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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Be-Longing" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Be-Longing
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 3
May 21, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Galatians 1.13-17; 2.11-21

About 25 years ago during my first year in seminary, I did my first contextual education experience at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Littlestown, PA. One of the interesting things I encountered there was a group called the Young Women’s Bible Study. What made this Bible study unique was that all of the women were in their 70s or 80s. For 50 years or so they had stayed together, but they had not added any new members or changed their name along the way. Now, we might poke a little fun at them, but they had a deep sense of belonging, to the church, to studying the Bible, and to each other. And if you were that age and gender in that church, chances are you belonged to that group.

Belonging is the crux of the matter in our text from Galatians. Mary Hinkle Shore, parish pastor and former seminary professor, notes how difficult Galatians can be to preach (and hear) because it, along with Paul’s other letters, have been “pressed into service as raw material for doctrinal debate.” Furthermore, words like “justify,” “justification,” and “righteousness” are theologically loaded and can be downright confusing. So, she suggests replacing “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging” to try and make some sense of what Paul is saying. I think that’s very helpful because the issue at the heart of Galatians is how we belong in the church.

It’s also helpful to know a bit of the back-story to Galatians. Even 20+ years after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, the young church is trying to find its way. The inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s kingdom is taking hold. Now, it seems there were Jewish folk who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who approved this message for Gentiles as well. However, these “Judaizers” as they were called, 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. Paul, who helped establish the Galatian church, was furious and responds accordingly.

Paul says that how we belong to this community of faith, to God and each other, is through Jesus and Jesus alone. Paul’s message is one we need to hear just as much today as 2,000 years ago. In our culture, we hear constant messages that we aren’t good enough or don’t have enough or have enough of the right things. The messages we hear are that in order to belong we need to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, use the right technology, etc. Lest you think otherwise, pastors are not immune to these messages of “not good enough.” We constantly experience “crummy pastor syndrome” as we are told in one way or another that we don’t measure up. I’m sure other professions have similar experiences.

Sometimes we send these messages without thinking. Five years ago we celebrated our 125 year anniversary with a Heritage Worship Service and invited people to dress up in costumes reflecting bygone eras. Unfortunately, the two Gustavus college students who attended that day didn’t know this and bolted for the door. They didn’t think they belonged.

Diana Butler Bass notes that it used to be that in order to belong we had to believe the right things first then start behaving a certain way. Doesn’t that sound like the Galatia problem? She, following Paul, says it works better the other way: we need to create as sense of belonging for people and when they belong they start understanding how to behave. The believing follows.

Later in Galatians, Paul will help us understand what it means for Christ to live in us, to belong. For today, though, we remind our high school students that they will continue to belong to Christ and us no matter where they go and what they do. And we remind ourselves that the call to grow in generosity and give to the capital campaign grows out of a response to what God has done in, with and through us because of Jesus Christ. What and how much we give do not affect our belonging to Christ. We have this “be-longing” inside of us in which we long to be in relationship to God and each other. That longing is answered by Christ’s sacrificial love and faithfulness. You belong, sisters and brothers, to Christ and to each other. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"The Future of the Church – The Church of the Future" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Future of the Church – The Church of the Future
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 3
May 14, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 8.26-39

Last weekend, Vicar John and I attended the Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly in Rochester. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Following Jesus into a changing world. It’s a great theme as it reminds us that Jesus always goes ahead of us into the world and bids us to follow him there. Additionally, we are reminded that the world is ever-changing. At the assembly, there were several workshops around the theme. One that I attended was titled, “The Future of the Church – the Church of the Future.” The workshop consisted of a panel of five high school youth talking about their dreams for the church. The “future [members] of the church” were discussing “the church of the future.” Interestingly, these high school students didn’t care about style of worship, though an audience member assumed they preferred contemporary worship. (Most of the panelists worshiped in traditional settings.) Instead, they were looking for a church that was authentic, built on relationships, and open to their questions and struggles.

An underlying question in the book of Acts is, “What is the future of the church and church of the future?” As we look at Acts, it’s helpful to remember some basics about the book. First, the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is making it up as they go along because they are in uncharted territory. Furthermore, it’s not settled at the end of the book just what this church will look like. It’s organically and dynamically open-ended.

