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

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"The Future Is Now" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Future Is Now
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 3
September 18, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 15.1-6

After my mother died in 1983 at the age of 57, my dad seemed to do all right for a while. He traveled to Texas during the winter and came out to Northern Virginia after our first daughter, Angela, was born. He also did some part-time work for the local American Legion, bookkeeping for the pull tabs. However, something happened at the American Legion, a change in commanders I think, and he was told he wasn’t needed any longer. It may have been a coincidence, but his health steadily declined after that.

Just as my sister and I were going to intervene, a friend couldn’t get a hold of him and called the paramedics. He was hospitalized with pneumonia and we were somewhat relieved because now we thought he would get the help he need. However, he died later that night. All in all, he just seemed to just give up on life. I think he couldn’t imagine a future for himself or, at the very least, a future compelling enough to give him reason for living. In religious terms, he lost hope.

In our lesson, Abram—later to be called Abraham—can’t imagine a future either. A lot has happened since last week’s story about Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. There is the first murder, a fratricide. People have indeed been populating the earth as God commanded. However, this people are so corrupt that God does a dramatic reboot through a massive flood, saving animals and a handful of people. This doesn’t work and God is forced to create a separation of languages peoples following the tower of Babel incident. God still won’t give up and comes up with the interesting idea of setting aside a people who will draw the rest of humanity to himself. In doing do, God makes an audacious move: 75 year old Abram and his 65 year old wife Sarai will not only have a child, they will be the beginning of a people who will be countless as stars in the sky and sand on a beach.

This promise to Abram and Sarai is not just an issue of who inherits his estate. In Middle Eastern cultures, it was expected that children would look after their parents in their old age. There weren’t any assisted living or long-term care facilities. Also, it was believed that people lived on through their descendents. People without offspring didn’t just die; with no one to remember them they ceased to exist. Yet, at this point, God’s promise of descendents seems cruel. Not only were they past childbearing age, it’s been more than ten years since God’s promise was first given to them. In fact, it will be 25 years before they do indeed have a child. When they do, Sarai won’t see their son Isaac married and Abram will not see any grandchildren. So, can you blame Abram for being unable to imagine a future?

Fast-forward almost 2,000 years: the followers of an itinerant rabbi have their future shattered. As they see Jesus dying on the cross, they can’t imagine any kind of positive future. In fact, they are afraid and go into hiding. This promised savior who was going to restore God’s relationship with humanity is dying a slow, horrible death. Yet, where we can’t imagine a future, God can and does promise one. Three days later their world gets turned upside down as God raises Jesus from the dead. The Holy Spirit will light a fire under them and the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ will spread throughout the world, often when the future looks bleakest.

We tell these stories time and again because we need to know that God has a future for us just as much has God has had for those who have come before us. It’s not just a future resurrection or consummation “someday,” but a future that comes into the present. At Grace, we are in the process of preparing for God’s future through building renovations. Six years ago when I came to Grace, we spent time discovering God’s future for us and, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, made some bold changes how God’s mission and ministry are carried out here. Now it’s time for us to build for the future that God is calling us into with facilities that support mission and ministry. Some of us may be wondering, “How can this be?” We may be like Abram and not see how this can happen.

I believe that Grace has a future. I believe that God has put us in this place and will give us what we need, even if we can’t see it now. Our community needs places to connect with one another, to have folk willing to serve them. People are hurting physically, mentally and spiritually and need to know God’s tangible love. Families are stressed more than they have ever been and need us to support and care for them. Abram believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He didn’t always do it perfectly and neither will we, but he gives us the courage to believe. God has a future for us and the future is now. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Shameless Love" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Shameless Love
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 3
September 11, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 2.4b-7, 15-17; 3.1-8

In junior high I acted in a play called, “Egad, What a Cad!” It was one of those damsel in distress—villain—hero type plays, though a farcical one. I was cast as the villain, the “Snidely Whiplash” character. Although I didn’t have the build for the part, I had the diabolical laugh down pat. In fact, there were two casts and while my counterpart was built for Snidely, he couldn’t muster the laugh. So, I became a voice double for him whenever he had to laugh.

Well, after what I thought was a great performance when I got backstage I realized my pants zipper was open. Throughout. The. Whole. Play. So, take a teenager who needs great courage to put himself out there but gets overly exposed and you have a recipe for deep shame. You can imagine the thoughts going through my head: “You idiot! How could you forget to zip up your pants? What made you think you could act in a play?” And so on.

