Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

I heard they welcomed you with those words,
“Welcome to the people’s house.”

But it is not your house;
it is our house.
It is not my house, either;
it is our house.

It is where I live, you live,
in a sense.
But it is not my possession or yours.
It is not a possession.

It belongs to no individual,
it belongs to no individual cause.
No group may claim it,
no party stay for long.

Yet it is open to all people.

At least, it was.

All the people make a home there;
it is all the people’s house.

We had no idea we cared so much about it,
most of us never having seen it,
its rotunda, perhaps,
the rest of its rooms but history to us.

It is the people’s house,
yet we are all guests there,
guests of one another.

And our purpose in being here,
in this house being here at all,
is not to claim some personal space,
some room of our own,
a note on the door telling our siblings to stay out,
this is ours not yours.
Its purpose, our purpose,
is to stand for something much more than ourselves,
our needs, our wants,
our petulant causes.
We are much more than that.

We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It was the servants’ entrance you entered.

It was like coming home to see
our guest, our sibling, our neighbor
had forced the doors of our home,
tracked mud on the floor,
broken our grandmother’s china,
put their feet on the furniture,
snuffed out smokes on the table,
taken whatever they wanted without asking,
left the refrigerator door hanging open.

Leaving the rest of us to clean up this mess.

I can hardly bring myself to mention:
driven the children from their beds,
beat them, left them for dead.

You had been here before,
invited over even,
served what we could offer,
tried to make you feel at home
in our home.

We felt what anyone would feel:
disrespect for your house is disrespect for you;
attacking your family is attacking you.

We want to know why.
Really—I want to listen,
I want to understand;
what possible hurt could there be
that could justify for you
inflicting such hurt on others?

I want to listen.
But storming the people’s house
is not a message;
it is an assault.

You cannot believe,
I do not think you can
though I hope somehow to convey it,
our sadness and shame before all the world.

We are aghast;
the world is aghast.
You see it, surely you see it,
don’t you?
The nation, the people, your people
are ashamed.

Our sadness.
You are our sadness.

When I was seventeen,
about to graduate and already heady with freedom,
I came home drunk one night.

I entered my parent’s house,
stumbled,
crawled, to be honest,
up the stairs,
making some monstrous noise
to which I was oblivious in my stupor,
and fell on my bed.
But I was just enough aware
of my mother coming out to see me on the stairs
like a drunk in the gutter,
and my dad finding me
all but unconscious on the bed.

In the morning, when I finally roused myself,
head splitting and hungover,
in more trouble than I knew,
I made myself as presentable as I could,
and walked into the kitchen.

My mother did not turn, did not look up, did not speak.
She finally said, “Your father wants to talk to you.”
Not another word.

My dad ran his business from his home office,
I knew I’d find him there.
“Mom said you wanted to see me.”

“Sit down.”

He did not hurry.
He took his time, finished what he was doing.
Then he turned, looked at me across his desk, and said,
“You know, your mother cried last night.”

No, never, never in my life had I seen my mother cry.
I had been the one to cause it.

Maybe he had a plan,
a withering speech prepared,
a discipline, a punishment,
a lesson to teach.

Maybe he saw my face fall,
regret, remorse,
the humiliation,
the shame.

I had broken the heart of the woman he loved,
and so had broken his heart also.

Maybe he saw my heart break,
and beyond that there was nothing more to do
but wait to see
what the amendment of my life would be.

Maybe he was unbelievably gracious—
that would be like him.

He let me sit there some time in my misery, and then,
“You can go now.”

I have been a fool many times since,
but I have never been such a fool.
I sought thereafter to be the son of their pride not their shame.

Your country cried that night,
it has cried for seven days.

You say you are proud.
But you showed yourselves children
who lack discipline, respect, or kindness,
and you have nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps you are hurting;
hurting others will not heal you.
You have broken our hearts;
but that will not mend yours.

Between my parents and I
there was forgiveness and grace.
But also unspoken was the expectation,
not only theirs but mine,
that there would be
repentance,
confession,
and amendment of life.

I would be held accountable;
I would hold myself accountable.
No excuses.
My freedom was given back to me,
but it came with responsibility,
and service.

If there is one thing we have learned in this pandemic year,
it is that freedom is not a possession but a calling
to serve others.

It turns out to be astonishingly simple:
Just wash your hands,
keep your distance,
wear a mask.
As it happens, loving our neighbor
is the best way to love ourselves;
their safety is our safety.

And that is what freedom is for.
Individual liberty is an oxymoron;
liberty is always shared.
It is how we live together.
Whatever power we have been given,
its only just use is to serve others.
Any freedom I have that does not take your need into account
is but a prison.

We will hold you accountable;
we will hold ourselves accountable.
No excuses;
freedom comes only with responsibility
and calls for amendment of life.

It is the people’s house.
We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It is the servants’ entrance you entered.

We, the people, will stand for nothing else.

#          #          #

Freedom.

There is hardly a more soul-stirring word in America, since the Declaration of Independence named “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  It is the bottom-line last word for every argument, or at least the last word for not listening to one.

In these pandemic times liberty, whether religious or personal, has been an argument against public health measures and government orders to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Freedom is more than an American concept.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists it first among “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” though its last words remind us that the free have “duties to the community,” and the exercise of rights and freedoms entails securing and respecting the rights and freedoms of others.

Part of the argument in these times has been a defense of religious liberty, claiming the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion as exempting churches (or presumably any other religious organization) from following public health orders commanding the restriction of public gatherings to 10 or 20 or 50 people.

So in these pandemic times, what does freedom mean to a Christian?  Do we have anything to offer in this conversation?  How shall we exercise our freedom?

Three Commandments

Laws and commandments might seem like a strange place to start a discussion of freedom, but let’s take a look at the three commandments Jesus highlights in Matthew 22:34-40.  A religious leader, who happens to be an expert on the law of Moses, tests Jesus with a question:  Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Love God

Jesus answers, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.

Well, that should settle the freedom to worship question, shouldn’t it?  Worship is one way to love God above everything else.

But in fact, God doesn’t need my worship.  There is nothing I have to offer God that God needs; God needs nothing from me.  God thinks that to worship is something I need.  And yet worship is not about me, it’s about God, and when it becomes about me—about my experience, the feelings it gives me of peace or happiness or joy or serenity, the meaning or learning or teaching I gain; when the focus becomes my actions of praise, lament, prayer, singing, repentance, obedience, acceptance—it ceases to be about God.

It’s easy enough in worship to get caught up in ourselves and what we need.  We say, “We have to meet the needs of our people,” and then worship becomes about meeting my needs.  We ask, “What did I get out of this worship service?”  Instead of, “What am I being sent out of this worship service to do and to be?”

But if God doesn’t need my worship, if worship is more about God’s love directed to humanity than our love directed to God—then how am I to love God?

Love Your Neighbor

Jesus continues with his answer:  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor ….

Love of God, love of neighbor—they cannot be separated.  You cannot love God—you cannot worship—without concern for your neighbor.  If my neighbor is hungry, then I am hungry.  If my neighbor has no income, then I am poor.  If my neighbor hasn’t proper health care, then all is not well.

We have no greater command right now than to love our neighbor, and to make no decision without regard first of all for her safety and wellbeing.  This is what we can do now in these times (it is what we always should have been doing).

The Third Commandment…

…is not a commandment at all, but a presumption.  Jesus says, You shall love your neighbor as [you love] yourself. 

Jesus presumes you love yourself.  In fact, you may not like yourself at all; it can be a hard thing to love oneself, and yet your self—your beloved self, the self God so loves—is always there, inescapable.

And how are you to learn to love yourself?  Love of self, like love of God, is inextricably bound up with the love of your neighbor; you will learn to love yourself by loving your neighbor.  We learn to love, and to be better lovers, in relationship; you cannot work on yourself by yourself, you need community, you need others.  The push and rub and gift and demand and challenge and blessing of relationship to others is where we learn to be ourselves, forgive ourselves, and love ourselves.

James (1:22, 27), that old blues singer to our Christendom (not something Lutherans often quote, and yet), tells us this about worship:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves….  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:  to care for orphans and widows in their distress.  In other words, our first concern is the most vulnerable among us.