Second, there are three broad movements in the book, all of them open-ended as well: from Jerusalem to Rome; from Jew to Gentile; and from Peter to Paul. All of these movements are present in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in today’s reading. The good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is spreading beyond Jerusalem to the entire world, signified by the journey on the Wilderness Road. Furthermore, the gospel is going to the unlikeliest of people, signified by the Ethiopian Eunuch, as far removed from the Jewish faith as you can get. Finally, the gospel is proclaimed by others than Peter, in this case Philip, like Stephen one of the deacons set aside to provide for the widows in the community.

It’s a wonderful story, but what caught my attention was the exchange between the Ethiopian and Philip regarding the passage from Isaiah. Eric Barreto, Bible Study leader at the assembly, wants us to imagine Philip running up to the chariot and overhearing the Ethiopian reading out loud (a good reminder that one should text and drive, even 2,000 years ago). Eventually, the Ethiopian asks for help and Philip agrees. The first thing that occurred to me about this text is that scripture is intended to be read in community. We can and should read the Bible ourselves, but we remember that the Bible comes out of community and it is intended for community.

I’ve talked before how I left the church after Confirmation. Shortly after my “conversion,” I returned to church and had many questions. I needed guides who would walk with me and help me through the questions I had. Since then, I’ve been involved in many Bible studies and I always come away richer. Almost every week, I gather with other clergy to discuss the text for the coming week and I always gain something from the experience. But I’ve also been in Bible studies with lay people who also bring a viewpoint and experiences to the discussion that are enriching.

The second point I want to make is highlighted by one desire the young peoples’ panel had for the church: the church as a place of questions. They want a church that takes their questions seriously and doesn’t give them pat answers. They want a church that meets them where they are in their faith journeys or wilderness roads. They want us to come alongside them, build relationships with them and treat them as authentic partners in ministry. I left the church when I was their age because I didn’t see that kind of church, even though I couldn’t articulate it as well as they did at the time. But I came back hoping to find it and if I couldn’t find it, help make it into that kind of church.

So, I think we are on the right track with what we’ve been doing here at Grace the past five years with our programming and staffing changes. Even so, like the early church in Acts, we’re not there yet and we’re making it up as we go along. While we are “Growing with Grace,” we’ll continually ask what God is doing in the world and what God is calling us to do. We’ll keep ourselves open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’ll read scripture together, we’ll build relationships and connections, and we’ll walk with each other on our wilderness journeys. So, hang on: the church does have a future because the crucified Jesus is risen. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

"The Resurrection Gospel" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

The Resurrection Gospel
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 30, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 6.1-7.2a, 44-60

The Resurrection Gospel: Transformative

As we move through the Easter season, following the Jesus story, we now enter the narrative about the early church. We’ll spend three weeks in the book of Acts and another three in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is the story about what it means to live out the resurrection gospel. (By the way, it’s helpful to know that Acts was written by the same author of Luke’s Gospel. In fact, they are considered a two-book set.) One thing to remember about that time, especially in Acts, is the early church is making it up as it goes along. If at times it seems as the work of the early apostles is hit or miss, it’s because it is. The difference between the early church and some other fledgling organization—and for us 2,000 years later—is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Did you know that the Holy Spirit is mentioned 43 times in Acts? This has prompted someone to observe that perhaps the book should not be called “The Acts of the Apostles,” but rather “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”)

Though it is not mentioned explicitly in our text for today, the Holy Spirit has been hard at work in the newly formed community. Our reading shows that part of “making it up as you go” means figuring out how to live together in community. In the first part, we learn that there’s an issue of justice and equity for some of the widows. They have not been receiving what is due to them in the allotment of food. So, the twelve apostles, a latter day church council, call a congregational meeting of the community, acknowledge the inequity, and organize a solution. It sounds a lot like our Serving with Grace service teams. The upshot is that the resurrection gospel changes how we live together and serve one another; it’s transformative.

