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

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"What Rules?" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

What Rules?
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 30, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 18.28-40

I’m going to assume that all of you know something about the 1960s show Star Trek and its Capt. Kirk. In the films after the show, there are references to a legendary academy test, called the “Kobyashi Maru.” The test was a no-win test, designed to assess the command-track cadets’ response to a situation that was hopeless. The computer simulation gives the commander of a starship the choice of attempting to rescue a ship in distress, called the Kobyashi Maru, but having to enter a dangerous region occupied by enemy forces in order to do so. Rescuing the ship will result in certain destruction by hostile forces; however, not doing so dooms the ship to destruction and loss of lives.

At the academy then-cadet Kirk fails the test twice but, before taking it a third time, reprograms the computer to give him a fighting chance to rescue the other ship and beat the test. He does this because, he says, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Despite having cheated by changing the rules, Kirk is given a commendation for “original thinking.”

Jesus finds himself in a “no-win” situation as he is brought to Pilate for questioning and trial. Clearly the Jewish religious authorities are bent on seeing him put to death. Interestingly, Pilate also finds himself in similar “no-win” situation with the same religious leaders. He dares not let Jesus go for fear of angering the Jews and thus risking a full-scale riot by the crowds. Furthermore, the charge of Jesus causing insurrection is one he can’t ignore, even though it means putting an innocent man to death. Pilate faces his own “Kobyahsi Maru” and it’s not pretty.

However, like Captain Kirk, Jesus doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios. Although he doesn’t have a computer to reprogram, Jesus does changes the rules of the game with Pilate and the Jewish leaders. First of all, although he appears to let the events take their course, Jesus is very much in charge of the situation. He steadfastly refuses to let Pilate, the religious leaders, or anyone else define him or force him into their existing categories of how the world operates. Second, Jesus is a king, but he redefines what it means to be a king and what his kingdom means. Jesus’ kingdom is not one of violence or coercion, but one of self-sacrificial love.

Mr. Spock, Kirk’s first officer on the starship Enterprise, did not take the Kobyashi Maru test at the academy. But near the end of the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, he enters the engine room to restore the warp drive to ship to save the crew. However, this results in a fatal exposure to radiation, but does save the ship and crew. As he dies, Spock refers to his sacrificial action as his solution to the no-win scenario, his own Kobyashi Maru.

When Jesus changes the rules and redefines what it means to be a king, he does so through the lens of sacrificial love. He shows that God is present in the world in a way that runs contrary to human desires for power and control. This is the truth that Pilate can’t understand. This is the truth that Jesus came to not only show but embody: giving oneself away in love. Truth is not a proposition; truth is a person, God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Truth is found in religion, teachings, beliefs and the Bible, but these things aren’t truth. It is only Jesus who is truth.

Jesus doesn’t get a commendation for original thinking; in fact, he gets crucifixion. In the end, we know that this isn’t the conclusion of the story, that there is far more to come. In fact, as Jesus seems to lose, we are the real winners. Often our lives look similarly, as no-win, but Jesus points us to a different, truthful way, the way of love. Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"In Denial" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

In Denial
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 23, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 18.12-27

We are continuing on our walk with Jesus to cross and the empty tomb. Much has happened since we read about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples last week. It was the last supper that Jesus has with his disciples, during which he gives what is known now as the Final Discourse. Some wags have called this the longest after dinner speech in the Bible. In reality, it is Jesus’ final instructions and marching orders because he knows he is going away and that they will be lost and alone without him. So, Jesus tells them to love one another and promises them that they won’t be alone because the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, will come to guide them. Then Jesus ends with a marvelous prayer. Also during this time, after Peter vows to lay down his life for him, Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. Following the prayer, Jesus and his followers go to a garden where Jesus is arrested. During the arrest, Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s slave, resulting in a rebuke from Jesus.

