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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Who Is This?" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Who Is This?
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 29, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 21.1-17

At lunch with fellow Rotarians I was reminded of the importance of questions for the life of faith. They agreed that the big questions are as important as the answers, and arguably even more so. In fact, I believe that the life of faith is lived mainly in the questions more so than the answers. As an aside, I am fearful of those who claim to have all of the answers and have no questions. One of my fervent hopes is that Grace is and will continue to be a safe place to ask questions. There is a central question voiced in today’s text that winds throughout the Bible: “Who is this?” Please ponder this question with me for the next several minutes, will you?

Who is it that brings such hope to the people who follow him that they risk being accused of causing a riot by the Romans?

Who is it that makes the religious leaders so afraid that they will try to silence him permanently?

To whom is it that we shout “Hosanna,” save us and what is it that we want him to save us from?

Who is it that comes from the East, through the Mt. of Olives, the place from which God and Messiah is said will return?

Who is it that comes in as a conquering hero, not with weapons of war but with palms and, what…?

Who is it that is in control of everything, right down to the arrangements for transportation?

Who is it that sends the Holy City into turmoil by his very presence, reminding us a another city in turmoil at his birth over thirty years ago, Bethlehem?

Who is it that upsets the status quo by challenging centuries-long religious practices?

Who is it that is not only a prophet himself, but also fulfills prophecy and scripture?

Who is it that comes and dares risk death knowing that this is the city that habitually kills its prophets?

Who is it that by his very presence condemns the temple as a den of thieves, making it instead a place where the blind see and the lame walk?

Who is it that refuses to silence the marginalized and “least of these” and accepts their praise?

Of whom is it that even children see a new thing that is happening and shout “Hosanna?”

Who is it that by his presence challenges us to question our blindness, lameness and resistance to what God is doing in our world?

Yet, who is it that offers unbounded grace and mercy, who heals our blindness and gives us strength to follow?

Who is it that will disappoint a good many people before the week is over?

Who is it that by his presence invites us to find our place in the story?

Who is this? Will you walk with me this week as we continue to enter this deepest of questions? Will you go with me through Jesus’ last meal with his closest friends on Maundy Thursday? Will you watch with me at the foot of the cross, where questioning turns to mockery turns to confession and witness? And will you then gather at the empty tomb where we celebrate the unexpectedly joyous answer? Who is this? Let’s find out together. Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Seeing is Doing" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Seeing is Doing
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 22, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.31-46

Last week, I ended the sermon on the parable of the ten maidens with both an invitation and a teaser. The invitation was to encourage you to be alert and watch for the presence of God, in your life and in the world. As a way to start, I introduced a portion of the ancient practice, Examen of Consciousness. Examen encourages one to reflect on our day, good, bad and everywhere in between, and ask how God is working in, with and through those events. So, before we go on, I want to ask those of you who tried, how did it go this week? It’s okay if it didn’t go well or didn’t go at all, there’s no shame or scolding. However, I would encourage you to keep trying.

The teaser was that this week we were going to discover that God shows up in unexpected places. Today we read the last and perhaps most unsettling of Matthew’s parables encountered this Lent, the sheep and the goats. One reason this might be jarring is that when read in the Revised Common Lectionary we would encounter this parable on Christ the King Sunday, just before Advent. In that context, the emphasis is on the end of time and Christ’s second coming. But here we read it just before the passion narrative starts in earnest, giving it an entirely different spin. In fact, in the very next verses Jesus makes his last prediction of his death. In this context, I believe Jesus was preparing his followers to see God in unexpected places. This is a huge shift for them (and us) because we have different notions of the power and presence of God.

We set ourselves up for this disorientation by typically describing God in absolute terms: Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnipresent (All-knowing, All-powerful and All-present). You can hear the old familiar hymn: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise…” Of course, in some ways it’s true, but not in the ways that we typically think. This parable challenges us to rethink where we might find God. There’s a story told in poetic terms of a preacher who would climb the steeple and drop admonitions down upon his parishioners’ heads each week. One week he cried from the steeple, “Where are you, God?” A voice from below: “Here among my people.” This should be no surprise to us because this is the same God who came to earth as a helpless baby and who would ultimately claim victory by defeating sin on a cross.

