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

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Leave Your Nets Behind" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

Leave Your Nets Behind
First Sunday of Christmas - Narrative Lectionary 2
December 27, 2015
Mr. John Odegard, Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 1.1-20

Greetings Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I am so glad to be here with you today to celebrate all that we have through Jesus.

This is a crazy time of year. Many of us are still recovering from the wild ride that is known as Christmas. There is much joy, but also much stress. Everything can feel like a rush, and sometimes we forget to sit back and enjoy the moment. We are in a hurry to buy presents for those we love, but sometimes forget how fortunate we are to have loved ones, and to have the means to buy them a present. There is a sense of urgency that can overtake our common sense as we rush through what should be a time of peace and thankfulness. That sense of urgency is unsettling at times, and keeps us from truly enjoying this magical time of year to the fullest extent. It invades many parts of our lives and eats away at the precious time we have. It makes us miss that first snowman of the year because we are too worried about getting the snow-blower running.

Any parent can tell you this feeling overtakes you when your child is up screaming in the night. Nothing can stop you from going to them immediately. But in those moments of frantic urgency, we miss the silver lining, often until it is too late. Our child needs us, and only we have the power to soothe them. We are blind to that beautiful truth.

There is a different kind of urgency though, and it appears in the Gospel today. The urgency of the good news of Christ. It calls to you the same way, but it fills you up when you follow it, rather than tearing you down. This calling does not make you miss the better side of things, it is the better side of things.
You may have noticed that the Gospel of Mark skips the Christmas story. It begins by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And then it seems to skip the actual beginning of the story. It jumps right in 30 years later.

Sometime after his baptism, Jesus is taking a walk and he comes across some people going about their lives. There are some fishermen along the shore, as would be a common sight, and they are fishing and cleaning their nets. If you asked the fishermen if they thought today would be any different they would have expected nothing out of the ordinary. Catch some fish and help the crew clean the nets after the catch. That’s what they were doing when Jesus came to them.

In the time of Jesus, and actually, still today, commercial fishing in the Sea of Galilee used a type a net called the trammel net. It is made up of a series of nets that get smaller as you go further in. The way it works is the net is thrown out away from the boat parallel with the shore, into the deeper water. The fishermen would then make as much noise as they possibly could to scare fish towards the net. This was probably very well received by those who lived along the shore, especially in the early hours of the morning. The fish would try to swim away from the noise into deeper water and would easily pass through the largest holes in the net, and just barely through the second set of holes and find the third set was too small. When they tried to turn around they would get tangled and trapped in the net. The fishermen would then haul the net ashore and painstakingly pick the fish out one at a time. But, this was the best way to catch a lot of fish, and so they did it. When they were done, each day the net had to be repaired and then hung out to dry completely. This was how you took care of the tools, and if you were the owner of said net, you were doubly invested in making sure it was taken care of because the owner of the net and boat received a larger portion of the day’s profit.

These men did not wake up expecting to become the first followers of a man that would change the world forever. They had a comfortable life as fishermen, probably made a good living, and expected nothing to change. But that is how Jesus works.  He takes us out of our comfort zones, because that is where growth happens.

The first two guys Jesus comes upon are Simon and Andrew, and they are casting their nets into the water. Then this Jesus, a travelling preacher, walks up and asks them to follow him, and they leave everything behind, immediately. The passage says “at once they left their nets and followed him. Jesus called and at once they left. I was a carpenter for 10 years and not once did I ever see someone in such a hurry to do anything that they left their personal tools, the things that made their livelihood possible, just sitting out on the sidewalk of the building they were working on that day.

Next Jesus comes upon two more, James and John who, when called by Jesus, left their father in the boat with the hired men and followed Jesus.

Based on the discovery of an ancient fishing boat near Magdala, the place Mary Magdalene gets her name from, the boats they used were fairly small and usually had a crew of about 4 people. This means they left dad shorthanded that day. Something more important came up.

We know from later stories, that they probably didn’t leave it all behind forever. After all, they crossed the sea numerous times in boats throughout the New Testament. These were most likely the Disciples boats. The fishing business would wait while they followed Jesus.
It doesn’t say they sat and thought about it a while and got up reluctantly, or waited until a day they had more time. Without question, when Jesus called, they followed Immediately. They left the comfort of their everyday routine, not knowing if they would come back to it, not knowing where Jesus would take them, and followed immediately. Unlike you and I, they had not yet heard Jesus was the Son of God. They followed Him immediately, because He spoke the Truth.

You have all heard the term Safety Net. We have our own nets that we bring along with us in everyday life, the things that protect us, keep our life “normal” and give us comfort. This could be our job, and the prestige it may bring. It may be the pride we have in our craftsmanship if we work a trade. It may be the tools of your trade, or any number of other things. Your safety net may be your business itself, as it keeps you from leaving your comfort zone. You may be too busy to stop and help a stranger, but that is not your fault, you really are busy. Even today, you may have already constructed a few new safety nets. You came into church this morning with certain expectations. You planned to sit in your favorite pew, and maybe hear a good sermon. I hope that at least one of those comes true, but

The problem is, all of these things are safety nets.

In order to serve others you have to forget what you know and treat everyone without any of the thoughts you previously had about being too busy. You have to ignore what the media says and your preconceived notions about people who are Muslim or immigrants, poor, or gay.  and instead remember what Jesus taught, that we should see them as nothing other than Human, as your Neighbor, your brother or sister. You must treat them just as you want to be treated. Remember, the birth of this Savior we just celebrated was followed by his family becoming refugees in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s persecution. Thank goodness they did not close the borders then.

It sounds crazy, and hard, and changing a habit always is. Jesus asked his Disciples to leave their nets on the beach, and so He is also asking you to do the same. But really, they did not give up nearly as much as they gained. Jesus provided them the opportunity to live a full and abundant life in a way they did not see coming.

Jesus did not randomly choose these men. He knew everything about them, including their faults. He knew their gifts as well. He knew, that as fishermen these men would be able to speak several languages commonly used in the area for trade. He knew they would be strong, and willing to work hard. He also knew they probably swore when they pricked a finger. But they, like you have the promise that God has laid out good works for us in advance. The harvest is plenty. Whatever your skills and gifts, whatever your faults, Jesus knows you, and He has work for you to do.

I’m not saying you should quit your job or neglect your duties. But do stop and help someone up when they fall, or have too many groceries to carry alone. Do welcome the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee. Take the time to really learn what Jesus would expect of you before you decide what it means to act in a Christian manner. Be ready to follow Him and leave your busy schedule behind for a few minutes or hours. Be willing to step into the unknown for Jesus’ sake. Be the city on a hill. Be a light in the darkness. In a world where many people are asking, where is God now? Be the answer to that question. As a child of God, as a follower of Christ, it is your responsibility to step forward and say here am I Lord, send me. Let your will be done, my comfort can take a back seat. Let me show the world that you are a God of Love, and that you love Everyone. That truly, all are welcome.

The question is not, whether or not Jesus can use me too. It is simply; can I leave my nets behind? Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"O Holy Night" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

O Holy Night
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

At the Men’s Bible Study the other morning I was asked about family Christmas traditions and what they were. It was a nice opportunity to reflect on Christmases past growing up. In our family, we always celebrated on Christmas Eve. Most of the time during my formative years, my bachelor uncle, Floyd, (the loveable Grinch-Scrooge), would join us. It was a tradition that every year he would agree to come on the one condition that we didn’t get him a present. Every year we agreed, but still had a present for him under the tree. Only once do I remember having my Great Aunt and Uncle, Gertie and Carl present. Gertie and Carl were Swedish immigrants, so naturally we had lutefisk that year. I did not eat any, but I was forced to inhale.

Our tradition was that we got to open one present before dinner and then it was either church or presents or both afterward. My parents were scrupulous about fairness, ensuring the four of us were treated equally. One year, they took the fairness a bit too far: each of us received identical clock radios. (I can imagine the look on the clerk’s face when that purchase was rung up.) Christmas Even was a holy night for us.

Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining/It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

This past summer we had a sermon series called, “Singing Our Faith,” that explored some of our favorite songs of faith. We put these songs and their origins into conversation with scripture and our lives. What better time to do something similar than on Christmas Eve as we gather to sing our faith. As you can guess, O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas song, but we rarely get to sing it because apparently it’s deemed more appropriate as a solo or duet piece. Not to worry: Jason Glaser is going to sing it tonight, so at least we’ll get a chance to listen and enjoy this beautiful song.