That brings us to our text today. Note how John stages the scene in our reading, how Jesus’ assertions are sandwiched between Peter’s denials. Craig Satterlee has likened this to putting two suspects in separate interrogation rooms for questioning. What is noteworthy is that, during his arrest and interrogation, Jesus says as he has all along, “I am,” while Peter says “I am not.” Peter denies knowing or being with Jesus, whereas Jesus doesn’t deny or reject his disciples, Peter denies everything about knowing Jesus and yet Jesus denies nothing, admitting his teaching has always been open and aboveboard. Think of the irony: Jesus’ teaching now rests in the hands of disciples who have turned their backs on him.

As always, the Bible is stocked with realistic but fallible human beings. That’s what makes it so powerful. One the one hand, Peter can make us feel better about our own frailties; we don’t feel so bad about our shortcomings. On the other hand, Peter’s shortcomings tend to magnify them as well. A number of years ago I attended a La Crosse Loggers baseball game with my oldest daughter. The Loggers are in the same league as the Mankato MoonDogs, where college players can get a taste of what it’s like to play professional baseball. Later in the game one well-lubricated “fan” was giving some of the players a very hard time because of their performance. Now, these players are not pros making millions; they’re college students who love the game and want to improve. They do not deserve that kind of abuse. However, what was sadder was that I did nothing in response; I just sat stewing. I know I shouldn’t confront the fan, but I could have at least cheered the players a little harder and thanked them afterward.

In the scheme of things, this wasn’t huge, but I denied knowing Jesus that day as much as Peter did long ago. It’s hard to admit that we are like Peter, who comes closest to following Jesus to the end, but instead falls furthest away. More times each day than we want to confess, in the things we say or don’t say, the things we do or don’t do, we keep our heads down, hunkering around that fire and deny being a follower of Jesus. During Lent, we come to terms with the undeniable reality of not being who people think we are or who we want to be. The Bible is a mirror that shows us not just minor imperfections but also our gaping brokenness and wounds.

Yet Lent is also a reminder that, although this is a major part of the story, it is not all of it. The good news today is that, in spite of our faithlessness, Jesus remains faithful to us to the end. And the story of Peter doesn’t end here either, no more than our stories end here. But for now, we would do well to linger and not rush too quickly past the cross to the empty tomb. For we have an opportunity to come to terms with the kind of life God calls us to lead. Where might God be challenging you to move away from the fire and find your voice? For example, I am awed by our commitment to feeding hungry people in so many ways. We Lutherans are very good at that. Yet, we are not as good about advocating for the poor, seeking to change the systems that keep people food insecure. Perhaps that is one place we can speak up. God’s blessings on the journey. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Humble Service" - Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Humble Service
John 13.1-17
Lent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 16, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN

Today I’m going to give you permission to be selfish, to think about yourself rather than others. That may seem odd given our new mission statement: “Through God’s abundant love, we live and work to serve others.” So, let me explain with a story. About six years ago I had same-day surgery on my shoulder to relieve an impingement. I was laid up for two weeks, though it took almost 18 months for my shoulder to return to normal. During those two weeks especially, I learned three things: 1) how to do nothing, something that doesn’t come naturally to me; 2) I can be creative in doing what I can; and 3) how to ask for and receive help. Truth be told, I’m still working on these things, particularly the last one. I don’t like to ask for help.

I think Peter is the same way. Today’s text may seem jarring to some of you who are used to hearing it on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. This year in the Narrative Lectionary, we are reading the Passion Story slowly and deliberately, not all at once as we usually do. I really appreciate this approach. The washing of the disciples’ feet is only told in John’s gospel, and it immediately raises both eyebrows and questions. Jesus raises eyebrows by doing something that slaves wouldn’t be expected to do for their masters, though someone may do it for a guest as an act of adoration.

His act also raises a question about why foot washing didn’t become a sacrament. It seems to have the requirements: Jesus seems to command it (“unless you do this you have no part of me); there seems to be a promise of grace (blessed are you who do this); and it has a physical element attached (water).  But it’s probably a good thing it did not become a sacrament because we’d be arguing over how much water to use and what kind, what age someone has to be to have their feet washed, and whether they really understand it or not.

Most observers of the text agree that the story has two basic thrusts: first, by laying down his robe and washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus symbolizes in a prophetic act his impending death, his voluntary humiliation and laying down of his life for others. The foot washing captures the essence of other passages: Jesus says in Matthew, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20.28) Paul adds later that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave … he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.5-8) Second, Jesus’ act serves as a moral example to his disciples, their willingness to be a servant and to do the same as Jesus, laying down their lives for others.

Servant leadership was a concept popularized by Robert Greenleaf in the 60s and 70s and has flourished since then. In fact, I dealt with it extensively in my doctoral work and thesis. Servant leadership in effect turns an organizational chart upside down where to lead is to serve others. But it wasn’t something that Peter got, at least during that last supper Jesus had with him. In fact, Jesus said as much to him and the others. Yet, the first step in leadership was allowing his feet to be washed by Jesus. I imagine that Peter would much rather have washed Jesus’ feet than have Jesus touch his.

I think that’s true for most of us; we are far more comfortable serving others than being served. Yet, I believe that being a truly humble servant depends upon whether we can accept being served. I have recently seen yet another story about how rude Christians are to wait staff in restaurants and how poor tippers they are as well. Some colleagues and I meet regularly at a restaurant where we prefer to meet in the back room. Each time we request it we hear about how a former group of pastors only drank coffee and didn’t order meals. No matter how long we meet there and order meals (and tip generously) we’ll probably always be tarred with that same brush. I think these are leaders who have not truly opened themselves to the Savior’s touch of their feet and don’t understand what it means to serve.

So, here’s what I want us to practice this week: opening ourselves up to being served by another. Let Jesus touch your feet through the service of another, doing so gratefully and humbly. Or, ask for help from someone, not for someone else, but for you and do it with humility and gratitude. A good place to practice is here, because we cannot love and serve others without the support of a community that loves and serves us just as Christ does. So, be selfish so that you can humbly serve as Jesus has served you. Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Brought to Life: The Paralytic" - Dramatic Monolgue for Midweek Lent

Brought to Life: The Paralytic
Midweek Lent 2014
Mankato Round Robin Series
*Adapted by Scott E. Olson from a monologue created by Steve Dornbusch

As you can see, I am able to walk, just like most of you, but it wasn’t always that way. Let me tell you an amazing story and why I carry around this cot to remind me.

One day when I was a young boy, I was playing with my friends and to get away from them I ran up the stairway to the roof of my house, something I had done countless times before. The stairway on the side of the house allowed us to do repairs to the roof, which was something people had to do pretty regularly. We could also sleep up there. That day, however, I slipped on the stairs and went tumbling down. In an instant, my whole life changed. My friends rushed over, some laughing, some concerned, like friends are when something like this happens. Of course, I immediately told them I was fine, but as I tried to get up a sharp pain shot through my body and I passed out.

When I woke up, I was inside my house and I realized that I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t stand. I thought maybe, with the passage of time, I would regain the use of my legs, but I didn’t. For months, my parents took care of me. My friends would stop by. They felt terrible for what happened to me, and they felt so helpless to do anything. As the next years went by, the one good thing was this: my friends really were my friends. They never abandoned me, never forgot about me, never quit caring for me. Believe me, every day I thanked God that I had friends like that.

Usually, my father would take me out to the public square where I would beg for alms. It was humiliating, but it was the only way I could bring any money into the house. Often, at night, a couple of my friends would help me back to our home. I hated to have them have to do that. But what could I do?

Do you have any idea what it is like to sit day after day, knowing that nothing will ever change? Do you have any idea how absolutely depressing and demoralizing it is to lie in the public square on a three-by-six-foot mat day after day hoping that a few people would have pity on you and give you a few coins so some of your friends could use the money to buy you supper each night?

You learn a lot about people when you’re crippled. You learn who your friends really are. Oh, many people feign friendship. They look at you with pity in their eyes, maybe even drop a coin in your cup, but then they walk away. Most of them don’t even like to look. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of. Maybe it’s a fear that something like this could happen to them; I don’t know. Maybe they just don’t know what to say. Mostly, I think they’re just glad it’s not them, and the quicker they can get away the better they feel. Then they don’t have to think about it anymore.

