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

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"Post-Traumatic Growth" - Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter

Post-Traumatic Growth
Easter 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 27, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 20.19-31

Dave Sanderson was aboard US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009 and shortly after takeoff he knew there was a problem. He could see that there was trouble with one of the engines, but he knew that the plane could fly with one. What he didn’t know was the both engines had problems. He would learn later that the engines had hit a flock of geese. What would be called later the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III landed the plane in the Hudson River. The impact broke Sanderson’s seat and water poured in, but he had presence of mind and sense of obligation to help others. One of the last people out of the plane, he plunged into the icy river and swam to shore where he was met by a number of people, including Red Cross workers. Sanderson was unhurt but he was not unchanged. He began speaking at Red Cross fundraisers, eventually resigning from his job to do the work full time. “The crash changed my perspective,” he says. “I started scheduling around my family instead of my job.”

Sanderson’s story and others appeared in a recent issue of AARP’s magazine. The article, “Surviving the Jolt” by Mark Miller, tells how life jolts can either derail us or propel us into reclaiming or remaking our lives. These jolts can cause people to reexamine their lives and lead them into wanting to make our lives matter. Miller cites Lawrence Calhoun, professor of psychology at UNC-Charlotte, who in 1995 coined the term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG). PTG is not just about being resilient or bouncing back, as important as those qualities are. PTG is different, Calhoun says: “When you stand back up you are transformed. This transformation often comes about because these life jolts cause us to confront questions we haven’t confronted before, wrestling with senseless events and struggling to find some meaning in their midst.

Jesus’ followers, especially Thomas, are undergoing PTG’s more well-known relative, PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They have been confronted with the seemingly meaningless death of their friend and leader. They have been jolted—hard—and as they are still reeling, jolted again with incredible news. Jesus’ tomb is empty, Mary Magdalene has seen Jesus, claiming he is has been raised from death. Most of them, except Thomas, are locked away in fear, and who knows where Thomas is. Jesus comes in the midst of their fear and, in Thomas’ case doubt, reorienting their world in a way they couldn’t have possibly imagined.

None of us wants these life-altering jolts, and no sane person would see them as a means to personal growth. Yet, chances are they will come to us all, sooner or later. The AARP article gives some advice on how to maximize PTG, but I want to theologize it in light of our reading today. The text gives us some good news and ways to handle jolts from a faith perspective. The first thing we want to recognize is that it is okay to be wherever you are in a given situation. Jesus’ followers, including Thomas, needed time even as Jesus appeared them, not once but twice. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations about how long it will take to move through as situation. The notions of “getting over it” or “closure” are not only unhelpful, they are unrealistic and damaging.

That brings us to the second point: Jesus will meet you wherever you are, no matter how locked up you are in your situation. Just as Jesus comes to the disciples in a closed and locked room, so he will meet us, too. Third, we need to remember the importance of community and seeking out others to be with and help us. The disciples were trying to make sense out of this life-changing news together. Community supports us, guides us, and helps us to work through our situation to see what God is doing. This brings us to the last point. We need to be open to what God is doing in, with, and through your life, even if we can’t see it yet. I think that’s really the invitation that Jesus made to Thomas and the others.

Now, this is not a “don’t worry, be happy,” rose-colored glasses, everything will be fine attitude. No, this is certainty that in the midst of the worst that life can throw us, the risen Christ is with us. This is the assurance that God brings life out of death and hope out of despair. The risen Jesus promises to meet us in the midst of our brokenness, provides us with a community of faith, and works in, with and through us, offering new possibilities that are beyond our imagination. That’s what it means when we exchange the Easter greeting. For Christ is risen, and that is good news indeed. Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"In the Middle of It" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

In the Middle of It
Easter Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 20, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 20.1-18

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

What a joyous message that Easter proclamation is, especially after a long season of Lent as we walked with Jesus through his arrest, abandonment, trial, scourging and agonizing crucifixion. Though not on par with Jesus’ suffering, our enduring of winter has set the proper mood for us and we are ready for good news. Yet, even as we read the Easter story from John we realize, as Frederick Buechner notes, that it is not as major a production as we’d like to think, even with the minor attractions we create around it, such as Easter eggs, lilies, jelly beans, and the like. “It’s not much of a story when you come right down to it,” he says, for it’s hard to make something of nothing.

Buechner goes on to observe, “that is, of course, the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great drama. It has the ring of truth.” Even if you could dress it up, it wouldn’t make it more powerful. Just the opposite; it would make it less powerful. I would add that Easter message is not too good to be true; it’s too good not to be true. Even 2,000 years removed and with presumably ample time to reflect on its meaning, I don’t think we are much different from those first followers of Jesus who encounter the risen Christ. It the middle of the greatest news that humanity could ever hope to hear we don’t always see it.

