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

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"The Abundance of God" Sermon of Pentecost 9B (Lectionary 17)

“The Abundance of God”
Pentecost 9B (Lect. 17)
July 29, 2012
John 6.1-21

Some of you may remember the TV show “MacGyver,” which ran seven seasons from 1985-1992. Richard Dean Anderson played MacGyver, a resourceful secret agent who preferred non-violent solutions; he hated guns. Trained as a scientist, MacGyver was known for his ability to solve complex problems by using whatever materials at hand, especially his omnipresent duct tape and Swiss army knife. I think Don Hemingsen, who we recently laid to rest, was something of a latter-day MacGyver; he could build anything with materials at hand. However, it wasn’t Don who made me think of MacGyver this past week; it was Jesus.

Today we begin five weeks in chapter 6 of John’s gospel, and the theme throughout this chapter is bread. More specifically, the texts are about whom Jesus is, what he came to do, and his meaning for us. Although Jesus doesn’t use the term in today’s text, each week we will explore a different aspect of Jesus’ identity as the Bread of Life. This reading, the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children) begins our reflection and it recounts the only miracle story found in all four gospels. In fact, it is even found twice in Matthew and Mark. Our exploration of the text is something of a mixed bag, being both helped and hindered by its familiarity to us. Because we think we know it, we tend to miss what it has to offer us.

Jesus was busy all day healing the sick, which not only drew a large crowd, but also presented a problem: what to do with them now that dinnertime was approaching. Philip asks Jesus to send the crowds away, but Jesus turns the tables on Philip, telling him to deal with it. Somehow, a lad appears with five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus blesses the meal, miraculously feeds the crowds, and instructs the disciples to pick up the leftovers, twelve baskets full. There is enough in this one story, let alone all of chapter 6, to feed us for five weeks with a lot leftover. However, what I’d like to focus on is this: whereas the disciples see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance. Andrew sums up the prevailing attitude: “But what are they [the loaves and fish] among so many?”

Both Andrew and Philip, and presumably the rest of the disciples, focused on what they lack, not on what they have. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn as a follower of Jesus, to value what I have, not what I don’t have. This came home to roost this last week when I had the opportunity to have dinner with my in-laws. We went to a favorite restaurant of theirs, a national chain, and the wait for our food was very long. When we finally got the food, I asked for some yellow mustard for my patty melt, which didn’t come for several minutes; I waited and I fumed, refusing to eat until I had my yellow mustard. It occurred to me later that I chose to focus on what I didn’t have rather than the abundance of what I did have. It seems to me that advertising in general, and our society in particular, often focuses on what we lack rather than what we have. However, that’s another sermon for another day.

Douglas John Hall observes that when many people discuss this text, they focus on trying to explain the miracles of how Jesus fed all of those people or how he walked on the water. Instead, he says, we ought to focus on a different miracle, the hope that Jesus instilled in the folk. Through his actions, Hall thinks, Jesus’ powerful presence inspired them to walk where they feared to go otherwise. Hope takes root as we look at what God provides for us, as we trust that it will be more than enough. Jesus simply asks that we offer up ourselves, to give back what God has already given, to be used to bless others.

Our problems and challenges can seem overwhelming, such the losses in members over the years and a global problem such as malaria. Yet, that’s true only if we focus on what we lack rather than the abundance that God can provide for us. We can’t solve malaria on our own, but for $10 to buy a mosquito net, we can save one life. We may not be able to have hundreds of children in Sunday School or youth groups any more, but we an incredible variety of families of all ages that have incredible gifts to share with each other. We may not have MacGyver, and Don is gone now, but we have you and me, ordinary people with an extraordinary God who blesses what we have to love and bless the world in return. What gifts has God given to you, maybe that you don’t think amount to much of anything? God will use them to bless the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pentecost 7B (Lectionary 15) Sermon: "Come and Be Fed ... with Purpose"

Pentecost 7B (Lect. 15)
“Come and Be Fed … with Purpose”
July 15, 2012
Ephesians 1.3-14

Think for a moment: what is the first question a child learns to ask? It’s simple, one-word, three-letter question. Furthermore, once this first question is learned, it is asked more and more. That’s right, it’s “Why?” If you think some more, you will realize that we never grow out of that question, do we? Some philosophers might call this the great existential question, having to do with the meaning of our existence. The fact that we can even ask this question separates us from all other living creatures. In fact, this question is so important that scientists, who claim their realm is “what” and not “why,” can’t help but let sneak in to their work, too.

