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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

"Embracing the Future" - Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Embracing the Future
Pentecost 26 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 18, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20; 37.1-7; 2.1-4

You may have noticed that the sermon title for today is the same as our Stewardship theme. That theme is, “Embracing the Future.” Along with “Embracing the Future,” the Stewardship team has chosen the subtitle, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection.” The sub-theme is based on the council’s proposed vision statement, “Cultivating a Community of Courage, Compassion and Connection Centered in Christ.”

If you’ve been particularly alert, you’ll see that that this is the same theme for the Transitional Task Force. Now, “Embracing the Future” may sound good, but it can also create some anxiety among us. By definition, the future is unknown and can therefore be scary as the folk Wednesday night demonstrated. They had no problem coming up with scary things for the future: a lack of water, food insecurity, climate change, and the possibility of dementia were just some examples.

One reason the future is scary, aside from the reality that it is unknown, is we’re not sure we will have one. As a grade school student growing up in suburban Minneapolis, I remember practicing what would happen in the case of nuclear attack. Some people built fallout shelters and went through drills, hiding under our desks or going to the auditorium. We weren’t allowed to forget them either, since there were those atomic symbols plastered everywhere showing us the way to the “take cover zone.” If we somehow forgot that, there was the ubiquitous “doomsday clock” that showed we were just a few ticks away from annihilation.

That’s the situation the prophet Isaiah addresses in our scripture reading today: scary and unknown. It’s about 701 BCE, 20 years after the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by superpower Assyria. The Assyrian Empire was massive, the largest to date, stretching over most of the Middle East, including Turkey and Egypt. Here, that great power from the North has overrun all the fortified cities of Judah, except Jerusalem, saving the capital until last. There’s a massive army nearby ready to do the same. They want Jerusalem to “take a knee” and give up. To make matters worse, the emissary of the king is trash talking the king and, even worse, speaking blasphemy about the Lord God.

The Judeans were understandably shaken at this prospect and wondered if they even had a future, in spite of the Assyrian’s promises. Yet, in the face of this daunting possibility and the blasphemy of the Assyrians, King Hezekiah tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and inquires of the prophet Isaiah what is to be done. Remarkably, Isaiah assures them that all evidence to the contrary the Lord their God is still sovereign over all of the earth. As readers of this story, 2,700 years later, we are invited to look “Back to the Future” and reread those most audacious promises of all that Isaiah makes on behalf of God in chapter 2: nations will flock to Jerusalem to experience God and there will be war no more, with swords being made into plowshares.

So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, what are the Assyrian armies that are threatening your future today? What’s impossibly scary? As a congregation, we look at how far behind we are on our ministry spending plan and start to panic. “How can we possibly afford ministry?” Or perhaps you are anxious about what life is going to look like when I’ve moved on from here. “Who is going to lead and take care of us?” Or maybe you are concerned because you think you see more “gray-heads” than towheads. “Are we dying as a congregation?”

At times like this it’s important to remember that we’ve been through this before, that we’ve never lacked for what we need, that faithful leaders come and go, and that ministry is always changing.

Almost five years ago, we took a chance and called John Odegard to be our minister for discipleship and faith formation, believing we would be able to sustain the position. Then, over two years ago we took another step as he entered the TEEM program to become an ordained minister in the ELCA.  During this time he has done amazing ministry in, with and through us. We have included $20,000 in next year’s Ministry Spending Plan to fully fund the position.

Last year, we took a leap of faith by becoming a host church for the rotating emergency shelter and the stories of how we make a difference are as numerous as our guests. Because Grace feels deeply about giving ourselves away, we have included an additional $5,000 in the Ministry Spending Plan for Connections Ministry to support the work of not only housing the homeless but also find more permanent solutions to the housing crisis.

And we are on the verge of realizing one of our dreams of making our space as welcoming to the community as we are, something we have been discussing for over ten years here. To further support this program, an additional $5,000 will be gathered if an additional ten donors either make a first time commitment or increase their current commitment to “Growing with Grace.”

Why is this; is it because we are extraordinary people? No; we’re simply ordinary people with an extraordinary God. This God declares that we have a future and invites us to whole-heartedly embrace it, no matter how uncertain. God invites us to do so by taking whatever weapons we have and beating them into plowshares. Will you join me?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

"Dying and Rising" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Dying and Rising
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 5.1-15a; Matthew 8.1-4

Today is All Saints Sunday, one of my favorite church celebrations and observances of the church year, though it is a bittersweet one at that. It’s a tender day because it is a time to remember those who have died this past year and what they’ve meant to us. But it is also a holy time as I watch the parade of remember-ers who light candles for their loved ones. And, as someone who lost their parents too early, it is a time to be assured their granddaughters will meet them someday but are comforted with their presence among the Communion of Saints at the Lord’s Table.

Yet, I appreciate All Saints for another reason: it’s a reminder that the promise of new life from death isn’t just a future event. It’s a reminder that God continually brings life from death right now, every day. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that God is more concerned with our daily dying and rising than our future one, because that one is already secured. And as marvelous as that statement is, we are reminded that God chooses to accomplish this life from death in ways we can’t imagine and using people we would normally overlook, a different kind of saint.

Life from death through unexpected saints and means is operative in the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. Certainly, it’s a story of healing as Naaman is cleansed of the unnamed skin disease that afflicts him. And it’s a story of conversion as he follows the God of Israel. But it’s also a story dying and rising. Naaman, a mighty soldier who is always in control, armored up and used to having his way is felled by a simple virus and—to make matters worse—cannot even control his own healing. Fortunately, a Jewish slave girl, reclusive prophet, prophet’s messenger, and Naaman’s own servants intervene.

God uses nameless saints and a river that’s not more than a muddy creek to bring life from death. God strips Naaman of his armor and his pride so that he can be healed in body and in soul. In effect, God confronts Naaman with the reality of his helplessness, inviting him to die so that he might live. As one of my colleagues has noted: if it’s not dead, it can’t be resurrected. It is that experience of new life coming from death Naaman is able to make his confession.

ELCA pastor and public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber says it this way:
“It happens to all of us, I concluded that Easter Sunday morning. God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.”
Like many of you, I’ve had my own share of dying and rising: failed relationships that gave way to new ones, shattered job opportunities replaced by new careers, and my pride and armor stripped away. Yet, as we ring the bell and light the candles in memory of our loved ones and in confession of the resurrection we realize we ring light the candles for ourselves, to remember that God is reaching down. “God keeps reaching down into the dirt of our humanity and … keeps loving us back to life.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

"Plaster Saints" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Plaster Saints
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 28, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 3.4-28

I have two images or metaphors swirling around in my head as I think about the text from 1 Kings 3. The first is that things need to be done in their proper order and the second is what happens when things are left unfinished. First, there are some things that just need to be done in order or they don’t work. For example, if you want to change your bed sheets you have to take the old ones off before you put the clean ones on. Similarly, you have to put your socks on first and then your shoes, not the other way around. Or, you could pour a foundation after you build a house, but it would be far more difficult and actually quite silly. Likewise, it would be sad if you poured that foundation but never built the house, or even partially built it. Remembering the proper order of things and finishing what you started are important for life.

Both of these are operative in our reading from 1 Kings 3, the story of Solomon attaining wisdom from God. Now, it’s important to remember that the development of kings for Israel has not been easy. God finally gives in to their whining and anoints a king because “everyone else has one.” The first king, Saul, was a disaster and his successor, David was a mixed bag, as heard last week in the fiasco with Bathsheba. We have seen only a fraction of the family trouble David had as told in 2 Samuel, which the author of 1 Kings seems to overlook. As if that weren’t enough, there is political intrigue aplenty, involving of all people, Bathsheba! She convinces David that their son Solomon should be the next king.

As the story of Solomon and his successors plays out, it becomes clear that he and they forget the proper order of things which prevents them from finishing what God has started. Solomon begins well by acknowledging that it is God’s steadfast love—hesed— for his father David and now for him that he owes everything, including and especially his place on the throne. And he is wise enough to know he can’t govern alone and asks for wisdom to do so. Unfortunately, even Solomon’s wisdom in governing his people doesn’t transfer to governing himself. Mighty will be the fall that ensues.

When we read a story like Solomon (or David or Luther or any leader) we have a tendency to make them plaster saints, extolling their virtues and what they’ve done but minimizing their faults. Even worse, they seem to do it to themselves. More importantly, we (and they!) forget the proper order of things, that any good or wonderful things they have done is first and foremost because of God’s steadfast love and grace in their lives. When that happens, life gets messed up and we fall short of where God intends for us to be.

The Reformation reminded (and still reminds) us that any chance we have of making something of our lives depends wholly on the grace of God before anything we could possibly do on our own. Although that grace assures us of our relationship to God, we are continually in need of it as we go. The Reformation reminds us that we all need to be accountable to each other, to remember our utter dependence on the God’s grace and mercy that comes through Jesus Christ. The antidote to that malady is to live with gratitude for everything that God gives us, remembering each and every day of our total reliance upon God’s steadfast love.

The same is true for the church, whether local or beyond. We’re doing the best we can, but we forget sometimes and get off track, and when we do we need to proclaim the love of God for all people, not just some. So, no more plastic saints but people who are reminded daily God working in, with and through us, living lives of gratitude. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Speaking Truth to Power" - Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Speaking Truth to Power
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 21, 2018
2 Samuel 11.1-5, 26-27; 12.1-9

In one of my previous calls, I was invited to speak at a church function both welcoming and honoring a colleague. During my talk, as I’m in the habit of doing, I told a joke, which I thought was very funny. A couple of days later Karen, one of my parishioners, came to my office and asked to see me. When she was seated, Karen proceeded to tell my how inappropriate and even offensive my joke was. I was cut to the quick and horrified. Because of her, I was able to see what I hadn’t earlier and I was ashamed. Karen was not only a faithful parishioner and good friend; she was a Nathan to me.

Like many biblical stories, the tale of David and Bathsheba operates on many levels, even simultaneously. Within the overarching narrative, it sets the stage for how their son, Solomon, will ascend to the throne and become king. (We’ll see a bit of his story next week.) Theologically, the story not only shows God’s intolerance for sin but also his overwhelming capacity for forgiveness. Similarly, on a somewhat political level, it is a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. On a personal level, the story makes us feel uncomfortable because we each have the capacity to behave like David.

But, my guess is that many of you are way ahead of me and see in this story something even more contemporary. Where else have we heard of a powerful man imposing his will on a vulnerable woman? Where else have we seen people fall in line lockstep to look the other way or “mansplain” that behavior? Can you imagine the rationalizations that come forth? “Boys will be boys” or “kings will be kings.” “But he’s such a good king; surely we can overlook his little indiscretions.” Then on Bathsheba’s side: “She shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing where David could see her; she must have seduced him.” Or, “She didn’t say ‘No.’”

Do we really need to say that men in positions of power and authority cannot do this to women? Do we really need to say that women are not at fault, that they are not “asking for it,” that they don’t bring this on? Unfortunately, yes, we need to say it and loudly. I’m sorry to say that much of the preceding has passed for biblical interpretation at various times in the Church’s history. And I’m sorry to say that there is a great chunk of contemporary Christianity doing just that as well. If we remain silent in the face of this oppression and injustice we are just as guilty as those committing the injustice.

In my sermon on this text four years ago I asked, “Who’s your Nathan?” Today I’m asking, “To whom will you be a Nathan?” How will you speak truth to power? This is a heavy message for today, but it’s an important one because it also contains good news. The good news is that God cares so deeply about our relationships, with him and each other, that he not only wants us to heal them when they become broken but make them healthier up front. Through Jesus Christ, God creates in us new hearts, to be the kind of people he created us to be. And he gives us the will and strength to do so. God be with you, my sisters and brothers, as you continue to be the hands and voice of God in the world. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Freed to Live, Laugh, and Love
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 7, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17

Forty-six plus years later I can still remember being dropped off at Gustavus by my parents for my first year of college. Now, I had a pretty good home life, but I was looking forward to this next step toward adulthood. I was ready to leave home, or so I thought. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own. I was free to do whatever I wanted when I wanted with whom I wanted. Yet, I can still recall that when the first blush of freedom wore off, I experienced a mild panic. What do I do now?

Moses has led God’s people out of slavery from Egypt into freedom and presumably they are on their way to the Promised Land. But before that can happen, God has them make an important and lengthy stop along the way: Mt. Sinai. God does this for two interconnected reasons: first, the Israelites have gone from a nomadic tribe experiencing oppression and slavery with its own structure to a numerous people. Second, they need to understand what freedom looks like under these new conditions.

In Egypt, their primary identity has been as oppressed slaves who were told what to do, when to do, and how to do it. Only secondarily and vaguely did they have an identity as God’s people. Now, that’s radically changed. So God calls a “timeout” on the journey to clarify their relationship, with him and with each other. In effect, God says, “I am the one who brought you out of Egypt, and this is how we’ll live together; are we agreed?”

The important point to remember is that the Ten Commandments were—and still are—a gift to God’s people. Yet, we don’t see them that way. Even when they are not etched on stone, we tend to view them that way. We are apt to use them as a bludgeon to beat each other over the heads instead of as a remembrance of who we are as God’s people and how we were formed to be in relationship with God and each other.

My parents didn’t give me any commandments when they dropped me off at Gustavus. In fact, I don’t remember anything they said. But they probably didn’t need to say anything because they had already done their work, instilling me with the values I needed to live. Honesty, hard work, fair play, a sense of humor, gratitude for where I was, and of course, love were among them. These were gifts I didn’t always realize they’d given me. When I remembered them, I did pretty well, but if I forgot them, life wasn’t so pretty.

We all need values, guidelines, “Commandments,” whatever you want to call them. They remind us who we are and whose we are while helping us live together in a healthy way. That’s why the church council has been working hard on taking the information you have given to them, and with some guidance, proposed five core values of Grace Lutheran Church. Those core values are:
1. Hospitality – we declare that “all are welcome” and we back that up with an open building, open Communion table and lots of food.
2. Compassion – this is love in action and means “to suffer with” someone. We do that with each other and members of our community, near and far.
3. Community – this has a two pronged meaning. We build relationships here and we reach out into our community doing likewise.
4. Integrity – this is something of an aspirational value, that we strive for, and it means that we consistently act upon what we believe.
5. Faith – we are a community of faith striving to follow Jesus Christ.
You’ll be hearing more about these proposed values in the months ahead. Meanwhile, remember that through Jesus Christ are God’s people, freed in Christ to live, laugh and love. Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Out of Egypt, Into the Wilderness
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 1
September 30, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.5-7, 10-14, 21-29

It’s easy to judge the Israelites of the exodus story, a people who cry for freedom then blink when it seems at hand. How can they possibly go back to a life of oppressive slavery? A psychologist might diagnose it as the “Stockholm Syndrome,” where captives begin to sympathize with their captors. A sociologist in terms of political systems that binds us so tightly to our oppressors that we think our condition is normal and what we deserve. As true as those may be, a theologian would frame it in terms of their relationship with God. After 400 years in Egypt, their experience with the God they cry out to is tenuous at best.

And so God’s chosen people are afraid. They can’t see that God has made them a numerous people as God promised. Understandably, right now they don’t feel like a chosen people through whom God has said is going to bless all peoples of the world. They are also getting mixed messages. Moses is telling them to be still and the Lord is telling them to get moving, to trust him. Deathly waters are piled up on both sides of them, the pillar of cloud they’d hope would lead them is behind them, cutting off their way back, and the frightening uncertain wilderness lies ahead.

Like many of you, I’ve been following the Kavanaugh hearings as well as the sentencing of Bill Cosby. As we know all too well, these are only two examples in a long line of sexual abuse allegations over the past few years. To my shame, I’ve not spoken publicly about the “#MeToo” movement, I think because as a as a white male wondered if what I could say. But mostly I haven’t said anything because I have been trying to understand women’s experiences. I have been listening, and because of today’s text I’m starting to get an inkling of women’s situations.

As I listen, I hear stories of how an oppressive society and culture discounts them and what has happened to them. It is impossible for women to go back and undo what has been done, yet they are often stuck there. The memories threaten to drown them and the recriminations at hand could overwhelm them. The wilderness of disclosure that they are pushed to enter is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Women who have endured abuse and worse need us to help them take steps onto dry land, to walk with them into the wilderness.

It’s important to acknowledge that for over 130 years the people of Grace have stepped out in faith. God has asked us over and over again to leave some things behind so God can recreate us into a new people. Because we’ve taken those steps, even and often imperfectly, we trust God will bring us through. We can walk with each other during our broken times, just as we have walked with our shelter guests this past winter and will do so again this winter. And if God prompts us, we can walk others who need encouragement to enter the wilderness because that’s what we do. We can do so through the power of love of Jesus Christ who enters the wilderness, both with us and on our behalf. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.