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

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Avoiding the Edifice Complex": Sermon for Reformation Sunday

“Avoiding the Edifice Complex”
Reformation Sunday
October 28, 2012
1 Kings 5.1-5; 8.27-30, 41-43

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” These words from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens foreshadow the paradoxical nature of the French Revolution. The “best of times” is the joy of freedom from tyranny imposed by the nobility over the peasant class. The “worst of times” is the reign of terror experienced by the violence that was unleashed following, mostly through the agency of the guillotine. Life often works that way, rarely is it all good or all bad. The election season that pollutes our airwaves is an economic boon for the media and a field day for political junkies and commentators. Our most exalted heroes seem to come with equally deep flaws, witness Lance Armstrong, cancer survivor, winner of seven “Tours de France,” and consummate cheater. Even our cherished institutions aren’t immune, witness the Boy Scouts of America, molder of boys and young men that also failed to protect them.

One of the blessings of the Bible is that it doesn’t sugarcoat life. It is often brutally honest about the human condition in all its splendor and in all its brokenness. David, a man after God’s own heart, the greatest king of Israel, and writer of psalms commits adultery with another man’s wife and has him killed when he finds out she is pregnant. Even Solomon, David’s second son by that same woman, Bathsheba, asking for and receiving wisdom that becomes legendary, bringing peace to Israel and the builder of the temple, falters by going after other gods. It is not only people that exhibit both greatness and corruption, its beloved institutions that do so, too.

Today’s reading gives some snippets about what was promised last week, the building of the temple. Solomon accomplishes what God both denied to his father David yet promised as well. The temple took seven years to build and was magnificent. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments were housed and God’s holy seat. Solomon, in a wonderful prayer of dedication, of which we only get a glimpse, acknowledges that God is way beyond residing in the temple yet also promises that any and all that come to the temple will be heard, including non-Jews.

However, the biblical narrative also describes in lurid detail decadent and corrupt priests, heavy temple taxes on those who could least afford it, and a sacrificial system that had Jesus going on a rampage. Yet, even today, with only the Western Wall remaining of a temple that has been destroyed three times and rebuilt twice, the Temple Mount and Wall draw thousands of pilgrims daily. It is the best of places and the worst of places.

It is providential that we celebrate the Reformation today, remembering how Martin Luther began the great conversation by nailing 95 theses, or points of discussion, on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He did it to protest the sale of indulgences that would finance the renovations of a temple of sorts, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Indulgence promised special grace, for a price, and Luther objected that we should not have to pay for something that Christ gives us freely. However, before we get too carried away by Protestant pride, we need to remember that the Reformation, too, was “the best of times and the worst of times.” We need to remember that our forebears in the faith and our institutions are also both heroes and flawed. In Luther’s parlance, we are simul iustus et peccator, both saint and sinner.

The rallying cry of the Reformation has become, in another Latin phrase, "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda," the church of the Reformation is always reforming. This slogan challenges us to ask several questions. What is God doing in this place? What is God calling us to do in response? Is this a place where all are truly welcome or have we constructed barriers that prevent access to God’s presence? The good news is that God has not given up on us and continues to work in, with, and through the most deeply flawed people and institutions. In other words, God is working in, with, and through you, me, and this place. Through Christ’s grace, we will reform the broken places and strengthen grace-filled places. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"God's House" Sermon Pentecost 21 (Narrative Lectionary 3 - David)

“God’s House”
Pentecost 21 (NL3 David)
October 21, 2012
2 Samuel 7.1-17

Growing up I had a cat named Frick which, against our better judgment, we’d let outside periodically. Invariably, she would come back with an unwanted and unwelcome gift, most often a bird or a worm. In Frick’s mind, she was paying us the ultimate compliment, giving us what she thought we wanted. In our mind, her offerings were inappropriate, especially when she tried to bring them inside. I wonder if God felt the same way when David wanted to build God a temple. Though God’s reaction may not be as shrill as my mother’s screams, it bears unpacking further.

On the surface, David wants to do something nice for God, to give God some place nice to lodge.
After all, what kind of God would want to live in an ark inside a tent when s/he could have a temple? That’s what kings did for their gods, especially after they have come to power. However, what appears to be a gracious act of religious piety on David’s part is also a political power grab born of fear. By bringing the ark and the tabernacle to Jerusalem, his new capital, David moves to consolidate his power base. Furthermore, by building a house, a temple, for God, David lessens the danger that God will leave him high and dry.

