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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Contented Life

There is no longer a chasm between us and God, or between us and our neighbor, for God has filled in all that divide through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ our Lord.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 26 C
   Texts: Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146

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

There are two great, fixed chasms in this story, not one.

There is the chasm between Abraham and Hades, which Abraham declares is fixed and great, and can’t be crossed in either direction. The rich man – so intertwined with his wealth, he has no name; Jesus just calls him “rich guy” – he feels the pain of this divide separating him not just from Abraham’s bosom, but from God.

But there was another chasm in his life, also fixed and great, that also divided “rich guy” from Lazarus, a poor, sick man who begged outside his door. Like the other one, this chasm, separating him from a neighbor in need, was never crossed. Lazarus may have sat outside his door for years, but could have been miles away for all “rich guy” could see him.

Amos rails against this second chasm. He decries the wealthy relaxing on their nice couches, enjoying wine and music and parties, and not even noticing or grieving the ruin of their own country. Their nation is collapsing under infidelity to God that builds a tremendous divide between rich and poor, an ethical failure that deems religious activities sufficient for faithfulness instead of caring for God’s world as God does. Meanwhile the wealthy enjoy their Cabernet.

Amos wonders how anyone could be content in their lives while others suffer. His audience, like “rich guy,” are living on the other side of the Grand Canyon from God and from their neighbor, and trying to make themselves content with that situation by seeking wealth and comfort.

That’s the problem God’s Word places directly in our path today.

It makes us uncomfortable to talk about being wealthy or rich, but it’s such a critical problem with our human nature that the Scriptures come back to it again and again. Our problem is we see the 1% in our country, the wealthiest of the wealthy, and know we aren’t among them. What we avoid is that we’re actually the 1% ourselves when it comes to the rest of the world. Comparing ourselves only to the ultrawealthy lets us hide from God’s claim that our relationship to wealth is destroying us. Our love for money is at the root of all kinds of evil in the world and our lives, from war to poverty to injustice we permit to continue.

Today we hear that wealth tempts us to be content with our lives while others suffer terribly. That wealth, our wealth, blinds us to these chasms that exist. That wealth doesn’t lead us to God; it helps us set up our couches and parties on the edge of the canyon in hopes we can pretend the divides between us and God, and us and neighbor, don’t exist.

We hear that wealth, our pursuit of it, our defensiveness that we aren’t wealthy, our need to protect what we have, all of this means we are not living a real life, a truly contented life. We were designed to live in love with God and with our neighbor. As long as chasms divide us from those relationships, no amount of enjoying ourselves on the edge is going to truly fill our empty hearts and our discontented spirits.

It’s good that Abraham is wrong about one thing, then.

He says those who want to cross the chasm in either direction, can’t. But God’s Word witnesses that the Triune God absolutely can and does cross over, and it is so massive a movement of grace that the chasms are filled in forever.

One of the greatest mysteries of our faith is why God bothers to try and heal our world after all the evil we have done to it and to each other. Surely God has earned the right to relax on a heavenly couch, enjoy wine and music, and not be grieved over the ruin of this earth.

Yet God could not rest, would not be content while this world suffered. The Incarnation reveals to us God’s sleepness nights over our brokenness and sin. Unable to let us go, God chooses to become one of us, and the Trinity sends the Son to take on our flesh and cross the great, fixed chasm between humanity and God. God has crossed, and reached out into our lives to restore us into the relationship of love God always wanted.

The other chasm doesn’t exist in Christ, either. In Christ Jesus, the Triune God does exactly what we sang with the psalmist today, and what we prayed in our collect: God looks with compassion on this troubled world, and comes to give justice to those who are oppressed, food to those who hunger, freedom to those who are captive.

Jesus’ ministry is the embodiment of the Scriptures’ hopes for God’s healing life in this world. Even when he didn’t want to distract people from his preaching by doing miracles, Jesus couldn’t walk past the Lazaruses sitting in his path, hiding in the corners, unseen or unloved. In Christ, the chasm between us and our neighbor is utterly removed.

That is, of course, if we wish to be found in Christ. If we want the chasms gone.

“Rich guy” worried about that, now that he saw the truth. Who would warn his brothers about these chasms?

It’s a fascinating question. What does he want to warn them? Does he want them to care for the Lazaruses outside their own doors? What warning will help them?

Whatever he wants, Abraham says “never mind.” They’ve got Moses to warn them, they’ve got the prophets. Prophets like Amos today. They can see truth there.

When “rich guy” says that’s not enough, have someone come back from the dead, and then they’ll believe, Abraham says something that breaks this all open: “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they’re not going to be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

This might be the second time Abraham’s wrong in this story. Because someone will rise from the dead, and the Risen One will change everything. Even if we’re not convinced by Scripture, by Moses and the prophets, we need to pay attention to this One who died and rose.

