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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Pastor Olson's Newsletter Article June 2013 - Exploring Our Core Values: Post #2: "Gathering in God's Love"

June 2013

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Lena was complaining to Ole that he never told her he loved her. He replied, “I told you that I loved you when we got married. If it ever changes, I’ll let you know.” Sometimes we avoid stating the obvious because it is, well, obvious. Yet, often our assumptions about life together aren’t enough; we need to state them.

Nowhere is that more true than what we value as a church. Our values remind us of who we are and also tell others what is important to us. Sometimes, a value is more “aspirational,” meaning it is one we hope to live into. Last month, we began a review of the proposed core values developed by the church council in its March retreat. We started with an introductory preamble: “We are a community of faith…,” which we pointed out has both holy and human dimensions.

Our first core value is also the focus the council has chosen for the year, “We are a community of faith … Gathering in God’s Love.” An explanation follows:

Worship or service, fellowship or meals, we value coming together, just as much as the purpose of the gathering itself.  The importance of gathering is shown in many ways, but particularly at the Lord’s Table, celebrated at every worship service, where all of the baptized are welcome.

As the council thought about the many times we assemble as a community of faith, they realized that people enjoy gathering and working together for an occasion just as much as doing the actual event. For example, the fellowship and relationship building that occurs to put on the lutefisk dinner was just as rewarding as serving several hundred hungry souls. I can personally vow for the fact that the men of the church had just as much fun getting together for fellowship as we did serving the Mother-Child Banquet. Furthermore, I can tell that the Grace Lutheran Church Women enjoy their time of companionship as much as the many ways they serve.

Nowhere is this gathering in God’s love more significant than in our commitment to celebrating Holy Communion at every worship service at Grace where God’s love is given to everyone. One way this core value has been lived out is in our recent decision to practice Communion of the Baptized, as all are welcome to the Lord’s Supper regardless of one’s age or ability to understand God’s amazing grace and love.

There is much more one could say about this core value, but hopefully this enough to get the conversation started. What do you think? Is this one of our values? Do we need to say more? Regardless, let’s talk. Oh, and by the way, have I told you how much I love you lately?

In Christ,

Pastor Olson

Pastor Olson's Newsletter Article - May 2013 Exploring Our Core Values - Post #1: Introduction & Preamble

May 2013

Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

“Who are you? What are you about in this place? What is important to you?”

Though they may be largely unspoken, these are three questions people ask about the community of Grace Lutheran Church. In more theological language, they might be said in this way: “What do you live for? What are you willing to die for?”

A congregation can begin to answer these questions in a statement of its core values. Core values are important because they are a basic account of who we are and why we do what we do. As a declaration of identity, core values guide our mission and ministry as we seek to be faithful to God’s call on our lives.

In its March retreat, the church council began reworking our core values to better reflect who we are now. Ultimately, the revised values will lead to revisiting our vision and mission statements as well. For now, we will be asking you to help us fine tune the values. We will be doing this in a variety of ways, including this monthly letter.

As we developed the five core values, we realized we needed an introduction, a statement about how we are different from other organizations and churches. Our suggested “preamble” is this:

We are a community of faith…
Grace Lutheran Church is a community called by the Holy Spirit to serve God’s mission to love and bless the world. We do this from a location in the city center area of Mankato, MN, but we reach out to our region, state, and the world.

The preamble contains a “holy” statement and a “human” statement, both important aspects of our identity. The holy portion asserts that we are unique because we have been gathered by God for a purpose. God has a mission to love and bless the world, reuniting it to himself through Jesus Christ. For that mission God calls together communities of faith such as Grace.

The human part recognizes that this congregation exists in a particular ministry setting. God has placed us here to serve our neighbors. That is one reason why we have held our “Grace in the Park” worship service in Washington Park and are working to use a portion of our newly acquired property for a community garden. Even so, we realize that our neighbors can be defined more broadly to include others around the world. Another proposed core value, “Caring for God’s People,” is more specific about what this means.

More can and should be said about our holy and human identity. For now, it is enough to get us talking about who we are, what we are about here, and what is important to us. We do so because of the One who lived, died, and was raised to new life for us.

In the Name of the Risen Christ,
Pastor Olson

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Trinitarian Freedom" - Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

Trinitarian Freedom
Holy Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013
Galatians 5.1, 13-25

For freedom, Christ has set us free. … [O]nly do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. … Live by the Spirit ….

Today is Trinity Sunday, the official kick-off to the long, green season of Pentecost, a time when we focus on what it means to live the Christian life. Trinity Sunday is also only festival devoted to a doctrine rather than a person or event. No, this will not be “one of those” sermons, but it’s important to acknowledge that the Trinity is one way that we have tried to understand who God is and what God is up to in our world. In this case, we have long wrestled with how one God can be three persons or conversely how three persons can be one God.

