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

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Can We Really Forgive and Forget? Midweek Lent Sermon

Midweek Lent 2012
March 28, 2012
“Can We Really Forgive and Forget”
John 8.2-11; Jeremiah 31.31-34

Can we really forgive and forget? The human mind is a remarkable, if not frustrating, thing. We forget the things we desperately want to remember and we remember the things we want to forget. For example, we can’t remember where we put our car keys a half hour ago, yet we can’t forget a slight from 20 years ago. Of course, we don’t have the emotional attachment to our car keys we do to our relationships; well, maybe that’s not the best example, but you understand what I mean. I think one of the most sinister hoaxes perpetrated on us by our society is the so-called need for “closure.” If by closure we mean a past event that is over and done with, tied up in a bow, I want none of it. I’m sorry, but life just doesn’t work that way and the idea of closure puts undue burdens and expectations on us.

Can we really forgive and forget? I think there are times we are obligated to remember, when we must not forget. The issue is not whether we can forget or not, because we can’t; the issue is how we remember. However, before I talk about what this means and how we might do it, I want to talk briefly about those times we actually do forget. One of the things we tend to forget are those very small grievances, the ones we normally forget about because they are too trivial to bother with. Somebody might even apologize and we’ve already forgotten about it. Yet, we can also forget the overwhelming hurts, the ones our mind blocks out in self-defense until we can deal with them. Sexual abuse as a child or horrific torture could fall into this category.

Finally, there are those things that we are still fighting about after many but have forgotten the reason, such as family feuds. My mom and her sister had a falling out and didn’t speak to each other for years. After my mom died, I had an opportunity to ask my aunt what it was all about and she couldn’t even remember. To be fair, I’m pretty sure the problem was mostly on my mom’s end. I think there are nations that are still fighting yet don’t remember the original causes.

But what about those hurts that we don’t deserve or even the ones we commit on others? Can we forget those? Frankly, not only do I think it’s impossible to forget them; sometimes it’s downright dangerous to do so. I’m reading James Michener’s book, Texas, and you can hardly read a book about Texas without reading about the Alamo. “Remember the Alamo!” was the rallying cry after the mission fort was overrun by Santa Ana’s troops. Although the “Texians” shouted that battle cry for vengeance, the reality is that there are certain atrocities that are so horrific we dare not forget them because we don’t want to repeat them. The Holocaust of the Jews, apartheid in South Africa, slavery in the US, domestic abuse, and the Dakota Uprising of 1862 are just a few of those events we must not forget.

But, what do we make of our scripture readings tonight, especially the passage from Jeremiah telling us how God promises to forget our sins? Let’s look at the John 8 text first about the woman caught in adultery. Typically, this story is interpreted to emphasize Jesus’ judgment of the judgers and forgiveness of the woman, but I think there is more to it than that. It is a rich text. The problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that, in their pride and arrogance, they have made the woman an object, using her for their own purposes to get at Jesus. They don’t care about her or even her sinfulness. They are using her. I think that Jesus hopes they will not forget they are sinful, human beings as much in need of compassion as she.

Just as surely, Jesus doesn’t want the woman to forget her sins. Otherwise, she might head down the same path again and find herself in a bad situation. In other words, Jesus wants new life for both the religious leaders and the woman. We might add ourselves in there, too. That’s what Jeremiah is expressing in the promise from God to “remember our sin no more.” For God, forgiving and forgetting means not letting our sins stand in the way or our relationship with him and with each other. For God to forgive and forget means that God feels the same way about us now as before. It’s as if God has forgotten that we had sinned at all. Forgiveness means working through the pain and the hurt of the offense against us. God does that most fully by taking all of our hurts and pain into himself through the cross of Jesus Christ.

We cannot move beyond the hurt and the pain when we objectify and hate people or use them for our own agendas. I’m sure you remember the death of Osama bin Laden. Whatever we think of him and what he did, we should not cheer his death. Certainly, what he did deserved punishment, perhaps even death, but killing someone is not an occasion joy, no matter who the person is or what they did. Having to kill someone indicts us as much as it indicts the person. Hating someone for what he or she did to us holds us prisoner; trying to forget that it happened keeps us there. Anger is one thing, but consuming hatred is something else because hatred does not provide hope. We have the power to forgive only what we remember. Not forgiving brings death, not life. We may not forget, but through forgiveness, our lives become bigger than any one act in that life. Through God’s forgiveness, God looks at us as if we hadn’t sinned. Where is God calling you to do the same, to look on another with compassion and understanding, to heal the relationship? May God’s forgiveness bring you to the larger, new life in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"A New Covenant" - Lent 5B

