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

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Come and Be Fed ... With Affection" Sermon Pentecost 4B June 24, 2012

“Come and Be Fed … with Affection”
Pentecost 4B (Lect. 12)
Grace in the Park Worship
June 24, 2012
2 Corinthians 6.1-13

Take a moment and think about your family growing up. How was love and affection expressed?
Was your family one of those that did a lot of hugging and kissing and saying, “I love you?” Or was your family one of those who didn’t show affection much, but you knew you were loved? Take a couple of minutes to talk to someone near you, telling each other about what life was like in your family. After the break: I’ll bet there was a lot of variety in your conversations. Perhaps there were some cases where there wasn’t much love and affection expressed. I’m sure there were others where “I love you” was said a lot but not lived out. Love and affection are so important that we feel empty without them.

Many years ago, I heard a story about an orphanage. It was in Russia I think, but it could have been anywhere. There were so many babies in the orphanage that only a few of them could get any attention. Those babies who were handled and cuddled regularly did fine; those babies who weren’t didn’t do well at all. In fact, they were very sickly. Affection, even a little, is so important.

When I work with couples preparing for marriage, we read Jesus’ words in Mark 10 about divorce being caused by “hardness of heart.” We talk about the fact that hearts just don’t get hard overnight, and that the work of marriage is largely about paying attention to your hearts and keeping them soft. I think you could say it is also about making sure your heart is not closing, and that our work is about keeping it open.

 “Our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. … open wide your hearts also.” The Apostle Paul writes these difficult, yet affectionate words to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was a church that Paul founded and to which he was strongly attached. However, somewhere along the way there was a break in the relationship causing the shedding of many tears, on both sides. Much of the responsibility was on the Corinthians’ part because of their misunderstanding about what it meant to be an apostle sent by God. To many of them, because of all the suffering that Paul endured and because he didn’t act like the other “super apostles,” they thought he was deficient.

In the ancient world, it wasn’t up to the injured party to make things right, but Paul knows how important it is to bring healing and reconciliation to bear on their relationship. We who have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, who have had our broken relationships fixed though we certainly didn’t deserve it, must work at repairing our relationships, even when it isn’t our fault. God opens God’s heart to us, has no restriction in affection for us, so we can do the same for others.

A number of years ago I became good friends with a member of my congregation I’ll call Bob. We regularly conversed by email and occasionally had lunch together. Bob is a good and faithful man who had not only supported the congregation generously, but supported my ministry, too. Somewhere along the way, something happened, I’m not sure exactly what, but Bob and I had a falling out that has permanently ruptured our relationship. I’ve tried everything I can think of to repair the relationship, but I have not been able to do so. I don’t tell you this to show what a great Christian I am and what a schmuck Bob is; it’s most likely the other way around. Rather, I tell you this because of the pain caused by closed hearts.

There are too many closed hearts in this world, and we in the church are not immune to them. That’s why it’s so important to come and be fed with the reconciling affection of God. God through Jesus Christ’s presence in, with, and under the bread and wine reconcile us to him. At the same time, God works in us to open our hearts to one another, risking being rejected. We cannot not be agents of affection and open hearts, no matter who or why. This is not because of who we are, but because of who God is, the One who has opened himself so that we may live. May you know God’s affectionate open heart, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Come and Be Fed ... With Faith" Pentecost 3B Sermon

“Come and Be Fed … with Faith”
Pentecost 3B
June 17, 2012
2 Corinthians 5.6-17

 “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

There’s a scene in the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indiana (Harrison Ford) is forced to follow a path where others have died in order to reach the Holy Grail, the chalice Jesus was supposed to have used at the Last Supper. His father (Sean Connery) and the bad guys have both been searching for it. The bad guys shoot Indy’s father to convince him to go after the grail because only the healing powers of the grail can save him. After getting through the initial trials with the help of a coded guidebook, Indy encounters a chasm in which there appears no way across. The book indicates the one is to step out in faith. Driven by his father’s need, Indy closes his eyes and steps out, and finds there to be an invisible bridge that allows him to walk across, retrieve the chalice, and save his father.

