Following Jesus: Easy or Hard?

“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?

wrench

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

 

 

 

Give Me A Sign

A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 

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.

Holy Trinity Podcasts

 

Guilty Bystander: Confessing My Apathy

When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

Lord, it’s me again. Tonight, I think I have to confess that I am a guilty bystander – not an innocent bystander – a guilty one. I’m the opposite of a Good Samaritan. I’m the cast of the final episode of Seinfeld, sitting in jail because I just, well, stood by.

I see the suffering of the world; I hear the cries of injustice and suffering; I smell the stink of decay and death; I feel the coldness of a world that lacks even common decency on my skin, in my heart. And yet, with my senses all alert, I more often than not, do little or nothing about any of it.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, author and survivor of the Nazi death camps Elie Wiesel has said, “The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference.” If he is right, then perhaps one of the greatest sins against the God of love is apathy.  Hate bothers to expend the energy to turn a child of God into an object of scorn. Apathy… well, it just refuses to give a rip. I confess that this analysis – this accusation – cuts me to the bone with its sharp edged truth.

I know well that there is no room for apathy in a life of faith. Apathy is condemned in the words of I John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (I John 3:17)  How does the rich man, who plainly sees Lazarus starving at his gate as plainly as he sees his own image in the mirror every morning, do nothing to love his neighbor? (Luke 16:19 ff) I understand the reality. But it about more than just understanding, isn’t it? How do I let things slide so easily?

I John calls – demands – “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And yet, I am too often unmoved by this demand; this holy, Christ-like demand. Why?

To be honest, it seems to me an overwhelming demand. There is so much suffering in the broken and busted world and frankly God, I’m busy. I can’t fit it all in. How can I solve the problems of the world with my calendar already full of things you call me to do? Well, to be honest, maybe you don’t call me to do all those other things. Maybe I use that as a little bit of an excuse. Honestly, I guess, my schedule is often full not of things you call me to do, but the things this world expects me to do; things I think I must do. The loud voices of Madison Avenue, pundits, social media and my deep desire to be accepted call me to fill my calendar. I’m really bad about saying no and making you a priority. I have to confess that while I’m busy, it is not with things that may be on your list of priorities for my life.

And yes, before you say it, Lord, you don’t ask me to solve the problem of world hunger or poverty or human trafficking. I John just points me to the one in need who is standing right in front of me. You don’t call me to solve the problem, just to be part of the solution with what you have already given me.  My apathy Lord, I confess, is sometimes due to my own lack of priorities.

So, OK, it is not that I am too busy. But it is still hard. I love the life you have given me and I really need to be a good steward of what I have, don’t I? The problems of this world are always, it seems, interruptions in the order of my day. Acting differently today than I did yesterday is a disruption and it seems to me to risk losing track of other important things. OK, I’ll be honest – we both know how we humans feel about change. As your servant, Richard Rohr has said, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present and fears the future.” (Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)

Acting is one thing. But acting differently is change, and I really prefer the status quo. Respectfully, God that is a problem I have with you. You are really not a God of the status quo are you? I mean, resurrection is an ultimate stand against what was for something totally new. So I get it, but I don’t like it. How can I see the person suffering before me and not be the agent of new life and hope for them if I believe in the resurrection? Because I’m comfortable – and that is a terrible reason. For my love of the past and satisfaction with the way things are; for my resistance to change and new life, I must confess.

Lord, is it that I just don’t care? I think I do. I hope I do. I care about the things that are wrong with this world; the people who suffer. I feel pain in my soul when I see what goes on. But I still don’t do anything. Maybe it is deeper than not caring. Dare I admit to you that I’m afraid? Afraid that if I do anything, that what I do, we do – even in your name – just doesn’t matter? There. I said it.

If doing what you call me to do doesn’t matter, then perhaps I must confess not my apathy, but my despair; my hopelessness. I must confess then that I have come to believe that the suffering and evil of the world is more powerful than you; that I believe in the rottenness of this world more than I believe in or trust your love. And if that is true, I’m in trouble, Lord. Because that means that what you did on the cross doesn’t matter either.

Mercy, Lord – to say that my actions don’t matter also means that I don’t matter. And that is what I fear the most – meaninglessness. I mean, you created me; you reside in the deepest part of me. How can I think I don’t matter? How can I not matter if you are part of me? And then the question comes back, How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The truth is that when I do not act in your name I evict you and you cannot abide in me. Wow. For that sin I must confess.

