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Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Better Storage Solution

Jesus invites us to be rich toward God—to let go, to give up, to reach out, and to share one's life.

Vicar Anna Helgen
   The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18 C
   Texts: Luke 12:13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

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.

“I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” I have a lot in common with the farmer in this parable. But instead of building barns, I build shelves. And I should be clear here: I don’t usually build these shelves, my husband does, but I consider myself a part of the creative process.

Kurt has built wooden shelving for our shared common space when we lived in a condo building. He’s built shelves for storage in our basement. He created a beautiful gear closet, with custom drawers and shelves to fit all of our camping equipment—from tents and tarps to paddles and nalgene bottles. He just helped his dad build shelves for the garage at his new house. He’s installed at least nine shelving systems in bedroom closets, hallways, office spaces, and, most recently, at my parents’ cabin, to store our dishes. These shelves hold plates and mugs, wine glasses and serving platters, dainty ice cream bowls and pint glasses from our travels to England. When we lived with my parents briefly between moves, a friend warned my mother, “You’d better be careful because Kurt might start building shelves!”

We like well-designed, efficient storage. We’re not afraid to get rid of junky shelves in order to replace them with new, better shelves. We like to be able to find what we’re looking for and access it without having to move a bunch of boxes or go digging. Like this farmer, we love a good storage solution.

So why does Jesus tell this parable? What are we to learn from this farmer and from his choice to build a bigger and better storage solution for his grain?

On the one hand, this farmer is successful. His land has brought forth an abundance of crops and he is faced with a problem: where on earth will he store it all? There is so much grain that it cannot fit in his current barns. He needs bigger, better barns, and resolves to knock down his current barns and build new ones. It seems like the right thing to do. His storage solution wasn’t working—so he built a new one! It’s what I’d do.

But despite his success, and after deciding to build bigger and better barns, Jesus calls him a fool. It’s worth remembering here we’re in Luke’s Gospel, a gospel in which the powerful are brought down and the rich are sent away empty. Jesus doesn’t follow the rules of the world where one’s wealth is defined by the accumulation of goods, or where one’s future is secure only when retirement accounts are maxed out and one has 6 months of savings in an emergency fund. Jesus plays by the rules of the gospel. And according to the gospel, the lowly are to be lifted up and the hungry are to be filled with good things. The kingdom of God belongs to the poor, not the rich.

So yes, according to the world, the farmer is successful in that he has accumulated goods and will store them up for himself in order to secure his future. But according to the gospel, this farmer is a fool. For one, he neglects to praise God for the abundance of his harvest. His first thought is that he has a problem. A problem having too much food?! Wouldn’t a problem be having too little? He could be feeding the hungry, but he’s not.

Perhaps he doesn’t think to feed others because he is completely isolated. With no community, no family, and no friends, he has no one to consult with, no one to convince him that he’s making the wrong choice, no one to help him see differently. All he has is me, myself, and I. And unfortunately, his isolation leads him astray: his motivation for a new storage solution is all wrong. He will build bigger and better barns to store his crops so that he can eat, drink, and be merry for his future.

Poor farmer. I guess he missed the message, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” We miss it sometimes, too. So often our greed gets in the way and we are unable to see beyond ourselves, beyond our needs, beyond our lives. We can be greedy with all kinds of things: our time, our truth, our possessions, our gifts, our money. We say, “I’ve been so busy,” as if it’s a badge of honor. We insist on our truth, even if that truth hurts others. We take credit when credit is not due, and we neglect to give it when it’s deserved.

So how can we see differently? How can we live as God intends for us to live?

What I love about parables is that they can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. And our interpretation may shift depending on what’s happening in our life, in our community, and in the world. So let’s take a look at some of the other players in this story. Perhaps Jesus invites us to consider not only the rich farmer, but also his grain and his barns.

Let’s start with the grain. The farmer’s crops. His prized goods that he stores up in barns all for himself! The parable teaches us that these goods are not meant to be stored away; they are meant to be consumed, to be shared, to provide nourishment for the other. What if we saw our lives like that? That is, after all, what it means to be a steward of one’s own life. Our responsibility is to live for the sake of the other. To be a steward of our very lives means to live as if they are not our own. Because it is actually Christ who lives in us! And Christ gives his life by emptying himself, by showing power through vulnerability, by giving himself completely for the sake of the other.

