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

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Perfect Grace" Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, by the Rev. Sem. Laura Gatzke

Perfect Grace
Laura Gatzke, UCC Seminarian
The Word: Acts 15:1-18
The Message:
Before I begin this morning, I would like to extend my thanks to this church for inviting me to preach. I attended college just up the hill at Bethany Lutheran, and attended church here during my college days. I also served as your interim youth director back in 2007, and I strongly believe that experience shaped my path to ministry. Thank you for all your support, I am very appreciative and excited to be here in worship with all of you. With that, let us pray.

Creator God-- open our hearts to your word and guide our minds to follow our hearts. Let us reflect on how our lives are changed by the messages of Jesus Christ. May my words reflect this message, and above all, reflect your love for all people. Amen

The woman carefully unwrapped the baby she had been carrying on her back with her shawl and cradled him in her arms. He was the smallest baby at the mother/child center in Nairobi Kenya. I saw his button nose first, then his sweet eyes and finally a tiny little mouth, open and smiling. I immediately wanted to reach out and touch his spots of tightly curled hair on his head and trace my fingers over the creases in his face. But I came to this country not knowing the local language—and could not say in Kiswahili “Where is the bathroom?” much less “Can I hold your baby? I was at a center for mothers and young children. The center is run by a local church and is supported by Compassion International, the organization I sponsor my child through. The center takes in the poorest of the poor, women from around different neighborhoods of Nairobi, and provides them with food, training, parent education, and other programming.

The woman with the baby continued smiling and standing close to me, allowing me to gaze over the baby. A worker at the center approached me.

“He is our littlest,” she said, smiling down at the baby. “And he is doing so well! When he came here, we didn’t know. He wasn’t able to keep fluids down. He was sick. But each time here at the center, he grew stronger and he is still growing!”

The mother beamed. She looked down at her child, but then, for a moment, her expression became distant. She looked up at me and then spoke to the center worker in Swahili. The worker nodded her head and translated for me.

“The mother wants to acknowledge that there are many babies who do not make it. They can’t get to the center to get help, or they get here and we can’t help them. This mother, while she is so grateful to God for her baby, wants you to also remember the mothers and babies who do not get better.”

I look at the mother, and in a moment that transcends our language barriers, we lean into each other and hug. The little baby coos and squeaks as we embrace. I was so blessed to be in the presence of this woman who is such a witness to the desperate human struggle we are so often faced with.

The reality is that we live in a world where things don’t not always go as planned.
And it’s true for the families in Kenya just as it’s true for all families in the world. We have hopes and dreams of where we will go in life, and then, as John Lennon says, “Life is what happens when we are making other plans.”

I worked last summer at a teaching hospital in Minneapolis as a chaplain, and encountered many situations in which people’s lives took a sharp turn in a different direction than they had planned. They shared how they had exercised three times a week. They ate smart. They took their vitamins. They followed the rules.

They took the medication that was prescribed. “It was supposed to help. But Chaplain Laura, I’ve been here for six days—and guess what? The medicine isn’t working.”
“The surgery—even though it was ninety percent success rate—failed. We just retired and she died. What did I do to deserve this? I don’t want to be alone as I age.”

Things happen to us in our lives that go unexplained.

And we want answers. We want an explanation.

After the Boston marathon bombings, the media was quick to jump on the “why” and “how” questions. And some faith leaders also latched on.

Quotes of, “it all happened for a reason,” Or “It was just God’s timing” flew through the air just as quickly and just as sharply as the bits and pieces of metal that were packed into the bombs.
And as a Christian body, we can respond in two ways:
We can believe that God is a God of cause and effect, or we can believe that God is with us in those moments, like a parent or dear friend who sits near to us, with an arm extended around shoulders, and weeps with us when these terrible things happen.

When bombings happen,
When our loved ones die,
When all of the crazy changes happen in life—despite our following the directions and following the rules.

