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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sola Fide" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Pentecost 10 – Summer Series
August 13, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Galatians 2.15-3.5

 “Henry” was actively dying when I visited him in the hospital. He was still very lucid and after some general conversation, I asked him if there was anything on his mind or that he’d like to discuss. “Yes, pastor, there is,” Henry said. What is it? “I wonder if I’m good enough for God.” What do you mean, Henry, ‘good enough?’ “Will God take me? Am I good enough to be accepted by God?” Now, I wanted to smack him because Henry was a life-long Lutheran, whom I was sure had heard the “saved by grace through faith” line countless times, including from me.   But instead, my heart ached for him. I said, “Oh, my, Henry…” and we talked some more.

Today we explore sola fide, or “faith alone,” the second in our series on the five Solae. The Solae are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity. They are the “bottom line” of our beliefs. In our text from Galatians today we hear that we are made right with God, not by works of the law, but by the faith of Christ and our faith in Christ.

Now, it’s helpful to know a bit of the back-story to Galatians: it seems there were Jewish folk who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who, thankfully, approved this message for Gentiles as well. (Remember, the first Christians were Jewish.) However, they were so tied to their Jewish roots and sense of belonging that they believed that the Gentiles needed to adopt these “belonging markers and practices” as gifts from God. These practices included the observance of dietary laws and circumcision for men. Paul, who helped establish the Galatian church, was furious and responds accordingly.

Mary Hinkle Shore notes how difficult Galatians can be to understand because Paul uses heavy-weight theological words like “justify,” “justification” and “righteousness,” which can be confusing and hard to unpack. So, she suggests replacing “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging.” I think that’s very helpful because the issue at the heart of Galatians is how we belong, to God and to one another. Yet, in a grammatical puzzle that has commentators abuzz, it’s Jesus’ faith, not ours, that’s at issue.

Paul says that how we belong to this community of faith, to God and each other, is through the faithfulness and faith of Jesus. And Paul’s message is one we need to hear just as much today as the Galatians did 2,000 years ago. In our culture, we hear constant messages that we aren’t good enough or don’t have enough. In order to belong, we need to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, drive the right truck or car, or use the right technology. However, in our congregations, we strive to teach and live a different message: “You belong no matter what you do or who you are.”

As I continued my conversation with Henry, I simply and gently reminded him of what he already knew but, in essence, wanted to hear again one last time: God’s faithful promises. Whatever faith and trust we have in God springs from Jesus’ faithfulness as God’s gift to us. Though Henry may not have realized or perhaps forgotten, it was because of this gift from God that he was able to live the life of faith that he did, not perfectly of course, but secure in the love of Christ. May you hear and trust this good news as well. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"Sola Scriptura" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Sola Scriptura
Pentecost 9 – Summer Series
Grace, Mankato, MN
August 6, 2017
2 Timothy 3.10 – 4.5

While amassing material for today’s first sermon in the series on the five Solae, I found myself organizing my thoughts in such a way that I was sure I was putting together and nice little talk. After all, these five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to sum up the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity are interesting, right? I was positive that you would be enthralled (as I am) about the authority of scripture—today’s topic—over and against the body of tradition and the fights that have ensued since then, such as inerrancy.

Luckily, the Holy Spirit did a verbal head-slap which brought me to my rhetorical senses (I think), and so I changed direction. I realized that this wasn’t the place for a “nice little talk.” This was time for proclamation, good news about God’s love through Jesus Christ. And as I thought about what that might entail, the Holy Spirit also hounded me with the great Lutheran question, “So what does this mean?” Or simply, “So what?” What does it matter that the Bible holds this special place in our lives. What does it meant that on the one hand 20 million Bibles are sold in the US each year but that some countries fear it so much it is either banned or its use severely restricted? (I might add that some churches control the Bible in a similar fashion.

What does it mean that some people have lost their lives translating the Bible into the vernacular? Our own Martin Luther risked his life at the Diet of Worms when he was asked to recant his writings, saying, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

What makes the Bible so powerful and vital in our lives is that it gives us not only a peek into God’s heart, but a way into it. Luther once said that the Bible is the cradle in which the Christ Child is laid, a wonderful image that we could spend hours unpacking. As we see in our reading from 2 Timothy today, the Bible gives birth to a different way of looking at the world and our place in it. It’s a way of life that makes a difference in us and in our lives. And when God, through the Bible, makes a difference in us, we are able to make a difference in the world.

