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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sabbatical

Dear Living into Grace Friends

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a three-month sabbatical. I will be taking time for rest, reading, recreation and reconnecting with family. Thanks for your faithful reading of my sermons. Please look for me to return in August. God's blessings to you all.

Scott Olson

"It Is and It Isn't" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

It Is and It Isn’t
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 15, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-4; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13

When I was a Shop-at-Home decorating manager for Minnesota in the Washington, DC area, I had a drapery installer, Rick. Rick was a strong Christian who wasn’t afraid to share his faith with others, a quality I greatly admired. We’d have good conversations about what God was up to in the world and then he’d ruin it. Rick worshiped at a Pentecostal/charismatic congregation that believes you haven’t truly received the Holy Spirit if you hadn’t spoken in other tongues. Sometimes it was subtle, others blatant, but the message was clear: I wasn’t a real Christian. Now, I knew enough Bible to know that wasn’t true and after attending seminary it became clearer. For it seems that Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and tongues wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

As we’ve noted in previous weeks, the Corinthian church was divided over a number of issues. It’s interesting that Paul uses the word that literally means schism. This time it’s about spiritual gifts. Those who spoke in tongues thought they were especially superior. Others who had different gifts felt inferior and there were even some who didn’t think they had received any gifts and therefore felt left out. Paul’s response sets out three seemingly contradictory sets of propositions I want to explore further.

The first set of contradictions is that the gifts given by the Holy Spirit are for us, but they aren’t for us. When I work with couples preparing for marriage we read the second Genesis creation text that talks about partnership. God brings two people together with unique and complementary gifts. I make the point by telling the couple that if my wife and I were the same, one of us would be unnecessary.

The spiritual gifts are given to each and every one of us individually, but they are given in community and for the sake of community. As Paul says, they are given to each one of us for the common good, both in the community of faith and outside our walls to the greater community.

This leads to another seemingly contradiction: it’s up to us but it’s not up to us. The Spirit decides who gets certain gifts and they’re not based on merit, but it is up to us to use them. However, the great thing is that we don’t carry the load ourselves. When the torrential rains and subsequent floods hit Southeastern Minnesota in August 2007, I felt guilty that I didn’t help with cleanup right away. I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I’d use my gifts somehow. Indeed, I helped form and lead the long-term recovery organization that worked for the next two years to ensure that people could put their lives back together again.

The realization that it’s for us (and not) and up to us (and not) leads contradictory good news. On the one hand, the Spirit has given to us everything that we need for mission and ministry. The Spirit just didn’t blow through at that first Pentecost; it keeps blowing and giving gifts year in and year out. Actually, there is no other hand. If we think we don’t have what we need it’s either because some of our folk aren’t engaged or we haven’t discovered the gifts that each of us brings to this community. That’s one reason the Clifton Strengths Finder has been so valuable to our staff. We knew we had differing gifts and it’s been rewarding to discover those gifts and use them.

This past Wednesday we had a chance to imagine what a community of the Holy Spirit might look like. I asked those present in worship to turn to someone they know and tell them the gifts they see. Some people were surprised by what they were told and others were deeply blessed. That’s one of the many reasons we are developing to discipleship teams to support mission and ministry in, with and through Grace. You’ll be receiving information soon, but we hope that people will become more engaged in using their Spirit-given gifts, ones they know and some they’ll discover, for the good of the community.

As your pastor, I’m constantly delighted and blessed to see your gifts emerge, used for God’s glory, and the sake of the world. So, let’s pay attention and continue imagining what this means. The gifts of the Spirit are for us and they’re not. It’s up to us to use them and it’s not. God has given us everything we need and we will seek to uncover them, using them for the sake of the world. Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"Hold On, Pass On, Live On" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Hold On, Pass On, Live On
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 51-57

As a young boy, I remember wondering what happens when you die. So, I thought, “I’ll just kill myself and see what happens.” It was more curiosity than suicidal tendencies. Luckily, I realized quite soon I’d be dead if I killed myself and maybe that wasn’t such a good plan after all. Near death experiences aside, not being able to find out what happens when we die doesn’t stop us from speculating about it. In fact, throughout history, what happens when we die has been one of the greatest questions for all of humanity.

