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

Monday, April 16, 2012

"The Resurrection Community" Easter 2B Sermon

“The Resurrection Community”
Easter 2B
April 15, 2012
Acts 4.32-35

 “With great power [they] gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” and “those who believed were of one heart and soul,” and there “was not a needy person among them.” What a difference a resurrection makes! It’s about more, far more, than life after death, getting to heaven. And it’s about more than having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It’s about community, resurrection community. During the Easter season, the first readings are from the book of Acts rather than the Old Testament. As we explore these texts for what resurrection community looks like, we need to remember these are post-Pentecost as well.

As we can see from our Gospel reading, resurrection community doesn’t happen quickly as the fearful disciples lock themselves away behind closed doors. There is no power here, no unified heart and soul, no service outside of themselves. Yet Jesus, as Jesus always does, meets the disciples where they are, even in their brokenness, and challenges them to be the people he has called them to be. He calls them not just as resurrection individuals, but also as resurrection community. Soon enough, they were out those doors, proclaiming boldly the resurrection of Jesus and the life available in his name. They will do this even though they are imprisoned, beaten, and ultimately martyred because of it.

That the disciples preached the good news of Jesus boldly is beyond dispute. But what of Luke’s claim to unity of heart and soul, not to mention that all was sold and no one had any need? A close reading of Acts shows that there were several contentious events in the early church. In fact, in chapter six there will be a dispute about the unequal distribution of goods to widows. I don’t think that being of one heart or soul means that there is no conflict or disagreements. One thing I do think it means is that everyone is pulling in the same direction, having the same goal, even though there may be differences of opinion as to how the community gets there.

The same is true about the selling of all possessions and having no needy among them. The wheels come off this idealized wagon soon enough. The story of Ananias and Sapphira, which comes soon after, shows that not all were on board with this plan. (Ananias and Sapphira will hold back some of their goods and fall dead when they are found out. Their sin isn’t so much that they held back, but that they lied about it, to God and to the community.) Even so, just because this is an idealized account doesn’t mean the ideal isn’t worth living up to. The point is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which constitutes a new community of faith, doesn’t merely free us from something—fear, brokenness, and powerlessness. It also frees us for something—something outside of ourselves. Jesus meets us behind our insecurities and frees us, sending us out as the Father sent him.

As I studied this text, looking ahead to our 125th anniversary celebration next week, I couldn’t help think about those first people who settled this area and sacrificed to build this church. Very often, churches were the first buildings and people who had little to begin with gave sacrificially to build them. I also thought about how the resurrection frees us to live outside ourselves as I attended the Pathstone Living (formerly Mankato Lutheran Home) volunteer recognition luncheon the other day. It was heart-warming to see one of Grace’s own, Audrey, Tolzmann honored as volunteer of the year. But it was even more heart-warming to see person after person from Grace and other churches who willingly give of themselves at Pathstone and so many other places.

What a difference the resurrection makes! Today’s text may make us hold our wallets and purses a bit tighter, but that’s the least of our worries. God doesn’t want our money; God wants all of us. In fact, God already has all of us, but God wants our hearts and souls to be pulling in the same direction, focused outward in service. Our church council is working on a plan, based on the Shepherding Team’s work, to do just that. More will be coming out in the next few weeks, but I hope you will be a part of the plan as it unfolds. In a sense, you have no choice because Christ is risen, and the resurrection makes all the difference. Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Forgiveness and New Life" Resurrection of Our Lord B Sermon

Resurrection of Our Lord B
“Forgiveness and New Life”
April 8, 2012
Acts 10.34-43; Mark 16.1-8

Somebody talked. Otherwise, why would you be here today? Somebody must have talked. For almost 2,000 years, church folk have been uncomfortable with the ending to Mark’s gospel, or non-ending if you will. Grammatically, when you look at the original Greek, it ends in the middle of a sentence. Theologically, the gospel ends without any resurrection appearance of Jesus. Sure, the ending could have been lost, which is why there have been a couple of attempts to finish it. But those folk that make a living studying these things are beginning to think Mark did this on purpose, that he intentionally made his gospel open-ended. I tend to agree with them.