Lent 5B
March 25, 2012
Jeremiah 31.31-34
 “A New Covenant”

What is the hardest substance known to humankind? Geologically speaking, it is no longer the diamond. Mineral lonsdaleite is similar to a diamond, but it is 58% harder. Even so, I don’t think mineral lonsdaleite is the hardest substance known to us. I think the hardest substance known to humanity is found in the human body, and it’s not tooth enamel. I think the hardest substance is the human heart, the evidence of which we can find anywhere. Open a newspaper; turn on a TV, iPad, or Smartphone, look on Facebook. It’s there for all to see: broken marriages, insane wars, political infighting, and rampant poverty. The list can go on and on.

Or you can open up the Bible and see all of this and more, including how much we ignore God. That’s the back-story to our text from Jeremiah today, in which God promises a new covenant to God’s people, Israel. But, why does God promise a new covenant? Aren’t the old covenants good anymore? As a matter of fact, they are not. God’s people had agreed to several covenants, promising to be in relationship with God in a very special way. But they have broken all of the previous agreements with God and now they are reaping the results of the bad seeds they have sown, seeds of injustice, seeds of idolatry, and seeds of unfaithfulness.

That’s why God targets the heart of the problem—the hardest substance there is—the human heart. This passage from Jeremiah comes in what theologians call the Book of Consolation, a collection of promises addressed to a people in the depths of despair. They have been torn from their country and are now living in a foreign land. Jeremiah tells them that, although they don’t deserve God’s continuing love and blessing, God has not given up on them. God is and always will be their God; they are and will always be God’s people. The day is coming when they will know this in a new way. To know, in this case, means the ability to have a deep and life-giving relationship with God and each other.

Frankly, this whole writing-on-the-heart thing is a bit unnerving for me. I’m not one who can always feel God’s presence, and often mistrust my feelings when I do. Does that make me heartless? Maybe. Then I remember that when the Bible talks about the heart it is not just about feelings or emotions. The heart is also the place of our will and our intellect, involved with what we think and do as well as what and how we feel. And, when God promises to do something new with our hearts, God is talking about being in relationship with God and with each other in a completely new way, a way that is life giving to us.

So, what are some of the implications of this text for us today? For Christians, an obvious one is that Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. He is the new covenant that we confess in the Holy Communion, “for the forgiveness of sins.” This also means that our new relationships are rooted in a forgiveness that makes these relationships possible. It means that, when we talk about Jesus coming into our hearts, our life of faith is not just a “me and Jesus” relationship. When Jesus comes into our hearts, he brings all of his friends with him. That means that you and I stand with the marginalized and the downtrodden of this world. Furthermore, this new covenant is given to the entire community; it is intensely personal, but it is never private.

Finally, we need to recognize that this is one of those “already, but not yet” kind of processes. God through Jesus Christ has gained a foothold, but we are still living into the life God has for us. What might that look like? One small example: In my former congregation, we had a worship service where we didn’t wear robes, and so I reminded the acolytes (and parents) to dress appropriately. When I was asked what my dress code was (the Law), I simply responded that the acolytes should bring their best selves to worship. In other words, I trusted God wrote something on their hearts and that they would do the right thing. What has God through Jesus in the power of the Sprit has written on your hearts today? Where is God inviting you into a deeper relationship with him and the world he loves? Maybe it’s not that hard after all. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Look Up and Live": Lent 4B Sermon

Lent 4B
March 18, 2012
“Look Up and Live”
Numbers 21.4-9

Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, says he can’t see anyone preaching on this text from Numbers 21. Well, he’s probably right, but I guess we’ll see about that. However, to give this a fair shot, we need to put the passage in context. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for almost 40 years. God freed them from slavery in Egypt and is leading them to the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey.” It has taken them 40 years because they didn’t trust God and God is allowing the distrustful generation to die before he brings them there. As is said in some places, “A lot of people are going to have to die for that to happen.” They are getting cranky and impatient because they have to make yet another detour. So is God.