Now, this might not rate high on the “Shame—O—Meter and I wish I could say this was the only time in my life I’ve been deeply ashamed, it’s probably the safest one I can tell you. No doubt as I share this you are thinking of your own stories.

Shame is a universal experience, so much so that it gets expressed in one of our earliest and most important stories. Adam and Eve get really bad advice from the first ever Life Coach and the consequences are life changing. Their disobedience causes irrevocable harm and results in broken relationships, between themselves and with God. With the disobedience, shame became a reality and came roaring into creation in all its ugliness. What happens when we feel shame? We feel exposed, vulnerable and naked. That’s exactly what Adam and Eve felt and they responded accordingly. They covered themselves and they hid, which is exactly what I wanted to do after that junior high play.

BrenĂ© Brown is a sociologist and professor at the University of Houston in Texas. She researches connections, courage, vulnerability and, yes, even shame. She is not ashamed of calling herself a “shame researcher.” Brown tells us that shame is something we all have, but we are afraid to talk about. Unfortunately, she says, the less we talk about shame, the more power it has over us. Brown says that shame needs three things to grow out of control: secrecy, silence, and judgment. We want to keep our guilty acts secret and refuse to talk about them. Even worse, we judge ourselves as unworthy. Shame is basically about fear and, most importantly, it’s the fear of being unlovable. Who have the hardest time with shame? It’s those who believe they aren’t worthy of love and belonging.

The experience of Adam and Eve really rings true, doesn’t it? That’s our experience, too. The good news is that, according to Brown, we can identify the shame triggers in our lives and learn to become shame resilient. Yet, as important as that is, it’s more important to see how God responds to Adam and Eve. God does so in a remarkable and unexpected way, by continually being vulnerable himself. God doesn’t shame Adam and Eve. God doesn’t turn his back on them but goes looking for them. Though they will bear the consequences of their disobedience, expulsion from the garden and a life of harder work, God clothes Adam and Eve and continues to work very hard to maintain a relationship and connection with them. In fact, the continuing story of God in the Bible is how God risks God’s self over and over again with humanity for the sake of relationship.

Of course, God’s ultimate act of vulnerability comes when he takes on human flesh, walks among us and allows himself to be crucified on the cross. Isn’t it just like God to us an instrument of shame to banish shame? In Christ’s death and resurrection God exposes the mechanism of shame and destroys its power over us forever. God declares once and for all that, no matter what you do, you are worthy of love and belonging. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve said today: no matter what you do, in God’s eyes you are worthy of love and belonging.

It doesn’t end there. God risks God’s self so that we can risk reaching out to others. Today we remember the events of 9/11 and it would be tempting to pull back and mistrust others. Yet, as people of faith, we need to lead the way, risking ourselves for the sake of relationships, especially with those who seem unlovable. God shows us shameless love so that we can let all people know they are worthy of love and belonging. Egad, what a God! Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Ordinary People, Extraordinary God" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ordinary People, Extraordinary God
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
September 4, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 9.1-22

I have to admit I have a hard time relating to Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. That may be because much of my spiritual journey this summer involved trying to hear God speaking to me and I can tell you no lightning was involved. The closest I’ve come to this kind of experience happened over 30 years ago. I was attending a worship service during the Virginia Synod assembly of the old Lutheran Church in America. The service included the ordination of recently called pastors. As I saw one of the newly minted pastors celebrating Communion, the thought entered my head, “You need to be doing this.” No pyrotechnics; just an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and call.

Yet even that call came over a period of time in far less dramatic ways. This story points out how much we need to take care with this story; it’s dramatic because it’s not typical. Although, as Arv notes, it happens every day, it doesn’t happen to very many people. Sometimes we come to expect that it should happen to us and are jealous when it doesn’t. A little bit further back in my life I had been coming back to church after having been gone since Confirmation. It occurred to me that the questions I had about God and the life of faith could only be answered in the Church. So, in May 1978 I rededicated my life to Christ. I am embarrassed to admit that I really expected the heavens to open or at least to feel something extraordinary. Apparently, the heavenly host was tied up that day because nothing happened. At least, nothing I could tell.