For me, the power of the Bible is that it tells real stories about real people, in an unvarnished and sometimes brutally honest way. These are stories about people who are fallible, broken creatures like me who fall short time and again but are nonetheless not only loved deeply by God but are inexplicably used by God for God’s purposes.

I think of the man in Mark’s gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son because Jesus’ followers could not. Jesus asks the man if he believes he can heal his son and the man says, “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.” That man’s story is my story. “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus following Jesus’ death and resurrection, blind to Jesus’ presence. Yet, they are met by him on their journey, have their minds opened to him, and finally see Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They return rejoicing and sharing the good news. Their story is my story.

For me, the power of the Bible is evident when I read familiar stories and yet I’m met by God who shows me deep truths in ways that I have never seen before. And, I might add, more often than not this happens when I am reading the Bible with others, for the Bible is meant to be read in community.

We need documents like the Book of Concord and the writings of people like Luther to help us sort through and think theologically about what the Bible is telling us, in every age. But they are no substitute for power of the Bible in our lives, a Bible that shows us God’s heart and helps us understand how God is calling us to live.

What about you? What difference does the Bible make in your life? How does it help you? Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone, is just as important for us today as it was for the Reformers. Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Back to the Future" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Back to the Future
Pentecost 8 – Summer Series
July 30, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 21.1-6; 22.1-5

One of my favorite cartoons has a young girl walking into the living room and, upon seeing her father, asks him what he is doing. “Nothing,” he replies. After a moment of thoughtfulness she says, “Then how do you know when you are finished?”

Today’s scripture reading calls to mind a variation. A son, seeing his father leaving says, “Where are you going?” “Nowhere in particular,” he says. The boy responds, “Then how do you know when you get there?”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of a stress reduction clinic and center for mindfulness in medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has written a book on mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, because the present moment is the only one you have. In true Buddhist fashion, Kabat-Zinn’s book is titled, Wherever You Go, There You Are. So one wonders, can you both be going somewhere and yet have already arrived?

At this point, you might be wondering if this sermon is going anywhere, but the answer in Revelation seems to be a resounding “Yes!” We are both already there and yet on the way. We’ve come to the end of an all-too-brief excursion into the most perplexing book in the Bible. We’ve said this is more of a letter to churches than a literal blueprint for the end of time. Though the author John gives people a vision of the future, it’s not what people these days think.

The letter is written to churches in western Asia Minor, now Turkey, who are struggling with what it means to be church in the midst of the Roman Empire. Through the genre of apocalyptic literature, using wild visions and bizarre imagery, John wants to remind us that it is God who is in control of history, not some pseudo-god called Caesar. And, we remember from the first week, this God is the Creator God, maker of all that is “seen and unseen” as our Creeds tell us.

There’s a reason Revelation is at the end of the Bible, though not for the reasons that many people assume. It’s there because the Bible ends where it began, with the Creator God bringing forth all things out of chaos. It ends with the image of a garden just as it begins, but with significant differences. These differences underscore the idea that creation is heading somewhere, both back to the beginning and forward to the future at the same time. For the Bible is the story of God creating something and not giving up on it (or on us.) God isn’t done yet.

There are three brief points that I’d like you to take home with you today about this passage. First, Revelation reinforces what the whole Bible says, that God continually comes down to us. We’re not going to be raptured up into the air (there is no rapture in Revelation). You see, we don’t have to get to God, because God always comes down to us.

The second point follows: in addition to the garden in Genesis and here in Revelation there is a third garden in between that has great significance for creation. Arguably, the most important event for the world took place in a garden containing an empty tomb, the resurrection of Jesus.

The third final point that I’d like you to take with you is an appreciation for what the newness of creation will be like. Paradoxically, it will be the same creation we have now, only different. Some Christians believe we don’t need to care for this earth because they think that God gives us a new one. Really. First of all, John tells us that the new creation is going to come down and be smack dab in the middle of us. Second, God invites us to begin living into that new creation here and now, not in some unknown eternity. We’re not called to neither escape this world nor trash it, but to join with God as co-creators, just as Adam and Eve.

We who are gripped by just such a vision that God presents ask how this might shape our life in the here and now as we wait for its completion. We respond by figuring out a way to provide emergency shelter for the homeless during the winter and by feeding hungry college students and the food insecure. We do it by supporting missionaries who provide eye care in developing countries and helping people read the Bible in their native language. We do it by wiping away the tears of those grieving the death of loved ones such as the Reedstrom family this past week. We do it by visiting the sick by teaching the young about God’s love.

