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

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Remembering the Sabbath" - Sermon for Epiphany 3 (Narrative Lectionary 3)

Remembering the Sabbath
Epiphany 3 (NL3)
January 27, 2013
Luke 6.1-16

On my better days, I believe that our elected officials, regardless of ideology or party affiliation, are on the same side. I believe that they want what is best for our community, state, and country. Really. The rub, of course, is that between those various perspectives there are fundamental differences about how to achieve the common good. It is similar in religion, and it is with that same attitude that I approach today’s Scripture passage. The Pharisees—the religious leaders of the time—and Jesus are on the same side. Really. They both care deeply about the Sabbath. Aside from the threat that Jesus poses to them, the Pharisees are challenged by Jesus’ viewpoint.

To understand the conflict, it is helpful to recall the background of Sabbath-keeping in the Bible. We tend to think of Sabbath as Sunday, a day we set aside to worship God and a day of rest. Yet, Sabbath is so much more, a really big deal in the Old Testament, right back to the time when God rests from creating the world. It’s so important it becomes codified in the Ten Commandments after the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt. So, remembering the Sabbath was not just taking a day off to rest and be re-created. It was a reminder that God delivered them from bondage and set them free to be who God intended.

Sabbath, therefore, was meant to be life-giving and not just one slave master replacing another. Unfortunately, to protect Sabbath-keeping from misuse and neglect, the people added rules called fences around God’s law. Now, sometimes fences are good, such as when they provide security and comfort for children on a playground. And, to be fair, the Pharisees were deeply concerned that matters of faith weren’t being practiced in daily life of the people. Furthermore, as those of us who are old enough to remember the “Blue Laws” prohibiting many Sunday activities, the Pharisees are not the only ones capable of turning Sabbath-keeping into a burden.

One could argue, however, that we’ve gone to the other extreme where there no boundaries on life. Anything goes. Sunday is just another day and worship becomes one more thing to squeeze into a busy day, leaving us exhausted. What gets lost in all of this, and what Jesus is trying to remind us, is that the Law is at heart a gift. A seminary classmate learned this after he was delayed on his final approval for graduation. He could not receive a call and ordination until he completed some additional work. However, other classmates helped him to see this delay as a gift, an opportunity to continue on the track to being a pastor.

Keeping the Sabbath is really an exercise in trust, trusting that everything doesn’t depend on us. Rather, Sabbath reminds us that we receive life from somewhere else outside of our control. Sabbath is a gift to us from a gracious God, a time away from the persistent demands of life. It’s a time to rest in God’s presence, to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation, and to celebrate how God continually delivers us from those things that stand between us and the life God wants for us. Ironically, as Jesus is trying to restore the life-giving force of Sabbath, the Pharisees are planning to destroy his life. Yet, it is in this ultimate destruction of his life on the cross where God will finally set us free.

I freely admit that I don’t know what keeping Sabbath means for me in particular or us as a church. On a retreat a few years ago, I was reminded about the importance of Sabbath and became convinced we need to figure out a way to recover it in our churches and personal lives. I also began to suspect that Sabbath may not look the same as it did for my parents and grandparents. Our conversation with families and their needs have confirmed that, though they didn’t put it so, they need Sabbath more than ever. It just might not involve Sunday morning worship as we know it.

In other words, as the calling of the 12 apostles—literally those who are sent—reminds us, it’s about Jesus’ life-giving mission to the world, one in which we are both enjoy and participate. It’s good and right that we are having our annual meeting today and we do well to ask ourselves how we can remember the Sabbath in a way that gives life instead of death. Please join the conversation. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

"Leaving for Good" - Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany

Leaving for Good
Epiphany 2 (NL3)
January 20, 2013
Luke 4.14-30; 5.1-11

At its heart, the season of Epiphany focuses on manifestations, or disclosures, of God’s presence in our world. On Epiphany itself, there is the star guiding us to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Last week, God is shown in the torn heavens, loud voice, and dove at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Today, Jesus is revealed as the one who comes to fulfill Scripture and do miraculous things. It’s important to understand that, as we learned last week, through his baptism Jesus has been anointed for a purpose, one that will unfold as we go. Jesus is on a mission from God.

As we can see in today’s texts, these disclosures of God’s presence in Jesus produce various reactions. Throughout Galilee Jesus was praised for his teaching and preaching, until he came to Nazareth where he was met first with skepticism and then rejection. Then, at Gennesaret, Peter responds as many do in the presence of the Holy Other: he falls at Jesus’ feet acknowledging his own unworthiness, not for what he has done, but for who Jesus is. Yet, the most intriguing response is the most understated one: Peter, James, and John left everything and followed him.

In Luke’s version of this story, it’s fascinating that Peter, James, and John leave everything and follow Jesus on their own. It’s only later that Jesus will tell his disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. Yet, even a little reflection astounds us (and frightens us) with the magnitude of their response. On one level, this borders on the insane for professional fishermen to leave behind what must be a windfall to them, two boatloads of fish. Certainly, their response is an external action that reflects some kind of internal attachment and commitment to Jesus. But, what did this radical act of dedication mean for them in terms of their personal and family lives?

Furthermore, the text intimates there is more to following Jesus than leaving behind personal property, because Jesus has been set apart to reorient the world’s priorities when it comes to the poor and others who experience marginalization. As the Jesus story plays out, the disciples will be asked to leave behind their preconceived notions of who are valued in God’s kingdom, to see that all people are included in God’s love and grace. So, the story invites us to ask ourselves: what do we need to leave behind to follow Jesus? I’ve mentioned often how I left the church after Confirmation because I hated the hypocrisy I saw in the church, how people often said one thing and did another. Years later, as I responded to Jesus call I realized that in order to return and follow Jesus, I had to leave behind my own hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes.

