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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Guest Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost- by John Odegard

Ruth 1.1-17

In our lesson today, we are learning part of the story of Naomi, who having left her homeland with her husband and sons to escape famine and started a life in a new land has found herself a widow, and with no one left to care for her. Both of her two sons and her husband have all died.

Her daughters in law grieve with her and she tries to send them away, back to their families where they might be welcomed back and taken care of. At least if they return to their families they may find food and shelter and a chance at a new life. Orpah goes back to her family but Ruth declares she will follow Naomi wherever she goes even until death. She clings to this grieving woman who has lost her husband and sons, who is returning to her homeland poor and broken. She says “do not press me to leave you, where you go, I will go.” She leaves her birth family, her home country and follows this broken woman into a foreign and strange country.

We as Christians are called to the same compassion and dedication. Not only to following Jesus, but to serve all of God's children as well.

Jesus says 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

In this story, we have three very different people, reacting to the same hand that life has given them in different ways. Each of us lives out these same stories and perspectives in our own lives. The hope we have today is that we might learn to recognize our own actions for what they are, and use every opportunity to serve and glorify God.

First, we have Orpah. I will be the first to confess that I often default to the way Orpah thinks and reacts. She is grieving with her mother in law and says she will go along with her, that she will stay with Naomi, but when Naomi urges her to go back home, she agrees. Orpah knows that Naomi is suffering and needs companionship, but she is also aware that she needs to think about what she will do now that she is a widow and has no financial security. Like many good mothers would, Naomi urges Orpah to take care of herself first.

Like Orpah, many of us offer condolences when someone is suffering.  Sometimes we are grieving with them. We offer to help in any way we can, “just let me know how I can help” we say, along with a hug or handshake.

Just like Orpah, we want to help. The problem is that we are leaving it up to them to ask for help, and that makes it easier for us to go back to our own life, worrying about our own troubles. What happens next, is they never ask for help, because most of us also play the part of Naomi when we are the one who is suffering.

Naomi is the one who has it worst off in this story, perhaps discounting the three men who were sick and died young. Naomi is now a widow, and probably too old to have much success at finding a new husband. She is in a foreign land with no relatives or family other than her two daughters-in-law, who are also recent widows, with no financial means to help or support her, let alone themselves. Her only choice is to head back home and hope for the kindness of a distant relation, or at least the comfort of a familiar place. Her daughters have come to know and love her and don’t want her to go alone, they want to go with her and share her burden, but she tries to convince them to think of the future instead. She tells them there is still hope for them to remarry and to have a happy life if they go back to their own families. She doesn’t want to burden them with her own troubles. After all, they have enough trouble of their own. They have no property, no money, no husband, and the proverbial clock is ticking.

Naomi, wanting to spare her daughters the hardship ahead pushes them away and tries to carry her burden alone, just as we often do. Especially in the Midwest.

Here, people will ask you how you are doing and before you respond they know that they will hear,

“I’m good, How about you? How ‘bout this weather?”

This is so ingrained it is almost automatic, but I know we can do better. And I know we really do care about how the other person is feeling. I know this because of something called the Minnesota good-bye. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, that is a ritual that takes at least 30 minutes where you start dropping not so subtle hints that you are about to depart, and inch closer and closer to the door, culminating in a conversation half way out the door that ends by stopping and turning around to talk every 5 steps as you are literally walking away from each other. Sound familiar now? As peculiar and elaborate as the Minnesota goodbye may be, it serves to show us how loving we can be, and just how meaningful these conversations are that we can’t just end them and walk away. We cherish our time together and value this person before us so much that we want them to know with absolute certainty that we wish we could talk more but simply can’t.

We are capable of having these great conversations and sharing our troubles with each other, but more often than not we hold it in, trying to do what is best for the other person. We don’t want to bother them with what we have going on, so we say “I’m good, and you?”

