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

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Thank You and Please " - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Thank You and Please 
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 20, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 4.4-7; Acts 2.1-21

“… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving 
let your requests be made known to God.”

Like all parents, we had bedtime rituals for our daughters as they were growing up. For example, since we have two daughters, Cindy and I would switch off reading to one of them each night. But, an important part of the routine was keeping a prayer journal. One night we’d ask the girls for a “please” prayer and we’d write it in the journal. “Please help grandma to feel better. The next night it would be a “thank you” prayer. “Thank you for helping grandma to feel better.” The practice taught them the two basic prayers, “please” and “thank you,” and through the journal they were able to see how God answered them.

It never occurred to me to combine the “please and thank you prayers” into one prayer. But it does occur to the Apostle Paul, who tells the Philippians, “… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, “thank you and please.” As we’ve seen in our brief foray into Philippians, though Paul didn’t found the church, they have a great affection for each other. He cared deeply about their struggles, both from the outside and on the inside. His letter is designed to help them in their lives of faith.

In this text, Paul reminds the Philippians of two things: first, God wants to hear from them. That’s important because we need to know that we are not alone and that God shares the load with us. Second, Paul wants them to know that in sharing their burdens, it’s important to do so with gratitude and thanksgiving. This is something that my spiritual director has been gently but firmly beating into my head for some time, to deep the practice of gratitude. This isn’t a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude; rather, it’s recognizing God’s care and presence for us in the midst of our struggles.

Martin Luther came up with a practice for praying through the scriptures that can be helpful here and he uses the acronym of “TRIP.” T stands for “Thanks” and you are ask what in the passage or in your life are you thankful for or where can you express gratitude? R stands for “Regret” and here you admit that you fall short of what God intends for you and that you participate in your problems. In other words, what are you sorry for? I stands for “Intercession.”; what is it that we’d like God to do for us, in us or with us? Finally, P stands for “Purpose” and, based on the forgoing, what might God be calling us to do in response?

Today we are celebrating Pentecost, that event where the Holy Spirit is poured out on that early group of believers and what we call the birth of the church. It is right that we are also celebrating our graduating high school seniors with quilts and scholarships. It is our hope that the quilts we give them will be reminders of how much they are loved. But the quilts are also a reminder to them to practice gratitude in the midst of difficult times, to know that no matter what happens in life that God is with them and there’s a place that cares about them. Think of the quilts as the Holy Spirit with batting. For all us, we can think of Holy Communion the same way: giving thanks for God’s presence in the midst of daily life. It’s as easy as “thank you and please.” Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"WWJT: What Would Jesus Think?" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

WWJT: What Would Jesus Think?
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 13, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 2.1-13

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

We’ve learned again this post-Easter season that the early church was making it up as they went along. Or, to put it another way, they were trying to figure out what it meant to be followers of Jesus. There was no operator’s manual for how to do that. It was through trial and error and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the Jewish Christians included all peoples in the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ. But there was more, much more, to the story as we’ve seen. Not only did the first Christian communities deal with external threats but also internal questions. In some sense, getting beaten up, tossed into prison and persecuted were only a fraction of their problems.

As we know all too well, whenever a group of people are trying to discern their purpose and direction there’s bound to be disagreement about how that get’s worked out. Though generally a healthy church, the Christians at Philippi was not immune to difficulties. The Apostle Paul, who had a very close relationship with them, writes them from prison to give them some advice. After a long thanksgiving for that partnership, which we heard last week, he responds to their situation. And he does it in a curious way: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”

In the 1990s a Topeka minister started a movement with the acronym “WWJD.” It stood for, “What Would Jesus Do?” With this shorthand phrase, he intended to encourage his churchgoers to show the love of Jesus through their actions, and admirable goal. Unfortunately, as with many slogans, WWJD became jingoistic, trite and even unhelpful. I think part of the problem is that, though a wonderful sentiment, it was not really a good guide to how to live our lives for Christ. At the risk of committing a similar faux pas, I believe that Paul would say instead, “What Would Jesus Think?”

