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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"An Offer We Can't Refuse" Sermon Pentecost 13B (Lect. 21)

“An Offer We Can’t Refuse”
Pentecost 13B (Lect. 21)
August 26, 2012
John 6.56-69

Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DS9), a spin-off from the original series, revolves around life on a space station designated DS9. DS9 is placed next to a wormhole allowing passage from on quadrant of the galaxy to another. Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, in charge of DS9, was contacted by alien beings inhabiting the wormhole. These beings exist out of our usual space-time continuum, having no bodies or sense of past, present, or future and they show themselves to Sisko in the guise of people he knows. They do so to quiz him about his “corporeal, linear existence,” something they don’t understand. As Sisko tries to tell them about past, present, and future, he has flashbacks of the death of his wife, who died at the hands of a powerful enemy and for whom he is still grieving. At one point, one of the beings trying to understand the concept of time asks Sisko, “Why do you choose to live there?” Sisko, in his intense grief, chooses to live in the past, which is not a good place for him to choose to live.

In chapter 6 of John’s gospel, Jesus is talking to people who are not only choosing to live in the past, but who are also fearful about their future. So, Jesus tries to help them choose life now. For many of them, there is something about Jesus’ offer as the Bread of Life that is hard to swallow, perhaps even offensive. They cannot see clearly any longer what it is that had attracted them to Jesus in the first place. These are not the occasional hangers-on or cranky religious leaders who are looking for ways to trap Jesus. These are people who have been following Jesus for quite some time, but for some reason they just don’t get it any more. Perhaps Jesus’ graphic description about munching his flesh slurping his blood was too much for them. For whatever reason, they left.

We who follow Jesus a couple of millennia later ought not to be too harsh on our first century cousins. Which of us, at one time or another, hasn’t wondered whether we have believed in vain?
Even if we haven’t totally walked away, how many of us have doubted God’s promises to us? How many of us have drifted away from regular worship, reading the Bible, or daily prayer? How many of us have slowed down in serving others or decreased our level of giving? As I have mentioned before, that’s a huge part of my story, turning my back on God.

How many of us are stuck in some romantic notion of the past like the disciples, or full of regret and grief like Sisko. For that matter, how many are so anxious about the future we forget to live for today? Yet, here we are, full of fear and anxiety, still gathering around Word and Sacrament. Why is that? I think that it’s because, like Peter, who speaks for the disciples and us, Jesus makes us an offer we can’t refuse: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”

Of course, we know that some people do refuse the offer Jesus makes, either actively or passively. But, what about Peter and the rest of twelve, not to mention those of us who stumble in here each week? How are we different? Are we brighter, smarter, or more faithful than those who walk away? The sketchy stories of the first apostles and the unfaithfulness of our own lives dispel that idea quite quickly.

David Lose says that the difference between those who walk away and those who stay is that, like Peter, we know where to look. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Then Lose quotes Martin Luther, “[God] is present everywhere, but does not wish that you grope for him everywhere. Grope rather where the Word is, and there you will lay hold of [God] in the right way" (LW 36:342). Isn’t that a wonderful image, “grope for the Word?” Knowing and believing that Jesus gives us words of life is so compelling that we grope for the Word.

Jesus comes and asks us some hard questions today. “Where do you go for sustenance or answers and is it really a life-giving place?” Or, as Joshua says, “Choose this day who you will serve.” Yet Jesus also comes with a gracious invitation, an offer that we dare not refuse. Not only does Jesus offer us a way of life that is not bound by the past or anxious about the future, Jesus offers his very self, abundant life not only at some future time, but right now as well. Lord, to whom shall we go? As for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

"An Invitation to the Table" Sermon Pentecost 12B (Lect. 20)

“An Invitation to the Table”
Pentecost 12B (Lect. 20)
August 19, 2012
John 6.51-58

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I abide in them.” With these words, along with similar ones in today’s gospel, Jesus makes explicit what he has only hinted at up to this point in chapter 6. Unlike the other three Gospels, John does not have Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. Rather, the Last Supper is reserved for the Farewell Discourse, as some wags note, is the longest after-dinner speech in the Bible. During that important time, Jesus gives his disciples their marching orders for life without him after his death, resurrection, and ascension. So, many have seen in these words John’s sacramental theology, his invitation to the Lord’s Table.

