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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Gratitude is More than Attitude" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Gratitude is More than Attitude
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 4
Grace, Mankato, MN
May 25, 2014
Philippians 1.1-18a

Our daughters grew up watching Sesame Street, with its large, Muppet characters such as Big Bird and Cookie Monster. One of the beloved characters was Oscar, a green shaggy curmudgeonly sort who lives in a garbage can. Nicknamed “the Grouch,” he’s a perfect counterpoint to Big Bird’s chronic and na├»ve sweetness. Like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, who is more gloomy than grouchy, Oscar seems to be accepted by the community even though you and I would be driven round the bend by them. The fact is, no matter how cute at first, nobody really wants to be around and Oscar, Eeyore, or anyone else like that.

If anyone has a right to be an Oscar or Eeyore, it is Paul, the author of our text from Philippians today. This Paul, who as Saul, was the one who first persecuted Christians and then was struck blind by God and turned around to proclaim Christ. This is the Paul whose reward for bringing the gospel to gentiles has been beatings, floggings, stoning and imprisonments. He writes a letter of great affection to a church he founded, a church that clearly holds a dear spot in his heart. They have questions and concerns as they seek to live out God’s call on them and Paul seeks to answer them. But, Paul is not having an easy time, either. He’s in prison for proclaiming the faith and, adding insult to injury, he is beset by rival missionaries who delight at his affliction.

Yet, what comes through in the letter loudly and clearly is Paul’s overwhelming gratitude and joy. Make no mistake; Paul does not have his head in the sand; he is acutely aware of his situation. Being in a Roman prison is no light thing. Unlike prisons of today, prisoners had to provide their own food and necessities and relied on others to help them. However, Paul is also aware that God is working in, with, and through their circumstances, both his and the Philippians’. The good news of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed even while he is chained. His hands and feet are fettered, but his voice is not. Even more incredible, Paul is able to rejoice in the proclamation of the gospel by those who attack him personally, who disparage the way he “does church,” who rejoice in his suffering.

I think that the heart of Paul’s gratitude and joy springs from a certainty that they have a future. He is convinced that the same God who began the work in them is continuing that work and will continue to work until it is completed. I like how Stephanie Boardman describes it: joy is doing and being exactly what God desires for us at the moment; it is how well we are listening for God’s call on our lives, to see the Spirit’s leading in mission. Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, means that God isn’t done and that God can and does work in the midst of death-dealing circumstances, even suffering, to bring new life.

There is a lot of anxiety in churchly circles about the future of the church. Much ink is being spilled in books and journals, and social media is full of criticism about the way church is being done. Hands are being wrung over the growing “nones,”—those who claim no religious affiliation—as well as “spiritual, but not religious” and lost generations of church goers. I have heard similar concerns at Grace: grief over what has been lost over the years and wistfulness about the success of other churches. These dynamics are important to note, but like Paul I am confident that we have a future at Grace, and that God is working in, with and through us in some incredible ways, even in our challenges. What gives me confidence is not so much the new initiatives we have implemented, though they do. Rather, it is seeing how God is working in each of you. Many of you are suffering, some mightily. Yet, I see how God is working in you, for which you express gratitude and joy. In the midst of our struggles, there are abundant signs of new life. Can you see them? God invites us to open our eyes and to join in the work set aside for us, to love our grouchy and gloomy world. I can think of no more important work and it brings me great gratitude and joy to join you in it. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Common Ground" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Common Ground
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 18, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 17.16-31

I meet with a group of pastors most weeks in a text study group, discussing the upcoming passages for Sunday. After a time of eating lunch and checking in, we look at the Bible readings, from both the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary. (Slowly, but surely, I think we are winning them over to the Narrative Lectionary.) We are all ELCA Lutheran pastors, or had been, until recently when we were joined by Pr. Ashley Whitaker. Pr. Whitaker has an interesting background: she is an ordained American Baptist pastor who went to Iliff School of Theology in Denver, a United Methodist seminary. Furthermore, she serves a united congregation in Mapleton that is affiliated with both the American Baptist Church and United Church of Christ. She has been a delightful, if not provocative, addition to our group not only because of her sharp mind but also because of the different perspectives she brings, which has pushed us and challenged us in many ways, all of them good. What makes our conversations lively, enriching and even possible is that we are able to begin our conversations from the common ground of love of and service to Jesus Christ.