Those approaching from the former aspect understand that our God is a sending God. God the Father sends Jesus the Son and both send the Holy Spirit, the sending action meant to heal the broken relationship between God and creation. The triune God calls and sends us to participate in this restoration process, which brings us to those who think about how three can be one. They understand that our God is also a social God. The three persons act with unity of purpose even as they retain their distinctiveness, and God is at heart a relational God who is intimately involved in creation, who invites us to participate in the work to love the world. God is both a sending God and a social God.

In his letter to the churches of Galatia (modern day Turkey), Paul reminds them about the saving work of the triune God, that they have been set free through the work of Jesus Christ sent by God the Father. It is not necessary that the Galatians submit to the marks of the Jewish faith or requirements of the law. Having made his point, Paul now reminds the Galatians that liberty doesn’t mean license. In our freedom we are given a choice of two different ways to live: we can live focused on our self at the expense of others, or we can live by the Spirit in love and service to others.

Paul addresses head on what we know all too well: we don’t always handle our freedom very well, like a dog finally let off its leash, running around in circles, not knowing what to do first, then getting in trouble. In the 1960s there were some (in)famous experiments at Yale by psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the wake of the Nazi war trials, he wanted to see how people responded to authority. In the experiment, the experimenter would give the subjects permission to shock another subject with increasing voltage. Although no shocks were actually given, experimenters found that the subjects would do so at alarming levels, even though many were uncomfortable doing so.

Freedom lived in the works of the flesh is illusory because it is really another form of slavery. By the way, if you don’t see your vice of choice on the list you aren’t off the hook. The list is not exhaustive, it is representative. In any case, true freedom is lived by willingly serving others through love. It is a life that God not only calls us to live but also makes possible through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. There may be situations where we don’t know exactly what love demands of us, but there is never a situation where love is to be set aside. God invites us to be led by the Spirit in all we do.

As we think about the triune God’s call to loving service, I can’t help but think about those that answered our country’s call to give themselves away so that we might be free to give ourselves away. I also think about those who, in Oklahoma offered up their lives by using their bodies as a shield to save those under their care. For freedom Christ has set us free, sending us into a world that is full of brokenness and despair, to participate in its healing and to proclaim a word of hope. Thank you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, for answering that call. May God produce abundant fruit in you as you are led by the Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Coming this Summer: (Mostly) Second Sunday Table Talks

(Mostly) Second Sunday Table Talks: Martin Luther used to hold casual discussions with students called “Table Talks.” In that tradition, this summer I will be hosting informal conversations following worship on the (mostly) second Sunday of each month. Do you have a question about something going on at Grace? Would you like to know more about what was said in a sermon? Is there a question about the Bible or theology or an event going on in the world that you have been longing to ask? Or would you just like an opportunity to get a closer look at my socks? Regardless, any and all questions are welcome! Conversations will be held in the Fellowship Hall. (However, unlike Luther who drank beer with his students, only coffee and rolls will be provided.) Mark your calendars for June 9, July 21, and August 11. To get the conversation going, at the first session on June 9, I will discuss the impact of the state legislature’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Please join us.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Playing with Fire" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Playing with Fire
Pentecost Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 3)
May 19, 2013
Acts 2.1-4; Galatians 4.1-7

We all have, I think, both a fascination and a fear of fire. There is almost a magnetic attraction to watching something burn and at the same time a reverential awe at its destructive power. We are told at a very young age that we must never play with fire. In a similar way, most of us have on our family tree someone who is a bit fruitier than the rest, a relative who invites a similar blend of fascination, apprehension, and unpredictability when they show up. I find these attitudes toward the Holy Spirit. Whereas God the Father is our safely distant grandfatherly type and God the Son is our friend and companion, God the Holy Spirit is unnerving to us as we are both fascinated and fearful by its presence.

Like fire and family, we have mixed feelings about the Holy Spirit. But there are also misunderstanding. We tend to think that the Spirit just appears at Pentecost when it lights a fire under those first followers of Jesus and sends them out to be a part of God’s mission to love and bless the world. Yet, it was the Spirit that was there as God’s Holy Wind moving over the waters of creation, bringing order out of chaos. It was the Spirit, God’s Holy Breath that was blowing life into the first humans. It was the Holy Spirit that spoke God’s word to the people through the prophets. It was the Holy Spirit who came upon the Virgin Mary, incarnating the Son of God. It was the Spirit that energized John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Messiah. It was the Spirit that sent Jesus on God’s mission at his baptism. It’s the Holy Spirit who appears 40 times in the book of Acts guiding the early church as it lived out its calling. And we can argue that the Holy Spirit was moving in both the 16th century Protestant Reformation and 18th century Great Awakening.

