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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Semper Reformanda" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Semper Reformanda
Reformation Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 30, 2016
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
1 Kings 17.1-24

Almost 499 years ago Martin Luther posted 95 theses, or articles of debate, on door of the castle church in Wittenberg Germany. The act was widely regarded as the official start of the Protestant Reformation, called Protestant because of the protests against abuses in the church. The Reformation would bring massive renewal. Luther courageously questioned some practices of the church and did so at great peril to himself. The Reformation brought sweeping changes, not only for churches but civically and politically as well. As we celebrate the Reformation, we must be wary of complacency and recognize that the Reformation was not a “one and done” event. The fact is that God is constantly on the move, shaking things up and breathing new life. Karl Barth, a 20th century Swiss theologian, captured this in a nifty little Latin phrase: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. In English: the Church of the Reformation is always reforming.

At first blush, it might be difficult to see how today’s text in 1 Kings connects with Reformation Sunday. But, bear with me as I give some background to today’s reading. Since last week, when God promised David he would make of him a “house,” where there would always be a king on the throne, David’s Solomon ascended the throne and succeeded in consolidating the 12 tribes into one nation. However, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, isn’t so wise and takes some bad advice. His actions result in Israel being split in two, the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

There are two things that important about this split: The first is that the northern kingdom has kings that are not of David’s line and therefore are outside of God’s promise of steadfast love. The second thing to know is that they are all wicked kings. For each of them, the Bible says, “They did evil in the sight of the Lord.” None of them is more evil than Ahab, the king Elijah will battle. At the end of chapter 16 we hear how Ahab marries Jezebel, and non-Israelite Baal worshiper. Now, Baal was thought to be the god who provided rain for the fertility of the land. Jezebel converts Ahab to a Baal worshipper, which incenses God, and prompts God to raise up Elijah.

To show Ahab and Israel who is in control, God brings a drought upon Israel and places north, but takes care to provide for Elijah. Down the road, God is going to use Elijah in a major confrontation with Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. But first, God does some pre-season training of Elijah to get him ready for the big game. Through the three vignettes, Elijah progresses in agency. In the initial story where he is fed by the ravens, Elijah is dependent and passive. In the next act, God sends him to a widow and, although God provides what he needs, Elijah must ask and make promises based on his trust in God. In the final segment, Elijah takes matters into his hands and demands that God bring life back into the widow’s son. Through it all, God continues to provide, not just for Elijah but the widow and son as well.

So, in connecting Reformation to 1 Kings 17, it seems that both Martin Luther and Elijah were called upon to stand up to the powers of the day. And, although the story is outside today’s text, both of them will fear for their lives and flee from danger. Both of them will go through bouts of deep anxiety, yet will learn to trust in God. And both will see God’s continual working and renewing in ways they didn’t expect. Notice how God’s provision for Elijah at first and then God’s provisions for Elijah and the widow her son are not promised forever. The way God provides may change, but that God provides doesn’t.

Though Elijah lived 2900 years ago and Luther 500 years ago, these stories are just as fresh for us today as they were for them. It is still true that our God is a hands-on, active God who is intimately involved in our lives and world. This God is constantly bringing renewal and inviting us to trust in unexpected ways. I’m excited about this new partnership between Redeemer and Grace, the opportunities Vicar John has to serve and the ways we can grow together, both corporately and individually. I look forward to seeing what God is going to be doing in, with and through us in the years ahead. So, hold on to your Small Catechisms: God is on the move. Semper Reformanda, always reforming. Amen

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Ask Not" - Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Ask Not
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 23, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
2 Samuel 7.1-17

Almost 56 years ago John F. Kennedy uttered words that would quickly define him as a president and us as a nation. On January 20, 1961 in his inauguration speech, Kennedy sought to unite the American people. It was a speech that could just have easily been given today, and perhaps it should, except that it was sprinkled liberally with references to God. Perhaps anticipating the potential dangers of a “nanny state,” which seeks to take inordinate interest in its citizen’s lives or our propensity for such, Kennedy made famous these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Our text from 2 Samuel seems to turn that phrase on its head and even backwards: “Ask not what you can do for God — ask what God can do for you.” Last week, in the story of Samuel’s remarkable birth to barren Hannah, we learned that story was prelude to the central concern of the Samuel corpus: the monarchy in general and David in particular. The Israelites wanted a monarchy for the most understandable of reasons: because everyone else had one. However, their first attempt ended in disaster and civil war. Their first king, Saul, fell out of favor with God and was eventually deposed in favor of the shepherd boy who would become warrior.