The Resurrection Gospel: Compelling

Stephen is one of those chosen to oversee the distribution of food, but clearly he does more than wait on tables. It’s apparent that one cannot serve at table—or anywhere else for that matter—without serving the Word as well. And that Word is not only transformative, it is compelling. Stephen overwhelms the crowd with his proclamation of the good news. The Word proclaimed is so powerful that those listening resort to subterfuge to stop him. Sometimes we forget that we don’t need to dress up the Word to make it go down easier. Just the opposite: we need to speak clearly and plainly.

Last summer, Cindy and I took a cruise to Alaska, our first time in Alaska and our first cruise. Those of you who have taken cruises know that the cruise line provides several onboard presentations; we attended three of them. One was outstanding, but the other two left something to be desired. The first was a photographer who let his pictures speak for themselves, even though he provided background and narrative. As for the other two, the first woman sled-dog racer and a self-taught naturalist, though their subject matter was interesting, the presenters must not have thought so because they felt they needed to sell it. Maybe they went to a seminar on public or motivational speaking and thought that’s how they should present. If so, they should get their money back. The resurrection gospel, the good news that Christ is risen, is transformative and it’s compelling in its own right.

The Resurrection Gospel: Provocative

As we can see from both the second section and this final one, the resurrection gospel is provocative. Why? Why does the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection cause such violent reactions? Probably because it is transformative and compelling. The fact is that we don’t like being pushed to change. The resurrection gospel reminds us that God’s agenda takes precedence over our agendas; God comes first. Furthermore, it reminds us that God has a preference for those who are marginalized and vulnerable, such as the previously mentioned widows.

The resurrection gospel calls us out of our comfort zones and pushes us to change ourselves for the sake of others. It opens us up to new ways of thinking and new ways of being in the world. Frankly, that’s scary. I’m so grateful for you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, who in your history, past and present, were willing to step out in faith, to listen for the Holy Spirit’s call, to take chances and try new things. May you continue to respond to the transforming, compelling and provoking message of new life in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Maturity" - Newsletter Article April-May 2017

April-May 2017 Newsletter, "Fourth & Main"
Grace Lutheran Church
Mankato, MN

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suddenly died in February of 2016, fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was devastated. The two had been good friends since the 1980s, sharing a love of opera. What made this story more compelling was the two were polar opposites in judicial philosophy and they would often clash on the bench. How did they manage to remain friends while holding opposing viewpoints? Aside from their passion for opera, I believe it was maturity.

Now, most of us think of maturity as getting old or becoming more adult-like, but I have a slightly different understanding. I think of maturity as the ability to maintain a relationship with someone with whom you disagree. Conversely, immaturity would be the inability to be in relationship with someone with whom you don’t agree.

I’ve thought a lot about this lately as I’ve seen our country rocked by disagreements because differences have become divisions. It seems there are few places where people can passionately disagree yet preserve relationships.

When I came to Grace almost seven years ago, I learned that there were a few times in our history where differences became divisions. But I also learned that you were determined not to let that happen again, that we would find healthy ways to have conversations about those issues where people might have legitimately different viewpoints, and that we would do our best to remain faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, we would strive to be mature.

During the seven years as your pastor, we have responded to God’s call on us by making some significant changes. Now we are in the process of discerning how (and whether) we might renovate our building to support God’s mission through us. Predictably and understandably, there are some differences of thoughts about that project. These differences are to be expected and, I dare say, embraced.

I say “embraced” because it is through the honest, civil and prayerful sharing of ideas that we discern the direction God is leading us. When I arrived seven years ago I said that I didn’t know what God was calling us to do, but that together we could figure it out. I still believe that.

I have been on record as supporting the proposed renovations, but I also want to go on record as desiring robust conversation about the plans. It is not too late to join in the conversation and I truly want to listen, as do your leaders. I think this word from the writer of Ephesians says it well:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4.15-16)

Let’s keep talking.

Pastor Olson

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Remember?" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Remember?
Easter Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 16, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 24.1-12

“Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. (Luke 24.6-9)

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

I often wonder what those friends of Jesus were doing between Good Friday and Easter Morning. Their Master and leader had been brutally, unjustly and horrifically put to death on a cross. Certainly, they were in hiding, afraid that the religious authorities would come for them next. I’m sure they’d relive the events of the past few weeks, but, what was their conversation like? I think that if they were anything like other people who have lost loved ones, and I’m pretty sure they were, they’d no doubt spend the time reminiscing. Men and women alike, they’d be telling stories of their experiences with Jesus, remembering what he meant to them.