Apparently, a number of folk in the Corinthian church wondered the same thing but answered that in a disturbing way: nothing. For them, whatever resurrection happens does so in this life, there is no next. In other words, they’ve already arrived. When I was a up and coming manager for Minnesota Fabrics, one of my colleagues talked about achieving the “gravy train.” That meant for him that you paid your dues in smaller, less profitable stores and continually moved up until you got one of the lucrative stores. Then you could sit back and ride “the gravy train.”

Though making a good living appealed to me, because I wanted to get married, by a house and start a family, the notion of “arriving” didn’t sit well with. There was more to life. This notion of the Corinthians didn’t sit well with the apostle Paul, either, and he tells them so. Paul says, paraphrasing Eugene Peterson in The Message, if all we think about is this life, then it’s been a waste and we are a sorry lot. In my words: “What a waste of a good resurrection.”

This is not something to take lightly or for granted. When I was in seminary I had a casual conversation with a classmate about what was central and non-negotiable for each of us in our faith. For me, I said that the resurrection was central, something I could not live without. I was shocked when he said that wasn’t very important thing for him. I don’t remember what it was that was for him, probably because I was stunned.

Now, I didn’t think of this text from 1 Corinthians 15 at the time, but apparently I was in good company with Paul: resurrection is central to the life of faith. To illustrate this, Paul says that it is a simple story, really: Christ died for us, was buried, raised, and appeared to many of the faithful followers. Even so, this simple story has deep implications: in Facebook terms, Jesus’ status wasn’t just changed from dead to alive. There was more.

On Easter Sunday six weeks ago we were left hanging at the empty tomb as the women fled in terror. At that time, we said that the resurrection wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning. The empty tomb prompted us to ask, “What next?” For some people, believing in Jesus means living a good life, the life he came to give us. Now, Paul wants us to know that, as much as that is true, Jesus came to bring us so much more. He says in effect that, because of the resurrection, God has changed the destiny of the entire universe, not just humanity. Through the resurrection, we have all been drawn into the circle of God’s grace and made new creatures in the process.

Paul reminds us that this good news is so important that it has been handed down from the very beginning, from Jesus to the apostles to the Corinthians. This good news is so important that we are to hold on to this as if our lives depended on it, because our lives do depend on it. On Mother’s Day we are reminded of those who give birth to our faith and nurture it in us. We are reminded that we are encouraged to do the same for others, because this is the message that brings new life. The resurrection of Jesus means we have a future and when we have a future we have hope. There is more, because God always gives us more: more chances, more life more everything. So, hold on to the faith you have received. Pass on the good news of Jesus’ death for us and subsequent resurrection. Live on with the new life in Christ. Hold on, pass on, live on. Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"The Way of Love" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Way of Love
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 1, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Mark 12.28-31

 Context is everything. I still remember the words of a former member who was also a farmer: “A stalk of corn in a bean field, however nice, is still a weed.” Context is everything. That’s no truer than in the Bible where ripping verses from context is a favorite pastime of some people. That’s one reason we use the Narrative Lectionary at Grace; we read the Bible as it is, God’s story. There is no more flagrant example of taking texts from contexts than today’s passage, the erroneously title “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. A staple of weddings and emblazoned upon plaques, pillows and other paraphernalia, often read with soft piano music playing in the background, 1 Corinthians 13 has been yanked out of its context and thereby domesticated almost beyond recognition.

As mentioned last week, the context of the Corinthian church is conflict, arrogance, divisiveness and power struggles. The diversity of the membership was putting a strain on the community. People were lining up behind their favorite theologians arguing about who was baptized by whom. The more affluent members were treating the working class shamefully in the Lord’s Supper. And perhaps worst of all, they were becoming spiritually arrogant. The Corinthians, in the heat of new-found faith and the spiritual gifts received were jazzed, too much so. And because some of the gifts are flashier, they think those are more important than others. It’s like getting a new drill and being so excited you start drilling holes all over the place and thinking a drill is the best tool in the box.

In the context of the letter, Paul was just telling them in chapter 12 how the diverse spiritual gifts are all valid and needed. Then in our text today, he makes a short but crucial exursion about the necessity of love for spiritual gifts. This is no “Kumbaya”/can’t-we-just-get-along moment. Paul takes them to the spiritual woodshed. In this context, the beauty of the love language takes on an edge and fierceness we otherwise miss. It’s a dose of reality that, without love, the community will blow apart and so will their witness to those around them. The question is not how to avoid conflict but rather choosing to embrace it with the way of love.

What is that way? The way is rooted in the recognition that nothing lasts without love. The things we think are so important and cling to so tenaciously aren’t as important as we think they are. Our scripture readings, songs, worship, choir anthems, prayers, acts of service, generosity and, dare I say even our sermons will all pass away. But if they are infused with love they will endure. The essence of this kind of love, Paul says is born of humility and vulnerability. As Elias Chacour said, “The one who is wrong is the one who says, ‘I am right.’”

A number of years ago in my former congregation, the women’s choir from Winona State sang during worship. I can still picture a young woman who clearly sang with love in her heart while others were singing, albeit beautifully. I don’t remember what they sang that day, but I do remember that woman and the love in which she sang. Love endures.

As we seek the way of love in our congregation and greater community, we realize it’s already ours. Theologian Emil Bruner says it this way: “Faith is nothing in itself but the openness of our heart to God’s love.” Like Hannah Patricia today, it is in our baptism that we are first shown that love. And like her, as we grow we learn to open our hearts. So, more than an exhortation to “just do it!” is the promise that God’s love moves in, with and through us. That, of course, is the most important context of all: God’s love, crucified and risen for us all that enables us to go the way of love. Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Is Christ Divided?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Is Christ Divided?
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 18.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18

I got talked into team teaching an ethics class by a golfing buddy of Al Simonson and Bill Anderson. He had always wanted to teach a class on ethics but felt he couldn’t do it on his own, so he asked me to help. Through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Minnesota, “OLLI” as it is known, uses volunteer teachers. So, although it didn’t pay anything it was enjoyable. We’ve met in the Cities four Fridays, my day off, and we’ve examined ways to “do” ethics.

After the third and penultimate session, we asked attendees what we haven’t covered that they’d like us to address. More than one member expressed a desire to learn more about how to have ethical conversations. One woman was especially interested because of her experience of differing value systems than other generations, particularly her granddaughter.

Though we don’t know for sure, having ethical conversations may be a question the Corinthian church asked Paul or that Paul was addressing with them. Last week we heard about the Thessalonian church Paul also founded, one he dearly loved and one that experienced conflict due to persecution from external sources, Jew and Gentile alike. This week the conflict is internal to the church and threatens to blow it apart. Corinth was a major seaport on the Aegean Sea in Greece, located on an isthmus in the Peloponnesus. It was a trade center with diverse population and had a reputation for “anything goes.” The church at Corinth reflected that diversity and the congregation was having a hard time figuring out how to get along with one another.

Although we can’t know for certain, there seem to be several issues creating conflict. Apparently, different groups lined up behind favored theologians and personalities. Furthermore, some of the more affluent members were eating the good food and drinking the good wine before the poorer folk showed up for worship. There also seemed to be an argument about which spiritual gifts were better than others and finally some of the members thought the resurrection was a this-life only experience. Probably the biggest irony of it all was that the one thing that should have united them as a church seemed to be a bone of contention: baptism. They even argued about who baptized whom.

Now, I’m sure some of you are shocked that there could be conflict and division in a church (wink, wink). The reality is that the history of Christianity is one of conflict: in addition to our text, there were disagreements about the divinity of Jesus. There was the great schism around 1100 CE that resulted in the Eastern and Western churches, known as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic respectively.

