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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"You Are Blessed" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphanay

You Are Blessed
Epiphany 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 25, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 5.1-20

Last Sunday I had the privilege of participating in the interfaith candle lighting peace service at 1st Congregational Church. Thank you to those of you who attended as well. It was a good time to stand witness to our common desire for peace. As a few of us pastors were standing around waiting for the service to begin, I indulged one of my weaknesses: denominational snark. Denominational snark is poking good-natured fun at each of our distinctives as churches.

For example, I enjoy tweaking Presbyterian noses over predestination, the doctrine that says God destines certain folk to heaven and others, by default, to hell. Taking it a bit farther, I’ll say something like, “I’ll bet you’re glad that’s over.” With Methodists, I like to tweak their noses on their emphasis on holiness leading to Perfection, the idea that we can attain perfection in this life. To them I’ll say, “How’s that working for you?”

Now, you need to know that we Lutherans aren’t immune from denominational snark. For we who are Lutheran, the doctrine of Justification is so thoroughly ingrained (we saved by grace through faith, not of our own doing but as a free gift from gift) that we break out in hives over anything that smells of works righteousness, that we can earn our way to heaven. But, as I told my colleagues on Sunday, we need to get over that, because frankly, what we do matters. In other words, works count.

Today’s scripture is the beginning of the first and arguably the greatest block of Jesus’ teaching anywhere. The Sermon on the Mount firmly establishes Jesus as one who has authority like Moses. Like Moses, Jesus is up on the mountain, a place of revelation. Yet, instead of receiving the word from God on the mountain, Jesus teaches its proper interpretation. In fact, what is ironic is that Jesus would agree with the religious leaders that what we do makes a difference. However, Jesus disagrees with them about what that means, mostly because they have different starting points to talk about it.

The religious leaders start with the law, the things that they are asked to do because they are Jews living under the Mosaic covenant that God established. While Jesus doesn’t dismiss these rules and obligations—and even agrees they are important—he starts elsewhere. Now, here’s where reading the Bible as a story helps, because we remember what happens in Jesus’ baptism two weeks ago. God declared that Jesus was the Beloved Son and we learned that we are Beloved Children, too. The fact that we are God’s Beloved Children profoundly impacts how we live our lives in the world. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Be salt” or “Be light!” Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

This declaration of our identity helps us to understand the kind of people that Jesus calls blessed, and they are not your usual suspects. Frankly, many of us (me included) use the word blessing incorrectly and almost frivolously. We take being blessed to means we have received something good. It’s true that being blessed is a sign of God’s favor, but what about people who have bad things happen to them? Are they not blessed? However, as Mike Baughman reminds us, “A blessing from God is more about being used by God than getting cool stuff.”

Now, this is by no means easy in our lives. Other commentators have noted that there is something about our God given identity that is somewhat mysterious, , not obvious and even hidden. In fact, other people may see God working in us more than we do. Our identity as God’s beloved is something of a mystery to us, because we have no idea what God might do with us or through us. Yet, in this rough and tumble world where we can get beaten up and broken, the good news is that God can not only use us despite what happens to us; God can use us because of what happens to us.

So, blessed are you who have suffered cancer and all sorts of physical challenges yet you reach out to others going through similar circumstances. Blessed are you who have experienced grief and loss and risk becoming overwhelmed again by embracing others who are doing the same. I hope you all can stay for the annual meeting because we’ll see more ways that God has blessed us by working in, with and through our lives. Meanwhile, blessed are you who connect and work for peace with people of all faiths, despite and maybe because of your snarky pastor. For this is God’s future kingdom breaking into today. Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Since We Are…" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Since We Are…
Epiphany 2 – NL 1
January 18, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 4.1-17

Alexander the Great was a ruler in the Macedonia area of ancient Greece. He ascended to the throne at the tender age of 20 and spent most of his ruling life in an unprecedented military campaign that greatly expanded his father’s already vast kingdom. By the age of thirty his kingdom stretched from Greece to Egypt and into ancient northwest India. Alexander was undefeated in battle and considered one of history’s most successful commanders. A legend has it that after one battle, a soldier was brought before him to answer for cowardice, having run away during the fighting. Alexander the Great asked the young man what his name was and, when the solider replied, “Alexander,” the general flew into a rage. “Either you change your behavior,” he said, “or your name.”

