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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Here I Am Lord" - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Here I Am, Lord
Pentecost 14
August 20, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 3.1-20

"I, the Lord of sea and sky… [1]

Most of us know these words to Daniel Schutte’s hymn, Here I Am, Lord if not by heart then by spiritual osmosis. Schutte is an accomplished American composer of Catholic liturgical music and a contemporary Christian music best known for this hymn but has composed others. Born in 1947, he was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Jesuits who popularized a contemporary style of church music set to sacred texts sung in English. Although his compositions are mostly for Catholic liturgical use, his works have found their way into Protestant worship. For us, Here I Am, Lord first appeared in the blue hymnal supplement, With One Voice and, of course, is in our newish cranberry hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Not surprisingly, various polls among musicians cite Here I Am, Lord at or near the top as favorites. Schutte is presently Composer-in-Residence at the University of San Francisco.

Jill Helling, in nominating this hymn for our sermon series, “Singing Our Faith,” gives one reason why it is so meaningful:
I have been fortunate to have parents, grandparents, mother-in-law, relatives (etc.) that were examples of people who were strong faithful followers of their Christian faith.  From the time I can remember church/Sunday school was part of our daily life.  At many of the family funerals this hymn was sung reminding me and our family that if we listen and pray God is always there, even when we have lost someone we love.  
“Strong, faithful followers of their Christian faith”; indeed, if we aren’t already people such as this we certainly aspire to become such. Here I Am, Lord has long been a favorite of mine. We sung it at my ordination service and it is on my short list of songs I want at my own funeral.

It’s a powerful song from a powerful story of how the boy Samuel hears and responds to God’s call. What’s also important is how Samuel came to be in the service of God with Eli. Earlier in 1 Samuel we read how his mother Hannah was unable to conceive and how in a moment of fervent prayer at the temple at Shiloh, Eli thought her drunk. Hannah actually promised that if God would give her a son she would make him a Nazarite and give him back to God. Though he wasn’t aware of her promise, Eli told Hannah to go in peace, that God would grant her petition. Hannah did indeed conceive and give Samuel back to God.

"I, the Lord of snow and rain … [2]

As I thought about this story in 1 Samuel and the song, I couldn’t help also thinking about Kenneth’s baptism here today. I thought about how his mother trusted him to Marty and Amanda, and how all three of them have answered God’s calling in the night. I don’t think any of them think they are doing holy and heroic work, but they are. God calls to each of us in the midst of our lives, disrupting us to bring healing and wholeness.

This past week at a pastor’s gathering, a pastor read the following blog as a devotional. It’s from Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog “Momastery” and is a letter to her son, Chase in 2011 as he enters the third grade. It’s titled, “The One Letter to Read Before Sending Your Child to School.” [3]

Hey Baby.

Tomorrow is a big day. Third Grade – wow.

Chase – When I was in third grade, there was a little boy in my class named Adam.

Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.

And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.

I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me? Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me.

I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a little part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heart- ache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heart-ache. That heart ache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion – be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.

Sometimes the magic of compassion will make you step into the middle of a bad situation right away.

Compassion might lead you to tell a teaser to stop it and then ask the teased kid to play. You might invite a left-out kid to sit next to you at lunch. You might choose a kid for your team first who usually gets chosen last. These things will be hard to do, but you can do hard things.

Sometimes you will feel compassion but you won’t step in right away. That’s okay, too. You might choose instead to tell your teacher and then tell us. We are on your team – we are on your whole class’ team. Asking for help for someone who is hurting is not tattling, it is doing the right thing. If someone in your class needs help, please tell me, baby. We will make a plan to help together.

When God speaks to you by making your heart hurt for another, by giving you compassion, just do something. Please do not ignore God whispering to you. I so wish I had not ignored God when He spoke to me about Adam. I remember Him trying, I remember feeling compassion, but I chose fear over compassion. I wish I hadn’t. Adam could have used a friend and I could have, too.

Chase – We do not care if you are the smartest or fastest or coolest or funniest. There will be lots of contests at school, and we don’t care if you win a single one of them. We don’t care if you get straight As. We don’t care if the girls think you’re cute or whether you’re picked first or last for kickball at recess. We don’t care if you are your teacher’s favorite or not. We don’t care if you have the best clothes or most Pokemon cards or coolest gadgets. We just don’t care.

We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.

We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.

Kind people are brave people. Because brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.

Trust me, baby, it is. It is more important.

Don’t try to be the best this year, honey.

Just be grateful and kind and brave. That’s all you ever need to be.

Take care of those classmates of yours, and your teacher, too. You Belong to Each Other. You are one lucky boy . . . with all of these new gifts to unwrap this year.

I love you so much that my heart might explode.

Enjoy and cherish your gifts.