And, James continues, to keep oneself unstained from the world.  By which he does not mean the practice of some self-centered moralism; or pursuing righteousness as a personal possession—for again, that would be all about oneself, not about God, and no righteousness at all.  Rather what James is calling for is something more like clearheaded thinking in the midst of an anxious and fearful world—to work on oneself by forgetting oneself in the community of others.

Which is to say, love your neighbor as yourself.

And you know that James will go on to say, So faith by itself, if I has no works, is dead….  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (2:17, 19 [14-18]).  Loving our neighbor is our highest form of praise, and in that, the God who loves our neighbor as God loves our own selves, will be most highly honored.

Love in a Time of Pandemic

In times of pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear, “Me First” is not only unfaithful, it is a bad strategy and it doesn’t work.  Self-isolating and staying home are necessary ways of loving our neighbor—wearing a mask, for instance, does more to protect you than it does to protect me, unless you also will wear a mask, for my sake. 

Wearing that mask when you are out in public or gathering with others is more than just a momentary responsibility.  If you and I are going to gather at the park or in your backyard or your living room or at a restaurant or bar or coffee shop, or you and I and eight other people are going to meet at church—we don’t just practice good caring protocols for the 15 or 30 minutes we’re together.  The easy transmissibility of this coronavirus has made it abundantly clear that you bring to that meeting every other person you have spent time with in the last couple of weeks.  So loving your neighbor becomes more than just a moment’s social graces; it becomes the way you live your life, when we’re together and when we’re not.  In a word, it becomes your vocation—but more on that later.

Hunkering down, building defenses, buying up groceries before somebody else does, closing ourselves off, or blaming others will not save us.

We are all in this together, we solve this together, we survive this together.  We are only as strong as our weakest link in our health care system, our weakest community, our world’s weakest country, our most vulnerable neighbor.

We are Wuhan, all of us, and Wuhan is us.

If we learn nothing else from these times, it should be that we are all connected, every single human one of us across the globe.  If you are looking for a mask to protect yourself, you look in vain.  A vaccine will be nigh on to worthless unless it is fairly and equally and widely available to all of us.  A pandemic should make 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.

What then of liberty?

Christians—perhaps especially Lutherans—know that the astonishing grace of God has set us free (Romans 8:1f; Galatians 1:3, 5:1).  But let us remember that this is freedom from sin & death & condemnation, not a personal or private “I can do anything I want and you can’t stop me.’

“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, 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.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (5:6, 13-15);

And again, after talking about the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—none as personal possessions, but all as characteristics of our relationships with others—Paul says,

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (6:2).

And unable to leave it even at that, concludes, So then, whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (6:10).

Martin Luther, who himself was a pastor during the pandemic of the Black Plague 500 years ago, offered guidance to his people and colleagues that remains both moving and relevant, especially to us now in these days, on how to live and serve in a time of pandemic.  His letter, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” written in 1527 at the height of the Black, or Bubonic, Plague, in response to another pastor’s request for guidance, reflects one of the most important concepts Luther ever taught about the Christian’s life of faith—The Freedom of a Christian.

And of Christian freedom Luther once wrote (in The Freedom of a Christian, 1520),

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
A [person] does not live for himself [or herself] alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but he [or she] lives also for all [people] on earth; rather, he [or she] lives only for others and not for himself [or herself].

And on the consequent freedom from condemnation of self (whether by God or others or oneself) given us by God’s merciful gift:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned [person], my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true.  Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches?  I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.

Whatever our decisions in this time of pandemic—whether about the life and worship of our faith communities, or about our own lives of faith lived out in the daily relationships of our homes and neighborhoods, communities, states, nations, and world—freedom in Christ compels us they be governed by love for our neighbors, and to make no decision without regard first of all for their safety and well-being, and especially for the safety and well-being of the most vulnerable among us.

What would that kind of economy look like?

The economy has become a subject of concern in these pandemic times as well.  Unemployment is high, and the pain this inflicts on the most vulnerable among us is great indeed.  We must be concerned about the unemployed and often their loss of employer-based health coverage, struggling businesses, the rise of poverty and homelessness, and the accompanying rise of food insecurity and inadequate health care, escalating debt both national and personal—all of which also can put peoples’ lives at risk.

I’m hardly an economist and certainly don’t have the answers.  But as I search for a way forward, here is what is what my faith keeps telling me.

In his treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther, back in 1520, said the goal of health and well-being is that “we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be children of God, each eating for and working for the other, bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ.”  Perhaps that is an economy not so easy to reconcile with contemporary capitalist ideals, but Luther says, “This is a truly Christian life.”

A community’s economy – be that a local city, state, national, or world community – is, or should be, one of the ways we care for and love our neighbor.  From a Lutheran perspective, we are likely to see economic concerns from our historic sense of the importance of human vocation.

Finding Your Vocation in Life

One’s vocation is the context in which we love and care for our neighbor.  We see all people as both saint & sinner, and all their work as equally holy – whether one is a pastor, pope, bishop, president, plumber, investment advisor, real estate magnate, politician, doctor, lawyer, teacher, homemaker, student, or child – because in each and every case, vocation is directed toward meeting our neighbor’s needs.

Again, this is the freedom of a Christian—set free from sin and condemnation, loved and accepted by God, no longer a slave to our own self-justification or self-enrichment, vocation becomes the way we serve the neighbor.

From the perspective of vocation, then, the question becomes whom are we serving?  Whose needs need most to be met?  Vocation’s concern starts at the bottom of the pyramid of economic privilege, means, or power, not the top, and seeks first the equitable justice of the reign of God for all, an economic leveling that leaves no one out or hidden in its shadows.  As the young economist Mary, mother of our Lord, sang out:

[God] has shown strength with his arm;
      he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
      and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich away empty.  
(Luke 1:51-53)

Less than a week from the day
when a new president was inaugurated and a former president pouted,
you, as honorable a man as I know who keeps his promises and will keep this one,
took an oath to a new country.

Two weeks after a mob of supposed patriots stormed the US Capital in an act of insurrection,
you walked alone into the Department of Homeland Security,
found your way to the Naturalization Office, stood before a judge,
and vowed to be their fellow citizen.

We swore this is not who we are,
while looking into the mirror of what we had indeed become,
and wondered how we had so neglected our collective health
and let ourselves get into this state.
You swore to defend the constitution and the laws of the United States of America,
in hopes of what we may yet become.

Others bore arms in intimidation of their fellow citizens;
you swore to bear arms on behalf of us all, if required,
and to perform work of national importance
for our common good—
when have I considered whether the work I do this day
could possibly be of national importance
to the sisters and brothers I will pass today on the street?

We are astonished to realize the depth of divisions among us;
you pledged your allegiance to the breathtaking task
of being, becoming,
one nation
indivisible
with liberty and justice for all.

When we lost faith,
you prayed to God above for all of us.

You mastered the only language most of us know
(and demonstrate frequently enough our elementary grasp of it),
spoke it clearly and distinctly as a newly naturalized citizen must,
showing you had added it to your multilingual list,
three more than I will ever master.

You dreamed of this day and worked for it,
dreamed of the future it represents for your family.

The journey has been long and hard.
You have traveled far to claim a new homeland,
and perhaps one day your children or your children’s children,
like many of my own family who journeyed back to Denmark,
will journey back to where you came from,
and do what Americans do—
look up long-lost family members,
honor ancestors,
learn their stories,
sing their songs,
trace your footsteps
—and then return home.

In a year when
one sworn to protect and serve
knelt on a black man’s neck
and many wondered if their lives mattered at all
and some of us at least began to examine
the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow,
and the subtle and not so subtle and endless evolutions
of our racism and genocide,
you faithfully answered questions about the best parts of our history,
and you, a black man,
accepted this history for what it is
and committed yourself to making it what it has yet to be.

At a time when nearly everyone who calls herself or himself an American
is variously
bewildered,
or ashamed,
or humiliated,
or confused,
or sorry,
fearful or too angry to admit it,
despairing or at least saddened,
you rejoiced to be counted one of us.

You became a citizen of the United States of America.

Perhaps there is hope
in the hopes of one who so hopes
for us all.

I am honored, sir, to be your fellow citizen.

We didn’t even know what a minstrel show was.