Our God who created all things continues to create in, with and through us. That’s where we are and that’s where we are going. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"The Once and Future Lamb" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The Once and Future Lamb
Pentecost 6 – Summer Series
July 16, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 5.1-14

Ed Friedman was a Jewish rabbi who, in addition to his temple duties also coached organizational leaders and did marriage and family counseling. He tells about working with a client of his, a man who was dealing with and surviving cancer. Something led Friedman to tell the man about the USS Indianapolis. During World War II, the Indianapolis was attacked and sunk. For various reasons, the Indianapolis wasn’t where it was supposed to be and it took the Navy a long time to find. That meant the survivors spent a long while in shark-infested waters. Every so often, Friedman said, one of the men would swim toward the sharks and give himself up to them. Friedman asked the cancer survivor his thoughts about why they had done this. The man said, “Those men who gave up and swam toward the sharks, they had no future.” Clearly, Friedman’s client was not going to “swim toward the sharks” and give himself up to cancer.

The issue of whether the churches in the latter 1st c. had a future is an underlying theme in Revelation. We began our all too brief foray into the book last week with chapter 4, the first half of John’s vision of the heavenly throne room scene. We mentioned last week that Revelation is actually a letter sent to the churches in Asia Minor, which is modern day Western Turkey. And we said that John is writing to strengthen the churches struggling with what it means to exist in the Roman Empire. The main idea is Revelations is that proper worship goes to God the Creator and not some emperor who is a self-proclaimed deity.

In today’s reading, the focus of John’s vision shifts to a scroll and a lamb. We learn that the scroll is written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. In the ancient world and in apocalyptic literature, a scroll or book denoted God’s plans or will for the world and its inhabitants. The fact that the scroll has seven seals indicates that only authorized individuals could open it. John weeps bitterly when it seems that no one is able to open the scroll because it means that God’s plans for the world and humanity would not come to pass. In other words, no opened scroll means no future. You may as well give yourselves up to the “sharks.”

That is, until one of the 24 elders who worship God around the throne tells him to look again and behold the Lion of Judah and Root of David. These, of course are metaphors for the long awaited Messiah who would save the Jewish people. But this is no warrior king; this is a lamb, The Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll and enact God’s plans for the world because of his sacrifice. This Lamb is the one who ensures a future for everyone. (By the way, in case you doubt that Revelation is metaphorical and not a literal plan for the end of time, Jesus is only referred to as the Lamb in this book, and 28 times at that.)

Seven years ago I accepted your call to by your pastor because I believed God had a future for us. I said then that I didn’t know what the future looked like, but with God’s guidance we could figure it out together. Since then, God has called us to do some amazing things and we are continually living into God’s future. Following worship today, we’ll gather together to prayerfully consider how God is calling us to support God’s mission and ministry through our building. Whatever the result of the meeting, I know that we won’t “swim toward the sharks” because we follow the Lamb whose blood set us free to be God’s people, a people looking toward and living into God’s future. Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Who Is God?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Who Is God?
Pentecost 5 – Summer Series
July 9, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 4.1-11

Who is God? If you were asked that question, how would you answer? Would your answer depend on who asked? Take a moment and think about this question; who is God to you and, does it matter? For some people, God is the one who makes everything happen in the world, though what happens is puzzling at times. For others, God is this grandfatherly type that loves us all no matter what we say or do. For still others, God is this distant being who, if not cranky, can be downright vindictive at times. (One of my favorite “Far Side” cartoons shows God at a computer. On the screen is a man about to walk under a piano suspended by a rope. “God” is watching the screen intently while is finger is poised over the “smite” button on the keyboard.) And, of course, there are some who don’t believe there is a God, or who believe that there are multiple gods.

This question, “Who is God?” is as old as when humanity developed the prefrontal cortex and along with it the ability to think. It was still a question in the latter part of the 1st century when Revelation was finalized. I say finalized because it appears the book, in the form of a letter, was written over a period of time and in stages. Today we begin our four-part series on Revelation, although four weeks is hardly enough time to do it justice. Even so, it’s important to note a few things before we get to the actual text.

First, the author, John, was probably not the disciple of Jesus who became the apostle. More likely, this “John” was a member of the community that the so-called Beloved Disciple founded. Now, that doesn’t make the book less authoritative. In the ancient world, it was typical to assume the name of the leader of a community or movement.

