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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"Do It Anyway" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Confirmation Sunday

Do It Anyway
Pentecost 18 & Confirmation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 23, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 39.1-23; Matthew 5.11-12

A lot has happened since Abraham and Sarah were called to begin a new people, a result of God’s promise to them and to humanity. But it would take another 25 years, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90 for Isaac to be born. Isaac grows up and marries Rebekah and they have twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob is younger than Esau, but he swindles his older brother for the birthright and flees. They’ll eventually reconcile, but not before Jacob marries Leah and Rachel and they have 12 sons. One of those sons is Joseph, nicknamed “The Dreamer” because of dreams he has that he boastfully explains to his brothers that they will bow down to him. Joseph’s arrogance nearly gets him killed.

Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and, through a set of circumstances not of his own making, lands in prison. As a slave and then a prisoner, we learn that “God was with Joseph,” a promise that will continue through Joseph’s life. You might argue Joseph got what he deserved for his arrogance. But clearly the biblical writer wants us to know that he doesn’t deserve this and no matter what happens to him, God is with him.

If we think long and hard enough, all of us can remember a difficult situation where God was present with us. In my previous call as pastor, I loved the congregation and community and hoped to stay longer. However, some difficult circumstances prompted me to seek another call, leading me to Grace. Because of the things I went through there, I was determined that it would be different here and I believe that it has.

But it is God who is the hero of my story, Joseph’s story and your stories, not us. It is God’s steadfast love—hesed—that carries us through, even though we may not see it yet. It is the assurance of God’s presence and hesed that helps us to do the right thing when it’s hard, just as it did for Joseph.

I’m going to end with a quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who served the poor for so long. They’re words all of us can take to heart, but especially our Confirmands affirming their baptisms:

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.
Congratulations, Confirmands. Remember: no matter what, God will be with you anyway. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

"Embracing the Call" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Call
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 16, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 12.1-9; Matthew 28.19-20

A while back, I caught a snippet of an interview with a woman who had remarkable achievements in her chosen field. Asked about the secret of her success she said, “Whenever a door opened, I walked through it.” Now, I imagine that there was more to her accomplishments, including not a small amount of hard work. Nonetheless, she highlights something worth noting about life. In church language we would say she answered a call on her life and, in fact, was embracing the call.

We hear the story of Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) answering God’s call for some very important work. Last week, in the story of Noah and the flood, we said that God would deal with evil in the world and reconcile the world to him in a different way than destroying it. Today we read a foundational piece of that new plan. God sets aside one family who will become a numerous people through whom all peoples will come to God.

It’s a bold and stunning plan on God’s part and we are awestruck by the call’s dramatic nature of the plan and the call. In fact, that’s our tendency with many stories of God’s call on us: we focus on how the call comes and the more dramatic the better. One doesn’t escape seminary without relating multiple times the story about how God has called you to ministry. If your call story isn’t dramatic or powerful you almost feel like you’ve cheated and don’t deserve to be a pastor.

The same thing happens when God calls each of us in many and various ways. We tend to discount the call if it’s not dramatic. Even so, I think we put too much stress on the call and I further believe that the call itself isn’t nearly as important as what happens because of the call. It’s as if you ask someone how married life is and all they talk about is how they met their spouse, their unique engagement, and their wedding day, but nothing about what has happened since then. Twenty-two years after our ordination, I’d like to meet with my classmates to ask how their calls unfolded, how they embraced the call to ministry.

But before I talk about that, there’s something else that Abram’s call can remind us of. Whatever God calls us to next in our lives and whatever we are asked to embrace, God’s call on our lives means letting go of something. Whenever we say yes to something we say no to something else. Walking through a door means leaving something behind and we need to come to terms with what we leave behind, counting the cost as Jesus says.

But the main thing that is helpful to know is that embracing the call from God almost always unfolds in unexpected ways. Neither Abram/Abraham nor Sarai/Sarah come off as flawless as their call unfolds, but God uses them nonetheless and ultimately achieves his purpose. Though they don’t live to see it, a descendant will be born who brings all people back to God. That same Jesus Christ calls us to be a part of God’s great work in drawing everyone to God’s love and mercy. So, the question I leave with you today is this: What would it mean for us to walk through God’s open door and embrace God’s call on our lives as a congregation? That, among others, is what we’ll be pondering in the months ahead. I hope you will be a part of it. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

"A Good Sign … or Not?" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Good Sign … or Not?
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 9, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 6.5-22; 8.6-12; 9.8-17 & Matthew 27.32-37

A few weeks ago, I was walking out of the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital here in Mankato after visiting hospitalized and heard a loud noise, more like a roar. Looking up, I saw the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance helicopter coming in for a landing on the roof. A nurse happened to be walking out at the same time and looked up as well. “That’s never a good sign,” I remarked to the nurse. “No, it isn’t,” she responded. However, as I walked to my car I had thought more deeply: was this a good sign or not? One the one hand, the helicopter was a sign of someone in dire medical distress, not a good thing. On the other hand, the helicopter was a sign of hope and possible healing.

