Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

November 14, 2021
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Boise, ID
2 Corinthians 5:14-20; Mark 12:28-34

CALL TO WORSHIP

Sometimes churches can be invisible.
You get used to them being there,
we’re just a part of the scenery.
People go in and go out,
but if you’re not one of them,
you might hardly notice.

So when our Mission and Life Committee
was studying our neighborhood,
asking our neighbors
what they thought of us
and what they thought we could contribute—
one of my favorite responses
was the person who said that Immanuel
was a thing of beauty in the community.
Just the property—the courtyard, the old Augustana chapel,
the well-maintained grounds and gardens—
provide beauty to the area.

And it’s true;
sometimes I see people wandering by
who come to sit in the courtyard and rest a while,
or get out of the heat
to sit down on the cool stone steps of Augustana.

But you have to come to us to experience that.

And so ever since I have wondered,
what would it take for Immanuel to become
a thing of beauty out there in the community?

To become known as people
who bring beauty to others?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Wouldn’t that be an awesome thing to be known for:

To be a thing of beauty in a pandemic world?
To be known as a place of respite
for the weary and impatient?
To be a place to rest safely
when others tell you to move on?
To bring beauty where there is dissention and conflict?
To be tender when others are rough?
To be welcoming when others are polarized?
To be color in an otherwise gray world?

To love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength,
and to love our neighbors as ourselves?

Urged on by the love of Christ
to be a thing of beauty in the world—
what might that look like?

SERMON

Almost two years ago,
when the pandemic struck
and the realization began to hit us
that we had to close our churches
and shut down our worship services;
and this wasn’t just a momentary thing
that would be over in a week or a month,
maybe not even over in a year—
I distinctly remember sitting in my office,
starring at the wall,
and thinking,
“I should have gotten out while the getting was good.”

I could have left;
I could have found something else to do;
I could have retired;
I could be on a beach right now!

I should have gotten out while the getting was good.

I was serving as interim pastor
at King of Glory Lutheran Church across town,
and we had just gotten into the last stretch of the call process.

They were interviewing candidates
and everything looked good;
we’d wrap this up in a month or two
and I’d go home.

The COVID hit and everything began to bog down.

I was five hundred miles from home,
travel restrictions were starting to be applied;
I wouldn’t get home for another six months,
and it would be almost another year
before we wrapped it all up.

Candidates who were very interested
suddenly didn’t want to travel for interviews.

They had their own mess to deal with in churches back home,
and they couldn’t abandon their congregations now.
Zoom was a tool only a few knew how to use.

We’d never done it this way before;
we’d have to reinvent the whole call process.

We all had to do that, didn’t we?

We had to reinvent our lives.

We had to reinvent church.

I had decades of pastoral experience.

But everything I knew how to do
I had to figure out how to do differently.

We had to experiment with everything.

For months I preached to no one there—
just me and a camera on a tripod and a big empty church,
pretending you were right there listening to every word,
never knowing if you tuned in at all.

I remember a disillusioned pastor friend, saying,
“This isn’t what I signed up for;
this doesn’t feel like being a pastor.”

A lot of pastors felt that way.

They couldn’t visit the sick,
they couldn’t sit down with you over a cup of coffee
and hear how things were going.

They regularly dealt with difficult people
and their disregard for the safety of others,

their impatience, their panic of loneliness and isolation,
and the political football it all turned into.

Over the last two years,
a lot of them did get out of the ministry.
We have a lot of vacant pulpits right now
and a lot of churches looking for a pastor.

And we all began to wonder, when will things get back to normal?

And then we began to realize we’d never get back to normal,
and started to hope for at least a relatively familiar
‘new normal.’

Until we reluctantly came to the realization
that there was no normal anymore,
and we wouldn’t ever get back to it, not really;
we had entered a whole new world,
and our lives—and church as we knew it—
would never be the same again.

Truth is,

we still don’t know what to expect;

we still don’t know where we are going.

So it’s good to know we aren’t the only ones;
this isn’t the first time.

Remember last week,
when we read from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians?

We pretty much skipped over the most difficult lines,
where the apostle Paul says,

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. 

That’s not a success story.

The apostle is confessing his failures.

He’s struggling under intense persecution
and he doesn’t know what to do.

Everything he tries goes wrong;
every experiment ends in failure;
nothing works the way he wants it to.

His life is in constant danger.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing,
he’s just trying whatever looks like it might work,
hoping to God the Spirit will lead him somewhere.

He feels like a clay jar – inadequate to the task.

The only way he can describe it, is it feels like death.

The old normal has died;
his life would never be the same again;
it’s like we are always being given up to death.

He makes it sound like we’re lucky, it’s only a pandemic for us.

But he has not lost hope; far from it:
we are not crushed, we are not driven to despair,
we are not forsaken, we are destroyed;
in fact, we feel more alive than ever,
alive with the life of Jesus.

There’s a new creation going on,
God is doing new things,
and it is awesome to be a part of it!

And you know, awesome things have happened.

We have learned to be the church in new ways.

We have learned to worship online.

Some of us hate it, and worship reluctantly if at all.

Some of us love it, and never want to give it up;
some of us want it both ways—
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard,
“When we get back to normal, I hope we still do online services.”

Or, “I’ve been sick, I can’t drive anymore, I can’t get out,
but I’m so glad I can worship with my friends online.”

Or even, “I watch two or three services every Sunday;
oh, but don’t worry, pastor, I listen to you, too.”

We’ve gotten creative and learned some new things.

We Zoom everything now, just like you do.

Recording worship has given us new ways to be creative,
and we’re working on a major project
that will allow us to livestream worship
and improve our online communications.