Yet, this God is having none of it. This God is a living God who is totally free and cannot be contained by anyone or anything. This God refuses to be pinned down or constrained by anyone, even his chosen king. We can understand David’s fear and not just for his political future; we want our God to be with us. Even so, this desire to have God present with us in a real and tangible way can be perverted. Frankly, the idea of a free, dynamic, and ever-moving God scares us immensely, so we try to pin him down somewhere. We try to contain God with our own pre-conceived notions and prejudices that serve our own particular ideas about what our God should be like, who God should love or not love.

This past Wednesday evening, I asked those at worship to talk about ways we try to contain God. I received some wonderful answers, and I think we only scratched the surface. One sharp young man said we could try to contain God through our prayers. We do that when we only come to God when we want something or when we try to manipulate God to doing what we want. Another person said that denominationalism is another way to limit God. This happens when we believe in our own corner of the church that we are the only ones who have the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To combat this idea, one of my former pastors and colleagues, Wollom Jensen, used to say, “I believe we have the truth in the Lutheran Church, but I don’t believe we have all of it.” She went on to add this is especially destructive when we believe we know who God is going to save and who God is going to damn to hell, even suggesting that Christianity limits God by declaring that no other religions have access to God.

Even so, God understands our fear and, in spite of our attempts to limit him, God assures us with his presence. David wanted to do something for God, but as God often does, turns it around and does something for us. In a wonderful play on words, David lives in a house and wants to build God a house, a temple. But it is God who is going to build a house, that is, a dynasty for David and his heirs. The insecurity of God’s freedom is eased by God’s promise of his presence with David’s line. What’s more, God promises never to remove his steadfast love no matter what, no matter whom.

Those who were with Jesus of Nazareth saw in him fulfillment of this promise. Jesus, Immanuel, God With Us, promises to never leave us or forsake us. But, he also refuses to be constrained by our narrow ideas of what kind of God he will be, insisting to love all of us without restrictions. The Spirit blows wherever and whenever it wills, and Jesus can be anywhere he chooses to be, but he has promised to meet us in particular places. He meets us in the spoken and sung word. He is found in the waters of baptism, just as they washed over Ellie this morning. In a few moments, he will meet us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In so doing, he has freed us from fear to live for others. The Giver is also the Gift, and the living God is on the loose, inviting us to be on the loose, too. Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Hannah's Song" Sermon Pentecost 20

“Hannah’s Song”
Pentecost 20 (NL3 Judges)
October 14, 2012
1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10

Hannah’s story, of a barren woman who longs to have a child, is a compelling one that draws us in. Most of us know those for whom this is a tender and painful story. Hannah’s grief is compounded by her husband’s second wife, Penninah, who cannot only have babies at will, but who mocks her and throws it in Hannah’s face. Her husband, Elkanah, is sympathetic and even overly generous but, while trying to mitigate her pain, is clueless. “Am I not worth more than ten sons? he says.” Her story is also compelling because it is told in the context of a much larger but similar story of hopelessness and despair. The 12 tribes of Israel are besieged by other powers from without and by their own corruption and faithlessness from within. Both Hannah and Israel don’t seem to have any future.

However, the birth of a child changes everything. Even so, the key to understanding what this means comes within Hannah’s Song, the psalm of thanksgiving Hannah sings in praise of God’s gracious gift of a son. This is important because we might be tempted to ask more of Hannah’s story than we should. It is natural, but misguided, to pore over her story looking for a procedure for getting what we want from God. Hannah’s Song reminds us that it is not about us; rather, it is about what God does in, with, and through us. It is about us only to the extent that God has a special place in his heart for the hurting and helpless.

What does Hannah’s Song tell us what we need to hear today as we make our way through the story? First, the story shows again how God meets each of us in midst of our pain, despair, and hopelessness. Wherever we struggle, whoever persecutes us, whatever we lament, God is there with us. Hannah trusted in that promise, which is why she poured out her soul to God in the shrine at Shiloh. The tribes of Israel, as they suffered at the hands of other nations, some of it their own doing, cried out to God for a deliverer. God raised up judges for them and will eventually raise up a king as well.

That God meets us where we are leads us to the second important takeaway today: God is working even though we can’t see it. The miraculous birth of Samuel is the back-story to another back-story, which ultimately tells the story of how David became the greatest king of Israel, uniting the tribes into one formidable people. Getting there is not a smooth ride and it takes all of 1 Samuel and much of 2 Samuel to tell it. Hannah’s Song reminds us that God is acting in, with, and through the world on our behalf. By the way, I think that it is precisely those times when we think God is absent from us that God is working the hardest.

