Messages, Meditations, and Musings on the Life of Faith by Rev. Dr. Scott E. Olson, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 15, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 3.1-21

We are now at the point of our story in the Old Testament where the Israelites have stopped wandering around the wilderness and are now in the Promised Land. It’s the period of the judges, those leaders who God raises up to deal with neighboring threats. Israel is a loose collection of tribes, not a unified nation, and therefore susceptible to attacks. The book of Samuel is largely how God will unify the people and raise up more permanent leadership in the form of kings. But to do that, the narrator of Samuel wants us to know first that Samuel is a legitimate agent of God.

The back-story to today’s reading tells of Samuel’s miraculous birth to barren Hannah through Eli’s intervention. In gratitude for a child, Hannah dedicates Samuel to God and gives him to the priest Eli in service at Shiloh. We hear also that God is displeased with Eli because Eli can’t control his corrupt sons, so God calls Samuel to be his official mouthpiece. Even though he’s served his whole life in the temple, Samuel, with Eli’s help, hears God’s voice for the first time. But it won’t be the last time, for Samuel will prove himself to be a trustworthy conduit of God’s word.

A week ago, Vicar John and I went on a retreat for interns and supervisors. Interestingly, the topic of the retreat was listening. During one exercise, we were invited to go off by ourselves to think more deeply about listening. I chose to do a meditative walk, not only to get up and moving, but because that’s helpful for me for thinking. Near the end of my walk, it occurred to me it was somewhat ironic that someone with hearing loss was meditating on how to listen for God’s voice. And then I realized that all of us need “hearing aids” to listen to God.

God rarely speaks directly in an audible voice and, when people claim to do so, we think them mentally ill. Usually, God chooses other means and some of them are totally unexpected. It’s remarkable that God used Eli, someone who fell short of God’s intentions for him, to help Samuel hear his voice.

Last Monday, after our monthly worship service at the Realife Cooperative, an attendee mentioned how she uses inspirational music to hear God’s voice. I was reminded that there are many ways to connect to God, such as use art, nature, service, meditation, etc. Another person mentioned how she sometimes misses hearing God’s voice, but can look back weeks or months later and realize that God was speaking to her. So, we are reminded that there are many barriers to hearing God’s voice, such as distractions and competing voices.

Listening for and hearing God’s word is important for all of us who are God’s people, not just clergy or approved prophets. Earlier this fall, I suggested we take a sabbatical as a congregation and add no new ministries. I did so for two reasons. First, we have done a lot these past seven years, capped by our building renovations, and it seemed good to take a break. Second, it is important for us to step back and listen to God’s voice for where God may be leading us in the years ahead. As we do so, we might want to pay attention to those whom we consider to be unlikely channels of God’s voice. However we do this, let us with Samuel say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Do You Trust Me?" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Do You Trust Me?
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 8, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Exodus 16.1-18; John 6.51

Two weeks ago my family and I saw the Broadway touring musical of the Disney favorite, Aladdin, at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. Aladdin is a bit of a scamp, a streetwise rogue who encounters the Princess Jasmine, a young woman who refuses to marry just anyone to please her father. In the misadventure that follows, they are chased by palace guards and reach a tricky place. Aladdin is about to leap from a rooftop, but Jasmine hesitates. Aladdin reaches down and says, “Do you trust me?” She does. Later, pretending to be a prince through the help of the Genie yet unrecognized to Jasmine, he asks the same question as he coaxes her on a magic carpet ride. “Do you trust me?”

Trust is a central theme in today’s reading from Exodus, which finds the Jews in the wilderness. Since the call of Moses and the revelation of God’s name, “I Will Be Who I Am,” Moses has had to use 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews, including the killing of firstborn males. Because of the loss of his own son, Pharaoh relents but then changes his mind and pursues the Israelites. Moses parts the Red Sea to escape and closes it back up as Pharaoh and his army attempt to cross, killing them all. Now, safely on the other side, the Jews realize they’ve gone from slavery to an uncertain and unfriendly wilderness. They panic.

When they panic, they do something that is all too human: they look back with rose-colored glasses at what they have left behind them. Even though not much time has elapsed, the slavery they have left from looks better than the prospect of starving in the wilderness. Now, in all fairness, why should they trust a God they hadn’t heard from in over 400 years? Even so, God through Moses reaches down to them with quail and manna, saying, “Do you trust me?” And by providing for his people day by day, God builds that trust with the Israelites day by day as well.