I think of our reading for today, out of the book of Acts. The interaction between the disciples and the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a group of people who liked to strictly adhere to Jewish law. They are often found in the New Testament testing Jesus on the interpretation of law.

In our text for today, they are specifically asking about following a law on circumcision to Peter and Barnabas.

The Pharisees state that in order to be saved, this law must be followed.

And I love how preciously Peter sums up his response, it’s so well-laid out, I have to read it again:
“Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

We are not bound by the law. Christ’s love sets us free from having to strive for that type of perfection. God’s grace is perfect enough for our lives.

It’s perfect in the face of our imperfections.

God’s grace lifts us up when we are faced with situations that rock our faith—even break it; when we find ourselves, or our nation, faced with tragedy. Or even disappointments in our day to day lives.

God is with us when the paths in our lives change. When the direction we think we are going turns out to be a dead end, or an entirely different path instead.

I read a beautiful poem by author Emily Perl Kingsley that I would like to share with you this morning. Emily is a mother who is raising a child with a disability. She describes her feelings of finding out her child has a disability in the poem “Welcome to Holland” I feel like this poem can relate so well to many of us, whether we have a child or not, when our lives are changed by something out of our control. Emily writes:

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like
You are planning a fabulous vacation trip—to Italy.
You buy a bunch of fancy guidebooks and make
Your wonderful plans. The Coliseum,
the gondolas in Venice.
You may learn some handy phrases in
Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day
Finally arrives. You pack your bags and off
You go. Several hours later, the plane lands.
The stewardess comes in and says,
“Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?
I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed
To be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of
Going to Italy.

But there’s been a change in the flight plan.
They’ve landed in Holland and there you
Must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t
Taken you to some horrible, disgusting, fithly
Place, full of pestilence, famine, and disease.
It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy a new
Guidebook. And you must learn a whole new
Language. And you will meet a whole new
Group of people you have never met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced
Than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after
You’ve been there for a while and you catch
Your breath, you look around and begin
To notice that Holland has windmills, Holland
Has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and
Going to Italy, and they’re all bragging
About what a wonderful time they had there.
And for the rest of your life you will say,
“Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go.
That’s what I planned.”

The pain will never, ever, go away
Because the loss of that dream is a very
Significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact
That you didn’t get to Italy, you maybe never
Be free to enjoy the very special, the very
Lovely things about Holland.

Our lives go in many directions, and things don’t always turn out as they should—even when we plan, even when we have done everything according the rules. But God is with us in each of those moments, holding our hands, reassuring us—or even grieving with us.

Sometimes, when I am feeling down and out in America, I close my eyes and picture that tiny baby I met in Nairobi Kenya. I see his button nose, his sweet big eyes, and if close my eyes tight enough—I can almost feel the curl of his hair on his soft, newborn head. And that gives me hope.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

"Walking Wet" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Walking Wet
Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
April 21, 2013
Acts 8.26-39

More than one observer has noted that today’s story is the sacramental parallel to the road to Emmaus text in Luke. As Jesus was made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread, a strong allusion to Holy Communion, so now Luke (as the author of Acts) pushes baptism to the fore of the unfolding story of the church’s mission. In doing so, Luke weaves several major themes of Acts into one episode: by baptizing a black man from Africa, one who could never become a Jew because of his reproductive status, he continues to fulfill the promise that the saving news of Jesus would go to all peoples, everywhere. This work is going to be accomplished by the Holy Spirit in the most unlikely ways and through the most unlikely people.

There is a lot of biblical ore that could be mined here, but I want us to imagine the “so what?” of the text. To prime our imaginative pumps, we should note a few points of the text we might otherwise skip over. First, the person that the Holy Spirit chooses to join with the Ethiopian is not one of the Apostles. The Philip present here in the story is not the apostle but rather is one of the seven who was called upon to “wait tables,” to ensure that the widows had their daily allotment of resources a story we read last week. Presumably, the 12 apostles were preaching their brains out somewhere, but here the Holy Spirit is using one who is out and about, who is in the world and meeting people wherever they are in daily life.

Second, notice that as soon as they come up out of the water, Philip and the Ethiopian are on their way. Philip is carried off by the Holy Spirit and the Ethiopian returns to his African home. They don’t stop to build a church on the site of this historic occasion, the “Cathedral of the Baptized Ethiopian.” Rather, they are on the move. Philip is blown by the Spirit to new mission opportunities, but we don’t know about the Ethiopian. He is probably the first person to take the gospel to Africa. Here’s where the imagination comes in and it comes from what happens after the baptism. Philip and the Ethiopian have been down in the water and both emerge drenched to the bone. This wasn’t a “little dab’ll do ya” baptism with a few sprinkles. They are both “walking wet.”

In his preaching, I could always count on one of my former pastors and now colleague, Wally Jensen, to somehow work baptism into the sermon. Perhaps it was because Wally attended seminary when the old green hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship, came out with its renewed emphasis on baptism. It drove me crazy sometimes, but I came to understand what Wally was trying to do. He was reminding us that we aren’t just freed from something in baptism; we are freed for something. Being baptized into Christ Jesus means that we are freed from sin, death, and the power of the devil, but it also means that as Christ was raised from the dead so are we raised to new life. Wally reminded us every Sunday that we “walk wet” in the world, serving God and others.

I thought about walking wet this week as I listened to the accounts of the Boston Marathon and West, Texas tragedies. We have all heard about how people ran towards the blasts in Boston and that 14 fire fighters lost their lives trying to contain the fire in West. On Facebook, many posts reminded us of Fred “Mr.” Rogers’ words: “When bad things happen, look for the helpers.” The helpers in these tragedies and in countless others—whether they realize it or not—are “walking wet.”

I belong to a group called Pastor 2 Pastor, a partnership between the Southeastern MN Synod, Southwestern MN Synod, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Its purpose is to support pastors in their ministries. In February we studied the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement on criminal justice, and about a week ago we listened to representatives from the “3Cs” of the criminal justice system, “cops, courts, and corrections.” Although police detective Matt, judge Allison, and probation officer Deanna aren’t able to witness verbally to their faith, I was overwhelmed by how they managed to bring grace into a system that by definition is graceless. They are people who “walk wet” in their daily lives.

The Holy Spirit calls each of us in the midst of our comings and goings of everyday life to join with others on their journeys of faith who are trying to make sense of what God is up to in our world. We walk wet, living out our baptismal callings, when we run toward the darkness and brokenness in our world, seeking to bring light and healing and the good news of life in Christ. This doesn’t necessary mean walking toward bomb blasts; it could be as simple as reading to a child. As you leave here this morning, I hope you will do so by the center aisle where the baptismal font and Christ candle are located, dipping your hands in the water, making the sign of the cross. This will be a reminder that you, too, walk wet in the world, moved by the Spirit in ministry. Amen

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Writing a Devotional

I have long aspired to write a devotional of some sort, and so I was pleased to receive just such an opportunity this winter. Luther Seminary contacted me shortly before Christmas, telling me that my name had been suggested as a potential author and asking if I would be willing to write a week’s worth of God Pause devotions. I promptly responded in the affirmative and chose the week of April 15-21, which would use the scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday in Easter of the Revised Common Lectionary. The finished devotions were due to the seminary five weeks before publication. That meant the beginning of March.

Such is the nature of writing devotionals, which provides a major challenge: submissions are always due well in advance, which means you are working on them in a completely different season than the one in which you currently exist. In my case, this meant writing Easter devotions at the beginning of Lent. To do this, you have to force your head to be somewhere else; that’s not always easy.

Another challenge to writing a devotional is that it is a lot more work than meets the eye. I did not keep track of how much time I spent preparing, writing, and editing each devotional, but I am sure it averaged at least one to two hours each, perhaps more. I knew this would be the case so I made sure I started early.

A final challenge for penning a devotional, much as it is for most writing projects, is that there is a word limit placed on each submission. (Except for term papers in college and seminary, there is always a maximum amount specified for writing projects, never a minimum.) In the case of God Pause, it is 150 words. That sounds like a lot until you actually begin writing. I have always known that it is harder to “write short” than “write long,” and my suspicions were confirmed.

Yet, in spite of the challenges, it is rewarding to write. For me, writing is one way that I can know what I think. Also, there is a sense of satisfaction in editing your work one last time and sending it off on a wing and a prayer, hoping that your words will mean half as much to someone else as they do to you. In this case, I pray that God has spoken in, with, and through these words to bring a blessing to someone else. That is not only a hope, but a promise that God brings.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Keeping the Faith" Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Keeping the Faith
Easter 3 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
April 14, 2013
Acts 6.1-14; 7.44-60

We are making something of a narrative leap today, temporarily bypassing Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Since September of last year, we have traced the biblical story from creation through the Old Testament to the birth of Jesus. Then we walked with Jesus as he was preaching and teaching about the new kingdom of God, setting his face to Jerusalem, fulfilling God’s mission to love the world and reconcile it to him. We have gone from the cross on Good Friday to the empty tomb of Easter and last week to the presence of the risen Christ who walks with us on our journeys of faith. Now we are in Acts.

We will return to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in due time, but for now we are with the gathered community of faith who are trying to figure out what that means to be Jesus people. The early church is literally making it up as they go along and, although the book is called the Acts of the Apostles it would be better termed the Acts of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit guides it throughout. A salient thread woven throughout the story is that the early church will be beset by conflicts. These pressures will come from both within the community and from forces outside of it.

Today’s reading is a good example. The newly formed church is growing rapidly and diversifying. Greek speaking Jews who had left Jerusalem in the dispersion have returned and it seems that their widows, who have no means of support, are being neglected. Because new contexts demand new forms of ministry, a new type of leadership is implemented to address the community’s needs. Yet, there are some Jews who aren’t as easily convinced about the Jesus story. When one of these new leaders, Stephan, cannot be bested in debate, the ruling council seizes him and charges him falsely.

Accused of standing against the Jewish tradition, Stephen responds by reciting the salvation history of God’s work in their people, from Abraham through Moses, David Solomon, and the prophets. The council members are right with him until Stephen reminds them that their shared history also includes poor treatment of prophets who bring new words from God. And when Stephen relates a vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, it is too much for them; they take him out to be stoned. Stephen sees God differently than they do, and they are threatened by this vision of a new thing.

The book of Acts is incredibly important for us, not only as the history of the early church, but also because we continue to be like that church, trying to figure out what God through the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, making it up as we go along, and not always getting it right either. Today’s reading reminds us that in the story of the cross, empty tomb, and Spirit-led community, God continues to do life-saving work in us and in the world. It’s work that challenges us to faithful living. It is also work that causes conflict with the status quo, unsettling us in the process.

I understand something of how that feels. When I graduated from seminary I believed strongly that Communion should be available to all the baptized, regardless of age or affiliation (and I still do). Yet, I also believed that baptism was the entry point for Communion; one should not commune if one is not baptized. However, I have come to believe that Communion can be a gateway to baptism and the church, not just the other way. Our story, both as the Christian church and this congregation is one of being jolted by people like Stephen who see the new things God is doing and challenging us to see where that leads.

Most recently, we have been responding to the various ways people have been seeing God, most notably with our Sunday morning convergence (blended) worship and Wednesday evening programming. These kinds of new ministries in new contexts can be unsettling, because we want church to be that one place we can count on that is reliable. I understand. But no matter how much our ministry changes, the most important thing is that the center we hold onto, Jesus Christ, will not change.

