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

Sunday, September 29, 2013

"It's Not about You..." - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday

It’s Not about You…
Confirmation Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 29, 2013
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.10-15; 4.10-17
Grace, Mankato, MN

It will be no surprise that our Confirmands are very bright young people. Now, we don’t do public examinations anymore, but if we did I know they would pass with flying colors. For example, Confirmands: Was the Bible written by God or by humans? [Yes!] Here is another: Was Jesus fully God or was he fully human? [Yes!] One more: In Holy Communion, are the elements bread and wine or body and blood? [Yes!] Do you see what I mean; aren’t they brilliant? I mention this today because our texts pose some provocative questions and there’s one I’ve been chewing on all week: Who needs the other more, God or Moses?

Our journey through the story of the Old Testament this fall has taken a giant leap forward. Jacob, the stealer of the blessing from his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac, has married and sired 12 sons, 10 of whom conspire to sell one of them, Joseph, into slavery into Egypt. With God’s help, Joseph rises in prominence and helps save Egypt from a devastating famine. The famine forces Joseph’s family to Egypt where he is ultimately reconciled with his brothers and reunited with his father. The whole clan moves to Egypt where they flourish as a people, that is until a king who does not remember Joseph fears the Israelites and makes them slaves. Enter Moses, who is saved from infanticide by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised in her household, but flees because he has been seen killing an Egyptian and now makes his livelihood tending sheep. Whew!

Our story for today tells us that God sees the plight of his people and remembers the covenant he made with their ancestors. This doesn’t mean God has forgotten his chosen people or the promises, but that God is now going to act. God appears to Moses in the burning-but-not-consumed-bush calling him to active duty. What follows is one of the most interesting exchanges in the Bible. Interestingly, most commentators put down Moses, describing his response to God from “reluctant” to “conniving.” However, I don’t think Moses is acting unreasonable; he is simply asking good questions. You see, nowhere in the story does it indicate Moses has had any contact with the God of his ancestors, I think he has every right to ask who it is that is calling him to do some pretty outrageous things. In fact, I think that the life of faith is lived more in the questions than it is in the answers.

I also think that some of the most stimulating questions are the ones that can be answered, “Yes!” So, who needs each other more, God or Moses? Yes! Certainly, Moses needs all the help he can get to do what he needs to do, but clearly God needs Moses because for some reason, God has chosen to work through human agents. Moses has a pretty good life going. He’s married, has a family, and a steady job. Why would he want to leave that? And what about this God that is calling him to this crazy venture? When God tells Moses that his name is “I am who I am,” is he revealing who he is or not? Yes! God tells us he is a God of relationships, living and active, close at hand yet incredibly mysterious and beyond knowing. Then there is this one last question: is this story about Moses or is it about God? Yes! The Bible makes clear there is never a story about God when it’s not about us, and there’s never one about us that it’s not about God.

This is where I tell you Confirmands that today isn’t about you … and yet it is. Today is about a God who called you and set you apart in your baptisms, about parents, family, and congregation members who have journeyed with you along the way. And yet, it is about you because God needs you as much as you need God, and it is not only good but necessary that you ask questions of this God, because that’s how faith grows. Remember as you are called by God to serve others: God does not call the gifted; God gifts the called. Who are you? You are the ones loved by the God who was, who is, and will always be with you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"In This Place" - Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost

In This Place
Pentecost 18 (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 22, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 27.1-4, 15-23; 28.10-17; John 1.50-51

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! (Genesis 28.16)

A long time ago and far, far away, I received a phone call from a funeral director asking if I’d be willing to do a service for a non-member. The deceased had a Lutheran affinity but was not affiliated with any congregation and the family wanted to honor him with a “Lutheran funeral.” The funeral director went on to say, however, that the family also requested a minister “who wouldn’t preach at them.” That’s why he thought of me. After giving him a hard time, I said that I think I understood what he meant; they wanted to hear Gospel, not Law, and I accepted the offer to preside at the service. On my way to visit the family, I wondered how to handle discussion of the funeral service. How was I to talk about God with folk that didn’t want to be preached at? How was I to bring God to them? To my surprise, I discovered upon my arrival that they had been talking about God before I got there. God was already in that place.

 “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it,” Jacob says after his dream about God. Much has happened since last week when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Isaac has grown up, gotten married to Rebekah, and had fraternal twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is born first and therefore has the privilege of inheritance, much like Will and Kate’s son, George. Foreshadowing a twist in the story, when Esau is born, Jacob follows holding Esau’s heel. Jacob is appropriately named: it means “heel” or “supplanter.” Prior to our readings today, Jacob catches Esau in a week moment and buys his birthright for a bowl of stew.

But there’s still the matter of the blessing, which Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal from Esau. Having tricked Isaac and Esau both, Rebekah tells Jacob that it’s a good time to find a wife, and not from the pagans they live among. So, Jacob flees and exhausted, stops for the night in the desert and lays down to rest, hoping for some relief. God comes to Jacob in a dream and gives him some unexpected news: the Lord is Jacob’s God just as he was of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. He learns that the blessing of a promised land and descendants to fill it is given to him as well, and that through him all nations will be blessed. Jacob wakes and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Jacob was talking about the place called Haran, but he could as easily been talking about his life. Jacob was scared and fearful for his life, understanding full well that his predicament was of his own making. He had no reason to believe that God was going to show up and do some incredible things in his life. Yet God, as we will learn, continually does just this, coming in the midst of our daily struggles. As Isaiah 43 proclaims,
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you O Jacob, who formed you O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. The rivers shall not over whelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel your Savior. ”
Jesus, upon whom the angels ascend and descend, becomes the promise enfleshed: “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.” We cannot explain God’s presence in the dark place of our lives, we can only look for it and proclaim it.

Today is Campus Ministry Sunday, a time to intentionally lift up our connection to campus ministry in general and Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry in particular. The issue isn’t so much, “Is God in that place we call MSU-Mankato?” We know God is there. The issue is, are we going to have a place to help students know that God is with them? We have had a long history saying, “Yes, we will help these students know God’s love and grace in this place,” and I trust we will continue to do so. Surely God is in this place, long before we recognize his presence. Let us look for it and proclaim it, remembering that God comes, blessing us to be a blessing. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Risky Business" - Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

Risky Business
Pentecost 17 (Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 15, 2013
Genesis 21.1-3; 22.1-14; John 1.29

I wonder how Jay and Stephanie, who had Lincoln baptized a few minutes ago, think about this story. Would they be willing to offer him up to God? Today’s text from Genesis is one of the hardest in the Bible to understand. It’s right up there with the story of Job and Jesus’ crucifixion. There have been two questions that have run through my mind all week: “What kind of a God would ask a man to sacrifice his only, beloved son?” “What kind a person would follow such a God?” The fact that this story and the others mentioned “turn out all right in the end” lulls us into a false sense of security. One way to slow ourselves down so we can grapple with the story is an old one: to ask questions. In the ancient Jewish tradition, this is called midrash, which also refers to a body of commentary that not only poses questions of the text but proposes answers as well.

Before we do, it would be helpful to recap some of the story since last week’s creation narrative. Humans have indeed become fruitful and multiplied, but they have also tried to play God instead of play human. Adam and Eve have disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. The first homicide, indeed fratricide, has occurred as Cain kills Abel. In fact, it became so bad that God does a reboot of the system with an earth-wide flood. Apparently this doesn’t work so well because soon after people tried to build a tower to heaven to live with God. As a result, God decides to form a special people through whom all families of the earth would be blessed. Curiously, he chooses, of all people, an elderly couple long past the child-bearing stage, Abraham and Sarah.

Sarah is 90 and Abraham 100 when Isaac is born, 10 long years after God’s initial call and promise to give them descendants. (Imagine, Jay and Stephanie, having a baby at that age.) Now, after seeing some concrete results of the promise, Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. What kind of God would ask such a thing, and what kind of person would follow that kind of God? There are many more questions. For example, why doesn’t Abraham stand up to God as he has before? Where is Sarah while all of this is going on and what would the story look like from her perspective? What about Isaac? Can you imagine the conversation when he and Abraham return from Mt. Moriah? How would Isaac tell the story?

I think the key to teasing out some meaning for us is to think of this story as a parable. That doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t true but to think of it as not a problem to be solved but as a story to open us up to God. It is helpful to remember that the Bible in general, and this story in particular, is all about relationships, and relationships as we know are risky business. These are flesh and blood people who are trying to be in a faithful relationship with God and each other, a relationship that deepens and broadens as time goes on, and one that is not always perfect. To have a relationship with someone, including God, is to risk ourselves, to open ourselves up. It is helpful to remember that we aren’t the only ones taking risks; God has taken risks, too. By making humankind in his image, to exercise freedom over our lives, God risks having us turn our backs on him and walking away.