There’d be stories about miraculous healings. “Do you remember how he healed the blind man,” one would say, “…and the man with a withered hand?” another would chime. They’d remember his insightful teachings, “He taught as if one who spoke for God,” they’d exclaim. Then there were the meals with the most unlikely of characters: tax collectors and sinners. “Do you remember when he fed thousands with only five loves and two fish,” one would say, “…and there were 12 baskets left over,” another would finish? “Do you remember the parables he told?” “Yes, and I still don’t get some of them, someone would reply.” “And do you remember when he got the better of the religious leaders?” and they’d laugh.

Yet, until the empty tomb, those faithful women—who’d have been with Jesus all the way along with the men—had not remembered Jesus’ assurances that he would rise again on the third day. But when they remembered, the remembering made all the difference in the world to them.

It’s helpful to note that New Testament remembering isn’t just a recollection of events; the remembering of a person or event makes that person present in a real and meaningful way, just as in the original occasion. We are literally re-membered with one another. That's why Holy Communion is so powerful. When we remember as Jesus commanded us, Jesus is as fully present as he was 2,000 years ago and we are re-membered again.

As Jesus' followers were remembering through the lens of the empty tomb, things like the parable of the lost sheep, coin and both lost sons, younger and older, means that God really does care about the lost, including lost relationships and that God works to restore them. Remembering the parable of Lazarus and the rich man means God really does destroy all divisions. Remembering Jesus’ encounters with the woman sinner and Zacchaeus means new life is possible.

However, the story and the remembering don’t end there, for remembering is not a passive event; remembering compels us to act. The women tore from the empty tomb, telling the eleven and the rest, reminding them of what the two men reminded them. It was hard to jog the memory of those who considered their message to be an idle tale or, in today’s vernacular, “alternative facts” or “fake news.” To Peter’s credit, he at least attempted a 1st century version of vetting and fact checking of the story. So it is today it is with great relief and joy that we remember God’s love and power are not thwarted by shaky belief and low expectations. It’s hard to remember, but when we do, our lives change. The need to remember is why we gather week after week, to share the news of the empty tomb and new life.

The women took the spices home and put them on the shelf until the next time they would need them, and when the next time came, they’d remember. They’d remember a new way of being. We also remember that we do indeed look for the living among the dead, because that’s where God through Jesus always shows up. Remember that whatever dead parts you have in your life, whatever emptiness you experience, because Jesus has been raised from the dead those aren’t the only or even most important realities of your life. So remember my sisters and brothers, Christ is indeed risen and that makes all the difference in the world. This news is not too good to be true; it’s too good not to be true. Amen.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Dying Well" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Dying Well
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 13, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 22.1-27

Recently, I’ve been approached by two people who have told me they’re dying. They’d had recent and shocking news from their doctors giving them less than a year to live, maybe even a few months. (Now, before we go any further, please don’t ask me who they are or try to guess. And please don’t ask people if they are the ones. I can’t tell and besides, you probably don’t know them anyway. If you want to do something, pray for them and their families; God knows who they are.)

Remarkably, both seemed to be at peace about the diagnosis. Both thought it best to meet with a pastor who could tell them how they could prepare for what we all know is inevitable, but was more certain to them. Of course, I said yes.

In the church, we often talk about dying well, and although it’s a fluid concept, one thing that dying well often means is being comfortable and hopefully pain-free as one is actively dying. It also means spending as much time as possible with family and friends, telling them things we should have told them anyway. Dying well often involves looking back over one’s life even as one is looking ahead to what’s to come. And it can mean getting your affairs in order, including planning your funeral.

In tonight’s reading, I’m struck by the two sets of preparations taking place, both of them for Jesus’ death. Though it is the furthest thing from the minds of Judas and the religious leaders, Jesus intends to die well. Judas and the others are hoping for a quiet, unobtrusive death, but as we know, that isn’t going to happen.