Some of us come to this Easter celebration like Mary Magdalene, who in the midst of her grief has had an encounter with the risen Christ, and ultimately has had her sorrow transformed to joy and new life. In that renewed discovery of hope and promise she declares that Jesus does, indeed, live. We need people like you here, to witness to us that Jesus not only lives but he is present with us. We need you because some of us are still stuck in the middle of uncertainty, like Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Some of us believe like the Beloved Disciple, though we are not sure what it is we believe. Some are scratching our heads like Peter, knowing something is going on but not able to see it yet.

I was reminded this past week how many of us find ourselves right in the middle of that darkened garden. The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty and we are hearing some crazy sounding things. I had a chance encounter with a young woman who lost her way-too-young son almost ten years ago and as a result has become disconnected from God and the faith she grew up with. She felt betrayed by that God. I knew that pious platitudes about “being with Jesus” and “seeing her son again” and “being in a better place,” although true were not what she needed to hear. She needed to hear that the risen, living Christ meets her in her grief, calls her by name and brings life where death has occurred.

Every one of us is here because someone or many some ones told us about their encounter with the living, risen Christ, and we come back week after week to hear it again and again. Because, in the middle of our lives we don’t always see the empty tombs, the signs of God’s presence, and when we do see them we don’t always know what to make of them. So, we need reminding. It’s not much of a story in and of itself, but shared with others it helps us see how God continues to be present with us, bringing life out of death, snatching hope from the jaws of despair. May you see God’s presence in your life, wherever that may be, knowing his transforming love. For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"A Willing Exchange" - Good Friday Sermon

A Willing Exchange
Good Friday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 18, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.28-42

Why? Why did Jesus have to die? Surely that question was foremost in the minds of those at the cross two millennia ago. Yet, even those of us 2,000 years on the other side of the empty tomb ask this question; “Why?” His early followers, both open and secret, witnessed the injustice first hand as Jesus was caught between powerful religious leaders who couldn’t see what God was doing and a Roman governmental system that had no tolerance for rebellion and insurrection. Certainly, Jesus wasn’t the first scapegoat in human history, someone to be used as a safety valve for society’s anxiety and angst, and he most certainly was not the last. Ironically, the Jewish people have frequently held this role, wherever they have lived, as have others: blacks, Hispanics, gays, etc. to name a few.

Why Jesus had to die is a seemingly simple question that deserves a far more complicated answer than we can give tonight. One possible answer comes out of our reading: to fulfill scripture in some way that we hadn’t anticipated. Another answer is close behind: that he was not as much a victim as one who willingly died for us. As that most famous verse earlier in John says, “God so loved the world,” right, “that he gave his only Son,” because we can’t do it ourselves. Less satisfying but more popular answers come from other places: that God is angry with us and sin, so angry that God’s wrath needs to be appeased by a blood sacrifice. So Jesus became that sacrifice for us. I find this response far less appealing.

A more helpful, if not subtle, reason for Jesus’ death also comes from our reading tonight. As Jesus thirsts and receives the sour, almost vinegary wine, we are reminded of an earlier scene in John’s gospel. Do you remember three months ago when we read the story of the wedding at Cana in chapter 2? The wine runs out at a wedding feast, attended by Jesus, his followers and his mother. Jesus’ mother tells him, in so many words, to fix it. Jesus asks, “Woman, what is it to you and to me,” telling her that his hour hasn’t come yet. When his mother tells the servants to “do what he tells you,” Jesus has them fill six containers with water, each holding 20-30 gallons. When they draw out some to take to the wine steward, the water-now-wine is declared the best ever and surprise is expressed that it has been saved for last.

Our text tonight is a bookend to the Cana story, the only two places in John’s gospel where Jesus’ mother appears. Both involve wine and we learn now that the hour has come. Jesus now finishes the work that God has sent him to do and the exchange of good wine for sour shows how Jesus gives us what we need at the expense of denying himself. The good wine demonstrates God’s blessing bestowed on us in exchange for our brokenness. Jesus willingly takes upon himself all of the sour wine of our sinfulness and ways we fall short. In its place Jesus pours out the good wine of his righteousness, healing the break between us and God. All of our pain and alienation from God are crucified on the cross. We are freed from their power.