Seventh grade English always put on a play every year, chosen and directed by our teacher.  Apart from the Easter parade (bonnets for girls, rabbit ears for boys) in kindergarten, I’d never been in a play before.  Now it was our turn, we were excited.

“Here’s what I want to do,” she said, and explained how fun and funny a minstrel show would be.  “This is probably the last time I’ll get to do this,” I remember her telling our class.

As I remember it, the classroom seemed quiet, maybe a bit uncomfortable.  But who were we to argue?  And I really liked this teacher.  She was kind, she went to my church, she was a friend of my mother’s.

It was the sixties—Vietnam, civil rights, college protests lit up our TV screens, but if you were 12 or 13, in a small prairie town, Mississippi, Alabama, even Los Angeles was a long way away.  I’d never met a black person; the only persons of color in our town picked our crops or cleaned our houses.  A few were our classmates; I wonder now how they felt then.

I was the interlocutor, the only white boy in a white boy part, everybody else in black face, a kind of straight man/master of ceremonies, running the show.  I played a racist.

I cringe now to tell you that, to tell anybody that.  I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning it again.  We didn’t talk about it as we advanced into upper grades; no one ever reminisced at a class reunion.  It’s like it never happened.  I wish it hadn’t.  But it did.

What is a racist?  Most of us are sure it’s not us.  We would never dress up in khakis and carry torches, we would never burn crosses in lawns or wear a white hooded robe.  We have friends of every race and color, friends we love.  We smile and open doors for them, especially when something bad happens, again (how tiresome that must be).  How could we be racist?  Other people are racists.

I am a racist.  I remember the first time I said that.  I led a program called Theatre and Theology; we had just seen an August Wilson play with an all-black cast.  An enlightened white audience of mostly Lutherans stayed after to discuss what they had seen with the cast.  An August Wilson play is about as long as any white person has sat still and listened to a black person’s perspective, so of course, we had a lot to say.

I led the discussion, asked the questions; I was the MC.  And the conversation was racism in America.  A cast member made a point, but graciously softened it with, “Of course, I’m not saying anyone here is a racist.”

“I am,” I said; admitted.  The room seemed suddenly quiet; it was like I’d just sworn an unexpected bloody streak.  Maybe I’d just realized it, or realized it as soon as I said it; maybe even then I wasn’t sure.

I’m not one of those people.  I would never.  I resent that you would ask.

Racism isn’t a feeling—you will never feel like a racist.  Racism is a structural reality, like the house you live in, it shapes your most important relationships.  It’s embedded; learned and then forgotten, reactive, instinctual.

You may as well ask why the sky is blue—it is, and for good reason; it’s a good question, but it is a child’s question.  Blue doesn’t affect my day-to-day life (though of course it does).  I only notice when the sky isn’t blue, or blue again after days of gray.  It’s just ‘normal’, the way things are, for me.  When my ‘normal’ gets disrupted, that’s when I finally notice, clear as day.

Racism is systemic, historical, structural, pervasive.  But we like this house; we like this teacher and everyone in it; this is where we grew up.  Sure, it has some cracks in the foundation, some weeds in the yard; we often have dreamed of how we ought to remodel it.  But it feels like home.

Racism is the bindweed on America’s soul.  It’s not something chosen—it’s hard to imagine anyone (though perhaps a few) weighing the pros and cons and deciding yea or nay to be a racist.  You grow up with it, you breathe it, exhale it, without thinking it becomes part of you.  You find it lying around like an old pair of socks you meant to throw out long ago, the spoilage in the back of fridge.  You don’t notice it until it’s your turn to mow the yard.

To say, “I am a racist, I see it now,” or “we are a racist society,” is not white guilt (though indeed, with a little self-examination, we may be).  It is not to shame or blame anyone.  I find blame never serves anybody, not even the one it excuses.  But responsibility does; the kind of accountability where I don’t blame you or excuse me, but I take your side, work with you; your change, your growth, your success or failure is mine, too.

It comes back to love of neighbor—which is to say, freedom.  Freedom is about the rights of all, not just me.  Indeed, if it is just me I’m concerned about then it’s not liberty I’m talking about.  Freedom is a relational term; I can only be free (or not free) in relation to you, to others, in community.  My freedom must always take into consideration your good, indeed, the good of all (not just a few of my friends), or it is not freedom.  It is just dominance, power, autocracy; or if it is just freedom for me and my friends, for those on my side, it is plutocracy.

Racism is not about good apples and bad apples.  Right now, it is tempting to think it’s just a few bad police apples.  It is a culture, a police culture perhaps, but our culture; we created this, we’re the ones who built and developed, or at least grew up in, this culture, and it falls to all of us to create a better culture.  It is not them, it is us, it is me—that’s just being responsible.

Let’s say, we’ll have a race.  It will be fun; a hundred-yard dash; any one is free to participate, and may the fastest person win.

But let’s say I get to start at the fifty-yard line.  Why not?  My family built this track & field facility, I planned this event, if it wasn’t for me, none of us would be here.  Everybody else can start at the one hundred-yard line.  Except for you—you must start at 150 yards.

That’s not a fair race.  You might be an exceptional athlete; you might do very well even so.  We might be duly impressed with your natural talent.  But you will never win.  And if we say, “Wow, nice effort; but you know everyone was free to participate, and you never did know how to handle freedom”—we’re just offering excuses for ourselves, not reasons for a fixed race.

I find no satisfaction in a game where the odds are stacked in my favor.  But it is a thrill to play with the best; to see them perform well inspires me to perform at my best.  The exhilaration comes in a fair race.  Winning isn’t everything; but competing with the best is an awesome game.  That’s not guilt, or excuses, or even affirmative action—it’s just a level playing field where everybody can be better than they are.

Yet even this moment could be an opportunity.

To see ourselves for what we are, rather than what we wish we were, can be painfully hard.  But it is the inevitable step toward what we could be.  It is an open door, a new creation.  We can do better, be better; we could learn, we could change; we could listen.

As Lutherans, we should know this:  We put confession and forgiveness and promise together all the time.

At church we changed the sign out front and added “Black Lives Matter,” which will annoy some people and gratify others.  We’ll leave it there for just a few weeks, because it would be too easy to lull ourselves into thinking that a yard sign is enough to change the world.  A first step will take you nowhere if it’s only a first step.  We will need to move now to some of the things we do when we are at our best—listening, confession and self-examination, repentance and forgiveness, and most especially, faith working through love—which, as the apostle Paul pointed out, is the only thing that counts for anything (Galatians 5:6).

I am grateful for the pain of these days.  I am grateful for our collective grief.  I am especially grateful that this time it hasn’t gone away so easily, that it seems, perhaps, maybe, a little, we are willing to stay in the pain and see this heartbreak through.  That we recognize not only our collective grief, but our collective responsibility.

And our collective opportunity.  And I pray that we do not let this moment go, nor let it be twisted into something it is not, but grasp it for what it is:  Perhaps our best opportunity in a long while to do better, to be better.

It is time to bring down the curtain on the last minstrel show.  There are roles one should just turn down and not play; I don’t want to be in that play any longer.  I don’t want to go back to normal; these past six months have made it abundantly clear, that bridge has burned.

But I would love to see an America fulfilling its promise, its bedrock belief that all people are created equal.

We can do better.  We can be better.

© Paul R. Olsen

Hyatt Hidden Lakes Reserve

It is permissible to hate very few things in this world,
but weeds must be one of them.

I hate weeds; I admit it.
I used to have weeds, lots of weeds in my garden, choke weeds.
I’d pull them out, but they’d just come back worse than ever.

And grass—weeds in the grass, and grass in the flowers.
I got so sick of them I re-landscaped part of my yard;
took me a couple of months a few years ago to do it,
but I ripped everything out,
sprayed it down with some despicable weed killer,
killed off everything, including the flowers,
 and started over.

Surely, I am justified—everyone hates weeds; they are evil!

Except Jesus—Jesus does not hate weeds; he loves them.
And even more amazing,
God does not hate his enemies,
God does not hate evildoers or sinners,
and God is in no hurry to judge them.

You may wish for and pray for the day when
God will get rid of every sin and every sickness,
every act of violence and every cause of injustice,
every wicked and cruel and depraved person,
and every horror that the world can dish up—and God will.

