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

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Dear Redeemer" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Dear Redeemer
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 19, 2019
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Romans 1.1-17

An envelope is on a stool in the center of the chancel. On the outside of the envelope the words "Dear Redeemer" are written. I pick up the envelope, sit down, open the envelope, remove the contents and begin reading:

Scott, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be a pastor through the divine humor, set apart for the gospel of God through Word and Sacrament, by will of God’s people in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and under the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, who was declared to be God’s Son with power according to the resurrection from the dead and through whom we have received grace to stir up the obedience of faith by preaching, teaching and pastoral care, including you who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all God’s beloved in Good Thunder, who have been set aside for mission and ministry according to the manifold gifts of God’s grace:

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is proclaimed throughout all of Southeastern Minnesota. For God, whom I serve in the power of the Holy Spirit, is my witness that I remember you always in my prayers asking that God strengthen the ministry we share. I want you to know, Brothers and Sisters, that I yearn for a deepening of the relationship between Grace and Redeemer so that the power of the resurrection would be made manifest both here and throughout our area. I am indebted to both congregations for the witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ made manifest in our partnership.

News of your faithfulness in the gospel of Jesus Christ has reached me and others. Your desire to alleviate the hunger of the food insecure through Loaves and Fishes is well-known and your generosity is seemingly boundless. You, who appear to have very little, respond to the call of Jesus to feed the hungry and that is a tremendous witness to our Lord’s promise of abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Your openhandedness mirrors that of our Lord Jesus who multiplied the loaves and fishes on that hillside 2,000 years ago.

Furthermore, your contributions to the work of the larger church through Benevolence offerings to the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and the ELCA beyond testifies to your commitment to the work of the larger church in our world. Your faithfulness to share out of your blessings with others brings immeasurable comfort and joy, to me and others.

I am delighted that your spirit of generosity pervades your whole congregation as Grace and Redeemer partner to help our young people grow in faith, service and love. The presence of Redeemer youth, parents and grandparents at Grace has been a blessing to us and to others. Because of your faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, our young people are able to go on mission trips, a boundary waters canoe trip, and attend the ELCA national youth gathering. The combined Confirmation program, “Saved by Grace” is a wonderful cooperative ministry where our young people grow deeper in their love for Jesus. This blending of participants is so seamless that most people don’t know which folk belong to which congregation. The presence of people on the Transition Task force has uncovered a desire among both congregations to deepen even further our relationship. Truly God’s Spirit continues to move in, with and through our partnership.

I am not ignorant, brothers and sisters, of the uncertainty you are experiencing because of the transitions happening at Grace. This time is a bit unsettling for all of us and it is hard to wait for the process to work itself out. Rest assured that your brothers and sisters in Christ of Grace are committed to our partnership in the gospel even though we don’t know exactly what that will look like.

What we do know is that we will continue to look for what God is doing in our midst and where God is inviting us to join in God’s mission to love and bless the world, just as you have done these many years. We are confident that the gospel will continue to be preached at Redeemer and the sacraments will be administered in accordance with the gospel. We know that we will continue to feed the hungry together and that we will find ways to grow in faith, hope, and love together.

I don’t know how much time we have left, beloved of God, but I want you to know what a blessing you have been to me these past three years. Your kindness and steadfast faithfulness have encouraged me in my own life of faith. Be strong, let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord, for the one who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.

Now, to God who is able to strengthen you according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made know to all peoples, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

You’ve Got to Be Kidding - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

You’ve Got to Be Kidding
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 12, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 13.1-3; 14.1-20

A few weeks ago, someone suggested that we do a sermon series on humor in the Bible. Now, we already have our summer series set for this year, looking at biblical stories through the eyes of artists. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a few years. But the point is well taken: for a book that we take seriously, the Bible has its humorous moments. Such a funny series, were we to do one, would take seriously (pun intended) today’s scripture. The almost Shakespearean quality of misunderstanding of Paul and Barnabas as gods who are being offered sacrifices would delight us, were it not for the subsequent sobering stoning of the apostles.