Oh, Holy Night was written in Roquemaure, France in 1843 to celebrate the renovation of the local church organ. The parish priest asked Placide Cappeau, native from this town, to write a Christmas poem. Cappeau, a poet, lawyer and wine merchant did it, even though he professed to being an anticlerical socialist and atheist. Soon after Minuit Chrétiens (“Midnight, Christians” in English) was set to music by composer Adolphe Adam and performed in 1847. Adam was a respected composer, but went bankrupt in the effort. John Dwight, an American Unitarian Clergyman, discovered the piece and translated it into English, publishing it in 1855. As one source noted, this was an odd combination of collaborators for such a beloved hymn.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining/Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

As I thought about this hymn and the story of Jesus’ birth, I wondered: why the nighttime? Why did God choose to be born at night? Why is this night holy and why do we sing songs in praise of it? Then I also wondered about other significant nighttime biblical events and I remembered Jacob wrestling with God at the River Jabbok in Genesis and the angel of death appearing at the first Passover in Exodus. In the New Testament, the religious leader Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Perhaps the most telling: the most significant times in Jesus happens during the night. He has his Last Supper with the disciples, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and is arrested, tried and sentenced to death during the same night. The takeaway for all of this is simple: God shows up in the midst of our darkest times, breaking in unexpectedly and powerfully.

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices/For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, oh, hear the angel voices!/Oh, night divine, oh, night when Christ was born!

What makes this night holy? Something is holy because it is set aside for God’s purposes. This night is holy because God chooses to show up in the midst of the suffering and weakness in the world as weakness personified. We don’t need to rehearse all of the darkness in this world; you know it as well as or even better than I do. But we do need to declare time and again that God’s holy light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. As such, our weary souls rejoice once again that God is Emmanuel, God-with-Us, bringing light and hope into the world. Merry Christmas my sisters and brothers, and may this holy night birth within you the joy and peace that only God can bring.

Oh, night divine, oh, night, oh, night divine!


Sunday, December 20, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 20, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 1.5-13, 57-80

One lesson I learned in seminary—and continue to relearn—is that how you say something is just as important as what you say. For instance, if I said, “Once upon a time …” you’d know that a fairy tale was going to be told and treat the following story accordingly. And if I said, “It was a dark and stormy night …” you’d know that a thriller was coming, perhaps even a bad one. And if I said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” the light sabers would come out and you’d definitely know it was time for a Star Wars flick.

Luke (the gospel writer, not Skywalker) is a master storyteller and understands this same mechanism for telling a tale. He begins the Jesus story with a kind of prequel about John who will become the Baptist. If Jesus is Episodes 4-6, then John is Episodes 1-3. Luke begins both of these stories similarly. In this case today, he begins his story “In the days of King Herod of Judea …” To Luke’s early readers—and to us—, this signals that God enters the world in a specific time and place.

The time and place for the Jews would be one of darkness and oppression under Roman rule. As we know from our journey through the Old Testament these past weeks, the Jews have been under the thumb of various somewhat evil empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. Since their release by Cyrus of Persia, you can include the Greeks and now the Romans. In this foreign occupation, Jews like Zechariah and Elizabeth have tried to be faithful to God, although it hasn’t been easy.

And what a way to enter! After an almost 500 year silence, God comes on the scene in a big way. The angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah and, as often happens when God shows up, the first words are “Do not be afraid.” On the lips of an angel, these words of comfort are far more reaching than the present moment of fear. For God is doing a new and wondrous thing, a thing beyond our comprehension. Even more amazingly, God invites us to be a part of it.

Of course, Zechariah balks at Gabriel’s announcement. He is rewarded for his curiosity with a silenced tongue. Yet Zechariah’s muteness in itself will be a sign to others that God is doing something incredible.  So, Zechariah and Elizabeth do as they are told. They conceive, bear a son and prepare for the circumcision and naming as good Jews do. Wonders will continue to unfold for as both Elizabeth and Zechariah declare the boy’s name shall be John, Zechariah’s tongue will be freed and he let loose a song of praise that would rival any Broadway musical. The song is, in fact, a love song, though not as you think. It’s a song testifying to God’s love for us.

Today, as the days get darker, we light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath, the so-called love candle. We may not live in a time of foreign occupation like Elizabeth and Zechariah, but we know all too well the darkness in the world. Although it may not always come out this way, we are constantly bombarded by messages of fear. We have enumerated them enough in the past that we don’t need to do so again; you know them all too well. And yet, if that wasn’t bad enough, there are the things we live with day to day, the unexpected: marriages you thought were good all of a sudden fall apart. Illnesses that come upon us and leave us stunned. If there is anything I’ve learned this Advent is that it’s almost impossible to love when you’re afraid.

A long time ago in a place a lot closer than you think, God came down as God’s love always does. God said to the world, “Do not be afraid for you are not forgotten. I am doing a great thing.” How God loves us is just as important as the fact that God loves us. God does so by entering our world as one of us. As you prepare to celebrate God’s love in the flesh, Jesus, know God keeps speaking words of love. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Joy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Joy
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 13, 2013
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezra 1.1-4; 3.1-4, 10-13; Luke 2.25-28a

When our girls were little, like all good dads, I taught them how to ride a bike. On one occasion, I let go of the bike just as I should and watched my daughter speed ahead, full of pride. There came a rush of pure joy when one lets go and sees their child succeed. At the same time, I thought, “I need to tell my mom.” However, in the midst of joy I felt this overwhelming wave of grief engulf me. You see, my mom was dead had been for a number of years. Whether I hadn’t grieved fully or not, I don’t think I had missed her so deeply than I did at that moment. The overwhelming joy mixed with grief blindsided me.

With the story of the returning Jews from Babylonian exile, we’re at the end of our Old Testament journey this year. Next week we enter the Jesus story. But for today, we are in the book of Ezra, one of the last historical books in the Old Testament. The Persians have defeated the Babylonians and Cyrus the king of Persia has released many peoples to go home, at least those that wish to do so. In an effort to connect with their past and establish their legitimacy as true Israelites, the Jews rebuild the altar to make sacrifices to God. They also lay new foundations for the temple over the old and have worship service to dedicate the rebuilding effort. However, in the midst of this understandably joyful celebration, they were blindsided by an equal amount of grief and lament.

As I was thinking about this mixed-bag “celebration” in Ezra and my own experience with my daughter, I thought about the interplay between grief and joy. It seems as if there is an important relationship between them, almost interdependency. Helen Keller, who certainly knew something about grief and joy, said this: “The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.” This morning, I simply want to invite you to reflect with me on Ezra as it informs us of this dynamic between grief and joy.

There will be no call to action or anything that I’m going to ask you to do. I’m simply going to make space for you think about this same dynamic in your life. In fact, making space is the first thing to notice in this text: the community makes space for the presence of both grief and joy. What is important to understand is that the relationship between grief and joy is complex and not something to be solved; it just is. One of the things I love about Grace is that somehow we as a community of faith not only understand this but embrace it. I have seen so many examples of you inviting people in all of their brokenness to come, be loved and to share their joys and sorrows. Just last week I heard of someone who expressed his appreciation for how much this place means to his family, how they were embraced and loved in the midst of some difficult and scary times. Every week we sing the same songs, say the same prayers, but each of us is touched in profoundly different ways. And that’s okay.

Second, we must not forget this communal aspect of grief and joy also affects us personally. In Ezra, God was rebuilding the Jewish people through their rebuilding of the temple and the city as well. So, too, God takes the wreckage of our lives to rebuild something new. As you know, this is not easy work. Whether we have caused, our brokenness or whether it’s been done unto us, or whether it has just happened, this rebuilding is a mixed bag. For, even as there is joy at what God is doing in, with and through us, there is also grief at what we’ve lost.

Lastly, Ezra reminds us that God is in the midst of both our grief and our celebration with steadfast love. The temple was a reminder to the Jews that, although God was not confined to it, God promises to be there in their midst. The same is true about this place: God promises to meet us here. The Advent Candle Lighting, the St. Lucia celebration, the sharing of God’s body and blood in Holy Communion, and our gathering together all reminds us that God is Emmanuel, “God with Us,” and that his steadfast love produces joy in the mixed-bag celebrations of our lives. God makes a space for both grief and joy, rebuilds our lives and is present with steadfast love. Indeed, singing “Joy to the world” is an appropriate response. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Peace" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Peace
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 2
December 6, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 40.1-11

What causes you despair these days? What are the wildernesses of your life? Here’s one definition of despair that I found: “the complete loss or absence of hope.” Some synonyms also help our understanding: discouragement, desperation, distress, anguish, unhappiness. Definitions and synonyms are fine, but what causes despair? For many of us, it is the seemingly endless violence in our world that rolls over us like waves of a tsunami; it keeps coming and coming. For others, it may be our political system that appears broken beyond repair. And for still others, we think about our nearest relationships that are in tatters. How do we cope with all of this? What can we do against such a relentless stream of bad news?

