Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Home About Worship Music and Arts Parish Life Learning Outreach News Contact
Mount Olive Lutheran Church

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Step by Step

We are being made new in Christ, but it’s a process, begun in the love we have from God, and led step-by-step by the Holy Spirit, who holds our hand and teaches us what it means to live that same love in the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year C
   texts:  Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35 (add 36 – 14:3); Revelation 21:1-6

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

It’s hard to understand some things without someone walking us through them.

Like learning to tie shoes. Watching someone do it seems magic if you don’t know the steps. So we’re taught it one step at a time.

Our life in Christ also needs step-by-step instruction. We need help learning to follow Christ Jesus, to obey his new commandment of love.

Peter understood that. Confronted by disciples unready to expand the community to Gentiles, Peter carefully walked through it, “step by step,” Luke says in Acts.

It wasn’t easy for Peter. He had step-by-step help, too. In this episode with Cornelius the Roman, which he retells, the Holy Spirit helped Peter learn the next steps of loving discipleship. But we also heard a few extra verses from John today than were assigned, because two familiar and beloved sections of John, today’s command to love, and Jesus’ promise of rooms in the Father’s house, are linked by Peter’s struggle to understand Christ’s new command.

So Jesus helped Peter, step-by-step. Peter helped his friends, step-by-step. Today, step-by-step, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we, too, can grow deeper into Christ and the love that is our call.

Step one: you are loved by God forever.

We can’t grasp Christ’s new commandment without these key words: “As I have loved you.” Every time we are commanded to love we begin with the truth that we are first loved by God.

And we do nothing to earn it. Peter eagerly wants to prove he’s worthy of Christ’s love, that he’ll lay down his life. Jesus knows he won’t, at least not that night.

But immediately after telling Peter he’ll fail, Jesus says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” He reassures Peter that God’s love is non-negotiable. Peter, Thomas, all of us are grounded in the reality of the immoveable love of God that is ours in Christ.

There’s plenty to fear as we follow Christ. The love revealed in the next steps challenges us, scares us, makes us want to put up walls, barriers. But listen to our Lord Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.” Our life of love lives in this unchanging reality: you are loved eternally by the Triune God who made all things and who broke the power of death out of love for you. Whenever we struggle with the next steps, we breathe in the Holy Spirit, ask for calm hearts, and trust in Christ’s love that is ours forever.

Step two: Loved by God, you are placed in Christ’s community where Christ’s love is the standard.

Christ’s unconditional love places us into a family of faith, and the new commandment says our Christly love begins in love for sisters and brothers in the community. Our love for each other witnesses to the world Christ’s Good News.

The appalling disunity of Christians in this world reveals we are not fully in Christ, and have much growing and changing to do. Those Christians we feel justified in disliking, who speak in ways we see as opposed to Christ’s call, they are the first ones we’re commanded to love.

If we can’t love other Christians as Christ has loved us, there are no more steps. We’re no longer witnessing to the Good News of God’s death-defeating love for all. We’re witnessing to a love limited to those whom we like and agree with. Christ commands that our standard for love is no longer those we choose to love, it is to love all whom God loves, starting with those in our Christian family.

Step three: Loved by God in community, turn outward to others outside the community.

Even though Christ begins here with love inside the community of faith, that always led him to command a love for the other, outside the community. When he sums up all of God’s law in love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus also repeatedly breaks open what love of neighbor means.

We learn from the Good Samaritan that love of neighbor is loving those different from us. Those who look different, think differently than we, believe differently from us. Those whom we distrust, or think less of. When we love who God loves, we erase all lines between people.

We learn from Jesus that love of neighbor loves those who hurt us, and not just unintentionally. God’s love for the world – we see this in Christ on the cross – loves through inflicted pain, loves those who are enemies, those who hate us.

Loving others in Christ’s family is hard. Harder still is loving people who are so different from us, or loving those who want to harm us. But these are the new eyes we are given in Christ, to see as God sees, to love as God loves.

Step four: learn the implications of these new eyes. If you love whom God loves, as God loves, it will mean changes.

This is what Peter needed to learn. At this point in Acts, after Easter, after Pentecost, Peter is already a bold leader, fearlessly preaching the resurrection of Christ and the life of faith. But he’s still limited. He doesn’t yet realize Christ is for the whole world, without distinction.

Today Peter took his next step into Christ. “You can’t call profane anything God has made clean,” he hears. Your categories of “other,” of “those who are in and those who are out,” are irrelevant in the new life in Christ.