This is the last of the complaint stories and perhaps the worst because they not only complain against Moses, they also complain against God. The manna that God has provided them each day isn’t enough, so they supplement it with “marinated Moses” and “grilled God.” The issue, of course, is a lack of trust in God and God’s promises. They can’t see the end of their journey. They still stand between promise and fulfillment, and the farther they get from Egypt the better it looks, even though most of them have never set foot there. So, the fiery snakes come, and the people immediately see this as a sign of their lack of trust in God. Putting aside for today the very hard nut that God sent the snakes, the presence of the snakes shows their brokenness. Even so, though the Israelites are faithless, God’s shows faithfulness to them and his promise.

What I find important for us here is that God doesn’t take away the snakes; God heals the bites. That doesn’t make any sense to us. Why doesn’t God just take away the snakes and be done with it? Partly, I think in having them look at the serpent on the pole, God wanted them to remember. Not only to remember their brokenness, but also to remember that in the midst of their brokenness they are to trust in God. That’s one reason Jesus picks up this story in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

For Jesus in John’s Gospel, being lifted up has a dual meaning: lifted up on the cross and lifted up at the resurrection. We find ourselves bitten by poisonous snakes, some of our own doing, some done to us. Whatever the cause, God enters our brokenness, meets us where we are, and tells us to look and live. We all know that verse, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” I like the following one even more: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

God enters our brokenness through Jesus Christ, takes it upon himself, and lays it on the cross. In doing so, God heals the brokenness in our lives where we need it the most. When we look up at the cross we are reminded of our snaky existence, but we also remember the healing that God provides. These two stories stand between death and life, death of the old way and promise of the new. They are reminders that God will bring us to the place he is leading us, even though we can’t always see it.

One last lesson: in spite of everything the Israelites have done and not done, they persist and will finally enter the Promised Land. God continually works in, with, and through their imperfect lives, bringing about God’s purposes. That was good news for them and it’s good news for us, both in our personal lives and our lives together. We are on a journey, you and I, and we don’t always get it right. When we don’t God, invites us to look up and live, to experience his grace and blessing through his Son Jesus. Look up and live. Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Forgiving Ourselves" Midweek Lent Sermon

Midweek Lent 2012
February 29-March 21, 2012
Luke 7.36-50
 “Forgiving Ourselves”

I’m glad we chose the topic of forgiveness for our series this year, because I think it’s a big deal, for our churches and for our society. One reason is that many people come to me, asking how to forgive. Another reason is that it’s been cheapened by our society and culture. What passes for “I’m sorry” in our society and culture is a shadow of biblical repentance. What we hear instead are what my colleague, Pr. Collette Broady Preiss, calls “faux-pologies,” or “false apologies.” “I’m sorry” usually means, “I’m sorry you found out,” or “I’m sorry you are so upset about this.” However, Ash Wednesday unmasked the insincerity of cheap repentance and showed our need to come clean.

We need to come clean and we need to forgive, mainly because of that little prayer we offer at least once a week, if not daily. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Interestingly, scientists have found that the ability to forgive is directly related to our health. People who forgive and experience forgiveness live longer and healthier lives. As one of my favorite observers on things theological, Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” However, not forgiving affects us in a far more important way: it hampers our ability to love. In our reading from Luke 7, Jesus says, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

This is a terrific story on many levels, but I think it shows something we don’t always realize. Our ability to love is hampered by our ability not to only forgive, but also to accept forgiveness. The contrast between Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman sinner couldn’t be greater. Simon is a named male and presumably respected religious leader who occupies a position of power and authority. The woman is an unnamed female who is clearly disrespected who occupies the position of being an outcast. Yet, the important contrast that Jesus focuses on is their ability to love as an expression of forgiveness. A valid reading of the story is that Simon had little to be forgiven. But maybe it is also valid to say that he couldn’t forgive himself.

Forgiving ourselves is one of the hardest things that to do. Often, it’s because we don’t see our sin or rationalize it away. Most of the time, though, we don’t forgive ourselves because we can’t let it go. We know we are forgiven in our head, but not in our heart. In Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve[1], Lewis Smedes offers some help when it comes to forgiving ourselves. First, he reminds us that the four stages of forgiveness apply to forgiving ourselves as well as forgiving others: we hurt, hate, heal, and become whole.

We hurt others, from what we do and don’t do, and then usually ending up hurting ourselves in the same way. Then, the pain we cause other people becomes the hate we feel for ourselves, a hate that can be either passive or aggressive. Aggressive shows itself in self-destructive acts, such as drinking, taking drugs, cutting ones’ self, or other harmful act. Passive hatred shows itself in our inability to love. The healing comes when you rewrite the script of your life, knowing that the person who did what you did is no longer the person you are now, that God has redeemed you through love. This is when you start to become a whole person again. This does not mean that you are smug or indifferent, but rather secure in who you have become.

