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

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

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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"The Great Divide" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Great Divide
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 16.19-31

During summers while attending college I was fortunate to be a mailman in the St. Paul postal system. In doing so, I worked mostly from first the Uptown and later the West Seventh branches, which included the Summit and Grand Hill areas. For a white boy from suburban Richfield who didn’t have much, it was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. I was astounded to see mansions on Summit Avenue give way to decaying buildings in a mere block or two. Obvious wealth and abject poverty existed side by side.

It was a pattern I’d see repeated elsewhere. In Washington DC, the capitol area would contain both expensive town-homes and decrepit apartment buildings. And in Pike County among the hills of Eastern Kentucky, the heart of coal mining country, has the highest per capita rate of millionaires, you’ll find tar paper shacks around the bend from ornate mansions. Frankly, it was—and still is—confusing to me. How could some people have so much and others so little?

Someone has joked that the world is divided into two types of people: those who divide the world into two groups and those that don’t. Like many sayings of this sort, we find that there is some truth in it. The parable that Jesus tells, with its gaping chasm and stark contrasts, provoked me to thinking about our divisions. But, before I say more, it’s important to remember that parables are not meant to be systematic theology. Rather, parables are meant to help us enter the mystery of God’s kingdom and stretch our thinking about what that kingdom is like. As such, although they use a picture of how things are, parables are intended to prod us to imagine what might be.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus uses a common situation (rich and poor) with a familiar folktale (Abraham and Sheol) to debunk a common idea. It’s an idea that many still hold today, that the rich are rich because they’re morally good and therefore blessed by God and the poor are poor for the opposite reason. The stark contrasts between them in “this life” and the chasm in the afterlife got me thinking about the great divides in our own.

What was particularly disturbing to me is the seemingly hopeless nature of the divisions, both in the parable and in our world. As in Jesus’ time, we still have division between the haves and the have nots. In addition, there are political divides (red vs. blue); gender divides (male vs. female); racial divides (black vs. white); psychological divides (mentally ill vs. “sane”); ethnic divides (you name it); and religious divides (Muslim vs. Christian). I know there are others, and even these divisions are more complex than I’ve stated them.

What is even more disturbing is the realization that these divides are almost entirely of our own making. It seems to me that we make our own hells every time we draw some kind of line, when we say, “I’m this and not that.” We somehow need to fully embrace that fact the differences are not divisions. But what can we do in the face of chasms that seem insurmountable to overcome? The answer, of course, is Jesus, but not in the way you think. The answer isn’t that “everyone needs Jesus.” That’s true in its own way, but not helpful because it just creates another chasm or division. I think that the way forward is repentance, which in this case means embracing Jesus’ vision of what matters in this world.

As David Lose reminds us, this is a parable, not a prediction. That distinction is important because it means that the ending can be rewritten. How? Because indeed someone has been raised from the dead and in so doing is able to bridge the divides in the world. Through Jesus’ death, the greatest divide of all between God and humanity, has been crossed.

It’s the breaching of the divide that spurs us at Grace to continually ask how we live out the vision God has for humanity in this parable. It’s why we welcome everyone to Holy Communion, open up our building for community groups, and will be renovating it to serve our community even better than we are now. You see, our faith tells us that there really is only one kind of people in the world: those who are beloved of God. As you go through your week, I pray that your imaginations would be stirred so that we may begin to live into the reality promised by Christ. Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"All’s Not Lost" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

All’s Not Lost
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 19, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 15.1-32

This message was delivered in a reflective manner while sitting on a stool.

I was provoked by these three parables this past week, but not in the manner you might expect. After all, as Jesus’ parables go, these seem to be open and shut. God desperately seeks and saves those that are lost. Furthermore, when the lost are back in relationship with God, the celebrations are out of this world. Even the realization that those who don’t think they are lost—Pharisees, scribes, older siblings—are just as much in need of God’s overtures was not as provocative as you’d think. Some people think that God’s love, mercy and grace aren’t zero-sum commodities, but it seems to me that there are more than enough of all these things to go around.

No, the provocation came late Monday night as I was drifting off to sleep, thinking about “lost-ness.” I thought about all of the things that we can lose and have lost in our lives. I wondered: does God care about those as well? I know that we’ll see the people we’ve lost again someday, but what about other things we’ve lost? More to the point of today’s parables: does God somehow work just as hard to redeem those things, too?

Most of my wandering wondering that night centered on relationships, especially on those people closest to me. I wondered about the lost experiences with my parents because they died so young. What about all of the experiences that were missed: the birth of my girls, my becoming a pastor to name a few. What about the spotty relationships with my siblings, especially my older brother with whom I rarely communicate. What about the things I’ve missed with Cindy and the girls because of work? Are these things lost forever?

