her opening of herself to humiliation, her willingness to give the most expensive thing she had ever had, Mary showed she saw this deep truth: the Triune God’s willingness to die for the love of the world is always an invitation to us to follow.

To offer ourselves extravagantly to our friends, our loved ones, our colleagues, to the world, and most important, to our God. To see, as Paul sees, that everything we hope to gain and accumulate and protect, all these things are rubbish, trash, compared to knowing Christ Jesus and sharing in his suffering.

We might resist this more than anything. We like to protect our selves, our egos, our boundaries, our lives. Following an extravagantly risky God who invites us to risk extravagantly sounds nice, but in practice, it’s hard.

It’s safer to argue about whether Mary could have found a better use for her giving. Safer than asking what extravagance we might be led to give of ourselves to others, or to our God who loves us.

It’s OK to live in this tension.

The reality of God’s new thing is hard to perceive. It takes time. Maybe it even did for Mary.

But see her, and ask: is the Spirit drawing us there? Can we name our reluctance, our anger, our need to distract ourselves from the implications of following Christ Jesus on his path? If so, we’ll see more clearly.

Perceiving our own barriers means with the help of the Holy Spirit we’ll be able to get them down. Then we’ll not only perceive more clearly this new thing God is doing in Christ, we’ll see how it’s happening in us.

And Christ’s road will seem less frightening. Because we will see where it is headed, to resurrection life in Christ which begins even now. And because we will see more clearly our Lord and God who fills us and keeps us on the road.

And our lives and love for such a God will begin to pour out extravagantly, ridiculously, because we’re starting to see like Mary.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Midweek Lent 2016 + Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor

Week 4:  Do you with your favoritism really believe in Christ Jesus?

Vicar Anna Helgen
   Wednesday, 9 March 2016; Texts: James 2:1-17; Luke 16:19-31

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.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” Have you heard this phrase before? It was a popular colonial proverb that Robert Frost used as an expanded image in his poem Mending Wall. It has a charming sentiment, but I wonder about its truth. “Good fences make good neighbors” seems to imply that in order to have a good relationship with our neighbors, we need to have clear boundaries on our space. We must know where one property ends and where another begins. We must maintain our own space, and thus keep ourselves at a distance from our neighbors.

In Frost’s poem Mending Wall, the narrator meets his neighbor to walk the stone wall that separates their property. Each year they take this walk together to make repairs on the wall. And as they walk, the neighbor insists that good fences make good neighbors, but the narrator seems unsure. He reflects that there are no animals, like cows, that need to be enclosed. Instead their properties are sprinkled with apple trees and pine trees. The narrator also notices that nature wants to resist the wall. As the ground swells, boulders and rocks fall to the ground for no apparent reason leaving behind large holes in the wall--holes that they must fix each year as they walk the wall together. The narrator wonders to himself, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / what I was walling in and walling out.” The poem ends unresolved and we are left to hear the neighbor’s declaration once again, “good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost wants us to consider that question seriously. Do good fences really make good neighbors? Are borders necessary in order to maintain relationships among people? Or might there be another way, a different way? These are questions that Jesus invites us to consider as well in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

This parable sets up an immediate distinction between the rich man and Lazarus who are separated by a wall--both a physical wall that keeps them at a distance from one another as well as a metaphorical wall that separates them based on their economic class. The rich man is dressed in purple and fine linen and feasts sumptuously. Outside of his home, and beyond the wall, lies Lazarus, who sits at the rich man’s gate, starving and covered in sores.

The wall around the rich man’s home is what separates these two characters. It serves to show the contrast between them. It keeps people like Lazarus at a distance. It protects the “haves” from the “have nots.” While the rich man likely knows of the poverty that surrounds him, he chooses to stay within the comfort of his home, within the wall, and ignores the needs of his neighbor Lazarus.

We build walls, too, and happily live within them. We drive pass the person on the street asking for money because we’re separated by the wall provided by our vehicle. In middle school, we build walls of disdain between ourselves and classmates who are less cool, less affluent, or less athletic. We might even wall ourselves away from noisy, messy neighbors by building high privacy fences.  One of my friends has mentioned before how automatic garage doors wall us from our neighbors--because you no longer have to get out of the car to open the garage door and shout a hello to the neighbor in the yard next door!

