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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Turn and Live" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Turn and Live
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Grace, Mankato, MN
April 26, 2015
Acts 13.1-3; 14.8-18

A number of years ago, we took a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to see the usual sights. On the way, we decided to stop off in De Smet, one of the homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder of “Little House” fame. We then made our way down to I-90 (bypassing the Corn Palace in Mitchell). We then crossed South Dakota on one of the dreariest drives I’ve ever had – there was no place to make a quick stop for 200 miles. We finally got some sandwiches at a gas station convenience mart. So, I was anxious to hit the infamous Wall Drug, if nothing else than to see something interesting. However, before we got to Wall, I was astounded to see a sight I never expected and it took my breath away. Though I normally like to push on to my destination, we all knew we needed stop and take it in.

I would learn later that the combination of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires, painted in a variety of striking colors, was the Badlands. My guess is that this beautiful are was probably unfortunately named because of the travel difficulty it caused earlier travelers. Yet, as we wandered the area, I had this overwhelming thought: “God made this for me.” I remembered something my internship supervisor, Pr. E. Gordon Ross, had said years earlier about why he traveled so much: “God made this creation for me to enjoy and I want to see as much of it as I possibly can before I die.”

In a bit different context, the Apostle Paul echoes a similar sentiment: God “has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” This declaration is in response to an unexpected reaction to the healing of a man crippled from birth. Paul and Barnabas have been commissioned by the church at Antioch to spread the good news to the Gentiles. It is the first time in Acts that a community of faith sets apart and sends out missionaries. While at Lystra (in modern day Turkey), Paul notices that one of the pagan worshippers is really into him. We don’t know why, but Paul (through the Holy Spirit?) sees something in him and heals the man. If nothing else, the healing confirms that the mission to the Gentiles is legitimate and of God’s purpose.

However, the reaction of the Lystrans catches Paul and Barnabas off-guard and they have to back up quickly. Paul realizes that the move from worshipping Roman gods to the crucified and risen Christ is huge, too huge for them to make in one leap. (Here’s an important principle of evangelism: people can only move so far at one time.) So Paul challenges them to look away from the things that don’t give life to the creator of what does. He says, “Can’t you see it? Look all around you! The Living God made all of this for you.” But Paul knows his stuff about the religions of the day and makes sure that they don’t confuse creation with creator. The true God is not to be found in things; if anything, things should and do point toward the true God.

About a week and a half ago John and I took our middle school and high school youth to the annual youth event at Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry at MSU. During small group time, we were invited to write down how we spend each 24 hour day. The exercise was designed to show how crazy our lives can become and how easily God can get crowded out. Now, I’ve seen this exercise used to guilt people over how little God shows up in our day, but thankfully the college youth at Crossroads showed our youth something else. They invite them to ask, “Where do you see God in, with and through your day?” It’s like looking at your checkbook (or credit card statement) to see what your priorities are for spending your money. It’s not about giving more to God and the church (though there is always more ministry that can be done). The question is, “How I am honoring God and furthering God’s work through my use of resources?”

Someone said that our greatest obstacle to experiencing God—and by extension, the new life God has for us—is our previous experience of God. In other words, we can’t imagine God coming other ways because we are so fixated on how we last experienced God. As I think about my experience in the Badlands, I think there is truth in that statement. So one the one hand, I am more aware of the presence of God in creation because of the experience. But on the other hand, I am reminded to be open to seeing God in other ways, too. Who would have thought that God was already working in a crippled pagan? It’s probably the same one who thought to be present in a little bit of bread and a little sip of wine. The same one who tells us he is present in the flowing fountains of water washing over us. It’s probably the same one who thought that dying on a cross would bring new life to a broken creation. For the crucified Christ has been raised and invites us to turn now and live. Alleluia, amen.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Double Vision" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Double Vision
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 19, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 10.1-17; 34-35

In the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, (which is actually Episode 5!) the young Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker, is told to go to Dagobah to complete his training under the Jedi master, Yoda. After a rough landing in a dreary swamp, Luke meets a small, green gnome-like creature who paws through his rescued baggage, eats his food, talks in riddles and generally makes a nuisance of himself. It’s only later that Luke learns that this pesky creature is the Jedi master, Yoda, who is to complete his training.

