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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

"The Word Became Flesh" - Sermon for Christmas Day 2016

The Word Became Flesh
Christmas Day
December 25, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.1-14

On my sabbatical this past summer I took a first-ever “quiet retreat” at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center near Janesville. It’s a beautiful setting on Lake Elysian. The center is operated by four Franciscan nuns whose mother house is at Assisi Heights in Rochester. As I drove up, a woman I assumed was one of the sisters was there to welcome me. She proceeded to startle me by greeting me by name. When asked how she knew me, she replied, “You’re the only man here this week.” I just about turned around and left, but I’m glad I didn’t. It was a wonderful time and I was blessed by presence of the 14 sisters and one lay woman who were there with me. Yet, what shocked me even more was at the end of the retreat a number of them told me that they had been blessed by my presence that week. These people who had been such a blessing to me told me I had been the same for them.

My whole perspective shifted because of those comments and caused me to look at my experience in a whole different light. Something similar happened this as I meditated on today’s scripture reading. In particular, I reflected deeply on verse 14 from John 1:“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….”And as I thought about what it meant that God became flesh, the sense of becoming, not take on, I found my perspective shifting from what it means for us that God became flesh to what it means for God. The Reformer, Martin Luther, does important work when he highlights the “for us” character of the incarnation. But, I wondered, does God get anything out of this business about becoming flesh?

As I further meditated on this perspective, I wondered what it was like for God to take his first breath, a breath reminiscent of God’s breathing into humanity at creation. What was it like to feel his heart beating and the blood coursing through his veins? What was it to be hungry and enjoy warmth of Mary’s love and the sweetness of her milk? What was it like to be held and cuddled, wrapped in clean cloths? How did the world that he had made look through those human eyes and how did God handle the joys and sorrows of being human? Did God come to the realization that being all-knowing wasn’t enough, that there was something vital and important about becoming all-experiencing as well?

This God who humbled himself to become flesh would experience the gamut of humanness, including humiliation, brokenness, despair and worst of all, God-forsakenness. But this God would also experience and incredible intimacy and relationship with us as never before. And, although it’s almost unfathomable that God’s love could go deeper, I think it did. God chose to enter what some humans try to avoid, the fleshy existence in all its variety. Because of that, we can pour out our hearts to one who truly is one of us and with us.

What does it mean for God to become flesh and dwell among us? Literally, it means the world for him. Because of Christmas, we are assured that when God pitches a tent and dwells with us that it’s forever. The Word became flesh that first Christmas and God continues to invite us in to a relationship with him. I had no clue that I would be as important to those sisters as they were to me. Just so, I believe that it was as important to God to become flesh as it is to us. May you experience the love and joy of Christ, not just today but always. Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Finding Christmas" - Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Finding Christmas
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

In CS Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children find themselves pulled from their home in Great Britain to a country called Narnia. Narnia is populated by humans and other fantastic creatures, including talking animals. They discover that Narnia is under the spell of the White Witch, who has the ability to turn creatures to stone. She has put Narnia into a perpetual deep-freeze that has lasted years and appears to have no end. As one of the inhabitants laments, “It’s always winter, but never Christmas.” That one line sums up the despair the residents experience, but it also contains a glimmer of hope.

Aside from the arctic blast we experienced last week, a number of us wonder if Christmas will ever come. We may be going through a winter period caused by any number of events: grief over a significant loss or disappointment. It has been well documented that many people have a difficult time at Christmas. Believe it or not, many pastors do, too. We rush around trying to provide Christmas for others that we often don’t experience it ourselves. Now, I don’t say this to make you feel sorry for me or others. What we do is holy work and a privilege to do so. Rather, I say this to let you know that we truly understand what you may be going through. There are winters of our lives where there seems to be precious little Christmas, if any at all.

The people of Judea were experiencing a very oppressive winter that first Christmas. They were living under Roman occupation, an oppressive foreign government. Luke gives us the lay of the land in his historical introduction by telling us who is in charge and it’s not the locals. (Whatever authority the locals have is only as puppets for the Romans.) Into that situation, Luke narrates a most improbable tale, that all evidence to the contrary, God hasn’t forgotten God’s people after all. Christmas comes in the form of a baby born not into greatness but into meager and difficult circumstances. However, it’s important to note that the Jesus story is not another “humble beginnings to success” tale. Rather, it’s the opposite: as we know, Jesus will go from humility to humiliation all too quickly.

Where does Christmas come in the midst of our wintery experiences? Where can we find Christ? This Advent we’ve explored the traditional Advent Wreath candle themes of hope, peace, joy and love. I think Christmas appears wherever these break through our wintery lives. For example, hope becomes more than just wishful thinking when it becomes incarnate and takes on human flesh. I can think of nothing more hopeful than a baby’s birth in the midst of an uncertain world. Christmas has broken through in the baptisms of Braxton, Lyra, Louis, Ireland and Isabella this year.

Christmas comes through peace when we take a risk by opening our hearts to God and one another. It comes when we sit down with someone whom we disagree and seek to have an honest talk, truly listening. Christmas broke in through peace during our Community Thanksgiving service this year as Christians, Muslims and Native Americans opened their hearts to one another by giving thanks to God. Christmas comes through joy when light breaks through the darkness, as when a community of faith gathers around a family who has experienced loss and enfolds them with tears and laughter. Christmas comes through love when people give themselves away in acts both great and small. Ten days ago on a Wednesday night, Christmas broke through the love of disciples aged 3 to 83 who gathered together to pack 80 goodie boxes for the homeless youth at the Reach Drop-in Center. (Yes, there are homeless youth in Mankato.)

Above all, Christmas comes because we have a God who says that winter never has the last word. The same God that became flesh and entered our wintery world 2,000 years ago continues to do so today. My sisters and brothers, I don’t know where you’ll find Christmas this year, but God promises it will come. Anticipate it, look for it, celebrate it and above all share it with others when it does so. Christmas came to Narnia, and so it does to us. Merry Christmas, Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Ruinous Joy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

Ruinous Joy
Advent 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 11, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Isaiah 61.1-11

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61.4

The recent flooding in Waseca, St. Clair and other towns in our area brought back memories of flooding in Southeastern Minnesota. In August 2007, 17” of rain fell in 18 hours, flooding Stockton, Rushford and Minnesota City. Many people lost their homes and others walked away from theirs. Still others rebuilt. The cleanup and rebuilding effort took one and a half to two years, something we were told by those who had been through similar disasters. Some people never recovered. In addition to the Federal and State governments, church organizations were the key to recovery. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans at the time provided organization, materials and expertise in rebuilding. Lutheran Social Services came in with emotional and psychological help, including Camp Noah for children. The Lutherans were some of the first on the scene and they were the last to leave.

The Judeans understood devastation, cleanup and rebuilding. Returning from Babylon (modern day Iraq), they had much work to do. The Babylonians had conquered Judah, the Southern Kingdom, laying waste to Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. They had carried everyone who was anyone into Babylon where they lived in exile for almost 50 years. When the Persians (modern day Iran) conquered the Babylonians, their leader Cyrus allowed the Judeans to return home. The happiness they experienced was short-lived, however, as they undertook a massive effort to rebuild. And as we learned from Joel last week, this situation was further complicated by the enemies who tried to thwart their efforts and the Judeans’ diverted hearts.

Into this condition, the prophet Isaiah speaks as word from God as he throughout the book. Evidence to the contrary, God has not abandoned his people and is working in, with, through their lives. Using a multitude of images and mixed metaphors, Isaiah brings good news to them. The brokenhearted will be wrapped with love and those who are captive will be set free from whatever ensnares them. This good news of God’s promised presence with the suffering will bring great rejoicing to them. Lives will be rebuilt and the whole world will witness God’s saving redemption of God’s people.

Today’s Advent theme is joy and our text helps us understand difference between joy and happiness. Now, there is nothing wrong with happiness, but I think that happiness seems to be more fleeting, always looking to the next thing. As a colleague mentioned, happiness tends to sell you something that you can’t buy. On the other hand, joy is deeper, an assurance of God’s presence, a breaking in of God when least expected. As Frederick Buechner notes, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” God promises joy in the midst of our darkest times and invites us to look for it in those times.

It is fitting that we celebrate St. Lucia, an ancient saint, and St. Isabella, our newly baptized saint. As Anna told us, Lucia’s presence in the midst of famine and persecution brought great joy to God’s people. And Isabella’s birth and baptism in uncertain times stands as a witness of God’s faithfulness to us no matter what happens. There is much to be devastated about in our lives today: political uncertainty, racism, polarization, and other assorted ills. Yet, God through Isaiah encourages us to continue to rebuild, one brick at a time. We are to be assured that God’s light will mingle with the darkness, bringing new life in the midst of death. Amen

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Heart Rending Peace" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Heart Rending Peace
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 3
December 4, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Joel 2.12-13, 28-29

Have noticed how many times the word “peace” appears in our worship service? “In peace let us pray to the Lord…” and “For the peace from above and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord” are from the Kyrie. “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth is from the Hymn of Praise. I begin my sermons with, “Grace, mercy and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” and end them with “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep and guard your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ our Lord.” After the Creed and the Prayers we say, “The peace of the Lord be with you always as we engage in the Sharing of the Peace. After Holy Communion we’ll occasionally sing, “Now, Lord let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled” in what’s known as the Nunc Dimittis.

Then near the end of the service the presiding minister declares, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you with grace and mercy; and the Lord look upon you with favor and give you his peace” in the Benediction or Blessing. Finally, the last word is one of peace as well: “Go in peace and through God’s abundant love, live and work to serve others as we are dismissed for mission and ministry in the world. Do you think peace is important? It is second only to love in occurrence among the Advent themes that also includes hope and joy.