There are many wildernesses that come through transitions and changes in our lives that we endure and can talk about: divorce, cancer, violence, and natural disasters, to name a few. The wilderness that’s been on my mind for several years, though, is the wilderness of the church. People are leaving our churches in droves, through death and disinterest. Many Millennials and Gen-Xers consider the church irrelevant and even boring. Baby Boomers who grew up in the church, if they are still in the church, are too busy trying to launch their children, taking care of grandchildren, caring for their elderly parents, or all three. Those that are left in the church look back to a bygone era that seems better than it was, wondering why we can’t go back there. Sometimes, like the Israelites, we blame our leaders.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s important to remember that God doesn’t abandon God’s people and that in every age God reaches out saying, “Do you trust me?” I don’t know what’s ahead for God’s church, how God is going to make it new, but I know that God is and will be doing so. I do know that as we travel this unsure road we need to focus on God’s abundance, what we have, and not scarcity, what we don’t have. Like the man in Mark 9, who asks Jesus to heal his son, we need to say, “Lord we trust you; help our mistrust.”

1,200 years after the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, God will put on human flesh and enter our wilderness, saying “Do you trust me?” God will do this for all time in Jesus Christ. And, knowing that we need constant reminder that God is with us in our wilderness and will lead us out, the Bread of Life gives his very self to us over and over again, strengthening us for our journeys. It’s good to take a look back now and then, to remind ourselves where we have come from, to see God’s hand in our lives, but we do so that we can trust God as we are led to new life. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

"I Will Be Who I Am" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

I Will Be Who I Am
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.1-15; 4.10-17
John 8.58

When I entered seminary, we moved to a small town outside of Gettysburg, PA, called, appropriately, Littlestown. In addition to lessons in theology, it was a lesson in rural life. Once when I was asked and told someone my name, I was asked if I was related to Olsons who lived in Hanover, the next big city to the east. I chuckled and answered that one doesn’t expect that question growing up in Minnesota, where there are dozens of pages of Olsons in the phone book. Later, I began to see that question as an attempt to understand who I was, what kind of person I am. If the person asking could connect me with someone else they could better understand how to relate to me.

Knowing God’s name and building a relationship is at the heart of our story today. About 400 years has passed between Jacob’s trickery last week, where he stole the blessing due to his elder brother, Esau, and the revealing of God’s name today. In the meanwhile, Jacob has married two women and, with and additional two others, has had 12 sons, and reconciled has with his brother Esau. One of the sons, Joseph, gets sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers, where through a series of ups and downs, rises to a position of prominence because he can interpret the king’s dreams. Because he can do so, Joseph helps the Egyptian people prepare for a famine, one that ultimately brings Joseph’s family to Egypt where they begin to prosper even more.

A king arises who doesn’t know the Joseph story and becomes fearful of the Israelite foreigners (where have we heard that before?). The king oppresses them, forcing them into slavery. Yet, despite his efforts they continue to multiply, and the king oppresses them more. The cries of the people get God’s attention and God “remembers” his people. God hasn’t forgotten them; he has merely set them aside for a time. To “remember” means he will now act. But, it seems there’s no quick fix to the problem and God, consistent with his purpose at creation, chooses to work in, with and through human agents, calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

In the midst of an incredible dialogue with God, Moses wants to know who this God is he’s dealing with. Here, it’s important to remember the God has been silent all these years. The only thing that Moses knows of this God is from stories handed down through the years. God responds with a name that is almost untranslatable, one that says everything and nothing: “I am who I am.” This self-description is so different from other persons or things so as to make comparison meaningless. It’s as if you asked me my name and I said “I Golf” or “Coffee Cup.” But, I prefer the translation of Terence Fretheim: “I will be who I am.” As the person who asked me my name, through asking this God’s name, Moses finds a way to connect with God.

Revealing one’s name is risky and involves a bit of vulnerability because once we know someone’s name we can make a claim on that person. Amazingly, while remaining wholly other, God opens God’s self to us, inviting us into a relationship. Through the divine name, God assures us he will always be with us, working in, with, and through us.

1,200 years later, the “Great I Am” will again become vulnerable, taking on human flesh, revealing himself as the one who suffers with us in our suffering and by doing so brings us out of bondage to sin, death and the power of the devil. As Jesus says in today’s Companion Gospel reading, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In case you miss it, he’ll go on to say, “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” I am the Light of the World,” and for us as we come to the Lord’s Table, “I am the Bread of Life.”  The revelation of God’s name tells us everything we need to know and invites us into a living, loving relationship of service. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Blessed to Be a Blessing" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 16)

Blessed to Be a Blessing
Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 27, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 27.1-4, 15-23; 28.10-17

My father passed in 1983 when he was 68 years old and I did the eulogy at his funeral. It was a way to honor him and to say the things I wanted to say to him but didn’t get the chance. But it was the things that he didn’t say to me that I think about a lot. During the visitation and after many people told me how proud my dad was of me. Now, I knew that he loved me and was proud of me, but I wish he had said it to me. During my sabbatical last summer, I had an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our relationship. Although I couldn’t change what I got or didn’t get from Dad, I could tell my daughters how proud I am of them, that no matter what they did or didn’t do, that would never change.

