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Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Lamp Shining in a Dark Place

The glimpses of the light of God we see in the beauty of worship and other revelations give us eyes to see that light inside us and inside all things, even in the darkest of places.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Transfiguration of Our Lord, year A
   Texts: Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21

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

Just because something is hidden doesn’t mean it’s not there.

That’s what Peter, James, and John needed to see on that mountain. They loved Jesus, trusted him with their lives. He’d taught them, amazed them. They left their livelihoods to follow him.

But two things weren’t as clear to them as they could be: that Jesus actually was the Son of God, and that his path was about to head into frightening, terrible places.

Jesus had warned them of his coming death. His miracles and wisdom clued them in that he was powerfully connected to God. But they would only begin to understand both of these mysteries after seeing the horror of his death and experiencing the joy of his return to life.

The Transfiguration strengthened and encouraged Jesus for the painful road ahead, but it was also a gift to these disciples. For a moment their eyes were opened and they saw the true reality of the Living Word of God, God’s uncreated Light that made the universe, in their beloved Teacher.

They had a vision of the real truth of Christ they could carry with them. Because once they left this mountain, the other truth, the truth of the cross, was rising up in front of them all.

“You will do well to be attentive to this,” we are told, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”

The disciples weren’t going to understand the cross or this heavenly light until after Easter. So Jesus told them not to proclaim it until then. It wouldn’t make sense to others.

But for them, and I hope these three were able to share this vision with the other women and men who also followed Jesus but weren’t there, for these disciples it was a gift to remember as they started the path of the cross with Jesus.

They had this holy light to hold within, to pay attention to, when things kept getting worse. When Jesus was arrested, when they fled in fear, when their beloved Master hung humiliated like a criminal on a cross, they could call to their minds and hearts this light, remember there was something hidden in Jesus they had seen and experienced. Whatever was happening, what was hidden was still truth.

And these witnesses give us the same wisdom in today’s second reading: we would also do well to be attentive to this light, this vision, as to a lamp shining in a dark place.

Here in this place we glimpse the same light, the same beauty.

Not the actual transformation they saw. But God’s light shines here as we worship and draws us back again and again. In our song, in our prayer, in our silence, in the Word, in the taste of bread and wine, in the rich smell of incense, the Holy and Triune God is revealed to us in light and beauty.

Such a glimpse of beauty is a grace we’ve learned to expect here. Here God’s hope for the world in Christ is spoken to us, here the Living Word of God comes to us, here the Spirit of God speaks to us, as to Christ on the mountain, “you are my beloved.”

We glimpse this transfiguring, divine light elsewhere, too. In the smile of a sister or brother, in a loving embrace when we are in pain, in the beauty of God’s creation, the light of the Trinity breaks into our everyday existence and we find hope.

But those moments can’t be predicted, and we often miss them. That’s why being attentive to the light of God we find here is so important. We carry it into the dark places of this world, like the disciples. It not only gives us hope that God is still with us, but, like with them, this light opens our eyes to see where else it is shining.

What we carry from here each week reveals all the world is holy, and God is hidden everywhere.

We are brought here to the beauty of worship partly so we learn to see God’s beauty everywhere, even where we see ugliness. Seeing God’s light shining in a dark place changes the dark place. We begin to see, and look for, the presence of God’s light and beauty everywhere we go, and in every face we see.

The disciples may not have been able to see that far on Good Friday. What they witnessed at the cross was so horrifying they might only have had the light as that inner, desperate hope that somehow God was still working in this.

But they grew into this deeper vision after the resurrection. They saw God’s grace for the whole world, not just their people. They looked at enemies without fear and offered loving response to threatening authorities. They walked in faith and courage, facing persecution and death, always seeing the light of God in Christ guiding them. Even Paul, the latecomer, found contentment and peace in all circumstances, knowing all things were in God, so all things were holy.

When we see with eyes shaped by what we see here, when we take our expectation of meeting God in this place and carry it out into the darkness of this world, everything is different. Everything is a potential meeting with God’s grace. Everyone is ours to love because everyone is embedded in God’s love. We see God’s light and beauty everywhere.

In these dark times, though, remember another thing about God’s light.

Jesus told us a few weeks ago that we, too, are the light of the world. That’s not only good news for others as we are sent to shine God’s light in the dark of the world.

Yes, we are so sent to shine. But today the encouragement from 2 Peter nudges us to look inward, too. If we are the light of the world, like Christ, God’s transcendent light is hidden inside us, too. Inside us, even when our hearts are in a dark place of fear and doubt about the future of our country and world. Inside us, even when we struggle with our own brokenness and failures.

