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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Life Together Part 2: Forgiveness" - Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Life Together Part 2: Forgiveness
Lent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 22, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 18.15-35

Many of you know that I’m a big fan of the Disney movie, “Frozen.” I like its strong, female characters who can be princesses without being princesses. I truly appreciate its message of love; not romantic love, but sacrificial love. Plus it is just good fun with memorable songs. Yet, I came to realize this past week that its signature song, “Let It Go,” with all of its farcical offshoots and its seemingly beneficial message, is problematic in many ways. No matter how much we’d like to do so, sometimes we can’t just let it go. A number of years ago a pithy Christian saying was making the rounds: “Let go and let God.” But when it comes to forgiveness, letting go and even letting God can be nigh on impossible.

Today we are presented with some more of Jesus’ teaching, this time with an explanatory parable at the end. It’s a parable that is all too clear: we are to forgive. This reading is the second half of Jesus’ fourth discourse, the first part having been read on Ash Wednesday. We noted then that the overall theme of this discourse is how we are live together in community. On Ash Wednesday, we learned that life together means that we are to have childlike humility, utterly dependant on God. Today, we pick up the topic of forgiveness, about what needs to happen when community is broken. Clearly, Matthew’s community took their life together seriously because as they preserved the words of Jesus we find that there’s explicit instruction for how we repair broken relationships.

I’m fairly certain that if you polled 100 Christians about whether forgiveness is important, 110 of them would say “Yes.” I’m also sure that we’d all agree it is God’s forgiveness that makes our forgiveness possible. When I meet with couples who wish to be married, we read in Genesis 1about how God created us in God’s image. When I ask what they think that means, a variety of answers are given. Once in a while, some have pointed out that we love and forgive like God loves and forgives. In fact, there is an old Jewish folk tale that says before God created the world God forgave it. And the parable indicates with an absurd amount how unbounded God’s forgiveness really is. It has been estimated that to pay pack 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years!

Yet, this head knowledge comes smack up against our practical reality of hurts and damages that happen to us. CS Lewis notes that it’s a beautiful notion until it comes up against that flesh and blood person you want to smack in the nose. We also know that our society has a hard time with repentance and forgiveness. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper or log into social media. As we have seen with A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), what passes for apologies and repentance is a sham. And when someone is caught in an unfortunate situation, such as Brian Williams, even a sincere apology is not enough to prevent a sacrificial blood-letting. Furthermore, we also know that not forgiving is toxic; as they say, it’s like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die. And we know that not being able to forgive leads to hearts that are hardened and closed to love.

So, what are we to do? Well, it seems forgiveness begins with accepting that we cannot change the past no matter how devastating it is and how much we want to do so. But, it means realizing the past doesn’t have to hold us captive any longer. It also means that for us to be able to forgive we need utterly and humbly depend on God. Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who was held in a Nazi camp during WWII because of her actions to free Jews from persecution. Most of her family was slaughtered but she somehow managed to survive. Years later she spoke at an event and after she was finished speaking, an old man came up to her. She recognized immediately that he was a guard at the prison and responsible for much of the brutality. Yet, here he was, holding out his hand and asking forgiveness. She said she could not forgive him, but she could take his hand. As she did so, she felt God’s forgiveness flowing through her, doing what she could not do for herself.

Regarding forgiveness, “Let it go” isn’t particularly helpful, and letting God is helps get us further. God is steadfastly determined to wring healing and wholeness out of the tragedy and brokenness of our lives. That’s the message of the cross, God’s pledge to forgive all, to not let our past hold us captive any longer. And the resurrection is God’s promise that, regardless of our past, we have an open future of God’s making. In the end, “let it go” may not change anything, but as a commentator notes, “let it in, let it work and watch it grow” does. May God’s unending forgiveness flow through you and give you new life. Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Life Together Part 1: Humility" - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Life Together Part 1: Humility
Ash Wednesday – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 18, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 18.1-9

A number of years ago Susan told me a story about an experience she had as a young army wife. Her husband was a newly minted 1st Lieutenant and he’d just changed assignments to a new base. Back then, it was all male officers and female spouses and so it was not unusual for the base commander’s wife to invite all of the newly arrived wives to a reception at her home on the base. When they gathered, the commander’s wife directed all of the wives to line up in order of their rank. Susan, being new, stood befuddled while the wives tried to sort themselves out, but assumed that she’d be at the end of the line. After a few minutes of this, the commander’s wife barked them to attention with the phrase, “Ladies, you have no rank; it is your husbands who have the rank.” Though the experience may have bordered on humiliation, it was a lesson in humility that Susan never forgot.

