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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Come + Grow + Serve - Newsletter Article for July/August 2014

July/August 2014

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Come • Grow • Serve

Burger King recently announced that it is scrapping its iconic slogan, “Have it your way.” Although some slogans have more staying power than others, in reality organizations change their tag lines frequently. In the case of Burger King, “Have it your way” has been around for an amazing 40 years.

Slogans (or tag lines) are intended to express in a few words the current attitude of an organization. If you listen and watch carefully, you will quickly recognize them all over the place. Almost all organizations use them, from footwear makers (“Just do it” – Nike) to colleges (“Make your life count” – Gustavus) and even the military (“Be all that you can be” – US Army).

Creating a tag line is serious business in the corporate world, for which companies pay substantial sums of money. When the slogan is a good one, an organization can get a lot of mileage out of it. Burger King certainly got its money’s worth.

We don’t have the resources of a fast-food restaurant, college, or manufacturer, but we do understand the value of a phrase that captures in a few short words what God is up to at Grace. With our mission statement and guiding principles in place and well on our way to completing phase two of our three-phase strategic plan, the council decided it was time to revisit our tag line. After much conversation, here is the fruit of our labor:

Come • Grow • Serve

The first thing you notice about our new tagline is that there are no connecting words. Rather, there are three invitations that highlight three aspects of our mission, guiding principles, and strategic plan.

The first word, Come, describes the welcoming nature of Grace where all are welcome. Visitors to our church, especially those who become members, routinely cite the welcome they received as being the reason for committing to God’s mission and ministry through us. In fact, Come expresses the identity in our name, Grace Lutheran Church.

The second word, Grow, describes our commitment to grow in faith as followers of Jesus Christ. This is an area that we know needs work and by naming it we can be intentional about living the marks of discipleship: regular prayer, worship and scripture reading as well as being the generous people God created us to be.

The last word, Serve, reflects the core of our mission statement: “Through God’s abundant love, we live and work to serve others.” It also highlights our desire to make a difference in our world. God has a mission to love and bless the world. To accomplish that mission, God calls us together to serve others.

When someone asks you what Grace is about, you can tell them these three words: Come • Grow • Serve. You will see them in all of our communications, including the new logo being developed. This tagline probably won’t last 40 years because God is always on the move, but it won’t be less important. That’s our invitation to you and to others.

Come • Grow • Serve

Pastor Olson

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"A Fruitful God" - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

A Fruitful God
Trinity Sunday – Summer Series
June 15, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 15.1-17; 16.12-15

I blame the Trinity. I blame the Trinity for becoming a pastor, or perhaps more accurately, the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of you know that I was a lay person in the business world for 16 years before going to seminary. One day, I asked my pastor, Wally Jensen, to explain this Trinity stuff to me, thinking he’d sit down with me and lay it out. But, he did what any good pastor would do: he took a book from his shelf and handed it to me. (It was Robert Jenson’s Triune Identity.) I was caught returning the book by another parishioner, Jim Bittner. He said, “If you keep reading that stuff, you’ll wind up with your collar turned around.” Jim would know; he was heading to seminary himself.

Today is Trinity Sunday and some cranky ones say it’s the only Festival Sunday dedicated to a doctrine rather than person or event. But it’s also the day when I can blame the Trinity (or Wally and Jim) for being a pastor. Since then, Trinitarian theology has been a thread woven through my studies, and not just the usual history of the creeds and councils that discussed the doctrine. It was a major piece of my doctoral work on missional church leadership. I wish I could say I was an expert.

At its heart, the Trinity is a way to try to express something of this God who is by definition inexpressible. It tries to answer questions like, “How can one God be three?” or “How can three be one?” Perhaps the most important question was, “How can God be both close and also far away?” One part of the church used sending language to express this mystery (the Father sends the Son, etc.) while the other branch used relational language (the three are in such tight relationship that they act as one).

Metaphors like St. Patrick’s shamrock nibble at the edges of the Trinitarian mystery, but good images are found in scripture, such as our texts from John. Though not explicitly Trinitarian, John 15 and 16 relate the image of God as the Vine-Grower, and Jesus is the Vine, and we are the branches. Relying on relational image of abiding (remaining, staying, resting), Jesus tells us that we are to stay connected to him and he to us, and that connection means everything to us. It means life. Last weekend we made a road trip with our daughters and one of their phones needed recharging. My car adapter is temperamental and after multiple tries of it cutting in and out, I finally got her phone charging. When connected, her phone charged; it had life.