So, as I worked with today’s story, I found myself thinking about those around Saul: his friends, Ananias and the rest of the disciples in Syria. (By the way, it’s inaccurate to say this is a conversion story; more of a call story. After all, the first followers of Jesus were Jewish and they didn’t consider themselves a different religion; at this time they were more like a sect within Judaism.) Though Saul’s friends heard the voice but not the words, God’s call upon Saul affected them, too. Furthermore, Ananias was put in the very awkward position of facilitating Saul’s call from God and the rest of the disciples were very leery of this “new Saul.” So, it occurred to me that God’s call on our lives never comes in a vacuum. Our callings get lived out in community and deeply affect those people around us. A call is never to us alone.

A call from God is like a stone tossed in a pond, rippling outward, touching whatever is in its path. In the end, this story is not worth telling because of the event itself. It is worth telling because of what happens after, for Saul and the others. This story is not just about Saul, but also about his friends who lead him by the hand, bring him to Damascus and sit with him as Saul tries to figure out what is next. It’s also about Ananias and the others who have to able to see Saul as God’s instrument, a huge stretch of their imagination about what God is up to in the world. So, when people tell me how heroic I am for leaving the business world, selling all I have and entering seminary I appreciate the thought but I also scoff a bit. Do you know who the real heroes are in my call story? They’re my wife and daughters who left their home and friends, not just once but several times. The heroes are the ones who supported us in various ways with resources and prayer.

But it’s not just pastor’s families who are affected and asked to support the difficult calls that God places on our lives. I think of families who support their loved ones who enter the military and get shipped all over the world. There was a military family in Virginia who had moved 28 times in 25 years. I think of the family and friends of police officers and fire fighters and emergency personnel who wonder if their loved ones will come home that night. I think of spouses who promise to care for one another and do so through bouts with cancer, dementia, and other debilitating circumstances. I look around our congregation and see you walking with one another through pain and brokenness, marveling at your care for each other. You do so because you know that when you were called to follow Christ you signed on to love God and others no matter what happens. That call gets lived out in the dark and difficult places as much as the joyful ones.

Yet, in the end, even our ability to walk with others in the difficult places does not depend on us alone. We are an ordinary people who are loved and called by an extraordinary God. This God meets us where we are in our faith journeys and gives us exactly what we need for that time. To me, the extraordinary thing isn’t the lightening and other dramatic experiences of God that happen from time to time; it’s the moment to moment presence of God in the midst of our daily lives that is heartening. It’s about a God who promises to be with us even though we may not see God. In fact, we know that God is with us especially in those times we don’t see God. It may be a dark alley instead of a Damascus Road, but it’s no less real. May God give you the grace to see that presence, the strength to respond and the joy of God’s presence. Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"The Wisdom of Gamaliel" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Wisdom of Gamaliel
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 28, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 5.27-42

“…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39)

This summer, I was able to read and finish (finally) former Presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom’s autobiography, A Journey of Grace. Chilstrom was the first presiding bishop when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed through the merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The book is an elegant weaving together of Chilstrom’s person history, professional history and church history. In it he describes how he went from totally opposing women’s ordination in the 60s to fully supporting it in the 70s. Chilstrom also notes the irony that his wife, Corinne, who trained as a nurse, went to seminary and become ordained many years later. This was one of several incidents of being persuaded God was doing something new. Chilstrom said that his basic core theological beliefs did not change; rather how those were lived out grew as his understanding of God grew.

I resonated with Bishop Chilstrom’s stories of personal and pastoral growth and the story of Gamaliel has been instrumental for me. Following Jesus’ death, the religious leaders of Israel had to contend with his disciples, now apostles sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen. Known as the Sanhedrin, these folk were responsible for the religious life of Israel. They were flummoxed because it seemed this religious movement wouldn’t die (pardon the pun). No matter how much they imprisoned and beat the disciple-apostles, they gleefully kept on going. Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisee, offers them a wonderful piece of wisdom: “…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39) Theologically astute but also highly practical Gamaliel reminds them that God works surprisingly and in God’s own time.

I have told a little fib today. The story of Gamaliel is not my favorite story, but it is an important one in my personal and pastoral faith journeys. I came across Gamaliel about 10 years ago when I was struggling with an issue many of us wrestled with, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Our church was struggling, too, and also like many of you I read much information on both sides of the issue. My stance then was pretty traditional: I didn’t think that homosexuality was God’s intention for humanity. But I kept encountering people like those apostles in Acts 5 who claimed God was doing a new thing in our church. Indeed, as I looked around I saw people in committed, healthy same gender relationships who seemed to love Jesus and be living with integrity.