Second, we tend to think of Revelation as a mysterious guide to the end of the world, but John had a more immediate goal in mind: to encourage some churches in what is now Western Turkey who are struggling to survive in the Roman Empire. As we’ll see in the fourth week, John does give us a vision of the future, but not how some think. Finally, we need to keep in mind that Revelation is a type of writing called “apocalyptic.” We are inclined to think of this word as relating to the end of the world. But the Greek word for apocalypse simply means “revelation” and this genre of literature typically brings a message using incredible visions. (The latter part of Daniel is also an example of apocalyptic literature in the Bible.) The visions in Revelation reinforce John’s main message: who we are to worship and how we are to do so.

In today’s reading from Revelation 4, the question addressed is, “Who is God?” Next week, the question is, “Who is Christ?” On the third Sunday the question is, “Who are we?” And finally on the fourth Sunday, the question is, “What’s the vision of the future?” For today, the question is not only “Who is God?” but also, “Who is not God?” The vision of the throne room where fantastical creatures give praise to God and the 24 elders bow down is not so much description of what actually happens in “heaven.” Rather, the casting of their crowns before God is an “in your face” to Caesar and the Roman Empire. Petty kings and puppet rulers would come before Caesar the Emperor and through their crowns at his feet in tribute to him. Furthermore, it used to be that the Romans declared the current Caesar as divine being after he died. However, by John’s time one of the Caesars figured that being a god was too good to wait and not something to die for, so they had themselves declared gods before they died.

Not so fast, John declares. In words that have inspired some of our best hymnody, John tells us that God is first and foremost the one who always was, always is, and always will be, and created all things. (One commentator has noted that if Revelation was removed from the canon of the Bible the whole praise music industry would collapse.) God is that which brought all things into being, is present to everything in creation, but much greater than the created world. God is that in which we live and move and have our being, the only one worthy of our worship and praise.

There is no Roman Empire competing for worship rights today, but Revelation prompts us to ask ourselves, “Who or what is not God that we bow down before?” What is it that we metaphorically “cast our crowns” in our day? That’s not an easy question to ask ourselves, but it is just as an important question today as it has been in any day and age. (Perhaps that’s why many congregations in past generations began worship every Sunday with “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” to remind themselves who we worship.)

However you answer these questions, John’s Revelation invites you to turn and worship the One, True God, the One Who Was, Who Is and Who Always Will Be, Creator of All. Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Deliverance" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 4 – Sermon Series
July 2, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 6.14-7.10; 8.1-8, 15-17; 9.1-10, 15-17, 20-22

Like a mystery novel that unfolds slowly but wraps up quickly in the last 20 pages, here we are rushing to the end of Esther, as fine a thriller as you’d find anywhere, TV, movie or book. And like any good hero, Esther has grown in courage and agency as the story moves along. She becomes bolder and more responsible for her future. As we’ve noted in previous sermons, she has arrived at her moment of destiny, for “just such a time as this” and has discovered that her real power comes in her influence over the ones closest to her. It’s her private power more than her public power that carries her through. In the end, it’s her willingness to sacrifice herself that saves the Jewish people from extinction.

On the face of it, the story is both familiar and riveting at the same time: a people who are oppressed and face long if not impossible odds, but who through a series of almost improbable reversals come out on top. We have a natural inclination to root for the underdog or victims in any situation, especially the vulnerable, and that’s certainly true in the story of Esther and the Jewish people. Still, we almost hold our collective breaths as Esther finally tells King Ahasuerus what she desires of him. For we know that the greatest danger comes as she reveals her Jewishness to a very unpredictable king. If there’s any doubt about how he’ll respond, the tide turns as the king sees Haman “assaulting” the queen.

Yet, as in any good tale worth telling, there remains a conundrum: the king’s original edict. As we’ve been told several times, an edict of the king cannot be revoked. Wanting to fix the situation but also wanting to distance himself from the mess he made, King Ahasuerus gives great power to Esther and Mordecai to do whatever they wish in the king’s name. They come up with a creative solution: an edict almost identical to the first authorizing the Jews to fight back. So effective is the edict that there are Persians falling all over themselves to convert to Judaism before the fateful day arrives.

Even so, the Jews launch a pre-emptive strike and then celebrate their deliverance from their enemies with a wild party. So we learn that the real purpose of the book of Esther is to provide the back story for the celebration of Purim, a Jewish festival. As one person noted, most Jewish festivals can be summed up this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

But, wait; there’s that little detail about the 75,800 people who were slaughtered by the Jews. The Revised Common Lectionary, that series of readings used by many churches, skips over this tidbit, but I’ve included it because we dare not take death and victory lightly. Now, the issue of war and violence in the Old Testament is an important one, but not able to be covered in a 12 minute sermon. But, it’s important to know that in Esther’s time there was a sense of righteous war borne out of necessity but that it is proportional to that necessity. You must do only what you need to do and nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, that when the Jews celebrate Purim it’s not the smash mouthed bloodshed that gets lifted up, but rather their survival. That’s something we might want to remember as we celebrate our independence from Great Britain: we don’t glorify the bloodletting that happened 241+ years ago. Rather, we rejoice that a nation we were once at odds with is now one of our greatest allies.

