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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Responsibly Free" Sermon Pentecost 18B (Narrative Lectionary 3 - Exodus/Passover)

“Responsibly Free”
Pentecost 18B (NL3 Exodus/Passover)
September 30, 2012
Exodus 12.1-14; 13.1-10

We usually encounter the Passover story in the context of Maundy Thursday, the commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Three out of the four gospels make this last meal that Jesus has a Passover meal. John’s gospel, interestingly, has Jesus dying on the night of the Passover. Looking back through the story of Jesus to the Passover event makes obvious connections between the two stories. Unfortunately, doing so robs the Passover story of its power and its rightful place in God’s story. So far in God’s story we have heard how God creates humanity in God’s image as male and female, and how these human beings disobeyed God’s good intentions for them. We have heard how Abraham and Sarah were promised numerous descendants like the stars in the sky as well as a land for them to occupy. Last week heard the Joseph story and how the beginnings of the 12 tribes found themselves in Egypt.

In narrative time, it has been 400 years since Joseph saved both Egypt and his people and the Israelites have become numerous. They are indeed many, but they are still in Egypt without a land of their own and it gets worse. They are a threat to the Egyptians, Joseph has been forgotten, and in an attempt to hold them back, the Egyptians are forcing the Israelites into hard manual labor. It doesn’t work, so Pharaoh has the Egyptian midwives are told to kill male Jewish babies as they are born. The Israelites cry out to God for deliverance, God raises up Moses to act has an agent of freedom, loosing a series of plagues to convince Pharaoh to let them go. The tenth and final plague is the harshest, the killing of the firstborn male in unprotected households where lamb’s blood has not been smeared on the thresholds.

So, when we talk about celebrating Passover, the event God uses to liberate the Jewish people, we would do well to mute our celebration, knowing that many innocent children died, on both sides. The commemoration is also subdued because, as awful a place Egypt was, the Israelites were going into the unknown, what will be long, wilderness wandering before they get to the Promised Land. Furthermore, as wonderful a place as that will be, it will bring its own challenges and difficulties. Yet, this is such a singular part of Jewish history and so basic to their identity that God demands they not only remember each year what God has done for them, but also essentially reenact it as well.

This reenactment goes further: children are not only to be told over and over about this singular act of deliverance from slavery and oppression by God, they and the family are an important part of it. The mother lights the candles and a child asks a series of questions beginning with, “Why is this night different from all other nights? Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?” Then the father or mother tells the story of oppression and freedom and then there are more questions and more stories. All the while, they eat as their ancestors ate, lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread, hastily with their feet pointed toward the door. Each year they are reminded who they are, whose they are, and what they have been freed for.

It is significant that the Passover event resets the Jewish calendar to the beginning of the year. The Israelites are leaving Egypt behind and all that means, making a new start to a new land. This new stage in their journey with God, along with the importance of teaching their children, can inform an important, yearly rite that we are celebrating here today, the Affirmation of Baptism. No, there won’t be any lambs sacrificed or bitter herbs eaten, but there will be unleavened bread in the form of Communion wafers. Yet, as exciting as it was for Izabel and Linsey to affirm what their parents did for them, this celebration should be a bit muted too, because you two have been freed for something today.

Izzy and Linsey, by your words and actions today you have been set free from your parents’ authority, but you have also been set free for taking responsibility for your own faith journey. You have promised to continue on that journey your parents set you on, a journey of regular worship, Bible study, prayer, service, and giving, and you did it in front of many witnesses. Yet, remember this, that the setting free has been accomplished not by you, but rather by the God who set free the Israelites and who journey with them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. That’s a powerful story; it’s the Israelite’s story, it’s our story, and it’s your story; don’t ever forget it. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Good God!" Sermon for Pentecost 17B

“Good God!”
Pentecost 17B
September 23, 2012
Genesis 37.4-8, 26-34; 50.15-21

NCIS is a fictional TV show about a team of federal agents working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, doing exactly what the name implies, investigating crime in or against the Navy and Marine Corps. In a past episode, two of the team, Tony and McGee, believe they have located another member of their team, Ziva, who has been missing and believed to be in the hands of a foreign terrorist in an unfriendly foreign country. Because the government is unwilling to extract her without proof, Tony and McGee allow themselves to be captured by the terrorists on the slim hope that the government would rescue them.