But Jesus knows that this can be challenging—that to give, give, give can be impossible, especially when we are faced with our own difficult circumstances. Sometimes we need to receive the gifts of others. And this is where we can look to the barns. The farmer’s storage solution. Consider what happens with a barn: it fills up with grain and then the grain is removed, emptied out to be made into flour. The life of a barn is about filling up and emptying. Like the shelves at my parents’ cabin that are filled with dishes, as these dishes are used, they are removed from the shelf to serve food to others. Then, after they’ve been washed and dried clean, they return to their space on the shelf. The life of a Christian is like this. It’s about emptying and filling up, about giving and receiving. And it is always done for the good of the neighbor.

This parable gets at the heart of what it means to be rich toward God. In our culture, to be rich is to acquire or accumulate wealth. But in the gospel, to be rich toward God is to let go, to give up, to reach out, and to share one’s life. It is to live as Christ lives for us, to live as though Christ is our life.

God invites us—creates us, in fact—for relationship. Just as our plates and cups aren’t meant to sit on a shelf, so are we not to be stored away, collecting dust. We’re not created to be kept for ourselves! God made us to be shared.

So don’t go collecting dust at the back of some disorganized closet.
Build yourself some better shelves.
Make yourself available—
To be seen.
To be known.
To love and to be loved.
And know that Christ dwells in your heart and gives you the freedom both to be emptied and to be filled back up again. Both to give and to receive.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How Much More

Prayer is deepening in relationship with the Triune God, getting to know God’s heart truly, so we bear it faithfully into the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17 C
   Texts: Luke 11:1-13; Genesis 18:20-32

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 takes time to get to know someone.

Our first impressions might sometimes prove accurate, but often we’ve assumed things about people and had our assumptions profoundly changed the more we got to know them. That’s the key: the only way we understand anyone is to spend time with them.

This means being in direct contact. It’s frustrating when someone misunderstands us but talks to others about it. “Why didn’t you ask me?” we think. “I could have told you the truth.” We hope people will take the time to directly get to know us rather than assume about us. It turns out that’s what God wants, too.

Today we consider what prayer really is. We see Abraham courageously talking with God, calling God to be whom Abraham knows God is. The Son of God teaches us a model for prayer, and a parable about being persistent, and encourages us to seek God, knock, ask of God.

Nowhere is the question “does prayer work?” Instead, God’s Word today reveals prayer is all about relationship with God. Prayer is talking with God, not about God. Prayer is listening to God to learn God’s true heart. Prayer is being drawn deeper into relationship with God, closer to the heart of God for us and the world.

Abraham has spent years in relationship with God, has learned truths about God’s nature. In this encounter, where Abraham questions God’s response to human evil, we see that relationship has taught Abraham something about God many do not know. This is the prayer life we seek: that we might also have such a relationship with God, so we, too, might know God’s heart so well.

In the Hebrew Bible we see this people learn to know God better over time, and through their relationship have their understanding of God profoundly change.

Most of the archaeological evidence suggests that the arrival of the Israelites in Canaan was gradual. However, in the book of Joshua it’s described as a great conquest, whole cities burned to the ground in God’s name, every living thing killed. Believing this about their God made the Hebrews like everyone else. If your god was worth anything, it would destroy your enemies.

But as Abraham talks to God today, we see a crack appear in the Hebrew understanding of God. In the end, they interpret the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as before, as most people did: God destroyed the cities for their wickedness. Except this: they have this memory of their ancestor arguing that God’s true nature, God’s true justice, was different. There’s a hint that perhaps it is not God’s justice to destroy, that God’s justice is to offer mercy.

Later, in the story of Jonah, that crack is opened wide. Once again there is an evil city, but now God claims the right to mercy. Jonah wishes God would be a proper god and wipe these people out. But now, over centuries, Israel has learned that is not God’s true nature. Now they see God’s way is mercy and love, not vengeance.

