Archives for November 2017
Paul tells us that “God loves a cheerful giver.” Are we going to hear those words as a burdensome requirement that adds to our anxieties about giving – or can we find in them freedom from our fears?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Day of Thanksgiving, year A
Texts: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
We have so much guilt about giving. What we do or don’t decide to share with those in need has seemingly endless power to trouble our conscience. In our unjust, broken world, it’s hard to know the best way to use the resources that God has entrusted to us. We worry if we’re sharing enough, when we have been blessed with so much and the world’s need is so great. Or we might worry that we’re giving too much away, when we’re not sure how we’re going to make ends meet for ourselves. We fret about giving to the right people and causes, not wanting to be unwise about how we allocate our money, time, and talents. And we’re anxious if we’re giving for the right reasons, if we’re truly acting out of love or if we’re motivated by social pressure, or self-interest, or remorse. We all want to do the right thing with our resources, but that’s a tall order in our world, so many of us live with the guilty suspicion – or perhaps the guilty certainty – that we’re somehow falling short. That’s why stewardship conversations are always so awkward. It’s hard for us to even talk to each other about our giving habits, and that very discomfort reveals our fear that we’re not getting it right.
And then, just add to that stack of anxieties, Paul says that giving is supposed to be cheerful. He’s trying to collect money for the poor of Jerusalem, and he tells the church in Corinth that God loves a cheerful giver. It’s one of those verses that sometimes sticks in my throat, because it feels like it’s asking so much of us. Not only do we need to be generous, responsible, informed, and altruistic with our resources – on top of everything, we’re supposed to be happy about it all. And as every person knows, being told that we should cheer up does nothing to alleviate our stress; often, it just makes us feel more overwhelmed. The weight of our responsibility to the world is so heavy. And it’s hard to hear that we should be happy to carry that weight. God loves a cheerful giver? Why can’t God just love that we’re trying to figure it out?
But there is grace in these words, once we stop listening to our anxieties and start listening to the Spirit. This verse about cheerful giving can be misread as pure law, but what Paul is giving us is gospel. When he says that God loves a cheerful giver, he’s not talking about requirements, or what we need to do to deserve God’s love. He’s reminding us of our freedom in Christ. He says, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” We might instead translate that word “cheerful” as “joyful” or “free.” Paul tells the people of Corinth: listen, only you know what God is asking of your life. Only you know your full situation. Only you know your heart. And so, he says, be free. Be free to respond as the spirit moves you, and don’t let me, or anyone else, guilt you into pretending to be someone you are not. God isn’t looking for our guilt. God is looking to rejoice with us, and to bless us, and to free us from all that troubles our hearts.
So Paul gives us a vision of how far that freedom can take us. He says that we can use our liberty to find far greater riches and far greater joy than what the systems of our world can offer us. He promises that those who are moved to give will discover far more abundance than they had to begin with: “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, but the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Once again, this is not an order or a threat, but an invitation to participate in God’s reign. The kingdom of God is already here, transforming our world now, but we can only see that when we choose to be a part of it. When we freely plant whatever gifts God has entrusted to us, we harvest clearer vision about how the Spirit is moving in the world. We harvest deeper relationships with God and with our neighbors. We harvest freedom from our anxieties. We harvest the joy of taking part of part of something eternal, and life-giving, and good. We harvest hope. This is the purpose for which God has made such abundance possible in our lives. We are given our blessings so we might give them away. God has made enough for everyone; no one needs to be hungry, homeless, or lonely. Paul writes, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” God’s abundance is for abundant sharing, abundant community, abundant life. God loves our cheerful giving because it means that we have discovered the joy of living in the promises of God’s reign.