You will do well to be attentive to this light, Peter says, as to a lamp in a dark place. Remember you are God’s light, too. Christ has said so. Remember it burns inside you even when you can’t see it. That’s God’s gift we carry into the dark.

So we focus on this light we find here, we carry it with us.

And we walk Christ’s path before us, which, as we know, will involve sacrifice and risk, pass through many dark places. The challenges of growing into Christ that Jesus and the prophets laid before us these last weeks at worship are great. The challenges our world faces will ask much of us. Our path is the path of the cross, where we die to what keeps us from becoming Christ, where we offer our lives for others.

So in this darkness we keep looking at God’s light. Until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts, Peter says. That’s the promise. That the day is coming, and morning is on its way, and Christ is risen, so even physical death isn’t able to hurt us, much less anything else. The Spirit is giving birth to life in us, even if the birth process hurts, and we are never, ever, alone on this path.

Paul says in Colossians that our true life is hidden with Christ in God. But just because something is hidden doesn’t mean it’s not there. So we set our minds on our life that is in God and on God’s light that is in us, and even in this dark place we see. We love. We find peace. We find our life, and the world’s life.

We would do well to be attentive to this, wouldn’t we?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Love

The path of healing into Christly love hurts, but leads to life; the path of not healing into Christly love also hurts, ourselves and others, and leads to death.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, year A
   Texts: Matthew 5:21-37; Deuteronomy 30:15-20

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

Healing hurts. There’s no way around it.

A good doctor will tell us this. If your heart has five blocked arteries, your sternum needs to be opened, veins from other parts of your body cut out and grafted onto your heart, bypassing the blockages. A good doctor will tell you this is going to hurt, a lot. A good doctor will tell you if you don’t do this, you won’t find healing.

Today Jesus gets to the heart of loving our neighbor as ourselves, the fulfilling of God’s law. But Jesus uses such a graphic metaphor for what this will take, we shudder at the words. Obviously he doesn’t want us to cut out parts of our body, but we wish he hadn’t said it at all.

But Jesus is saying the truth: the path to healing hurts. He’s being a good doctor. He’s saying we need to be prepared for what it will cost us to follow Christ’s path. Things as dear to us as our eyes and hands will need to be cut out of our lives to find the healing of loving God and loving neighbor. Healing hurts. There’s no way around it.

Jesus interprets God’s law as comprehensive.

He taught that God’s law means to change our hearts, make us new people. So we, and all the world, would find God’s planned wholeness and healing. Saying the whole law of God is fulfilled by love of God and love of neighbor, on the one hand made it very easy. It’s simple to remember: love God, love neighbor.

On the other hand, it made it very hard. Jesus describes a fulfilling that covers everything. “Love God with all you have” leaves no room for anything but God as the center of your being and attention and devotion. No self-idolatry, no wiggling around what you’d rather do instead of what God asks of you. “Love your neighbor as yourself” likewise is complete coverage. There are no circumstances where Jesus envisions an answer other than love for those who are our neighbor. And here and elsewhere, Jesus makes it clear this category covers everyone. No exceptions.

Jesus pits himself against the legalists, the defenders of God’s law.

“You have heard it said . . . but I say to you,” is his line.

He takes on the Fifth Commandment. “You shall not kill.” That should be easy to keep. Except from the beginning God’s people parsed this, distinguished between murder and killing, and said the commandment was against murder. The Church parsed it and said killing in war isn’t breaking the commandment, if the war is just. And spent centuries arguing about when war is God’s will.

Jesus destroys that argument by saying physical killing is the lowest bar. He assumes all killing is against God’s will, and goes deeper. Christ says even anger, and insulting, and mocking, break this commandment. If my making fun of someone breaks the Fifth Commandment, there’s no hope God supports any taking of human life.

He takes on the Sixth Commandment. “You shall not commit adultery.” That also seems easy. Except Jesus speaks a word millions today still don’t understand, that at the heart of the human problem with sexuality is our objectification of other people. Christ says if you lust after someone in your heart you’ve already broken this commandment.

Christ says to straight men, and men in general, “you’ve got a serious problem. You view women as objects, and as sexual objects, and that is destructive and leads to death.” He says how we view others and think about them is as powerful as how we actually treat them. Because it affects how we treat them.

Whenever you have a written law, you can find ways around it: What really does “kill” mean? Surely there’s no harm in a little fantasy?

But God’s law is intended to bring life. The only way it can is if it utterly changes our hearts: cracks open our sternum, replaces the way our hearts and minds work.

That’s going to hurt. No loopholes, no gaps, no excuses. This is major surgery, and makes his metaphor about eyes and hands seem tame.

