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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Faithfulness" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Faithfulness
Pentecost 10 (Summer Series)
August 17, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 16.1-13

A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi Ho Silver!" “The Lone Ranger”. "Hi Ho Silver, away!" With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, led the fight for law and order in the early west. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. “The Lone Ranger” rides again!

Indeed, there were many Saturdays that I would “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear,” watching “The Lone Ranger” on TV. The show would teach a young mind many lessons, including the importance of justice and standing up for right, especially the vulnerable, even if it means a threat to your own personal safety. But, as I think about “The Lone Ranger” and other shows, they also taught me about faithfulness. The back story on “The Lone Ranger” is that as a young boy, the Lone Ranger saves Tonto’s life and as adults, Tonto does that same, nursing the Lone Ranger back to health as the lone survivor of a group of Texas Rangers who have been ambushed. The Lone Ranger isn’t “lone” because he’s alone; it’s because he was the last one left. In fact, Tonto gives the Lone Ranger the nickname “Kemo Sabe,” which can be translated “trusty or faithful friend.”

Jesus presents us with a curious story today about faithfulness, one that has caused the spilling of much ink over the centuries. We know that parables are designed to stretch and interpret us more than we interpret them, but this one threatens to pull us apart. The message seems to say that as Jesus’ followers we are to act shrewdly in a crisis. But then the sayings Luke adds on throw the story in a different direction, focusing on faithfulness in a different way. There is something about the Christian life that we need to be faithful in small things in order to be able to handle the big things, faithful in the ordinary in order to handle the valuable, and faithful with another’s possessions to be able to handle our own.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to think about this while attending a Stewardship conference at Luther Seminary. The overall theme was building a year-round stewardship program rather than once a year pledge campaign. I came away thinking we are on the right track, but also with a deeply troubling question: Has the word stewardship become so identified with asking for money that we shouldn’t use it any longer? Now, I hate to throw away perfectly good theological words and would rather redeem them, if possible. This is especially true with the word stewardship since the business world has adopted the word stewardship and attempts to practice it faithfully.

Now, you know that I’m not afraid to talk about money in church, largely because Jesus talks about it so much. He has a lot to say about money and how we use it. And what I’m about to say might make you wish I was talking about money, but instead I want to talk about is what it means for us to be stewards of everything God has given to us, including our money. God doesn’t want our money because it already belongs to God; God wants us to use what is given to us faithfully. For example, think about Mark and Rachel and Alyssa and Adam who have now become stewards of Max and Henry. They (and you) have agreed to be faithful stewards of these children. God, who is faithful and just, invites us into a relationship with God and with others. And God wants us to know that our relationship with our stuff, including money affects all of our other relationships.

We have learned in this sermon series that the fruit of the Spirit come because we, who live in the Spirit through God’s love in Jesus, seek to be led by the Spirit in our daily living. We’ve also learned that part of growing in the fruit comes from practicing, and that includes faithfulness. One way we do this each week is by eating at the table of Holy Communion for we come to the table by faith, for faith. Also this week, I want you to think about what God has given you to steward. What has God called you to care for and how might God be calling you to be faithful in its care and use, particularly your relationships? OK, Kemo Sabes? Hi Ho Silver, away! Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

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

Fruitful Living: Growing in Generosity
Pentecost 9 (Summer Series)
August 10, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 20.1-16

I think that most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, find this story that Jesus tells his disciples very troubling. It’s troubling because we live in a country with an overarching story that tells us that we can be whatever we want to be. This story grounded in the so-called “Protestant work ethic” that says if you work hard you will be rewarded and blessed. Of course, it is not hard to find people who work very hard in our country yet stay very poor. Even if we admit that Jesus is telling us a parable designed to stretch us and our understanding, we add a “yes, but….” Yes, we say, God’s ways are different, but they would never cut it in the “real world.” I wonder.

This parable started making some sense to me over 30 years ago long before I became a pastor. When moved the suburban Washington, DC area Cindy and I rented a condo, but were now buying our first house. We scraped together some friends and co-workers to help and gratefully, many responded. Interestingly, like the workers in the vineyard, not everyone could be there at the same time. Some were there the whole time and others near the end. When we finished with the unloading, I fetched chicken from Roy Rogers (like a Hardees) and we all ate a wonderful mean together. As we were eating, it occurred to me this was just like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Now, it never would have occurred to me to give people chicken in proportion to how much or how long they worked. Those who came later would get just as much as those who worked the whole time. As I think about how I learned what I did about generosity, I guessing it was probably because of my parents. My parents had the kind of home where my friends and siblings’ friends always felt welcome. They were free to raid the fridge or cupboards just as we were. When people ate meals with us, my father would go overboard to make sure they had enough, almost the point of being annoying and sometimes obnoxious. My dad was also the kind who would help someone who needed it, even taking vacation to help them paint their houses. I don’t know if they gave money to the church or how much. They might have; I just don’t remember. I’d have to learn about that kind of giving elsewhere.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the fruit of the Spirit during this summer sermon series, it’s the importance of practice. That’s especially true with generosity; growing in generosity involves both attitude and action. We can only guess why Jesus tells this story and why the early church preserved it. Some think he told it in response to the grumbling of the religious leaders because Jesus spent time with those people deemed undesirable, such prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. Others think the early church preserved it because those first followers, the Jewish Christians, grumbled about Gentile Christian newcomers. Regardless, the parable stresses that God is gracious and generous to all and that we who worship such a God are to imitate such generosity, not begrudge it.

