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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: I Love to Tell the Story" - Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Singing Our Faith: I Love to Tell the Story
Trinity Sunday – Summer Series
May 31, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 16.16-34

I love to sing, even though I’m not a very good singer. That’s why I like leading worship services in nursing home services. Those hard of hearing folk think I sing wonderfully. Song is powerful. Isn’t amazing how you can sing a song that you haven’t sung in 40 years ago and do it almost word for word? When it comes to the songs of faith, they are even deeper as evidenced by those with memory loss who come alive when the old familiar hymns are sung. There is an old Latin phrase you learn in seminary, lex orandi, lex credendi. It means that the law or rule of prayer is the law or rule of belief. In other words, what we pray expresses and even helps define what we believe about God, the world and our life of faith. Of course, songs and hymns are prayers set to music that not only express our faith, but also carry our emotions and feelings.

Today we begin our summer sermon series called, “Singing Our Faith.” In this series we will explore several of our most beloved hymns and songs, both old and new, as nominated by you. Each week we’ll learn something about the author and the context in which the song was written while putting the song in conversation with scripture. It seemed appropriate to start with I Love to Tell the Story, nominated by Mary LeClerc and Becky Glaser. Mary notes
I really don't have a particular reason for choosing "I Love to Tell the Story" other than it's one of the great old standard hymns and they always bring back many good memories of hearing them as a child.  I may have also heard the song on a radio show - perhaps Billy Graham's hour with his choir.  But the choir was not as spectacular as the Voices of Grace. 
Becky has similar memories. “As a child, it’s one of the first hymns I started remembering the words to. It is also a hymn that I sang at my grandmother's church. My grandmother was very faithful and nothing brought her more joy that when her family visited and went to church together."

I Love to Tell the Story was written by Catherine Hankey. Hankey lived in England 1834-1911 and this hymn grew out of the second part of a long poem she wrote about the life of Christ. She wrote it as she was recovering from a serious illness and it reflects her evangelical passion. This fervor is reflected as she taught church school classes to children, rich and poor alike, and supported both home and foreign missions.

Though Hankey and another person wrote tunes to the poem/hymn, it didn’t catch on until William G. Fischer wrote his tune (named after Hankey) and added a refrain. This was much to her chagrin as Hankey thought the hymn was just fine without a refrain. More importantly, the hymn emphasizes the importance of telling Christ’s story to saved and unsaved alike, both now and “in glory.” One more note: the original hymn had four verses, but most hymnals eliminate the second as redundant. We will sing all four verses today, adding the deleted second verse to the end.

Hankey’s song doesn’t quote scripture directly, but it did make me think of this story in Acts 16. Paul and Silas are beaten and imprisoned on trumped-up charges for casting out a demon from a slave girl who had been annoying them. Locked in stocks, which made sleeping, let alone rolling over, impossible, they pray and sing. We don’t know what they were singing—there were hymns being created already in the early church—but what is important that in the midst of their pain and suffering they choose to praise God rather than curse men. And in great understatement, we learn that the other prisoners were listening to them. No wonder!

Acts 16 is a snapshot of the church’s life together, in which unlikely people are chosen to be a part of God’s story. This is a story that testifies to God’s presence in our midst, especially in suffering. As a church, we gather to hear the Word spoken and sung. As a church we gather to wash each other’s wounds. As a church we gather to share a meal. Our joy in suffering comes not out of some masochistic bent but rather from remembering our identity as children and servants of God. Our singing reflects our trust in a God who is more powerful than the forces of evil in this world. The powers of this world cannot stand in the face of our singing, even in the darkest times.

Of course, today we also remember that the God we sing about is the triune God, the one we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Bad analogies of the Trinity aside, this is not a God to be explained as much as celebrated in all God’s mysteriousness. But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is that in singing our faith, the old, old story, moves us beyond and outside of ourselves. It moves us to, as our mission statement says, “Through God’s abundant love we live and work to serve others.” I think that’s the reason I love to sing and tell the story, because it reminds me that I am a part of God’s story. It’s a story that brings meaning and purpose to my life and that, through me, God can make a difference in the lives of others. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

"The Baptismal Life" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

The Baptismal Life
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 17, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 6.1-14

When I meet with parents about baptizing children, I like to ask why we baptize and what baptism means. I do this so I can get a feel for where people are at in their understanding. Besides, it saves me from giving a lecture and doing all of the talking. As you can imagine, I get various answers. One answer I get the most is that through baptism we are being accepted into God’s family. Sometimes I hear that baptism is cleansing from sin. One response I used to get but not so much anymore is that baptism prevents us from going to hell.

Somewhere during the talk I used to say in a dramatic fashion, “We’re going to kill your child Sunday.” Of course, this is a reference to Romans 6 which we read today. I don’t say this anymore because I learned that one dad got really irate and barely restrained himself from pounding the snot out of me. So, I just tell the story and hope it gets the point across without the threat of pounding part. It’s a good thing that dad wasn’t Eastern Orthodox or he would have really gone ballistic at the baptism. Orthodox priests take buck-naked babies and plunge them fully into the font and sometimes by their heels even. And they do this three times! This dramatically demonstrates dying to sin and rising to new life.

