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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening" - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Speak, Lord, for Your Servant Is Listening
Pentecost 19 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 15, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Samuel 3.1-21

We are now at the point of our story in the Old Testament where the Israelites have stopped wandering around the wilderness and are now in the Promised Land. It’s the period of the judges, those leaders who God raises up to deal with neighboring threats. Israel is a loose collection of tribes, not a unified nation, and therefore susceptible to attacks. The book of Samuel is largely how God will unify the people and raise up more permanent leadership in the form of kings. But to do that, the narrator of Samuel wants us to know first that Samuel is a legitimate agent of God.

The back-story to today’s reading tells of Samuel’s miraculous birth to barren Hannah through Eli’s intervention. In gratitude for a child, Hannah dedicates Samuel to God and gives him to the priest Eli in service at Shiloh. We hear also that God is displeased with Eli because Eli can’t control his corrupt sons, so God calls Samuel to be his official mouthpiece. Even though he’s served his whole life in the temple, Samuel, with Eli’s help, hears God’s voice for the first time. But it won’t be the last time, for Samuel will prove himself to be a trustworthy conduit of God’s word.

A week ago, Vicar John and I went on a retreat for interns and supervisors. Interestingly, the topic of the retreat was listening. During one exercise, we were invited to go off by ourselves to think more deeply about listening. I chose to do a meditative walk, not only to get up and moving, but because that’s helpful for me for thinking. Near the end of my walk, it occurred to me it was somewhat ironic that someone with hearing loss was meditating on how to listen for God’s voice. And then I realized that all of us need “hearing aids” to listen to God.

God rarely speaks directly in an audible voice and, when people claim to do so, we think them mentally ill. Usually, God chooses other means and some of them are totally unexpected. It’s remarkable that God used Eli, someone who fell short of God’s intentions for him, to help Samuel hear his voice.

Last Monday, after our monthly worship service at the Realife Cooperative, an attendee mentioned how she uses inspirational music to hear God’s voice. I was reminded that there are many ways to connect to God, such as use art, nature, service, meditation, etc. Another person mentioned how she sometimes misses hearing God’s voice, but can look back weeks or months later and realize that God was speaking to her. So, we are reminded that there are many barriers to hearing God’s voice, such as distractions and competing voices.

Listening for and hearing God’s word is important for all of us who are God’s people, not just clergy or approved prophets. Earlier this fall, I suggested we take a sabbatical as a congregation and add no new ministries. I did so for two reasons. First, we have done a lot these past seven years, capped by our building renovations, and it seemed good to take a break. Second, it is important for us to step back and listen to God’s voice for where God may be leading us in the years ahead. As we do so, we might want to pay attention to those whom we consider to be unlikely channels of God’s voice. However we do this, let us with Samuel say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Do You Trust Me?" - Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Do You Trust Me?
Pentecost 18 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 8, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Exodus 16.1-18; John 6.51

Two weeks ago my family and I saw the Broadway touring musical of the Disney favorite, Aladdin, at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. Aladdin is a bit of a scamp, a streetwise rogue who encounters the Princess Jasmine, a young woman who refuses to marry just anyone to please her father. In the misadventure that follows, they are chased by palace guards and reach a tricky place. Aladdin is about to leap from a rooftop, but Jasmine hesitates. Aladdin reaches down and says, “Do you trust me?” She does. Later, pretending to be a prince through the help of the Genie yet unrecognized to Jasmine, he asks the same question as he coaxes her on a magic carpet ride. “Do you trust me?”

Trust is a central theme in today’s reading from Exodus, which finds the Jews in the wilderness. Since the call of Moses and the revelation of God’s name, “I Will Be Who I Am,” Moses has had to use 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh to release the Jews, including the killing of firstborn males. Because of the loss of his own son, Pharaoh relents but then changes his mind and pursues the Israelites. Moses parts the Red Sea to escape and closes it back up as Pharaoh and his army attempt to cross, killing them all. Now, safely on the other side, the Jews realize they’ve gone from slavery to an uncertain and unfriendly wilderness. They panic.

When they panic, they do something that is all too human: they look back with rose-colored glasses at what they have left behind them. Even though not much time has elapsed, the slavery they have left from looks better than the prospect of starving in the wilderness. Now, in all fairness, why should they trust a God they hadn’t heard from in over 400 years? Even so, God through Moses reaches down to them with quail and manna, saying, “Do you trust me?” And by providing for his people day by day, God builds that trust with the Israelites day by day as well.

There are many wildernesses that come through transitions and changes in our lives that we endure and can talk about: divorce, cancer, violence, and natural disasters, to name a few. The wilderness that’s been on my mind for several years, though, is the wilderness of the church. People are leaving our churches in droves, through death and disinterest. Many Millennials and Gen-Xers consider the church irrelevant and even boring. Baby Boomers who grew up in the church, if they are still in the church, are too busy trying to launch their children, taking care of grandchildren, caring for their elderly parents, or all three. Those that are left in the church look back to a bygone era that seems better than it was, wondering why we can’t go back there. Sometimes, like the Israelites, we blame our leaders.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s important to remember that God doesn’t abandon God’s people and that in every age God reaches out saying, “Do you trust me?” I don’t know what’s ahead for God’s church, how God is going to make it new, but I know that God is and will be doing so. I do know that as we travel this unsure road we need to focus on God’s abundance, what we have, and not scarcity, what we don’t have. Like the man in Mark 9, who asks Jesus to heal his son, we need to say, “Lord we trust you; help our mistrust.”

1,200 years after the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness, God will put on human flesh and enter our wilderness, saying “Do you trust me?” God will do this for all time in Jesus Christ. And, knowing that we need constant reminder that God is with us in our wilderness and will lead us out, the Bread of Life gives his very self to us over and over again, strengthening us for our journeys. It’s good to take a look back now and then, to remind ourselves where we have come from, to see God’s hand in our lives, but we do so that we can trust God as we are led to new life. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

"I Will Be Who I Am" - Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

I Will Be Who I Am
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.1-15; 4.10-17
John 8.58

When I entered seminary, we moved to a small town outside of Gettysburg, PA, called, appropriately, Littlestown. In addition to lessons in theology, it was a lesson in rural life. Once when I was asked and told someone my name, I was asked if I was related to Olsons who lived in Hanover, the next big city to the east. I chuckled and answered that one doesn’t expect that question growing up in Minnesota, where there are dozens of pages of Olsons in the phone book. Later, I began to see that question as an attempt to understand who I was, what kind of person I am. If the person asking could connect me with someone else they could better understand how to relate to me.

Knowing God’s name and building a relationship is at the heart of our story today. About 400 years has passed between Jacob’s trickery last week, where he stole the blessing due to his elder brother, Esau, and the revealing of God’s name today. In the meanwhile, Jacob has married two women and, with and additional two others, has had 12 sons, and reconciled has with his brother Esau. One of the sons, Joseph, gets sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers, where through a series of ups and downs, rises to a position of prominence because he can interpret the king’s dreams. Because he can do so, Joseph helps the Egyptian people prepare for a famine, one that ultimately brings Joseph’s family to Egypt where they begin to prosper even more.

A king arises who doesn’t know the Joseph story and becomes fearful of the Israelite foreigners (where have we heard that before?). The king oppresses them, forcing them into slavery. Yet, despite his efforts they continue to multiply, and the king oppresses them more. The cries of the people get God’s attention and God “remembers” his people. God hasn’t forgotten them; he has merely set them aside for a time. To “remember” means he will now act. But, it seems there’s no quick fix to the problem and God, consistent with his purpose at creation, chooses to work in, with and through human agents, calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.

In the midst of an incredible dialogue with God, Moses wants to know who this God is he’s dealing with. Here, it’s important to remember the God has been silent all these years. The only thing that Moses knows of this God is from stories handed down through the years. God responds with a name that is almost untranslatable, one that says everything and nothing: “I am who I am.” This self-description is so different from other persons or things so as to make comparison meaningless. It’s as if you asked me my name and I said “I Golf” or “Coffee Cup.” But, I prefer the translation of Terence Fretheim: “I will be who I am.” As the person who asked me my name, through asking this God’s name, Moses finds a way to connect with God.

Revealing one’s name is risky and involves a bit of vulnerability because once we know someone’s name we can make a claim on that person. Amazingly, while remaining wholly other, God opens God’s self to us, inviting us into a relationship. Through the divine name, God assures us he will always be with us, working in, with, and through us.