Several days ago I saw a video clip from a rally for a presidential candidate who has plans to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. During the rally, the crowd began chanting together, “Build the wall. Build the wall. Build the wall,” the chants growing in volume and enthusiasm.

Are we really so afraid!? Why do we feel the need to keep others out? To make distinctions among people? Especially those in poverty, those who are victims, those who live on the fringes? This “out of sight, out of mind mentality” is dangerous. It’s what leads to the rich man’s eternal torment. Do we want to create more walls? To build our neighbors out of our lives? Is that what Jesus calls us to do? Even in Robert Frost’s poem we see that nature works to erode the wall that divides the neighbors. Could it be that God is at work in the world to do the same?

This parable gives me some hope for us. After Lazarus and the rich man die, their fates are switched. The rich man is buried and Lazarus is carried off into heaven by angels. While in torment, the rich man longs for a drink of water. Lazarus, on the other hand, sits comfortably at Abraham’s side. The wall that once separated them in their previous life has now morphed into a great chasm and has become fixed, and no one can pass from one side to the other.

The hope for us today is that we don’t live in that reality. We live in the here and now. Walls exist and they separate us from others, but they are not fixed. We have the opportunity to change them, to deconstruct these barriers, to see beyond that which separates us. And so we can take the instructions from James seriously and Christ’s commandment to us: to love your neighbor as yourself.

To love our neighbors requires that we break down the walls that divide us--both the physical and the metaphorical walls. It requires that we make space. That we imagine a reality where there is nothing in place that puts us at odds with one another. Nothing that sets us against one another as “haves” and “have nots.”

Jesus shows no partiality. God makes no distinctions. God’s new reality disregards privilege, stereotypes, wealth, and all social barriers. God’s Spirit is at work in the world now, removing the barriers and walls that separate us, and helping us to see one another as God sees us--as beloved children, created in the image of God, members of the same body of Christ. As we begin to see as God sees us, we become closer with our neighbors, and we build relationships with them. The lines that once separated us become blurred, and it’s no longer possible to tell where one person ends and the next begins.

Good fences don’t make good neighbors. People make good neighbors. May God’s love embolden you to break down the walls that divide us and to see all people as God sees us.


The Olive Branch, 3/9/16

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

What Kind of a Father Would?

God is reconciling the world in Christ, in God’s way, not ours, and if we are ambassadors of this reconciliation we need to bear it fully and truly in our lives.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fourth Sunday in Lent, year C
   texts: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

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

Does God get to be who God wants to be? Can God do what God wants?

Obviously, yes. The Triune God created the heavens and the earth, galaxies and mitochondria, all things. God can be and do whatever God pleases.

But the Triune God is mostly hidden from view in our world. We don’t see God directly. How people see God depends upon interpreters of God.

So: does God get to be and do what God wants? Yes. Does the world get to see the truth about who God is and what God wants? That depends.

This matters, because we are called to speak for God. Paul says that, baptized into Christ, we are ambassadors for Christ, through us God is making an appeal to the world. If we won’t accept who God is and what God does on God’s terms, we’ll deliver the world a misleading and untrue appeal.

As Paul says in another letter, we’ll misrepresent God.

Since we’re not comfortable with who God is in Jesus’ parable today, we may have a big problem.

Wait, you say, isn’t this our favorite parable? We love the story of the prodigal father who freely loves and forgives, who welcomes us when we’re lost.

Maybe. We like to think God will do that for us. Judging from the way Christians, even Lutherans, speak of God’s grace and forgiveness in the world, though, we’ve got serious problems with God’s approach.

This parable is a poor example of parenting, we think. The father enables the younger son’s misbehavior, foolishly giving him his inheritance without strings attached and welcoming him back without strings attached after he wasted it all. He overlooks that his younger son wants him dead and doesn’t care about the shame this puts on him. He doesn’t care about losing face with his older son, and lets him painfully insult and criticize him, responding in love and welcome. He’s never heard of our concept of “tough love.”

When Christians speak of God’s grace, it’s rarely with this fullness. We speak of God needing satisfaction for our sins, of the wrath of God that only Jesus can appease by his death. We threaten people that they can’t expect to be forgiven if they keep on sinning. To hear most Christians, God is nothing like this father.

