Archives for October 2017
Christ’s death and resurrection break all the powers of the world, break the chains that bind us and all people: it’s time to look at our current chains and pray for the truth that will free us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Text: John 8:31-36
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
When Martin Luther despaired whether he was worthy of God, his confessor sent him to God’s Word.
Luther’s anxiety over God’s judgment, his fear that he’d never be good enough to find salvation in Christ, persisted until his confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, ordered him to become a professor of the Scriptures. His job now demanded him to read deeply of God’s Word, and his confessor knew that in God’s Word, Luther would find freedom.
“If you continue in my Word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Luther found freedom in Christ when he began to “continue” in God’s Word, abide in it, live in it. The chains of fear and doubt that bound him, and bound many in the Church, were broken by the truth of God’s Good News in Christ. Five hundred years later we stand here in the joy of God’s love, knowing it is unearned and freely given, because Martin lived in God’s Word until he found the truth that freed him, and millions since.
But Jesus says, “The truth will make you free.” It still is freeing.
Later in John, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will come and teach us new things, when we are ready to bear them. Jesus understands that God’s truth frees continually, over time, even centuries. That’s why we’re asked to continue in God’s Word ourselves, live in it.
Our freedom from the chains that bind us – our sin, our fear, death itself – comes from Christ’s resurrection life that still breaks the world’s powers. But, as with all the work of the Holy Spirit, this is still happening. Luther wrote that we are not yet righteous, but we are being made righteous. We are not yet healthy, but we are being healed. In the same way, we are not yet free, but we are being freed. God is still working on us.
Freedom, therefore, is not a past event, a static idea we hold on to, package, print on signs and bumper stickers. This is a real problem in our country. In the name of freedom we do all sorts of wicked things that deprive others, including ourselves, of true freedom. We don’t understand our political freedom as an ongoing, living thing, a process of becoming free, that ever needs truth to break new chains.
It’s also our problem in the Church.
We’re tempted today to loudly proclaim Luther’s great insights, to box them up as our truth. To act as if these truths that give us life are all the truth there is, all we need. But over five hundred years the truth of God’s free grace, received by us in faith, has often become a formula for who’s in and who’s out rather than a freeing gift. Over five hundred years we’ve defended these theologies at all costs instead of living into them as continuing ways God frees us.
This also leads us to act as if there are no new freeing truths God intends for us. Five hundred years ago, when Luther began to find truth in God’s Word, one of the first things he did was post 95 theses, questions for debate and discernment. We date the beginning of the Reformation to that moment when Luther began to raise for the whole Church the truth he was finding in Scripture.
But there are other chains still binding us today, chains binding God’s people, binding the Church, binding the world. There are still more truths in God’s Word that call us out. There are still more things we need Christ’s resurrection life to break open, so life and healing can happen, so all people are free.
So when are we going to start posting our theses?
We hesitate to do this. We’d rather celebrate a truth of 500 years ago. Maybe because we fear what might happen. The Church splintered into hundreds of fragments because of Luther and the other Reformers. Good people on both sides struggled with the changes, even feared them. The cost of lifting up these freeing truths from Scripture was the disruption of communities and parishes, families and nations. Even war and killing. Maybe war won’t come if we raise God’s truths, but we don’t know the consequences.
But it’s time we realized that, like Martin, we need to go back into God’s Word and live there. If we truly abide in God’s Word, Christ promises we’ll hear truth from God that will be freeing, just as then. That will bring Christ’s Church into newness of life, just as then. And that will also run the risk of being perceived as threatening, something to be shut down, just as then.
What theses do we need to raise up today?
Here are some I think are overdue for conversation and discerning.