You once told a parable about sowing seed on different kinds of ground that made it impossible for the good news, the new life, the reign of God to take root and thrive. (Mark 4) I love that parable. It has taught me to be aware of the ways that the concerns and cares of the world; the fears of my own heart; the noise of the voices of hate and sin can lead to desolation. As I stand before you tonight, I wonder if there is not another dimension of this parable that could be added. When the harvest does come; when the new life does finally produce bushels and bushels of your love, why then do I allow the crop to rot in the field while I sit idly by and wait for someone else to harvest? Or worse, why do I never leave my recliner to go into the field? God, help me.

For my apathy, despair, and hopelessness; for my refusal to let you in to my thoughts and my actions; for my excuses and for leaving the fruits of the kingdom rotting in the field, I confess, gracious Lord. Redeem me and take root in my life; take up residence in me so that I may love as you love. Amen.


 

Copyright © 2016 Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Timothy V. Olson. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Tim.

The Hungry at Our Door

the hungry at the gate are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

The local news website We Are Iowa reported yesterday that business is booming at local food pantries. When business booms at the mall, I suppose that is a good thing overall (aside from the spiritual morass of consumerism). When business booms at the food pantries, it is disconcerting because it means there are more and more folks who just can’t make ends meet. We started our own food pantry here at Holy Trinity so folks would have one more day a week to access help. We have seen a steady increase in clients for the pantry and our assistance program.

Now, before you wonder about whether these food pantry “customers” deserve the handouts, or are “worthy” of such grace, I would point you to the sculpture of the homeless Jesus on the bench below. The only way you can tell this is Jesus is by the nail scars in his feet (hard to see in this photo). The caption says it all. Jesus stands with the poor, the hungry, the disadvantaged, and even the undeserving. I am as undeserving a character as you’ll see and I have enough to eat. So, as the meme says…

 am-worthy-poor

I expect that this trend toward busier food pantries will continue until our culture, our nation, our leaders manage to pull our collective heads out of… um… ah… the sand about the economy. Look at the way costs associated with living have grown since 1978:

inflation-comparison-growth-1975-2012

Note that food prices have grown 243% in that time period. Now look at what you and your neighbor have likely seen when it comes to paying for that food:

income trends since 1978

If you are fortunate enough to fall into the top 5% of wages, your wages have grown 52%. If you are with 90% of your neighbors and friends, your income has risen only 16%. When it comes to the growing hunger problem, as one former president liked to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Today’s food pantry shopper is not always indigent, living in their car or receiving government assistance. They are, more and more, middle class moms and dads caught in a world where only a handful of folks get better off and the paycheck – which never seems to get bigger – just won’t buy the food the kids need.

We help the hungry in our community through the HTLC Food pantry, support of DMARC and the network of food pantries they support. We help with the Love Lunch program in Ankeny that makes sure hungry kids get lunch in the summer and we work with Backpack Buddies during the school year. We support the ELCA World Hunger Appeal – one of the most efficient hunger organizations in the world – to aid, assist and advocate for people as close as Des Moines and as far away as Africa and Asia. But it looks like we are going to need to push to do more, my sisters and brothers. Especially since the hungry at the door are becoming, more and more, our neighbors and folks who sit in the pew with us in worship.

In Matthew 25, Jesus blesses those who saw him hungry and gave him food, even though they had no idea it was Jesus. They didn’t recognize him because he comes to us laying on a park bench, in a soup kitchen and at the food pantry. That we feed any who show up means we heard Jesus’ command to love. That we feed the hungry at the door means we feed Jesus himself, every single time.

A Christmas Message

The grace of God, which has appeared in the birth of Jesus the Christ, be with you always.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Christmas is about joy. You can see it in the face of a child ending the agonizing weeks of waiting in the full light of the Christmas tree. You can feel it around the table as families reunite and fond memories of past gatherings are shared. Christmas joy is experienced through the peace and rest of a break from daily efforts to make our way in the world.

As joyous as this season may be, Christmas can also be a time of grief and loneliness, pain and despair. As John Irving writes in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” We can see be overwhelmed by how we have fallen short of our expectations for the perfect celebration – the meal is too meager, the roast too done, the gifts insufficient, the empty places at the table too many.