The situation is the same, only different, for the apostle Paul who is now in Athens, the religious, philosophical and cultural symbol of the Greek world. It is a city full of idols and altars to a multitude of gods and contains people of all philosophical stripes, from Epicureans to Stoics. Except, it seems, they aren’t too familiar with Judaism and they certainly are not familiar with this new religion, Christianity. As Paul talks about Jesus and the resurrection, the local philosophers are curious, but also skeptical. So they invite him to the Areopagus, which is not a place but rather a group of people. It’s more of a council that evaluates new ideas coming to Athens. As he addresses them, Paul realizes that he must back up and find a connection with if he is going to be able to talk with them.

So, rather than highlighting the differences between what he believes and they believe, Paul does “contextual theology,” that is, he finds common ground, and he does so by fitting his language to that of his audience. He speaks to them in a way they can hear him. Paul looks for those places that are shared with them as a starting point for discussion. What he starts with is our shared ancestry as human beings who are spiritual beings as well. By mentioning the altar to the unknown god, Paul turns what may be a superstitious gesture on the part of the Athenians into recognition that all of us reach out to that God who is not fully revealed but wants to be known to us.

This move on Paul’s part is not some kind of bait and switch technique or evangelism strategy that he learned Apostleship 101. Rather, this is a way of being with others that recognizes our shared lot in the human condition. It recognizes that Christians of other stripes and non-Christians alike can express truths about God. As a colleague of mine once said, “I believe we have the truth in the Lutheran church, but we don’t have all of it.” This way of being recognizes that God is present to all people, working in, with, and through their lives. This is something I constantly have to remind myself, that I don’t bring God to people; at best what I do is to help discover God together. When we meet people where they are and explore common ground, it opens a great conversation that deepens understanding on both sides and gives God room to work.

My experience with Pr. Whitaker and others shows me this is the way to be with non-Christians as well. In fact, we should be able to find common ground with atheists in the conversation between religion and science. It’s not about building a base of knowledge or belief, but rather establishing a relationship of trust, hope, and love. We can do this because of the one who emptied himself by taking on human flesh to meet us where we are. For you, our high school grads, who are embarking on a new part of your life, this is way for you to grow in your own faith as you meet people of others: provocative, lively, and enriching. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

"Singing Hymns to God" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Singing Hymns to God
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 11, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 16.16-34

What song do you sing? What song do you sing when you are going through difficult times? The gift of song is marvelous isn’t it? Isn’t it incredible that we remember songs from 40 years ago when they come on the radio, but have a hard time remembering our children’s names (unless they are doing wrong). Our Worship Coordinator, Robyn, spends a lot of time agonizing over the right music for worship each service. One of the things I do with families is talking about music, as I did with the Weber family yesterday in preparation for Kay’s funeral. Music is a bearer of our emotions; it helps us vocalize feelings. In fact, I still have trouble with Beautiful Savior because we sang at it my mother’s funeral 31 years ago. Music is so powerful that people with crippling dementia will join right in with their favorites when we start singing.

Paul and Silas are in jail on clearly trumped-up charges designed to punish them, albeit illegally. They have been severely beaten, chained and placed in stocks making it impossible to sleep. So, what do they do? They pray and sing hymns to God. Their hands and feet are bound, but not their voices. What happened to them wasn’t fair, but they sang anyway. Instead of cursing men they blessed God. What makes their song possible is their trust that God is more powerful than earthly powers holding them captive.

We don’t know what songs they were singing. They could have been laments, like the old African-American spirituals the slaves sang. It would have been available to them from their tradition. However, what is important is that they are able to give voice in a meaningful way in the midst of suffering. Whatever joy or emotion they are experiencing isn’t just because of their suffering, but in spite of it. Paul and Silas sing because of an overwhelming confidence in who they are and whose they are. We have the audacity to do that as Christians, don’t we, to boldly claim we are claimed by God. Like many people, I have a list of hymns I want sung at my funeral: Borning Cry expresses my belief that God has been with me through my life, even when I turned my back on God; Here I Am expresses the deep sense of call I have to be a pastor; and You Are Mine my conviction that I will always belong to God, no matter what. The problem with my list is that each time Keith and Kristyn Getty come out with a new song I have to add it to the list: In Christ Alone, How Good It Is, etc.

