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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Stand Firm and Be Still" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday/Pentecost 16 (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Stand Firm and Be Still
Confirmation Sunday/Pentecost 16 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
September 28, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 14.10-14, 21-31

Our reading today is arguably the most important in the Old Testament and it is also central to the New Testament. The act of delivering the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt is core to their identity as God’s people. There is no shortage of imagery in this story, including the movement from death to life through the wall of water wherein is birthed a new nation, the “great nation” promised to their ancestor Abraham. They still have a long way to go, as we will see in the coming weeks, but they are on the way.

Yet, it didn’t look that way as the Israelites had their backs up against a wall, caught between the frightening and impassable Red Sea and the largest, most well-equipped army of the known world. He who has chariots rules the world. They responded as many do when faced with a seemingly impossible situation: they blame their leaders for their predicament, becoming amnesiac regarding their former dire straits. They conveniently forget their oppression and that they had cried out to God for just such a leader as Moses. Who among us can blame them as we all have experienced a tight spot or another from time to time?

So, Moses’ response to them is both interesting and important on our own faith journeys. “Do not be afraid; stand firm and be still.” One wonders if Moses is living in an alternate universe. And perhaps Moses is, because he lives with the belief that God delivers on promises made to the Israelites. He encourages the Israelites to stand firm in the faith of the one who created the heavens and the earth, the one who promised to make them a blessing to others, who continues to be faithful even in their faithlessness.

The next admonition, “be still,” seems a bit contrary since they will soon be asked to step out in faith. Later on in scripture the psalmist will elaborate on this command: “be still and know that I am God.” When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard spot our first inclination is to beat them down and pound our fists bloody. But Moses tells them and us that we should take time and be still. We are reminded that we are not always in control and we are far less often than we think. Be still and let God do what God does.

Finally, Moses tells them not to be afraid, which is interesting giving the fearful alternatives that they face. But we remember that when God or God’s agents tell us not to be afraid they are telling us not to let fear rule us or our actions. There is much to be afraid of in this world, but that is not all there is in this world. For God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear. As people of faith we trust God’s presence with us. I was doing this text as part of a devotional this week at the Crossroads Lutheran Campus Center board meeting. My colleague, Pr. Shelly Olson, describes a practice she does with her congregation. She invites them to breathe in and breathe out to the words, “breathe in faith; breathe out fear.” I think that’s a pretty good practice.

I threatened (warned) our Confirmands the other night that I might preach to them today. So far they’ve been spared. No longer. Confirmands, today you are continuing on your faith journey, one that may find you in a tight spot down the road. If and when you get there, where Pharaoh’s army seems poised to overwhelm you, remember this: stand firm in the faith that has been passed down to you; be still and know that the God who made you his own in baptism has not abandoned you; and let faith, hope and love rule you, not fear. More importantly, we need you to be pillars of cloud and fire in the world, reminding others that God has not abandoned them, that God is present and working in their lives. Stand firm in the faith, be still and let God be God, and do not let fear rule you. Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"God with Us" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

God with Us
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Genesis 39.1-23
Grace, Mankato, MN
September 21, 2014

…God was with [Joseph]…

We have three cats, Mystery and Shadow, who are sisters at 14.5 years old, and Blitzen, 11 years old. All came from the Humane Society, though Blitzen was a feral cat who took Cindy and our older daughter, Angela, a year to tame. We feed them at night but shut Blitzen in her room so she won’t eat the other cats’ food and get sick. When I go to bed it’s usually my job to put Mystery and Shadow in their room, which involves getting Shadow from our bed where I have to either pick her up or walk behind her. Along the way we get Mystery and it usually isn’t a straight line to the basement, but we get there eventually. So, I really understand the term “herding cats” as more than a metaphor. But I also think it might be a way to describe how God is with us.

A lot has happened since God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood, putting a rainbow in the sky as his reminder, and God’s promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would be the ancestors of a great nation in their own land. Since then, they have a son, Isaac, who has two sons Esau and Jacob, the latter whose name is changed to Israel and fathers 12 sons by four different women. The tenth son is named Joseph, the favored and the dreamer whose dreams enrage his brothers so much they fake his death and sell him off to traders going to Egypt.

As the story plays out, Joseph rises to power in Pharaoh’s household and saves his adopted country as well as his estranged family from starvation. Through this story the third promise emerges: God was with Joseph. One thing that also emerges from this text is that Joseph’s faith is different than Abraham’s radical trust to obey God immediately. Joseph will begin to develop an assurance that God is working in, with, and under his life and others’ lives in ways he can’t always see. The story vividly shows the intersection of the forces at work in our world and God’s presence in them. This is real life meeting real faith, asserting that God brings life where there is human brokenness.