This parable is full of shocking irony. Isn’t it interesting that neither group knew which they were, sheep or goats? In fact, the parable itself warns against any kind of assessment on our part or grouping on our part. The minute we try to figure out which we are (or anyone else is) we automatically put ourselves in the goat camp. Furthermore, we don’t do acts of charity to see Christ; we do it because the doing needs doing. Service to the least of these our brothers and sisters flows out of the grace given to us by the one who serves us. Yet, it is in the doing to the least of these that we see Christ. I think is kind of like the “Magic Eye” pictures, where there is a picture hidden in a picture. If you look at it directly, you can’t see it, but if you cross your eyes slightly and look beyond it, you see the picture jump out at you.

I’ve titled this sermon, Seeing is Doing, but perhaps it could just as easily be, Doing is Seeing. Or maybe in good Lutheran fashion we hold these two seeming opposite but true things in tension. The point is that there is no place that God cannot be and, more often than not, God is precisely in those places we least expect and that’s good news. Acts of service compel us to see Jesus and seeing Jesus compels us to acts of service. As we enter Holy Week next Palm Sunday, let us be open to seeing Jesus where we least expect. And for those who long for Jesus to return, know that he’s already here, because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Ready or Not, Here I Come!" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Ready or Not, Here I Come!
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 15, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 25.1-13

Today, we continue our Lenten journey through Jesus’ parables in Matthew as Jesus moves closer and closer to the cross. It seems as we do so, they get edgier and edgier. When I first worked with this parable several weeks ago, I didn’t realize it would follow the time change to Daylight Savings Time. So this last Monday when I attacked it in earnest, I realized why the maidens fell asleep waiting: it was after the time change. Perhaps when we take small children on a long trip we should do it at this time of year so that they’d fall asleep rather than keep saying, “Are we there yet?” My tail has been dragging so low to the ground this week I wonder if even Jesus’ coming would rouse me from sleep.

As we dig into the text today, it would be good to remember that parables are not puzzles to be solved but mysteries to be entered. Or more to the point, they are mysteries to enter us and open us up to the ways of the kingdom. This is especially true with the parable of the 10 maidens. It is important to note that although the parable has allegorical elements, it isn’t a strict allegory. There aren’t one-to-one correlations with all of the elements in the parable.

Now, we could do a whole Bible study on this, but what’s important to remember for today is that Matthew’s community preserved this parable because they were baffled about why Jesus hadn’t returned as he promised. It’s been 30 years since Jesus’ death, resurrection and promise to return. Where was he? Jesus’ command for them to keep awake was meant to not only assure them of his eventual return, but also to invite them to look around in their lives for his presence.

We need to admit that 2,000 years later we don’t have the same uneasiness about Jesus’ delay as Matthew’s community. That is, unless you’re one of those we make fun of, such as the “Left Behind” folk who take out billboard ads threatening Jesus’ imminent return.  Perhaps the only group periodically wishing for Jesus to come back is students taking tests they haven’t studied for. So, instead of the bumper sticker saying, “Jesus is coming; look busy!” it should be truncated to say, “Jesus is coming; look!”

So, I want us to understand Jesus’ words as a reminder to look for his coming every day. Here’s a quote by Eduard Schweitzer, an early 20th century New Testament scholar:
When Jesus calls on his disciples to keep watch, he is calling on them to take the reality of God so seriously that they can come to terms with its sudden appearance at any moment within their own lives, precisely because they know that this reality will one day come unboundedly in the kingdom of God.
In other words, because we are assured that Jesus will return one day, we know he shows up every day.

On one level, I think all of us know that God is active in our world, all the time and in many ways. But, I think that we have a hard time seeing God working because of busy-ness and ignorance. We are too busy to take the time to reflect on where God is active in our lives and we may not know how to look if we did. An ancient spiritual practice developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola called Examen of Consciousness is one way to help us see God. We don’t have time to do a full blown exercise (and I’m no expert) but here is one way to do this. At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on all that’s happened to you during the day, good or bad. Then ask, “What has been happening in me?” in these events and “How has God been working in me?” Now, this isn’t a time to dictate to God the questions you want answered, such as why things happened, but rather at time to see how God meets you in those events.

