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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Faith for Today, Hope for Tomorrow" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Faith for Today, Hope for Tomorrow
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 30, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Habakkuk 1.1-4, 2.2-4, 3.17-19

I don’t really want to talk about the events in Ferguson, MO and some of you might not want me to talk about them either. Truth be told, I don’t know much about what has happened other than what I’ve overheard. That’s because in my experience all of the “news” around these events tends to be hyped gossip and over-wrought speculation. I did see the District Attorney’s statement the other night and President Obama’s following, but under duress because they interrupted the shows I watching. Frankly, I have a lot more questions about the situation than a particular position to stake out.

However, the text from Habakkuk today seems to be tailor-made for it: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help? … Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” The prophet lives in a time of immense pressure. The Assyrians forces that have been so threatening to the southern kingdom of Judah have been replaced by the Babylonians, with the Persians waiting in the wings. Habakkuk acknowledges that they haven’t been the best of people, but then says “enough is enough.”

Habakkuk calls God out in a way that looks familiar to us. A while back we studied the Psalms and found various types, including the lament. As we remember from that series, the lament has particular characteristics. One of them is an acknowledgement that life is not fair and downright pathetic and tragic. But, in addition to honestly naming the pain and heartbreak, the lament is based on the assumption that God is still God—even when we can’t see it—and that God can and will act.

It is also providential that today begins the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, when God took on human flesh to walk with us. The themes of Advent coincide with Habakkuk’s lament and might give us way forward through how to think about Ferguson. In many ways, the themes almost seem contradictory, or at least in creative tension with each other. On the one hand, Advent is “liturgical head-slap” that tells us to, “Wake up!” we are to be alert and watch for God’s coming. On the other hand, at the same time it reminds us that God takes the long view and we are to be about waiting. However, the waiting for God is not a passive waiting, but a dynamic, active, anticipatory waiting.

The Advent sub-theme for today is hope and we are also reminded that hope is not wishful thinking or pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Hope is faith oriented to the future on is based on the conviction that God is working in our world, if not on our timetable. In essence, God’s response to Habakkuk and to us challenges our craving for quick fixes and easy answers. While we are actively waiting for God to bring about all that God promises, hope keeps us going. Hope gets us out of bed in the morning when we want to pull the covers over our heads. Hope helps us put one foot in front of the other, moving forward when we want to run and hide. Hope prods us to live into God’s future vision rather than be resigned to our present nightmares.

So, what do we do about Ferguson? First, I think we have to enter into a period of lament and there is plenty to lament about: the loss of life in all its multifaceted expressions; functional racism in a society that has come far but has far to go; and people living in fear and mistrust of one another, a mistrust that destroys community. Second, as we trust and hope in God’s working, we actively wait by being engaged to make our own communities better. We need to figure out ways to really talk and listen to others, to build bridges instead of barriers. We can do that right here in our area so that we don’t become another Ferguson. I don’t want to talk about this, be we have to, because God calls us to act as we wait. We do so because we stand at the foot of the cross of the One who gave himself and invites us give ourselves, too. Let’s wake up to what God is calling us to do in our world, actively waiting in hope until the day God makes it all in all. Amen.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Faithful Worship" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Faithful Worship
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 23, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 1.4-10; 7.1-11

We are in our third year using the Narrative Lectionary, which takes seriously the Bible as story. One of the blessings is that there is one focus scripture each week, another chapter in the unfolding drama. Yet, sometimes this is a “curse” because the Bible is also an honest story of God’s relation to us. One cannot run from the text. Or maybe it’s a mixed blessing, because we can trust the Bible to tell us the truth, even if it hurts. And it does hurt. That’s important because, if the Bible isn’t honest about our hurts, how can we trust the promises it makes?