It is important about this metaphor is that there is a creative tension in our relationship with God. On the one hand, as branches our connection to God is a given; it is a gift freely granted to us that we don’t do anything to earn. On the other hand, there is a response to be made to this gift: that we continue to abide in God. Part of the reason is that we are to be followers of Jesus, and followers bear fruit. But another part of the reason is that life happens and leaves debris behind that must be cleared away. God prunes the junk and refuse from our lives so that we can have life.

There is a story of a pastor’s visit to a member who hadn’t been coming to church. The parishioner invites him in and the sit wordlessly in front of a coal-burning fire. After a while, the pastor gets up, grabs some tongs, and puts an errant and cold coal next to the burning ones. Soon, the once-cold piece of coal becomes hot and burning. Again wordlessly, the pastor gets up and leaves. The next Sunday, the parishioner is found in church.

This summer, we are going to explore deeply what it means to bear fruit in our lives, “Fruitful Living: Growing in the Spirit.” Today, we begin by noting the importance of being connected to the “fruitful God,” what it means to abide. Next week, we’ll look at what stands in the way of bearing fruit, the “works of the flesh,” as Paul says in Galatians 5. Then, on June 29, we’ll have a little side trip celebrating how God gives the growth as we install John Odegard as our new Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation.

Then, on July 6 and each Sunday after, we’ll explore each of the nine fruit of the Spirit in depth: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Abiding in the relational Trinitarian God, being a disciple, and bearing fruit, is a life-long journey. It doesn’t mean that you’ll wind up with your collars turned around, just closer to God’s intention. Oh, but it does mean that you can blame the Trinity. Amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Free Spirit" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Free Spirit
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 4
June 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-21

I don’t think that high school in the early 70s in Suburban Minneapolis was much different than today. Then, as now, young people were trying to find their place in life, figuring out who we were, where we were going in life. Though we would try on costumes—bell bottoms, tie dyes, and even Nehru jackets—like we tried on identities —jock, geek, nerd, preppie—we were by and large mainstream and, though we didn’t know it at the time, rather ordinary.

That is, except for people like Rachel. Rachel was kind of “out there,” although where “there” was we really didn’t know. She dressed funkily, but for her it wasn’t an attempt to stand out; it was just who she was. Rachel didn’t march to the beat of a different drummer; she was grooving to a whole different kind of music. We didn’t know what to make of her and, though she made us uneasy, we nonetheless had a grudging admiration for her. You see, although she was unpredictable she was also clearly comfortable with herself. Furthermore, Rachel’s presence showed us how wrapped up in ourselves we were and, though we probably couldn’t articulate it at the time, invited us to be our true selves (whatever those true selves were).

I think of Rachel when I think of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost, the Sunday we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. For the Jews, Pentecost comes 50 days after Passover (hence the name). It is a harvest festival of thanksgiving as well as a celebration of the covenant God made with Moses and Israel on Sinai. It’s not the “birthday of the church” as is often stated, but a time to recall the powerful, gracious, life-giving presence of God. Pentecost doesn’t look backward as a birthday celebration does; it looks forward. So, Pentecost is not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. Pentecost is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise of help to his followers in proclaiming the good news of God’s love.

Yet, that promise of the Holy Spirit given by Jesus was very short on details. Who could possibly have predicted what happened on that first Pentecost? A mighty rush of wind, tongues like fire lighting on the people, and people being able to speak and hear their own languages. In fact, just like Rachel, blowing in and through my high school years, or like a crazy aunt who shows up at all the family functions, the Holy Spirit blows in, with, and through us in unexpected ways. If nothing else today is a reminder to hold up our collective metaphorical fingers to ask where the Spirit is blowing in our place and, perhaps more importantly, through those we least expect it. Not to catch the latest fad our new church thing, but to discover where the Spirit might be taking us next.

In addition to showing up in unexpected people and places in unpredictable, uncontrollable ways, the Spirit empowers us to find our voices. I think this is the aspect of the Holy Spirit that scares us the most because many of us are more like Moses, who initially declined God’s invitation to lead his people, than like impetuous Peter. We don’t all have to be Peters to speak about what God is doing in, with, and through our lives. But, the Holy Spirit, like Rachel, simply invites us to be ourselves and to share ourselves with others. It’s not our job to convince people to follow Christ because that’s God’s job. Our job is to simply tell others what God has done.

So, the Holy Spirit works in unexpected ways and gives us voice, but we always remember that it’s for the sake of others. Like Rachel, whose very presence invited us to stop being so wrapped up in ourselves, the Holy Spirit gathers us together as a community of faith to live and work to serve others (our mission statement). However, we remember that we don’t have a mission; God has a mission. To accomplish that mission, God has us, a church. God’s mission is to love and bless the world, for us to be a loving and healing presence in it. The world doesn’t always get that about us, and even sneers at us, but that’s okay. Our calling is simply to love everyone and welcome everyone. No exceptions.