1,200 years later, the “Great I Am” will again become vulnerable, taking on human flesh, revealing himself as the one who suffers with us in our suffering and by doing so brings us out of bondage to sin, death and the power of the devil. As Jesus says in today’s Companion Gospel reading, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In case you miss it, he’ll go on to say, “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” I am the Light of the World,” and for us as we come to the Lord’s Table, “I am the Bread of Life.”  The revelation of God’s name tells us everything we need to know and invites us into a living, loving relationship of service. Amen.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Blessed to Be a Blessing" - Sermon for Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 16)

Blessed to Be a Blessing
Confirmation Sunday (Pentecost 16 – Narrative Lectionary 4)
September 27, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 27.1-4, 15-23; 28.10-17

My father passed in 1983 when he was 68 years old and I did the eulogy at his funeral. It was a way to honor him and to say the things I wanted to say to him but didn’t get the chance. But it was the things that he didn’t say to me that I think about a lot. During the visitation and after many people told me how proud my dad was of me. Now, I knew that he loved me and was proud of me, but I wish he had said it to me. During my sabbatical last summer, I had an opportunity to reflect more deeply on our relationship. Although I couldn’t change what I got or didn’t get from Dad, I could tell my daughters how proud I am of them, that no matter what they did or didn’t do, that would never change.

I came to realize that what I wanted from my dad was a blessing such as is given in the Old Testament. Had I known the story of Jacob, Esau and Isaac, perhaps I would have tricked my father into one, but probably not. Since Isaac’s near-death experience at the hands of his father Abraham in our reading from last week, he has married Rebekah and had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. They are fraternal twins, different as night and day. Esau is the hunter while Jacob is the farmer. Earlier in the story, Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright as oldest, all for a bowl of stew. Now he conspires with Rebekah to steal the blessing due Esau. This blessing is such a big deal that Esau threatens to kill Jacob, who flees Esau’s wrath and heads to Rebekah’s brother, Laban. In the middle of nowhere, Jacob lays down to sleep and encounters God in a most unexpected place, receiving some startling news.

In effect, God tells Jacob that the blessing received from his father pales in comparison to the one that God is giving him. God promises Jacob the land he is sleeping on, innumerable descendents and God’s presence always. This blessing from God is even more incredible because Jacob deserves none of it; it’s pure grace. What’s even more outrageous is that God tells Jacob he is being blessed in order to be a blessing. That’s absurd because as Jacob’s life unfolds it will appear to be anything but blessed: he is going to be tricked as much has he tricks others and he will become lame after wrestling with God all night.

Last Wednesday I preached and led the worship service at Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry. We read this text and talked about blessings. I told them today was Confirmation and asked them what they would tell their younger selves if they could do so. In other words, what would they tell you, Confirmands, from their own experience, giving you a blessing in the process? They said to know that, even if you drift away from the church, the church will always love you and take you back. They wanted you to know that no matter where you go God will be with you. They also said that you should to not be afraid to be who you are as a follower of Christ, but to let people know that appropriately. If I had to add my two cents, I would tell you that people will disappoint you, including those in the church, and that you will do the same, but that the church is the place we belong because it is where broken people come for healing.

Confirmands: in baptism God made you his own, blessed you and set you aside for his purpose. (That’s what it means to be holy.) God also promised that he would be with you always, no matter what you do or where you go. This comes of God’s pure grace because you didn’t do anything to earn it and nothing you do changes it. Whatever happens in your lives, though it may not seem a blessing, God will use you to bless others. I trust that your family will tell you how proud they are without you tricking them into it. But I want you to hear from me how proud I am of who you are, of who you are becoming and that God has indeed blessed you to be a blessing, just like everyone here. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"The Lord Will Provide" - Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Lord Will Provide
Pentecost 15 – Narrative Lectionary 4
September 17, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 21.1-7; 22.1-19

In the movie “The Goodbye Girl,” based on Neil Simon’s play, Marsha Mason plays a single mom who has been in a series of “love them and leave them” relationships. Her latest boyfriend has left to pursue an acting career, promising to return. Mason knows he won’t. To make matters worse, the departing boyfriend has sublet his portion of the apartment to another aspiring actor, played by Dustin Hoffman. After many ups and downs, Mason and Hoffman fall in love and begin to make a life together.

Then comes Hoffman’s break, a part that will require him to leave Mason and her daughter for a time. No matter how much Hoffman says, Mason doesn’t believe that he’ll return. In the final scene of the movie, Hoffman calls Mason from a phone booth on the way to the airport, professing his love and repeating his promise to come back. Mason will have nothing of it, until Hoffman speaks almost a throw-away line: “While I’m gone will you have my guitar restrung?” Mason shrieks in joy to her daughter, “He left his guitar.” Sure enough, the daughter goes to the closet and finds Hoffman’s most prized possession, his guitar, something he never goes anywhere without. The guitar is a sign and a promise that he will return.

In our text today, God wants Abraham to trust him with his most prized possession, his son Isaac, bearer of the promise of a great nation. We need to acknowledge that this is a hard text and there’s no getting around it. This story is problematic on so many levels. It is scandalous in the usual sense that it is offensive that God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. After so many years of waiting through what seemed impossible circumstances, Abraham and Sarah finally have their son and God has finally fulfilled his promise. Now, God wants to renege on the promise. And Abraham does it without a whimper of protest. Where was Sarah in all of this? Did Abraham even tell Sarah what he’s doing? The story is not just offensive; it’s a stumbling block to our faith and who we believe God to be.

But what if the big scandal isn’t what God is asking? What if the scandal is that God actually wants us to trust him with the most precious things in our lives? Think for a moment what that might be for you. As I thought about an analogy, I thought of the three most precious things to me: my wife and daughters. One time when Angela was very young, she fell, hitting her head that produced a large gash above her eyebrow. I picked her up and took her to the doctor where I literally had to “bind her” in a sheet and lay her on a table so the doctor and nurse could put stitches in her head. All the while I kept telling her to trust me and the doctor, that it would be okay. I’ve had to do similar things with my other daughter Amy and my wife Cindy.

Now, I know that analogy isn’t perfect; nothing was wrong with Isaac (as far as Abraham knew). But when we ask ourselves why those early believers in God kept telling this story and then wrote it down, it seems the story becomes as much about God’s faithfulness as about Abraham’s. Perhaps they wanted to remember that God asks us to trust even in the midst of circumstances we don’t understand, when everything appears futile. Or, as Walter Brueggemann notes, in a world defined by the notion that we can only trust ourselves, or only trust what we can touch, taste and measure, or not trust anything, the claim that God alone provides all that we need is perhaps even more scandalous as the claim that God tests us.

One aspect of the story that I find intriguing is that even God takes a big risk and becomes vulnerable. What if Abraham had said no to God and walked away? He and Sarah had their son; that might be enough for them. Sure, God could have found someone else to make a chosen people, but God would have lost some reputation in the process. The fact is, that God was as much “all in” as Abraham was and had as much to lose. Yet, it was the faithfulness of God to his promises that Abraham was able to trust God with the most precious thing in his life and it was Abraham’s trust in his relationship with God that he know “the Lord will provide.”

Two thousand years later, unbeknownst to Abraham of course, God would take another huge risk and become vulnerable by taking on human flesh, giving up the thing most precious to him. As someone put it, God provides the Lamb of God, which is also the Lamb from God. The story of Jesus was a scandal and stumbling block then, and it still is to a lot of people. Both stories, Abraham and Jesus, are hard stories and they are not easily solved; nor should they be. Instead, we are invited to trust God with our most precious things, especially during the hard times when we can’t see any way forward, trusting that “the Lord will provide.” We are not “Goodbye Girls”; we are children of the promise who trust a faithful God. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"Practicing Sabbath" - Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Practicing Sabbath
Pentecost 14 – NL 4
September 10, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Genesis 1.1-2.4a

I enjoying looking at family photos, especially my own. From them I get a sense of my family history and familiarity with past generations. But I also like to look deeply to see if there’s a resemblance among family members, and quite often it is there, from one generation to the next. Our two daughters are very different, yet each has bits and pieces of Cindy and me, not only their appearance, but in personality as well.

In the first creation story from Genesis (yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis), we learn that each of us is made in God’s image. Now, there’s much discussion about what that means exactly, but there is a profound truth expressed here. One proposition, made by theologian Phil Hefner is that we are “created co-creators.” Or as another theologian, Gary Simpson, puts it, to be made in God’s image means that we are “co-creating creatures.” We get to participate with God in the ongoing work of creation. However, just as the Creator God does, we also get to rest from our creating work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “rest” lately, what the Bible calls Sabbath and we typically think of as Sunday. My sabbatical last year was an opportunity to rest and be renewed in ministry, mind and body. It was also an opportunity to think more about Sabbath. Truthfully, I had been thinking about Sabbath as rest for several years before, about how to recover its originally meaning and intention for us. I’ve thought long and hard about what Sabbath means in a culture that prides itself in busy-ness. How often, when asked how we are, we reply, “I’m so busy.” We wear it almost as a badge of honor.

These ruminations came to a head last month as I reflected on how far we’ve come these past seven years, how we’re officially in the last stages of the strategic plan we adopted as we are moving ahead with the building renovations, and as I began thinking about what comes next. Frankly, the thought about that made me tired, and if I am tired then I’m pretty sure you are, too.

