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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

"No Idle Tale" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

No Idle Tale
Easter Sunday (NL3)
March 31, 2013
Luke 24.1-16

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed, alleluia! Happy Easter, my sisters and brothers in Christ, to whom I bring words of grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen

It seemed to them an idle tale.

What a time this has been, since Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem on Ash Wednesday, beginning his journey (and ours) to the cross and empty tomb. It has been a series of ups and downs along the way. Jesus spent some great quality and quantity time with his followers, preaching, teaching, and healing, explaining the way of the kingdom. Yet, as we discovered along the way, not all who listened were favorable to his message.

Even so, Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds, only to be met with the jeers of the religious leaders, who engaged Jesus in larger disputes, ending with his trial and crucifixion. Not all of those leaders were antagonistic. Joseph of Arimathea, who resonated with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom, asked for Jesus’ body and out of deep respect, laid it in a fresh tomb.

Then there were the women, the ones who had been following Jesus since Galilee, who were there with him at the cross. Now they were coming to anoint his body with spices because time had run out, the Sabbath coming upon them too soon. When they get to the tomb, they are first perplexed that the stone has been rolled back and oddly, the first thing they find when they arrive is nothing. Then terrified by the appearance of two heavenly beings in dazzling garments and they are given something: they are given a word. “He has been raised.” “Why do you look for the living among the dead,” they ask. After being reminded of Jesus’ promises, they rush to tell the eleven, Jesus’ most trusted friends, and many others of this baffling news. It is to them “an idle tale,” well beyond belief.

Another translation calls their message nonsense, which is still too tame a word. The Greek word here is leros and it is the same as the one from which we get our word delirious. In other words, the eleven think that the women are crazy, nuts, out of their minds. And they are right, are they not? After all, Jesus was certainly dead, and dead is dead. Arland Hultgren, a professor at Luther Seminary, says it takes a lot of faith and courage to believe in the resurrection. David Lose, one of his colleagues, says that if you don’t find the resurrection at least a little hard to believe you’re probably not taking it too seriously. Resurrection thinking is crazy thinking, because it is not resuscitation. There is something completely new and different that happens.

It is important to linger at the empty tomb for a while and not rush too quickly to the resurrection. On my worse days I wonder if God called me to be a preacher for this very reason, not so much because I’m crazy (though I am that), but because I need to preach the resurrection to believe it, and as I believe it I continue to preach it. In other words, my prayer is always, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. One woman asks another, “Can this possibly be true?” The other, who is going through an awful time replies, “It had better be, or this life would be even more hell than it already is.” So, on my better days I think, “The resurrection is not too good to be true; it’s too good not to be true.”

It’s important to recognize that the empty tomb, in and of itself, does not bring about faith. Resurrection faith will come, albeit slowly, to the disciples and to us, but it will take an appearance of the risen Christ to do it. Fortunately, the power and love of God are not thwarted by our shaky belief and expectations. This is good because the families of Dennis, Leone, Elma and countless others desperately need it to be true. Resurrection faith will come, and if the risen Christ hasn’t brought it to you, he will. Yet, when it comes it will change everything, because it’s too good not to be true. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, alleluia! That’s no idle tale. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Don't Forget" Sermon for Good Friday

Don’t Forget
Good Friday (NL3)
March 29, 2013
Luke 23.32-47

Much has happened since last evening, when we remembered Jesus’ last meal with his friends. Following Jesus’ prayers in the garden, Judas has completed his betrayal of his former master with the most unholy of kisses. The chief priests and temple police have arrested Jesus, beaten, stripped, and tried him. Meanwhile, all his followers have faded into the background except Peter, though he denies Jesus three times, just as Jesus predicted. Because the religious leaders don’t want to get their hands dirty, Jesus is brought before the governor, Pilate. Pilate, who finds no offense in Jesus, sends him to the puppet king Herod. Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, who reluctantly condemns him to be crucified at the insistence of the crowds. And so Jesus makes the long journey to the place called the Skull with the two criminals.

There, Luke tells us with an uncharacteristic economy of words, Jesus is crucified, along with the others, one on his left and one on his right. The first thing Jesus does is to pray, not for himself, but for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Ignorance in this case is not innocence; they need forgiveness. While the people stand watching, the leaders, soldiers, and even a criminal continue to mock him. Indeed they are ignorant; how ironic that by declining to save himself, Jesus will be saving them. Even so, in the midst of the mockery a voice of faith calls out: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Forgetting is a horrible thing, and as I get older I am more conscious how precious memory is, appreciating what I have. Many of you know that my wife, Cindy, and I have become more involved in the care of her parents. Her father is in a long term care facility and her mother, though still at home, is failing. Both have memory problems. On a recent outing, Cindy went to get the car to pick up my mother-in-law at the door, saving her some steps. As Cindy was walking way, my mother-in-law said, “Don’t forget me.” I think she was only partly joking and I also think that even on their best days, my in-laws probably wonder if they have been forgotten even as they forget more and more. I wonder how many people think Jesus has forgotten them.