By the prophet Hosea this revelation is complete. God cries out over the wickedness of the people, their betrayal, and announces their destruction. God’s anger is righteous, because all God has done is show love. I nursed them, God says, I taught them to walk, I loved them, and they turned against me. But then, astonishingly, God changes tack. God says, “How could I destroy my children?” And this breathtaking word: “I am God, not human.” Meaning, I don’t have to be like you. Now Israel has learned God’s true nature, mercy and restoration, not destruction. They’ve learned God is love.

And now God’s people are ready for a deeper, closer relationship with God. In person.

In Christ, the Son of God, God’s Word made flesh, we meet God face-to-face.

Prepared by centuries of deepening relationship with God, many Jews first saw in Jesus what we have come to know: in him God became one of us, and through him we are given the clearest revelation into the heart of God we have.

And in our relationship with Christ Jesus he continues to teach the true heart of God. A month ago in worship we heard Luke tell us that as Jesus and the disciples traveled, they weren’t welcomed in a Samaritan village because Jesus was a Jew. James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven on that poor little town. Jesus rebuked them. Hosea’s vision is reality: this is not God’s way.

Our path with the Incarnate One inevitably leads us to Gethsemane. Here what Abraham started to understand becomes truly clear to us. God’s response to wickedness and evil is to take it on and bear it. God’s final answer to Abraham’s plea is revealed: I will not destroy, I will forgive by taking on death myself. In this, I will bring life.

At the cross the full truth of God is revealed to us: God is a just God who shows mercy, not vengeance. A loving God who offers forgiveness, not destruction.

But each of us needs to spend time with God ourselves to learn this, to have it fully change our heart and our understanding of God’s heart. It matters so much to how we bear God in the world. That’s the ultimate goal of prayer as Jesus teaches us, as Abraham models it. Heart-to-heart life with God so we know God ever more fully, and show God’s truth in the world.

The disciples want to learn to pray for this reason, too. And Jesus first invites them into this relationship.

The prayer Jesus teaches begins with a prayer that is all about getting to know God. First, the Son of God invites us to pray to the Creator, whom we know as the first person of the Trinity, in intimate terms. “Daddy,” Father. But also to claim God’s holiness, God’s otherness from us. A relationship of intimacy, even though God is not like us.

Then, the key to all our prayer: your kingdom come. Your will be done. We are invited to pray for God’s rule to come into our lives and in the world, which will only happen when God’s will is done.

This is prayer: that we take all our lives to get to know the Triune God, so that we learn to know God’s will. Prayer begins with listening to God, Jesus teaches, getting to know God, so that then we might do God’s will. Prayer is not all speaking, Jesus says. It is also contemplation, listening for God. Listening in God’s Word. Listening in our hearts. Listening for God in others. Only then can we do God’s will in the world.

This is the beginning and ongoing heart of all prayer. Only in this life of listening are we then invited to speak, to ask, to knock.

What Jesus tells us to ask for, strangely enough, is the two requests we heard today.

We’re told to pray for daily bread, just as in Jesus’ parable, knocking on God’s door and asking for food. Luther teaches us this is not just food, but all we need for life, all we need to be satisfied and whole. Luther also teaches us we pray not just for our daily bread but for all people’s bread, that God would provide for all. Since we’ve already prayed that God’s will be done by us, we’ve also committed ourselves to making sure all receive their daily bread.

The rest of Jesus’ prayer mirrors Abraham’s prayer, praying to the Judge of all the earth for forgiveness and mercy for us and for others. Praying for salvation in times of trial. Praying for deliverance from evil. In these three things we stand with Abraham and call God to account for the mercy we have learned is God’s heart. Since we’ve already prayed that God’s will be done by us, we’ve also committed ourselves to the same mercy and forgiveness for others we ask for ourselves. We’ve committed to being with others in their time of trial, standing with others in the face of evil.

Jesus teaches us the heart of prayer is deepening into the relationship with the Triune God he has made possible for us.

And perhaps, like the Hebrew people, we are learning to know God better in such a way that we can go even further than Jesus’ invitation in this prayer. Many have found great help in praying to the One Jesus called Father, and that name shapes their prayer constantly. Many others find the face of Jesus more accessible, and their prayer becomes centered first on the Son of God.