Nowhere are honesty and promise so inextricably woven than in the prophets and that certainly includes Jeremiah. First, we hear how God works (again!) in unexpected ways by calling the “boy” Jeremiah. Jeremiah rightly discerns that he might have a legitimacy issue. But God is not diverted and tells Jeremiah what he is to do. So, into the political and social upheaval of the day, Jeremiah is called to speak an honest word to God’s people. Part of that honest word comes in the second part of our reading: the people think that worship will save them from those who would conquer and destroy them.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I think a lot about worship and just as much time planning worship. (Thank God for Robyn and her gifts of worship leadership!) Worship has been the heart and soul of the gathered community and I think will continue to be. Even so, I often wonder if worship in general and my messages in particular make a difference in peoples’ lives. Jeremiah’s words remind me of my days as teenager, when I looked around our church and saw people who said one thing and then did something different. I wonder if there are like-minded teens in our midst. It would be years later that I would realize I was one of those people, too, but wasn’t able to see it.

And then I think of the words of some current Jeremiahs, such Marj Legard, who points out that every week we say, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” but we never ask, “How did it go?” (In our case, it’s “Through God’s abundant love, we live and work to serve others.”) And I think of David Lose, who reminds us that the church is not a performance hall, but a rehearsal hall. Finally, the words of Nancy Ortberg haunt me. She says there are at least 11 spiritual pathways, of which worship is only one of them. What do we do with people for whom worship doesn’t connect them with God?

It is indeed a truth that God is in our midst when we gather to worship, just as God has promised. God promises to be in the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of Communion, and the sung and spoken Word. But all of these Jeremiahs remind us that there is at least one other truth: worship is intended to change who we are and what we do. As your pastor, it’s so rewarding to see you trying to live that out in acts of justice and mercy in so many ways. Our Thanksgiving meal today is just one example, where we invite the community and give the money away to feed those who are food insecure. Even so, we need to be more intentional about asking, “How is it going?” and “How can we help?” That’s why we are doing Basket Cases twice a month, where we intentionally look to see how God is making a difference in, with and through us. It’s also why have called John Odegard as our discipleship minister to help us grow in the life of faith.

One final thought: It may seem odd that we celebrate today as Christ the King Sunday. That is, until we think about what kind of ruler Jesus was: the one who emptied himself, whose crown was thorns and whose throne a cross. Jesus came to expose the hard truth about our lives, tearing down those deathly things in our world that stand between us and the life God intends for us. Living out this life is not easy, and some days it’s almost impossible, but there is another truth that is important. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that following Jesus is a hope-filled life in which, when we fall down, God picks us up, cleans us up and sets us on our way to go at it again. So, when we say, “Through God’s abundant love, live and work to serve others,” please come back and tell us how it went. Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid" - Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Do Not Be Afraid
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 1
November 16, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 36.1-3, 13-20; 37.1-7; 2.1-4

Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard… Isaiah 37.6

What are the fearful voices whispering in your ear? What are the voices that are so loud that it’s hard to tune them out? The Jewish people holed up behind the walls of Jerusalem cowered at the voice of the Rabshakeh. With the skill that would rival any modern-day political hack or Madison Avenue huckster, Rabshakeh drives fear into their hearts. First, he speaks in their own language, which is beyond their comprehension. Second, he uses small grains of truth, which make the most deadly lies. And last, he knows the buttons to push, elevating their anxieties into the stratosphere.

For most of their existence, the Jews have been bordered by powerful nations with multiple gods. The presence of these other gods continually challenged the Jew’s claim to worship the one and only God. Ironically, Rabshakeh uses both the polytheistic culture and their belief in one God against them. “Look what happened to other nations who trusted in their god,” he says. “Yours isn’t any better. Not only is your God powerless to help, your God doesn’t really care about you and won’t help you.”

Fear mongering was a big business back then and it is just as big or even bigger business today. Advertisers whisper into our ears that the lack of their products in our lives seriously hampers our ability to live, not to mention our identity. I number of years ago I was invited to a “free” dinner, which turned out to be a pretext for a sales pitch for a home fire alarm system. The movie they should and their arguments almost worked; they made me very afraid. Politicians are masters at this, scaring us into voting, mostly against other candidates or other parties. Much of legislation is based on fear. I think that’s what was at heart of the arrest of the men who were feeding the homeless in Florida: fear. Then, the media capitalize on these fears and jack them up. Look and listen to how they report stories and the intonations they use. We saw this in the report out of Minneapolis about the major supposedly making a gang sign. They took a fear and capitalized on it. Fortunately, there was enough sanity so we didn’t play into it. As Amy Oden notes, fear is the strongest human motivation there is – except for love.

