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

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.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter - John Odegard, Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation

Sermon for Easter 2 - Narrative Lectionary 2
John Odegard, Minister for Discipleship and Faith Formation
Grace Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
Acts 1:1-14

Greetings brothers and sisters in Christ, I am once again grateful for the chance to share the good news with you today.

Today, our focus scripture is from the book of Acts. The author of this book is the same who wrote the book of Luke and in our text today the author is bridging the gap between Jesus physical ministry here on earth, where He has shown us that He is the Savior, the Son of God Most High. He has performed miracles among us, He has been crucified, died for us and was buried. On the third day, He rose again. He appeared to many people, reached out His hands for Thomas to touch, and spoke with the disciples about the Kingdom of God. 40 days pass from His death until Jesus ascends into Heaven from Mount Olivet. The author is bridging the gap between the narrative of Jesus’ physical life on earth, and that of what Jesus did through Peter and the other apostles as they went out as witnesses to the gospel. This begins the new narrative of what Jesus did and continues to do, through the Holy Spirit and the church. While the book is called the Acts of the Apostles, it is really about what Jesus is doing in, with, and through them. Jesus ministry is not over when He ascends into Heaven, it just changes shape.

The 19th century preacher and writer Alexander MacLaren describes this change in a way that I can relate to, and I hope you can too. He said, “It is one thing to lay a foundation; it is another thing to build a house. And the work of laying the foundation must be finished before the work of building the structure upon it can be begun.”

So Jesus ascends into Heaven, but He doesn’t leave us; He is simply changing the nature of our relationship. Through this new relationship, Jesus invites us to know Him better. When He was among them, the Gospel points out that the Disciples were often confused by what He was saying to them and teaching them. It was only later that they fully understood the purpose of Jesus life and death. It was only after His ascension into Heaven that they realized that Jesus is King and the cross was His throne. It is because of the cross that Jesus is king of all. Jesus ascends into Heaven and gives us a deeper understanding of His ministry in the process. He sends us the Holy Spirit and all of the gifts that come with it and makes US His hands and feet here. He tells us by way of the disciples, that we will be His witnesses not only to the Jews, and not only to other believers, but to the very ends of the earth. Lo, and behold, here we are almost as far from Jerusalem as a person can get, more than 6,000 miles away acting as witness to the Gospel every day.

Whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, as a Christian we are acting as witness to Jesus every day. Being a witness to Christ is not something we choose to do. It’s not something Jesus instructed us to do either. Look at the way He says it in our text today. Jesus said you WILL be my witness. And that’s true, isn’t it? Sure, sometimes we actively choose to intentionally share the Gospel. The rest of the time though? That’s our time off, right? I punch out when I leave church, when I’m out with friends, or at the gym, eating dinner with my family. Those times I’m off duty right? Just a regular guy.

Whether we like it or not, we ARE a witness to Christ all of the time. If you identify as a Christian, if you confess that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, whether you realize it or not we are His witness all of the time. In the very Lutheran idea of being a Sinner and Saint, we witness to Christ both through our brokenness and though the changes evident in our character because of Jesus. We are a witness to the fact that Jesus came and died for all of us, even us normal folk.

Everything we do defines what it means to be a Christian to our children, to our neighbors, and to the world.

As a parent, I’m constantly thinking about how to make sure my kids know Jesus. It always comes back to one thing though, no matter how many books you read on youth ministry or how many pastors you talk to, you will find that one thing makes a bigger impact on our kids than anything else. If I make my faith a priority, my kids will know it’s important to me. How you do that is open for discussion but when you treat something as important, people notice. It gets a little weight behind it. When we make an effort to focus our sights on what God is calling us to do, to serve Him and to serve others, we not only open ourselves up to Him, but we automatically demonstrate to others the importance of our faith not through words, but through actions.

When you, the members of Grace come down here and make food for the Tuesday lunch for a buck up at Crossroads, every month. When you are this consistent force for good in the eyes of those kids and adults who rely on that meal. When I hear through others that Grace is the church those kids recognize up there for everything you are doing, I am grateful that you are being a witness to the Gospel and its awesome power to make this world a little brighter. I am grateful for what Jesus is accomplishing through your hands in our kitchen.

When I hear about the time you spend volunteering at The Reach with homeless youth, and you invite others to get involved, you are really demonstrating that Jesus cares for and loves those who are lost. You are showing that everyone is important to Him, and that even the least of these are loved by Our Lord. I am grateful for what Jesus can do through your generous and loving hearts.

One of the things I am most proud of is the way the people of Grace bear witness to Christ as the one who welcomes all. The way that our congregation uses it’s building as a tool for the greater good, to be shared with all of God’s people is a remarkable demonstration of Jesus Christ welcoming all. Furthermore, you went out into the community to talk about ways our building could serve others even more as we look at a future building renovation. We aren’t just thinking of serving those already here in the church, we’re reaching out. We already have people in here multiple times every week, using our building for everything from weight-loss support to foster parenting classes. From the girl scouts to autism awareness groups. And still, we‘re reaching out to do more, and to give more of ourselves.

And then every Sunday and every Wednesday we proclaim that all are welcome to Christ’s table. We usually say this multiple times so that everyone knows, even if you have never been here before, you are welcome to Christ’s table here. I am in awe of what Jesus can do through a community of believers.

Sure, it can get messy sometimes (point to confetti) but living your faith and sharing it both through your words and actions is the only way for it to grow.

Remember, faith isn’t just supposed to happen in church. This message of the life changing love of Jesus Christ isn’t just for those who already belong.

In our companion text for today, in the Gospel of Mark, we hear of the Disciples being sent out into the world. He sends us out too. Even now we are sent out to be His hands and feet.

We all have doubts and fears. One of the most common fears I hear is that people don’t think they have what it takes to teach, that they aren’t a good enough Christian. The Disciples probably felt that way too, but still Jesus sends us out. Then He tells us not to bring any of the things we sometimes think are necessary. The things we think will give us the life that He wants for us. I will gladly tell you, Jesus told us it’s not money, or clothes, it isn’t food or the place we live that makes us able to be a witness to Him, it’s the Holy Spirit. He gives that to each of us, and He has already given us everything we need.

We can do it in joy or sorrow, when everything seems to be going well or through hard times. Every season of life has its opportunities. We can bear witness to Christ though our charity when we are doing well, and through our genuine vulnerability when we are not.

Jesus knows you and loves you. He wants you to have life abundant. He wants you to grow in faith and understanding. On Wednesday night I had you use a candle as we talked about sharing faith. I talked about how our faith is like a candle in the darkness. We can hold on tight when the power goes out and patiently wait it out, clinging to what we have. Or we can share it with our neighbor and watch as it grows.

That was close to what I meant, but then I came across a quote from novelist Edith Wharton that says what I believe is really happening when we live out our faith. She said,

“There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

We are the mirror that reflects the grace of Our Lord. Go and reflect His light throughout the world… Amen.