It’s time we took seriously the radical nature of the Triune God as the Scriptures proclaim and face the sin of our patriarchal use of language for God here at Mount Olive and across God’s Church. Our stubborn clinging to an ancient and careless use of language risks both heresy and deep exclusion. God’s truth in Scripture is that the Triune God is beyond gender, and includes all gender. When we persist in speaking and singing language using “he” and “Lord” and “King” when speaking of God’s fullness, when speaking of the Triune God, we deny God’s truth. It is also true, even if some here have not experienced this, that many women find such patriarchal language a barrier to experiencing or hearing God’s Good News of love and grace in Christ. We cannot misrepresent God. And we cannot leave up barriers to people finding God’s love and grace. So we need live in God’s Word and discern God’s truth meant to free us from these chains.
It’s time we admitted the Church’s deep and abiding relationship with structures of power, and our permitting that culture to shape our Gospel life. We willingly adopt the world’s power structures as if they were Christian, God-given, instead of modeling at every level of our lives the Scriptural truth that those who follow Christ give up power, lose themselves for the sake of others. We can no longer remain silent in the face of powers that oppress and kill and destroy, or we are endorsing them, as we long have. But we also can no longer ignore when our own life operates by the same rules, instead of by the way of Christ’s cross. We need to take seriously what it would be to be peacemakers. We need to take seriously what it means to divorce ourselves from our marriage to money. We need to take seriously our own power abuses, our own oppressive acts, in the name of the Christ who frees us.
It’s time we had an intentional conversation about the place of Christian faith in a pluralistic world. We cannot live in a defensive posture with people of other faiths, or live as if the important question is that we’re right and others are wrong. Not with God’s expansive desire proclaimed throughout Scripture to draw all peoples, every child, every creature, into God’s life. As Christians this won’t be easy, but if we live in God’s Word, Christ promises we will find freeing truth.
These are just three that I would nail to a door for discussion. There are certainly more, and many that people here could name. On this five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther raising questions for discerning, let’s all abide in God’s Word and raise new theses, based on what we find in God’s Word. Let’s raise these for us and for the whole Church, and never stop, so God’s truth can keep making all free.
We’re not fully free yet. But the Holy Spirit is freeing us, by God’s Word.
If Christ is risen from the dead, not even death has power over us. No chains can cling to God’s children on earth – not the chains of racism, or sexism, or classism, not the chains of hatred or oppression, not the chains of abusive power or wealth, not the chains of violence and killing – none of these chains need bind the people of earth.
Because they can all be broken through the life and love of God in Christ. We have Luther to thank that we know, more than anything else, that God loves us eternally. That at the cross, and then the empty tomb, we see the deepest truth about God’s love for us and for the world.
And we have Luther to follow as an example, that we all find our way back into God’s Word and live there, abide there, dwell there, praying that the Holy Spirit guide us to truth that will free all people. Until the whole world finds healing and hope and freedom.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
The feast of the marriage of God and humanity is a joy and a filling and forgiveness and an abundance of life: why would we refuse the invitation?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28, year A
Texts: Matthew 22:1-14; Psalm 23; Isaiah 25:1-9
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 doesn’t make any sense.
Why would anybody reject an invitation to a royal wedding? It comes in the mail, heavy paper, elegant embossing, and you’re in, invited to a wonderful event. Even here in the States, where we rejected royalty centuries ago, we’re fascinated by royal weddings. But not just one person turns it down. The entire guest list makes fun of the invitation, and some do horrible things to the messengers.
Jesus likes starting parables with ridiculous scenarios like this. It’s his thing. No father would sell his house, empty his savings and give half to a younger son, then watch him head into the sunset. No shepherd in the world would abandon 99 sheep to wolves and injury and cold to go looking for one lost sheep. It’d be hard to find a farmer or vineyard owner who’d pay a full day’s wage to workers who only put in an hour’s labor.
But Jesus has deeper truths, greater wisdom, we can only get to by breaking down all we think is true. We can’t imagine rejecting a royal invitation. So, Jesus says, what do you reject? If this is like God’s realm, what invitation are you tossing into the recycling bin?
To crack this open, we need to know what the invitation is. What feast are we talking about?
Jesus tells a story of a wedding of a king’s son. It’s Holy Week when he tells this parable, along with others that use the image of an important father and his son. Obviously Jesus is talking about himself, the Son of God, and his relationship to the One he called Father.
But that it’s a wedding is also important. Whenever wedding imagery is used in the New Testament, pay attention. It’s not accidental. The Church has understood it to mean that we, the Church, are the bride of Christ. That in Christ’s death and resurrection the Triune God and humanity are joined in a new covenant, a new testament, a marriage. In this covenant we are married into to the life of the Triune God, restored, forgiven, and transformed.
This parable’s wedding feast is the wedding feast of humanity to God. It’s a joyful celebration of God’s love and forgiveness, God’s eternal marriage promises of faithfulness and care. It’s a celebration that we know now and that continues into the life to come. When we come to this Table in this liturgy, we eat of this marriage feast, taking in God’s food for life and wholeness and salvation. Why would we ever reject this?
We might not be terribly fond of the rest of the guest list.
Anxiety around seating charts at receptions seems to haunt many wedding planners; apparently whom we sit next to at a wedding matters. Maybe we don’t want God’s invitation because of who’s at our table.
David sings of a feast prepared in his enemies’ presence. The way the Hebrew Scriptures speak of the feast of God, including Isaiah today, suggests that David’s feast is a reconciliation meal. The feast is spread amongst enemies, so they’re also at the table.
Isaiah proclaims the great feast in the life to come, when death is destroyed, but it’s the same inclusive vision. All peoples, all nations, will come to this feast on God’s mountain, and all will be fed. This marriage of humanity to the Triune God that Christ creates will join all people to God. We’ll be cheek and jowl with everyone.
Now, this congregation lives with the belief of full inclusion in God. We experience it repeatedly: here all are welcome, all are seen as loved by God, no matter who they are, what they look like, what quirks they have. Still, most of us wouldn’t need much time to make a list of individuals or groups that we don’t want next to us at God’s wedding feast, either in the life to come, or at the marriage feast in which we live in this life.
We also might not really want to be married.
Marriage joins for life, so you’re together. A lot. If it’s the Triune God making this covenant with us, then God’s planning on taking up residence with us. Living in our lives. There, all the time. Maybe we reject God’s invitation because we’re not ready for that marriage.
As beloved as the 23rd Psalm is, there’s an uncomfortable intensity of relationship there. The Shepherd anoints us with oil at baptism, brings us through those waters, provides all in abundance. The Shepherd leads us on the paths of God, not our paths. The Shepherd restores our soul, walks with us through dangers, feeds us at the Table, accompanies us all the days of our life.
That’s a lot of closeness with God. When the path winds through valleys of shadow and fear, we certainly want our Shepherd. No one wants to face wolves alone.
But all that guidance, directing of our paths, walking with us all day, being with us while we sleep, maybe that’s more than we’re ready for. We like our own paths, seeking out satisfaction that we want, even dangerous things. At our core, we resist walking with God daily because we can never get away, or run wherever we want.
We also might not want to come to the marriage feast on God’s terms.
We love the idea of receiving God’s grace, God’s eternal love, without earning it. But at the same time we often hope that somehow we’re probably doing well enough to earn some of it. Better than others we could mention, we think.
But the final wedding guest list in the parable is populated by “both good and bad,” whoever could come. All are worthy because the king said so, not because of what they did. As people are brought in from the streets, the pickpocket and the one whose pocket got picked are both guests. We’re worthy because God says we are, not because of us. We don’t always like that very much.
And we resist what it means to be brought into God’s grace. The Scriptures say that when we’re loved by God through grace we are transformed into Christ. Whatever we are, good or bad, is utterly changed. We’re made worthy by the Spirit’s transformation.
That’s the problem of the wedding garment. In a culture where poor people didn’t have two sets of clothes, Jesus imagines that the king provided clothing for all guests. A rack of tuxedos and evening gowns were inside the entrance hallway, in all sizes.
In Colossians, Paul says our transformation into Christ is like being dressed in Christ’s clothing, putting on love, forgiveness, patience, as a garment. (Colossians 3) Being dressed to be someone we aren’t yet. And like the guest in the parable, we’re not always ready for that. Why do I need to be made to look like Christ? Don’t I get to be myself?
But none of these reasons actually make any sense, do they?
After all this, we’re still back at our principal objection: why would anyone ever turn down God’s invitation? Even with such reasons, once we see God’s feast spreading in this world now and forever, once we learn what God plans marriage with us to be, there’s nothing we want more.
We want communion and grace with God, even if it means God in our lives all the time, every day. Because it means God in our lives all the time, every day.
We want the joy of feasting in God’s love and forgiveness, even if it means having enemies or those we don’t like feasting alongside us. Because it means reconciliation with enemies and those we don’t like.
We want the blessing of being clothed in God’s love and grace, covered with the garments of salvation, even if it means letting go of our clothing, our ways. Because there is nothing we want more than to look like Christ, to love like Christ, to live like Christ.
The invitations are out, and you’re invited to the wedding feast of God. So is everyone. It’s time to RSVP, and start living in this new life, at this feast, in the marriage love of God now and forever.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Our texts today give us the comforting picture of God as a farmer tending to a vineyard, but they also contain ominous words about God breaking things down. What does it really mean for us to be broken by God?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27, year A
Mount Olive Lutheran Church
Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Matthew 21:33-46
Loving and living God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of every one of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s hard to find the good news on a week like this.
This is one of those weeks when we share stories that confront us with judgment and violence. In both Isaiah and the psalm, we read about the Assyrian invasion of the Promised Land. The psalmist cries out for help, begging God to save Israel from a terrible foreign power: “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; preserve what your right hand has planted!” But we know from history that God didn’t show up to save Israel. The northern kingdom was conquered. Its tribes were lost forever – and many of the people of Judah were also killed or enslaved. So we look to the Gospel reading for some comfort, but in Jesus’ parable, we encounter a tale of greed, betrayal, and murder. And just to make matters worse, Jesus’ explanation of the parable has been misused for centuries to hurt our Jewish brothers and sisters. There isn’t a lot of hope shining out of texts like these.
And this is also one of those weeks where it’s hard to see the good news at work in the world. Our nation has been hit with a series of heartbreaking disasters, but it’s not just the human suffering that’s hard to bear. It’s the fact that none of this is inevitable. We don’t have to live in a world with so much injustice and violence, but it’s the world we keep choosing for ourselves. From where we stand this week, it looks like storms are going to keep getting worse, and our responses are going to be insufficient to meet the needs of those most vulnerable to a changing planet. It looks like guns are going to maintain their chokehold on the spirit of our nation, and they’re going to be used to end human lives. It’s hard to find healing when we have every reason to believe that we’re going to let all of this happen again. It’s one of those times when it rings a little too true when we read that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” It’s hard to find the good news on this kind of week.
But there is good news here. There is always good news here, and we see that in the faith of Isaiah, because as disaster looms, Isaiah tells us that God is a gardener. The prophet is staring down the world’s most fearsome army, and even though he believes that the coming invasion is a sign of God’s anger, he describes God not as a judge, nor a warrior, nor a king, but a humble tiller of the earth. And he calls this gardener his beloved, and sings about God’s marvelous works. Isaiah is sad and scared and full of fury about how things have gone wrong in his nation, but even then, he addresses God with a love song. He tells us that God looks like a farmer who sweats and toils in the hope that life will emerge from the promise of the fertile soil.
And the psalmist goes even further than Isaiah. The author of Psalm 80 doesn’t just talk about God preparing and tending a vineyard; he remembers how God once brought the vine of Israel out of Egypt. It’s this beautiful, intimate image of God’s hands gently holding the beloved community. God, the creator of the universe, personally carried them out of slavery so they might flourish in peace and freedom. Even on the brink of losing everything, the psalmist reminds the people of the promise that they are carried in love.
We too are like that little vine. We are so fragile, so very vulnerable to the elements and to those who would harm us. The good things we create together are so easily destroyed. All too often we don’t produce the good fruits that we hoped to make for the world. But God holds us in love, and cares for us, and gives us all a chance to grow. We feel our gardener’s love in the richness of the soil. We feel our gardener’s love in the unfurling of tender leaves. We feel our gardener’s love in the sun and the turning seasons, in the world’s abundant beauty that surrounds us and sustains us and brings peace to our troubled spirits. Because we have a God who gardens, we know that we are never alone.
Now, that promise doesn’t magically erase the fear that these stories carry for us. We can’t escape the fact that Isaiah, the psalmist, and even Jesus all use some violent words to describe God’s work. Today, we hear of God tearing down the wall around the vineyard, leaving it vulnerable to the world outside. We hear of God’s cornerstone breaking those who stumble on it, crushing anyone who gets in its way. Those are hard words. It’s much easier to sing about a God who heals than a God who breaks.
But what does it really mean to be broken by God? To answer that question in faith, we must look to the cornerstone, to Christ. When Jesus broke those around him, did he bring justice down on the heads of his opponents? Did he kill, or injure, or seek revenge? No! He broke down the self-righteousness of those who thought they were without sin. He broke open the lonely, corrupt lives of tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. He shattered the worldview of the Roman centurion, who could look at a criminal hanging dead on a cross and proclaim, “truly, this was the Son of God.” He broke down the divisions between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free. He gave up his own body to be broken, and in the end, he broke open the tomb, freeing us all from the jaws of death, forever.
In Christ, we see that even the boundary between God and humanity was forever destroyed, for when God became human in Christ, we learned that God is not just the gardener, but also the true vine that abides in us every day. Christ is with us and in us, teaching us that brokenness is how God brings life. The spirit breathes hope into the world’s most broken places, and breaks apart its callous triumphs. Like a farmer tilling the unyielding earth, God is at work in us, turning over our hard, unforgiving places until they are transformed into gentleness and possibility. When we try to close ourselves off, to harden our hearts, God is cracking us open to new realities, new relationships, new ways to live.
None of us want to be broken. In a world that demands success and strength, we hate the idea of letting ourselves be torn down. We are taught to hate the way of the cross. We might say we love the cross, but our world tells us to despise it, and we are very good at listening to the world. We want to keep our walls high and strong. We greedily hold on to the parts of ourselves that we know need to be pruned. Even when we can barely live with ourselves, we are afraid of letting go of what we have and living into what we could be. Change is a fearful thing, so when we hear that God is transforming us, we’re tempted to hear that as a threat and not as the promise that it is. We think that, in changing us, God is going to take things away from us, but that’s not right at all. The Gospel tells us that God is giving us the chance to give ourselves away. We want to flee the cross, to flee weakness and loss, but it is only in losing ourselves that we will find Christ growing in us. God is inviting us to see that the cross is the tree of life.
When we feel God tilling our hearts, we are being given a chance to let go of our defensiveness, to be free of our fear. We can hold tight to our hardness, we can choose to produce bitter fruit, or we can become the garden we were meant to be. We can delight in this beautiful vineyard Earth that God has planted for us. We can rejoice in the abundant mercies that sustain our every breath. In the living vine of Christ, we can grow fruit to feed the world, and in giving ourselves away, we can be fed with all our souls desire. We can let the good news burst through the life we have known, and nurture us into something more wonderful than we could ever imagine.
Sometimes it is hard to find that good news, but we know that, no matter what, we have a gardener who is making all things new. Out of our brokenness, God will let us grow. Out of our brokenness, God is already growing.