We’ve learned to put the safety of others first,
and our own satisfaction last.

We have learned that faith isn’t about getting our needs met;
it’s about caring for strangers and meeting the needs of others.

You should know that King of Glory got creative:
They interviewed candidates online,
gave them virtual tours of the church and the city,
and eventually called a wonderful new pastor
who accepted the call without ever setting foot in Boise.

Today we install our Call Committee,
who will do the same thing.

They’ll get creative,
they’ll look for the new thing God is doing among us,
they’ll figure out how we can be a part of it;
and somewhere out there,
there are pastoral candidates looking for a church
that’s ready to embrace a new world
and do a new thing;
a congregation that is not crushed, not in despair,
knows it is not forsaken or destroyed;
a congregation that is more alive than ever.

And some new pastor who is alive with the life of Jesus
and ready to share it
will come here and lead you into God’s new future.

What sustains a pastor like that?

Why would anyone stay in the ministry
and not get out when the getting is good?

Why are you still here,
why did you seek us out,
what is it that drives you
to want to be a part of what God is doing;
and what’s got you thinking that God might be doing it here,
at Immanuel Lutheran Church?

What sustains us,
when we know full well it’s not over yet?

For the love of Christ urges us on,
Saint Paul says,
because we are convinced that one has died for all;
therefore all have died, and he died for all,
so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.

For the love of Christ urges us on…

so that those who live might live no longer for themselves!

So that we might live for something bigger than ourselves.

Or as Jesus says in our gospel reading,
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,
and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There is nothing you can do with your life that is greater than that.

In these pandemic times,
we had an opportunity to get reacquainted
with some of the greatest resources
Lutherans bring to the issues before us.

Maybe you know that Martin Luther
endured a pandemic of his own.

Back in 1527, when the plague was ravaging Europe,
a pastor wrote Martin Luther
asking if it was permissible for a pastor
to flee from the plague.

Would it be okay for a pastor to get out while the getting was good?

And Luther said, Yes!
If you get away and avoid all this death and despair,
go! for heaven’s sake, get out of Doge while you can,
and save your own skin.

But, if on your way out of Dodge,
you happen to come across a neighbor,
a stranger who needs your help,
stop—and take care of your neighbor.

It all boils down to this, Luther said:

“If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith,
 let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin.
 If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name
 as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor
but has made adequate provision for others to provide nursing care.

Or to put it another way:
Love God;
love yourself as God loves you;
love your neighbor whom God loves as yourself—
we can’t get through this alone,
we get through this together.

Let the thing that binds you, directs you and controls you
be the love of God and the love of your neighbor first,
and your own safety—the love of your own life—second.

Let love always be the thing that urges you on.

That’s the freedom of a Christian:

Christians—and especially Lutherans—
have a little different idea of what freedom is all about.

We know that the astonishing grace of God has set us free.

Like St. Paul says,
the love of Christ urges us on,
because we are convinced that one has died for all;
therefore all have died, and he died for all,
so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,
but for him who died and was raised for them.

No longer living for yourself;
living for something bigger than yourself;
boldly alive with the life of Jesus.

The freedom of a Christian is not a private
“I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me.’

This pandemic should make it clear that
life, liberty, and happiness are not private possessions;
they are marks of the community
—the world-wide community—we build together.

Love of neighbor isn’t just a pleasant sentiment for Sunday morning;
it is the practical, even life-saving principle for the entire week.

In fact, “individual liberty”
is something of a contradiction in terms for a Christian,
because Christian freedom is always the freedom to serve others.

As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Galatians,
the only thing that counts is faith working through love (5:6).

And, he says, for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,
only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but through love become slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
(5:6, 13-14)

That would be a whole new world, wouldn’t it?

Imagine living such fearless love!

In the midst of his own chaotic times,
the apostle Paul saw an ever-creative God
doing new things:
If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!

The old normal has died;
life may never be the same again;
but The New Is already Here!

And it is time to live into something bigger than ourselves.

Is there really any other faithful response
than the response of the scribe in today’s gospel,
who tells Jesus,
You are right, Teacher!
there is nothing more important,
nothing more righteous and true,
nothing bigger to be a part of than this:

To be unafraid to care for strangers,

to let go of seeking the best I can get for myself,
and do what’s best for others;

the joy of meeting needs
rather than the fear
of not getting my own needs met;

to love God,
and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Amen.

CALL TO LIFE

I confessed to you last week
that I never wanted to be a pastor.
I’ve always thought I find something else to do,
some way to get out of it.

Well, about two years ago,
I think I had the perfect excuse.

Everything I knew would have to be reinvented.
And I thought,
now’s the time to get out while the getting is good.

But almost immediately I had a second thought:
No!
Everything I know is out the window,
the church is going to have to reinvent itself;
this could be the thing that finally forces us
to reexamine everything,
reexamine even our faith,
figure out what our purpose is,
figure out what in the world the world needs us to be.

This could be a new creation;
and we just might be right where God wants us.

No way—I’ve waited all my life for this!
The New Is Here!
How could I miss it?

I hope you feel the same way.
I hope you want to be a part of what God is doing,
and I hope you want to be a part of what God is doing among us,
here at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

We’ve had to experiment,
and we don’t always know what we’re doing.

Sometimes, we’re just trying whatever looks like it might work,
hoping to God the Spirit will lead us somewhere.

Sometimes we feel inadequate to the task.

We don’t know where we are going,
we just keep praying,
O God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
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 on this Commitment Sunday,
I hope you will pray for God to guide you
to commit to being a part of something bigger than yourself.

May the love of Christ urge you on.

© Paul R. Olsen

TEXTS:

Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.

2 Corinthians 5:14-20
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,,, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

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