Relationships develop over time and they don’t always go the way we want them to, but we trust anyways, don’t we? As I think about this, and what it might have been like from Isaac’s point of view, I remember when our daughter Angela was very young. She fell, hitting her head on a sharp corner of the coffee table and sliced her head open, just above her eyebrow. I took her the doctor, who told me to wrap her in a sheet and lay her on the examination table, so she couldn’t thrash around. Then he used what must have looked like a huge needle to anesthetize her wound and proceeded to sew up her head with an even larger needle. All the while I held her and told her she needed to trust the doctor. Why did she do it? She somehow knew that I had the ability to do something for her even though she had no idea what that something might be.

Perhaps Abraham knew that the same God who was able to bring life out of two lifeless bodies could bring life out of death, even though he had no idea he that could possibly happen. In Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we experience if not the culmination of this promise then a huge step towards it: crucifixion becomes resurrection.

What kind of God would ask a person to do such a thing? The kind of God who is willing to go all in for the sake of a loving relationship with everyone, giving up his Son, his only Son, his beloved Son. What kind of people would take a risk and follow such a God? People such as you and me, who in the midst of our cancers and divorces and addictions and tragedies of our lives trust that it is this God, crucified and risen from the dead, who can and will provide for us, even when we don’t know how. Having a relationship is risky business, I know, but as Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

"In the Image of God" Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Image of God
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 4: Creation
September 8, 2013
Genesis 1.1-2.4a; John 1.1-5

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image, according to our likeness.”

When I meet with couples who are preparing for marriage, we study four biblical texts that talk about marriage and relationships. One is the tricky passage in Ephesians 5 about wives being subject to their husbands and a second even trickier one is from Mark 10 on divorce. A third is from the second creation story from Genesis 2 about God creating men and women as partners. (Did you know there are two creation stories?) The fourth is from the first creation story, part of our focus text for today. One of the questions I ask the couples is, “What do you think it means to be made in the image of God?” Of course, many answers have been given over the years, most of them rightly and understandably talking about love. One perceptive young woman mentioned forgiving.

Today we begin a fresh year of the narrative lectionary, our trip through the story-line of the Bible. This fall we’ll move from the creation story in Genesis to the unfolding of God’s interaction with humanity through the major stories in the Old Testament, ending with the Prophets during Advent. These lead up to the Jesus story at Christmas, this time from the Gospel of John. We’ll stay with John through the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter and then move through the stories of the early church in Acts and Paul’s letters. Along the way, we’ll see again how God works to keep in relationship with humanity, no matter what humanity does.

Right off the bat, we hear a startling claim: humankind is made in the image of God the Creator. Ironically, the God who will not tolerate the making of permanent graven images creates us in his image. With the couples in counseling, I reflect on one aspect that has always stuck out to me, our ability to use language. The creator who speaks everything into existence gives us the unique ability to speak back. I am also struck by the fact that the God who rested on the seventh day bids us to do the same. I’ve long been concerned that the original reason for Sabbath, rest and re-creation, has been lost to us in midst of our way too busy lives.

However, I’ve other thoughts in light of today’s recognition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 25th Anniversary, “Always being made new,” and our celebration of such with the produce from our community garden. God calls us to create. Phil Hefner, who taught at our Chicago seminary, puts it this way: we are “created co-creators.” Gary Simpson, who teaches at Luther Seminary, prefers to say it a little differently: we are “co-creating creatures.” Ted Peters, who has done work in the area of the ethics of science, particularly genetics, and religion, says we are not “playing God” when we are engaged in scientific endeavors; we are “playing human” as God created us. God has called us to a unique role in the world, a position of authority and responsibility. God’s creative power doesn’t end on the seventh day; God continues to be involved in the world. Creation is heading somewhere and we aren’t just along for the ride. God works in, with, and through us, creator and created co-creators.

Even as ours is dull and tarnished, it is in Jesus that we see the intended image of God most clearly. The Word who was with God and was God, who was at the beginning and through whom all things came to being, freely and willingly emptied himself, taking on human flesh to be with us. As God gave and continues to give of God’s self in creation, Jesus does the same for us. To be made in God’s image means to give one’s self away for the sake of others. It means to participate with God’s mission to love and bless the world, to be made new.

I appreciate many things about our community garden: the number of people who have been energized and involved; the community members who are interested and participating; and certainly the amount of produce that is benefiting so many who have so little. But what I really appreciate is that you all have said that we are going to give ourselves away for the sake of others, not ourselves, to love and serve others as Christ has loved and served us. Where is it that God is inviting you to create alongside God, to give yourself away for the sake of others? Made in the image of God, we are always being made new for the sake of God’s creation. That’s very good. Thanks be to God! Amen.