This question, “Why?” is at the heart of the passage from Ephesians. We are in a new letter for our second reading, one we are taking a closer look at today and next Sunday as we finish the first half of our “Come and Be Fed” sermon series this summer. The consensus is that, although it is titled “Ephesians,” this letter was actually a circular letter, directed not at any particular church but rather circulated around to various churches. It’s kind of the chain letter or “repost this” communication of the day. So, unlike other letters, such as Corinthians, the letter doesn’t address issues to specific churches. However, Ephesians still has its points to make, and today’s text introduces us to some of them.

Using the grand, exalted, and poetic language of worship, Ephesians asserts God’s providence in and through all things. It invites us to step back and see that all things, in heaven and earth, are a part of God’s plan. From the very foundations of the universe, God has imbued all creation with a purpose. God did not just slap this together and set it going; creation is heading somewhere. What is even more remarkable is that God has created us for a special role, having chosen “us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” being “destined us for adoption as his children.”

The importance of meaning and purpose in our lives cannot be understated; it literally keeps us going. Having a purpose in life, the sense that we are a part of something larger than ourselves is huge. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning, our feet hitting the floor, and ready for the day. During WWII, the USS Indianapolis was sunk and because of a number of snafus, the Navy didn’t know about it. Sailors were in the water for days in shark-infested waters. Occasionally, a sailor would give himself up to sharks. When asked to comment about this phenomenon, one person observed, “Those guys that gave themselves up, they didn’t have a future.” Having a sense of purpose means believing that we have a future. It’s what kept people alive in Nazi camps during that same time.

This need for meaning and purpose is so important it is recognized outside of Christianity, too. I subscribe via email to some leadership blogs and just this week, on the same day, were two having to do with purpose. The first was a quote by Samuel Goldwyn: “If I were in this business only for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business.” Then this by Dan Rockwell: “If you don’t know why you are here, how will you know what to do? Life without purpose has no dignity, no direction, and no enduring passion.” More to the point for us as religious people, there’s the quote from the Dalai Lama that appears on our bulletin: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” Jesus has said much the same thing.

What makes the church different, however, is that we believe God has a purpose. That purpose is for all of creation to be gathered into God’s self, to know that God loves everything. For that purpose, God has called you and me to participate in the mission to love and bless the world. That calling is not just here, but extends also well outside the walls of this church. Just this last week, I visited with several members of Grace who were packing meals at Kids Against Hunger. I saw Joyce Nelson’s picture on the wall at Pathstone Living, immortalized forever, but representing all who give their time and love there. I had the privilege of hanging out with some folk who had just come from volunteering at the Echo Food Shelf. I could go on.

God not only has a purpose and a plan, but also makes that known to us. This past year and a half we’ve been discerning that will and we have determined that God is calling us to serve families of all ages in ways that we haven’t up until now. So, we are putting together Wednesday evening programming to serve people. We’ll start with an evening meal; have a short worship service with an interactive message and Holy Communion; and close with Christian education/faith formation for all ages. Furthermore, we will be asking all of our teams to adjust their programming to this sense of purpose and to seek ways to foster intergenerational experiences.

There’s a lot of excitement being generated in this renewed sense of purpose. Why? Not just “because,” but also because that is what God is calling us to do, and that is where true life is to be found. What purpose or purposes has God given for you? Come and be fed, Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Come and Be Fed ... with Grace," Sermon for Pentecost 6B (Lectionary 14)

“Come and Be Fed … with Grace”
Pentecost 6B (Lect. 14)
July 8, 2012
2 Corinthians 12.2-10

Paul was a wounded man, a deeply wounded man. He had asked God three times to remove the cause of his woundedness. We don’t know what his “thorn in the flesh” was, though it hasn’t prevented much speculation. It could be physical, psychological, or spiritual, but whatever it was, it must have been significant enough that Paul sought relief three times from God, only to receive the same answer. God said, “My grace is sufficient for you …” along with this curious explanation: … “for power is made perfect in weakness.” Somehow, God’s graceful presence is enough for whatever is needed in our lives

Paul saw his “thorn in the flesh” as something God allowed him to have to keep him humble. Some so-called “super apostles,” in order to establish their street cred with the various churches, were not above trotting out their spiritual experiences as proof that they were the real deal. Unfortunately, the Corinthians bought it. With this passage, Paul elegantly kills two birds with one stone. By asserting that he can match the other apostles vision-for-vision, he proves that he is the genuine article. However, by mentioning his thorn, he shows that this spiritual competition is a red herring.

The heart of the good news of Jesus Christ is not found in bragging about spiritual experiences. Nor, Paul would hasten to add, is it to be found in glorying in our afflictions. We are not to have a “holier than thou” attitude, but neither are we to be “humbler than thou,” or, as Garrison Keillor puts it, “militantly modest.” Furthermore, Paul is also not saying we should buck up, carry on, and rise above our circumstances. Rather, Paul is saying that God works in some mysterious, but powerful ways in our lives. God’s power is made perfect in those wounded and broken areas of our lives that we try to run from.

Robert Franklin tells the story about a Renaissance artist who made the world’s most prized vases. A foreign apprentice came to observe his method and the artist, after many weeks of laboring with one piece, placed it on display. It was a thing of unmistakable beauty. Even so, the artist wasn’t done. In dramatic fashion, the artist picked up the vase and smashed it to floor, breaking to pieces. Quietly, he reconnected the pieces by painting them with a paint of pure gold. Each crack reflected the invaluable gold, and this magnificent, but imperfect vase, became the most valued one in the artist’s collection.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I believe God is some great artist that smashes our lives so he can do some fancy mending and look good. The fact is, our lives get smashed up without God’s help; sometimes others do it, sometimes we do it, and sometimes is just happens. However, I do know that, for some reason, those are the very places that God most often works through our lives. I suspect that one reason is that it is in those wounded and broken parts of our lives that we are open to God’s grace. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are made strong in the broken places.” Theologically, it is God working in those broken places to make us strong. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.

As I think about what this means, I think about Kim who was made a widow way too young but nonetheless through God’s grace was able to help others in their grieving. I think about about Nancy, made a quadriplegic through the actions of a drunk driver, who led a Girl Scout troop helping them to understand disabilities, I think about Pam, Karen, and Angie, cancer survivors who are able to walk with people in their bouts of cancer. I think about couples who have been able to put the pieces of their marriage back together following an affair, stronger than ever. I think about Rick, a pastor who has been able to minister to and with alcoholics because he has gone through the 12-step program. I think about Richard, a sufferer of mental illness who became an advocate of the mentally ill. I could go on.

 “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Today, God invites us to come and be fed with the grace that works in, with, and through the broken and wounded parts of our lives. God also invites us to look for the ways that God is working in the world in unusual places. That’s the message of the cross, isn’t it, that God works through the worst that life throws at us? That’s why the people of Jesus’ hometown couldn’t accept him; they couldn’t see how God could work through a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. Where are those weak and broken places in your life that you tend to dismiss or try to hide? What are the weak or wounded places in our congregation that God is working as well? Come and be fed, for God’s grace is sufficient, more than enough for what we need. Amen.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Come and Be Fed ... With Generosity" Sermon for Pentecost 5B (Lect. 13)

“Come and Be Fed … with Generosity”
Pentecost 5B   (Lect. 13)
July 1, 2012
2 Corinthians 8.7-15

 “Now as you excel in everything … so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” The “generous undertaking” that Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians is the collection for the church in Jerusalem. When Paul had been given the green light to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to non-Jews by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, they asked him to do one thing: remember the poor. Responding that he was more than glad to do so, Paul is now reminding of the Corinthians’ promise to do the same, and he is not above a little flattery to accomplish it. There is a famine in Jerusalem and the Jewish Christians are suffering. The Corinthians had expressed an earnest desire to alleviate the suffering, but they hadn’t acted on it.