One day, my friends told me about a new teacher and prophet in the area. They said they had actually heard him speak. Said he had a remarkable way of interpreting the scriptures. He seemed to have insights like no one they had ever heard. Well, I was no stranger to teachers and prophets. Begging like I did in the public square exposed me to all sorts of people. Anyone who thought they had something to say would often come to that public square and hold
court. Some were worth listening to, but most were just a lot of hot air. I suppose you could say I had grown fairly skeptical of that kind of thing.

Well, my friends continually talked about this Jesus they had been following. They were absolutely convinced that this carpenter from Nazareth was the Messiah who was to come. Now that was something! “Come on,” I asked them, “you don’t really believe that, do you? Do you think the Messiah is going to come as a carpenter from Nazareth?” Not that I had anything against Nazareth. It was a town not too far away. I’m not sure who I expected the Messiah to be, but it sure wasn’t a carpenter from Nazareth.

No matter how much I didn’t believe it could be true, that’s how much they did believe. Not only that, but they kept telling me about how they had seen this Jesus heal people, even people who had been blind or deaf since birth. They said, “If he can do that for them, maybe he could help you.” But I had been to doctors and had heard the same thing too many times: “Nothing can be done. You just have to learn to live with your condition.”

Still, my friends wouldn’t let up. They wouldn’t leave it alone. No matter how much I told them I didn’t need to get all excited about something that couldn’t happen they just wouldn’t quit. “You’ve just got to hear him. You’ve got to meet him,” they said. “Yeah, yeah,” I said, “maybe someday.” Well, that “some day” came about a month later. This Jesus they were all excited about was visiting a friend at his home in Capernaum.

People came from all over, including Jerusalem. My friends were absolutely insistent that we were going, and they picked up my cot and carried me. My cot was basically what you would call a stretcher. It had two poles and the equivalent of a couple of blankets that were sewn around the poles so two people could each take an end and carry me from place to place.

They took me to the house, but by the time we got there, you couldn’t even see the door. It was that crowded. The house was full and people were standing around the outside on their toes trying to see and hear. Well, so much for seeing Jesus, I thought. Not my friends. Before I knew it, they ran up the stairway to the roof and began removing some of the branches and leaves that made up the roof over the beams. Once they got some of the roof off, they came down and started to carry me up to the roof. I went crazy, reliving that day many years earlier when I had fallen.

They persisted in spite of my protests, tied ropes around the two poles of the stretcher, carried me to the roof, and lowered me right in front of Jesus. I was sure they were going to dump me right off the stretcher, but they didn’t. By now, as you can imagine, everyone was watching what we were doing. But it didn’t matter. Jesus spoke first. Later, when the story was written down, it said, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” But, it wasn’t my faith he saw. I was the most skeptical of anyone. It was the faith of my friends, who were absolutely convinced Jesus could help.

Here’s where it got real interesting. As soon as Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” people started getting real nervous. You could hear the whispers all over the room. “Who does he think he is? Only God can forgive sins. Is he claiming to be God?” Jesus smiled at the muttering crowd and said, “Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’? But that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins—.” Then Jesus turned to look at me. He said, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.” Was he kidding? Did he really expect me to just stand up and walk out of there? I looked at him, and I knew that’s exactly what he thought.

It was when I started to prop myself up that I began to feel something in my legs. I hadn’t felt anything in my legs for years. I looked up at him, and I knew that he knew what I was feeling. I pushed myself up on my knees. You could hear the gasps of people all around. They had seen me every day. I reached up to Jesus. He took my hand, and helped me to my feet. I was standing. I was standing on legs that only seconds ago were lifeless. I moved from side to side, testing each leg to see if it was real. It was real, all right. I picked up my cot and walked out of that house without any help, carrying my cot, just like he said. I was totally speechless, but you should have heard my friends. They were laughing and slapping me on the back saying, “See, we told you. We knew he could do it!”

For the next several days, I couldn’t wait to get out of bed to be sure it was real and not a dream. It was no dream. It was absolutely real. I could walk, and in the days to come I could run and jump, too. I could do anything anyone else could do. I was completely healed, but something even more important happened. Jesus had said my sins were forgiven. Everyone else could only talk about the healing, but I knew something even bigger was happening. God was no longer a distant concept. Now, God was real, and that reality came through God’s Son, Jesus.

