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

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"Now What?" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Now What?
Resurrection of Our Lord – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 27, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 16.1-8

Someone talked. Someone had to have talked otherwise we wouldn’t be here today. This abrupt and deeply unsatisfying non-ending of Mark’s has been hotly debated for centuries. Early transmitters were so uncomfortable they added not just one but two endings. Mark’s ending reminds us of the season ending TV show cliffhanger that leaves us frustrated. If Mark were to submit this manuscript today, modern day editors would do the same, if it was accepted at all. Of course, as modern day pundits might posit, it would be accepted if Mark would make it a trilogy. But, as someone observed, this is no way to run a resurrection. There is no fanfare or pageantry, just three women running away in fear. Their faithfulness seemed so promising, but in the end they stumble like their male contemporaries.

I can’t prove it, but I think they finally found their voices because someone told and that gives us a hint about Mark’s ending. It’s incredibly important to our life of faith to remember that life is not solved in 30-60 minutes or even over several episodes and there is no such thing as closure in life. I think closure is the worst idea that has been foisted upon us these days. We need to remember that resurrection isn’t an ending; it’s a beginning. When we think about it, this story is as real as it gets. These people, who stumble, are us. And the story is told so shabbily it must be true. You just can’t make this stuff up, so we can relate to the open-ended, messiness of life.

One of my favorite commentators of all things biblical, David Lose, reminds us that resurrection isn’t a conclusion; it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to live resurrection lives, which doesn’t mean that our lives are tied up like a nice bow. The resurrection life means that God beckons us to be a part of God’s work in the world. Resurrection means that, as we’ll see in the book of Acts, we’ll be making it up as we go. Resurrection means that we’ll stumble and fail just as spectacularly as those first men and women followers of Jesus, but that Jesus promises to meet us anyway and show us the way.

Yet, we must be careful not to think it’s up to us. It’s not up to us; it’s up to God working in, with, and through us. Most importantly, Mark’s story in general and the ending in particular shatters our expectations about Jesus and how he works. Remember, this is a Jesus who sides with the poor, oppressed, marginalized and outcast. This is a Jesus who says that true life is found by giving ourselves away. This is a Jesus who overthrows the politics of fear. This ending shows us that neither the tomb nor the ending can contain Jesus and neither can we. The good news is that that God can neither be shut in nor shut out of the world.

This non-ending in Marks tells us that there is hope because Jesus cannot be contained by a tomb and God can be trusted to finish what God has begun. And when we look at the pain and suffering in our world we see that this is even better news. Why? Because the good news is that God isn’t done yet and God is inviting us to help. One of the things I love about Grace is that we are learning to ask, “Now what?” We’re learning to be nimble and move wherever the Holy Spirit is leading us. God isn’t asking us to solve it all; in fact, God isn’t asking us to solve anything at all. God is inviting us to look for places where we can make a difference, to work for peace and justice in the world.

What I want you to know today is that, no matter what is going on in your life, God is there working to bring resurrection life. Christ is risen from the dead and as you go from here today, may you be part of that new life that God so graciously offers. Amen

Friday, March 25, 2016

"A Mockery of Justice" - Sermon for Good Friday

A Mockery of Justice
Good Friday – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 25, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 15.16-39

Last evening, we remembered the part of the Jesus story spent with his disciples at the Last Supper. That most intimate of meals with his closest friends ended with Jesus predicting their desertion, denial and abandonment. After that meal, they go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus engages in fervent prayer and where sleeping is more important than watching. (Modern day pundits have the disciples texting while Jesus is praying.) It is here that Judas’ betrayal bears fruit and Jesus is arrested by the temple guard. He is then “tried” before the religious ruling council where it was decided he was worthy of death, a death that could only come at the hands of the Roman government.

Before Pilate could even question Jesus, Peter does indeed deny Jesus three times and the cock crows in response. In a tightly worded narrative, Pilate questions Jesus and is forced to hand him over for crucifixion, preferring to sacrifice one innocent man to forestall a riot by a mob. We heard a few moments ago the mockery of Jesus by numerous characters in the drama: Pilate’s soldiers, the religious leaders, the criminals at Jesus’ right and left hands, and the crowds. There’s no need for Mark to relate the gory details. Not only would the early readers be familiar with the brutality of crucifixion, Jesus’ cry of forsakenness and utter abandonment speaks volumes.

As we watch and listen, we are tempted to stand emotionally distant, believing these events haven’t anything to do with us. But, deep down we know better, because it has everything to do with us; it is our story, too. Each gospel writer emphases a particular aspect of Jesus’ death and for Mark it is Jesus’ kingship. Of course, Jesus isn’t the king they were expecting, but he is king nonetheless. It is also appealing to claim that, unlike the leaders, soldiers and crowd, we know him as king even if they don’t. Yet, if we are honest, we know we don’t really treat him as a king, not any more than the decorative kings we read about in other countries. In other words, we fail to stop and come to grips that Jesus really is King of our lives and all that entails.