Our reading from Joel doesn’t mention peace, but I want to put peace and today’s scripture reading in conversation with each other. We don’t know when Joel was written or the context but scholars make some good guesses. The setting is probably the post-exile when the Judeans are trying to rebuild their lives after returning from their Babylonian captivity, around 400 BCE. So busy are they trying to rebuild their lives that they are neglecting the God who freed them from that captivity, particularly regarding worship. They are newly beset by enemies that Joel describes as a swarm of locusts. Through these horrific events Joel says that this is God trying to get their attention, inviting them to return to God in fasting and other acts of repentance.

In doing so, Joel uses a powerful and important image: the rending of hearts. He transfers the typical practice of rending garments, a costly practice, with a costlier one. It took months to make a garment and they were very expensive, which means most people only had one set of clothing. To rend, or rip, once clothing was an extreme act to say the least. Therefore, rending ones heart was a dramatic gesture. God, through Joel, invites them to a restored relationship with him by opening their hearts to him. It’s a very intimate image and one that asks God’s people to become vulnerable and risk their selves. In fact, as we know from sociologist BrenĂ© Brown’s work on vulnerability and connection, it takes great courage to do so. She notes the word courage literally means to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” That’s an important way to understand courage in relationships.

One person notes that Advent is a strange mixture of moving away from God and moving toward God. Consumerism, secular celebrations, and stress tend to move us away from God while Christmas pageants, the singing of carols, and worshiping on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day move us toward God. As I think about Advent’s strange mixture, I think it also includes a mixture of grief and sadness as well as joy and celebration. And in the midst of this mixed bag, God’s voice beckons us to return home, a home that includes peace. The peace God invites us to experience is found in restored relationships.

So, today on the Second Sunday of Advent, I wonder: can I risk being vulnerable for a chance to restore peace to my closest and most important relationships? Do I have the courage to open up my heart, to God and to others, to bring some semblance of harmony into my life? We may not be able to do much about world peace, but we can do something about peace with others. In the end, however, it’s not as much about us and what we do as it is about what God in Christ, the Prince of Peace, does in, with and through us. Whatever we are able to do comes to us through the grace of God who is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Here is God’s peaceful Advent invitation: return to God, open your hearts, and seek peace. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

"Hope Incarnate" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Hope Incarnate
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 27, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Daniel 6.6-27

This past Monday I met with our Eucharistic Ministers, a silent almost invisible ministry of the congregation. Eucharistic Ministers visit and bring Communion to our members who are shut in and can’t get to church otherwise. During the meeting, we shared some of our experiences almost all of them positive and uplifting. We also talked through some of the challenges we meet. As in many ministries, I got the sense that they were blessed as much as being a blessing to those they visit. I think that’s true for most ministries of the church. Because I was thinking about Daniel and the theme of hope, I asked the Eucharistic Ministers to help me define it. We toss around a lot of loaded words in the church, but we rarely take the time to unpack them. So, I asked for their help.

Daniel seems to be in a hopeless situation, the targeted victim of political intrigue and insider bullying. To understand the book of Daniel, we need to know its context. Daniel is set in the period of the exile when Jews were conquered and moved to Babylon. The temple was destroyed and everyone who was anyone was expatriated. They are in a foreign land with enormous pressure to assimilate into the local culture, especially religiously. So, at heart the book of Daniel is “resistance literature,” much like the book of Revelation. The book claims that God is sovereign, not empire. Furthermore, to interpret Daniel correctly, we must engage in a mildly willingly suspension of disbelief at some of the aspects of the story. As one observer notes, it is easier to believe Daniel escaped from the lions than such a law was passed in the first place. Even so, the book of Daniel speaks to us in the Advent themes of expectation, hope and the coming of a savior.

The Eucharistic Ministers gave me rich feedback about hope, only some of which I’m able to share with you this morning. One person described hope as “trembling anticipation” and I pictured a dog at the dinner table looking for any scrap that might fall or be tossed its way. But they all said that hope is not just wishful thinking; hope has a foundation or anchor in which it is based. Yet, in the next breath they said something counterintuitive, that hope is not set in stone. Rather, hope is dynamic, and other words were offered: flexible, malleable, and fluid came to mind. I was reminded of theologian Rob Bell’s metaphor for the life of faith. Faith is not a wall made up of bricks such that when one is removed the wall crumbles. Faith is more like the springs on a trampoline that allows us to jump. Finally, the Eucharistic Ministers indicated that hope has to be real; in my words, I said that hope has to be incarnate. It has to have flesh and bones.

The story of Daniel seems to embody this multi-faceted understanding of hope. King Darius, for all his spinelessness, is like that dog at the dinner table in trembling anticipation, hoping against hope that Daniel’s God can save him. He rushes to the lions’ den knowing it’s over but not knowing what has happened. It’s like going to bed while your favorite sports team is playing and waking up the next day not know who won. Or, for a more recent analogy, it’s like going to bed while the presidential election was raging and waking up wondering the same thing. An interesting side note: the king didn’t spend the night with Daniel, preferring to stay away. However, hope still became incarnate later as he arrived at the lion’s den. It would be easy to mock Darius’ version of hope against Daniel’s steadfast one, yet most of us would probably admit that we hope more like Darius than we do like Daniel.

Many of us are facing lions of one sort or another that are threatening to overwhelm us. The season of Advent is a reminder that the God we claim continues to claim us. This God became Incarnate Hope in Jesus Christ: Darkness-Shattering Light and Lion Tamer in the flesh. The really marvelous result of the coming of Jesus is that we are made Incarnate Hope for others. The Eucharistic Ministers, you all by your subversive act of worship and presence with one another, are concrete, tangible signs of hope to a world beset by lions. Thank you for embodying hope and may God bless you as you serve as incarnate hope in a hurting world that needs to know God loves them and cares for them. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

"A New Thing" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

A New Thing
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 20, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 36.1-8, 21-23, 27-28; 31.31-34

We love new things and one proof of that are the hundreds or even thousands of people who line up for the newest gadgets. Of course, next week will be the official start of the rush to buy, though newness knows no season. And it’s not just new technology that attracts us; we love “new and improved” everything no matter what it is. However, we learn quickly in life that new doesn’t always mean better, even in the church.

Jeremiah talks about a new thing that God is doing. Jeremiah is a prophet, and a prophet brings a word from God to God’s people. In this instance, it is a people who are feeling anxious and threatened. Overall, it’s not a happy word that Jeremiah brings, for the people have relied on their attendance at temple worship, not the following of Torah, God’s law, to make them right with God and each other. Yet, in the midst of these words of judgment, God has Jeremiah speak a word of hope to the people. Jeremiah tells them that God is doing a new thing. But when God does new things it isn’t change; it’s transformation. There’s a difference.

I’ve thought long and deeply this week about how God transforms us by writing on our hearts. Here are some thoughts. When I was going through my agnostic period as I doubted the existence of God, God used a coworker to invite me to a young adults group where I was welcomed and accepted. It was these young adults who wrote God’s love on my heart. Then God did a new thing in me through a short-haired blonde that I met in that same group, not the long-haired brunette I sought my life until that point.

This same blond became my wife and the new things God was doing continued. I was informed that we’d be tithers (ten percenters) and in that new thing God transformed me from thinking that I was doing something for God through my generosity where in reality it was God doing something new in me. A number of years later, God did a new thing by calling me to seminary, writing courage on my heart through sister and other people.

God did a new thing calling me to a doctoral program, writing on my heart through colleagues who had the audacity to use prayer in doing so! When I told God he’d have to help me pay for it, God did a new thing by telling me I’d have to learn to ask for money and God wrote on my heart through many generous people who graciously agreed to help. God did a new thing bringing me to Grace, but instead of me transforming this place it is you who have transformed me, writing on my heart through your faithfulness and nerve.

The new things God was doing through us continued: moving from two services on Sunday to one; having all of our faith formation on Wednesday nights; serving a community meal where all are welcome; serving Holy Communion where all are welcome regardless of age or ability; buying empty lots and using them for a Community Garden; thinking of faith formation for all ages not just youth; calling a carpenter, John Odegard, with no formal education to lead that effort; a Stewardship team that believes we can increase ministry by $50,000 and in giving 25% of that away; thinking about how we can renovate for the future, not just us but for our community; and using you, Kris Block, Diane Norland and Pr. Craig Breimhorst to write on my heart what it means to be trusting, generous people.

For the last few weeks we’ve been talking about being Rooted in Love, Growing in Grace. Today we are invited to make a commitment to do so as we support God’s mission and ministry in, with and through this place. At the end of the service, we’ll make our commitments for the next year. However, please know that whatever you write down as your intention, all gifts whatever size are appreciated and will be used wisely. God is always doing a new thing, slogging away in showing us his love and mercy. Where is God writing on your hearts today? What is the new thing God is doing in your life? Jeremiah tells us that God is doing it, pointing to Jesus Christ who makes all things new. Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

"St. Jonah the Reluctant" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

St. Jonah the Reluctant
All Saints Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
November 6, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jonah 1.1-17; 3.1-10; 4.1-11

Today is All Saints Sunday, the time we set aside to remember those who have died in the past year. We’ll also take time to remember all of our loved ones who have gone before us in the lighting of candles. As I mentioned with the children, we use the term saint in many ways. It has many aspects like a multi-faceted jewel. We call saints those who have died and those who are good. We use the word saint particularly for those who bore witness to the faith and maybe died for it. The early church used the word saint for those who were baptized into Christ just as “St.” Louis was today.