That brings us to our second misconception about the Holy Spirit: we tend to equate power with spectacular, but the Holy Spirit often works in ways that are more like a slow, steady burn than a fiery inferno. It is through the presence of the Holy Spirit that we experience the risen Christ in our midst. As Paul says in Galatians chapter 4, we are only able to cry, “Abba! Father!” because of the Holy Spirit. Later in Galatians, Paul will say that it is through presence of the Holy Spirit that we are able to bear good fruit in our lives. It is the Spirit that helps us intercede before God when we can’t find the words. Finally, as Danielle Shroyer points out, that without the experience of Pentecost in our lives we’d only be people who tell Jesus’ story. Yet, because of Pentecost we’re a people who live into Jesus’ story.

We have had our own Pentecost at Grace Lutheran Church as the Holy Spirit has lit a fire under us. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in, with, and through Shepherding Team we’ve made major ministry changes to our worship and faith formation lives, and it is the Holy Spirit that has moved many of you to participate. Each week I encounter more folk who are led to this place and are warmly welcomed by you; that’s the Spirit at work. Whenever parents bring an infant to the baptismal font or an adult does so, it’s the Holy Spirit moving in their lives. It is the Holy Spirit who has moved this congregation outward in the formation of a community garden and gathered a group of passionate individuals to make it happen. We continue live Pentecost.

Today we honor and recognize our high school graduates, those who have reached a milestone on their journey of faith. It was a journey that begun when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them at their baptisms. Young people, I am not going to give you advice this morning, because you’ll be getting far more than you’ll need of that in the days ahead. But we will give you two things that are even better. First, we are giving you a quilt today as a concrete reminder that God is always present in your life, all evidence to the contrary, and that you are enfolded in God’s mercy, love, and grace no matter where you go. Second, we give you an invitation to see where God’s Spirit is blowing in, with, and through your life. The Spirit’s presence may not be as dramatic as that first Pentecost, but I can assure you that it will be no less powerful. Sometimes that may be a little unnerving and we understand that. However, in this case we Christians are a strange bunch because think it’s more than okay to play with fire. Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Putting On Christ" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Putting On Christ
Easter 7 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
May 12, 2013
Galatians 3.1-9, 23-29

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3.27)

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the good news that God has healed the broken relationship between God and all creation is spreading. No longer confined to Israel and the Jewish people, this good news includes everyone everywhere. One of those places is the Roman province of Galatia, also known as Asia Minor or today’s Turkey. The Apostle Paul writes a letter to the churches who are struggling with their identity and mission. He does so because these Gentile Christians have been told by some Jewish Christians that in order to be acceptable to God, they must observe the laws of Moses. Paul is furious, at the Jewish Christians who are adding this burden even the Jews couldn’t bear, and at the Galatians who are falling for it.

After reestablishing his credentials as an apostle, he reminds the Galatians that they cannot do anything to earn God’s love, and that they are made right with God only through the faithfulness of Jesus. In today’s text, Paul first appeals to their experiences, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit and the blessings received came through believing in the promises, not through their efforts. Furthermore, they have become heirs of Abraham to the promises not by any outward marks or observances but because as Abraham, they trusted God. Yes, the laws that God gave through Moses had a purpose, but that purpose has changed dramatically since Jesus appeared.

Finally, he tells them that for as many who have been baptized into Christ have now clothed themselves with Christ. When I think about clothing—or putting on—Christ I think back on my life to those things I “put on.” As a young boy, when I put on a cowboy hat, holster, and stick pony I became the Lone Ranger. Later, as I tucked my blanket-cape under my white dress shirt I became Clark Kent/Superman. As a young college graduate I put on a tie and name badge and became Mr. Olson to women old enough to be my mother yet who I was called to lead. Almost 17 years ago a red stole was laid on my shoulders and I became pastor.

Yet, the most important garment I put on was the one God gave to me, my baptismal garment. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ Jesus, baptized into his death. All of the brokenness in our lives is put onto Jesus and crucified with him. All of his goodness is put onto us. Through Jesus Christ, the breach in our relationship with God has been healed forever. One of the reasons I appreciate our practice of infant baptism is that it highlights the fact that baptism is a gift of God’s grace, mercy, and love, one which we can never earn on our own. Baptism moves us into a new relationship with God, one that is not dependant on what we do or don’t do.

It is also true that baptism is not only a gift but also a call on our lives; baptism changes us. As we have been baptized into Christ’s death, because of his resurrection to new life we also rise to new life. Our baptisms remind us that we have been clothed with Christ, saved by God’s grace, and that everyone in our world is a child who God loves deeply and who must be treated with respect. Just as my clerical collar identifies me as a pastor, with whatever blessing that entails, it is also a call on my life, to be who God calls me to be in service to you, the greater church and community. You all have your own baptismal identities, which are both gift and call on your lives.