Winning fame by killing Goliath and avoiding Saul’s desire to kill him, David prevails. He is anointed king of both parts of the kingdom and seeking to consolidate the kingdom further, names Jerusalem as its capital and brings the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. With something of a breather at hand, he looks around and decides God needs a permanent home. Nathan, being the supportive pastor-prophet he is, signs off on David’s “edifice complex” only to receive rebuke from God. Now, we don’t know why David wants to build a temple for God. Perhaps he is embarrassed that he lives in a nice house while God still “lives” in a tent. Maybe he wants to show gratitude for all God has done for him. Perhaps David is merely doing the “done thing,” building a temple to his God as any self-respecting conqueror would do. Or maybe it’s another shrewd political move, a further consolidation of his power.

Whatever the reason, God says it’s not about what we do for God; it’s about what God does for us. By the way, whoever thinks that the Old Testament is only about the law and judgment, think again; this is pure gospel. God recites all he has done for David and, if that wasn’t enough, even more. God will build for David a house and this house will last forever. Furthermore, God will never take away God’s steadfast love from them. It’s no wonder that both Jews and the early Christians found this text so important. It is a Messianic text to the Jews and, for Christians, the Messiah was clearly Jesus Christ.

Now, it is somewhat ironic that we are in the process of building renovations here at Grace. This text reminds us that this building is not for God; it’s to support God’s mission and ministry through us. It’s not about giving back to God what God has given; it’s about giving ourselves away. You’ll hear more about the renovations in the months to come, but there’s something else that we need to do. In order to prepare for the renovations ahead, we will be working to strengthen or current ministries now.

Today we kick off our Stewardship Appeal, “Rooted in Love, Growing in Grace.” The appeal has three initiatives you’ll hear more about over the next three weeks. Next week, we will talk about our first initiative, Supporting our Discipleship ministry by investing in families. Two weeks from today, you’ll hear about our second initiative, Sustaining Ministry Excellence, which helps us make sure we keep up our core ministries. Finally, on November 13 Rev. Craig Breimhorst will be our guest preacher and talk about our third initiative, Raising up Future Leaders. Pastor Breimhorst is a former youth director at Grace who went on to attend seminary and become a pastor. You’ll hear temple talks from people who have been impacted and receive materials to help you make prayerful decisions.  Through this appeal, we hope to raise an additional $50,000 of which we plan to give away at least $10,000. By the way, part of “Raising up Future Leaders” will go to support Crossroads Campus Ministry in a way that we haven’t done for a while.

I’m excited how we continue to build for the future here at Grace and about the ministry that God has done through us. Like King David, God has richly blessed us, individually and as a congregation, and continues to do so. Like David, God through Jesus Christ has promised to always hold us in steadfast love. So, ask not what you can do for God, but what God has done for you and from that how God might be leading you to continue to give away yourselves for others. Though we might be anxious about the future of our country, God calls us to live as beacons of hope, strengthened in love.Amen.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"This Is My Song" - Sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

This Is My Song
Pentecost 22 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 16, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10

I love Broadway musicals and, as you can imagine, I enjoy going to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater from time to time. In musicals, when done right, the songs are memorable, combining good tunes with a compelling story. One thing that tickles me, however, is how the characters will suddenly burst into song in the most unlikely places with a full orchestra backing them up, such when Julie Andrews sings on a mountain top in The Sound of Music. In our lesson for today, like a Broadway actress, Hannah bursts into song at a most unlikely time and place. There is no apparent orchestra backing her and the song is odd, a nationalistic song if anything. It’s as if Eliza Doolittle were to sing, God Save the Queen in the midst of My Fair Lady.

Last week, we were at the foot of Mt. Sinai where the Israelites’ song went from boisterous to lament. They had come close to extinction because of their apostasy in building the golden calf. Since then, they’ve been on the move. Poised to enter the Promised Land, they have been forced to wander 40 years in the wilderness because they doubted God’s ability to help them settle the inhabited land. Once the faithless generation passes away, under Joshua’s leadership they entered the Promised Land and conquered it only to be besieged on all sides by the nation states surrounding them. Because they are a loose confederation of tribes, they are easy pickings. Occasionally, God will raise judges to rally them, but they get tired of this cycle and eventually will want a king to unify them.