Post-Easter, those early followers of Jesus are figuring out the implications of his death and resurrection. As we heard two weeks ago, they were commissioned to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That point was made clear last week in Peter’s vision from God that no one is unclean in God’s eyes. The gospel goes to all people. It’s been noted that Acts has three broad movements: from Peter to Paul, from Jew to Gentile, and from Jerusalem to Rome.

Peter gives way to Paul as the main character in Acts. Though the message goes to Jew first, the mission to the Gentiles takes up the greater space in Acts. And, although the mission begins in Rome, it quickly spreads outward, ending in Rome. Someone has also observed that the book should not be called the Acts of the Apostles but rather the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is mentioned 39 times in the book. If these followers are making it up as they go along, it is under the watchful gaze of the Spirit.

The death and resurrection of Jesus in and of themselves may not be funny but the unfolding the mission has its humorous aspects. It seems that the way God achieves the restoration of his relationship with humanity is with tongue planted firmly in the divine cheek. Although the mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ begins in Jerusalem and Paul ends up in Rome, it is lowly Antioch of Syria that becomes the launching pad for the apostolic witness. Not only is it a small and newly formed church, it is made up of the most unlikely cast of characters. Barnabas is the mission developer sent from Jerusalem to start the new church. Simeon is probably a black man from North Africa. Lucius is a displaced Jew. Manaen is a childhood buddy of terrible King Herod. And Saul, whom will be renamed Paul, was a persecutor of these very same folk and is now one of them.

The story picks up steam as Paul and Barnabas enter Lystra. Because there was no Jewish synagogue, they begin speaking the gospel in the marketplace where people gather and listen to people such as them. Seeing the opportunity to show the power of this good news, Paul heals a man who has been crippled from birth. The locals, unable to wrap their heads around this new message, interpret it in the only categories they have available to them. They believe Paul and Barnabas to be their gods in human form worthy of sacrifice. However, they mistake God’s instruments of power for God himself resulting in this comedic tug of war.

It would be easy for us to laugh at them and call them ignorant. However, the fact is that we’re not only in on the joke we are part of the joke. You see, in amusing fashion, God uses unlikely people and shows up in unlikely places to spread his message of love and inclusion. This shouldn’t be hard for us to understand. Presented with new knowledge, science is continually revising its understanding of our world. For us in the church, God is continually doing new things to stretch our understanding of his love. Sometimes, all we can do is chuckle and say, “There goes God again, doing something crazy to show the power of his love.” Like energizing a small congregation in downtown Mankato that grows in faith, hope and love by continually giving itself away. You and me, part of God’s work in the world? You’ve got to be kidding! Yep, that’s our God all right. Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

"Do Not Be Afraid" - Sermon for Easter Sunday, Resurrection of Our Lord

Do Not Be Afraid
Resurrection of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 21, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 28.1-10

I think I lost joy in the 9th grade. It was still Junior High School then, because our high school was so big, even with only three grades. I was in the cafeteria during lunch when I spied a former and very well-admired teacher. I was so excited because I hadn’t seen my 8th grade biology teacher, Mr. J since I took a summer school elective. So, I jumped up and shouted his name, only to be immediately pushed back down by an iron grip to my shoulder. The iron grip belonged to Mr. P, my current English teacher. Now, Mr. P was also a Navy Air Reserve pilot whose military bearing pervaded the classroom, most notably as he called each of us Mr. or Miss. Now, I enjoyed the rigor of Mr. P’s Accelerated English class, but today I only felt was shame and embarrassment. This incident, coupled with my innate Scandinavian stoicism, shoved joy into the darkest recesses of my soul rarely to see the light of day.

The two Marys came to the tomb that first Easter morning, probably to pay their respects. The joy of sharing the Passover meal with their Teacher, friend, and leader, Jesus, had been shoved down by events of the previous days. His sham trial by the religious leaders and execution by the occupying Romans throttled joy virtually to the point of extinction. It’s doubtful that the two had remembered Jesus’ promise to rise again, but they came to the tomb anyway. So, when the earth shook, the stone rolled away and the angel appeared, the first words they heard were, “Do not be afraid,” and their world was rocked and thrown into even more confusion.