The third and last point our text makes today is that God turns life upside down from what we expect. God does not only reverse the fortunes of the lowly, the downtrodden, and the marginalized. God also works in, with, and through the most unlikely of people and circumstances. Who would think that Hannah would have a child, let alone a kingmaker and king-breaker? Who would have thought that it would be the eighth son of Jesse who would become king? For that matter, who would have imagined that the Savior of the world would be born in a humble stable to a carpenter and his ordinary wife, a woman who sings a similar song of her own after his birth? A side note: it seems to me that God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized ought to inform our political choices.

When I was doing coursework for my doctorate, I had the opportunity to do an intentional analysis of the events that led up to this point in my life as a pastor. It was amazing to see how the people I met and the experiences I had shaped me in ways I couldn’t dream of at the time. The opening of Hannah’s womb reminds us that our lives and our futures are continually being reopened. The birth of Samuel reminds us that God does new things in amazing ways. Hannah’s Song is our song and we join our voices to hers, for God meets us at the places of our deepest need, works in ways that we can’t always see, in ways that we can never expect. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Bold Humility" Sermon Pentecost 19

“Bold Humility”
Pentecost 19 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Law & Wilderness)
Exodus 32.1-14
October 7, 2012

It’s been a wild ride for the Israelites. In response to the people’s cry of oppression, Moses showing up as God’s mouthpiece to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land they have only heard rumors about. He does so through a series of dramatic plagues ending with the Passover, the angel of death killing the unprotected firstborn male people and animals. On their way out, they plunder the Egyptians and have a narrow escape at the Red Sea where Moses parts the waters. God gets them organized in the wilderness, providing quail and manna for them to eat. Flush from this exhilarating adventure and the anticipation of the Promised Land, they pledge themselves to each other. Furthermore, the Israelites agree to follow God’s rules for living.

But they haven’t had a lot of experience with Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, so they get nervous when they haven’t heard from him in a while. Moses has been in conference with God 40 days and the Israelites get restless. Has Moses met with some disaster? Did God leave them again? Will it be another 400 years before God shows up again? What should they do? They need a god they can rely on, one that can lead them, and so they make their own god in the form of a golden calf. As Rolf Jacobson notes, this is not an image of a false god, but a false image of the True God. A charitable view says that they simply wanted a god with whom they could connect. Uncharitably, they made up a god they were trying to control.

Yet, in a remarkable twist to the story, the True God cannot be controlled, but he can be persuaded. Moses, the one that God called to lead his people, who didn’t even want the job in the first place, intercedes on their behalf. Daring to talk to God in the midst of God’s righteous anger and denying any self-interest no matter how tempting, Moses advocates for others who don’t deserve it and may not appreciate it. But Moses did something even bolder: Moses reminded God of his promises and who he claimed to be. Then, in one of the most incredible lines in Scripture, we hear that “God changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring upon his people.”

The idea that God can change his mind may make some of us a bit nervous, just like the Israelites were nervous when Yahweh seemed absent. Indeed, we have to admit that many of us have tried to make God into our own golden calves in one way or another. We wonder if God is being unpredictable, not to mention somewhat fickle and subject to being shamed. However, I believe that this story shows a God who is dynamic, not static, who makes himself vulnerable to us and open to conversation with us so that we might be vulnerable and open to him. We also see in this story a God who justly hates sin and brokenness, but tempers justice with mercy. God is both just and merciful. Thank goodness God is more merciful than just.

I have said before how grateful I am that Grace embraces and practices prayer so faithfully. This story of Moses and God shows us that prayer is important, but it goes way beyond that. God invites us into a relationship where we can pour out not only our hurts to him but also our hearts.
As we come to God in bold humility, addressing him as the God of our ancestors, we not only remind ourselves of who God is and what God is promised; we remind God of that as well. One thing I mention to the Saved By Grace (Confirmation) students as well as to parents of babies being baptized is that baptism is not as much for God as it is for us. I tell them that when we doubt God’s promises (or think God has forgotten us), we can wave our baptism in God’s face and say, “You promised!”

The story doesn’t end here and when Moses gets down the mountain, it turns pretty ugly. They are not destroyed, but they do suffer the consequences of their sin. We have more stories after this one about how God continually puts up with people who turn away from him, about how God takes them back because he loves us so very much. Then when we get to final story about Jesus, we can’t help but think of the one who in bold humility gave himself for us, interceding on our behalf. Jesus is the final reason we have the bold humility to enter into conversations with God, asking for God’s blessing on others, denying our own self-interests, trusting in God’s grace and mercy. God not only invites us into just such a relationship, but also makes it possible. Thanks be to God! Amen.