At the heart of the parable is that we worship a God who desires us to be in relationship with God and others, and that this God will never give up on us. God will keep coming and inviting us to be in relationship with him, no matter the lateness of the day. We experience God’s relentless coming each worship service in the bread and wine of Holy Communion as God gives himself freely to all. This God wants us to grow in generosity not because God needs our money, but because God wants us. This week, to encourage you to grow in generosity, I want you to do two things. First, think about who you learned generosity from and how, and share that story with someone else. Second, look for a way to be generous in a way you haven’t done before and share that, too. Maybe it is leaving a larger tip when you go out to eat. Maybe it is saying “yes” by volunteering to give of yourself, whether here or in the community. Either way, as you live in the Spirit may you also be led by the Spirit in fruitful living, growing in generosity. Amen.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Fruitful Living: Growing in Kindness" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Fruitful Living: Growing in Kindness
Pentecost 8 (Summer Series)
August 3, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Micah 6.8; Mark 14.3-9

A number of years ago I was sitting in on group session of some sort with a facilitator. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember one small seemingly insignificant gesture. During the session one of the participants began to cry and quietly the facilitator slid a box of Kleenex toward her across the desk. He did this all the while maintaining his focus and attention on her. There was no big deal made, no interruption in the session and most people probably didn’t notice. Yet, it was probably one of the most profound acts of kindness I have ever seen, still memorable to this day.

Today we explore the fifth of nine fruit of the Spirit as listed in Galatians 5: kindness. Here as elsewhere we realize that these fruit aren’t as much explained or defined as experienced. The best we can do is to sketch the contours. We are also reminded that whatever fruit that grows from our lives comes from the presence and action of God through the Holy Spirit in us. Because of God’s great love for us and God’s desire to heal the broken relationship with God and others, God also enables in us what God wills for us. God has done this in the most profound way, taking on flesh, walking with us, dying and rising so we may have abundant life.

As we look at the fruit of the Spirit, we might wonder how kindness got on the list. It doesn’t seem to be a theological heavy hitter. Yet, one sweeping look around our world shows all too much that meanness and pettiness abounds. Children are pushed around at school so much that anti-bullying laws are needed. Newspaper editorials and the blogosphere are filled with hateful and hurtful words. Angry mobs frighten school buses full of children at our border. And it’s not even campaign season yet.

It’s why our desire for fruitful living and the words from Micah are so important for us and for the world. Micah explores the age-old question, “What do you want from us, God?” In the midst of a sacrificial system that isn’t working, Micah gives us a startling answer: nothing. God doesn’t want anything from us. What God wants is us. God wants us to live the life intended for us at creation, but went horribly wrong. God want us to live for God and others. How do we do that? We do it by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

As I looked around for a biblical story to put flesh on Micah’s words, I thought of the unnamed woman in Mark. She’s a woman who quietly and without fanfare washes and anoints Jesus’ feet. There are many layers of significance to this story, not the least that she anoints Jesus before he dies. But what strikes me is that her actions, in addition to being subtle and unobtrusive, are timely, uncalculating, and flow out of what she has to offer. It would take a whole sermon to unpack these but for now let’s just point this out. Acts of kindness come at just the right moment, are wholly for the other, and flow from what we already have to give. Amazingly, this seemingly insignificant act by a nameless woman assumes cosmic proportions and is remembered.

This week I was reminded of David Lose’s assertion that the church is a rehearsal hall, not performance hall. I take this to mean that what we do in here prepares us for life “out there.” (Perhaps we should put up signs to the effect over our doorways as reminders.) As your pastor, I see you grow in kindnesses to one another both in here and out there. I’ve seen a wife who silently slips her hand into her husband’s as he is describing and emotional time in his life. I’ve seen a couple going through health problems bring a meal to another couple going through a similar situation. I’ve seen guys who let their duffer of a pastor play golf with them. I’ve seen people who gather to thank one of their own for stepping forward and giving of herself to serve them tirelessly and humbly for four years. I could go on.

I invite you this week to look for those kindnesses that God gives you through others and to find ways to practice kindness for others. Do this not to earn God’s favor or applause, but to be fully human. Our world can use more kindness, and for that God has freed you do God’s work in the world. God bless you this week as you love kindness in the name of the One who loves you. Amen.