Tonight’s reading is the first half of Jesus’ fourth discourse in Matthew’s gospel. There are five blocks of teaching where Jesus helps his followers understand the ways of the kingdom. If you were to read all of chapter 18 (the rest of which we’ll read Sunday), you’d see that this teaching focuses on how we are to live together in community. Here is another reminder that even though our relationship with Jesus is personal, it’s not private. What we do or don’t do and what we say or don’t say have profound effects on other people.

Yet, what really gets our attention is that Jesus calls us to relate to each other in a different way than our society tells us we should relate to each other: like children. In Jesus’ time, children had no social standing or status. At best they were considered potential persons. At worst, they were considered property. So, to become like a child is to assume the same kind of status.

There are many ideas about what Jesus means when he says we are to become like children. Along with turning status on its head – you’re not somebody until you’re nobody – there is also the idea that to be like a child is to be teachable. Children are little sponges and love to soak up information. Being like a child also means knowing that we are utterly dependent upon God for everything we need.

One of my biggest concerns about what passes for civil discourse in our society (which is anything but) is a lack of humility in conversation. Now, I appreciate when people are passionate about their beliefs, but passion needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of, “I could be wrong.” We need to be open to what other people are saying to us, even when it is offensive, because we need to be in relationship with others. We can’t do that if we shut down ourselves and our conversations. This is a great example about what we talked about Sunday and God’s command to the disciples that we listen to his Beloved Son. Listening to Jesus means giving up ourselves, cutting out distractions and opening ourselves up in humility to engage the other.

Tonight we begin the 40 days of Lent, a season of reflection on our lives and what matters most to us. To start us off and given our text, perhaps we could update Jesus’ words for today: “Unless you change and become like a homeless person, the truly important things of this world will get farther away from you.” And, “if your iPhone or Lexus or Calvin Klein’s cause you to stumble or get in the way of the life I call you to live with one another, you would do well to put them aside, for your sake and the sake of others.”

Quite often, to assist us in this reflective thinking, we give up something for Lent or we add a spiritual discipline. I always wrestle with this and I even hesitate talking about it because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a spiritual superhero, because I’m not. However, I wouldn’t suggest something to you that I’m not willing to do myself. So, his year I want to be more mindful of where I am rather than where I’m going. It’s more than just slowing down; it’s being present in the moment rather than always thinking of all the things I have to do. Now, it’s always good to have an accountability partner, not to bash you over the head but to ask, “How’s it going?” So, for the next 40 days, I invite you to ask me, “Where are you, pastor?” No doubt, my answers will vary, but if I’m not “in the moment” I’ll thank you for the gentle reminder. Either way, whether you engage in a Lenten discipline or not, know that the one who gave up everything to reconcile us to God invites you to new life. Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Listen to Him" - Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

Listen to Him
Transfiguration – Narrative Lectionary 1
Grace, Mankato, MN
February 15, 2015
Matthew 16.21-17.9

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

A number of years ago during a routine physical I was given a hearing test. At its completion, I was asked by the nurse if I was married. Replying yes, the nurse said, “Well, you can tell your wife your hearing is just fine.” Through the years whenever I’ve been accused of not listening, I’ve learned to ask my wife, “Was I looking at you when you said that?” About 4.5 years ago this hearing thing stopped being funny when I experienced Idiopathic Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss, a condition for which there is no explanation or treatment. Ringing in my ears, background noise and diminished range make hearing and listening a challenge every day.

It may have been my hearing struggles that made me focus on God’s command in today’s reading, “listen to him!” We’ve reached a pivotal point in Matthew’s gospel, one that both looks back and forward. Five weeks ago on the first Sunday after Epiphany at Jesus’ baptism, as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alighted upon him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Now we have a similar scene, except that Jesus is transfigured on the mountain and the divine cloud appears, adding the phrase, “listen to him!”

