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

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: The Power of the Cross" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: The Power of the Cross
Pentecost 8
July 19, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 1.18-31

In 1867, US Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Some people supported the purchase, thinking it weakened both British and Russian as rivals to American commercial expansion. Many others, however, thought the $7 million price tag too steep. The purchase became known as Seward’s Folly. That is, until 1896 when gold was discovered in the Klondike region. The rest, as they say, is history.

So it is that some observers of the early Christian movement may have used a similar epithet for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ: “God’s Folly.” It would be one that the Apostle Paul appears to wear gladly. Today we are “singing our faith” with The Power of the Cross, a song written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend in 2005 and sung by Getty’s wife, Kristyn. There is a couple of firsts today. This is the first time we’ve repeated authors of a song this summer and it will also be the first time we sing this song here. The song was suggested by Marlene Roede, who says: “There is so much "power" in this song that it reminds us of all Jesus gave for us so we may have eternal life with Him. Yes - this is the power of the cross!”

Indeed, Keith Getty thinks the heart of the Christian message is in the second verse: “bearing the awesome weight of human sin.” The song reaches its climax with the Easter message in verse four. (By the way, the song originally had 19 verses; thankfully, Getty and Townend cut it back to a manageable four.) From our previous exploration of their work, we know that the Getty/Townend crew cares deeply about songs that have biblical integrity and are sing-able for congregations. They often use English and Irish folk tunes to do so. In The Power of the Cross that means knowing that you have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter. For us, it’s important to admit that, 2000 years later, we either romanticize the cross such when we make cute jewelry, or we ignore the cross altogether by focusing on the resurrection. In other words, there is no resurrection without the crucifixion

In fact, Paul, the writer of the letter to the Corinthians, says the cross is the whole point. The crucifixion is not just some human mistake that God has to do an end-around to fix. The cross is the way God has chosen to both embarrass humanity and embrace it at once. It is the cross where God foolishly allowed himself to be hung, where his love and mercy are shown. It is the cross where God turns an instrument of shame and humiliation into one of forgiveness. It is through the cross where we learn once for all that we don’t ever come to God. Rather, God always comes to us.

The cross is where we definitively see that God turns human wisdom on its head as folly. Think about it: we actually believe that what I and every pastor do each week changes lives. Preaching the cross is not a career booster nor does it win friends and influence people. The cross says the things the world values, such as power, authority, and money are not the important things to value. The cross says that the people Jesus really cares about are those who get shoved to the edge of society. The cross says God’s power is made perfect in weakness and that we are to lose our lives to same them. If anyone wants to follow Jesus, she must deny herself and take up her cross.

What’s even more foolish is that you all come back each week to hear it and you dare to believe it. Who would be so foolish as to buy a couple of lots and turn them into community gardens to feed the hungry instead of making more parking spots? Who would be so foolish to give up Sundays to feed the hungry at Salvation Army? Who would be so foolish by giving five Wednesdays and countless hours so children could learn the same? Who else would say that our reason for getting together is to live and work to serve others? The mystery of the cross isn’t the question of why there aren’t more Christians. Perhaps it’s why there are so many. But, that’s God’s wisdom for you and that’s the power of the cross. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Lead Me, Guide Me" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Lead Me, Guide Me
Pentecost 7
July 12, 2015
Grace Mankato, MN
Luke 4.1-13

When the devil saw a seeker enter the house of the Master, he was determined to turn him from his quest for Truth. The devil subjected the poor man to every temptation, but the seeker was far too experienced in matters of spirituality to succumb. When the seeker got into the Master’s presence he was shocked to see him sitting in a comfortable chair with his followers at his feet, the clothes he was wearing, and that he paid no attention to him. The seeker became disillusioned and left. The Master, who had seen the devil sitting in the corner, said to him, “You need not have worried, Tempter. He was yours from the very first, you know.”

This fable from Anthony de Mello’s book, Taking Flight, illustrates some of the difficulties we encounter when we seek God’s guidance, not the least of which is our very selves. Our focus hymn for today, Lead Me, Guide Me, was suggested by Judy Rotering and Karen Zingmark, who notes the theme of guidance. The song “is an earnest plea for an intimate walk with God,” who we ask to lead, guide and protect us. It emphasizes our spiritual weakness, blindness and the work of the devil.

The song was written and composed by Doris Akers, an African American who was a prodigious writer in the Southern Gospel tradition.  Born in 1922 in Brookfield, MO, Akers was also something of a prodigy. She learned to play the piano by ear at age 6 and wrote her first song at 10. Since then she has composed more than 300 gospel songs and hymns. Her fresh, modern arrangements of traditional Negro spirituals drew large crowds and she had an active career as a singer, choir director and songwriter. Believe it or not, Lead Me, Guide Me was recorded by Elvis Presley and sung in his last movie, “Elvis on Tour” in 1972. Akers died in Minneapolis from spinal cancer in 1995. She was posthumously inducted into both the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

I’ve put Lead Me, Guide Me in conversation with the temptation of Jesus story in Luke 4. Though a full-blown exposition of the devil isn’t possible, we need to acknowledge our ambivalence toward him. On the one hand, some people blame Satan for everything that goes wrong in the world and find the devil’s work everywhere. On the other, we tame the devil or dismiss him as antiquated. We do this by dressing him in funny costumes and joke about him. Flip Wilson’s “the devil made me do it” is a good example. Either way, we distance the devil from our lives. However you fall, I think it’s important to recognize there are forces in this world that are standing against God and God’s purposes.

As last week, rather than tell you how we should seek God’s guidance, I have a few propositions to offer. First, I think the real work of the devil is to disrupt relationships between us and God and between us and other people. As we see in Luke 4, Satan often does that by offering us good things for the wrong reasons. Money, responsibility, sports, family, technology, etc. are all good things that can go wrong if we put them first in our lives.

Second, as the fable implies, very often it is our own preconceived ideas that get in the way of receiving God’s guidance. As the cartoon character Pogo has said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I think that we have a hard time receiving guidance from God because we’ve decided the answer we want and just ask God to bless it. So, as the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness so sometimes God leads us there, too. Now, the wilderness is not always a scary, wild place; it can also be a place of renewal where we can hear God’s voice more clearly. When we ask for God’s guidance, it would help for us to be open to what God has to say to us. The wilderness is often that place. For, it’s in the wilderness places and times that our faith often takes shape.

Third, as Luke 4 intimates, the Bible is neither an answer book nor is God a cosmic dispenser of goodies. Rather, the reading of scripture is designed to open us up to trusting God and his provision for us. I think it’s here that we get particularly stuck because the battle with the tempter is against insecurity and mistrust. The devil’s work is in the breakdown of relationships and these are fueled by insecurity and mistrust.

Now, I know that it is not particularly helpful for me to say, “All you have to do is trust God!” That’s just what we often have a hard time doing. David Lose, former Luther Seminary professor of preaching and now President of our seminary in Philadelphia has suggested a little exercise to help. Take out the slip of paper and write the word trust on one side. Then write down something important that you totally trust God with. This should not be a “given,” but something you really do trust God with. On the other side, write “mistrust” and something you are having a hard time giving over to God. These can be something to do with work, family, school, church or anything else.

Now, compare the two things. Why is it easier to trust God for one and not the other? Are they different in some way? Last, I’d invite you to do one of two things. You can either put them in the offering plate and I promise to pray for these this next week or you can take them home with you. If you take them home, give thanks for what you trust God for and pray over what is hard to trust God.

Trust is at the heart of our relationship with God and it’s not always easy. But if we want God to “lead us and guide us along life’s way” we need the support of one another. We need to be reminded that we are not to live in an atmosphere of fear and scarcity but rather of courage and abundance. Indeed, “lead us and guide us along the way,” O Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: This Is My Song" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: This Is My Song
Pentecost 6
July 5, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Psalm 65.9-13; Matthew 6.9-13

May 1978 began an odyssey starting in my native Twin Cities MN that would involve sojourns in Chicago, IL, Louisville, KY, Alexandria, VA, Gettysburg, PA, and then back to Central IL. In 2000 I accepted a call to a congregation in Winona, MN, returning at last to “God’s Country,” where we all know that talking to God is a local phone call. As much as each of these various places I lived had something to commend itself, there was always the pull of Minnesota on me. Not surprisingly, there were many “natives” of other areas who felt the same passion and attraction in their place. They believed that theirs was an exceptional place to live every much as I believed about Minnesota.

I thought about this local brand of nationalism as I pondered patriotism and what it means to be a Christian who is also a citizen. Yesterday was Independence Day and today we are celebrating by focusing on the hymn This Is My Song. Bob and Donna Mertesdorf suggested today’s hymn, saying, “This hymn is a wonderful National song. We appreciate the prayer for our country and all the countries of the world.”

This Is My Song was written by two people: Lloyd Stone (vv. 1-2) and Georgia Harkness (vs. 3).
Stone was born in California in 1912 and planned to attend the University of Southern California as a music major with the intent of teaching. Instead, he joined a circus bound for Hawaii and remained there the rest of his life. He wrote his stanzas in 1934 as a 22 year old. Stone also wrote many other poems and even a musical based on Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” He died in 1993.

Harkness, born in 1891, was fortunate to be born into a family that was both upper middle class and progressive, giving her many opportunities for education denied most women of her generation. Though she was denied entry to theological schools, she found a way around it earning a PhD in the philosophy of religion in 1923. She became the first woman to teach theology in an American seminary and taught in several prominent theological schools. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 1926 but because she wasn’t admitted to a conference, she could not function as a minister until she was accepted in 1956. In addition to writing 30+ books, she was a force to be reckoned with on the world theological stage, even standing toe-to-toe with the equally formidable Karl Barth. You can see the theologians touch in verse three of This Is My Song.

The poems of Stone and Harkness are most often set to Finlandia, a hymn based on the seventh movement from Opus 26 by Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). Ironically, the symphony was a covert protest against increasing censorship in Finland from the Russian Empire. It was accompanied by a tableau depicting scenes from Finnish history. To avoid censorship, Opus 26 had to be performed under less nationalistic names. Most of the piece is turbulent reflecting Finland’s own national struggle, until the end when the serenely melodic Finlandia Hymn is heard. With Finnish lyrics, is one of Finland’s most beloved national songs. Of course, Finlandia is also used with other Christian hymns.

Today, we are putting This Is My Song in conversation with Psalm 65, Matthew 6 and July 4. Psalm 65 extols the beauty and blessing of creation and how God provides richly and abundantly in so many ways. Matthew 6 is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the greatest block of Jesus’ teaching of the way of the kingdom for his followers. A key verse in what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer” for us today is, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” As for Independence Day, there are a lot of themes to choose from, but perhaps the one most pertinent for today is the notion of America’s exceptionalism, that we are more special than other countries.

This is a massive undertaking well beyond the scope of a Sunday sermon, so here are some thoughts about kingdom living and citizenship in today’s world. First, I do believe that America is exceptional, but not in the way some people mean it. God has gifted our country with wonderful resources and the opportunity live in amazing ways. But, I think that it’s helpful to recognize that most citizens of other countries love theirs as much we do or even more. Imagine my experience with living in different states on a global level and you get an idea of what I’m talking about. Yes, there are countries that have significant problems, but we have to admit that we do, too. Second, I also believe that God has gifted and is present among every other country in unique ways. If we believe that God is present in, with and under everything in creation, then God is present in every people of every land. There is no such thing as a godless country.

Third, when we talk about God’s kingdom coming on earth, we need to realize that it is God who will bring about the kingdom, not us, and that it will be a kingdom of peace, justice and mercy. Furthermore, we realize that cannot legislate kingdom living, but as good Christian citizens we can be signs of the kingdom. We can do that by affirming the diversity of our nation as blessing and gift. We can do it by affirming the interdependence we share with all peoples of the world. We can do it by praying for our leaders and elected officials, like them or not, that they will work for justice and peace. Fred Buechner says that what it means to be a patriot in our world today is to realize that we need find ways to live interdependently with all the peoples of the world. I think he’s right.

And, of course, we can do this by giving thanks, to God for blessings received and for those who have shaped our national life, often at great personal cost as we carry on this tradition. This, indeed, is our song, a song of gratitude, peace and prayer for God’s kingdom to shine through us. Amen.