And Peter’s actions show us this is not a theoretical exercise. These are real people we are called to love in real, concrete ways. These are real people carrying different labels, names of different faiths, some without faith, whom we must love and reach out to, if we are in Christ.

These are real people, our neighbors, who challenge all our assumptions and whom we have no option but to love and embrace, if we are in Christ.

These are real people who haven’t experienced what we have and who cry out that they are suffering, sometimes because of how we live our privileged lives, and we have no choice but to stand with them and seek justice, if we are in Christ.

Real people need real love, not theology and theory, Peter shows us.

Step five: discover the joy of saying, “Who am I to hinder God?”

Peter has become unafraid to defend his actions to those who don’t yet see and love as God sees and loves. The Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles, so Peter baptized them. He ate with them, shared his life with them, even though they weren’t Jewish as he was. Because God’s love had already crossed the barrier, Peter did, too, and it filled him with confidence and joy.

That’s the goal of this love Christ has given us. That, embraced in the love of the Triune God, we lose all our individual barriers and fears and doubts and live in the joy of loving as God loves, seeing all people as delight and grace, living in Christ, not in ourselves.

There is no fear in love, the elder writes in First John, because completed love, perfected love, drives out all fear. So we joyfully say, “Who are we to get in God’s way? If God’s love goes there, that’s where we will go.”

This is where the Holy Spirit is leading us.

This is where we are going. And it is a process. “See, I am making all things new,” Christ the Lamb says in Revelation today. We, and the whole world, are being made new. Step by step it is happening.

We begin where we live, surrounded by the life-giving, eternal love of the Triune God. From there, hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit, we take our steps into obeying this new commandment.

And so we move ever deeper into life in Christ and the love that will make us and all things new.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Unnecessary Understanding

Faith in Christ Jesus as our Life and Hope isn’t about getting all our questions answered, it’s trusting in Christ enough that we can keep asking while we walk Christ’ path in faith, knowing that our answer isn’t words, it’s the One we walk beside.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fourth Sunday of Easter, year C
   texts:  John 10:22-30; Psalm 23; Acts 9:36-43

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

 “Jesus used this figure of speech with them but they didn’t understand what he was saying.”

That’s John’s earlier comment (10:6), after Jesus first calls himself the Good Shepherd. Even though his hearers were more confused than enlightened, he kept at this image, risking more confusion by even calling himself the gate of the sheepfold.

We see why some reached the end of their patience today. “Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah?”, they said. Enough with the confusing words: if we follow you will we find life with God?

That’s our question. We already know Christ’s path is hard. Jesus calls us to a life of sacrificial love, following his lead. This will change our lives a lot. How do we know Jesus is leading us to life?

Today we sing an ancient song of faith we love dearly, the 23rd Psalm. But do we know enough to trust Christ Jesus and sing this hymn confidently as we walk through life? We sometimes wish we had more clarity. More understanding.

But what if that’s not offered?

It’s encouraging we’re not the only ones confused by this shepherd thing.

Even people living in Jesus’ time had difficulty, apparently. You’re a shepherd, we’re sheep? Not people? What?

We can know all we want about sheep and still wonder what Jesus is talking about.  Fine, sheep are dumb, they need constant guidance, we’ve heard it all. Bottom line, we still need to know if we trust Jesus is the right guide for us.

But in answer today Jesus goes right back to shepherd-sheep language, implying that if we were his sheep we would have faith. How is that helpful?

The problem is deeper than a confusing metaphor.

Is Jesus trustworthy to be our Messiah, to be life for us? In John’s Gospel especially he makes these huge claims that, if true, are the best news we could know. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” But what if we still have questions?

Questions about pain and suffering. About God’s will and desire for us. About life and death.

The last two weeks we’ve heard John tell us that what he’s written is given us so we can believe, and in believing have life in Christ’s name. But what if, even after reading John, and the other Gospels, we still don’t understand? Even today’s story about Tabitha, a beautiful, hopeful story, only heightens our anxiety. None of us have seen such a thing happen. So if we can’t expect such miracles in our lives, what then?

If we can’t trust Christ, why would we want to take his hard path?

What about Jesus’ answer to our friends today? Could it be helpful?

When they asked him to speak plainly, Jesus tells them that, in a way, he already has. Look at my works, he says. They are my testimony.

