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

Sunday, May 27, 2012

“Spiritual and Religious” - Day of Pentecost Sermon

“Spiritual and Religious”
Day of Pentecost B
May 27, 2012
Acts 2.1-21

An old Chinese proverb says, “May you be cursed to live in interesting times.” We don’t have to go too far to find the curse of the interesting. Our upcoming elections give us enough material. We are also dealing with increased polarization in our society and fragmentation. It’s not much different in the church. Mainline churches, the ELCA included, are struggling. Churches are also becoming polarized and more fragmented. The fast growing category of religious affiliation is the “nones,” not to be confused with Catholic religious. “Nothing in particular” is the choice of 12% of our populations, with another 4% being agnostic or atheist. If that isn’t cursing-ly interesting enough, a large segment considers themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” with dueling YouTube videos going viral back and forth.

Here’s a video called “It’s Pentecost,” that has a different take on our situation today.

Indeed, we have a story to tell, a story that takes us outside of ourselves into God’s world. In the curse of interesting times, we often find ourselves either giving up on the church altogether or feeling we have to defend it. I don’t find either option to be helpful or life-giving. I gave up on the church once, and that didn’t work. As for the other option, we don’t need to defend the church, not because it is perfect, but because it is God, through the Holy Spirit, that brings the community of faith together. God has a mission to love and bless the world, and for that mission God gathers you, me, and others to join in that mission, to tell the story of God’s love in Christ.

Even so, what is often missing from God’s gathered communities is a lively conversation about what God is up to in their communities and where it is that God is blowing us to join in that work. The Spirit may blow wherever and whenever it wills, but it does blow with intentionality and purpose. A community without the Spirit is dead. The Spirit without community is, well, not the Spirit at all. The Spirit of Pentecost is found wherever boundaries are broken down, just as they were at that first Pentecost when people from the known world are reunited into a singular group.

The Spirit of Pentecost is present wherever people as questions about meaning and purpose, no matter how perplexing and difficult. The Spirit is present where men and women, old and young, free or not, share dreams and visions of what God’s world could be. I believe that the Spirit of Pentecost is blowing through Grace as we seek to join God’s work to walk with families of all ages in our congregation and our community. Exciting and, yes, even interesting things are happening. We are making some major additions to our Wednesday night programming: a community meal, informal worship, and faith formation for all ages.

Like those early disciples, we may not always be clear about where we are going, and we’ll probably stumble along the way, but the Holy Spirit will be guiding us every step of the way. With God’s help, we are going to be spiritual and religious, a community of faith guided by the Spirit. That’s a blessing, not a curse. Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Whence Justus?" Easter 7B Sermon

“Whence Justus?”
Easter 7B
May 20, 2012
Acts 1.15-17, 21-26

Today’s text from chapter 1 holds a special place in my heart. While using it for a Bible Study/devotion during a call process, I had an epiphany of sorts. I discovered that, since both Justus and Matthias were equally well qualified, presumably either would have fulfilled the obligations of office. It would have been differently perhaps, but equally as well. That seems to take some pressure off from having to find “the right one.” More recently, this text was a the major biblical passage that framed my doctoral thesis, which was concerned with how to increase the synod’s ability to identify and recruit missional leaders.

However, as so often happens when you work with a familiar text, you see something else you haven’t seen before. That happened this week. Jesus’ eleven disciples find themselves “betwixt and between.” Jesus has ascended into heaven and they have been told to return to Jerusalem to wait for the promised Holy Spirit. So they gather, along with others who had been following Jesus, including his mother and other women as well. While devoting themselves to prayer and the word, Peter gets up and with support from Scripture, declares they must find a replacement for Judas. A list of requirements is agreed upon, two members of the group are proposed, lots are cast, and Matthias is chosen. By the way, the casting of lots was a perfectly acceptable way of seeking God’s will in the ancient world.

What I wondered as I thought about this text is, “Whence Justus?” Where did he go? Interestingly, we never hear from Matthias again either, but what happened to Justus? Was he so disappointed he didn’t get the job that he left the fledging church to start his own? A long time ago in a synod far away, I was present at a synod assembly where a new bishop was to be elected. As often happens there were three strong candidates for the position; of course, only one was elected. What I found interesting was that the two pastors who weren’t elected we very visibly devastated about the outcome. I wondered if those that want it that badly ought not to get it.

