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

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Location,Location, Location" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Location, Location, Location
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 24, 2013
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14

In December 1977, I was an assistant manager with Minnesota Fabrics in the Twin Cities, nearing the end of my training. Though I didn’t know it then, that next spring I’d be on my way to Chicago and part of a new program with the company. One day, I received a call from my group manager, my boss’ boss, telling me to pack my bags. I was being sent to Duluth for two weeks to run the store there while they were closing it.

The store manager had already transferred to another store and someone needed to run it until its closing. It was not a great position to be in: the employee morale was low and some were leaving for new jobs. If that wasn’t enough, the motel I was staying in had a massive gap in the door, making my room like a walk-in freezer. I didn’t know anybody in Duluth, the weather was miserable, and the work disheartening. Though it may be an exaggeration, for me it was the Minnesota Fabrics equivalent of Siberia.

The prophet Jeremiah is writing to some Jews who were feeling similarly dislocated, only in Babylon. It’s around 626 BCE, and the Northern Kingdom of Israel has been destroyed by the Assyrians, who have made the Southern Kingdom of Judah a vassal state, that is, until the Babylonians come along. That’s the way it is when you are a bully; a bigger bully usually comes along to take your place. In a moment of false bravado, the king of Judah rebels by not paying the taxes and pays the price. Governments don’t like it when you don’t pay your taxes. In what will be known as the first deportation, many of the elite of Judah have been relocated to Babylon. They are cut off from their homeland, their families, and worst of all, they think, from their God.

With the elite in Babylon, there are prophets telling the dislocated exiles to continue to rebel. They promise that their time there will be short and they must resist every effort to keep them subjugated. In response, Jeremiah sends a letter countering that message, and giving a startling message from God: they are to not only go about their business, but they are to work for the welfare of their country. Furthermore, they are going to be there a lot longer than they think, several generations, in fact. However, Jeremiah says, all evidence to the contrary, God is with them and has a hopeful future for them.

All of us experience dislocations in our lives, from mild to life-changing; some often devastating. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the diagnosis of an illness, leaving a long-time home, are all dislocations. What makes it worse is that we live in an uncertain economic and political time, with high unemployment or underemployment, a dysfunctional political system, and youngsters sent to fight in illogical wars. The false prophets among us are rampant: we can spend our way to prosperity; all we need are massive cuts (or massive taxes) to get out of this hole; the next shiny, new thing will make life better; and the most insidious of all, God wants us wealthy.

Jeremiah’s message is as important for us who are dislocated today as it was to those in Babylon. God is present and actively working in our midst in spite of our inability to see God’s presence. In other words, though we may feel dislocated in our lives, we are never dislocated from God. Furthermore, Jeremiah’s words are an invitation to trust God in our times of dislocation when doing so seems crazy. In so doing, our actions, our very lives, become signs of hope and trust to those around us.

The Bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is credited with saying, “bloom where you are planted.” More recently, Mary Engelbreit has made the phrase popular. When I think of this phrase, I think of seeing a flower sprouting up in the midst of a patch of broken concrete. It wasn’t the lush garden or rich soil the flower dreamed of, but what an incredible sign of God’s in-breaking presence it is!

Somewhere along the line, I decided to do the best I could in Duluth, to work for its welfare and the welfare of Minnesota Fabrics. Eventually, I returned to my former post and then the promotion to the Chicago area. However, it wouldn’t be until much later that I realized how God was present in, with, and through my experiences in Duluth. This would be a lesson that I would relearn countless times throughout my life.

Wherever you are feeling dislocated or cut off from God, know that God is with you. Know that God is actively working in your life and in the life of this congregation. God invites us to join along in that work, being signs and instruments of his desire to bring our world back into a living and loving relationship with him and each other. That’s our location: to bloom where we are planted, knowing that God provides all we need. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"The Guiding Light" - Sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost

The Guiding Light
Pentecost 26 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 17, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 9.1-7; John 8.12

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9.2)

As I get older, I notice the effects of darkness or lack of light: a gloomy attitude on a gloomy day, needing more light to read by, and increased difficulty driving at night. I much prefer sunny days, regardless of temperature; I like a lot of light to read; and I need the right kind for driving. Darkness and light are important metaphors in the Bible, especially in the Gospel of John as we will see as we get into the book after Christmas. Of course, darkness refers to shortened days, but it also refers to troubled times, such as the “dark night of the soul” as St. John of the Cross described.

The prophet Isaiah, the one we call “First,” speaks during a darkening time of Assyrian oppression. There are at least three Isaiahs, prophesying during three different times and situations. And no, we are not rushing Christmas today just like the stores; this text is part of the narrative flow of the biblical story. We think this was originally an “ascension oracle,” rejoicing at the crowning of a new king, probably Hezekiah. However, the followers of Jesus of Jesus saw in this prophecy a foreshadowing of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Either way, as with the new king, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

A central theme of this passage, found throughout the biblical story, is that God is doing the acting. This beacon of hope, our guiding light, has been given to us; the light has shined on us. Furthermore, there is an “already, but not yet” quality to this light that God provides in darkness. Our darknesses may not totally disappear, but neither will the darknesses overcome the light. In fact, we can be so bold as to say that whenever the darkness appears God’s light does, too.

We cannot bring about the light; only God can do that. However, we can look for the light God promises to bring. This past Wednesday I asked where people have seen the light of hope in their darkest times. One person has seen the light through phone calls received in their most difficult times from unlikely people. Another said they always come to this place because they know God’s light will shine somewhere here. She doesn’t know if it will be in the scripture, hymn, sermon, or kind word, but she knows she’ll find it here.

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday, the culmination of “Gathering in God’s Love.” We have had two moving temple talks: Josh talking about his deeply meaningful participation in Holy Communion; and Terry about the blessings of gathering in order to give ourselves away to others through the lutefisk dinners. We remember that we don’t give because God needs our money, and it’s not even about keeping this place open. We give in response to a generous God who gives freely to us and wishes us to be generous people as well.

Yet, there is another aspect to making a commitment today, beyond supporting mission and ministry that God calls us to in this place. Though we cannot bring the light, we can be guiding lights to others. The commitments we make here today are signs of hope, beacons of light declaring that God has a future for us and the world. We who walked in darkness have seen a great light, Jesus, the Light of the World. If you are walking in darkness today, know that God’s light will find you. If not, look for a place where God wishes for the light to shine through you. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Rolling on the River" - Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost

Rolling on the River
Pentecost 25 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 10, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24

One day, as an undergrad at Gustavus Adolphus College, I walked into the cafeteria and went over to my friend, Dave. Totally unexpectedly, Dave snapped, “I don’t have time for you today, Scott.” I was completely caught off-guard and walked away shamed and bewildered. Later, I was able to talk with Dave and learn that I had said something in jest but was hurtful to Dave. I apologized and we continue as friends today. However, that day I had abused our relationship. I had taken our friendship for granted and, as painful as it was, Dave was right to tell me about it.

In our reading today, we hear the words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” Yet, as powerful as they are, we must not ignore the context in which they are spoken. Like me and my relationship with Dave, the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are taking their relationship with God for granted, abusing it with actions that are contrary to their words.

Life is very good in Israel. Their leadership is strong and they have rest from their enemies all around them. People are prosperous, being able to afford luxurious country houses as well as city houses. Business is booming at the temple, people are generous with their donations, and the house is packed. Yet, right outside the temple, the smaller farmers are being charged exorbitant land rents and receive less of the crop than they should. Furthermore, when they seek justice in the courts, they can’t afford to buy justice like the wealthy landowners can. Furthermore, the most vulnerable, the widows and orphans who are especially close to God’s heart, are being neglected.

Unlike last week’s prophet, Elijah, who is burned-out and struggling to hear God’s still, small voice, Amos is on fire, doing more forth-telling than foretelling, relating God’s hair-parting roar to the people. Intolerant of complacency, he raises warning flags, reminding the Israelites that God has a claim on our behavior and that going through the religious motions is not acceptable to God. This is one God who is not neutral on matters of good and evil, and not afraid to say so.

Through the image of moving water, Amos wants us to know that justice is dynamic and moving. As it says in Micah 6.8, we are to do justice as well as to love kindness as we walk humbly with God. Justice is a surging, churning, cleansing stream. Also, Amos reminds us that justice is responsive: because God loves us, we respond in just acts toward others. Moreover, it is not simply enough for us to do loving acts, we are to become advocates for the powerless, giving voice against the systems of injustice for those who have no voice.

As I worked with the text this week, I was sure that using it to browbeat you wouldn’t be very helpful. Think about what we do for the less-advantaged through places such as ECHO Foodshelf, Habitat for Humanity, Salvation Army, Crossroads, Pathstone, Lutheran Social Services, Jesus Food, Teresa House, Global Eye Mission, Edith White, and others. These don’t even include what we do through the Southeastern Minnesota Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. When it comes to justice, we roll on this river. Yet, what keeps me awake at nights isn’t wondering if we are doing enough, it’s wondering if we are doing too much or if we are even doing the right things.