But not out of hatred;
God hates nothing and no one God has made.

But God does exercise judgment.
God judges, because God loves;
loves them all,
hopes for them all,
and is infinitely patient
with us all.

But God does hate evil;
that is one thing God longs to be rid of;
that is not what God intended the world to be like.
The kingdom of heaven may be compared
to someone who sowed good seed in his field,
Jesus says.
Evil does not belong where good seed is planted.
God desires a good and healthy world
where every living thing God created can live and thrive together.

So you are right to pray that every sickness and disease be cured,
that racism and every injustice be consigned to hell,
because that is the will of God for you—you can be sure of it.

You can pray—and we do, right here, every week—
that war and violence and racism
and the rampant greed and injustice
in our country and in our world
would be recognized as the evil it is,
and that God would wipe out every trace
of its memory on earth.

You can pray for an end to suffering and persecution,
for an end to terrorism and fear,
an end to poverty and racism,
for the final judgment of cruelty and oppression—
 because that is God’s will, you can be sure of it.

When you hear of terrorists killing the innocent,
or militia groups recruiting child warriors,
or violence in the land both sides call holy,
or Syrian refugees by the tens of thousands;
or immigrants just seeking what we all seek, a better life,
trapped in cages so full
that if we did the same thing to dogs we’d be arrested;
or the deep scars and brokenness of genocide and slavery;
of women and children being raped;
or any of a thousand other evils in your world—
do you not wish for God’s judgment on every evil thing?

Even when you consider the evil you have done,
the not-that-big-a-deal, easy to excuse, daily little evils,
not to mention the evils you dare not, cannot bear to admit
to yourself or God or anyone—
do you not wish for a purification of your soul
that would allow you to forgive yourself?

When you are sick or someone you love is sick or dying,
when this pandemic robs us of days we’d planned and treasured,
do you not wish for the day when,
as the book of Revelation says, God
will wipe every tear from their eyes;
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away
and God is making all things new?  (Revelation 21:4,5)

And that will be a good thing,
because every enemy of life will be no more.

Judgment is God’s will;
it’s a core Christian belief that one day
Christ will come “to judge the living and the dead.”

As Jesus says,
The Son of man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth—

We pray for that day…
even though the very idea of it takes our breath away,
and we tremble as we do it.


So if God hates evil,
what should we do when we see evil or injustice in the world,
and we know it isn’t right?

Leave it alone, Jesus says;  pray to God, and leave it alone.
The slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?  Where, then, did these weeds come from?”  He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.”  The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”  But he replied, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.  Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

Jesus is not suggesting that we should just ignore evil when we see it,
bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away.
Good laws and good government are still important,
and Christians should be concerned about them.

If evil can be prevented,
if evildoers can be restrained,
if life and goodness can be fostered, then we should do that.

In fact, not to do it,
not to stand with the innocent and the weak,
not to stand against racism and injustice,
and the persecuted and oppressed, when we can,
would be evil in itself.

But, oh, how easy it is to do wrong when you are sure you are right.

Oh, how much evil has been done by Christians in the name of righteousness.
Oh, how many Christians have caused more harm than good
when they have laid their hands to judgment,
convinced that they were acting in God’s name,
and doing right.
No one does more wrong than those who are sure they are right;
how many of the righteous have become evildoers in Jesus’ name.

So there is great wisdom in Jesus’ words.
Judgment just isn’t up to you; the sword is never in your hand.
Followers of Jesus—‘good Christian people’ like you or me—
often do more harm than good by trying to root out evil.

Trying to help God do God’s job,
we just get ourselves in God’s way,
ruining the good God is trying to do in the world.

In order to judge the evil in others
we have to turn a blind eye to our own sins and shortcomings.
To judge someone else is to put yourself in the position
of being more righteous than they are,
and that is a dangerous game.

Wendell Berry wrote a book, called Jayber Crow;
it’s about a barber in a small southern town.
One day, the conversation in Jayber’s barber shop
turned to the war in Vietnam.
Troy was at the barber shop that day—
Troy, by the way, happens to be
the husband of the woman Jayber has always loved.

And Troy—
Troy is not a nice guy;
Troy is sort of a weed in that town;
in fact, because of the way
he treats everybody and everything else,
Troy is pretty much a jerk in everybody’s eyes;
nobody really likes him, lots of people hate him.

It’s the 1960s, and Jayber says:

The war protesters were making a stir, and the talk in my shop ran pretty much against them.  Troy hated them.  As his way was, he loved hearing himself say bad things about them.
One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said—it was about the third thing he said—“They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”
There was a little pause after that.  Nobody wanted to try to top it….
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting and looked at Troy.  I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me.  “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.”
And Troy said, “Oh.”
(But then Jayber says,)
It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

And that is the way of our judgment, isn’t it—
We judge the unloving without love,
and so we judge ourselves.

But then, if judgment is not up to you or me, what can we do?
It is not up to you or me to uncover the evil in others,
it is enough just to face it in ourselves.
In fact, most of us can keep plenty busy tending our own gardens.

Jesus calls us the wheat—the children of the kingdom,
who live among weeds,
that Jesus calls the children of the evil one.
The wheat can’t do a single thing about the weeds;
it is not our job, it’s not our responsibility;
that is totally the gardener’s department.
The only thing the wheat can do is focus on growing.

But we can do that;
we can live well, in the midst of evil;
good choices are still vitally important for good seed;
even if everything is going to hell around you,
it is still possible to focus on yourself, on your values and beliefs,
to own them and live them,
to focus on how you will live well
without needing others to change or agree with you.

Martin Luther interpreted the Eighth Commandment,
“You shall not lie,” to mean,
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations.  Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

Imagine if that was to be our first defense
in dealing with evil in our everyday lives:
Whenever you have been wronged, to first find a way
to interpret your neighbor’s actions in the kindest way,
find some way to speak well of the very person who hurt you,
and actually come to the defense of your neighbor,
or coworker, or even your enemy?

To speak well of those you speak evil of you,
to interpret in the best possible light those you can’t bear to listen to?
Is it really too much to ask that that should be our first response
even to our political opposites or our international enemies?
What would it mean
to focus not on winning in our interpersonal relationships,
or even in our international relationships;
but to focus instead
on being the kind of person we really want to be,
to focus on being children of the kingdom,
who don’t have to beat their enemies, or top them,
who don’t have to win,
but actually just love them?

Jesus says,
Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Doesn’t sound like a pretty picture, does it?
It’s not—but this is not the work of a vengeful, angry, hateful God.

God hates nothing God has made;
what God hates is everything that destroys life
and the beauty of what God has made.

When we say we believe in,
even look forward to, God‘s Day of Judgment,
what we believe in is not the destruction of life,
but the restoration,
the redemption,
the resurrection of life.

Judgment is the strange work of God,
but according to Jesus, God is in no hurry to do it.

In the meantime, God’s work is to be patient.
God’s work is to be gracious, loving the world with all its problems,
and giving the world what it does not deserve.
And God’s work is to be merciful,
not giving the world the judgment it does deserve.

If that’s the way God works among us now,
then what will it look like when God finally does judge evil?
I think it will surely be a day of judgment and righteous,
but everything I have seen of God
tells me God’s’ righteousness always looks like
shining grace and mercy.

That is the day we pray for:
days of nothing but grace and mercy;
days when the weak no longer fear the strong,
when the poor no longer fear the rich,
when the gentle no longer fear the violent;

the day when God
will wipe every tear from their eyes;
[when] death will be no more;
[when] mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
and God is makes all things new.

And if that is the day we pray for,
then, in the meantime,
that is the only way to live and work and play today.

Live graciously,
be merciful,
no matter what day it is.

Amen.
© Paul R. Olsen

TIME AFTER PENTECOST A (Lect 16)
JULY 19, 2020
KING OF GLORY LC, BOISE, ID
TEXT: MATTHEW 13:24-30 & 36-43

Jesus was such a failure.

Read the Gospels, if you don’t believe me;
he preaches and teaches and heals and astounds,
and people love him at first,
but the more they listen to him,
the more they realize
Jesus just isn’t what they expected.

And in the end, miracles not withstanding,
most of them seem to figure he’s not worth the cost.