But, back to Justus. Did Justus go away mad, or did he just go away? I can’t prove it, but I don’t think so. I think that Justus was there when the Holy Spirit came upon the gathered brothers and sisters at Pentecost. I think that, even though he wasn’t named a deacon either, that Justus used his gifts for mission. Just as importantly, I think that, even though he didn’t have a formal position or title, Justus exercised leadership wherever he was and in whatever situation leadership was called for. But most important of all, I think that Justus served God’s mission to love and bless the world. By the way, those pastors that weren’t elected bishop did the same. They went back to being the pastors God called them to be.

In my doctoral work on mission and leadership, I encountered many models for leadership. Servant leadership, modeled on Jesus’ service to his Father and the disciples, was key. “I came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus says. But I also encountered the notion of distributive leadership, which says that leaders are distributed throughout an organization at many levels, essentially leading where they are. From those, I developed an understanding of leadership as communicative leadership, servant leadership that happens in an organization wherever it is needed, whenever it is needed.

Essentially, the leader is the one who in any given situation agrees to go first, to take the initiative. This is important for us on a number of levels, but I’ll mention one: it’s all about God’s mission. God has a mission for us to meet families, in all their diversity, in new and challenging ways. We need a lot of folk here to step up and help us as we figure out how to do that. As one writer says, “we are all, potentially, the ‘twelfth apostle,’ called to join God’s work. God has a mission, to love and bless the world; for that mission, God calls us, just as God called Justus. Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"A Spirited Tale" Easter 6B Sermon

“A Spirited Tale”
Easter 6B
May 13, 2012
Acts 10.44-48 (Acts 10.1-11.18)

Our first reading from Acts is only a snippet—albeit a powerful snippet—of a much larger story.
The larger tale encompasses all of chapter 10 and a good chunk of chapter 11. It’s a tale that can be divided in seven scenes, each with integrity in its own right, but connected to the larger whole. I invite you to listen as I briefly describe each scene and then to reflect on some questions that each scene poses us.

Scene 1 takes place in Caesarea, a port city on the Mediterranean north of Jerusalem, where Cornelius, a Roman centurion receives a vision from an angel of God. Cornelius, a “god-fearer,” but not a convert, is told by an angel of the Lord that his prayers have been answered and that he is to send to Joppa for a man named Peter. Cornelius does so. One question our text asks: Where is God speaking to unexpected people in our world today?

Scene 2 shifts to the next day, as the envoy approaches Joppa. Peter goes up on the roof to pray and becomes hungry. He falls into a trance where he sees a vision of the heaven opened and a sheet let down containing all sort of “unclean” animals. God tells Peter to “get up, kill, and eat.” Peter resists because he has never eaten any unclean animal, but God tells him that what he has made is not profane. This happens three times. So, one question might be: How is God pushing our understanding of clean?

While Peter is still trying to sort this out, Cornelius’ envoy arrives in Joppa and makes its way to Peter’s house. As they are calling for him, the Holy Spirit tells Peter that there are people to see him and that he must go with them without hesitation. The envoy tells Peter about Cornelius’ vision and invites Peter to come right away to Caesarea. Peter invites them in to stay with him. A question: Whom is God asking us to walk with on their journey of faith?

The next day, Peter and some of the Jewish Christians start the 30-mile trip to Caesarea. After an awkward moment where Cornelius falls down to worship Peter, Peter finds that Cornelius has gathered his household to eagerly receive him and they compare notes about their mystical experiences. Cornelius then asks Peter to tell them what the Lord commands him to say to them.
Question: Where is God providing an opportunity for us to speak a word to a people eager to hear it?

Then Peter begins to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, the passage we heard on Easter Sunday. He begins with the revelation that he now knows that God shows no partiality, and that all who fear God and do what is right are acceptable in God’s sight. Peter starts with the baptism of Jesus and continues telling about his ministry, death, and resurrection. A question might be: What resurrection experience can we testify from our own lives that others might find helpful hearing?

The next scene is our reading for today. The Holy Spirit, thinking that Peter was going on too long, “fell on” all of those who heard the word. There was no mistake that the Spirit was acting because they all spoke in tongues, which astounded the Jewish Christians. Peter asks that great rhetorical question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these who have received the Holy Spirit as we have? One possible question the text poses: Are withholding God’s sacramental grace, whether baptism or Holy Communion, from anyone who has received the Spirit?