Which of us hasn’t experienced a hint of this willing exchange in our live? For example, the parent who goes without so the child has what she needs. The older sister who willingly takes responsibility and blame for what the younger has done because the younger can’t. The host who willingly takes the burnt or overdone food so that their guest has the best meal. You can add more to the list. Why did Jesus have to die? Because God loves us and gives for us what we can’t give ourselves, a restored relationship with him and with each other. There’s more to come, as you well know, but until then I invite you to linger (not wallow) in this incredible, mysterious and loving act of God. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Cruciform Community" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Cruciform Community
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 17, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.22-27

For those who keep track, you no doubt have noticed this is not your typical Maundy Thursday texts. There’s no foot washing at the Lord’s Supper where Jesus gives an example of humble service for his disciples to follow. There is no commandment to love one another as he loves them, and there are no words of institution. We left behind the foot washing early in Lent as we have been walking with Jesus to the cross. Since that time, Jesus has been arrested, hauled before the chief priest, denied by his closest follower, endured the pretext of a trial while caught in a power struggle, flogged, insulted and paraded to Golgotha. Throughout it all, although it appears otherwise, Jesus is not a helpless victim but rather is in charge of his mission to heal the broken relationship between God and humanity.

However, I think our text for tonight is a good Maundy Thursday scripture. It contains what I think are two of the most poignant scenes in the passion story, if not the entire Bible. The first scene, the stripping of Jesus and gambling for his clothes, is something we will reenact later in worship when we strip the altar. But for now, imagine for a moment that you are dying and before you are even dead people start arguing about your stuff. It’s like children fighting over who is going to get what when mom or dad are gone when they are still alive. No doubt there is symbolism in the “onesie” that Jesus wears, and much ink has been spilled about it, but those are deep waters for another time. I’ll only wade around a bit by noting note our inclination for dividing Jesus into parts. Just this last week, in fact, there was one of those quizzes going around on Facebook, “What Kind of Jesus Are You?” I don’t remember all of the kinds, but the idea that Jesus can be parceled is anathema. (By the way, I was “Jesus, MD.”)

I wish to avoid the even deeper symbolic waters of the following scene where Jesus gives his mother to the beloved disciple and he to her. Staying with the shallow end, at its simplest through these acts Jesus creates new community. Isn’t it ironic that while the soldiers are arguing about possessions, Jesus focuses on relationships? The term “Jesus’ mother” emphasizes community and the new relationship between her and the disciple Jesus loved that is formed at the foot of the cross. This act is beginning of a new people of God. Jesus does, indeed, love them to the very end as we heard earlier in the story. It is at the cross that our most important relationships are formed, between us and God and between us and one another.

This new cruciform community provides different ways of living, but I’ll name just two. First, the community formed by the cross does not shy away from nor deny suffering. In fact, being a member of the cruciform community means we lean into it, embracing the other in suffering. How many times have we provided meals to families grieving loss or going through cancer?
How many prayer shawls and prayer chains and prayer circles and prayer lists and hugs have been poured out upon the broken? How many meals have been served or provided for the disadvantaged, where we haven’t just fed them, but sat with them and shared their lives? That’s cruciform community.

That brings us the second way of living, the call of the table that continues to create and sustain community. Growing up, one of our family values was to eat together every night and say grace together. You didn’t miss a meal unless it was for an important reason, and there weren’t very many important reasons. That may be one reason why I am so passionate about having Holy Communion every service every week at Grace; we need to eat together. We shouldn’t miss eating together except for an important reason, and I don’t think there are many of those. That’s something our 5th graders discovered last evening as they deepened their understanding of Communion. It’s something that will continue to unfold for them (and us) in the years ahead. Forgiven for those times we have fractured community through what we think, say, and do, we are re-knit together as mother and father, sister and brother, son and daughter, set free to live and serve. Jesus calls us from the cross to this meal in which he gives us his very self, loving us to the end. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"What Do You Expect?" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

What Do You Expect?
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 13, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.16b-22

I’ve been reminded again of Edwin Friedman’s observation about explorers in general and Columbus in particular, that it took them years to realize that what they found was far more important than what they were looking for. So often our expectations about our life are not only not fulfilled, but life gives us the unexpected. That’s certainly true for me. I expected to find and marry someone with long, brown hair, but I found someone with short, blond hair who has been a far better life-partner than I deserve. Instead of the expected career in first medicine, then business, I found my calling as a pastor and wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a similar dynamic happening in John’s gospel regarding peoples’ expectations of Jesus. He enters Jerusalem with those who had witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the lead leading the cheers. Palm branches were typically used to welcome a warrior king who had been victorious in battle. The shout of “Hosanna,” literally “come save us,” reinforced their expectations of Jesus. In their minds, they were getting what they were looking for, the warrior-king Messiah. And this Messiah was going to bestow a what-for whipping on the Roman occupying forces.

Yet, when we shift to chapter 19 we see a much different procession as Jesus walks to Golgotha. Instead of being on the back of a donkey Jesus has on his back the instrument of his death. No shouts of victory here; instead we have the religious leaders and Pilate still haggling in their little power-play games. It would take three more days plus many decades for Jesus’ followers to realize that what they found in Jesus was far more important than what they were looking for, even though expectations at the moment were crushed.