That’s all good for Paul to say, but it’s hard for us to believe in the power of this abundance when we are so conditioned to believe in scarcity. We instinctively hold tight to the things that we deem “ours.” Our natural pose is defensiveness. But Moses tells us we can be free of all that fear because nothing that we have is truly ours. In the book of Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are on the eve of crossing over into the Promised Land after a generation of wandering in the wilderness. Moses describes the land that they’re about to enter with that beautiful list of the earth’s bounty: grains and fruits, abundant fresh water, and even the minerals that God placed in the Earth. With all these marvels at their fingertips, life is at last going to be good. They’re going to live in freedom, and eat their fill, and praise God for their many blessings. But then Moses gives them a warning: when they get comfortable, they’re going to be tempted to forget how they got here. So he tells them, Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God. When your have food, and homes, and riches, be careful that you do not forget God and exalt yourself. Do not say, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth,” but remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you the power to get wealth.
Those are tough words for us. We live in a culture that teaches us to proudly proclaim, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” Our nation loves to believe that whatever we have is ours, and ours alone, because are the ones who earned it. It is deeply instilled in us from childhood that a fundamental goal of life is to work hard to build up the pile of what is ours. All of us know what it means to work hard for what we have, and there is nothing wrong with being proud of what our labor has accomplished. But we lose sight of God when we think that we are in any way self-sufficient. We did not make our bodies, we did not choose the circumstances of our birth, and we certainly did not create the riches of this planet. It is hard for us to confess our lack of independence, but once we embrace how deeply we rely on God, we realize that we don’t need to cling so tightly to what we have won in this life. We can begin to let God transform our reluctant, fearful hearts into something freer and more loving. We can stop building higher walls to protect what is ours, and start building longer tables to share it with our neighbors. Paul writes that giving our resources away “not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Free and joyful giving is an act of thanks-giving, and it opens us to the fullness of God’s sustaining love.
After worship, many of us will go to our homes to share a meal with loved ones. At its best, the joy of the meal is not in the excess of food, but in the chance to gather together, serving one another and being served in our turn. It’s a celebration of our ability to care for each other using the gifts that God has given us. Our vision of God’s reign is like that festive meal, but with a table at which everyone is welcome, and a feast that never ends. It’s a feast where grace triumphs over guilt, love triumphs over need, and abundance triumphs over fear. There is such abundance in this world, and whenever we share it abundantly, we are sharing the loving reign of God.
Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!
God loves us beyond measure, beyond death: in that love we are free to live the abundant life of love in caring for what God cares for and healing the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Christ the King, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 34, year A
Texts: Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-24
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 was Christmas break in my first year of college, and, out with friends, I was anxious about the time.
It was nearly 11:00 p.m., so I hurried home.
Now, in high school the curfew dance with my mother was long-standing. The rules were clear, the expected times never in doubt. My arrival, well, was not always in keeping with expectations. My mother had all sorts of techniques in this dance. She was brilliant with sarcasm: “I didn’t realize your girlfriend moved to Sioux Falls.” Or, “I didn’t hear the storm, but it must have knocked down all the phone lines.” And then came the judgment.
But the pinnacle was one night when I was over two hours late and certain that this time I’d won. The house was dark, not a creature stirring. I didn’t realize my trial was scheduled for breakfast. My father was the attorney, but my mother mastered the legal principle that you never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. “So, what time did you get home?” Confident, but offering humility, I said, “I think I was about ten minutes late, sorry.” “You sure you don’t want to rethink your answer?” Of course: she’d woken up, looked at the clock, and went back to sleep the sleep of the just.
But here’s what was strange about that December night I was home from college. I no longer had a curfew. I’d asked my mother and she said, “You’re an adult. You probably stay out late at college. But I worry about you lying in a ditch, so call if it’ll be after 1 or 2, so I can sleep.” At about ten I started thinking about getting home, so she wouldn’t worry. I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. But what I wanted was for her to not have to fret.
It’s all a question of motivation, isn’t it?
As parents, we learn that fear and threats don’t motivate good behavior.
Children don’t respond as well to threats as to love. Most of us don’t react well to anger and wrath and accusation. When I finally grasped that what I didn’t want was to hurt my parents, that it was their love for me that mattered, it was a revelation.