But if Jesus is the Son of God, the face of the Trinity for us, and this is how Jesus says the Triune God acts, does Jesus get to be right? Or do we get to impose our indignation, our suspicion, our conditional grace on God?

Does the Triune God get to be like this father? Or will we speak and act as if God is different?

If we could, we’d have some criticisms to make to God.

We’d say, look, there are problems with your approach. If you offer grace freely, like this story, you’re going to get taken advantage of. People will sin and ask forgiveness, and go and sin again. They’ll get away with anything, knowing you’re a soft touch. No one will respect you if you don’t defend what’s right.

But the Triune God’s answer is, “what’s your point? Just what do you think happened on the cross, anyway? Don’t you see that taking on your flesh, living among you, I embodied this unconditional love and forgiveness and because it didn’t fit your world view, your sense of justice, your need to earn things, you killed me for it?”

Of course God will be taken advantage of if God acts like this father. Christ Jesus proved that. Even risen from the dead, he didn’t punish his faithless followers, he still loved them, and invited them once more to be people bearing his love in the world.

We may not parent in this way. We may not love in this way. But this is the way that God is. Like it or not. God is not made in our image. As God says in Hosea 11, “I’m God, not human. I don’t have to be like you.”

In this parable, Jesus only gives us one relevant thing: God’s love is unstoppable.

We who need accountability get no answers here we really want. Does the younger son straighten up after this? Does the elder son come into the party? Are he and his brother reconciled? Who knows?

All of that is irrelevant to Jesus’ point. Why the younger son wanted to leave, why he wasted his inheritance, is irrelevant to the story. Why the older son felt left out, and didn’t realize how much his father loved him, is irrelevant. Jesus gives us only enough to fill out the story.

What we get clearly is the unconditional, unassailable, foolish, self-giving love of the father for his sons. This parable says one thing: God will deal with human sin by loving us out of it, into new life. Remember, this is Jesus’ response to the criticism that he spends his time with sinners.

We might think it’s inadequate. That doesn’t matter to God. This is who God is.

God will heal us by unconditionally loving us into life. Nothing else matters.

Paul says in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. The Triune God comes among us in person, living unconditional love and grace, inviting us to live in that love by loving God and neighbor, to live and move and have our being in such foolish, unrestricted love.

It breaks all our rules. We resent that God offers love to people who are evil, people who don’t deserve it, people who don’t intend to change. God’s love as shown in this parable is the opposite of how the world works. So much so that Jesus was executed for living this. So much so that we crucify Jesus by killing this message and covering God’s grace with all our rules and restrictions.

What we do with this doesn’t change God. This is how God will save all things.

The only question is, will we faithfully carry this message to the world?

God will reconcile all things in Christ and bring a new thing into being, whether we like it or not. Of course it’s messy; remodeling something into new always is. Winning people back by love means a lot of pain and struggle and difficulty. The cross was only the beginning of that.

But this is the message we are called to speak, the ministry we are called to bear as ambassadors. Maybe we fear to admit the truth about God because we fear being taken advantage of, too. We’ll be as vulnerable and look as weak as God. We’ll risk being walked on, misused. That’s the deal.

We’re not as comfortable with this parable as we thought, and so we hesitate to follow Christ with our whole lives.

But remember what this parable is: a promise of welcome in the loving embrace of the Triune God that cannot be taken from us.

When we resent God loving others freely and unconditionally, we forget this: God’s throwing a party of love, a feast of grace, and we’re invited. We’re invited, even if we’ve wasted our inheritance, rejected God in our lives, and run away to do what we wanted. Even if we’ve seen God’s love as a duty and have been “good children”, slaving to be the best we can be, missing the joy of living in God’s love. Even if we haven’t figured out how to keep from sinning after being forgiven. Even if we resent others getting breaks from God that we don’t. We’re invited, period.

God gets to be and do what God wants to be and do. And what God wants to be and do is love.

Love the world, love us, love all, back into new life, love us out of our sin, love us into the image of God. The party is waiting, and it’s for the whole world.

This is what we get to live and tell in our lives. This is the message we get to bear as Christ’s ambassadors to the world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Olive Branch, 3/2/16

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Midweek Lent 2016 + Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor

Week 3:  “Who is my neighbor?”

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   Texts: Romans 14:7-19; Luke 10:25-37

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

“We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves.”

