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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Olive Branch, 8/31/16

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

Weekly publication resumes with the September 7 issue, published next week.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Within, Wisdom

Christ draws us into the deeper wisdom of seeking and seeing a world of mutual love, care, and grace for all, a world really worth living in, hoping for, becoming part of.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22 C
   Texts: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14; Proverbs 25:6-7

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

Consider which of these worlds you’d prefer to live in:

There’s the world we know very well.

In this world, you take care of yourself, because no one else will. You love yourself first. You make sure you have what you need, and acquire as much wealth as you can. Your rights are most important. If you want a good seat, take it. If you’re in a hurry, cut ahead of others, because your need is important. In this world, there are fears: fear of losing, fear of others, especially strangers, because they might take what you have, fear of death, because you can’t control that. In this world you watch other people because you never know if someone’s going to take what you have. The way of this world is proclaimed loudly by big voices, celebrities, politicians, advertisers. This way dominates our culture.

Then there’s the world described in Scripture today.

In this world, you look out for others, because mutual love is the way of life. You make sure that others have what they need, and you’re free of the love of money. The rights of everyone are important. You don’t worry about the seat you sit in, and if someone needs to get ahead of you, you let them. In this world fear is faced by sharing it, burdens are lessened by everyone helping. If someone is in pain, everyone feels it; if someone rejoices, everyone does, too. Strangers are welcomed with hospitality as if they were God’s angels. In this world you see people, you don’t watch them. The way of this world is proclaimed quietly, by wise voices, elders, teachers, guides. This way pervades the life of faith in the New Testament.

So which of these would you rather live in?

Seeing them side by side, the way of this world that our society seems to be rushing toward ever more quickly, and the way of life described today and throughout the Scriptures, is eye-opening.

Because then the contrast is unavoidable. For me, I know that I can be self-centered, and make choices that put myself first. There are lots of things in the culture and world that pull at me, and some of the loud voices can be convincing.

But seeing these two side-by-side, there’s absolutely no question where I want to be. I hear Hebrews today and my heart leaps. That’s a life worth living. That’s a world worth being in. I hear Jesus’ story and long for a world where all are welcome, so I don’t have to worry about my welcome. Or my seat. Where I don’t have to be afraid that if I’m in pain, no one will care, or ashamed that if I’ve made a mistake, no one will forgive. Where I don’t have to get ahead because we want everyone to arrive safely.

If you feel the same, let’s pay close attention to that. Sometimes we complain about our culture as if we have no choice. Yet if we look carefully at these two worlds, there’s no reason to accept the world as it is. If we listen, we’ll discover the way of wisdom is to follow Christ into a life that looks like that second way.

The writer to the Hebrews calls Christ “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” (Heb. 12:2) the one who walks ahead on this other path to show us the way.

God’s eternal Word, sharing in the creation of all things, Christ took on our life, became one of us, to teach us this way, to lead us to this wisdom. With each invitation to follow, Christ helps us break through the barriers to this wisdom, the ways of the world, starting with our own self-centeredness, and leads us to a life of mutual love, self-giving, gracious living.

With no limits to such self-giving, the Triune God took this love all the way to the cross, to break our hearts completely and draw us ever deeper into the life of Christ.

In Christ Jesus we see and know the only life worth living: a life where we’re forgiven and blessed when we fail to love, when we live the way of this world. Where we’re given strength in our times of pain, and a community that surrounds and holds us. Where we’re loved completely and forever, even through and past death.

We could reject all this and go the way of the world. But if we’d rather live in a world like Hebrews describes, and if we know the love of the eternal God who makes all things new through Christ, why would we want anything else?

That’s why our writer tells us this morning to “Remember our leaders, those who spoke the Word of God to us.”

That’s how we found this wisdom in the first place. It’s how we will find it again. Who are those leaders, the ones who taught you the Word of God? The wise, quiet, gracious voices who taught you of this different way? Remember them, we’re told. Think of them. Were they parents? Your spouse? Grandparents? Teachers? Aunts or uncles? Friends?

These are the saints who truly surround us in a cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1), those faces and voices who lovingly took us in and helped us see this new way of life and love. After all, every single one of us is here today because of someone else. Every single one of us has come to worship on a Sunday morning because one of these taught us, led us to worship, showed us by their life that this way of Christ, though hard and challenging, is the way of life we’ve hoped for, longed to see.