So, how do we do this? Smedes says we need clarity, courage, concreteness, and confirmation. First, we need to be clear and honest about what we’ve done. There is no passing the buck or minimizing our actions. Jesus was clear about what the woman saw in herself: she had many sins. Second, we need to have the courage to forgive our self, especially when others are condemning us. The sinful woman showed great courage in facing her sins by coming to Simon’s house. Next, we need to be concrete about what we are forgiving ourselves for, the actual sins we have committed. We tend to weigh ourselves down with guilt, saying things such as, “I’m worthless and a horrible person.” Those gather in Simon’s house did the same thing by calling the woman a sinner. In contrast, Jesus focuses on her sins, preserving her worth as a human being.

Finally, Smedes says, we need to confirm our self-forgiveness with a reckless act of love. Love, he says, is a signal that we’ve forgiven ourselves and that we refuse to stay in a broken place. That’s what the woman was expressing through the anointing of Jesus’ feet. The love of God in Jesus not only gives us the right to forgive ourselves, but also the power to do so. I think that we can also love ourselves into self-forgiveness, not as a way to earn it, but as a way to live into it.

Forgiving ourselves is important, and I was recently reminded of one important reason. When we reach the end of our lives, it is natural for us to look book and evaluate what we have done and what we haven’t been able to do. Regrets are as much a part of that process as thankfulness. To the extent that we have been able to forgive ourselves for the hurts we caused ourselves and others, that passage will go much smoother. Forgiving ourselves doesn’t happen overnight, and our inner critic doesn’t let us forget. But the love of God never lets us go and gives us the confidence that we will become what God wishes for us to be, vessels overflowing with God’s love. Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lent 3B Sermon

Lent 3B
March 11, 2012
“Live Free or Die”
Exodus 20.1-17

Oh, the 10 Commandments! How do I count thee, let me love the ways, to twist the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Did you know that Jewish people number the Ten Commandments one way, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and the Orthodox a second way, and Episcopalians and other Protestants still a third way? Another bit of Ten Commandment trivia: A 2007 survey found that more people could name the ingredients in a Big Mac than name all Ten Commandments. I guess McDonald’s had a better ad agency and snappy jingle than Moses did. And then there is former Alabama State Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore who, thinking that the wooden plaque bearing the Ten Commandments wasn’t substantial enough, commissioned a 5,280-pound monument for the state capitol rotunda. You may recall that controversy in 2003 that led to Judge Moore’s removal from the bench and the monument’s removal from the rotunda. Judge Moore’s Rock makes the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai look like pebbles in comparison.

There’s even more to the story. An article in the October 2005 edition of the Atlantic Magazine described the tour the monument made afterward. It is so heavy that a flatbed truck can hardly carry it and industrial cranes can barely lift it, both buckling under its weight. Separation of church and state issues aside, I wonder if the monument’s supporters see the irony in this affair. The Ten Commandments have not only become a cause to be rallied around and a flash point for politics, but they have also become a terrible burden, a weight so difficult that it can hardly be borne. In other words, the story of Judge Roy Moore and the 2.5-ton monument have become a parable of modern life.

Yet, I wonder if the defenders of the Ten Commandments have ever looked at the biblical story. If they had, I think they would see something important to our understanding of the Ten Commandments place in our lives. The Ten Commandments aren’t given out of the blue, dropped on our heads. They are a part of a much larger story. The story is one of freedom, not burden. The story involves God claiming God’s people and freeing them from slavery in Egypt, where he leads them to Mt. Sinai, appearing in fire and clouds. And before God speaks these ten words to them, God reminds them of whose they are and who they are, of their belonging and identity. God does not intend to lead them from one form of slavery to another; it’s just the opposite.

The Ten Commandments are all about freedom, the freedom that comes from living our lives well, with God and others. When I was an undergrad psychology major, I came across a fascinating study about children. Someone thought that the fences on a playground were inhibiting their play and so removed them to see what would happen. The researchers found just the opposite effect. The children were more inhibited without the security of the fence. When the fence was put back, the children felt free to use the whole playground and did so with joy. I think the Ten Commandments are like a playground fence. They help mark out the bounds of behavior that God intended to give us the freedom for life.