Finally, it’s vital we recognize that we who were once an oppressed and beleaguered people must not only resist becoming oppressors ourselves but also have a responsibility to others who are oppressed. How often do the oppressed become the oppressors or walk away from others who are in a similar situation? In other words, like Esther we are often called upon to sacrifice ourselves for others.

With freedom and deliverance comes great responsibility. In our study of Revelation beginning next week, we’ll go deeper into what it means to resist Empire. For now, we remember that we follow the one who showed us how to be vulnerable, who emptied himself and gave himself over so that we might have abundant life, Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Loving Power" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Loving Power
Pentecost 3 – Summer Series
June 25, 2017
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
Esther 5.1-14; 6.1-14

For Father’s Day last Sunday, I told my daughters and Cindy that I’d like to see the new “Wonder Woman” movie. The trailers looked interesting and the reviews were good, but as the father of two daughters, I am very interested in women in strong leadership roles. Indeed, we all liked the film very much; it was well done, well acted, and had a good message. I won’t spoil the film, but there is one aspect of the movie that I want to mention. First a little context: Wonder Woman is Diana a Princess of the mythical Amazon tribe, warrior women who constantly train for a battle they hope never comes. They live on a hidden island in the Mediterranean for reasons made clearer in the film.

However, a number of events prod Diana to go out into the world to end not only World War I, but all war as well. Before she leaves (and throughout her growing up), she is told on a number of occasions that she is far more powerful than she knows. Indeed, she is strong, athletic and has some serious warrior skills, not to mention awesome tools. Yet, although her powers are displayed quite publicly throughout the film, it is her private exercise of power that matters the most.

Today, we are at a critical point in the story of Esther as she also discovers just how powerful she is. A reminder of the story to this point: Esther has become queen of the Persians, but there has been a complication in this fairy tale. Haman, the king’s right-hand man, has bribed King Ahasuerus to wipe out the Jewish people in Persia, thought Haman doesn’t tell the king it’s the Jews he wants gone. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and only living relative, has convinced her to use her position as queen to save their people, saying “Perhaps you have come to the royal dignity for just such as time as this.” It’s a very dangerous move because anyone who comes before the king without being called risks immediate death.

But, as we see in today’s reading, the hardest part, gaining the king’s ear, turns out to be the easiest. It turns out that all Esther has to do is ask. The king grants her an audience and whatever she wants, “even to the half of my kingdom.” Yet, Esther knows something about the king and how he functions. She invites him and Haman to eat at a banquet she has already prepared. Even then after softening him up (and getting Haman off balance), she asks for another feast, which we’ll hear about next week. As we’ll see then, Esther cannot fight a battle, she can’t fight Haman, and she certainly can’t fight the king. What she can do is lovingly influence the one she is closest to, her husband the king.

As my friend and colleague, Pr. Collette Broady Grund pointed out this week, although Esther seems to be a public figure, her real power and influence is with people who love her. The same was true for Wonder Woman; although she is very powerful, the effect she has on others is even more so. She constantly rallies people to her side. This is something that we’d do well to remember as we look around our broken and hurting world, wondering how we can make a difference. Most of us look for the public places to exercise power for change, such as mass demonstrations and protests or leaders in authority. But our real power and influence is with the people we know, the people we love and those who love us. As we have seen from our story, like Esther (and Wonder Woman) this makes us incredibly vulnerable and it is one of the riskiest things we can do. Yet, all we have to do is ask.

One last note: Esther doesn’t see everything that goes on in her world; she only sees a piece of the picture. God is working in other parts of the story that Esther doesn’t know about, though she doesn’t know it. Even so, she acts in faith. So, too, we may only see one piece of the picture, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. In fact, it’s just the opposite; we trust that God in whom we live and move and have our being continues to work in our lives though we may not see it.

Like Esther and Wonder Woman, we are more powerful than we think, because we have a powerful God who emptied himself of that power and lovingly took on human flesh. Jesus had some serious power, calming storms and seas, healing people, and feeding multitudes. Yet, it was his influence and vulnerability with a handful of men and women that is saving the world as he gave himself for others so we might do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.