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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Peace" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Summer Series)

Fruitful Living: Growing in Peace
Pentecost 6 (Summer Series)
July 20, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 14.25-31; Romans 14.13-23

Many of you know that I’m a second career pastor, which has presented many challenges for me along the way. One such challenge was going back to school at 38 years of age with a wife and two young girls. There was also some insecurity: could I hack graduate school? Even though I did okay, the insecurities continued to crop up. What about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) in a nursing home, tending to older folks with whom I had no experience. Could I do an internship in a large congregation? How would my first call in a rural congregation go, and what about my second call joining with two other pastors who had been together for several years? Yet, when I came to Grace an amazing thing happened: there were no insecurities, at least not in the same way. Maybe it was a quiet confidence from years of experience, but I think it was more and possibly deeper than that.

Today we explore the third fruit of the Spirit, peace. We are rapidly discovering that each of these fruit not only defy simple explanations, but we are only able to nibble around the edges of them. The interesting thing about peace is that most people define it negatively, as the absence of conflict. In fact, some have said that the history of humanity is one war after another punctuated with occasional outbreaks of peace. That confirms the reality that we know but hate to admit, that even when there are cease fires and treaties signed, any peace that exists is an uneasy one and probably won’t last very long.

That’s why Jesus’ words in John are so important: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” His words are incredible on so many levels, not the least of which is the situation he speaks. It’s the Last Supper and Jesus is preparing his disciples one last time before he goes to his death. He knows that they will be lost and alone without him, that neither his life nor their lives will be anything but peaceful. Yet here he is promising them that peace will be present in their troubled hearts.

To understand the kind of peace that God gives through Jesus, we need to understand shalom. Shalom is the Old Testament word for peace, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of conflict. Shalom has more to do with our sense of well-being or wholeness. It means living into God’s intended future. Peace is, as Frederick Buechner says, everything we need to be wholly ourselves.

My colleague, Pr. Collette Broady, gave me an advanced copy of an article she wrote for the online WELCA journal, CafĂ©. In it she talks about how, in the midst of the crummy stuff of our lives, God is crafting a future we can’t imagine. God not only does this without our help but despite our hindering it.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome wants us to know that this shalom and well-being is for us as a community, too. Yes, in Christ we have been set free from the requirements of the law; we are free. But he also wants us to know that with rights come responsibilities to others, for rights without responsibilities leads to fragmented community.

Peace is not the absence of something; it is the presence of the living God in the midst of our lives. Buechner again: Peace is not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love. Peace only makes sense when we don’t allow our difficulties to define us; we are not our struggles. We only get glimpses of the peace that God promises us in the end, something of down payment. I got a glimpse when I came to Grace and I get glimpses walking with you. I invite you to look for where God is bringing peace and well-being in the midst of the stuff of your lives this week, creating a future that you can’t possibly imagine. Amen.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Joy" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Summer Series)

Fruitful Living: Growing in Joy
Pentecost 5 (Summer Series)
July 13, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 5.11-16; 1 Thessalonians 5.12-24

This morning we start our excursion into the mysteries of the second fruit of the Spirit with two stories, the first true and the second, although not true, containing a heaping amount of truth. The first comes from the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, about two British runners in 1924 Olympics. Eric Liddell is Scottish and plans to be a missionary to China like his parents, but he also loves to run, much to the disapproval of his sister Jenny, who thinks it detracts from his ability to serve God. At one point, after just such an encounter, Eric tells Jennie that not to run would dishonor God, saying, "I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure."

The second “truth-filled” story is one of my favorite Christmas tales. It’s about a father who thinks he needs to deprive his overly-optimistic son of his rose-colored glasses in order to see reality. The son had asked for a pony for Christmas and the father saw this as a perfect opportunity. Placing a load of manure in the basement, he sends his son downstairs on Christmas morning, expecting the son to come back upstairs dejected cured of his optimism. When the son doesn’t appear, the father goes downstairs to find his son gleefully digging through the manure. When asked why, the son says excitedly, “There just has to be a pony in here somewhere!”

When I think about trying to define joy, I think that it is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall. Said negatively, we are reminded about the former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remarks about obscenity: though unable to define it he adds, “But I know it when I see it.” In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABCs, Frederick Buechner adds this theological twist. First he quotes Jesus (“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full,” which he notes Jesus says at the Last Supper). Then he adds, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeathes it.”

Most of us realize on one level or another that joy and happiness are not the same things. Although we can’t “be joyful” in the same way we can “be happy,” there are some things we can do. If we can’t define it exactly, perhaps we can start on a rough description or list of characteristics. First, we want to acknowledge that as unpredictable as it is, joy is a gift from God. As a gift, it cannot be lost and therefore it is not as fleeting and transitory as happiness is. The Beatitudes in Matthew say that we are blessed by God in certain circumstances; those blessings have staying power.