Christ’s resurrection isn’t about warning, like Moses and the prophets. It’s about ending the chasms permanently.

Christ Jesus, in dying and rising from the dead as the Incarnate Son of the Holy and Triune God, shatters the fabric of all things. Christ’s resurrection fills in the chasms between us and God and us and neighbor with all the rubble of death and evil that was broken by divine love that overcame all the powers of this world.

A new land now lies before us, a gift of the Risen One, an unbroken, filled landscape, where we are able to walk with God as we were created to do, and where we are brought out of ourselves into the reality of God’s love. Where we see all our neighbors as Christ does, wrapped in the same love of God, and see how we are connected deeply to them.

This is the “life that really is life” Timothy speaks of, because in Christ this is not just the world yet to come. It is abundant, contented life we can know now. Pain and suffering still exist here, but shaped and fed by this love of God, we become Christ, chasm crossers, agents of God’s healing and grace to every Lazarus we encounter, even as others are the same to us. There is great gain in this, Timothy says. Not gain of wealth, but the gain of godliness combined with contentment, a life of love, faith, gentleness, righteousness.

Compared to such a life, the tiny, self-centered life of taking care of our own needs, our own ego, our own accumulation of wealth, looks worthless and cheap. This new reality can fill us with contentment and peace right now, in this place, and change this world.

The Risen Christ isn’t trying to convince us of anything, only invite us to follow.

Christ would have us rejoice that there is no divide between us and God or us and neighbor. Christ would draw us deeper and deeper into God’s love until we are utterly transformed, until we see as Christ sees, act as Christ acts.

The greatest news we could ever know is that these chasms we thought were enormous and permanent no longer exist in the resurrection love of God. That seems like an excellent reason to get off our couches and enter into the life that really is life, until all Lazaruses, even we ourselves, are healed and whole and living in the love and life of the Triune God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What the Master Wants

We know whom we want to serve: the God whose love for us cannot die, who gives us the power to serve with the same kind of love.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25 C
   Texts: Luke 16:1-13; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

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

The remarkable thing about this manager is there’s no inner tension; he knows exactly what to do.

His world makes sense when he is comfortable, wealthy. Serving that interest gets him into trouble, but he handles it in stride. He doesn’t reconsider his ways or admit wrongdoing. He simply shifts gears and starts a new plan to be comfortable and wealthy, without missing a beat. He knows who his master is, and exactly what to do to serve that master and get the rewards that master offers.

That’s what Jesus admires, that clarity. Jesus isn’t advocating cheating and embezzling, in fact it’s the opposite. He’s saying those behaviors are appropriate to those who serve wealth and comfort, to get what they want. But Jesus notices that those who claim to serve God somehow lack that clarity, to know what to do and when to do it.

Instead, we’ve got tension inside between what we know God would have us be and do and what we often want to be and do. That tension reveals we’re serving two masters, Jesus says, and that’s not going to end well.

We find the tension in our divided loyalties nearly every time we hear God’s call to our lives. Like in Timothy today.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.”

The author of Timothy is clear about whom he serves, and from that clarity comes this exhorting: pray for everyone, everyone in high positions. In this election season, that means everyone running for office, even for the highest one in this country. In this divided nation, that means everyone who serves in office, even those we disagree passionately with.

This is what our Master asks of us. How often do we live in prayer for all these people, everyone? To look at our political landscape, most of us divide ever deeper into our camps, and struggle to find civil words to say, much less prayers to make. We talk to our friends, share with them on social media, because they agree with us, and we can get as angry and nasty about things as we want to.

Timothy isn’t arguing not to care about this election. That’s not God’s way, either. He’s just saying that people who follow the true God are people who pray for everyone in authority, who wish them all peace. And that causes us tension. Like many other things do.

There’s virtually nothing about the Christian life that doesn’t challenge some god or master we have.

Jesus actually called for something harder than Timothy. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies and to love them. But we sometimes serve a master who says we need to protect ourselves, we need to be right. That master will always give us reasons why loving our enemies isn’t practical. Which master will we serve?

Jesus challenged our use of wealth a lot, not just here. He told us to be careful of holding so tightly to things that ultimately don’t last, he warned us of the dangers of wealth to pull us away from God. But we sometimes serve a master who says we need to be sure we have enough before we can let go. This master will always give us reasons to say that Jesus didn’t really mean let go of everything. Which master will we serve?