You know the story of Jesus, how he would go to a cross, die, and rise again that we might be forgiven. Well, you might say I had a preview of that forgiveness right there on the floor of that house. Yes, my life was changed, and walking was only a small part of that change. The bigger change came as God’s love was brought to life in me, a love that God promises to all of us through Jesus. You see, I come to realize that all of us are crippled in some way and need to be brought to life in some way. I hope my story helps you see how God brings life to you, too.

*This monologue was adapted from “The Paralytic” in Bible People: Monologues for Lent, by Steve Dornbusch (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Passionate Love" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Passionate Love
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
John 11.1-44
Grace, Mankato, MN
March 9, 2013

It’s been quite a while since I received the call from Tom, asking if I could come to the hospital and be with his family. His father in law, Ned, had just passed away and he wondered if I could join his wife, Linda, and their two daughters, Amy and Jessica. Of course I went, not only because that’s what I do, but also because how quickly I’d gotten to know their family. Tom and Linda were very active; Amy was a leader in the youth group; and I had walked with Jessica in the fifth grade Communion class and then Confirmation.

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to be with many families and their deceased over the years. Generally speaking, God has gifted me with a large dose of composure in those situations; I seem to be able to be in them but not of them. However, I was unprepared for the emotion I experienced that day, not at Ted’s passing (he was 91), but at the very real grief his granddaughters were expressing. My heart broke at the pain they were feeling over the loss of their grandpa.

Now, I am not so bold or presumptuous to claim that I know what the Creator of the Universe was feeling that day in Bethany 2,000 years ago, but I think I have a close approximation. It’s an incredible story on many levels. Jesus meets first Martha and then Mary as he got closer, engaging in an amazing conversation, especially with Martha. Unfortunately, the NRSV doesn’t fully convey the power and depth of Jesus’ response to the grief of the women and their fellow Jews. In fact, he is downright angry and deeply upset, though we aren’t sure what the anger is about. More than likely, Jesus is angry over the effects of sin and brokenness on our world, most notably death. He is moved by the grief of those he loves deeply, who, of course, represent all of us loved by Jesus just as deeply.

Death is all around us, an integral part of life. As someone has observed, we never open the obituaries and see “None” listed. Yet, our society really doesn’t deal with death well. On the one hand, we trivialize death through our movies, TV shows and video games so much so we almost become immune to it. That is, until on the other hand, our worlds are rocked when these games come true. There’s a study that says society will give you a year to “get over” the death of a child, two years to “get over” the death of a pet, but only six months to “get over” the death of a spouse. As if we could ever get over losses so deep and profound.

As followers of Jesus, we realize that the road to Easter runs right through a cemetery, and that road doesn’t avoid the realities of life, but meets them head on, refusing to be held hostage to them. It is right that we have a baptism today. Hudson’s baptism today stands as witness that, like Martha, we hold fast to our faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life even when we don’t fully understand what God is going to do in the midst of our fragile existence.

One of the messages in Lent is that in the midst of death we boldly proclaim life. The next time we gathered, Tom, Linda, Amy, Jessica and me, we planned Ned’s celebration of life in the face of death. We are an odd people, we Christians, who can grieve and celebrate, laugh and cry at the same time. We do so because we believe deeply that there is no place that Jesus’ love cannot go, even the cross, or perhaps, especially to the cross. For we have a God who loves us so passionately that gives himself for us so we may have life and have it abundantly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Strangers and Bandits and Thieves, Oh My!" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Strangers and Bandits and Thieves, Oh My!
Ash Wednesday – Narrative Lectionary 4
John 10.1-18
March 5, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN

The process to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is long and arduous, with multiple checkpoints along the way. This process mostly comes under the watchful eye of each synod’s candidacy committee, composed of both lay and clergy. I was fortunate to have a committee that both wanted me to succeed but also held me accountable for my progress and performance. Some of my Gettysburg seminary classmates weren’t as fortunate and we would often compare notes about our respective committees. Along the way, a question arose in my mind: was the candidacy committee a shepherd or gate-keeper when it comes to relating to would-be pastors? To many of my classmates, it seemed their committees operated as the latter, people who seemed more intent on trying to keep them out rather than help them become a pastor.