And then there is Ruth, who throws the Minnesota Goodbye out the window, taking it to a whole new level. She doesn’t just linger in the door, she simply will not hear of this conversation ending with a kiss and heading home. She says I love you so much that you are absolutely not doing this alone. She doesn’t say “let me know how I can help” but instead she takes action and says,

“It’s not up to you, I am carrying this burden with you, whether you like it or not.” And then she does even better, setting the perfect example for us to follow. She doesn’t tell Naomi how to fix her problems, she doesn’t tell her that she is over-reacting, she doesn’t pass any sort of judgement at all, she just digs in her heels and says “Where you Go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. If you die, I will be buried next to you, and even then I ask that God would not separate us.”

Ruth is determined to walk alongside this woman who seems to be cursed by fate. Naomi claims that God has even set Himself against her, and yet here is Ruth, showing the real hand of God. The one that holds on tightly no matter how hard we try to shake free. When told to go back to her family, she lives out the words that Christ would speak so many years later when he said

“Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

How can we do that? How can I live like Jesus, and follow the example of Ruth? Do we really have to drop everything and follow someone even to the grave?

We are called to start acting like family. Each of us is a child of God. Each of us is called by name and loved by the Creator. Each of us is expected to love one another as Jesus first loved us. But how do we show someone, a stranger even, that they are valuable, they are not alone, and that God loves them even when they feel like He is working against them? Consider this:

I think the Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman you have never met sitting in her doorway at the nursing home asking if we have a moment to talk. We have the opportunity to say many things in order to keep moving along. How busy we are or how we wish we could because staying to talk is dangerous in its own way. You don't know where you will end up. This conversation could take you to unfamiliar places where you have no control over the outcome, and that is truly scary. Not only is this new for us, but we would be leaving ourselves open to any emotional baggage she might place on our shoulders and hearts. Into the complete unknown. All for a stranger.

Martin Luther says

"Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father and not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey's end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. [It is]Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or desire--that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.”

He is saying that in order to follow Jesus, we have to be open to the unknown. And that is why we must stop and listen to that woman in the doorway tell about how she wants to go home. How she doesn't feel the same as when she was at home. How she misses her family. About her father, long since passed away, and the struggles her family went through when he was sick.

When you look back you will have no idea what you were even supposed to be doing instead, but you will absolutely remember her holding your hand as you prayed for her. I hope each of you will take the time to walk with someone, even for 20 minutes and see the difference in their eyes, and remember later what it’s like to hold their hand.

What can we do to be like Ruth you may ask?

Why don’t we start by lingering in the door just a little longer?


John Odegard is Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation at Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN. He preached this sermon October 18, 2015.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Carry On" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Carry On
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
October 25, 2015
2 Samuel 5.1-5; 6.1-5

We are committed to using the Narrative Lectionary at Grace, which each year retells God’s story from creation to consummation. By remembering God’s story intersecting the story of our faith ancestors we connect with our faith stories. We are also committed to remembering the important events in the life of the church and the rhythm of the seasons depicted by the church year calendar. By remembering the time and times of the church, we see how God is present through all time. This can be a little tricky sometimes, as today when we celebrate the Protestant Reformation while reading texts from the Old Testament that talk about the coronation of David and the Ark coming to Jerusalem.

As I thought about today’s stories, old and older, the phrase “carry on” came to mind. “Carry on” has at least three meanings: to carry on as in being wildly enthusiastic about something; carry-on as in a bag you take aboard an airplane; and carry on as continuing to do something. I’d like to use “carry on” as a metaphor to explore the mash-up between 2 Samuel and Reformation Sunday.

Newly anointed King David “carries on” while transporting the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. David is already king of the southern tribe of Judah, but the tribes of the northern tribes of Israel ask him to be their king, too. The previous king, Saul, and all of his family have been gotten out of the way and so there is a leadership vacuum. David has been recognized as their de facto leader and his leadership is now formalized. David’s charismatic personality will unite the kingdom and, in a series of politically astute moves, David will consolidate the kingdom and establish a dynasty. First, he names the newly conquered Jerusalem as his capital city, a city neither north nor south can lay claim to.