There’s a lot more to Examen than this, but this is a simple why to get practice in looking for God. It’s also a reminder that Lent is an opportunity to look for Jesus presence and to realize that we are often like the maidens on the other side of the door, seemingly shut out from God’s company. Waiting and looking are hard, which is why we gather together as a congregation, to help each other slow down and see what God is up to in, with and through us. Furthermore, together we are able to see that Jesus shows up in some pretty unexpected places. But that’s my sermon for next week, that is, if I can get used to the time change and stay awake long enough to hear what God would have me say. Amen.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

"An Offer We Can’t Refuse" - Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

An Offer We Can’t Refuse
Lent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 22.1-14

As a pastor, I have been doing weddings for almost 19 years and generally speaking, I really enjoy doing them. Well, perhaps the exception is some outdoor weddings. The problem with outdoor weddings is that couples want an indoor wedding outdoors and it just doesn’t always work very well. Even so, I like working with couples and getting to meet their families and friends. However, unlike most people who prefer the reception to the wedding, I don’t care for receptions much. (I learned very early that about half of all invitees will attend the wedding, but all of them will attend the reception.)

Maybe I don’t care for receptions because they are usually Saturday evening and I’m tired and thinking about Sunday. Or maybe it’s my closet introversion and the thought of spending several hours with a few hundred people doesn’t do much for me. Maybe it’s because couples make us sit around forever before we eat because they are off taking pictures and even longer until we get desert. Whatever the reasons, I prefer the wedding to the reception.

So, I can understand a bit why the king’s subjects rejected his invitation to the wedding feast. We have in Matthew’s gospel today what David Lose calls an “ugly parable.” It’s a very difficult parable in so disturbing on many levels, not the least of which is the violence wrought by the “king.” Traditionally, the parable has been allegorized: king = God, son = Jesus; the guests who refuse to come = Jewish people; the new guests = Christians; and the improperly robed man = rejecter of the new life that grace brings. The problem with this interpretation is it lends itself to anti-Semitism and triumphalism. In fact, Martin Luther’s occasional anti-Semitic streak reared its ugly head in a sermon on this parable. But the other problem is that allegorizing also blunts the force of the parable.

Instead, it’s best to read the parable with the understanding that this is more like an inter-family squabble. As this parable indicates, Matthew’s church struggled with two important questions. The first has to do with our loved ones who don’t accept God’s grace. In this vein, it’s important to remember context and Jesus’ increasing conflict with the religious leaders of the day, the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees.  Initially, the parable attacks the religious leaders who should have seen God working in, with and through the ministry of Jesus Christ but who are threatened by him and reject his message. The second question has to do with those people who do accept God’s grace through Jesus Christ, but don’t live it out.

In the ancient world, rejecting a king’s invitation was an act of open rebellion, subject to violent reprisals. If we were to update the parable, we might substitute blockades and trade sanctions for the burning of cities. However, lest we are tempted to join our ancestors in a crusade or inquisition, I suggest a different approach. Realizing that Jesus uses hyperbole to get our attention, while also doing justice to the parable, I suggest we probe what Jesus wants to tell us through the inappropriately attired wedding guest. This is someone who seems to have responded to God’s gracious invitation but is found wanting.

On Ash Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent promising to intentionally work on our relationship with God. The parable reminds us that God’s grace calls us into a relationship with God that makes a difference in our lives. In other words, it’s something of a “gut check.” It’s important for us to ask ourselves periodically how it’s going. As Socrates or Plato said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Jesus says it another way: the only life worth living is that kingdom life. We need to remember that the kingdom life Jesus brings is not just some future hope available after we die. Rather, the future breaks into now and we live the kingdom life today.

The fact is that God wants more for us than we often want for ourselves. The pointed question for today is: do we trust God to act in all areas of our lives or only the ones that meet our approval? Another way for this parable to open us up is to ask, what is getting in the way of kingdom living? As I mentioned on Ash Wednesday, what gets in the way for me is too much focus on the future. I keep running from one thing to the next, often missing the joy of the present. Since then, I have been trying to be mindful about staying in the moment, being present to what is happening and looking for God in it. Some days it goes better than others. What about you, where is God inviting you to live kingdomly?

Jesus’ parables are not so much puzzles to be explained as they are mystery’s to be explored. Or perhaps even more so, they are mysteries designed to open us up to deeper, richer life. It’s so important that Jesus takes a risk by grabbing us by the scruff of our necks to get our attention. Here’s the kicker: when we most fully live the kingdom life, those we love will see it in us and want it for themselves. Even better yet, on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection we know that the outer darkness is not beyond God’s reach. Ultimately, the offer of God’s love is one too irresistible to refuse. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Pontius Pilate: I Was There" - Monologue for Midweek Lent 2015

Pontius Pilate:  I Was There
Midweek Lent 2015
Mankato, MN Area "Round Robin"

Hello, my name is Pontius Pilate, and I was there for the crucifixion of Jesus, your “Messiah.” But you probably know me since you use my name every week in your statement of belief, “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” At least, you think you know me, or you think that you know all there is important to know about me. Let me tell you, people are rarely as simple as we think they there; there’s always more going on in people’s lives. However, in order for you to better understand, I’d better start at the beginning, how this all happened. I hope that by telling you what happened when I was there that you could be there, too.