A few hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation resulted in multiple splits throughout Europe, a phenomenon that continued in the United States today resulting in denominationalism. The Enlightenment, which elevated reason and science about religion, caused churches to respond in various ways, the effects also being felt today. And the Civil War brought further divisions. And although our own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was born through mergers, we haven’t been immune to splits. And, if doctrinal battles weren’t enough, there were issues of women’s ordination, the music wars and most devastating to congregational harmony: what color the carpet should be.

In 2007 I was privileged to be a voting member at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Chicago. To vote on matters, we had these nifty voting boxes in front of us. To get us used to the way they worked, then Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson give us some practice. He said he wanted to find a question we could all agree on and settled on “Jesus is Lord.” However, on second thought, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know the answer.

The question is not how to prevent conflict; the question is how we resolve conflict without splits that destroy community. In the weeks ahead, with Paul we’ll address some of the issues in the Corinthian church I mentioned above and get some pointers on how to have conversations. For today and for your consideration, we answer Paul’s rhetorical question, “Is Christ divided” with a resounding, “No!” We listen deeply and intently to one another; and we begin and end our conversations that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is our Lord and is the center of our life together.

Last Friday, at our last OLLI session on ethics, we practiced having ethical conversations. We agreed that we need to listen to one another with a sense of humility and curiosity. We need to share our experiences with one another with respect. It has been said, “They will know we are Christians by our love” and I hope that is true. But I would also hope that it could said, “They will know we are Christians by the way we handle conflict.” Our world desperately needs us to figure out how to get along so we can help it do the same. We have hope because Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Fear Factor" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fear Factor
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 17, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 17.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10

Last weekend I had a dad-daughters date with our girls and we went to see the newest Disney movie, “Zootopia.” If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it, but the basic story line involves a city where all animals live in harmony. I think the title is a mash-up between “zoology” and utopia.” A rabbit from a rural community has a dream to become the first of her species to be a police officer in Zootopia. She does, but it doesn’t turn out the way she hopes. Furthermore, along the way something happens to make those animals that were formerly “prey” distrust and fear those who were formerly “predators.” In addition to being Disney-funny, the movie is a great social commentary on fear of the other.

I think that the theme of fear runs throughout our texts today. We’ve made quite a jump in Acts since last week and the three movements we sketched out are full swing. Peter has made way for Paul as the featured apostle. The mission to the Gentiles is overshadowing the one to the Jews. And though we are not there yet, we’re getting closer to Rome as the gospel spreads outward from Jerusalem. Paul wants to go into Asia, but is prevented by the Holy Spirit. Then, in a dream, a man from Macedonia, an area of northern Greece, beckons.  So Paul goes to Thessalonica, a Roman city that is both a seaport and on the Via Egnatia, a major trade route of the day. It’s an important city to make a base. Per custom, Paul goes to the synagogue first and engages with the local Jewis in the time honored art of disputation. But Paul also plies his trade as tentmaker and therefore is able to make contacts with Jew and Greek alike.

The book of Acts in general and today’s reading—combined with 1 Thessalonians—in particular, shows that the spread of the gospel doesn’t always go smoothly and is even met with hostility. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is not always good news to everyone who hears it. The gospel turns peoples’ worlds upside down, including those who embrace it as fully and passionately as the Thessalonians do. The love of God through Jesus brings new life to people, which includes a transformed life. For some people that is not good news and for others, it brings push-back from friends and family. That was certainly true for me when I returned to the church after almost a decade away. Some people didn’t know how to handle my “new life.”

Whether you are threatened by the gospel of Jesus or trying to live out the gospel of Jesus, there is one factor that runs through both: the fear factor. For the Thessalonians, it was fear of persecution. For us almost 2,000 years later, who also struggle with living the life of faith, the fear may take other forms. We may be afraid to be associated with the typically negative view of Christians in our society. Or we may be afraid to speak from our religious convictions in a society that discounts such a voice. We may even be afraid to step into new territory and let go of the old familiar ways of doing things in order to try new things, new things that our new life asks us to do.