So “consider the outcome of their way of life,” we’re told. How did they live? How did they die? The world’s loud voices say all sorts of things we’re supposed to care about. But these saints’ actual lives are true witnesses. Their calm in the face of storm, their joy in the midst of pain, their trust in God in the face of death, their ability to love even the unloveable: they lived this second way, knew it. Consider that, our writer says. What does that tell you?

Perhaps it tells us the thing the writer says next: imitate their faith. If these wise ones knew this life of love and joy, maybe we want to imitate them. And in fact, we’ve already begun to.

The good we are today has come from such remembering, considering, and imitating.

We are who we are because of these “leaders,” as Hebrews calls them, this cloud of witnesses.

We are hospitable because someone showed hospitality to us, welcomed us.

We bear the pain of others, their burden, because someone helped us with our pain, our load.

We make relationships with others that end up costing us, because someone reached out to us and made a relationship, even if it obligated them.

We are forgiving because someone once forgave us, many times forgave us.

We live in Christ because someone once was Christ to us.

And these ones became our leaders because of their leaders, their witnesses, all the way back to the first believers. And every step of the way, every generation, every link in that chain, is taught and led and transformed by the pioneer, the first leader, Christ Jesus.

Christ’s way, the way of mutual love, is the Triune God’s dream for the world.

This is what we are becoming as the Spirit draws us ever deeper into the wisdom of God, deeper into Christ. If we have lived any part of this way it’s a sign our new life in Christ has already begun.

Eventually, we won’t need Jesus’ parable, or those words from Proverbs. We’ll be embedded so deeply in Christ’s wisdom we’ll just be delighted that everyone gets to come to the party, all are welcome at the banquet, and we won’t care who sits where.

And as we are filled with the Spirit’s wisdom, as we draw closer to this life, we begin to learn that quiet voice to guide others. Of course, we’re not going to be aware that’s what we’re doing. That’s the way of wisdom, that the truly wise know they are not at all wise. But in the grace of God, others will learn from us, too. And the world will more and more become like this way of Christ, this way of mutual love. As it was always meant to be.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rising Light

Our actions reveal who and what we love, and often they are not the ones God truly needs us to love and care for. It’s time to listen to Isaiah and Jesus and not pretend we don’t understand what they really mean for us to know and do. It’s time to trust that God’s light can shine through us and break through this world’s darkness.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 21 C
   Texts: Isaiah 58:6-14 (6-9a added back in); Luke 13:10-17

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

It’s pathetic to love your donkey more than your crippled sister.

That’s Jesus’ point.

A week ago Nicholas Kristof, a writer for the New York Times, shared his sadness on social media at the death of his beloved 12 year old Golden Retriever. That same day he published a column in the Times calling for “greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far.” [1] In a column this past Thursday, he wrote that he received a torrent of compassion and loving comments at his dog’s death. But the outpouring of comments he received the same day about his article on Syria were mostly devoid of compassion, best summed up as “why should we help them?”[2]

It’s pathetic to love someone else’s dog more than your dying brother’s children.

That’s Jesus’ point.

This week a haunting photo of a Syrian boy in an ambulance went worldwide like wildfire over the Internet. Taken from a video, the photo shows him sitting, stunned, dead-eyed, bloody, only a few years old. It’s heartbreaking. It was like the photo of a dead Syrian child in the surf of the Mediterranean that likewise went global a year or so ago. But like that previous photo, I doubt the photo of this boy will do more than make a lot of us feel sad. Maybe if Golden Retrievers were dying by the thousands in Aleppo we’d actually want to do something about it.

This isn’t a question of people not wanting to do God’s will.

Isaiah’s people know what God commanded them to do for worship. They’re doing it the best they can, the fasts, the festival days, the sacrifices. The leader of the synagogue scurrying around the edges of the crowd today knows God’s commands about Sabbath. As he tells people to go away and come back on another day for healing, he’s trying to do God’s will.

But they’ve only picked up on part of God’s law. They’re keeping the parts that are easier to track, worship times and rituals, work on Sabbath. They’re failing to see the heart of God’s law, repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, that God loves the poor, the hungry, the widow, the orphan, the dying, and commands the people of God to likewise care for them.

These people’s problem isn’t that they don’t want to obey God. It’s that what they love and care about isn’t aligned with God’s heart or God’s law.

Isaiah and Jesus aren’t creating new policy, or changing God’s law. They’re simply following God’s heart.