The story of Samuel is how the monarchy comes into being in general and how the line of David gets established in particular. And the story begins in the most unlikely of places, with an elderly priest and a barren woman. (A side note: this won’t be the last time that a story of greatness begins with a birth narrative of humility. Cue The Magnificat, the song that a young virgin will sing a thousand years later upon learning that she is caring God’s Son, the long-awaited Messiah.) Hannah is persecuted by her husband’s other wife; we call it bullying today. She goes up to worship at Shiloh and prays fervently for a child where she is accused of drinking by the priest Eli. Eli promises her a child and God remembers her. Hannah and her husband conceive, a son is born and when the child is weaned, Hannah gives the child back to God.

I don’t know what it’s like not to be able to have a child and I can only imagine what it’s like to not be able to conceive. I think the idea of barrenness comes close. And I think most of us have an experience of being forgotten, perhaps by God, which maybe even more painful. And to give a child up after waiting so long stretches the imagination. Again, the only thing I can think of that might be similar is a birth mother giving her child for adoption. Yet, right after she does so, Hannah bursts into a song about the power of God’s justice. Perhaps she does so because she is not only able to receive something, but she is also able to give something for the first time in her life.

Hannah sings because she knows that it is in barrenness that God works to make a future. Her song is both proclamation and prophecy. Hannah proclaims God’s faithfulness and remembering. She dares to sing a song that spits in the face of power brokers of the world and she declares that all evidence to the contrary, God favors those at the margins of society. In other words, God has not forgotten any of us. Furthermore, she hints of one who is coming 1,000 years later and who will bring justice to the world.

Hannah sings in response to God’s presence and working in her life. Where have you seen God’s presence in your life and what song would you sing? You might not be on Broadway or backed up by a full orchestra, but sing anyway. Sing of God’s faithfulness and remembrance of you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Can We Talk?" - Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Can We Talk?
Pentecost 21 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 9, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 32.1-14

When I lived in Winona, a retired district judge wrote occasional newspaper articles reflecting on the current state of the judicial system. One time, he wrote about a new phenomenon he had observed, namely defendants arguing with judges about the sentences they had been give. Clearly, in this retired judge’s opinion, the phenomenon was generational.  People of older generations may not like their sentence, but they’d accept it and move on. Younger people, however, had a tendency to argue. Yet, what astounded him even more was that the judges themselves were arguing back. This was unheard of when he served on the bench. The judge viewed this as a crisis of authority and lack of respect for the judicial process.

Many of us as members of an older generation probably wouldn’t argue either, but thankfully Moses did. And we might add: thankfully, God as judge—not to mention jury and executioner—in this case, argues back. While the Israelites are going off the rails below, God and Moses have this amazing exchange on the top of Mt. Sinai. Since the Passover last week when God used the death of the firstborn males to convince the Egyptian pharaoh to let them go, the Israelites have crossed the parted Red Sea and entered the wilderness of Sinai. Shortly thereafter, they agreed to worship the Lord, YHWH, alone and received rules to live by, also known as the Ten Commandments.

These guidelines, which cover their relationship with God and with each other, have at the top of the list an agreement that they will not worship false idols or make graven images of any gods, including the Lord. But Moses has been up on the mountain with God 40 days and nights and the Israelites are getting nervous. So, they blink: fear and anxiety overcomes rational thinking and impatience produces bad decisions. The people need something tangible to follow and worship, so they make it themselves.

Meanwhile, they don’t realize how close they’ve come to not needing any gods. In a somewhat disturbing exchange, Moses talks God down from the judicial ledge. Assuming what will be a prophetic role seen throughout scripture, Moses stands between God and God’s people. And he’s not above using a little public relations manipulation. “What would the Egyptians say?” he asks God. But his theological and rhetorical tour de force is a reminder of the promises God made their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to make of them a great nation.

Now, I don’t know what’s more remarkable, that Moses changed God’s mind or that God actually did it. Yet, it really shouldn’t be surprising at all. For the witness of scripture, both up to now and as we see it unfolding, is that God is a relational God. And to be in a relationship means being vulnerable and opening one’s self to both the best and the worst those relationships can produce. It can mean both loving greatly and being hurt greatly. Furthermore, we who are Trinitarians know that God can’t be anything else but relational; it’s God’s very nature. God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a divine dance of love and faithfulness. Yet, it’s also in God’s nature for justice. God’s anger is real because God hates sin, death, and brokenness.