And thank you for being my favorite gift of all time.

Love,

Mama

Melton gives permission on her blog for anyone to use this by substituting your child’s name for hers. It also works if you peg the writer as God, our heavenly parent.

So, I end with an invitation for you to hear God’s voice calling to you. There is a call already out there asking you to step up in various ways, to help with Faith Night meals, worship and especially teaching. Please respond, not because John or I need you, but because God is calling and placing a burden on your heart for those that need you to be brave. Please don’t tell us that you are too old, because if 90 year old Jimmy Carter can teach Sunday School following a cancer treatment, you can do something here. Besides, just as there is no expiration date on Kenneth’s baptismal certificate I doubt there is one on yours, either. Yes, it’s scary, but the same God who answered the call, who took on human flesh, and who went to the cross and answered the call to die for us, gives us everything we need.

"I, the Lord of wind and flame … [4]

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. Amen.
          
[1] Due to copyright limitations, reprinting of the lyrics to Here I Am, Lord is prohibited. Please see verse 1 in your favorite hymnal.
[2] Please see verse 2.
[3] See more at: http://momastery.com/blog/2014/08/21/the-one-letter-to-read/#sthash.iKyYp8iv.dpuf
[4] Please see verse 3 and refrain.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: When Peace like a River" - Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: When Peace like a River
Pentecost 11 – Summer Series
August 9, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 15.51-58

Late in 1873, Chicago businessman Horatio G. Spafford was to take a vacation to England with his wife and four daughters. Delayed by business, Spafford sent them on ahead aboard the French liner, the Ville du Havre. While crossing the liner was hit by the English iron ship Lochearnon and sunk. Spafford’s wife survived, but all four daughters perished. Upon reaching Wales, his wife cable Spafford the message, “Survived alone.” Spafford immediately sailed to join his wife, crossing the very spot his family went down. As he did, he penned the words to the hymn, When Peace like a River.

Hearing the news, family friend Dwight L. Moody (founder of the Moody Bible Institute) traveled to England to comfort them. He reported that Spafford said about the tragedy, “It is well; the will of God be done.” Philip Bliss, another family friend, wrote the tune that accompanies the lyrics and named the tune after the liner, Ville du Havre. We also know the song as It Is Well with My Soul. Jason Glaser, who nominated the song, echoes many of our thoughts about why he chose the hymn: “The background to the lyrics, and the depth of faith shown against such catastrophic loss. Could I do it? Doubtful, but I do sing the song to myself on darker days.”

The heart of the message and the basis for Spafford’s (and ours) assurance is the promise of the resurrection. For many of us, the promise of the resurrection to eternal life has various implications. For example, some of us are assured that there is more than this life. Others take comfort in knowing that whatever pain or suffering we are enduring will not last. Still others are heartened at the anticipation of being reunited with loved ones. If fact, we almost take the resurrection for granted because we have celebrated the promise so long. However, that was not true for the earliest Christians, especially at Corinth.

For the Corinthian Christians, the resurrection seemed to be at best open-ended and at worst in question. To understand why this is the case, we need to remember that there was no single Jewish viewpoint about resurrection in the first century and there were contrary ideas in Greek philosophy as well. Some people denied any kind of resurrection. Some thought the achieved immortality through their descendents. Some believed in the immortality of the soul while others believed in a bodily glorification. There were even some various combinations of these. Though we don’t know for sure, some of the Corinthians appeared to believe that resurrection already happened to them, that they had already arrived into some sort of spiritual being and that there was nothing else to do.

The question of an afterlife is not just something from 2,000 years ago. I have begun watching a new TV show on TNT called Proof. The story line is that dying genius billionaire wants to find definitive evidence of whether or not there is an afterlife. He essentially bribes a hard-science cardio-thoracic surgeon with donations to her favorite charity to explore various phenomena and report back to him. This is not just some intellectual exercise for the doctor, who though skeptical about the afterlife, has not only had an NDE (Near Death Experience) herself, but has recently lost her teenage son in a car accident.

For Paul, this is no academic exercise or philosophical question; the question of the resurrection goes to the heart of Christian faith. It’s so important that he spends an entire chapter, 58 verses, to hammer home the point. Christ’s resurrection, and by extension ours, is the core of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. If we deny Christ’s resurrection, and ours, then Paul says, our faith is in vain and we are to be pitied. But for Paul, the resurrection isn’t just some future promise; it makes a difference in our lives today. So the Corinthians were partially correct; we have new life available to us right now, but as is always true with God, there is more.

Spafford knew this, too. So here’s the rest of the story: Spafford and his wife went on to have three more children, a son and two daughters. At the age of four, the son died of scarlet fever. Their Chicago church, seeing all of their tragedy, accused them of some secret sin. They believed that God must be punishing them. (Apparently, they were unfamiliar with John 9.) This ostracism caused Spafford and his family to leave and start their own group. Spafford, who had developed an interest in biblical archeology, took the group to Jerusalem in 1881, establishing the American Colony.