But the same Son who taught us to pray “Father” today, also today promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit when we pray. This is the One whom the Son taught us to consider as our Mother, the One who gives us birth. In this Spirit we find many of the ways of God we’d normally call feminine that are named in Scripture. As we learn to know the Triune God better, perhaps we might consider if the Spirit is a more helpful entrĂ©e for some into the life of God. If Father and Son seem daunting for some, perhaps the motherly grace of the Spirit is a better way for them or for us to be drawn deeper into the fullness of God.

It is a deep grace, in fact, that in Christ we have come to know God in these three Persons, even as we trust that God is One. As we prayed in our Prayer of the Day, God is ever more willing to hear than we are to pray, and the gift of God to come to us in different ways shows that hope. A hope that our life of prayer would be the way God would draw us deeper into the truth of God’s heart. So we can live with confidence and hope. So we can be faithful in our service and life. But mostly so we can know the inexpressible joy of the love the Triune God has for us and for the world, and speak it with Abraham’s confidence, in our words and in our actions.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Inviting Christ

Inviting Christ into our lives means clearing out, not entertaining, things that lead us away from Christ, but in such invitation we find the joy that Christ Jesus has already invited us into the life and love of God.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 16 C
   Texts: Luke 10:38-42; Colossians 1:15-28

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

Martha’s second invitation caused all the trouble.

Her first one is also the first thing Luke tells us. He began with Martha welcoming her friend, her master, Jesus, into her home. She invited him to dinner with her family, her sister Mary and brother Lazarus.

Her second invitation is less obvious, but it led to her pain. Her second invitation was to harsh thoughts about her sister. She invited them into her heart, offered them a seat, gave them something to eat and drink so they would stay around.

Martha’s good news is that her first invitation to Christ helped her deal with this second one. It’s good news for us, too. From Martha we learn it matters whom we invite into our hearts and lives.

We need to understand both these invitations. Because Martha first did exactly what she was supposed to do.

Welcoming even a stranger into her home, let alone Jesus, was a sacred responsibility. Every woman in Bethany would have done the same. Given that it was her beloved Jesus, she must have delighted to make him a meal, as we do with those whom we love.

Remember also there were few meals in that household, if any, where both sisters weren’t involved in preparing and serving. That’s how the work was divided. The sisters handled the household, the meals, the serving. Every woman in Bethany did the same.

But something wasn’t normal on this day. This time, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening. Martha was doing what she normally did, what Mary normally would have helped her do.

And that’s when Martha invited in those thoughts.

But this second invitation sounds very normal to us.

This scene is a snapshot of a moment we all have experienced if we have lived in a family. Martha’s irritation likely had less to do with what Mary was doing, and more to do with their being sisters. Maybe they’d had a stressful week. Maybe Lazarus had begun his illness and caring for him was tiring them. It could be anything. Two sisters living to adulthood in the same home are going to have history. How often do we snipe at someone in our family over a surface issue when it really had nothing to do with that, we were just being irritable and unkind?

Jesus sees that. He doesn’t criticize Martha for cooking and serving and cleaning. He receives her welcome and hospitality gladly. Jesus calls her out for being “worried and distracted about many things.” All these other thoughts she’s let into her heart and given room to sit and stick around and fester.

Jesus isn’t pitting the two sisters’ choices against each other. He’s concerned that Martha’s loving gift is marred by her distracted, irritated thoughts.

This story is deeply significant for us.

Like Martha, every day we have unhelpful, unhealthy thoughts cross the doorstep of our hearts: jealousy and anger; temptation and selfishness; fear and prejudice; lust and laziness. Our defensiveness, our self-justification. Our ego, our sense that we are who we are and no one can tell us otherwise. Our inability to face our own mistakes and sin. Our unwillingness to hear someone else’s point of view. These all come from our broken human nature, from our own emotional lives, even from the outside.

If all these become houseguests sitting at the table of our heart, that leaves no room for anything healthy, no seats for those who give life.

We can’t control if these things show up. But Jesus says we don’t have to invite them in, sit them at the table of our hearts, and offer them something to eat. We literally don’t have to entertain those thoughts. We have a choice as to whether we’ll invite them in or let them pass by, whether we’ll nurture and feed them, or say that our cupboard is bare and they’ll need to go elsewhere.

When we copy Martha and invite Christ into our hearts while letting the rest out the door, we find life.