In the Gospel of Matthew, nobody listens to him;
he can’t get anything through his disciples’ thick heads;
his preaching falls on deaf ears;
his miracles are fun for awhile,
but then nobody’s much impressed;
John the Baptist doesn’t even get it.

The most devout people find him sacrilegious
they call him names and dismiss him
as just another person crazy with demons.

His own mother and brothers
have a hard time getting through to him.

It ain’t working, it just ain’t working; it’s a ministry on the rocks.

Nothing’s going right:
Jesus has been rejected by the crowds; they are turning on him.
Somewhere out there someone is plotting how to get rid of him.

It’s life or death for him now; he’s a failure.

So what’s a Savior to do?

Seems like he just throws back his head and laughs;
he starts telling jokes, riddles, and parables.

He teases, he plays with us,
and makes incredible promises
about the generous faithfulness of God.

Of all the stories and sayings of Jesus,
this is the first one that Matthew calls a parable.

He’s probably thinking of the old Hebrew tradition of mashals.

A mashal was a sort of riddle or a story with a hidden meaning;
a story with a mystery to reveal,
but a story that hides it’s secret wisdom in some surprising way,
just begging you to dig deeper and discover it,
teasing you with a treasure worth hunting for.

Remember last week’s gospel story,
where Jesus turns away from the stubborn crowds, and says to God:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…   (Matthew 11:25)

…to babies, to children—who always love stories;
children love stories,

especially ridiculous ones with talking animals
and things that could never happen
except in heaven or the wildest imagination;
who even love it when you tease them,
or at least, play with them.

It takes a child, or a childlike heart, to do that;
grownups are too anxious,
they worry about too many things,
they are too deadly serious and they never get the joke—
they miss so much.

Jesus is teasing you;
he’s a failure, and his life is on the line—and he plays with you.

He’s teasing your brain,
asking you to think in some strange, new, unimaginable,
heavenly way.

He’s like that, you know;
if Jesus speaks to you and it doesn’t leave you going, “Huh?”
or flat out knock your socks off,
you probably just didn’t hear him right.

Listen! Jesus says.

If the Bible puts you to sleep
and doesn’t leave you wanting to argue with it,
then you’re just hearing what you want to hear
and you’d best go clean your ears.

But if it catches your breath and still leaves you wanting more,
then you’re probably ready to come out and play with Jesus.

A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.  Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.  Let anyone with ears listen!

It’s a story about a guy who’s a failure at farming; he’s just wasting seed!

He’s not even looking at what he’s doing.

He’s feeding the birds,
he’s sowing to the sun,
he might as well be farming in a parking lot.

Nobody farms like this—nobody but God.

God is a wild sower, indiscriminate in love, profligate in mercy.

What kind of soil do think you are?

It doesn’t matter one wit to God.

He will risk his most precious Word on you;
he’ll send his Son and let you treat him like a failure,
put him to death and crucify his love;
he will waste Jesus on you, lavish grace on you,
for the hope of some small harvest in your soul.

There is some good soil, of course,
where things sprout up like a perfect summer day.

But most of us can’t claim to be the richest soil—I certainly can’t.

Call me picked over, rocky and stubborn,
lacking depth, rootless and shiftless,
easily scorched, and too quickly scorching in return.

My faith so easily troubled,
so easily distracted by cares of the world
and wealth so alluring,
yielding nothing often as not.

Yet God sees fit to waste extravagant love on just these such,
in hopes, in hopes,
taking a chance on us, and in spite of it all,
reaping an unbelievable harvest.

Such a God!

So what about us?

We are more than just receptors for God’s word,
more than just soil and seedbeds—
we are sowers, too.

What about King of Glory Lutheran Church?

Should we claim to be successful, or a failure, like Jesus?

Should we claim to be good soil, or admit to being rocky soil?

Or maybe it doesn’t matter one wit to God.

Because, call us hard soil or good, this is where God is sowing his seed.

And not just on us, but through us,
making us into farmers with seed to share.

Sometimes it seems like we spend a lot more time
wildly throwing seed around here
than bringing in the sheaves with bushel baskets;
the Word of God, wasted on us.

But what about that Old Testament reading for today,
Isaiah claiming that God’s word is never wasted:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace…
   (Isaiah 55:10-12)

Some would say trying to follow Jesus isn’t worth the payoff;
living graciously is too costly,
forgiving others is too uncertain,
and often as not, it doesn’t work,
nobody notices, let alone appreciates the effort.

If you really give this Christian life a try,
if you actually work up the nerve
to share your faith with someone,
to love someone as Christ loves us,
to stand up for justice,
to reach out and try caring for a change—
well, it can be pretty much like trying to garden in a parking lot:
lots of sweat and toil and tears,
and what have you got to show for it?

A lot of love wasted, I suppose.

But then you’ve got Jesus saying,
you just never know,
and love is never wasted,
and grace is always child’s play,
and if you’ll just sow with careless abandon,
you’ll reap an unbelievable harvest:
some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

It’s that invitation of Jesus again:
Come with me, and I will teach you to live with the sower’s carefree abandon.

Come with me, and experience forgiveness—
the freedom to fail in some colossal way,
to make excellent mistakes for the love of God.

Just do something, even if it’s wrong:
You have the freedom of God’s forgiveness to play with.

God will forgive you quickly;
and even if it does take the rest of us a bit longer,
the truth is God will work that out eventually, too.

Because grace is always lavish if it is grace at all.

You can save seed if you don’t sow it,
but without that risk, unsown seed is worthless,
love held back is no love at all.

Grace only bears fruit when you scatter it wildly,
waste it without the slightest concern
for who is worthy or what good it will do.

Waste your love, give freely, lose yourself,
forgive madly, speak up for Jesus, risk it.

You might be wasting your time,
you might end up failing grandly—but it doesn’t matter;
you are called to sow and scatter the grace of God,
and trust the rest to Jesus.

That’s God’s gift to you—
the carefree abandon of your self,
the giving away of your self
in hope and confidence and trust in God.

The fact is, there’s a pretty good chance that
most of what you do in Jesus’ name
won’t amount to much of anything,
at least, not the way you or I might wish it.

But the promise is a harvest beyond imagining,
a life beyond measure.

And in Christ, nothing is wasted, everything is saved.

So there he is, Jesus that failure, out standing in his field.

There’s Jesus, out there sowing and laughing with abandon
and not worrying about the harvest,
whether it will amount to anything at all,
just doing the gracious will of God
and leaving the rest up to God.

There’s Jesus, out there sowing and laughing,
acting like there’s no limit to God’s love,
no limit to God’s mercy;
like forgiveness could heal anything,
like there’s more than enough grace for everybody;
like giving it away would only bring you more.

There’s Jesus, asking, won’t come out and play?

Amen.

TIME AFTER PENTECOST A (Lect 15) – JULY 12, 2020 – MATTHEW 13:1-9, 18-23 – KING OF GLORY LC, BOISE, ID – © Paul R. Olsen

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth…

Will you pray with me please?
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference…. Amen.

A lot of you probably know that little prayer,
often called The Serenity Prayer.
You may have learned it in AA, or Al-Anon, or off a greeting card;
you may not know that you have only learned half of it.
As the story goes, it was written by
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934 for a church service;
after the service, a neighbor requested a copy of it,
and later published it.

But as I say, the part most of us know is only half of it;
the rest of it goes like this—
but wait;  first, back to the words of Jesus:
I did not come to bring peace [or serenity!], but a sword.
God, grant me the serenity—Jesus did not promise that to you.
Oh, and by the way, Jesus also says,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me….

The Serenity Prayer continues,
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference;
living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time…
And Jesus says,
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me
is not worthy of me.

But, the rest of The Serenity Prayer:
…enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace;
taking, as [Christ] did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
then I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with [Christ] forever in the next.  Amen.

That’s it, that’s The Serenity Prayer:
not just about ‘serenity,’ or peace,
but about living with hardship,
in a sinful world, surrendering to Christ,
trusting God for the happiness that is so illusive in this life.
It’s prayer that assumes
Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth…but a sword;
that life and peace is found in surrendering one’s life for Christ;
and despite everything else it brings,
discipleship is worth it,
and the faithful never lose their reward.

