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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Divine Doggedness" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Divine Doggedness
Epiphany 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
Grace, Mankato, MN
January 31, 2016
Mark 6.1-29

We have three seemingly unrelated stories today, but Mark has presented us another “sandwich” for us to sample. The stories of Jesus’ homecoming reception and the beheading of John the Baptizer portray negative receptions to Jesus and the message of the kingdom, all wrapped around the mission of the twelve disciples who are sent out to preach the very same thing. Let’s take a few moments each to look at the stories, what they might say to us and then tie them together.

After winding up a successful road trip where he’s cast out a demon, healed a woman with a flow of blood and raised a girl from the dead, Jesus arrives home to what could be charitably described as mixed reaction. The astonishment of the townspeople quickly moves to offense; the original language for “offense” means they are literally scandalized by Jesus and his message. In essence, what we have is an ironic “un-miracle story.” Why are they scandalized by Jesus and his message? First, they know (or think they know) about Jesus’ questionable paternity. Was Joseph really his father or someone else? Second, it was because of his vocation as a carpenter. They couldn’t see how a tradesman could be so wise and learned. Finally, and worst of all, they were offended because of their familiarity with him. All in all, these hindered their openness to who Jesus is and what he has come to do.

I get it. I have to admit that I’ve always been leery of reunions, mostly because I’ve been away from home so long and lost touch with so many people. I’ve not attended any college reunions and only a few high school reunions. Those I have attended have been difficult for me. It’s similar to how I’ve come up with this definition of family: those who knew you before you became the person you are now, and don’t let you forget it. Interestingly, the dynamic has been reversed for some people when I became a pastor: sometimes they also expect too much of me. I think this story is another warning that we may think we know Jesus (and others) but we probably don’t.

Yet, when we touch the past but are open to the present, great things can happen. This last August I attended a “mini-reunion” of a few of my buddies from high school. We hadn’t all been together for decades. I was nervous, because I thought we might relapse into some of the behavior patterns from long ago. However, I was please to see that, although we traded memories we also opened up to each other about our struggles and blessings along the way. It was a rewarding afternoon of deep sharing.

So Jesus and his followers shake the dust from their feet and move on. Jesus changes up the game plan, takes them off the bench thrusts them into the action. Jesus sends them out, two by two, to do what he has been doing: teaching, preaching, and healing. In a disconcerting fashion, he sends them without the proper equipment and I can imagine the whining that comes from them.

The reason I can imagine the whining is that I’ve lived it. During seminary, we are required to complete unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which involves learning to give pastoral care in a clinical setting, such as hospital or nursing home. I chose to do CPE in a nursing home because I had little experience with older people. The first day of CPE, after an all too brief orientation, the supervisor, Jim Winjum, sent us out to start meeting the residents. I was paralyzed with fear. That’s what I was there to learn and Jim just through me to the wolves. He was supposed to equip me.

Well, we had conversations about that and Jim explained to me that he trusted the seminary had done sufficient work to screen us and know we had what it took. I learned through that experience and others that Jesus gives us everything we need. I learned that I don’t bring God anyplace because God is already there. I learned that God does the heavy lifting and works in ways I can’t always see. And I’ve also learned that for some crazy reason God invites us to be a part of this process and join in the kingdom work.

Just when things start looking up Jesus and the kingdom mission, we get a sobering reminder that the gospel is not good news for all. So now to the beheading of John the Baptist: a story that rivals anything in real or imaginary life. Abuses of power run rampant in our world, and those who blow whistles often have them shoved down their throats. Having one’s head handed to them is not just a figure of speech. Mark wants us to be honest about life, that this is the way of the world. But Mark also wants us to know that it’s not all there is. The death of John the Baptizer by manipulated powers foreshadows Jesus’ death in the same way. Mark wants us to know that this is corrupt world is the same world that God gave himself for. It’s a world that God loves deeply and is doggedly determined to make better.