But there’s another use of saint not apparent in English. In Greek the word saint is the same word that is used for holy. Saints are holy ones. However, we don’t necessarily mean that these people were holy in and of themselves. Holy things in the Bible were only holy because of being set aside by God for God’s purposes.

It’s this last definition of saint that makes the reading from Jonah a good one for today. The story of Jonah is an extraordinary one. Someone had noted that, with tongue firmly in cheek, the claim Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days is the most believable aspect of the narrative. We could (and perhaps should) mine this story in several sermons, but today I’ll make three brief points.

First, like Jonah, God calls us to surprising and often ridiculous things. The Ninevites were mortal enemies of Northern Israel and committed horrific and unspeakable acts against them. For Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites is as if a Jew was told to preach to the Nazis during the Holocaust of World War II. The Ninevites were that evil.

Though hardly a comparison, the things that God has done through Grace these past five years has been surprising and, if we had been told beforehand, ridiculous. Furthermore, it may seem ridiculous to some that we are engaging in ambitious stewardship and building programs, but that’s what God is calling us to do.

That brings us to the second point: God journeys with us even in our rebellion and stubbornness. Jonah thought he could run and hide from the God who made heaven and earth and the seas. Even the Gentile sailors with Jonah knew better than he did that you can’t run from the Lord. You can’t out-stubborn God and God will work, in with and through you in spite of you. Yet, even more importantly, God was present no matter where Jonah went. God was present on the boat. God was present when Jonah was in the belly of the fish. God was present when Jonah preached in Nineveh. And God was present even in the midst of his whiny snit. I have personal experience trying to run from God and believe me, it’s not possible. I believe God is present with us on our journey, both in our individual walks and as church.

Most importantly, the story of both Jonah and All Saints is about God’s extraordinary love. The grace that God gives to us who have been made saints through baptism is extended to all people. There really are no exceptions to God’s love and this is a vital message in today’s political and cultural environment. This extraordinary live is also why we are stepping out in faith in our Stewardship and building appeals. The purpose of these appeals is not about us but rather what God is doing in, with and through us for the sake of the world. I continue to be in awe how you welcome everyone who shows up here and how you continually give yourselves away and I look forward to continuing that journey in God’s love with you.

Like St. Jonah, God calls us to surprising and audacious ministry. God promises to be with us every step of the way, just as promised to St. Louis in his baptism today and all the saints remembered this morning. God’s extraordinary love is out-poured to all through Jesus into whom we have been baptized. May that astonishing love continue to strengthen you, reluctant saints all. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Semper Reformanda" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Semper Reformanda
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 30, 2016
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
1 Kings 17.1-24

Almost 499 years ago Martin Luther posted 95 theses, or articles of debate, on door of the castle church in Wittenberg Germany. The act was widely regarded as the official start of the Protestant Reformation, called Protestant because of the protests against abuses in the church. The Reformation would bring massive renewal. Luther courageously questioned some practices of the church and did so at great peril to himself. The Reformation brought sweeping changes, not only for churches but civically and politically as well. As we celebrate the Reformation, we must be wary of complacency and recognize that the Reformation was not a “one and done” event. The fact is that God is constantly on the move, shaking things up and breathing new life. Karl Barth, a 20th century Swiss theologian, captured this in a nifty little Latin phrase: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. In English: the Church of the Reformation is always reforming.

At first blush, it might be difficult to see how today’s text in 1 Kings connects with Reformation Sunday. But, bear with me as I give some background to today’s reading. Since last week, when God promised David he would make of him a “house,” where there would always be a king on the throne, David’s Solomon ascended the throne and succeeded in consolidating the 12 tribes into one nation. However, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, isn’t so wise and takes some bad advice. His actions result in Israel being split in two, the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

There are two things that important about this split: The first is that the northern kingdom has kings that are not of David’s line and therefore are outside of God’s promise of steadfast love. The second thing to know is that they are all wicked kings. For each of them, the Bible says, “They did evil in the sight of the Lord.” None of them is more evil than Ahab, the king Elijah will battle. At the end of chapter 16 we hear how Ahab marries Jezebel, and non-Israelite Baal worshiper. Now, Baal was thought to be the god who provided rain for the fertility of the land. Jezebel converts Ahab to a Baal worshipper, which incenses God, and prompts God to raise up Elijah.

To show Ahab and Israel who is in control, God brings a drought upon Israel and places north, but takes care to provide for Elijah. Down the road, God is going to use Elijah in a major confrontation with Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. But first, God does some pre-season training of Elijah to get him ready for the big game. Through the three vignettes, Elijah progresses in agency. In the initial story where he is fed by the ravens, Elijah is dependent and passive. In the next act, God sends him to a widow and, although God provides what he needs, Elijah must ask and make promises based on his trust in God. In the final segment, Elijah takes matters into his hands and demands that God bring life back into the widow’s son. Through it all, God continues to provide, not just for Elijah but the widow and son as well.

So, in connecting Reformation to 1 Kings 17, it seems that both Martin Luther and Elijah were called upon to stand up to the powers of the day. And, although the story is outside today’s text, both of them will fear for their lives and flee from danger. Both of them will go through bouts of deep anxiety, yet will learn to trust in God. And both will see God’s continual working and renewing in ways they didn’t expect. Notice how God’s provision for Elijah at first and then God’s provisions for Elijah and the widow her son are not promised forever. The way God provides may change, but that God provides doesn’t.

Though Elijah lived 2900 years ago and Luther 500 years ago, these stories are just as fresh for us today as they were for them. It is still true that our God is a hands-on, active God who is intimately involved in our lives and world. This God is constantly bringing renewal and inviting us to trust in unexpected ways. I’m excited about this new partnership between Redeemer and Grace, the opportunities Vicar John has to serve and the ways we can grow together, both corporately and individually. I look forward to seeing what God is going to be doing in, with and through us in the years ahead. So, hold on to your Small Catechisms: God is on the move. Semper Reformanda, always reforming. Amen

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Ask Not" - Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Ask Not
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 23, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Samuel 7.1-17

Almost 56 years ago John F. Kennedy uttered words that would quickly define him as a president and us as a nation. On January 20, 1961 in his inauguration speech, Kennedy sought to unite the American people. It was a speech that could just have easily been given today, and perhaps it should, except that it was sprinkled liberally with references to God. Perhaps anticipating the potential dangers of a “nanny state,” which seeks to take inordinate interest in its citizen’s lives or our propensity for such, Kennedy made famous these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Our text from 2 Samuel seems to turn that phrase on its head and even backwards: “Ask not what you can do for God — ask what God can do for you.” Last week, in the story of Samuel’s remarkable birth to barren Hannah, we learned that story was prelude to the central concern of the Samuel corpus: the monarchy in general and David in particular. The Israelites wanted a monarchy for the most understandable of reasons: because everyone else had one. However, their first attempt ended in disaster and civil war. Their first king, Saul, fell out of favor with God and was eventually deposed in favor of the shepherd boy who would become warrior.

Winning fame by killing Goliath and avoiding Saul’s desire to kill him, David prevails. He is anointed king of both parts of the kingdom and seeking to consolidate the kingdom further, names Jerusalem as its capital and brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. With something of a breather at hand, he looks around and decides God needs a permanent home. Nathan, being the supportive pastor-prophet he is, signs off on David’s “edifice complex” only to receive rebuke from God. Now, we don’t know why David wants to build a temple for God. Perhaps he is embarrassed that he lives in a nice house while God still “lives” in a tent. Maybe he wants to show gratitude for all God has done for him. Perhaps David is merely doing the “done thing,” building a temple to his God as any self-respecting conqueror would do. Or maybe it’s another shrewd political move, a further consolidation of his power.

Whatever the reason, God says it’s not about what we do for God; it’s about what God does for us. By the way, whoever thinks that the Old Testament is only about the law and judgment, think again; this is pure gospel. God recites all he has done for David and, if that wasn’t enough, even more. God will build for David a house and this house will last forever. Furthermore, God will never take away God’s steadfast love from them. It’s no wonder that both Jews and the early Christians found this text so important. It is a Messianic text to the Jews and, for Christians, the Messiah was clearly Jesus Christ.

Now, it is somewhat ironic that we are in the process of building renovations here at Grace. This text reminds us that this building is not for God; it’s to support God’s mission and ministry through us. It’s not about giving back to God what God has given; it’s about giving ourselves away. You’ll hear more about the renovations in the months to come, but there’s something else that we need to do. In order to prepare for the renovations ahead, we will be working to strengthen or current ministries now.

Today we kick off our Stewardship Appeal, “Rooted in Love, Growing in Grace.” The appeal has three initiatives you’ll hear more about over the next three weeks. Next week, we will talk about our first initiative, Supporting our Discipleship ministry by investing in families. Two weeks from today, you’ll hear about our second initiative, Sustaining Ministry Excellence, which helps us make sure we keep up our core ministries. Finally, on November 13 Rev. Craig Breimhorst will be our guest preacher and talk about our third initiative, Raising up Future Leaders. Pastor Breimhorst is a former youth director at Grace who went on to attend seminary and become a pastor. You’ll hear temple talks from people who have been impacted and receive materials to help you make prayerful decisions.  Through this appeal, we hope to raise an additional $50,000 of which we plan to give away at least $10,000. By the way, part of “Raising up Future Leaders” will go to support Crossroads Campus Ministry in a way that we haven’t done for a while.