But, oh, the kingdom of God is a strange place to live:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
That’s not Christmas, when we sing the praises of the Prince of Peace.
Hundreds of years before that gentle Baby Jesus was born,
the prophet Isaiah had announced God’s promise:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us…and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace….
And the expectation was that when the Messiah came,
God would fight for us,
and he would defeat all our enemies
and nobody would ever threaten our happiness again.
And it was true enough, as far as it goes,
because God hates evil and will heal us and this world of it,
surgically, with a sword, if necessary.

But despite all you’ve heard about End Time battles
and ‘prayer warriors,’
and fighting for Christian values,
or fighting for justice and equality,

or defending your ‘Christian liberty,’
and God knows what else—

never, ever is the sword in our hands.

Never, ever, in all the words of Jesus,
are you called to do battle with your enemies,
no matter how evil they might be.

Your call is to put your sword away,
and love your enemies
and pray for them like you would your own family.

The struggle is rather in ourselves, with ourselves,
and the battle is not to defeat our badness,
but to surrender to the goodness of God,
who loves us in spite of our sins.

That is the first strange thing Jesus says.

The second is Jesus’ revolutionary ‘family values’:
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother … and one’s foes be members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me….

Jesus isn’t preaching what the preachers preach.
There was a time when Jesus’ brothers
brought his own mother to see him,
and Jesus response was,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
He treats his family like outcasts
and his disciples like brothers and sisters,
and outcasts like God’s children.

Of course, at other times Jesus love of his family is equally clear.
When he was suffering on the cross,
John tells us he had the presence of mind
to ask one of his disciples to take care of his mother for him.
It’s not that family isn’t important to Jesus,
it’s just that family isn’t all-important to Jesus.

Nobody can live without family;
you need your family close to you,
and if, like me, your family doesn’t happen to live close to you,
you still need them,
and you also need to find people in your life
who will be like family for you
and for whom you can be like family.
Those connections, those commitments, those relationships give us life;
but Jesus says, even what is life-giving to us is not all-important.

Children, honor your father and mother
and parents, care for your children and share your faith with them.
(cf. Ephesians 6:1-4)
But do not make an idol even of family;
worship only God, and love Christ above all things.
That’s the second strange thing.

Jesus’ sword is not about vengeance,
or getting even with your enemies, or payback for bad people.
His sword is about cutting through all the distractions
and your own self-absorption;
the way we get so caught up in our own fears and anxieties,
in our needs and wants and must-haves;
so driven by our lusts and appetites and hungers and wishes
that we can’t face the truth about ourselves
or our deep, deep need for something and someone
bigger than ourselves,
bigger than our needs and wants
and bigger than our fears—
  our deep need for God;
our deep need to cut away all of that stuff,
uncover the poverty within us that longs
for the God who was there all along,
and welcome it.

And so Jesus points to yet another strange thing:
the reward of welcoming the strange gifts of God
that come from such surprising, unexpected places.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward…

That makes sense, that’s not so strange.
One might just welcome a prophet;
they confront us when we get lost in all that distracting stuff
and call us back to what is really important.
They teach us God’s Word;
they promise us God’s steadfast love
and God’s faithful forgiveness.
Prophets are wise,
they bear good news,
they challenge us but they comfort us,
they assure us that God has a purpose
and nothing will stand in the way of God’s purpose for us.
We could almost welcome that.

…and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name
of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous…

Those righteous people, that’s next on Jesus’ list.
Not the goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou, self-righteous people,
so sure they’re right and we’re wrong,
so caught up in their religion they are no good to anyone who isn’t.
But the truly righteous,
the ones who are righteous and don’t even know it
and would never believe it if you told them.
The ones who light up a room,
not with their bubbly joy, maybe,
but with their humble kindness,
the way they see you, really see you,
and can stop caring about themselves
long enough to care about you.
They are the healers we long for, their touch brings life.
They do everything in Jesus’ name,
never in their own name,
never to call attention to themselves,
but you are thankful to God for them all the same.

These prophets and righteous persons,
we may think we could never be like them, but we’d like to be.
They have our respect; anyone would hold them in high regard;
anyone would welcome them, almost;
indeed, we pray God for such people to come into our lives.

But who is this, next on Jesus’ list?
Of what value are they?
….whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

Little ones—that’s actually a rather technical term;
Jesus uses it all the time to refer to the poor, the powerless, the weak;
in a word, to refer to those who have nothing to contribute to our lives.

They bring nothing we need, because they have nothing we need

So why would Jesus tell us to be sure to welcome…these little ones?
Because they need what we have,
and because we need to have their poverty,
because they are Christ to us.

Who wants to be like these little ones;
who wants to be hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison?
But they are the messengers of God to us;
we exist as a church to be a welcoming place for them,
because in them we welcome Christ himself,
and who among us doesn’t want Christ to be here?

Who are they?
They are the strange, the odd,
the too-quiet, or maybe the too-loud,
the lonely, the new.
They’ve always been around,
but you don’t recognize them and you never learned their name;
you would walk past them after church
to have coffee with someone else.
They are not popular, or beautiful, or strong, or handsome,
or anyone you want to hang with.
They are always getting into trouble, like as not;
they are hard to deal with sometimes.
They are the homeless, the alien, the illegal immigrant;
they love guns or think nobody should carry one.
They are gay or lesbian or transsexual or straight as a board,
and they night not welcome you even you are to welcome them.
They are black if you are white, or white if you are black,
and you don’t understand their actions at all.
They are not like you, they are not like me.

Did I leave anyone off the list, anyone that might make you cringe?
Because odds are, if I did, they are on Jesus’ family list.

They may seem worthless to us,
but they are precious to God.
They are the closest thing to Jesus, closer than we ever are.
They are Christ in our midst,
and we are to welcome them as Christ himself.

We have spent three weeks in this tenth chapter of Matthew.
For three weeks Jesus has instructed us
on what it means to live in the world as a follower of Jesus.
We are to ask God for the sun and the moon and stars,
and be healers to one another, and to a hurting world.
We are to speak openly to others about our faith in Jesus,
and not be afraid.
We are to know that God is God, and God is present;
and if God cares even for the sparrows,
then surely God can take care of us.

We are to find peace not in power but in love.
We are not to make an idol even of family;
but love God above all things,
and draw the circle of family large enough
to include these little ones.

And your reward is not that you have been
good enough or righteous enough or self-sacrificing enough
to get everything you always wished for.
But rather to know that you, like all God’s little ones,
have always been of eternal worth to God,
whose steadfast love is worth singing forever.

Amen.

TIME AFTER PENTECOST A (Lect 13) – JUNE 28, 2020 – KING OF GLORY LC, BOISE, ID – MATTHEW 10:34-42 – © Paul R. Olsen

Welcome Everyone as Christ

June 27, 2020


MATTHEW 10:40-42

Jesus sends his disciples out into the world with this promise:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Hospitality is the mark of the church;
we receive everyone as though they were Christ himself—
it is our business, it’s what we do.

In my house, near the guest rooms, I have placed two framed prints,
sayings I found posted in other places I visited as a guest.

One is from the Mennonite Guest House in Nairobi, Kenya,
where I stayed for a few days on a mission trip;
it reads, first,

Let the guest sojourning here know that in this home our life is simple. What we cannot afford we do not offer, but what good cheer we can give we give gladly.

If we really are going to welcome everyone as Christ,
then it will cost us something.

If you are going to care about the needs of others,
it’s going to take your focus off yourself.

You’ll very likely have less time and resources and comforts
to spend on yourself.

We make no strife for appearance sake.

In other words,
we don’t try to make ourselves look better than we really are;
we don’t hide our faults and foibles here, or our simplicity—
we aren’t perfect, but we are forgiven.

Know also, friend, that we live a life of labor; therefore, if at times we separate ourselves from thee, do ye occupy thyself according to thine heart’s desire.

When we welcome you into our congregations,
we welcome you into our mission.

We live a life of labor for the Lord—
our task is to build a church where everyone is welcome
and the good news of the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord is proclaimed.

Please excuse us if we are consumed with the task
of welcoming yet more others.

We will not defer to thee in opinion or ask thee to defer to us.
What thou thinketh ye shall say, if ye wish, without giving offense.

Which means, we won’t take offense,
even if your opinions are offensive to us.