I couldn’t help making connections between these texts and our annual meeting today (not that I expect any beheadings). As we talk about mission and ministry in the meeting, can we open ourselves to seeing Jesus in unexpected ways? Can we not assume that we know what God is up to? Can we rely on God, realizing God isn’t looking for perfect people, but rather those willing to trust? Can we be assured that God will give us what we need while inviting us to kingdom work? Can we see that God wants more for us than survival? Can we see that there is more than persistence or even success? And can we see that the “more” God wants for us is abundant life, life that is more than we can possibly imagine? I believe in our mission statement, that through God’s abundant love, we will indeed live and work to serve others. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Jairus" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Epiphany 3 – Narrative Lectionary 2
January 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 5.21-43

This message was delivered by today's guest, Jairus.

I was desperate. My daughter was dying and I didn’t know what to do. As much as I wasn’t sure about him, it seemed that Jesus was my only hope.

My name is Jairus and your pastor asked me here today to tell you about my experience with Jesus. But first, a little about me: I am a leader of the local synagogue, which means I make sure that everything runs smoothly, that all of our traditions are followed. In other words, my job is to keep it all together.

Yet, where my daughter’s health was concerned, I was helpless. I had lain at her bedside, night after night, praying to God. I had doctors come and tried any folk remedy people would suggest, but nothing helped. I have to admit, for someone whose job it is to be in control, I felt just the opposite.

Then my wife suggested I go to Jesus and ask him for help. Of course, I knew Jesus and had even heard him teach in my synagogue. I have to admit, his messages were compelling, but could he help my daughter? Then I remembered that he’d gone away and what little hope I had was crushed. “No,” my wife said, “He’s back.” Looking one last time at my daughter, seeing her shallow breathing and pale face, I knew that she was near death. So I ran.

I, a leader of the synagogue, respected by all, ran to find Jesus. I heard him before I saw him because I know he would be amid the excited voices of a crowd. When I turned the corner and saw them, I pushed through the crowds and fell at his feet. I didn’t ask Jesus to heal my daughter; I begged him to heal her. And I didn’t care who saw me or what they thought of me; all I cared about was the little girl who I had nurtured and taught, who was now dying. “Come, lay your hands on her, so that she would be saved,” I pleaded. And he came!

But the joy and small hope I had was short-lived though as Jesus abruptly stopped, saying, “Who touched my clothes?” Like his followers, we all thought it was a crazy question because there were so many around him. Again he said, “Who touched me?” with authority but also with kindness. Sure enough, the people parted as a woman worked her way forward and fell down at Jesus’ feet, just as I had done a few minutes earlier.

Now, I knew this woman or at least I had. She attended the synagogue regularly and gave regularly until twelve years ago, about the time my daughter was born. Because of her flow of blood, she was considered unclean and couldn’t attend. And because she spent so much on doctors, she stopped giving as well. I felt sorry for her, but rules are rules. If we touched her or anything she sat on, we’d become unclean, too, and unable to worship.

I didn’t feel sorry for her that day because she interrupted Jesus while we were on the way to my house. I was desperate to get going, even pulling on Jesus’ robe, but it didn’t matter. Jesus stopped as if we had all the time in the world and then he said an amazing thing, “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” His words both startled me and angered me. How was she saved and how dare he spend time with her when a leader of the synagogue needs his help?

My anger turned to despair and rage when we received word that it was too late. My daughter had died while we lingered. Jesus turned and looked me in the eyes and said words I’ll never forget: “Do not fear, only believe.” If only I could believe!

It seemed that Jesus had enough faith for the both of us. In a daze I went with him and a few of his followers to my house. When we got there, the professional funeral mourners had already arrived and were in full lament. And when Jesus told them to stop, that my daughter was only sleeping, they just laughed. Now, I had heard a lot of reactions to Jesus, but never the laughter and mockery I heard that day.