I’m excited how we continue to build for the future here at Grace and about the ministry that God has done through us. Like King David, God has richly blessed us, individually and as a congregation, and continues to do so. Like David, God through Jesus Christ has promised to always hold us in steadfast love. So, ask not what you can do for God, but what God has done for you and from that how God might be leading you to continue to give away yourselves for others. Though we might be anxious about the future of our country, God calls us to live as beacons of hope, strengthened in love.Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"This Is My Song" - Sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

This Is My Song
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 16, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10

I love Broadway musicals and, as you can imagine, I enjoy going to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater from time to time. In musicals, when done right, the songs are memorable, combining good tunes with a compelling story. One thing that tickles me, however, is how the characters will suddenly burst into song in the most unlikely places with a full orchestra backing them up, such when Julie Andrews sings on a mountain top in The Sound of Music. In our lesson for today, like a Broadway actress, Hannah bursts into song at a most unlikely time and place. There is no apparent orchestra backing her and the song is odd, a nationalistic song if anything. It’s as if Eliza Doolittle were to sing, God Save the Queen in the midst of My Fair Lady.

Last week, we were at the foot of Mt. Sinai where the Israelites’ song went from boisterous to lament. They had come close to extinction because of their apostasy in building the golden calf. Since then, they’ve been on the move. Poised to enter the Promised Land, they have been forced to wander 40 years in the wilderness because they doubted God’s ability to help them settle the inhabited land. Once the faithless generation passes away, under Joshua’s leadership they entered the Promised Land and conquered it only to be besieged on all sides by the nation states surrounding them. Because they are a loose confederation of tribes, they are easy pickings. Occasionally, God will raise judges to rally them, but they get tired of this cycle and eventually will want a king to unify them.

The story of Samuel is how the monarchy comes into being in general and how the line of David gets established in particular. And the story begins in the most unlikely of places, with an elderly priest and a barren woman. (A side note: this won’t be the last time that a story of greatness begins with a birth narrative of humility. Cue The Magnificat, the song that a young virgin will sing a thousand years later upon learning that she is caring God’s Son, the long-awaited Messiah.) Hannah is persecuted by her husband’s other wife; we call it bullying today. She goes up to worship at Shiloh and prays fervently for a child where she is accused of drinking by the priest Eli. Eli promises her a child and God remembers her. Hannah and her husband conceive, a son is born and when the child is weaned, Hannah gives the child back to God.

I don’t know what it’s like not to be able to have a child and I can only imagine what it’s like to not be able to conceive. I think the idea of barrenness comes close. And I think most of us have an experience of being forgotten, perhaps by God, which maybe even more painful. And to give a child up after waiting so long stretches the imagination. Again, the only thing I can think of that might be similar is a birth mother giving her child for adoption. Yet, right after she does so, Hannah bursts into a song about the power of God’s justice. Perhaps she does so because she is not only able to receive something, but she is also able to give something for the first time in her life.

Hannah sings because she knows that it is in barrenness that God works to make a future. Her song is both proclamation and prophecy. Hannah proclaims God’s faithfulness and remembering. She dares to sing a song that spits in the face of power brokers of the world and she declares that all evidence to the contrary, God favors those at the margins of society. In other words, God has not forgotten any of us. Furthermore, she hints of one who is coming 1,000 years later and who will bring justice to the world.

Hannah sings in response to God’s presence and working in her life. Where have you seen God’s presence in your life and what song would you sing? You might not be on Broadway or backed up by a full orchestra, but sing anyway. Sing of God’s faithfulness and remembrance of you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Can We Talk?" - Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Can We Talk?
Pentecost 21 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 9, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 32.1-14

When I lived in Winona, a retired district judge wrote occasional newspaper articles reflecting on the current state of the judicial system. One time, he wrote about a new phenomenon he had observed, namely defendants arguing with judges about the sentences they had been give. Clearly, in this retired judge’s opinion, the phenomenon was generational.  People of older generations may not like their sentence, but they’d accept it and move on. Younger people, however, had a tendency to argue. Yet, what astounded him even more was that the judges themselves were arguing back. This was unheard of when he served on the bench. The judge viewed this as a crisis of authority and lack of respect for the judicial process.

Many of us as members of an older generation probably wouldn’t argue either, but thankfully Moses did. And we might add: thankfully, God as judge—not to mention jury and executioner—in this case, argues back. While the Israelites are going off the rails below, God and Moses have this amazing exchange on the top of Mt. Sinai. Since the Passover last week when God used the death of the firstborn males to convince the Egyptian pharaoh to let them go, the Israelites have crossed the parted Red Sea and entered the wilderness of Sinai. Shortly thereafter, they agreed to worship the Lord, YHWH, alone and received rules to live by, also known as the Ten Commandments.

These guidelines, which cover their relationship with God and with each other, have at the top of the list an agreement that they will not worship false idols or make graven images of any gods, including the Lord. But Moses has been up on the mountain with God 40 days and nights and the Israelites are getting nervous. So, they blink: fear and anxiety overcomes rational thinking and impatience produces bad decisions. The people need something tangible to follow and worship, so they make it themselves.

Meanwhile, they don’t realize how close they’ve come to not needing any gods. In a somewhat disturbing exchange, Moses talks God down from the judicial ledge. Assuming what will be a prophetic role seen throughout scripture, Moses stands between God and God’s people. And he’s not above using a little public relations manipulation. “What would the Egyptians say?” he asks God. But his theological and rhetorical tour de force is a reminder of the promises God made their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to make of them a great nation.

Now, I don’t know what’s more remarkable, that Moses changed God’s mind or that God actually did it. Yet, it really shouldn’t be surprising at all. For the witness of scripture, both up to now and as we see it unfolding, is that God is a relational God. And to be in a relationship means being vulnerable and opening one’s self to both the best and the worst those relationships can produce. It can mean both loving greatly and being hurt greatly. Furthermore, we who are Trinitarians know that God can’t be anything else but relational; it’s God’s very nature. God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a divine dance of love and faithfulness. Yet, it’s also in God’s nature for justice. God’s anger is real because God hates sin, death, and brokenness.

Yet, justice and faithfulness are not incompatible, because it is just to remain faithful to one’s promises. This God is so committed to our relationship that he took on human flesh and came to live among us. Both love and justice were served when God took our unfaithfulness on the cross. So, we don’t have to build false gods such as busyness, perfectionism or consumerism to relate to because this God continues to give himself for us in tangible ways. In doing so, God invites us into a living, loving and, honest relationship. So, like Moses, we can pour out our hopes, dreams, fears, frustrations out to God knowing that God listens. Can we talk? The answer today is a resounding, “Yes!” All the time, any time, no matter what, no matter who. Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Now and Again" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Now and Again
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 2, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 12.1-14; 13.1-8

When I meet with couples to do pre-marriage work, I ask traditions they observed in their families of origin that they’d like to bring with into their marriage. If my daughters were asked, they might mention birthdays that are celebrated by eating dinner out and coming back home for cake, ice cream and presents. They might also mention specific foods that must be eaten at Thanksgiving or our tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day. Other people might talk about different holiday observances, such Independence Day or Memorial Day. All families have traditions, whether they think so or not. These observances are important because the say something about who we are, our identity. It’s not just about who we are as individuals, but as a collective or community. We don’t honor traditions individually; it’s always a group activity. For those traditional observances in the church, it’s about who we are as God’s people.

About 430 years have passed since last week’s story about Joseph that brought the Israelites to Egypt. The good news is that the Israelites have multiplied according to God’s promise. They are now as numerous as the stars in the sky or sand on a beach. The bad news is that the Egyptians are afraid of their large numbers and to keep them under control begin to oppress them. Kings have come and gone and nobody remembers Joseph and what he did. However, no matter how hard the Egyptians make life for the Israelites, they keep flourishing.

So, the pharaoh declares that all male babies be killed after birth. Upon this atrocity, the Israelites lift up their lament to God and God raises up and sends Moses to act as his agent of deliverance. Even so, a series of plagues don’t convince pharaoh, so God resorts to what has become known as the Passover. The angel of death passes over the homes marked with lambs blood, killing the first born male children in the households that aren’t marked, those of the Egyptians. In the process, God gives instructions for how to acknowledge this memorable occasion.

There is much in this story that could be mined: God’s deliverance from oppression, wrestling with God’s resort to violence, and the ties between the Passover meal to the Last Supper that Jesus celebrates with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. Yet, as important as these themes are, I’m struck by God’s command to remember. It is a far deeper remembering than simply, “Don’t forget what it did.” God lays out very specific rules, not just for the inaugural Passover, but all succeeding ones. There is something about doing that is important to the remembering.

As I thought about a modern example, I recalled when I came to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg 24 years ago. There was a movie crew filming on the battlefields. What was a movie based on the book “Killer Angels” ultimately became “Gettysburg” in productions. During the filming, the movie company used local re-enactors, those who regularly gathered to reenact the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, I used think of re-enactors as overgrown children doing dress up, but I have come to realize it’s much more. As you walk the battlefield and see the reenactments, you get a sense of what happened over 150 years ago. There is something about doing that is important to the remembering.

I think that’s exactly why God instructs the Israelites to remember and reenact the Passover in specific ways. It is why the Jewish people have been doing this for over 3,300 years and will continue until the end of time. The reenactment and remembering is not superstitious motions or magical behavior. God reminds us that what we do here matters because it both helps us to remember and it forms us in the process. By carrying forth the traditions of those who came before us, we are reminded both who we are and whose we are. And by doing it together we are reminded that we are a community of faith.

There are a number of people wringing their hands these days about the church’s future and sometimes I’m one of them. I was distressed this summer when I witnessed five baptisms at various churches and most of them left out significant portions of the service. None of them followed the service as it was written. And it is true that we are facing challenges, not the least of which is the fact that we are being pushed to the margins of society. Even so, the church has faced challenges many times before and frankly, the church is at its best when it operates from the margins, on the outside.