One of the gifts of putting on Christ is that we are all made one people in, with, and through Jesus. The old distinctions and differences don’t disappear but rather take on a new perspective. We are called to see the gift in being different, how it enriches the life of our community. And when those differences threaten to divide us, we are called to be creative unifiers. We have had a lot of practice with this in the past several years as we have discussed issues of biblical interpretation, authority of scripture, and sexuality to name a few; and we are still talking.

My hunch is that there will always be occasions to haul out our baptismal garments and put them on, because with live in a world that desperately needs to know God’s life-changing love. We don’t always get it right, but the promise of God is that he will continually pick us up, clean us off, and straighten our clothing, sending us on our way to be the healing presence our world needs. That’s no put-on. Amen.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

"Changed by Grace" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Changed by Grace
Easter 6 (Narrative Lectionary 3)
May 5, 2013
Galatians 1.13-17; 2.11-21

We have all had these moments, some more often than others, where we see something in a whole different way. You have been acquainted with that young lady in various ways over a period of time, perhaps even being friends when, all of a sudden, you see her as your future bride. Or you have been staring at that Magic Eye picture, trying to see what others see, and then you relax slightly, let go, and the picture comes into focus and you are able to visually wander around in it. These are grace moments, times when our perceptions are altered in life changing ways, some profound and some more ordinary.

The apostle Paul describes a profound grace moment in our scripture for today. Yet, as I worked with our Bible passage from Galatians this week, I felt the pressure of our Lutheran heritage to expound on the keystone of our theology, our so-called “Doctrine of Justification.” This essential principle says that we are brought back into a right relationship with God, not because of anything we can do, but only through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. However, as important as this is, I couldn’t see my way ahead and felt drawn back to the first part of the reading. It is Paul’s story of God’s gracious action in his life that intrigued me.

Before we get into the details, it is important be remind ourselves how significant this letter is for us. The book of Acts that we have been reading in describes the continual outward movement of the gospel, God’s action to heal the broken relationship between God and humanity through Jesus Christ. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early church is making it up as it goes along, sometimes getting it right and other times needing correction. In this letter to the churches in Galatia, a region we now know as Asia Minor or Turkey, Paul seeks to help churches that he founded as they struggle to define their mission and identity. I’ll say more about this in the next two weeks. However, the important thing is that we have a letter from someone who was an active character in the story.

So, Paul’s personal story interests us, especially since this person who is now preaching the gospel is the same one who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and who was persecuting the church. It would be tempting for us to look to Paul’s experience of God’s grace as something we should imitate in our own lives of faith, or the reverse, read back into Paul’s life our own experiences of conversion. Yet, Paul never demands that we must have our own dramatic Damascus Road experiences nor are we to assume that conversion equates with being released from guilt or efforts to gain God’s approval. These things may happen, but they are not a part of Paul’s story. In fact, Paul’s life was just fine, thank you very much. He was a faithful Jew living a godly life.

What is important about Paul’s story is that God was working in his life long before the revelation on the Damascus Road, and in that experience, God didn’t tell Paul something he didn’t already know. Rather, God opened Paul’s eyes that allowed him to see Jesus in a new way that he hadn’t before. We tend to think that the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, as information, and it is. However, it is far more than that, for when Paul talks about the gospel, he thinks of it as a power that changes peoples’ lives. To be grasped by God means that we now have direction and purpose for our lives.

Like seeing your future mate or a magic eye picture, having our eyes opened by God helps us see our world in a whole different way. For example, what we once think of as standards of success either change or don’t become important anymore. How we make decisions in our personal lives or our lives with each other becomes radically altered. We look at people and value them in a different way; they are children of God. When I think of this I am reminded about Al and Barb, participants in a Bible Study. Al was holding forth some pretty strong, traditional thoughts about homosexuality, until Barb said, “But Al, did you know that I’m a lesbian.” Al suddenly saw Barb and homosexuality in a very different way, and he and Barb had some incredible, life-changing conversation.

These are grace moments, where that same God who has been working in our lives opens us up in new ways. This is the same God who has grasped us in our baptisms and calls us to new life through Jesus Christ. Being a Christian doesn’t mean claiming a dramatic or not-so-dramatic conversion. Being a Christian means being open to what God is doing in our lives. It means that who we are and what we do points to what God has been doing in the world, is doing now, and will be doing. That’s what Paul means when he says, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” We’ll unpack more of what that means in the next two weeks, but for now look for those grace moments where God is inviting you to see in new ways. Amen.