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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Servant Wisdom" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Servant Wisdom
Reformation (Narrative Lectionary 1)
October 26, 2014
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 3.4-28

It is tempting to take our text about Solomon at face value. That would mean praising him for asking rightly and then using the gifts that God has given to him in such an awesome way. Not so fast. If the Reformation has taught us anything, it is how to read Scripture closely and critically. We need to slow down and acknowledge a number of disturbing elements in this story. First and foremost, we need to agree that the story of the two women and their disagreement is horrific on many levels, not the least of which the loss of life and Solomon’s cavalier attitude. Losing a child is devastating and not to be treated lightly. And, as ingenious as Solomon appears to be, his threat to divide a child is barbaric. Probing the text further, we also need to recognize that David was not the model of a Godly king and, as a matter of fact, Solomon degenerated into a tyrant who didn’t appear very wise. It could be argued that Solomon’s style of kingship led to the splitting of the kingdom under his son and successor.

So, what do we make of this text? Is there good news to be found in it anywhere? Well, for all of Solomon’s clay feet, he does rightly choose a kingship of service versus a kingship of glory. It’s hard to see it in the text, but the “discerning mind” that he asks for is more literally translated as a “listening heart.” In the Bible, but the Old Testament especially, the heart was a person’s organ of thought and will, the center of their being. I think it’s really important that we stop for a minute and think deeply what a listening heart is. We had an opportunity to do so Wednesday night. Some suggestions were that it means to be open, loving, and non-judgmental.

A year ago this past summer we studied some of the biblical wisdom literature, including Proverbs & Ecclesiastes, attributed to Solomon. I mentioned then that there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and used the example of the tomato. Intelligence means knowing that a tomato is fruit, not a vegetable; wisdom means knowing not to put it into a fruit salad. From that and other places, I have come to believe that wisdom is knowledge in service to others. I think that’s where Solomon went wrong, when he served his kingdom, his wisdom brought great things the nation. When he turned to his own desires, his wisdom vanished.

I wish our leaders had listening hearts, using their gifts wisely in service to the greater good. A few days ago I was visited at my home by a candidate running for public office. Of course, this candidate was out asking for my vote. However, in the “conversation” I was asked if I had anything on my mind. I simply said, “Just get along,” meaning asking for some civility in public discourse. The candidate was momentarily taken aback but then proceeded to tell me all the ways he has done this. The opportunity for a listening heart came and went quickly. Now, this candidate is a nice person and was there to get my vote, but it would have been nice to have some meaningful dialogue.

The historian who collected these stories of the kings and put them together wants us to be clear about one thing: regardless of what Solomon does or doesn’t do, the primary actor in this story is God. Neither Solomon nor David nor most of the kings that follow will have the listening hearts needed to govern wisely. Yet, God will keep God’s promises and there will come one from the line of David who will have such a listening heart. Though our leaders disappoint and fall short, Jesus has the listening heart that invites us into a relationship. Jesus is the one who truly knows servant wisdom and welcomes us into that kind of life.

All of us who are in positions of leadership, especially in the church, are called to servant wisdom. The Reformation exposed a church that more interested in power, wealth and prestige than in service. Lest we get too smug, we in the Protestant church are not immune to those temptations. It’s why we need Reformation Sunday, to bring us back to God’s call on us. Can you imagine what would happen in our churches if our leaders chose listening hearts? That’s my prayer and it’s why we gather and why we follow the one who gave himself to us, who listens deeply to our pain and brokenness and despair and replaces it with love and mercy and hope and grace. Jesus is calling us to open up our hearts in servant wisdom. May the Lord Jesus give us the will and the courage to do so. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Who’s Your Nathan?" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Who’s Your Nathan?
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 19, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Samuel 12.1-9; Psalm 51.1-9

Hardly a day goes by without someone famous doing something really stupid or worse, even horrific by today’s standards. Just yesterday, we learned that Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, was tossed from the Navy for using drugs. But, all you need to do is pick up a newspaper or watch the news to see other examples. For those people we don’t like or have no respect for, we might be secretly delighted at their great fall. However, the hardest ones are the people we deeply respect and admire so much that we feel betrayed by their actions. As I met with some colleagues this past week it seemed that each of us knew someone like this. And as the stories were told, I could hear the disbelief, disappointment and hurt in their voices. How could someone who is so good, with so many good gifts to share, do something like this, we asked?