I came to realize that what I wanted from my dad was a blessing such as is given in the Old Testament. Had I known the story of Jacob, Esau and Isaac, perhaps I would have tricked my father into one, but probably not. Since Isaac’s near-death experience at the hands of his father Abraham in our reading from last week, he has married Rebekah and had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. They are fraternal twins, different as night and day. Esau is the hunter while Jacob is the farmer. Earlier in the story, Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright as oldest, all for a bowl of stew. Now he conspires with Rebekah to steal the blessing due Esau. This blessing is such a big deal that Esau threatens to kill Jacob, who flees Esau’s wrath and heads to Rebekah’s brother, Laban. In the middle of nowhere, Jacob lays down to sleep and encounters God in a most unexpected place, receiving some startling news.

In effect, God tells Jacob that the blessing received from his father pales in comparison to the one that God is giving him. God promises Jacob the land he is sleeping on, innumerable descendents and God’s presence always. This blessing from God is even more incredible because Jacob deserves none of it; it’s pure grace. What’s even more outrageous is that God tells Jacob he is being blessed in order to be a blessing. That’s absurd because as Jacob’s life unfolds it will appear to be anything but blessed: he is going to be tricked as much has he tricks others and he will become lame after wrestling with God all night.

Last Wednesday I preached and led the worship service at Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry. We read this text and talked about blessings. I told them today was Confirmation and asked them what they would tell their younger selves if they could do so. In other words, what would they tell you, Confirmands, from their own experience, giving you a blessing in the process? They said to know that, even if you drift away from the church, the church will always love you and take you back. They wanted you to know that no matter where you go God will be with you. They also said that you should to not be afraid to be who you are as a follower of Christ, but to let people know that appropriately. If I had to add my two cents, I would tell you that people will disappoint you, including those in the church, and that you will do the same, but that the church is the place we belong because it is where broken people come for healing.

Confirmands: in baptism God made you his own, blessed you and set you aside for his purpose. (That’s what it means to be holy.) God also promised that he would be with you always, no matter what you do or where you go. This comes of God’s pure grace because you didn’t do anything to earn it and nothing you do changes it. Whatever happens in your lives, though it may not seem a blessing, God will use you to bless others. I trust that your family will tell you how proud they are without you tricking them into it. But I want you to hear from me how proud I am of who you are, of who you are becoming and that God has indeed blessed you to be a blessing, just like everyone here. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"The Lord Will Provide" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Lord Will Provide
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary 4
September 17, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 21.1-7; 22.1-19

In the movie “The Goodbye Girl,” based on Neil Simon’s play, Marsha Mason plays a single mom who has been in a series of “love them and leave them” relationships. Her latest boyfriend has left to pursue an acting career, promising to return. Mason knows he won’t. To make matters worse, the departing boyfriend has sublet his portion of the apartment to another aspiring actor, played by Dustin Hoffman. After many ups and downs, Mason and Hoffman fall in love and begin to make a life together.

Then comes Hoffman’s break, a part that will require him to leave Mason and her daughter for a time. No matter how much Hoffman says, Mason doesn’t believe that he’ll return. In the final scene of the movie, Hoffman calls Mason from a phone booth on the way to the airport, professing his love and repeating his promise to come back. Mason will have nothing of it, until Hoffman speaks almost a throw-away line: “While I’m gone will you have my guitar restrung?” Mason shrieks in joy to her daughter, “He left his guitar.” Sure enough, the daughter goes to the closet and finds Hoffman’s most prized possession, his guitar, something he never goes anywhere without. The guitar is a sign and a promise that he will return.

In our text today, God wants Abraham to trust him with his most prized possession, his son Isaac, bearer of the promise of a great nation. We need to acknowledge that this is a hard text and there’s no getting around it. This story is problematic on so many levels. It is scandalous in the usual sense that it is offensive that God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. After so many years of waiting through what seemed impossible circumstances, Abraham and Sarah finally have their son and God has finally fulfilled his promise. Now, God wants to renege on the promise. And Abraham does it without a whimper of protest. Where was Sarah in all of this? Did Abraham even tell Sarah what he’s doing? The story is not just offensive; it’s a stumbling block to our faith and who we believe God to be.