Not recognizing Jesus as king means a number of things. One thing I think it means is that we make a mockery of him and his rule whenever we exchange an authentic version of the life he came to bring for a cheap one. We sell our souls cheaply. But, on Good Friday the cross of Jesus Christ nudges its way into our souls, pushing us to admit there are things that get in the way. There are things that we’ve allowed to be rulers of our lives, things that keep us from the life God has for us. Some of them are good things, such as our possessions or our relationships or various activities. Some are downright demonic: anger, hurt, resentment, jealousy and the rest of the seven deadly sins. On Good Friday, it’s our delusions that get crucified.

There are many theories about what Jesus’ death means and does, but I prefer Martin Luther’s. In short, he says that Jesus takes all of the yuckiness of our life and willingly exchanges it for his righteousness. And that’s what I’m going to invite you to do tonight, to write down on that slip of paper the biggest thing that’s making it hard to live the life God intends and place it on the cross.

As you do, I want you to remember, as David Lose says, that God doesn’t hold back, that God is determined to join God’s own self to us so completely that we might live in hope and courage. For this king is the King of Love, who loves us until it hurts and then loves us some more. Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Searching for Sunday: Holy Communion" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Searching for Sunday: Holy Communion
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 24, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 14.12-31

The church feeds us. The church feeds us. That’s what Rachel Held Evans wants us to know about the church. It’s is the last section in our Lenten series using Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Evans has used the traditional seven sacraments of the church as lens for finding the church anew in our time. We’ve been using the book as a framework for renewing our life of faith. Though we recognize two of the seven in her book as sacraments, we can claim the other five as sacramental. Even so, there’s no disagreement that Holy Communion is a sacrament for most Christians. It is also good to remember that both sacraments and sacramental things say, “Pay attention, this stuff matters, these things are holy.”

The church feeds us and what a meal it is! Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that of all the things Jesus could have said to his followers to think about while he was gone, instead gave them some concrete things to do: “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Now, this meal has evolved down through the ages and is celebrated differently in various Christian communities. However, Evans points out that regardless of the celebration at some point someone says, “Remember,” We do this to remember. Here’s the thing when someone gives up on the church, whether for a season or several seasons. When we leave the church we have to do without Communion. The fact is, it’s much easier to remember things together than to do them alone. That’s why we need church. The church feeds us.

One of the first things I noticed about Grace when I arrived five and a half years ago is that we do food often and we do it well. I don’t know whether our practice of Holy Communion every service every week was derived from our graceful food practice or whether our meal practices derived from our Holy Communion practice. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that we who are “Home of the Hot Dish” do church this way because people are looking for Jesus. We somehow know that we sit down and break bread together we glimpse Jesus in each others’ eyes. Either place, altar or fellowship hall, we know that food is the language of caring for others. The church feeds us.

Evans goes on to say that we need Holy Communion because when we come forward we are forced to open up our hands to receive God’s very grace into our lives. We need the practice of opening up and letting go. Furthermore, opening up and receiving God means being reminded that we’re not the boss of what comes into our lives. Frankly, it also reminds us that it is not up to us to keep score and put up boundaries to Gods’ love. What I love about Grace is that we openly feed everyone, here or downstairs: young and old, member and visitor, long-time church-goer or somebody searching for Jesus, black or white, gay or straight. All get fed here. The church feeds us.

Though we often take this for granted, we need to recognize what a subversive practice this is in our culture and society. Just as Christ welcomes all, including his betrayer, Judas, so do we, regardless of who they are. And we do it because we need it. For this is the sacrament of unity that overcomes the deepest estrangements and brokenness in our community.

A number of years ago I was a lay leader at Nativity Lutheran in Alexandria VA. We were finally going to build our sanctuary after too many years of worshiping in the fellowship hall. To do so meant meeting with some representatives from the churchwide office. For reasons I don’t remember, the meeting was strained and did not go well. At the end of our time together, we engaged in worship, including Holy Communion. The act of gathering around the table of the Lord did what we couldn’t do, bring peace and unity to our fractured relationships. The church feeds us.

As you come forward to receive Christ’s very body and blood, as you are fed with God’s grace, love and mercy, may you remember that this place and others like it will always feed you. Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"King or Corpse?" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

King or Corpse?
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 20, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 11.1-11; 14.3-9

Last summer, I had the opportunity to hear and to meet Pr. Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene, a home and program for women survivors of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution. Pr. Stevens also founded Thistle Farms, an enterprise that employs residents and graduates of the program, helping them to learn business skills. Under the assertion “love heals,” Pr. Stevens uses essential oils for healing, believing that all ministry is healing ministry. She shared some oils with us that we passed around, rubbing on our wrists. In the climactic event of the day, she lavishly poured oil over the feet of an attendee and tenderly rubbed it in. This was one of the most powerful and intimate gestures I’ve ever seen.