This past week in a number of places, I asked people what they thought it means to listen to Jesus. Pr. Collette Broady Grund mentioned a sermon she’d read by Barbara Brown Taylor. Taylor said that Jesus’ disciples needed to trust what they hear from Jesus, not what they see, because it’s the only way that they can make sense of what happens to Jesus. In the time to come they will see their master and friend be arrested, beaten and crucified on the cross. We all know that appearances, especially first impressions, can be deceiving. Nowhere is that more true than in the counter-cultural message of losing our life in order to find it.

This past Wednesday night I tossed the question out to the adults and confirmation students in our worship service. Becky Glaser said something simple, but profoundly theological: we have to give up ourselves in order to listen. When we listen to another person, our normal habit is to think ahead of what we are going to say next. Instead, we have to remove all thoughts and concentrate on what the other person is saying and meaning by what they say. In listening to Jesus, we have to shut out distractions, especially voices telling us life is found elsewhere. Here’s a small example: I struggle to do my daily devotions, being distracted by thinking about all I need to do. Sometimes I even fall asleep! Eliminating distractions is hard, but necessary in order to listen to Jesus.

Finally, Joyce Nelson reminded us that listening is not a passive affair with Jesus; we are to act on what we hear. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has some hard things to say to us about the life of faith. We are to empty ourselves, take up the cross of Servanthood and follow the example Jesus set for us. What we hear Jesus teaching us about God’s kingdom is deeply connected to how we live our lives. In the coming weeks, Jesus will teach us about true humility, forgiveness, and the need to be alert. He will also remind us that God’s lavish grace that is meant for all people also demands a response from us.

This last week we learned of Kayla Mueller’s death, probably at the hands of her captors, ISIS. Kayla had gone to Syria to help ease the suffering of the thousands caught in this brutal conflict. She has said that, while other people see God in various places, she sees God in the suffering of others. So, she went to Syria in response to God’s call on her life, to ease suffering. In a little while, we’ll gather to eat omelets to support Edith White, serving in Togo and Benin West Africa and Global Eye Mission around the world. Not all of us are called to go to foreign places to serve God and others, but we are called to listen for what Jesus does call us to do. We can’t always trust we see, so we listen, cutting out the distractions and noise, actively listening. And when we stumble, which we know we’ll do, we know Jesus is there to pick us up, telling us not to be afraid, sending us out again. Listen to him. Amen.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

"Take Heart" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Take Heart
Epiphany 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
February 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 14.13-33

We have jumped a long way from last week’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in 6 and our mediation on the Lord’s Prayer. In this current section, the rejection of Jesus in his hometown and the continuing opposition from the religious leaders prompts him to stress teaching to his disciples. He does this while healing and performing wonders. Here, we encounter two well-known miracle stories, each of which we could feed on with much left over. Both of these have generated much conversation, particularly about “did this really happen.” I think more fruitful exploration involves asking what the readings say about God and how we participate in God’s ongoing acts of creation.
Let us pray…

I was reminded of a joke this past week. It seems there was a scientist who claimed that God was nothing special because this scientist had learned how to create a human being, just as God did. When challenged to prove his claim, the scientist proceeded to so by saying, “First you take some dirt…” All of a sudden, a voice from heaven interrupted the scientist saying, “Use your own dirt.” So it was I read with interest the Free Press story about the English Parliament. It was voting to allow genetic scientists to experiment with the creation of an embryo from three parents to avoid genetic abnormalities. This news prompts a lot of theological, social and moral questions that are very important, but it also highlights our ongoing participation in God’s ongoing creative work.

That’s the commonality that links the two wonder stories in today’s reading. One thing that links these two miracle stories is that both look back to Genesis 1 and the creation story. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowds and they claim they have nothing, except five loaves and two fish, they have no idea that the very creator who formed the universe out of nothing, making all the life giving food in the process, can take their nothing and make a lot of something out of it. And when they are in the small boat battling the chaotic forces of nature that threaten to overwhelm them, they will see this same creator who tamed the chaos at creation do the same again on the Sea of Galilee.

I think that these two stories typify the Christian life, what it is like to be caught between faith and doubt. Isn’t it interesting how the same disciples who witnessed the abundant feeding of the multitude are now scared stiff? Yet, note that Jesus doesn’t say they have no faith; he says they have little faith. But as we know, it only takes the faith of a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, through which Jesus does extraordinary things. That’s the kind of faith that can uproot mountains and throw them into the sea.