Secondly, he brings the long forgotten Ark, the holder of the Ten Commandments etched on stone tablets, to the city. The Ark denotes the power and presence of God among the people and its placing in Jerusalem solidifies David as God’s choice. During the trip from Abinadab’s farm to Jerusalem, David kicks up his heals in a prophetic-like frenzy, much to the chagrin of his wife. Yet, the celebration is not so much for what David has done, but because of what God has done through David. The story makes it clear that all that happens does so because of the faithfulness of God. As we celebrate the Reformation, we are reminded that it is God who worked through the Reformers to bring about the renewal of the church and that for us “carrying on” is a proper response to God’s renewing presence.

The second sense of carry on has to do with baggage, or more appropriately, what we bring with us. A carry-on bag contains what is most important to us when we travel, stuff we don’t want to lose. In some cases, it may contain all we have. David realized that the Ark was something important to bring with the people into the future. His son, Solomon, will build a temple with the Ark at its center, and Jerusalem would be the center of the life and faith of the Jewish people. (In fact, Jerusalem still holds that spot for Jewish people.)

As I think about the Reformation and what we hold dear as Christians, I wonder what it is that we hold valuable that we will carry on with us into our future. The Ark held the most important Words that God spoke to the people. Could it be that it is the centrality of the Word that defines us as Christians? Not just the Word as the Bible, the story of God’s action with us and creation, but the Word made flesh who has entered and continues to enter our messy existence, bringing life out of death, hope from despair. After all, as Martin Luther said, the Bible is the manger in which the Christ child is laid.

Finally, to “carry on” has the sense of continuing to do something, much as a military officer telling soldiers to “carry on” after leaving. David’s anointing, the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital city and the installation of the Ark will take the Jewish people into the future as they attempt to carry on God’s will for them. Reformation Sunday is a reminder to us that we are to dot the same. We are to “carry on” by living out God’s calling. That’s why one of our Guiding Principles at Grace is that we are “Deeply Rooted.” This means in part that we will carry with us that which is core to our witness about God’s love, grace, and compassion. And, although it may be outside our comfort zones, we could dance a bit as we are doing it. Carry on! Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Newsletter Article: October-November Edition of the Fourth and Main

October-November 2015

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It seems as if one is never too old to have one’s world rocked by God.

This particular seismic event came in May at a breakout session during our Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly. The workshop, led by stewardship consultant Mike Ward, focused on the synod’s visioning process for the coming years. During the presentation a question arose about volunteerism in the church. Pr. Ward’s response was the one that smacked me upside the head. “In the parish I never worried about matching peoples’ gifts with tasks because Jesus never did. He simply said to people, 'Follow me.'”

Now, my first reaction was to dismiss these comments out of hand. Fortunately, I stuck it out because I respected Pr. Ward and the contributions he has made to helping churches grow in their ability to help their people grow in faith. Since then I have turned his words over and over again in my mind. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It’s important to match people’s gifts with the mission and ministry that God is calling us to do. We have been using the Clifton Strengths Finder with our staff for the last year and it has been very helpful. The Strengths Finder identifies a person’s top five strengths (out of 34) and helps one understand how those strengths can be used effectively, both in our professional and personal lives. I often use the example that you can’t make a plow horse into a race horse and vice versa. The Strengths Finder has been useful for us to function better as a team.

However, I also think that Pr. Ward is right, too. (In good Lutheran fashion I can do paradox, holding two seeming opposite things as both being true.) There are times when God calls us out of our comfort zones and pushes us to do things we didn’t think we were capable. Each of us at one time or another has had to step up because somebody needed to do so and we were the only somebody available. Most of the time, we are surprised that we really can do what we didn’t think we could do.