Until I saw Stevens do this, I never fully appreciated what the woman at Bethany did for Jesus. We don’t know what prompted this incredible outpouring of love on Jesus, but we do get some clues about the meaning, both from the context and from Jesus himself. In the verses prior to this, the chief priests and the scribes plot to arrest and kill Jesus. Then, in the verses following one of Jesus’ closest friends, Judas, accepts the mob hit contract from these same plotters. Furthermore, in another prediction of his death and in between these two betrayals, Jesus says that this woman is doing for him what won’t be done later: anointing his body in preparation for his burial.

But, there’s another “sandwich” that illuminates the woman’s act. In chapter 13, which we heard last week, was Jesus’ “Farewell Address,” his last words to his disciples about what is to come after he dies. Just prior to this address, Jesus points out the actions of a widow who gives her all to the temple treasury with two copper coins. Now, we have another story of another nameless woman who gives her all for Jesus. So, what does this mean for us who indeed remember this act as Jesus promised 2,000 years later?

One way to engage the text and think about what it means is to go “back to the future” by revisiting Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, heard at the beginning of today’s service. As we put the anointing of Jesus into conversation with his triumphant ride, another aspect of Jesus’ mission appears. This kind of entry was usually reserved for the victory ride of a conquering hero, a latter day tickertape parade, if you will. Yet, there are subtle clues this parade was more ambiguous and ironic than appears at first blush. Jesus arrives on a donkey, not a warhorse; the townsfolk don’t come out to meet him as they might do ordinarily; and his visit to the temple is brief, without the usual sacrifice by the conquering hero. Thus the story signals that Jesus is the expected Messiah, but not the kind that people hoped for.

The anointing oil pouring over Jesus’ head is no latter day Gatorade dump on the coach of a championship team. Rather, it’s a further signal that Jesus has been set apart for a particular purpose: Jesus is both king and corpse. We may feel silly waving palms and may be embarrassed at his anointing, but the story invites us into this journey with Jesus to the cross and beyond, to a life lovingly given away.

Last Friday, as Cindy and I sat with her dying mother, an aid from her mother’s assisted living place stopped to say her last goodbyes. It was evident that Laura had a deep fondness for Amy and told how her schedule had been rearranged so she could give Amy baths. As she talked, she opened a jar of ointment and began rubbing it on Amy’s hands and then her feet. It was an act every bit of loving as the nameless woman at Bethany, except we will remember her name.

As you continue through Holy Week, to the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the cross on Good Friday and the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, may you respond to God’s reckless act of love with acts of your own. Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"Birth Pangs" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Birth Pangs
Lent 5 – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 13, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 13.1-8, 24-37

I watched with interest the retirement of Peyton Manning this past week. Manning, for those of you unfamiliar with professional football, was quarterback of Denver Broncos, this year’s Super Bowl winner. I was interested not only because of his stellar career but also because it hasn’t been without controversy. But even more so, I’m very interested in how organizations and fans anticipate the future without someone of his caliber and influence.

I was also interested because the words Jesus speaks to his followers in our text today can be seen as a Farewell Address of sorts. Here’s another example of how important it is to read texts in context. Normally, in the Revised Common Lectionary these two sections would be read at the beginning of Advent then again at the end of the season of Pentecost, almost a year apart on out of context.

But here in the Narrative Lectionary we read them exactly where we should: as Jesus enters the final leg of his journey to the cross. His ministry in Jerusalem is ending, one marked by verbal sparring with religious leaders and increasing tension. Jesus has predicted his betrayal, beating and death several times, but now the time is finally at hand. Jesus has been training his disciples for a long time—whether they realize or not—for life without him. He knows their world will be rocked and chaotic, full of uncertainty, difficulty and even death. So, the words he speaks prepares them for what lies ahead, not just regarding his passion but also for ministry without him.

Central to this message of comfort and hope is Jesus’ promise to return. It’s clear when we read between the lines of Mark’s account that they thought it would be sooner rather than later. However, as time passed, the early church had to come to grips with the fact they didn’t know when Jesus was going to come back. So, they looked to these words again and took heart, focusing on Jesus’ promise his word would last no matter what happened. But they also had to deal with something else: there were some who expected too much about Jesus’ return and there were some who expected too little. Perhaps most disturbing there were some who had forgotten to expect anything at all.

A number of years ago, I heard a radio preacher tell as story about a time he was the best man at his friend’s wedding. As his friend’s soon-to-be wife was walking down the aisle, he leaned over to the groom and whispered, “Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus came back now?”

What about us? What kind of people are we? Do we expect too much, too little or have we forgotten to expect any at all? As we look around our world, the chaos, wars, and uncertainty what do we think? Our world is changing and the things we hold dear, including the church, are changing as well. Change has always come, but it seems like it’s coming faster and more furious these days. Sometimes I wonder if we are more afraid that this isn’t the end of the world than it is. Many have commented it is ironic that on the weekend we turn our clocks ahead Jesus tells us to “Keep awake!” As we head toward Holy Week, the hopeful, purposeful image of birth pangs is helpful to us in doing so. For Jesus’ journey to the cross and beyond is both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

We are reminded today that it is in the darkest times of our lives that Christ’s presence is made known to us and that new life comes. This past week I heard from a retired pastor how his ministry profoundly changed following death of his first wife. Her death was not a good thing, but Jesus’ presence in that darkness birthed new life. What are the signs this is taking place? It is taking place when you seeing people doing what Jesus did: acts of healing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and gathering in community. The Christian life doesn’t offer an end to uncertainty; it gives us courage to live, a courage that comes from God’s love. We Christians are kind of crazy; where others seem death, destruction and chaos, we see Jesus and new life. As you make this journey and beyond, stay awake and look for Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

"A Whole-Life Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

A Whole-Life Love
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 2
March 6, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Mark 12.28-44

A few months ago I submitted to having a routine medical procedure, one that is pretty intrusive and involves nasty preparation. Nothing serious was found, just enough to ensure I’ll have the pleasure of doing it all again in another five years. Even so, we don’t like a doctor probing the darkest recesses of our bodies, looking for something we hope she doesn’t find and really don’t want to think about. It seems that Lent can take on the character of a spiritual medical procedure as it looks into dark corners of our soul. We’re sure we don’t want God going there and we’re pretty sure we won’t like what God finds.

In our reading today, Jesus has this amazing exchange with a scribe, a religious leader and teacher of the law, similar to a seminary professor of our day. The exchange is actually quite cordial and pretty typical, really, for the time. Jesus’ answer to this ongoing debate about Jewish legal priorities resonates with the scribe. So, Jesus commends the legal beagle, telling him that he is not far from the kingdom of God. With these words, we start to feel the cold probe in our own hearts, wondering how far we are from the kingdom. Then, when he berates other scribes for devouring the widows’ houses and points out the all-in widow, we break out in a spiritual sweat.

Today we see again the benefit of the Narrative Lectionary, which takes not only takes us through the Jesus story as it is told, but also puts texts together that we often treat separately. Such is the case today. The context is important. Jesus is in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple and as the tension is rising, he is clearly on his way to betrayal, beating, crucifixion and death. Until this week, I had never thought about the relationship between the greatest commandments and the story of the widow who gives everything. As I did so, I was led to think about both the pervasiveness and the intrusiveness of God’s love.

My sense of spiritual dis-ease was heightened when I saw a quote from Miroslav Volf show up on my Facebook feed: “If you don’t believe that God ought to be loved above all things, what you believe in isn’t God.” That quote and conversation with some colleagues, helped me realize something both wonderful and disturbing about God’s love: there is no place in our lives that God’s love doesn’t matter. And there is no place in our lives where our love of God doesn’t matter. God’s love touches everything.

That means that every part of who I am is touched by God and God’s love: heart, mind, soul, and hands. And it means that everything I do should somehow reflect my love of God as well. As I underwent this spiritual probing, I had to admit it wasn’t pretty: I remembered those times when I felt like the widow. However, I had to admit that most of those times I was giving out of my poverty wasn’t done out of love of God; it was out of grudging obligation. And I have to admit that even now as I give cheerfully, many times it is because of God’s abundance rather than love of God. To make today’s lesson even more relevant, I am also reminded that Pope Francis is close to the kingdom when he says that anyone building walls is not living out God’s love.

Now, I don’t think Jesus is telling us to give everything as the widow did. It may be true for some of us, but I don’t think Jesus requires it from all of us. In fact, I’m even wondering if Jesus is praising her or lamenting that her livelihood is being devoured by those who have spiritual cancer. Either way, I think that, like a good doctor, Jesus is inviting us into this kind of spiritual examination. This is not to beat us up but rather, invite us to a way of life that involves the kind of deep love engulfing our whole life.

The good news is that God’s love is poured out in, with and through us in a way that brings new life. As you continue this journey with Jesus to the cross, where all of your ugliness is crucified, may you know the overpowering, overwhelming love of God that makes this whole-life loving possible. Amen.