Paul says to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” So today we would do well to ask, “What does it mean to think like Jesus?” Verses 6-11 of chapter 2 have been identified as a very early piece of liturgy used in worship and has been dubbed by scholars as “The Christ Hymn.” In using it, Paul says that to think like Jesus is to think about others first and how to serve them. To think like Jesus is to exercise humility in our interactions, both inside and outside our community of faith. (I think our society could use a huge dose of humility these days.) Paul doesn’t give us a blueprint for action, but rather a way to think about what it means to follow Jesus.

Today is Mother’s Day and as we honor those who gave us life, we must take great care not to romanticize mothers. We all know that our mothers, like all of us, are mixed bouquets, so to speak, with both fragrant blossoms and stinkweed. Having said that, Mothers—and those who mother—when they are at their best think like Jesus. We think like Jesus when we consider the most vulnerable and marginalized in our world better than us and take time to nurture them. We think like Jesus when we walk with people in the midst of their suffering and grief.

Like those first Christians, we daily work out what that means in concrete ways and we don’t always get it right. But we start at the same place as Paul: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

"Uncommon Gratitude" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Uncommon Gratitude
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 6, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 1.1-18a

Some lessons are learned the hard way. Quite often, these are the most important ones.

Herbert gave me a lesson in gratitude, though I didn’t realize it and it didn’t seem so at the time I learned it. Herbert was a crusty farmer in one of my former congregations and didn’t often seem grateful. One Sunday during worship I was teasing the “back row denizens” who were sitting under the poorly lit balcony. When I joked about the “beady little eyes” looking at me, Herbert called out, “At least we are here.” Yikes! It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but it was an important one, to be grateful for those who show up for worship, typically week after week.

You can tell from our reading today in Philippians that the Apostle Paul’s heart is full of gratitude. This is a typically formatted first century letter standard greeting followed by a standard thanksgiving, only with a twist. The thanksgiving section is much longer than usual. You can tell that the Philippians hold a special place in Paul’s heart, which is a bit unusual for a church he didn’t found. What’s even more incredible is that Paul manages to be grateful in the midst of imprisonment. There are two reasons for his gratitude: the gospel is still being proclaimed albeit in unusual ways; and the Philippians are helping.

We’ve seen through our brief foray in our study of the early church, first in Acts and now in Philippians, that Paul the persecutor has become the persecuted. Not only does he have to deal with angry crowds, but Paul is often beaten and put into prison. It’s important to know that prisons in the first century were not like those of today. Prisoners had to depend upon family and friends for everything, including food and other necessities. Yet, the Philippians, who had problems and struggles of their own, give generously to Paul. Also, in the midst of this hardship, Paul is able to share the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ with the most unlikely people. Palace guards, prisoners and others come to faith and others who are with Paul are emboldened to proclaim the gospel as well.

Paul learned gratitude in the most difficult circumstances and I’ve learned it from others that way as well. Sadie was almost virtually blind yet still in her own home, largely due to help from a neighbor. Even so, she told me she had decided a long time ago that she wasn’t going to be crabby because people don’t like to be around crabs. Sadie was grateful in her situation. Erma also taught me gratitude as I ache for a daughter who is not working directly in her desired career. But, as Erma reminded me, she is nonetheless impacting the lives of young children in such a positive way. I am grateful for her presence in their lives and the holy work she is doing.

I’ve been reading a book by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and prolific author; it is co-written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The book, Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia for All That Is, talks about gratitude in the most unlikely places. In the chapter called “Darkness,” she describes how Alzheimer’s took her mother before the disease had a name. It was a devastating time to Sister Joan because she and her mother were very close. But she talks about how that dark time forced her to reevaluate her own self and draw on her own resources, “knowing that you are enough for you.” She ends the chapter by saying, “Darkness deserves gratitude. It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that growth does not take place in the sunlight. Then we come to understand the God is at work in our lives even when we believe the nothing whatsoever is going on.” Sister Joan learned uncommon gratitude.