To the criminal next to him, Jesus’ responds to his plea with a wonderful promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” In doing so, Jesus brings us full circle from where we began last September with the Narrative Lectionary, reading about the creation and the fall. The word for garden in the Old Testament is the same as the word in our reading today for paradise. So we remember two other criminals in that first garden, Adam and Eve, who are tossed out because of their not so innocent ignorance. The good news on this Good Friday is that the expulsion from paradise because of human sin is turned around and made right. This gift is not ours to take, but it is Jesus’, the king’s, to give.

Like Adam and Eve, the leaders, the soldiers, the criminals and everyone in between, in spite of all we do to try and get it right in our lives, there is always a part of us that doesn’t get it right and needs forgiveness. Today, Jesus takes all of that brokenness in our lives upon himself where it is crucified with him. In its place, Jesus leaves his own innocence and righteousness, restoring our relationship with God and others. Through his faithfulness to God’s promises, Jesus literally re-members us, making us members again, bringing us to wholeness of life. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we cling to Jesus’ promise not to forget us, praying that it will hold us through all of our various Good Fridays, as we make our way to the empty tomb. Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"Even Judas" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Even Judas
Maundy Thursday (NL3)
March 28, 2013
Luke 22.1-27

It seems like Jesus can’t catch a break these last few days, not even during this last supper with his closest friends. It has been one conflict after another since he arrived triumphantly in Jerusalem as the coming king to the cheers of the crowds. The tension has increased and if the hatred of the religious leaders wasn’t enough to deal with, one of Jesus’ most trusted followers is plotting to betray him while the others are squabbling about who is the greatest. It reminds me of the arguments with my siblings about whose turn it was to wash the dishes, turning a nice meal into a catfight. I imagine Jesus was at least as exasperated about them as our parents were about us, no doubt more.

There has been much guesswork down through the millennia about Judas and his motives for betraying Jesus. Yet, as much as Luke tells us about Judas and what he does, Luke is strangely silent about Judas’ motives. We have no clue why he betrays Jesus. Was he disappointed because Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the kind of savior he thought he was? Was he in it for the money, as the gospel writer John hints? Or was there some other reason? We don’t know, but in a very real sense it doesn’t matter what Judas’ motives were. Commentator Greg Carey points out that attaching motives to Judas makes him irrelevant to us. If we knew why he did what he did, we could just dismiss him. Leaving Judas alone in that respect leaves Judas at the table, right along with the rest of us.

Carey also reminds us that Jesus spends a lot of time at meals in Luke’s gospel. Much of the time Jesus is either at a meal, on his way to a meal, or coming back from a meal. In fact, many of his parables involve meals or eating. We at Grace Lutheran can identify with that! The important thing to note is that Jesus shares meals with everybody: the outcast sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes, the rich, the poor, his closest friends and even his enemies. Here at his last supper, Jesus not only gathers with his clueless friends and his betrayer, he feeds them. Jesus feeds them with his very body and blood, his life force. Jesus feeds all of them, even Judas.

On more than one occasion I have been approached by someone who says something like this: “Pastor, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been to Communion lately. It’s because I’ve done some awful things and I just don’t feel worthy enough to commune.” What these folk have forgotten was that none of us deserves to be at Jesus’ table. None of us deserve to be fed with his forgiveness.

Before I became a pastor, I was president of a congregation in Northern Virginia near Washington DC. I present at a very contentious meeting with national church leaders and our church leadership about a building project we were finally going to undertake. We were going to build a sanctuary after worshipping many years in a glorified fellowship hall. After the meeting, there were some hurt feelings all the way around, most of which I don’t even remember. However, we did one thing right: we closed the meeting with worship and Holy Communion. That experience deflated the bruised egos and brought a new perspective to our work together. We were all fed and forgiven. I often wonder how it would have gone in our meeting had we started with Communion rather than ended with it.

Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus means a lot more than simple recalling a past event. Remembering actually makes Jesus present in a real and vital way. Also, to remember is to re-member, to be membered again, to be made members in community with one another, restored to wholeness. We don’t know what Jesus means by the woe that will be visited upon Judas. But we do know that, even if we can’t hold judgment and grace together, God can. Judgment often contains the makings of grace and grace tempers judgment. In the midst of the brokenness of our lives, the petty and not so petty squabbles, Jesus comes to feed us with forgiveness. He comes to re-member us for service to others, even Judas, even us. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Cheers, Jeers, and Tears" Sermon for Palm Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 3)

Cheers, Jeers, and Tears
Palm Sunday (NL3)
March 24, 2013
Luke 19.29-44

Finally, we are here. Jerusalem: the destination to which Jesus set us face, as we read on Ash Wednesday. Along the way, Jesus has been teaching his followers the way of the kingdom, preparing them for what is to come. Yet, like the lead-up to death through a long illness, we are never fully prepared for the agony that awaits us. Palm Sunday is a “hot fudge sundae” kind of day, where we feel hot and cold at the same time. However, today we have a third emotion added, as if we were eating the sundae at a dying one’s bedside. Our lesson today gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly of scripture all in one sitting.