Isaiah doesn’t care about the people’s complaints in previous verses that God seems to be ignoring their worship. All Isaiah can see, all that fills his heart and mind, is that people are homeless and no one is taking them in. People are hungry and no one is feeding them. People are naked and no one’s offering them a cloak. He never says they should stop worshipping God. He doesn’t have time for that debate. He just says God would prefer fasts and rituals that also involved them taking care of people. Powerfully, he says to avoid helping people in pain is like hiding yourself from your relatives. “These people belong to you,” he says. “Do something.”

Jesus isn’t overturning the Third Commandment, either. He simply couldn’t look away from this woman in pain. He didn’t have room in his heart or mind for theological debate with the leader at that moment. He knew where his love, his loyalty, his energy, his help, needed to go.

And like Isaiah, Jesus claims this woman is a significant relationship. She matters, she’s a relative. He calls her “daughter of Abraham.” So she’s sister to this synagogue leader. To all the people there. You don’t hide from relatives in need so you can obey God’s law. That would be pathetic.

The question is not whether we want to do God’s will. The question is, will we hear Isaiah and Jesus when they unequivocally declare what God’s will is? If we’re going to debate about God’s law in these two scenarios, we’ll have to do it by ourselves. Isaiah and Jesus don’t have time for that, not when people are in pain.

Jesus’ comment about donkeys and oxen cuts to the heart of our neglect.

We will take care of the things we think matter. To the faithful of Jesus’ time it’s not a Sabbath-breaking question to care for your animals, lead them to water and food. Even if they didn’t love their donkey or ox, it was vital to their life, their self-interest. They broke the literal sense of Sabbath law because they wouldn’t turn away from their livestock’s need.

The hypocrisy Jesus and Isaiah decry is that we do everything we can for those we care about, we work hard for those things we value, we always take care of business. We will sacrifice what we need to for what matters to us. If we want something, we’ll save until we can get it, or use credit to get it now. We make all sorts of allowances in our lives for things that matter and never think twice.

Yet millions are dying, refugees are turned away everywhere, and we do nothing. People haven’t got enough to eat, even in this rich nation, and we refuse to work for good paying jobs for all. Too complicated. It needs debate, we say.

But if we’re not finding shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, then Jesus and Isaiah only point out it’s clear we care for other things more than these.

And notice this: we can’t even fall back on our old faithful excuse, that the problems are just too big to solve.

Because Isaiah doesn’t tell his people to end homelessness. He says “how about bringing a homeless person into your house?” He doesn’t say that a program to eradicate hunger is commanded. He says “how about sharing the bread you have with your neighbor who is starving?” Jesus isn’t solving all health care issues. He’s just bringing healing to a suffering sister, even if technically it’s against the law.

Do you see? These are close-up solutions to massive, intractable problems. These are actually things we could do. No one’s asking us each to come up with worldwide answers. Isaiah and Jesus just wonder why we love and care for so many other things while people who belong to us, our relatives, are suffering, and we can’t see them. Why we try so hard to make these words of Scripture not really apply to our actual lives and decisions and use of wealth and time.

In the midst of all of this, Isaiah tells us to stop pointing the finger. That might be the most important word today. It’s time for us to stop pointing at all the other people who are making a mess of things, to stop pointing at others as the problem. Once we put our finger down, we’re faced with the only answer that makes sense: we are the problem, too.

But here is our hope: when we stop pointing fingers, Isaiah says, when we take in a homeless person or share our bread, our light begins to shine.

These are dark, frightening times. The problems do seem too huge to take on. So Isaiah and Jesus simplify it. They invite us to put down our pointing fingers, and start seeing the people around us as relatives, kin, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons. And to see their pain and care about it more than we care about the things that usually command our attention and energy. And then, simply, do whatever we can.

Perhaps this will also teach us that we can make a difference on bigger problems too, by working together in our city, by calling on our leaders who can tackle even bigger things, like that Syrian boy and his destroyed world, to do that.

Then, Isaiah promises, our light will start to rise in this dark world. God begins to work in us. And that might not seem like a lot. But imagine if the light starts rising out of each one of us here, and then from each of those we encounter who learn from us. Pretty soon you’ve got enough light to see by. Pretty soon streets begin to be restored, ruins start to be rebuilt, breaches become repaired. Pretty soon you’ve got reason for crowds to rejoice at all these wonderful things happening, just as they did with Jesus.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Nicholas Kristof, New York Times online, Aug. 18, 2016,
[2] Kristof, op. cit.

Monday, August 15, 2016

God’s Mother

God’s Son needed a mother to teach him, to keep him safe, to shape his heart, and through Mary the Triune God knows us better.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The festival of St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord
   Texts: Luke 1:46-55; Galatians 4:4-7

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

Why would God need a mother?

The Triune God chose Incarnation as the path of ultimate revelation, the taking on of our life, our flesh, becoming one with us. In the fullness of time, Paul says, God sent his Son, born of a woman.

But did God need to involve humans at all to save humanity? Since this is what God did, we have to assume it was critical, and any understanding of salvation has to account for this unexpected choice. We have to ask, why did salvation involve God being born of a woman, growing as a child to adulthood? In short, why would God need a mother?

The most obvious need was for the safety of a mother’s care.

The Incarnation is an act of deep vulnerability on God’s part. Few newborns are more helpless than human babies, and the nine months of gestation are a perilous time of potential danger. God’s Son needed a mother who would protect a growing child for nine months, caring for her health and the health of the baby, holding this new life in the embrace of her womb.

Then this child who is God needed a mother to nurse him from her own body, even as he was fed in the womb from her own life, to nurture him as he learned to walk, to talk, to keep him safe from all things that threaten young children even today in our world.

If God was going to become one of us, God needed a mother so this child born to us would survive to call all into life in Christ.

Perhaps God also needed Mary to share her mother’s heart with her son.

In his Gospel, John tells us the Son reveals the Father’s heart to us, and we know from Christ and from Scripture that the heart of God beats deeply in love for us and for all creation. Jesus’ relationship with his heavenly Father was also critical to his life and ministry.

But this child also must have been deeply shaped by his mother’s love, by the heart of Mary. She who dreamed a very human dream and sang about it in Magnificat, she was the one who carried this God-child in her arms. She sang before his birth and surely after, that God would turn over the scales of the world and lift up those who were in pain, hungry, oppressed. She sang, as Hannah did a thousand years before, of her trust that God’s plan would answer humanity’s cry for help.

We know God’s Word has said the Triune God’s love for the world is vast. But we also know God hears and learns when we cry out for God’s healing, as with the Israelites in Egypt. God listens to us to learn compassion for our needs. Why wouldn’t the Son of God need to hear our human pain and longing and hope from his mother’s heart, to know us better? Why wouldn’t the Son need to learn human love the way most do, from a mother’s heart?

Is it possible God also needed a human mother to learn patience?

Mary’s song could be heard as a call to powerful revolution and intervention. Surely there are times God is tempted to simply force this world to become what God dreams it could be.

But in the Incarnation, God chose the path of letting go of power, of losing in order to win us back into the life of Christ. So God began this by learning to wait nine months just for birth, by taking the time to grow up as a human child, day by day, step by step. To live with a woman who sang of God’s restoration of all things but lived with very little power of her own to make it happen. A mother who would teach the Son of God patient waiting, and loving acting, to bring about God’s healing grace.

Someone taught Jesus that even the smallest act of love, like giving a cup of water to a child, can change the world. It’s not hard to imagine he learned that from the loving actions and patient trust of his mother. From her, the Son of God learned how to patiently trust in the planting of seeds of love rather than the blatant use of power and might.

This involves speculation, yes. but there is a truth we know as certainty, and that’s what we celebrate today.

That truth is that the almighty and Triune God, maker of all things, needed Mary in the plan to bring us life and salvation.

Choosing our sister Mary was only the first sign of God’s deeper need, that salvation will be found when all God’s children live in love of God and love of neighbor. In celebrating Mary we celebrate ourselves, that we, too, bear Christ in the world, we, too, teach God of our human hearts, and we, too, are needed in God’s plan of life for all.

Today we marvel that God needs us.

We give thanks and praise to the Triune God who crossed the barrier between us and God by humbly seeking out one of us as a mother, by trusting her for safety, and learning patience and love from her.

And Mary can teach us such patience and love, too. When we doubt that her grand vision of Magnificat will ever be reality, she reminds us God once was willing to wait nine months in her womb just to be born among us. God’s plan will take time, but it will come to pass.

When we struggle against her vision of Magnificat because we fear we are the rich, the ones who will be brought down when the lowly are raised up, she reminds us to love all with compassion and grace, and shapes our moral heart to include not just our own needs, but the needs of all God’s children and creation.

Thanks be to God for this sister who became a mother to our Lord, and so to us all. May we follow her lead, and walk Christ’s path she helps us see before us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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