Hope can be a fleeting thing. We hope for many things that leave us disappointed. That sends us down wrong roads, trying to make the future out of the past; trying to find hope in things that cannot deliver anything but despair, in the end. Two disciples headed home recalling the past glory of Emmaus, had hoped Jesus was the Messiah only to see that hope crucified on the cross. On the road and in the breaking of the bread, the risen Jesus is revealed, restoring hope. That happens all the time – whenever, in Jesus name, we take, bless, break and give what we have and what we are.
The men who were sent to guard the tomb of Jesus had a harder job than they imagined. They had little idea that the tomb was not up to the task of containing Immanuel (God with us); that God had in mind to reboot all creation on that morning starting with raising Jesus; that Love could not be so easily be extinguished. The power of the resurrection has been shared with you and me, and “since we have been raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1) we have nothing to fear in this world ever again, not even death. For God, Love, Life have the final word over all things.
We live in a world where we know things about each other, but we don’t know others deeply. We see surface details like position, looks, titles, but do not see the human before us at least not as God sees. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus and his disciples encounter a “man who was born blind.” That is how the world sees him. But Jesus sees more and restores his sight not just so he can see the world around him, but so he can see God standing before him. God sees us in our failures, with our faults; God sees beyond our struggles and the opinions of the world. When God sees us, and seeks us out, God can give us the sight we need to see God in our midst. That is what happens to a “man born blind” in John’s gospel. Jesus sees him, seeks him out and gives him not just the ability to use his eyes, but to see God standing before him. This sermon proclaims a God who sees us, that we might see God.
The White House recently released its budget plans. I looked over articles that summarized the plans from several of the least biased sources I could find (AP, Reuters, etc.). Essentially, large increases in defense spending are paired with pretty massive cuts to programs that feed the poor, protect the environment, educate kids and care for those who are on the margins of society. I saw potential cuts to Meals on Wheels, reductions in helping the poor with heating bills, elimination of housing programs that keep a roof over the heads of those in need, and cessation of efforts to clean up the Great Lakes and groundwater, just to name a few. With all that in view, I realized that I was between a rock and hard place, as they say.
On the one side, there are the voices that, as a pastor, tell me all this is none of my business. These voices are often anonymous, but they are real. These voices are concerned that saying anything that might offend someone’s political commitments is too big a risk. That making someone mad, or perhaps, not making everyone happy is a detriment to a congregation’s unity. These voices believe that the “separation of church and state” means that the church should not have an opinion on such things; that matters of faith are singularly private and never public. I get that. I hear those voices and understand them. To listen to these voices means that I keep my pastoral and theological mouth shut about injustice and a lack of compassion in a federal budget; that I do not speak for those who will suffer. It is certainly the easier path. But then I wonder, who will speak a word about what God might think about something that impacts creature and creation so deeply?
On the other side are voices that remind me that the kingdom of God is, in fact, a present reality that addresses every aspect of life – including economics and politics; that the reign of God is a very public matter, even as it has profound personal meaning. For a pastor, these voices include Jesus telling us we must address the needs of “the least of these;” prophets condemning the government for neglecting the widow, orphan and alien while they make war and get right; saints of every age who spoke – and died – calling for justice, peace, compassion; voices like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero. There are also the voices that rise from governing documents that tell the pastor to speak for these things and the people affected, and ordination vows that make it a solemn, sacred promise. To listen to these voices means I keep promises I have made; that I assert that God has an opinion about federal budgets that make the poor poorer, the hungry hungrier, the planet victimized. It also seems to be the harder, riskier path.
You can say that my reading of this matter (and all others) is shaped by my own personal agenda. While I spend a lot of time trying to make it about God, my thoughts are ultimately my own (which means no one has to listen to me). However, my reading of the matter as a pastor works not to be centered in the liberal philosophy of Noam Chomskey or the progressive politics of FDR, JFK, or LBJ; it is not to be informed by the individualism and social Darwinism of Ayn Rand or the conservatism of Reagan. These voices, to the extent possible, have to be constantly pushed to the background so that the voice of scripture, Church, saints, ultimately, of Jesus take the center. I believe all of the philosophies and politics mentioned are, at best, misguided and often, just terribly wrong. Progressive notions that humanity can fix every ill and end every suffering is nonsense. Conservative notions about an unrestrained world where individuals all thrive if they are free and accountable enough is equally flawed. God’s future is the only future.