As I tried to verbalize these ramblings at a text study the next day, a colleague articulated what I couldn’t. (A text study is where preachers discuss the scripture passages for the coming Sunday. Pastor Jeanette Bidne said this: “We ache for the things that are lost and God has that ache, too.” That really resonated with me. God isn’t remote or unfeeling; God shares our “achiness.” As I’ve said before, “closure” and “getting over it” are deadly notions concerning loss. I think they are the emotional equivalent of the idea that God is content to forget about those things that are lost to us. I think that we all long to know that God cares about our hurts and that’s especially true about regrets in our relationships. And I’d like to believe God’s love and mercy extends to those things that are lost to us, even the not so good things.

It seems to me that one thing these parables tell us is that the past does not have all the power over us any longer. And they give me hope that one day God will bring restoration to those relationships that have been lost or broken. Though I don’t know how God will do that, I think we get glimpses of restoration from time to time. Though my parents are dead, I’ve been able to connect with them in some way through other relatives. One of them recently told me how proud my mom would have been that I become a pastor. And I’ve experienced joy in a stronger, deeper relationship with my sister than I thought possible a few years ago. These glimpses of joy give me hope that what has been lost may be restored at some point.

The key to all of this, of course, depends upon the nature of the One Who Seeks the Lost. I don’t think anything will stand in the way of the Seeker expressing love for what is lost, not even death. That’s the ironic, counter-intuitive message of the cross, isn’t it, that God will gather all of the lost and will buy it back? That’s why I love what Henri Nouwen says: “We are not loved because we are precious; we are precious because we are loved.” I have to believe that because of who God is, all of what has been lost is precious, loved, and will be restored someday. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Turn and Live" - Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Turn and Live
Lent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 13.1-9, 31-35

A number of years ago in a previous call, out of the ten or so funerals I did that year, I had four or five of people in their fifties, and not early fifties. Because I was of similar age at that time, it hit me hard though of course it hit their families even harder. As you can imagine, I’ve done a number of tough funerals: babies, a teenager, an accident fatality, and even murder. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me the “Why” question: why did this happen? For people of faith, implied in that question is, “How could God allow this to happen?”

Two thousand years later and it seems as if nothing has changed; we still struggle with the question, “Why?” Some of the people present with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem are asking similar questions as they bring the first century version of current events to him. We really don’t know any specifics about the occurrences in question, but that hardly matters. What’s striking is how Jesus responds, rather harshly I might add. “Do you think they were worse sinners or offenders? And then Jesus seems to twist the knife even deeper: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

As one of my colleagues says, this belongs in the category of “Stuff I wish Jesus hadn’t said.” So we have to ask, is Jesus really telling us that unless we repent we’ll end up like them? Well, kind of. Let me explain. First, Jesus denies that our suffering is punishment from God. That’s hard to unpack because of how he phrases it, but if you hear nothing else from me today, hear that. God does not cause our suffering. Second, though God does not make us suffer for our sing, suffering is nonetheless still connected to sin. It is often the sins of others but sometimes suffering is a reflection of the brokenness of creation. We know all too well how suffering comes from sinfulness.

Third, and most importantly for today, Jesus invites us to use these occurrences as a wake-up call regarding our life of faith. That may sound harsh, but I think it’s helpful to remember that the word for repentance means to change one’s mind and go the other way. Literally, Jesus encourages us to turn around and walk toward the way of life, not of death. I know that every time I do a “tough funeral” or am with people going through a rough time I go home and hug my wife and daughters a little longer and kiss them a little harder. These excruciating events have a way of stopping us and giving us pause.

Lent can be a time of reflection about our own journeys of faith, not from fear but from a sense of urgency. It’s a good practice from time to time to ask ourselves where we have wandered away from God or Jesus. We reflect on our devotional or prayer life. Are we taking care of ourselves, body, mind and spirit?  How are our relationships doing? Are we willing open ourselves up and admit we need help or are we still trying to go it alone? Are we working so hard to be perfect and not make mistakes that all of joy has gone out of our lives?

The good news is that God through Jesus Christ already stands with open wings to welcome us back. I’ll say more about that next week as we encounter the parable of the father and two sons. But for now, know it is that posture of outstretched arms that give us the strength to turn around and go toward life. For it is in those open arms that God will also gather up all of our brokenness and put it to death. God does not cause our suffering but suffers with us and will redeem all of our suffering. So, this week, know that the one who unjustly suffered for us invites you to turn and live. Amen.