So why do we think threats are how God means to make us good? True, there’s a lot of wrath and anger in Scripture. Today we’ve got Jesus’ parable with a serious judgment at the end, and Ezekiel hurling God’s anger at selfish, greedy, polluting sheep who harm the other sheep. If you want to find anger from God in the Bible, you can.
But God’s a better parent than we ever could be. Anger’s never the last word.
God knows what will draw us into love of God and neighbor.
From Genesis to Revelation, anger, wrath, threats aren’t God’s last word. God cannot let go of us, because God loves us. So Ezekiel, after promising judgment between sheep and sheep, ends promising that a new David, a divine Shepherd, will feed and care for the whole flock. Even the ones who were judged. At the end of Jesus’ parable, remember it is the king himself who dies on the cross. God in Christ enters human suffering, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Where people are in pain, that’s where God will be. Even if it means going into hell for us.
This is the last word of the Scriptures, God’s love for us that reaches its height at the cross and resurrection. Yes, God gets angry at us. But God’s bottom line is always that we are beloved, cherished, worth dying for.
And God sees astonishing love in us, Christ in us. At the cross God means to love us into the people God already sees. To motivate us through undying love to become Christ ourselves, loving God and neighbor with everything we have.
When we persist in seeing God’s law as our enemy instead of as God’s promise of life, we reveal our immaturity.
When we insist on playing the judgment game, when we continue to resent being asked to do anything, we’re still children.
Martin Luther gave us a great gift: he saw God’s grace and mercy overriding all judgment. We are loved and healed by God without our earning it. But Luther only got us half-way there. We’re still stuck on seeing God’s law as harsh, and God as threatening judge.
We know we’re loved in Christ, forgiven. But we still believe the lie that God’s law is unattainable, an undoable thing, that we can’t live as God asks.
So we ignore Jesus’ obvious point in these parables and, instead of living in love as Christ taught, we worry about the parables’ judgment. It’s my old curfew game: fearing punishment, instead of living in love.
But when we realize that the Triune God’s love for us, completely unearned, is real and cannot be taken away from us, we grow up into the people God already sees in us. We see God’s law as gift, because it comes from the God who loves us. We see blessing and joy in God’s rules, because they mean safety for us and for others, abundance for us and for others, grace for us and for others.
When we quit playing judgment-avoidance, we see a simple truth: we see where we can serve the God who loves us and wants the best for all people.
There’s a huge gift in these three parables we’ve just heard: all the characters are at the end, and there’s no more time to act. But we are not at the end, we’re in the middle.
The bridegroom is still coming, the master and king haven’t returned. So we know exactly what we can do: the action of these parables. And we know exactly what the bridegroom, master, and king does: dies on the cross for us and for the world. There is literally no reason for us to be afraid of God. We know all we need to know about God. This is a gift!
Every one of these servants today wanted to serve their king; some didn’t have any more time. All the bridesmaids wanted to be in the wedding party; some didn’t have any more time. The only one in these parables who didn’t want to serve was the third slave last week. And notice: he plays the judgment game, acting in fear of his master.
Likewise, I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t desire to serve Christ faithfully, to be Christ. Well, we still have time. And we know what to do!
Keep our lamps lighted with God’s oil of love so people can see the coming of the Christ who loves them and brings justice and righteousness to the whole world. We can do this.
Use God’s wealth together, and serve God’s beloved, all who are in need. Transform the world with the abundance God has entrusted to us. We can do this.
And see Christ in people who are hungry, or thirsty, in strangers and aliens, in those with no clothes or homes, in those who are sick (especially those without insurance), and folks who imprisoned (especially those wrongfully or unfairly incarcerated in our unjust system). We can do this.
If we want, we can react to these parables with fear and guilt.
We can fear God’s wrath, get discouraged at how harsh Jesus sounds. But if we do, we’ve stepped away from Scripture. If you want to feel wretched about what a failure you are, you can. But God’s Word doesn’t agree with you.
Because you are beloved to the Triune God, beyond measure, beyond death. Nothing can separate you from God’s love, a love that goes into the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, even the fires of hell.