“He is not here,” the angel says, “he has been raised and is going to meet you in Galilee.” They leave the empty tomb and as they go they do so “with fear and great joy.” Then, Jesus meets them with the same words as the angel spoke, “Do not be afraid.” They did the only thing they could possibly do: they worshiped him. Jesus repeats and clarifies the angel’s message, sending them to bring the same message to the rest of Jesus’ followers. From other Gospels we know that they are hiding in fear behind locked doors. So it is in this new, post-resurrection world that women become the first apostles and evangelists.

In the resurrection of Jesus, God reached down in the deepest recesses of fear, anguish and pain to bring new life, and not just the stunning promise of the resurrection to eternal life of all whom we hold dear and who have passed on before us. God breaks open the tombs of our losses and insecurities, everything standing in the way of life. My fear of expressing joy and other emotions has served me well in many ways. I have an ability to stay calm during difficulties and I can usually keep my head when others lose theirs. But stuffing that joy has come at a great price, resulting in being afraid to experience joy lest I only to be disappointed in the end.

I am grateful that God has used various means to break me open so that I can begin to live the resurrected life. I hope that you are experiencing the joy of the resurrection today, but if not, that’s okay. Do not be afraid. The Easter message is that God does not give up on us, even in the face of death, especially in the face of death. You see, resurrection faith gives us courage to lean into the hard things in life, even when we don’t know the outcome. Wherever you are in life, whatever is happening, know that God continues to work away at your fears. Do not be afraid, for Christ is risen and new life is yours, both now and in the age to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"It’s Time" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

It’s Time
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 18, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 26.17-30

Her water has broken and the contractions are getting closer together. The mother’s body is ready; it’s time to push. It’s not time because of some arbitrary due date declared by the OB/GYN approximately nine months earlier. It’s time because the baby says so. In another scene, the convict is led away in chains, trudging down a dark hall. The final meal has been eaten and prayers have been said. It’s time for death to come, not because of an arbitrary time set by the warden or governor, but because the trials are over and the appeals have been exhausted. These are but two examples of many that describe most times in our lives. We are not as regulated by clock time as much as we think, but rather the fullness of time.

 “My time is at hand,” Jesus says to his closest friends/followers in our reading for tonight. Soon the final meal will be eaten, prayers said, trials over and the appeals exhausted. It will be time for death to come, but only at Jesus’ say so. The religious leaders think this will happen on their time and in their way, but they are deluded. God is not only in control of time but also works in, with, and through all time for his purposes. If Jesus’ time is at hand it is because it is the right time—God time—not because they or we say it is.

During his last meal, Jesus makes the most of the time he has left to spend time with the disciples, his closest friends. In the Passover meal they share, it’s time to let them know that they are about to be liberated from sin and death, just as their ancestors were freed from the oppression of the Egyptians 1,300 years before. It’s time for them to understand more fully that they will be sharing in Jesus’ cup of suffering in the years ahead. It’s time for them to get a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and a taste of forgiveness they’ll need because of what will happen in the days ahead.

Tonight, it’s time for some of our young people to join in that same experience as the disciples. It’s not time because we’ve set an arbitrary clock or the calendar fell a certain way; Jesus certainly didn’t set one. It’s not time because they’ve gone through some classes and studied some Bible passages. These are all fine, good, and important, but it is time not because they are ready to receive him. It is time because Jesus is ready to give himself away for these young people, and has been for some time.

In Jesus’ timeless self-giving act we are reminded that the time is near for death to be defeated. Water will pour from his side and the pains of crucifixion will intensify. Three days later it will be time for the earth to push forth new life from death, not because we say so but because God says so. Meanwhile, it’s time for us to pause and remember, to taste the forgiveness that keeps on coming no matter what we do, to gather with saints past, present, and future, and to continue our walk with Jesus to the cross and tomb. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"Out of the Mouths of Babes" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Out of the Mouths of Babes
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 14, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 21.1-17

 “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” These are shouts from the crowds, both from those who were following him into Jerusalem and from those who were coming out to meet him. In a first century version of a ticker tape parade for a conquering hero, Jesus is proclaimed as a king, the Son of David come to rule over Jerusalem. In doing so Jesus makes a royal claim upon both the people and the city.

Yet, Jesus is not your typical king. He comes riding a donkey, not a warhorse, and riding humbly at that. He steps up from walking, not stepping down from a warhorse, showing them he’s no ordinary king. He is not going to conquer by brute force. In this triumphal entry and as events unfold, Jesus both affirms his kingship and redefines it. As we know, this king will ascend the throne of the cross and will save his people while doing so.