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes two of his seven “I am” statements: “I am the gate of the sheep” and I am the good shepherd.” He seems to have either an identity crisis or, at best, mixing his metaphors. So which is it? Is Jesus a gate or a shepherd? My Confirmation youth have learned that when I ask an either/or question that the answer is always, “Yes!” Jesus is both. You see, we know that the shepherd had a great responsibility for the sheep to keep them safe from harm. At night the shepherd would herd the flock into an enclosure at night and lead them out into the pasture to graze in the morning. There seems to be some evidence that during the night the shepherd would sleep across the opening. So, no one could get in or out without going through the shepherd first.

Now, unless you think that the intimate relationship between shepherd and sheep is romanticized by Jesus in our reading, let me tell you about Merlin. Merlin is our building and grounds supervisor, but he also raises sheep. Merlin used to name his sheep but doesn’t anymore because it’s too painful for him when he has to sell them. Even so, he knows each and every one of them, named or not. He is there when the ewes give birth, day or night, and is deeply grieved whenever he loses one. Whenever he talks about his sheep I can tell it in his voice how much he cares for them. And I know without a doubt that each and every one of his sheep know him and would follow him.

This is about the nearest Jesus gets to telling a parable in John and it is not a typical Ash Wednesday text Even so, I don’t think it could be a better story for today. The story reminds us that, like sheep, we are deeply vulnerable creatures whose lives can change quickly. The ashes we receive tonight are a sign of our own mortality, reminding us we are dust and to dust we shall return. The ashes also remind us that that there are forces in this world standing against God and drawing us away from the abundant life God intends for us. Furthermore, there are strangers, bandits and thieves that seek to rob us of that life, snookering us into trading our souls. We’ve been sold a bill of goods by them, that we can somehow buy happiness in all its forms. That happiness looks good, but all that is gold doesn’t necessarily glitter.

Yet, they are not just ashes. Rather, they are ashes made in the sign of the cross on our foreheads, the same place the Good Shepherd marked us as his own in our baptisms, telling us we are called by name and are his forever. The ashy cross reminds us that Jesus meets us in “the valley of the shadow of death” as the psalmist says, but we fear nothing because he is with us. Lent is a lot of things, but much of it is about paying attention to the shepherd’s voice amidst all of the other strange voices seeking to lead us astray.

This Lent we are giving you a chance to attend to the voice of the Shepherd in two ways. First, we invite you to walk the road to the cross with Jesus and his disciples through the passion narrative from John each Sunday between now and Easter. Second, we invite you to also do so through the Brought to Life series on the Wednesdays in between where area pastors will be recreating biblical characters who have been “brought to life” in an encounter with Jesus. I hope you’ll do both so you can feel secure as God’s precious one, protected by Jesus as the Good Shepherd and invited into a deeper and more abundant life through Jesus as the Gate. Amen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Same, Only Different - An Invitation to the Lenten Journey

March 5 is Ash Wednesday, and thus begins the season of Lent. This year, however, Lent is going to be the same, only different.

Lent will still have the same 40 days (which doesn’t include the Sundays, by the way). And on Ash Wednesday we will still have the imposition of ashes. Furthermore, we will still enter Holy Week through Palm Sunday, continuing with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, ending with the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.

We will still have midweek Lenten services in a round robin format that welcomes area pastors as guest preachers. We will have the usual dinner before each service, a combination of our customary Wednesday night fare and potluck. And we’ll continue our education for all ages on Wednesdays following worship (except on Ash Wednesday and during Holy Week).

Yet, this Lent will be very different.

Instead of waiting until Good Friday to read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, we will spend most of the Sundays in Lent walking with Jesus on the way to the cross as described in the Gospel of John.