God sees in you an astonishing potential to heal this world, to bless others’ lives. God sees Christ in you, sees Christ in us together.
Together we can light our lamps so Christ is seen and justice flows, together we can learn to use God’s wealth for the sake of the world, together we can care for Christ in all who are in need.
There is no greater motivation than that we are loved, no greater joy than knowing what we can do, no greater hope than hearing that in our love in this world we are serving Christ.
Maybe it’s time we rejoiced in this and grew up into the people God already sees in us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
There’s no need for fear: we belong to a loving God of abundance, and are entrusted with that abundance for the sake of the whole world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 33, year A
Texts: Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The third slave was wrong about his master.
He believed his master was “harsh, reaping where [he] did not sow, gathering where [he] did not scatter.” So he buried a huge amount of money in the ground.
But he wasn’t worried about judgment, or getting thrown out. He resented that his master would profit from his work.
Do you see the problem? This wasn’t his money. Before the master gave it, the slave didn’t have it. The name on all the accounts was the owner’s, not his. It was his job to use it on behalf of the owner, until the owner returned. If he didn’t want to do it, he should’ve refused the job at the start.
And he was wrong about his master. The other two worked their master’s wealth until he returned, and did well. And yes, the owner benefited from their work. It was his money. But both were praised, given more trusted assignments, and were welcomed into their master’s joy. They shared in his joy, his trust, and his wealth. This isn’t a harsh master. But the third one was bound up in his own fear, and couldn’t see.
But we know even more about our Master.
If we assume we’re the ones in this story given charge of God’s wealth, we have even less reason for fear. We know from Scripture that God’s abundance is meant for the joy of all, to feed all God’s children, to care for this world. We know that none of our wealth is ours, that the name on our bank accounts is not ours but the name of God.
But we know this, too: the terrible judgment at the end of this parable doesn’t land on us. Remember, Matthew has said it is truly God’s Son who dies on the cross, who goes willingly into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. God’s Son weeps and gnashes his teeth, from Gethsemane to the cross.
As with last week, this parable falls apart at the point of judgment. Whatever else happens, in real life the master takes the judgment on himself, joins all those out in the darkness, to bring them back inside, into the light, into the joy of the master, the joy of God.
And best of all, we know this ahead of time, unlike these three. We don’t have to guess at God’s nature, or the depth of God’s love. We’ve been in the outer darkness ourselves, and have been found by God. We are free to hear Jesus and act in joy.
Because the parable is simple: all we have is God’s, all we’re asked to do is use it for God.
But too often we obsess with the judgment at the parable’s end rather than the main point. That ignores the truth of the cross, that judgment isn’t the end of the story, or even the story itself. But distracting ourselves with the ending also conveniently lets us avoid the clear teaching of Jesus.
Jesus speaks of wealth beyond anything his disciples could comprehend. A talent today, about $1.25 million, is beyond most of our comprehension, too. This is intentional.
First, Jesus insists that we have blessings and wealth from God far beyond what we imagine, far beyond our anxieties about wealth. We’re millionaires of God’s abundance and blessing, if not actual dollars.
Second, with these unimaginable amounts, Jesus frees us to remember it’s not ours. We can’t dream of holding that kind of wealth. So we’re entrusted with God’s abundance because God needs us to use it and care for this world. Feed our neighbor. Clothe and house those in need.
The only thing that can stop us is our fear.
And let’s be honest: our fear is not of God. We know God’s love for us is greater than death, it can’t be stopped. We know we are God’s beloved children.
Our fear is that we won’t get to keep what we do with God’s wealth. The third slave didn’t fear the owner. He resented that he couldn’t do what he wanted with the money, benefit himself, take care of his priorities. But he never would’ve had the money if the master hadn’t entrusted him with it.
Neither would we. Let’s break free forever, right now, of the myth that we deserve what we have by our hard work and effort. Billions of people on this planet give hard work and effort. Not all are born into the privilege of families that are doing well, not all have a culturally and economically protected skin color. Most don’t live with so much space and resources that their country believes there are no limits to wealth, that we never have enough, and that each generation needs to be wealthier than the previous.