We know that the triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple will put into motion events leading to his death. He turns the temple from a place of commerce and sacrifice into one of healing. But, the religious leaders cannot see what even the children are able to see: Jesus is the Son of David. Blessed is he! Out of the mouths of babes comes a truth so pure and so perceptive. Even so, they get dismissed out of hand.

Many of you might remember Art Linkletter’s bit, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” Linkletter would ask young children questions and they would come up with humorous but straight answers that would be both honest and incredibly funny, not to mention insightful. In one segment I watched, a young boy was asked how his parents helped around the house. He gave the typical domestic answers for a mother of his generation. When asked how his father helped out, he thought hard for several seconds and then said, “He makes cocktails.” Apparently, this ability of children to be perceptive has been going on for at least a thousand years, because Jesus quotes Psalm 8: “out of the mouth of babes.”

Yet, why are we surprised when children cut through the clutter and say things that are incredibly shrewd? But, it’s not just children that suffer that indignity is it? There are others at the margins we ignore. We discount the elderly, women, those with differing intellectual abilities, the less educated, non-white, etc. I knew a pastor whose whole demeanor changed toward someone when he discovered the guy who “only” trained horses for a living not only had a bachelor’s degree but also had a master’s degree, in his chosen field. In truth, we can be like the Pharisees.

The thing is, we forget that the margin of society is where Jesus hung out and, frankly, probably still does. Think about the kind of people we tend to save our praise for: rich, celebrities, sports heroes, etc. Yet any change of substance has come from those voices on the edge. Think about Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and that lowly Augustinian monk from a backwater country, Martin Luther. Substantive changes come from these areas because that’s where God tends to work, doing new things, upsetting the status quo and encouraging us to come along.

I can tell you many stories of times when I’ve missed hearing something important because I dismissed someone out of hand. I’m not proud of it so I ask God for the grace to be fully present with everyone I meet. As we move forward with our goals as a congregation for the next 3-5 years, let us seek out those voices for wisdom. We can practice by listening to these voices as we go to cross and tomb. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest heaven! Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Seeing Jesus, Being Jesus
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 7, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.31-46

During the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, there was an argument among the Reformers about Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion many of whom delighted in disputing all things Roman Catholic. (It may come as a shock that early church leaders argued among themselves.) One reformer, arguing against real presence, said that it was only a spiritual presence while another arguing similarly said that that we are lifted to the throne of Grace where Jesus is. Their reasoning against “real” presence was that Jesus was at the right hand of God and therefore couldn’t be present in the bread and wine of Communion.

Martin Luther, arguing for Jesus’ bodily presence,—and ironically on the side of Roman Catholics—countered this by saying that God’s right hand is wherever Jesus happens to be and added for good measure, that Jesus can be wherever God wants him to be. Furthermore, although God can be anywhere, God says that if we want to find him we can surely find him in the sacraments. For those of you who keep track of such things, this was known as the Ubiquity Controversy, with Luther arguing for a unity of the persons of the Godhead and their ubiquitous presence.

With a careful reading of Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and goats, Luther also could have said that if we want to find Jesus we can find him in the midst of “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” This is a hard parable, especially if we try to read too much into it or, perhaps, not enough. Though this is a judgment parable, I think that it’s less about the end times than it is about today. That’s not to say that judgment isn’t important; in fact, judging plays an integral part in understanding this parable.

There are a number of interpretations that try to explain how this spoke to Matthew’s community. For instance, the “member of my family” could refer to Christian missionaries and the sheep and goats are Gentiles who either do or don’t welcome them. Now, these are very interesting and even helpful, but I want to explore what the parable means for us now. To do so, I want to clear the decks of two misconceptions. First, I don’t for a minute think either Jesus or Matthew want us to engage in husbandry. In other words, we don’t need to assess whether any of us are sheep or goats. That’s not our job. That’s the job of the king when he comes in his glory at the end of time. Second, I don’t think that either Jesus or Matthew want us to worry about our salvation. Although we are on the way to the cross, we know the end of the story. Our salvation has already been won for us. It’s done.