This Lent, we have been contemplating various aspects of forgiveness, a huge deal for us who call ourselves Christians. On Ash Wednesday, we heard about the need to come clean about our brokenness. We’ve also heard about the scandal of forgiveness through God’s amazing grace, some ways we might forgive others, forgive ourselves, and even forgive God. On Maundy Thursday we heard how God gives himself to us in the bread and wine of Communion so that we have forgiveness to hold onto. On Good Friday we heard how Jesus, as God’s agent of forgiveness, took all of our brokenness upon himself and gave us his righteousness.

But, when we asked the question, “Can we really forgive and forget?” the answer was a resounding, “No!” We are to forgive, but we cannot forget. In fact, there are things we must remember so they don’t happen again. In doing so, we exposed the insidious character of the notion of “closure” that is so prevalent in our society today. I heard this again on the news last night. There was funeral in Winona for a baby found dead in the river. They have been calling her “Baby Angela” because of some angel artifacts that were found with her. The woman who had found her explained the funeral by saying they needed “closure.” How can there be closure when the baby is still unknown. And even if they do find the parents, how can anyone forget this baby who died prematurely? There can be no closure because life isn’t tied up in pretty bows.

The ending of Mark actually takes us back to opening verse of his gospel, that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Just as the empty tomb cannot contain the resurrected Christ, neither can Mark’s story. With God, there is always more to come. Mark’s version of Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God doesn’t fix bad endings. Rather, God meets us in the midst of our brokenness and does some pretty new and amazing things. This is not a “do over” where Jesus pops back to life as if nothing ever happened. Resurrection is a whole new thing.

Our first reading from Acts, where Peter preaches this amazing sermon on the resurrection, is remarkable on many levels. First, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times and abandoned Jesus in his time of greatest need. Even so, this is not the same Peter. This is the forgiven Peter who, through the power of forgiveness, has been given new life. The falling away of the disciples and the denial of Peter are not the end of God’s plan for them. When Peter is talking about forgiveness and new life, he is not talking about some abstract ideal he learned from a book. He knows forgiveness personally and he is open to the new possibilities God gives him through Jesus Christ, including welcoming unclean Gentiles!

Somebody talked, and when they did, there was no containing the good news any more than the empty tomb could contain Jesus. Forgiveness means a release from the present so that we can have a different future. Somebody talked to the Pennsylvania Amish who released others into new future after a horrific slaughter of their children. Somebody talked to the people of South Africa who envisioned a post-Apartheid society through Truth in Reconciliation based on forgiveness. Somebody talked and the young man is looking to reconnect with his biological father after some years of separation. Where is God meeting you in your brokenness, doing amazing things, and drawing you into a new future? Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed; Alleluia!

Friday, April 6, 2012

"Jesus, God's Agent of Forgiveness" Good Friday Sermon

“Jesus, God’s Agent of Forgiveness”
Good Friday B
April 6, 2012
Isaiah 52.13-53.12

Why does Jesus’ death matter? Why do we make such a big deal out of Good Friday? Why is it good that we call it good? Mark Heim says that some of the church says it absolutely knows the answer to the question, while much of the rest of the church is uncomfortable with the question. On Good Friday, we need to be uncomfortable with the question. There are at least half dozen answers to the question, all of which are helpful although some are more helpful than others are. A couple of the “answers” talk about how Jesus was a great teacher and moral example for us to learn from and follow. Another one says that Jesus sacrificed himself to appease God’s anger at our sinfulness. Still another that describes Jesus as being victorious over the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Yet, I agree with Ted Peters there are two ideas that are more helpful about why Jesus’ death matters, even if they make us uncomfortable. They are expressed most poignantly in a section from Isaiah 52-53 called the fourth servant song: “Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases; … he was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed; … although he had done no violence … he poured out himself to death … [and] bore the sin of many.” These snippets and more helped early Christians as they struggled to make sense out of Jesus’ death.