When I returned to the life of faith after my cat-like meandering, my go-to Bible verse became Romans 8.28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Ignoring the space-time continuum, this could be Joseph’s go-to verse as well, though he and his brothers wouldn’t discover later. That’s the tricky thing about this kind of faith: we don’t always see God’s working until we have some distance on it.

I’ve been meeting with our Saved by Grace students who will be confirmed next Sunday, asking where they have seen God’s presence in their lives. Most recall events from many years earlier. I also ask them what they’d do differently if they could or what advice they’d give to others coming into the program. Of course, they don’t have a do-over, but they can use their experience going forward, assured that God is with them.

This is important as we are inundated with so much brokenness in our world, especially those powers and forces that wreak havoc in our lives. We hold onto God’s promise that he is indeed working even if we can’t see it. God invites us to join in that work though the way may not be clear. In a few minutes we’ll give thanks for someone who has answered that call in a particular way and is a visible sign of God’s presence, Meredith Fitch, as she retires from her call as Parish Nurse and Volunteer Ministries Coordinator. The message of the cross of Jesus Christ is that God brings life out of death even when we can’t see it. God was with Joseph and God is with us, guiding us like cats, loving and blessing us to love and bless others. God is with you, for which we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

"Blessed to Be a Blessing" - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Blessed to be a Blessing
Pentecost 14 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Genesis 12.1-9
September 14, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN

So Abram went as the Lord had told him.

I’ve mentioned a number of times that my call to pastoral ministry came late in life. Although I first sensed the call at age 30 it would be eight years before I would enter seminary. A key moment in that period came when I was whining to my sister about how old I was and that I was 38 now and would be 42 when I graduated. She said, “Scott, you’ll be 42 whether you go to seminary or not; you might as well do what you are called to do.” That wakeup call unlocked something in me and sent me on my way.

So, I can identify with Abraham who, at 75 years of age is called by God to a second career of his own. Like Abraham, I was called to uproot my family and leave behind my old life for a new one. And as we see in the Abraham story, the transition from the old life to the new is not always a smooth one. Furthermore, the way forward is not always clear either and we don’t always rise to the occasion in the best possible way. There are three aspects of God’s call that are important for us: it is radical, purposeful, and eternal.

First, God’s all on Abraham (and us) is radical, and by that I mean it is immediate and it is risky. The narrator tells us that “… Abram went, as the Lord had told him …,” which was certainly unlike my eight year delay in answering God’s call. In addition to immediate, it’s risky for a number of reasons. For like Abraham, we are called into Canaanite places where life is not easy. I’m very aware of how hard it is to be a follower of Jesus in today’s culture. Trusting God, leaving behind the comfortable and known for the unknown and downright scary, is not easy.

Second, the call from God to go new places is made a little less scary because of God’s promises to us. God promised Abraham (and Sarah!) that he’d be the Father of a great nation and that through him and Sarah all nations of the world would be blessed. Interestingly, this call depended less on Abraham and Sarah than it did on God, for as the story goes they were barren. They were passed the age of having children. In other words, God doesn’t call the gifted; God gifts the called. Yet our purpose is not rooted our usefulness to God but rather it is rooted in love. Abraham was a blessing because in being loved by God he showed us that all people can be loved, too. We are blessed to bless and we are loved to show forth God’s love.

Finally, this call from God to love and bless the world is a life-long endeavor and never ends. It is eternal. Abraham was 75 when God called (Sarah was 65), and it was a call that would not only unfold for the rest of their lives, it was one that would unfold long after their deaths, even to this day. Some of you have been the recipients of my crankiness, because when I hear the words “I’ve done my time, let someone else do it” I answer, “Show me the expiration date on your baptism certificate.”

I am grateful that so many of you continue to answer God’s call. Al and Eunice Simonson wrote a lovely note about their experiences with our young people during Christ’s Servants Involved this summer. And I was discussing God’s calling on a few of our Confirmands yesterday morning, several of you were in the kitchen getting ready to make meatballs for the lutefisk dinner. Furthermore, we are grateful that Rich Krause answered the call to be our parish administrator. I could go on.

God’s call on us continues to unfold through Jesus, a call we hear in Matthew to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God. None of us are too old or too young, too experienced or inexperienced, too short or too tall. So, where is God asking you to step out of your comfort zone, to risk leaving a barren life for a future? God has a purpose for each and every one of you, one that lasts your entire lives. You are blessed to be a blessing, and you are loved to show God’s love. It’s never too late for that. Amen.