“We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Paul is again helping the congregation at Corinth to see that appearances aren’t everything. Or, to say it another way, that we who follow Jesus Christ look at life and circumstances differently. Yet, we who are following Jesus 2,000 years later have an additional challenge: when we hear the word “faith,” we tend to think of it as something we possess. Faith is stuff that we believe. We believe in God the Father, we believe that Jesus is God’s Son, we believe in the Holy Spirit. But that’s only one part of faith and frankly, it’s not the most important part. There’s the heart part. The heart part of faith is relational. It means a relationship of trust, knowing that God is with us. It means being faithful and loyal, based on God’s faithfulness. It means seeing life differently.[1]

Several years ago, in my first call as a pastor, I took a group of high school students from a small rural town to a servant camp in NE Ohio. We did servant work in Youngstown and team building at the camp. One of the exercises involved having a person fall backward off an elevated platform into the arms of the rest of the crew, who were lined up in a double row with their arms outstretched and locked together underneath. When it came to my turn, with my eyes closed I was to count up to 10, during which time the students were to scatter into the woods. Then, I was to count slowly backwards and, when I hit zero, fall backwards, trusting that the students were reassembled and ready to catch me. I had to trust them, that they would be faithful to the promise they made to catch me. It was not just my head that helped me trust, but my heart as well.

Ultimately, any hope we have to walk by faith and not by sight depends not on us, how much we believe or how much trust we have, but in the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God. Because God has shown himself to be trustworthy in his relationship with us, we are able to trust God. When our oldest daughter, Angela, was very young she fell off a cushiony chair and hit her head on the sharp corner of the coffee table, opening up a large gash just above her eye. We rushed her down to the local clinic to be treated. They needed wrap her in a sheet in to keep her still so they could give her a shot into the wound and then stitch her up. It was my job to convince her that the doctor and nurse were there to help her, even though it looked otherwise. I told she needed to hold still and I held her, too. She trusted me, because I was her father. When we were finished, after telling her how well she did, I asked her to thank the doctor, which she did. The doctor melted into a puddle on the floor.

We walk by faith, not by sight.

In a few minutes, we will come forward and gather around the Communion rail to be fed. We come to the table by faith, for faith, trusting in the presence of Jesus’ body and blood. Because of God’s faithfulness we will be strengthened in our lives of faith, not only individually but also as God’s gathered community, a people called to see God working in our world. The cross is not only a sign of hope, as we discovered last week; it is our assurance of God’s presence and working in, with, and through even the most dire circumstances of our lives.

We walk by faith, not by sight.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] For a fuller discussion on the different facets of faith, see Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) 25-41.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Come and Be Fed ... With Hope" Sermon Pentecost 2B

“Come and Be Fed … with Hope”
June 10, 2012
Pentecost 2B
2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1           

 “So, we do not lose heart,” the apostle Paul writes to the congregation at Corinth. Corinth was the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia, which was the southernmost part on what we now call Greece. It was a large, prospering urban center with an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse population. The congregation was largely gentile and mirrored that of the city. There were some people of prominence, but mostly were probably working class, both slave and free. The Corinthians had a special place in Paul’s heart because he founded the church, but had something of a love-exasperation relationship with them. Paul spoke to many issues in his letters, mostly correcting misconceptions about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, including what it means to be an apostle, one sent by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Corinthians looked at Paul’s apostleship and his experiences as such and started to distrust his message. Why? Because Paul wasn’t “successful” like some the other so-called super apostles of the day. He wasn’t tall, good-looking, and a great orator like the others, the Joel Osteens of the day. Paul refused to leach off of the Corinthians, insisting on paying his own way. Furthermore, Paul was regularly beaten, whipped, and thrown in jail. In their eyes, Paul wasn’t representing the faith very well. Fortunately, Paul is fluent in both Greek philosophy and Jewish thought and is able to translate the ideas surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in ways that they can understand.

Prior to our reading today, Paul tells the Corinthians that the punishment he has endured was not only for their sake, to spread the grace and good news of God. It also showed the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, we as Christians look at life differently than those who don’t see through the eyes of faith. We value those things that we cannot see more than those things that we can see. Put another way, we who follow Christ focus on different values, which in turn affects how we live. “So we don’t lose heart,” Paul says, because God is working in way that we trust but cannot see.

Although he doesn’t use the word, Paul says that we have hope. It is a hope born from the assurance that the same God who resurrected Jesus is the same God who is working in, with, and through our lives and us. Henry David Thoreau said that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Yet, we who are Christians see the world differently, not being overwhelmed by all the things that can go wrong. Why? Because we have hope. As Thomas Fuller says, “If it were not for hopes, hearts would break.” Samuel Johnson, testifying indirectly to hope’s power, observed that an acquaintance’s hasty remarriage after the death of his first wife, not a good one, was the “triumph of hope over experience.”