The Israelites of the Babylonian exile also found themselves in despair and were asking even more pointed questions. The Babylonians had finally conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE and made an initial deportation of Jewish residents to Babylon. In 587 BCE, following some shenanigans by the puppet king of Judah, the conquest became total: Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and nearly everyone who was anyone taken forcibly to Babylon. In our text today, it is now about 50 years into this exile and the people were asking if God had forgotten them. In fact, some of them, especially the newer generation, wondered if God even existed. Perhaps worse, they wondered if God was irrelevant.

Into this situation a word comes through the prophet “Isaiah of the exile” and it’s a word of comfort. Isaiah says that all evidence to the contrary, God is still God and this God has not forgotten them. Their God has seen their suffering and despair and is coming to bring comfort, peace and release. God will enter into the wilderness of their exile and will make a way for them back home. Valleys will be filled in, mountains will be laid low and God is on the way. Isaiah reminds them that this God continues to speak and act even when they can’t see it. Human lives may fall away like grass, but the word of God stands forever.

If there is any time more needed for a word of comfort and peace, it is a time such as this. It is also a time to remember that, though counter-intuitive, we cannot bring peace about ourselves. Do we really think that peace can be forced through arming ourselves with more and bigger weapons? Do we really think that we can bring peace to ourselves by building bigger and higher walls? Do we really think that we can bring peace by separating out the people we don’t like or fear?

One of the reasons we light candles on the Advent wreath (besides counting down to Christmas, as one of our young people calls it) is to remind ourselves it is into just such a world of despair and violence the Prince of Peace was born. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection displayed again the depths of God’s loving presence in our broken world. The candles remind us that, evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned us but is bringing peace. The peace that only God can bring does not come through our efforts to bring it about, but God certainly invites us to pray for it, to look for it and to participate in it when it comes.

Irene (not her real name) was talking to her mother on the phone when her mom went into an ugly rant. Irene felt herself getting angry, but Irene knew she couldn’t stop her mother. So Irene prayed for a spirit of peace. In fact, Irene prayed the prayer twice, not for her mom, but for herself. Then an amazing thing happened. Irene’s mother quieted down and they began to have a great conversation. Maybe there is some way that peace begins with us, at least in the sense that we ask God to bring it. Where do you find places of peace? Where is it that God breaks in and tears down your walls of despair? Where is it that God is inviting you into the way of peace? Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God: God is making a way into your wilderness. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"Preparing for the Light … with Hope" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Preparing for the Light … with Hope
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 29, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Kings 22.1-10, 14-20; 23.1-3

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. (2 Kings 22.1-2)

It may seem as if we have been going backwards these past few weeks. Two weeks ago we were in the book of Hosea, the first of the Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. Last week it was Isaiah, the first of the Major Prophets and now we are in 2 Kings. In reality, we are moving forward chronologically. Hosea and Isaiah prophesied at the same time, about 700 – 750 years before Jesus, though Hosea was in the northern kingdom of Israel and Isaiah in the southern kingdom of Judah. Today as we hear about Josiah, we’re a hundred years later than Hosea and Isaiah.

Our text today is remarkable for two reasons: first, it describes Josiah as a good king. Though the writer of 2 Kings doesn’t come right out and say so, he indicates that Josiah is the Best. King. Ever. He’s remarkable because other than Hezekiah, the southern kingdom of Judah has been ruled by bad kings. Second, the text seems comfortable holding a theological tension: on the one hand, God is deemed just for punishing Judah for its apostasy and worshiping of other gods. On the other hand, the goodness and repentance of Josiah and the people don’t forestall the destruction as one might expect.

This theological tension in fact exists throughout the Bible: God both judges sin and evil and also forgives humanity in its brokenness. There are two more remarkable items to note about Josiah that are important for seeing our way through this text today. First, somehow Josiah manages to be a good king who walks in the way of his ancestor David in spite of coming from a long line of bad kings who did not. In fact, his son will revert to the typical behavior of “bad king.” How did Josiah do that? By the way, have you ever noticed that a “bad family” can produce a “good child” and so-called “good family” can produce a “bad child?” Second, in spite of the bad news that Josiah’s reforms won’t prevent Judah’s desolation, Josiah chooses to continue the way of faithful living in obedience to God anyway.

As I thought about Josiah’s faithfulness in the midst of darkness, I thought of the poem, “Anyway.” Though attributed to Mother Teresa, the NY Times has said that Kent M. Keith is the author. Here it is:
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

It seems this is a good lesson for us who are entering Advent as preparation for celebrating Jesus’ birth. We who have been baptized into Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection might take that saving act of God for granted. Or we might look around our world and see all of the death, darkness, racism, fear and despair and want to pull the covers over our head and hide. Or we who claim that Jesus will come again might not really believe that’s true because it’s been 2,000 years since he made that promise and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. But like Josiah, we look for Jesus’ presence anyway. Like Josiah, we live full of expectant hope anyway. And we live the baptismal life anyway because the life of faith is not about what we get, but rather about what we give.

When we “live anyway” despite the pressures to do otherwise we are living signs of hope in our world. What does it mean to live the baptismal life with hope? Among other things it means that as the world worships possessions and experiences or doesn’t worship at all, we worship the living God anyway. It means that though we don’t always understand the Bible or get intimidated by it, we read the Bible anyway. It means that though we don’t know how to pray or wonder if our prayers get heard, we pray anyway. It means that although our community isn’t perfect and we sometimes treat each other poorly, we gather in community anyway. And it means that though the pressure is strong to consume anything and everything, we give ourselves and our money away anyway. My sisters and brothers in Christ, as you prepare for the light, may you live into and live out of your baptisms as signs of hope in our dark world. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Little Sprouts" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Little Sprouts
Christ the King Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
November 22, 2015
Isaiah 5.1-7; 11.1-5

This past week, as I was working on the text for today’s message, as it does so often, a song came into my head. This week it was, “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” From the 70s, it was first sung by BJ Thomas, then the Muppets (believe it or not) and covered by Kenny Rogers. It was, as a line says, “a real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong.” Although neither Isaiah nor God are not sitting in a bar listening to a juke box, the first few verses in chapter 5 constitute a love song. Isaiah is prophesying about the same time as Hosea (whom we heard from last week), mid to late 8th c. BCE. Isaiah, however, is in Judah instead of Israel. It seems that the southern kingdom is not faring any better in its relationship with God than Hosea’s northern kingdom. It’s a love that’s gone wrong.

Whereas Hosea used the images of loving spouse and parent vs. adulterous spouse and rebellious child, Isaiah uses the image of gardener who lovingly plants and tends a vineyard that goes way wrong. With this love song in chapter 5 we catch another glimpse into the suffering heart of God. Anybody who has spent countless hours in a garden only to produce “wild grapes” can relate to the pain God feels when his lavish attention goes for naught. The injustice God witnesses makes God see red, literally. These are not minor infractions that God’s people commit. This is headline producing, CNN worthy brokenness.

Sometimes, out of love for the right result, you have to tear up a garden and start over again or instead you might let it lie fallow for a time. Indeed, that’ God’s intention in chapter 5. But, we know that God has promised not to annihilate the earth again. So, if you are God, you work for the good of the whole through actions of a few. That brings us to chapter 11. Now, there is a lot of conversation about what the stump of Jesse refers to, but that’s beyond our scope here. Even so, there’s no doubt that Isaiah says a new kind of leader will arise to make things right. This leader shall receive the Spirit of God and will be on the side of the poor and marginalized.

The early church struggled to make sense of who Jesus was. At first glance, he seemed a most unlikely Messiah (or Christ). But as they looked back through the scriptures they saw in Isaiah (among other places) this description that seemed to fit. Jesus was of the house of David and therefore he was a branch of Jesse (David’s father). Jesus was a legitimate successor to the throne of David. Yet, as we see in the passion narratives and other places, Jesus is a different kind of king with a different kind of kingdom. This king came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for “a love that’s gone wrong.”