My wife, Procula, and I were so excited to be going to my first important posting in the Roman government. I was to be prefect (a governor in your terminology) of Judea, certainly a stepping-stone for greater positions later on. I learned all I could about the Jewish people before I left and I had high hopes to Romanize them. Sure, I heard about how obstinate and difficult they were, especially where their religion was concerned. It’s hard to imagine they believed in only one God while most Romans believe in many gods. So, when I moved one of my legions into the Antonian fortress in Jerusalem, the Jews went crazy because the standards carried the image of Caesar Tiberius, and Jews prohibit images of any kind in their holy city.

That didn’t end well and what was worse, the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, caught wind of it in back home. I was in trouble. I was caught between a rock and hard place, several of them, in fact. Sejanus, my benefactor, was anti-Jewish and supported me in my hard line, but when it was discovered that he was plotting against Tiberius, he was purged along with others. I thought I was next, but thankfully, I was spared. Tiberius was more sympathetic to the Jews, which meant that I had to walk a fine line between diplomacy and keeping order. If it weren’t for Herod Antipas and Phillip, puppet rulers who were part Jewish, it would have been much easier.

So, when it came time to deal with this Jesus character, I had to really watch my step. I had to balance firm, Roman rule and enforcement of Roman law with diplomatic finesse while trying to work with the Jewish religious leaders and not getting myself in trouble with Tiberius. You know much of the story. It began with reports of this crazy prophet who was baptizing people and talking about someone else coming after him who would restore the Jews to their rightful place. At least I didn’t have to worry about them much because they were Antipas’ problem in Galilee.

I was glad when Antipas made a huge blunder by beheading John because of a half-drunken promise to Salome, his wife’s daughter. After that, there were reports of Jesus drawing great crowds, healing people, feeding thousands and even turning water into wine. Of course, I dismissed him as one more charlatan trickster; there were plenty of those to go around. But, the religious leaders were not amused, especially when Jesus had some choice words for them. Long story short, it was clear they wanted to get rid of Jesus, but again, it was not my problem.

That changed when during the Jewish festival of Passover. I always made a habit of traveling from my palace in Caesarea to my home in Jerusalem because there were so many Jews coming to celebrate. They needed a physical Roman presence to keep things in hand. In addition, it was good time to conduct empire business. So, I was surprised that Jesus came to Jerusalem because he knew the leaders wanted to kill him. Not only did he come, but also his followers went wild, strewing palm branches, calling him Son of David.

Right then, it seemed like events spiraled out of control. I learned later that they captured him at night so they wouldn’t upset the crowds and even got one of his followers to betray him with a kiss. Their court, the Sanhedrin, in a mockery of a trial convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced to death. However, they couldn’t put him to death because when I arrived in Judea six years earlier, I had removed their right to do that, so they brought Jesus to me. In hindsight, I only regret this one thing.

Well, I don’t know who I was exasperated about more, the religious leaders or Jesus. They really had no case against him, but they wouldn’t be appeased by any compromise. And Jesus, he just stood there, didn’t say a word, didn’t call any witnesses to defend himself. Then I had a great idea: since his so-called crimes were committed in Galilee, I’d send him to Herod Antipas and let him deal with it. But he sent him right back, and my last hope, releasing a criminal for Passover didn’t work either. What made this situation even worse was that, in trying to appease Tiberius and the religious leaders and wanting to do the just thing, my own wife told me she was warned in a dream that I should leave him alone.

Well, you know the rest of it: I washed my hands of the whole affair and condemned him to death with two other common criminals I had found guilty earlier in the day. Then a couple of the religious leaders claimed his body and buried him quickly. A few days later, I began to hear reports that he had been raised from the dead and appeared to many of his followers. I tried in vain to prove that it was a hoax, another trick, but to no avail; the story began to spread.