Moreover, on Wednesday nights the area pastors won’t be preaching as one normally thinks of preaching. Instead, each will be performing a first-person monologue in a series called Brought to Life. Each pastor will attempt to “bring to life” a biblical character who has been “brought to life” through an encounter with Jesus. (Thanks to Jason Glaser for this marvelous title!) Following the worship service, which will feature Holden Evening Prayer, the pastor of the night will gather for further conversation in the Heritage Room about the character’s encounter with Jesus. You can see our website for further information and a schedule (www.gracemankato.org).

Please take this posting as an invitation to go deeper into your life of faith this Lent by joining us on Sundays for the passion story and on Wednesdays for ways you might be Brought to Life. You can also join us electronically. I believe it will make a difference in your spiritual journey.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Lighten Up" - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Lighten Up
Transfiguration – Narrative Lectionary 4
March 2, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 9.1-41

At last week’s adult forum, Dr. Steve Anderson talked about bringing sight to Indonesians through Global Eye Missions. He told a particularly moving story about a man who had been sightless for over 20 years, who had never seen his wife or son until he had cataract surgery. That reminded me about how important sight is to me, the one sense I wouldn’t want to lose, if I had a choice. As a young boy, I read a story about Teddy Roosevelt, who as a young boy himself was not able to see words on a barn while hunting. Then, as a young adult I relearned the value of my eyes when I scratched both corneas, the most pain I have ever been in. Then, it was bifocals at age 40 and trifocals (transition lenses) at age 50. Now as I approach 60 I have Posterior Vitreous Detachment, which is more annoying than serious, but is responsible for those little floaters and some blurred vision.

Dr. Anderson also talked about people gaining spiritual sight through the work he was doing. I was also reminded that have also been keenly aware I have had a great deal of spiritual myopia as well. There’s a great scene in The Last Battle, CS Lewis’ version of Armageddon and the end of time, the consummation of all things. The good guys and bad guys are battling it out, but the dwarves fight against both sides because, as they say, “The dwarves are for the dwarves.” Yet in the end, they wind up getting tossed into the same hut as the good guys, at that Lewis says is “bigger on the inside than the outside.” The shabby hut, despite its appearances, takes you into the real Narnia, a beautiful place and lovely place. However, the dwarves fail to see its beauty and goodness, thinking it cold and heartless, and so they stay huddled together. Nothing can convince them that they are not in a dark place.

Our experience with eyesight and Lewis’ wonderful story illustrate the importance of our text today. Not just the beggar, but all of the characters in the story are touched by Jesus in invited into abundant life. As the story moves along, the beggar “sees” more and more who Jesus is; others not so much. As we know too well from snow blindness, it is ironic that the same light that can both help you see is the same light that can blind you.

What’s remarkable is that the beggar grows in spiritual sight while Jesus is off-stage and as he goes through challenges to his experience with Jesus. Dr. Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, notes that sometimes we learn more about God through events that take us out of the safe and comfortable and into the unknown and challenging. That’s certainly been true in my life. I grew by stepping out of my comfortable agnosticism into the unknown of a church young adults group. I was challenged by my wife to tithe (give 10%) from the beginning of our marriage. I stepped into the unknown with a wife and two young daughters, selling all we had as I answered the call to attend seminary at the age of 38. Yes, even accepting this call to Grace was a journey out of the safe and comfortable.

As I look back on almost 18 years since my ordination, the touch of Jesus continues to open my eyes. The views I have had about heaven and hell, sexuality, the sacraments have slowly evolved over the years. While I continue to be unashamedly Lutheran, God has opened my eyes in new ways to see, and perhaps I have become even more Lutheran. More so, God has helped me to have the humility to say, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps in the way of today’s text, it would be, “Lord, I see; help my blindness.”

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a story not appearing in John. However, there may not be a better text than today’s. For the transfiguration is about getting a glimpse of God as God is, not what we want to make him. Like Philip and the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus invites us to “Come and see” what he is up to. His touch calls us forward through our struggles to “see deeper” into the life we share. This is true for us as a congregation: God is doing some wonderful things in our midst. Let’s lighten up and not blink as we move forward together into the unknown and challenging life of faith. Amen.