World history and various literatures are littered with the bodies of those persons who willingly die for others, and there are even cases where the sin and guilt of a people are placed on a particular person who suffers for the lot. Yet, nowhere do we have a case, other than in Christianity, where God has emptied himself, taken on human flesh, and willingly entered the pain, suffering, and violent brokenness of a people to take it all upon himself. To say that Jesus is God’s agent of forgiveness is not entirely accurate, because God is not just some dispassionate observer in Jesus’ death. God is as fully committed to saving humanity and all of creation. It’s like the difference between eggs and bacon in a breakfast: the chicken was involved; the pig was committed. God was fully involved and committed in the death of Jesus Christ.

Our discomfort with this approach to the meaning of Jesus’ death comes because we don’t want to admit the fullness of our brokenness, not to mention our inability to do anything about it. For us, Good Friday is “pick up the rock and see all of the ugly things scurrying to hide” time and we don’t want to do it. Like Peter and the rest who denied and abandoned Jesus, we live with the tension of being both believer and betrayer. I commend you for walking the way of the cross tonight, for admitting what you already know deep inside of yourself, that whatever answer there is for our sins, it has to come from outside of ourselves.

This Lent we have been exploring the road of forgiveness and it has led us to the cross of Jesus Christ. We realize that if we are to have any hope of forgiving and being forgiven it has to come in, with, and through him. Jesus has taken upon himself all of our hurts, pains, sorrows, anger, and yes, even our reluctance to include others in God’s forgiveness. He has taken all of that and he has given us his righteousness instead. I don’t need to tell you to “Give it all to Jesus,” because Jesus has already taken it and given us so much more. “Father, forgive them,” Jesus says from the cross and indeed our Father does forgive us, all of us. Why does Jesus’ death matter? Had it all ended here, this would have been plenty, but there’s more. With God, there’s always more. Meanwhile, it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Amen.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Holy Communion: For the Forgiveness of Sins" Maundy Thursday Sermon

“Holy Communion: For the Forgiveness of Sins”
Maundy Thursday B
April 5, 2012
Exodus 12.1-14

 “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. Do this for the remembrance of me.” These familiar words, with the rest of the Words of Institution, are spoken every Sunday as well as special times as this. They are for us sacramental Lutheran Christians so simple and yet so profound. We claim to believe what Jesus tells us, that he is truly, bodily present in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. We believe that this presence of Jesus Christ is a gift of God’s grace, given freely without any merit on our part. Furthermore, we believe that this great gift does some pretty incredible things, not the least of which is the forgiveness of sins.

That this meal we call the Lord’s Supper began as a Passover meal at the Last Supper is a given. Soon after, though, the meal we also call Holy Communion took on a life of its own. Even so, the Passover themes remained: through the repeated eating of this meal, we remember how God reached down in a mighty act to deliver his people from bondage, strengthening them for the journey of faith. Jesus, of course, is now the Lamb who was slain on our behalf, to set us free to be the people of God. But, more about that tomorrow night. For now, we realize that it’s not blood on the doorposts and lintels that frees us, but rather the body and blood in, with, and under the bread and the wine.

This little bit of bread and sip of wine don’t seem like much of anything, but to us they are everything. First and foremost, the Lord’s Supper is every bit a meal as the Passover and Last Supper were. There is something important about meals; think about the most important occasions in our lives that we celebrate with food and drink: baptisms, marriage, special holidays, and even death. Yet, even when they are more mundane, they are so important; we need strength for the journey. As those Jews of long ago, we also eat we a sense of urgency, knowing how important this meal is for helping us get on with life. As Martin Luther notes, we grow weary and faint in our struggles, and the holy mean strengthens us.

Also as the Jews, we are set free from those things that hold us in captivity: sin, death, and those devilish powers that that stand between us and what God desires us to be. We need to be set free from the tyranny that our brokenness and the brokenness of others produce in our lives. It’s why Luther also says regarding Holy Communion that, “where this forgiveness of sins there is life and salvation.” Yes, forgiveness comes in words spoken and always will, as in the confession and absolution at the beginning of worship. However, we are concrete human beings who need something solid to hold on to, and Jesus’ body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine do that, speaking forgiveness when we may not hear it other places.

