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

Sunday, March 4, 2018

"Of Goats and Chickens" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Of Goats and Chickens
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 18.12-27

Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. (John 18.14)

One of the benefits of using the Narrative Lectionary is that each Gospel has its own “year.” We are currently in John and see the unique version of Jesus’ journey to the cross through John’s eyes. Another benefit is that we get to take our time on the way to Calvary. Although you will hear the story again on Good Friday, we will spend linger over the major events and characters in those events. However, the texts get harder to read, but no less important.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, an act of love and service that they are to emulate. During this “Last Supper,” Jesus gives his followers last minute instructions and prepares them for his death. Since then, Jesus has gone out to the Mount of Olives and been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Today’s reading focuses on Jesus’ interaction with Annas, a Jewish religious leader and father-in-law of the current high priest, Caiaphas. It was Caiaphas “who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” Caiaphas’ words made me think of a scapegoat.

An online dictionary defines a scapegoat as “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.” Did you know that the term “scapegoat” originated in the Bible? In Leviticus 16 a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it. But the scapegoat is not limited to Judaism. Until his death a few years ago, Stanford scholar Rene Girard identified in every society and culture a scapegoating mechanism. In all societies you can find violence perpetrated on an individual or class of peoples for the purpose of uniting the community, creating calm and dispelling conflict. It is ironic that the Jewish people have suffered the most from the practice they developed.

It’s easy to see how some biblical interpreters have used Girard’s work, especially regarding Caiaphas’ comment, “it is better to have one person die for the people.” The Jewish people are under the thumb of the Roman Empire and Jesus’ presence has not helped. He has stirred up people, not the least of which are the Jewish leaders and something has to give, at least from their perspective. As we will see in the weeks to come, John is going to portray Jesus as the Passover lamb whose sacrifice liberates and delivers the people. However, Caiaphas, et al. view Jesus as a goat whose sacrifice takes the pressure off and restores peace. It’s a different kind of sacrifice.

If Peter’s behavior in our reading for today is any indication, Caiaphas’ strategy appears to be working. No way is Peter a hero in this story and he is not even a goat, at least as we define it today. He’s a chicken, symbolized by the vocal presence of the rooster behind him. While Jesus denies nothing, Peter denies everything, even his very identity as a follower of Jesus. Even as Jesus is arrested and says, “I am,” Peter three times emphatically insists, “I am not!” Fearing death, Peter lays aside his promise to follow Jesus everywhere, while Jesus remains loyal to his destiny to save the world. On this side of the resurrection it appears that Caiaphas and others like him will win the day.

The resurrection, of course, as it always does changes everything. Jesus willingly accepts the scapegoat role but only to overthrow it and undermine it. Because of the resurrection, a new counter-community—led by Peter of all people—will emerge and say “No” to violence. Peter’s three denials today will be expunged and replaced with three promises to tend and feed the sheep of God. And Jesus, as the risen Christ, will be the crucified one who will carry the wounds of the cross. We who are baptized into Christ’s death carry those wounds to remember that violence doesn’t win; love wins.

Today, as we walk the way of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond, we are reminded how easy it would be for us to end up on the side of Jesus’ murderers by talking about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. We must own up to our own part in the structures of violence in this world, whether active or passive. We must remember that violence is never redemptive and when we are faced with the choice of resorting to violence we must always ask if it is necessary, knowing that the answer is almost always, “No.” We are able do this because of Jesus’ promise to give life still holds in the midst of fallible human beings, like Peter and even Caiaphas, like me and even you. Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"Part and Parcel" - Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Part and Parcel
Lent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 25, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 13.-1-17

One day during college at Gustavus, it was either my junior or senior year, I walked into the cafeteria and approached a table with a few of my frat buddies. At the tables was Dave, who was arguably my best friend at Gustavus and for some years later. Needless to say, I was shocked when Dave looked at me in the eye and said, “I have no time for you, Scott.” Stunned and embarrassed, I slunk away, not knowing what I did to deserve such a public rebuke. Thankfully, Dave and I did talk later and we did resolve the problem between us. We are still friends to this day.