The signs of the rainbow and cross in our readings today reflect such a tension. We begin our journey through the Bible via the Narrative Lectionary not with the creation story but with the re-creation story in Genesis. The story is a familiar one, a favorite of Vacation Bible School children everywhere, the stuff that children’s toys, nurseries, wall hangings, and nick nacks are made of. Unfortunately, the cuteness factor of Noah’s Ark has undercut the power of the tale. We hear that God has created all things—including humanity created in his image—only to have humanity muck the whole thing up. God is so distraught at the corruption of creation because of humanity that he sees no other choice but to get rid of it. It’s important to say, as someone noted, that humanity is punished not so much for our sins as by our sins. We reap what we sow.

Yet, the most important part of this story has to do with God. This is a God who is so upset at what has happened to his creation that he is willing to destroy it, but yet who loves it so deeply that he doesn’t. God not only changes his mind about destroy creation he doubles down in his commitment to it. God not only promises never again to destroy creation, he will find other ways to deal with sin. In fact, we’ll see that story unfold in the months ahead as we make our way through Testaments both Old and New. God will continually work to bring all of creation back to his intention for it. Meanwhile, as a good-faith gesture of that promise, God gives us the rainbow, for both us and for him.

Like the Mayo Clinic Health System Hospital air ambulance, the rainbow is a sign of both brokenness and hopefulness. The power and magnitude of God’s mercy and promise seen in the rainbow is domesticated unless we recognize the necessity of the rainbow in the first place: we need saving from ourselves. As Lutheran Christians, we cannot look at the sign of the rainbow without seeing the cross of Christ. Both rainbow and cross are pointed reminders of our need for God’s redemption, but they are also poignant reminders that God will go to any length to bring life out of death, for all our sakes.

There are constant reminders all around us about how our lives are mucked up and fall short of God’s intention. So we need the rainbow and cross as reminders that God will not abandon us. Furthermore, the words from Isaiah 43 are a life vest: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you. … For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” Rainbow, the cross of Christ, and Isaiah’s words, those are all good signs. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

"What Are Your Candlesticks?" - Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

What Are Your Candlesticks?
Pentecost 12 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
August 12, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Peter 4.1-11

Les Miserables takes place in 1815 post-revolutionary France and opens with prison convict Jean Valjean being released on parole. He has served a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread as well as repeated escape attempts. After several months of drifting around France, being shunned by all and unable to find work, Valjean is offered food and shelter by a Bishop. Here is what happens…
Valjean steals the church’s silver and is caught by the authorities, but the Bishop lies by saying that the silver was given as a gift, and goes even farther by handing Valjean silver candlesticks saying, “You forgot these.” He then secures Valjean's release and gives him a blessing, exhorting him to use this new wealth for good.
Buoyed by this unexpected and lavish gift, Valjean will break parole and begin a new life. The theme that we are exploring today is grace and I know of no better example than this one in Les Miserables. As I thought about this clip, I was prodded to think about the difference between mercy and grace. I think both are at work here, but grace overshadows mercy by a fair degree and I think that it always does. For example, if the bishop had simply thanked the police for returning the silver, forgiven Valjean and refused to press charges, that would have been mercy. Grace, on the other hand goes even farther by the gift of silver, more than Valjean could ever have dreamed.

I’m guessing your reaction to this movie clip is similar to mine: “I couldn’t do that!” That reaction both isn’t the point of the story and is the point of the story. It isn’t the point because it is God who lavishes grace upon us, who are as undeserving as Valjean. As John 1.16 says, “From his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.” But it is the point because we are not merely receivers of God’s grace; we are stewards of God’s grace as well. 1 Peter 4.10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” As the film goes on, Valjean will do just that. He will use his wealth in the service of others.

We also see that, as Valjean runs from the policeman who has sworn to hunt him down and return him to prison, he carries with him his diminishing cache of silver. However, one thing he never sells and we always see him carry are candlesticks. I think the candlesticks symbolize both the incredible gift Valjean has received and the awesome responsibility that comes with the gift. As a steward of God’s grace, he dispenses grace to others.

The question I want to leave with you today is, “What are your ‘candlesticks’?” What gift have you received from God that God has called you to care for and lavish upon others? I know you have them, even if you think you don’t. If you’re not sure what they are, ask someone else who knows you. 1 Peter says that God’s grace is manifold, which means “of many different kinds” or “many forms,” so your “candlesticks” may take a surprising form. Even then, God is not done for we are promised that we will do so with the strength God supplies, another of God’s graces. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness" - Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Pentecost 11 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 5, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Ruth 3.1-18

In 1964, the Supreme Court was deciding a case whether or not a movie was protected speech or whether it was pornographic. It decided that the film in question did not meet the test of being objectionable. In his written opinion, Justice Potter Stewart declined to offer a further definition of what would be intolerant in the court’s eyes and in doing so uttered the now infamous phrase, “…but I know it when I see it.”

Our scene of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor would not trigger a Supreme Court ruling, at least not today and in our country. But you may not be aware that Ruth’s acts, if not scandalous pushes the bounds of acceptability for that day and time. More importantly, this chapter also raises the important question, “Do we recognize faithfulness when we see it?”

Faithfulness—or loyalty—is one of the major themes running through the book of Ruth. The Hebrew word, hesed, is both a common one and an important one in the Old Testament. It gets translated frequently as “steadfast love” and is used to describe God’s attitude toward us, as in “God’s steadfast love endures forever.”In Ruth, Ruth shows hesed toward Naomi by refusing to leave her when they go back to Naomi’s homeland and by default, sharing in her poverty.

In today’s installment of this wonderful story, Ruth risks her stellar reputation by agreeing to do something scandalous. She puts on her best clothes and perfume and goes to the place no self-respecting woman goes. The threshing floor was not a safe place for an attractive, young woman and she compounds the scandal and multiplies the risk by lying down near Boaz. Indeed, when he awakes in the middle of the night, Boas is indeed surprised to find her lying next to him.

In some measure, Boaz’ response is a shock. But even more so, rather than rejecting her or taking advantage of her, Boaz praises her for her loyalty and faithfulness to her mother-in-law. He says that this act more so than all of the others displays Ruth’s hesed, or steadfast love for Naomi. In other words, Boaz may not be able to define it, but he knows hesed when he sees it.

This story, which will also show God’s hesed (steadfast love) for God’s people, challenges us to see faithfulness where we might not normally see it. We are asked to be open to see that faithfulness can take unexpected forms. What didn’t look like steadfast love to my in-laws when my wife had to make hard choices about their care was indeed, the deepest expression of faithfulness and loyalty to her parents. I imagine many of you have had similar experiences. We have the freedom to risk acts of faithfulness and hesed because of the one who took on human flesh, walked among us and gave himself for us so that we could love steadfastly, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

"Get a Grip" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Get a Grip
Pentecost 9 – Summer Series “Faith and Film”
July 22, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 12.9-21

With Babe: Pig in the City we encounter another type of film, if “live talking animals” is a genre. Babe: Pig in the City is a sequel. In the first film, Babe the pig has a knack for herding sheep by talking with them. Pig in the City opens with Babe’s win at a sheep-herding contest. Soon after, Babe’s master, the farmer, has an accident that puts the farm in jeopardy. So, Babe goes to a fair with the farmer’s wife to save it only to get stuck in the city. They end up at a hotel that is a haven for animals, much to the chagrin of some locals. After a series of unfortunate events, all the humans are gone and the animals are left to fend for themselves. The chimps know where to find some food and trick Babe into helping them, knowing that the place is guarded by vicious dogs. The dogs break free and start chasing Babe. Here’s what happens…

One of the dogs, a pit bull, is chasing Babe with his chain still attached to his collar. As Babe stops on the top of a small bridge, he pauses and asks, “Why?” whereupon the pit bull knocks Babe into the water. The dog jumps after Babe, but gets hung up on the chain, which begins to choke the dog. As the dog continues to struggle, the chain slowly lets out, but only far enough that the dog’s head is now underwater; he begins to drown. All of the other animals, who have been watching this chase unfold, slowly walk away. Babe jumps in the water and pushes a small boat toward the drowning dog. The dog struggles and is able to get into the boat, but is still wrapped up in the chain. Babe calls for help and a Capuchin monkey climbs down the chain and unhooks it from the dog’s collar.

Like so many of the films we’ve encountered this summer, there are many religious themes we could explore. But today’s theme is “love your enemies.” It embodies perfectly Romans 12.21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Earlier in the chapter Paul the Apostle says, “Hold fast to what is good.” The Apostle Paul writes these words to the church at Rome, one that’s been undergoing difficulties.

The Jewish Christians had founded the church in Roman but had been kicked out by the Roman government because of political unrest, leaving the Gentile Christians to run the church. When the Jewish Christians were allowed to return, there was some sorting out to do because of some internal strife. You can imagine the interaction between the Old Guard and the New Guard. Through the first 11 chapters of Romans, Paul reminds them of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, which has produced in them a transformed mind. This renewing mind leads to a different way of living. This different way of living includes not only those inside the community but outside as well.

