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

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"The Living Waters of Baptism" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

The Living Waters of Baptism
Epiphany 7 – Narrative Lectionary 4
John 7.37-52
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
February 23, 2014

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” (John 7.37-38)

Our reading from John 7 is highly evocative today, as we have discovered every Sunday as we read the Jesus story in John. We get a small snapshot of yet another extended conversation that Jesus has with others. Although he doesn’t perform a sign this week as he usually does, he nonetheless declares himself one. And, though he doesn’t come right out and say, “I am the Living Water” as he does on numerous occasions in John, he just as well could have. And, as we have seen already in previous weeks, Jesus gets mixed reviews from the crowds. We will also see how the distance between positive and negative responses will grow in the weeks to come.

The festival referenced in the reading is Festival of Tabernacles or Booths, one of the three big pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish tradition. It was a fall harvest festival rooted in the memory of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness from their bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land. Part of the week-long celebration was the daily libation brought from the Pool of Siloam. This outpouring of water would remind the people of God’s provision of gushing water from the rock struck by Moses’ staff. So, when in the midst of this ritual, Jesus declares that he brings living water, he again reorients people from Jewish traditions, particularly around the temple, to himself. In effect he declares that religion involves a person, not a place.

Last week, Jesus declared himself to be the Bread of Life and now he claims to be Living Water. Do you know how long humans can survive without food? Depending on many factors, most scientists believe you could survive eight weeks. That is, of course, assuming they have at least a small amount of water. Do you know how long a human can survive without water? Again, depending on factors, you could survive only two to three days. Notice that Jesus doesn’t simply provide water, but living water, water that moves and flows. That’s because water that sits in a pool becomes stagnant, not only dead but dealing death.

Now, unlike last week’s story about Jesus as the Bread of Life relating to Holy Communion, if you check a few commentaries about this week’s text about water, they’ll scream, “It’s not about Baptism!” Even so, my mind kept coming back to baptism, particularly since we rehearse many of the great water stories in our baptismal liturgy and, as we did today, in the Thanksgiving for Baptism. As I thought about Jesus as Living Water and baptism, I wondered about what our baptisms mean to us personally. In fact, I even asked a bunch of people this week, including a group of pastors.

As people reflected on the meaning of baptism, they often told a story. Many talked of how their baptism connected them to a larger community in a way they hadn’t been connected before. One person recently baptized talked of being able to take Holy Communion. A college student told of being assured that her worthiness doesn’t come from what she does, but rather who she is as God’s child. That’s a far more powerful resource for us as the baptized, one that some in Jesus’ day reject. There are two types of responses from the leaders of Jesus’ time that I see prevalent in our society today. The first is arrogance: “We know better, so just stop trying to think for yourselves.” The second response is a head-in-the-sand approach: “Don’t confuse us with the facts, we know what to think and believe.” I think many in our political system today especially embody one or both of these attitudes. How sad, for them and for us.

I was reminded yet again this past week about how our Lutheran heritage provides us an incredible grounding in grace and faith, one which allows us to reach out to people of other denominations and faiths. So, perhaps being baptized means being secure enough in God’s love to welcome and accept all people as God’s children. We believe that we know something about Jesus as Living Water, but we aren’t so arrogant that we believe we know everything. Furthermore, because of our baptism we are open to what God may be teaching us through others. As you come forward to receive Jesus as the Bread of Life in Holy Communion, I invite you to dip your fingers in the waters of baptism, remembering how Jesus provides the Living Water of grace, mercy, and love, enabling us to reach out to do the same. Amen.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Bread for Today" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Bread for Today
John 6.35-59
Epiphany 6 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 16, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6.51)

Today, we have the first of seven “I am” sayings in John’s gospel, rich images for God’s provision, that tell something of who Jesus is and what God has sent him to do. Like much of John’s Gospel, we have an extended conversation following a sign. In this case the sign is the feeding of 5 thousand, where Jesus multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish while have 12 baskets left over. After being fed, the multitude follows Jesus across the Sea of Galilee where Jesus has fled because they want to make him king. Jesus points out their misunderstanding about the feeding and invites them into a deeper faith. As Jesus does so, he challenges their current understanding of a relationship with God. Furthermore, although it’s outside of today’s reading, Jesus’ sayings are so radical that some choose to leave and follow him no longer.

One reason some people find Jesus hard to swallow is his reference to eating his flesh and blood. Many of you see the obvious connection to Holy Communion in these verses, as did the early church, but for 1st century Jews, drinking blood was an abominable and forbidden act. But there are two other aspects to Jesus as the bread of life that are important: first, when Jesus uses the term “flesh and blood,” a term meaning the whole person, he means we need all of him. We don’t have the option to pick and choose those parts of Jesus we want and discard the rest like some kind of buffet. Second, as Jesus talks about giving himself for the life of the world there is an implied commitment that those of us who follow Jesus and feed on him for life are to give ourselves away, too.

As we reflect on this image of Jesus as the Bread of Life, have you ever stopped to think about how much we focus on food and drink in our society? Billions of dollars are spent on advertising, meals at restaurants are super-sized and all you can eat buffets flourish while our food pantries are seeing record usage and some schoolchildren are going hungry. Furthermore, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, is focusing on childhood obesity while incidents of bulimia and anorexia run rampant. I think this food folly is a symptom of a deeper spiritual issue that is also ironic: in an age where people have more spiritual options than ever, and more places to get them, there is a gnawing hunger for the real spiritual bread that gives life.

In CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund finds his way to the mythical land of Narnia through a magic wardrobe and meets the White Witch, who through magic has made Narnia “always winter, but never Christmas.” She plies him with Turkish Delight, a delishes confection. Unfortunately, Turkish Delight increases his hunger rather than satisfying it, but for the wrong things: power over others. Ultimately, Edmund will be redeemed from the White Witch’s clutches through the sacrifice of Aslan, the Christ figure in the story in the form of a lion. Aslan gives his flesh and blood for Edmund’s life. When Jesus tells us he is the Bread of Life, he gives us an opportunity to embrace an authentic existence, drawing us into a sharing of his death, where true life comes in giving ourselves away. You see, we need to take all of Jesus into ourselves because Jesus gives all of himself to us.

This life that Jesus offers is not just some future time when God brings all to completion. It is available to us each day, and we experience that deeper life when we worship together regularly, read the Bible together, pray together, create community together, and give ourselves away together. On his death bed, the last thing Martin Luther said was “we are all beggars.” DT Niles added to this by saying that Christianity is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. So as we gather around the altar and take in the very life of Jesus, offered to us, he challenges us to face those things we “eat” that don’t give life and invites us to partake in those things that do. For Jesus is the Bread of Life for today. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

"Beyond Signs and Wonders" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Beyond Signs and Wonders
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 9, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 4.46 – 5.18

“Unless you people are dazzled by a miracle, you refuse to believe.” (John 4.48, The Message)

Our text gives us two quite different healing stories. In the first, a royal official begs Jesus to heal his son. Initially rebuffed, the official persists and Jesus tells him his son will live, sending him on his way. Many of us who have had sick children or ill loved ones can relate. I had to bring our youngest daughter Amy to the emergency room when she was about seven, suffering from a pain in her hip. It turned out she had a hip infection. Our oldest daughter Angela suffered through several bouts of bronchitis until we finally told the doctor that we needed to get some answers. Fortunately, he agreed and we determined she had moderate to severe asthma and allergies. The second healing has a man with a chronic illness whom Jesus seemingly picks at random. We’re not sure he wants to be healed, and when Jesus does so, breaking Sabbath laws, the man appears ungrateful. Clearly has no idea who Jesus is and throws him under the bus with the religious leaders of the day.

These two stories highlight an important theme in John: the place of signs in the life of faith. Jesus will perform seven signs in John—or eight depending on how you count—and clearly he is of two minds about them. Signs are instrumental in revealing something of who Jesus is and what God has sent him to do. But he is rightly concerned because the ooh and ah effect of the miracles becomes distracting to people. They start talking about the signs and looking for them rather than what they point to. And in the case of the paralyzed man and the religious leaders, signs can sometimes blind us to who Jesus is.

I don’t think we have changed much since Jesus’ time in our need for and fascination with signs. I was reminded by that Wednesday night when someone mentioned (yet another) book on Revelation. People want to read those signs into today. And hardly a day goes by when someone sees the face of Jesus in a piece of toast or a bit of fungus. Furthermore, I’ve had a number of people ask me about dreams or visions of loved ones and what their meaning might be. On one level, it is understandable: we all want to know the way ahead or the next step forward. Should I take that job? Is this the person I’m supposed to marry? Where should I go to school?

There are two things about signs that our text and John’s gospel wants us to know. The first is that the purpose of signs is to point toward Jesus, who he is, and what he came to do. In today’s stories, the signs of healing point to Jesus’ opposition to those things that prevent the abundant life God wishes for all of creation and his ability to restore health and life to us. In fact, it is clear in John’s gospel that Jesus himself is a sign of God’s love and mercy. Moreover, the signs that Jesus does, pointing to himself, say “I am here,” not “I will fix this.”