So far in Romans, Paul the apostle and writer has just laid out a tour de force of a theological argument about God’s grace. No matter how deep, pervasive and powerful sin is in the world, Paul says, God’s grace is far more powerful. But after this sustained argument, he anticipates a question from his readers: “So, it really doesn’t matter what we do; we can just keep on sinning, right?” To which he responds emphatically, “Heck no!” Paul then continues to unpack the implications of God’s grace through baptism. Baptism is not just a little bit of water that gets us done and into heaven; it ushers us into a new reality. Because of what Christ did and because we are baptized into Christ, baptism not only alters our past and future it alters our present.

We all understand, if only intuitively, that God’s grace through baptism alters our past. Our brokenness and estrangement from God have been washed away. I think we all understand that baptism also guarantees our future: God promises us that we’re always his, no matter what, and will always be with him. But I think that few of us understand that the future promise of new life means something for our lives today, right now. God’s grace-filled promises of new life in the future open up new possibilities for our lives now. More forcefully stated: God’s grace provokes a response from us, one in which we are no longer to present ourselves as instruments of sin, but rather to present ourselves as instruments of righteousness.

In his book, Out of the Blue, former LA Dodgers baseball star Orel Hershiser talks about his inauspicious beginning as a pitcher and a conversation he had with manager Tommy Lasorda. After another lackluster outing, Hershiser was called to Lasorda’s office where he received a much-deserved dressing down. But he also received a surprising speech from the manager. Lasorda told Hershiser that he believed Hershiser had the stuff to be great, that he wouldn’t have brought him up to the big leagues otherwise. Lasorda said that Hershiser was being too tentative and that he needed to attack the batters, to be a bulldog out on the mound. In fact, in a stroke of genius that surprised even Lasorda, the manager gave him that nickname. The next time Hershiser was brought in to pitch, Lasorda yelled at him from the dugout, “Come on, Bulldog. You can do it.” Hershiser pitched out of the jam and started to live into his identity as a fierce competitor. Hershiser went on to lead the Dodgers to several pennants and championships while winning numerous awards for himself.

In our baptisms into Christ’s death, we have died to sin and have been raised to new life in him and are to offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness to be used by God. Offering ourselves as instruments to God for God’s use is scary. When Philip Melanchthon wrote to his teacher, Martin Luther, because he was fearful about making decisions, Luther told him to “sin boldly.” Then he added, “So that you may believe all the more boldly still. You see, in this new baptismal life we don’t have to be used by God; we get to be used by God.

Today we are recognizing those who have responded to their baptismal call and stepped out in faith, who have offered themselves as instruments of righteousness. We are also recognizing our high school seniors who are continuing on that baptismal journey in other places and ways. To all of us I would ask that we simply remember that one last thing: living out our baptism is not a “one and done” event. Rather, it is a daily dying and rising. When we stumble and fall, through our baptism we die to the brokenness and rise to a new opportunity to serve God and others. To remind us of that, I invite you to dip your hands in the water as you come forward to Holy Communion. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Boastful Faith" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Boastful Faith
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 1
May 10, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Romans 5.1-11

I don’t know if it was because of my general upbringing in a typical Scandinavian household or because it was a particular Scandinavian household, but I somehow picked up on the fact you don’t brag much. The closest you come is to grudgingly admit—with no small amount of sacrifice—that you eat lutefisk. After all, it’s not a joke because it’s true: an extroverted Swede is the one that looks at the other person’s shoes when he is talking to him. Furthermore, whenever I tended to get ebullient about something it seemed that the universe beat it out of me. I mention these things because my Scandinavian Lutheran hackles get raised when Paul talks about boasting in today’s lesson.

It’s tempting to think that Paul engages in some Christian theological chest-thumping, if not for himself than on behalf of God. You know what I mean, a kind of “my God is bigger, better, and ‘badder’ than yours. Paul is writing to a church he didn’t found and one that contains both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. He hopes to visit them someday soon on his way to a planned missionary trip to Spain, so he needs their support. Last week in chapter 1, Paul laid out some of the themes of the letter, primarily the faithfulness of God. Between chapters 1 and 5, Paul goes to great length to describe the human condition, summed up in the phrase, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The “answer” to the humanities brokenness comes in God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. Today Paul moves into the “so what” of this reconciliation between God and humanity.

As he did last week with “obedient faith,” Paul creates another oxymoron today, a term that seems to have two contrasting words. This time it’s “boastful suffering.” Now, the problem of suffering is legendary and long debated, more than we can handle here. And if we’re not careful we’ll think that Paul glorifies suffering; nothing could be further from the truth. But first, a brief excursus (which is also an oxymoron): suffering for suffering’s sake is not healthy and we realize there are many causes of it. Sometimes we cause our own suffering, sometimes others cause it, and sometimes suffering happens by simply being human.