There was another strand weaving its way into my thoughts and that has been a reflection on my role as the spiritual leader of this congregation. On more than one occasion, someone has told me, “You are our spiritual leader, Pastor.” Fortunately, I had the opportunity to reflect on what that means during a two-day retreat this summer with other rostered leaders in our synod. I discovered that one aspect of my call as your spiritual leader is to be the one who makes sure that God is included in our conversations together, to be the one who asks the “God Questions.” “What is God doing in our world?” “What does God want us to be doing?”

The other part of my call as spiritual leader is to both model and encourage healthy spiritual practices, to live them and to teach them. I believe that a healthy and helpful recovery of Sabbath is vital to our spiritual well-being. I believe that this is true for us both as individuals and as a community of faith, we who are God’s created co-creators.

One thing I learned working on my doctorate was the spiritual practice of saying yes and no. Now, that may not sound like a spiritual practice, but it is. And, it’s related to Sabbath. Every time we say “yes” to something, there is an automatic “no” being said to something else. In fact, in saying “yes” to my doctoral work, I realized I needed to say “no” to other things, and those other things wouldn’t be eating, sleeping and spending time with my family. I had to say no to some good things that I enjoyed doing in order to be healthy.

Saying yes and no is a spiritual practice because it’s rooted in creation: God says “yes” to creation as God calls forth the sun, moon, stars and creatures. But, every time God says “yes” to one thing, it implies a “no” to another. Scientists agree that our position from the sun makes a only a certain kind of life possible. Though there are a multitude of life forms, there are some that could not survive. Then, on the seventh day God says a huge “no” to work and a similar “yes” to rest and renewal. And God said it was good.

If you had a chance to read my letter in the most recent newsletter, you know that for the next year I’ve asked the council and ministry teams to engage in Sabbath. I’ve asked that we say “no” to adding new ministries and to saying “yes” to asking the “God Questions.” I want us to intentionally engage in conversation about where we see God’s presence in, with and through our lives and our community as we see what comes next for us as God’s created co-creators.

 Meanwhile, I’m encouraging each of you personally to make Sabbath space in your lives. It doesn’t have to be a whole day or even an hour; it can be five minutes. I want you to intentionally practice saying yes and saying no and to simply be without doing, to see what God is doing in your life. Let me know if I can help, but know that from time to time, I’ll remind and encourage you in this practice. For it is good. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Sola Fide" - Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Pentecost 10 – Summer Series
August 13, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Galatians 2.15-3.5

 “Henry” was actively dying when I visited him in the hospital. He was still very lucid and after some general conversation, I asked him if there was anything on his mind or that he’d like to discuss. “Yes, pastor, there is,” Henry said. What is it? “I wonder if I’m good enough for God.” What do you mean, Henry, ‘good enough?’ “Will God take me? Am I good enough to be accepted by God?” Now, I wanted to smack him because Henry was a life-long Lutheran, whom I was sure had heard the “saved by grace through faith” line countless times, including from me.   But instead, my heart ached for him. I said, “Oh, my, Henry…” and we talked some more.

Today we explore sola fide, or “faith alone,” the second in our series on the five Solae. The Solae are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity. They are the “bottom line” of our beliefs. In our text from Galatians today we hear that we are made right with God, not by works of the law, but by the faith of Christ and our faith in Christ.

Now, it’s helpful to know a bit of the back-story to Galatians: it seems there were Jewish folk who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who, thankfully, approved this message for Gentiles as well. (Remember, the first Christians were Jewish.) However, they were so tied to their Jewish roots and sense of belonging that they believed that the Gentiles needed to adopt these “belonging markers and practices” as gifts from God. These practices included the observance of dietary laws and circumcision for men. Paul, who helped establish the Galatian church, was furious and responds accordingly.

Mary Hinkle Shore notes how difficult Galatians can be to understand because Paul uses heavy-weight theological words like “justify,” “justification” and “righteousness,” which can be confusing and hard to unpack. So, she suggests replacing “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging.” I think that’s very helpful because the issue at the heart of Galatians is how we belong, to God and to one another. Yet, in a grammatical puzzle that has commentators abuzz, it’s Jesus’ faith, not ours, that’s at issue.

Paul says that how we belong to this community of faith, to God and each other, is through the faithfulness and faith of Jesus. And Paul’s message is one we need to hear just as much today as the Galatians did 2,000 years ago. In our culture, we hear constant messages that we aren’t good enough or don’t have enough. In order to belong, we need to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, drive the right truck or car, or use the right technology. However, in our congregations, we strive to teach and live a different message: “You belong no matter what you do or who you are.”

As I continued my conversation with Henry, I simply and gently reminded him of what he already knew but, in essence, wanted to hear again one last time: God’s faithful promises. Whatever faith and trust we have in God springs from Jesus’ faithfulness as God’s gift to us. Though Henry may not have realized or perhaps forgotten, it was because of this gift from God that he was able to live the life of faith that he did, not perfectly of course, but secure in the love of Christ. May you hear and trust this good news as well. Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

"Sola Scriptura" - Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Sola Scriptura
Pentecost 9 – Summer Series
Grace, Mankato, MN
August 6, 2017
2 Timothy 3.10 – 4.5

While amassing material for today’s first sermon in the series on the five Solae, I found myself organizing my thoughts in such a way that I was sure I was putting together and nice little talk. After all, these five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to sum up the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity are interesting, right? I was positive that you would be enthralled (as I am) about the authority of scripture—today’s topic—over and against the body of tradition and the fights that have ensued since then, such as inerrancy.

Luckily, the Holy Spirit did a verbal head-slap which brought me to my rhetorical senses (I think), and so I changed direction. I realized that this wasn’t the place for a “nice little talk.” This was time for proclamation, good news about God’s love through Jesus Christ. And as I thought about what that might entail, the Holy Spirit also hounded me with the great Lutheran question, “So what does this mean?” Or simply, “So what?” What does it matter that the Bible holds this special place in our lives. What does it meant that on the one hand 20 million Bibles are sold in the US each year but that some countries fear it so much it is either banned or its use severely restricted? (I might add that some churches control the Bible in a similar fashion.

What does it mean that some people have lost their lives translating the Bible into the vernacular? Our own Martin Luther risked his life at the Diet of Worms when he was asked to recant his writings, saying, "Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

What makes the Bible so powerful and vital in our lives is that it gives us not only a peek into God’s heart, but a way into it. Luther once said that the Bible is the cradle in which the Christ Child is laid, a wonderful image that we could spend hours unpacking. As we see in our reading from 2 Timothy today, the Bible gives birth to a different way of looking at the world and our place in it. It’s a way of life that makes a difference in us and in our lives. And when God, through the Bible, makes a difference in us, we are able to make a difference in the world.

For me, the power of the Bible is that it tells real stories about real people, in an unvarnished and sometimes brutally honest way. These are stories about people who are fallible, broken creatures like me who fall short time and again but are nonetheless not only loved deeply by God but are inexplicably used by God for God’s purposes.

I think of the man in Mark’s gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son because Jesus’ followers could not. Jesus asks the man if he believes he can heal his son and the man says, “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.” That man’s story is my story. “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus following Jesus’ death and resurrection, blind to Jesus’ presence. Yet, they are met by him on their journey, have their minds opened to him, and finally see Jesus in the breaking of the bread. They return rejoicing and sharing the good news. Their story is my story.

For me, the power of the Bible is evident when I read familiar stories and yet I’m met by God who shows me deep truths in ways that I have never seen before. And, I might add, more often than not this happens when I am reading the Bible with others, for the Bible is meant to be read in community.

We need documents like the Book of Concord and the writings of people like Luther to help us sort through and think theologically about what the Bible is telling us, in every age. But they are no substitute for power of the Bible in our lives, a Bible that shows us God’s heart and helps us understand how God is calling us to live.

What about you? What difference does the Bible make in your life? How does it help you? Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone, is just as important for us today as it was for the Reformers. Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Back to the Future" - Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Back to the Future
Pentecost 8 – Summer Series
July 30, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 21.1-6; 22.1-5

One of my favorite cartoons has a young girl walking into the living room and, upon seeing her father, asks him what he is doing. “Nothing,” he replies. After a moment of thoughtfulness she says, “Then how do you know when you are finished?”

Today’s scripture reading calls to mind a variation. A son, seeing his father leaving says, “Where are you going?” “Nowhere in particular,” he says. The boy responds, “Then how do you know when you get there?”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, director of a stress reduction clinic and center for mindfulness in medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has written a book on mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being in the present moment, because the present moment is the only one you have. In true Buddhist fashion, Kabat-Zinn’s book is titled, Wherever You Go, There You Are. So one wonders, can you both be going somewhere and yet have already arrived?

At this point, you might be wondering if this sermon is going anywhere, but the answer in Revelation seems to be a resounding “Yes!” We are both already there and yet on the way. We’ve come to the end of an all-too-brief excursion into the most perplexing book in the Bible. We’ve said this is more of a letter to churches than a literal blueprint for the end of time. Though the author John gives people a vision of the future, it’s not what people these days think.

The letter is written to churches in western Asia Minor, now Turkey, who are struggling with what it means to be church in the midst of the Roman Empire. Through the genre of apocalyptic literature, using wild visions and bizarre imagery, John wants to remind us that it is God who is in control of history, not some pseudo-god called Caesar. And, we remember from the first week, this God is the Creator God, maker of all that is “seen and unseen” as our Creeds tell us.

There’s a reason Revelation is at the end of the Bible, though not for the reasons that many people assume. It’s there because the Bible ends where it began, with the Creator God bringing forth all things out of chaos. It ends with the image of a garden just as it begins, but with significant differences. These differences underscore the idea that creation is heading somewhere, both back to the beginning and forward to the future at the same time. For the Bible is the story of God creating something and not giving up on it (or on us.) God isn’t done yet.

There are three brief points that I’d like you to take home with you today about this passage. First, Revelation reinforces what the whole Bible says, that God continually comes down to us. We’re not going to be raptured up into the air (there is no rapture in Revelation). You see, we don’t have to get to God, because God always comes down to us.

The second point follows: in addition to the garden in Genesis and here in Revelation there is a third garden in between that has great significance for creation. Arguably, the most important event for the world took place in a garden containing an empty tomb, the resurrection of Jesus.

The third final point that I’d like you to take with you is an appreciation for what the newness of creation will be like. Paradoxically, it will be the same creation we have now, only different. Some Christians believe we don’t need to care for this earth because they think that God gives us a new one. Really. First of all, John tells us that the new creation is going to come down and be smack dab in the middle of us. Second, God invites us to begin living into that new creation here and now, not in some unknown eternity. We’re not called to neither escape this world nor trash it, but to join with God as co-creators, just as Adam and Eve.

We who are gripped by just such a vision that God presents ask how this might shape our life in the here and now as we wait for its completion. We respond by figuring out a way to provide emergency shelter for the homeless during the winter and by feeding hungry college students and the food insecure. We do it by supporting missionaries who provide eye care in developing countries and helping people read the Bible in their native language. We do it by wiping away the tears of those grieving the death of loved ones such as the Reedstrom family this past week. We do it by visiting the sick by teaching the young about God’s love.

Our God who created all things continues to create in, with and through us. That’s where we are and that’s where we are going. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

"The Once and Future Lamb" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The Once and Future Lamb
Pentecost 6 – Summer Series
July 16, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 5.1-14

Ed Friedman was a Jewish rabbi who, in addition to his temple duties also coached organizational leaders and did marriage and family counseling. He tells about working with a client of his, a man who was dealing with and surviving cancer. Something led Friedman to tell the man about the USS Indianapolis. During World War II, the Indianapolis was attacked and sunk. For various reasons, the Indianapolis wasn’t where it was supposed to be and it took the Navy a long time to find. That meant the survivors spent a long while in shark-infested waters. Every so often, Friedman said, one of the men would swim toward the sharks and give himself up to them. Friedman asked the cancer survivor his thoughts about why they had done this. The man said, “Those men who gave up and swam toward the sharks, they had no future.” Clearly, Friedman’s client was not going to “swim toward the sharks” and give himself up to cancer.

The issue of whether the churches in the latter 1st c. had a future is an underlying theme in Revelation. We began our all too brief foray into the book last week with chapter 4, the first half of John’s vision of the heavenly throne room scene. We mentioned last week that Revelation is actually a letter sent to the churches in Asia Minor, which is modern day Western Turkey. And we said that John is writing to strengthen the churches struggling with what it means to exist in the Roman Empire. The main idea is Revelations is that proper worship goes to God the Creator and not some emperor who is a self-proclaimed deity.

In today’s reading, the focus of John’s vision shifts to a scroll and a lamb. We learn that the scroll is written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. In the ancient world and in apocalyptic literature, a scroll or book denoted God’s plans or will for the world and its inhabitants. The fact that the scroll has seven seals indicates that only authorized individuals could open it. John weeps bitterly when it seems that no one is able to open the scroll because it means that God’s plans for the world and humanity would not come to pass. In other words, no opened scroll means no future. You may as well give yourselves up to the “sharks.”

That is, until one of the 24 elders who worship God around the throne tells him to look again and behold the Lion of Judah and Root of David. These, of course are metaphors for the long awaited Messiah who would save the Jewish people. But this is no warrior king; this is a lamb, The Lamb who is worthy to open the scroll and enact God’s plans for the world because of his sacrifice. This Lamb is the one who ensures a future for everyone. (By the way, in case you doubt that Revelation is metaphorical and not a literal plan for the end of time, Jesus is only referred to as the Lamb in this book, and 28 times at that.)

Seven years ago I accepted your call to by your pastor because I believed God had a future for us. I said then that I didn’t know what the future looked like, but with God’s guidance we could figure it out together. Since then, God has called us to do some amazing things and we are continually living into God’s future. Following worship today, we’ll gather together to prayerfully consider how God is calling us to support God’s mission and ministry through our building. Whatever the result of the meeting, I know that we won’t “swim toward the sharks” because we follow the Lamb whose blood set us free to be God’s people, a people looking toward and living into God’s future. Amen.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Who Is God?" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Who Is God?
Pentecost 5 – Summer Series
July 9, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Revelation 4.1-11

Who is God? If you were asked that question, how would you answer? Would your answer depend on who asked? Take a moment and think about this question; who is God to you and, does it matter? For some people, God is the one who makes everything happen in the world, though what happens is puzzling at times. For others, God is this grandfatherly type that loves us all no matter what we say or do. For still others, God is this distant being who, if not cranky, can be downright vindictive at times. (One of my favorite “Far Side” cartoons shows God at a computer. On the screen is a man about to walk under a piano suspended by a rope. “God” is watching the screen intently while is finger is poised over the “smite” button on the keyboard.) And, of course, there are some who don’t believe there is a God, or who believe that there are multiple gods.

This question, “Who is God?” is as old as when humanity developed the prefrontal cortex and along with it the ability to think. It was still a question in the latter part of the 1st century when Revelation was finalized. I say finalized because it appears the book, in the form of a letter, was written over a period of time and in stages. Today we begin our four-part series on Revelation, although four weeks is hardly enough time to do it justice. Even so, it’s important to note a few things before we get to the actual text.

First, the author, John, was probably not the disciple of Jesus who became the apostle. More likely, this “John” was a member of the community that the so-called Beloved Disciple founded. Now, that doesn’t make the book less authoritative. In the ancient world, it was typical to assume the name of the leader of a community or movement.

Second, we tend to think of Revelation as a mysterious guide to the end of the world, but John had a more immediate goal in mind: to encourage some churches in what is now Western Turkey who are struggling to survive in the Roman Empire. As we’ll see in the fourth week, John does give us a vision of the future, but not how some think. Finally, we need to keep in mind that Revelation is a type of writing called “apocalyptic.” We are inclined to think of this word as relating to the end of the world. But the Greek word for apocalypse simply means “revelation” and this genre of literature typically brings a message using incredible visions. (The latter part of Daniel is also an example of apocalyptic literature in the Bible.) The visions in Revelation reinforce John’s main message: who we are to worship and how we are to do so.

In today’s reading from Revelation 4, the question addressed is, “Who is God?” Next week, the question is, “Who is Christ?” On the third Sunday the question is, “Who are we?” And finally on the fourth Sunday, the question is, “What’s the vision of the future?” For today, the question is not only “Who is God?” but also, “Who is not God?” The vision of the throne room where fantastical creatures give praise to God and the 24 elders bow down is not so much description of what actually happens in “heaven.” Rather, the casting of their crowns before God is an “in your face” to Caesar and the Roman Empire. Petty kings and puppet rulers would come before Caesar the Emperor and through their crowns at his feet in tribute to him. Furthermore, it used to be that the Romans declared the current Caesar as divine being after he died. However, by John’s time one of the Caesars figured that being a god was too good to wait and not something to die for, so they had themselves declared gods before they died.

Not so fast, John declares. In words that have inspired some of our best hymnody, John tells us that God is first and foremost the one who always was, always is, and always will be, and created all things. (One commentator has noted that if Revelation was removed from the canon of the Bible the whole praise music industry would collapse.) God is that which brought all things into being, is present to everything in creation, but much greater than the created world. God is that in which we live and move and have our being, the only one worthy of our worship and praise.

There is no Roman Empire competing for worship rights today, but Revelation prompts us to ask ourselves, “Who or what is not God that we bow down before?” What is it that we metaphorically “cast our crowns” in our day? That’s not an easy question to ask ourselves, but it is just as an important question today as it has been in any day and age. (Perhaps that’s why many congregations in past generations began worship every Sunday with “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” to remind themselves who we worship.)

However you answer these questions, John’s Revelation invites you to turn and worship the One, True God, the One Who Was, Who Is and Who Always Will Be, Creator of All. Amen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Deliverance" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Deliverance 
Pentecost 4 – Sermon Series
July 2, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 6.14-7.10; 8.1-8, 15-17; 9.1-10, 15-17, 20-22

Like a mystery novel that unfolds slowly but wraps up quickly in the last 20 pages, here we are rushing to the end of Esther, as fine a thriller as you’d find anywhere, TV, movie or book. And like any good hero, Esther has grown in courage and agency as the story moves along. She becomes bolder and more responsible for her future. As we’ve noted in previous sermons, she has arrived at her moment of destiny, for “just such a time as this” and has discovered that her real power comes in her influence over the ones closest to her. It’s her private power more than her public power that carries her through. In the end, it’s her willingness to sacrifice herself that saves the Jewish people from extinction.