It is no accident that we have imported language from chapter 11 into our baptismal service. God gives us the “spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of council and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” just as God has given this same spirit to Jesus. We are, to borrow a title from our faith formation with toddlers, “Little Sprouts.” The reformer, Martin Luther, calls us “little Christs,” but since Jesus is the Branch of Jesse, we are “little sprouts.” Through our baptisms into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we become signs of his kingdom.

Of course, this new way of living is both already and not yet; we are trying to live it out even as we live into it. Through Jesus, we seek to be a community of forgiveness when “love goes wrong.” Living into the reign of Christ means resisting the values of this world that stand against God. The way of Jesus means working for justice and peace. Finally, it means being humble and recognizing that we don’t bring in the kingdom or possess it. God’s preferred future is a gift to be received and only then as something to be sought. This is not easy work, my friends, as we see the injustices abounding, but it is our calling and one I know you take seriously. As the fear mongering rages over many things, particularly the Syrian refugees, I know that we’ll be the “Little Sprouts” that God has called us to be. Why is that so? It is so because you have stood with the refugee and the broken and the poor so many times before that I know you’ll do it again. We may not always get it right, but we will follow the way of Jesus, trusting in his forgiveness and strength. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Caring for God’s People
Pentecost 25 – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 15, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Hosea 11.1-9

Hosea is a prophet, and a prophet brings a word from God to God’s people. It is often one they don’t want to hear, of how they are falling short in the relationship with God and each other. A prophet can also bring a word of hope, and in Hosea’s case it is both. In addition to speeches, prophets are often told to engage in prophetic acts that reinforce the spoken word. Again, Hosea does both. Hosea speaks to the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 750-722 BCE. He speaks a word of judgment to God’s people with a prophetic act. Early in the book, Hosea is told to marry a prostitute who continues her unfaithfulness even after the marriage. This scenario drives home the point that Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord by “committing adultery” with other gods. Though we might not go after Baals, we can admit that there are times we look for salvation other places.

In this section of Hosea, the image shifts to one of Israel as a rebellious child and God as the parent. We see that God is not only a God of forgiving love, who takes us back in spite of our unfaithfulness. God is also a God of nurturing love, who taught us how to walk and puts us back on our feet when we fall. Now, stop and think for a moment about that someone in your family, near or far, who is hard to love. It seems there is also someone else in your family who continues to love that person in spite of themselves. We might even have been that difficult to love person ourselves. In fact, to some extent we are all that way; there are parts of us that are difficult to love.

Hosea wants us to know that no matter how unlovable or difficult to love we are, God loves us anyway. In terms that are passionate and almost embarrassing, he tells of a God who stoops to meet us and picks us up. He tells us of a God who longs to enfold us in a loving embrace, that no matter what we do or don’t do, we are still God’s people. Hosea gives us a rare insight into the suffering heart of God who will do anything to be reconciled to her children. Hosea tells us that God chooses to be a God of love, not retribution; God cannot not-love. If we see in the cross of Jesus the ultimate expressing of God’s suffering love, the roots for that suffering love are here.

Today is Stewardship Commitment Sunday when we make our financial commitments for next year. As you prayerfully consider your commitment to God’s mission and ministry through Grace, I’d like you to remember two important things: first, we don’t give to get God’s love and approval. In fact, it’s the other way around. It’s because of God’s unconditional, steadfast love given freely to that we can give at all. Second, I think all of us have felt shame because we don’t give more and, although God encourages us to grow in generosity, God loves us no matter what. God’s love flows through us.

The Stewardship Team chose this year’s theme, “Caring for God’s People,” to highlight this kind of love. “Caring for God’s People” is one of our Guiding Principles, statements of who we are and what we do. Caring for God’s people means ministering to the weak and vulnerable in our world and over the past few weeks, we’ve heard some great stories about how God’s love has flowed through us. I continue stand in awe of the many ways God’s steadfast love flows through each and every one of you. Today is not just a day to recommit to the way of love; it is also a time to celebrate that way of love. For God is in our midst, bending down, gathering us in God’s arms, and leading us with bands of love. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

"Sinners, Saints and Servant Leaders" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Sinners, Saints and Servant Leaders
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
November 1, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 12.1-17; 25-29; Mark 10.42-45

“If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” (1 Kings 12.7)

So Jesus called them and said to them, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.42-45)

It occurred to me this last week how important the events depicted in our reading for today were for God’s people. Our focus reading from the Old Testament gives us a snapshot of one of the most important events in the life of ancient Israel. It is one that will have consequences for hundreds of years, if not thousands: the dividing of the kingdom. King David, whom was anointed last week, was able to unite the northern and southern tribes into one kingdom. He did it through his strong personality and his military prowess, bringing peace to the land that had only known conflict for so long. David’s son, Solomon, was able to consolidate this kingdom through wisdom granted from God, his administrative ability and ambitious building projects, notably the temple at Jerusalem.

Now Solomon has died and his son, Rehoboam, is poised to take the reins of the kingdom. It is these building projects that have become a bone of contention with the people, especially the northern tribes. So, it seems after all that succession is not a done deal as these folk from the northern tribes come for a consult with the newly crowned king. Rehoboam has an opportunity to lead the unified kingdom into a new era but, as Richard Nelson my seminary Old Testament professor notes, he “chooses slogans over wisdom and machismo over Servanthood.” The effects of this ill-advised decision are disastrous: the kingdom splits forever, leaving it vulnerable to being conquered and worse, a line of kings starting with Jeroboam who abandon YHWH. Jeroboam will devolve into a king who will become the negative standard of bad kings who follow after him.

Periods of leadership transition can be chaotic and unsettling at best, as we are witnessing now in our own world. I grieve for our country as we seem to think that the best way choose leaders is to line them up and insist they tear each other apart while tearing our country apart as well. It was ironic that on the morning of the recent debates, I saw a blurb on Facebook about Queen Elizabeth II, who recently surpassed her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as the longest reigning English monarch. In the blurb it noted that she has always emphasized her role is not to rule but to serve.

Our celebration of All Saints today might be able to shed some light on what healthy leadership could look like. Certainly, it’s a day to remember those who have passed away, who we now refer to as the saints in heaven. The have moved from the Church Militant on earth to the Church Triumphant in heaven. But it’s also an opportunity to remember what Martin Luther pointed out about our saintly life now. He noted that because of Jesus Christ, God looks on all of us as fully redeemed saints in God’s eyes even while we are still sinners. We are “already, but not yet.” We can see this with even Rehoboam and Jeroboam who, for all of their faults, were a mixture of faithful and fallible. It wouldn’t be until 1,000 years later that someone from the tribe of Judah and line of David would emerge and show us what true servant leadership looks like: Jesus of Nazareth.

On this side of heaven, being a saint doesn’t mean being always good or dead for that matter. Saints are those who in spite of their frailties are set apart for godly service. Whenever you lead, you do so by serving and whenever you serve, you are being a leader. All of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been set apart to serve, in spite of our failings. Even Winston Churchill, the English Prime Minister on one of the greatest modern day leaders knew that when he said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Of course, that started with Jesus who shows us that true life is found in giving ourselves away and that God will work in, with and through us as sinners, saints and servant leaders. Amen.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Guest Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost- by John Odegard

Ruth 1.1-17

In our lesson today, we are learning part of the story of Naomi, who having left her homeland with her husband and sons to escape famine and started a life in a new land has found herself a widow, and with no one left to care for her. Both of her two sons and her husband have all died.

Her daughters in law grieve with her and she tries to send them away, back to their families where they might be welcomed back and taken care of. At least if they return to their families they may find food and shelter and a chance at a new life. Orpah goes back to her family but Ruth declares she will follow Naomi wherever she goes even until death. She clings to this grieving woman who has lost her husband and sons, who is returning to her homeland poor and broken. She says “do not press me to leave you, where you go, I will go.” She leaves her birth family, her home country and follows this broken woman into a foreign and strange country.

We as Christians are called to the same compassion and dedication. Not only to following Jesus, but to serve all of God's children as well.

Jesus says 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

In this story, we have three very different people, reacting to the same hand that life has given them in different ways. Each of us lives out these same stories and perspectives in our own lives. The hope we have today is that we might learn to recognize our own actions for what they are, and use every opportunity to serve and glorify God.