Where have you learned “uncommon gratitude,” perhaps in the midst of difficult circumstances? Where have you seen God bring you growth in the dark, even when you weren’t sure God was there? If you are in that dark place right now, please know that God is with you even if you can’t tell it now. If you’ve been in that dark place and have come out the other side, may you experience uncommon gratitude. For Easter, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, continues to work in, with and through our lives, bringing us uncommon gratitude in the midst of the darkest places in our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Preaching in the Twitter-verse" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Preaching in the Twitter-verse
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 29, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 17.16-31

There is much hand-wringing going on in our churches these days.  I call it “ecclesiastical angst.” It occurs at all levels from congregation to synod to denomination to Christianity at large. The landscape is well documented: declining church attendance, multiple scandals, a question of relevancy, young people ignoring the church in droves, and the rise of the “nones” as the largest growing religious category, those who don’t relate to any spiritual base. And then there are those who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” All these phenomena exist in a context of incredible religious and spiritual diversity mixed in a pot of rampant social media that make communication virtually instantaneous. Some dub this the “Twitter-verse.”

This news would be incredibly disheartening and overwhelming, except for one thing: the church of Christ has been here before. The apostle Paul is bringing the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the Gentiles, one of the three broad sweeps in the book of Acts. The story moves from Peter’s leadership to Paul’s proclamation; from a focus of proclamation to the Jews to that of Gentiles; and from a beginning in Jerusalem to an “ending” in Rome, signifying a spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Paul is not yet in Rome, but is now in Athens. The Romans may have conquered the known world, but it is Greek culture and philosophy, a mulligan’s stew of thought and religions, that has conquered culture. It’s not been easy for Paul as the former persecutor is now the persecuted. Paul had to leave Beroea because the internet trolls of the day, the Thessalonians, weren’t content with having him leave Thessalonica. They just couldn’t let go of him and his message.

But Paul faces a different challenge in Athens: a group who are ignorant of Jesus and skeptical of what Paul is telling them, yet also inquisitive as to this “new thing.” Paul’s strategy in proclaiming God’s love Jesus is unique but something we can learn from as we seek to preach in the age of the Twitter-verse. First, Paul meets the Athenians where they are, both literally and figuratively. Although he starts in his usual place, in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearers, he quickly moves to in the marketplace and subsequently the Areopagus, a central meeting place. Although he’s distressed by all of the idols he sees, Paul connects with them by complimenting them on how religious they are and even cites an altar to an unknown god as proof that they want to know God.

Second, Paul talks their language, again both literally and figuratively. Paul has been taught Greek culture and philosophy so he uses terms they are familiar with to talk about God. In fact, he quotes their own philosophers when he talks about the God in whom we live and move and have our being. This unknown god of theirs is in fact the creator of the universe who not only made all things, but doesn’t need anything made by human hands. Paul doesn’t throw scripture at them or lead them through the four spiritual laws to a Jesus prayer. Rather, he speaks to their natural curiosity about their role in the universe and meaning of life.

Finally, Paul makes an invitation to them to make changes in their lives, not based on new knowledge but rather based on a relationship with God, one that he is modeling for them. Remember that the Greek word for repentance means to change one’s mind, to turn around and go the other way. Repentance for them doesn’t mean the same thing as it does for us; it means to change their lives. Paul won’t force them, manipulate them, berate them or shame them; he’ll simply invite them into a new life. Some of them will scoff and reject, some will want to know more, and some will come to faith.

I think Paul has a strategy for us as we share our faith in a multicultural and often indifferent world, the world of the Twitter-verse. It’s important to respect where people are and meet them there, asking questions about their journey. And when we do meet them, talk in a way that uses language that’s understandable and meaningful to them. Then we issue an invitation to worship with us or engage in the life of faith that seems appropriate, trusting God to work in them to respond. For his internship project, Vicar John is going to work on outreach into our community and I hope you will help him. It’s not easy, but it’s not complicated either. Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

"Wounded Healers" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Wounded Healers
Easter 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 8, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
John 20.19-31

Every time I read this story I wonder, “Where’s Thomas?” Did he miss the curfew and get locked out? Did he draw the short straw and have to fetch groceries? Or maybe he just wasn’t afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. And why did Jesus decide to appear to the disciples when Thomas wasn’t there? Couldn’t he have waited? Was he punishing Thomas for something? I really don’t blame Thomas for being cranky, wanting what the others received. By the way, did he ever get the Holy Spirit? And why call him “Doubting Thomas?” Why not “Curious Thomas” or “Brave Thomas” or “Jesus-Likes-Them-Better-Than-Me Thomas?” Not being there must have hurt and wounded Thomas deeply.