Though I rarely presume to tell people, “I know how you feel,” I think I can understand a bit of Peter’s embarrassment and shock in today’s reading. When Jesus tells Peter that, unless he lets Jesus wash his feet, he’ll have no part of him and have nothing to do with him, Peter gets appropriately flustered and upset. The occasion is the Last Supper, the last meal that Jesus has with his disciples before his passion. As we’ll see, this is not a Passover meal because the timing in John’s Gospel has Jesus crucified on Passover; Jesus is the Passover lamb. Even so, the Last Supper is a time for Jesus to give last minute instructions to his disciples before going the way of the cross.

As some wags have noted, it’s the longest after-dinner speech in the Bible, taking up chapters 13-17. Jesus knows it’s the last time he will have with his followers and he wants to make every minute count, but he acts before he speaks. As Mary Austin rather pointedly notes, “Instead of giving his disciples a strongly worded lecture about loyalty and honor, he takes off his robe, exposing more vulnerability.” It’s a prophetic act pointing to his death, the laying down of his robes showing his willingness to lay down his life for them and others. It’s an act of service to be emulated by them.

Washing someone’s feet is such an intimate act that in Jesus’ day masters could not force their slaves to do it. Perhaps that’s why it never became a sacrament, because is far too intimate of an act. (Although it’s been observed that if it was a sacrament, we’d argue about how often to do it, how old we need to be to receive it, and how much water to use.) As I thought about a modern parallel, I thought about and experience I had recently. A week ago I at a pastor’s retreat I had the opportunity to receive a massage, a first for me. (I know; tough duty.) I felt incredibly vulnerable to have a stranger touch me in such an intimate way. Yet, as humbling as the experience was, it was also incredibly life-giving.

I’ve talked often about sociologist Dr. BrenĂ© Brown’s work on vulnerability, about the importance of providing a place where we can make meaningful connections with others in our community of faith. Appropriate vulnerability and compassion are necessary to make connections with one another, to live with our whole hearts. Your leadership, the council, will be laying down a day and half to go on retreat Friday night and most of Saturday. They are doing it in order to serve you better so you can follow Jesus in service, to discern where Jesus is calling us as a community of faith “who live and work to serve others.” We will be reporting back to you what that means and how we’ll be moving forward together in faith, to be a part of Jesus.

Meanwhile, let Jesus love you. Let Jesus remove from you all that prevents you from following him. Let Jesus love you because love is still the best answer to every hurting, stinking thing in the world. Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Come Out!" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Come Out!
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 18, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 11.1-44

When I met with Chandra and Brock to talk about Madelyn’s baptism, I told them a story about a similar meeting I had a number of years ago. During that meeting, for dramatic effect, I’d said to them, “We’re going to kill your baby this Sunday.” I had done it to highlight what Paul says in Romans 6 about being baptized into Jesus Christ’s death so that we might rise to new life. I also talked about in baptism we have a daily dying and rising in our own lives, dying to sin and rising to new life. Well, later I had learned that the father had barely restrained himself from coming at me over the desk he was so mad at me. I also learned that, as powerful as being baptized into Jesus is, death is no laughing matter. Even Jesus knows that.

In our reading today, after an inexplicable delay, Jesus comes to Bethany to confront death, but not before he is confronted by those closest to him. Martha and her sister, Mary, have, “meet Jesus moments” in which they stand toe-to-toe with him and give him a “what-for” about his delay. Out of them come some of the most faithful statements of anyone in the Bible about Jesus and who he is. Disciple Thomas gets into the act with the ironic comment of the day, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Jesus, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” but he understands death.

Death and the attendant grief are all around Jesus and we know it will be his ultimate fate as well, which will become clearer in the weeks to come. And as enigmatic as Jesus sometimes appears, he is clearly moved by the grief of his loved ones. In his last and greatest sign before he travels the road to the cross he signals that death is not the last word. In doing so, Jesus as the resurrection and the life, not only declares that death will no long hold its horrific power over us, but that the life he promises is available to us right now, even in the midst of death.