Peter stays with Cornelius for several days, which allows the word of what Peter has done to spread to the church at Jerusalem. Peter is called to make a defense of his actions to the leadership there. He explains everything that happened, including a recounting of the visions he and Cornelius receive. Peter ends with “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The question: The implications of the decision to welcome Gentiles were not fully worked out by the early church. Where might God be leading us in the same way?

Under the prodding of the Holy Spirit, the early community of faith is pushed into new territory. This is confusing and sometimes even chaotic for them, but it is also life giving and exciting as well. The question that ties all of the other questions together is, “Where is God through the Holy Spirit working in, with, and through us, pushing us into new places?” The good news is that God promises to guide us and show us the way. The Holy Spirit is bringing new life to Grace Lutheran Church. Can you see it moving? Amen.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

It's a Stretch - Easter 5B Sermon

“It’s a Stretch”
Easter 5B
May 6, 2012
Acts 8.26-40

The book of Acts, though called the Acts of the Apostles, should really be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. As seen in today’s text, it is God’s Spirit who moves the action along, roughly along three lines: from Jerusalem to Rome, from Jew to Gentile, and from Peter to Paul. The Holy Spirit gradually but steadily stretches the boundaries of the newly formed resurrection community of Jesus. It’s a story where the community of faith is constantly pushed to wrestle with new questions as it works out in concrete ways what the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means today.

In the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, we have a rich and tantalizing text. Though Philip has been preaching to the Samaritans, those despised by the Jews as unclean, God, first through an angel and then through the Spirit, pushes Philip toward an encounter with someone even further outside of his normal circle of influence. Unlike the Samaritans, it wasn’t the Ethiopian’s nationality that was the problem. Ethiopians though dark of skin could convert to Judaism. No, it was his sexuality, or lack thereof, that kept him in the outer fringes of the temple life, literally cut off from the community of faith.

The Ethiopian is struggling with a text from Isaiah and Philip comes alongside to struggle with him. My guess is that, until the Ethiopian asked the question, Philip probably had not seen Jesus in this text. Yet, he does so and begins to tell the story of Jesus Christ, good news for everyone, not just Jews. We are not privy to their conversation, but something must have been said about baptism, because the Ethiopian spies some water and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” That’s one of those questions that assumes the answer: there should be nothing to prevent the Ethiopian from God’s love and grace, but he has been excluded so long that he wants to be sure.

So, here in the book of Acts is another demonstration of the wideness of God’s grace and mercy. It’s a story that has been called the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch but, as some have rightly observed, it could also be called the conversion of Philip. Why? Because Philip is stretched even farther than he imagines. For every boundary that God’s grace pushes, there is someone or a community that is stretched. Unfortunately, we don’t always respond well to those boundary-stretching people God brings us. Yet, I’ve found that, personally and as a pastor, through struggling with people and their questions, God has stretched me in more profound ways than I could ever have possibly imagined.

Some people don’t always have the best theological reasons for bringing their children to “get done” in baptism, but I’ve been stretched to understand that the Spirit is working in them, too. My understanding of sexuality and relationships has been stretched by getting to know women in committed relationships who seem to love Jesus as much, if not more, than I do and are trying to be faithful to themselves and God. My understanding about who should commune at the table has been stretched by children who seem to “get” Communion in ways I never anticipated.

I was recently contacted by a pastor who wondered if someone, who will soon be living in a halfway house in Mankato, would be welcomed at Grace. My initial response was, “Of course,” but then I paused to think about it, not because this person wouldn’t be welcomed, but because I wondered how we would be stretched in the encounter and how we would respond. I still don’t know, but I trust you and God in the process. I think we are being stretched by our families in our midst, to meet them where they are in all of the complexity of their lives and not to force them into our preconceived notions of church.

Like Philip, the Holy Spirit is moving us to places where we wrestle with others about questions of faith and life, and in the process, God is stretching us to see new possibilities. As we saw with our 125th anniversary, God has stretched this community of faith before in many ways and will do so again. Where is God stretching us as a church today; where is God stretching you personally in your life? Wherever that is, God’s Spirit is working to bring new life lived in God’s grace. What is to prevent us from being baptized anew? Indeed, there is nothing God can’t handle as God’s Spirit works in, with, and through us. Amen.