There are two aspects of that dying that I’d like to focus on tonight, which I hope will help us understand what it means to die well. First, Jesus wants to spend whatever remaining time he has with his closest friends, who are really his family. He tells them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” and he uses the time to not only give of himself, but he also prepares them by reminding them of what they need to know. Though much of the after-dinner conversation follows the today’s text, Jesus begins his last words with an object lesson. In the midst of their squabbling about whom is the greatest, he reminds them it is one who serves who is the greatest. If they remember nothing else that Jesus tells them, they need to remember this.

Second, Jesus spends time both looking back and looking forward, which is also a prominent feature of Holy Communion. Through the ritual of the Passover meal, Jesus reminds the disciples of God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness that goes back to Moses, the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, and the covenant God made with them. God brought them to the Promised Land and that they would always be God’s people. But Jesus also looks forward, promising the disciples that God is still working to bring all things to completion in the future and that this meal tonight is a down payment and foretaste of what’s to come. In the next few days, Jesus’ life will end, but it will also be the beginning of life for the church.

Meals are incredibly important to us and who we eat with is just as important as what we eat. As we notice that Judas is present at what call the Last or Lord’s Supper, I’m grateful that we have left that squabble behind regarding with whom we eat. Since our Lord ate with everyone, we welcome everyone to the Table. As we gather around the table tonight, we do so realizing that we are all dying, we just don’t know when. So like Jesus, let us “die well,” telling others how much they mean to us and by serving others. Let us looking back as we look forward, recalling God’s presence in our lives, strengthened by God’s promises that no matter what happens, God will bring all things to completion. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"No Holding Back" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

No Holding Back
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 9, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 19.29-44

I’ve mentioned before my exploration of mindfulness during my sabbatical last year. It was something that I had encountered during a continuing education event and wanted to explore further. What is mindfulness? I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition: “Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific and particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” When you unpack that, you see that mindfulness is about being in the present moment in a whole different way. That’s been a challenge for me because one of my strengths is looking ahead, thinking strategically. I’m good at planning and seeing where we need to be and how to get there. Unfortunately, because I’m thinking ahead, I often miss what’s going on around me or fail to savor the present moment.

I think that most of us feel tension between being fully invested in the moment and moving into the future in one way or another. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who is thinking about Easter while it’s only Palm Sunday. For me, it’s an occupational hazard because there is s a lot of planning that goes into Holy Week and Easter. For you it may be a social and economic necessity because you need to figure out who is coming to dinner and what will be on the menu. You might even buy a new outfit. The same kind of tension is present in our text today. With the story of Jesus’ triumphal approach to Jerusalem, there is a tension between holding back or not. So, in good Lutheran fashion, I want to explore this creative tension between being fully present in the moment and not holding back.

To do so, I want to explore two distinct but related features of Luke’s version. One, the crowd is described as “the whole multitude of disciples” and two, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about the “shouting stones.” First, the disciples. Who were these people, for surely they must have been more than the 12? Theologian Barbara Lundblad asserts that they must be those whom Jesus has encountered on this long journey to Jerusalem. Certainly, Zacchaeus must have been there because Jesus has just come from Jericho where he stayed at Zacchaeus’ house. And Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James must have been there because they will be at Jesus’ cross and empty tomb.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that anyone who had seen Jesus’ deeds of power and even transformed by them would be in the crowd, for John the Baptist predicted such at Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3. Here’s where the stones come in: when the religious leaders back then claimed their special religious status as children of Abraham, John told them that God could raise up children to Abraham from “these very stones.” Indeed, these in the multitude of disciples, whom Jesus touched, are stones that have come to life.

This is what it looks like for people who have been touched by Jesus: they can’t be stopped. Even before Easter, Jesus has changed people so much that the religious leaders are concerned about what is going to happen. We’ve heard one such transformation story from Dick Osborne today on our need to give. These stories show that once we have encountered the Living, Giving God there is no holding back in our response.

There are as many stories as there are people here today, all of us who have been touched by Jesus, living stones. My sisters and brothers, as you walk the road with Jesus this week, be mindful of every step because it is in this journey that we encounter Christ, are transformed by him and invited to live in radical new ways. There’s no holding back. Amen.