Indeed, that’s the question that gets addressed in our focus scripture today from 2 Samuel 12. I think most of us know the story of David and Bathsheba, if not from the Bible then from real life. David replaces Saul as king, being declared as “one after God’s own heart.” He has everything going for him. Yet, he sees Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and decides he must have her. He does so and when she becomes pregnant David conspires to have Uriah killed. We don’t know if David thought he was above the law or that the law didn’t apply or that he simply didn’t care. Yet, the Lord God sees and cares.God sends Nathan the prophet to call David to account for what he does.

So, is David a good king gone bad or was God wrong about him in the first place, like God was about Saul? The fact is that we are all Davids of a sort, mixtures of good and bad, faithful and broken. This past summer we saw the move Maleficent, which is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The difference is that the story is told from the perspective of the so-called evil fairy, who is given the name Maleficent. The film actually dares you to decide whether Maleficent is good or evil and does it artfully. The film shows well is that we are all complex, fallible human beings with potential for both great good and great evil.

So, is that all there is to it, that we are destined to fight these great battles and ultimately lose? Fortunately, there is good news, and part of that good news comes in the form of Nathan. So often we can’t see how and where we are going wrong in our lives and we get off course. We need a Nathan in our lives to call us to account, to remind us of God’s purpose for us. A number of years ago I was asked to speak at a church event and in doing so told an inappropriate joke. I didn’t think it out of place until Karen, my Nathan, sat me down and explained it to me. After an initial reaction of defensiveness, I realized that she was right.

Now, I was cut to the heart and ashamed, but Karen did more than accuse me. She also pronounced forgiveness to me. That’s the bottom line to the lesson, that we all need Nathans in our lives to restore us to God and community. We can’t always see how we are veering from being the people God intended us to be. So we need the Nathans and Karens and others to tell us firmly and lovingly when we get off track. That’s the power of our community, to not only name to power that sin and brokenness have over us, but to proclaim that brokenness is not the last word. The cross of Jesus Christ leads to resurrection and new life. That new life is promised to us as well. Who’s the Nathan in your life? Where is it that God is working to restore you to community? “Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within us.” Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"I Do" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

I Do
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 12, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Joshua 24.1-15; Matthew 4.8-10

I want you think for a moment about the most meaningful human relationship you have. Think about how that relationship came about, how it developed, and what has happened during the time of the relationship. Maybe you hit it off and became BFFs (Best Friends Forever) immediately or maybe it came slowly. Perhaps you’ve been friends through thick and thin or maybe it’s been on again/off again. Furthermore, maybe something changed in the course of the relationship. For me, the relationship that comes to mind is my marriage, one that including “courtship” has lasted over 35 years. We were acquaintances in a young adult group for some time before we dated, much of it long distance. Ultimately we stood before a pastor and our family and friends, making promises to each other (one which I forgot to speak since we memorized our vows). As all married couples, we’ve gone through a lot together.

There is a similar dynamic going on in our Joshua text today between God and the Israelites. It seems odd to us to read this story because we have been following them since God chose Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a great nation with their own land. And just last week, God established covenant with the newly delivered Israelites at Mt. Sinai. But, a lot has happened in the story since then, 40 years worth to be exact, because the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness since then and only recently entered the Promised Land. Why has it taken so long for them to get there? It is not because Moses refused to stop and ask directions as some have joked. It has taken so long because when they had the opportunity to do so, the Israelites became afraid and doubted God’s ability to fulfill the promise. They blinked.

God delayed their entry until all of those who doubted had died and couldn’t be in the way of trying again, because God was going to fulfill the promise. So, those who were left to enter the Promised Land were the children and grandchildren of those who had lived in Egypt and been delivered by God’s hand. So, not only was there no memory of life then, there was no direct memory of God’s deliverance. God wants these new settlers to make a commitment to follow this particular God, and not another god or gods they might have picked up along the way. That’s important for two reasons: first, they need to agree to be the people God calls them to be. Second, they are entering a land that has multiple religious options available to them and God wants to inoculate them against these foreign viruses.

Regarding the first, being God’s people: The most important thing to always remember about making a commitment to this relationship with God is that the relationship is only made possible through God’s graceful mercy and love. Look in the text at how the Israelites are reminded of their history, one that God influenced and has acted in, with and through it. God creates the space that makes relationships possible, and that is especially true for the one between God and us. One of the results of this relationship is that we become keenly aware that each and every generation needs to respond to God’s love for us. Another way to say it for us who have received baptismal promises through Jesus Christ is that our baptism is not as much about a one-time act as it is about a continual unfolding throughout our lives.

Even so, the text may be less about the call to choose than it is about the difficulty that ensues following the onset of the relationship. The rest of scripture is full of times when Israel falls short, often because they go after other gods. Indeed, the religious options that are available to us in our own time are no fewer than those available to the Israelites in their time. The gods of consumerism, materialism, nationalism, perfectionism, etc are just as dangerous to us and our human relationships as the multiple national gods were to the Israelites 3,000+ years ago. When I work with couples in pre-marriage sessions I ask what they could do to make their fiancĂ© divorce them. Of course, they don’t want to even think about it let alone answer, but they need to understand what seemingly harmless actions could lead to divorce. Once they do that, they can decide not to go down those roads and prevent it from happening.

God has created a space for us to be in relationship and invites us to respond with lives that are healthy and life-giving, with God and with others. What are the gods that are drawing you from just such a life? Are there ways that you can strengthen your relationship? We are all on that journey, standing on the brink of the Promised Land. Let each of us hear God’s call on us, inviting us and our families to commit again that we will serve the Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Community Rules" - Sermon for the Seventeen Sunday after Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary 1)

Community Rules
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 1
October 5, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 19.3-7, 20.1-17; Matthew 5.17

“You have seen … how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore…keep my covenant….”

When I work with couples on pre-marital counseling, I take them back into their families of origin. I ask what values they had about work, play, education, religion, intimacy, money, and what traditions they had. I point out that sometimes values are expressed, but more often they are “caught, not taught.” One of our family’s values growing up was that we’d always eat dinner together, every night. In fact, I can remember my dad being angry when this didn’t happen. That’s a value that I brought with me into my marriage and one we tried to live out, though it has become harder. Growing up, eating together as a family said something about who we were and how we lived together.

I imagine that you all have similar stories from your families about values and how you expressed or acted on them. I think it’s a good way to approach the Ten Commandments, the subject of our focus scripture today. We don’t have time to parse each and every Commandment; that would take a series of sermons or several series. Rather, I’d like to put the Ten Commandments in what I think is a helpful framework for you to unpack them. The first thing to notice is that God speaks directly to the Israelites, the only time God does so in the entire Bible. That’s important because the law contains some pretty basic stuff found in other civilizations, at least the “second table,” those commandments having to do with our relationships with each other. Yet, uttered by this God, who claims to be the only God, they take on a whole different character.

The second thing to notice may even be more important: before God even gets to the nitty-gritty of the covenant, God says something about his character and his relationship to the Israelites. This God isn’t just any God; this is the delivering God who gathers this people to himself. God has set them apart to live with him, themselves, and others in a unique and loving relationship. Furthermore, they aren’t holy because of what they have done or do; they’re holy because God has set them apart and made them so.

Third, having freed them, the Ten Commandments are God’s gift to the Jews so that they might live into that freedom. As we know all too well from our own congregation’s history, community life is hard. The Ten Commandments are God’s gift to us to help us live together, to serve God and neighbor. I still remember a story from my psychology days in college. Some researchers thought that a playground fence inhibited freedom, so they removed it. What they found was the opposite: the fence provided security for the children whereby they were able to use the whole playground. Without the fence, the children huddled more toward the middle.

Martin Luther gets at this from a different angle in the Small Catechism as he explores the positive aspects of the Ten Commandments. For example, it is not enough to not bear false witness against your neighbor, but you must also speak well of them. In other words, it’s not just “thou shall not,” but also “thou shall…". Still another helpful image: Thomas Long likens God’s act of gathering us to himself as the music and the Ten Commandments are the dance steps of our response.

Finally, we need to look at the Ten Commandments in context of scripture: thought they are the first word, they’re not the last word. It’s a shame God wrote them on stone tablets because as a result we’ve thought they were immutable. The fact is, they are more like springs on a trampoline than bricks in a wall, continually unfolding, giving us room to jump and play. The Ten Commandments are a living gift, and each generation discovers anew how God is speaking to us through them in our generation. That’s part of what Jesus means when he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it. Freed from the power of sin over our broken community, the Ten Commandments show us what a freed life looks like.

The Israelites became a people when God gave them the Ten Commandments, ones who love God and practice justice. Yes, the Ten Commandments show us where we fall short of being ideal community, but they do far more. For us today, they also remind us whose we are and who we are, living in community. As a congregation, we have values that we call guiding principles, our understanding of community and life together. We also have a mission statement and tag line we place everywhere, to remind us how to be God’s people. We repeat them every week in one form or another to remind us how live in and into the freedom of Christ. May you be blessed through God’s abundant love to be a blessing in your family and community. Amen.