Now do you see why Jesus says following him is like losing your life, it’s taking up a cross?

But why go through this pain, then? Well, have you seen the world?

A world that believes God wants us to kill others has given us endless destruction that flows across this earth. Anger pulses through our culture today, unfiltered, explosive, and endangers us all. Social media and public discourse are hamstrung by personal attacks and mockery, insults and name-calling. (And we’re no better if we indulge in the same things toward those we dislike.) Life has little value, respect and care for others is absent at the highest levels, and across the breadth of our nation.

Do you really want to tell Jesus he doesn’t understand the problem?

2,000 years after Jesus told men not to objectify women, that problem couldn’t be worse. Ask any woman about her experience in the world, at work, at school, whether she has experienced being demeaned, treated as an object, been leered at, experienced sexual harassment. Most will tell you they have. And statistics suggest that one in four women in this country have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Twenty-five percent.

Do you really want to tell Jesus he doesn’t understand the problem?

And these are just two problems Jesus points out. He applies the same prescription – full, unfiltered love – to every aspect of our lives. If it isn’t anger or lust, perhaps for you it’s pride, or greed, or self-centeredness, or apathy, or many other things. Anything that keeps us from fully loving our neighbor hurts others in this world. That’s the truth Jesus needs us to see.

Look, we want to follow Christ because, as Simon Peter said, he speaks words of eternal life to us.

We hear hope in his words, a promise of God’s love and grace, we see in his death and resurrection our future after we die. We want to be with him. But Jesus needs us to know that he could have forgiven us and brought us to heaven without dying on a cross.

He went to the cross because he lived the life of love of God and love of neighbor that God means for all of us, and we killed him for it. He walked a path of pain and suffering because he was showing healing and life.

If we don’t like the way the world is, and wish God would do something, let’s not pretend the Son of God ignored it. Jesus’ words today – and we’ve only looked at half of his examples – show Christ saw to the heart of the problems of the world and showed a path out of them.

It’s just a hard, painful path. That’s why we hesitate.

We hesitate because our culture tells us the only good life is a pain-free life.

The culture of consumer products is designed to offer results without pain, life without pain. We hear we deserve the best, and it will be easy to get. We’re told suffering of any kind should never happen, and for life to be good, we need to be free of any pain.

But that isn’t true. Any parent, anyone who’s cared for a dependent loved one, knows how hard that can be. There’s inconvenience, frustration, pain, suffering. Our own needs get set aside because love demands it.

Any person who’s gone through 12-step recovery will say the same. There is deep pain and suffering working through recovery from addiction, the pain of letting go of control, of admitting wrongs, of seeking to amend them, of living one day at a time.

But the end result for both is life. Pain and suffering aren’t in and of themselves to be avoided. Healing is painful. All healing. Anyone who’s found life and health can tell you that.

But not seeking healing is also painful. Consider those blocked arteries: surgery will be exceedingly painful, but a good life is possible afterward. Avoiding surgery will eventually kill the heart, while the pain of the illness continues. If we don’t face the pain of changing, then we’ll keep causing a different pain, hurting people in the world.

So which do you want? If we want a life where we never feel pain, where no one can hurt us, and we don’t have to change, the only way is if we become cruel, selfish people who inflict a great deal of pain on others. The only way to life and love involves vulnerability, and vulnerability involves pain. There’s no way around it.

Thank God Christ is a good doctor. He tells us the truth so we can decide.

We have seen the eternal love of the Triune God in Christ’s words, actions, death, resurrection. We have found hope in Christ’s assurance that we are beloved children of God, and have God’s Spirit within us bringing new life to birth.

Today Christ says this new life is going to hurt. There will be things we need to let go of, things that cannot stay in you or me, that will be painful to face. It will even feel like we’re losing our life, Christ says. But what a gift to know this ahead of time. I would much rather know the truth so I can make the right decision, than deceive myself that there will be an answer that won’t cost anything.

So our last word today is from Moses, who says, “Choose life, that you may live.” And from Jesus, who says, “Choose love, that you may be love.” This is the path we want to walk, in God’s love. Hard as it is. Because life and healing are on the other side. And, since Christ walks with us, they're along the way, too.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Sunday, February 5, 2017

You Are

You are salt; you are light; you are God’s heart. God says you are enough, and will give you what you need, so don’t be afraid, and be who you are, for the sake of the world.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, year A
   Texts: Matthew 5:13-20; Isaiah 58:1-12

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

You are salt. You are light. You are already in God’s kingdom, and are righteous. So – don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid, even if what we’ve just heard from God’s Word seemed heavy and frightening. Especially on top of all that disturbs us in our world today.