That’s what Martha shows us: those whom we invite into our hearts shape who we are. We want to fill those seats at the table of our hearts with those who give us life. Starting with Christ Jesus. Because he was at her table, Jesus was able to love Martha into a new way of being. And that’s what he will do when we invite him in.

When Christ sits in our heart he loves us with God’s life-giving love. No life we know makes any sense without Christ’s gift of God’s love centering our being, focusing our actions, giving us peace.

But Christ will also remind us when we are distracted by things we’ve let into our lives that lead to death.

Christ will look across the table and say, “are you sure you want that there? Is that good for you, to invite that in?” It must have been very hard for Martha to hear Christ’s criticisms. But in facing her distractions, letting them go, she found the path to deeper life in Christ, something we see in her later, at her brother’s graveside. Like Martha, it won’t be easy for us. It might even feel like dying, to let go of these guests in our heart we’ve become so attached to. But it will lead to life.

This is also the only way our world will be healed. The problems that overwhelm us and seem so threatening, racism, injustice, poverty, war, anger, hatred, all these begin to end when one person’s heart starts changing. When the thoughts and feelings and opinions that lead to such destruction are shown the door, and Christ comes in with the love of God and a helpful broom to keep cleaning house. Heart by heart, person by person, this is how God intends to heal this world.

But there is deeper mystery. The true first invitation is given to us.

We meet the Triune God in Christ Jesus and are invited into life, into grace, into joy. Face-to-face in baptism we are washed of all these resentments, hostilities, sins, frustrations, prejudices, all the houseguests that keep trying to make room in our heart.

This is mystery: when we invite Christ into our hearts we find Christ is already inviting us further into the life of God, deeper into the love that holds all things together.

This is mystery: in facing death for us Christ Jesus has taken away the power of all those things we’ve had in our hearts that seemed to be in control, seemed impossible to disinvite, all those things we’ve wished we could show the door.

This is mystery: in taking away their power, Christ Jesus is, as Paul says, reconciling this whole world back into God’s life and love. One clean heart and changed life at a time, from Martha, to us, to the world, until all things are whole and well in the love of God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Get Off Your Donkey

Christ calls us to act, to move, to love, to do; the only question that matters to our Lord is “who acted as a neighbor,” who loved in deed not just in thought.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 C
   Text: Luke 10:25-37

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 Gospel story is our story.

We are the religious lawyer approaching Jesus looking for life. Like him, we’ve known since we were young what God wants of us. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and [love] your neighbor as yourself.” Like him, we’d pass Jesus’ test. We’d get an A. Like him, Jesus would say to us, “Now go do this, and you’ll know the real life I’m offering.”

If only we could stop there, and do what Jesus says. But we don’t. Because we are this lawyer. We want clarity about what “do this” means. We want to know that what we’ve done so far, and will do next, fulfills Jesus’ command. We want to justify ourselves.

So we ask, “OK, who is my neighbor?” Who deserves my care and concern? Whose pain is my pain? Could you describe for me the groups of people I should love?

Our problem is our grammar. Parts of speech. We’re focused on the wrong one.

We hear, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and wonder about nouns. Who is my neighbor? What sorts of people are in that group? We spend countless hours wondering about who gets to be that noun, “neighbor.” We mean well, so did this lawyer. But it’s all justifying not having to love everyone fully.

Meanwhile, Jesus changes the question. After his parable, Jesus asks, “who was a neighbor?” Who acted as a neighbor, did neighborly things? Jesus cares about the verb. Acted love matters. Everything else is worthless.

We know this story so well, and miss this point again and again. We’re overwhelmed by the events of this week. Yet instead of doing the verb, instead of acting in love, we argue and posture and wonder who our neighbor is. We justify ourselves.

We can keep doing that, of course. We can mourn, we can yell, we can despair. We can pray. We can keep reacting in horror each time. We can keep talking and doing nothing. When we do that, though, we need to recognize we’ve answered our question. We’ve decided that those who are dying are not our neighbors.

Because if our neighbors were being killed, if our culture was destroying our neighbors, if there were things we were doing that harmed our neighbors, we’d do something about that.

We need to actually listen to Jesus’ story. We need to hear the verbs.

It’s amazing how little interest Jesus has in the first two people.

They’re nothing to him, cardboard cutout characters, just nouns. A priest. A Levite. We’re given no more information.

Jesus also doesn’t give a single excuse for their behavior. Scholars and theologians have figured out all sorts of reasons why they might not have stopped. But if what Jesus thinks matters to us, he’s absolutely uninterested in any reason whatsoever that these two passed by. By giving no detail to their decisions, Jesus powerfully says there is no excuse.

If what Jesus thinks matters to us, that they didn’t stop to help is the only pertinent thing. The one detail he gives is damning not excusing: they didn’t just walk by. They moved away, passed by on the other side, actively avoided any contact.

But Jesus spends the bulk of his story describing what the Samaritan does in detail.

Jesus wants us to notice each movement, each action. It’s all about the verbs. Over half the words in this parable focus on the specific actions of this Samaritan. Step by step the Samaritan acts, saving this man’s life. He is moved with pity. He touches the man, washes him. Detail after detail describe the one thing that matters: the Samaritan showed this beaten man mercy.

There’s also a racial component here. That a Samaritan – someone his audience would have had strong racial prejudices against – would be the hero, would have shocked Jesus’ hearers. We need to learn what that means for us.

But we first need to hear Jesus’ deeper focus: whatever the race or status of the three coming along the road, only one actually did something. He was moved with pity, and got off his donkey, and helped. He showed mercy. He made a difference.

That’s the only thing Jesus cares about in this story.

We face massive crises, far too many people dying by the side of the road, and if Christ has anything to say it’s, “Get off your donkey and love.”

Our country is being destroyed by systems of injustice and racism that we support and defend by our silence and inaction. If we only pray, and say pious words of sorrow, and continue to do nothing, Christ says, “I don’t care about your prayers. They’re worthless to me.”

Our country is being destroyed by our culture’s love affair with violence and guns that we support by not holding our leaders accountable to change the laws. If I preach this sermon and talk about this evil, and do nothing more, Christ says, “I don’t care about your sermons. They’re worthless to me.”

People are dying every day in our country and we argue about who deserves more attention, the police or our sisters and brothers of color. People are dying every day in our country and we let a small group of lobbyists buy our leaders’ silence on guns. People are dying every day in our country and we throw enough food away to feed nations. People are dying every day in our country and we refuse to pay living wages and build affordable housing. If we spend any more time, and I mean any more time, wondering whom we should care for – concerned about nouns, about “who is my neighbor?” – instead of doing – the action of verbs, acting as neighbor – Christ has no use for us. We’re just walking by on the other side like we always do.

What we can do? That’s the question, isn’t it?

We could imitate the Samaritan. He saw someone in need and he helped. We can do that. We can stand with those who are suffering, dying, and offer our love and compassion and help. If we’re in the position to make sure the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is safer, so people don’t keep getting beaten and left for dead, we could do that, too. Meaning, we could find ways together to change this society so people don’t keep getting killed, left behind for dead.

Doing means we need to learn to listen instead of to speak. When we do all the talking, we’re not helping. We need to listen to our sisters and brothers in pain – whoever they are, but most especially our sisters and brothers of color – and we need to stand with them and listen for where we can help. If they say we are doing things that are causing them that pain, even if we didn’t mean to, we need to stop. We need to shut our mouths, our justifying, and listen, so we can stop doing things that kill people. We can find no answers except by hearing those who are suffering, and responding. Having pity. Acting. Loving. Showing mercy.

Even at the cross Christ Jesus cared about the verbs.

As he was nailed to the cross, he didn’t think, “These people aren’t my neighbors now. Not those friends who betrayed me. Not these soldiers who are killing me. Not those leaders who put me on trial.” No, the Son of God acted as a neighbor. He loved. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” He had pity on them all. Compassion for them all. He showed mercy.

This is our model, yes. This is how Christ calls us to live, to show mercy, to act, instead of justifying ourselves. To love all people as our neighbor, even if it costs us dearly. Because it will. If we choose not to live this way, then let’s set aside any pretense that we’re Christian or that we seek to live in Christ.

But this moment of mercy at the cross is also our only hope. When we truly face what is going on, and how little we have done to change things, how much we have done to cause this, when we realize we’ve spent so much time justifying ourselves, we haven’t loved, our only hope is we belong to the Son of God who won’t classify us any more than anyone else. When the Son asks the Father for forgiveness for those who don’t know what they’re doing, that’s our hope, for that’s who we are.

So we do not lose heart.

We are still loved with a love that death cannot destroy. The Triune God has taken on all our hate and evil and inaction and will transform it to love and good and healing, offering us forgiveness instead of destruction, a new chance.

But if we want to walk with Christ on this path of life, we can’t continue to ignore his clear commands. We’ll be forgiven and restored when we do, but it’s dishonest to pretend we don’t have to listen to Christ or to our neighbors, or to think we aren’t involved, or to think someone else will take care of our brother or sister who’s lying by the side of the road half dead.

We know our path, we have for a long time: love God with everything we have. Love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We know now that such love for neighbor is only real when we actually show it, do it, act it, bring it. We need to lose our instinct to justify ourselves.

So let us now pray a different prayer. A prayer asking for forgiveness. A prayer asking for changed hearts, and courageous spirits. A prayer asking for wisdom to listen and understand. A prayer asking for the Spirit’s prod to get moving, acting, doing, showing mercy.

Christ couldn’t be clearer: “Go and do likewise.” God grant us grace to do just that.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Of Faith and Doubt

Thomas witnesses to us a life of honest self-awareness, of trust in Christ and not in ourselves, a life open to questions and therefore open to becoming something completely new in Christ.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The feast of St. Thomas, Apostle
   Texts: John 14:1-7 (with references to John 11 and John 20)

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

Where is it written that doubt is bad, a sign of weakness?

Why did we ever believe that, beat ourselves up for that?

Today we celebrate the life and witness of our brother Thomas, Apostle. Witness. Martyr. Saint. Doubter.

Let’s proudly claim that title, St. Thomas the Doubter. We’re used to “doubting Thomas” as an insult. Sometimes we’ve understood his doubt. We’ve said, “sometimes doubt happens to the best of us.” But we’ve rarely claimed doubt as important. Today we say doubt is good. Without doubt, there’s no faith.

Thomas’ doubt helped him become all those other things, apostle, witness, martyr, saint. Thomas’ doubt led him deeper into life in Christ and into faith. Thomas’ doubt reveals truth to us. Thomas’ doubt gives us courage to be drawn into who we are becoming in Christ.

Now, Thomas isn’t an important disciple, which helps us.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention Thomas once each, in their list of disciples. He’s nowhere near the leadership group. He’s an ordinary, everyday follower, about whom, if we didn’t have John’s Gospel, we would know nothing.

Thomas is us. None of us are likely to be famous or remembered beyond our immediate circle of those who love us. The work of God each of us does in the world will be a blessing, but it’s not likely hundreds of years later someone will write a book about the good we did. That’s not bad. Most of the good done in Christ’s name for 2,000 years, most of the sharing of the good news, most of the healing of the sick and preaching of God’s grace and love has been done by people like us, unknown to any but their closest group.

Today we celebrate one of us. And thanks to John, we know a little bit more about Thomas than many of the other anonymous saints of God. In three brief glimpses that take place only in a period of maybe a month, John shows us truth about our brother that can change everything we thought we understood about faith and following Christ.

We first meet Thomas in John 11.

Thomas isn’t central to this story, he’s just his normal, unimportant self. Jesus is in Galilee. His dear friends Mary and Martha in Bethany, near Jerusalem, send a message that their brother Lazarus, his friend, is dying.

Jesus stays two more days, then announces they’re heading to Judea, to Bethany. This is only a few weeks before the crucifixion, and in these latter days of Jesus’ ministry the opposition among Jewish religious leaders has become a real threat. So his disciples speak up and say he’ll be killed if he goes south. They’re right. Coming to Bethany was the beginning of the end for Jesus, and led directly to the cross.

Jesus was going to go whether his disciples approved or not. But it’s anonymous Thomas who speaks for them: “Let’s also go, that we may die with him.”

Listen to him! The leaders of the twelve are afraid. Thomas has to be afraid. But he knows only one thing, he’s following Jesus. If Jesus dies, well, he’ll die, too. Thomas is the only one who speaks up in faith and so he’s the one, not the leaders, who emboldens the others to follow Christ’s way, not theirs.