Like many organizations, Grace has to figure out a way to match God’s call to mission and ministry with people willing to answer that call. Times are different than the last generation or two; I don’t need to recite them here. Even so, the ministry remains: helping our young people grow in faith and love, serving the needy and marginalized, providing engaging worship to sustain our lives and supporting the work of the church in our community and in the world.

This is so important that the church council has set “Encouraging Volunteerism” as one of its three main goals this year. To do so, it has established a task force led by Randy Long to examine ways we can match ministry with people. I hope you’ll be open to their work and their recommendations. Meanwhile, God’s ministry through us awaits our response. Please say, “Yes” when asked to serve. Not only will you be answering God’s call on your life, you’ll be making a difference in the lives of others.

In Christ,

Pr. Scott Olson

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Whole Body Faith" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Whole Body Faith
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
Deuteronomy 5.1-21; 6.1-9

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

These words that Moses speaks are known as the Shema, a Hebrew word for the first word of the sentence, “Hear.” The Ten Commandments have just been re-given to the Israelites as they stand on the brink of entering the Promised Land. They’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years since Moses led them out of Egypt, from bondage and slavery to freedom. They are entering a new place and will become the people God wants them to be. A new people in a new place need rules to live by. Contrary to popular belief, the Ten Commandments do not restrict their freedom; rather, they set the framework for their freedom.

Both the Ten Commandments and the Shema are not for one generation but for all generations. They need to be spoken to each generation afresh and anew. The Shema is a kind of shorthand for the relationship between God and God’s people. It becomes the definitive statement of both Jewish identity and the identity of God’s people. You will see it woven throughout the Old Testament and the New, often shortened to “the Lord your God” or “the Lord our God.” When Jesus responds to a question about which commandment is the greatest, he responds with the Shema. Then, without missing a beat, he reminds the religious leaders that there is a second commandment just as great: neighbor love.

The Shema is a reminder that God deeply desires to be in a relationship with us. It reminds us that God want us to be in healthy relationships with each other. Most importantly, it is a reminder that God always takes the initiative in the relationship. It begins with a claim, a word of grace, and not a demand. You may notice a footnote in your Bible regarding the translation. The Shema can be translated in such a way as to claim that God is one or it can be translated as God alone. I think both translations are intended.

To say that God is one tells us that God is not divisible. God has integrity and can be counted on to be consistent and dependable in relationship with us. To say that the Lord is God alone is to say there is no one or nothing else that deserves our worship; our loyalty is not to be divided either. Another way to say this is that God throws God’s whole self into relationship with us. That we are to love God with heart, soul and mind means we are to do the same.

I think there is another way we can think about loving God with heart, soul and mind. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve come to different understanding about connecting with God. It happened last summer while attending a conference. Our speaker for the day, Nancy Ortberg, was describing her struggle with doing early morning devotions, an expectation of her expression of Christian piety. Then she mentioned a book, Spiritual Pathways by Gary Thomas and said something that shook me to my core. “Worship is not the only way people connect with God and for some people it may not be a way at all.” I’ve thought deeply about those words ever since.

So I bought Thomas’ book and have been thinking about how we can help people connect with God in the way or ways that are comfortable. In preparation for an upcoming pastor’s meeting, a few of us grouped the nine pathways Thomas describes in three areas the Shema and Jesus talk about: heart, mind and strength. For example, people who lead with their hearts, understood biblically, might connect with God through art or music. They also might enjoy the mysterious aspects of faith and have the capacity of wonder and awe. Interestingly, they might also enjoy solitude and simplicity.

Those who connect with God through their minds find God in intellectual stimulation and new insights to God and the things of faith. They might also be highly contemplative and enjoy meditation, but they also appreciate the traditional and predictable forms of worships. Finally, those who connect with God through strength or might are doers. They could be social activists who work for justice. Or they could be caregivers who love God by serving others. Those people who find God in nature explore the outdoors; creation is their cathedral.