Like a conquering hero, Jesus rides into Jerusalem astride a donkey, the limousine of kings. To the cheers of the crowds and his disciples, Jesus is celebrated as the coming king. For a people who have been under occupation by a foreign government, Jesus symbolizes hope. Perhaps the peace will finally come, that which was predicted by the angels at his birth: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to his people on earth.” We hope that this peace will be different, unlike the peace the Romans bring, the so-called Pax Romana, a peace born of conflict and violence. So, we get swept up in the celebration. All of our hopes are riding on Jesus, whether we know it or not.

Yet, our cheers are muted by the jeers of the Pharisees, who try to stifle the joy of our arrival. Just as Jesus was rejected by the Samaritan village at the beginning of his journey, he faces rejection here as well. Indeed, as Jesus continues his mission, the jeers of the Pharisees will be replaced by the animosity of the high priests and scribes. We jeer what we fear, and the religious leaders fear Jesus and his message that upsets their world. The crowds will also turn against Jesus, because the king we are expecting is not the king we get. There will be enormous pressure for us to hush up, denying the one who will never deny us.

Then, inexplicably, the cheers of the crowds and the jeers of the Pharisees turn to the tears of Jesus. It is amazing that in the midst of this wild celebration Jesus cries openly and loudly. Like another king, his ancestor, King David, Jesus weeps on the Mount of Olives. Unlike David, Jesus does not weep for himself; he laments the fate of Jerusalem, so promising a city and so great a disappointment. We get the nagging sense that there is more, that Jesus also weeps for us, for the brokenness that permeates our lives. If the tears amid the cheers sound jarring, we are reminded which of us have not come to church to worship and done so with a world of hurt in our hearts?

Yes, we have arrived at Jerusalem, but we know the most important journey is still ahead of us this week. Today, Jesus has been lifted onto a donkey, but we know that soon he will be lifted onto a cross. Like those who accompanied Jesus 2,000 years ago, we are cheered by the hope he brings to us. Yet, we know there are times when we do not find our voices to speak as Jesus would have us. And we also know that Jesus weeps over the powers of sin and death that stand between us and the life God intends for us. You may be tempted to take a short-cut on the journey this week, bypassing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But I hope you don’t, because the journey through the cross to the empty tomb is far more important than the destination. Either way, may God bless you as you continue your travels with Jesus, assured of his presence and blessing. Amen.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"When Christian Get It Wrong: In Dealing with Homosexuality" Midweek Lenten Sermon

When Christian Get It Wrong: In Dealing with Homosexuality
Rev. Collette Broady Preiss, Redeemer Lutheran Church, Good Thunder, MN
Lenten Wednesdays 2013: Round Robin

Well, here we are in Lent again, with the beginning of another round robin sermon series. Part of me is wondering why I agreed to do this again, after last year where my colleagues decided at a meeting I didn’t attend to preach about forgiveness just as I was getting divorced. So this year, I thought I’d better attend the meeting and have my say, and what did I end up with: preaching about homosexuality! Somehow I still ended up with the short straw!

But seriously, I’m completely with Adam Hamilton here, I think one of the biggest things Christianity has gotten wrong in the last generation is about homosexuality. And the Barna Group study, which Hamilton’s book draws on shows that too: the #1 answer given by people outside the church when asked how they would describe Christians is “anti-homosexual” 91% of those interviewed gave that answer.

That troubles me, for two reasons: first, because I don’t want to be known as a church that is anti-anyone, and second, because Christianity’s discussion around this issue has exposed a deep misunderstanding about the nature of Scripture and its authority in our lives.

 Let me start with the second piece, about how we interpret and apply scripture in our churches and in our lives. If we were to judge by the amount of attention given to this issues, one would think that the bible was nearly all about sex, and specifically prohibitions against homosexuality. In fact, there are just 7 bible passages that mention things even remotely connected to homosexuality. There are more than twice that many that say women shouldn’t be leaders in the church, and more than 10 times that many that talk about specific dietary restrictions for followers of God.

So this is the question, how do we decide which of Scripture’s laws and instructions we still follow, and which no longer apply? Dare we talk about some of Scripture being antiquated without endangering the authority of the whole Bible?

Well, thankfully we are not the first Christians to encounter these difficult issues. In fact, the Christian church faced just such an issue in its very first years, not long after Jesus had ascended back to heaven. You see, the 12 original apostles (well, 11 I guess!), with Peter as their leader went around preaching the message of Jesus. And when people became believers, the apostles told them that they needed to become Jews before they became Christians, that is they needed to be circumcised. Because in their understanding, Jesus was a fulfillment of the covenant God has made with God’s people from generations back, beginning with Abraham, and the sign of that covenant was circumcision.