The Spirit has been blowing through Grace in some wild and crazy ways the last few years. We have gone to one service on Sunday morning using Convergence Worship. We host a community meal followed by a relaxed worship service on Wednesday nights have followed by education for all ages. We have called a new staff person as a minister for discipleship and faith formation (a radical move) and will be assessing our facility to see if it supports God’s mission and ministry here. We do all this so that we can give voice to God’s love to our community. Yes, when you think about it, it is wild and crazy. But that’s the Holy Spirit for you. Besides, I think Rachel would be smiling. Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

"We Can Work It Out" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

We Can Work It Out
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 4
June 1, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Philippians 1.27-2.13

In December of 1965, the Beatles released what would become the sixth and last in a string of #1 singles in a row on the American charts. It would also the 11th #1 for them in less than two years. The “Fab Four” spent an unheard of 11 hours of studio time on the song and, when it came time to decide which song to release as an “A-side” single, Lennon argued strongly for “Day Tripper.” The group decided to market both songs as “A-side,” the first “double A-side” in recorded history. But the other song quickly out-played “Day Tripper,” reaching #1 on the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

If you have paid attention to the sermon title, you already know what the song is: “We Can Work It Out.” Interestingly, the song was a collaboration between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who I don’t think got along very well. McCartney wrote the beginning and ending, the more optimistic verses saying, “We can work it out.” He then passed it off to Lennon for finishing, with Lennon writing the more impatient bridge, “Life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend.” (On a side-note, George Harrison is credited with the suggestion that then of the bridge have a waltz-like tempo.)


Well, this not just a shout-out to the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion of the Beatles in America. Rather, I thought of the song as I worked with the text from Philippians, especially verses 12-13, where Paul invites us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as the NRSV puts it. (We read Peterson’s The Message version today because I think it’s more accessible and understandable.) Now, to our highly sensitized Lutheran ears this smacks of works righteousness or earning our salvation. However, we know that this is Paul writing, so we know that there has to more to “working it out” than meets the eye.

Paul writes to a church he founded and deeply cares for, a church whose unity is being threatened, both from without and from within. So, in telling them to live a life as a “credit to the Message of Christ,” he is reminding them of the new reality in which they stand, a reality of God’s love poured out through Jesus Christ. This is hard to see because of an unfortunate translate (in both versions). The “if” at the beginning of chapter 2 should be translated “since” or “because.” Since God has done these things or because of what has been done, therefore your lives are to be different. Then, at the end of the passage, Paul also reminds then that what God has already done isn’t the end. God continues to work deep within them, helping them to live out the faith given to them.

In between, through the use of the so-called “Christ Hymn,” Paul reminds them of two things: the basis for their life together and the character of it. They are to think of themselves in the same way as Jesus did when he emptied himself for them. Thinking as Jesus did doesn’t necessarily mean dying as he did and it doesn’t mean thinking alike. It doesn’t even mean we all believe the same; it means we share a concern for the common good. Christianity never has been and never will be a “one-size-fits-all” religion. Rather, it’s a way of life.

A small illustration: as I was working with a group of confirmation students and their parents a several years ago, I reminded the youth that we did not wear robes our Saturday evening services and to dress with that in mind. One of the moms immediately asked me if I have a dress code. She almost got me. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to say to them, “I expect you to bring your best selves to church, whatever that is for you.”

It is telling that the English word “you” can be either singular or plural, but I’ll bet that most of us assume it is singular when we read the Bible. However, most of the time, it is plural. Here, Paul is telling the Philippians to work out their salvation together, not individually. This is not adherence to a set of rules, but living out a shared vision of self-sacrifice for others. It is what we’ve tried to capture in our mission statement: “Through God’s abundant love, we live and work to serve others.” This is not superficial advice like “play nice,” but rather it’s a way of being and doing. We are to work out together what God has worked into us, and just as importantly, continues to work out in, with, and through us.

The Beatles certainly weren’t Christian, yet “We Can Work It Out” and the process in which it was written shows us what thinking of ourselves in the same way as Jesus and working out salvation might look like. McCartney and Lennon had different styles and attitudes, even different approaches to the song. Yet, they were able to work together their common vision for making music. Theirs wasn’t a collaboration that would hold, as we well know, for their particular unity wasn’t enough.

Our life together at Grace is going well right now and it will continue to do so, not because we all think alike, but because we have a common vision. It will continue only if we remind ourselves of what God has done in us and pay attention to what God wants to do with and through us, that we might “live and work to serve others.” We can indeed, with God’s help and guidance, “work it out.” Amen.