As for me, I was recalled to Rome after a nasty affair with the Samaritans on trumped up charges. Ten years I tried to serve faithfully as a Roman governor, but I think the cards were stacked against me. Some people believed I committed suicide to preserve my family honor, but don’t believe it. I often wonder what would have happened if I had stood up to everyone and let Jesus go. Honestly, I think the world would have found another way to kill him, but I’m the one they blame. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me, but I hope you have a different view of the events that happened 2,000 years ago from someone who was there, especially from now on when you say my name each week. I hope you feel like you were there, too. Thanks for listening.

Postscript:
Pontius Pilate ruled as prefect in Judea for 10 years, from 26 AD to 36 AD. We don’t know what happened to him after he was recalled to Rome. One tradition has it that he committed suicide to avoid disgrace at his recall, but the source of that tradition was biased against Pilate and is doubtful at best. Another tradition says that his wife, Procula, became a Christian and that Pilate himself was a secret Christian. What we do know is that the Greek Orthodox Church canonized his wife and celebrates “St. Procula’s Day" on October 27, and that the Ethiopian Church recognizes June 25 “St. Pilate and St. Procula’s Day.” I am indebted to Paul L. Maier's book, Pontius Pilate, for much of the content of this monologue. (Kregel, Grand Rapids, MI, 1968, 2014)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"It’s Not Fair!" - Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

It’s Not Fair!
Lent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
March 1, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 20.1-16

Many of you know that I am a second career (or mid-life crisis) pastor. I was previously in business world for 16 years prior to entering seminary. I first felt the call to ministry in 1984, but we were expecting our first daughter, Angela, then so the timing was not good. However, God doesn’t let go very easily and the call kept coming up. Finally, at Christmas of 1991in my annual letter to family and friends I asked for prayer as we discerned this momentous change in our lives. That January I received a call from one of my aunts. She did not receive a letter but had heard through other relatives about my prayer request. She said that if I decided to go to seminary she would contribute a generous sum each year for all four years. It was one of the most undeserved and over the top acts of grace I have ever experienced.

In this second week of Lent, we encounter another of Jesus’ challenging parables that stretch us. Last week, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, we heard about a God whose forgiveness helps us repair our own broken relationships. Today we read the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, or more appropriately titles, the overly generous landowner. Some of you may remember that we read this parable last summer when we delved into the fruit of the spirit, in this case, generosity. Though the parable reads that way, today I want to focus instead on the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy. I want us to go deeper into how this parable stretches our understanding of God’s kingdom now.

On one level, I think most of us are able to intellectually understand how God’s mercy and grace are for all people. After all, we want everyone to know God’s love for them and wish them to live a redeemed life. But on another level, there is something in us that grates late conversions. We think that we who have been so faithful to God for so long ought to receive some consideration, right? However, the scandal of the parable is not as much God’s lavish grace and mercy that God wishes to pour out on anyone and everyone. I think the scandal of the parable is how it reveals our own hard hearts.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus eats with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders of the day. So, a late worker is anyone we think might be unlovable by God or is beyond God’s power to reconcile to himself. It doesn’t take much imagination to think about who we think in our modern world might be excluded from that grace. This past week during our midweek Lent service, I portrayed Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who crucified Jesus. During the adult forum time afterward, the question came up if he (or Judas) was ever redeemed by God. Some traditions actually claim Pilate was a secret Christian and the Ethiopian church recognizes him as a saint. But, here’s my take: the Bible seems to say that nobody is ever beyond God’s love and I believe the parable says that God will keep coming into the marketplace inviting us into the vineyard until all of us join him in the kingdom.

There’s one more aspect of this parable we sometimes miss. There are some aspects of our lives that we think are beyond God’s grace and mercy, things we’ve done we are ashamed of or we wish we could do over. In our minds we may say that we know God has taken care of them, but in our hearts we aren’t sure. When I was a new manager trainee for Minnesota Fabrics I came close to being fired because of a poor performance review. I learned afterwards that my manager argued with our boss to keep me and give me another chance, one that I didn’t deserve. It was again one of the most gracious acts I have ever received, unmerited grace and mercy.

The parable pushes us to ask what roadblocks we erect to God’s grace, in our lives and in the lives of others. Regardless, please know that God will never, ever stop coming for you or for others, but he’d like you to come now so you can enjoy the life God has to offer. God will have his way with you, but it’s the way of love, and God will go as far as it takes, even to the cross. Amen.