To get them off the dime, or denarius if you will, Paul is also not above a little Grecian rivalry. Earlier in chapter 8, he mentions how the church in Macedonia, the province to the north of their own Achaia, has stepped up to the plate. Though the Macedonians have gone through horrendous afflictions, they’ve been incredibly generous in giving to the collection. Even so, Paul makes it clear that this reminder of the Corinthians’ promise is not a command but an invitation. However, the invitation is delivered with another reminder, that their lives are to be lived as ones for whom the generous love of God has been poured out upon them in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. In other words, Paul tells them that we know God’s grace is real when we participate in generosity.

Interestingly, Paul tells them that he is not asking them to be like Jesus, who gave up everything for us. Rather, Paul uses the story in Exodus of God’s gift of manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, a story we are living with as a congregation this year, that there is a balance between abundance and need. “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” We’ll explore more of this story on July 29.

For today, however, there is more. Beyond the obvious purpose for the collection, to alleviate the hunger of the Jerusalem church, there is the opportunity for the Corinthians to show solidarity with their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters. The Jerusalem church has shared abundantly the message of the gospel with the Corinthians and now the Corinthians have the opportunity to share abundantly of their blessings, to excel in generosity. They were building bridges by excelling in generosity.

What is ironic is that the gentile Corinthians are providing food for the tables of their Jewish friends, tables that those who still follow the Jewish dietary laws prohibit them from sharing. They are giving money for food that they wouldn’t be allowed to eat! Last week, when I told you about my falling out with Bob, I told you he is a generous man. That’s an understatement; Bob is so generous that he sent a campaign contribution to Dale, a member of another political party; Bob and Dale are about as opposite politically as you can get, but Bob respected Dale so much that he sent him a contribution anyway. Talk about building bridges with generosity!

Several years ago in my previous congregation, I was approached by “Frank” who had heard about a church that was giving money away to some of its members and wanted to do the same at ours. There were only three rules to follow: the money belongs to God, not you; the money is be used to further God’s work in the world outside the walls of the church; and those accepting the money had to come back in 90 days and report what God had done in, with, and through them.

Some people who came forward that day knew exactly what they would do with the money; some didn’t know but knew God was calling them to do something; some donated their money to a worthy cause; some invited others to join with them in a project; and some used the money as seed money to grow their funds. We called it the Talents project because it was based on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. Many wonderful things happened: the money was multiplied; the number of people involved grew; and people were helped all over the world. But one of the coolest happened when some of the money was used to buy material for a quilt project at the local Catholic school. The community was abuzz because Lutherans were giving their money away to Catholics. Bridges were built through excelling in generosity.

God wants us to excel in generosity, not out of guilt but rather out of gratitude for what God has done for us. It is up to us who have been given much to make sure that those who have little don’t have too little. In order to open us up to the excellence of generosity, we are going to do our own Talents Project here at Grace. However, we are going to call this the Generosity Project based on this passage from 2 Corinthians. So, I’d like 10 volunteers to step forward to accept $50 each to invest in God’s world outside the walls of this church, following three simple rules: the money is not yours; use it to further God’s work in the world outside of Grace; and come back in 90 days to share with us how God worked in, with, and through you.

The rest of you aren’t off the hook in this Project. First, pray for those who have accepted the mission and, where led, participate with them in their project. Second, look for ways that God is calling you to be generous, especially to those whom you might not associate with; in other words, build bridges through generosity.

Let us pray: Good and generous God: you have graciously fed us through your Son, Jesus. Guide those who have stepped forward today as they seek to feed those in your world. Help us all to see those places where you are inviting us to build bridges with generosity. Amen.