What song do you sing in the midst of difficult times? Just as important a question: who is listening? That’s the other part to our text today, that the singing of Paul and Silas influenced others, too. The prisoners were listening and no doubt the jailer who asked the question about salvation. I often joke I like singing at nursing homes because they think I sound great, but perhaps it’s because I don’t feel like I have to hold back, and that I can sing as loudly as I want to sing. The reality is that the songs we sing are metaphoric, too. The “songs” we sing show people see how we work out our lives. That doesn’t mean we ignore our pain and suffering, but we do testify to whom we put our trust in the midst of it.

Songs are powerful, and the songs that we sing of our lives are even more powerful. They are powerful because they express our deepest feelings and even more powerful because they express our trust in God. God has sung to us through the crucified and risen Jesus Christ and we are invited to sing our lives back to God and others. Perhaps the final question is not so much what we sing or to whom, but how can we keep from singing? Many people claim that the church is dead or dying. Yet, the world is still as full of brokenness, injustice, bigotry, slavery, and divisiveness as it was in Paul and Silas’ day. Our world needs to hear God’s song of love, acceptance and hope. Indeed, how can we keep from singing? Amen.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Road Trip" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Road Trip
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 4
May 4, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 9.1-19

Narratively speaking much has happened since last week’s post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Thomas and the other disciples. After being in the Old Testament last fall and working up to the Jesus story at Christmas in John since then, we’re now in the time of the early church, which tells us how the fledgling church works out the good news. We’ll make one exception to the narrative flow when we reach Pentecost Sunday when we will read about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Meanwhile, the apostles have come out from behind closed doors, the message of Jesus is spreading, and the religious establishment is feeling no less threatened. They are now responding, again, in kind.

To the forefront of the religious backlash comes Saul, a man on a mission of the murderous kind. Not content to have the followers of Jesus, the Way, scattered abroad, Saul goes after them and hunts them down. Proof of the old saying, “If you want to make God laugh (or cry), tell God your plans,” God gets Saul’s attention in a big way in what has come to be known as a “Damascus Road experience.” The term is so well known that many people use it even though they have never read the story in the Bible. The point is that God turns Saul around in dramatic fashion and he now becomes one of the good guys.

It’s a great story and full of possibilities for preaching, if not for applications to the life of faith. Not the least of them is that God can and does use someone whom we believe to be evil personified. But today I want to use Saul’s dramatic story to think about how God works in our lives. We need to take care we don’t make this story normative experience for all peoples and times. I suggest that instead most of us experience a life of continuous, small conversions rather  than a huge, dramatic one, and that even the dramatic conversions are preceded by important smaller steps that lead up to the dramatic one.

I have often spoken about my own experience of coming back to the church after my atheistic or agnostic years. From Confirmation to young adulthood I rejected the church and those in it as hypocrites. As I grew older and was invited back to the church, I realized the questions I had about God and faith could be answered only within the church, and in May 1978 I rededicated my life to Christ. What I may not have mentioned is that I still remember that day standing in front of the mirror, expecting something dramatic to happen. It didn’t, and I wondered if I did something wrong. Years later, I realize that God most often works differently than I expected.

You see, the fact is that God had been working in my life up to that day in 1978, bringing me to that point. Perhaps more importantly, God has continued to work conversions in my life. Focusing on a particular experience at a day or time is like asking someone how their marriage is going and hearing a response that focuses on their wedding day, not how they have grown since then. In fact, even as someone who has been a pastor for 17 years, I find myself in a different place then when I was ordained. For example, I had always thought that baptism was the gateway to Holy Communion, but now I think that Communion can be a gateway to baptism and participation in the life of faith. Likewise, God has been working on me in some other subtle and not so subtle ways, for the better I trust.

Saul’s experience on that Damascus Road shows that God does with us according to who we are, meets us wherever we are, whoever we are, and guides us into becoming who we truly are. The lasting mark of conversion is not a date marked on a calendar but the unfolding story of one’s life. Frankly, Saul’s conversion experience is worth telling because of what he did afterward, more than the event itself. So our question today is, “Where is God gently (or not so gently) ‘converting’ you right now?” Know that the risen and living Christ is present in each of our lives, working in, with, and though us for his purposes and glory. For Christ is risen; Christ is risen, indeed; alleluia. Amen.