Not everyone is a fan of hope and many are rather cynical about it, but there are testimonies to hope and its power all over the place. As I told the children, every seed planted is a sign of hope. In James Michener’s novel, Poland, Eastern Poles rebuilt their homes and towns countless times through the centuries after assaults from the likes the Russian Tatars and Cossacks, the German Prussians, and the Austrians, to name a few. Closer to home, when the community of Rushford in southeastern Minnesota was ravaged by floods, they quickly started to rebuild around the slogan, “Never, ever give up.” Martin Luther himself, when asked what he would do if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow replied, “Plant a tree.” In a more personal way, those of us who have past “baggage” (which is all of us) are testaments of hope and the power of God to transform our pasts in a way to make new meanings and possibilities. You, my sisters and brothers, by your presence here each week, are signs of hope.

This summer, we’re inviting you to “Come and Be Fed” in worship. To that end, we have designed two sermon series with supporting worship experiences to help you grow in Christ. Today, we are inviting you to be fed with hope so that, no matter what you have gone through, no matter what you are going through, and no matter what you will go through, you will know God’s presence. There are many signs of hope around us, but none is more powerful than the cross, God’s sign that things aren’t always what they seem and that God continually works to make new life. As you come the table of Holy Communion to be fed, may God’s grace feed you with hope, for hope. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Our Lips Are Seared" - Holy Trinity B Sermon

“Our Lips Are Seared”
Holy Trinity B
June 3, 2012
Isaiah 6.1-8

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, a day that throws both preachers and pew-dwellers into a panic. Pew-dwellers, understandably, fear a mind-numbing dose of systematic theology, like a dollop of castor oil, delivered regularly whether needed or not. Preachers, for their part, are always looking for a way to make theological concepts palatable, but they fear simplistic and often heretical metaphors used to describe the Trinity. Add on top of this trinitarian angst is oft-repeated—and therefore it must be true—observation that Holy Trinity Sunday is the only church festival that doesn’t honor a person or a churchly event and you have a perfect storm brewing. However, what preachers and pew-dwellers often lose sight of is that the Trinity, as both doctrine and “person,” is an attempt to make sense out of our encounters with God, both in Scripture and in our daily lives.

All three of our lessons, in one way or another, are reflections on encountering God. I want to focus on Isaiah’s close encounter of stupendous kind, with a barely perceptible nod to Romans and John. Isaiah is in the temple and all of a sudden, it seems as if the temple walls expand and fade away. Imagine the walls of this sanctuary growing and God’s presence filling the space. God is at the same time fantastically huge and distant, but close enough to touch and talk to. God is so Holy Other that the earth shakes and smoke appears, but God so present that Isaiah lives to tell about his encounter.

I’ve just finished a book by James Rubart called Rooms, described by one reviewer as part CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and part Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack; it could also be part Frank Peretti. The main character, Micah, has mystical encounters with God and other spiritual beings designed to help him choose the world that would give him life. Now, I find descriptions of these encounters fascinating: the overwhelming sense of the otherness of God, being bathed in intense light and God’s overpowering peace and love. Even so, I also find them puzzling because I cannot recall ever having that kind of encounter with God. Even when I had my own conversion experience as young adult returning to God, there wasn’t any kind of earth shaking experience. By the way, these kinds of experiences have been around at least as long as Moses, and they are well documented in mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen.

The point is that sometimes we mistake our experience with God for who God actually is. What Isaiah reminds us is that we don’t encounter God as much as God encounters us. In that encounter that God always initiates, God is both totally unknowable and intimately known; thoroughly invisible and yet as accessible as the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion; and enormously distant and yet intensely present to every moment of our lives. When asked about youth ministry during my call interview I responded that it is all about relationships, which means being present with young people, building trust, and respecting them. The reason this is true, not only for youth ministry but for all ministry, is that God is a God of relationships. God, within God’s very being, is relational.

The real bottom line is not how God encounters us, but rather what happens because of the encounter. Like Isaiah, when God meets us there is a question of how we respond, because God gets us moving. All of Scripture invites us into a relationship with God and invites us to see where God meets us. In that meeting, God transforms us, moves us, and invites us into a living faith. That’s what John’s Jesus means by being born anew and it’s what Paul in Romans means about being adopted as sons and daughters of God. When that happens, like Isaiah, our lips are seared, and we set aside to join God in life giving work. Look for those places where God is expanding your lives and be ready to say, “Here am I, send me.” Amen.