Death is no laughing matter, and I trust that Jesus was weeping yet again this week during yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. But, we wonder, where is the life Jesus’ promises to us right now? Honestly, I don’t know, because in the midst of the anger and frustration and even despair that I know many of you share with me, it’s hard to see a way forward. Another Churchill quote comes to mind: “Americans will always do the right thing, but not until they’ve tried everything else first.” I don’t know if we’ve tried everything else yet, but it’s time to do the right thing because everything else we’ve tried hasn’t worked.

The story of Jesus and Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Thomas shows us again the Jesus is in the midst of the horror of our daily lives, promising life in the midst of death. That life is available to us both now and in the future. The story also shows that Jesus calls us to participate with him in creating that new life in our world. That’s really the story of Madelyn’s baptism, and ours as well, that the dying and rising free us to live a new life even in the midst of the worst life—and death—throw at us. Resurrection is now. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"Mindfulness: Sabbath Anytime, Anywhere" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Mindfulness: Sabbath Anytime, Anywhere
Ash Wednesday and Midweek Lent
February 14, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 10.1-18; Psalm 46

“…the sheep hear his voice.” (John 10.3b)
“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46.10)

Wouldn’t be wonderful to take a Sabbath break whenever you want, not having to wait until Sunday, or Saturday or Wednesday or whatever day you set aside? Wouldn’t it be great to make time for our relationship with God, especially when we feel pressed for time, because both time and our relationship to God are so important? Wouldn’t it be awesome—literally—to experience holy, Sabbath moments amidst the good moments of our lives? And wouldn’t it be amazing to think of this Sabbath as a “time-in” rather than a “time-out?” Not to sound like an “as seen on TV” ad, but this kind of Sabbath is already available to you.

About three or four years ago I was introduced to mindfulness meditation and it has had a profound impact upon my life. Because of my hectic schedule and my inability to stop, mindfulness was something I know I needed and wanted to pursue. So when my sabbatical came along a few years later, I decided I needed to go deeper. So, I read books, attended a week-long silent retreat, kept a journal, and entered spiritual direction.

Now, I need to make a disclaimer: I’m not an expert in mindfulness meditation; I’m a pilgrim on the way like just like all of you. Besides, longtime practitioners of mindfulness will tell you that they are simply doing the equivalent of someone selling water to thirsty travelers down by the river.

So, what is mindfulness meditation and how can it help you find Sabbath in your daily life? First, although mindfulness is practiced by a number of Eastern religions, it’s also very Christian. Christians have been engaging in contemplative practices for millennia and the Jewish people before that. It’s in our tradition. Second, although there are thousands of ways you can practice mindfulness meditation, it is quite uncomplicated (though it’s not easy. As Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, mindfulness is simply “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in specific and particular ways, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

That’s a lot of words, which makes it seem more complicated than it is, so let me unpack that a bit. Through the simple practice of being aware of your breathing and paying attention to yourself and your surroundings, in the present moment, you open yourself up to whatever God is bringing you. It can be closing your eyes, focusing on your breath, for one or two or twenty or sixty minutes. You can do it standing, sitting, laying down or walking around. You can simply observe the world around you or let a particular phrase roll around in your mind. The idea is to be as present to that moment as fully as possible and when your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a time of reflection leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The ashes signify number of things: they are a reminder of our mortality; they are a sign of mourning and repentance; and they suggest cleansing (lye soap is made from ashes). During this period of reflection, we are being invited to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice, and to “be still and know that I am God” in the words of the Psalmist. I think that the daily Sabbath of mindfulness may help open up our hearts to hear Jesus’ voice. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to find a way to pause in your life and experience life in the present moment, because the present moment is the only one you have. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"O, Say, Can You See?" - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

O, Say, Can You See?
Transfiguration – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 11, 2018
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
John 9.1-41

For most of my life, being able to see has been important to me. I have had glasses or other types of corrective lenses since I was a young boy. Soon after getting my glasses, I remember reading a book about a young Teddy Roosevelt who was not able to see the large letters on a barn while he was out hunting and I could relate to that experience since I had trouble seeing the blackboard in school. Later on, when I was a young adult, I wore my contact lenses (the old hard ones) too long after a period of not wearing them. When I took them out I scratched both corneas, a very painful experience which landed me in the emergency room.

Then as I neared 40 I was pretty sure that I was going to need bifocals, and I did. At 50 I was pretty sure I’d need trifocals, and I did. Then, let’s just say later, the eye doctor has told me I have the beginnings of cataracts. I love to read and these past few years I’ve come to realize that I am a visual learner and of all my senses, I would miss sight the most.

Being able to see is at the heart of our reading and, as John’s Jesus so often does, the story operates on multiple levels: the physical level of the man born blind who is healed, the intellectual level of the Jews; and for everyone in the story, the spiritual level most of all. John doesn’t have a Transfiguration story like the other three Gospels where Jesus is transformed on a mountain, yet this is a transfiguration story of another sort. Jesus’ glory is manifested in the sign he performs through the healing of the man born blind, and as Jesus does so, people see him anew.

Through various characters and their interactions with each other, we are encouraged to consider where and how we might be spiritually myopic and in need of some corrective lenses. This is not easy because we tend to cling tenaciously to our dearly held beliefs, no matter what evidence to the contrary. In CS Lewis’ book, The Last Battle, part of the Chronicles of Narnia series, there is a final battle between the good guys and the bad, with the dwarves sitting on the sidelines alternately switching sides because, as they say, “the dwarves are for the dwarves.” Eventually, the bad guys prevail and the good guys are tossed into a smelly, dirty hut, including the dwarves. Inside the hut, they are surprised to see that that are in another beautiful country, that the “inside is bigger than the outside, as Lewis says. However, the self-centered still think they are in hut and no amount of talk or proof convinces them otherwise.

We all know someone like that, whose mind will not be changed no matter the evidence. If we’re really honest, we realize we all have these tendencies and fail to see new God things that come our way. Rob Bell calls this “brick theology,” that we build a wall of belief and are afraid that if one of our cherished bricks is removed, the whole wall tumbles down. Instead, Bell says, faith is meant to be like springs on a trampoline. The faith springs of our trampoline life allow us flexibility and the joy of dynamic faith – to see things we might not be able to otherwise.

The transition from the safety of a wall with “brick faith” to a “brisk faith,” from spiritual myopia to clearer vision, is not an easy one but it is rewarding. Children have opened my eyes that when we say all are welcome to Holy Communion we must include them. My eyes have been opened that all people, including LGBT are just as faithful Jesus followers as I am, maybe more so, and that they are simple trying to live authentic lives of faith. What about you? Whom has God brought before you to help you see Jesus in a new way? May God continue to open the eyes of our hearts so that we can help each other follow Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

"What’s in Your Bucket?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

What’s in Your Bucket?
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 4, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 4.1-42

What a wonderful story we have for today, and what a contrast to last week’s story about Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. For example, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness while the Samaritan woman comes in the clear light of day. But there’s more. Whereas Nicodemus is named, a male, part of the religious authority establishment, and therefore an insider, the Samaritan woman is none of these things. She’s unnamed, an outsider in both nationality and religion, and worse, a woman. Yet, while Nicodemus fades away from his visit puzzled, it’s the Samaritan woman who has this amazing theological conversation with Jesus, grows in faith and understanding, and shares the good news with others.

I’m sorry to say that the history of biblical interpretation has not been kind to the Samaritan woman. Virtually all commentary focuses on speculation about her moral character and, perhaps worse, doubting her intellectual ability to hold a discussion with Jesus. Fortunately, more modern scholarship sees those activities as red herrings (though some people still can’t help themselves) and by viewing the story narratively, understands John’s purpose for this conversation. Jesus isn’t concerned about her marital status nor does he condemn her. Rather, the exchange serves to underscore Jesus’ ability to know all things (an important theme in John) and a revelation to the woman about who Jesus is.

The revelation to the woman (and us) is that Jesus is the one who provides living water. Living water is a classic double entendre in John: living water is flowing, active water, not the stale water you would draw from a cistern or well. And it is life-giving water. In John, living water is that which brings about authentic existence for and it is synonymous with eternal life. But we need to remember that also in John, eternal life is not only what we experience after death; it means abundant life now. In her conversation with Jesus, the Samaritan woman experienced in Jesus that which she longed for but didn’t realize she needed: a deeper relationship with God. And when she receives the life-giving water, she leaves her now useless jar behind.

So, my brothers and sisters, what’s in your bucket today that you’d like to exchange for living water? What part of your life do you want to leave behind or isn’t as you’d like it to be? Where does Jesus draw you in? Asking, “What’s in your bucket?” is not a condemnation or shaming; it’s an invitation to life. It’s an invitation to attend to those places that Jesus gives life to you, to drink deeply and let go of those things that suck life from you. As you partake of the living water that bubbles in, with and through you, share gladly with others just as thirsty, acting as a conduit through whom Jesus’ waters flow. Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Wondrous, Scary Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Wondrous, Scary Love
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 28, 2018
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 3.1-21

If you’ve attended many weddings, you’ve no doubt heard Paul’s paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13. This litany of love describes what it is and isn’t: love is patient and love is kind. It is not envious, boastful or rude. Love believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. And while faith, hope and love are the only things that remain after all else pass away, love is the greatest of these.

If 1 Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter” then John 3.16 is the “love verse.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Martin Luther called it the gospel in a nutshell, summing up the good news of God’s love shown through Jesus Christ. It is such a good shorthand verse we see it on signs in the end zone at football games.

What Paul and John aren’t as explicit about and only hint at is that God’s love is also scary. God’s love is so total and all-encompassing that it takes away our bargaining power and control. We can’t say, “God, “I’ll do this if you do such and such” because God’s love has done everything. We have absolutely no wiggle room left. It’s also scary because, if God loves the entire world unconditionally, then we have to love it too. We have to love those we consider unlovable because God loves them. But I think that as scary as those things are, the scariest thing about God’s love is that it changes us.

Nicodemus is a religious leader who comes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. In John’s Gospel, darkness is code for ignorance or misunderstanding. We don’t know why Nicodemus comes, but he does so after Jesus cleanses the temple, a story we heard last week, so it is likely that he has a question for Jesus. He’s seen or heard the signs Jesus has been doing and he’s faithful enough to see God’s hand in Jesus.

But he is puzzled because this is not the God he has been taught to believe, a God of religious rules, laws and observances. “Jedi Master Jesus,” the Jesus who speaks on multiple levels, involves him in a conversation that will change him in unforeseen ways. Although Nicodemus seems to fade away offstage, he will appear again and will have indeed been transformed. Nicodemus is what it looks like when we encounter a God not of our own making. He’s the poster boy for someone who being transformed by Jesus’ presence and it’s unsettling.

Yet, in the presence of that love that knows no bounds, a love that is utterly reliable, we can walk ahead in faith, even into scary places. Through God’s love we are like a toddler taking her first steps while snatching reassuring glances to a parent behind her: we step out. When we invariably fall, God is right there to pick us up, dust us off, give us a hug, and send us on our way to try again. It’s this same wondrous love that prompts a 38 year old husband and father of two to sell all and go to seminary to become a pastor.

I’ve been blessed as your pastor to see you both individually and collectively respond to God’s love in some amazing ways. In a little while, we are going to gather for our annual meeting, a time to celebrate how God has been working in, with and through us as a congregation this past year. But it’s also a time to anticipate how God’s wondrous, scary love is inviting us to step out in faith in the year ahead, to discover where God is showing up in unexpected ways, and where God is stretching us to grow. It’s wondrous and it’s scary, but that’s the way love is. It’s totally worth it, because that’s where abundant life is found. Thanks be to God. Amen.