What an invitation it is! It’s a wide-open, overflowing, gracious call for all people to commune with God. The key word for this communion is “abide,” and it runs rampant through John’s Gospel. We are constantly invited to abide, stay, rest, or remain in Jesus as he does in us. God offers to abide in us in way that both stimulates our imagination and overwhelms it as well. As one of my colleagues once said, “We take into our bodies the very creator of the universe. It’s a wonder we don’t explode!” What is even more incredible is that Jesus offers us this communion free of charge. The Sacrament of the Altar, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist is a gift of God’s immeasurable grace.

It’s this over-the-top grace that informs and helps me understand my experiences of Communion. One of my most memorable experiences of Communion was my first Communion, though it wasn’t my First Communion. Let me explain. As a rising 9th grader, I attended a youth leadership conference at Gustavus one summer, which to no surprise, involved a worship service. However, to my horror, the worship service included Holy Communion. I say, “… to my horror” because I had not yet been Confirmed and didn’t know what I should do. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by refusing Communion, but I was pretty sure I was going to go to hell by taking Communion before I was Confirmed, since that was our practice at our church at the time. As the Communion elements got closer—we were doing pew Communion—I got more nervous. Ultimately, I decided to risk going to hell and decided to take Communion. Now, you might say that I did it because of peer pressure, or because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and maybe it was. But I think God’s grace had something to do with it.

As I have grown in the life of faith, both inside the church and outside, as I have eaten at the Table, studied God’s Word, and read Lutheran theology, my assurance of God’s gracious invitation has grown. When I accepted the call to be the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, I was thrilled that we have Holy Communion at every service every week and that we have an open Table for all Christians. However, that excitement has been tempered somewhat by the fact that, although we say, “All are welcome” to the Lord’s Supper, in reality we deny the sacrament to a significant number of baptized. In our case, it is not those who have not been confirmed; it is those who are younger than 5th grade.

The fact is that our presence at the Lord’s Table comes by virtue of our baptism, not our age. That’s one reason why, in response to a council request a year ago, I included Communion of the baptized as a part of my vision for Grace, where truly all baptized, including children, are welcome to the Lord’s Table.

Now, one of the questions that gets raised about having children receive Communion is that they lack understanding. I can appreciate this question, but unfortunately, it’s a holdover from the Enlightenment when reason became superior to faith. Even so, let me respond in two ways. First, nowhere does Jesus require an understanding of what he offers in order for us to receive him. Holy Communion is a gift of God’s grace, one that we cannot earn, merit, or deserve. Second, in my experience children “get” Communion far more than what we give them credit for.

Let me tell you about Bradley. When I was called to my first congregation, our oldest daughter was already communing at an age earlier than the church’s practice and our youngest was due to communion by our past church’s practice. I told the council that I would not ex-communicate our oldest daughter and asked that we have conversation about our communion practices. We decided to do some education with parents and children and let parents decide for their children. Kathy and Steve, Bradley’s parents, were very reluctant to have Bradley attend the classes, but they decided to go through the materials I gave them with Bradley and have me come to their home for some conversation. They were astonished at how much Bradley was capable of understanding God’s gracious self, and Bradley began taking Communion.

In the Proverbs reading, Wisdom personified makes an invitation to God’s table saying, “You that are simple, turn in here.” That is both an offer of grace and an invitation for reflection for all. I could tell you many similar stories, not only about children, but also about vulnerable adults. However, the bottom line is that we come to the table at the Lord’s command, by faith for faith. I’m going to keep this conversation going, not only because I think it fits with our vision and mission of being a family-friendly church, but also because I think it is the faithful thing to do. Jesus’ invitation for an intimate relationship with him, to mutually abide, is too important not to include everyone at the Lord’s Table. Meanwhile, God invites you to come and be fed. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"The Bread of Life, Part 2" Sermon Pentecost 11B (Lect. 19)

“The Bread of Life
Pentecost 11B (Lect. 19)
August 12, 2012
John 6.35, 41-51

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “… the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Today we have the third in a series of five readings from John 6 in which Jesus explains his mission from God using the metaphor of bread. Last week we explored what Jesus means by being the bread of life, discovering that Jesus is God’s revelation to humanity that assures us of God’s provision to give us what we need. Today we are going to chew on the second half of Jesus’ statement, what he means by living bread.

