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

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Savior of the World" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Savior of the World
Epiphany 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
Grace, Mankato, MN
January 26, 2013
John 3.1-21

We are now into our second year of the Narrative Lectionary, in which each gospel has its own year. I appreciate this because, as you may be able to tell, I love the gospel of John. I come by it honestly: as an ENTJ on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Inventory, John is the favorite of NTs. I love the double entendres, the sharp polarities, and the provocative symbolism. And there’s Jesus himself, talking past those who meet him, inviting them into a deep mystery. He comes off as a 600 year old Jedi Master: Inscrutable, sometimes, he is. Yet, in the midst of these mind-bending conversations come nuggets of breathtaking simplicity and clarity.

Today’s conversation with Nicodemus, affectionately known as Nic at Night, is no exception. Nicodemus comes under the cover of darkness to encounter the light, showing both symbolism and polarities. John is obviously pushing us to the light. And John arguably two of the most famous double entendres of all: anothen and pneuma. Are we to be born again or born from above? Is it wind, breath, or spirit? As my Confirmation students can tell you, when a pastor asks you an either/or question, the answer is YES! And, of course, there’s the simply most profound verse in the Bible, what Martin Luther called the “gospel in miniature,” John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Yet, as awesome as this verse is, I’ve come to appreciate even more so John 3.17: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” Part of the reason is that there has been a lot of talk about heaven, hell, and who is going where. But I think more so because of something that happened to me in elementary school at release time almost a half-century ago. Back then we were able to go to a local church for an hour a week for religion class. On one occasion, presumably in an effort to elicit a conversion experience in us, we were shown a “comic book” that vividly depicted people burning in hell, condemned because they didn’t believe in Jesus. We literally had the hell scared into us and though I appreciate some Christian’s passion for Jesus, I’m convinced that is not the message Jesus brings. I am convinced more than ever that God sent Jesus to save the world, not condemn it.

There’s far too much condemnation and judgment in our world and far too little grace and hope. Incredibly, I have sat with actively dying members who wonder if they are good enough for God and my heart aches for them. Haven’t they heard the message of Jesus? I was distressed to read the results of a high school survey in the Free Press this week on teenagers and suicide. Not only was I concerned at the level among students, especially girls, who have suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide, but it seems that many of the good initiatives to combat this problem aren’t working as well as hoped. Then there was Leonard Pitts’ op-ed piece about how cruel people have become in their comments and judgments on others, freely shared in social media.

But, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn us, only what separates us from true life. Like Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins, I believe that God never, ever gives up on us and not even death will prevent God from bringing us to new life. It becomes even more personal as I struggle over my father’s death 25 years ago. Worried about his health and salvation, I’d just sent a letter with an Easter card, telling him in writing what I couldn’t say in person. He died before he saw the letter. For years, I agonized not knowing if he was with Jesus, but now I am convinced that God will never let my father go. I think that’s one reason God called me to be a preacher, so that I could preach this until I believe it and when I believe it, preach it all the more: God sent Jesus to love us whether we want it or not. My brothers and sisters, I hope you have heard a clear word today of God’s unfailing love for you. Good news, it is. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

"My Father's House" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Narrative Lectionary 4)

My Father’s House
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 19, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 2.13-25

Today we have John’s version of the cleansing of the temple and I imagine it is causing no small amount of cringing in the pews across our land. Some people are cringing because we have gone from Jesus’ joyous gift of wine in the wedding at Cana last week to Jesus’ angry expulsions in the temple this week. Others are cringing because we usually read this text during Lent when Jesus is on the way to the cross and it seems out of place. But I suspect the most cringing comes from women’s groups, service groups, and youth groups who regularly set up tables in the narthex to solicit support for their worthy causes. They are cringing with good reason. Once a year, their normally gracious and mild-mannered pastor morphs into the Incredible Hulk and attempts to do some temple (or narthex) cleansing of their own, verbally lashing the faithful into repentance and submission.

Well, can we step back, take a deep breath and see if we can prevent green skin and split clothes? I think this story does challenge us, but in a way that can make a difference in our lives. As we have seen, John’s gospel operates on many levels and invites us into the mystery it presents to us in each of those levels. Jesus and the people he meets seem to talk past each other, yet he invites them into a relationship with God. The Gospel of John assumes that people are seeking a relationship with God, whether they know it or not. So, early on in this Jesus story, he prods us into asking where we look for and find God. With his actions in the temple, Jesus says it is to be found in a person more so than a place.

It is important to note that, unlike the other Gospels, Jesus doesn’t call the courtyard a “den of robbers.” In fact, the selling of animals and the changing of currency were important services to pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. Animals were needed for sacrifice and it was much easier to purchase them in Jerusalem than to bring your own. Similarly, the tax to support the mission and ministry of the temple needed to be paid in Jewish currency, not Roman, which contained the image of Caesar. Both of these were activities done with good intentions, but they had taken on a life of their own. The scene was noisy and chaotic at best, but also hindering non-Jews from praying in the only place they could at worst.

A number of years ago, my friend Susie lost her job and her sister Linda gave her some interesting advice. The first thing she should do to find a new one was to clean her apartment. (If you knew Susie you would know this was no small feat.) The idea was that, once she got her personal life in order she’d be prepared for her professional one. So, one thing our text prompts us to consider is those things in our life getting in the way of our relationship with God? What are the things that are good but have taken on a life of their own, limiting our relationships? What might be clogging up our lives, preventing us from the abundant life Jesus came to give?

This past year especially, as we have been living into God’s intention for us, I’ve wondered about some things. As I look at all of the ministry we do, both here but also outside our doors, I’ve wondered if we are doing too much even though everything we do is good and important to somebody. More importantly, I’ve wondered if we are doing the right things, those particular ministries that God wants us to be doing, and wondering if we’d be better instruments for God by going deeper rather than broader. Most importantly, I’ve wondered if some of things we do are hindering our walks with God rather than helping.

I also ask the questions about my personal and professional lives: what, if anything, is in the way? Please know that I don’t have any answers, but as your pastor I think we have to talk about this. That doesn’t mean beating ourselves up, defending our particular turfs or getting green and mean. It means asking Jesus to do in our lives what he promises, to help us lose ourselves to find ourselves. It means remembering the God who took on human flesh and died continues to go to great lengths for us. That’s not something to cringe at, but to welcome so that in the midst of chaos we find abundant life. Let’s talk. Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"The Good Wine" - Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

The Good Wine
Epiphany 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 12, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 2.1-11

Many of you know I am a second career (or midlife crisis) pastor. It would be no surprise that I was very involved in my previous congregations as a lay person, participating in many of the same ways in ministry as you do. One role I had was as an assisting minister in worship. During one memorable moment at Nativity Lutheran Church in Alexandria, VA, Pr. Paul Huddle was serving as our interim pastor, preaching and presiding one Sunday as I was assisting. We used the common cup, or pouring chalice, in worship and our practice was that the presiding minister would finish off the wine at the end of the meal, I practice I have continued as an ordained minister. This particular Sunday Pr. Huddle started to do this, suddenly stopped, handed the chalice to me and said, “I can’t do this; you need to finish it off.” Puzzled, I took the chalice and proceeded to drain the worst wine imaginable. Somebody on the altar guild must have had an awful week or left the wine bottle sitting on a radiator overnight. It was bad wine.

“Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests 
have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

In our gospel reading for today, we hear instead about the good wine. Like most of John’s gospel, the story of the wedding at Cana is rich and operates on many levels. At its simplest, this is a miracle story, where Jesus does something almost over the top. A problem is identified, a request is made, Jesus responds with a miracle, and there is a reaction from those present. However, as Augustine first, and CS Lewis later, remind us, Jesus does a speeded up version of what God does every year all over the world, turning water into wine. In other words, a miracle is not an arbitrary violation of nature’s laws, but an experience of God’s transforming presence in our lives. The story, much like a parable, is not as much a puzzle to solve as a mystery to embrace or engage. So, let’s embrace and engage this mystery for a while this morning and see how God can open us up in some new and life-giving ways.

Jesus’ miracle is called a sign, meaning it points to something more important than the miracle itself. The sign points to the divine reality of God’s transformative presence in our world, i.e., glory. One way to engage the mystery is to remember that banquets, especially wedding feasts, often symbolize God’s promised consummation at the end of time, where the world is finally made right. However, this hint of what is to come provides not only a foreshadowing of what is to come, but also a foretaste of that forthcoming. God’s future breaks into our present in a real and substantive way that changes us and the world.

It is short jump from this end-of-time (not end-times) banquet to the meal we share each week. The chief steward in the story assumes that the bridegroom is responsible for the good wine. But, as so often happens, it is Jesus who is actually the host at this most amazing meal. And, as is the case when we gather around our table, the mystery that we enter, engage, and embrace is that Jesus is not only the host of the meal, but he also is the meal. Jesus gives us his very self.

So, we are reminded that, as this miracle both points to God’s future and is a vehicle for God’s future to break into our present, it does so through the cross, Jesus’ death and resurrection. For as grapes are offered up to produce wine, so Jesus offers himself for the sake of the world. Like so many other symbols in John—light, water, and food—wine symbolizes Jesus’ gift of salvation. The miracle of water turned to wine, good wine, anticipates the love of God poured out through Jesus.

We believe that God is with us and we gather today to receive the Good Wine of God’s love poured out for us. In so doing, God invites to look at the ordinary places in our lives and discover those places where God is working through them to care for God’s people: in our families, our work, our schools, and here. God provides a different kind of abundance than the world knows, an abundance of self-giving love. So, what are the unforeseen needs or ministry opportunities that God is going to fill in our lives? We are urged to embrace and engage the mystery, looking for those places the Good Wine comes. Amen.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Come and See" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas

Come and See
Christmas 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
January 5, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.19-51

“What are you looking for? … Come and see.” John 1.38-39

We began the Jesus story in John’s gospel just before Christmas, and what a beginning it was! It’s not like Luke’s with the familiar angels and shepherds, or like Matthew’s with Joseph and Mary, nor like Mark’s, which skips the birth altogether, and launches right into John the Baptist paving the way for Jesus. No, John’s story of Jesus is reminiscent of the creation story in Genesis. It starts before the beginning and tells of how the Word was God and with God, through whom everything came into being. This Word took on human flesh and lived among us, bringing light into our darkness.

So, right from the beginning we sense that John’s version of the Jesus story is different, and today’s reading reinforces that suspicion. John the Baptist goes to great lengths to divert attention from himself to Jesus, including his narration of Jesus’ baptism and a fond farewell to two of his disciples who are interested in Jesus. In John’s telling, these disciples are gathered more than called, much like accumulating stray cats or dogs. It is this gathering that I’d like to spend time on, especially as Jesus says to the two who came after him, “What are you looking for?” and his invitation, “Come and see.”

As we will discover throughout John’s gospel, Jesus loads more than one meaning in his words. When he asks the two disciples what they want, he does so on at least one more level. Though they may be curious about this Jesus character, Jesus knows they are hungry for more. Two important things happen here: first, Jesus tells them that their deepest questions about life and God are important and validated; second, Jesus invites them to a space where they can ask these questions. Jesus invites them into a journey of growth in the life of faith, not a destination by saying, “Come and see.”

I have mentioned before my faith struggles, especially following Confirmation in ninth grade, when I left the church. I have also mentioned that I returned to the church shortly after college, realizing that the questions I had about God were more likely to be found inside the church rather than out. What I may not have mentioned is that I had a “Philip” help me, someone who took seriously Jesus’ example to say to me, “Come and see.” Only, her name was LuAnn, and she understood may need for a place to wrestle with the hard questions about God, the world, and my place in it.

LuAnn didn’t ask me if I knew the four spiritual laws, nor did she ask me if I was born again or knew Jesus as my personal savior, nor did she question if I knew where I’d spend eternity. Rather, she simply recognized a hunger in me and invited me to “come and see” her young adults group at church. She didn’t try to convince me there was a God or anything about that God. She simply said, “Come and see.” Our own Walter Johnson knows how to do this with Rotary (and no doubt with church, too). Walter invited me three times, picked me up each time, and had me “come and see” what it was about. He invited me to belong and experience Rotary.

Our text does two things to us today: it issues an invitation to come and see, and pushes us to do the same for other people. Who has been the best kind of Philip (or LuAnn or Walter) to you in your life? Who can you be a Philip to, who hungers for a life of meaning? The text also pushes us to reflect on what people would see if they came to Grace. Here’s what I’d like them to see: I’d like people to come and see a place where it is not only okay to ask questions but mandatory to do so. I’d like them to see other broken, vulnerable people whose lives are being changed through a relationship and experience with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. I’d like them to be a part of a people who are open to God’s vision for their lives and take a risk living into that vision.

What are you looking for? I think we are well on our way to being a place where people can come and see, but as I said earlier, this is a journey into God’s future, not a destination. I close with a quote from one of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner: “Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough at least to draw near to see for yourselves.” What are you looking for? Come and see the Word made flesh, Jesus. Amen.