If he means the healings he does, or even the healings some of his disciples did, like Peter today, what are we to do with that? We’re afraid even to ask for healing from God because we’ve convinced ourselves the chance of a miracle is slim, and don’t want to get our hopes up.

But is Jesus talking about more? What if he means us to look at everything he is? Then we see something worth seeing. We see someone who lived, breathed, and taught the unconditional love of God for us and all people. Who uncompromisingly stood with people the world discarded, people whose failures were beyond what “good” people could tolerate. Who reached out in love and compassion to all who were in pain, outcast, neglected. That’s who invites us.

And there’s more. If Jesus’ works are testimony, we’ve just seen the heart of that witness. Our journey to the cross with Jesus, leading to the empty tomb we celebrate this Easter season testifies to us: Christ Jesus is the embodied Love of God that cannot be killed by death. That’s who invites us to follow the hard path of love of God and neighbor.

And that invitation doesn’t include understanding everything.

We’re conditioned to want the answer to everything. We’re frustrated whenever we’re told something is complicated, whether it’s our doctor, or honest political leaders, or friends. But this world rarely has black and white answers that end all our questions, and we rarely have the clarity we’d like.

What if that’s just reality? If Christ Jesus is the Son of God, who gives the world life, he won’t be able to answer everything for us. It’s not how the world works. Explaining everything is impossible.

But if we really look at Jesus’ works, like he tells us today, we see something encouraging. He often doesn’t give the understanding we seek. But he’s always willing to have us ask anyway. He never turns away a questioner. He usually answers with, “follow me.” But our Lord is willing to hear questions in love and care.

And that’s what this path can be when we walk it singing David’s hymn on our lips and in our hearts.

We sing, “The LORD is our shepherd, we have all we need.” Even with questions about how God provides, we follow the only One who can lead and guide us to fresh water and green pastures, and show us how to help others find the same.

We sing about our Shepherd’s hard path because we trust the One we follow. It’s a path of righteousness and goodness, and even though we have questions and fears, the One who brings life out of death is our guide.

And we sing even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, that we fear no evil. We’re frightened of death and all that causes the world pain; we have questions. But we’re not alone, and that’s better than having all the answers, or every miracle we seek. Whatever happens, we are walking with our risen Shepherd on this path. That’s all we need.

Understanding everything doesn’t matter if we trust the One we follow.

We don’t need all the answers if we’re walking with God’s Answer. We are invited to find faith in the life Christ is for us and the world. Not faith based on knowing everything. Faith in Christ, trust that he is, in fact, our Good Shepherd, and there’s nothing else we need.

That’s the step before us. And it’s OK if we take baby steps. One tiny step of faith today is enough. We’re on the path, then. And it’s OK if we hold hands. We’ve got each other to help watch the road, to pick us up, to encourage us.

And to help us see the One we’re following.

If we’ve still got questions, well, it’s a long road. We’ve got time. And our Lord’s a good listener. We can keep asking while we follow. We might even learn some things. After all, sheep don’t have to forever remain clueless.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ordinary Resurrection

The promise of the resurrection is that the risen Christ will make an appearance in our lives. God lurks on the edges of joy, boredom, loneliness, and despair. And whatever your ordinary looks like, resurrection is just around the corner.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Third Sunday of Easter, year C
   text: John 21:1-19

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.

I have a confession to make: I’m experiencing a post-Easter Sunday letdown. There is so much build-up to this important day, so much waiting and watching and witnessing as the events of Holy Week unfold, and then suddenly the big Easter Sunday arrives. We come together to worship, to sing our Alleluias, to enjoy the beautiful flowers, and to celebrate the risen Christ. And then the church empties, as people leave to visit family, have brunch, or in my case, go home to take a long nap on the couch with two cats by my side.

Then Monday morning arrives and I hear echos of the day before: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia. It is still Easter, of course, but my life remains unchanged. Everything seems the same.

So I press on, because that’s what I do. I return to a more normal work schedule. Catch up on household chores I’ve neglected. Mail a birthday card to a relative. Renew my driver’s license. Check in on a friend who is hurting. And then, one day, all of a sudden, the joy of the resurrection appears out of nowhere, and I am overcome with the power of God.

I was driving to work on this particularly dreary morning. It had rained and rained the day before and the sidewalks and streets were still damp.  As I followed the twists and turns of Mississippi River Blvd, I was struck by the greenness of the grass. Lawn after lawn seemed to levitate, popping out from the earth like an image from a Magic Eye book. I noticed tulips and daffodils budding all over the place, pushing their way through old leaves and debris. They were unstoppable! There was new life exploding all around me!