Let me just take one of the Ten Commandments as an illustration, one that I have struggled with quite a bit: the keeping of Sabbath. As I understand, the Sabbath was a gift from God rooted in the creation story. As God rested on the seventh day of creation, God recognized the need for all of creation, including the earth, to rest at least one day in seven. Yet, as with the other commandments, we have turned this gift into rules, regulations, and guilt, probably most evident in the blue laws that were enacted. However, the Sabbath is more broadly conceived, inviting humanity into a day of rest, recreation, and renewal. Notice what happens in the word “recreation” as we take it apart: it become “re-creation.” Sabbath is for re-creation, to become created anew. Yet, as soon as we ask, “What about this case or that case?” we’ve defeated God’s intent for us: to live free.

There is a challenging side to the Ten Commandments, one that questions our ideas about what we do and what is real life. They are a gift, but not as much as a new pony than that itchy sweater we received from Aunt Mildred last Christmas. Even so, in the end, the Ten Commandments are all about relationships, relationships with God and each other. So, the Ten Commandments are cruciform in nature, shaped through the cross, life freed in service to God and others. That’s one reason why Jesus got so angry with the moneychangers in the Temple. They turned something that should be an anchor in our life to anchor around our necks. The Ten Commandments show us whose we are and who we are, God’s people set free for life in Christ. That’s what counts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Lent 2B Sermon, "The Everlasting Story"

Lent 2B
March 4, 2012
“The Everlasting Story”
Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16

This past year or so I’ve had the ability to watch a bit more TV than I have in the past. I find myself drawn to shows like NCIS and CSI, mostly because they are mystery or detective shows. I love a good problem-solving story. But I also find show such as these compelling. What’s fascinating is, though I’ve literally come in the middle of them, the shows have a way of drawing me in. They give me enough to know what’s going on and of what has come before. The really good ones also give a hint of where the story is going. The better shows are the ones that believable characters who though interesting, are far from perfect. They have a story that somehow rings true and touches on the questions that are present and important in my life.

It seems to me that the preceding description could just as easily apply to the biblical narrative. The difference, other than solving problems in 60 minutes or less is that we are a part of the biblical story. One of the great things about Christianity, aside from the good news that God has given us new life through Jesus Christ, is that we are part of story larger than we are. This larger story is one that gives us meaning and purpose. The story we find ourselves in, to quote a book title of Brian McLaren’s, is a powerful if not baffling one. Because of the biblical story, we know that God is working in the world and in our lives, though we can’t always understand it.

That’s why the stories of people like Abraham and Sarah are so important for us. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for them to be in the middle of that particular story. Abraham and Sarah are an older couple to whom God has been promising for at least 13 years that they’d have a child. Not only have a child, but also that they’d have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. They don’t always get it, as when they took the story into their own hands through Hagar. They thought that perhaps they didn’t understand properly, that maybe the promise was for Abraham and not Sarah. In our lesson today, God stresses that the promise is to both of them. Furthermore, Abraham and don’t see the total unfolding of God’s promise, but God does gives them glimpses it and asks for their trust in bringing it to fruition.

Two thousand years later, there was another group of folk who found themselves caught up in God’s story. They were following a wandering teacher, preachers, and healer who did some amazing things and said some crazy other things. They knew the Abraham and Sarah story plus many more. They knew that God had made promises to them and the world, but Jesus rocked their world in way they didn’t expect. They couldn’t see how one could save their life by losing it, how there could be life in death. But, as Abraham, Sarah, and those who came between, they trusted in God’s presence and promises.

Two thousand more years, we are also in the midst of God’s unfolding story. Incredible as it may seem, we are active characters in God’s story just as much as Abraham, Sarah, and the disciples. Like Abraham, Sarah, and the disciples, we also trust that God is calling us to a future of God’s making. We know something of the beginning and the middle, and we have a hint about the ending. We trust that God is working powerfully if not crazily in our lives, inviting us to join in the story as it unfolds. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “What better way to live than in the grip of a promise, and a divine one at that?” God gripped each of us in a divine promise in our baptisms and guarantees we are a part of the unfolding story. The story isn’t always an easy one, and we can’t always see what our part is. Even so, we trust that God has a mission to love and bless the world, for which gave his Son, and God invites us to follow. I can’t think of a better story to live in or a better story to live into. Thanks be to God, Amen.