Democratic practices that have served us for centuries are threatened, ignored, dismantled. Nations with whom we’ve long been friends are rudely insulted and treated as nothing. And the first flurry of action from our new government has threatened and caused harm to the weakest, the most vulnerable, whether it’s the people or the earth itself.

And we come here for hope, for rest, but the news feels no better. Isaiah frightens with warnings and judgments. Jesus promises no slack, for none of God’s law is abolished, all, to the last letter, must be done, and if we are not exceeding in our righteousness, it won’t be well for us.

But don’t be afraid. Things are not as they might seem, at least not with God. You already know this. This truth was here, too, in these same Scriptures today. But in case you need extra medicine, remember our brother Paul: nothing, nothing, can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Nothing can.

So don’t be afraid. You might just have mislaid the truth you already knew.

You are salt. You are light. You are already in God’s kingdom, and are righteous. So – remember what that means.

Salt is gift. Salt keeps precious things from going rotten. Salt brings flavor and beauty to what otherwise is bland and dead. Salt, in our climate, keeps neighbors and friends from falling and breaking their necks. That’s who you are.

Light is gift. Light reveals truth and exposes deceit. Light brings understanding and warmth in confusion and cold. Light opens up paths for walking and beckons others to join its friendly hope. That’s who you are.

And the kingdom of heaven: that’s where people obey and follow only God and no other. It’s where God reigns in people’s hearts because God’s love has so moved and shaped their hearts that they, in turn, are God’s love.

That’s who you are. Sometimes you forget, and think whenever Jesus says “enter the kingdom of heaven” he means “go to heaven when you die” He never means that. Remember, your life is joined to Christ’s death and resurrection; life with God after you die will not be taken from you. Remember, what Jesus is always saying is, if you aren’t living under God’s rule, shaped by God’s heart, then you aren’t living in the kingdom. Simple truth, but easily confused.

In your baptism God claimed you as righteous and holy, as beloved child. That’s who you are, you who live with God’s heart in yours, you who reveal God’s heart to this world.

You are salt. You are light. You are already in God’s kingdom, and are righteous. So – be who you are.

That’s all Isaiah and Jesus ask. Isaiah doesn’t expect that one person will end oppression, provide clothing for all who are naked, and end world hunger. Jesus doesn’t expect that one disciple will provide light for the whole world. They simply ask, be who you already are.

Be the one who keeps the good from going rotten, who preserves precious things in this world for the sake of life. Be flavor and beauty in the ugliness of the world. You already are this, in Christ. If you can remember that, being who you are is easier. And watch out for those slipping on the ice.

Be the light of God’s hope in your place, where you are. Reveal truth; name deceit. Don’t hide that you love other people, that God loves other people, because you fear exposing yourself in a world of hate. You already are the light of Christ. So get up on your soapbox or stool or whatever you have, and shine light so others can see. If you can remember you already are light, it’s easier to do this.

And be the warmth of God’s love in the world, for you are God’s righteousness already.

God has said so; will you disagree? You already live in God’s rule and reign, in the kingdom of heaven; but sometimes you wonder if you are righteous enough.

But remember we sang with the psalmist that the righteous are “merciful and full of compassion.” That’s righteousness. Mercy and compassion. Remember that when Jesus, who said every letter of the law must be fulfilled, was pressed as to what was the heart of God’s law, he said the whole law of God was fulfilled by “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourselves.” To be God’s righteousness is to be God’s heart in the world and for the world. It is to be God’s mercy and compassion for the hungry, the afflicted, the oppressed.

That’s the righteousness that exceeds that of the best law-keepers, scribes, Pharisees, whomever. Keeping God’s law isn’t following rules and punishing those who fail. The Son of God, who reveals the heart of the Father to us, who died and rose as the truest witness of the eternal love of the Triune God, the Son of God has told us: Keeping God’s law is knowing and loving the heart of the Lawgiver, and bearing that heart into the world the Lawgiver so loves.

You are salt. You are light. You are God’s heart.

God has given you to a world longing for God’s healing. Don’t be afraid, for God is with you. Don’t despair that you are not enough, because God has said you are.

You are salt. You are light. You are God’s heart. And hear Isaiah for what that means today: God “will guide you continually,” says the prophet, “and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. You shall raise up the foundations of many generations. You shall be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

That’s your truth as you enter a world that is frightening and disturbing, as you live in a desert and feel incapable of doing anything: you are a watered garden, a repairer, a restorer, and God will guide you, satisfy your needs, and make your bones strong. All shall be well, and all all manner of things shall be well. For God has promised.