We recognize we don’t have all the answers,
but we welcome all questions;
“this is a safe place, a place of faith
where it’s okay to bring your questions and doubts.”

What we think, we also say, believing that truth hath many aspects,
and that love is large enough to encompass all.

Which is to say, if you stick around we will witness to you,
we will tell you about the most important thing in our lives.

But we believe that begins with listening,
because God might be speaking to us through you.

The other saying comes from the old guest house
at the Benedictine monastery near Snowmass, Colorado.

It is a selection from The Rule of Saint Benedict,
which governs life in the monastery; it reads:

If a pilgrim monk come from distant parts, if with wish as a guest to stay in the monastery, and will be content with the customs he finds in the place, and do not perchance by his lavishness disturb the monastery, but is simply content with what he finds, he shall be received, for as long a time as he desires. If, indeed, he find fault with anything, or express it, reasonably, and with the humility of charity, the Abbott shall discuss it prudently, lest perchance God sent him for this very purpose.

Even if you come into this community of faith
and complain about everything
and start telling us what we are doing wrong,
we are to listen to you—
the abbott in particular, or in our case, the pastor—
as though it was Christ himself speaking to us.

Paying attention to you keeps us from getting too comfortable
and closing ourselves off from outside influence;
it keeps us open-minded, not only to our guests, but to God.

Probably the most well-known saying of St. Benedict is his admonition to
Welcome everyone as Christ.

Hospitality is what a church does;
we welcome everyone as Christ – it’s our business.

But it won’t do for us to sit back and just wait for guests to show up.

When Jesus says,
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,

he’s not suggesting we stay home and clean the house.

He’s sending us out there to look for people
who haven’t heard the good news
of the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So this is also our business as the people of God:
We are to become as good guests in the world
as we are hosts to the world.

If we are to welcome everyone as Christ,
then we are also to bear Christ’s welcome everywhere we go.

When we are a guest, or wherever we live among others,
we are to be Christ to them.

Welcome everyone as Christ, but don’t save it just for your church.

Welcoming is an attitude;
an openness to receive every child of God’s love,
an expectation that Christ is present in you,
going with you to everyone you meet,
…and waiting to meet you in the most unexpected guests.

The great invitation, the welcome Christ gives you,
is to become that kind of person,
the person you may not be by nature,
but that Christ calls you to be by the power of his Spirit.

Welcome everyone in your life as Christ.

© Paul R. Olsen

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

I have been a Christian all my life.
I grew up going to church and Sunday school,
went through confirmation,
attended bible camp.
I am well-trained in theology,
thoroughly instructed in the Bible,
with years of experience as a pastor,
hundreds of sermons,
saved by the grace of God,
and I treasure my faith in Jesus Christ.
But I still find it difficult to speak openly in public about my faith,
to tell, actually to tell someone that I believe in Jesus
and would follow him anywhere.

Except, of course, for you—
I love to talk to you about my faith, do it all the time.
It’s easy as pie to talk to my congregation,
people who already (mostly) agree with me;
I can always circle a few of my closest kin
and know that they will affirm me and support me;
or at the very least, whatever criticism they might have
will be mild …and mostly worthless…
and they’ll probably just keep it to themselves anyway.

Or—knowing that you will disagree with me,
knowing your political or religious views,
your opposition to everything I value and love and believe to be true,
the things I would die for before I’d change my mind about them—
I’d probably just keep my Jesus-love to my self.
Knowing how polarized we are already,
I would never befriend you,
never trust you,
never be so vulnerable as to lay bare the weakness of my argument;
I would never listen to you
(even though that might be my best witness to you).

Why is that?  Why is that the same with you?
Why would I rather hate you—in the nicest Christian way, of course.

I know—these things are personal,
and nobody talks about personal things with just anybody.
But it’s not private—indeed, faith in Jesus by its very nature, is public;
a secret faith would be a contradiction in terms.
After all, how can you love your enemy privately?
How can you love your neighbor and keep it a secret?

Well, Jesus says to me, what’s the big surprise, Christian?
I told you it would be hard;
it was hard for me, too;
but I told you it would be enough for you to be like me.

Just before this in the gospel of Matthew, it was a different story:
Jesus was full of amazing promises;
Jesus was proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and every sickness;
and then giving you the very same authority
to cure every disease and every sickness.

You go and
cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons!
Jesus tells you to do that:
Be like me!   Be like your Teacher!   Do what Jesus does!
If Jesus cures every disease and every sickness,
then you go out there and cure every disease and every sickness.
Wow!   Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Be like Jesus—be a healer in your world!
Wouldn’t you like to a healer in the world today,
and don’t we need you to be our healer
in the broken, hurting world?
Isn’t that how you’d like to see yourself—a healer, heroic;
misunderstood, maybe, but heroic, you know?

Of course, the focus is not on ourselves;
as much comfort there is in this passage for disciples of Jesus,
for us, the church, the circle of the righteous and the good—
this isn’t about you,
this is about the stranger, and the enemy,
about “they” and “them” and the “others”
who are hurting as much as they hurt you,
and need your healing.

You are a disciple, after all, you are sent to them;
nobody in the kingdom of God heals himself or heals herself.
The command, actually, is cure others;
to have compassion on others,
on the harassed and helpless crowds around you.
The focus is on others, not on self.
All of this courageous, bold discipleship
isn’t about the righteousness of our cause;
it is about the love of others,
the love of those other than ourselves.

We pray for each other; we need each other to pray for each other.
I need you to pray for my healing; you need me to pray for your healing;
a broken, hurting world needs you to pray for them.
It is not enough that I pray for me,
I need you to pray for me, and you need me to pray for you;
and it Is not enough to pray for you,
I need to pray for the world God so loves,
or I haven’t really prayed at all.

That is always the way it is in the church, among the people of God;
that is always the way it is with the gifts of God—
they are no good for you, they are only good for others.
In the church, in the body of Christ,
we pray for each other in Jesus’ name,
and in Jesus’ name we heal each other
and become healers to a harassed and helpless world.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

But now, right on the heels of all that, Jesus says,
If they have called the master of the house Beelezebel
[if they have called Jesus a devil],
how much more will they malign those of his household.
So go ahead, heal somebody, pray for somebody,
but don’t expect any credit for it.
Go ahead, be like me, follow me, Jesus says,
but if you do, I can promise you
not peace, but a sword.
Be a healing presence in this world, like Jesus was;
but expect to suffer for it.

Expect that it will set you against…father,
or mother, or mother-in-law;
just so you know—following Jesus could disrupt
your own household, your marriage, your family.
Those are the people you want to impress, not the ones you don’t;
those are your friends, family, comrades in arms…
don’t be afraid of losing them
be afraid of losing your enemies,
but don’t be afraid of losing your beloved.

Now, I ask you:  Who, in their right mind, would want to be a part of that?

It’s true, of course—
ever since Jesus rose from the dead there have been saints
who have suffered, and been persecuted, and died
because they followed Jesus and loved others.
But nobody chooses to be a martyr;
in the Christian faith, if you choose to be a martyr,
you are not a martyr, you are just dead.
So if this passage makes you uncomfortable,
if this is someplace you do not want to go,
if this is something you do not want to experience,
something you would avoid if you possibly could—
that’s good.

Do not wish for this.

Butdo not be afraid.

It is almost impossible to talk about these words of Jesus
to comfortable Christians like us
whose greatest threat is that people will simply ignore us.
According to Jesus, suffering is a sure thing for Christians,
and yet I can pretty much assure you that
if you don’t wander too far from home
nothing like this is ever going to happen to you.

If you invite somebody to church,
if you tell a friend about your hope in Jesus,
or bring up how much your faith means to you,
or if you tell someone at work that you’ll pray for them—
the worst that’s likely to happen
is they might think you’re too religious for them,
some kind of righteous fanatic,
annoying, but harmless,
and they’ll just ignore you.
You might be…uncomfortable;
but that’s is a far cry from getting flogged, or betrayed to death,
and it is not really persecution at all.