But the Bible says something amazing about suffering. God chooses to be present in, with and under suffering and this is the place God is most fully known. The symbol of this presence is the cross of Jesus Christ. But, this is not just a New Testament claim. God promises to be with God’s people in the Old Testament as well. In Isaiah 43, God promises to be with us in water and fire that threaten to overwhelm us and claims us as his own.

So, here’s the key to entering the mystery of boasting in suffering: we can do this not because we can achieve anything on our own, but because we can see the power of God at work in them. Now, you know and I know that quite often we can’t see God at work while we are in the midst of difficult times. But when we look back on events where we have suffered for Christ’s sake, we see God’s hand. So, the upshot of this is that the “so what” is that we actually choose to enter the suffering of others. But notice that the pronouns in this text today are all first person plural. The cool thing is that this is not an individual effort, but rather a communal one.

How can we possibly do this, enter the suffering of others? We can’t, at least not without God. We can do this because God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. When God’s love is poured into our hearts it flows through our hands and feet and mouths. It overflows and enables us to feed a family who has lost a loved one. It happens when we collect pound after pound of food for the hungry. It happens when we send money to places like Nepal and Henrytown. It happens when we adopt or foster another person’s child of people who aren’t able to care for them. It’s not bragging. It’s rejoicing with confidence in the presence a God who pours out himself always, for us and for others. Even Lutheran Scandinavians can get on board with that. Amen

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"What’s on Your Tombstone?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

What’s on Your Tombstone?
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 1
Grace, Mankato, MN
May 3, 2015
Romans 1.1-17

Each year the White House Correspondents Association holds an annual dinner and the gala celebration of journalists has become something of a roast, with the president participating as something of a stand-up comedian. During President Obama’s latest routine, he referenced a remark made by former congresswoman and staunch conservative Michele Bachmann that “the world as we know it” would come to an end with an Obama presidency. Continued with, “Those other presidents, Washington and Roosevelt, they didn’t do that.” Obama paused a moment and said, “Now, that’s a legacy!” Whatever you think about their respective politics, it was a great line.

With this in mind, I asked our Wednesday Faith Night worshipers what would be written on their tombstones after they passed away. As you can imagine, the question generated no small amount of conversation. In a sense, that’s similar to a legacy, what we will be known for after we move to the next life. Though a bit presumptuous, I mentioned that I would like the phrase, “He was faithful” on mine. I would like to be remembered as a faithful husband, father, pastor and most importantly, follower of Jesus. But, I don't think I'm the one to judge.

These thoughts about legacies and tombstones are swirling in my head because of Paul’s comments in the opening verses of his letter to the Romans, which we will read the next few weeks. I am struck by the phrase “obedience of faith” and his deep gratitude that the Roman church’s faith is “proclaimed throughout the world.” In President Obama’s words, “Now that’s a legacy!”

Romans is an incredibly important letter, one deserving of far more attention than we’ll give it in these next few weeks. It’s considered to be the pinnacle of Paul’s letters. It is unique because it’s the only letter Paul writes to a congregation he hasn’t founded, though he desperately wants to visit. It’s probably a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians, though it probably contains some people he knows. One of his goals is to visit them on his hoped-for mission to bring the gospel to Spain. So, he lays some groundwork for their support in this effort. (By the way, Paul will get to Rome, but not in the way he anticipates. We believe he dies there as well.)

To lay that groundwork, Paul talks about the “obedience of faith” and in so doing tries to get at the relationship between what we believe and what we do. Now, it sounds like obedience and faith don't belong in the same sentence. It's almost oxymoronic, like "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence." But former New Testament professor at Luther Seminary, Mary Hinkle Shore illustrates this concept with what she calls, “light switch faith.” Think about when the power goes out in your house. We still flick on the light switch because our trust in that switch to flood the room with light is so deeply embedded it shows up in our actions, even though we know better. Of course, our relationship with and trusting in God is a lot more complex not nearly as mechanistic as a light switch. But this example points out that the real locus of trust is not in who we are and what we do but rather who God is and what God does.

More often than not, when the Bible talks about faith, it’s not as much about the things we believe about God. It is more about faithfulness and trust, which are relationship and heart words, than it is about propositions or head words. It’s all about the faithfulness of God, who is the fulfiller of promises that come through Jesus Christ. It is God’s faithfulness, not ours, that inspires and makes possible a response of obedient trust on our part. As Hinkle Shore notes, we live that out with a lot of other people who are, like us, sometimes obedient and sometimes disobedient. Yet we live with a God who always picks us up, dusts us off and tells us to try again.

So, what’s going to be on your tombstone? For me, perhaps the better phrase is, “God was faithful to him.” If you have any doubts about God’s faithfulness to you, God will do as God always does, meeting us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. So, come, meet the crucified and risen Christ, the promise fulfilled who brings about the obedience of faith. Amen.