Yet, justice and faithfulness are not incompatible, because it is just to remain faithful to one’s promises. This God is so committed to our relationship that he took on human flesh and came to live among us. Both love and justice were served when God took our unfaithfulness on the cross. So, we don’t have to build false gods such as busyness, perfectionism or consumerism to relate to because this God continues to give himself for us in tangible ways. In doing so, God invites us into a living, loving and, honest relationship. So, like Moses, we can pour out our hopes, dreams, fears, frustrations out to God knowing that God listens. Can we talk? The answer today is a resounding, “Yes!” All the time, any time, no matter what, no matter who. Amen.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Now and Again" - Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Now and Again
Pentecost 20 – Narrative Lectionary 3
October 2, 2016
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 12.1-14; 13.1-8

When I meet with couples to do pre-marriage work, I ask traditions they observed in their families of origin that they’d like to bring with into their marriage. If my daughters were asked, they might mention birthdays that are celebrated by eating dinner out and coming back home for cake, ice cream and presents. They might also mention specific foods that must be eaten at Thanksgiving or our tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day. Other people might talk about different holiday observances, such Independence Day or Memorial Day. All families have traditions, whether they think so or not. These observances are important because the say something about who we are, our identity. It’s not just about who we are as individuals, but as a collective or community. We don’t honor traditions individually; it’s always a group activity. For those traditional observances in the church, it’s about who we are as God’s people.

About 430 years have passed since last week’s story about Joseph that brought the Israelites to Egypt. The good news is that the Israelites have multiplied according to God’s promise. They are now as numerous as the stars in the sky or sand on a beach. The bad news is that the Egyptians are afraid of their large numbers and to keep them under control begin to oppress them. Kings have come and gone and nobody remembers Joseph and what he did. However, no matter how hard the Egyptians make life for the Israelites, they keep flourishing.

So, the pharaoh declares that all male babies be killed after birth. Upon this atrocity, the Israelites lift up their lament to God and God raises up and sends Moses to act as his agent of deliverance. Even so, a series of plagues don’t convince pharaoh, so God resorts to what has become known as the Passover. The angel of death passes over the homes marked with lambs blood, killing the first born male children in the households that aren’t marked, those of the Egyptians. In the process, God gives instructions for how to acknowledge this memorable occasion.

There is much in this story that could be mined: God’s deliverance from oppression, wrestling with God’s resort to violence, and the ties between the Passover meal to the Last Supper that Jesus celebrates with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. Yet, as important as these themes are, I’m struck by God’s command to remember. It is a far deeper remembering than simply, “Don’t forget what it did.” God lays out very specific rules, not just for the inaugural Passover, but all succeeding ones. There is something about doing that is important to the remembering.

As I thought about a modern example, I recalled when I came to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg 24 years ago. There was a movie crew filming on the battlefields. What was a movie based on the book “Killer Angels” ultimately became “Gettysburg” in productions. During the filming, the movie company used local re-enactors, those who regularly gathered to reenact the Battle of Gettysburg. Now, I used think of re-enactors as overgrown children doing dress up, but I have come to realize it’s much more. As you walk the battlefield and see the reenactments, you get a sense of what happened over 150 years ago. There is something about doing that is important to the remembering.

I think that’s exactly why God instructs the Israelites to remember and reenact the Passover in specific ways. It is why the Jewish people have been doing this for over 3,300 years and will continue until the end of time. The reenactment and remembering is not superstitious motions or magical behavior. God reminds us that what we do here matters because it both helps us to remember and it forms us in the process. By carrying forth the traditions of those who came before us, we are reminded both who we are and whose we are. And by doing it together we are reminded that we are a community of faith.

There are a number of people wringing their hands these days about the church’s future and sometimes I’m one of them. I was distressed this summer when I witnessed five baptisms at various churches and most of them left out significant portions of the service. None of them followed the service as it was written. And it is true that we are facing challenges, not the least of which is the fact that we are being pushed to the margins of society. Even so, the church has faced challenges many times before and frankly, the church is at its best when it operates from the margins, on the outside.

More importantly, we follow a God who promises to be with us and strengthen us to serve the world. We follow a God that took on human flesh, died for us and continues to give himself. We don’t do Passover, but we need to continue to carry on other rituals and sacraments, such as baptism and Holy Communion, and we need to do them faithfully. Never underestimate our place in this community and what we do here each week. There is something about the doing that is important to the remembering and we need to do it together. Amen.