One of my most vivid experiences of the forgiveness through Holy Communion occurred before I became a pastor and was president of a congregation in Alexandria, VA. We were finally going to build a sanctuary after worshipping for many years in what was to become the fellowship hall. We had some officials from the Lutheran Church in America office—the predecessor body to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—come and meet with us. The meeting did not go well and there was a lot of tension in the air. I don’t remember what the problems were, but they were significant. It had been planned that we finish the day with a worship service during which we celebrate Holy Communion. All I can say is that there was a much different atmosphere after we humbly knelt together around the rail and received the living body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We were able to move ahead in our work and, yes, we did build that sanctuary.

We celebrate Maundy Thursday to remember how God has acted to free God’s people in every age. Even so, this is not a nostalgic memory of a bygone era, of something that happened 2,000 years ago. No, through this act, God continues to operate in, with, and under our world. It is also an experience to be passed on to the next generation, to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, which is why we celebrate tonight. We come to the table, not because we know everything there is to know about what happens here, but rather to grow more deeply in our relationship to God and each other. We come to the table by faith, for faith, to be forgiven and set free to be the people God intends. This meal is for those who need God’s forgiveness. In other words, this meal is for all of us. Come and eat. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Know God’s forgiving love. Amen.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Servant King - Palm Sunday Sermon

Palm Sunday B
April 1, 2012
“The Servant King”
Isaiah 50.4-9a; Mark 11.1-11

Palm Sunday is full of tension. We celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem knowing the he comes to die. So, it’s tempting to take some of the sting out of the tension of this day with a play on “April Fools.” For instance, we could say, “When Jesus bids us to come and follow he bids us to come and die; April Fools!” But this is no joke, and God is deadly serious about repairing the break that exists between him and us. There is no getting around it: the road to Easter goes through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The road to the empty tomb goes through the Last Supper and the cross. The road to new life goes through sacrifice and death. Today, we stand on the last leg of that road started on Ash Wednesday, and we find ourselves betwixt and between.

Many people choose not to walk that road, to take a short cut to Easter, bypassing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. That’s why the liturgical folk added the Passion to Palm Sunday a few decades ago, because so many people weren’t taking the full journey. We’re not doing that today. Instead, we are going to live with the tension the Palm Sunday brings and shamelessly invite you to walk all the way. Of course, I know that you already know the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, but stories—and particularly this story—are for retelling. Taking a short cut to Easter robs the story of its power and depth of meaning, and it robs us who miss reliving it. We need to walk this road because, as Christians, each day we walk the way of the cross. We need to know the way.

We need to walk the way because Jesus is neither the Messiah nor the king one would expect. Jesus is the Servant King and, as we see in Isaiah, a most unlikely suffering servant king at that. This is the third of four so-called “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, sung to the people of Israel who were ravaged by the Babylonians, ripped from their country, and now oppressed in a foreign land. In today’s reading, we hear of a servant who has suffered abuse because of his faithfulness to God’s call on his life, but who is assured of God’s presence and care nonetheless.

Early Christians, in trying to make sense out of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, saw in this servant song another viewpoint of the Messiah. They had had a far different understanding of what the Messiah King would be, laboring under the warrior king idea of a rich and powerful ruler who “throws the bums out,” the bums in this case being the occupying Roman army and rulers. We still do that sort of thing today, don’t we? We are so enamored of the rich and powerful, especially those that have displayed the upward mobility of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to become players. We expect that’s the way things get done. But, God’s way is a different way; in Jesus God displayed the downward mobility of a servant.

Think for a moment of a person in your life who sacrificed himself or herself for your sake. I can remember my parents making many sacrifices for us, but I particularly remember my father leaving a job he loved and going back to a job he hated so they could afford medical care for my brother. The suffering of the Suffering Servant King is not suffering for suffering’s sake. Rather, it is the suffering that comes from standing against those forces that defy God: sin, death, and devilish powers. Palm Sunday not only anticipates in advance the victory that God will achieve over sin and death, it also invites to journey with the Suffering Servant King, Jesus, into the way of life. Who or what might God be inviting you to make a sacrifice for, to give yourself away? Walk the road through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to Easter. God will be with you. That’s no April Fool’s joke. Amen.