It’s in the Beatitudes that we get another glimpse of the parameters of joy: God’s presence in, with and through our lives. We might add that joy through God’s presence comes in the midst of the worst manure that life can throw at us. God’s presence in our lives has important implications that we can only sketch out today, but God’s presence means that our lives have meaning and purpose. When we “run” we feel God’s pleasure. God’s presence means that we have a future, one of hope, because, as Miroslav Volf says, “hope is anticipated joy.” Or, as the psalmist notes, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

One final example: this last week I had the privilege of officiating at a difficult funeral for a woman who succumbed to a deadly form of cancer at an all too early age. Yet, during a time that was rightfully full of grief and sorrow, there were also glimpses of joy. It turns out that their “substitute pastor” came from a church where the woman was confirmed long ago and that the woman’s great-great grandmother was a founding member. Furthermore and coincidentally, this substitute pastor also had the same name as one of the cousins. However, the greatest joy came because one of the last things the deceased woman was able to say to her family was, “I’ll see you again,” freeing them to celebrate her life.

In other words, the family could see God working in, with, and through their circumstances. They experienced not only the hope of future promise of new life not only sustaining them but also enlivened and gladdened hearts. Joy is a gift, a fruit of the Spirit and, although we can’t make ourselves joyous, we can look for it. May you see God’s joyous presence in your life and feel God’s pleasure in you, with joyful abandon. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Love
Pentecost 4 (Summer Series)
July 6, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 12.31-13.13; John 21.15-19

Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, make us love as you have loved us, so that all of the world will know your love. Let this continually be our prayer until you come again. Amen.

Most of us have experienced the power of love and know firsthand its influence upon us. The overwhelming emotions that surge within us at the sight of our newborn son or daughter. The deep turbulence in our teenage years the prompt us to do with our bodies what our minds aren’t ready for. The stirring of our souls for our country as the US flag and veterans pass by, the “Stars and Stripes” playing and the fireworks going off. In fact, so necessary is love that the inability to love is considered a psychological disorder. Furthermore, the absence of love is crippling to our development. There was a story published a number of years ago babies in a Russian orphanage. There were too many for the staff to care for so that some were held regularly but others not touched at all. Those who were not touched frequently had arrested development and many difficulties.

It is this last example that gives us a small window into the biblical understanding of love. This summer we are doing a series on the nine fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. We got a running start on Holy Trinity Sunday with a reminder of the fruitful God who makes fruit possible. The God who abides in us welcomes us to abide in God and produces fruit in us. Then two weeks ago we heard about those things that stand in the way of fruitful living, what the Apostle Paul calls the works of the flesh. Last week, we heard that fruitful living is a communal experience and that we are in this together. Today we begin our study of each fruit, not merely as fruit inspectors or even as fruit tasters, but cultivators of fruit.

We do so with two of the three most famous love passages in scripture, 1 Corinthians 13 and John 2. (The most famous is probably John 3.16.) It’s helpful to know the context of each: the Corinthian church was one Paul founded and cared deeply for. With Paul gone, the Corinthians became conflicted, with various groups struggling for power. The conflict arose because they had a distorted understanding of spirituality, thinking there was pecking order of gifts. They thought that those who possessed the gift of speaking in tongues were spiritually superior to those with other gifts. Paul tells them that loveless gifts are empty. In John, Peter comes before the resurrected Jesus and is asked three times if he loves Jesus. Many people see in this Peter’s rehabilitation for denying Jesus three times and that he is now restored to discipleship and leadership.

Early this last week I asked my Facebook friends to fill in the blank: Love is ________. Only one of the responses came close to describing love as feeling, but even that one was only through an action. Did you notice in the readings the same thing? Biblical love is not a feeling, it is active. I heard a story this last week about a son who asked his father when he first knew he loved his mother. Perhaps he wanted to know if what he was feeling for a young lady was the real thing. The father paused for a long time and then surprised his son saying it wasn’t until 10 years into his marriage that he knew he lived his wife. Seeing the startled look on his son’s face, he explained: until that point he didn’t really know what love was.

In Galatians, Paul tells us that through God’s love in Jesus Christ we live in a new reality. We now live by the Spirit. However, he adds, that is not all; we are to be led by the Spirit. Paul goes even further: faith is not only active in love; love is a way of being. We are to be to others what God is to us. Love is both gift or fruit and task. There may be times when we don’t know what love requires of us, but there are never any times when we can set love aside. In the end, though, God makes possible what God demands.

One of my favorite movies is Disney’s Frozen, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. It tells the story of two princesses, Elsa, who has cryokinetic powers, and her younger sister Anna. Unfortunately, Elsa is unable to control her power and after a childhood accident she is hidden from everyone, including Anna. After ascending to the throne, the young women argue over Anna’s new love, Hans, and Elsa’s power is exposed. Panicking and fleeing, she unleashes an eternal winter on the kingdom. Anna, with the help of newfound friend and iceman Kristoff, seek out Elsa, trying to convince her to return.

Though they reunite, Elsa refuses to return, becomes agitated, accidentally striking Anna in the heart. Anna starts to freeze and Kristoff seeks healing from the trolls, who say that only an act of true love can save her. Thinking this means a kiss from Hans, they rush back to the kingdom. Yet it isn’t a kiss from Hans (who is revealed to be a conniver) or even Kristoff that can save her. It is Anna’s self-sacrifice, placing herself between Hans and Elsa as he tries to kill Elsa, just as she turns solid that is revealed as an act of true love. Anna thaws and Elsa realizes that it is through love that she is able to control her power.

Love, though active, is not heartless. But I think we get them backwards, believing that feeling comes first. Yet, I think more often than not we act our way into thinking and feeling, doing so because of God’s grace and power. May you discover the Spirit’s presence blowing through your life, leading you to grow in love. Amen.