Then along comes Paul, that 13th apostle, late to the game, and he begins to preach that circumcision is unnecessary, that the Old Testament covenant no longer applies because of what Jesus has done. There began to be two factions within that first Christian community, those who believed circumcision was necessary and those who though it no longer applied.

So how did they resolve their disagreement? Well, Peter had a vision. The story is in Acts chapters 10 and 11. One night while he is sleeping, he has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven. It’s filled with all kinds of animals that the Old Testament law calls unclean, things like shellfish and animals with cloven hooves and birds. And he hears a voice, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

“No way!” he says, “nothing unclean has ever passed these lips and I’m not about to start now.” Three times this happens, the sheet full of unclean animals descends and he hears the voice, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” And after his third refusal, he hears the voice from heaven say this: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

I want to read to you what Adam Hamilton says about this passage because I think it’s right on: “In Peter’s vision, he hears God telling him to do something expressly forbidden by Scripture. Peter is told to set aside a clear teaching of Scripture, and he is given permission to eat what had formerly been unclean...Peter has an epiphany! He suddenly understands: The rules are changing! Peter’s world is changing, and he move beyond the mind-set that says, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Instead he says, “The Bible says it, but I think God is up to something new, so I will listen to and follow God.’” (Pages 98-99)

This kind of change of mind-set, change in the rules is what biblical scholars refer to as “progressive revelation”, the idea that God speaks to her people in every time and place, giving them new insight through scripture and prayer to help them understand what God is up to in their everyday lives.

The problem with this “progressive revelation”, of course, is that in our present moment, there are all kinds of voices claiming to have received revelation from God on the issues of homosexuality, and they are saying radically different things. The church is divided on this issue.

And anyway, the transformation from Christians getting is wrong to Christians getting it right doesn’t usually come by direct revelation anyway; it comes by a more subtle, yet more powerful way. Transformation into a more Christ-like people comes through love.

That’s what the story of the woman at the well is about: transformation through love.

Jesus sits down at the well, and the woman comes unexpectedly at noon day. And they have this remarkable conversation. There are so many reasons that conversation should never have happened: Jesus is a man and she is a woman, they shouldn’t have been having a conversation in public; Jesus is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, they shouldn’t have been sharing a ladle of water; Jesus is a rabbi, a respected teacher, and she is an outcast. The other woman would have been there early in the morning, while the day was still cool to draw their water, to have that moment of community and connection before their day began. But this woman wasn’t welcome there, because of her lifestyle.

But did you notice that Jesus speaks no word of judgment to this Samaritan woman about her lifestyle? He simply says, “What you have said is true.” He simply talks with her, crossing over all kinds of social boundaries to do so. He takes her questions seriously, he shows her the respect that others don’t, he invites her to receive his abundant life even though other would exclude her.

The best way for Christians to get it right, in dealing with homosexuality or anything else, is to take our cues from Jesus himself: to sit down to honest and open conversation with those who are different from us, to invite participation from those we might be inclined to exclude, to show love without judgment.

Which is so much easier said than done. The “solution” I most often hear to the internal struggle of the church to show love to LGBTQ people, especially from Christians who think homosexuality is a sin, is that we should “love the sinner” and “hate the sin”.

My friends, it cannot be done, at least not by humans. You cannot feel hate about a major part of someone’s life and act in a completely loving way toward them. I’ve tried to do it myself, with a certain someone in my life who shall remain nameless, and I failed miserably. As long as I was hating his sin, what I felt when I saw or spoke to him was not love, but anger and self-righteousness.

And I know he felt that, even when I was convinced I was trying to be loving. It has only been since I have completely relinquished my right to judge his actions, that I have been able to act in a way that feels like Christ-like love to him.

And the witness of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the world shows that the same is true for them. I want to read just a couple of comments from gay Christians that I talked to about that phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin”

One man, who has been a church organist his whole life says this: “Speaking as a gay man who has had that phrase pointed in my direction by a huge number of people who don't know me and never will, I would say unequivocally 'no', it is not possible to love the sinner and hate the sin. An LGBTQ person cannot hear that and feel anything but excluded. I do not believe it is possible to love someone fully when you are calling them a sinner (the implication is that the speaker is not a sinner, which is an absurd position in a Christian worldview).”

Another young man in the church said: “I think this concept confuses loving with liking. Liking is the act of preferring, and loving is a comprehensive caring for someone. If I'm caring for someone completely and unconditionally, whether I like all their behaviors or aspects is irrelevant. In fact, it seems that to focus on "hating the sin" is to block yourself from totally loving that person. I've never heard "love the sinner, hate the sin" said in a way that couldn't be translated as, "yea, you're great, but I feel a pressing need to tell you what I don't like about you." I prefer not to be loved like that.”

Perhaps, as one of my straight friends put it, the key to getting it right as Christians is: “I to worry a great deal about the love part and not much at all about the sin part.”