More importantly, we follow a God who promises to be with us and strengthen us to serve the world. We follow a God that took on human flesh, died for us and continues to give himself. We don’t do Passover, but we need to continue to carry on other rituals and sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion, and we need to do them faithfully. Never underestimate our place in this community and what we do here each week. There is something about the doing that is important to the remembering and we need to do it together. Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Wherever You Go, There You Are—and God, Too" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Confirmation Sunday

Wherever You Go, There You Are—and God, Too
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 3; Confirmation Sunday
September 25, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 37.3-8; 17b-22, 26-34; 50.15-21

The story of Joseph and his family is an important one in Genesis. One way you can tell is by the space it occupies. The story covers 14 chapters placed at the end of the book. One commentator notes that it does serve as a literary device, about how to get the Israelites to Egypt. Yet, the story is more than that: God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky is going to be threatened by a famine in the land. Without Joseph, the people of Israel have no future and the promise dies. Even more so, the story makes a faith claim: God’s purposes may be hidden, but they’re reliable. God is at work in the world shaped by human actions, often mysteriously, always faithfully.

That’s certainly been true in my life. After two attempts at a career in college, I found myself in the business world. Sometime later, I was presented with a job opportunity for which I seemed perfectly suited. Cindy and I made a trip to Chicago were we were wined and dined and I felt sure I was going to get the job. We’d be closer to our families and I would be engaged in rewarding work for which I was well-suited. However, at the last minute the owner of the company vetoed the president’s decision and they hired someone internally. Needless to say, I was devastated. But as God closed that door (and others), unforeseen doors started opening. Eventually, I went to seminary and became a pastor, something I never dreamed of but for which I give God thanks each and every day.

Joseph dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him but had no idea how or when that would take place. However, he did not foresee being beaten, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape and tossed into prison. Confirmands, I know that many of you have dreams for your lives, and they are good ones: audiologist, sound tech, teacher, hairstylist, lawyer and others. Those are admirable vocations and I hope your dreams come true. Even so, you need to know that life doesn’t always go as we hope or dream. Sometimes it goes much better; unfortunately, sometimes a lot worse than we imagine. But I want you to always remember this: through it all you need to know that God is working in, with and through your life, no matter what.

As Joseph met with his brothers he was able to say that their intended harm of him was used by God. Now, we must be careful and you need to hear me clearly: God does not cause our pain and suffering. But God can and does use them to form us as caring, authentic human beings who can serve God fully. There are two important things to know about this. First, you may not see what God is up to in the middle of it all. It may only be when you look back that you can see God working in your life. Second, only you who have borne the scars and bruises of life can say God is working in your life. That’s not for others to claim. Regardless, I encourage you look for God’s presence always, trusting God is there.

I need to say one more thing that gets short shrift in the Joseph story: forgiveness. As I said, chances are that stuff will happen in your lives: you’ll mess up and others will mess you up. So, learn to forgive; forgive others, forgive yourselves and even forgive God. Never tolerate abusive situations, but learn to let go of the yucky stuff that happens and choose to work in life-giving ways, not death dealing ones. Have compassion on others because we never know their stories; there are a lot of hurting people in our world. But above all, have compassion on yourself because God does. Like Genesis, Confirmation is not an ending but a beginning, of deeper relationship with God and with others. Please remember, wherever you go, there you are—and God is always with you. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"The Future Is Now" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Future Is Now
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 3
September 18, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 15.1-6

After my mother died in 1983 at the age of 57, my dad seemed to do all right for a while. He traveled to Texas during the winter and came out to Northern Virginia after our first daughter, Angela, was born. He also did some part-time work for the local American Legion, bookkeeping for the pull tabs. However, something happened at the American Legion, a change in commanders I think, and he was told he wasn’t needed any longer. It may have been a coincidence, but his health steadily declined after that.

Just as my sister and I were going to intervene, a friend couldn’t get a hold of him and called the paramedics. He was hospitalized with pneumonia and we were somewhat relieved because now we thought he would get the help he need. However, he died later that night. All in all, he just seemed to just give up on life. I think he couldn’t imagine a future for himself or, at the very least, a future compelling enough to give him reason for living. In religious terms, he lost hope.

In our lesson, Abram—later to be called Abraham—can’t imagine a future either. A lot has happened since last week’s story about Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. There is the first murder, a fratricide. People have indeed been populating the earth as God commanded. However, this people are so corrupt that God does a dramatic reboot through a massive flood, saving animals and a handful of people. This doesn’t work and God is forced to create a separation of languages peoples following the tower of Babel incident. God still won’t give up and comes up with the interesting idea of setting aside a people who will draw the rest of humanity to himself. In doing do, God makes an audacious move: 75 year old Abram and his 65 year old wife Sarai will not only have a child, they will be the beginning of a people who will be countless as stars in the sky and sand on a beach.

This promise to Abram and Sarai is not just an issue of who inherits his estate. In Middle Eastern cultures, it was expected that children would look after their parents in their old age. There weren’t any assisted living or long-term care facilities. Also, it was believed that people lived on through their descendents. People without offspring didn’t just die; with no one to remember them they ceased to exist. Yet, at this point, God’s promise of descendents seems cruel. Not only were they past childbearing age, it’s been more than ten years since God’s promise was first given to them. In fact, it will be 25 years before they do indeed have a child. When they do, Sarai won’t see their son Isaac married and Abram will not see any grandchildren. So, can you blame Abram for being unable to imagine a future?

Fast-forward almost 2,000 years: the followers of an itinerant rabbi have their future shattered. As they see Jesus dying on the cross, they can’t imagine any kind of positive future. In fact, they are afraid and go into hiding. This promised savior who was going to restore God’s relationship with humanity is dying a slow, horrible death. Yet, where we can’t imagine a future, God can and does promise one. Three days later their world gets turned upside down as God raises Jesus from the dead. The Holy Spirit will light a fire under them and the good news of God’s love through Jesus Christ will spread throughout the world, often when the future looks bleakest.

We tell these stories time and again because we need to know that God has a future for us just as much has God has had for those who have come before us. It’s not just a future resurrection or consummation “someday,” but a future that comes into the present. At Grace, we are in the process of preparing for God’s future through building renovations. Six years ago when I came to Grace, we spent time discovering God’s future for us and, with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, made some bold changes how God’s mission and ministry are carried out here. Now it’s time for us to build for the future that God is calling us into with facilities that support mission and ministry. Some of us may be wondering, “How can this be?” We may be like Abram and not see how this can happen.

I believe that Grace has a future. I believe that God has put us in this place and will give us what we need, even if we can’t see it now. Our community needs places to connect with one another, to have folk willing to serve them. People are hurting physically, mentally and spiritually and need to know God’s tangible love. Families are stressed more than they have ever been and need us to support and care for them. Abram believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He didn’t always do it perfectly and neither will we, but he gives us the courage to believe. God has a future for us and the future is now. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

"Shameless Love" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Shameless Love
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 3
September 11, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 2.4b-7, 15-17; 3.1-8

In junior high I acted in a play called, “Egad, What a Cad!” It was one of those damsel in distress—villain—hero type plays, though a farcical one. I was cast as the villain, the “Snidely Whiplash” character. Although I didn’t have the build for the part, I had the diabolical laugh down pat. In fact, there were two casts and while my counterpart was built for Snidely, he couldn’t muster the laugh. So, I became a voice double for him whenever he had to laugh.

Well, after what I thought was a great performance when I got backstage I realized my pants zipper was open. Throughout. The. Whole. Play. So, take a teenager who needs great courage to put himself out there but gets overly exposed and you have a recipe for deep shame. You can imagine the thoughts going through my head: “You idiot! How could you forget to zip up your pants? What made you think you could act in a play?” And so on.

Now, this might not rate high on the “Shame—O—Meter and I wish I could say this was the only time in my life I’ve been deeply ashamed, it’s probably the safest one I can tell you. No doubt as I share this you are thinking of your own stories.

Shame is a universal experience, so much so that it gets expressed in one of our earliest and most important stories. Adam and Eve get really bad advice from the first ever Life Coach and the consequences are life changing. Their disobedience causes irrevocable harm and results in broken relationships, between themselves and with God. With the disobedience, shame became a reality and came roaring into creation in all its ugliness. What happens when we feel shame? We feel exposed, vulnerable and naked. That’s exactly what Adam and Eve felt and they responded accordingly. They covered themselves and they hid, which is exactly what I wanted to do after that junior high play.

BrenĂ© Brown is a sociologist and professor at the University of Houston in Texas. She researches connections, courage, vulnerability and, yes, even shame. She is not ashamed of calling herself a “shame researcher.” Brown tells us that shame is something we all have, but we are afraid to talk about. Unfortunately, she says, the less we talk about shame, the more power it has over us. Brown says that shame needs three things to grow out of control: secrecy, silence, and judgment. We want to keep our guilty acts secret and refuse to talk about them. Even worse, we judge ourselves as unworthy. Shame is basically about fear and, most importantly, it’s the fear of being unlovable. Who have the hardest time with shame? It’s those who believe they aren’t worthy of love and belonging.

The experience of Adam and Eve really rings true, doesn’t it? That’s our experience, too. The good news is that, according to Brown, we can identify the shame triggers in our lives and learn to become shame resilient. Yet, as important as that is, it’s more important to see how God responds to Adam and Eve. God does so in a remarkable and unexpected way, by continually being vulnerable himself. God doesn’t shame Adam and Eve. God doesn’t turn his back on them but goes looking for them. Though they will bear the consequences of their disobedience, expulsion from the garden and a life of harder work, God clothes Adam and Eve and continues to work very hard to maintain a relationship and connection with them. In fact, the continuing story of God in the Bible is how God risks God’s self over and over again with humanity for the sake of relationship.

Of course, God’s ultimate act of vulnerability comes when he takes on human flesh, walks among us and allows himself to be crucified on the cross. Isn’t it just like God to us an instrument of shame to banish shame? In Christ’s death and resurrection God exposes the mechanism of shame and destroys its power over us forever. God declares once and for all that, no matter what you do, you are worthy of love and belonging. That’s probably the most important thing I’ve said today: no matter what you do, in God’s eyes you are worthy of love and belonging.

It doesn’t end there. God risks God’s self so that we can risk reaching out to others. Today we remember the events of 9/11 and it would be tempting to pull back and mistrust others. Yet, as people of faith, we need to lead the way, risking ourselves for the sake of relationships, especially with those who seem unlovable. God shows us shameless love so that we can let all people know they are worthy of love and belonging. Egad, what a God! Amen.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"Ordinary People, Extraordinary God" - Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ordinary People, Extraordinary God
Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
September 4, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 9.1-22

I have to admit I have a hard time relating to Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. That may be because much of my spiritual journey this summer involved trying to hear God speaking to me and I can tell you no lightning was involved. The closest I’ve come to this kind of experience happened over 30 years ago. I was attending a worship service during the Virginia Synod assembly of the old Lutheran Church in America. The service included the ordination of recently called pastors. As I saw one of the newly minted pastors celebrating Communion, the thought entered my head, “You need to be doing this.” No pyrotechnics; just an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and call.

Yet even that call came over a period of time in far less dramatic ways. This story points out how much we need to take care with this story; it’s dramatic because it’s not typical. Although, as Arv notes, it happens every day, it doesn’t happen to very many people. Sometimes we come to expect that it should happen to us and are jealous when it doesn’t. A little bit further back in my life I had been coming back to church after having been gone since Confirmation. It occurred to me that the questions I had about God and the life of faith could only be answered in the Church. So, in May 1978 I rededicated my life to Christ. I am embarrassed to admit that I really expected the heavens to open or at least to feel something extraordinary. Apparently, the heavenly host was tied up that day because nothing happened. At least, nothing I could tell.

So, as I worked with today’s story, I found myself thinking about those around Saul: his friends, Ananias and the rest of the disciples in Syria. (By the way, it’s inaccurate to say this is a conversion story; more of a call story. After all, the first followers of Jesus were Jewish and they didn’t consider themselves a different religion; at this time they were more like a sect within Judaism.) Though Saul’s friends heard the voice but not the words, God’s call upon Saul affected them, too. Furthermore, Ananias was put in the very awkward position of facilitating Saul’s call from God and the rest of the disciples were very leery of this “new Saul.” So, it occurred to me that God’s call on our lives never comes in a vacuum. Our callings get lived out in community and deeply affect those people around us. A call is never to us alone.

A call from God is like a stone tossed in a pond, rippling outward, touching whatever is in its path. In the end, this story is not worth telling because of the event itself. It is worth telling because of what happens after, for Saul and the others. This story is not just about Saul, but also about his friends who lead him by the hand, bring him to Damascus and sit with him as Saul tries to figure out what is next. It’s also about Ananias and the others who have to able to see Saul as God’s instrument, a huge stretch of their imagination about what God is up to in the world. So, when people tell me how heroic I am for leaving the business world, selling all I have and entering seminary I appreciate the thought but I also scoff a bit. Do you know who the real heroes are in my call story? They’re my wife and daughters who left their home and friends, not just once but several times. The heroes are the ones who supported us in various ways with resources and prayer.

But it’s not just pastor’s families who are affected and asked to support the difficult calls that God places on our lives. I think of families who support their loved ones who enter the military and get shipped all over the world. There was a military family in Virginia who had moved 28 times in 25 years. I think of the family and friends of police officers and fire fighters and emergency personnel who wonder if their loved ones will come home that night. I think of spouses who promise to care for one another and do so through bouts with cancer, dementia, and other debilitating circumstances. I look around our congregation and see you walking with one another through pain and brokenness, marveling at your care for each other. You do so because you know that when you were called to follow Christ you signed on to love God and others no matter what happens. That call gets lived out in the dark and difficult places as much as the joyful ones.

Yet, in the end, even our ability to walk with others in the difficult places does not depend on us alone. We are an ordinary people who are loved and called by an extraordinary God. This God meets us where we are in our faith journeys and gives us exactly what we need for that time. To me, the extraordinary thing isn’t the lightening and other dramatic experiences of God that happen from time to time; it’s the moment to moment presence of God in the midst of our daily lives that is heartening. It’s about a God who promises to be with us even though we may not see God. In fact, we know that God is with us especially in those times we don’t see God. It may be a dark alley instead of a Damascus Road, but it’s no less real. May God give you the grace to see that presence, the strength to respond and the joy of God’s presence. Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"The Wisdom of Gamaliel" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Wisdom of Gamaliel
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary Summer Series
August 28, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 5.27-42

“…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39)

This summer, I was able to read and finish (finally) former Presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom’s autobiography, A Journey of Grace. Chilstrom was the first presiding bishop when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formed through the merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The book is an elegant weaving together of Chilstrom’s person history, professional history and church history. In it he describes how he went from totally opposing women’s ordination in the 60s to fully supporting it in the 70s. Chilstrom also notes the irony that his wife, Corinne, who trained as a nurse, went to seminary and become ordained many years later. This was one of several incidents of being persuaded God was doing something new. Chilstrom said that his basic core theological beliefs did not change; rather how those were lived out grew as his understanding of God grew.

I resonated with Bishop Chilstrom’s stories of personal and pastoral growth and the story of Gamaliel has been instrumental for me. Following Jesus’ death, the religious leaders of Israel had to contend with his disciples, now apostles sent to proclaim the good news of Jesus crucified and risen. Known as the Sanhedrin, these folk were responsible for the religious life of Israel. They were flummoxed because it seemed this religious movement wouldn’t die (pardon the pun). No matter how much they imprisoned and beat the disciple-apostles, they gleefully kept on going. Gamaliel, a highly respected Pharisee, offers them a wonderful piece of wisdom: “…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5.38-39) Theologically astute but also highly practical Gamaliel reminds them that God works surprisingly and in God’s own time.

I have told a little fib today. The story of Gamaliel is not my favorite story, but it is an important one in my personal and pastoral faith journeys. I came across Gamaliel about 10 years ago when I was struggling with an issue many of us wrestled with, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church. Our church was struggling, too, and also like many of you I read much information on both sides of the issue. My stance then was pretty traditional: I didn’t think that homosexuality was God’s intention for humanity. But I kept encountering people like those apostles in Acts 5 who claimed God was doing a new thing in our church. Indeed, as I looked around I saw people in committed, healthy same gender relationships who seemed to love Jesus and be living with integrity.

Then Gamaliel came along and his wisdom helped me see a way through. If loving, committed same gendered relationships were of God, I couldn’t stop them. If they weren’t, then we would know eventually, though it may take some time. That’s one reason why I supported the decision of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, which gave congregations who believed they had a ministry to, with and through gays and lesbians permission to do so. Those that didn’t have that call would be honored as well. We continue to work our way through issues of gender identity, but I believe that God is still in this with us.

In closing, here are some important points: First, like Bishop Chilstrom, my Lutheran theology hasn't changed. I still hold dearly the belief that God took on human flesh and walked among us, that he took all of our sin and brokenness as well where it was crucified on the cross. In exchange, we received new life available to us now and in the future. Furthermore, I believe that God is a living and active God who is still working in, with and through us. However, in 20 years of ordained ministry, my understanding of how that’s lived out changed because I tried to be open to God. I'm not a hero or super-Christian. I'm just someone like you who is trying to live a faithful life. Second, it doesn’t mean I was wrong (or that you’re wrong) before; I was in a different place. And chances are that many of you are in different places right now and that’s okay. This is the story of my faith journey; yours is different.

Third, we need to have compassion for the religious leaders in our story because there is some of them in all of us. We all have those things that God is trying to make new. Finally, our culture to the contrary, it’s okay to change our attitudes, because God’s always working in our lives prompting us to grow. As Pastor Rob Bell notes, our faith is not like a brick wall where the disruption of a brick causes it to crumble. Rather, our beliefs are like springs on a trampoline that allow us to have a lively faith.

So, who are those like the apostles who speaking to you, indicating that God is doing something new? Who is speaking wisdom like Gamaliel? I invite you to ask God for the grace to be open to the new things God is up to. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sabbatical

Dear Living into Grace Friends

Tomorrow marks the beginning of a three-month sabbatical. I will be taking time for rest, reading, recreation and reconnecting with family. Thanks for your faithful reading of my sermons. Please look for me to return in August. God's blessings to you all.

Scott Olson

"It Is and It Isn't" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

It Is and It Isn’t
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 15, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-4; 1 Corinthians 12.1-13

When I was a Shop-at-Home decorating manager for Minnesota in the Washington, DC area, I had a drapery installer, Rick. Rick was a strong Christian who wasn’t afraid to share his faith with others, a quality I greatly admired. We’d have good conversations about what God was up to in the world and then he’d ruin it. Rick worshiped at a Pentecostal/charismatic congregation that believes you haven’t truly received the Holy Spirit if you hadn’t spoken in other tongues. Sometimes it was subtle, others blatant, but the message was clear: I wasn’t a real Christian. Now, I knew enough Bible to know that wasn’t true and after attending seminary it became clearer. For it seems that Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and tongues wasn’t over, not by a long shot.