Then Gamaliel came along and his wisdom helped me see a way through. If loving, committed same gendered relationships were of God, I couldn’t stop them. If they weren’t, then we would know eventually, though it may take some time. That’s one reason why I supported the decision of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which gave congregations who believed they had a ministry to, with and through gays and lesbians permission to do so. Those that didn’t have that call would be honored as well. We continue to work our way through issues of gender identity, but I believe that God is still in this with us.

In closing, here are some important points: First, like Bishop Chilstrom, my Lutheran theology hasn't changed. I still hold dearly the belief that God took on human flesh and walked among us, that he took all of our sin and brokenness as well where it was crucified on the cross. In exchange, we received new life available to us now and in the future. Furthermore, I believe that God is a living and active God who is still working in, with and through us. However, in 20 years of ordained ministry, my understanding of how that’s lived out changed because I tried to be open to God. I'm not a hero or super-Christian. I'm just someone like you who is trying to live a faithful life. Second, it doesn’t mean I was wrong (or that you’re wrong) before; I was in a different place. And chances are that many of you are in different places right now and that’s okay. This is the story of my faith journey; yours is different.

Third, we need to have compassion for the religious leaders in our story because there is some of them in all of us. We all have those things that God is trying to make new. Finally, our culture to the contrary, it’s okay to change our attitudes, because God’s always working in our lives prompting us to grow. As Pastor Rob Bell notes, our faith is not like a brick wall where the disruption of a brick causes it to crumble. Rather, our beliefs are like springs on a trampoline that allow us to have a lively faith.

So, who are those like the apostles who speaking to you, indicating that God is doing something new? Who is speaking wisdom like Gamaliel? I invite you to ask God for the grace to be open to the new things God is up to. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sabbatical

Dear Living into Grace Friends

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a three-month sabbatical. I will be taking time for rest, reading, recreation and reconnecting with family. Thanks for your faithful reading of my sermons. Please look for me to return in August. God's blessings to you all.

Scott Olson

"It Is and It Isn't" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

It Is and It Isn’t
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 15, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-4; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13

When I was a Shop-at-Home decorating manager for Minnesota in the Washington, DC area, I had a drapery installer, Rick. Rick was a strong Christian who wasn’t afraid to share his faith with others, a quality I greatly admired. We’d have good conversations about what God was up to in the world and then he’d ruin it. Rick worshiped at a Pentecostal/charismatic congregation that believes you haven’t truly received the Holy Spirit if you hadn’t spoken in other tongues. Sometimes it was subtle, others blatant, but the message was clear: I wasn’t a real Christian. Now, I knew enough Bible to know that wasn’t true and after attending seminary it became clearer. For it seems that Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and tongues wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

As we’ve noted in previous weeks, the Corinthian church was divided over a number of issues. It’s interesting that Paul uses the word that literally means schism. This time it’s about spiritual gifts. Those who spoke in tongues thought they were especially superior. Others who had different gifts felt inferior and there were even some who didn’t think they had received any gifts and therefore felt left out. Paul’s response sets out three seemingly contradictory sets of propositions I want to explore further.

The first set of contradictions is that the gifts given by the Holy Spirit are for us, but they aren’t for us. When I work with couples preparing for marriage we read the second Genesis creation text that talks about partnership. God brings two people together with unique and complementary gifts. I make the point by telling the couple that if my wife and I were the same, one of us would be unnecessary.

The spiritual gifts are given to each and every one of us individually, but they are given in community and for the sake of community. As Paul says, they are given to each one of us for the common good, both in the community of faith and outside our walls to the greater community.

This leads to another seemingly contradiction: it’s up to us but it’s not up to us. The Spirit decides who gets certain gifts and they’re not based on merit, but it is up to us to use them. However, the great thing is that we don’t carry the load ourselves. When the torrential rains and subsequent floods hit Southeastern Minnesota in August 2007, I felt guilty that I didn’t help with cleanup right away. I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I’d use my gifts somehow. Indeed, I helped form and lead the long-term recovery organization that worked for the next two years to ensure that people could put their lives back together again.

