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

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.