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

Sunday, May 15, 2016


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.