Like the movie Gandhi, which dealt with peaceful resistance non-violence, these are hard sayings to live with and to live by. It’s so much easier to operate the way much of the world does with bumper sticker philosophies: “I don’t get mad, I get even” or “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I have to admit, there are times and places where these attitudes take over. For example, Cindy will tell that when I’m behind the wheel of a car, there are times when I’m fast and long on the horn. But Babe the pig and Paul the Apostle take Gandhi even further: we are to overcome evil with good. This sounds like not only an unrealistic ideal in our world today, but also an impossible one.

Except that it’s not. There are people and places overcoming evil with good all around the world. I learned of one such place: Wunseidel Germany. Wunseidel had been plagued with neo-Nazi marches for years. Until 3.5 years ago, the strategy of its residents had been to launch counter-protest marches, which really didn’t accomplish anything. Then in November 2014, someone came up with the idea of getting financial pledges of support for every meter the Nazis walked. They even marked the streets with the distance and encouraged the neo-Nazis along the way, giving them water and thanking them for helping them to raise money. The funds went to an NGO that helped neo-Nazis leave behind their political hate speech and enter a new way of life.

We seem to be all too ready to let go of what is good in the name of countering evil. I can think of some peoples’ willingness to torture our enemies for information as one glaring example. But Paul the Apostle and Babe the Pig remind us that God calls us to a different way of life, one born of God through Jesus. Paul’s list of ways to live in Romans 12 is not meant be exhaustive or prescriptive, but illustrative of our transformed minds. More importantly, it’s an encouragement to “get a grip” on the grace and mercy given to all of us. May God strengthen you in your resolve to overcome evil with the strongest power there is—love. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Beloved Child of God" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Beloved Child of God
Pentecost 8 – Outdoor Worship
July 15, 2018
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
1John 4.7-21

Our oldest daughter, Angela, turns 34 this year and I can still remember her birth (our other daughter, Amy’s, too, for that matter). I remember being awed by the miracle of birth and cutting her umbilical cord (which was surprisingly tough) and being the first to call her the name we had chosen. (She could easily have been Peter since we didn’t know her gender beforehand.) But what I remember most is the overwhelming outpouring of love that I felt for this child, the product of love, but whom I didn’t know at all to that point. She had not done anything and yet I loved her deeply and unconditionally. As Cindy and I navigated the shoals of apprehensive parenting ahead, it was that love that sustained us. We would soon discover that love was hard work as well.

Today, we kick off our Vacation Bible School program, one that focuses on our identity as beloved children of God. This week, I thought a lot about what it means to be a beloved child of God, wondering if we take God’s love for granted. Sometimes I even wonder if we don’t believe it at all thinking it’s too good to be true. I think we believe that God can’t love us unconditionally and without limits, that somehow we aren’t worthy enough or have to prove our worthiness. But then I also thought about our own beloved children and like parents, that God loves us before we are born.

The fact that God loves us before we even take a breath has gigantic implications for our lives. First, because God’s love for us is a done deal, we don’t have to spend time worrying about it. Because of this love, the shame that comes with the guilt of falling short of what God intends for us to be loses its power over us and frees us up. Because God loves us we are freed to love others, not to prove anything, but in grateful response to God’s love. God’s love allows us to take risks, to become vulnerable, and to give ourselves away for others. We love because he first loved us.

Second, as we navigate our way through life, God’s love sustains us, reminding us we aren’t alone. As our daughters grew, we hoped they knew that Cindy and I loved them so much that no matter what happened that love would never change, and that we’d be there helping them through. It’s wonderful to know that our future is secure with God, but even better that we are assured that God is walking with us every step of the way, helping us and picking us up when we need it the most.

But there’s one more implication of being God’s beloved who love others as he loves us. Loving others is hard work. The kind of love 1 John talks about is sacrificial love, not the romantic feelings we often associate with love. It’s the kind of love that makes you roll up your sleeves and deal with all the messiness of life. 1 John reminds us that we see God showing us the way to this kind of love in his Son, Jesus, who took on human flesh and entered our messy world.

I see this kind of fearless, selfless, hard-working love in many ways at Grace. I see it in our relationship with Pathstone Living, the Salvation Army Food for Friends, our support of our missionaries and other missionaries. And I’ve especially seen it in our participation in the temporary rotating emergency shelter this past winter. So many people acting out of Christ’s love to show love and respect to people whom many in society dismiss as unlovable is an incredible witness to the power of God’s love.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you are beloved children of God, worthy of love and respect, freed to live and love without fear so that everyone would know the power of God’s love. Thanks be to God.