We’re so familiar with these words; we read them at nearly every funeral. Our lives are bound up in Christ our Lord and when we face death, this promise is our lifeline: whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

But Paul uses these words in a very different way.

Paul is exhorting against people in the community judging one another. There are arguments over feast days, meat-eaters judge vegetarians as weaker, some drink wine while others abstain. Worst of all, people are stumbling in faith over these judgments.

To this Paul says, “We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

This isn’t comfort at the death of a loved one. This is a declaration of a central, non-negotiable reality of Christian faith.

We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Faith is not a personal possession.

We forget this. We make faith private and individual. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus. That’s the question we’ve been taught to ask most of our lives. How do I make sure I’m going to heaven? Even for Lutherans, who believe God gives eternal life freely, it’s still usually individual: do I believe I’m saved in Christ?

But faith in Christ Jesus has never been an individual affair. Jesus called individuals, yes, but he always called them into community. Christian faith is only lived in community with others, caring for others as Christ, receiving the care of others as Christ.

The lawyer knew the answer to his question: love God, love neighbor. He asked “who is my neighbor?” hoping he might have kept this commandment already. But Jesus opened up the idea of neighbor far beyond what he imagined. Our relationship with our neighbor is the center of what it means to follow Christ.

Jesus says “Stop asking how to get into heaven and get into that ditch and start a relationship.”

But relationships are hard.

We talk about this here at Mount Olive when our neighbors who are in need come for help. The easy answer is to give them enough to make them go away.

But if we’re really going to be Christ, we’re going to have to have a relationship with them.

That’s the hard thing. Getting to know a person, a neighbor, getting into a relationship with them, means we’re obligated, invested. We can’t shut off our care once we know someone. Having relationships with people as people, instead of giving care to anonymous faces, costs.

That’s partly why the first two in Jesus’ story walked by. It’s not just that they didn’t want to help the man in the ditch. They could see it wouldn’t be a quick fix. It would mean doing what the Samaritan did. It would cost to stabilize him, it would take time to get him somewhere, and they’d have to pay for his care.

They’d have to get to know him. It would start a relationship.

So it’s easier to walk by on the other side. Once you’re in a relationship with your neighbor, you can’t do that anymore. You just get that first chance to avoid connection.

For Christ, relationships are more important than theology, too.

The priest and Levite might have also had theological and ritual reasons for not stopping. If the man was dead, for example, they’d be unclean for service.

Paul says, “who cares?” Don’t let your theology get in the way of Christian love. If you read this whole section, Paul doesn’t say which point of view on feast days or alcohol or vegetarianism is right. He just says “don’t let your theology cause someone else to stumble.” Don’t injure your brother or sister over right and wrong.

Imagine what the history of Christianity would look like if our passion had been loving our neighbor, as Christ asks, loving our brothers and sisters in the faith, rather than fighting over doctrine or claiming individual salvation.

We might look at Jesus’ parable and Paul’s words as not taking theology and right and wrong seriously. But the last 2,000 years would suggest we should have listened to them from the start.

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

That’s the heart of it all. We live and die to the Lord. Our lives in Christ are centered on Christ, who then binds all others to him. In a profound way, we can’t have a relationship with Christ without having one with everyone else whom Christ loves and to whom Christ joins.

We love our neighbor, look out for our sisters and brothers, even those with whom we disagree, because Christ loves them, looks out for them. If we want a relationship with Christ Jesus, everyone else gets to come along. Love of God and love of neighbor not only sum up all God’s commands to us. They are inextricably linked with each other.

Which means there’s still hope for us and for the Church.

We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. We are the Lord’s. And the Holy Spirit is still given to us to move our hearts and minds, and change our actions and lives.

Every time we hear Jesus say, “if you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” we have a chance for the Spirit to change us. Every time Jesus says, “who o you think was a neighbor,” we have a chance to let the Spirit make us a neighbor, give us a relationship. Every time Paul says, “quit fighting about things, because you’re hurting your sister’s faith, your brother’s hope,” we have a chance to be open to the Spirit’s wisdom and change our priorities.

 “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”

That’s our hope for now and for the life to come. It’s the center of faith in Christ.

It’s also our great challenge, it frightens us, and it’s something we’ve resisted often over 2,000 years.

God give us the grace to learn this, and live it in the Spirit, so all might know God’s love in us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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