The crowds are still following Jesus as they did since Jesus fed 5,000 of them with five loaves and two fish. But, through his use of the word Jews, John signals there are some who are not on board with who Jesus is and what he is doing. “Jews” is the term John uses for those who resist Jesus’ message, most often applied to the religious leaders of the day. They can’t get their heads around who he is and are going to become particularly upset as Jesus unpacks what he means by giving his flesh. There has been no small amount of discussion among modern readers about what Jesus means here by giving his flesh. Does flesh refer back to John 1, the incarnation, where the Word became flesh? Is flesh a sacramental reference to Jesus’ real presence in Holy Communion? Or is the flesh he gives suggests his crucifixion on the cross, the ultimate sacrifice? I think the answer is, “Yes.” Jesus is referring to all three.

When we think of Jesus’ promise of life, we often think in one of two directions. First, we think that Jesus promises to give us more of what we have right now, and perhaps much better. He gives us the “good life” on steroids. Second, we think that Jesus is talking about life after we die. However, a careful reading of John, not to mention the other Gospels, shows us that the life Jesus promises is not more of the same or something off in the future. The abundant life Jesus brings is fundamentally different and right now. It is true that Jesus promises us resurrected life, but that promise has meaning for us today, not just at some unknown future.

Perhaps two negative examples, which show why Jesus’ kind of life is so important, will help us get a handle on what this means for us. The first example comes from within our own ranks, those who call themselves Christians. We can’t hardly pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV without seeing Christians who attack people of other faiths, or even groups within their faith, with messages that are oppressive and downright hateful. We have Christians picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers while hurling epithets. Aside from the fact that very little love is being expressed, you have to ask, is this real life?

The second example comes from Andrew Root, professor at Luther Seminary, who is an observer of current culture and society. Root observes that it used to be that our identity came from what we did, our occupations, and the roles we filled. However, more and more, peoples’ identities are coming from what they consume, such as cell phones, computers, and all things “i.” This goes far beyond materialism or consumerism, which are problems in and of themselves. But, because of the rapid pace of technological change, our identities can’t keep up. We are always buying trying to hold on to who we are as it keeps slipping away.

I think that the true, abundant life Jesus brings is the presence of God that helps us be the kind of people that God intends us to be, a people who are called to love God and love what God loves. True life is given to us by asking what God is up to in our world and how we can join that work. True life is found in using the gifts that God has given us so that we can give ourselves away for the sake of others. True life comes from serving those in need, as some of our young people discovered this past week as members of CSI-Mankato, Christ’s Servants Involved. True life comes from an identity as a child of God who, because of God’s love, is able to share the love of God with others.

God gives us glimpses of this new life here and now. God gives us both a foretaste of that new life and strengthens us for it in the living bread of Holy Communion, Jesus’ flesh for us. Next week, we’ll talk more about Jesus’ invitation to the table, but for now, we eat for life. Where is God showing you the new life available right now in Jesus? Come and be fed with the Bread of Life. Amen.

Congregational Announcement Regarding Sunday Worship 2012

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

I have some announcements to make this morning about some recent council decisions, but I ask that you bear with me as I rehearse some of the background leading up to them.

Two years ago, I began my call as your pastor with the understanding that I would guide us through a process that would ask two questions: 1) “What is God doing at Grace Lutheran Church? 2) “What does God want us to be doing?” Specifically, we would be looking at ways to serve families in our congregation and community. To that end, we assembled the Shepherding Team, which did a lot of listening. We listened to those had been part of past visioning efforts, we listened to groups and individuals in the congregation, and we listened to voices in the community.

