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

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - "God's Wisdom for Everyday Living: on Trusting God"

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: on Trusting God
Pentecost 10 – Narrative Lectionary 3: Summer
July 28, 2013
Proverbs 3.1-8; Luke 12.29-31

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3.5

When Cindy’s father passed away last month, she did what a number of children do, give a remembrance at his funeral service. I thought it was one of the finest, if not the finest, remembrances I’d heard, and I’ve heard many. She told about the lessons she had learned from her father through her experiences with him. For example, fishing taught her patience, donating blood taught her to give back, bowling taught her to be a part of a team, and so on. Her remembrance was not only a wonderful tribute to her dad, it also exemplifies our Proverbs text for today.

Today we have the second in our six-part Wisdom series, God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living. Last week we discovered that Proverbs is more than just good advice; it’s part of God’s creation, something we’ll explore in greater depth next week. We found that living wisely in fear of the Lord means not only to be in awe of God’s power and obedient to God’s word, is also means to be in right relationship with God. Today’s text casts the conversation about wisdom in terms of a parent’s wise advice to a child. It confirms what we know very well, that parents teaching children is a major building block of society. In less direct way, it also reinforces the fact that parents are the primary faith developers of children.

The main thrust of the passage and the core of parental wisdom and advice are to trust God. When the Bible talks about faith it does so in a wonderfully nuanced and multi-faceted way. There’s certainly head belief, but there is also heart trust and the faithfulness of God that inspires our loyalty and faithfulness. I love the way Eugene Peterson puts this in The Message: “Don’t lose your grip on Love and Loyalty. … Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure everything out on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.”

Do you realize how countercultural this trust of God is in a world that constantly advertises that we “can have it our way,” to “be yourself,” “follow your heart,” “live your dreams,” and “I just gotta be me?” There is nothing wrong with dreams, but I’m concerned that we are cultivating the most narcissistic and self-centered society ever. If we stop and think about it, we realize that our hearts don’t always desire the best things, do they? I love this quote of Mark Twain the exposes our na├»ve self-centeredness: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Jesus understands just how difficult trusting God can be for us, so he orients us properly. It’s important to know that Jesus doesn’t make light about what we need or how much we need to work to get it. Jesus wants us to grow in our understanding that God provides for us on God’s terms, including giving us the skills and abilities to do so. We are to see God working in, with, and through us and our lives. I was reminded of a story from CS Lewis’ Prince Caspian, in The Chronicles of Narnia, where the girl, Lucy, encounters the Christ figure in the form of a lion Aslan, whom she hasn’t seen for some time. “Aslan, you’ve grown since I’ve seen you last,” she says. “No, my little one,” he says, “it is you who have grown.”

How do we trust God? Thomas Constable reminds us that it is two-step process: the decision of trust and the habit of trust. First, we make a commitment to follow Jesus in the way of the kingdom and then we start acting like it. The second part doesn’t always come right away, but if in the middle of our fears we can muster the courage to commit our way to God’s, we will grow in our trust.

I think this applies not only to us as individuals but also as a community of faith. After worship today we will be voting on whether to further God’s work by calling a staff person who will lead us in helping to grow in faith and discipleship. It’s a scary time for us, but it was also scary making the changes in our education and worship last fall, changes which have borne incredible fruit so far. This is the next step of living into the future God has for us.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart. … Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; [God is] the one who will keep us on track. Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"God's Wisdom for Everyday Living: the Fear of the Lord" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living: the Fear of the Lord
Pentecost 9 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
Proverbs 1.1-9; Luke 6.47-49
July 21, 2013

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1.7)

I typically disregard the encouragement of “words to live by” through bumper stickers. Once in a while, though, one comes along that grabs my attention, that I say, “That’s pretty good.” Sometimes it’s even pretty good theology. I saw one the other day that I’d seen before: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” That bumper sticker just might sum up a major theme in the Wisdom Literature in the Bible. Did you know that there was such a type of literature in the Bible? Depending on how you categorize the books of the Bible, there are three or four such types: Proverbs, which has an optimistic or positive outlook on wisdom and daily living; and Job and Ecclesiastes, which are more pessimistic or negative in their outlook. As we have seen in our recent study of Psalms, it too, contains elements of wisdom.

Today we begin our six-week sermon series, God’s Wisdom for Everyday Living, during which we’ll explore four passages from Proverbs and two from Ecclesiastes. Today, we begin with Proverbs. The authorship of Proverbs has traditionally been ascribed to King Solomon, but most scholars believe that to be an honorary title given because of his legendary wisdom. The most famous example of his wisdom comes in the story of the women who were arguing over a baby, who Solomon offered to cut in half to satisfy them. However, clearly the book is an edited collection. The collection consists of practical wisdom, much of what could be considered as common sense. However, Proverbs and the other Wisdom Literature claim much more, that these writings show how God and creation work.