That brings us to the second thing about the signs Jesus does: the signs often come in ways that we don’t expect and almost always give us what we need, not what we want or look for. They often come into our places of brokenness rather than wholeness, into our darkness rather than our light. It took me eight years to get to seminary and I looked for signs along the way. None of the came as expected. One sign came when I interviewed for the “perfect” job and was not hired. Another came from an aunt who pledged support where none was expected. And a third sign came from a sister who reminded me, when I was whining about my age, that I would be 42 whether I went to seminary or not so I might as well do what God is calling me to do.

Of course, the sign that sums all of this up and in which Jesus’ identity and mission is most perfectly captured is the cross. Through Jesus’ death, God shows completely God’s love for us. We know signs are from God when they point to Jesus and the love God has for us. They point the way forward when they are not what we ask for, but what we need. And we know they are true when they come to us in the midst of our difficulties and trials. In other words, faith (a verb in John) is not an answer, but a way of living. Jesus is here. Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Come and See, Part 2" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Come and See, Part 2
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
February 2, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 4.1-42

Come and see someone who told me everything that I have ever done! John 4.29

Four weeks ago we heard similar words on the lips of Jesus in chapter 1. He invited those two disciples of John the Baptist to “come and see” in response to their question about where he was staying. Then a few verses later it is Philip who issues a similar invitation in response to Nathaniel’s rather cynical question about whether anything good could come from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.

So, given the circumstances of today’s reading, it is tempting to hear the Samaritan woman’s words to her neighbors as a mixture of wonder and awe at Jesus’ abilities in somewhat the same category as a nightclub psychic or carnival huckster. A more generous reading would be that Jesus, as God’s Son, certainly has uncanny knowledge about people and events, but that is getting ahead of ourselves. Even the woman’s earlier declaration of Jesus as a prophet, while carrying more import, misses the mark. It is helpful to know that unlike the Jews, who believed the Messiah would be a warrior king, the Samaritans believed the Messiah would be a prophet like Moses.

Having said all that, this is an absurd conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, but not in the way you might think. It’s absurd because it’s an authentic conversation that never should have happened in the first place.

Literarily speaking, much like the religious leader Nicodemus whom we encountered last week in chapter 4, the Samaritan woman acts as a foil for Jesus’ unfolding revelation of himself and his mission. Yet, she is much more than a stock character who exists solely to highlight Jesus’ identity and purpose. In contrast to Nicodemus in last week’s reading, not only is she unnamed, a woman of no standing, and a despised Samaritan, she comes during the light instead of darkness. (Here it’s important to remember how powerful the images of light and darkness are in John’s gospel.) Furthermore, instead of fading away into the night like Nicodemus, she runs to her townsfolk bearing witness to Jesus: “Come and see a man who told me everything that I have ever done!”

I really life Eugene Peterson’s translation of this verse in The Message: “Come and see someone who knows me inside and out.” I imagine she could have added: “Come and see someone who takes the time to listen and talk to me. Come and see someone who meets me where I am in my life of faith, but shows me so much more. Come and see someone who listens and respects my deep questions of faith. Come and see someone who doesn’t care what my past is, only my future. Come and see someone who challenges me to live a greater life than the one I am living. Come and see someone who, because he is willing to give himself away, shows me that true life is going to be found in giving myself away, too.

She might have added, “Come and see the one who sees us first, who seeks us out before we ever go through the trouble of looking for him. Come and see someone who knows that we are thirsty before we even know it ourselves and gives us the kind of water in which true life is found.” Many of these revelations about Jesus may not have come in that moment and clearly her life of faith is budding and not in full bloom.  Yet even the beginning of faith is powerful when shared with someone else.

I’ve mentioned coming back to the church and rededicating my life to Christ. It was a time of continued questioning and growth and I had only an inkling knowing what I didn’t know.
Around that time I was transferred to Chicago with Minnesota Fabrics and one night I was invited to the home of one of my employees, Marty. She and her husband, Floyd, had a good friend from Michigan visiting and thought we’d enjoy each others’ company. I still don’t know how it happened, but late that night around the dinner table we began talking about God, Jesus, the church, and my new journey of faith. I certainly didn’t go there intending to share my faith, but all three, especially Mark, decided to go deeper in their lives of faith.

It’s important to note that it’s not about us; it’s about what God is doing in, with, and through us. The Samaritan woman shows the power of leading through imperfections, what God can make in our most imperfect lives. What would that look like in your life? Where Jesus has seen you first and addressed your thirst? What would you say to a friend, neighbor, or co-worker? Come and see someone who … what? You could even say, “You know, my pastor raised this question in his sermon the other day. Do you mind if I run it by you?” See what happens; it’s not as absurd as you might think. God bless you this week as you are strengthened by the one who knows us inside and out, who gives you the water of life. Amen.