Which is basically the conclusion that Adam Hamilton comes to too. I’ll close with this quote from him:

“Not all Christians see the issue of homosexuality in the same way. The church is divided on this issue. But even in a divided church, we can agree that we wish to be the kind of church in which men and women who are gay and lesbian find the warmth and welcome and love of Jesus Christ. I think Christians get it wrong when they speak in ways that bring harm and alienation to God’s gay children. I think we get it right when, even in our uncertainty, we express the love and welcome of the one who offered living water to the woman at the well.” Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"We'll See" Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

We’ll See
Lent 5 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
March 17, 2013
Luke 18.31-19.10

I loved to read as a young boy, and I still do, but particularly enjoyed biographies of famous people. These were not “adult” biographies, but stories of people as children growing up. One that I remember in particular was of Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th President. That book told of a time when Roosevelt was out hunting and came upon a barn with an ad painted on the side. Roosevelt couldn’t read the writing on the barn and it was then he realized he needed glasses. (I’m glad I wasn’t out hunting with him!) That story resonated with me because my teacher, parents, and I discovered as a young boy I couldn’t read the blackboard in school. As I have gotten older, advancing to bifocals and then trifocals, being able to see has become even more precious to me.

Did you notice how important seeing is in our Bible lesson for today? The first word Jesus says to his disciples is, “See…” yet as he tells them what is going to happen in Jerusalem, they don’t see or understand what he is talking about. Then there is the man who is physically blind but who sees far more than anyone around him. He recognizes Jesus as the Son of David who is able to grant the mercy of miraculous healing. Finally, there is Zacchaeus, whom others see as nothing but a rich, sinful tax collector. Yet, after Zacchaeus climbs the tree he sees Jesus in a whole new way that transforms his life.

The irony is that the ones who we would expect to see Jesus, the ones who are travelling with him, are the ones who have the hardest time seeing who Jesus is and what he means to them. To be fair, one does not fully see Jesus for who he is and what he means until the other side of the resurrection. It’s on the road to Emmaus as Jesus opens the scriptures to the disciples that they will begin to see him for who he is. Yet it is the lost, the ones Jesus came to seek and to save, who are able to see best, perhaps because they need him most. There is a blind man whose “sin” puts him begging outside the community and a tax collector whose physical stature mirrors his public identity as corrupt official on the take.

A remarkable thing happens when Jesus comes by. First, Jesus always meets us where we are in our lives and those places are often at the point of our deepest needs, even if we don’t know it at the time. When Jesus meets us and we see him for who he is, the crucified and risen Messiah, we begin to see ourselves and our lives in a different way as well. We are no longer constrained by others’ opinions of us. The former blind man is able to see himself as one who is blessed by God’s mercy and grace. Zacchaeus now sees himself as whom he was all along: a child of Abraham welcomed by God.

Still there is more, because there is always more with our encounters with God through Jesus. When we see Jesus as the crucified and risen one who came not to be served but to serve, we are then able to see others in the world as Jesus sees them, children worthy of mercy and love. We are invited to abandon our preconceived notions of what it means to be a sinner, correct our spiritual blindness, and come down out of our trees and serve those who in need wherever they are at. Seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus now sees what it means to be a child of Abraham, serving the poor and making restitution to those he may have defrauded. To whom much is given, much is expected.

As you heard earlier, our Saved by Grace Confirmation youth had their eyes opened in new ways a few weeks ago. They not only saw “the least of these, our sisters and brothers” in a new way, but they also saw the face of Jesus in the ones they served. Seeing Jesus has helped them see themselves in a new way, too. Encountering Jesus and serving others has helped them become more of who God intends them to be. Where is God opening your eyes today, inviting you to see where Jesus is meeting you? Where are you seeing Jesus in those around you? As we draw nearer to Jerusalem, to the cross and beyond, God calls us to the crucified and risen life. It’s the only life worth living. Amen.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"When Christians Get It Wrong about Politics" Midweek Lenten Sermon by Rev. Jay Dahlvang, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN

When Christians Get It Wrong about Politics
Rev. Jay Dahlvang, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
March 13, 2013
Matthew 22.15-22

As a young pastor, about once a month, I would take the fifty mile round trip to Iron Mountain, Michigan, to a federally subsidized Senior Housing building to bring the Lord’s Supper to a shut-in named Millie Blomquist.  I would pound on the door of her apartment, as she would have her kitchen radio loudly tuned to Rush Limbaugh.  She was about five foot two, and maybe one hundred and five pounds soaking wet, but she was as tough as nails.  Millie told me her story of the drunken, womanizing man she mistakenly married, and how she fled from her little Upper Peninsula village to escape his abuse.  How she landed in Chicago, and rode the bus to work early every day to Bally Manufacturing where she was on the line assembling pinball machines.   An upright piano, took most of the space in her cramped living room, and Millie would bang on the keys, and in a wobbly, screechy soprano, sing the old favorite hymns, some of them in Swedish.  We would end our visits by sharing Christ, this is his body, given for you, Millie.  His blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Do this in remembrance of him, do this and you shall live.   Millie was old enough to be fearless, and the filter that most of us have between what we think and what we say, was not there anymore—it may never have been there.

Among the jaw dropping things that I remember Millie telling me, one day she remarked on another church member in all earnestness, “I have no idea how Donna Cootware can be both such a wonderful Christian woman and a democrat at the same time.” There really is, I think, finally only one sin—and it is as old as Adam and Eve.   And it seems that when we are faithful in obeying this commandment, all the others fall into place.  “You shall have no other Gods,” the Lord said to Moses.  Martin Luther told us this means, we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else, including, yes, our politics.

All of our sins are rooted in putting, anything, any one above God.  This is demonstrated in our gospel reading.  In one of those there really are no right answers to questions like, “Have you quit drinking and driving?” those seeking to trap Jesus pose a political question to him.  Is it right for us to pay the tax to Caesar or not?  The Israelites were not thrilled to pay a tax required by an occupying Roman regime.  So does Jesus tick off his own people by saying yes we need to pay the tax to these pagan oppressors?  Or does Jesus allow his agenda, God’s agenda, to be hijacked both those who would paint him as an insurrectionist, a rebel by saying no?
As much pain, decline, and divisiveness our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has endured over its twenty-five year existence, it is still a church of red pews, and blue pews, and purple pews.   It is still a place of welcome for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.  I get nervous when we start talking politically in our church.  And it is not because I think we should be apolitical,  wishy-washy, or that our faith should be politically inconsequential.  No, the reason is the answer that Jesus offers the Pharisees.  Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.     What belongs to God?  Well, everything belongs to God.  Everything—including our politics.

The great British apologist CS Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when Christianity is confused with politics.  Lewis states that the problem with Christians changing the world with politics is that we set our sights too low.  When we aim for the earth, we get earth, Lewis said.   When we aim for heaven, earth is thrown in.   So rather than staking our political claims, and then using our religion to prop it up, what might we be as a church, what might we be as individuals, if we start with our faith, and apply it not only to our politics, but to every aspect of our lives?  What happens as we hear Jesus’ word, and really do give to God that which belongs to God?  

Like Martin Luther King did who showed us that when people are denied their humanity on the basis of their skin color, we not only are judging them, we are judging the God who made them.  Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, when he showed us that the faithful response to a bully whether he picking on the vulnerable on a school bus or sending tank brigades into Poland is courage and faith, even if it leads to a martyr’s death.  Like Abraham Lincoln did, as his cabinet member warned of the threat the defeated south would pose to the war weakened union, by saying, “Mr. President, now is not the time for mercy, we must destroy our enemy!” To which Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?”  

I loved Millie Blomquist, but I disagreed with her about Donna Cootware.  The great gift of our church has been meeting Democrats and Republicans and Independents, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit to give to God what belongs to God.  There are two claims the Apostle Paul teaches us, tells us, that could be the guiding statements for your church and mine as we live together in our differences, as we do mission and ministry together in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord. To the Romans he writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  To the Galatians he says that in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male nor female.  In Christ there is no longer Liberal or Conservative.  In Christ there is no condemnation for Democrats or Republicans.

As we grow older, and our number of days lessens, much of what we value, our health, our freedom, our family and friends are taken away.  But it is also true, that as we prepare ourselves for the life to come, oftentimes those things we are not so pleased to possess, those things that possess us, our prejudice, selfishness, and contempt our taken away as well.  Job said “Naked I came into the world, and naked I depart.  The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Martin Luther wrote, “In my sin, in my death, I must take leave of all created things.  No sun, moon, stars; all creatures, physicians, emperors, kings, wise men and potentates cannot help me.  When I die, I shall see nothing but black darkness, and yet that light.  The Savior will help me, when all have forsaken me.”      

As Millie Bloomquist aged, she began to forget.  Her family made the difficult decision of moving her to a nursing home, to a memory care unit.  There when I would go and see her, her radio was silent.  We didn’t talk politics, I’m pretty sure she didn’t even know the name of the President of the United States.  But we would have communion, this great, simple meal that Jesus gives us, this is his body, Millie, for you.  His blood—your sins are forgiven, do this in remembrance of him.  And it was hard to visit with her, have a conversation with this once tough and opinionated lady, because she didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t know what to say, but I would ask her if she would want to sing with me. And in that failing, broken voice, she would sing, “Children of the heavenly Father, safely in his bosom gather, nestling bird or star in heaven, such a refuge ne’er was given.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

"Bridging the Chasm and Rising from the Dead" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Bridging the Chasm and Rising from the Dead
Lent 4 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
March 10, 2013
Luke 16.19-31

 “I don’t like this parable,” my colleague said, and I can relate. There’s not a shred of gospel anywhere in this text. Jesus tells parables to stretch our imaginations, and this one almost stretches ours to the breaking point. If the Bible “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” this parable indicates that most of us are the latter. If all we had of the Bible was this story, our view of life after death would be that those that are tormented in this life would have ease in the next while those who have it easy will be tormented. Come to think of it, I guess that’s at least partially the view of a good many Christians today.