I think God is a lot like Yoda, poking into our lives, talking in riddles, tossing aside our baggage and prodding us to think in new ways. We have now moved from the end of Matthew and Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all nations to the book of Acts, where we hear how the early church works out this calling. There are some things to note about Acts that are helpful to understand the book. First, there are three general intertwined movements. The book goes from a focus on Peter to one centered on Paul. The mission goes from one begun among the Jews to that of the Gentiles. And the outward action symbolically moves from Jerusalem to Rome. Second, the book should be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit” instead of the “Acts of the Apostles” because it is the Holy Spirit who drives the action, as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit is named over 40 times. Finally, the book shows that living into this new reality is messy; the young church is literally making it up as it goes along.

Last week, we talked about the interplay between faith and doubt, that the way ahead in the life of faith isn’t clear. In our reading today, we hear part of what the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s grace means. There are three aspects of the journey of discernment I think are helpful for the life of faith. The first aspect is what I’m going to call revelation, that God rummages through our preconceived ideas about life and in doing so reveals something new and often challenging to us. God comes to Peter in a very startling and even ambiguous way through a vision. Yet, God also works through scripture and tradition to reveal what God is up to in the world.

Even though the encounter with God was powerful, Peter doesn’t know what to do with it. He can’t see how God wants him to change his diet, one that went to his core identity as a Jew. That changes when he hears about Cornelius and Cornelius’ vision from God. Here is a Gentile who essentially loves the same God, prays faithfully and is generous to the Jewish people, just as any pious Jew does. So, through the experience of his encounter with Cornelius, Peter was able to understand what this new and upsetting thing that God is doing, and it has nothing to do with food, at least what he eats. Table fellowship will become extended to the Gentile, unthinkable in the past.

Yet, even after the revelation from God and the experience with Cornelius, one more thing needs to happen. Although it’s outside our text for today, Peter and others will engage in communal conversation about this new thing that God is up to. It won’t be until chapter 15 that the collective church finishes wrestling with this new thing that God is doing. As I said earlier, the process isn’t always clean and straightforward; it takes time and energy. It takes sitting around, talking about how we see what God is up to, telling stories of our encounters with the other. And it takes stepping out in faith and being open to the Holy Spirit, even when it chastens us and prods us into uncomfortable territory.

Like the Jedi master, Yoda, God continually pokes about in our lives, upsetting us and challenging us to be about the ministry of inviting people into a life of faith. God brings people into our presence who help us to see in new ways and then gives us a community to try and figure out what this means. However, there is a caution: it’s not a 1-2-3 process. Sometimes God starts with an experience of another person and sometimes with communal conversation. On Wednesday evening we talked about how God has moved through our livings in many ways, including the role of women, how we worship and who is included in our congregations. So, we are bold to ask: where is God poking around in your life? Who has God put in your path to see in a new way? What are the conversations we need to have here in this place? Christ is risen! His risen indeed! Alleluia, amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Some Doubted" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Some Doubted
Easter 2 – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 12, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 28.16-20

Throughout my life, I have been blessed to have had a parade of good teachers, both official and unofficial. Of the official variety, Mrs. Wellington got me off to a good start in kindergarten with her love and care. In sixth grade, Mr. Corey was my first male teacher and was as good a role model as any I could have had. My high school French teachers, Mrs. Ballard and Mrs. Keller reminded us that learning can be fun. Seminary professor Rick Carlson showed me that no matter how much you know, God always has more to give you.

