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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"In This Place" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

In This Place
Reformation – Narrative Lectionary Year 4
October 27, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 5.1-5, 8.1-13; John 2.19-21

Whenever I fly, which isn’t very often, I love sitting by the window and looking out. In addition to enjoying the scenery, I try to identify landmarks to determine where we are. Flying back from Washington State, wondering if I’d fly over Taft Park, the flight path that went agonizingly close to my home where I grew up in east Richfield. Indeed, that’s where we were coming in, but it was a melancholy experience. Instead of my home, there was a parking lot of a Home Depot. Most of the houses, including ours, had been razed or moved because of the airport and became commercial property.

I have come to appreciate the importance of places: Rice Lake, WI, where my mother grew up; and Ft. Snelling, where a maker stands in memory of my parents. On my bucket list is 3301 Texas Ave., St. Louis Park where I spent the first five years of my life and I haven’t been back to since. Of course, it’s not just the places that are important, but the experiences we have had and people we have met. They are so important that when they aren’t there we feel diminished and disconnected in some way.

The heart of today’s focus scripture is a place, perhaps the most important one in the Bible. Solomon, David’s son, is given permission to do what was denied his father: build a temple. The reason is that David was a man of war and the temple would not be a symbol of triumphalism. Temples and palaces were routinely built by newly crowned kings as monuments to themselves. The building projects were political moves, meant to consolidate their power. However, this temple would be built on God’s terms and for God’s purposes, not for any monarch’s political gain, even David’s.

This temple would also be different because it would be one of encounter rather than containment. The writer of 1 Kings clearly states that, although God’s glory fills the temple, God is not limited to the temple. After all, God is Lord of heaven and earth. Prior to this building of the temple, the Ark of the Covenant, symbol of God’s presence, has been in a tent. Though God refuses to be pinned down, God’s presence in the temple assures them that they now have the place that God had promised to their ancestors long ago. They won’t be abandoned. Even so, they will forget this lesson 300 years later when the temple is destroyed and they are exiled into Babylon.

In fact, the temple will be rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah, and subsequently destroyed a second time, and then a third during and after Jesus’ presence. So, Jesus startles the people when he claims he is now the temple, the locus of God’s divine presence. Jesus is now that place where we not only meet God, but God takes the initiative to meet us. This is a temple that when it is destroyed will be raised up on the third day and live forever. I in Jesus we see most clearly that God can be anywhere God chooses to be, but God promises to be in certain places for us to meet him. In “Solomon’s” Temple, the word in the form of the stone tablets, the Law is at the center; in Jesus, the Word is the center.

Five hundred years ago, a building project was the precipitating nit that Martin Luther picked with the church of the time. Though Luther didn’t object to the church being built, he did object to financing it through indulgences, “get into heaven cards” sold to unsuspecting peasants. He claimed that the church had no right to sell what God had freely given, God’s love in Jesus Christ. By the way, lest we Protestants get too snotty, we should remember that we have skeletons in our own ecclesial closets.

This past Wednesday night I asked folk, “Why are you here?” Answers were varied. “I was welcomed here and people remembered me when I came back.” “I felt acceptance for who I am.” “Our family has a long history here.” They all add up to one thing: to have an experience of the living God who, though can be anywhere, promises to be here. God meets us in the waters of baptism, making us his children. God is in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion, offering forgiveness and life. God meets us spoken words of grace and mercy. This sense of place is so critical in the time of “spiritual, but not religious”; God knows we need places like this to have an encounter with him.

Our leadership, in conversation with you all, have determined that we need to consider a building renovation project of our own next year, not as a monument to God but as a place of encounter. God willing, it will be to further support the mission and ministry God calls us to do here. It will continue to be a place for people to experience the graciously given love and acceptance of God. It will be a place where people can come and grow in the life of faith and be sent into the world, a hurting world that needs to hear the good news of God’s love. It will be a place where we can encounter the Word made flesh, whose death gives us life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Heart of the Matter" - Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

The Heart of the Matter
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 20, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 16.1-13; Psalm 51.10-14

Our trip through the Old Testament story presents us with another call story in a long line of call stories. In fact, one way to read the Bible is to see it as ways that God invites us into his unfolding vision to love and bless the world. Last week it was Samuel, who is now grown up and has the responsibility for anointing a new king. Saul, the first and current king, has messed up royally, rejecting God’s commands and acting on his own, so much so that we are told that God repents making him king, much to Samuel’s chagrin. A new king is needed, one who is after God’s own heart, though we aren’t told directly what that means.

We are told that this new king will not be chosen by his appearance, which was apparently a common practice in Samuel’s day. When Saul was chosen we learn that “there was not a man … more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” Did you know that in virtually all of the modern presidential elections the taller candidate has won? It seems that not much has changed in 3,000 years.

Appearances don’t only count when it comes to celebrities or politics. Billions are spent on market studies and focus groups to determine what people like or don’t like. Brand names are on everything, right down to the water we drink. And in an odd twist, blue jeans with holes in the right places are more valued and expensive. As country western singer Dolly Parton said in an interview on 20/20: “It costs a lot of money to make a person look this cheap.”

So, it’s a breath of fresh air to those of us who aren’t so tall or good-looking that God is going to use a different standard when it comes to the new king because God sees differently than we do. Furthermore, we are reminded that God continually picks the least likely person for his purposes. (Even so, after David is brought in the narrator can’t help but gush about his good looks. When I meet with couples for pre-marriage counseling I ask what attracted them to each other and what do they appreciate about each other, they always list admirable qualities such as a sense of humor and being able to talk openly. Then, almost as an after-thought they add “hotness.”)

So, our first reaction is a fist-pump that God looks on our hearts, but that quickly gives way to a second: NO! I’m pretty sure I don’t want God looking into my heart, because I know what’s in there. Sure, there’s a fair amount of love for my family, gratitude for the blessings I have, compassion for those who are less fortunate, joy in the work I am called to do, and hope for the future. But I also know there’s far too much bitterness for past hurts, jealousy of others more talented or fortunate, dissatisfaction for what I don’t have, sorrow for how much I fall short, and despair over the direction our country and world is headed.

Well, if the Bible is anything, it is brutally honest about the human condition. Even David, someone after God’s own heart, acknowledges such with one of the most poignant Psalms in the Bible, Psalm 51. David, who lusted after another man’s wife, impregnated her and arranged for his death, is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin. David then asks God to create in him a clean heart and renewing a right spirit, praying that God will not break off their relationship. So, how is it that David would be the standard that neither he nor others could live up to? The Bible never tells us directly what it means to be someone after God’s own heart; we have to infer that from the surrounding story and make some educated guesses.

I don’t know for sure, but I want to propose some possibilities and let you try them on. First, I think that David was different from Saul in that he was open to God’s will for his life. Saul defied God in some important matters, effectively saying that he knew better than God did how to handle things. Second, David trusts God for what he needs, unlike Saul who takes matters into his own hands. Third, unlike Saul, who thinks he knows best, David seeks God’s counsel in what to do. Having a Godly heart may mean being open to God, trusting God, and asking for God’s guidance.

So, our story today doesn’t order us to check our hearts to see if they are godly so much as it invites us into a deeper relationship with God, where we humbly open ourselves to God by seeking God’s vision for us. This call on our lives doesn’t demand perfection, but rather calls us to discover who God has made us a person and live more fully into that kind of person God calls us to be. When we fall short or mess it up, as we most surely will, the true King, God in the flesh, will call us to himself, embrace us with love and forgiveness, and send strengthen us to go at it again. That really is the heart of the matter isn’t it, a God who says to each of us, “You are the one. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

"Test and See" - Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Test and See
Exodus 16.1-18 Manna
Pentecost 20
October 6, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN

We make another narrative leap today, though not as large as last week’s story about Moses’ commission to lead the Israelites. Moses has indeed succeeded in securing the Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian slavery via the 10 plagues. They have crossed the miraculously parted Red Sea and are now six weeks into their journey to the Promised Land. The bloom is off the rose of freedom and the realities of the journey ahead set in. So, now come the questions, questions about God and God’s provision for them, and about Moses’ leadership. In a story that is also our story, the Israelites make a startling discovery while experience a testing of sorts.

Fresh out of college and with no grad school prospects, I entered a management training program with Minnesota Fabrics, a retail fabric chain. The company had an extensive and intensive program where we learned everything from the ground up. The store manager would quiz us on a unit then the group manager would come in and check us off and approve us for moving on to the next level. In my first such unit and test I failed miserably. I learned later that I was almost fired, but at the urging of the store manager was given a second chance. I now knew what I didn’t know and set about learning it. That experience was a kick in the pants for me, a different sort of test, the kind that determines what you are made of and how you will respond to life.

As the Israelites looked back and preserved this memory of their time in the wilderness, they understood that God was working in, with, and through them in a way they hadn’t seen before. They were afraid, so much so that their awful Egyptian slavery looked better than the uncertainty of the journey ahead. What was hard for them to see at the time was that God was preparing them for life in the Promised Land. They needed to learn to trust God for everything and God helped them learn that through the gift of manna. As Beth Tanner notes, “Their bodies may be free from slavery, but it will take much more to free their minds and hearts.” Like my experience at Minnesota Fabrics, God was working in, with, and through them to bring them to a new place.

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College, “The Universe at Its Limits.” There were many wonder-filled moments, but one highlights an aspect of today’s story. Dr. Samuel Ting, Nobel Laureate and professor of physics at MIT, shared his latest work to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station (ISS). The AMS is collecting data that aims to identify the origin of dark matter in the universe. That story is incredible in and of itself. However, what struck me was that Dr. Ting noted that, like several others projects before his, they might end up finding something far more important than what they are looking for.

The same is true for the Israelites; as they looked for their next meal, some were looking for bread and others were even looking backward, albeit romantically, to what they had in Egypt. What they discovered as God helped them see was manna. Many biblical scholars think manna is a naturally occurring phenomenon. There are scale insects that suck the sap of the tamarisk bush and excrete globules that crystallize in the sun and fall to the ground. These globules are rich in carbohydrates and sugar and can sustain a hungry traveler. The Israelites saw bug poop in a whole new way, one that supported life and developed trust in God. Almost 1300 years later, eyes will be opened to an itinerant Jewish rabbi who will die on a cross and rise three days later, the Bread of Life from heaven.

About 18 months ago, the church council in retreat adopted this story as our story for our journey of faith. One reason is that we wanted to recognize that we do food well here at Grace and the story is about food. But the main reason is that we see ourselves as on a journey from one place to another and it’s a bit scary. We wanted to acknowledge that some of the “good old days” weren’t as good as we remember. Most importantly, we wanted to remind ourselves that God is the one guiding and providing along the way.

We know that God will be with us even though we may not always see it. We know that what we discover along the way will probably be far more important than what we are looking for. Last of all, we know that God is working in, with, and through us to free our hearts and minds to love God and what God loves. We know this because of Jesus Christ, the Living Bread from heaven, who gives us abundant life. I look forward to discover with you what God will be showing us. Amen.