This month’s issue of Living Lutheran carries a column by Peter Marty on fear that speaks well to this topic of fear. Marty says “the greatest achievement of Easter is not a freedom from death, but freedom from our fears.” He goes on to say, “The gift of faith turns out to be nothing less than the courage to live and act in spite of our fears.” In other words, the same good news of Jesus that transforms our lives also gives us the courage to face our fears. Like the animals in “Zootopia,” we have the opportunity to speak against the fear of the other and the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead gives us courage to do so. Although it is correct to say, “Christ has been raised,” we put it in the present tense: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed, alleluia. Go with great courage. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"What’s in Your Wallet?" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

What’s in Your Wallet?
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 10, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 3.1-10

What’s in your wallet? Take out your wallet or purse and look in there. What is one thing that is in there that signifies something God has given you for the sake of the world? Hold that item in your hand or mind for a while.

Two weeks ago on Easter I posed the question, “What now?” I did this because of the empty tomb and the abrupt ending of Mark’s story as evidence that resurrection is not a conclusion but a beginning or invitation. The resurrection is an invitation to new life. The book of Acts and the letters to the churches that follow are accounts of the early Christians trying to figure that out and it’s helpful to know that there wasn’t a blueprint on how to do it. In fact, they make it up as they go along.

In the book of Acts in particular, it’s helpful to know there are three major movements in the story: from Peter to Paul, from Jew to Gentile and from Jerusalem to Rome. Peter has center stage at the beginning with spreading the gospel to the early Christians, who are Jewish. When it becomes evident that Gentiles are included, the spotlight shifts to Paul and his work. Finally, though the story begins in Jerusalem, it ends in Rome, signifying the universality of the gospel message. One more important thing to note about the book of Acts: it’s helpful to think of it as the “Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is mentioned 43 times in the book. The Holy Spirit is in charge, not the apostles.

Two weeks ago I could have easily posed the question, “So What?,” which is a slightly different question. In other words, what difference does it make that God came in the flesh, preached good news to the poor, healed the sick, died on a cross and was raised from the dead? Last week, John did a great job talking about how Jesus “passed the torch” to his followers and us, inviting us to continue Jesus’ ministry. Today we hear the story of how Peter and John attend to another aspect of that ministry: healing. One point of the story is the assertion that the resurrection has real, tangible consequences. It prods us to consider whether we really believe that the resurrection and name of Jesus make a difference in our lives and in the world.

It’s important to note that the man’s healing does not necessarily mean all people will be healed in the name of Jesus in this particular way. But it is a sign of hope for all people that Jesus continues to be active in the world. Furthermore, we want to acknowledge that healing stories in the Bible operate on more than just the literal level and this is no exception. I was drawn today to Peter’s claim that he can’t give the man what he asked for, but what he had. Now, I want to set aside the issues of whether Peter really didn’t have anything and how he presumed to know what the man needed to focus on what it is God gives us for the healing of the world.

As I pondered this, I recalled a credit card commercial that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” What did you find there? Are there things in there you forgot were there? Where did they come from? I’m pretty sure almost everything comes from someone or somewhere else and there probably things that you didn’t remember you put there. Now, using an item from your wallet think: what about your spiritual wallet? What are the things God has given you to heal others, to make a difference in the world?

I asked this question Wednesday night and had people talk about it. Mark Szybnski mentioned he had a band-aid in his wallet, reminding him of God’s call to bring healing to others, like the Good Samaritan. Sam Anderson talked about his blood donor card and how God has given him the gift of life that he can give others. Barb Heller mentioned her driver’s license, which enables her to give people rides to places they need to be. I see my business cards, which reminds me that all people are called to serve God and neighbor through our various vocations.

Again, last week John talked about the many ways the people of Grace give ourselves away through the God’s ministry in this place. This week, our leadership convened the building and building finance teams that will move us forward in our goal to support God’s mission and ministry through a mission-ready building. This is important and exciting and terrifying work, and we’ll ask you to be a part of it. But I also invite you to think about other items in your spiritual wallet, things that God has given to you. Maybe it means looking intently at those who we fail to see at our doorstep and giving them a hand in some way. So, what’s in your wallet? Amen.