But I always think of Joe Michel, my high school Anatomy and Physiology teacher, when I think of greatness. He had a passion for appreciating the beauty and wonder of life and the human body that was contagious. And later, when I decided not to pursue a medical career and even later become a pastor, I think Mr. Michel was there in my mind. For Mr. Michel had also been vulnerable, sharing his life journey with us.

We now come to the end of Matthew’s gospel, which we had begun just before Christmas. During this time we have seen and heard that Jesus is a teacher par excellence. Now, his followers are told to do and be the same, teachers. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Though remarkable in and of itself, what makes this “Great Commission” even more so is to whom Jesus directs the commissioning: scared and worshiping, faithful and doubting, loyal and abandoning followers.

I love this text in its simplicity: “When they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.” That’s me. That’s my experience with God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the life of faith! Other writers have said it more eloquently. Frederick Buechner: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” This past week in a Facebook post, Anne Lamott reminded me of something Paul Tillich said: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.” Lamott then goes on to say, “Fundamentalism in all its forms is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying.”

The Sundays following Easter explore Luther’s great question, “So, what does this [resurrection] mean?” For me, today’s lesson tells us that, although Jesus asks his disciples to meet him, he is the one who meets them in the midst of their doubts, hesitation and uncertainty about what the life in Christ means for them. Craig Koester says it this way: It means we set out on this journey into an unseen future with only a word of invitation. So, it means that we, like those early followers, stand at the edge of a world that is passing away and a world that is coming at us. The difference perhaps these days, is that it seems that those changes come faster and faster.

But that’s not all, because from beginning to end and everywhere in between in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with Us.” I think that what E.L. Doctorow said about writing could be said of the life of faith: "It's like driving at night with the head-lights on. You can only see a little ways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way." The greatest teachers somehow get us to trust this kind of journey. The greatest teacher of all, Jesus, is our light for the way ahead. This is true whether it is in our personal journey of faith, our life together as a congregation, and even our life as a society. Go therefore, in the midst of your worshipful doubts, sharing the good news: Christ is risen! Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

"Where Is He?" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Where Is He?
Easter – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 5, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 28.1-10

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. His not here; for has been raised, as he said.”

I would love to regale you with warm, fuzzy stories about my fond memories about Easter growing up, but I can’t. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have bad memories of Easter growing up, I just don’t have any memories at all. I’m sure we went to church and I’m sure we had a special dinner. I do have vague recollections of Easter baskets, but maybe that’s from when our girls were children. But, I just don’t remember. Maybe it’s because of all of those knocks to the head I’ve taken in life (without a helmet). Or maybe it’s because of what Frederick Buechner said about Easter, that the main symbol of Easter is an empty tomb, and it’s hard to string lights and have a pageant and make people give presents when your symbol is nothing.

There is no account of the actual resurrection in any of the Gospel accounts. There is the irrefutable witness that Jesus died, particularly in Matthew. But none of the gospel writers dares try to tell of something as deep and mysterious as the resurrection. There’s only the empty tomb. Even with the earthquake and the fantastically arrayed angel, the message is simple: “He is not here.” What the early writers do relate to us is what those first followers saw and experienced: the risen and alive Christ. Death remains very real as we all know too well, but death does not have the last word any longer. This story tells us that the risen, living Jesus can and does show up, often in unexpected ways.

In the history of the church, there have been many conversations about just where Jesus is and can be. Some, in the time of Martin Luther, wanted to say that Jesus couldn’t possibly be in the bread and wine of Holy Communion because Jesus ascended to heaven and is at the right hand of God. Luther agreed that’s where Jesus was, but said Jesus could be wherever he wanted and where Jesus is that’s where God’s right hand is as well. In a related conversation, Luther sought to counter the notion that Jesus was this wandering spirit whose presence was undependable. He said that, yes, Jesus can be anywhere, but if you want to be sure to meet Jesus, you can definitely meet him in the bread and wine of Holy Communion and the waters of baptism. Those are the places he promises to show up.

