This week’s sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 recognizes that we live in a world where fairness and justice are defined when we get what we deserve. Work hard? You’ll be rewarded. Mess up? You’ll get what you deserve. Jesus tells a parable that seems to turn this wisdom of the world on its head. Jesus offers a parable that subverts our view of fairness, scarcity, and even what is most economically important. It shows us that the kingdom of heaven may not give us what we deserve. And that may be the best news of all. Check out the sermon with this link!
Every year I spend time asking folks what they would like to learn about in the adult classes I teach. Every year one of the most requested topics is: “How do I live my faith in daily (real) life?” Part of me rejoices at this, because it is what people who profess to follow Jesus should be asking about. Another part of me sighs. I sigh because, while I have graduate degrees is divinity, theology, and preaching, none of these make me an expert on following Jesus. As a pastor, I’m on the same road you travel when it come to living my faith. In some cases, I may be down the road another exit or so, but I’m still working at it right with you. I also sigh because I know that folks are not always going to like the answer to the question.
This week, in our adult class (which meets at 7:15 PM Wednesdays) we looked at how we live in a world that has trained us to demand quick fixes, easy formulas, and immediate results. Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, observes:
Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments. It is not difficult in such a world to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain the interest. (16)
The result of the instant, quick fix mindset is that we “play” at living our faith. We make it an extracurricular activity, an option. The phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” is all the rage today. Frankly, I worry that if I hear it again, I’m going to be sick. It is not that I don’t understand that the empty traditions and rote practice of a religion can rob it of its spiritual center. I get that. But, I suspect most often this is another way of saying, “I want to be spiritual in a quick and easy way that does not intrude on my life.”
Peterson thinks that the problem we have in this world where “busy” is the stock answer to the question, “How are you?” is that we have become Christian tourists:
Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. (16)
We go to church, when we have time, to fit in a little spirituality to our already planned and scripted lives. Like planning a trip to the lake, we plan to set aside time to go look at the stained glass and strange people you can find at church. We leave no more (maybe less) affected than a trip to Mt. Rushmore or an amusement park. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.
Following Jesus is not, however, a tourist opportunity. The two words used to describe followers of Jesus most often are disciple and pilgrim. The first denotes a long-term relationship between master and teacher. Peterson notes: Disciple (mathētēs) says we are people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. (17) Wow, living faith in daily life takes a lifetime devoted to Jesus!
The second word, pilgrim, Peterson points out, “tells us we are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ. We realize that “this world is not my home” (17)
Following Jesus, which is what living your faith in daily life is all about, is not a quick, easy, instant process. It is a long-term relationship with a master, a teacher, a Lord named Jesus to whom we apprentice ourselves to be trained to be human beings, created in God’s image.
In the end, living or faith everyday is about loving God and loving others. It is about a lifelong journey that takes us deeper and deeper into the very heart of God.
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book Being Disciples describes the daily living of Christians, the following of Jesus:
“We follow him, not simply to the ends of the earth, to do his work and echo his service; we follow him to be next to the heart of the Father.” (13)
There are no shortcuts in the journey of discipleship. It is not a quick trip. But, God promises it to be a blessed and joyful journey. Just look who you get to follow!
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017
“In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way.
A man once told me that following Jesus never presented him any struggle. I was impressed. I mentioned that things like loving my enemies and forgiving people who had wronged me always gave me pause. He explained that those things were not the key parts of following Jesus. Then he proceeded to tell me about a Jesus he followed who I never encountered in Sunday School. Miraculously, his Jesus had never challenged him to think or act differently; never had changed his mind about anything. His very personal Jesus would be easy to follow.
This encoutner always makes me think of the story in Mark (10:17 ff) where a rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus tells him to follow the commandments – no murder, no lying, no adultery, honor his parents and the like. The man says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” My (rather loose) translation of the Greek is, “That’s it? That’s easy-peasy ! Haven’t you got anything else?” The man is thinking that this Jesus is offering a pretty easy path. So, Jesus adds, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21) Suddenly, the path to eternal life gets steeper, longer, and harder for the man. He turns back, unable to follow.
I would think that most folks, if we are honest, would say that following Jesus seems hard. There seems to be a lot of rules, demands, and requirements. The way of Jesus calls us to give up things we love; to change when we like things just the way they are. Like the rich man, we all have an idea about where we won’t follow Jesus. It is just too hard.
But what if we are looking at it all wrong?
One day, when I was a kid, I went out to the workbench in the garage and got busy building or fixing something (I don’t recall what it was). The task at hand called for me to drive a nail into a piece of wood. So, I found a nail and a tool for pounding – my father’s pipe wrench. I was wacking away at the nail, making very little progress, when my dad appeared and asked me, “What the heck are you doing?” I stated the obvious. “Pounding a nail.” He asked how it was going, and I had to admit that it was not going very well at all. He grabbed the wrench, handed me a hammer. I drove the nail in easily. He the told me never to hammer things with a wrench. He was a wise man. I was making something easy very hard.
Eugene Peterson, in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, insists that following Jesus is actually the easy way. What makes it seem hard is that we have been living the hard way for so long. We’ve been driving nails with a pipe wrench or screw driver and a hammer seems weird. He says, “In the course of Christian discipleship we discover that without Christ we were doing it the hard way and that with Christ we are doing it the easy way. It is not Christians who have it hard, but non-Christians.” (Peterson, Eugene H. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Kindle Locations 1427-1428). IVP Books. Kindle Edition.)