Most of us pastors sit between a rock and a hard place, pinched between the rock of what is popular and practical (and safe) and the hard place of promises made and theological commitments shaped by what we believe are about God – a God who has everything to do with this world and today. It is a place we all knew would exist when we signed on. It is the place of the cross.
So, what is a pastor to do when stuck between a rock and a hard place? Any suggestions?
© 2017 Timothy V. Olson, all rights reserved
Saul was tall, dark, and handsome. Saul was the first king of Israel. He was a man who led his army with some success and was admired by all… well, at least for a time. One of the things that contributed to Saul’s fall from grace and his demise was a grudge he held against David, who was his successor. After David killed Goliath on the field of battle, David become part of King Saul’s household. He grew up and became a very successful military in Saul’s army. When the crowds started singing his praises, Saul began growing a grudge. It grew so dark and deep that he tried to kill David. While David had many opportunities to get rid of his patron turned persecutor, he did not take them. Saul carried his grudge to the grave.
That is the thing about a grudge, we think we hold them to hurt the person we hate. The truth is a grudge just damages our own souls as they make us dark, paranoid and driven by pain. Self-pity and retribution fill our hearts. As one saying goes, “Holding a grudge is like letting a person live rent free in your brain.” Trust me, that person you direct all that anger toward is probably not spending any time thinking about you.
The Lenten journey to follow Jesus is rooted in confession — and reconciliation. Jesus told us to forgive our enemies, to make peace with one another before we approach the altar, to initiate the work of making peace. So, I’d like to suggest that for a Lenten fast, you give up a grudge. Pick a little on or a great big boulder of one. Give it to God in prayer. Ask for the help to forgive. Give up a grudge for Lent and clear some space in your head for that unneeded tenant.
2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
Last week a letter was delivered – anonymously, secretly, under cover of dark – to the Islamic Center of Des Moines. The letter was filled with hateful speech and threats. The Des Moines Register has reported on the content, and I will not give it space here. It is enough to say that any Christian should be outraged and grieved by such an attack. It is cowardly; it is of the darkness of the human heart, it is contrary to a faith rooted in the grace, mercy, peace and justice of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
There are many people who see all Muslim’s as potential terrorists and live in fear (fear is the root of hate, not love or courage). The perception is misguided. No one who is a serious follower of Jesus would wish to be defined by the Ku Klux Klan (who claim to be a Christian organization), or by the shameful acts of radical “Christians” who led the Inquisition, supported the Holocaust, and drank the Kool-Aid at Jonestown. Jesus said “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12). We should then never ascribe to all Muslims the acts of the fanatical or the misuse of faith to justify politics and violence.
I have written to the Islamic Center on behalf of the congregation to express our support and concern. Muslim brothers and sisters are “children of Abraham” and “people of the book” – we share this in common. We must act accordingly for the sake of our faith and the sake of the world. Here is my letter to our friends:
As-Salamu Alaykum, our dear neighbors,
On behalf of the whole congregation of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ankeny, I wish to express our solidarity and support for you in the face of recent hate mail you received. Through whatever differences we may have, we are children of Abraham and called to be a blessing to each other and the world. We desire to be your brothers and sisters in this world; to work together for the good of humanity; for peace and justice; for understanding and reconciliation.
We will be offering prayers for you in our worship. We offer our aid in any other way that you might need.Please be assured that such hatred is not held in our hearts and that such acts are not acceptable among us.
May God’s peace and love be yours.
Pastor Timothy Olson
2017 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved.
I want to thank State Senator Jim Lykam, Davenport, and his Legislative Assistant, Kathy Ellett of Holy Trinity – Ankeny, for the invitation to be the Pastor for the Day in the State Senate. Thanks to President of the Senate, Jack Whitver for giving me voice in the assembly. I was honored to stand in the well of the Senate and pray, if only for a minute or so, representing as faithfully as I can, the Word of the Lord. My prayer was as follows: