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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: In Christ Alone" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: In Christ Alone
Pentecost 4 – Summer Series
June 21, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.14a, 22-36

We continue our summer sermon series, "Singing Our Faith," as we put the beloved songs of faith, both old and new, in conversation with scripture and our daily lives. Today’s focus song is In Christ Alone, suggested by Alice Wu who says,
[T]he Bible list[s] lots of saints, but only Jesus Christ is my best friend, my savior, my Lord and my God. Because Christ die for me on the cross, through His resurrection bring new life unto me. Christ alone is my solid rock, my foundation, my strength, and my all in all.
In Christ Alone was written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in 2001, their first collaboration. Getty says that although there was no personal connection at first, they thought they’d try to do something together and see what happened. Getty’s idea was to tell the whole life of Christ and what it meant using Irish melodies. Not only does Getty have an Irish background, he wanted and could imagine a large group singing the song. In other words, it was to be for congregations. So, he composed several tunes and sent them to Townend and Townend chose this one. After Townend spent three months writing lyrics, they got together for editing, developing and rewriting. The rest, as they say, is history.

Getty and Townend are storytellers, which with compelling music makes In Christ Alone so powerful. They are committed to songs that are deep in meaning and yet simplicity in their sing-ability. They understand our need of the gospel story to sustain us throughout the week and write songs to do just that.

In our Acts text today, Peter also understands the need to tell the Christ story to his audience. The occasion is his so-called Pentecost speech, the oration he makes following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the gathered believers. In answer to the accusation that they are drunk because they are speaking in other languages, Peter makes this response. He tells us that Jesus’ arrival was not discontinuous with the past but was predicted by his ancestor, King David. Jesus was chosen as God’s anointed, the Christ or Messiah, who died for us, was raised from the dead and now reigns at God’s right hand.

As I thought about this song, the Acts text and the claims they make I wondered what Christ alone means for us today. During the Reformation 500 years ago the “solas” as they were called (“alones”) were a response to those who had added more to the basic gospel message. Thus the Reformers insisted upon grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone and scripture alone. We are saved by grace through faith and not by anything we can do. This happened through the unique Christ event and is fully explicated in scripture. Other writings may help us understand this event, but cannot add to it.

But what does Christ alone mean in our culture today where world religions and atheists are not only near but also our neighbors? Indeed, Keith Getty tells of his struggle at university to understand and embrace the faith of his upbringing amid an “unbelieving, universalist and multi-religious culture.” He says, “It was a journey to believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the Scriptures and the gospel story.”

There have been two classic approaches to the questions of how Christians talk with other religions. The first, universalism, says that Christianity is just one path among many that leads to “God.” Although this position seemingly makes for less conflict, it guts our understanding of Jesus’ uniqueness. The opposite position, the so-called confessional stance, argues that Jesus is the only way to God and pushes conversion of all people to Christianity. Although this position maintains the uniqueness of Jesus, it seems more coercive than Jesus was in his relationship with others.

In his book, The Open Secret, Leslie Newbigin argues for a third way that preserves Christianity’s confessional claims to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ but also allows for conversation with people of other faiths. Newbigin suggests we enter into dialogue by being vulnerable just as Christ was vulnerable. We empty ourselves, not of our convictions about God and Jesus but of our pride and arrogance that somehow we know God fully and have nothing to learn. We recognize the other we are talking with as God’s child, too. We humbly acknowledge that it is the Holy Spirit that does the converting and that through conversation with the other we might be converted ourselves, not to another religion but to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is.

In Christian Dogmatics, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson make the observation that “Christ’s uniqueness lies in his universality” and by that I think they remind us that Jesus has something to say to everyone in every situation. Jesus is not the exclusive property of the church. In other words, through the story of Jesus the Christ, we have the assurance that, all evidence to the contrary, God is working in the world today.

As I have been thinking about the Charleston shootings, I wonder if such an approach of humility and vulnerability might be what is needed today. I don’t think an approach of “all people need is Jesus” would be helpful. That might lead to another crusade or inquisition. Instead, what if we admitted that intended or not, we are a part of the problem of racism in this country and must be part of the solution. I don’t know what that means, but we need to figure out a way to address this problem or we will be continually lighting candles.

Meanwhile, we do confess that, “In Christ alone our hope is found.” Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Just a Closer Walk with Thee" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Just a Closer Walk with Thee
Pentecost 3 – Summer Series
June 14, 2015
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
2 Corinthians 12.2-10

It’s been about 10 years now since I was getting signals to enter a doctoral program at Luther. I pretty much dismissed them, partly because I was a bit snobbish, thinking the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree was inferior to the gold standard PhD. Also, it was not a good time. I had a daughter in college and one in the wings. Plus, I was going through a rough patch in ministry. But, some colleagues were putting heavy duty pressure on me and brochures kept showing up, even after I threw them away.

But, the biggest hurdle was financial. Tuition alone was $10K, all needed to be paid in the first 2.5 years. I figured the total tab would be closer to $15K and didn’t see how I could do it. Cindy and I discussed it and she said we’d find a way, but I wasn’t sure how. So, I had this conversation with God: “God, if you want me to do this program, then you have to help me pay for it.” Believe it or not, God answered and said to me, “Fine, but you’re going to have to learn how to ask for money.” Crap. And so I did. I did one of the hardest things I’ve done, swallowed my pride and asked for help. You know what? People responded. It was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had.

Today we explore our third song in the “Singing Our Faith” series, Just a Closer Walk with Thee. In this series, we put the beloved songs of our faith, both old and new, in conversation with scripture and our lives. Although “Walk” is more of a golden oldie, it is still relatively new. It is also different this week because author of both the text and tune are unknown. In fact, we don’t even know when it was written.

Walk” became popular in the 1930s and 1940s among African Americans in the South and spread from there. Interestingly, some consider it to be more of a performance piece than one suited for congregational singing. Yet, it appears in 80 hymnals, including our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship. As we’ll discover in a few minutes, it lends itself well to bluesy and jazzy accompaniments. Indeed, Just a Closer Walk with Thee was chosen for today because of the jazz quartet’s presence.

What makes “Walk” powerful is that it expresses an acceptance of our weaknesses that leads us to admit our utter dependence upon God. The first line, “I am weak but Thou art strong” reflects the Apostle Paul’s sentiment in 2 Corinthians 12. He is writing to a church he founded and cares for deeply, but is in turmoil. It seems that there have been some rival missionaries who have come to town and have been boasting about how much God is working through them. In other words, they are trotting out their résumés and flashing their credentials in an effort to bolster their message. But Paul, in a counter-cultural response, says that he will only boast in his weaknesses, not his strengths. He does so because he wants to argue that it is precisely in our weaknesses and vulnerabilities that God’s power and grace are made manifest.

Paul shares this lesson he learned by describing a “thorn in the flesh,” an unspecified affliction that has had theologians fixated on making educated guesses for two millennia. Yet, for Paul, it’s not important what it is, how he received it or even that God didn’t take it away. What is important is how God made his grace fully present in, with and under Paul’s weakness. That’s what Paul means by God’s power being made perfect in his weakness: God’s power is fully present or complete. It’s like fully tuning into a radio station and being able to hear your program clearly. Paul responds to this affliction by accepting his vulnerability, which allows him to open himself to God’s powerful presence.

Brené Brown is a sociologist and self-described researcher-storyteller who has explored vulnerability in TED Talks. She studied connections among people and found that those who were better connected in order to be better connected decided they needed to be seen as vulnerable and willing to open themselves up to others. She found that they had the courage to be imperfect, willing to let go of who they thought they should be and accept who they were, warts and all.

Just like Paul, Brown’s message is counter-cultural, because we live in a time where the message is to not show weakness. We have an almost pathological need to make certain what is uncertain. And we spend billions of dollars trying to numb the pain of life. She notes that we are the most obese, medicated and addicted society that has ever lived. The problem is, she says, is that we can’t selectively numb emotion. For if we numb the hard stuff of life, we also numb the joy and blessings that come our way, often in the midst of the hard stuff.