So, we also need Isaiah’s words for today: “Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard.” Someone noted that this phrase occurs 365 times in the Bible, and it almost always comes from God’s messenger to us. When we are told not to be afraid, it’s not because there aren’t real dangers in our lives; there are. God’s message to us is that, because of God’s presence and love, we are not to let fear rule us. We trust this message because God is the one who keeps promises. By the way, you may want to not that the Assyrians who were so self-assured are around no more. God, however, is still plugging away.

We meet the fulfillment of that promise most clearly in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the down payment and the guarantee of Isaiah’s vision of a different future without war. Although we may not see the complete fulfillment in our lifetime, this vision gives shape to our present, to how we live. There is an alternate way of life that stands over and against fear, brutality and intimidation. There is a different voice that speaks hope, mercy and peace; one that does not tear but instead down builds up.

So, what does this mean for us and how does it make a difference in our day to day lives? In some way, we are called to not only “rend our clothes” but also “beat our swords into plows.” Today is Commitment Sunday, where we make our financial promises for the coming year. Our commitments today stand as visible signs that we will not be ruled by the fearful voices in our world. What we do matters, and our generosity flows from the generosity of the one who gave himself. Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ casts out all fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"Crossroads" - Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 22 (Narrative Lectionary 1)
November 9, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
Micah 5.2-4; 6.6-8

I want to thank Katie and Aaron for representing Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry on Campus Ministry Sunday. It’s a day to celebrate our relationship not only with Crossroads Campus Ministry, but also campus ministry throughout our church. You should know that I stand before you today not as your pastor but as a board member of Crossroads. Part of that responsibility is not only to proclaim the good news of God’s love through Jesus, but to thank you, Grace Lutheran Church, for the partnership in that good news, a partnership going back many years.

Several years ago, you provided substantial resources for the building of the Crossroads Center on the MSU-Mankato campus. You have provided leadership for the board, most recently through Arv Zenk and Kris Bauer. Several of your women’s groups take turns serving “Lunch 4 a $1” to hungry students once a month; that’s 25% of the time! Your Gifts and Memorials fund sent $3,500 to Crossroads last year and is on track with a similar amount this year. That doesn’t include the ministry support we send through the Southeastern Minnesota synod nor the gifts of individual donors. Your gifts make up a substantial part of the Crossroads ministry spending plan.

Katie and Aaron will say more in the Adult Forum, but your support provides opportunities for a full-time campus pastor, weekly worship, campus food shelf, and housing for Campus Kitchen, a food rescue organization. These ministries are all outgrowths of the Crossroads mission statement: to provide opportunities to experience the love of Jesus. Crossroads seeks to live out this mission through these guiding principles: welcoming and honoring all; discovering and responding to God’s call; transforming lives through relationships centered in Jesus; and serving through the example of Jesus. We can’t say it enough: thank you for walking with us at Crossroads as we respond to the love of God in Jesus.

That’s one of the issues the prophet Micah is addressing in our focus scripture today, our response to what God is doing. Bringing a word from God to God’s people as a prophet does, he did so in the southern kingdom of Judah in the latter part of the 8th c. BCE. It was around the same time that the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel. Being divided into two kingdoms make the Israelites more vulnerable to attack. Feeling the Assyrian pressure, there was much political and religious corruption in the Southern Kingdom. Political leaders were mostly undependable and the religious community was not much better, thinking they could buy off God with empty religious motions. Micah is not Dale Carnegie, who seeks to win friends and influence people. But in the midst of his message of judgment he does bring a message of hope.

Micah does this by telling Judah that, all evidence to the contrary, God will not give up on them. Furthermore, they can expect that God can and will do great things, but do them unexpectedly. Using Bethlehem, the least of the least of the cities, as an example Micah says that help through a new ruler will come from a different place, in a different person, and in a different way than anyone could imagine. Of course, we who follow that itinerant rabbi who was born in that same Bethlehem and who was killed in the most God-awful and cruel way, see in Jesus how God rules differently.