First, we have Orpah. I will be the first to confess that I often default to the way Orpah thinks and reacts. She is grieving with her mother in law and says she will go along with her, that she will stay with Naomi, but when Naomi urges her to go back home, she agrees. Orpah knows that Naomi is suffering and needs companionship, but she is also aware that she needs to think about what she will do now that she is a widow and has no financial security. Like many good mothers would, Naomi urges Orpah to take care of herself first.

Like Orpah, many of us offer condolences when someone is suffering.  Sometimes we are grieving with them. We offer to help in any way we can, “just let me know how I can help” we say, along with a hug or handshake.

Just like Orpah, we want to help. The problem is that we are leaving it up to them to ask for help, and that makes it easier for us to go back to our own life, worrying about our own troubles. What happens next, is they never ask for help, because most of us also play the part of Naomi when we are the one who is suffering.

Naomi is the one who has it worst off in this story, perhaps discounting the three men who were sick and died young. Naomi is now a widow, and probably too old to have much success at finding a new husband. She is in a foreign land with no relatives or family other than her two daughters-in-law, who are also recent widows, with no financial means to help or support her, let alone themselves. Her only choice is to head back home and hope for the kindness of a distant relation, or at least the comfort of a familiar place. Her daughters have come to know and love her and don’t want her to go alone, they want to go with her and share her burden, but she tries to convince them to think of the future instead. She tells them there is still hope for them to remarry and to have a happy life if they go back to their own families. She doesn’t want to burden them with her own troubles. After all, they have enough trouble of their own. They have no property, no money, no husband, and the proverbial clock is ticking.

Naomi, wanting to spare her daughters the hardship ahead pushes them away and tries to carry her burden alone, just as we often do. Especially in the Midwest.

Here, people will ask you how you are doing and before you respond they know that they will hear,

“I’m good, How about you? How ‘bout this weather?”

This is so ingrained it is almost automatic, but I know we can do better. And I know we really do care about how the other person is feeling. I know this because of something called the Minnesota good-bye. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, that is a ritual that takes at least 30 minutes where you start dropping not so subtle hints that you are about to depart, and inch closer and closer to the door, culminating in a conversation half way out the door that ends by stopping and turning around to talk every 5 steps as you are literally walking away from each other. Sound familiar now? As peculiar and elaborate as the Minnesota goodbye may be, it serves to show us how loving we can be, and just how meaningful these conversations are that we can’t just end them and walk away. We cherish our time together and value this person before us so much that we want them to know with absolute certainty that we wish we could talk more but simply can’t.

We are capable of having these great conversations and sharing our troubles with each other, but more often than not we hold it in, trying to do what is best for the other person. We don’t want to bother them with what we have going on, so we say “I’m good, and you?”

And then there is Ruth, who throws the Minnesota Goodbye out the window, taking it to a whole new level. She doesn’t just linger in the door, she simply will not hear of this conversation ending with a kiss and heading home. She says I love you so much that you are absolutely not doing this alone. She doesn’t say “let me know how I can help” but instead she takes action and says,

“It’s not up to you, I am carrying this burden with you, whether you like it or not.” And then she does even better, setting the perfect example for us to follow. She doesn’t tell Naomi how to fix her problems, she doesn’t tell her that she is over-reacting, she doesn’t pass any sort of judgement at all, she just digs in her heels and says “Where you Go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. If you die, I will be buried next to you, and even then I ask that God would not separate us.”

Ruth is determined to walk alongside this woman who seems to be cursed by fate. Naomi claims that God has even set Himself against her, and yet here is Ruth, showing the real hand of God. The one that holds on tightly no matter how hard we try to shake free. When told to go back to her family, she lives out the words that Christ would speak so many years later when he said

“Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

How can we do that? How can I live like Jesus, and follow the example of Ruth? Do we really have to drop everything and follow someone even to the grave?

We are called to start acting like family. Each of us is a child of God. Each of us is called by name and loved by the Creator. Each of us is expected to love one another as Jesus first loved us. But how do we show someone, a stranger even, that they are valuable, they are not alone, and that God loves them even when they feel like He is working against them? Consider this:

I think the Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman you have never met sitting in her doorway at the nursing home asking if we have a moment to talk. We have the opportunity to say many things in order to keep moving along. How busy we are or how we wish we could because staying to talk is dangerous in its own way. You don't know where you will end up. This conversation could take you to unfamiliar places where you have no control over the outcome, and that is truly scary. Not only is this new for us, but we would be leaving ourselves open to any emotional baggage she might place on our shoulders and hearts. Into the complete unknown. All for a stranger.

Martin Luther says

"Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father and not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey's end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. [It is]Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or desire--that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.”

He is saying that in order to follow Jesus, we have to be open to the unknown. And that is why we must stop and listen to that woman in the doorway tell about how she wants to go home. How she doesn't feel the same as when she was at home. How she misses her family. About her father, long since passed away, and the struggles her family went through when he was sick.

When you look back you will have no idea what you were even supposed to be doing instead, but you will absolutely remember her holding your hand as you prayed for her. I hope each of you will take the time to walk with someone, even for 20 minutes and see the difference in their eyes, and remember later what it’s like to hold their hand.

What can we do to be like Ruth you may ask?

Why don’t we start by lingering in the door just a little longer?


John Odegard is Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation at Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN. He preached this sermon October 18, 2015.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Carry On" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Carry On
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
October 25, 2015
2 Samuel 5.1-5; 6.1-5

We are committed to using the Narrative Lectionary at Grace, which each year retells God’s story from creation to consummation. By remembering God’s story intersecting the story of our faith ancestors we connect with our faith stories. We are also committed to remembering the important events in the life of the church and the rhythm of the seasons depicted by the church year calendar. By remembering the time and times of the church, we see how God is present through all time. This can be a little tricky sometimes, as today when we celebrate the Protestant Reformation while reading texts from the Old Testament that talk about the coronation of David and the Ark coming to Jerusalem.

As I thought about today’s stories, old and older, the phrase “carry on” came to mind. “Carry on” has at least three meanings: to carry on as in being wildly enthusiastic about something; carry-on as in a bag you take aboard an airplane; and carry on as continuing to do something. I’d like to use “carry on” as a metaphor to explore the mash-up between 2 Samuel and Reformation Sunday.

Newly anointed King David “carries on” while transporting the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. David is already king of the southern tribe of Judah, but the tribes of the northern tribes of Israel ask him to be their king, too. The previous king, Saul, and all of his family have been gotten out of the way and so there is a leadership vacuum. David has been recognized as their de facto leader and his leadership is now formalized. David’s charismatic personality will unite the kingdom and, in a series of politically astute moves, David will consolidate the kingdom and establish a dynasty. First, he names the newly conquered Jerusalem as his capital city, a city neither north nor south can lay claim to.

Secondly, he brings the long forgotten Ark, the holder of the Ten Commandments etched on stone tablets, to the city. The Ark denotes the power and presence of God among the people and its placing in Jerusalem solidifies David as God’s choice. During the trip from Abinadab’s farm to Jerusalem, David kicks up his heals in a prophetic-like frenzy, much to the chagrin of his wife. Yet, the celebration is not so much for what David has done, but because of what God has done through David. The story makes it clear that all that happens does so because of the faithfulness of God. As we celebrate the Reformation, we are reminded that it is God who worked through the Reformers to bring about the renewal of the church and that for us “carrying on” is a proper response to God’s renewing presence.

The second sense of carry on has to do with baggage, or more appropriately, what we bring with us. A carry-on bag contains what is most important to us when we travel, stuff we don’t want to lose. In some cases, it may contain all we have. David realized that the Ark was something important to bring with the people into the future. His son, Solomon, will build a temple with the Ark at its center, and Jerusalem would be the center of the life and faith of the Jewish people. (In fact, Jerusalem still holds that spot for Jewish people.)

As I think about the Reformation and what we hold dear as Christians, I wonder what it is that we hold valuable that we will carry on with us into our future. The Ark held the most important Words that God spoke to the people. Could it be that it is the centrality of the Word that defines us as Christians? Not just the Word as the Bible, the story of God’s action with us and creation, but the Word made flesh who has entered and continues to enter our messy existence, bringing life out of death, hope from despair. After all, as Martin Luther said, the Bible is the manger in which the Christ child is laid.