Jesus commanded us to love one another, love our neighbor as ourselves. But we sometimes serve a master who reminds us that sometimes our neighbors aren’t very nice, and sometimes they aren’t very much like us. This other master tells us that the people we might think of as neighbor really are too far away to count, or their lives don’t really affect ours, so are they really our neighbor? This master will always help us find ways to define “neighbor” so we don’t have to really love them all. Which master will we serve?

Martin Luther taught us that our god, our master, is that one to whom we turn for our greatest good. The one whose voice makes us move, the one whom we listen to when we have choices to make. By gathering here today, we claim to serve the one true and Triune God. But in practice we’re not so sure who it is we serve.

Jesus is pointing out this tension so we can be honest about our divided loyalties. That’s all he needs to do. Because ultimately we don’t need to decide who we want our true Master to be.

We belong to the God who has claimed us in love that cannot die, who loves us even when no one else will. Whom else would we serve?

Once we’ve heard that God’s love for us was so powerful God became one of us, and loved us even to the point of death on a cross, what other master would do? The best our worldly masters can offer us is some kind of security in this world that we know won’t last through death. The only one who can offer us life now and life forever is the true God, our true Master, who died and rose to bring all to life.

The problem is that our true Master wants us to follow the same example. Our Master’s instructions to us are, follow me. Go, and do likewise. Love God, love neighbor, even if it costs you your life.

There’s our dilemma: we want to serve the God whose love has made all the difference in our lives, and who can bring us even through death. We’re just not always ready to make the hard decisions that service asks of us.

But our good news is found in the very Master we serve.

In taking on our life, the Triune God has said our lives are worth living. God repeated the words of creation, “This is good.” We might be a mess, we might have all sorts of tensions and struggles to follow faithfully, but God took on our flesh and blessed us, so we might be made new.

And God does just that by filling each of us with the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit gives us strength to become true servants of our Master and servants of each other. When we feel tension as we struggle between masters, part of that tension is the voice and pull of the Holy Spirit, calling us to be Christ, helping us find the right path.

Timothy tells us clearly what our Master wants: “God our Savior desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” No one gets lost, no one gets left behind. And the Triune God will give whatever is needed to make that happen.

You see, Christ came to serve, not to be served.

So Christ continues to serve us by helping us become servants ourselves, giving us the will do to what we know we want to do, what we know God wants us to do. Giving us the courage to choose what we know we want to choose, what we know God wants us to choose. Joining us to the life of the Triune God so that we become like our Master.

This is the Master whose love first won us over, and now works within us to shape us into the same love. We can’t serve two masters, and we don’t want to. Thanks be to God who gives us what we need to serve the only Master we know is our life, our love, our hope, our joy.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hearts Anew

The heart of God is to seek every one who is lost, find us, and bring us back in welcome, renewing our hearts.

Vicar Kelly Sandin
   The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 24 C
   Text: Luke 15:1-10

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

What if we’re the ones needing to eat with Jesus?

At a welcoming table with arms wide open. A table that says, “Sit, eat, I see you.” A table of peace and acceptance and love. Where there’s laughter. Where there are smiles.

Not all tables are like this. Some can’t or won’t welcome us. We might be misunderstood. We may feel judged, ignored, labeled. On bad days, we might believe the voices not our own. An endless echoing drone. Becoming a little weaker, unworthiness may set in. We hide behind shame and pain. We isolate. We disengage. We wander.

When sheep no longer hear their shepherd’s voice, they wander. When this happens they have no defense mechanisms in which to fight. In isolation they’re vulnerable and utterly lost to the forces they face. If near other sheep and dangers lurk, the flock huddles together. Finding some safety in numbers. There’s a natural tendency to gather. But ultimately, they need their shepherd. The one who lovingly tends the whole flock. Who will Go and find. Carry and rejoice. Who risks the 99 for the single indispensable one.

Similarly, the woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and relentlessly searches until the single coin is found. She raises her coin to rejoice, but suddenly realizes that rejoicing by herself is hardly a party. We have an innate desire to be with others. We’re not meant to be alone. Both the shepherd and the woman were drawn to friends and neighbors when what was lost was found. There’s something in the finding, the joy it brings, that makes us want to share that joy with others. We can’t keep it to ourselves. We don’t want to.

We know this kind of urgency, to find that which is lost. We lose things all the time - keys, phones, glasses, wallets. Things of value, such as these, seemingly get lost. Our heads are often thinking of something else. Paying attention to where we put our things isn’t always on our radar. And yet when we lose such items we frantically search. Our anxiety is high! We need to find that one single item of worth. In fact, there’s a natural tendency for others to join in. We rarely must ask for help in such a situation. It’s somewhat mystifying, but people, even strangers, will drop whatever they’re doing and eagerly take part in the pursuit. We know what it’s like to be in such a state and are happy to help relieve another’s anxiety.