Furthermore, remember earlier in Matthew, when Jesus was tempted by Satan. We noted that his mocking, “If you are the Son of God” can be translated, “Since you are the Son of God,” a confession of faith. When Jesus comes to his disciples on the water, a better translation of “It is I” is “I am,” the divine name of God. Peter in effect says the same thing here: “Since you are, command me to come and be with you.”

Author, theologian and preacher par excellence Barbara Brown Taylor puts legs to these stories by admonishing us to “stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.: For the same creator who brought order out of chaos at creation still does so today. The one who made the universe out of nothing, provided food at creation and manna in the wilderness for the Israelites, and fed the multitudes still does, taking our nothing and make abundant something. And as we look forward in Matthew to the Lord’s Last Supper, his crucifixion and death, we remember that this same God can bring life out of death. That’s a lot of something out of nothing.

So we ask ourselves, where is God overcoming our fear, sending us out into uncharted waters? When we stumble, where is God taking hold of us in forgiveness, mercy, love and grace, ready to make something out of our nothing? As my former colleague, Pr. Michelle Rem often asked, “Can we dream a dream so big only God can fulfill it?” My brothers and sisters, take heart, for the Lord of creation continues do wondrous things, calling us to risks ourselves in the going creative work, taking our nothing and making incredible something. Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"The Heart of Prayer" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

The Heart of Prayer
Epiphany 4
February 1, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 6.7-21

Today’s focus scripture is from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It is the first, largest, and arguably one of most important blocks of teaching in Matthew’s gospel, and perhaps the New Testament, with the possible exception of his Farewell Discourse in John. As we noted last week, Jesus assumes the position of authority and revelation on the mountain. In doing this and other things, Matthew portrays him as a prophet like Moses. Yet, Jesus is unique because, instead of receiving the Law, Jesus is shown to be the right interpreter of the Law. He is not abolishing the Law but instead insisting that his followers pursue the greater righteous the interpretation of the Law demands. Interestingly, the Lord’s Prayer stands at the center of this sermon. Today’s message explores why this is important for us.

Let us pray…

A number of experiences shaped my understanding of prayer in general and the Lord’s Prayer in particular. One experience occurred almost 20 years when I was visiting a young woman in a nursing home while on internship. This woman had Cerebral Palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. She was unable to communicate much, though she laughed heartily when I told her I was a registered Girl Scout. Uncomfortable because we couldn’t talk much, I plowed ahead with giving her Communion. When I came to the Lord’s Prayer I became aware she was saying the it right along with me. Certainly, it was not as polished, but it was there nonetheless. This was the first of many instances showing me the power of the prayer our Lord taught us.

A second experience occurred during a community worship service where I had been invited to preach. I think it was a high school Baccalaureate service. Shortly after my sermon, another pastor was tasked with saying a prayer. As he did so, I became aware that he was offering a subtle but unmistakable rebuttal and commentary to my sermon. I was reminded of a line I had come across a few years earlier about preachers and prayer: “Open your eyes, brother, you’re preaching, not praying.”

These and many other experiences have shown me two things: the difficulty of prayer and the power of the Lord’s Prayer. Why else is there such a discomfort about prayer and vehement conversation about which version we use. Perhaps the power of the Lord’s Prayer is what makes us uncomfortable, for at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer we declare that we want to align ourselves and our wills most fully with God’s. We ask for the coming of his reign here on earth. Frankly, I think that’s the scariest thing we can pray for, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Look where it got Jesus as he prayed that prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified on a cross. Frederick Buechner says it as only he can: “To speak these words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”

Yet, it’s the most important prayer to pray because we acknowledge that neither we nor the world is not as it ought to be and we ask God to make it and us right. A colleague, Pr. Collette Broady Grund put it this way: “I don’t always like who I am either, so I need God to make me different.” Five hundred years earlier, Martin Luther had this to say: we don’t pray to God to tell God what we want (because God already knows) but to align ourselves with God. This is one of the hardest things about the life of faith, because many things stand in the way of aligning our will to God’s in prayer. For me, one thing that stands in the way is the busy-ness of my life and another is being a pastor. I spend so much time doing these things “professionally” that it’s hard to do them as a regular person. What about you? What stands in the way between you and God?

In a way of helping, I want to end with a Thomas Merton quote that was shared with me the other day. It may help you as you seek to navigate around those things that get in the as you grow closer to God. Let us pray it together:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude