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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"Good News of Great Joy" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Good News of Great Joy
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

As we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, it seems only natural to think of past Christmases. I particularly think about how people engage Christmas differently. For example, my sister was a Nosy Nellie, always trying to figure out her presents, which made disguising them more rewarding when she couldn’t figure them out. My parents were Bean Counters, making sure that they spent the exact amount on each of four children, down to the penny. My bachelor uncle was the resident Scrooge who, when we invited him each year, insisted we not buy him anything. We did, of course, and he grumbled about it, but he came anyway. I think I was—and still am—more of a lurker than a celebrator. Whether my stoicism has been bred into me or any exuberance I might have had has been beat out of me is debatable; it could be a little of both. Either way, I like to sit back and watch the happenings rather than jumping in.

Before I read the nativity story, I asked you to listen for the place or places that you find yourself lingering. So, where is that? Where do you find yourself pausing and pondering, perhaps like Mary did? Did you wonder about the Imperial Roman occupying forces who demanded such and arduous trip for Mary and Joseph, imposing the will of the Empire upon them? Did you think about this young couple and what they were going through having their first baby, especially so far away from family and friends? Perhaps you imagined yourself as a shepherd in the quiet countryside and suddenly having your world rocked. Or maybe you wondered what it would be like standing at the manger, longing to hold the Creator of the Universe in your arms.

Perhaps it is the lurker in me that is being drawn to the shepherds that first Christmas, far away from the action. Of course, in one sense, shepherds didn’t have any choice, because that’s where the sheep are kept. However, aside from the fact that they wouldn’t even have been welcome without the sheep—unclean and unwanted doesn’t begin to describe them—God chooses to break into their isolated existence. And God doesn’t send meek and mild Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”; no, this is a heaven-splitting, earth-shattering army of angels that seeks them out and meets them where they are, in the darkness and isolation.

I don’t think it’s just me, because others have said so, but doesn’t the world seem a bit darker this Christmas? It’s not just the gloomy weather either, though that doesn’t help. Place such as Ferguson, New York City, Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan are not far from our thoughts, not to mention Ebola, domestic violence, sexual assaults, protests and counter protests, and more than I care to say. Even the joy we feel at the birth of a baby tonight is tempered by our real-life experiences. It takes sweat, tears and hard work to bring a baby into this world and even harder work raising them, let alone the dangers that lurk to threaten them. And we also realize that Christmas is not joyful for those undergoing the agony of infertility. Yet it is precisely the birth of this particular baby that we need to remember tonight.

The birth of Jesus is a timely reminder that though the world is dark, the world is not forsaken, let alone God-forsaken. Why does it matter where we are tonight or any night? Because wherever it is, in whatever darkness we find ourselves, Jesus meets us where we are. The shepherds had no expectation of being touched by God that night, but God did; God can and does touch us, too. The good news of great joy is that God shows up where we least expect and always for us. Jesus is not just in a beautiful candlelit church where we sing lovely carols; Jesus is born out there, wherever people need him the most. This good news is not too good to be true; rather, this news is too good not to be true. Jesus is born to us.

Of course, that first Christmas wasn’t the end of the story. For the babe wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger would thirty years later be wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb. But we know that wasn’t the end, either. The shepherds will go back to where they came from, but they will not go back to business as usual, for has God met them and in the meeting changed them forever. Where has Jesus met you this past year, perhaps in the darkest times of your life? More importantly, where do you need Jesus to meet you in the year ahead? Wherever you find yourself, whether a Nosy Nellie, Bean Counter, Scrooge, or even Lurker, look for God to break into your world with this good news for you. For to you this day—and every day—God comes to bring light, love and hope to your darkness. Merry Christmas! Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Love Comes Down" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Love Comes Down
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 21, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 1.18-25

In the TV show, “Person of Interest,” a man named Harold has built a supercomputer for the US government that can not only see what happens but it can also predict felonious actions. However, the government is only interested in detecting acts of terrorism, considering others “irrelevant.” Upset at this notion of irrelevance, Harold has assembled a team to help everyday people in their lives. Unfortunately, the only information he receives from “the machine” is a number. It is up to him and his team to figure out if the “number” is a victim or perpetrator and how they can help.

As the seasons have progressed, the allusions between the machine and an all-seeing, all-knowing God deepen and broaden. Leaving that idea aside for another day, what strikes me today is the connection between Harold and Joseph, designated by God as the father of Jesus. It may not seem so, but the way forward for both of them is fraught with moral and ethical ambiguity. Joseph, like Harold and his team, is a good person wanting to do right, but he and they are also human. Being human not only means being aware of and having to deal with competing and conflicting goods; it also means being fearful at the prospect. Then there is also our natural inclination to self-interest, to preserving our own lives. Finally, being human means our natural confusion on how to deal with complex situations.

Also like Harold and his team, this new assignment that Joseph receives is disruptive and open-ended. God rocks Joseph’s world with these new instructions. God draws a picture of a new reality for Joseph and then draws him into this new vision of reality. This new reality declares, as we have seen in our trip through the Old Testament, that God is not a “one and done” kind of god, who sets things in motion and leaves. God is continually at work in our world. This new reality has a goal, for God to draw all people into God’s loving embrace. But the way we get there is anything but certain; we really are making it up as we go along.

Even so, to say that we are “making it up” doesn’t mean we are left helpless or to our own devices. The main point of today’s lesson is that love comes down to us; it always has and it always will. Joseph is called to obedience and trust in the work God has called him to do on God’s behalf. Yet it’s important to remember that God’s grace always appears before any demand is made on us. In fact, it is grace that enables us to respond to God’s call. In other words, it was Joseph’s trust in God’s steadfast love that enabled him to do the right thing. And, we might note, more often than not, doing the right thing is often the most difficult thing. However, I would also note that doing the right thing is also the most loving thing.

As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, we will see that Matthew’s Jesus is all about the response of faith, and Jesus is often very pointed about how we are to respond. Yet, it is important to know that “doing the right thing” is bracketed by God’s grace and love. Today, in the first chapter, we learn that Jesus is Immanuel, God with Us. Love always comes down. It is also the last thing that Jesus says to us: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” This Christmas, and always, know that even though you may not know exactly where your journey will lead you and what your “assignment” is, God is and always will be, Immanuel, God with you. Love always comes down. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Joyous Light" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Joyous Light
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
December 14, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 42.1-9

One smart aleck, commenting on our penchant for grouping people, says there are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two groups and those who don’t. At the risk of being a smart aleck, I find myself mentally thinking of two kinds of people who may be listening today: those whose lives are going along pretty well and those whose lives aren’t. I think that there are a number of us who are generally doing okay, first-world problems aside like a not so good meal at a restaurant or your TV show being interrupted by a news conference. There are others who are barely hanging on, for who Christmas isn’t joyous and who are struggling to make it day to day. Though I have my suspicions, I don’t assume to know which is which.

Yet, both of you are here today, presumably to hear some kind of good word to sustain you. The prophet Isaiah brings just such a good word to the Israelites, most of whom fall in the latter group, whose lives aren’t going well. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, they have been forcibly removed from their homes, they have been resettled in a foreign country and they can’t understand how God let this happen to them. In fact, most of them wondered if God has abandoned them or worse, if their God even exists. Isaiah says to them that all evidence to the contrary, God is very much involved in their lives, a word that all of us need to hear, regardless of what group we find ourselves in.

In fact, not only God tells them that he will not blow out whatever little flame they might have, but remarkably, the lights they have will burn brightly enough to bring light to other people. No matter how hopeless and joyless they might feel, God is nowhere near done with them yet. Isaiah presents this incredible vision of a people who, in the midst of brokenness and in spite of their brokenness (or even more remarkably, because of their brokenness), will be a light to others. Through them the blind will see and those in prison will be loosed into the light of day.

I can only imagine how this good would have been received by the Jews in their captivity. I dare say it was a word of great joy, even in the midst of some horrific circumstances. I think about the joy we get buying tickets for Florida in the midst of blowing snow and cold. Or I think about the joy children feel when, even though the days get shorter their eyes light up at the sight of a decorated tree or a package beneath it. I think about those who weep at the casket of a loved one yet receive joy over shared memories as they are surrounded by friends and family. I think of people who are going through cancer or other diseases who joyously receive love and grace as they are cared for by a community of faith.

Five hundred years after Isaiah proclaimed his message, the Israelites were in another period of darkness, this time through the occupation by the Roman army. In the midst of this darkness, those who followed Jesus experienced just this kind of joy at his coming. And as they looked back through scripture, the recognized that he fit Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant. We who follow 2,000 years later, whether our lives are going pretty well or not, seek to become more like the servant Jesus, to be joyous lights to our world just like St. Lucia was in her day and time. If you are in a period of darkness, know that God is nursing your light. And if your life is going pretty well, God seeks for you to share that light with others who can’t quite see the way forward. Either way, let your light shine, for God is with you bringing good news to all the earth. Amen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"God with Skin On" - December Newsletter article

December 2014

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You might have heard about the little girl who was having trouble going to sleep one night. Her mother reassured her that Jesus was with her, right there in her heart. In protest, the little girl answered, “but I want Jesus with skin on.”

That little girl articulates in a simple way the joy, mystery and gift of what we church folk call the Incarnation, “God with skin on.” Because God loved the world so much and wanted the rift between him and creation to be healed, God emptied himself. God became vulnerable, first as an infant in a seemingly inconsequential place, and then as one who exchanged all of our brokenness for his righteousness.

There are many implications arising from “God with skin on.” One result is that God recognizes our ongoing need for tangible reminder of his presence among us. The waters of baptism not only provide us with the assurance that we belong to God in a special way, our daily encounters with water tell us again and again that we start anew each and every day. Similarly, the bread and wine of Communion through which we are fed Jesus’ body and blood declare that we are forgiven for our sins and strengthen us for the journey of faith.

Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is that the church is also “God with skin on.” As the Body of Christ, we are God’s incarnate presence in the world. The “Basket Cases” that we’ve been hearing in worship remind us of the ways that God is working in, with and through us to serve a world that needs to know in concrete ways that God loves it and has not abandoned it. It has been a real joy to hear stories of how God is making a difference in peoples’ lives through our various ministries.

At this time of year, when we celebrate God’s amazing gift to us in Jesus Christ, we are encouraged and motivated to respond with gifts of our own. I would be remiss as your pastor if I didn’t ask that you prayerfully consider making an additional gift to Grace before the end of the year. We are dangerously close to being unable to fully fund God’s mission and ministries for this year, which would severely hamper mission for the coming year. A gift of $100 or more above your regular giving would go a long way toward our efforts to “finish well and start strong.” Of course, we will be grateful for a gift of any size. Thank you!

Yet, it is not only important to be generous; it is also important to gather together to hear again the stories about how God’s love broke into our world and continues to do so. So, please join us on Sundays and Wednesdays as we light the Advent wreath, declaring that the darkness will not overcome the Light of the World. Come and see how our young people stand witness to God’s love in our Christmas program on Wednesday evening, December 17. Bring your family and friends to our Christmas Eve Candle Lighting service so that they, too, can experience “God with skin on,” Emanuel.


Pastor Olson

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"For Such a Time as This" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

For Such a Time as This
Advent 2 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
December 7, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 4.1-17

The story of Esther is rich, full of drama, intrigue, and even some buffoonery. The brief introduction that Audrey read should give you some orientation, but I encourage you to read the whole book; it’s a wonderful story. A couple of points are helpful to keep in mind: though the book is placed in the first half of the Old Testament, historically and chronologically it falls near the end. In fact, it’s less than 500 years before Jesus arrives. The Babylonians (modern day Iraq)—who had destroyed Jerusalem and carried off the Jews—have been succeeded by the Persians (modern day Iran). Although some Jews returned home to resettle Israel, many chose to remain in the lives they have made there.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Esther is the explicit absence of God and any references to Jewish traditions or festivals. I really like this because it seems to make Esther more accessible and relevant for the life of faith, because this is how I experience everyday life. As an Old Testament scholar notes, it’s the kind of life “when water doesn’t come from rocks and angels don’t come for lunch.” So, we believe that God is behind the scenes and we can only see God’s hand indirectly.

The story of Esther raises an important question of how God works in the world and how our lives join in with that work. Sometimes people think that the life of faith is like God writing, producing and directing a screenplay where we follow a script down to the very last letter. However, I think the life of faith is more like improvisational theater, where God sets the framework and characters and then let’s the action unfold. Although we are making it up as we go along, God is indirectly influencing the action. And when we mess it up God says, “That’s okay, I can still work with that; in fact, I can make that work for us.”

What’s wonderful about this uncertain certainty of God’s presence is that we are not alone. Mordecai and Esther have this terrific back and forth conversation as they are trying to figure their way forward in faith. Mordecai doesn’t invoke God’s name, but the basic point he makes to Esther is that perhaps she’s queen for a reason. Mordecai speaks the words that indicate this, words that are woven throughout the book: “For such as time as this.” There are no heavenly miracles here; instead Mordecai and Esther are to use their wits in the midst of great risk-taking.

I think this story fits well with the season of Advent and its various themes, especially the theme of active waiting and today’s subtheme, peace. Mordecai is absolutely sure that if this plan doesn’t work, deliverance will come from elsewhere. Yet, he firmly believes that God is acting in the midst of their situation, calling him and Esther to act as well. Eventually, Esther agrees. I think that this is good definition of active waiting. In this case, they actively wait for peace. Notice that neither Mordecai nor Esther have the power to make peace; however, they can influence those who do make peace. I’m reminded of those in East Germany who gathered in prayer 25 years ago for the Berlin wall to come down. Their movement grew and grew until the leaders were persuaded to tear down the wall.

As I look back on my life, although I didn’t see it at the time, I can see in many ways that how God shaped me as a pastor, thorough my confirmation experiences, my business and management training and my church work as a lay person. Many of those experiences included moments that weren’t my finest hours, but God used them in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine. Today, I’ll leave you with two questions for your own life of faith: How might God be preparing you to step forward in faith, to take some risks for the sake of peace? What parts of your brokenness will God use to bring about God’s purposes and new life for you and others? Our story is a part of God’s story, and we make it up as we go. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Faith for Today, Hope for Tomorrow" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Faith for Today, Hope for Tomorrow
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 30, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.2-4, 3.17-19

I don’t really want to talk about the events in Ferguson, MO and some of you might not want me to talk about them either. Truth be told, I don’t know much about what has happened other than what I’ve overheard. That’s because in my experience all of the “news” around these events tends to be hyped gossip and over-wrought speculation. I did see the District Attorney’s statement the other night and President Obama’s following, but under duress because they interrupted the shows I watching. Frankly, I have a lot more questions about the situation than a particular position to stake out.

However, the text from Habakkuk today seems to be tailor-made for it: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help? … Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” The prophet lives in a time of immense pressure. The Assyrians forces that have been so threatening to the southern kingdom of Judah have been replaced by the Babylonians, with the Persians waiting in the wings. Habakkuk acknowledges that they haven’t been the best of people, but then says “enough is enough.”

Habakkuk calls God out in a way that looks familiar to us. A while back we studied the Psalms and found various types, including the lament. As we remember from that series, the lament has particular characteristics. One of them is an acknowledgement that life is not fair and downright pathetic and tragic. But, in addition to honestly naming the pain and heartbreak, the lament is based on the assumption that God is still God—even when we can’t see it—and that God can and will act.

It is also providential that today begins the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, when God took on human flesh to walk with us. The themes of Advent coincide with Habakkuk’s lament and might give us way forward through how to think about Ferguson. In many ways, the themes almost seem contradictory, or at least in creative tension with each other. On the one hand, Advent is “liturgical head-slap” that tells us to, “Wake up!” we are to be alert and watch for God’s coming. On the other hand, at the same time it reminds us that God takes the long view and we are to be about waiting. However, the waiting for God is not a passive waiting, but a dynamic, active, anticipatory waiting.

The Advent sub-theme for today is hope and we are also reminded that hope is not wishful thinking or pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Hope is faith oriented to the future on is based on the conviction that God is working in our world, if not on our timetable. In essence, God’s response to Habakkuk and to us challenges our craving for quick fixes and easy answers. While we are actively waiting for God to bring about all that God promises, hope keeps us going. Hope gets us out of bed in the morning when we want to pull the covers over our heads. Hope helps us put one foot in front of the other, moving forward when we want to run and hide. Hope prods us to live into God’s future vision rather than be resigned to our present nightmares.

So, what do we do about Ferguson? First, I think we have to enter into a period of lament and there is plenty to lament about: the loss of life in all its multifaceted expressions; functional racism in a society that has come far but has far to go; and people living in fear and mistrust of one another, a mistrust that destroys community. Second, as we trust and hope in God’s working, we actively wait by being engaged to make our own communities better. We need to figure out ways to really talk and listen to others, to build bridges instead of barriers. We can do that right here in our area so that we don’t become another Ferguson. I don’t want to talk about this, be we have to, because God calls us to act as we wait. We do so because we stand at the foot of the cross of the One who gave himself and invites us give ourselves, too. Let’s wake up to what God is calling us to do in our world, actively waiting in hope until the day God makes it all in all. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Faithful Worship" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Faithful Worship
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 23, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 1.4-10; 7.1-11

We are in our third year using the Narrative Lectionary, which takes seriously the Bible as story. One of the blessings is that there is one focus scripture each week, another chapter in the unfolding drama. Yet, sometimes this is a “curse” because the Bible is also an honest story of God’s relation to us. One cannot run from the text. Or maybe it’s a mixed blessing, because we can trust the Bible to tell us the truth, even if it hurts. And it does hurt. That’s important because, if the Bible isn’t honest about our hurts, how can we trust the promises it makes?

Nowhere are honesty and promise so inextricably woven than in the prophets and that certainly includes Jeremiah. First, we hear how God works (again!) in unexpected ways by calling the “boy” Jeremiah. Jeremiah rightly discerns that he might have a legitimacy issue. But God is not diverted and tells Jeremiah what he is to do. So, into the political and social upheaval of the day, Jeremiah is called to speak an honest word to God’s people. Part of that honest word comes in the second part of our reading: the people think that worship will save them from those who would conquer and destroy them.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I think a lot about worship and just as much time planning worship. (Thank God for Robyn and her gifts of worship leadership!) Worship has been the heart and soul of the gathered community and I think will continue to be. Even so, I often wonder if worship in general and my messages in particular make a difference in peoples’ lives. Jeremiah’s words remind me of my days as teenager, when I looked around our church and saw people who said one thing and then did something different. I wonder if there are like-minded teens in our midst. It would be years later that I would realize I was one of those people, too, but wasn’t able to see it.

And then I think of the words of some current Jeremiahs, such Marj Legard, who points out that every week we say, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” but we never ask, “How did it go?” (In our case, it’s “Through God’s abundant love, we live and work to serve others.”) And I think of David Lose, who reminds us that the church is not a performance hall, but a rehearsal hall. Finally, the words of Nancy Ortberg haunt me. She says there are at least 11 spiritual pathways, of which worship is only one of them. What do we do with people for whom worship doesn’t connect them with God?

It is indeed a truth that God is in our midst when we gather to worship, just as God has promised. God promises to be in the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of Communion, and the sung and spoken Word. But all of these Jeremiahs remind us that there is at least one other truth: worship is intended to change who we are and what we do. As your pastor, it’s so rewarding to see you trying to live that out in acts of justice and mercy in so many ways. Our Thanksgiving meal today is just one example, where we invite the community and give the money away to feed those who are food insecure. Even so, we need to be more intentional about asking, “How is it going?” and “How can we help?” That’s why we are doing Basket Cases twice a month, where we intentionally look to see how God is making a difference in, with and through us. It’s also why have called John Odegard as our discipleship minister to help us grow in the life of faith.

One final thought: It may seem odd that we celebrate today as Christ the King Sunday. That is, until we think about what kind of ruler Jesus was: the one who emptied himself, whose crown was thorns and whose throne a cross. Jesus came to expose the hard truth about our lives, tearing down those deathly things in our world that stand between us and the life God intends for us. Living out this life is not easy, and some days it’s almost impossible, but there is another truth that is important. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that following Jesus is a hope-filled life in which, when we fall down, God picks us up, cleans us up and sets us on our way to go at it again. So, when we say, “Through God’s abundant love, live and work to serve others,” please come back and tell us how it went. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid" - Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Do Not Be Afraid
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 16, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20; 37.1-7; 2.1-4

Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard… Isaiah 37.6

What are the fearful voices whispering in your ear? What are the voices that are so loud that it’s hard to tune them out? The Jewish people holed up behind the walls of Jerusalem cowered at the voice of the Rabshakeh. With the skill that would rival any modern-day political hack or Madison Avenue huckster, Rabshakeh drives fear into their hearts. First, he speaks in their own language, which is beyond their comprehension. Second, he uses small grains of truth, which make the most deadly lies. And last, he knows the buttons to push, elevating their anxieties into the stratosphere.

For most of their existence, the Jews have been bordered by powerful nations with multiple gods. The presence of these other gods continually challenged the Jew’s claim to worship the one and only God. Ironically, Rabshakeh uses both the polytheistic culture and their belief in one God against them. “Look what happened to other nations who trusted in their god,” he says. “Yours isn’t any better. Not only is your God powerless to help, your God doesn’t really care about you and won’t help you.”

Fear mongering was a big business back then and it is just as big or even bigger business today. Advertisers whisper into our ears that the lack of their products in our lives seriously hampers our ability to live, not to mention our identity. I number of years ago I was invited to a “free” dinner, which turned out to be a pretext for a sales pitch for a home fire alarm system. The movie they should and their arguments almost worked; they made me very afraid. Politicians are masters at this, scaring us into voting, mostly against other candidates or other parties. Much of legislation is based on fear. I think that’s what was at heart of the arrest of the men who were feeding the homeless in Florida: fear. Then, the media capitalize on these fears and jack them up. Look and listen to how they report stories and the intonations they use. We saw this in the report out of Minneapolis about the major supposedly making a gang sign. They took a fear and capitalized on it. Fortunately, there was enough sanity so we didn’t play into it. As Amy Oden notes, fear is the strongest human motivation there is – except for love.

So, we also need Isaiah’s words for today: “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.” Someone noted that this phrase occurs 365 times in the Bible, and it almost always comes from God’s messenger to us. When we are told not to be afraid, it’s not because there aren’t real dangers in our lives; there are. God’s message to us is that, because of God’s presence and love, we are not to let fear rule us. We trust this message because God is the one who keeps promises. By the way, you may want to not that the Assyrians who were so self-assured are around no more. God, however, is still plugging away.

We meet the fulfillment of that promise most clearly in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the down payment and the guarantee of Isaiah’s vision of a different future without war. Although we may not see the complete fulfillment in our lifetime, this vision gives shape to our present, to how we live. There is an alternate way of life that stands over and against fear, brutality and intimidation. There is a different voice that speaks hope, mercy and peace; one that does not tear but instead down builds up.

So, what does this mean for us and how does it make a difference in our day to day lives? In some way, we are called to not only “rend our clothes” but also “beat our swords into plows.” Today is Commitment Sunday, where we make our financial promises for the coming year. Our commitments today stand as visible signs that we will not be ruled by the fearful voices in our world. What we do matters, and our generosity flows from the generosity of the one who gave himself. Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ casts out all fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Crossroads" - Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 22 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
November 9, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Micah 5.2-4; 6.6-8

I want to thank Katie and Aaron for representing Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry on Campus Ministry Sunday. It’s a day to celebrate our relationship not only with Crossroads Campus Ministry, but also campus ministry throughout our church. You should know that I stand before you today not as your pastor but as a board member of Crossroads. Part of that responsibility is not only to proclaim the good news of God’s love through Jesus, but to thank you, Grace Lutheran Church, for the partnership in that good news, a partnership going back many years.

Several years ago, you provided substantial resources for the building of the Crossroads Center on the MSU-Mankato campus. You have provided leadership for the board, most recently through Arv Zenk and Kris Bauer. Several of your women’s groups take turns serving “Lunch 4 a $1” to hungry students once a month; that’s 25% of the time! Your Gifts and Memorials fund sent $3,500 to Crossroads last year and is on track with a similar amount this year. That doesn’t include the ministry support we send through the Southeastern Minnesota synod nor the gifts of individual donors. Your gifts make up a substantial part of the Crossroads ministry spending plan.

Katie and Aaron will say more in the Adult Forum, but your support provides opportunities for a full-time campus pastor, weekly worship, campus food shelf, and housing for Campus Kitchen, a food rescue organization. These ministries are all outgrowths of the Crossroads mission statement: to provide opportunities to experience the love of Jesus. Crossroads seeks to live out this mission through these guiding principles: welcoming and honoring all; discovering and responding to God’s call; transforming lives through relationships centered in Jesus; and serving through the example of Jesus. We can’t say it enough: thank you for walking with us at Crossroads as we respond to the love of God in Jesus.

That’s one of the issues the prophet Micah is addressing in our focus scripture today, our response to what God is doing. Bringing a word from God to God’s people as a prophet does, he did so in the southern kingdom of Judah in the latter part of the 8th c. BCE. It was around the same time that the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. Being divided into two kingdoms make the Israelites more vulnerable to attack. Feeling the Assyrian pressure, there was much political and religious corruption in the Southern Kingdom. Political leaders were mostly undependable and the religious community was not much better, thinking they could buy off God with empty religious motions. Micah is not Dale Carnegie, who seeks to win friends and influence people. But in the midst of his message of judgment he does bring a message of hope.

Micah does this by telling Judah that, all evidence to the contrary, God will not give up on them. Furthermore, they can expect that God can and will do great things, but do them unexpectedly. Using Bethlehem, the least of the least of the cities, as an example Micah says that help through a new ruler will come from a different place, in a different person, and in a different way than anyone could imagine. Of course, we who follow that itinerant rabbi who was born in that same Bethlehem and who was killed in the most God-awful and cruel way, see in Jesus how God rules differently.

Because of what God has done through Jesus, we respond with lives of justice, mercy and humility. As many have noted, justice is grace in action, and we who claim to be Grace Lutheran Church know this: that grace must have legs. In a world similar to Micah’s, Crossroads is an outpost of hope, helping students who are burdened with debt by the unjust inequities of the system to experience the love of Jesus. And because of your support, Crossroads helps students respond to God’s love in just and humble ways. Thank you again for walking with Crossroads and with these students on their journeys of faith. May you also experience that gracious and unexpected love so that your lives make a difference, too. Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Saint Naaman" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Saint Naaman
All Saints Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 1)
November 2, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 5.1-19a

Today is All Saints Sunday, a time of multiple purposes and remembrances. It’s a time to reflect on what sainthood is and what it means for us today. It is a time to remember those who have passed away, especially in the last year, who have moved from the Church Militant here on earth to the Church Triumphant in heaven. Though we don’t place a lot of emphasis on these, we also remember those of the faithful throughout the millennia who have been specifically labeled saints for their outstanding witness, often to the giving of their lives. It is the great cloud of witnesses we read about in Hebrews 11-12. Finally, it is also a time to think about those good people we consider saints, those who have touched our lives or the lives of others in meaningful ways. This time of year, I always think of my Grandpa Johnson who, rather than fighting with his brothers over a company he started, moved his family from Rice Lake, WI to Spokane, WA to start a new life.

The Narrative Lectionary, which reads the Bible as it is, a story, puts this festival (and others) into a conversation with biblical texts that we might not normally think of for All Saints Sunday. (If we were using the Revised Common Lectionary, we’d be reading the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 and about the saints robed in white Revelation 7.) However, today we are reading All Saints through the lens of 2 Kings 5. A natural question as we read the text is, “Who is a saint?” The natural answer is, of course, “Elisha.” In fact, there are a number of Christian churches who venerate Elisha as a saint, for good reason. Elisha is a prophet, clearly a man of God who faithfully brings God’s word to the world and in doing so does some amazing things. (By the way, the feast day for St. Elisha is June 14.) Another less obvious answer to the question of sainthood may be the servant girl, nameless in our text. She seeks to do a good deed for her new owners in spite of being there under duress.

But, what about Naaman; do you think that he might be considered a saint, too? This story is so wonderful. Here we have a rich and powerful man who has been afflicted and makes an arduous trip bringing all his wealth to bear on receiving a cure. He reminds me of a VIP with an entourage flying his own jet into Rochester, pulling up to the Mayo clinic in limousines. When Naaman hears about this great possibility for healing, he gets the appropriate clearances from his king and rides his chariot to Israel, bringing a load of lucre with him. But, he’s in for a shock. It’s not the king, but merely a prophet who claims to be able to cure him. Yet, this prophet doesn’t give him the respect he thinks he deserves. It’s as if that VIP coming to Mayo was greeted by a physician’s assistant instead of the head of Dermatology. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, Naaman is given a treatment plan that sounds like sheer quackery: he is told to go bathe in a dirty river, not once but seven times.

Looking back at the text through the lens of Jesus and our Christian history, we note that his cleansing is full of baptismal imagery. So, Naaman’s story becomes our story: God reaches down and makes us clean because of God’s grace and love, not because of our doing but his, stripping away all of our pretensions. And herein lies another definition of saint: those who have received God’s favor, have been transformed in wholly unexpected ways and in the process have been set apart for God’s work. Furthermore, Naaman realizes that this grace is going to change his life and tries to work it out in ways that are faithful to his new-found God.

This week I’d like you to reflect on the story of “Saint Naaman” and what it might mean for your life of faith. God reaches down and makes you his own in startling and unexpected ways, setting you apart for God’s work in our world. So, where is God inviting you to live out that faith, especially in places that aren’t so friendly? Who are the saints who are speaking words of challenge and encouragement to you in your life? Who might need to hear a word of challenge and encouragement from you this week? Whatever happens this week, please know that you are a beloved saint, a child of God who comes to you, bringing life. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Servant Wisdom" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Servant Wisdom
Reformation (Narrative Lectionary 1)
October 26, 2014
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 3.4-28

It is tempting to take our text about Solomon at face value. That would mean praising him for asking rightly and then using the gifts that God has given to him in such an awesome way. Not so fast. If the Reformation has taught us anything, it is how to read Scripture closely and critically. We need to slow down and acknowledge a number of disturbing elements in this story. First and foremost, we need to agree that the story of the two women and their disagreement is horrific on many levels, not the least of which the loss of life and Solomon’s cavalier attitude. Losing a child is devastating and not to be treated lightly. And, as ingenious as Solomon appears to be, his threat to divide a child is barbaric. Probing the text further, we also need to recognize that David was not the model of a Godly king and, as a matter of fact, Solomon degenerated into a tyrant who didn’t appear very wise. It could be argued that Solomon’s style of kingship led to the splitting of the kingdom under his son and successor.

So, what do we make of this text? Is there good news to be found in it anywhere? Well, for all of Solomon’s clay feet, he does rightly choose a kingship of service versus a kingship of glory. It’s hard to see it in the text, but the “discerning mind” that he asks for is more literally translated as a “listening heart.” In the Bible, but the Old Testament especially, the heart was a person’s organ of thought and will, the center of their being. I think it’s really important that we stop for a minute and think deeply what a listening heart is. We had an opportunity to do so Wednesday night. Some suggestions were that it means to be open, loving, and non-judgmental.

A year ago this past summer we studied some of the biblical wisdom literature, including Proverbs & Ecclesiastes, attributed to Solomon. I mentioned then that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and used the example of the tomato. Intelligence means knowing that a tomato is fruit, not a vegetable; wisdom means knowing not to put it into a fruit salad. From that and other places, I have come to believe that wisdom is knowledge in service to others. I think that’s where Solomon went wrong, when he served his kingdom, his wisdom brought great things the nation. When he turned to his own desires, his wisdom vanished.

I wish our leaders had listening hearts, using their gifts wisely in service to the greater good. A few days ago I was visited at my home by a candidate running for public office. Of course, this candidate was out asking for my vote. However, in the “conversation” I was asked if I had anything on my mind. I simply said, “Just get along,” meaning asking for some civility in public discourse. The candidate was momentarily taken aback but then proceeded to tell me all the ways he has done this. The opportunity for a listening heart came and went quickly. Now, this candidate is a nice person and was there to get my vote, but it would have been nice to have some meaningful dialogue.

The historian who collected these stories of the kings and put them together wants us to be clear about one thing: regardless of what Solomon does or doesn’t do, the primary actor in this story is God. Neither Solomon nor David nor most of the kings that follow will have the listening hearts needed to govern wisely. Yet, God will keep God’s promises and there will come one from the line of David who will have such a listening heart. Though our leaders disappoint and fall short, Jesus has the listening heart that invites us into a relationship. Jesus is the one who truly knows servant wisdom and welcomes us into that kind of life.

All of us who are in positions of leadership, especially in the church, are called to servant wisdom. The Reformation exposed a church that more interested in power, wealth and prestige than in service. Lest we get too smug, we in the Protestant church are not immune to those temptations. It’s why we need Reformation Sunday, to bring us back to God’s call on us. Can you imagine what would happen in our churches if our leaders chose listening hearts? That’s my prayer and it’s why we gather and why we follow the one who gave himself to us, who listens deeply to our pain and brokenness and despair and replaces it with love and mercy and hope and grace. Jesus is calling us to open up our hearts in servant wisdom. May the Lord Jesus give us the will and the courage to do so. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Who’s Your Nathan?" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Who’s Your Nathan?
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 19, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Samuel 12.1-9; Psalm 51.1-9

Hardly a day goes by without someone famous doing something really stupid or worse, even horrific by today’s standards. Just yesterday, we learned that Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was tossed from the Navy for using drugs. But, all you need to do is pick up a newspaper or watch the news to see other examples. For those people we don’t like or have no respect for, we might be secretly delighted at their great fall. However, the hardest ones are the people we deeply respect and admire so much that we feel betrayed by their actions. As I met with some colleagues this past week it seemed that each of us knew someone like this. And as the stories were told, I could hear the disbelief, disappointment and hurt in their voices. How could someone who is so good, with so many good gifts to share, do something like this, we asked?

Indeed, that’s the question that gets addressed in our focus scripture today from 2 Samuel 12. I think most of us know the story of David and Bathsheba, if not from the Bible then from real life. David replaces Saul as king, being declared as “one after God’s own heart.” He has everything going for him. Yet, he sees Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and decides he must have her. He does so and when she becomes pregnant David conspires to have Uriah killed. We don’t know if David thought he was above the law or that the law didn’t apply or that he simply didn’t care. Yet, the Lord God sees and cares.God sends Nathan the prophet to call David to account for what he does.

So, is David a good king gone bad or was God wrong about him in the first place, like God was about Saul? The fact is that we are all Davids of a sort, mixtures of good and bad, faithful and broken. This past summer we saw the move Maleficent, which is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The difference is that the story is told from the perspective of the so-called evil fairy, who is given the name Maleficent. The film actually dares you to decide whether Maleficent is good or evil and does it artfully. The film shows well is that we are all complex, fallible human beings with potential for both great good and great evil.

So, is that all there is to it, that we are destined to fight these great battles and ultimately lose? Fortunately, there is good news, and part of that good news comes in the form of Nathan. So often we can’t see how and where we are going wrong in our lives and we get off course. We need a Nathan in our lives to call us to account, to remind us of God’s purpose for us. A number of years ago I was asked to speak at a church event and in doing so told an inappropriate joke. I didn’t think it out of place until Karen, my Nathan, sat me down and explained it to me. After an initial reaction of defensiveness, I realized that she was right.

Now, I was cut to the heart and ashamed, but Karen did more than accuse me. She also pronounced forgiveness to me. That’s the bottom line to the lesson, that we all need Nathans in our lives to restore us to God and community. We can’t always see how we are veering from being the people God intended us to be. So we need the Nathans and Karens and others to tell us firmly and lovingly when we get off track. That’s the power of our community, to not only name to power that sin and brokenness have over us, but to proclaim that brokenness is not the last word. The cross of Jesus Christ leads to resurrection and new life. That new life is promised to us as well. Who’s the Nathan in your life? Where is it that God is working to restore you to community? “Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within us.” Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"I Do" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

I Do
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 12, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Joshua 24.1-15; Matthew 4.8-10

I want you think for a moment about the most meaningful human relationship you have. Think about how that relationship came about, how it developed, and what has happened during the time of the relationship. Maybe you hit it off and became BFFs (Best Friends Forever) immediately or maybe it came slowly. Perhaps you’ve been friends through thick and thin or maybe it’s been on again/off again. Furthermore, maybe something changed in the course of the relationship. For me, the relationship that comes to mind is my marriage, one that including “courtship” has lasted over 35 years. We were acquaintances in a young adult group for some time before we dated, much of it long distance. Ultimately we stood before a pastor and our family and friends, making promises to each other (one which I forgot to speak since we memorized our vows). As all married couples, we’ve gone through a lot together.

There is a similar dynamic going on in our Joshua text today between God and the Israelites. It seems odd to us to read this story because we have been following them since God chose Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a great nation with their own land. And just last week, God established covenant with the newly delivered Israelites at Mt. Sinai. But, a lot has happened in the story since then, 40 years worth to be exact, because the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness since then and only recently entered the Promised Land. Why has it taken so long for them to get there? It is not because Moses refused to stop and ask directions as some have joked. It has taken so long because when they had the opportunity to do so, the Israelites became afraid and doubted God’s ability to fulfill the promise. They blinked.

God delayed their entry until all of those who doubted had died and couldn’t be in the way of trying again, because God was going to fulfill the promise. So, those who were left to enter the Promised Land were the children and grandchildren of those who had lived in Egypt and been delivered by God’s hand. So, not only was there no memory of life then, there was no direct memory of God’s deliverance. God wants these new settlers to make a commitment to follow this particular God, and not another god or gods they might have picked up along the way. That’s important for two reasons: first, they need to agree to be the people God calls them to be. Second, they are entering a land that has multiple religious options available to them and God wants to inoculate them against these foreign viruses.

Regarding the first, being God’s people: The most important thing to always remember about making a commitment to this relationship with God is that the relationship is only made possible through God’s graceful mercy and love. Look in the text at how the Israelites are reminded of their history, one that God influenced and has acted in, with and through it. God creates the space that makes relationships possible, and that is especially true for the one between God and us. One of the results of this relationship is that we become keenly aware that each and every generation needs to respond to God’s love for us. Another way to say it for us who have received baptismal promises through Jesus Christ is that our baptism is not as much about a one-time act as it is about a continual unfolding throughout our lives.

Even so, the text may be less about the call to choose than it is about the difficulty that ensues following the onset of the relationship. The rest of scripture is full of times when Israel falls short, often because they go after other gods. Indeed, the religious options that are available to us in our own time are no fewer than those available to the Israelites in their time. The gods of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, perfectionism, etc are just as dangerous to us and our human relationships as the multiple national gods were to the Israelites 3,000+ years ago. When I work with couples in pre-marriage sessions I ask what they could do to make their fiancĂ© divorce them. Of course, they don’t want to even think about it let alone answer, but they need to understand what seemingly harmless actions could lead to divorce. Once they do that, they can decide not to go down those roads and prevent it from happening.

God has created a space for us to be in relationship and invites us to respond with lives that are healthy and life-giving, with God and with others. What are the gods that are drawing you from just such a life? Are there ways that you can strengthen your relationship? We are all on that journey, standing on the brink of the Promised Land. Let each of us hear God’s call on us, inviting us and our families to commit again that we will serve the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Community Rules" - Sermon for the Seventeen Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Community Rules
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 5, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17

“You have seen … how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore…keep my covenant….”

When I work with couples on pre-marital counseling, I take them back into their families of origin. I ask what values they had about work, play, education, religion, intimacy, money, and what traditions they had. I point out that sometimes values are expressed, but more often they are “caught, not taught.” One of our family’s values growing up was that we’d always eat dinner together, every night. In fact, I can remember my dad being angry when this didn’t happen. That’s a value that I brought with me into my marriage and one we tried to live out, though it has become harder. Growing up, eating together as a family said something about who we were and how we lived together.

I imagine that you all have similar stories from your families about values and how you expressed or acted on them. I think it’s a good way to approach the Ten Commandments, the subject of our focus scripture today. We don’t have time to parse each and every Commandment; that would take a series of sermons or several series. Rather, I’d like to put the Ten Commandments in what I think is a helpful framework for you to unpack them. The first thing to notice is that God speaks directly to the Israelites, the only time God does so in the entire Bible. That’s important because the law contains some pretty basic stuff found in other civilizations, at least the “second table,” those commandments having to do with our relationships with each other. Yet, uttered by this God, who claims to be the only God, they take on a whole different character.

The second thing to notice may even be more important: before God even gets to the nitty-gritty of the covenant, God says something about his character and his relationship to the Israelites. This God isn’t just any God; this is the delivering God who gathers this people to himself. God has set them apart to live with him, themselves, and others in a unique and loving relationship. Furthermore, they aren’t holy because of what they have done or do; they’re holy because God has set them apart and made them so.

Third, having freed them, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift to the Jews so that they might live into that freedom. As we know all too well from our own congregation’s history, community life is hard. The Ten Commandments are God’s gift to us to help us live together, to serve God and neighbor. I still remember a story from my psychology days in college. Some researchers thought that a playground fence inhibited freedom, so they removed it. What they found was the opposite: the fence provided security for the children whereby they were able to use the whole playground. Without the fence, the children huddled more toward the middle.

Martin Luther gets at this from a different angle in the Small Catechism as he explores the positive aspects of the Ten Commandments. For example, it is not enough to not bear false witness against your neighbor, but you must also speak well of them. In other words, it’s not just “thou shall not,” but also “thou shall…". Still another helpful image: Thomas Long likens God’s act of gathering us to himself as the music and the Ten Commandments are the dance steps of our response.

Finally, we need to look at the Ten Commandments in context of scripture: thought they are the first word, they’re not the last word. It’s a shame God wrote them on stone tablets because as a result we’ve thought they were immutable. The fact is, they are more like springs on a trampoline than bricks in a wall, continually unfolding, giving us room to jump and play. The Ten Commandments are a living gift, and each generation discovers anew how God is speaking to us through them in our generation. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Freed from the power of sin over our broken community, the Ten Commandments show us what a freed life looks like.

The Israelites became a people when God gave them the Ten Commandments, ones who love God and practice justice. Yes, the Ten Commandments show us where we fall short of being ideal community, but they do far more. For us today, they also remind us whose we are and who we are, living in community. As a congregation, we have values that we call guiding principles, our understanding of community and life together. We also have a mission statement and tag line we place everywhere, to remind us how to be God’s people. We repeat them every week in one form or another to remind us how live in and into the freedom of Christ. May you be blessed through God’s abundant love to be a blessing in your family and community. Amen.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Stand Firm and Be Still" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday/Pentecost 16 (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Stand Firm and Be Still
Confirmation Sunday/Pentecost 16 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
September 28, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.10-14, 21-31

Our reading today is arguably the most important in the Old Testament and it is also central to the New Testament. The act of delivering the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt is core to their identity as God’s people. There is no shortage of imagery in this story, including the movement from death to life through the wall of water wherein is birthed a new nation, the “great nation” promised to their ancestor Abraham. They still have a long way to go, as we will see in the coming weeks, but they are on the way.

Yet, it didn’t look that way as the Israelites had their backs up against a wall, caught between the frightening and impassable Red Sea and the largest, most well-equipped army of the known world. He who has chariots rules the world. They responded as many do when faced with a seemingly impossible situation: they blame their leaders for their predicament, becoming amnesiac regarding their former dire straits. They conveniently forget their oppression and that they had cried out to God for just such a leader as Moses. Who among us can blame them as we all have experienced a tight spot or another from time to time?

So, Moses’ response to them is both interesting and important on our own faith journeys. “Do not be afraid; stand firm and be still.” One wonders if Moses is living in an alternate universe. And perhaps Moses is, because he lives with the belief that God delivers on promises made to the Israelites. He encourages the Israelites to stand firm in the faith of the one who created the heavens and the earth, the one who promised to make them a blessing to others, who continues to be faithful even in their faithlessness.

The next admonition, “be still,” seems a bit contrary since they will soon be asked to step out in faith. Later on in scripture the psalmist will elaborate on this command: “be still and know that I am God.” When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard spot our first inclination is to beat them down and pound our fists bloody. But Moses tells them and us that we should take time and be still. We are reminded that we are not always in control and we are far less often than we think. Be still and let God do what God does.

Finally, Moses tells them not to be afraid, which is interesting giving the fearful alternatives that they face. But we remember that when God or God’s agents tell us not to be afraid they are telling us not to let fear rule us or our actions. There is much to be afraid of in this world, but that is not all there is in this world. For God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear. As people of faith we trust God’s presence with us. I was doing this text as part of a devotional this week at the Crossroads Lutheran Campus Center board meeting. My colleague, Pr. Shelly Olson, describes a practice she does with her congregation. She invites them to breathe in and breathe out to the words, “breathe in faith; breathe out fear.” I think that’s a pretty good practice.

I threatened (warned) our Confirmands the other night that I might preach to them today. So far they’ve been spared. No longer. Confirmands, today you are continuing on your faith journey, one that may find you in a tight spot down the road. If and when you get there, where Pharaoh’s army seems poised to overwhelm you, remember this: stand firm in the faith that has been passed down to you; be still and know that the God who made you his own in baptism has not abandoned you; and let faith, hope and love rule you, not fear. More importantly, we need you to be pillars of cloud and fire in the world, reminding others that God has not abandoned them, that God is present and working in their lives. Stand firm in the faith, be still and let God be God, and do not let fear rule you. Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"God with Us" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

God with Us
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Genesis 39.1-23
Grace, Mankato, MN
September 21, 2014

…God was with [Joseph]…

We have three cats, Mystery and Shadow, who are sisters at 14.5 years old, and Blitzen, 11 years old. All came from the Humane Society, though Blitzen was a feral cat who took Cindy and our older daughter, Angela, a year to tame. We feed them at night but shut Blitzen in her room so she won’t eat the other cats’ food and get sick. When I go to bed it’s usually my job to put Mystery and Shadow in their room, which involves getting Shadow from our bed where I have to either pick her up or walk behind her. Along the way we get Mystery and it usually isn’t a straight line to the basement, but we get there eventually. So, I really understand the term “herding cats” as more than a metaphor. But I also think it might be a way to describe how God is with us.

A lot has happened since God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood, putting a rainbow in the sky as his reminder, and God’s promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would be the ancestors of a great nation in their own land. Since then, they have a son, Isaac, who has two sons Esau and Jacob, the latter whose name is changed to Israel and fathers 12 sons by four different women. The tenth son is named Joseph, the favored and the dreamer whose dreams enrage his brothers so much they fake his death and sell him off to traders going to Egypt.

As the story plays out, Joseph rises to power in Pharaoh’s household and saves his adopted country as well as his estranged family from starvation. Through this story the third promise emerges: God was with Joseph. One thing that also emerges from this text is that Joseph’s faith is different than Abraham’s radical trust to obey God immediately. Joseph will begin to develop an assurance that God is working in, with, and under his life and others’ lives in ways he can’t always see. The story vividly shows the intersection of the forces at work in our world and God’s presence in them. This is real life meeting real faith, asserting that God brings life where there is human brokenness.

When I returned to the life of faith after my cat-like meandering, my go-to Bible verse became Romans 8.28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Ignoring the space-time continuum, this could be Joseph’s go-to verse as well, though he and his brothers wouldn’t discover later. That’s the tricky thing about this kind of faith: we don’t always see God’s working until we have some distance on it.

I’ve been meeting with our Saved by Grace students who will be confirmed next Sunday, asking where they have seen God’s presence in their lives. Most recall events from many years earlier. I also ask them what they’d do differently if they could or what advice they’d give to others coming into the program. Of course, they don’t have a do-over, but they can use their experience going forward, assured that God is with them.

This is important as we are inundated with so much brokenness in our world, especially those powers and forces that wreak havoc in our lives. We hold onto God’s promise that he is indeed working even if we can’t see it. God invites us to join in that work though the way may not be clear. In a few minutes we’ll give thanks for someone who has answered that call in a particular way and is a visible sign of God’s presence, Meredith Fitch, as she retires from her call as Parish Nurse and Volunteer Ministries Coordinator. The message of the cross of Jesus Christ is that God brings life out of death even when we can’t see it. God was with Joseph and God is with us, guiding us like cats, loving and blessing us to love and bless others. God is with you, for which we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Blessed to Be a Blessing" - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Blessed to be a Blessing
Pentecost 14 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Genesis 12.1-9
September 14, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN

So Abram went as the Lord had told him.

I’ve mentioned a number of times that my call to pastoral ministry came late in life. Although I first sensed the call at age 30 it would be eight years before I would enter seminary. A key moment in that period came when I was whining to my sister about how old I was and that I was 38 now and would be 42 when I graduated. She said, “Scott, you’ll be 42 whether you go to seminary or not; you might as well do what you are called to do.” That wakeup call unlocked something in me and sent me on my way.

So, I can identify with Abraham who, at 75 years of age is called by God to a second career of his own. Like Abraham, I was called to uproot my family and leave behind my old life for a new one. And as we see in the Abraham story, the transition from the old life to the new is not always a smooth one. Furthermore, the way forward is not always clear either and we don’t always rise to the occasion in the best possible way. There are three aspects of God’s call that are important for us: it is radical, purposeful, and eternal.

First, God’s all on Abraham (and us) is radical, and by that I mean it is immediate and it is risky. The narrator tells us that “… Abram went, as the Lord had told him …,” which was certainly unlike my eight year delay in answering God’s call. In addition to immediate, it’s risky for a number of reasons. For like Abraham, we are called into Canaanite places where life is not easy. I’m very aware of how hard it is to be a follower of Jesus in today’s culture. Trusting God, leaving behind the comfortable and known for the unknown and downright scary, is not easy.

Second, the call from God to go new places is made a little less scary because of God’s promises to us. God promised Abraham (and Sarah!) that he’d be the Father of a great nation and that through him and Sarah all nations of the world would be blessed. Interestingly, this call depended less on Abraham and Sarah than it did on God, for as the story goes they were barren. They were passed the age of having children. In other words, God doesn’t call the gifted; God gifts the called. Yet our purpose is not rooted our usefulness to God but rather it is rooted in love. Abraham was a blessing because in being loved by God he showed us that all people can be loved, too. We are blessed to bless and we are loved to show forth God’s love.

Finally, this call from God to love and bless the world is a life-long endeavor and never ends. It is eternal. Abraham was 75 when God called (Sarah was 65), and it was a call that would not only unfold for the rest of their lives, it was one that would unfold long after their deaths, even to this day. Some of you have been the recipients of my crankiness, because when I hear the words “I’ve done my time, let someone else do it” I answer, “Show me the expiration date on your baptism certificate.”

I am grateful that so many of you continue to answer God’s call. Al and Eunice Simonson wrote a lovely note about their experiences with our young people during Christ’s Servants Involved this summer. And I was discussing God’s calling on a few of our Confirmands yesterday morning, several of you were in the kitchen getting ready to make meatballs for the lutefisk dinner. Furthermore, we are grateful that Rich Krause answered the call to be our parish administrator. I could go on.

God’s call on us continues to unfold through Jesus, a call we hear in Matthew to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. None of us are too old or too young, too experienced or inexperienced, too short or too tall. So, where is God asking you to step out of your comfort zone, to risk leaving a barren life for a future? God has a purpose for each and every one of you, one that lasts your entire lives. You are blessed to be a blessing, and you are loved to show God’s love. It’s never too late for that. Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Faithfulness" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Faithfulness
Pentecost 10 (Summer Series)
August 17, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 16.1-13

A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi Ho Silver!" “The Lone Ranger”. "Hi Ho Silver, away!" With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, led the fight for law and order in the early west. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. “The Lone Ranger” rides again!

Indeed, there were many Saturdays that I would “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” watching “The Lone Ranger” on TV. The show would teach a young mind many lessons, including the importance of justice and standing up for right, especially the vulnerable, even if it means a threat to your own personal safety. But, as I think about “The Lone Ranger” and other shows, they also taught me about faithfulness. The back story on “The Lone Ranger” is that as a young boy, the Lone Ranger saves Tonto’s life and as adults, Tonto does that same, nursing the Lone Ranger back to health as the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who have been ambushed. The Lone Ranger isn’t “lone” because he’s alone; it’s because he was the last one left. In fact, Tonto gives the Lone Ranger the nickname “Kemo Sabe,” which can be translated “trusty or faithful friend.”

Jesus presents us with a curious story today about faithfulness, one that has caused the spilling of much ink over the centuries. We know that parables are designed to stretch and interpret us more than we interpret them, but this one threatens to pull us apart. The message seems to say that as Jesus’ followers we are to act shrewdly in a crisis. But then the sayings Luke adds on throw the story in a different direction, focusing on faithfulness in a different way. There is something about the Christian life that we need to be faithful in small things in order to be able to handle the big things, faithful in the ordinary in order to handle the valuable, and faithful with another’s possessions to be able to handle our own.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to think about this while attending a Stewardship conference at Luther Seminary. The overall theme was building a year-round stewardship program rather than once a year pledge campaign. I came away thinking we are on the right track, but also with a deeply troubling question: Has the word stewardship become so identified with asking for money that we shouldn’t use it any longer? Now, I hate to throw away perfectly good theological words and would rather redeem them, if possible. This is especially true with the word stewardship since the business world has adopted the word stewardship and attempts to practice it faithfully.

Now, you know that I’m not afraid to talk about money in church, largely because Jesus talks about it so much. He has a lot to say about money and how we use it. And what I’m about to say might make you wish I was talking about money, but instead I want to talk about is what it means for us to be stewards of everything God has given to us, including our money. God doesn’t want our money because it already belongs to God; God wants us to use what is given to us faithfully. For example, think about Mark and Rachel and Alyssa and Adam who have now become stewards of Max and Henry. They (and you) have agreed to be faithful stewards of these children. God, who is faithful and just, invites us into a relationship with God and with others. And God wants us to know that our relationship with our stuff, including money affects all of our other relationships.

We have learned in this sermon series that the fruit of the Spirit come because we, who live in the Spirit through God’s love in Jesus, seek to be led by the Spirit in our daily living. We’ve also learned that part of growing in the fruit comes from practicing, and that includes faithfulness. One way we do this each week is by eating at the table of Holy Communion for we come to the table by faith, for faith. Also this week, I want you to think about what God has given you to steward. What has God called you to care for and how might God be calling you to be faithful in its care and use, particularly your relationships? OK, Kemo Sabes? Hi Ho Silver, away! Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Generosity" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Summer Series)

Fruitful Living: Growing in Generosity
Pentecost 9 (Summer Series)
August 10, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 20.1-16

I think that most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, find this story that Jesus tells his disciples very troubling. It’s troubling because we live in a country with an overarching story that tells us that we can be whatever we want to be. This story grounded in the so-called “Protestant work ethic” that says if you work hard you will be rewarded and blessed. Of course, it is not hard to find people who work very hard in our country yet stay very poor. Even if we admit that Jesus is telling us a parable designed to stretch us and our understanding, we add a “yes, but….” Yes, we say, God’s ways are different, but they would never cut it in the “real world.” I wonder.

This parable started making some sense to me over 30 years ago long before I became a pastor. When moved the suburban Washington, DC area Cindy and I rented a condo, but were now buying our first house. We scraped together some friends and co-workers to help and gratefully, many responded. Interestingly, like the workers in the vineyard, not everyone could be there at the same time. Some were there the whole time and others near the end. When we finished with the unloading, I fetched chicken from Roy Rogers (like a Hardees) and we all ate a wonderful mean together. As we were eating, it occurred to me this was just like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Now, it never would have occurred to me to give people chicken in proportion to how much or how long they worked. Those who came later would get just as much as those who worked the whole time. As I think about how I learned what I did about generosity, I guessing it was probably because of my parents. My parents had the kind of home where my friends and siblings’ friends always felt welcome. They were free to raid the fridge or cupboards just as we were. When people ate meals with us, my father would go overboard to make sure they had enough, almost the point of being annoying and sometimes obnoxious. My dad was also the kind who would help someone who needed it, even taking vacation to help them paint their houses. I don’t know if they gave money to the church or how much. They might have; I just don’t remember. I’d have to learn about that kind of giving elsewhere.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the fruit of the Spirit during this summer sermon series, it’s the importance of practice. That’s especially true with generosity; growing in generosity involves both attitude and action. We can only guess why Jesus tells this story and why the early church preserved it. Some think he told it in response to the grumbling of the religious leaders because Jesus spent time with those people deemed undesirable, such prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. Others think the early church preserved it because those first followers, the Jewish Christians, grumbled about Gentile Christian newcomers. Regardless, the parable stresses that God is gracious and generous to all and that we who worship such a God are to imitate such generosity, not begrudge it.

At the heart of the parable is that we worship a God who desires us to be in relationship with God and others, and that this God will never give up on us. God will keep coming and inviting us to be in relationship with him, no matter the lateness of the day. We experience God’s relentless coming each worship service in the bread and wine of Holy Communion as God gives himself freely to all. This God wants us to grow in generosity not because God needs our money, but because God wants us. This week, to encourage you to grow in generosity, I want you to do two things. First, think about who you learned generosity from and how, and share that story with someone else. Second, look for a way to be generous in a way you haven’t done before and share that, too. Maybe it is leaving a larger tip when you go out to eat. Maybe it is saying “yes” by volunteering to give of yourself, whether here or in the community. Either way, as you live in the Spirit may you also be led by the Spirit in fruitful living, growing in generosity. Amen.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Kindness" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Kindness
Pentecost 8 (Summer Series)
August 3, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Micah 6.8; Mark 14.3-9

A number of years ago I was sitting in on group session of some sort with a facilitator. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember one small seemingly insignificant gesture. During the session one of the participants began to cry and quietly the facilitator slid a box of Kleenex toward her across the desk. He did this all the while maintaining his focus and attention on her. There was no big deal made, no interruption in the session and most people probably didn’t notice. Yet, it was probably one of the most profound acts of kindness I have ever seen, still memorable to this day.

Today we explore the fifth of nine fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5: kindness. Here as elsewhere we realize that these fruit aren’t as much explained or defined as experienced. The best we can do is to sketch the contours. We are also reminded that whatever fruit that grows from our lives comes from the presence and action of God through the Holy Spirit in us. Because of God’s great love for us and God’s desire to heal the broken relationship with God and others, God also enables in us what God wills for us. God has done this in the most profound way, taking on flesh, walking with us, dying and rising so we may have abundant life.

As we look at the fruit of the Spirit, we might wonder how kindness got on the list. It doesn’t seem to be a theological heavy hitter. Yet, one sweeping look around our world shows all too much that meanness and pettiness abounds. Children are pushed around at school so much that anti-bullying laws are needed. Newspaper editorials and the blogosphere are filled with hateful and hurtful words. Angry mobs frighten school buses full of children at our border. And it’s not even campaign season yet.

It’s why our desire for fruitful living and the words from Micah are so important for us and for the world. Micah explores the age-old question, “What do you want from us, God?” In the midst of a sacrificial system that isn’t working, Micah gives us a startling answer: nothing. God doesn’t want anything from us. What God wants is us. God wants us to live the life intended for us at creation, but went horribly wrong. God want us to live for God and others. How do we do that? We do it by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

As I looked around for a biblical story to put flesh on Micah’s words, I thought of the unnamed woman in Mark. She’s a woman who quietly and without fanfare washes and anoints Jesus’ feet. There are many layers of significance to this story, not the least that she anoints Jesus before he dies. But what strikes me is that her actions, in addition to being subtle and unobtrusive, are timely, uncalculating, and flow out of what she has to offer. It would take a whole sermon to unpack these but for now let’s just point this out. Acts of kindness come at just the right moment, are wholly for the other, and flow from what we already have to give. Amazingly, this seemingly insignificant act by a nameless woman assumes cosmic proportions and is remembered.

This week I was reminded of David Lose’s assertion that the church is a rehearsal hall, not performance hall. I take this to mean that what we do in here prepares us for life “out there.” (Perhaps we should put up signs to the effect over our doorways as reminders.) As your pastor, I see you grow in kindnesses to one another both in here and out there. I’ve seen a wife who silently slips her hand into her husband’s as he is describing and emotional time in his life. I’ve seen a couple going through health problems bring a meal to another couple going through a similar situation. I’ve seen guys who let their duffer of a pastor play golf with them. I’ve seen people who gather to thank one of their own for stepping forward and giving of herself to serve them tirelessly and humbly for four years. I could go on.

I invite you this week to look for those kindnesses that God gives you through others and to find ways to practice kindness for others. Do this not to earn God’s favor or applause, but to be fully human. Our world can use more kindness, and for that God has freed you do God’s work in the world. God bless you this week as you love kindness in the name of the One who loves you. Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Peace" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Summer Series)

Fruitful Living: Growing in Peace
Pentecost 6 (Summer Series)
July 20, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 14.25-31; Romans 14.13-23

Many of you know that I’m a second career pastor, which has presented many challenges for me along the way. One such challenge was going back to school at 38 years of age with a wife and two young girls. There was also some insecurity: could I hack graduate school? Even though I did okay, the insecurities continued to crop up. What about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in a nursing home, tending to older folks with whom I had no experience. Could I do an internship in a large congregation? How would my first call in a rural congregation go, and what about my second call joining with two other pastors who had been together for several years? Yet, when I came to Grace an amazing thing happened: there were no insecurities, at least not in the same way. Maybe it was a quiet confidence from years of experience, but I think it was more and possibly deeper than that.

Today we explore the third fruit of the Spirit, peace. We are rapidly discovering that each of these fruit not only defy simple explanations, but we are only able to nibble around the edges of them. The interesting thing about peace is that most people define it negatively, as the absence of conflict. In fact, some have said that the history of humanity is one war after another punctuated with occasional outbreaks of peace. That confirms the reality that we know but hate to admit, that even when there are cease fires and treaties signed, any peace that exists is an uneasy one and probably won’t last very long.

That’s why Jesus’ words in John are so important: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” His words are incredible on so many levels, not the least of which is the situation he speaks. It’s the Last Supper and Jesus is preparing his disciples one last time before he goes to his death. He knows that they will be lost and alone without him, that neither his life nor their lives will be anything but peaceful. Yet here he is promising them that peace will be present in their troubled hearts.

To understand the kind of peace that God gives through Jesus, we need to understand shalom. Shalom is the Old Testament word for peace, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of conflict. Shalom has more to do with our sense of well-being or wholeness. It means living into God’s intended future. Peace is, as Frederick Buechner says, everything we need to be wholly ourselves.

My colleague, Pr. Collette Broady, gave me an advanced copy of an article she wrote for the online WELCA journal, CafĂ©. In it she talks about how, in the midst of the crummy stuff of our lives, God is crafting a future we can’t imagine. God not only does this without our help but despite our hindering it.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome wants us to know that this shalom and well-being is for us as a community, too. Yes, in Christ we have been set free from the requirements of the law; we are free. But he also wants us to know that with rights come responsibilities to others, for rights without responsibilities leads to fragmented community.

Peace is not the absence of something; it is the presence of the living God in the midst of our lives. Buechner again: Peace is not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love. Peace only makes sense when we don’t allow our difficulties to define us; we are not our struggles. We only get glimpses of the peace that God promises us in the end, something of down payment. I got a glimpse when I came to Grace and I get glimpses walking with you. I invite you to look for where God is bringing peace and well-being in the midst of the stuff of your lives this week, creating a future that you can’t possibly imagine. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Joy" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Summer Series)

Fruitful Living: Growing in Joy
Pentecost 5 (Summer Series)
July 13, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 5.11-16; 1 Thessalonians 5.12-24

This morning we start our excursion into the mysteries of the second fruit of the Spirit with two stories, the first true and the second, although not true, containing a heaping amount of truth. The first comes from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, about two British runners in 1924 Olympics. Eric Liddell is Scottish and plans to be a missionary to China like his parents, but he also loves to run, much to the disapproval of his sister Jenny, who thinks it detracts from his ability to serve God. At one point, after just such an encounter, Eric tells Jennie that not to run would dishonor God, saying, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."

The second “truth-filled” story is one of my favorite Christmas tales. It’s about a father who thinks he needs to deprive his overly-optimistic son of his rose-colored glasses in order to see reality. The son had asked for a pony for Christmas and the father saw this as a perfect opportunity. Placing a load of manure in the basement, he sends his son downstairs on Christmas morning, expecting the son to come back upstairs dejected cured of his optimism. When the son doesn’t appear, the father goes downstairs to find his son gleefully digging through the manure. When asked why, the son says excitedly, “There just has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

When I think about trying to define joy, I think that it is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall. Said negatively, we are reminded about the former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remarks about obscenity: though unable to define it he adds, “But I know it when I see it.” In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABCs, Frederick Buechner adds this theological twist. First he quotes Jesus (“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full,” which he notes Jesus says at the Last Supper). Then he adds, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeathes it.”

Most of us realize on one level or another that joy and happiness are not the same things. Although we can’t “be joyful” in the same way we can “be happy,” there are some things we can do. If we can’t define it exactly, perhaps we can start on a rough description or list of characteristics. First, we want to acknowledge that as unpredictable as it is, joy is a gift from God. As a gift, it cannot be lost and therefore it is not as fleeting and transitory as happiness is. The Beatitudes in Matthew say that we are blessed by God in certain circumstances; those blessings have staying power.

It’s in the Beatitudes that we get another glimpse of the parameters of joy: God’s presence in, with and through our lives. We might add that joy through God’s presence comes in the midst of the worst manure that life can throw at us. God’s presence in our lives has important implications that we can only sketch out today, but God’s presence means that our lives have meaning and purpose. When we “run” we feel God’s pleasure. God’s presence means that we have a future, one of hope, because, as Miroslav Volf says, “hope is anticipated joy.” Or, as the psalmist notes, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

One final example: this last week I had the privilege of officiating at a difficult funeral for a woman who succumbed to a deadly form of cancer at an all too early age. Yet, during a time that was rightfully full of grief and sorrow, there were also glimpses of joy. It turns out that their “substitute pastor” came from a church where the woman was confirmed long ago and that the woman’s great-great grandmother was a founding member. Furthermore and coincidentally, this substitute pastor also had the same name as one of the cousins. However, the greatest joy came because one of the last things the deceased woman was able to say to her family was, “I’ll see you again,” freeing them to celebrate her life.

In other words, the family could see God working in, with, and through their circumstances. They experienced not only the hope of future promise of new life not only sustaining them but also enlivened and gladdened hearts. Joy is a gift, a fruit of the Spirit and, although we can’t make ourselves joyous, we can look for it. May you see God’s joyous presence in your life and feel God’s pleasure in you, with joyful abandon. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Love
Pentecost 4 (Summer Series)
July 6, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13; John 21.15-19

Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, make us love as you have loved us, so that all of the world will know your love. Let this continually be our prayer until you come again. Amen.

Most of us have experienced the power of love and know firsthand its influence upon us. The overwhelming emotions that surge within us at the sight of our newborn son or daughter. The deep turbulence in our teenage years the prompt us to do with our bodies what our minds aren’t ready for. The stirring of our souls for our country as the US flag and veterans pass by, the “Stars and Stripes” playing and the fireworks going off. In fact, so necessary is love that the inability to love is considered a psychological disorder. Furthermore, the absence of love is crippling to our development. There was a story published a number of years ago babies in a Russian orphanage. There were too many for the staff to care for so that some were held regularly but others not touched at all. Those who were not touched frequently had arrested development and many difficulties.

It is this last example that gives us a small window into the biblical understanding of love. This summer we are doing a series on the nine fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. We got a running start on Holy Trinity Sunday with a reminder of the fruitful God who makes fruit possible. The God who abides in us welcomes us to abide in God and produces fruit in us. Then two weeks ago we heard about those things that stand in the way of fruitful living, what the Apostle Paul calls the works of the flesh. Last week, we heard that fruitful living is a communal experience and that we are in this together. Today we begin our study of each fruit, not merely as fruit inspectors or even as fruit tasters, but cultivators of fruit.

We do so with two of the three most famous love passages in scripture, 1 Corinthians 13 and John 2. (The most famous is probably John 3.16.) It’s helpful to know the context of each: the Corinthian church was one Paul founded and cared deeply for. With Paul gone, the Corinthians became conflicted, with various groups struggling for power. The conflict arose because they had a distorted understanding of spirituality, thinking there was pecking order of gifts. They thought that those who possessed the gift of speaking in tongues were spiritually superior to those with other gifts. Paul tells them that loveless gifts are empty. In John, Peter comes before the resurrected Jesus and is asked three times if he loves Jesus. Many people see in this Peter’s rehabilitation for denying Jesus three times and that he is now restored to discipleship and leadership.

Early this last week I asked my Facebook friends to fill in the blank: Love is ________. Only one of the responses came close to describing love as feeling, but even that one was only through an action. Did you notice in the readings the same thing? Biblical love is not a feeling, it is active. I heard a story this last week about a son who asked his father when he first knew he loved his mother. Perhaps he wanted to know if what he was feeling for a young lady was the real thing. The father paused for a long time and then surprised his son saying it wasn’t until 10 years into his marriage that he knew he lived his wife. Seeing the startled look on his son’s face, he explained: until that point he didn’t really know what love was.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that through God’s love in Jesus Christ we live in a new reality. We now live by the Spirit. However, he adds, that is not all; we are to be led by the Spirit. Paul goes even further: faith is not only active in love; love is a way of being. We are to be to others what God is to us. Love is both gift or fruit and task. There may be times when we don’t know what love requires of us, but there are never any times when we can set love aside. In the end, though, God makes possible what God demands.

One of my favorite movies is Disney’s Frozen, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It tells the story of two princesses, Elsa, who has cryokinetic powers, and her younger sister Anna. Unfortunately, Elsa is unable to control her power and after a childhood accident she is hidden from everyone, including Anna. After ascending to the throne, the young women argue over Anna’s new love, Hans, and Elsa’s power is exposed. Panicking and fleeing, she unleashes an eternal winter on the kingdom. Anna, with the help of newfound friend and iceman Kristoff, seek out Elsa, trying to convince her to return.

Though they reunite, Elsa refuses to return, becomes agitated, accidentally striking Anna in the heart. Anna starts to freeze and Kristoff seeks healing from the trolls, who say that only an act of true love can save her. Thinking this means a kiss from Hans, they rush back to the kingdom. Yet it isn’t a kiss from Hans (who is revealed to be a conniver) or even Kristoff that can save her. It is Anna’s self-sacrifice, placing herself between Hans and Elsa as he tries to kill Elsa, just as she turns solid that is revealed as an act of true love. Anna thaws and Elsa realizes that it is through love that she is able to control her power.

Love, though active, is not heartless. But I think we get them backwards, believing that feeling comes first. Yet, I think more often than not we act our way into thinking and feeling, doing so because of God’s grace and power. May you discover the Spirit’s presence blowing through your life, leading you to grow in love. Amen.