Your leadership, the church council, has been working on new core values, which are just about ready for discussion with you. One of those says that we are a community of faith who are deeply rooted. We are steeped in a biblical and theological tradition that connects us to historical Christianity, but it also says that same tradition enables us to explores ways the Holy Spirit may be moving, freeing us to address our changing context in new ways. So, our text today challenges us to ask ourselves if we are going to live up to this core value. Are going to pick up spiritual stones and lob them at the Stephens in our midst or are we going to try to seek together how God through the Holy Spirit is moving in, with, and through us? I believe it will be the latter because Christ is risen, and his presence enables us to move with the Spirit in wonderful ways. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The Presence of the Risen Christ" Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

The Presence of the Risen Christ
Easter 2 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
April 7, 2013
Luke 24.13-35

In our time, it’s been one week since we gathered that first Easter with the women at the empty tomb. We heard the good news that Jesus was not there, that he has been raised from the dead, just as he said. We also embraced the difficulty of believing in the resurrection, that it is “crazy thinking.” Though we affirmed that the women’s message to the rest of the disciples was no idle tale, and that it was too good not to be true, we also recognized that the empty tomb was not sufficient for faith. Anticipating this week’s reading, we said it would take the presence of the risen Christ to do that in us.

So, thought it’s been one week in our time, it has only been a few hours in narrative time. The scene has switched from the empty tomb to a dusty road leading from Jerusalem to Emmaus. In what is arguably one of the most painted biblical stories, the risen Christ walks with two of his disciples who are engaged in a passionate discussion about the events of that first Easter morning. Unrecognized to them, Jesus opens up their minds and explains the necessity of the events through the use of scripture. When pressed to remain for dinner, Jesus now both host and guest is made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Reading this story might evoke wistfulness in us, prompting a longing for a similar experience. However, the beauty of the story is that it invites us to use our imaginations and hear the Emmaus story as a model of our own journeys of faith as the risen Christ meets and walks with us. It reminds us that Easter is far more than celebrating something that happened 2,000 years ago. It breaks into the real lives of real people. Just as the first disciples, the risen Christ meets us on our journeys of faith, in the midst of our hopelessness, despair, and even cluelessness, and our lives are transformed in the process.

For now, this is where we live our lives of faith, walking on the road. We walk between the empty tomb and the ascension, Jesus’ final glory (and ours). Sometimes this journey is filled with grief and pain as well as life and love. Quite often it is filled with equal measures of both. As a community of faith, we are at our best when we name and challenge the forces of darkness and injustice, those places where God’s good intentions are broken, and offer glimpses of light to our broken world. Through the presence of the risen Christ we suggest that there are other and better ways to live than our world offers us.

What are you carrying with you on your Emmaus journey today? Is it cynicism, stress, pretense, fear, despair, hopelessness, grief, or some other burden that is weighing you down? It is damaged relationships, physical debility, or even faith struggles? The good news is that today’s story tells you that the risen Christ meets you on your journey of faith, wherever you are, and walks with you, whether you recognize him or not. Furthermore, the story hints that the greater the need we have for Christ the closer he walks with us. Though he vanishes from the sight of the disciples, the experience of him does not. Their hearts burned within them. Like them, he is with us.

Martin Luther had some other Protestant reformers who criticized his understanding of Jesus’ bodily presence in Holy Communion, saying that Jesus couldn’t possibly be in the bread and wine because he was at God’s right hand. Luther countered them by saying, first of all, that, “Is means is.” When Jesus says, “This is my body,” is means is. Second, Luther pointed out that the right hand of God is not just in heaven, but it is wherever Jesus is. Furthermore, he said that Jesus can be anywhere he chooses, but promises that if we want to find him for sure, we are to look for him in the breaking of the bread. Jesus is Emmanuel  God with us, and he meets us on our journeys of faith, bringing light into the darkest parts of our lives and the world, guiding us in a life of love, and calling us to invite others into the journey as well. Christ is risen and that risen presence transforms our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.