The next time we see Thomas is today’s Gospel.

Once again, Thomas isn’t a lead player, he’s one of the folks in the crowd. Peter’s already bragged he’ll die with Jesus and has heard the horrible truth that he will in fact betray him. So, Jesus urges Peter and the others not to let their hearts be troubled, to believe in him. Then he starts talking.

Now, this night has been emotionally charged for these women and men, gathered for Passover. They can feel all the tension in Jesus, and in the streets and city about him. Jesus has washed their feet and called them to do the same. He’s fed them the Passover, saying it was his own body and blood. And now he’s going on about rooms in Father’s houses and going away, and coming back for them, and he says, “you know the way to where I am going.”

We know these words so well. We’ve heard them at so many funerals of loved ones and have found comfort and hope in them. But it’s hard to imagine any of them, not even Mary Magdalene or John, had a clue what Jesus was talking about.

But anonymous, unimportant Thomas, is brave enough, courageous enough to say what everyone else was thinking: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jesus. Could you please explain? We don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way?”

For the second time in only a few weeks, Thomas’ courage gives us a gift, because Jesus explains what we didn’t know, either. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.”

We may still have questions about what Jesus means, but if Thomas doesn’t ask Jesus, if Thomas doesn’t admit his ignorance and confusion, would we ever get these powerful words of hope we’ve clung to for 2,000 years?

The third time we meet Thomas he’s a lead actor in the story, in John 20.

The risen Christ appears to all the disciples on Easter, the women in the morning, and all of them, men and women, in the Upper Room in the evening. All but Thomas. When he arrives, he’s overwhelmed by their excitement that Jesus is alive again.

He says something to them that could blow away a lot of bad Christian theology if only people actually listened. He says, “Look, any talk of a risen Jesus is worthless, any story of God raising our Lord is meaningless, if I don’t see wounds. I might not know anything, but I know I saw our beloved Lord wounded and killed. That’s the only way I’ll recognize him.”

Thomas’ doubt is based on a certainty: he will only know his Master by the wounds his Master bore for him. He doubts any other story that tries to understand what God is doing in this terrible suffering without dealing with the wounds.

A week later, when Jesus shows up and Thomas is there, he sees those wounds. And anonymous, sidekick Thomas is the only one in all the Gospels to declare this truth about Jesus. “My Lord and my God,” he says. “I know you. You’re my Lord, the one I will follow and obey always. And you are God, my God, who was wounded and killed and now lives.” Thomas declares the truth that changes everything about our faith in Christ, that in the risen Jesus’ wounds we recognize him as God.

Thomas is the model of faithful following.

He is the antithesis of the arrogant, smug person of faith who knows all the answers, who never doubts, who can always package up in a neat box with a bow all the truth about God.

Thomas is the person of real faith, a faith that draws on the strength of God through Christ Jesus, not on his own strength. A faith not based on him having it all together, but on his trust that God in Christ has it all together and that’s enough for him.

This is the heart of what we learn from Thomas: only openness to our not knowing, our fears, our doubts, will lead us into the heart of Christ. When we think we have all the answers, and know the path, when we never admit we’re afraid or lost or confused, we’re not walking the path of Christ, we’re making our own. Our doubts and questions are what make us open to centering our lives on the Triune God rather than ourselves.

Thomas never trusted himself to know what was going on. But in trusting Christ Jesus, he showed a path that all people of faith can follow.

But today, on his day, Thomas would want to speak to us.

He would say, “Remember it’s not about me. I’m not important. The only thing I really knew was that I trusted in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.”

He would say: “Walk the path with Christ, knowing you will lose, even die to yourself. It’s Christ’s way, not your way, and on it is life and love and grace.”

He would say: “Ask your questions, even if you think they sound dumb. God will show you Christ’s truth, which becomes your truth. And you’ll bless everyone else who had the same question but was afraid to ask.”

He would say: “Remember when you struggle with suffering and pain – yours or anyone else’s – that any answer that forgets the wounds God suffers with us isn’t worth anything. Resurrection life, Christ’s life, which is now yours, comes through God sharing our suffering and death.”

Thomas would say to us today: “Don’t look at me, look at Christ. Then you’ll also recognize your Lord and your God. You will find the way, the truth, and the life.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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