While we’ve all experienced losing everyday items like keys or phones, the anxiety can be heightened if what is lost is us. Without a smart phone, it gets desperate. We can be lost in a crowd, separated from our family or friends. We might be hiking or walking about and lose our way. Perhaps we’re driving and have no idea as to our location. Being told to go east is useless if you’re directionally challenged! Meandering around not knowing your surroundings can be alarming, even more so in the dark. Being utterly alone and lost is frightening. We need someone to guide us in the right direction. A gas station attendant. A park ranger. Anyone to point the way. To put us on the right path. There is much relief when we find our group, get to our destination, or realize we’re on familiar ground.

Worse is when a child wanders off. An adolescent misses curfew. A loved one doesn’t return from work. Amber Alerts put families and neighborhoods in a state of panic. We’ll do whatever it takes to bring that person home. Police are contacted. Posters are put up. Local news stations broadcast the story. Social media urges us to share the link.  Finding the child or teenager or adult is of the upmost concern. We collectively feel the agony and worry. We hope, we pray, and will rejoice if they’re found safe and sound. And mourn if they’re not.

The heart of God in these parables is the urgency to go after every single one of us in all our states of being lost. Whatever that might be. God knows and never gives up, even if others do. Even when we do. To be in community is where we’re meant to be. Not alone and on our own.

We have a seat reserved at the table where love and joy abound. Where arms are wide open.  Regardless of how much time it takes us to get there.

We are a child of God who’s not forgotten. We are valued and loved and necessary. We are worth finding no matter how distant we’ve become. No matter how many years we’ve struggled alone. No matter how hardened our heart. No matter the walls we’ve built up. God is calling us to the table. To have new life. This was the intent from the very beginning. To love God and one another. Where we lift each other up. Where we cheer one another on. Where we pray with and for one another. And together give praise to God for all that God has done.

Know we have a merciful God. There’s nothing we can possibly do to separate us from the love of Christ. For being in relationship is God’s deepest desire. And God will do whatever it takes to find us. Where no one, not even one, is lost.

We’re welcomed by the host who is Christ. Where grace in the meal brings life. Life back in community. Loving God and neighbor. Creating hearts anew.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Heart of It

Christly love is costly love, and even though we’re not at the start of our journey of faith, Jesus’ words remind us that there will be costs ahead in our walk of faith.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 C
   Texts: Philemon; Luke 14:25-33

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’ words are a bit too little and too late for us.

In the Gospels, sometimes Jesus talks to believers, actual disciples, as in the parables of Matthew 25. The parable of the bridesmaids and the others there are words to the inner circle of disciples, who’ve been with Jesus longest.

Sometimes, though, like today, Jesus talks to folks who’ve just showed up to hear this teacher or seek a miracle. Today’s hearers are at the starting line of following. So he warns them to estimate the cost of following first, using examples of building towers and waging war. He tells them they might need to split with their families, or give up everything they possess, even life itself.

Jesus obviously isn’t much of a marketer. But he wants it clear that following him takes on a burden of love as serious as a cross of execution. He doesn’t want anyone to think a life of faith and love in Christ will be easy.

But it’s too little and too late for us. We’re well past the starting line. We’re committed.

We’ve got the foundations of our tower built already. 

Some of us even have walls and roofs, and are finishing the insides. It’s a little late to be told to consider before we start if we can afford to follow Christ.

We who were baptized as babies never got a chance to get estimates of cost. Someone chose the path for us. At confirmation, yes, some of us agreed to this path ourselves. But we were mostly in our teens, hardly aware of what costs might come later. And we’d already been living in this life for years at that point; it’s hard to break from the familiar.

For most of us, it’s like we signed a mortgage and all the accompanying paperwork and just trusted the lawyer sitting next to us to have understood all the implications. We clicked on the software agreement page without reading the fine print, just to get at the program.

This isn’t necessarily a problem.

We have advantages over new folks. The people we remembered last week, who led us to faith, who showed us Christ’s way, who brought us to baptismal water and God’s claiming of us, who were Christ’s wisdom and grace to us, they’ve already shaped our choices and our lives irrevocably. Because of them, we’ve already made sacrifices and paid costs for following Christ.

Because we’re not starting today, we’ve got experience, too. We’ve learned costs of discipleship others don’t know; some are now instinctive to us. There are many examples, personal and congregational, of things we’ve learned about the cost of following Christ, of sacrifices we all make almost without thinking. For that we thank those who led us here.