Because of what God has done through Jesus, we respond with lives of justice, mercy and humility. As many have noted, justice is grace in action, and we who claim to be Grace Lutheran Church know this: that grace must have legs. In a world similar to Micah’s, Crossroads is an outpost of hope, helping students who are burdened with debt by the unjust inequities of the system to experience the love of Jesus. And because of your support, Crossroads helps students respond to God’s love in just and humble ways. Thank you again for walking with Crossroads and with these students on their journeys of faith. May you also experience that gracious and unexpected love so that your lives make a difference, too. Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Saint Naaman" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Saint Naaman
All Saints Sunday (Narrative Lectionary 1)
November 2, 2014
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 5.1-19a

Today is All Saints Sunday, a time of multiple purposes and remembrances. It’s a time to reflect on what sainthood is and what it means for us today. It is a time to remember those who have passed away, especially in the last year, who have moved from the Church Militant here on earth to the Church Triumphant in heaven. Though we don’t place a lot of emphasis on these, we also remember those of the faithful throughout the millennia who have been specifically labeled saints for their outstanding witness, often to the giving of their lives. It is the great cloud of witnesses we read about in Hebrews 11-12. Finally, it is also a time to think about those good people we consider saints, those who have touched our lives or the lives of others in meaningful ways. This time of year, I always think of my Grandpa Johnson who, rather than fighting with his brothers over a company he started, moved his family from Rice Lake, WI to Spokane, WA to start a new life.

The Narrative Lectionary, which reads the Bible as it is, a story, puts this festival (and others) into a conversation with biblical texts that we might not normally think of for All Saints Sunday. (If we were using the Revised Common Lectionary, we’d be reading the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 and about the saints robed in white Revelation 7.) However, today we are reading All Saints through the lens of 2 Kings 5. A natural question as we read the text is, “Who is a saint?” The natural answer is, of course, “Elisha.” In fact, there are a number of Christian churches who venerate Elisha as a saint, for good reason. Elisha is a prophet, clearly a man of God who faithfully brings God’s word to the world and in doing so does some amazing things. (By the way, the feast day for St. Elisha is June 14.) Another less obvious answer to the question of sainthood may be the servant girl, nameless in our text. She seeks to do a good deed for her new owners in spite of being there under duress.

But, what about Naaman; do you think that he might be considered a saint, too? This story is so wonderful. Here we have a rich and powerful man who has been afflicted and makes an arduous trip bringing all his wealth to bear on receiving a cure. He reminds me of a VIP with an entourage flying his own jet into Rochester, pulling up to the Mayo clinic in limousines. When Naaman hears about this great possibility for healing, he gets the appropriate clearances from his king and rides his chariot to Israel, bringing a load of lucre with him. But, he’s in for a shock. It’s not the king, but merely a prophet who claims to be able to cure him. Yet, this prophet doesn’t give him the respect he thinks he deserves. It’s as if that VIP coming to Mayo was greeted by a physician’s assistant instead of the head of Dermatology. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, Naaman is given a treatment plan that sounds like sheer quackery: he is told to go bathe in a dirty river, not once but seven times.

Looking back at the text through the lens of Jesus and our Christian history, we note that his cleansing is full of baptismal imagery. So, Naaman’s story becomes our story: God reaches down and makes us clean because of God’s grace and love, not because of our doing but his, stripping away all of our pretensions. And herein lies another definition of saint: those who have received God’s favor, have been transformed in wholly unexpected ways and in the process have been set apart for God’s work. Furthermore, Naaman realizes that this grace is going to change his life and tries to work it out in ways that are faithful to his new-found God.

This week I’d like you to reflect on the story of “Saint Naaman” and what it might mean for your life of faith. God reaches down and makes you his own in startling and unexpected ways, setting you apart for God’s work in our world. So, where is God inviting you to live out that faith, especially in places that aren’t so friendly? Who are the saints who are speaking words of challenge and encouragement to you in your life? Who might need to hear a word of challenge and encouragement from you this week? Whatever happens this week, please know that you are a beloved saint, a child of God who comes to you, bringing life. Amen.