Of course, it’s Jesus’ wounds that are a focal point in our reading, amazing when you think about it. On the one hand, John wants us to know that the Jesus who appears to the disciples now apostles is the same Jesus they knew before his crucifixion and resurrection. Theologically speaking, he also tells us that the resurrected Jesus is the crucified Jesus and vice versa. Who Jesus is just doesn’t go away. On the other hand, it is curious that Jesus still bears the marks of his crucifixion in his resurrected body. After all, Jesus has not been resuscitated; he has been resurrected and transformed. We know this because in many of his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus is not recognized until he speaks someone’s name or in a certain way.

I see another important facet to the presence of Jesus’ wounds: solidarity with our own woundedness. The marks that Jesus carries tell us that Jesus not only suffered on our behalf, but also that Jesus understands our own wounds, especially those that are borne through no fault of our own. Jesus helps us understand that our wounds are an important part of our past and who we are. His presence in our lives gives us the assurance that we can not only survive our woundedness but also the promise that our wounds will be transformed and be a force for something positive in the world.

Kay and Matt were in their late forties when Matt developed cancer. As you can imagine, it was hard, especially since they had two daughters, one in high school and the other in college. Matt did okay for a while, but died a couple of years later. As you can also imagine, Kay was devastated. She would often say that she had a Matt sized hole in her life. But she said she knew God was somehow going to use her experience and prayed for God’s grace for it to happen. Indeed, Kay found herself more compassionate for others and she helped start a grief support group. Kay went back to school to get a counseling degree so she could help college students who had difficulties in school. Kay knew that God didn’t cause Matt’s cancer or her woundedness, but God transformed Kay’s wounds into something positive.

We all carry wounds in our lives, some not as deep as Kay’s and some even deeper. I remember being bullied as a youth simply because I liked learning and was good at it. We didn’t all it bullying then; we called it “junior high,” but the effect was the same. So, I have compassion for those who suffer such taunts. The promise of the resurrection is that although our wounds are part of who we are, they don’t dictate our lives. On the contrary, we are able to help others, to let them know they aren’t alone, as Henri Nouwen says, “wounded healers.” We have this assurance because of the most important mark we carry on our bodies, the cross of Jesus Christ traced on our foreheads in Baptism, reminding us that we are beloved, transformed children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Easter through Tear Stained Eyes" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter through Tear Stained Eyes
Easter Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 1, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 20.1-18

We said good bye to one of our cats this week, and almost all black cat named Mystery. I called her Squirt because she was so petite. She was just a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday and, although it was necessary to let her go, you can imagine that it was also difficult. It was my wife, Cindy, who reminded me that we’ve experienced a number of significant losses this time of year. We said goodbye to Mystery’s sister, Shadow, a year ago at 17 years old, Cindy’s parents within the last few years, and mine a number of years ago, all around this same time. So, as you might imagine, Easter is something of a mixed bag for us, producing a complex of emotions.

Indeed, the resurrection story in John produces from Jesus’ followers a mix of responses to the news of the empty tomb. Peter, Jesus’ closest friend, sees the tomb and loose wrappings and goes away shaking his head, confused as to what he has seen. The other disciple, known in theological circles as the Beloved Disciples and who many think is John, sees the same and believes, though we don’t know what exactly he believes. But it is Mary Magdalene, full of grief and who—as my colleague Andrea Myers says—sees Jesus through tear stained eyes, to whom I’m drawn this Easter. Some of you may be in different places, perhaps like Peter, confused, or like the Beloved Disciple, believing yet not know what exactly. That’s okay. But we’re going to take a look at the resurrection through Mary’s tear stained eyes.