The incarnation of Christ is grace poured out upon humanity for the sake of broken, weary people. Saint Ambrose, a great preacher and teacher, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century wrote in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke:

“He was a baby and a child, so that you might be a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on the earth that you may be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.
‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich….’
He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.
The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.”

Whether this Christmas brings joy or sadness, fulfillment or feelings of failure, or some bittersweet mixture of all these things, hear this: the center of the Christmas gospel is that God in Christ has invaded our space, sat down next to us to share our joy and bear our pain. Jesus is “God with us” – Immanuel. God has come to us to be incarnate in each moment of our living, each experience of joy and in every moment of suffering. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow expresses this presence of Christ in this way:

“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men!”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail
the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men!”

Jesus Christ was born for you and for me. That is what makes Christmas merry.

Pastor Tim

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners

I have a confession to make.  There are a number of things people of faith say to others that drive me insane.  Now, I know that these things are often said with every intent of caring and showing compassion.  I also know they are said because we are not sure what else to say.  (A word of advice – a listening ear is always a better – and safer – than moving lips). I came across this blog which summed up my list pretty well.  You may find it instructive, challenging, even a little annoying.  It is a good exercise in thinking through our faith and avoiding superstition. Any other things Christians say that bother you or trouble you? – Pastor Tim

10 Things You Can’t SAY While Following Jesus – Mark Sandlin | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Light in the Darkness

So, I was thinking about this passage from Isaiah, so central to the Christmas gospel:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)   

This hopeful proclamation from the prophet Isaiah is part of the Christmas message. Light overcomes darkness.  To tell the truth, things have seemed pretty dark to me since Christmas preparations went into full swing weeks ago – around Halloween, I think.  On the surface, people are talking about looking forward to the holiday.  Underneath, however, I sense an all too frequent dread or stress.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the annual “war on Christmas.”  You know – Happy Holidays, instead of Merry Christmas (even though the English origin of the word “holiday” is holy-day”); kicking the crèche out of the town square; banning religious songs at the school choir concert.  I don’t really buy this kind of war on Christmas as a real issue.

That said, I do think something dark and destructive has been happening to Christmas.  Maybe it is a war of sorts.  It has shaped Christmas into a rather hideous creation.  It has involved us all in a systematic erasure of the meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ.  We still call it Christmas, but maybe it should be called “Consumerist-mas” – the “Feast of the great Consumption.”  There is little Christ left in its observance.  We go on a binge dedicated to dark excess instead of bowing before the Light of the World.  Jesus came bring us the light of freedom, yet the post-holiday credit card debt will shroud us in a kind of slavery for the next two Christmases. Jesus came to give us peace, but we end up doubling our antidepressants because our stress over the perfect holiday has plunged us deeper into a dark hole.  The real focus of the season is how much money was spent and made, not how light has entered our darkness.

I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill or the Grinch.  But, I’m afraid were missing Jesus in the midst of all the jingle bells. I fear we have lost our minds, our hearts and our souls.  We live in a world where benefits are cut to millions who are poor and will have no holiday. At the same time the TV encourages us all to buy diamonds and a Lexus for our loved ones so they know we love them.  We force the least powerful and poorest working folks to work all day on Thanksgiving so we can all get an early start on our excess. That just does not sound like it has anything to do with Jesus to me. You see, my fear is that the Grinch didn’t steal Christmas – consumerism did, and we all helped.  I fear that the true power of God’s incarnation is completely negated by wrapping the manger in foil paper and selling it for $39.95.

Advent is the first act of resistance against this dark progression of commercialism.  The holly jolly world of retail Christmas plays on our desire for instant gratification. Advent makes us wait, a spiritual discipline we may despise, but is essential to our maturation in faith.  Faith is about joy, but also about enduring the darkness as we await the real light.  The strings of bulbs on our houses only decorate the darkness and since they burn out, don’t bear the true light of Christ.

Amidst all our celebrating, spending, preparation and panic, Christ will come. Of this I have no doubt.  Notice however, that the only ones who noticed God breaking into our humanity were shepherds, who had nothing but the silent night.  Maybe if we get a grip on our holiday, Christ will get a grip on us. Christ came to a manger, not the mall.  May Christ come to you whether a new blender does or not.