Many Jewish people expected a warrior king to restore their country to freedom and prominence. What they found was someone who would conquer sin, death, and evil powers through his own death. By sitting on a donkey rather than a war horse, Jesus signals he is a different king of Messiah. And rather than being raised up on the Davidic throne, Jesus is governs from the cross. Rather than wielding death from a sword to accomplish victory, Jesus will wield self-giving love.

These two texts hold up a mirror to our expectations about what kind of king and savior Jesus is. Some of us expect him to be an angry, vengeful ruler who punishes us when fall short. Instead, we get what we need, a God who takes on human flesh and in so doing, our own brokenness. Some expect a “cosmic muffin” grandfatherly type, but we find a God who invites into a life lived outside ourselves for the sake of others. Some expect a hands-off king who created the world, but since then leaves us to our own devices. Instead, we found a God who has emptied himself and come to live among us. Finally, some expect a puppet-master who scripts every moment of our lives, but instead have found One present to every moment of our lives.

I think we often expect too much from our leaders and elected officials, let alone our God, or perhaps we expect the wrong things. That’s another sermon for another day. Meanwhile, as you continue on your journey with Jesus through the cross to the empty tomb and beyond, take some time think about what you expect of Jesus and how what you find may be more important than what you expect. Personally, I have found a God who helps me to make meaning out of my life and those of others. And I have found a God that gives me far more than what I expect and more so what I need. God bless you on your journey of discovery. Amen.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"God's Politics" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

God’s Politics
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
April 6, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 19.1-16a

In 2005, Jim Wallis dropped a bombshell into the religious and political arena with book called, God’s Politics, about the interplay between religion and politics. The subtitle is, Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. His thesis is that the Right has hijacked the language of faith to further its own political agenda. The Left, on the other hand, has largely ignored faith, separating moral ethics from public policy. The Right insists God’s way is their way, while the Left an unrealistic separation of religious values. The consequence is a false choice between ideological religion and soulless politics.

I mention this not because I want to start a debate about Right vs. Left or even to talk about religion and politics, as helpful as these may be. Rather, it is to point out that false dichotomy from almost ten years ago is also operative 2,000 years ago for the religious leaders and Pilate. In our gospel reading there is a choice between ideological religion and soulless politics. For example, I think that the religious leaders of the day are so focused on getting it right they get it wrong. To be fair, the religious leaders are people of principle and they seek to scrupulously following them in their dealings with Jesus. But they get so wrapped up in thinking that they need to protect God they sacrifice their integrity to maintain their principles. Isn’t it ironic, that they are so preoccupied maintaining their ritual purity in order to eat the Passover lamb they sacrifice the Lamb of God? The religious leaders are so busy trying protect their idea of God they can’t see God in their midst. There are too many modern day examples, but the one that quickly comes to mind is that of Fred Phelps, whose “church” protested military funerals as God’s punishment on our society for tolerating homosexuality. They think they are protecting God and are so focused on getting it right that they miss what God is doing.

Pilate is in a different, but no less difficult and dangerous place, because he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that the system of absolute power and authority he wields actually renders him powerless. The same system that brought him to power and keeps him there isn’t controlled by him; it controls him. Power doesn’t just corrupt, as Lord Acton reminds us, and absolute power doesn’t just corrupt absolutely. Power catches us in a system that limits us. I just finished Margaret Truman’s book, Murder on Capitol Hill. One of the characters, a senator, took money from special interests that he was able translate into generating power through influence. In the end, it also made him beholding to the powers and rendered him powerless. John’s gospel wants us to know that there can be no response to Jesus that does not surrender the securities of this world.

This text poses some hard questions to us about where we get it wrong or just don’t get it. How are we so like the religious leaders, so bent on getting it right that we don’t see what God is up to in our world? Where do we focus so much on our principles we forget faith is a person? Similarly, what kind of systems do we buy into, what alliances do we form, what company do we keep that seem to work, yet in the end force us to sacrifice our integrity and make bad choices? When do we turn our backs on an offer of grace because we can’t let go or see any other way?

Jesus, of course, rejects both ways of operating for a different way, the way of self-giving love. God doesn’t need protecting, even if we could, which we can’t, because God is on the loose in our world. And Jesus reminds us that any power we have comes from God, but real power is given away. Jesus calls us out of the romanticized past we yearn for to remind us that God is doing new things among us. We are reminded that the way we’ve always done it or the ways others do it may not be God’s way for us.

Jesus gets sacrificed and crucified to break us out of the two destructive paths of getting it right and not getting it. He does so to show us a different way of living that brings us a better kind of power. The life worth living is the one lived outside of ourselves with and for a God loves us. This week, look for where God might be inviting you to color outside the lines. In the end, it’s not about getting it right, and it isn’t even about getting it at all. It’s about following the one who was committed to loving us to the end. Amen.