The team then spent time sorting through the information and made recommendations to the church council. Broadly speaking, the three goals were: cultivating vibrant ministry in families through faith formation; create engaging, family friendly worship experiences; and promote service, mission, and outreach to Grace, the community, and beyond. The church council met in retreat this past March, wrestled with these goals, and then held four listening-post potluck conversations after Easter to get feedback from you about the direction we thought God was leading us.

The result of these conversations was two-fold: the first involved planning and implementing a Wednesday night experience that would serve families of all ages and for whom Sunday mornings were not feasible. Hopefully, you are by now aware that beginning on September 12 we will have a weekly community meal, worship service with Holy Communion, and faith formation for all ages.

The second result of our work and conversation was to evaluate our worship services, something that hadn’t be done since we began our present schedule four years ago. As a part of that evaluation, both the Shepherding Team and the Church Council held extensive discussions about convergence worship, which many might call “blended worship.” The idea behind convergence worship is not to try to please everybody by making sure we a variety of musical styles. Rather, convergence worship is about creating worship services that have theological integrity according to the Lutheran tradition, are faithful to the message of the day, and are free to use whatever resources would faithfully support that message, including music, video clips, reader’s theater, and so on.

The services this summer have been an attempt to “do” convergence worship. Built around the theme of “Come and Be Fed,” our worship services have pulled resources from many genres of music and the arts. To accomplish this, the council asked Robyn Menk to serve as worship coordinator on a temporary basis. From what you have told us in the comment cards this summer and the listening posts the past two weeks, you have appreciated the efforts and have been blessed by our worship.

You have also told us that you have appreciated having one service on Sunday morning for a number of reasons, primarily that we are able to experience a greater sense of community. You have also indicated that you wished to have the council make decisions regarding Sunday morning worship as we head into the fall. I take that to mean that you believed you have been listened to and that you have confidence in your leadership to make a faithful decision. Thank you.

The church council met Tuesday night and decided that beginning the Sunday following Labor Day we would have one Sunday service at 9:30 am. We believe that this time will meet the needs of the greatest number of people while providing us with the most flexibility in our programming. Though we don’t know what the adult forum will look like, we do know that we’ll be able to continue our Sunday morning traditions, such as the omelet breakfast, the chili feed, and the Thanksgiving dinner. Additionally, this worship time will allow sufficient time for other fellowship and faith opportunities following worship. For example, it will give us an opportunity to hold new member sessions, Bible Studies, or sermon discussion groups.

With this decision made, we then turned to the question of staffing and resources that would be needed for this convergence worship going forward. As you can imagine, there are many more decisions that we need to make, but here are the ones that have been made. The council voted to extend Robyn’s role as worship coordinator through January until we can make this a permanent part of the budget next year. She has graciously and with a good deal of excitement, accepted. We will also extend the technology coordinator position that Jason Glaser is filling in the same way.

These were easy decisions. What was incredibly difficult was realizing that with our new unified Sunday schedule, the Journey With Grace worship team would no longer serve the way they have been. I spoke with each of them this week, and they are supportive of the decision and are willing to continue to contribute their musical talents on an as-needed basis as we move forward living into the future to which God has called us.

Some people might think that these moves are going backwards, but we believe the opposite. Journey With Grace, under Jodi Johnson’s leadership, has served this congregation well, expanding our understanding of faithful, Lutheran worship. This summer we have been able to put into practice something that many churches can only dream about, worship centered around the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Lutheran tradition that is able to draw on multiple resources while speaking to a variety of experiences. We have been able to heal the artificial divide that was created during the worship wars between contemporary and traditional worship. We could not have done that without the work of Jodi and the Journey With Grace team, not only this summer but also the past four years.