The starting point for a life lived wisely rather than foolishly, Proverbs says, is fear of the Lord. When we hear this phrase, we tend to think of God as perpetually angry, needing to be calmed down or appeased. However, although the Bible is clear about God’s power, “fear of the Lord” is meant to reflect that the proper attitude toward God is awe at his power and obedience to God’s sacred word. I am reminded about Mr. Beaver’s response to the children’s question about Aslan in, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “He’s not a tame lion at all.” But it goes even further: fear of the Lord means we are to be in right relationship to God.

True wisdom, therefore, begins with a proper appreciation of the God “who created me and all that exists,” as Luther said in his explanation to the 1st article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism. This, of course, is in response to Luther’s infamous question, “So what does this mean?” Jesus cranks this up in the gospel reading for today, the ending verses of the “Sermon on the Plain,” where he stresses that following him means coming, hearing, and doing his word. Doing so is like building on a solid foundation that would withstand the storms of life. That’s wisdom.

I want to let you in on a little secret: most preachers agonize over the sermons that they preach. We agonize because we want to proclaim the word of God, one that we believe can make a difference in peoples’ lives. However, we also know that insight doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation. We all know people who are very bright or learned but who can’t seem to make their way in life. We only need to read Dear Abby for proof. Recently there was a column that included a letter from a woman in an abusive relationship who knew what she needed to do but couldn’t do it. Wisdom includes doing what we know what we need to do.

Even so, one of the biggest compliments someone can give me is, “You made me think, Pastor.”
A bigger compliment, though, is when someone says, “I think God is calling me to make some changes in my life.” It is easy for a pastor to shake their finger and say, “Don’t do that” or “Do this.” I think a better way, and the way of Proverbs, is to pose some questions about our life in Christ. So, here’s one for today: “Where is it that God is touching your life today, working in your life as you follow Jesus, to be more of the person God has created and intends for you to be?” This is God’s wisdom for everyday living, to be in a good relationship with God and each other. That may not be bumper sticker material, but it’s pretty good. Amen.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Psalms for Today: A Call to Praise" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Psalms for Today: A Call to Praise
Pentecost 7 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
Psalm 150
July 7, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

Let everything that breaths praise the Lord! (Psalm 150.6)

This past Wednesday we committed my father-in-law to the earth and God’s care at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. Following the service, as Cindy, her sister, and her mom were catching up with some extended family I got into a conversation with the funeral director, Bob, which began with the weather being nice. He told me he was of Serbian descent and belonged to a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I responded how much I value the Orthodox appreciation of mystery, revealed through icons, those pictures that point us toward a larger reality of God. Bob went on to share his concern about the declining morality of our society.

I told Bob that I was more concerned about rampant narcissism, people focusing on themselves, their own needs and wants to the exclusion of others. We went on reflect on how fewer people were having religious funerals and some no services at all. His own father had just recently passed away and we both shared about our experiences of family members dying. We agreed that death is a passage that we cannot ignore, or if we do so, we become wounded. Perhaps it was because I had Psalm 150 on my mind that I mused out loud that it seemed to me that the great religions are great because they take us outside of ourselves, to focus on the profound things in life.

Today we wrap up our series on the Psalms for Today, stating they are more than old church songs or songs of the old church. At the beginning of the series, in Psalm 1, we learned how the Psalms are a resource for life connecting us to the source of life. Then we heard how Psalm 150 as a song of praise orients us to that source of life, similar to a GPS system. Psalm 13 introduced us to the lament, the cry for help we sing during disorienting times of our lives when they take an unpleasant and unexpected turn. The 23rd Psalm gave us the psalm of trust, a way to express faith in God during those times. Last week through Psalm 30 we received the song of thanksgiving, sung on the backside, reorienting us to the new life God has brought us.

If you look at the psalms in a good study Bible, you will see that they are divided into five sections or “books.” Interestingly, the last line of the last psalm in each one of these sections ends in doxology or praise. Psalm 150, as not only the last psalm in Book Five, but also of the whole Psalter is all doxology or praise. “Praise the Lord” or “Hallelujah” is proclaimed 13 times in six verses. It’s praise on steroids. This is like the fireworks and cannon at the end of a July 4th pops concert. Do you think this is important? We are called to sing, dance, and play praises to the very one who gives us our very life and breath to do so.

This may be obvious, but it is not trivial. We all probably know some well-meaning Christians whose every other sentence is, “Praise the Lord,” almost like, “Have a nice day” or “No problem.” Yet, we need to ask ourselves, what gets in the way of praising God, of doing sincerely what is breathed into our soul? I have some ideas, and I’ve already suggested some, but I think I’m going to leave it for you to think about that on your own. Meanwhile, I do know that there is nothing in this world—not even death—that prevents us from praising God. Do you remember the story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where the religious leaders order him to tell his disciples to be quiet? Jesus responds, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” All creation praises the Lord.

Praising God is not a silent endeavor. Our hallelujahs are the response of ones who know the power of death, but also know a great God who has conquered death, who holds each of us loving hands. We are not called to praise God to appease God or pay lip service to a petty tyrant. We are called to praise God because God is indeed good and great and loves us steadfastly. God through Jesus Christ has restored us to himself and invites us to share that good news with others. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” Amen.