Newly-elected Bishop Steve Delzer just announced that our synod is going to focus on eliminating food insecurity in the next five years, inviting congregations to partner and collaborate to do so. I wonder about our role in this as we are doing a lot already.  I think that we need to look at the systemic causes of the injustices and work to eliminate them, not just feed people. These are huge tasks, and we certainly can’t do it all, but can we step back and discover God’s leading? I don’t have the answers, but Amos prompts us to ask the questions, to seek God’s call on us.

One last thing: although we are left struggling with how to faithfully answer God’s call, we are also left with a good and encouraging word: Amos doesn’t just speak justice, he speaks hope. Like my relationship with Dave, relationships can be repaired and life is to be found in serving good. What we need to remember that it isn’t us; it is God’s abundant and life-giving water flowing in, with, and through us that is key. As we have this conversation about God’s call on us, we do so drinking from the fount of blessing, Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"On the Strength of that Food" - Sermon for All Saints

On the Strength of that Food
All Saints – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 3, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 19.1-18; John 12.27-28

Elijah is deep in the wilderness, fleeing for his life from the rage of Queen Jezebel. He is alone and full of despair. It isn’t an easy gig being a prophet of the Lord in the Northern Kingdom with its corrupt rulers, such as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. They are not only corrupt, but have forsaken the Lord for the Phoenician god Baal. Interestingly, Elijah is fresh off of what would make the highlight reel of any prophet’s career, the killing of Baal’s prophets after Elijah has called down fire from heaven. Now, with a price on his head, Elijah gets as far away as he can and then still farther into the wilderness.

When the word wilderness pops up our ears should perk up because it is both an important place and an important metaphor in the Bible. There are too many stories to rehearse here, but it is a place the Israelites wandered for 40 years until they could enter the Promised Land and it is where Jesus is tempted by Satan 40 days and nights. The wilderness is a dangerous and scary place, with wild animals and bleak landscape. A place of fear and danger in its own right, it also becomes major metaphor for the life of faith.

As I think about this image as it relates to our lives, it seems there are two types of wildernesses. The first type is the wilderness into which we are thrust, not of our own choosing or making. The loss of a job, the illness or death of a loved one, a divorce we didn’t seek or want; all these are wildernesses. The second type of wilderness is the one we retreat to or create for ourselves, escaping the stresses and strains of life. These are the wildernesses of TV, the internet, drugs, alcohol, sleeping, eating, working out, or running away. In both cases, we wind up in places that we never imagined we’d find ourselves, feeling alone and abandoned.

It’s ironic that within the last few days as I’ve been working on this text that I’ve received links on Facebook to two disturbing articles. The first was from a former parishioner and it was about the epidemic of clergy burnout being felt across all denominations and faith groups. The second was a story about how clergy have the 8th highest number of psychopaths in their profession. (By the way, CEO and Lawyers are numbers one and two.) Perhaps retreating into the wilderness of Facebook is not as good idea as I think. The reality is that all of us have those times when we despair and want to give up because of our circumstances. We all have those times when we retreat into unhealthy places or activities.

The good news today is that, in those times and places we never dreamed of finding ourselves, like Elijah we are not as alone as we think we are, for God meets us in the midst of our wilderness. And as with Elijah, God shows up in the places we least expect providing what we need. There have been countless times I have been in a wilderness spot and a kind word of encouragement has allowed me to go “on the strength of that food” for many days and nights.

Today we celebrate All Saints, a time to remember those who have gone before us. We tend to think of a saint as someone is good, someone who is dead, or someone good and dead, like St. Paul or St. Mary. But in today’s context, we can say that saints are people like you and me who are met by God in moments of despair and emptiness, who don’t always feel God’s presence and may even struggle with it. Saints are people like you and me who cling to the promise that God meets us in our sufferings, but also promises not to leave us there, because God has given everyone of us a purpose.

We believe that God will not only deliver us from our wildernesses, but also for something else. Each of us has a next. As we read the list of names, light candles for those we miss, and are surrounded by them as we receive Communion, we go on the strength of that food, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Where is the wilderness you find yourself in today, either of your choosing or not? Know that God is with you there, but will not leave you there, for God has a future for you. May you go on the strength of that food, sustained by the very presence of God. Amen.