That’s the garden you and I were born into. We got fifty talents right out of the gate, while others barely got a coin to work with. So let’s stop pretending there’s any question of whose wealth we have. It’s not ours, never has been. The only question is, are we going to start being faithful with God’s wealth or not?
Here’s our blessing: we are a “we.” We can learn faithfulness together.
What if these three had gotten together with the money and worked as one? Maybe the two could have broken through the third one’s fear and greed and self-deceit. Encouraging each other, unimagined blessings could have abounded. We are not destined for wrath, Paul says today, but are saved through the cross of Christ. So, Paul says, we encourage each other in this life of faith, build each other up, help each other.
That’s what stewardship is together as God’s people here. It’s nothing to do with meeting a budget or giving money “to” anyone. The giving we do is how we share this task of faithfully caring for God’s wealth. How we help each other be free of fear.
Because meeting our budget each year is a pretty low bar. It’s good things we do: taking care of this building, paying staff and giving generous benefits, running programs. We also give 12% above all that to others – to our global partners, to our neighbors, to our sisters and brothers across the ELCA – and that’s great.
But if we lived this parable, meeting that budget would be exceedingly easy. If we all were able to let go of only ten percent, for example, of what we have been given, we could double or triple our budget. Maybe more. We know what it costs for our usual work, so all the rest could be an astonishing blessing of abundance to share with God’s world.
What could our partners at Bethania in India, EPES in Chile, Common Hope in Guatemala, do with an extra $100,000 a year for their critical mission? What impact could we make in south Minneapolis by buying the four houses north of us and converting them to affordable rental housing for low income people, or a transitional shelter? What could our new loan program do funded at a level that truly made a dent in how many use payday lending? When we aim only for our minimum budget, we’re not quite burying God’s wealth in the ground. But we’re also not catching God’s vision for what God’s abundance can do.
So our stewardship is communal: we get together and pool God’s money, and dream what we can do. We elect leaders, a Vestry, to help guide us. We learn from each other. There are folks here who’ve understood proportional giving and tithing for decades and lived into it, and shaped this congregation. They can teach us what it is to live without fear and release what is God’s so the world is blessed.
It’s enough joy to make us giddy to contemplate what God could do among us if we really caught this parable’s vision.
The grace of this parable is in the master’s welcome: “Enter into my joy.”
Freely, fearlessly using what their master had entrusted, the first two found joy in serving and joy in living. They were entrusted with even more to care for. In their relationship with their master they found joy.
That’s our truth, always. Our relationship with the Triune God, grounded in God’s love, forgiveness and grace, is a blessing beyond our ability to describe. When we really live freed from fear because of that relationship, because nothing can separate us from God’s love, and we live into Jesus’ vision here of multiplied, shared abundance, we find the joy of our God.
We had no idea we could do so much with God’s abundance. Now we know. And we don’t need to be afraid. So what shall we do, together, as faithful stewards of God’s abundant blessings?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
There is grace here: Christ, the bridegroom, willingly takes a door-slam in the face alongside us, and is with us as we seek to prepare our lives for God’s healing grace in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 32, year A
Texts: Matthew 25:1-13; Amos 5:18-24
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 has been a heavy, exhausting twelve months.
It’s so tiring, all the time, isn’t it? I’m tired that there isn’t a single day without depressing news, or worse, despairing news. Almost hourly we hear of the latest shenanigans or wickedness from our highest leaders. Almost daily we hear news of shootings and killings, and our Congress, bought and paid for by the NRA, refuses to address it. Natural disasters are no longer natural, aided and abetted by climate change, city after city is pummeled by storms like we’ve never seen.
And it’s more than the news. More than any before us, we’re aware of the complex systems that cause suffering and pain, and we can’t keep up. Seemingly insoluble problems that require all our energy and creativity, embedded systems that we participate in even without knowing. We’re used to confessing our individual sins and trying to do better. Now on top of them there’s an endless list of mountains we need to work on. Just one would take great effort. But there’s not just one. Climate justice. Racism. Devaluation and objectification of women across the culture. Violence and a gun culture. Oppression of the poor in our own nation. And so many more. If we didn’t care, it would be easier. But we do. And God cares. There’s so much our care compels us to deal with. It’s overwhelming. Exhausting.