Because we’re not starting today, we can also see more of this house of faith God is building in our hearts. Some of us have been at it for so long, the house is nearly complete. This is also good.

But Jesus does say things today that even we who are not starting fresh need to hear.

Jesus’ words alert us that there may still be bills coming on this heart-building, costs ahead in discipleship, that will be pretty big.

We can’t choose not to start; that time has passed. But Jesus says we haven’t seen the full amortization of what following Christ will be in our lives. Because many of us have been walking this path for years, and know no other way, we may think it should be easy. We might be more inclined to struggle than a new believer when the costs of loving as Christ loves seem too high.

After all, Jesus says that the costs to following are total. Everything. All our possessions. All our life. Maybe even walking away from our closest family. That’s what he means by carrying the cross; that we imitate fully the Son of God whose love led him to lose everything for the people he loved, all people.

It’s limiting to only see the cross of Christ as a model. The Incarnate Son of God facing death for the world’s sake gives us far more than something to imitate. The mystery of the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus means God’s love can never be overcome, not even by death.

But we can’t miss that Christ also wanted the cross to be a model for us of what it costs to love. We can say “love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself,” quite easily. Today Jesus says, “Be careful.” Such utter love, such self-giving, will cost. Maybe cost everything.

Our comfort level with Christian life can lull us into complacency. And just when we think we’re in smooth sailing, someone like Paul sends us a letter and presents us with a bill we weren’t quite ready to pay.

Philemon looks more like us than do Jesus’ hearers.

He’s wealthy and privileged enough to provide room in his house for a church to meet, and to own slaves. He’s a faithful Christian whose love for the Church and for Paul is remarkable. Paul gushes how thankful he is for Philemon, for his love, and that he is Paul’s brother.

In the midst of his faithful, wealthy life, where he’s walked Christ’s path and been a gift to many, Philemon receives notice of an unanticipated cost. Standing in front of him in person, holding Paul’s letter, is Onesimus. Onesimus is the shape of the particular cross Philemon’s now asked to carry.

Paul simply asks him to welcome back his runaway slave as a brother in Christ. Onesimus has become a Christian, and has cared for Paul in prison. Paul doesn’t want to ignore this outstanding debt, though, and asks Philemon to forgive it and love Onesimus as a brother, rather than punish or execute him as a runaway slave.

It’s a huge price. Philemon’s in the right legally. He probably feels in the right morally. He’s the offended party. He’ll lose economically both Onesimus’ price and his value to the household. He’ll have to give all that up to do what Paul wants, what Paul says Christ wants. And this is a public request, addressed to Philemon and the church that met in his house. He can’t privately refuse this and go on without risking the scorn Jesus talked about today. Whatever he decides, everyone will know. His sisters and brothers who love and respect him are watching.

For we who walk in Christ, who are past the starting line, Philemon’s story is our story.

Imagine you were a Christian slave-holder in the nineteenth century United States, and a dear Christian friend challenged you to read Philemon and consider what it meant for you to own slaves. Suddenly Jesus’ words become real. It would feel like hating your family to end a practice that their livelihood depended on. It would be giving up a huge part of your possessions. Your life, your way of living, would be at risk. Your decision would be public and noted by friends and fellow Christians.

This is how it happens. We follow Christ with our lives, and find ourselves faced with costs that the love we know, the love we want to be, will incur. Costs that could change our lives a great deal, feel like loss, be big sacrifices. They’re often public, where all can see, because we live in a community of faith. And we rarely can foresee what these will be ahead of time.

Philemon, and so many others, stand before us as a reminder that loving God with all we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves is never cost-free. We belong to the Triune God who loved us enough to go to the cross to bring us life and restoration. Now God’s Son reminds us that such love is our call, and such a cross could be our future.

We’re not the first to face this challenge.

Philemon wasn’t, either. Peter and the others fell into following Jesus without a clear understanding of what he was asking of them. Sure, some left businesses or homes, and some of the women risked reputation and respect by following him. But like us, they only gradually began to understand the costliness of following Christ’s love and life.

But there was that one moment, after Jesus fed 5,000. His teachings started to offend people, and thousands were slinking or stalking away. Jesus finally looked at those women and men closest to him, the only ones left, and asked them if they, too, were going to leave. Peter spoke for us all: “Lord, where else would we go? Your words are eternal life for us.”

That’s our only answer. Costly as Christly love might be or become, we can’t imagine not being alive in Christ, filled with forgiveness and grace. Jesus’ words are too little and too late because there’s no estimate of cost, no bill to be paid, no loss incurred that would make us want to walk away from the heart of God’s love that centers and fills us and calls us to love.

Where else would we go? Here is love and life in the Triune God. That’s worth everything.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen


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