We went into the room and the moment I saw my daughter, I knew she was dead. I shouldn’t have been in the room because now I was unclean, as unclean as the woman I had just scorned. But I didn’t care; I wanted to be with my daughter. All I could think about was how here she was on the brink of being a woman and her life cut short. No marriage; no children; just emptiness.

Jesus saw the hurt and anguish and pain in our eyes and I could see the pain reflected back in his. He felt the sting of death as much as we did, maybe even more, if that’s possible. He turned, walked over to my daughter and took her by the hand. (He certainly doesn’t care about touching someone unclean!) Then he said, “Talitha cum” and she did! My daughter took a gasping breath, the color came back into her face and she got up! My wife and I were beside ourselves with joy. My daughter was alive.

Then Jesus told us the queerest thing: we were not to tell anyone about this. As if we could keep it a secret! I returned to the synagogue and so is my daughter. And you know what, so is the woman I had no time for, but Jesus did. Coincidentally, my daughter and the woman Jesus healed have formed a bond, two daughters who have been touched by Jesus’ healing power.

I took some heat from other religious leaders for seeing Jesus, but I didn’t care; my daughter was alive. I’ve been thinking a lot about that day and the things Jesus said. It seems that Jesus’ healing power is far greater than the power of uncleanness, and so I wonder. I didn’t understand what Jesus meant by, “Your faith has saved you” until he brought my daughter back to life. It also seems that the saving power Jesus has means being restored to wholeness and a relationship with God. If that’s the case, then Jesus certainly raised me from death to life as well.

Thank you for letting me share my story with you today. I’m still not sure what to make of Jesus, but whoever he is, he seems determined not to leave the world the way it is, and for that I’m grateful. Shalom.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"God’s Mysterious Kingdom" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

God’s Mysterious Kingdom
Epiphany 2 – Narrative Lectionary 2
January 17, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 2.1-34

Stop for a minute and think about what it means to be in love. How would you describe being in love to someone else? You’d probably look around for an everyday situation and say, “Being in love is like…” For example, you might say, “Being in love is like having the flu; you can’t eat or sleep and you ache all over.” Or you might say, “Being in love is like planting and tending a garden.” The reason you do this is because love is mysterious and almost secretive. Love most often comes of its own accord when you least expect and it grabs hold of you in ways you can’t anticipate.

Trying to explain love is like Jesus trying to explain the Kingdom of God. In fact, love and the Kingdom of God have a lot in common. Jesus uses parables to describe the Kingdom, which is what I did with trying to explain love. Like love, the kingdom of God is mysterious and even secretive. We do know that it is God’s promised and intended future for us. But the Kingdom is not just future. It is also present in some way in, with and through Jesus’ ministry that may not always be apparent. However, the irony of parables is that they hide as much as they reveal and confound as much as they explain.

I mentioned two weeks ago that we need to be open to what Mark has to show us about Jesus and not just assume we know him and what he is about. Last week I mentioned my own “epiphany” about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners: that Jesus doesn’t eat with them in spite of their status, but because of their status. A similar thing happened this week as I received an “aha moment” with today’s text. The parable of the sower did just what it was supposed to do: it shocked me with a new insight about God’s future that’s breaking into today while also provoking new questions what that means. The insight was that, in spite of the “explanation,” the seed can be either God’s work or it can be us or our faith.

The possibility that we are God’s seed raises many questions and stretches our imaginations. For example, why doesn’t God sow us in conditions that are optimal for growth? Shouldn’t God be more careful? Is sowing “us” a crapshoot and God is simply playing the odds? Is God willing to sacrifice some of us for others? The more I thought about these questions, the more I started thinking about God’s action in the world the parable was trying to describe. The situations in our lives that stand against God are not of God’s making, but how God responds to those situations and acts is of God’s making.