Joined by Swedish Christians, the colony engaged in philanthropic work among all peoples, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. Although Spafford had died in 1888, the colony lived on and was instrumental in supporting these communities through the great suffering and deprivations both during and after WWI by running soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, etc.

My brothers and sisters, may you, like Spafford, be sustained by the promises of the resurrection. May it not only be “well with your souls,” but enable you to “excel in the work of the Lord” knowing that your labor is not in vain. Amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Psalm 119" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Psalm 119
Pentecost 10
August 2, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Psalm 119.1-16

Each synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a candidacy committee, a team responsible for the approval of ministry candidates, lay or ordained. Candidates meet with the committee regularly and go through several approval levels. Many candidates call this process “jumping through hoops.” So, it’s no surprise that ministry candidates often see candidacy committees as gate keepers whose job is keep them out. Unfortunately, that’s the way many committees operate; you have to prove you are worthy. Fortunately for me, my committee over 20 years ago provided more shepherding than gate-keeping. Although I still had to meet the requirements for ordination, I felt they wanted to do whatever it took to help me.

The distinction between shepherding and gate-keeping is important as we think about Psalm 119. Psalm 119 extols the virtues of the Torah—or law—in the life of Israel in almost ecstatic terms. So much so, that it makes we who are 20th century Lutheran Christians almost break out in hives. We have had “we are saved by grace and not by works of the law” so pounded into us we that we squirm at this kind of rhetoric. And then there is the almost over-the-top gushiness of the language that makes us blush. Appreciating the place of the law in our lives is one thing, but getting mushy about it is quite another.

We need to step back a bit and see what is going on otherwise we are in danger of dismissing the psalmist’s message altogether. John’s scripture introduction is a good place to start. As we have done with other songs in this summer’s sermon series, “Singing Our Faith,” we look at who wrote it and why. Although a lot of the Psalms are credited to King David, we really don’t know who wrote it. We also don’t know when it was written, but the psalms are at least 3,000 years old. We also want to remember that the psalms were not only the songs of the Jewish people, they were also the songs of the early church. Neither the psalms nor the rest of the Old Testament is to be dismissed out of hand.

What we do know about Psalm 119 gives us a hint about how it functioned in the life of the Jewish people. The psalm consists of 22 groups of 8 stanzas each, each group beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, forming an acrostic. For example, verses 1-8 each begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph. Each line of verses 9-16 begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, bet, and so on. It seems as if the structure is teaching device that helps the people learn something about God’s law.

Furthermore, each set of eight stanzas contain different phrases for Torah: ordinances, statutes, law, commandments, decrees, precepts, word, and promises, with some variations. For example, the words ways and paths are used frequently as well. Yet, even though the NRSV translates Torah as law, it should really be “instruction.” And that gives even more insight into the place of Torah in Israel: learning as a way of life. Psalm 119 reminds us that Torah, or God’s instruction, was never meant to be an arbitrary set of rules set by an arbitrary God who tells us to “shut up and do it.” Rather, Torah teaches us to how to live.

In other words, Torah was and is God’s gift to humanity. It was not meant as a burden to bear but a help to us live our lives. Unfortunately, we are the ones who turn it into a burden (and the Bible as a whole, for that matter) by making it our Lord and Master in a way it wasn’t intended. Torah points us to God. Here’s where we remember that God’s initiative, grace and mercy always come first. Just as God chose the Jewish people first and then gave them the Torah to help them live into that identity as his people, we who are saved by grace are given an outline of kingdom living.

One of my first confirmation students was Raymond, who almost weekly would ask me, “Why do I have to do this?” and “What happens if I flunk Confirmation.” Each week I would respond the same way, “You don’t have to, you get to” and “You don’t pass or fail Confirmation, you either do it or you don’t. After nearly two years of this, just as was being tempted to say, “Because I said so!” Raymond approached me one day and said, “I get it now.” Somehow, Raymond no longer saw me as a gate-keeper to being confirmed but a shepherd who truly wanted to help him grow in faith as a child of God.

This is one reason why Jesus made a big deal of saying he came to fulfill the law, not abolish the law. It’s why he said the greatest commandment was to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. And it’s why he says loving neighbor is pretty much the same thing. Just as the cross points to God’s love for us, draws us closer to him and outside ourselves, Torah points us to the one who gives us life and invites us to live that life he set aside for us more fully. We haven’t chanted the psalms much lately, but as we do so today I hope you’ll be reminded these are the songs of the early church and that even Lutheran Christians can sing them passionately. Amen.