Yet, it’s not that simple, mostly because the Bible is rarely that simple, or at least that clear-cut. Certainly, Jesus wants to get our attention, and it’s important to note that this story comes in a body of teaching about the dangers of wealth as he is traveling with his disciples to Jerusalem. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus condemn wealth. In fact, wealth is often seen as a blessing from God. However, Jesus does have a problem with what wealth can do to us, how it can get in the way of our relationship with God and with each other. The danger of wealth is that we can become complacent, self-righteous, and even uncaring.

Even so, the thrust of the parable toward us may be more through the actors that are “offstage” than on. One set of actors gets a mention in passing, the five brothers the rich man is so concerned about. Ironically, the rich man begs from Lazarus the same thing he denied him in the past life, mercy. When this is denied him, the rich man begs for the opportunity for his brothers to repent. Through the rich man’s words and actions, which remain virtually self-centered even in death, we are challenged to consider which words of scriptures we might be ignoring in our lives and where we might need repentance.

Repentance has been a red thread that has been running through the parables of Jesus this Lenten season. We know that repentance involves saying you are sorry and asking forgiveness about wrongs we have done and things we have left undone, as the old confession goes. We also know that repentance means to change one’s mind, to turn around and go the other way. Last week we added a new dimension to repentance, the realization that we are accepted by God. This week we encounter yet another aspect of repentance, that it is somehow tied to the resurrected life. The real push of this parable is the promise of resurrection, not as a destination but as life lived now.

This brings us to the other character that has been offstage: Jesus. I wasn’t totally honest when I said that there wasn’t a shred of good news in this text, because the parable points to the risen Jesus. God can do what Abraham cannot, bridge the chasm between our tormented existence and life found in Christ. When faced with the one who died and was raised we are prodded from our complacency and drawn back into a relationship with God and with each other. Ironically, the more responsive we are to human needs, the more aware we become of our own humanity and need for God’s grace.

Last weekend I had the privilege of going on retreat with our confirmation youth and adults to a place called Urban Immersion in Minneapolis. They will be sharing their stories next week so I don’t want to steal their thunder, but I will tell you that they spent time learning firsthand about the effects of poverty with the opportunity to walk with and serve others. I have seen “repentance” in their lives as their eyes have been opened to those who lay at their gates, in the sense they have a desire to share the new life in Christ with the least of these our sisters and brothers. So, as we walk the way of Jesus to the cross and empty tomb, may God bridge the chasm of our lives, crucifying our blindness and bringing to new life our call to serve others as he has served us. Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"When Bad Things Happen" Midweek Lenten Sermon by Rev. Suzanne Froelich, Calvary Lutheran Church, Rapidan, MN

When Bad Things Happen
Rev. Suzanne Froelich
Midweek Lent
March 6, 2013

     When bad things happen; not when bad things only happen to people who have done something wrong and need to be punished by God. Bad things are going to happen—to all of us. So why does a loving and just God allow bad things to happen? I don’t know for sure, but here is what I believe.

     We have a God who created us with the gift of free will because God wants to be in relationship with us humans not with puppets. God wants honest feelings from us whether they are love, joy, sadness or even anger. But by giving us free will, God has also given us the opportunity to make bad choices. Martin Luther believes that because of sin we are only able to choose the bad and not the good on our own. And when we make bad choices, we have no idea how they will or when they will affect others.

     God has also created this world with weather and earthquakes that help to sustain life on this earth. When the forces of nature and humanity collide—nature always wins! When people build on flood plains in the path of a category 5 hurricane; people and buildings are going to be destroyed. Rain and wind are necessary for sustaining life on this planet.

     Earthquakes are also necessary for life here on Earth. As Adam Hamilton states in his book, “Earthquakes are the result of a process that actually cools the core of our planet, produces mountain ranges, and creates the earth’s magnetic fields. Under the surface of the earth, magma is super-heated at the core; it rises like hot air and then spreads and cools as it comes closer to the surface of the earth. As it spreads it carries the earth’s plates, moving them. The magma cools, falls back toward the core, reheats and rises again, continuing the movement of the earth’s plates. The plates rub against one another, eventually getting stuck. When the plates finally break free they release massive amounts of energy. This process is essential for life on our planet.”

     I found out in a very personal way on January 12, 2010 what happens when a poor nation like Haiti builds on top of these plates with material not able to withstand an earthquake. Three of my classmates: Ben, his wife Renee and his cousin Jon were doing their J-term in Haiti helping local pastors teach the people about God and Jesus. When the earthquake struck his wife and cousin were able to make it out of the cement building they were staying in—he did not. The last words Ben’s wife heard were of him singing a hymn of praise to God.

     Do I believe that God was there shaking the earth and causing Ben to be crushed to death? No, but I do believe that God was there. God was there in the people who helped Jon and Renee to safety. God was there in the people who tended to the sick and dying, who comforted the mourning, who brought food, clothing and shelter to those who were still alive. God was there in the form of the people who didn’t stop searching until Ben’s body was found and brought back to his family. God was not the cause of the earthquake, but God was the hope, comfort and strength for those who were left alive. God is the only hope for those who lost loved ones that they will be reunited at the last.

     So when we Christians get it right; we are like Job’s friends—we sit, we’re silent and we grieve with them. We don’t try to explain what we don’t know. But we can tell them what we do know—that we have a God who loves us enough to become one of us, to know and feel what we are going through. We have a God who loves us enough to die for us, to forgive us of all our sins so that we can be in a right relationship with God again. We have a God who walks with us through all of the muck and mire of our lives and when it becomes too unbearable our God picks us up and carries us until we are strong enough to walk on our own.

     When we get it right we follow the example of Jesus. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned and give drink to the thirsty. We comfort the bereaved and pray for those who have no words left to pray. Because sometimes the only face of God that someone might see is yours.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Lost" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Lent 3 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
Luke 15.1-32
March 3, 2013

We need to recognize at the outset that the parables for today are fundamentally about God’s amazing grace. The actions of the shepherd, the woman, and the father show God’s almost obsessive compulsive drive to seek out those who have strayed away and bring them back into relationship with him. God’s reckless love is so great that it results in even greater reckless celebration when one lost soul returns to God’s fold.

We also need to recognize how powerful these parables are and the emotions they raise in us. If we can’t relate to the dogged pursuit of something precious that has been lost to us, we have no trouble relating to characters in the parables, especially in the so-called “Prodigal Son.” I say so-called because “prodigal” means extravagant and the parable is more about the extravagance of the father more so than the son. Even so, many of us can relate to the younger son who has dishonored his father by his actions. Or we can relate to the father, whose heart breaks when his son wants no more to do with him. Or, perhaps most of us can feel the anger of the older son, who not only watches his father get hurt and made a fool of, but who also cannot understand the lavish celebration and the slight it implies toward him.

Having said these things about the text, this week I found myself thinking about what it means to be lost. Did the sheep know that it was lost? It might have been munching happily away, oblivious of its danger. One of my colleagues told about how she was playing with a new-found friend at a fair oblivious to the fact that she had gotten separated from her parents, who were looking frantically for her. She waved merrily to them when the walked by. The story reminds us of Jesus in the temple as a young boy. Certainly, the coin didn’t know it was lost. What about the younger son, when he “came to himself?” Was that an indication he knew he was lost or was he just planning to play on his father’s sympathies? Then there is the older son who, in standing outside the house, is lost in his anger and bitterness.

7th Heaven, a TV show that aired from 1996-2007, told the stories of a minister’s family. In one episode, the oldest son, Matthew, is talking to a young woman who has had a series of broken relationships and is now seeking more intimacy from him than he is willing to give. Finally, as he points out that this kind of familiarity hasn’t helped in her previous relationships, he says, “Why don’t we try it my way” meaning that they should slow down and let the things develop. The young woman may have had a vague sense that “things weren’t working” for her, but through Matthew’s presence she began to see that there might be a more life-giving way to live. She was lost, and God through Matthew, was seeking her to bring her back.

I have mentioned before the agnostic/atheistic period I spent outside the church following Confirmation. Although there were parts of my life that I wasn’t very happy with, most of my life was pretty good during that time. As I look back on it, there were many aspects of my life that were “lost,” though I didn’t realize it. Yet, and here’s the important part, I can see how God had never let me go and through the Holy Spirit and other various ways was working in me to bring me back into his loving embrace.

There was a popular bumper sticker in the 70s, which tickled me no end: “I found it!” The message expressed the driver’s finding of God. However, not only was that bumper sticker bad theology, it put far more emphasis on our ability than we deserve. The sticker should have read, “God Found Me,” because even when we “find God” we come to realize that God has been working tirelessly to bring us back into relationship with him. It’s like the little boy who gets separated from his parents in the store, is brought crying to the information center where his parents are paged, and when they arrive exclaims, “I found you!”

Jesus tells parables to stretch our imaginations in ways that don’t usually happen in other ways. So, here’s one way I’d like you to consider how these three parables might be stretching you today. You may not be totally “lost,” but is there some part of your life that God desires to bring back into relationship with him, perhaps a part that you have hidden from God (and maybe yourself)? Can you feel God working in you some way, longing to welcome that part of you back home?

I ran across another way to define repentance, aside from the usual way think of the word, saying you are sorry. We have also learned that to repent means to change your mind or turn around and going the other way. Richard Jensen defines repentance as our acceptance of being found. It’s the realization the God through Jesus Christ accepts us. Or, as Paul Tillich says, “Accept the fact that you are accepted. Isn’t that wonderful? As you journey with Jesus on the way to the cross and empty tomb, may those lost things be crucified and raised to new life. God is welcoming you home with open arms, all of you. Amen.