So what can we take away from this parable? First, Jesus foremost stands among and identifies with those on the margins of society: the broken, hurting, powerless, and defenseless. Do you want to see Jesus? Then look on the edges of our community; that’s where he’s working. Second, through the device of judgment, Jesus gets our attention with the message that he cares deeply about injustice and suffering in the world and he wants us to care just as deeply. He wants us to see Jesus in the marginalized and then be Jesus to them. Jesus is not a politician sitting in some ivory tower or out playing golf with the rich and connected. Jesus is among the disenfranchised of society and in us working on their behalf.

If you are one who is hurting today, for whatever reason, and feel that you are on the outside, please know that you are not alone, that Jesus is close at hand. However, if you are someone whose life is going pretty well but you’d like to make a difference in our broken world, look around and join in the work God is calling us, seeing Jesus and being Jesus.

For those of you here today, you have a chance to see Jesus and be Jesus as we engage in our directions for ministry process following worship. We need to test whether our core values of compassion, hospitality and community are authentic and we need your help doing it. If these values do belong to us, then we need to figure out how God is calling us to live out those values. Please join in seeing Jesus and being Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

"Conscientious Discipleship" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Conscientious Discipleship
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 31, 2019
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.1-13

About 16 years ago, when I was an associate pastor at Central in Winona, the Directing Pastor retired. An interim pastor, Duane Salness, came and helped prepare us for our next Directing Pastor. (That’s what I’ll be doing in the next year or so as I transition from Grace.) Part of his duties was to evaluate and meet with staff. The only thing I remember from our conversation is his comment about how focused I am. At the time, it sounded like a compliment and I sure considered it one. However, as time went by and I thought about his comments, I wondered if he was telling me that I was so focused that I sometimes missed things.

The five so-called foolish bridesmaids were so focused on not having enough oil that they were so distracted they forgot their purpose for being there in the first place. (By the way, the Greek word for foolish is the same that gives us the English word “moron.”) The parable of the 10 bridesmaids is one of the hardest parables to enter and it’s very frustrating. Some of it seems straightforward enough. They all fall asleep waiting for a bridegroom that operates on his own timetable. We get that part because we know that the early Christians wondered why Jesus was taking so long fulfilling his promise to return. Matthew uses this parable, not to explain the delay, but to stay alert. Even so, Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” hardly seems fitting since all 10 of the bridesmaids slept.

And there are parts of the parable that seem fantastic, are there not, even for a parable. For example, why would the five foolish bridesmaids go for oil when there weren’t any vendor open at that time of night? Remembering that parables are not puzzles to be solved but rather mysteries to be entered, that they are designed to open us up rather than be opened doesn’t help. There doesn’t seem to be any opening in this parable for us to enter. However, I was reminded this week that another function of parables is to upset our worldview, to get us looking at something in a different way. If, indeed, parables are supposed to disorient us and reorient us, this parable does a pretty good job of it.

Yet, even these details are distracting us from where the parable is pointing us. The fault of the foolish bridesmaids wasn’t that they didn’t plan ahead; their problem was they forgot their purpose. Their main purpose wasn’t to light the way for the bridegroom. Their purpose was to welcome the bridegroom as he brought his bride into their home and they didn’t need oil to accomplish that. It would have been better for them to be there with no oil than to not be there at all.

Frankly, even the so-called wise bridesmaids were a bit on the foolish side, for they also forgot their main purpose. And their notion of scarcity, that there wasn’t enough oil to go around, runs contrary to scripture: God provides all we need. So, here’s where the parable turns our world upside down: it doesn’t matter how much oil we think we have or don’t have; what matters is being focused on God’s purpose four us as disciples. It’s so easy for us to be distracted by issues that have little to do with mission and ministry. God doesn’t want us to miss out.

Now, some of you might feel like you are one of those foolish bridesmaids, without enough oil and running on fumes when it comes to following Jesus. If so, please don’t give up; stick around with people who do have a bit more oil and wait until Jesus shows up. Next week, we’ll explore more about what conscientious discipleship looks like in the parable of the sheep and goats. But for now, remember that whenever a door seems permanently shut, we have a God who has shattered death’s door forever, and who passes through the doors of our insecurities and calls us to follow. Amen.