And this heaviness, anxiety, and tiredness seems to be rising among many of us who care deeply about this world and about serving God in this world.
It would be a help if we could find some relief for this weight.
Here at worship we often find God’s peace. But this past year has been Matthew’s year, and that’s contributed to the weight. This year I’ve had a number of conversations with folks here about Matthew, and how judgmental his Gospel can feel. And the lectionary creators chose a lot of prophetic witness to pair with Matthew this year, so it hasn’t been an easy year to find lightness and joy in our Scripture texts.
Just look at these next three weeks, starting today. To finish the Church Year we’ve got three very hard parables from Matthew 25 and three very angry prophets, Amos, Zephaniah, and Ezekiel. At this point, that seems more weight than we can bear.
But God has promised to bless us with grace when we gather. So we’re going to struggle with these readings until we get it. We’ll emulate Jacob at the river Jabbok, who wrestled an angel, maybe even God, all night, and refused to let go until he got a blessing. With the Spirit’s help, we’re not letting go of these heavy readings in a heavy year until we hear God’s good news.
Our wrestling reveals we’re not being completely fair to Matthew.
It’s true, Matthew’s the kind of student that, just before the bell rings, raises his hand and reminds the teacher she forgot to give homework. Matthew’s a disciple that wants to learn. He packs his Gospel with Jesus’ teachings. And we’ve heard those teachings, week after week, till we feel like all we’ve heard this year is how messed up we are and how much work we have to do.
But it’s not Matthew’s fault we don’t read his whole Gospel every week. We can’t hear all the teachings and skip Matthew’s framing truth and complain we don’t like Matthew.
If we read all of Matthew every week, we’d remember that Matthew starts his Gospel with Jesus’ family tree that includes flawed people, even naming four women. Jesus comes from broken folks just like us. It’s Matthew who says that Jesus’ true name is Emmanuel, God with us, who ends his Gospel with Jesus’ promise to be with us always. The whole Gospel is about God being with us. Matthew’s the only Evangelist that tells us that Jesus said God wills that not a single person be lost. God wants to save everyone. And unlike Luke, who heard that the Roman officer who crucified Jesus said, as Jesus died, “truly this was an innocent man,” Matthew says the officer said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
So here’s Matthew’s Good News: Jesus is the Christ, God-with-us, born of flawed human stock, who desires to save all, and who is publicly known and proclaimed as God’s Son only when he’s dying, humiliated, on a cross.
We can’t read this parable and ignore Matthew’s greater truth.
Now, obviously the Bridegroom today is meant to be Jesus.
In most of the parables we’ve heard since September, there’s been a figure that seems clearly to stand as God. Or the Son of God. Vineyard owner, ruler, master. That’s true these three weeks, too. Today, the Bridegroom. Next week, the master. Last, the returning King.
But if Matthew is focused toward that critical witness at the cross – truly this is the Son of God – then we have to re-think all those parables. God isn’t where we thought God was in them. God-with-us is dying on the cross. And that changes everything.
Because if it’s God’s Son who’s dying as a criminal, here’s what really happens in today’s parable: the Bridegroom himself has the door slammed in his face. He’s told “I don’t know you,” and is thrown out with the rest of us foolish, unprepared ones. If the Son of God dies on the cross, then this parable doesn’t end the way Jesus said it would.
Now, Jesus told this parable right before Holy Week. Matthew 26, the next chapter, begins the Passion account. Whatever was threatened here, in Holy Week the opposite happened. The Bridegroom was thrown out, along with everyone else who didn’t properly prepare. And the Bridegroom was killed.
This is the astonishing grace we find when we struggle and don’t let go till we hear good news: God-with-us is out in the darkness with us.