As we’ve noted in previous weeks, the Corinthian church was divided over a number of issues. It’s interesting that Paul uses the word that literally means schism. This time it’s about spiritual gifts. Those who spoke in tongues thought they were especially superior. Others who had different gifts felt inferior and there were even some who didn’t think they had received any gifts and therefore felt left out. Paul’s response sets out three seemingly contradictory sets of propositions I want to explore further.

The first set of contradictions is that the gifts given by the Holy Spirit are for us, but they aren’t for us. When I work with couples preparing for marriage we read the second Genesis creation text that talks about partnership. God brings two people together with unique and complementary gifts. I make the point by telling the couple that if my wife and I were the same, one of us would be unnecessary.

The spiritual gifts are given to each and every one of us individually, but they are given in community and for the sake of community. As Paul says, they are given to each one of us for the common good, both in the community of faith and outside our walls to the greater community.

This leads to another seemingly contradiction: it’s up to us but it’s not up to us. The Spirit decides who gets certain gifts and they’re not based on merit, but it is up to us to use them. However, the great thing is that we don’t carry the load ourselves. When the torrential rains and subsequent floods hit Southeastern Minnesota in August 2007, I felt guilty that I didn’t help with cleanup right away. I didn’t know what I could do, but I knew I’d use my gifts somehow. Indeed, I helped form and lead the long-term recovery organization that worked for the next two years to ensure that people could put their lives back together again.

The realization that it’s for us (and not) and up to us (and not) leads contradictory good news. On the one hand, the Spirit has given to us everything that we need for mission and ministry. The Spirit just didn’t blow through at that first Pentecost; it keeps blowing and giving gifts year in and year out. Actually, there is no other hand. If we think we don’t have what we need it’s either because some of our folk aren’t engaged or we haven’t discovered the gifts that each of us brings to this community. That’s one reason the Clifton Strengths Finder has been so valuable to our staff. We knew we had differing gifts and it’s been rewarding to discover those gifts and use them.

This past Wednesday we had a chance to imagine what a community of the Holy Spirit might look like. I asked those present in worship to turn to someone they know and tell them the gifts they see. Some people were surprised by what they were told and others were deeply blessed. That’s one of the many reasons we are developing to discipleship teams to support mission and ministry in, with and through Grace. You’ll be receiving information soon, but we hope that people will become more engaged in using their Spirit-given gifts, ones they know and some they’ll discover, for the good of the community.

As your pastor, I’m constantly delighted and blessed to see your gifts emerge, used for God’s glory, and the sake of the world. So, let’s pay attention and continue imagining what this means. The gifts of the Spirit are for us and they’re not. It’s up to us to use them and it’s not. God has given us everything we need and we will seek to uncover them, using them for the sake of the world. Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"Hold On, Pass On, Live On" - Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Hold On, Pass On, Live On
Easter 7 – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 8, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 51-57

As a young boy, I remember wondering what happens when you die. So, I thought, “I’ll just kill myself and see what happens.” It was more curiosity than suicidal tendencies. Luckily, I realized quite soon I’d be dead if I killed myself and maybe that wasn’t such a good plan after all. Near death experiences aside, not being able to find out what happens when we die doesn’t stop us from speculating about it. In fact, throughout history, what happens when we die has been one of the greatest questions for all of humanity.

Apparently, a number of folk in the Corinthian church wondered the same thing but answered that in a disturbing way: nothing. For them, whatever resurrection happens does so in this life, there is no next. In other words, they’ve already arrived. When I was a up and coming manager for Minnesota Fabrics, one of my colleagues talked about achieving the “gravy train.” That meant for him that you paid your dues in smaller, less profitable stores and continually moved up until you got one of the lucrative stores. Then you could sit back and ride “the gravy train.”

Though making a good living appealed to me, because I wanted to get married, by a house and start a family, the notion of “arriving” didn’t sit well with. There was more to life. This notion of the Corinthians didn’t sit well with the apostle Paul, either, and he tells them so. Paul says, paraphrasing Eugene Peterson in The Message, if all we think about is this life, then it’s been a waste and we are a sorry lot. In my words: “What a waste of a good resurrection.”

This is not something to take lightly or for granted. When I was in seminary I had a casual conversation with a classmate about what was central and non-negotiable for each of us in our faith. For me, I said that the resurrection was central, something I could not live without. I was shocked when he said that wasn’t very important thing for him. I don’t remember what it was that was for him, probably because I was stunned.

Now, I didn’t think of this text from 1 Corinthians 15 at the time, but apparently I was in good company with Paul: resurrection is central to the life of faith. To illustrate this, Paul says that it is a simple story, really: Christ died for us, was buried, raised, and appeared to many of the faithful followers. Even so, this simple story has deep implications: in Facebook terms, Jesus’ status wasn’t just changed from dead to alive. There was more.

On Easter Sunday six weeks ago we were left hanging at the empty tomb as the women fled in terror. At that time, we said that the resurrection wasn’t an ending, it was a beginning. The empty tomb prompted us to ask, “What next?” For some people, believing in Jesus means living a good life, the life he came to give us. Now, Paul wants us to know that, as much as that is true, Jesus came to bring us so much more. He says in effect that, because of the resurrection, God has changed the destiny of the entire universe, not just humanity. Through the resurrection, we have all been drawn into the circle of God’s grace and made new creatures in the process.

Paul reminds us that this good news is so important that it has been handed down from the very beginning, from Jesus to the apostles to the Corinthians. This good news is so important that we are to hold on to this as if our lives depended on it, because our lives do depend on it. On Mother’s Day we are reminded of those who give birth to our faith and nurture it in us. We are reminded that we are encouraged to do the same for others, because this is the message that brings new life. The resurrection of Jesus means we have a future and when we have a future we have hope. There is more, because God always gives us more: more chances, more life more everything. So, hold on to the faith you have received. Pass on the good news of Jesus’ death for us and subsequent resurrection. Live on with the new life in Christ. Hold on, pass on, live on. Amen.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"The Way of Love" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Way of Love
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 2
May 1, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Corinthians 13.1-13; Mark 12.28-31

 Context is everything. I still remember the words of a former member who was also a farmer: “A stalk of corn in a bean field, however nice, is still a weed.” Context is everything. That’s no truer than in the Bible where ripping verses from context is a favorite pastime of some people. That’s one reason we use the Narrative Lectionary at Grace; we read the Bible as it is, God’s story. There is no more flagrant example of taking texts from contexts than today’s passage, the erroneously title “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. A staple of weddings and emblazoned upon plaques, pillows and other paraphernalia, often read with soft piano music playing in the background, 1 Corinthians 13 has been yanked out of its context and thereby domesticated almost beyond recognition.

As mentioned last week, the context of the Corinthian church is conflict, arrogance, divisiveness and power struggles. The diversity of the membership was putting a strain on the community. People were lining up behind their favorite theologians arguing about who was baptized by whom. The more affluent members were treating the working class shamefully in the Lord’s Supper. And perhaps worst of all, they were becoming spiritually arrogant. The Corinthians, in the heat of new-found faith and the spiritual gifts received were jazzed, too much so. And because some of the gifts are flashier, they think those are more important than others. It’s like getting a new drill and being so excited you start drilling holes all over the place and thinking a drill is the best tool in the box.

In the context of the letter, Paul was just telling them in chapter 12 how the diverse spiritual gifts are all valid and needed. Then in our text today, he makes a short but crucial exursion about the necessity of love for spiritual gifts. This is no “Kumbaya”/can’t-we-just-get-along moment. Paul takes them to the spiritual woodshed. In this context, the beauty of the love language takes on an edge and fierceness we otherwise miss. It’s a dose of reality that, without love, the community will blow apart and so will their witness to those around them. The question is not how to avoid conflict but rather choosing to embrace it with the way of love.

What is that way? The way is rooted in the recognition that nothing lasts without love. The things we think are so important and cling to so tenaciously aren’t as important as we think they are. Our scripture readings, songs, worship, choir anthems, prayers, acts of service, generosity and, dare I say even our sermons will all pass away. But if they are infused with love they will endure. The essence of this kind of love, Paul says is born of humility and vulnerability. As Elias Chacour said, “The one who is wrong is the one who says, ‘I am right.’”

A number of years ago in my former congregation, the women’s choir from Winona State sang during worship. I can still picture a young woman who clearly sang with love in her heart while others were singing, albeit beautifully. I don’t remember what they sang that day, but I do remember that woman and the love in which she sang. Love endures.

As we seek the way of love in our congregation and greater community, we realize it’s already ours. Theologian Emil Bruner says it this way: “Faith is nothing in itself but the openness of our heart to God’s love.” Like Hannah Patricia today, it is in our baptism that we are first shown that love. And like her, as we grow we learn to open our hearts. So, more than an exhortation to “just do it!” is the promise that God’s love moves in, with and through us. That, of course, is the most important context of all: God’s love, crucified and risen for us all that enables us to go the way of love. Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Is Christ Divided?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Is Christ Divided?
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 18.1-4; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18

I got talked into team teaching an ethics class by a golfing buddy of Al Simonson and Bill Anderson. He had always wanted to teach a class on ethics but felt he couldn’t do it on his own, so he asked me to help. Through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Minnesota, “OLLI” as it is known, uses volunteer teachers. So, although it didn’t pay anything it was enjoyable. We’ve met in the Cities four Fridays, my day off, and we’ve examined ways to “do” ethics.

After the third and penultimate session, we asked attendees what we haven’t covered that they’d like us to address. More than one member expressed a desire to learn more about how to have ethical conversations. One woman was especially interested because of her experience of differing value systems than other generations, particularly her granddaughter.