How do you connect with God? No doubt it is a combination of ways. Whatever it is, know that the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. This God invites you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, because this God does the same with you. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"I Have Heard Their Cry" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I Have Heard Their Cry
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 2
October 4, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 1.8-2.10; 3.1-15

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. … But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

God said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…”

If I count correctly, I have lived in fourteen dwellings in my lifetime, spanning five different states (two of them two different times). Each move had its own ups and downs, sometimes work-related, sometimes school-related. Finding a new place to live, new doctors and other service providers, a new church in some cases and, hopefully, new friends. This last move to Mankato was one of the hardest: Cindy and I had lived in Winona the longest period in our marriage, 10.5 years. We had made a lot of friends, both of our daughters graduated from high school and college there, and I in particular had built up a network of colleagues and community connections. In some ways, moving to Grace and Mankato was almost starting over. As much as I knew God was calling me here (and still do) there was a fair amount of grief and loss. That Cindy didn’t join me for a year didn’t help, either.

Yet, as difficult as these moves have been, I can’t imagine what it was like for my ancestors to leave their homeland, Sweden and Norway and come to this country. Crossing the ocean; making their way to Wisconsin and Minnesota; learning a new language; and starting over makes my experience pale in comparison. It’s not hard to make the leap from my ancestors’ immigration to the refugee and immigrant crises in our world today. The reasons for moving from their homeland to another are various: some are escaping persecution or a dangerous situation while some are looking for better opportunities for work. Unfortunately, one factor seems to be present in all of these scenarios: fear of the immigrant people.

Since our last week’s reading about Jacob newly named Israel, his family has immigrated to Egypt through a series of God-directed events. Joseph of the “Coat of Many Colors” fame was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers ending up in Egypt. This inveterate dreamer is also able to interpret dreams and rises to prominence in the king’s household by correctly interpreting the king’s dream of an impending famine. The same famine serves to reunite Joseph with his father and brothers. The king, out of gratitude, invites the Israelites to move en masse to Egypt where they settle as honored guests. Our story today picks up with the ominous statement that a new king arises who didn’t know Joseph and the role he played in saving Egypt from the famine.

Though the word is not used, clearly the king of Egypt is afraid of this immigrant people. There isn’t any hint in the text that the Israelites aren’t anything but good, faithful citizens of Egypt. Even so, fearing that they could take over the country, the king orders them to be oppressed and when that doesn’t work, orders the brutal murder of innocent boy babies. Ironically, the more he oppresses the Israelites, the more they flourish. In a second bit of irony, although it is the male Israelites that he fears, it is the women who “rise up” to thwart his plans, including a young girl and his own daughter. God hears the cries of his people and recruits Moses as his agent in securing their freedom from bondage and slavery so they can inhabit the land promised to their forbearers. The Exodus story is a definitive one for the Jewish people and, in the person of Jesus who secures our freedom from the slavery and bondage of sin and death, for Christians as well.

In closing, here a few thoughts how the scripture passage today might inform our actions toward refugees and immigrants in general and the crises around the world in particular. First, we must not let fear rule our actions. Have we not learned anything from the persecution of Native Americans in our early history and those of Japanese and German heritage during World War II? I might add that fear of those who have a different religion or political viewpoint is probably our most current problem.

Second, we must do what we can to support immigrants and refugees. Lutherans in general and this congregation in particular have stepped up before and we can do so again. There is information in the bulletin about how you can send resources to Lutheran Disaster Response. (By the way, this congregation recently donated money through our endowment fund to help two young Sudanese boys with living and education expenses; bravo!) Finally, we must look at the ways we continue to oppress God’s children because we don’t do anything about poverty and hunger, inadequate educational and work opportunities, low wages and health benefits. I’m sure you can think of others.

The question God poses to us is not whether we will make a difference in the world this next week; it is what we will do to make a difference. Wherever people are hurting, God is in their midst. We don’t bring God to the oppressed and enslaved; God is already there, waiting for us to show up and join in the work. That is truly holy ground. Amen.