Hubert, a farmer in my first congregation, showed me a small book he’d kept for 40 years. In it he had recorded the conditions of every planting from every year. He recorded the time of year he planted, what kind of seed, how deep, the soil conditions, how much rain the crops received and what the yield was.  In the end, he couldn’t come up with the ideal conditions for growth. In other words, the yield for each year was still a mystery. I think what the parable of the sower does to us is open us up to seeing God’s mysterious working in the world. God is going to continue to bring about God’s purposes no matter what stands against them. God is present and working even when we can’t see it and, it must be said, seeds do grow in unexpected places.

So, I don’t give you any neat explanations today, only questions and encouragement. It’s not, “Be better soil,” because that’s the one thing we cannot do. Rather I’d want to ask, “Where can you see God working in your life?” and “What’s getting in the way of the harvest?” Mark wants to assure us that Jesus is the real deal, the one who both reveals and brings about the kingdom. This future is a mystery to be probed and not a puzzle to be solved. It’s why we are still talking about this parable 2,000 years later. Even so, know this: kingdom-faith, like love, comes from the outside and grabs hold of you in ways you cannot expect or imagine. I invite you to enter the mystery, but watch out: God is going to grow something unexpected and marvelous in you. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"Calling All Sinners" - Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany

Calling All Sinners
Epiphany 1 – Narrative Lectionary 2
January 10, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 2.1-22

… Jesus … said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

We are now in the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany means a sudden realization or manifestation of a divine being and both definitions fit with the church season. The images of the Bethlehem star and subsequent light highlight stories of Jesus that reveal something of who he is and what he is doing. The quickened pace of Mark’s storytelling makes this light more like camera flashes than a spotlight. In the first chapter alone, John the Baptist introduces Jesus and baptizes him, after which the devil tempts him. Jesus then calls his first disciples and sets about his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing. As we move into the second chapter, Jesus continues to heal and teach, but under greater scrutiny. Not only is he getting more attention, but his actions and teaching are causing quite a stir.

Jesus not only draws crowds who are amazed at what he says and does, but he also catches the eye of the religious leaders. Now, it is true that Mark, through the religious leaders in particular, wants to show the growing opposition to Jesus which ultimately leads to the cross. But we must avoid the temptation to stereotype the scribes of the Pharisees as the rigid fundamentalists of the day. It is true that they were the keepers of the tradition and called upon people to cherish it. But it is also true that part of that tradition was engaging in the practice of disputation and argument. It would be normal for them to argue points of the law and even entertain new interpretations of the law in certain circumstances.

Even so, Jesus pushes the boundaries when he declares the paralytic man’s sins as forgiven. And when he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he is justifiably called on the Talmudic carpet for his actions. You see, It was unthinkable for an observant Jew to eat with those who were outcast and considered unclean. It’s hard to think of a comparable situation for today. I think of Americans who travel to places like Tanzania and are invited to dinner only to find out that eating dinner means eating with one’s fingers from a common bowl, not knowing where those fingers have been. Maybe a better illustration is going to a soup kitchen and sitting next to someone who hasn’t washed themselves or their clothes for six months and has a lice problem. Whatever the case, in response to the questioning, Jesus says something truly amazing: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Here’s where my own epiphany came this last week: it occurred to me that Jesus doesn’t eat with tax collectors and sinners in spite of their status as tax collectors and sinners. He eats with them because they are tax collectors and sinners. Do you hear the difference? We tend to think of Jesus as accepting of anyone no matter who they are. That’s true, but it goes deeper. Jesus doesn’t overlook who we are; he accepts us because of who we are. Jesus doesn’t just wave away our brokenness and hurts and pains and say they don’t matter. Instead, Jesus comes to us because of them, meets us in the midst of them, bringing healing and forgiveness.