So go, be who you are, so God’s salt and light and heart can bring hope and life as God always intended.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Not Finished

We’re halfway through winter, literally and figuratively, and there’s light to be shined, work to be done, with the grace and help of the One we follow, tested as we are so Christ can help us in our testing.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Presentation of Our Lord
   Texts: Luke 2:22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18

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

We’re halfway through winter. That’s important to remember.

Yes, this is the Feast of the Presentation, forty days after Christmas. Jewish mothers underwent purification rites forty days after giving birth; first born sons were presented in the Temple then, too.

But in Ireland and Britain February 2 held further significance as a cross-quarter day. Christmas Day, the Annunciation (March 25), St. John the Baptist/Midsummer Day (June 24), and St. Michael’s Day (September 29), marked the quarters of the year, falling very close to the solar turning points, the solstices and equinoxes. But Gaelic culture also marked the half-way points between these quarters. Presentation is the cross-quarter day between Christmas and Annunciation, and is about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Today our forebears started to ask how long winter would be. They had celebrated the coming of light at Christmas, but the sun still rose late and set early, and it was still cold. How long before spring? they’d ask.

The movement of the earth around the sun gives holy reminders of our life in God’s care, reminders our ancestors lived and breathed deeply. We’ve reduced today to a silly ritual with a groundhog, a joke. But there’s nothing funny about the question of how long winter will last. For those wise ones, it wasn’t just a question of weather. The yearly journey through dark and cold taught them about the same journey our lives are making.

Winter is more than weather for us, too. And in a world where cold and fear are growing, what might it mean that tonight we note that we’re only halfway through?

As we hear of Simeon and Anna, it means we’re not in their enviable position.

These ancient saints diligently served and waited, worshipped and prayed, and at the ends of their lives were blessed to witness the coming of God-with-us, Christ in the flesh. Simeon’s beautiful song anticipates departure and rest, because God’s light has come.

But we’re not at the end. We’re still in the middle of winter. The coming of God’s light in Christ isn’t the signal for us to lay down and rest; the task is still before us.

We celebrate the coming of God’s light but we see how dark it still is.

We rejoice in the warmth of God’s love we know in Christ Jesus but we feel how cold the world still is.

We delight in Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternal life, but we’re painfully aware of the pervasiveness of death.

In every way that matters, we’re in the middle of winter and are longing for God’s spring.

But that’s why we’re here. 

Not to answer, “How long?” Simply because it was a sunny day today doesn’t mean we have any idea when spring will return. Likewise, no answer awaits us as to when God’s full healing and restoring of creation will come to pass.

But our ancestors knew that, even if they engaged in weather prediction on this day. The festival of Presentation was tied to symbols of light, to the blessing of candles, as ours were tonight. Because Simeon sang of God’s light revealed. But also that they might remind each other of the signs of the light they had, the candles who bring light and warmth to the dark and cold.

And in the very long winter this world now faces, we gather tonight to remember the light we celebrated forty days ago on the darkest of nights. We gather to see fire and eat bread and smell beeswax and taste wine and sing songs and hear God’s words that sustain us in the winter, until the spring comes.

And now the Hebrews reading makes sense to this day.

On first glance, it seems unrelated to the Presentation. But if we’re in the middle of winter, and there is work for us yet in the world’s cold and fear, it is exceedingly good news to know we leave here not just with memory of tonight’s light and warmth.

We leave here with the grace and presence of Christ who has already lived through winter, who is the embodiment of God’s spring. Christ can help us as we are tested by the cold and fear, because Christ was also so tested. We go out into the middle of winter with Christ our Lord who knows how to hold hope and light in the deepest cold and ice and hatred and fear. Who is our strength, our courage, our encouragement. Who is always with us, no matter how long winter lasts.

So we sing with Simeon but with different meaning.

We sing, not at the end, but in the middle of things. When we sing, “now let your servant depart in peace,” it is our invitation to Christ to go with us as we depart into the wintry world that desperately needs God’s light and warmth.

When we sing, “a light to reveal you to the nations,” we ask for Christ’s light and fuel to keep that light burning in our hearts. Not just so others may see. But also that we don’t despair at the depth of the winter.

We sing, “your Word has been fulfilled,” not as the end of all things, but as confident hope that in us God’s Word is living into the world bringing light and healing.

We’re still in the middle of this thing. But as we join Simeon and Anna in song, we know that we’re not in the middle alone. We go with Christ: our Light, our Spring, our Warmth. And nothing can stop this grace from reaching this world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

The Olive Branch, 2/1/17

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