A number of years ago, I was asked by a funeral director to do a funeral for a person whose family who wanted a Lutheran pastor who “wouldn’t preach to them.” I wondered how I was going to bring Jesus into the conversation with them. When I arrived at their home to discuss arrangements, lo and behold, Jesus was already there! Of course he was. Within these past few years I have had a number of people who have told me that they came to Grace as broken, hurting and wounded people and that they were embraced, nourished and healed by this congregation. And I know of many others who literally stood on the brink of death and experienced new life here. The presence of the living Christ in the world and our lives is not fable; it is an ongoing reality.

Easter means that the closed tombs of our worlds are broken wide open and those old perceptions about what is possible are shattered. Because of Easter everything changes; we don’t see the world in the same way anymore. Like those first witnesses, the women, we may experience fear about this, but fear no long defines us. I may not remember anything about those Easters of my childhood, but I have experienced the new life that Jesus comes to bring all of us, to a world that desperately needs to hear this good news. This news is not too good to be true; it is too good not to be true. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Alleluia, amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Four Reflections" - Sermon for Good Friday

Four Reflections
Good Friday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 3, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 27.27-61

Reflection I: The Soldiers Mock Jesus (Matthew 27.27-31)
The soldiers mock Jesus and who can blame them, because Pilate declares Jesus an enemy of the state. In other accounts, Pilate tries to appease the religious leaders by having Jesus flogged earlier. But not here; here Jesus is flogged before his is crucified. So, who can blame the soldiers? Except for the fact that Jesus really is an enemy of the state. Jesus is an enemy of the state because he stands against all forms of coercion and violence. Unknowingly, the soldiers recognize this in both word and deed.

It would be easy for us to mock the mockers and say, “Thank God I wouldn’t do that! But not so fast. The text is more mirror than window and we are compelled to ask in what ways we strip people of their identities. How do we use language to prop up our own stories, to fit our own worldview? More so, how do we dress up Jesus in our own conception of who God is and who we want God to be? Let us reflect…

Reflection II: The Crucifixion of Jesus (Matthew 27.32-44)
When it comes to the gorier parts of the passion narrative, the flogging and crucifixion, Matthew is sparing in detail. This is no doubt because his early readers didn’t need reminding of the shame and pain of crucifixion; it was a part of their lives. What was important to Matthew’s community is to ask why this happened to Jesus at all. And the answer is surprising: they saw in these events God’s hand, that what is happening is somehow a fulfilling of scripture.

The irony continues to flow: Jesus really is a king and Jesus really is the Messiah who really does trust God. And we will discover that Jesus saves others precisely because he doesn’t save himself. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that we hear in the question of the passersby an echo of Satan’s temptation of Jesus, “if you are God’s Son…” And we remember that we can replace the “if” with “since”: Since you are God’s Son…” So, we ask ourselves: how do we test Jesus by asking, “If you are God’s son…” do this for me. How are we tempted to save ourselves by not letting God be God? Let us reflect…

Reflection III: The Death of Jesus (Matthew 27.45-56)
Again, the details are sparse when it comes to the actual death of Jesus. W we who are 21st century Christians and well acquainted with navel-gazing and psychobabble love to speculate on Jesus’ psychological condition as declares his forsakenness. Yet, here is no martyr’s death meant to fortify and rally the troops. Rather it is a death that humbles us and induces awe. We are reminded that separation from God is the price of sin, and Jesus takes all of the world’s sin on his back. The darkness that settles over the whole land points to how much that sin separates.

Yet, suddenly, the mockery and jeering of the soldiers turns to confession. And here there is no more irony. God’s Son has not lost faith in God, rather the opposite: Jesus enters into a classical lament, the lament at sin’s power that ends in deep trust in God. We are invited to enter into the lament about the depth of brokenness in our world and utter the same words as Jesus: “my God, my God…” We reflect on this while we watch with the women for the next earth-shattering event.