Paul tells us that weakness (or vulnerability) is the distinguishing mark of a follower of Jesus. We have the courage to be vulnerable, to open ourselves up, because we follow a vulnerable God. For it was Jesus who humbled himself by taking on human flesh and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. This God is so committed to connecting with us he meets us on our life journeys and walks with us. In so doing, he invites us to be vulnerable with him and with one another, to live the authentic life in him. Don’t let my experience with my DMin program think I’m some kind of hero; I’m not. Being vulnerable and asking for help are ongoing struggles for me. But I keep trying, because being vulnerable has huge implications about our life together. For I am weak, but God is strong and God’s power is made fully present in my vulnerability. So we keep on trusting in God’s grace. Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: You Are Mine" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: You Are Mine
Pentecost 2 – Summer Series
June 7, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 43.1-7

Today we explore the second hymn of our summer sermon series, “Singing Our Faith.” It’s a series designed to take some of our beloved songs, both old and new, and put them in conversation with Scripture and our lives. Our focus song today, You Are Mine, couldn’t be more different than last week’s I Love to Tell the Story. I Love to Tell the Story is a “golden oldie,” having been written in 150 years ago whereas You Are Mine is an adorable infant by comparison, copyrighted in 1991. Catherine Hankey, author of "Story" is long gone, but Haas is still kicking and very prolific. Though we know how and why "Story" was written, I’ve not been able to find similar information about You Are Mine, perhaps because unlike "Story", You Are Mine is based on a particular scripture text.

David Haas was born in 1957 and has become one of the preeminent liturgical musical composers in the English-speaking world. He has produced more than 45 collections of original music. Though he composes mostly contemporary Catholic liturgical music, published in Roman Catholic GIA materials, his works are found it Protestant hymnals as well, including four hymns in our own cranberry hymnal, the ELW. Haas currently resides in Eagan, MN where he is the director of the Emmaus Center for Music, Prayer, and Ministry and serves as campus minister at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

You Are Mine was nominated by Jean Anderson, and here’s why she proposed this hymn:
I have a curiosity about hymns and check the composers and lyric writers of most of the hymns that we sing and so I notice the newer ones. The composers currently writing that have their work in our hymnal seem to be giving us meaningful and sing-able hymns.  This creative hymn has meaning for me because we sing words that are intended to remind us of God's grace through God's own voice.   I need messages of being lifted out of fear, despair, loneliness and pain and recognize that many others need this comforting message also. 
One reason You Are Mine is so powerful is that it is based on a powerful passage from Isaiah 43, which addresses many of our human situations that Jean mentions. The passage comes in a section called Second Isaiah during which time the prophet brings God’s word to Israelites captive in Babylon (modern day Iraq). The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the temple and carried everyone who was anyone into exile. As you can imagine, they felt but off and abandoned by God. In their world, one country’s victory over another’s means the victorious country has the biggest god. The Israelites had always thought their God was not only the biggest god but the only God.

A prophet’s job is to speak a word of truth from God to God’s people. Not so much a predictor of the future, the prophet does more “forth-telling” than “foretelling.” Often, the word is a difficult one to hear, but it is also a word of comfort. In the verses preceding this passage at the end of chapter 42, God reminds them that their predicament is largely of their own making. In some of the harshest words of admonition found anywhere, God exhibits his depth of care for them. These are followed by some of the tenderest words of divine love in scripture. Now, God is not an abuser who lavishes affection after a domestic assault. Rather, God is more like a parent who, after seeing their child do something dangerous, forbidden and stupid, first shakes them up a bit before embracing them in a tight embrace and telling how much she loves them.

I read this passage a lot, mostly to people who going through health problems or are actively dying. In the same way, I read it to families who are or who have said good-bye to loved ones. I remind them this passage tells us that no matter what we go through, God will be there right along beside us. Notice it doesn’t promise God will take away the bad stuff. For God is not a superhero who flies in to save the day, rather God is more a companion who sits with us through our darkest times and tells us we’ll be okay.

Frankly, these words have gotten me through some times when I’ve felt cut off from God. I’m not the kind of person who feels God’s presence a lot, so I cling to promises like Isaiah’s. And that’s why Communion is so important, because it’s a concrete expression of this promise. To God, each and every one of us is precious. God knows each and every one of us by our names, the name into which we have been baptized and claimed by God. No matter what happens, God says to each and every one of us, “You are mine.” Amen.