In many ways, it was a completely ordinary day. Just another day...driving the same route to work. But this ordinary day was transformed when I noticed the power of the resurrection at work. I witnessed the power of God, the power of life over death, the power of promise. God was acting in the world to transform a dreary day in my ordinary life into a moment of joy, wonder, and awe. Everything looked different that day because I was oriented again to the newness that God brings to us through resurrection.

I often wonder if the disciples experienced something like a post-Easter letdown. We heard last week that they rejoiced when they encountered the risen Christ. But then what? Did they continue in their celebrations? Were they confused about what to do next? Were they scared of what might happen to them?

The Gospel doesn’t tell us. But Peter gets the idea to go fishing, and the disciples follow. It makes sense that they would do this. After all, they are fishermen and this is the trade that they know and understand. But for experienced fishermen, they have some terrible luck. An entire night of fishing and not one fish to prove it!  I can’t imagine what that felt like. I don’t fish, but I’ve watched my friends fish up at the cabin, and they get discouraged within an hour of not catching a walleye! It must have been a lot worse for the disciples, experienced as they were. Even so, the story seems believable. We all know what it’s like to have a bad day at work!

But then at daybreak, a mysterious figure on the beach encourages them to cast the net on the other side of the boat. And suddenly, out of nowhere, they haul in an abundance of fish—one-hundred and fifty-three of them to be exact.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. And it was there—in the ordinariness of that moment of fishing—that Jesus shows up. The disciples’ discouragement is transformed into joy. Their lack into abundance. The ordinary is made holy. This is the power of the risen Christ. For the disciples, life on the other side of the resurrection is rife with opportunities for transformation, for new life, for abundance.

It takes the disciples some time to figure out that this mysterious figure is Jesus, but once they do they race to shore with their catch, and their friend Jesus invites them to a meal. “Come and have breakfast...and bring some of the fish that you have just caught,” he says. The disciples do as they’re told. And together they share in a seaside potluck.

The promise of the resurrection is that the risen Christ will make an appearance in our lives. We can’t predict when and where, but we can trust that it will happen. In an ordinary moment, God will show up and suddenly everything will be changed. We might see it happening in the lives of others before we see it in ourselves. We might wonder how it will happen or when it will be our turn. But God is with us in those moments of waiting and wondering and in the moments when we recognize clearly God’s resurrection presence. Because God lurks on the edges of joy, boredom, loneliness, and despair. And whatever your ordinary looks like, resurrection is just around the corner.

Our invitation during this Easter season and beyond is to hear what Jesus says to Peter: “Follow me.” We, too, are disciples and are called to follow Jesus. And following him means going to the cross, to the places where there is pain and brokenness. But to follow Jesus also means to follow the risen Christ. It means to bring light and love to ordinary places. It means to celebrate the resurrection joy in the lives of our family, friends, and neighbors. It means to listen for and recognize when Jesus has broken forth in our own lives as well. To follow means to be gathered by the Spirit on Sunday mornings, and then to be sent out to be the hands and feet of Christ for the sake of the world that God loves so much.

John’s Gospel ends shortly after this story with these words: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” The books continue to be written, my friends! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


Sunday, April 3, 2016


(Click here for an audio version of the sermon.)

Thomas’ core truth is that he is blessed, not that he once doubted, and Christ Jesus likewise comes to us in blessing, no matter where we find ourselves in faith or doubt, confusion or clarity, and we are given peace.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Second Sunday of Easter, year C
   text:  John 20:19-31

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

This is a story about Blessed Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. We’ve been misinformed.

This is actually a story about the risen Christ, where Thomas is the Blessed One, not the Doubter. Let’s stop using Thomas as a straw man for unbelief and see what’s really going on here.

Thomas missed out on seeing his risen Lord with the others. It’s that simple. They were gathered together, locked away. He was gone. He had the misfortune of missing what everyone else experienced.

Maybe he was gone by choice, maybe he had to be away. Maybe he missed the message passed between the disciples that terrible Friday afternoon, “we’re meeting in the Upper Room, where we were before. Here’s the password.” It doesn’t really matter. He missed it.

So yes, he had his doubts. The combined witness of his sisters and brothers, all of whom saw Jesus alive, didn’t fully convince him. Maybe his frustration at missing it all contributed to that.