But what if the big scandal isn’t what God is asking? What if the scandal is that God actually wants us to trust him with the most precious things in our lives? Think for a moment what that might be for you. As I thought about an analogy, I thought of the three most precious things to me: my wife and daughters. One time when Angela was very young, she fell, hitting her head that produced a large gash above her eyebrow. I picked her up and took her to the doctor where I literally had to “bind her” in a sheet and lay her on a table so the doctor and nurse could put stitches in her head. All the while I kept telling her to trust me and the doctor, that it would be okay. I’ve had to do similar things with my other daughter Amy and my wife Cindy.

Now, I know that analogy isn’t perfect; nothing was wrong with Isaac (as far as Abraham knew). But when we ask ourselves why those early believers in God kept telling this story and then wrote it down, it seems the story becomes as much about God’s faithfulness as about Abraham’s. Perhaps they wanted to remember that God asks us to trust even in the midst of circumstances we don’t understand, when everything appears futile. Or, as Walter Brueggemann notes, in a world defined by the notion that we can only trust ourselves, or only trust what we can touch, taste and measure, or not trust anything, the claim that God alone provides all that we need is perhaps even more scandalous as the claim that God tests us.

One aspect of the story that I find intriguing is that even God takes a big risk and becomes vulnerable. What if Abraham had said no to God and walked away? He and Sarah had their son; that might be enough for them. Sure, God could have found someone else to make a chosen people, but God would have lost some reputation in the process. The fact is, that God was as much “all in” as Abraham was and had as much to lose. Yet, it was the faithfulness of God to his promises that Abraham was able to trust God with the most precious thing in his life and it was Abraham’s trust in his relationship with God that he know “the Lord will provide.”

Two thousand years later, unbeknownst to Abraham of course, God would take another huge risk and become vulnerable by taking on human flesh, giving up the thing most precious to him. As someone put it, God provides the Lamb of God, which is also the Lamb from God. The story of Jesus was a scandal and stumbling block then, and it still is to a lot of people. Both stories, Abraham and Jesus, are hard stories and they are not easily solved; nor should they be. Instead, we are invited to trust God with our most precious things, especially during the hard times when we can’t see any way forward, trusting that “the Lord will provide.” We are not “Goodbye Girls”; we are children of the promise who trust a faithful God. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Practicing Sabbath" - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Practicing Sabbath
Pentecost 14 – NL 4
September 10, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 1.1-2.4a

I enjoying looking at family photos, especially my own. From them I get a sense of my family history and familiarity with past generations. But I also like to look deeply to see if there’s a resemblance among family members, and quite often it is there, from one generation to the next. Our two daughters are very different, yet each has bits and pieces of Cindy and me, not only their appearance, but in personality as well.

In the first creation story from Genesis (yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis), we learn that each of us is made in God’s image. Now, there’s much discussion about what that means exactly, but there is a profound truth expressed here. One proposition, made by theologian Phil Hefner is that we are “created co-creators.” Or as another theologian, Gary Simpson, puts it, to be made in God’s image means that we are “co-creating creatures.” We get to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation. However, just as the Creator God does, we also get to rest from our creating work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “rest” lately, what the Bible calls Sabbath and we typically think of as Sunday. My sabbatical last year was an opportunity to rest and be renewed in ministry, mind and body. It was also an opportunity to think more about Sabbath. Truthfully, I had been thinking about Sabbath as rest for several years before, about how to recover its originally meaning and intention for us. I’ve thought long and hard about what Sabbath means in a culture that prides itself in busy-ness. How often, when asked how we are, we reply, “I’m so busy.” We wear it almost as a badge of honor.

These ruminations came to a head last month as I reflected on how far we’ve come these past seven years, how we’re officially in the last stages of the strategic plan we adopted as we are moving ahead with the building renovations, and as I began thinking about what comes next. Frankly, the thought about that made me tired, and if I am tired then I’m pretty sure you are, too.

There was another strand weaving its way into my thoughts and that has been a reflection on my role as the spiritual leader of this congregation. On more than one occasion, someone has told me, “You are our spiritual leader, Pastor.” Fortunately, I had the opportunity to reflect on what that means during a two-day retreat this summer with other rostered leaders in our synod. I discovered that one aspect of my call as your spiritual leader is to be the one who makes sure that God is included in our conversations together, to be the one who asks the “God Questions.” “What is God doing in our world?” “What does God want us to be doing?”

