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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Wrestling with God" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday (the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Wrestling with God
Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 18-Narrative Lectionary 2)
September 27, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 32.22-30

Two of my college buddies, Cec and Bomber, wrestled in high school. Once in awhile, they’d do some wrestling in the dorm, I suppose to pass the time. One time, Cec convinced me to wrestle with him. Of course, I had no illusions about beating him and, in fact, he beat me pretty handily. He did compliment me though, saying that I very good balance. I responded that’s true, but had very little upper body strength, which makes being a good wrestler difficult. As difficult as wrestling Cec in college was, wrestling with God was even more so.

A lot has happened since last week’s miraculous birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and Sarah. Isaac has grown, gotten married to Rebekah and had children of his own, twins in fact. Esau was the older and Jacob the younger, though close behind, literally holding on to Esau’s heal. Jacob’s name can mean “heal”; it can also mean “supplanter” or “cheater.” Indeed, Jacob will cheat Esau out of his birthright and his blessing as the oldest son through trickery and deceit.

Fearing for his life, Jacob flees to the land of his uncle Laban and there takes Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel as his wives. Jacob seems to have met his match regarding trickery in his uncle, but through God’s help he still manages to have many children and increase his own flocks in addition to his uncle’s. Jacob commits one last shenanigan and heads toward home with all of his possessions.

Unfortunately, Jacob is caught between a rock and a hard place: he discovers his brother Esau along with an army of 400 men stands between him and home. In an attempt to appease Esau, Jacob splits his possessions and sends them on ahead. Then he sends his wife and children as well, leaving him alone at the River Jabbok and the marathon wrestling match we heard a few minutes ago.

As I thought about this story and the five young people who have made their Affirmation of Baptism this morning, it seemed that Jacob’s story holds some lessons for us in the life of faith as well. So, pardon me as I spend a few minutes talking with them for the next few minutes.

We have talked about Confirmation as being that time that you publicly take responsibility for the life of faith. You didn’t have any say about your baptism, but you have now said that you agree with what your parents did for you and that you will continue to follow Jesus. The first thing that I want to tell you about this life that you have affirmed is that it is often one of struggle, akin to a wrestling match.

This life of faith will require from you a different way of living that will make your life more complicated. It’s a life that calls you to love and serve people who very often aren’t lovable. It asks you to set aside time for worshipping God, praying and reading scriptures when you could be doing other things. And it asks you to give of yourself and your money when you could be spending it elsewhere. And there may be times when bad things happen to you and you are tempted to curse God and say, “Why me?” The life of faith is very often a life of struggle.

But the second thing you need to know is that in the midst of this struggle you might be wounded and broken is such a way that will change you forever. While you are in the middle of this, your woundedness and pain will not seem like a good thing, don’t be afraid of them. The good news is that God is present in this struggle, even in the brokenness and pain, in ways that you cannot imagine and won’t always be able to see. In fact, it will be in these times that you will even be able to see God face-to-face. The life of faith is a struggle, but God is present in the midst of it and will use your wounds and pain in significant ways.

This leads that the third thing I want you to know: that you are never alone in your struggles in your lives of faith. I want you to stand up, turn around and look into the faces of these people behind you. You see, each one of these people has their own woundedness and pain, each one has wrestled with and seen the face of God, even though you may not know it. And they are here for you if and when you encounter your struggles as well. Even if you travel from here, there will always be places like this for you to come and share your struggles with, to be used by God.

But, there’s one last thing you need to know: as important as these folk are going to be to you, please know that you are just as important to them. Not only are you now fellow travelers on the journey of faith, you are a sign to them that there will still be others on the way. You are signs of hope and joy, assurance that the love of God in Jesus Christ will continue to be spread in word and deed in the years to come. (You can sit down again.)

You see, all of us are “Israel,” strivers with God. As for the original Israel, he will cross the river and meet his brother, Esau. Surprisingly, Esau will greet Jacob-Israel with joy and forgiveness and Jacob-Israel will declared that he has seen the face of God in his brother.

Congratulations on this milestone on your journey of faith. When you seem to be wrestling with God, don’t be afraid, even if you become wounded. You will be blessed and see the face of God in ways you can’t imagine. You are not alone, because God always gives us one another even as we give ourselves away. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Holy Humor" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Holy Humor
Pentecost 17
September 20, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 18.1-15; 21.1-7

Much has happened since last week’s story on the creation of Adam and Eve, who are set to work in the Garden of Eden. God has shown them the garden gate because of their disobedience. One son in a fit of jealousy kills the other. God tries to do a reboot on humanity and all of creation with a flood. That doesn’t work, because humanity tries to ascend to God and so God disperses the nations throwing down the tower of Babel.

Finally, God tries another tack through the call of Abraham and Sarah, a most unlikely couple. God promises to make of them a great nation, a nation that will be a light to all other nations. But it’s been 10 years and the promise is wearing thin. Thus develops the incident of Sarah’s maid, Hagar and Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son. Really, who can blame Abraham either for their doubt or their initiative?

Then three visitors show up and in typical Middle Eastern fashion, Abraham lavishes hospitality upon them. However, the party turns sideways when one of the guests asks about Sarah, known for her beauty. But anxiety quickly becomes incredulity when the guest tells them they are going to have a son. Now, Sarah and Abraham are not ignorant folk. They know where babies come from, who can and cannot have them. At 89 and 99 respectively, Sarah and Abraham are long past what it takes to have babies. They are in that sense “dead.” So Sarah laughs.

This past Wednesday evening, we speculated a bit on what kind of laughter this was. Was it an embarrassed laugh born of strangers speculating on the state of her womb? Was it more of a guffaw, like “you’re kidding!? Or was it a laugh born of disappointment now turning to tears? Whatever it was, the visitor, now identified as the Lord, with perhaps a twinkle in his eye and a smile twitching at his lips says, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Then the Lord promises them a child in due season. Indeed, Abraham and Sarah do have pleasure, a baby is conceived and a son is born.

Now the laughter turns joyous and in an act befitting the situation, they name him Isaac: “he laughs.” Abraham and Sarah will have their joy, but the laughter will cease a few years later when God asks Abraham to do the unthinkable: sacrifice Isaac back to God. It’s only at the last minute that God provides a ram instead. One wonders: what did Sarah think? I’m guessing there wasn’t any laughter. What kind of God would do this, asking someone to give up their precious and beloved son? Many people see in the Isaac narrative a foreshadowing of another story of another Beloved Son.

Fast-forward 2,000 years: a Jewish rabbi tells his followers he is destined to die and rise again. So, imagine the kind of laughter from theme. There may have been embarrassed laughter that wonders if someone has gone crazy. It might have been the guffaw as in “you’ve got to be kidding!” But the laughter doesn’t end there, because there is the mocking laughter of those determined shut him up because his message of love and mercy are too dangerous to hear. I also imagine that Satan was laughing while Jesus was hanging on the cross, thinking he’d won. But then there’s the incredulous and even skeptical laughter of those same followers who welcome him back, just as he said.

You see, God not only gets the first laugh but God always gets the last laugh. For some reason God delights using broken and imperfect people to accomplish his work. As on medieval mystic said, God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Another more recent commentator says it this way: “God does some of his best work with the most unlikely people.” Or, as the writer Ann Lamott, who knows from personal experience, says, “He’s such a show-off.” But the best thing God delights in doing is to bring life out of death and hope out of despair. God is working in our lives and in the world to do the same, just as with Abraham and Sarah. In a few minutes we’ll gather around the table where we will encounter God’s very being in, with and through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. I don’t think God would mind a chuckle or two as we eat. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Seeking Truth" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seeking Truth
Pentecost 16
September 13, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 2.4b-25

This past holiday Monday I was “relaxing” by reading my Facebook feed. I was interested in the early buzz on today’s text. However, such relaxation quickly drained with a posting on the Narrative Lectionary page and severely impaired it. The Narrative Lectionary Facebook page is a resource for those of us who use the Narrative Lectionary. One pastor was worried about how he was going to address controversy about sexuality. He was afraid that some people would use today’s text to say, “See, God made ‘Adam and Eve,’ not ‘Adam and Steve.’” In response another pastor said hers was an RIC congregation (Reconciled in Christ, open and affirming to the GLBTQ community) and she was going to deconstruct the text. Deconstruct too often means “tear down” without putting something else in its place. I’ve been stewing ever since, but I decided to put on my big-boy pants and figure a way through.

Both pastors’ comments highlight two unhelpful approaches to scripture, particularly the Old Testament. One way is to take the ancient texts literally and use them as weapons to attack and convince people of our positions. A second way is to dismantle them as being from a certain time and place so much so that they become virtually irrelevant. Now, there is nothing wrong with asking what the “plain sense” of the text is; Martin Luther used that approach as one among many. And it is helpful to ask about the context a text is written. But too often, these approaches result in something unhelpful, literalism on the one hand and relativism on the other.

I think that there is a better way, one that’s important for us especially as we use the Narrative Lectionary moving through the Bible. A more helpful way is to acknowledge scripture as narrative and stories we tell about God and humanity that express Truth (with a capital T) about both. It’s important to recognize that most of the time Truth does not mean Fact. For example, I can say that I love my wife with my whole heart, and that would express a deep Truth. But I don’t literally love my wife with this organ called my heart, so the statement is not factual. Yet, it is True.

So, for today, it’s really not helpful to use this creation story to argue for or against sexuality. Nor is it helpful to dismiss the text as pre-science mythology devised by people who didn’t know better. Ancient peoples understood far more than we give them credit for.  Rather, it’s more helpful to ask, “What Truth is expressed by the idea that God created humanity from soil and breathed some of God’s spirit into us? What is significant about humanity naming animals and tending the garden? What does it mean that humanity shouldn’t be alone? Why didn’t God just make another person the same way God made the first one?” There are other questions we could pursue.

We can’t address all of these today, but I do want to throw out some ideas about the last two questions. First, it seems to me that when God says it is not good for humans to be alone it tells us the importance of community and expresses the Truth that we are meant and built for relationships. None of us can do anything, be anything or achieve anything without the help of others. The building blocks of society is family units, but we know that the definition of family is not “one size fits all.” Here at Grace there are many different kinds of families. Frankly, this is hard for me personally. I have a hard time asking for help from others. So, I need to remember that God made us in God’s image, and God is relational in God’s being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That leads me to another Truth I think is expressed here: our relationships are interdependent. When I work with couples preparing for marriage, we read this text and talk about complementarity, how we bring different gifts to the relationship. I usually mention that if my wife and I were both alike, one of us would be unnecessary. But that notion is not just in marriages, of whatever kind, it exists in communities as well. When we were looking for a Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation, the primary criterion for the person was “not Scott.” As we have done the StrenghsFinder in a staff retreat last year, we’ve affirmed the gifts of John Odegard who complements me with gifts I don’t have. By the way, it’s instructive that God is the one who most often is called helper (ezer) in the Old Testament. Perhaps a better translation for helper would be “sustainer.”

As we move forward through the Old Testament and the stories it tells, can we ask the Truth questions? And someday, when it comes time for us to deal with the sexuality question at Grace, can we involve in the conversation people who may have a different perspective than our own, to hear their stories? It’s important to follow the Participatory Golden Rule: consequence takers need to be decision makers. If it affects you, you need to be in the conversation. That’s the kind of place I want Grace to be, where we can struggle with our faith questions in a safe way, where we can all seek a deeper understanding about who we are and Whose we are. Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"Singing Our Faith: Beautiful Savior" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Singing Our Faith: Beautiful Savior
Pentecost 15
September 6, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man…

This summer we have been putting some of our favorite songs in conversation with scripture and our lives of walking with God. We have called this series “Singing Our Faith” and I think that it’s been great. Today we end with Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8, but it also represents a beginning. I’ll say more about this later. Beautiful Savior was nominated by Dorothy George and Quentin Peterson. It was their Confirmation song back in 1938. I didn’t even know they had Confirmation songs. I can understand how meaningful it is. We sung it at my mother’s funeral 32 years ago and I still tear up when I sing it.

We don’t know who wrote the either the text or tune for Beautiful Savior. The original German text ("Schönster Herr Jesu") appeared anonymously in a manuscript dated 1662 in Munster, Germany. It was published in the Roman Catholic Munsterisch Gesangbuch (1677) and, with a number of alterations, in the hymn book Schlesische Volkslieder (1842). The translation, primarily the work of Joseph A. Seiss, was based on the 1842 edition and first published in the Sunday School Book for the use of Evangelical Lutheran Congregations (1873). Another well known translation based on the 1842 version is the anonymous Fairest Lord Jesus, published in Richard S. Willis's Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850). Apparently Beautiful Savior is the Lutheran version and Fairest Lord Jesus for the rest of the Protestants.

We do know a little bit about Seiss (originally Seuss). He was born and raised in a Moravian home in Graceham, MD 1823. After studying at Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg and completing his theological education with tutors and through private study, Seiss became a Lutheran pastor in 1842, though both his father and his bishop discouraged his study for the ministry. He served several Lutheran congregations in Virginia, Maryland and notably two churches in Philadelphia where he died in 1904. Known as an eloquent and popular preacher, Seiss was also a prolific author and editor of some eighty volumes including several hymnals.

The tune appears to be an eighteenth-century tune from the Glaz area of Silesia and has always been associated with this text. It was first heard among haymakers in 1839 and subsequently written down, but it seems to have roots further back, to at least 1766. After Franz Liszt used the tune for a crusaders' march in his oratorio The Legend of St. Elizabeth (1862), the tune also became known as ST. ELIZABETH. By 1850 the tune had come to the United States in Willis’ collection mentioned earlier. An arrangement of Beautiful Savior has been sung by many college choirs, the St. Olaf College choir perhaps the most notable.

It’s easy to see connections between Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8: they both use exalted language and extol creation. Psalm 8 is the first hymn of praise in the Psalter and the only one exclusively praising God. The psalmist looks at the moon and the stars and stands in awe of all that God has made. The psalmist doesn’t equate creation with God, but can see God’s handiwork throughout it all.

The psalmist then declares two things about humanity’s place in creation that seems at odds with each other. The first is an overwhelming sense of humility because of our size in relation to all creation. Though human beings at that time didn’t have the same understanding of cosmology we do, they certainly share our feeling of inferiority compared to the immensity of the universe. Yet, the psalmist also declares that in this vastness, God has given as a special place in creation, an authority that is derivative of God’s own. A little lower than God, we have dominion over everything God has created.

This is a good text for us to read today, for a number of reasons. First, we need to remind ourselves that with this incredible God-given authority comes great responsibility. The French call it noblesse oblige. With great authority comes great responsibility. Second, this is a great lead-in to the start of this year’s narrative lectionary that we begin next week in Genesis. In essence, we have the creation story here where humanity is made in God’s image as created co-creators. Next week we will hear the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Lurking in the background of that text is the story of the Fall, how humanity disobeyed God. That brings us to number three: dominion does not mean domination. Though I’ll have more to say next we, we realize how far short we are, both in our care of creation and how we treat one another as fellow children of God. It is difficult to talk about the pervasiveness of racism and its effects, but it is important that we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the AME Church to recognize today as “Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday.” We are obligated to do this precisely because of the role God has given to us.

Finally, we always come back to God, because that’s where both Beautiful Savior and Psalm 8 begin and end. We remember that Jesus is not only Lord of creation and the Nations, but we also remember that his exaltation was through his lifting up on the cross and resurrection. Following the Beautiful Savior means being a suffering servant as he was. Yet it also means that we are not in this alone and it means that through God, new life comes out of brokenness and chaos.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man, 
Truly I'd love Thee, truly I'd serve thee, 
Light of my soul, my Joy, my Crown. 
Amen.