Reflection IV: The Burial of Jesus (Matthew 27.57-61)
Jesus really was dead; that’s whole point behind these texts. Jesus didn’t just pass out. His body wasn’t stolen. And the women didn’t go to the wrong tomb on Easter morning. How do we know this to be true? We know it because of the women, the only ones who were there through it all. It was the women who watched Jesus die, who saw him put in the tomb and who kept vigil over it.

Then we remember that it was a woman who had prepared Jesus’ body just a few days earlier, with costly ointment and her own tears. Now, after so much contempt has been heaped upon Jesus, at least one man steps forward to treat Jesus’ body with care. All of these characters tonight, but especially the women, invite us to enter the story and find our place. Are we moved to confession? Are we to watch and wait? Are we to offer a discipleship of service? Let us reflect…

Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Radical Hospitality" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Radical Hospitality
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 1
April 2, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Matthew 26.17-30

There was a video making the rounds of the Facebook feed in my neck of the woods a few weeks ago. It showed an experiment some young adults were conducting about generosity. The first few clips show one of them coming up to various people in restaurants, saying they are hungry and asking if the diner would be willing to share some food. None of them did, even though it was obvious they could well afford it. Then, the next set of clips showed one of the experimenters handing out food to a homeless person and another coming up to that homeless person a while later with the same request: “I’m hungry, can I have some of your food?” All of the homeless shared.

Now, as counter-intuitive as this seems, it does square with my experience: those that have little tend to be far more generous than those who have much. This isn’t a Stewardship sermon (though if it hits you that way, it’s okay). Rather, I tell this story to get at how someone who seems to have so little shares his entire self: Jesus. Some have seen this “Last Supper” of Jesus as the last meal of a condemned man. However, we know it’s more. I almost think of it more as a funeral meal while the deceased is still alive. I have known people who have celebrated milestone birthdays comment about their parties as a funeral lunch except they get to hear the good things while they are alive. (As an aside, I think the funeral lunch may be more important than the funeral service, maybe even more so. So, please don’t tell your family you don’t want any services or at least let them throw a party.)

We all know the power of sharing food with one another, how meals can ease conversation and build relationships. One of my family’s values growing up was that we all have dinner together, and my father would get apoplectic if one of us wasn’t there. Yet, what is so remarkable about this supper has intrigued readers for ages: the presence of Judas the Betrayer. This act of betrayal was so profound that we remember it each week in the Words of Institution at Holy Communion: “On the night in which he was betrayed…” We don’t say, “On the night of his Last Supper” or “On the night he was arrested.” No, it was on the night of his betrayal. Let us not skip too lightly over this. Have you ever noticed that they all say, “Surely, not I. Lord?” Think about it for a moment: not only did none of them know which of them it was who would betray Jesus, it could have been anyone. In point of fact, all of them will desert Jesus at some point and his closest friend will deny he knows him.

Each of the four gospels has a unique twist on the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is only in Matthew’s rendering that Jesus says this meal is for the forgiveness of sins. Two thousand years later, we reenact this scene, not just on Maundy Thursday, but whenever we gather to share the Lord’s Supper. We do so because, although we sing the same song as the disciples, “Surely not I, Lord,” we have just as much potential to betray and deny and abandon our savior as they did. We do so because, as Martin Luther says in his Small Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.”

Though we gather tonight in somber reminder of just how much that life and salvation cost, we also gather to celebrate the radical hospitality that Jesus offers to everyone who comes, everyone. Particularly, we rejoice with our young people, many who are communing for the first time, and all who have a deepened understanding of this great gift. As I told them last night at the class, this is one of those “hot fudge sundae” times, hot and cold, sober and joyous at the same time. It’s okay to feel both. In fact, it’s almost mandatory, because funeral dinners are like that. As we reflect on the price our Lord paid, we are grateful for the great love he pours out upon us. Amen.