Finally, to “carry on” has the sense of continuing to do something, much as a military officer telling soldiers to “carry on” after leaving. David’s anointing, the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital city and the installation of the Ark will take the Jewish people into the future as they attempt to carry on God’s will for them. Reformation Sunday is a reminder to us that we are to dot the same. We are to “carry on” by living out God’s calling. That’s why one of our Guiding Principles at Grace is that we are “Deeply Rooted.” This means in part that we will carry with us that which is core to our witness about God’s love, grace, and compassion. And, although it may be outside our comfort zones, we could dance a bit as we are doing it. Carry on! Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Newsletter Article: October-November Edition of the Fourth and Main

October-November 2015

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It seems as if one is never too old to have one’s world rocked by God.

This particular seismic event came in May at a breakout session during our Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly. The workshop, led by stewardship consultant Mike Ward, focused on the synod’s visioning process for the coming years. During the presentation a question arose about volunteerism in the church. Pr. Ward’s response was the one that smacked me upside the head. “In the parish I never worried about matching peoples’ gifts with tasks because Jesus never did. He simply said to people, 'Follow me.'”

Now, my first reaction was to dismiss these comments out of hand. Fortunately, I stuck it out because I respected Pr. Ward and the contributions he has made to helping churches grow in their ability to help their people grow in faith. Since then I have turned his words over and over again in my mind. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It’s important to match people’s gifts with the mission and ministry that God is calling us to do. We have been using the Clifton Strengths Finder with our staff for the last year and it has been very helpful. The Strengths Finder identifies a person’s top five strengths (out of 34) and helps one understand how those strengths can be used effectively, both in our professional and personal lives. I often use the example that you can’t make a plow horse into a race horse and vice versa. The Strengths Finder has been useful for us to function better as a team.

However, I also think that Pr. Ward is right, too. (In good Lutheran fashion I can do paradox, holding two seeming opposite things as both being true.) There are times when God calls us out of our comfort zones and pushes us to do things we didn’t think we were capable. Each of us at one time or another has had to step up because somebody needed to do so and we were the only somebody available. Most of the time, we are surprised that we really can do what we didn’t think we could do.

Like many organizations, Grace has to figure out a way to match God’s call to mission and ministry with people willing to answer that call. Times are different than the last generation or two; I don’t need to recite them here. Even so, the ministry remains: helping our young people grow in faith and love, serving the needy and marginalized, providing engaging worship to sustain our lives and supporting the work of the church in our community and in the world.

This is so important that the church council has set “Encouraging Volunteerism” as one of its three main goals this year. To do so, it has established a task force led by Randy Long to examine ways we can match ministry with people. I hope you’ll be open to their work and their recommendations. Meanwhile, God’s ministry through us awaits our response. Please say, “Yes” when asked to serve. Not only will you be answering God’s call on your life, you’ll be making a difference in the lives of others.

In Christ,

Pr. Scott Olson

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Whole Body Faith" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Whole Body Faith
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
Deuteronomy 5.1-21; 6.1-9

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

These words that Moses speaks are known as the Shema, a Hebrew word for the first word of the sentence, “Hear.” The Ten Commandments have just been re-given to the Israelites as they stand on the brink of entering the Promised Land. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years since Moses led them out of Egypt, from bondage and slavery to freedom. They are entering a new place and will become the people God wants them to be. A new people in a new place need rules to live by. Contrary to popular belief, the Ten Commandments do not restrict their freedom; rather, they set the framework for their freedom.

Both the Ten Commandments and the Shema are not for one generation but for all generations. They need to be spoken to each generation afresh and anew. The Shema is a kind of shorthand for the relationship between God and God’s people. It becomes the definitive statement of both Jewish identity and the identity of God’s people. You will see it woven throughout the Old Testament and the New, often shortened to “the Lord your God” or “the Lord our God.” When Jesus responds to a question about which commandment is the greatest, he responds with the Shema. Then, without missing a beat, he reminds the religious leaders that there is a second commandment just as great: neighbor love.

The Shema is a reminder that God deeply desires to be in a relationship with us. It reminds us that God want us to be in healthy relationships with each other. Most importantly, it is a reminder that God always takes the initiative in the relationship. It begins with a claim, a word of grace, and not a demand. You may notice a footnote in your Bible regarding the translation. The Shema can be translated in such a way as to claim that God is one or it can be translated as God alone. I think both translations are intended.

To say that God is one tells us that God is not divisible. God has integrity and can be counted on to be consistent and dependable in relationship with us. To say that the Lord is God alone is to say there is no one or nothing else that deserves our worship; our loyalty is not to be divided either. Another way to say this is that God throws God’s whole self into relationship with us. That we are to love God with heart, soul and mind means we are to do the same.

I think there is another way we can think about loving God with heart, soul and mind. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve come to different understanding about connecting with God. It happened last summer while attending a conference. Our speaker for the day, Nancy Ortberg, was describing her struggle with doing early morning devotions, an expectation of her expression of Christian piety. Then she mentioned a book, Spiritual Pathways by Gary Thomas and said something that shook me to my core. “Worship is not the only way people connect with God and for some people it may not be a way at all.” I’ve thought deeply about those words ever since.

So I bought Thomas’ book and have been thinking about how we can help people connect with God in the way or ways that are comfortable. In preparation for an upcoming pastor’s meeting, a few of us grouped the nine pathways Thomas describes in three areas the Shema and Jesus talk about: heart, mind and strength. For example, people who lead with their hearts, understood biblically, might connect with God through art or music. They also might enjoy the mysterious aspects of faith and have the capacity of wonder and awe. Interestingly, they might also enjoy solitude and simplicity.

Those who connect with God through their minds find God in intellectual stimulation and new insights to God and the things of faith. They might also be highly contemplative and enjoy meditation, but they also appreciate the traditional and predictable forms of worships. Finally, those who connect with God through strength or might are doers. They could be social activists who work for justice. Or they could be caregivers who love God by serving others. Those people who find God in nature explore the outdoors; creation is their cathedral.

How do you connect with God? No doubt it is a combination of ways. Whatever it is, know that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. This God invites you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, because this God does the same with you. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"I Have Heard Their Cry" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I Have Heard Their Cry
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 2
October 4, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 1.8-2.10; 3.1-15

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

God said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…”

If I count correctly, I have lived in fourteen dwellings in my lifetime, spanning five different states (two of them two different times). Each move had its own ups and downs, sometimes work-related, sometimes school-related. Finding a new place to live, new doctors and other service providers, a new church in some cases and, hopefully, new friends. This last move to Mankato was one of the hardest: Cindy and I had lived in Winona the longest period in our marriage, 10.5 years. We had made a lot of friends, both of our daughters graduated from high school and college there, and I in particular had built up a network of colleagues and community connections. In some ways, moving to Grace and Mankato was almost starting over. As much as I knew God was calling me here (and still do) there was a fair amount of grief and loss. That Cindy didn’t join me for a year didn’t help, either.

Yet, as difficult as these moves have been, I can’t imagine what it was like for my ancestors to leave their homeland, Sweden and Norway and come to this country. Crossing the ocean; making their way to Wisconsin and Minnesota; learning a new language; and starting over makes my experience pale in comparison. It’s not hard to make the leap from my ancestors’ immigration to the refugee and immigrant crises in our world today. The reasons for moving from their homeland to another are various: some are escaping persecution or a dangerous situation while some are looking for better opportunities for work. Unfortunately, one factor seems to be present in all of these scenarios: fear of the immigrant people.

Since our last week’s reading about Jacob newly named Israel, his family has immigrated to Egypt through a series of God-directed events. Joseph of the “Coat of Many Colors” fame was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers ending up in Egypt. This inveterate dreamer is also able to interpret dreams and rises to prominence in the king’s household by correctly interpreting the king’s dream of an impending famine. The same famine serves to reunite Joseph with his father and brothers. The king, out of gratitude, invites the Israelites to move en masse to Egypt where they settle as honored guests. Our story today picks up with the ominous statement that a new king arises who didn’t know Joseph and the role he played in saving Egypt from the famine.

Though the word is not used, clearly the king of Egypt is afraid of this immigrant people. There isn’t any hint in the text that the Israelites aren’t anything but good, faithful citizens of Egypt. Even so, fearing that they could take over the country, the king orders them to be oppressed and when that doesn’t work, orders the brutal murder of innocent boy babies. Ironically, the more he oppresses the Israelites, the more they flourish. In a second bit of irony, although it is the male Israelites that he fears, it is the women who “rise up” to thwart his plans, including a young girl and his own daughter. God hears the cries of his people and recruits Moses as his agent in securing their freedom from bondage and slavery so they can inhabit the land promised to their forbearers. The Exodus story is a definitive one for the Jewish people and, in the person of Jesus who secures our freedom from the slavery and bondage of sin and death, for Christians as well.

In closing, here a few thoughts how the scripture passage today might inform our actions toward refugees and immigrants in general and the crises around the world in particular. First, we must not let fear rule our actions. Have we not learned anything from the persecution of Native Americans in our early history and those of Japanese and German heritage during World War II? I might add that fear of those who have a different religion or political viewpoint is probably our most current problem.

Second, we must do what we can to support immigrants and refugees. Lutherans in general and this congregation in particular have stepped up before and we can do so again. There is information in the bulletin about how you can send resources to Lutheran Disaster Response. (By the way, this congregation recently donated money through our endowment fund to help two young Sudanese boys with living and education expenses; bravo!) Finally, we must look at the ways we continue to oppress God’s children because we don’t do anything about poverty and hunger, inadequate educational and work opportunities, low wages and health benefits. I’m sure you can think of others.

The question God poses to us is not whether we will make a difference in the world this next week; it is what we will do to make a difference. Wherever people are hurting, God is in their midst. We don’t bring God to the oppressed and enslaved; God is already there, waiting for us to show up and join in the work. That is truly holy ground. Amen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Wrestling with God" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday (the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Wrestling with God
Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 18-Narrative Lectionary 2)
September 27, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 32.22-30

Two of my college buddies, Cec and Bomber, wrestled in high school. Once in awhile, they’d do some wrestling in the dorm, I suppose to pass the time. One time, Cec convinced me to wrestle with him. Of course, I had no illusions about beating him and, in fact, he beat me pretty handily. He did compliment me though, saying that I very good balance. I responded that’s true, but had very little upper body strength, which makes being a good wrestler difficult. As difficult as wrestling Cec in college was, wrestling with God was even more so.

A lot has happened since last week’s miraculous birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and Sarah. Isaac has grown, gotten married to Rebekah and had children of his own, twins in fact. Esau was the older and Jacob the younger, though close behind, literally holding on to Esau’s heal. Jacob’s name can mean “heal”; it can also mean “supplanter” or “cheater.” Indeed, Jacob will cheat Esau out of his birthright and his blessing as the oldest son through trickery and deceit.

Fearing for his life, Jacob flees to the land of his uncle Laban and there takes Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel as his wives. Jacob seems to have met his match regarding trickery in his uncle, but through God’s help he still manages to have many children and increase his own flocks in addition to his uncle’s. Jacob commits one last shenanigan and heads toward home with all of his possessions.

Unfortunately, Jacob is caught between a rock and a hard place: he discovers his brother Esau along with an army of 400 men stands between him and home. In an attempt to appease Esau, Jacob splits his possessions and sends them on ahead. Then he sends his wife and children as well, leaving him alone at the River Jabbok and the marathon wrestling match we heard a few minutes ago.

As I thought about this story and the five young people who have made their Affirmation of Baptism this morning, it seemed that Jacob’s story holds some lessons for us in the life of faith as well. So, pardon me as I spend a few minutes talking with them for the next few minutes.

We have talked about Confirmation as being that time that you publicly take responsibility for the life of faith. You didn’t have any say about your baptism, but you have now said that you agree with what your parents did for you and that you will continue to follow Jesus. The first thing that I want to tell you about this life that you have affirmed is that it is often one of struggle, akin to a wrestling match.

This life of faith will require from you a different way of living that will make your life more complicated. It’s a life that calls you to love and serve people who very often aren’t lovable. It asks you to set aside time for worshipping God, praying and reading scriptures when you could be doing other things. And it asks you to give of yourself and your money when you could be spending it elsewhere. And there may be times when bad things happen to you and you are tempted to curse God and say, “Why me?” The life of faith is very often a life of struggle.

But the second thing you need to know is that in the midst of this struggle you might be wounded and broken is such a way that will change you forever. While you are in the middle of this, your woundedness and pain will not seem like a good thing, don’t be afraid of them. The good news is that God is present in this struggle, even in the brokenness and pain, in ways that you cannot imagine and won’t always be able to see. In fact, it will be in these times that you will even be able to see God face-to-face. The life of faith is a struggle, but God is present in the midst of it and will use your wounds and pain in significant ways.

This leads that the third thing I want you to know: that you are never alone in your struggles in your lives of faith. I want you to stand up, turn around and look into the faces of these people behind you. You see, each one of these people has their own woundedness and pain, each one has wrestled with and seen the face of God, even though you may not know it. And they are here for you if and when you encounter your struggles as well. Even if you travel from here, there will always be places like this for you to come and share your struggles with, to be used by God.

But, there’s one last thing you need to know: as important as these folk are going to be to you, please know that you are just as important to them. Not only are you now fellow travelers on the journey of faith, you are a sign to them that there will still be others on the way. You are signs of hope and joy, assurance that the love of God in Jesus Christ will continue to be spread in word and deed in the years to come. (You can sit down again.)

You see, all of us are “Israel,” strivers with God. As for the original Israel, he will cross the river and meet his brother, Esau. Surprisingly, Esau will greet Jacob-Israel with joy and forgiveness and Jacob-Israel will declared that he has seen the face of God in his brother.

Congratulations on this milestone on your journey of faith. When you seem to be wrestling with God, don’t be afraid, even if you become wounded. You will be blessed and see the face of God in ways you can’t imagine. You are not alone, because God always gives us one another even as we give ourselves away. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Holy Humor" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Holy Humor
Pentecost 17
September 20, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 18.1-15; 21.1-7

Much has happened since last week’s story on the creation of Adam and Eve, who are set to work in the Garden of Eden. God has shown them the garden gate because of their disobedience. One son in a fit of jealousy kills the other. God tries to do a reboot on humanity and all of creation with a flood. That doesn’t work, because humanity tries to ascend to God and so God disperses the nations throwing down the tower of Babel.

Finally, God tries another tack through the call of Abraham and Sarah, a most unlikely couple. God promises to make of them a great nation, a nation that will be a light to all other nations. But it’s been 10 years and the promise is wearing thin. Thus develops the incident of Sarah’s maid, Hagar and Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son. Really, who can blame Abraham either for their doubt or their initiative?

Then three visitors show up and in typical Middle Eastern fashion, Abraham lavishes hospitality upon them. However, the party turns sideways when one of the guests asks about Sarah, known for her beauty. But anxiety quickly becomes incredulity when the guest tells them they are going to have a son. Now, Sarah and Abraham are not ignorant folk. They know where babies come from, who can and cannot have them. At 89 and 99 respectively, Sarah and Abraham are long past what it takes to have babies. They are in that sense “dead.” So Sarah laughs.

This past Wednesday evening, we speculated a bit on what kind of laughter this was. Was it an embarrassed laugh born of strangers speculating on the state of her womb? Was it more of a guffaw, like “you’re kidding!? Or was it a laugh born of disappointment now turning to tears? Whatever it was, the visitor, now identified as the Lord, with perhaps a twinkle in his eye and a smile twitching at his lips says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Then the Lord promises them a child in due season. Indeed, Abraham and Sarah do have pleasure, a baby is conceived and a son is born.

Now the laughter turns joyous and in an act befitting the situation, they name him Isaac: “he laughs.” Abraham and Sarah will have their joy, but the laughter will cease a few years later when God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable: sacrifice Isaac back to God. It’s only at the last minute that God provides a ram instead. One wonders: what did Sarah think? I’m guessing there wasn’t any laughter. What kind of God would do this, asking someone to give up their precious and beloved son? Many people see in the Isaac narrative a foreshadowing of another story of another Beloved Son.

Fast-forward 2,000 years: a Jewish rabbi tells his followers he is destined to die and rise again. So, imagine the kind of laughter from theme. There may have been embarrassed laughter that wonders if someone has gone crazy. It might have been the guffaw as in “you’ve got to be kidding!” But the laughter doesn’t end there, because there is the mocking laughter of those determined shut him up because his message of love and mercy are too dangerous to hear. I also imagine that Satan was laughing while Jesus was hanging on the cross, thinking he’d won. But then there’s the incredulous and even skeptical laughter of those same followers who welcome him back, just as he said.