God joins us in our foolish lack of preparation, our paralyzed inactivity in the face of such challenging things. There is no greater news. I’ve never felt that I’d be one of the prepared ones. I leave things till the last minute too often. How do any of us know if we’re ready for Christ?
But if God is with us in our struggle to be prepared, it’s a different world. Now we can hear the message of this parable – be ready, get your oil, face what needs facing – with the joy that we aren’t preparing alone.
Amos shows us the oil we need to have ready: justice that rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. That’s what fills our flasks, what lights our lamps. It is God-made, and God-given. And with God-with-us at our side, we can fill up with God’s justice and righteousness and be ready for whatever mountains and suffering and work are before us.
It’s a heavy path ahead. This year has taught us that. It’s going to be heavy for a long time. But we’re not alone. God is here. So we can go on.
There’s one more grace in all this, maybe the best of all.
If God’s justice and righteousness are the oil for our lamps, what will happen when they are lighted? Our preparedness has little to do with life after we die. In Christ’s resurrection we will be borne into new life, and there’s nothing we can do to make that happen. So what are we preparing for?
African slaves in America sang “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning” to each other. They meant it as more than encouragement about life after death. It was also a prayer for God to change the world. As our lamps of justice burn, the darkness itself is lightened. The world is changed. As our lamps of righteousness burn, even if we can only do a small flame, this world begins to see again, and God’s true healing happens. Mountains start coming down. Even in this world. Maybe even in our lifetimes.
We can’t deny that more often than not we’re the foolish ones in this story, unprepared for the challenges we face.
But hasn’t Paul reminded us that the truth of the cross is that God chooses the foolish to shame the wise? That God chooses to save through the foolishness of the cross? It makes no sense for the Bridegroom to allow himself to be shut out of the party, even killed for the sake of the likes of us. But sensible or not, that’s exactly what Christ does.
And that foolish death was just the beginning. For Christ is risen, and all the foolish are restored along with the wise. In the light of the resurrection, the wedding feast of God and humanity can finally begin, even now, and change the world. It’s a feast with no doors to slam, no faces excluded. Where everyone is known and loved by name.
We taste of that feast today and at each Eucharist. We are fed with God’s justice and righteousness, we have our jars filled here each week, so we can be prepared for whatever is to come.
But best of all, God-with-us, Emmanuel, never leaves us. That is the light we’ve been longing to see in all this darkness.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
“What we will be has not yet been revealed.” On this All Saints Sunday, how do we live in the mysterious “not yet” of our life together with God? And what do we know about God’s presence with us now?
Vicar Jessica Christy
All Saints Sunday, year A
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Let us pray. 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.
Beloved, what we will be has not yet been revealed. But what we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God.
That seems like a strange sort of promise for us to hear, on today of all days. On this festival when we celebrate the communion of all saints, it would make sense for us to proclaim with as much as much certainty as we are able what it will be like for us to experience full union with God. Mystery is unsettling, especially in the face of eternity. We long for certainty about what awaits us after death. We want a clear picture of what has happened to our departed loved ones. And yet we read 1 John and are confronted with a great mystery of faith. We know what we will become, but the fullness of that has not yet been revealed. Our faith promises the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, but scripture gives us precious few details about how we will experience that fulfillment. In hope, we await perfect peace and joy and praise in God’s presence, but the rest is hidden from our gaze.
For centuries, much of the church has acted as though the purpose of the gospel were to teach us the right way to get into heaven, and what to expect once we make it there. But if that was really meant to be the center of Jesus’ teachings, he didn’t do a great job of communicating that. He seemed a lot more interested in how we live with each other here, how we participate in God’s reign on earth. When Jesus died, he broke open the jaws of Hell, ascended to heaven, and returned to Earth, but he didn’t then grab his disciples to tell them the essential facts they needed to know about the afterlife. Instead, he forgave them, and fed them, and told them to go forth and do likewise. The work of faith is to love God, love each other, and trust that God will take care of the rest. Christ’s promises of heaven light our way, but they do not shine so bright as to blind us to the world around us. It might not always seem that way, but the mystery of heaven is truly a gift. We have been given the gift of mystery so that we can live together more fully on Earth. And we have been given the gift of mystery because we know that what awaits us is more wonderful than we could ever comprehend.