The other part of my call as spiritual leader is to both model and encourage healthy spiritual practices, to live them and to teach them. I believe that a healthy and helpful recovery of Sabbath is vital to our spiritual well-being. I believe that this is true for us both as individuals and as a community of faith, we who are God’s created co-creators.

One thing I learned working on my doctorate was the spiritual practice of saying yes and no. Now, that may not sound like a spiritual practice, but it is. And, it’s related to Sabbath. Every time we say “yes” to something, there is an automatic “no” being said to something else. In fact, in saying “yes” to my doctoral work, I realized I needed to say “no” to other things, and those other things wouldn’t be eating, sleeping and spending time with my family. I had to say no to some good things that I enjoyed doing in order to be healthy.

Saying yes and no is a spiritual practice because it’s rooted in creation: God says “yes” to creation as God calls forth the sun, moon, stars and creatures. But, every time God says “yes” to one thing, it implies a “no” to another. Scientists agree that our position from the sun makes a only a certain kind of life possible. Though there are a multitude of life forms, there are some that could not survive. Then, on the seventh day God says a huge “no” to work and a similar “yes” to rest and renewal. And God said it was good.

If you had a chance to read my letter in the most recent newsletter, you know that for the next year I’ve asked the council and ministry teams to engage in Sabbath. I’ve asked that we say “no” to adding new ministries and to saying “yes” to asking the “God Questions.” I want us to intentionally engage in conversation about where we see God’s presence in, with and through our lives and our community as we see what comes next for us as God’s created co-creators.

 Meanwhile, I’m encouraging each of you personally to make Sabbath space in your lives. It doesn’t have to be a whole day or even an hour; it can be five minutes. I want you to intentionally practice saying yes and saying no and to simply be without doing, to see what God is doing in your life. Let me know if I can help, but know that from time to time, I’ll remind and encourage you in this practice. For it is good. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sola Fide" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Pentecost 10 – Summer Series
August 13, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Galatians 2.15-3.5

 “Henry” was actively dying when I visited him in the hospital. He was still very lucid and after some general conversation, I asked him if there was anything on his mind or that he’d like to discuss. “Yes, pastor, there is,” Henry said. What is it? “I wonder if I’m good enough for God.” What do you mean, Henry, ‘good enough?’ “Will God take me? Am I good enough to be accepted by God?” Now, I wanted to smack him because Henry was a life-long Lutheran, whom I was sure had heard the “saved by grace through faith” line countless times, including from me.   But instead, my heart ached for him. I said, “Oh, my, Henry…” and we talked some more.

Today we explore sola fide, or “faith alone,” the second in our series on the five Solae. The Solae are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity. They are the “bottom line” of our beliefs. In our text from Galatians today we hear that we are made right with God, not by works of the law, but by the faith of Christ and our faith in Christ.

Now, it’s helpful to know a bit of the back-story to Galatians: it seems there were Jewish folk who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who, thankfully, approved this message for Gentiles as well. (Remember, the first Christians were Jewish.) However, they were so tied to their Jewish roots and sense of belonging that they believed that the Gentiles needed to adopt these “belonging markers and practices” as gifts from God. These practices included the observance of dietary laws and circumcision for men. Paul, who helped establish the Galatian church, was furious and responds accordingly.

Mary Hinkle Shore notes how difficult Galatians can be to understand because Paul uses heavy-weight theological words like “justify,” “justification” and “righteousness,” which can be confusing and hard to unpack. So, she suggests replacing “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging.” I think that’s very helpful because the issue at the heart of Galatians is how we belong, to God and to one another. Yet, in a grammatical puzzle that has commentators abuzz, it’s Jesus’ faith, not ours, that’s at issue.

Paul says that how we belong to this community of faith, to God and each other, is through the faithfulness and faith of Jesus. And Paul’s message is one we need to hear just as much today as the Galatians did 2,000 years ago. In our culture, we hear constant messages that we aren’t good enough or don’t have enough. In order to belong, we need to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, drive the right truck or car, or use the right technology. However, in our congregations, we strive to teach and live a different message: “You belong no matter what you do or who you are.”

As I continued my conversation with Henry, I simply and gently reminded him of what he already knew but, in essence, wanted to hear again one last time: God’s faithful promises. Whatever faith and trust we have in God springs from Jesus’ faithfulness as God’s gift to us. Though Henry may not have realized or perhaps forgotten, it was because of this gift from God that he was able to live the life of faith that he did, not perfectly of course, but secure in the love of Christ. May you hear and trust this good news as well. Amen.