You see, God not only gets the first laugh but God always gets the last laugh. For some reason God delights using broken and imperfect people to accomplish his work. As on medieval mystic said, God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Another more recent commentator says it this way: “God does some of his best work with the most unlikely people.” Or, as the writer Ann Lamott, who knows from personal experience, says, “He’s such a show-off.” But the best thing God delights in doing is to bring life out of death and hope out of despair. God is working in our lives and in the world to do the same, just as with Abraham and Sarah. In a few minutes we’ll gather around the table where we will encounter God’s very being in, with and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I don’t think God would mind a chuckle or two as we eat. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Seeking Truth" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seeking Truth
Pentecost 16
September 13, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 2.4b-25

This past holiday Monday I was “relaxing” by reading my Facebook feed. I was interested in the early buzz on today’s text. However, such relaxation quickly drained with a posting on the Narrative Lectionary page and severely impaired it. The Narrative Lectionary Facebook page is a resource for those of us who use the Narrative Lectionary. One pastor was worried about how he was going to address controversy about sexuality. He was afraid that some people would use today’s text to say, “See, God made ‘Adam and Eve,’ not ‘Adam and Steve.’” In response another pastor said hers was an RIC congregation (Reconciled in Christ, open and affirming to the GLBTQ community) and she was going to deconstruct the text. Deconstruct too often means “tear down” without putting something else in its place. I’ve been stewing ever since, but I decided to put on my big-boy pants and figure a way through.

Both pastors’ comments highlight two unhelpful approaches to scripture, particularly the Old Testament. One way is to take the ancient texts literally and use them as weapons to attack and convince people of our positions. A second way is to dismantle them as being from a certain time and place so much so that they become virtually irrelevant. Now, there is nothing wrong with asking what the “plain sense” of the text is; Martin Luther used that approach as one among many. And it is helpful to ask about the context a text is written. But too often, these approaches result in something unhelpful, literalism on the one hand and relativism on the other.

I think that there is a better way, one that’s important for us especially as we use the Narrative Lectionary moving through the Bible. A more helpful way is to acknowledge scripture as narrative and stories we tell about God and humanity that express Truth (with a capital T) about both. It’s important to recognize that most of the time Truth does not mean Fact. For example, I can say that I love my wife with my whole heart, and that would express a deep Truth. But I don’t literally love my wife with this organ called my heart, so the statement is not factual. Yet, it is True.

So, for today, it’s really not helpful to use this creation story to argue for or against sexuality. Nor is it helpful to dismiss the text as pre-science mythology devised by people who didn’t know better. Ancient peoples understood far more than we give them credit for.  Rather, it’s more helpful to ask, “What Truth is expressed by the idea that God created humanity from soil and breathed some of God’s spirit into us? What is significant about humanity naming animals and tending the garden? What does it mean that humanity shouldn’t be alone? Why didn’t God just make another person the same way God made the first one?” There are other questions we could pursue.

We can’t address all of these today, but I do want to throw out some ideas about the last two questions. First, it seems to me that when God says it is not good for humans to be alone it tells us the importance of community and expresses the Truth that we are meant and built for relationships. None of us can do anything, be anything or achieve anything without the help of others. The building blocks of society is family units, but we know that the definition of family is not “one size fits all.” Here at Grace there are many different kinds of families. Frankly, this is hard for me personally. I have a hard time asking for help from others. So, I need to remember that God made us in God’s image, and God is relational in God’s being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That leads me to another Truth I think is expressed here: our relationships are interdependent. When I work with couples preparing for marriage, we read this text and talk about complementarity, how we bring different gifts to the relationship. I usually mention that if my wife and I were both alike, one of us would be unnecessary. But that notion is not just in marriages, of whatever kind, it exists in communities as well. When we were looking for a Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation, the primary criterion for the person was “not Scott.” As we have done the StrenghsFinder in a staff retreat last year, we’ve affirmed the gifts of John Odegard who complements me with gifts I don’t have. By the way, it’s instructive that God is the one who most often is called helper (ezer) in the Old Testament. Perhaps a better translation for helper would be “sustainer.”

As we move forward through the Old Testament and the stories it tells, can we ask the Truth questions? And someday, when it comes time for us to deal with the sexuality question at Grace, can we involve in the conversation people who may have a different perspective than our own, to hear their stories? It’s important to follow the Participatory Golden Rule: consequence takers need to be decision makers. If it affects you, you need to be in the conversation. That’s the kind of place I want Grace to be, where we can struggle with our faith questions in a safe way, where we can all seek a deeper understanding about who we are and Whose we are. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Beautiful Savior" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Beautiful Savior
Pentecost 15
September 6, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man…

This summer we have been putting some of our favorite songs in conversation with scripture and our lives of walking with God. We have called this series “Singing Our Faith” and I think that it’s been great. Today we end with Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8, but it also represents a beginning. I’ll say more about this later. Beautiful Savior was nominated by Dorothy George and Quentin Peterson. It was their Confirmation song back in 1938. I didn’t even know they had Confirmation songs. I can understand how meaningful it is. We sung it at my mother’s funeral 32 years ago and I still tear up when I sing it.

We don’t know who wrote the either the text or tune for Beautiful Savior. The original German text ("Schönster Herr Jesu") appeared anonymously in a manuscript dated 1662 in Munster, Germany. It was published in the Roman Catholic Munsterisch Gesangbuch (1677) and, with a number of alterations, in the hymn book Schlesische Volkslieder (1842). The translation, primarily the work of Joseph A. Seiss, was based on the 1842 edition and first published in the Sunday School Book for the use of Evangelical Lutheran Congregations (1873). Another well known translation based on the 1842 version is the anonymous Fairest Lord Jesus, published in Richard S. Willis's Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850). Apparently Beautiful Savior is the Lutheran version and Fairest Lord Jesus for the rest of the Protestants.

We do know a little bit about Seiss (originally Seuss). He was born and raised in a Moravian home in Graceham, MD 1823. After studying at Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg and completing his theological education with tutors and through private study, Seiss became a Lutheran pastor in 1842, though both his father and his bishop discouraged his study for the ministry. He served several Lutheran congregations in Virginia, Maryland and notably two churches in Philadelphia where he died in 1904. Known as an eloquent and popular preacher, Seiss was also a prolific author and editor of some eighty volumes including several hymnals.

The tune appears to be an eighteenth-century tune from the Glaz area of Silesia and has always been associated with this text. It was first heard among haymakers in 1839 and subsequently written down, but it seems to have roots further back, to at least 1766. After Franz Liszt used the tune for a crusaders' march in his oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth (1862), the tune also became known as ST. ELIZABETH. By 1850 the tune had come to the United States in Willis’ collection mentioned earlier. An arrangement of Beautiful Savior has been sung by many college choirs, the St. Olaf College choir perhaps the most notable.

It’s easy to see connections between Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8: they both use exalted language and extol creation. Psalm 8 is the first hymn of praise in the Psalter and the only one exclusively praising God. The psalmist looks at the moon and the stars and stands in awe of all that God has made. The psalmist doesn’t equate creation with God, but can see God’s handiwork throughout it all.

The psalmist then declares two things about humanity’s place in creation that seems at odds with each other. The first is an overwhelming sense of humility because of our size in relation to all creation. Though human beings at that time didn’t have the same understanding of cosmology we do, they certainly share our feeling of inferiority compared to the immensity of the universe. Yet, the psalmist also declares that in this vastness, God has given as a special place in creation, an authority that is derivative of God’s own. A little lower than God, we have dominion over everything God has created.

This is a good text for us to read today, for a number of reasons. First, we need to remind ourselves that with this incredible God-given authority comes great responsibility. The French call it noblesse oblige. With great authority comes great responsibility. Second, this is a great lead-in to the start of this year’s narrative lectionary that we begin next week in Genesis. In essence, we have the creation story here where humanity is made in God’s image as created co-creators. Next week we will hear the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Lurking in the background of that text is the story of the Fall, how humanity disobeyed God. That brings us to number three: dominion does not mean domination. Though I’ll have more to say next we, we realize how far short we are, both in our care of creation and how we treat one another as fellow children of God. It is difficult to talk about the pervasiveness of racism and its effects, but it is important that we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the AME Church to recognize today as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” We are obligated to do this precisely because of the role God has given to us.

Finally, we always come back to God, because that’s where both Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8 begin and end. We remember that Jesus is not only Lord of creation and the Nations, but we also remember that his exaltation was through his lifting up on the cross and resurrection. Following the Beautiful Savior means being a suffering servant as he was. Yet it also means that we are not in this alone and it means that through God, new life comes out of brokenness and chaos.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man, 
Truly I'd love Thee, truly I'd serve thee, 
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown.