Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

All Saints’ Day – November 7, 2021
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Boise, Idaho
2 Corinthians 4:5-15; Mark 12:38-44

CALL TO WORSHIP

In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the writer says,
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.

Faith is the boldness
to step across the threshold, face an unknown future.

As one our prayers says,
O God, give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

And then the writer says, all our ancestors in faith,
all the great saints we honor on this day—
their good deeds and accomplishments
aren’t worth a dime.

It was their simple trust when they didn’t know where to go,
it was by faith our ancestors received approval.

And then the writer lists example after example:
by faith Abel…
by faith Enoch…
by faith Noah…
by faith Abraham and Sarah…
by faith Isaac…
by faith Jacob…
by faith Joseph…
by faith Moses…
—and I could go on, he says.

And we could go on,
and name a few of the saints we have known,
and today we will:
Judy, and Leona,
Sue, Larry,
David, Florence,
Patty, June and Elwyn,
Don, Mary, Kathyn,
Peg and Wally, Todd.

Hold them in your everlasting arms, O God.

Faith, in the end, was all they had.
And faith was enough.
And faith was not enough.
Because even in faith they did not receive what was promised.
Not yet.
The things they hoped for, the things they could not see.
The things we all hope for.
There was more.
By the grace of God,
there was yet the promise of more to come,
more to be.
The promise and the call
to something bigger than ourselves
to believe in.

SERMON

About forty years ago, I graduated from seminary,
approved and certified for call as a pastor
to some unsuspecting Lutheran congregation.

But I didn’t do it; I didn’t become a pastor.

Instead, for a variety of reasons
ranging from love to bureaucracy,
I dallied for two years,
two enjoyable years,
of being an actor, which surprised everybody,
and being in love, which surprised me,
and earning next to nothing
working in a warehouse.

I was having fun not being a pastor.

But if I didn’t take a call soon,
I knew they’d forget all about me.

So in 1983, I finally accepted a call
to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Harlan, Iowa.

Acting went out the window; so did love.

For my ordination service,
I chose the words of the apostle Paul we read today from 2 Corinthians.

I thought it would be a perfect theme for my life and ministry.

For we do not proclaim ourselves;
we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord
and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

That, I thought, was my call in a nutshell.

I read those words today and I wonder what I was thinking.

Your slave?

I assure you, I have no interest in being your slave.

Even though Jesus talks about it all the time,
seems to think serving others is the best you could do,
even says he came not to be served but to serve,
even if it costs him his life,
and rather pointedly makes it clear we should do the same.

So,servanthood?  Well, maybe.

Maybe that’s what I was thinking.

I did want my life to serve some purpose
bigger than myself.

I wanted my life to mean something,
and I knew if that was going to happen
it couldn’t be all about me.

I had to serve something bigger than me,
and it doesn’t get much bigger than GOD.

So yes, I can agree with the apostle:
everything is for your sake,
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people,
may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

And really, don’t you want the same thing?

Serving yourself,
being your own god,
isn’t that too small a thing?

Or, as our gospel test for today says,
all those successful people,
walking around in the finest clothes and latest fashions,
greeted with respect in the marketplaces,
getting the best seats
and
the places of honor at banquets—
you want that, don’t you?

You’d love to be drinking better wine
in a finer house
with the car of your dreams
in the 3-car garage.

You do not want to be anybody’s servant,
let alone a slave, not even for the sake of Jesus.

But you do want your life to mean something, don’t you?

You do want—you need—a purpose bigger than yourself.

You actually need to serve something;
you need a God
bigger than you.

And you know you have gifts,
you know you have something to bring to this world,
you know you there’s a little bit of glory in you,
and, you don’t need your name in lights or anything,
you don’t need be famous, maybe not even rich,
you just want to be appreciated
for who you are and what you can do;
you just want a little love for it all.

And that’s probably all what I wanted, too.

But my Ordinator—
the guy who presided at my ordination as a pastor,
who led the service and preached the sermon,
ignored my choice of St. Paul’s words,
and chose some words of Jesus instead.

I was a little disappointed;
I mean, I had it printed right there on the front of the bulletin
and all the announcements and invitations I sent out to people—
I thought it was pretty obvious.

But what he chose instead was this:

You did not choose me, but I chose you.
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
fruit that will last,
so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.

You did not choose me, but I chose you.

Which is to say, this isn’t about you;
I’ve got this one;
if you amount to anything as a pastor
it will be because I called you.

I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.

In the years ahead,
you’re going to look back and think
it all amounted to some pretty slim pickings,
but there will be some lasting fruit,
and it will all be worthwhile.

The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name—
which is not say everything is going to go your way
and you’re not going to get whatever you want;
oh, Lord, no, that has most definitely not been the case.

But it does mean you are not alone;
you will have what you need;
God goes with you.

Little did I know how much more important
his words of promise would be to me
than my words of high calling.

But I’ll tell you something:  I never wanted to do this.

A week ago I was looking for some new glasses,
and the optician helping me asked me what I did for a living,
and I told her, and she exclaimed, “Oh, that’s wonderful!”

She was a Christian, and she was so glad to meet me,
and she thought what I did was such important work,
and she so respected that.

And she asked me,
“What made you decide you wanted to be a pastor?”

And I said—for some reason I answered honestly,
“I never wanted to be a pastor; still don’t.”

I never wanted to live up to everybody else’s expectations;
I never wanted to try to fit myself
into those narrow, black-and-white,
restrictive, three-sizes-too-small,
pinch your toes and cramp your lifestyle
shoes.

I always thought I’d find a way out of it.
I’d do it for a while, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do,
but sooner or later I find something else to do.

I think she was bit disappointed;
I think she was hoping for a call story
that was just a little more glorious,
something with angels, or bright lights,
or voices from heaven,
or at least a little more conviction.

I’m still looking for something else to do.

It’s not going well.

I’m still here.

I just can’t get out of it.

And I think that sometimes that’s what a call is;
You did not choose me, I chose you—
get used to it;
you might start to like it,
you might start to realize
you’ve stumbled on to something bigger than yourself.

Maybe you can relate to that; maybe that’s you.

Maybe you never wanted to be here.

Maybe you think you’re not religious,
and you have a hard time believing this stuff,
and you have a hard enough time living up
to your own expectations, let alone anyone else’s,
and you want to have more fun
than you think you can have in church.

Well, I’m with you.

Maybe you’ve been around churches long enough to know
they’re not exactly filled with saints and angels.

There’s a hell of a lot of difficult people around here,
they can fight and argue and gossip
as much as pray and worship and speak kindly,
and it’s sometimes hard to believe
you’re going to have to spend the rest of eternity with them.

It can be a constant struggle getting anything done,
when we do do some good
it’s often as not with some collateral damage,
and we tend to do it as much for what we get out of it
as we do for what somebody else might get out of it.

Spend a few of your years around a church,
and you might look back and think
it all amounted to some pretty slim pickings,
and you wonder if any of the good you tried to do
with amount to some lasting fruit.

Truth be told, if you want to meet some sinners
a church is as good a place as any low-dive bar you can name.

So you want to light some candles to some saints today?

And so we did—about 15 of them;
fifteen of the saints we’ve known and loved;
we miss them and we always will.

We remember them for best they have been,
and we forget the worst we saw in them.

We tell jokes and funny stories about them,
and list the good things they did for us and did for others;
and we bury the hatchet and lose the list
of all the ways they hurt us
or disappointed us
or didn’t live up to our expectations.

We call them saints instead of sinners,
even though we know better.

And we cross our fingers
and pray to God
that one day
others will do the same for us.

Because the truth is,
none of us are very good
at living up to expectations,
our own or yours.

We’ve done our best, maybe,
but we’ve also done our worst,
and it hasn’t always been pretty.

We’ve messed up,
and hurt some people,
and run away from what we’ve done,
and faced up to failure as often as success.

We are not the important ones in fine suits;
if we earned your respect or gained some honor
we also filled some closets with ghosts and secrets.

We are the sinners, not the righteous,
and we’ve left a trail of tears behind us
nobody can find or see,
both theirs and ours.


As St. Paul says,
we have this treasure in clay jars;
we’re just ordinary, everyday vessels,
and you might find it a wonder that God can somehow use us.

But somehow God does:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us …

so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So, being a pastor—I’m not sure what I was thinking.

Was I thinking it would be glorious?

Was I expecting the automatic, unearned, but graciously given
respect and admiration that woman gave me,
the way some people will, just because you’re a pastor?

Or was I thinking I was called to be your servant for Jesus’ sake?

Well, either way, it’s been a privilege.

I’m always surprised by the respect I’ve never felt I earned.

But I have never felt like the all-star player of the game.

I mostly have felt like the water boy:
I get to run out on the field once in awhile with my clay jar,
and squirt what little refreshment I can onto your lips
while you play the game.

And then
I have the best seat in the house,
right on the fifty-yard line, where everything happens.

Being a pastor just means I have a front-row seat
on what God is doing in your lives.

I get to see God at work in you,
even when you can’t see it,
even when can’t believe it’s true,
even when it doesn’t fulfill your expectations.

I see God at work in you
even when you’re being difficult (or I am),
whether you’re fighting or arguing or gossiping,
or praying for each other,
worshiping together,
or doing your feeble best to love God and love your neighbors.

It is awesome to be on the sidelines.

So, what do you think, Immanuel Lutheran Church?

What’s your calling?

We’ve asked you to think about that;
to think about the stewardship of your life
and your spiritual growth;
to consider where you are and where you want to be
in your prayer life, your worship life,
your personal encounter with the Word of God,
your service to others,
your giving to the work of God in this place.

We hope you come back next week
with some decisions about that.

And what is our calling, together, as the people of God in this place?

We are focusing on the future,
on the new pastor who will serve you,
on the new thing God is doing among us.

We’ve been through so many changes
in the past couple of years.

Who ever thought we’d all sit together in church
like bank robbers wearing masks?

Who ever thought there would be as many of you
sitting at home, worshiping with us online?

And who knows what the next year will bring?

All we know is there is no going back.

The new is already here,
and we are trying to figure out how to live into it.

But God is still out there,
doing what God does–
bringing light into our darkness,
creating order and beauty out of our chaos and despair.

And God is calling us out.

God is calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The God who at the dawn of creation said,
Let light shine out of darkness,
is an ever-creative God,
always creating something new
out of the chaos of our lives.

Calling us to bear fruit,

promising that even sinners can amount to something.

Calling you to a servanthood you maybe never wanted,
to do your feeble best to love God and love your neighbors.

And if not everything goes your way,
or you don’t get whatever you want,
that does mean you are not alone.

You will have what you need;
God goes with you.

Immanuel, these are words of high calling;
and words of great promise.

Answer that call,
and you might start to realize
you’ve stumbled on to something bigger than yourself.

Amen.

CALL TO LIFE

After remembering, after listing,
all our ancestors in faith,
how they pressed on toward what they could not see,
how they continued to hope
for the promise of more to come,
more to be—

the writer of Hebrews
issues a call to the rest of us,
a call to believe
in something bigger than ourselves,
to be a part of what God is doing in our world,
the new thing God is still creating.

Therefore, the writer says,
since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him
endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

God calling us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The ever-creative God,
always creating something new
out of the chaos of our times.

When we cannot see, when it’s hard to hope,
God still calling out,
let light shine out of our darkness.

O God, give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

God is out there, and The New Is Here—
go out and find a way to be a part of it.

TEXTS:

Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 
Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

2 Corinthians 4:5-15
For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.  For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you. 
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.  Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

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