So what we will be has not yet been revealed – but we know what we are now, and that knowledge is amazing. As 1 John tells us, we are God’s beloved children, now. The great God of the universe, the God who lights the spark of distant galaxies and who breathes life into all the secret places of the earth, that source of all being knows me, and knows you, and calls us child. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” See what love, that in this vast cosmos we should be made in God’s own image and loved as God’s dearest creation. And also we know that, when God carefully created each and every one of us, God placed something of Christ within us, something shining and eternal that flashes forth whenever we encounter the living Trinity. John says that when God is fully revealed to us, we will discover that we are like God, for God has been alive within us all along. We can’t begin to imagine what that will be like, but we know that it is already true, just waiting to be unveiled. And because we know these things, we know that nothing – not sin, not sadness, not even the grave, can separate us from the love of God. We are God’s children now, and we will be God’s children forever.
What we will be has not yet been revealed, but we know that we are embraced by God’s blessings. When Jesus pronounces the beatitudes, it’s the first time in the book of Matthew that we see him really speaking to his disciples. He has called them, and performed miracles in their presence, but these verses are his very first teachings. They eagerly follow this new wonder-worker to a mountaintop to hear what he will tell them, and he says: blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the persecuted, and all those who hunger for a better world.
In the places of weakness, dissatisfaction, and despair where the world sees only curses, Jesus proclaims blessings. He says that the kingdom of heaven is found in the lives of those who live in the service of others. Not “theirs will be the kingdom of heaven” but “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When we see peacemaking and justice-seeking, we know that God is with us. When we see gentleness and mercy, we know that God is with us. And when it feels like all is lost, Christ comforts us with the promise that our places of helplessness and sorrow and fear are the places that God attends to with the greatest care of all. When it’s joyful and when it’s painful, we know that our life together is blessed.
What we will be has not yet been revealed, but we know that we are members of the risen body of Christ. Not only do we know this, but we experience it every week when we gather around the table for communion. The shared body and blood of Christ knit us together, all of our different lives and bodies into marvelous, divine union. In Christ, all the walls that separate us from each other are breached, and we become one. Here, we find wholeness in each other.
But it’s more than that. It’s not just the people we see here and now around us. The body of Christ transcends all space. At the table we are part of the same body and blood as believers around the world. People we have known for our whole lives and people we will never meet. People who sit beside us and friends who are far away. People we love with all our hearts and people we’d honestly rather have nothing to do with. All of us are part of one another. John’s vision of the faithful gathered before God’s throne gives us a glimpse of the glory of this universal communion, when Christ joins us to every nation and language on earth.
And the body of Christ transcends all time. That same body and blood that Jesus shared on the night he was betrayed is shared here today, just as it is shared each time Christians gather for the meal. In Christ, we are joined to every saint who ever has been and ever will be. The disciples who heard Jesus first say the words, “This is my body, given for you” – they are here around the table. Every martyr, missionary, and mystic enters into our midst through the Eucharist. People of ages past, popes and reformers, farmers and kings, all share the Lord’s Supper with us. Our loved ones who have gone before us are also members of the living body of Christ. Bob, Donna, Ed, Catherine, and all the other beloved saints we remember today – they are truly present whenever we break the bread and pass the cup. And unknown generations to come, they too are here in the mystery of this meal. Across every age, all of us are members of the same body, sharing the same communion. Death is no barrier. We do not yet know the fullness of eternal life, but eternal life is already here. It always has been here for us to taste and see.
What we will be has not yet been revealed. We do not know what we will be, but we know what we are now, and for now, that is enough. We are the beloved, blessed body of Christ. In Christ, nothing can separate us from God, and nothing can separate us from each other. We are one people, knit together in one communion, in the mystical body of Jesus Christ. So come to the table. Everyone is invited – and everyone is here.