I think this is an important distinction, particularly in a society that gives us mixed messages. On the one hand, we are told we are all wonderful and we can do anything we want to do. Yet, on the other hand we also told we need stuff to be popular: the right clothes, beer car or electronic devices. And that doesn’t even count the voices in our own heads that tell us we don’t measure up and couldn’t possibly be loved by anyone let along Jesus, voices that have been growing since we were little. My sisters and brothers, wherever you are and whatever situation you find yourself, know that you are exactly who Jesus comes for to bring a word of healing, forgiveness and the healing of your spirit. Calling all sinners! Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"What Is This?" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas

What Is This?
Christmas 2 – Narrative Lectionary 2
January 3, 2015
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 1.21-45

There’s a new show on TV this fall, “Super Girl.” If you haven’t seen it, in this current reboot Super Girl is the cousin to Superman. In the premier episode, we hear about her origins, how she came to earth and her “coming out.” She is supposed to arrive ahead of him from the planet Krypton, but gets delayed. By the time she arrives, he has grown up and is the one to watch over her. He places her in an adoptive family, hiding who she is. What is particularly interesting is that she, like her cousin, takes pains to keep her identity secret even while she is gradually revealing herself to the world. However, the world isn’t so sure about her. In fact, they are not only curious but also fearful. Furthering the irony, there are “bad” aliens bent on taking over earth who also have powers, but unlike humans, they know exactly who she is and the threat she is to their plans.

I find the connections between Super Girl and Jesus in today’s reading to be startling and instructive. But first, there are some interesting features of Mark that are important for us as we begin the Jesus story. As John Odegard mentioned last week, the gospel of Mark hits the ground running and never lets up. This is highlighted by the often used word, “immediately.” Second, Jesus is “on the way” in Mark’s gospel, always heading somewhere. Of course, Jesus is heading to the cross. As one commentator notes, the gospel of Mark is “a passion narrative with an expanded introduction.” In today’s reading, we see three other features that I’d like to connect. First, Jesus is one who teaches with authority. Second and third go together: while the crowds and his followers struggle with who Jesus is, alien powers know exactly who he is. So here’s my premise: these features are warnings for us to step back, be humble, and not assume we know it all about Jesus and his message.

So, every time we read or hear about Jesus in Mark (or elsewhere) she should ask, “What is this?” Today we hear about how Jesus is one who teaches with authority, not as the scribes. Now, the scribes were the respected and learned professional interpreters of scripture in that day, akin to pastors and seminary professors. It was their job to study the scriptures and pass on hundreds of years of interpretation. We don’t know the precise problem, but perhaps they had wandered a bit in their learning, getting away from the core message. We aren’t told the content of Jesus’ teaching, and maybe perhaps that’s good. All we have heard comes earlier in chapter 1 when Jesus’ first words are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” I suspect that Jesus’ teaching was striking because it rang true with peoples’ lives and opened them up in new ways that the teaching of the scribes hadn’t accomplished.

This leads to the second feature in our text today, that Jesus also prods us always to ask, “Who is this?” Clearly, Jesus is a teacher, preacher and a healer, but we sense that he is so much more. After all, preachers, teachers and healers were a dime a dozen in Jesus’ time. In Mark’s Gospel in particular, Jesus often tells those he encounters to “Shut up!” and not tell about what he has done. In scholarly circles this is the so-called “Messianic Secret” and a lot of people have weighed in on why Jesus does this. When we see that that powers that stand against Jesus understand him better than his closest friends, we begin to get a glimmer of understanding about Jesus’ desire for secrecy. Perhaps Mark wants to caution us that we don’t know Jesus as we think we do.

This is especially important for us reading the Jesus story after 2,000 years of study and commentary. One thing Mark is trying to tell us is that we won’t even begin to understand Jesus this side of the crucifixion and resurrection. Furthermore, even then, we don’t understand not as much as we think. In other words, we need to be humble as we approach the Jesus story. Jesus invites us to come to the text anew each and every time as if we don’t know Jesus at all. That’s why my New Testament professor, Dr. Rick Carlson, could exclaim at the beginning of a class, “I saw something today that I never saw before!” It’s why a group of pastors could study the same biblical text every month for over five years. God always has something unexpected for us.

Jesus is no Super Girl, but like her, he invites us not to presume to know who is and instead to ask, “What is this?” So, up, up and away, amen!