All the same, it’s pretty hard to hear from Jesus that,
on the one hand, you’ll be as successful as Jesus ever was,
and on the other that, if you do, you’ll suffer for it.
To hear on the one hand about healing and answers to prayer,
and on the other about lurking dangers and deathly possibilities.
To be sent out with all the power and authority of God,
but then realize you are being sent
not to your friends but to your enemies,
those you are the most polarized from,
those you least want to spend any time with.
And to hear that it’s just not safe to follow Jesus,
and if you are safe,
you probably aren’t where Jesus wants you to be.

It is hard to seek the healing of others,
because you can’t do it in hiding:
it is hard to love your neighbor, let alone your enemy,
because you can’t do it and keep it a secret at the same time.

And yet…
Have no fear of them…
Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

In the midst of all these dire warnings about unsafe discipleship,
Jesus keeps coming back to the one promise that counts:
Your Father—your Father God, who cares for you
as much as God cares for “them.”
Your Father God, who is so concerned for his creation that
he keeps track of every single sparrow,
who is so involved with your life that
he would bother with such details as the hairs on your head.

So go ahead, be bold:
Pray for the sun and the moon and the stars; God cares for you.
Pray not only for yourself but for others, with others,
tell them you are praying for them; God cares for you.
Love your neighbor, even your enemies; God cares for you.
Ask for your own healing, and seek the healing of the nations;
God cares for you.
Hold on to that—hold on to God’s incredible love for you,
and let God’s love conquer your fear.

You are not promised that you will get to be
blissfully comfortable all the days of your life.
But what comes through loud and clear,
in everything Jesus says is that God is God,
God is in control, God is present, and God cares—
it matters to God what happens to you,
and you can trust God’s care for you.
God is God, and God cares for you—
build your life on that, not on your fears.

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

As if Jesus was telling you not to be afraid
and then tries to scare the hell out of you?
And I quake again,
because I have occasionally managed to acknowledge Jesus before others,
but I also have denied Jesus,
and it’s anybody’s bet which one I’ll manage today,
and what if the balance in the end tips toward denial?
Will God still care then?

And then we make that old mistake we always seem to make
when we read the Bible—we think it’s all about us,
when it fact, it’s all about God.
This whole passage is not so much about us as it is about Jesus.

It is enough, Jesus says,
for the disciple to be like the teacher—to live like Jesus.
This is what it will be like for those who follow me, Jesus says;
and then every single thing he says about us
is exactly what happened to him:
Jesus, maligned;
Jesus, losing his life
at the hands of those who kill the body
but could not kill his soul.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather
fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell,
Jesus says—
and we tremble to think God could destroy us in hell.
But we forget that Jesus endured death on a cross and descended to hell
in order to destroy death for us,
because they could not kill the Spirit of life that was in him.
And when Peter denied him not once but three times,
Jesus did not deny Peter before his Father in heaven.
instead, Jesus sought him out
and made the same promises to him that he makes to us:
You are forgiven,
you are called to the adventure of an unsafe discipleship,
to heal others, to tell others this good news
that God is God, and God is present, and God cares for you,
and nothing can separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But here is the thing:
In another church somewhere
another sermon is being preached;
preached about “us,”
and in that sermon
we are the “they” and “them” and “other.”

And someone is considering it worth the cost that,
for the love of Jesus,
they are to endure being hated by you,
that you oppose them,
and when you are with “us,” you ridicule them.
Somewhere another pastor is preaching
that to stand up for Jesus is to stand against you.

And why not; why shouldn’t they?
That’s the problem with Jesus:
you can use Jesus to say anything you want,
hold any position, make any judgment,
make yourself look righteous and the “others” look evil.

I believe it was theologian Duane Priebe who said,
‘Every time you draw a line between yourself and others,
you can be sure Jesus is on the other side of the line.’

So remember who is speaking here,
whose secrets you are telling and whose light
you can only hope to God might shine a bit through you;
who it is you are acknowledging.

Remember who it is that loves
your father, or daughter, or mother, or son,
or daughter-in-law or mother-in-law.

Remember whose beloved these are,
those so strange and foreign to your beliefs and values and ideals.

Remember that hate is not your option;
separation and ostracization and polarization
and choosing up sides is not an option for you;
judgment and righteousness is not an option.

But confession is.
Forgiveness is.
Gentleness is.
Love—actually to love them—is an option.

Remember this;
otherwise, whatever it is you are witnessing to,
it isn’t Jesus,
and you’re on the wrong side of the line.

Remember that these little ones
to whom you are sent for the love of Jesus
are your God’s beloved.

Amen.

TIME AFTER PENTECOST A (Lect 12) – JUNE 21, 2020 – MATTHEW 10:16-39 – KING OF GLORY LUTHERAN CHURCH, BOISE, ID – © Paul R. Olsen

I Doubt It

June 6, 2020


Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

MATTHEW 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him;
but some doubted.

This is what I love about Easter:
Jesus rises from the dead and appears to his followers,
they see him, they touch him,
he talks to them and eats with them,
he forgives them and blesses them;
and forever after they become witnesses
to the resurrection of the dead
in Jesus Christ our Lord—
…but some doubted.

Every single Easter story in the Bible has fear and confusion and doubt.

It seems as if it is impossible to have faith in the resurrected Jesus
without also having doubts—
and that … that’s okay.

Believers worship Jesus, and they have their doubts,
and one does not have to cancel out the other.

Doubts are uncomfortable and nobody wants them;
and of course, Jesus wants you
to put doubt aside and have faith in him.

But doubt is okay,
doubt is not a problem for Jesus.

Certainty—that’s hard as nails to work with;
certainty is like trying to turn a rock into bread.

But doubt—doubt is pliable;
Jesus can work with doubt—
in fact, God can create faith out of doubt.

Indeed, God has to—it’s not much of anything, doubt;
but it is the only thing God has to work with.

It’s not much to work with, doubt;
but it’s okay, doubt is not a problem for Jesus,
Jesus can work with doubt—
God can create faith out of doubt.

How does God do that?

When the disciples cannot separate their faith and worship
from their doubts and fears,
what does Jesus do?

Does he get mad? Does he lecture?

“Come on, you guys! I’m counting on you!
What more do you want? You can see me, you can feel me.
So just stop it—believe in me or else!
Believe in me right now, or just forget the whole thing.
Believe in me or I’m leaving.”

No; he almost seems to ignore their doubts altogether.

Matthew says that when the disciples doubted
Jesus didn’t walk out on them—he came closer, he came near them.

That is God’s response to doubt:
God who created you, seeks you;
God who created you for a relationship with himself
comes looking for you.

You have your doubts,
and God answers with covenant, with promise,
with the renewal of God’s promise
to be your God—in spite of your doubts.

And the invitation—no, the call—
for you to be what God created you to be:
to be in relationship with God,
to worship and to obey,
to give up being for yourself alone
and to be for God and to be for God’s creation.

They doubted, Matthew says, and when they did,
Jesus came to them and said to them,
“All authority has been in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Jesus answers your doubts with trust—
he trusts you with this great commission:
Jesus’ answer to your doubts
is to call you back to your God-given purpose.

If, as Bishop Eaton said on Holy Trinity Sunday;
if “creation is God’s decision not to look after himself
but to focus God’s energies and purposes on the creation,”
then Jesus answer is not to blame you for your doubts and fears,
or even to worry himself very much about them—
Jesus just isn’t very interested in your doubts.

But Jesus is concerned about what you will do with your life,
and so Jesus responds to your doubts
with a call to move beyond them
and find your purpose in life:
in worship and obedience to Jesus’ call,
to go out there and be for God and for God’s creation.

Jesus does not debate with you about your doubts;
he embraces you, doubts and all.
When we are faithless, he remains faithful (2 Timothy 2:13),
for God has committed Godself to us,
and God cannot deny God’s self.

God created you with a purpose,
to be in relationship with him,
and God will not give up
calling you back to your purpose again and again.

When you have your doubts
and would rather give up and walk away,
Christ pursues you, for you are his.

God, coming at you:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

God, baptizing you
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

God, sending you away, into the world,
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

One God, the Holy Trinity,
the name in which you live and move and have your being;
the name of the one who created you,
and the one who saves you,
and the one who keeps you;
one God, the holy Trinity, who will not leave the world alone.

This is the promise of Christ to you, and to this broken world:

I will not let you go;
I am with you always, to the end of the age,
doubts or no doubts.

Amen.

© Paul R. Olsen