Indeed, Ziva is there, beaten to a pulp and almost dead, but Tony and McGee are also subjected to torture. During his interrogation, Tony repeatedly asks the terrorist leader when he is going to surrender, warning the man that he is about to die if he doesn’t do so. Understandably, the terrorist laughs. At a critical time, the small window behind Tony shatters and a bullet kills the terrorist. The bullet has been fired by their team leader, Gibbs, a former sniper, from several hundred yards away. Against all odds, a squad of rescuers overruns the terrorist compound and all three are rescued.

Today we enter the Joseph narrative and Jana did a nice job summarizing what has happened since last week’s reading about Abraham and the highlights of what is happening in our story today. On a literary level, the Joseph story bridges the gap between promises God makes to the ancestors that they would be a numerous people and story in Exodus of oppression and liberation. On a theological level, the Joseph story asserts that—evidence to the contrary—God is at work in, with, and under the circumstances of life and the action of people working to make things good.

What Joseph and his brothers now realize at the end that they were unable to see in the middle was that God was working both through them and in spite of them to bring about God’s purposes. One significant lesson from this story is the assurance that God is present in the most horrific and ugly parts of our lives and the world even though it is not always possible to see it. God is with us. There are two important dimensions lesson must be held together on our journeys of faith if we are to make sense of this lesson.

First, we must have a healthy sense of realism about our dangerous world and our human brokenness. Without a realistic view of the world, we dissolve into a romantic piety about our life circumstances. Too many of us have been on the receiving end of well-meaning but obnoxious platitudes such as, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handled,” or “You can always have more children.” Second, we also need a healthy sense of certainty that God is faithful and will somehow bring some kind of good out of the direst of circumstances. Without certainly, realism leads to despair.

There is another significant lesson that the Joseph narrative has for us today that takes us beyond it. The assurance that God works in, with, and through even the darkest places in the world gives us the courage we need to enter those places intentionally as God’s partners in healing and redemption. Tony and McGee had no delusions about the danger they were entering in trying to rescue Ziva. And, although they had no guarantee, they believed that Gibbs and others were working on their behalf. They didn’t leave it all up to Gibbs, but neither did they think it all depended upon them.

We read the Joseph story through the lens of another story: Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The Romans, the civil authorities, and some religious leaders intended to do great harm to Jesus. Yet, God was working in, with, and through the most horrific death possible to bring new life. The cross of Jesus gives us the assurance that we can enter any uncertain circumstance with the assurance that God will be with us, often working in ways we cannot see until much later. It is why the apostle Paul is able to say in Romans 8 that, “All things work together for good for those who love God and are the called according to his purpose.”

Because of this assurance of God’s presence, we walk with people who are facing terminal illness and death. We are able to join the world of the poor and hungry even in the most overwhelming of circumstances. We enter the worlds of people different from us, with different cultures and religious beliefs, not to convert them, but simply to get to know them as fellow travelers in this world. Had Tony and McGee not been rescued and died with Ziva, she still would have known that there were people willing to enter her darkness and be with her through it.

This week I invite you to look back over your life and see where God has been working to bring about God’s good although you may not have seen it at the time. I then invite you to look around to where God might be calling you to enter, places of uncertainty and even frightening. God is working in, with, and through us in the world so that all may know and live God’s love. God is with you. Thanks be to our good and gracious God! Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Promises, Promises" Sermon Pentecost 16B

“Promises, Promises”
Pentecost 16B
September 16, 2012
Genesis 15.1-6           

When my dad passed away in 1989 the pastor shared with us Psalm 121, which begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” I have since learned that hills were not a source of comfort for travelers in the psalmist’s time. Rather, they were sources of fear, from which bandits would come to attack them. That’s why people travelled in caravans. Yet, the psalmist turns that source of fear on its head and declares that, because of God’s promises, hills are comforting, not fearful. These are verses that I share with grieving families, inviting them to do the same. I thought about it this week as I had the opportunity to visit my dad’s grave, on a small hill at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. Both the marker and the hill, which obviously speak of death, are because of God’s promises, also signs of life.

Today we enter the story of Abraham, which is foundational for the Jewish people. Stretching from chapters 11-25, the story says that beginning with one very old couple, God was going to build a nation and through that nation, God was going to bless all nations of the earth. Specifically, God promised Abram and Sarai—soon to be Abraham and Sarah—, past childbearing years at 75 and 66 years old respectively, they would have their own son. This is a promise God would repeat over and over again. It is a promise that won’t be fulfilled for 25 years and through many conversations between Abram, Sarai, and God, conversations that are often pained, strained, and difficult for all of them. That’s how the life of faith is, not always gracious back and forth dialogue between God and us. Interestingly, it’s these painful conversations that keep the relationships alive in difficult times.

Beside God’s willingness to hang in there with us even when we doubt, yell, scream, or cry, God also gives us what we need to keep going, to move forward in faith even when we doubt. I wonder how many times in those 25 years between the promise and the beginning of fulfillment, the birth of Isaac, that Abram stands outside his tent looking up at the stars in the sky. I imagine that as I look to the hills around me in general and at my dad’s gravestone in particular, Abraham also held onto those stars as God’s promise to him that he would have a son. By the way, remember that Abraham will never see the total fulfillment of that promise, only its beginning. Those stars were not proof that God would fulfill his promise, but they were a not so subtle reminder that the One who created those very stars is capable of giving a child to an old couple.

God knows that we need to be reminded of the promises and God knows we need more than promises to hang on to as we wait for the fulfillment of the promises. That’s why God give us his Word in the scriptures, the story of the Word made flesh living with us. That’s why God’s Word is attached to the waters that pour over us, so that every time we get wet we are reminded that we are a child of God and that nothing will separate us from God’s love. It is why God continues to come to us and give himself to us, his body and blood, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, to remind us that we are forgiven and that we have new life in him. Finally, it is why God makes himself present in this and other communities of faith, the Body of Christ.

God gives us what we need to move ahead in life, to step out in faith, not to earn the promise but rather to live into the promise, to take the plunge in life trusting God to be there. I don’t think the biggest miracle is that Abraham and Sarah had a son, or that a numerous people sprung from them. I think the most amazing thing is that for 25 years, past the age when they should not have children, they continued to do what people do who want to have a baby. Now, that’s faith! What is it that God has promised you? What has God given you as a sign to hang on to as you wait? How might you step out in faith, knowing that God will fulfill his promises to you? Look to the hills, the stars, a grave marker, or an empty tomb. For, in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we have the assurance of God’s promise always. Amen.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

"Into the Garden and Out Again" Sermon Pentecost 15B

“Into the Garden and Out Again”
Pentecost 15B
September 9, 2012
Genesis 2.4b-7, 15-17; 3.1-8, 21-24

We love our stories. We love to listen to them and we love to tell them over and over again. We like the real ones best, but we’ll take the made up ones, especially if they ring true to life. Stories are powerful because they invite us into a world that can touch us and when they touch us they can change us.

Because we tend to read the Bible in pieces, we forget that the Bible is, at heart, a story. We forget that it’s in fact one story made up of hundreds of shorter stories. Like any good story, the Bible has people we call characters, both good and not so good, a plot, and a point. We also forget that the biblical story doesn’t begin with Jesus, though he is central. As Martin Luther said, the Bible is the manger that the Christ child is laid in. Finally, to say that the Bible is a story does not diminish its character or importance for us. This story is important, not just because it’s our “back story,” our history. It is, as Brian McLaren says, The Story We Find Ourselves In. We are not only living out the story; the story is lived out in us.

That’s why we are beginning to use the Narrative Lectionary today. Using this lectionary will reacquaint us with the grand sweep of the biblical story, from creation to consummation and everything in between. This fall we’ll focus on some Old Testament stories and prophets, which will lead into the Jesus story in Advent, Christmas and beyond through his death, crucifixion, and resurrection. Following Easter, we’ll read about in the book of Acts how the early church worked out the resurrection life. To help fill in the gaps, we have some nifty resources that give background for each story as well as daily readings to fill in the story between Sundays.

Today we start with the second creation story in Genesis. Did you know that there are two creation stories? In Genesis 1, we hear how God creates in six days and rests on the seventh, with humankind being made in God’s image as the crown of creation. In the second story in Genesis 2, we uncover an important truth. Humans are not only like God, we have something of God within us. The word breath in the Bible can also mean wind or spirit. God’s very Spirit enlivens us. We are both soil and spirit. We skip the verses about the creation of a partner, woman, from man’s rib, but the point of the story is one that flows throughout the Bible. We belong to God and to each other interdependently. We are meant for community.

However, this good creation of God’s doesn’t last as Adam and Eve rebel against God’s good intentions for them. A few things to note: nowhere in the text does it say that the serpent was Satan or the devil. That is an idea that was imposed centuries later. The serpent is simply a crafty animal. Also, note that it was not Eve who coerced Adam into disobedience, sexually or otherwise. Although Adam remains silent, he was right there along with Eve through the entire thing and ate when she did. By the way, for those who are tempted to quip that a woman was the last created and the first to sin, remember that it was women who where last at Jesus’ cross and first at his empty tomb. The point is not so much to explain the origin of brokenness, but rather the mystery of sin. Sin is a mysterious force that arises from within God’s good creation, which is a risk God takes for making a truly free creation. The story reminds us of the reality of what it means to be human and exposes our mysterious tendencies to rebel against God.

There are consequences to living outside of God’s good intentions for us. This is graphically shown by humanity’s expulsion from the Garden. Thankfully, that is not the end of the story; there is more. With God, there is always more. Adam and Eve do not die and, in a gracious act of care and love, God provides them with clothing and sets them to meaningful work. Neither creation nor sin is the last word, for God continues to be involved in our world and lives. Not only will God continue to pick us up and clean us up when we fall and bloody our noses, God will insist on working in, with, and through we who are deeply flawed for his purposes.

This story that we find ourselves in provides us with several important and provocative questions. What does it mean that we are made in the image of God as dust and breath, soil and spirit? Look around the world and in your life and ask where you see God creating and recreating, bringing new life out of death. Can you see places where God has worked through broken people to bring mercy and love? We will be asking these questions in different ways as we take our journey through the Bible. Through it all, we will see repeatedly how God continues to be faithful to us even when we are not faithful to God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

"The Heart of the Matter" Pentecost 14B (Lect. 22) Sermon

“The Heart of the Matter”
Pentecost 14B (Lect. 22)
September 2, 2012
Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

You may have noticed how chopped up our Gospel reading is today and wondered why. If it were a topic secret report released to the public, it would look heavily redacted with a lot of black bars blotting out the good parts. So, our minds immediately go suspicious, thinking that the lectionary crafters are hiding something. Normally, I’d be just as mistrustful, but in this case, I can yield to their collective wisdom. The lectionary trims away those parts that distract us from the heart of the matter, the human heart. Though some of us might like to hear that all foods are now declared clean by Jesus (verse 19), thereby absolving us of shame for eating anything deep-fried on a stick at the “Great Minnesota Get Together,” hand washing and foods are not the main concern.

Nor is the heart of the matter how our traditions suck the life out of us. It is not how traditions, the “living faith of the dead” somehow mutate into traditionalism, the “dead faith of the living.” That would be an easier sermon to preach, a tirade against stuff “we’ve always done that way.” We could pull up clips from Fiddler on the Roof (“Tradition!”) and poke holes in somebody else’s beloved practice while expressing righteous indignation as somebody does it to ours. We could even rant against those who exhibit Pharisee-like qualities, imposing themselves on us their ideas of important practices. We would all go home satisfied that we’d accomplished something, that we had gotten it right.

That is, except for the fact that Jesus has this annoying habit of putting his finger on the real issue, our hearts. This might be confusing to us because we think of the heart as the place of emotions and feelings. Given the legacy of the Enlightenment, which elevated reason above everything, we think the brain is the place of reason and sanity. But the biblical notion of the heart is more inclusive, it is the center of our very being. The heart is not only the place where our passions arise; it is the seat of our will. Unfortunately, Jesus says, the human heart is not always a pretty thing to behold. Yes, we are capable of acts of kindness and generosity, but overall, our hearts harbor ugly stuff.

Frankly, as I was working with this text this week, I found my heart becoming heavy and weighed down. That was because try as I might, I could not find a shred of good news or grace in Jesus’ words. In fact, I had to go to the Old Testament passage from Deuteronomy, where Moses talks about the Law, to find a scrap of hope and nourishment. “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?” The Law was a gift, not a burden to God’s people. Yet, even more importantly, the Law was a gift from God who not only recognizes the predicament we find ourselves in, but who continually does something to free us up for life.

The important lesson that Jesus has for us today is that we can’t do anything to fix this on our own. It is not about what we can do, but rather about what Jesus can do in, with, and through our hearts. Indeed, as Pogo says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” However, Jesus Christ meets us, too, where we need him. Our life, our strength, and our hope are in Jesus Christ, who is the only one, through the power of the Holy Spirit, who can change hearts. Jesus is the Potter, softening our hardened hearts so that he can shape us into loving people. This week, pay attention to your heart, to those things that stand against God and the life God intends for us. Knowing Jesus’ forgiveness, pray that Jesus would strengthen you and set you free for the life. Amen.