Practically speaking, because of schedules, this means that today will be the last Sunday Journey With Grace will be leading worship as a team. We would be remiss if we didn’t express our appreciation for Jodi’s hard work and leadership in some tangible fashion. So, Jodi, on behalf of the congregation, I present you with this 125th Anniversary mug and an envelope with a special gift inside. Thank you for your presence with us and for the work that you have done on behalf of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ here at Grace Lutheran Church. May God bless you and your children in your new ventures. I know that God will use your musical talents for the blessing of others as you have here. And fortunately for us, like the rest of the musicians here, as is possible for her, Jodi has agreed to share her talents with us into the future.

Thank you, the congregation of Grace Lutheran Church, for daring to step out in faith by answering God’s call to serve families here and in our community in new ways. We don’t know exactly what that will mean, but we will continue to seek God’s guidance. Now, let us continue our service with the Call to Worship.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

"The 'Bread' of Life" - Sermon for Pentecost 10B (Lectionary 18)

“The Bread of Life”
Pentecost 10B (Lect. 18)
August 5, 2012
John 6.24-35

Like many of you, as a kid I grew up eating Wonder Bread. I loved its taste and its freshness. I also enjoyed pulling the crusts off and smashing the bread into a small, compact mass, which I would eat a small bite at a time, greatly annoying my mother. Sometimes I’d even use too pieces of bread. Wonder Bread’s slogan was “helps build strong bodies 12 ways,” and though I didn’t know what that meant, I was pretty sure it was working. What I didn’t know was that Continental Baking began adding nutrients and vitamins in the 1940s to its woefully deficient product as part of a government program to combat diseases, and these “enrichments” eventually added to twelve.

However, the miracle of white bread was short-lived, as nutritional scientists determined that the flour used in white bread was not nearly as healthy as whole grain and multigrain breads. So burst the little balloons on the Wonder logo. Even so, to stay competitive Wonder bread has tried to be innovative with new offerings. The Wonder Bread story seems symbolic of the quest of the crowds in our Gospel reading. Today’s reading is the second of five in John 6, begun last week with the feeding of the multitude. The crowds followed Jesus because they had seen the healings he had done, and were amazed when he fed them with a mere five loaves and two fish. The next day they are still following Jesus, this time with mostly-full bellies after miraculously being fed.

Yet, Jesus tells them that what they’ve found in him is far more important than what they’re looking for. What transpires is a wacky and disjointed conversation in which the crowds ask a question and Jesus seems to respond with something seemingly unrelated. They ask about what they want, but Jesus gives them what they need. What they really want to know is who Jesus is in light of what they’ve experienced, the miraculous feeding. Their questions are going in the wrong direction, so Jesus helps go in a different direction. Ultimately, Jesus does so through the extended metaphor of bread saying, “I am the Bread of Life.”

Just as last week, there is far more in today’s story than we can digest in one sitting and frankly, I’m going to give you a doggy bag to take home with you and ask you to come back next week. As we ruminate on Jesus’ self-description as the Bread of Life, I want to focus on the first part of that statement: what does it mean that Jesus is bread? Next week we will explore the second aspect: what does it mean that Jesus brings life? If you look carefully, you will see Jesus using the terms, “food that endures,” “bread from heaven,” “true bread from heaven,” and the “bread … that gives life.” What is Jesus saying?

We find one avenue to explore about what Jesus means about being bread in the reference to manna. This is a seminal story for the Israelites that tells of how God provided for them on their journey through the wilderness, from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Manna was a substance that God made appear on the ground each day and the people were to gather only what they needed for each day, otherwise it would spoil. It was a way for God to help the Israelites learn to trust him. By calling himself the bread that comes from heaven, Jesus is inviting the crowds to see him as God’s provision and revelation, that through him and in him, God is most fully revealed.

Like the crowds in our gospel reading, and even the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, we are looking to be spiritually fed with true bread, food that comes from God, endures, and gives life. Next week, we’ll explore more about the life Jesus brings, but for today, we have enough to chew on. Let’s ask ourselves, “What are the kinds of things we look to, hoping they will bring us God’s presence? When do these help us the most? When are we disappointed?” The wonder isn’t that we can try to enrich what we eat by seeking spiritually healthy lives. Rather, the wonder is that God provides what we need: Jesus, the Bread of Life. Thanks be to God. Amen.