The realization that it’s for us (and not) and up to us (and not) leads contradictory good news. On the one hand, the Spirit has given to us everything that we need for mission and ministry. The Spirit just didn’t blow through at that first Pentecost; it keeps blowing and giving gifts year in and year out. Actually, there is no other hand. If we think we don’t have what we need it’s either because some of our folk aren’t engaged or we haven’t discovered the gifts that each of us brings to this community. That’s one reason the Clifton Strengths Finder has been so valuable to our staff. We knew we had differing gifts and it’s been rewarding to discover those gifts and use them.

This past Wednesday we had a chance to imagine what a community of the Holy Spirit might look like. I asked those present in worship to turn to someone they know and tell them the gifts they see. Some people were surprised by what they were told and others were deeply blessed. That’s one of the many reasons we are developing to discipleship teams to support mission and ministry in, with and through Grace. You’ll be receiving information soon, but we hope that people will become more engaged in using their Spirit-given gifts, ones they know and some they’ll discover, for the good of the community.

As your pastor, I’m constantly delighted and blessed to see your gifts emerge, used for God’s glory, and the sake of the world. So, let’s pay attention and continue imagining what this means. The gifts of the Spirit are for us and they’re not. It’s up to us to use them and it’s not. God has given us everything we need and we will seek to uncover them, using them for the sake of the world. Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"Hold On, Pass On, Live On" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Hold On, Pass On, Live On
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 51-57

As a young boy, I remember wondering what happens when you die. So, I thought, “I’ll just kill myself and see what happens.” It was more curiosity than suicidal tendencies. Luckily, I realized quite soon I’d be dead if I killed myself and maybe that wasn’t such a good plan after all. Near death experiences aside, not being able to find out what happens when we die doesn’t stop us from speculating about it. In fact, throughout history, what happens when we die has been one of the greatest questions for all of humanity.

Apparently, a number of folk in the Corinthian church wondered the same thing but answered that in a disturbing way: nothing. For them, whatever resurrection happens does so in this life, there is no next. In other words, they’ve already arrived. When I was a up and coming manager for Minnesota Fabrics, one of my colleagues talked about achieving the “gravy train.” That meant for him that you paid your dues in smaller, less profitable stores and continually moved up until you got one of the lucrative stores. Then you could sit back and ride “the gravy train.”

Though making a good living appealed to me, because I wanted to get married, by a house and start a family, the notion of “arriving” didn’t sit well with. There was more to life. This notion of the Corinthians didn’t sit well with the apostle Paul, either, and he tells them so. Paul says, paraphrasing Eugene Peterson in The Message, if all we think about is this life, then it’s been a waste and we are a sorry lot. In my words: “What a waste of a good resurrection.”

This is not something to take lightly or for granted. When I was in seminary I had a casual conversation with a classmate about what was central and non-negotiable for each of us in our faith. For me, I said that the resurrection was central, something I could not live without. I was shocked when he said that wasn’t very important thing for him. I don’t remember what it was that was for him, probably because I was stunned.

Now, I didn’t think of this text from 1 Corinthians 15 at the time, but apparently I was in good company with Paul: resurrection is central to the life of faith. To illustrate this, Paul says that it is a simple story, really: Christ died for us, was buried, raised, and appeared to many of the faithful followers. Even so, this simple story has deep implications: in Facebook terms, Jesus’ status wasn’t just changed from dead to alive. There was more.

On Easter Sunday six weeks ago we were left hanging at the empty tomb as the women fled in terror. At that time, we said that the resurrection wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning. The empty tomb prompted us to ask, “What next?” For some people, believing in Jesus means living a good life, the life he came to give us. Now, Paul wants us to know that, as much as that is true, Jesus came to bring us so much more. He says in effect that, because of the resurrection, God has changed the destiny of the entire universe, not just humanity. Through the resurrection, we have all been drawn into the circle of God’s grace and made new creatures in the process.

Paul reminds us that this good news is so important that it has been handed down from the very beginning, from Jesus to the apostles to the Corinthians. This good news is so important that we are to hold on to this as if our lives depended on it, because our lives do depend on it. On Mother’s Day we are reminded of those who give birth to our faith and nurture it in us. We are reminded that we are encouraged to do the same for others, because this is the message that brings new life. The resurrection of Jesus means we have a future and when we have a future we have hope. There is more, because God always gives us more: more chances, more life more everything. So, hold on to the faith you have received. Pass on the good news of Jesus’ death for us and subsequent resurrection. Live on with the new life in Christ. Hold on, pass on, live on. Amen.