We don’t know why Mary came to the tomb that first Easter, though it wouldn’t be unusual for people to mourn at a grave following a death. But the sight of the empty tomb was too much for her. Mary’s grief at losing her teacher to a cruel and senseless death is now compounded by another loss. The apparent theft of Jesus’ body is too much to handle; anger and confusion add to already momentous grief. Even the sharing of this experience with Peter and the Beloved Disciple are not enough to stem the tears.

I think the reason of the death of a pet like Mystery can be difficult is not just because they have meant so much and given us such joy. It’s because those losses stir up grief within us from other losses. Poet, pastor and theologian John Donne said it best in his work, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “… [A]ny man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." Donne acknowledges our interconnectedness with one another.

But Jesus’ resurrection tells us that death does not have the last word, nor is it the most important word that we hear. The moment Jesus calls her name, Mary now sees Jesus, albeit through tear stained eyes. And through those tear stained eyes Mary is also able to see a new reality: it is possible that life can come from death even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations. God is always at work in the world in ways we can’t always see or imagine. So in the meantime, we live with Easter trust.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that this new life happens now, but it also happens in the futures. So it is that with the loss of pet, there’s the question of “Are they in heaven?” I don’t know, but I agree with RB Cunningham Graham who says, “God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.” Another way to say it is that I can’t imagine a heaven without those things most precious to us. But until then, as Northwestern Minnesota Synod Bishop Larry Wohlrabe says, “We rejoice with a lump in our throat.” Christ is risen, my sisters and brothers. It’s not too good to be true, it’s too good not to be true. Amen.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

"Holy Community" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Holy Community
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 29, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.23-30

“Woman here is your son. [Son], here is your mother.”

It seems like an eternity since Jesus had his final meal with his followers, what we know as the Last Supper. We read a portion of this story on the First Sunday in Lent. In reality, however, and narratively speaking only a few hours have passed since he delivered his “Farewell Discourse,” that long body of instructions for his closest friends ending with what is known as the “High Priestly Prayer.” Jesus knew that they would feel lost and alone without him and no doubt be scattered, so he gave them assurances that the Holy Spirit would be guiding them, keeping them together. Here, at the cross, Jesus continues that work of community building in some of his last words.

 “Woman here is your son. [Son], here is your mother,” Jesus tells his mother Mary and the follower known as the “Beloved Disciple.” Much ink has been spilled trying to tease out the symbolism of Jesus’ words, and frankly some or it is quite fanciful. But at its basic level, I think Jesus’ actions demonstrate his desire to provide a future for those who believe in him, a future that creates a united community who support and care for each other. The community that is formed is not just any community; it is a community formed both at the cross and by the cross. Because of cruciform community, in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us we come together and not get blown apart.

To illustrate an important part of that cruciform community, I want you to take a moment and think about a really memorable meal you’ve had and make it a good one. Like many of you, it might be hard to choose, but I think back to when I was growing up and my family would always get together with the Fleming Family twice a year. We were neighbors for the first five years of my life and most my siblings were the same age as theirs. The meal I remember most was when I first got to sit at the “adult table” instead of the “kids table.” I don’t remember what we ate, but it was wonderful.

Now, as you think about your memorable meal, I’m betting that you weren’t alone when you ate it. I’ll bet that you were with someone or several some ones, and if you weren’t I’m pretty sure you wish you had been. It is almost a law that good community involves good food and good food involves good community.

Today is Maundy Thursday, that time we usually celebrate the commandment that Jesus gives us at the Last Supper, to love one another as he has loved us. (The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.”) As such, it is an opportunity to celebrate the gift of Holy Communion, the gift of God’s grace whereby God gives his very self to us in, with and through the elements of bread and wine. But for tonight, I want to call it “Holy Community” because just as we come to the table by faith, trusting in God’s goodness, for faith, we also come to the table in community, for community.

There are a lot of ways to connect with God, but the very best of them are done with others. You see, there is no way you can do this sacrament alone, nor should you. And I must say that you’d have to work awfully hard to come to the table mad at someone and leave the same way. That’s why it’s so important we gather at least weekly and offer “Holy Community” every time. Now, one last instruction: look at those around you. (You don’t have to make eye contact, but just look.) “Brothers and sisters, here are your sisters and brothers in Christ,” your “Holy Community.” Amen.