Though we don’t know for sure, having ethical conversations may be a question the Corinthian church asked Paul or that Paul was addressing with them. Last week we heard about the Thessalonian church Paul also founded, one he dearly loved and one that experienced conflict due to persecution from external sources, Jew and Gentile alike. This week the conflict is internal to the church and threatens to blow it apart. Corinth was a major seaport on the Aegean Sea in Greece, located on an isthmus in the Peloponnesus. It was a trade center with diverse population and had a reputation for “anything goes.” The church at Corinth reflected that diversity and the congregation was having a hard time figuring out how to get along with one another.

Although we can’t know for certain, there seem to be several issues creating conflict. Apparently, different groups lined up behind favored theologians and personalities. Furthermore, some of the more affluent members were eating the good food and drinking the good wine before the poorer folk showed up for worship. There also seemed to be an argument about which spiritual gifts were better than others and finally some of the members thought the resurrection was a this-life only experience. Probably the biggest irony of it all was that the one thing that should have united them as a church seemed to be a bone of contention: baptism. They even argued about who baptized whom.

Now, I’m sure some of you are shocked that there could be conflict and division in a church (wink, wink). The reality is that the history of Christianity is one of conflict: in addition to our text, there were disagreements about the divinity of Jesus. There was the great schism around 1100 CE that resulted in the Eastern and Western churches, known as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic respectively.

A few hundred years later, the Protestant Reformation resulted in multiple splits throughout Europe, a phenomenon that continued in the United States today resulting in denominationalism. The Enlightenment, which elevated reason and science about religion, caused churches to respond in various ways, the effects also being felt today. And the Civil War brought further divisions. And although our own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was born through mergers, we haven’t been immune to splits. And, if doctrinal battles weren’t enough, there were issues of women’s ordination, the music wars and most devastating to congregational harmony: what color the carpet should be.

In 2007 I was privileged to be a voting member at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Chicago. To vote on matters, we had these nifty voting boxes in front of us. To get us used to the way they worked, then Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson give us some practice. He said he wanted to find a question we could all agree on and settled on “Jesus is Lord.” However, on second thought, he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know the answer.

The question is not how to prevent conflict; the question is how we resolve conflict without splits that destroy community. In the weeks ahead, with Paul we’ll address some of the issues in the Corinthian church I mentioned above and get some pointers on how to have conversations. For today and for your consideration, we answer Paul’s rhetorical question, “Is Christ divided” with a resounding, “No!” We listen deeply and intently to one another; and we begin and end our conversations that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is our Lord and is the center of our life together.

Last Friday, at our last OLLI session on ethics, we practiced having ethical conversations. We agreed that we need to listen to one another with a sense of humility and curiosity. We need to share our experiences with one another with respect. It has been said, “They will know we are Christians by our love” and I hope that is true. But I would also hope that it could said, “They will know we are Christians by the way we handle conflict.” Our world desperately needs us to figure out how to get along so we can help it do the same. We have hope because Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

"The Fear Factor" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

The Fear Factor
Easter 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 17, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 17.1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10

Last weekend I had a dad-daughters date with our girls and we went to see the newest Disney movie, “Zootopia.” If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it, but the basic story line involves a city where all animals live in harmony. I think the title is a mash-up between “zoology” and utopia.” A rabbit from a rural community has a dream to become the first of her species to be a police officer in Zootopia. She does, but it doesn’t turn out the way she hopes. Furthermore, along the way something happens to make those animals that were formerly “prey” distrust and fear those who were formerly “predators.” In addition to being Disney-funny, the movie is a great social commentary on fear of the other.

I think that the theme of fear runs throughout our texts today. We’ve made quite a jump in Acts since last week and the three movements we sketched out are full swing. Peter has made way for Paul as the featured apostle. The mission to the Gentiles is overshadowing the one to the Jews. And though we are not there yet, we’re getting closer to Rome as the gospel spreads outward from Jerusalem. Paul wants to go into Asia, but is prevented by the Holy Spirit. Then, in a dream, a man from Macedonia, an area of northern Greece, beckons.  So Paul goes to Thessalonica, a Roman city that is both a seaport and on the Via Egnatia, a major trade route of the day. It’s an important city to make a base. Per custom, Paul goes to the synagogue first and engages with the local Jewis in the time honored art of disputation. But Paul also plies his trade as tentmaker and therefore is able to make contacts with Jew and Greek alike.

The book of Acts in general and today’s reading—combined with 1 Thessalonians—in particular, shows that the spread of the gospel doesn’t always go smoothly and is even met with hostility. The good news of Christ’s death and resurrection is not always good news to everyone who hears it. The gospel turns peoples’ worlds upside down, including those who embrace it as fully and passionately as the Thessalonians do. The love of God through Jesus brings new life to people, which includes a transformed life. For some people that is not good news and for others, it brings push-back from friends and family. That was certainly true for me when I returned to the church after almost a decade away. Some people didn’t know how to handle my “new life.”

Whether you are threatened by the gospel of Jesus or trying to live out the gospel of Jesus, there is one factor that runs through both: the fear factor. For the Thessalonians, it was fear of persecution. For us almost 2,000 years later, who also struggle with living the life of faith, the fear may take other forms. We may be afraid to be associated with the typically negative view of Christians in our society. Or we may be afraid to speak from our religious convictions in a society that discounts such a voice. We may even be afraid to step into new territory and let go of the old familiar ways of doing things in order to try new things, new things that our new life asks us to do.

This month’s issue of Living Lutheran carries a column by Peter Marty on fear that speaks well to this topic of fear. Marty says “the greatest achievement of Easter is not a freedom from death, but freedom from our fears.” He goes on to say, “The gift of faith turns out to be nothing less than the courage to live and act in spite of our fears.” In other words, the same good news of Jesus that transforms our lives also gives us the courage to face our fears. Like the animals in “Zootopia,” we have the opportunity to speak against the fear of the other and the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead gives us courage to do so. Although it is correct to say, “Christ has been raised,” we put it in the present tense: Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed, alleluia. Go with great courage. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"What’s in Your Wallet?" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

What’s in Your Wallet?
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 2
April 10, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 3.1-10

What’s in your wallet? Take out your wallet or purse and look in there. What is one thing that is in there that signifies something God has given you for the sake of the world? Hold that item in your hand or mind for a while.

Two weeks ago on Easter I posed the question, “What now?” I did this because of the empty tomb and the abrupt ending of Mark’s story as evidence that resurrection is not a conclusion but a beginning or invitation. The resurrection is an invitation to new life. The book of Acts and the letters to the churches that follow are accounts of the early Christians trying to figure that out and it’s helpful to know that there wasn’t a blueprint on how to do it. In fact, they make it up as they go along.

In the book of Acts in particular, it’s helpful to know there are three major movements in the story: from Peter to Paul, from Jew to Gentile and from Jerusalem to Rome. Peter has center stage at the beginning with spreading the gospel to the early Christians, who are Jewish. When it becomes evident that Gentiles are included, the spotlight shifts to Paul and his work. Finally, though the story begins in Jerusalem, it ends in Rome, signifying the universality of the gospel message. One more important thing to note about the book of Acts: it’s helpful to think of it as the “Acts of the Holy Spirit” rather than the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is mentioned 43 times in the book. The Holy Spirit is in charge, not the apostles.

Two weeks ago I could have easily posed the question, “So What?,” which is a slightly different question. In other words, what difference does it make that God came in the flesh, preached good news to the poor, healed the sick, died on a cross and was raised from the dead? Last week, John did a great job talking about how Jesus “passed the torch” to his followers and us, inviting us to continue Jesus’ ministry. Today we hear the story of how Peter and John attend to another aspect of that ministry: healing. One point of the story is the assertion that the resurrection has real, tangible consequences. It prods us to consider whether we really believe that the resurrection and name of Jesus make a difference in our lives and in the world.

It’s important to note that the man’s healing does not necessarily mean all people will be healed in the name of Jesus in this particular way. But it is a sign of hope for all people that Jesus continues to be active in the world. Furthermore, we want to acknowledge that healing stories in the Bible operate on more than just the literal level and this is no exception. I was drawn today to Peter’s claim that he can’t give the man what he asked for, but what he had. Now, I want to set aside the issues of whether Peter really didn’t have anything and how he presumed to know what the man needed to focus on what it is God gives us for the healing of the world.

As I pondered this, I recalled a credit card commercial that asks, “What’s in your wallet?” What did you find there? Are there things in there you forgot were there? Where did they come from? I’m pretty sure almost everything comes from someone or somewhere else and there probably things that you didn’t remember you put there. Now, using an item from your wallet think: what about your spiritual wallet? What are the things God has given you to heal others, to make a difference in the world?

I asked this question Wednesday night and had people talk about it. Mark Szybnski mentioned he had a band-aid in his wallet, reminding him of God’s call to bring healing to others, like the Good Samaritan. Sam Anderson talked about his blood donor card and how God has given him the gift of life that he can give others. Barb Heller mentioned her driver’s license, which enables her to give people rides to places they need to be. I see my business cards, which reminds me that all people are called to serve God and neighbor through our various vocations.

Again, last week John talked about the many ways the people of Grace give ourselves away through the God’s ministry in this place. This week, our leadership convened the building and building finance teams that will move us forward in our goal to support God’s mission and ministry through a mission-ready building. This is important and exciting and terrifying work, and we’ll ask you to be a part of it. But I also invite you to think about other items in your spiritual wallet, things that God has given to you. Maybe it means looking intently at those who we fail to see at our doorstep and giving them a hand in some way. So, what’s in your wallet? Amen.