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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Take a Breath" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Take a Breath
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 10, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 20.19-22

I think one of the worst feelings in the world is being cut off in a relationship, especially an important one. Something happened a number of years ago with a former parishioner that still bothers me to this day. A relationship that was deep and mutually encouraging ended abruptly and I don’t know why. All attempts I made to try to communicate were met with silence and I’ve been left hanging since. I ask myself, “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you talk to me?” Frankly, the situation left me devastated and I didn’t know what to do.

So it is that my singular experience may help give us some insight into what the Jewish exiles felt in our reading from Ezekiel. It’s about 600 years before Jesus comes on the scene and the Jews are in Babylon (modern day Iraq). Ezekiel was carried there during the First Deportation when the king, princes and some others were taken after being defeated. Since then the Jews have tried to rebel again. The Babylonians crushed them, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and force marched nearly everyone into exile. Initially a laborer in Babylon, Ezekiel is called by God as a prophet to speak to their hopelessness and despair.

A big chunk of Ezekiel’s message doesn’t seem helpful. He utters words of judgment against the exiles. It’s the prophet’s “forth-telling,” the naming of sin and brokenness that led to their situation. His message may seem akin to bayoneting the wounded on the field of battle, but it’s necessary to be honest about how they ended up there. At the precise time when the exiles felt utterly cut off from God, even wondering if God exists, Ezekiel speaks about a vision of restoration what will breathe new life into their relationship.

600 years later, a motley group of men and women will find themselves cut off, dried up, and hopeless as well. This time the Jewish people are exiles in their own land under that heel of the Roman Empire. Some, like his disciples, thought Jesus was the Messiah, the one who would save them from oppression. He would turn out to be the Messiah and save them, just not in the way they anticipated. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to them, breathes new life into them and pronounces peace upon them.

It’s doubtful that new life will be breathed into the relationship with the former parishioner, though one should never put restraints upon what God can and cannot do. Even so, it’s helpful to recognize that the new life foretold by Ezekiel and present with Jesus doesn’t mean going back to the way things were or changing what is. Rather, the breath of God brings a new way of being. The Jews will go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, but both will be quite different. And Jesus’ disciples, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, will be sent out on God’s mission to love and bless the world.

Advent is a time to anticipate the presence and peace of God through Jesus Christ and today we are told we are no longer cut off from God, that God is as close as our next breath. That promised presence gives hope to all of our relationships and peace for our spirits. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Hoping for the Best" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Hoping for the Best
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 3, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Daniel 3.1, 8-30

If you knew that you had a limited time left to live, what would you hope for? What would you want to do before you died? Many of us might wish for a favorable afterlife or heaven. Some of you might want to have a painless exit from this world. With more thought, we would also add we’d hope to have time to say good bye to loved ones or to get our affairs in order. But is that it? Is there nothing else that you would hope for after leaving this earth? Is there anything outside of yourself that you’d want to have happen?

I wonder what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were hoping for as they faced the fiery furnace of fatality. They were coming to terms with their disobedience to the command of the king and the end of their lives and doing so in quick order. It’s possible they saw this end coming, or at least its possibility, but even so they did not have much time to prepare for it. But what were they hoping for? Being saved? Doubtful. Heaven? Not in their religion; there was no theology of an afterlife in Judaism of that time.

Last Wednesday evening Vicar John asked us to define hope and it was very difficult. I was reminded me of former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remark regarding obscenity. He could not define but famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I think that most of us know hope when we see it. But what we noticed at our table was that most people talked about hope in terms of faith, trust or belief (which are the same things). I recalled reading that faith is the foundation on which hope rests and even from which it springs. But in turn, hope nourishes the faith on which it rests.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were forced exiles in a foreign land, Babylon. They are cut off from their homeland, the temple and, some of them think, from their God. They have no reasonable chance of survival from the fiery furnace and no belief in heaven to cling to, yet they still trust in God. Perhaps they hope others will be encouraged by their example or that God will eventually free the Jews. We’ll never know because the text doesn’t tell us. Even so, they had hope because of who they believed God to be.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time of preparation for celebrating Jesus’ coming to earth through the taking on of human flesh. The theme of this Sunday is hope, and we usually thinking about hoping for Jesus’ coming again at the end of the ages. But I want you to think about hope beyond Christmas and even beyond your own death.

Specifically, what is your hope for Grace Lutheran Church, either the near future or beyond? Please take out the blank piece of paper you were given and write the phrase, “My hope for Grace Lutheran Church is…” Then I want you to finish the sentence any way you think and place it in the offering plate or the prayer bowl. Please be as concrete and specific as possible. We’ll use your responses to help us think about what God might be up to in this place. I’ll give you a minute or two before we sing the sermon hymn. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"When You Can’t Get Out of It…" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

When You Can’t Get Out of It…
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14; John 14.27

Theologian, writer and speaker Parker Palmer tells of an experience he had visiting Outward Bound. The mission of Outward Bound is to “change lives through challenge and discovery.” Though this challenge and discovery can take place anywhere, it is often in a wilderness setting, where Palmer found himself. He was to rappel down a rock face and after gearing up he began just fine making it down one leap. But that first rappel something happened to him that he had never experienced: he froze. No amount of instruction or encouragement helped. He could move. That is, until one of works down below said something he never forgot: “We have a saying at Outward Bound, Parker: ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’” That simple phrase unlocked something inside him and he was able to complete the exercise.

The Jewish people from the Southern Kingdom of Judah find themselves in a paralyzing situation. Formerly a vassal state of the Assyrians, who have obliterated the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they foolishly rebelled against the Assyrians against the advice of Jeremiah only to be conquered by the Babylonians. Many of them have been exiled to Babylon, known as the First Deportation, and they are getting bad advice to continue their rebellion. Jeremiah, still in Jerusalem, sends them a letter telling them these are false prophets, that God intends for them to remain in exile for quite some time, and they are to get on with their lives.

Like Palmer and the Jewish people, we all experience dislocations in our lives, both small and great. Dislocation happens when we encounter an unfamiliar situation and don’t know what to do about it. Dislocations often follow loss, such as loss of job, home, loved ones, marriage, and health. But there can be other disruptions in our lives as well, leading to a sense of “What do I do now?” Though it sounds simplistic, Jeremiah’s answer is, “When you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

Yet, Jeremiah’s encouragement is more than just some self-help, psycho-babble, “get up and get on with your lives” kind of advice. In a promise that is counter-intuitive to the exiles, Jeremiah says “You’re not getting out of this anytime soon, but remember that God is in it.” And that promise will unlock something in them, allowing them to flourish. Until their dislocating exile, they never dreamed that God could be anywhere other than Jerusalem because middle easterners believed that their gods were tied to their particular country. But now Jeremiah is telling them that can not only can God be with but God is with them wherever they go.

That’s important for us to remember as we go through our times of dislocation and disruption. Today is Christ the King Sunday and we tend to think of the Kingdom of God as some future event. Indeed, there is that dimension, but Jesus is pretty clear the Kingdom of God comes with his presence. In Christ, the future breaks into the now, into our dislocations, to unlock our paralysis, so that we are able to live in hope. The reign of Christ says death has been defeated and new life is coming, even if you can’t see it right now. So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, when you encounter those times “when you can’t get out of it” remember that God is in it, bringing the peace only God can bring. Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"You Give Them Something to Eat" - Reflection for Thanksgiving

You Give Them Something to Eat
Community Thanksgiving Service
November 22, 2017
First Congregational UCC, Mankato, MN
Matthew 14.15-20

You may be familiar with a TV show called “MacGyver.” It’s a reboot of the original 1985 version starring Richard Dean Anderson, which aired when both of us were young men. “MacGyver” is about a young man who works for a secret government agency working to save lives by “relying on his unconventional problem solving skills.” (IMDB) Essentially, “Mac” is a genius at using whatever is lying around to make awesome gadgets, including copious amounts of duct tape. It’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” meets “Mission Impossible.” In MacGyver’s hands, seemingly useless items become unbelievable gizmos.

I thought of MacGyver when I read through the text from Matthew 14, especially the whiny response of his followers: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It’s been a long day for all of them, and they must be every bit as tired as Jesus is from helping bring healing to the crowds. They’ve been overwhelmed by the physical needs of the people and the situation looks hopeless. In an exchange that is more than a bit cheeky, the disciples tell Jesus he needs to send them away. But, as Jesus often does, he turns the tables on his followers saying, “You give them something to eat.”

Now, I don’t want to trivialize this wonderful story by calling Jesus a “MacGyver,” but I do know that where we see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance. Like MacGyver, something little in the hands of Jesus becomes a lot. When the early church heard that the setting was in a “deserted place,” they would have been reminded of another wilderness experience their ancestors experienced. They would make the connection between God daily providing manna to the wandering Israelites for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land and what Jesus is doing here. There’s a reason why this is the only miracle story in all four gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. The same God who provided for them will provide for us.

When Connections Ministry was formed to respond to needs in the downtown area, it was hard to see that housing, especially shelter, would be so pressing. When this need became clear it would have been easy to say, “We have nothing here …” Actually, it’s true that no one church or agency had enough to take care of the problem. Yet built on multiple $20 donations for bedding, scores of volunteers giving a few hours, and a passion for the homeless, together and in Jesus’ hands scarcity has turned into abundance.

I have seen firsthand the generosity of this community and the gratitude of those we’ve served in the shelter. Even so, I look forward to the day when we won’t need shelters because we have affordable housing where anyone who wants can live in a clean and safe environment. But until then, thank you for your support and generosity as “You give them something to eat.” Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"It’s How We Roll" - Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

It’s How We Roll
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24

On the way to our annual theological conference last Sunday received a notice in the news feed on my phone about the shooting at a Texas church. (No, I wasn’t driving at the time.) The news brought predictable responses of lament, grief and anger, but also some helplessness. These responses mirrored a conversation I had with someone recently about the thousands of children dying of hunger each and every day in our world. Then at breakfast with some pastors on Tuesday our conversation included our dysfunctional political system. With these events and others in the back of my mind, and Amos as context, I was prompted to ask, “So, what do we do as pastors? What is our role and what is the role of the church?”

The prophet, Amos, has some very definite things to say to a time shockingly similar to our own. It’s about 100 years since the prophet Elijah roamed the north. Amos is farmer in the southern kingdom of Judah, south of Jerusalem. A time of great prosperity and peace, God calls and sends him to the northern kingdom of Israel because something is terribly wrong. The rich are becoming wealthier at the expense of others who can’t fight back. Even worse, while the wealthy pay lip service to God on the Sabbath, they can’t wait to get back to exploiting the vulnerable the other six days.

So, when Amos says that God rejects “worship and solemn assemblies,” it’s not because worship is wrong or bad. It’s because worship of God without justice is hollow and meaningless. It’s also important to recognize that biblical justice doesn’t mean punishing people doing wrong, though that may be included. Justice is more akin to our concepts of social and economic justice whereby everyone has their basic medical needs met, can make a living wage, and have access to affordable housing and food.

It’s also important to say that these concepts are not those of partisan politics. Social and economic justice does not belong to one political party. Nor is it helpful to label justice and righteousness as “socialism” or “communism.” Justice and righteousness are biblical values found in both Old Testament and the New Testament. Even more so, justice and righteousness are found in the essence and nature of both God and Jesus. Because of that, justice and righteousness become gifts bestowed upon us that require a response from us. In the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. using this Amos text he says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Tonight, Grace takes its first turn hosting the temporary emergency shelter. To say that I’m proud of your response and grateful for your passion to help is an understatement. This is one more example about how you consistently answer the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide radial hospitality. In addition to serving the homeless, I’m hoping that this effort will also bring visibility to the lack of affordable housing and other economic and social injustice in our community and that it will spur some of us to advocate for change with our local leaders and elected officials. We won’t earn our salvation because Jesus has already taken care of that on the cross, but it will be our response to that amazing gift. Thank you for hearts that are open to God’s working, because that’s “how we roll.” Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Saintly Courage" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Saintly Courage
All Saints – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 5, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 19.1-18

Something is wrong with Elijah and it sure looks like depression, but we don’t know for sure. He’s just come off of his most stunning display of God’s power and here he is wishing for death. A lot has happened since last week’s story about the dedication of the temple built under Solomon. Solomon’s son Rehoboam has taken some bad advice and refused to ease the peoples’ burden imposed by his father during his ambitious building program.

As a result, the nation has split into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Thus follows a succession of mostly evil kings punctuated by the occasional good king. One of the most notably bad kings is Ahab, and his wickeder foreign wife Jezebel. With Jezebel comes her god, Baal, which Ahab and the Israelites embrace enthusiastically.

In a fiery contest just before today’s text, Elijah proves this god to be impotent, resulting in a bloodbath that kills all of Baal’s prophets. It was an impressive victory, one of many times God’s power has been shown through Elijah. Yet, at Jezebel’s threat, Elijah flees to the wilderness, going as far away as possible. In doing so, he feels cut off from God. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Elijah, but we know that his story isn’t unusual.

Shortly after Mother Teresa of Calcutta passed away, a book containing copies of letters she had written to spiritual guides and mentors revealed a long history of feeling cut off from God. After hearing Christ’s call to work among the poor of India, Teresa never heard his voice again. It was a long dark night of the soul for her. In one such letter from September 1979 she writes, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me—The silence and the emptiness is so great—that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear.”

Contrary to what many commentators say, I see in both Elijah and Mother Teresa not whininess but rather the willingness to open their hearts and be vulnerable. Sociologist BrenĂ© Brown reminds us that courage literally means to share one’s heart with another. Wholehearted living comes from being vulnerable with another, experiencing compassion, both for others and for ourselves. Elijah has the courage to pour out his heart to God and Mother Teresa likewise through her confessors. God in his boundless compassion meets Elijah in the wilderness of his life providing strength for the journey, not with trumpets blaring a fanfare but simple bread and drink. In ways we may not see or understand, God did the same for Teresa.

Today is All Saints Sunday, when we remember those who have died in the past year. We think of saints as those who are exceptionally good people or those who have given their lives for their faith, but I want to add another dimension. I think that saints are people like you and me who have experienced the wilderness of faith, who have felt cut off from God, yet have opened our hearts and received strength for the journey in some way.

As we take Holy Communion today, we’ll be joined by saints past, present and future. All of us will be testifying to a God who also risked himself by taking on human flesh, walking with us on our journeys, and giving himself to us. Our newest saint through baptism, Aria, will be surrounded by and encouraged by her family and community of faith who stand testimony to God’s compassion, just like Ss Elijah and Teresa. In the wildernesses of your lives, may you know God’s presence and strength for the time ahead. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Looking Back, Looking Forward" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Reformation Sunday, Narrative Lectionary 4
October 29, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1Kings 5.1-5; 8.1-13 & John 2.13-22

 “If you build it, they will come,” is a well-known line from the 1989 film, Field of Dreams. The film stars Kevin Costner as an “Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.” (IMDB) Thus appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. It was an event that caused great angst among White Sox fans everywhere. There’s much more to the story, but that ball field built in an Iowa cornfield for the movie is still drawing crowds from all over the country and the world. “If you build it, they will come.”

Buildings and building play a prominent role in our readings and themes of the day. Solomon, King David’s son, ascends the throne after some nifty palace intrigue with his mother, Bathsheba. Solomon isn’t David’s first born, but takes the throne anyway. (Where has that happened before in the Old Testament?) It turns out that Solomon is an administrative genius, uniting the tribes into a formidable empire. He further consolidates his power by building a temple at Jerusalem, the new capital city, something his father was prevented from doing.

Five hundred years ago, the Reformation was largely sparked in resistance to the sale of indulgences that were being sold to unknowing German peasants to fund the St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Indulgences were an ecclesiastical “get out of purgatory free card” that claimed to buy favor with God. It’s the sale of God’s grace that enflamed Luther.

And as you well know, we are in the midst of a building renovation program here at Grace. But today we are focusing on building the next generation as we lift up the first of our Stewardship initiatives, “Raising up Future Leaders.” Through this initiative we hope to support our ministry partners Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the ELCA’s Fund for Leaders in Mission, which has helped Vicar John attend seminary.

There is a curious mixture of looking back and looking forward today as there is in Field of Dreams. In 1 Kings we remember God’s presence among the people of Israel, bringing them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, giving them rest from their enemies and providing a place to meet them in worship. Regarding the Reformation, we remember how God’s Spirit blew through people such as Luther to revitalize the church, and how we trust that same Spirit to continue to blow through the church today. Furthermore, our stewardship initiative of “Raising up Future Leaders” reminds us that we do so looking toward God’s promised future.

Yet, lest we get too caught up in the grandeur and celebration, today also provides cautionary tales. You see, the building of the temple came at great cost, with Solomon using conscripted forced labor that is reminiscent of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt. Solomon’ son, Rehoboam, will take some bad advice and make the peoples’ burden even greater. Because of that decision the empire would split into civil war and suffer successive corrupt kings. Today will be the highpoint of the Jewish people.

As we know all too well, the work of Luther and other reformers has not guaranteed a faithful church. It is not hard to find brokenness and corruption, not to mention divisiveness and a large assortment of sinfulness. One of the hardest things for my family when I entered full-time ministry has been to see the dark underside of the church.

Even so, we don’t stop building, either structures or for the future. Why not? We build for the future because of Jesus Christ. As our reading from John indicates, we have shifted from focusing on a place to centering our life on a person. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are set free from sin, death and the evil powers that threaten to overwhelm us. We make places to gather and we invest in raising up future leaders because of Jesus’ promise that we have a future. We dare to dream and plan for the future because Jesus promises that he will come and be with us. It’s because of Jesus and what I see him doing in, with and through you, God’s people, that I have hope for this place, for the church and for our world. Amen.