We are created in the image of God, but we spend lots of time fashioning ourselves into our own or someone else’s image. We have been shown what it means to be a human living in the image of God in Jesus Christ. We would rather find our own way, follow our own path instead of walking in his footsteps. We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to stir our hearts to love and serve, to orient us in this world to the hope of God’s future. We ignore the voice within and listen to the voices of the world calling us to forsake our birthright. We are surrounded by a creation and creatures all dedicated to the same God, but, we treat them all as personal possessions.
Jesus beckons us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
It is the way of the world that kills, creates violence, and robs us of meaning and purpose. We were built for peace, the world drags us into conflict. We were built to love, but the world divides and conquers us through hate. We were built to live in community with others, the world calls us to go it alone.
We were made to follow Jesus. Maybe we just need to stop resisting; stop wacking nails with wrenches.
copyright © 2017, Timothy V. Olson
Remember. Never forget. These are the calls, perhaps even commands, of September 11 ever since that fateful day in 2001 when towers fell, lives were lost, and the world changed. We should indeed remember and honor those who died; and we should never forget the “heroes” (we call them saints in the church) who ran toward the destruction, risking their lives – which many of them lost – to save others.
The church is good at remembrance, we do it all the time. We remember saints (those flawed followers of Jesus who set an example for us to follow) on the day of their death. We remember the life of Jesus in our liturgical calendar.
At the center of our life together, we gather around a table with bread and wine “in remembrance” of Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. The mystery of faith that is proclaimed as we remember is, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Notice how this remembrance looks forward, not back, at an event that continues to shape us. Notice how remembering the tragedy, pain, and death on the cross serve to fuel present and future hope. Remembrance at the table of Christ does not revisit the past grief, nor does it work to stoke unresolved blame or anger over the past event. The remembrance of the Last Supper is an active remembrance that builds hope and celebrates the new life that arises in the wake of tragedy and pain. That is instructive for our efforts to remember; to never forget 9/11.
If what we remember, what we will not forget, is the rage and anger that filled us all that fateful day; if all we can remember is our grieving hearts and our longing for retribution; if our memory provides for seeds of hate and revenge, then our remembrance serves no purpose other than to enslave us.
If however, we can remember with all solemnity those who died in the attack and find compassion for the world through hearts open to pain; if we can remember those who gave their lives to save others, and glean from that a reminder of how we should face the current destruction of this world with courage and grace, we will have remembered well and hope will be the result.
Our world, at this moment, groans in pain through one disaster after another; it suffers under the divisions we place between each other. Remember that day in 2001 when, in the midst of all the destruction and loss, people came together and loved one another. God brought hope out of the ashes. God is doing that all the time.
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017
Perhaps we all wish that God would give us a sign; our own personal burning bush or miraculous deed that would chase away all fears and doubt. Signs and miracles, however, do not lead to faith. Faith comes from a much more trustworthy source. Jesus told Peter that it was this deep trust in God upon which the Church would rest. That kind of faith is available to you.
Watching the movement of lights in the sky, attending to the signs in the heavens, has been part of the human experience since, well, there have been humans. Whenever the normal cycle of day and night was disturbed in some way, it has been second nature to wonder what it means, why it happens and whether we should be afraid. We humans don’t handle change well. A total eclipse, for ancient people could be at worst, the harbinger of cataclysm; at best, a sign of things to come.
In Acts 2:20, Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost borrows an image from the prophet Joel: “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” (NRSV) Joel saw the things that instill awe, reveal our smallness, or upset our routines as a sign that God was in the house; a reminder that the “day of the Lord” was in our future.
Today, we dismiss ancient wisdom about things like eclipses. We know that in the cosmic dance of planets, moon, and sun, a total eclipse of the sun happens somewhere on earth every 18 months or so. We know that it is not magic or a reflection of divine struggles between gods up in the sky. We know, yet we still marvel at the wonder of it all. We drive to places we can see it most clearly. Like our ancient sisters and brothers, we seek to experience the signs in the heavens. I think part of us still seeks meaning in them, too.
Today’s total eclipse reminds me how very small I am in the greater scheme of all there is in this universe. It reminds me that I have little or no control over a world I so desperately work to subjugate to my power. As a matter of faith, an eclipse reminds me that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” by a power that moves planets, and suns, and moons, and stars. In that sense, it is a moment of judgement that reveals to me the pettiness of my own sense of power and the foolishness of powers and principalities that think they run things. It is also, more powerfully a moment of grace.
Like watching the unwatchable beat of a hummingbird’s wings, or the power of a thunderstorm; like seeing the grandeur of the mountains or the smallness of an ant walking across my driveway; in the way my wife forgives and gives to me for no reason at all but love, the eclipse show me the grace infused life God has made. As I am awed and humbled by my presence before such wonder, I am reminded that I am God’s child. Grace; it is all grace.
Psalm 19 declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
As we ponder the signs in the heavens this day, may we learn to ponder the grace that is revealed in every moment and every thing. May we pray with the psalmist: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)
Peace to all,
copyright © 2017, Timothy V. Olson