But we can’t disdain him. Thomas’ faith and courage are well documented in the Gospels. We would do exceedingly well to be as faithful as he was. Here he’s in the middle of his worst days ever, and he’s struggling. That’s it.

We often hear, “don’t be like Thomas and doubt, believe even if you don’t see.” Our truth is the opposite. Thomas is our hope and our beacon of faith. Despite missing everything, Thomas ends up blessed by the peace and presence of his risen Lord, and finds faith and a future. Thomas is the best news we could have.

Thomas connects deeply with us.

It makes us sad and anxious to be left out. To know that loved ones are gathered and we aren’t there. Imagine his sadness when the others excitedly shared their experience with him.

But it’s more than being left out: it’s hard to handle missing out on learning something important, feeling like others got to know or see something we would have loved to know or see, to get news secondhand.

We can see ourselves in Thomas. Sad, confused, wondering. Wanting to believe Christ is risen and everything is new again, but not having seen it.

How often do we see others who seem to have strong faith and wonder what’s missing in us? Or think, “if only I could have seen something, too, if I had her clarity?” Or even, “what did I miss? Why didn’t I get to see it?”

Thomas is our companion today, not our fool. He stands for us.

But what of Jesus’ saying: blessed are those who do not see and yet believe?

Isn’t this a criticism of Thomas’ doubts? Yes, Jesus says these words. But he says them after giving Thomas peace. After letting Thomas see, offering his hands and his side for evidence. Christ comes to Thomas and gives him exactly what he longed for, to see his beloved Master alive again. That feels like gentle joy and welcome, not criticism.

Then he turns to us, the readers, the watchers, and says: you do not see, and yet you will find faith. You are blessed. As John explains, all this Gospel he has given us is explicitly our Thomas appearance. Because we weren’t there, John has written this, “that [we] may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and, believing, have life in his name.”

This is a story about blessed Thomas, about blessed us. The blessing isn’t in found in our faith or lost by our doubt. It’s Jesus, risen, coming to us.

The risen Christ has provided for us, just like Thomas. And we are blessed.

In God’s Word Christ comes to us and says, “see?” I am with you always. And as you hear me, know me, see me through these words, I give you peace. Like Thomas, you can believe.

In this Meal, Christ comes to us and says, “see?” I told you this is my life, my body and blood, my way of joining you to my death and being with you always.”

Remember, Thomas asks the critical question: “wasn’t he wounded and killed? I need to see those wounds. How can God change death into life?” In this bread and wine, Christ once more shows us his wounded hands and side and says, “this is my love for you, and death can’t stop it. Eat, touch, and believe. Be at peace.”

In this community of faith Christ comes to us and says, “see?” I am with you always in them. And in these others you receive my peace, and like Thomas, you can believe.

If we look even more closely at the risen Christ’s actions, we find another, beautiful blessing.

Christ deeply needs his followers, even after the Resurrection. Eating with them, walking with them, talking with them, the Incarnate One, as he always did before, continues to desire his friends. It feels as if Christ comes to Thomas because he missed Thomas. This reveals the Triune God’s deep desire to be in relationship with us. Our joy is that as much as we miss God’s presence in our lives when we don’t feel it, God even more misses us.

And Christ needs a complete community. Without Thomas, it’s not good. This is so central, that often writers like Paul and John join our Lord in saying that their joy is only complete when the fellowship is complete. Christ is not satisfied until all God’s children are together, all can see God’s grace and receive the peace that passes understanding.

Let’s give thanks for blessed Thomas, who gives us great hope.

Like Thomas, whenever we feel left out, or forgotten, we look up and see our Living Lord smiling and saying, “I’m so glad I found you, I’ve missed you.”

When we don’t understand the pain and suffering of this world, or are afraid of being wounded ourselves in service to God, like Thomas we come here and meet our wounded, crucified, risen Lord who transforms death into life.

When we doubt because we haven’t seen what others have, or fear that faith is harder for us than it should be, or are anxious because we don’t know what to believe, we come here with our sisters and brothers, like Thomas, and Christ comes to us.

And blesses us with peace. So we are ready to join Thomas in being that blessing to the rest of those whom Christ is constantly seeking. Because that’s what’s next for us, and that’s where we’ll really find complete joy.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Reconciling in ChristRIC

Copyright 2014 Mount Olive Lutheran Church