I’ve thought about this deeply this past week, especially on a personal level, knowing that there are things I have tried to leave behind that I still carry, and how I am not there by a long shot. But, I’ve also thought deeply what things God might be inviting us as a congregation to leave behind. For example, is there a way we can honor and celebrate our past yet let it go so that we can be about what God is calling us to be and to do, to realize that God is calling us to be something else than what we were? And, is there a way we can explore what God is calling us to be and to do without comparing ourselves, always unfavorably, to other churches? Can we let go of these things?

As we wrestle with these important questions, it’s important to remember that leaving these things behind are not so much requirements for following Jesus as it is Jesus’ invitation to live the life he wants for us. Note that Jesus doesn’t ask Simon Peter to get his act together first and then come and follow. Rather, Jesus meets him where he is, tells him not to be afraid, and invites him to kingdom living. It gets tiring holding on to things that weigh us down, and Jesus calls us to leave those things behind in order to find new life in him. What might Jesus be inviting you to leave behind today? Know that his life Jesus offers is a life of meaning and purpose, to live for something other than ourselves. It’s leaving for good. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"The Call of the Baptist" Sermon for The Baptism of Our Lord Sunday

The Call of the Baptist
Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2013
Luke 3.1-22

For those of us who have used the Revised Common Lectionary, today’s reading may seem jarring and out of place. We usually hear the stories about John the Baptist before Christmas during the season of Advent, preparing us for the coming of Jesus as the baby in the manger. Of course, that’s not the way it happened. Narratively speaking, we have the story of John’s remarkable conception and birth intertwined with Jesus’. So, John does come before Jesus in many ways: he born before Jesus, he appears on the scene preaching and baptizing before Jesus, and as foreshadowed in the reading, he will die before Jesus does.

The question is, “What does the story tell us or prepare us for regarding this Jesus character?” The story begins and ends with baptism, but interestingly, Jesus appears late in the story and says nothing. We are not only left with wondering what comes next, but also asking, “Why was Jesus baptized?” Furthermore, we wonder what this story about baptism has to do with our lives of faith. Before we grapple with these questions, it’s important to know that the baptism John performed was not the same as what we know of today. The Jews at the time of John and Jesus had several purification rites they regularly observed.

It is also helpful to acknowledge that what we know as baptism has many aspects to it. As I said to the children, baptism is at heart a gift of God’s grace, which we cannot earn. As David Lose says, “Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up because we didn’t establish it; we can neglect it, deny it, ignore it, and even run away, but we cannot destroy it.” When I talk to the Confirmation students about baptism as gift, I relate to a baby receiving a pen as a gift with no strings attached. The baby doesn’t know what it’s for, and may put it in its mouth until it learns how to use it properly. The child could throw it in drawer and ignore it, but the gift still remains nonetheless. Second, baptism is a matter of identity; God reaches down and makes us his beloved children. This is good news at a time when many elements of identity have been diminished and replaced by what we own instead of who we are or what we do. No matter what happens to us, we are still loved by God.

This is all fine and good, yet our story doesn’t just leave us hanging with a good feeling; it pushes us ahead. There is “so what?” quality about today’s reading that is also present throughout the gospels. In all four versions of the Jesus story, Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. His baptism more than just a nice transition story from John to Jesus, it is Jesus’ launching pad to the work God called him to do. This says something about what baptism means to us as well. Although the traditional understanding of baptism as cleansing, forgiveness, and renewal doesn’t necessarily apply to Jesus as to us, the force of baptism for us is the same as it is for Jesus; it is a call on our lives.

Our family is a big fan of the JRR Tolkien books, so it was obligatory for us to see The Hobbit. Bilbo is a hobbit, a small being that lives in homes carved in hillsides and enjoys food and drink. Hobbits lead quiet, uneventful lives and are generally free from life’s stress, never travelling far from home. So, when Gandalf the magician shows up along with twelve dwarves to invite Bilbo on an adventure, Bilbo is aghast if not scandalized. He never could have imagined this call on his life. Neither Bilbo nor the dwarves can understand why Gandalf insists on bringing Bilbo, other than they need one more body to avoid an unlucky number of travelers, and truth be told, Gandalf doesn’t, too. Yet, as the story unfolds, all of us learn, Bilbo included, there is more to him than meets the eye.

That’s what our baptisms do: we are not just baptized from something, we are baptized for something. Now, we have to admit, this can be scary, because being Christ’s follower can be risky business, as we see from what happens to John the Baptist. And it’s scary because we never know what God is going to ask of us or where he’ll call us. Yet, it’s tremendously satisfying to know that each and every one of us is set aside by God, given gifts that are hard for us to imagine, and invited to join God in the mission to love and bless the world. The great thing is that even when we stumble, God is right there picking us up and sending us out again.

This is not just armchair theologizing. This is real life stuff, and it applies to us as a church, too. We still need two people to step up and answer the call for leadership on council, two “Bilbos,” if you will. And in two weeks we’ll be approving a ministry spending plan for this year. God is calling us into some crazy adventures. Of course, we always need people to step up other places too, but it’s not just about filling slots with warm bodies, and it’s not even about making sure the church survives. It’s about answering God’s call to serve.

Answering the call of the Baptist means listening to God’s voice in its various modulations as God asks us to engage in mission and ministry so that all will know God’s love. That call comes in our personal and professional lives as much as it comes here. Where is God inviting you to live out your baptism in your daily life? How is God calling you? Wherever it is, touch the ribbons of water as you leave here today to be reminded that you are God’s beloved child, gifted and blessed to be a blessing. Amen.