The connection between identity and behavior is at the heart of our reading today. Last week, in the story of Jesus’ baptism, we learned about Jesus’ identity as Beloved Son of God. We recognized that what this identity means for us and for the world would unfold throughout the gospel, ultimately leading to cross and tomb. We also heard the good news that, because of our baptisms into Christ, we are beloved children of God, too. Because we use the Narrative Lectionary, we can see something we don’t ordinarily see with the Revised Common Lectionary. We see that the same Spirit who descends on Jesus in the form of a dove in his baptism immediately leads Jesus out into the wilderness where he is tested by the devil following a 40 day fast. After his successful duel and recovery, Jesus begins his public ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, declaring that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near with his presence. In response, we are to repent, turn around and walk toward life.

Narratively speaking, the testing of Jesus must have something to do to bridge his identity as the Son of God and his public ministry. Some commentators speculate that Jesus was tested much the same way we test doctors or beauticians, to make sure they have what it takes to do what they are supposed to do. Even so, I think the testing isn’t to determine if Jesus is up to snuff; it’s for us to know that he is. Moreover, through the temptation story we learn that in Jesus’ battle with evil in the form of sin, death and the devil he will brook no compromise. We can see this by a legitimate retranslation of the conditional “if” in the lesson to “since.” This translation gives an entirely new perspective of what the devil is saying: “Since you are the Son of God…”

We are tempted (pardon the pun) to say that because Jesus resisted the testing and because we are baptized into Jesus that we should be able to do the same. There’s just one problem: us. As the writer Rita Mae Brown has said, “Lead me not into temptation; I can find the way myself.” Or, as the eminent theologian Pogo (the cartoon character by Walt Kelly) says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Part of being human means realizing that we are not complete in and of ourselves. It means that we have an emptiness inside us that we try to fill with stuff, all which may be good, but from which we expect too much.

However, since we are God’s beloved children, we now realize that, although our identity doesn’t take away the hardships of life, it does give us courage to stand in the midst and find true life. It means that we listen for the voice of God rather than the voice of the tempter. That’s why our time of confession is so important, to be honest with ourselves about those times when we allow our temptations to define us, but more importantly, to hear the words of forgiveness that give us hope. We hear the voice of love rather than the voice of condemnation. It’s also why we are determined to offer Holy Communion at every service, every week, because we need to hear that as beloved children we are fed and forgiven, strengthened for God’s work. Next week, we’ll hear more about what that work as God’s beloved might entail, but for now hear the voice that declares that, since you are God’s beloved you have new life, no matter what. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Who Am I?" - Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday

Who Am I?
Baptism of Our Lord Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 11, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 3.1-17

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

When I was a teenager, I became aware of the notion that teenagers are supposed to have identity crises. So, from time to time, I’d look in the mirror and wonder what it was and when mine was coming. The truth of the matter is that I pretty much knew who I was: a good student who loved to read, someone who loved sports though wasn’t the greatest at them, with the exception I was becoming a pretty good bowler. Sure, I had my fair share of insecurities as any teenager would, but I really wasn’t insecure about whom I was. Unless I was totally oblivious, it seemed that the people I hung around with were about the same. Of course, we tried on various identities like we tried on leisure suits and Nehru jackets, but that’s not quite the same, is it?

Today we hear Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism, one that is narrated in one form or another in all four gospels. Jesus’ baptism has given rise to not a small amount of scholarly squabbles and speculation: what did Jesus know about himself and when did he know it? Did Jesus know from the beginning that he was God’s Son, did he have a growing awareness of it, or was this a big surprise at his baptism? As interesting as this question is, the important point is that Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is proclaimed loudly and clearly. Jesus is not only God’s beloved Son, but God is also well pleased with Jesus. Now, what is just as important is that what Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son means for the world will continue to unfold throughout the gospel, culminating in his death and resurrection.

When I meet with parents prior to baptizing their child, we talk about the many promises contained in baptism. One of the promises God makes to us is that through God’s grace we have a new identity. Like Jesus, God declares to us that we are beloved children and claimed by God forever. We learn what the Pharisees and Sadducees needed to learn, that our ancestry or credentials, though an important part of our identity, are not the most important thing about us. Whatever your name, whatever identity you own or is thrust upon you, the only important identity you have is child of God.

In the musical film version of Les Miserables, the main character Jean Valjean has been released from prison after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. He is not able to get work, so he steals from a bishop who has given him food and lodging. After being caught by the police and dragged back to the bishop, Valjean experiences grace at the bishop’s hand. Valjean is not only allowed to keep the silverware he has stolen, but is given silver candlesticks as well. Following this overwhelming act of forgiveness and grace, Valjean sings a soliloquy, “What Have I Done.” It ends with these lines: “As I stare into the void/To the whirlpool of my sin/I'll escape now from that world/ From the world of Jean Valjean/Jean Valjean is nothing now/Another story must begin!” Valjean’s new identity as a child beloved of God led to work in the world that served others. Later in the story, he will have to confront is old identity because another man has been unjustly accused of being him and stands condemned. Valjean sings another song, “Who Am I,” that highlights the struggle we all face in our identities that the world insists to impose upon us.

As Valjean learned, if we don’t see ourselves as beloved children of God, then we won’t see others that way, either. So, to make this real, I want you to take out your smart phones, take a selfie and send it or post it in social media with these words: “I am a beloved child of God and you are, too.” If you don’t have smart phone, during the passing of the peace I want you turn to someone nearby and say these same words, “You are a beloved child of God; peace be with you.” Then, when you come forward for communion, dip your hands in the water, make the sign of the cross, and remember you are a beloved child of God. Nothing this world says or does can ever change that. Jesus Christ died and rose again so that this will always be true and that you will never be separated from that love. You are a beloved child of God. Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"There and Back Again" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas

There and Back Again
Christmas 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
January 4, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 2.13-23

It seems there has been an uptick the last few years with “remade” fairy tales or children’s stories, such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and, if it counts, The Wizard of Oz. What I find interesting is that these are often told from another perspective than is familiar to us. What’s even more interesting is that the other viewpoint is often the typically “evil” character and one who becomes sympathetic from this new vantage point. One takeaway from these retellings is that life is more complex, more gray than black and white, than care to we admit. This holds true for our focus scripture today as we hear the story from Matthew told from a number of viewpoints. The most obvious is Joseph who we believe is sympathetic, but certainly not evil. Then there’s another side of the birth story that certainly is evil, yet not sympathetic, at least not to us: Herod.

We’ve gone through the increasing darkness of Advent that was exploded by the light of Jesus’ birth, and now it seems that we are right back into the darkness again with this brutal story about Herod’s mass killing. If nothing else, the slaughter of the innocents is a grim reminder that evil doesn’t take a break. In fact, it is also a reminder that God’s acts of peace and justice evoke responses of hostility. To say that “No good deed goes unpunished” would sound trite, if it were not for the Herod’s of this world. And if we needed reminding, the fearful response of Herod to the birth of Jesus shows how important God’s incarnation is to this broken world.

Now, it would be easy for us to put some distance between ourselves and the brutality of the text by doing some pew-side theologizing. We could (rightly) talk about the intentional connections Matthew is making between Jesus’ birth and the Old Testament story of Moses birth and subsequent leading of the Israelites out of Egypt. We would see Herod as a latter day Pharaoh, who also fearfully slaughtered innocent male babies and we would talk about God’s miraculous deliverance and provision for his appointed savior. Yet, none of that takes the pain away from parents who witness an untimely and violent end to their child’s life, who wonder how God who is supposed to be with us as Immanuel bails on us when we need him most.

This won’t be the last challenging text we’ll encounter in Matthew, for Jesus says some hard things to say to us. But it will be helpful to remember that these texts aren’t puzzles to be solved for answers as much as they are stories to stretch us in our understanding who God is and what it means to be people of faith. It would be natural to flee from the horror and tragedy of this story, but all appearances to the contrary, that’s not God’s way. For, in fact, God has not abandoned the people and Jesus will return to fulfill God’s mission to bring the world back to him. Jesus will do that by fully entering the darkness. God became flesh and blood not only to experience all of our pain, agony, and heartbreak, but also to show us that we are not alone in the midst of them.

I have known of people who have experienced a tragic loss and who say they are abandoned by their friends afterwards. Why? It’s because people don’t know what to say when this happens. Ironically, when we are going through these difficult times, we just want someone to weep with us and tell us we aren’t alone, that we will get through it. The scripture fulfillment theme in Matthews reminds us that God is in this, even when we can’t see, and that God weeps with us as we weep. As God’s gathered community, we are also called to weep with others. There is more to the story, of course, and the story won’t end until Jesus draws us all into it. Meanwhile, we are to be Rachels to our world, walking with the heartbroken with the love we show best, showing the hurting that Jesus is Emanuel, God with them. That is no fairy tale and it’s the perspective we need. Amen.