On the face of it, the story is both familiar and riveting at the same time: a people who are oppressed and face long if not impossible odds, but who through a series of almost improbable reversals come out on top. We have a natural inclination to root for the underdog or victims in any situation, especially the vulnerable, and that’s certainly true in the story of Esther and the Jewish people. Still, we almost hold our collective breaths as Esther finally tells King Ahasuerus what she desires of him. For we know that the greatest danger comes as she reveals her Jewishness to a very unpredictable king. If there’s any doubt about how he’ll respond, the tide turns as the king sees Haman “assaulting” the queen.

Yet, as in any good tale worth telling, there remains a conundrum: the king’s original edict. As we’ve been told several times, an edict of the king cannot be revoked. Wanting to fix the situation but also wanting to distance himself from the mess he made, King Ahasuerus gives great power to Esther and Mordecai to do whatever they wish in the king’s name. They come up with a creative solution: an edict almost identical to the first authorizing the Jews to fight back. So effective is the edict that there are Persians falling all over themselves to convert to Judaism before the fateful day arrives.

Even so, the Jews launch a pre-emptive strike and then celebrate their deliverance from their enemies with a wild party. So we learn that the real purpose of the book of Esther is to provide the back story for the celebration of Purim, a Jewish festival. As one person noted, most Jewish festivals can be summed up this way: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!”

But, wait; there’s that little detail about the 75,800 people who were slaughtered by the Jews. The Revised Common Lectionary, that series of readings used by many churches, skips over this tidbit, but I’ve included it because we dare not take death and victory lightly. Now, the issue of war and violence in the Old Testament is an important one, but not able to be covered in a 12 minute sermon. But, it’s important to know that in Esther’s time there was a sense of righteous war borne out of necessity but that it is proportional to that necessity. You must do only what you need to do and nothing more, nothing less.

Furthermore, that when the Jews celebrate Purim it’s not the smash mouthed bloodshed that gets lifted up, but rather their survival. That’s something we might want to remember as we celebrate our independence from Great Britain: we don’t glorify the bloodletting that happened 241+ years ago. Rather, we rejoice that a nation we were once at odds with is now one of our greatest allies.

Finally, it’s vital we recognize that we who were once an oppressed and beleaguered people must not only resist becoming oppressors ourselves but also have a responsibility to others who are oppressed. How often do the oppressed become the oppressors or walk away from others who are in a similar situation? In other words, like Esther we are often called upon to sacrifice ourselves for others.

With freedom and deliverance comes great responsibility. In our study of Revelation beginning next week, we’ll go deeper into what it means to resist Empire. For now, we remember that we follow the one who showed us how to be vulnerable, who emptied himself and gave himself over so that we might have abundant life, Jesus our Savior. Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Loving Power" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Loving Power
Pentecost 3 – Summer Series
June 25, 2017
Sibley Park, Mankato, MN
Esther 5.1-14; 6.1-14

For Father’s Day last Sunday, I told my daughters and Cindy that I’d like to see the new “Wonder Woman” movie. The trailers looked interesting and the reviews were good, but as the father of two daughters, I am very interested in women in strong leadership roles. Indeed, we all liked the film very much; it was well done, well acted, and had a good message. I won’t spoil the film, but there is one aspect of the movie that I want to mention. First a little context: Wonder Woman is Diana a Princess of the mythical Amazon tribe, warrior women who constantly train for a battle they hope never comes. They live on a hidden island in the Mediterranean for reasons made clearer in the film.

However, a number of events prod Diana to go out into the world to end not only World War I, but all war as well. Before she leaves (and throughout her growing up), she is told on a number of occasions that she is far more powerful than she knows. Indeed, she is strong, athletic and has some serious warrior skills, not to mention awesome tools. Yet, although her powers are displayed quite publicly throughout the film, it is her private exercise of power that matters the most.

Today, we are at a critical point in the story of Esther as she also discovers just how powerful she is. A reminder of the story to this point: Esther has become queen of the Persians, but there has been a complication in this fairy tale. Haman, the king’s right-hand man, has bribed King Ahasuerus to wipe out the Jewish people in Persia, thought Haman doesn’t tell the king it’s the Jews he wants gone. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and only living relative, has convinced her to use her position as queen to save their people, saying “Perhaps you have come to the royal dignity for just such as time as this.” It’s a very dangerous move because anyone who comes before the king without being called risks immediate death.

But, as we see in today’s reading, the hardest part, gaining the king’s ear, turns out to be the easiest. It turns out that all Esther has to do is ask. The king grants her an audience and whatever she wants, “even to the half of my kingdom.” Yet, Esther knows something about the king and how he functions. She invites him and Haman to eat at a banquet she has already prepared. Even then after softening him up (and getting Haman off balance), she asks for another feast, which we’ll hear about next week. As we’ll see then, Esther cannot fight a battle, she can’t fight Haman, and she certainly can’t fight the king. What she can do is lovingly influence the one she is closest to, her husband the king.

As my friend and colleague, Pr. Collette Broady Grund pointed out this week, although Esther seems to be a public figure, her real power and influence is with people who love her. The same was true for Wonder Woman; although she is very powerful, the effect she has on others is even more so. She constantly rallies people to her side. This is something that we’d do well to remember as we look around our broken and hurting world, wondering how we can make a difference. Most of us look for the public places to exercise power for change, such as mass demonstrations and protests or leaders in authority. But our real power and influence is with the people we know, the people we love and those who love us. As we have seen from our story, like Esther (and Wonder Woman) this makes us incredibly vulnerable and it is one of the riskiest things we can do. Yet, all we have to do is ask.

One last note: Esther doesn’t see everything that goes on in her world; she only sees a piece of the picture. God is working in other parts of the story that Esther doesn’t know about, though she doesn’t know it. Even so, she acts in faith. So, too, we may only see one piece of the picture, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. In fact, it’s just the opposite; we trust that God in whom we live and move and have our being continues to work in our lives though we may not see it.

Like Esther and Wonder Woman, we are more powerful than we think, because we have a powerful God who emptied himself of that power and lovingly took on human flesh. Jesus had some serious power, calming storms and seas, healing people, and feeding multitudes. Yet, it was his influence and vulnerability with a handful of men and women that is saving the world as he gave himself for others so we might do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

"For Such a Time as This" - Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

For Such a Time as This
Sermon for Pentecost 2 – Summer Series
June 18, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Esther 3.1-11; 4.1-17

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses, or articles of debate to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Four and a half years later, in April 1521, Luther appeared before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, to defend what he had taught and written. At the end of the appearance he made his infamous speech in which he declared his conscience was bound to the Word of God. Luther ended by saying, “Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

A gutsy move, his stand against the emperor and pope ultimately resulted in a death sentence, putting his life in mortal danger. Though not alone, Luther was largely credited with igniting the Reformation bringing sweeping changes to church and society. Indeed, if Luther lit the fire, others before him had prepared the kindling and still others added fuel to the fire and fanned the flames.

It seems there are pivotal points in history where unlikely people step into the breach. Luther was certainly one; Esther is another. Last week we learned how this Jewish woman becomes queen to the Persian king Ahasuerus. Before we proceed with today’s reading, some background and context are in order. The Babylonians—modern day Iraq—had conquered the Israelites, destroyed the temple, and carried most of the population into exile. As is often the case, another bully came around and the Babylonians have likewise been conquered by the Persians (modern day Iran). We know that when this happened some of the Jewish exiles returned to Israel but many stayed having already built new lives.

At any rate, Esther is an orphan and the only family Esther has is her uncle Mordecai who, in the passage prior to today’s has uncovered an assassination plot against the king, earning him fleeting favor with the king. One last item needs to be mentioned: the book of Esther is unique in that God is never explicitly mentioned, but seems to be lurking in the background, if not offstage somewhere.

This week, the plot thickens as the king’s right hand man, Haman, conspires to exterminate the Jews. (Where have we heard that story before? It seems to be the perennial plight of the Jewish people.) Haman does so because Mordecai refuses to bow down before him. The book of Esther doesn’t say why, but we do know from the book of Daniel that Jews would not bow down before anyone who isn’t God. (An interesting side note: Haman himself was a foreigner, an Agagite. The Agagites were a sub-group of the Amalekites, whom we learn from the Exodus story, are a historical enemy of the Israelites.)

Well, Mordecai somehow learns of the edict, tells his fellow Jews, and they all go into mourning. Esther learns of it and, through an exchange with Mordecai is persuaded to appear before the king on behalf of her people, in spite of danger to her. Mordecai convinces her to do this by saying this momentous line, “Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

The story of Esther and Mordecai proposes some provocative questions about the life of faith for us. Though perhaps not as momentous as a Jewish extermination pogrom, there are crucial times that occur in our lives. Each one of us is faced with “such a time as this” when God asks us to step out in faith for one reason or another. Certainly, there is no lack of opportunities these days to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. On May 29, two men on an Oregon train discerned “such a time as this” and interceded on behalf of two Muslim women. They were not as fortunate as Luther or Esther (as we’ll learn next week), but they determined that it was “their time.”

We are able to step out in faith because of the One who came in the fullness of time for us. Jesus took on human flesh, spoke truth to the Roman and religious powers and gave himself up. This is not an easy faith to which we have been called, but it is an important and meaningful one, and there are a number of opportunities to do so. For example, a couple of you have stepped up to help with the emergency homeless shelter so desperately needed in our community this winter; I hope more of you will do the same, for “such a time as this.”

Through our baptisms into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been born again for a time such as this, to speak the truth in love as Esther, Mordecai, Luther and others have done before us. And we can only do so through God’s strength and love in Christ, the one who is present in all time. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"God’s Steadfast Love" - Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

God’s Steadfast Love
Holy Trinity Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3 (Summer)
June 11, 2017
Redeemer, Good Thunder, MN
Psalm 100

One Sunday morning, a wife went to wake her husband saying to him, “It’s time to get up for church.” The husband moaned and complained. “Why do I have to go to church? Those people are nasty, to me and to each other. I don’t want to go.” The wife patiently explained to her husband: “First of all, it’s what we do on Sundays. We go to church. Second of all, you’re the pastor.”

Now, I don’t normally tell jokes in my sermons, unless they are real-life and the jokes are on me. But, aside from the fact that I really like this one, it illustrates a number of things about worship and Psalm 100 I want to touch on today. (By the way, lest you think otherwise, the people I serve are warm and gracious; it’s a blessing to serve them.)

Psalm 100 is the favorite of psalm of one of my favorite church musicians, Patricia Lundeen. Patricia and I served together at Central Lutheran Church in Winona. But it’s also become a bit of a joke between us because of the familiar phrase, “make a joyful noise to the Lord.” Making a joyful noise is what I do when I sing. I am tonally impaired; I change keys early and often in the midst of songs. I also kid that I love doing nursing home services because the hard of hearing think I’m a great singer. So I can sing as loudly as a I care to sing.

Even so, this week I learned another way to understand the phrase “joyful noise.” A blogger rephrased it as “noisy giggles,” the fun that children have in church. Yet, it’s not just for children; the ability to laugh appropriately in worship can be wonderful for all of us.

I think this is important because we don’t always want to be in worship or feel like praising God. One of the reasons I find it hard to worship is something of an occupational hazard: it’s hard for me to lead and “do” worship at the same time. But I think another reason is that I’m wired in a way that connects with God differently. Author Gary Thomas has identified at least nine “sacred pathways” to God, only one of which is worship. One of the primary ways I connect with God is on an intellectual basis, so I love theology and Bible Study. And, though the other elements of worship are important, for me it’s all about the sermon. So, when I’m preaching the closest I can get to worship is preaching to me. For others, of course, it’s totally different.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has developed a helpful framework for the Psalms. He says there are three kinds of Psalms: Psalms of Orientation (which orient us properly to God); Psalms of Disorientation (Psalms of lament for times of disorienting trouble); and Psalms of Reorientation (that bring us back to God in a new attitude.) Clearly Psalm 100 is designed to orient us to God, but it’s important for another reason. The call to worship God draws us outside of ourselves, reminding us that we are part of something bigger. It reminds us that, in spite of how awful life might be, we still praise God. As someone has noted, Psalm 100 and others like it are defiant praise.

When we gather for worship and praise God we are reminded again that we are God’s people. We hear again how God’s steadfast love—I love that phrase—endures forever. And all joking aside, in spite of the fact that we may not always be at our best (pastors included), we come together as God’s people, assured that we belong, reminded that there is at least one place in our world that we are valued . So, make some noisy giggles, my sisters and brothers, for God loves you steadfastly always. Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

"More than Pentecost" - Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

More than Pentecost
Pentecost Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
June 4, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 2.1-4; Galatians 4.1-7

There’s a fable about five blind men trying to describe an elephant, but each has a hold of only one part of the animal. The first blind man who has the tail insists an elephant is like a rope. The second blind man, holding a leg, says the elephant is like a tree. A third blind man, touching the side of the elephant says it’s like a wall. The fourth, grasping an ear, declares it to be like a leaf and the fifth, holding onto the trunk, says they are all wrong; an elephant is much like a snake. The moral of the story is that you need all parts to see the whole and a corollary is that if you only have one view of something, your understanding of that something is skewed.

Perhaps the same can be said of the Holy Spirit: if our only view of the Spirit is based on the Pentecost event then we are apt to describe the Holy Spirit as something that stirs things up and, perhaps, more than a bit scary. I think that the Holy Spirit is scary, but perhaps not in the way we think. The Holy Spirit is more than Pentecost.

There’s another fable—from Aesop, perhaps—that comes to mind when I think of the Holy Spirit. It involves a wager between the wind and sun regarding which of them is more powerful. As they are arguing, they see a traveler on the road below and they bet who can make him remove his coat. The wind goes first and blows as violently as it can, but the more it blows, the more tightly the traveler clings to his coat. The sun, on the other hand, gently shines its warming rays and the man soon removes his coat, thereby winning the bet.

The wind in the fable could be the Spirit of Pentecost and the sun the Spirit of other places in scripture. This is the Holy Spirit of John that is gently breathed upon the disciples by Jesus on the evening of the resurrection. This is the Spirit who appears in dreams and visions of the now-apostles in Acts, guiding them into the uncertain future.

It is true that the Holy Spirit pushes the apostles (and us) into places we may not wish to go, but it’s more, far more, than that. First and foremost, the Holy Spirit makes the life of the risen Christ present with gathered believers. In fact, in making the risen Christ present, the Holy Spirit forms us as a community of believers. Two weeks ago, I said that the main point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was belonging. We replaced “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging” to make some sense of Paul’s argument. In today’s reading, he uses the metaphor of family to drive home his point: once we didn’t belong, but because of the Holy Spirit’s work we are children of the Father just as much as Jesus is God’s Son.

When I say that the Holy Spirit is more than Pentecost, I’ve indicated there’s more to it than chaotic, unpredictable wind. But there’s another sense to the “more” metaphor that I’ve hinted: the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is not “one and done” phenomenon. The Holy Spirit was present at creation, blowing over the waters and bringing order out of chaos. The Holy Spirit has “spoken through the prophets” as we confess each week. And, as Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “…calls, gathers, and enlightens the Church on earth and preserves it in the one, true, faith.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is still active. Perhaps that’s the scary part, that the Holy Spirit is still active, and might blow us into scary places. Yet, that’s also comforting, because God doesn’t send us places alone; the Holy Spirit is always with us.

I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in some marvelously scary, unpredictable and wonderful ways in you. I’m amazed at how you have stepped up under the gentle prodding of the Spirit. I’ve been overwhelmed by those who have sacrificed countless hours to serve God’s mission and ministry here, especially through the long process of discerning how we can renovate our building to serve that mission. But I’ve also seen that same Spirit through the robust and respectful conversation we’ve had around those renovations. We may not always see the Holy Spirit, or we may not see all of it, but the Spirit of Christ is here. That’s no fable. Amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Be-Longing" - Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Be-Longing
Easter 6 – Narrative Lectionary 3
May 21, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Galatians 1.13-17; 2.11-21

About 25 years ago during my first year in seminary, I did my first contextual education experience at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Littlestown, PA. One of the interesting things I encountered there was a group called the Young Women’s Bible Study. What made this Bible study unique was that all of the women were in their 70s or 80s. For 50 years or so they had stayed together, but they had not added any new members or changed their name along the way. Now, we might poke a little fun at them, but they had a deep sense of belonging, to the church, to studying the Bible, and to each other. And if you were that age and gender in that church, chances are you belonged to that group.

Belonging is the crux of the matter in our text from Galatians. Mary Hinkle Shore, parish pastor and former seminary professor, notes how difficult Galatians can be to preach (and hear) because it, along with Paul’s other letters, have been “pressed into service as raw material for doctrinal debate.” Furthermore, words like “justify,” “justification,” and “righteousness” are theologically loaded and can be downright confusing. So, she suggests replacing “justify” with “belong” and “justification” with “belonging” to try and make some sense of what Paul is saying. I think that’s very helpful because the issue at the heart of Galatians is how we belong in the church.

It’s also helpful to know a bit of the back-story to Galatians. Even 20+ years after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, the young church is trying to find its way. The inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s kingdom is taking hold. Now, it seems there were Jewish folk who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and who approved this message for Gentiles as well. However, these “Judaizers” as they were called, were so tied to their Jewish roots and sense of belonging that they believed that the Gentiles needed to adopt these “belonging markers and practices” as gifts from God. Paul, who helped establish the Galatian church, was furious and responds accordingly.

Paul says that how we belong to this community of faith, to God and each other, is through Jesus and Jesus alone. Paul’s message is one we need to hear just as much today as 2,000 years ago. In our culture, we hear constant messages that we aren’t good enough or don’t have enough or have enough of the right things. The messages we hear are that in order to belong we need to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, drive the right car, use the right technology, etc. Lest you think otherwise, pastors are not immune to these messages of “not good enough.” We constantly experience “crummy pastor syndrome” as we are told in one way or another that we don’t measure up. I’m sure other professions have similar experiences.

Sometimes we send these messages without thinking. Five years ago we celebrated our 125 year anniversary with a Heritage Worship Service and invited people to dress up in costumes reflecting bygone eras. Unfortunately, the two Gustavus college students who attended that day didn’t know this and bolted for the door. They didn’t think they belonged.

Diana Butler Bass notes that it used to be that in order to belong we had to believe the right things first then start behaving a certain way. Doesn’t that sound like the Galatia problem? She, following Paul, says it works better the other way: we need to create as sense of belonging for people and when they belong they start understanding how to behave. The believing follows.

Later in Galatians, Paul will help us understand what it means for Christ to live in us, to belong. For today, though, we remind our high school students that they will continue to belong to Christ and us no matter where they go and what they do. And we remind ourselves that the call to grow in generosity and give to the capital campaign grows out of a response to what God has done in, with and through us because of Jesus Christ. What and how much we give do not affect our belonging to Christ. We have this “be-longing” inside of us in which we long to be in relationship to God and each other. That longing is answered by Christ’s sacrificial love and faithfulness. You belong, sisters and brothers, to Christ and to each other. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"The Future of the Church – The Church of the Future" - Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Future of the Church – The Church of the Future
Easter 5 – Narrative Lectionary 3
May 14, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 8.26-39

Last weekend, Vicar John and I attended the Southeastern Minnesota Synod assembly in Rochester. The theme of this year’s assembly was “Following Jesus into a changing world. It’s a great theme as it reminds us that Jesus always goes ahead of us into the world and bids us to follow him there. Additionally, we are reminded that the world is ever-changing. At the assembly, there were several workshops around the theme. One that I attended was titled, “The Future of the Church – the Church of the Future.” The workshop consisted of a panel of five high school youth talking about their dreams for the church. The “future [members] of the church” were discussing “the church of the future.” Interestingly, these high school students didn’t care about style of worship, though an audience member assumed they preferred contemporary worship. (Most of the panelists worshiped in traditional settings.) Instead, they were looking for a church that was authentic, built on relationships, and open to their questions and struggles.

An underlying question in the book of Acts is, “What is the future of the church and church of the future?” As we look at Acts, it’s helpful to remember some basics about the book. First, the early church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is making it up as they go along because they are in uncharted territory. Furthermore, it’s not settled at the end of the book just what this church will look like. It’s organically and dynamically open-ended.

Second, there are three broad movements in the book, all of them open-ended as well: from Jerusalem to Rome; from Jew to Gentile; and from Peter to Paul. All of these movements are present in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian in today’s reading. The good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is spreading beyond Jerusalem to the entire world, signified by the journey on the Wilderness Road. Furthermore, the gospel is going to the unlikeliest of people, signified by the Ethiopian Eunuch, as far removed from the Jewish faith as you can get. Finally, the gospel is proclaimed by others than Peter, in this case Philip, like Stephen one of the deacons set aside to provide for the widows in the community.

It’s a wonderful story, but what caught my attention was the exchange between the Ethiopian and Philip regarding the passage from Isaiah. Eric Barreto, Bible Study leader at the assembly, wants us to imagine Philip running up to the chariot and overhearing the Ethiopian reading out loud (a good reminder that one should text and drive, even 2,000 years ago). Eventually, the Ethiopian asks for help and Philip agrees. The first thing that occurred to me about this text is that scripture is intended to be read in community. We can and should read the Bible ourselves, but we remember that the Bible comes out of community and it is intended for community.

I’ve talked before how I left the church after Confirmation. Shortly after my “conversion,” I returned to church and had many questions. I needed guides who would walk with me and help me through the questions I had. Since then, I’ve been involved in many Bible studies and I always come away richer. Almost every week, I gather with other clergy to discuss the text for the coming week and I always gain something from the experience. But I’ve also been in Bible studies with lay people who also bring a viewpoint and experiences to the discussion that are enriching.

The second point I want to make is highlighted by one desire the young peoples’ panel had for the church: the church as a place of questions. They want a church that takes their questions seriously and doesn’t give them pat answers. They want a church that meets them where they are in their faith journeys or wilderness roads. They want us to come alongside them, build relationships with them and treat them as authentic partners in ministry. I left the church when I was their age because I didn’t see that kind of church, even though I couldn’t articulate it as well as they did at the time. But I came back hoping to find it and if I couldn’t find it, help make it into that kind of church.

So, I think we are on the right track with what we’ve been doing here at Grace the past five years with our programming and staffing changes. Even so, like the early church in Acts, we’re not there yet and we’re making it up as we go along. While we are “Growing with Grace,” we’ll continually ask what God is doing in the world and what God is calling us to do. We’ll keep ourselves open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’ll read scripture together, we’ll build relationships and connections, and we’ll walk with each other on our wilderness journeys. So, hang on: the church does have a future because the crucified Jesus is risen. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

"The Resurrection Gospel" - Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

The Resurrection Gospel
Easter 3 – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 30, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Acts 6.1-7.2a, 44-60

The Resurrection Gospel: Transformative

As we move through the Easter season, following the Jesus story, we now enter the narrative about the early church. We’ll spend three weeks in the book of Acts and another three in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This is the story about what it means to live out the resurrection gospel. (By the way, it’s helpful to know that Acts was written by the same author of Luke’s Gospel. In fact, they are considered a two-book set.) One thing to remember about that time, especially in Acts, is the early church is making it up as it goes along. If at times it seems as the work of the early apostles is hit or miss, it’s because it is. The difference between the early church and some other fledgling organization—and for us 2,000 years later—is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Did you know that the Holy Spirit is mentioned 43 times in Acts? This has prompted someone to observe that perhaps the book should not be called “The Acts of the Apostles,” but rather “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”)

Though it is not mentioned explicitly in our text for today, the Holy Spirit has been hard at work in the newly formed community. Our reading shows that part of “making it up as you go” means figuring out how to live together in community. In the first part, we learn that there’s an issue of justice and equity for some of the widows. They have not been receiving what is due to them in the allotment of food. So, the twelve apostles, a latter day church council, call a congregational meeting of the community, acknowledge the inequity, and organize a solution. It sounds a lot like our Serving with Grace service teams. The upshot is that the resurrection gospel changes how we live together and serve one another; it’s transformative.

The Resurrection Gospel: Compelling

Stephen is one of those chosen to oversee the distribution of food, but clearly he does more than wait on tables. It’s apparent that one cannot serve at table—or anywhere else for that matter—without serving the Word as well. And that Word is not only transformative, it is compelling. Stephen overwhelms the crowd with his proclamation of the good news. The Word proclaimed is so powerful that those listening resort to subterfuge to stop him. Sometimes we forget that we don’t need to dress up the Word to make it go down easier. Just the opposite: we need to speak clearly and plainly.

Last summer, Cindy and I took a cruise to Alaska, our first time in Alaska and our first cruise. Those of you who have taken cruises know that the cruise line provides several onboard presentations; we attended three of them. One was outstanding, but the other two left something to be desired. The first was a photographer who let his pictures speak for themselves, even though he provided background and narrative. As for the other two, the first woman sled-dog racer and a self-taught naturalist, though their subject matter was interesting, the presenters must not have thought so because they felt they needed to sell it. Maybe they went to a seminar on public or motivational speaking and thought that’s how they should present. If so, they should get their money back. The resurrection gospel, the good news that Christ is risen, is transformative and it’s compelling in its own right.

The Resurrection Gospel: Provocative

As we can see from both the second section and this final one, the resurrection gospel is provocative. Why? Why does the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection cause such violent reactions? Probably because it is transformative and compelling. The fact is that we don’t like being pushed to change. The resurrection gospel reminds us that God’s agenda takes precedence over our agendas; God comes first. Furthermore, it reminds us that God has a preference for those who are marginalized and vulnerable, such as the previously mentioned widows.

The resurrection gospel calls us out of our comfort zones and pushes us to change ourselves for the sake of others. It opens us up to new ways of thinking and new ways of being in the world. Frankly, that’s scary. I’m so grateful for you, my sisters and brothers in Christ, who in your history, past and present, were willing to step out in faith, to listen for the Holy Spirit’s call, to take chances and try new things. May you continue to respond to the transforming, compelling and provoking message of new life in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Maturity" - Newsletter Article April-May 2017

April-May 2017 Newsletter, "Fourth & Main"
Grace Lutheran Church
Mankato, MN

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia suddenly died in February of 2016, fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was devastated. The two had been good friends since the 1980s, sharing a love of opera. What made this story more compelling was the two were polar opposites in judicial philosophy and they would often clash on the bench. How did they manage to remain friends while holding opposing viewpoints? Aside from their passion for opera, I believe it was maturity.

Now, most of us think of maturity as getting old or becoming more adult-like, but I have a slightly different understanding. I think of maturity as the ability to maintain a relationship with someone with whom you disagree. Conversely, immaturity would be the inability to be in relationship with someone with whom you don’t agree.

I’ve thought a lot about this lately as I’ve seen our country rocked by disagreements because differences have become divisions. It seems there are few places where people can passionately disagree yet preserve relationships.

When I came to Grace almost seven years ago, I learned that there were a few times in our history where differences became divisions. But I also learned that you were determined not to let that happen again, that we would find healthy ways to have conversations about those issues where people might have legitimately different viewpoints, and that we would do our best to remain faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, we would strive to be mature.

During the seven years as your pastor, we have responded to God’s call on us by making some significant changes. Now we are in the process of discerning how (and whether) we might renovate our building to support God’s mission through us. Predictably and understandably, there are some differences of thoughts about that project. These differences are to be expected and, I dare say, embraced.

I say “embraced” because it is through the honest, civil and prayerful sharing of ideas that we discern the direction God is leading us. When I arrived seven years ago I said that I didn’t know what God was calling us to do, but that together we could figure it out. I still believe that.

I have been on record as supporting the proposed renovations, but I also want to go on record as desiring robust conversation about the plans. It is not too late to join in the conversation and I truly want to listen, as do your leaders. I think this word from the writer of Ephesians says it well:

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4.15-16)

Let’s keep talking.

Pastor Olson

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"Remember?" - Sermon for Easter Sunday

Remember?
Easter Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 16, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 24.1-12

“Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. (Luke 24.6-9)

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

I often wonder what those friends of Jesus were doing between Good Friday and Easter Morning. Their Master and leader had been brutally, unjustly and horrifically put to death on a cross. Certainly, they were in hiding, afraid that the religious authorities would come for them next. I’m sure they’d relive the events of the past few weeks, but, what was their conversation like? I think that if they were anything like other people who have lost loved ones, and I’m pretty sure they were, they’d no doubt spend the time reminiscing. Men and women alike, they’d be telling stories of their experiences with Jesus, remembering what he meant to them.

There’d be stories about miraculous healings. “Do you remember how he healed the blind man,” one would say, “…and the man with a withered hand?” another would chime. They’d remember his insightful teachings, “He taught as if one who spoke for God,” they’d exclaim. Then there were the meals with the most unlikely of characters: tax collectors and sinners. “Do you remember when he fed thousands with only five loves and two fish,” one would say, “…and there were 12 baskets left over,” another would finish? “Do you remember the parables he told?” “Yes, and I still don’t get some of them, someone would reply.” “And do you remember when he got the better of the religious leaders?” and they’d laugh.

Yet, until the empty tomb, those faithful women—who’d have been with Jesus all the way along with the men—had not remembered Jesus’ assurances that he would rise again on the third day. But when they remembered, the remembering made all the difference in the world to them.

It’s helpful to note that New Testament remembering isn’t just a recollection of events; the remembering of a person or event makes that person present in a real and meaningful way, just as in the original occasion. We are literally re-membered with one another. That's why Holy Communion is so powerful. When we remember as Jesus commanded us, Jesus is as fully present as he was 2,000 years ago and we are re-membered again.

As Jesus' followers were remembering through the lens of the empty tomb, things like the parable of the lost sheep, coin and both lost sons, younger and older, means that God really does care about the lost, including lost relationships and that God works to restore them. Remembering the parable of Lazarus and the rich man means God really does destroy all divisions. Remembering Jesus’ encounters with the woman sinner and Zacchaeus means new life is possible.

However, the story and the remembering don’t end there, for remembering is not a passive event; remembering compels us to act. The women tore from the empty tomb, telling the eleven and the rest, reminding them of what the two men reminded them. It was hard to jog the memory of those who considered their message to be an idle tale or, in today’s vernacular, “alternative facts” or “fake news.” To Peter’s credit, he at least attempted a 1st century version of vetting and fact checking of the story. So it is today it is with great relief and joy that we remember God’s love and power are not thwarted by shaky belief and low expectations. It’s hard to remember, but when we do, our lives change. The need to remember is why we gather week after week, to share the news of the empty tomb and new life.

The women took the spices home and put them on the shelf until the next time they would need them, and when the next time came, they’d remember. They’d remember a new way of being. We also remember that we do indeed look for the living among the dead, because that’s where God through Jesus always shows up. Remember that whatever dead parts you have in your life, whatever emptiness you experience, because Jesus has been raised from the dead those aren’t the only or even most important realities of your life. So remember my sisters and brothers, Christ is indeed risen and that makes all the difference in the world. This news is not too good to be true; it’s too good not to be true. Amen.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Dying Well" - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Dying Well
Maundy Thursday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 13, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 22.1-27

Recently, I’ve been approached by two people who have told me they’re dying. They’d had recent and shocking news from their doctors giving them less than a year to live, maybe even a few months. (Now, before we go any further, please don’t ask me who they are or try to guess. And please don’t ask people if they are the ones. I can’t tell and besides, you probably don’t know them anyway. If you want to do something, pray for them and their families; God knows who they are.)

Remarkably, both seemed to be at peace about the diagnosis. Both thought it best to meet with a pastor who could tell them how they could prepare for what we all know is inevitable, but was more certain to them. Of course, I said yes.

In the church, we often talk about dying well, and although it’s a fluid concept, one thing that dying well often means is being comfortable and hopefully pain-free as one is actively dying. It also means spending as much time as possible with family and friends, telling them things we should have told them anyway. Dying well often involves looking back over one’s life even as one is looking ahead to what’s to come. And it can mean getting your affairs in order, including planning your funeral.

In tonight’s reading, I’m struck by the two sets of preparations taking place, both of them for Jesus’ death. Though it is the furthest thing from the minds of Judas and the religious leaders, Jesus intends to die well. Judas and the others are hoping for a quiet, unobtrusive death, but as we know, that isn’t going to happen.

There are two aspects of that dying that I’d like to focus on tonight, which I hope will help us understand what it means to die well. First, Jesus wants to spend whatever remaining time he has with his closest friends, who are really his family. He tells them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” and he uses the time to not only give of himself, but he also prepares them by reminding them of what they need to know. Though much of the after-dinner conversation follows the today’s text, Jesus begins his last words with an object lesson. In the midst of their squabbling about whom is the greatest, he reminds them it is one who serves who is the greatest. If they remember nothing else that Jesus tells them, they need to remember this.

Second, Jesus spends time both looking back and looking forward, which is also a prominent feature of Holy Communion. Through the ritual of the Passover meal, Jesus reminds the disciples of God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness that goes back to Moses, the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt, and the covenant God made with them. God brought them to the Promised Land and that they would always be God’s people. But Jesus also looks forward, promising the disciples that God is still working to bring all things to completion in the future and that this meal tonight is a down payment and foretaste of what’s to come. In the next few days, Jesus’ life will end, but it will also be the beginning of life for the church.

Meals are incredibly important to us and who we eat with is just as important as what we eat. As we notice that Judas is present at what call the Last or Lord’s Supper, I’m grateful that we have left that squabble behind regarding with whom we eat. Since our Lord ate with everyone, we welcome everyone to the Table. As we gather around the table tonight, we do so realizing that we are all dying, we just don’t know when. So like Jesus, let us “die well,” telling others how much they mean to us and by serving others. Let us looking back as we look forward, recalling God’s presence in our lives, strengthened by God’s promises that no matter what happens, God will bring all things to completion. Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

"No Holding Back" - Sermon for Palm Sunday

No Holding Back
Palm Sunday – Narrative Lectionary 3
April 9, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 19.29-44

I’ve mentioned before my exploration of mindfulness during my sabbatical last year. It was something that I had encountered during a continuing education event and wanted to explore further. What is mindfulness? I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition: “Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific and particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” When you unpack that, you see that mindfulness is about being in the present moment in a whole different way. That’s been a challenge for me because one of my strengths is looking ahead, thinking strategically. I’m good at planning and seeing where we need to be and how to get there. Unfortunately, because I’m thinking ahead, I often miss what’s going on around me or fail to savor the present moment.

I think that most of us feel tension between being fully invested in the moment and moving into the future in one way or another. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who is thinking about Easter while it’s only Palm Sunday. For me, it’s an occupational hazard because there is s a lot of planning that goes into Holy Week and Easter. For you it may be a social and economic necessity because you need to figure out who is coming to dinner and what will be on the menu. You might even buy a new outfit. The same kind of tension is present in our text today. With the story of Jesus’ triumphal approach to Jerusalem, there is a tension between holding back or not. So, in good Lutheran fashion, I want to explore this creative tension between being fully present in the moment and not holding back.

To do so, I want to explore two distinct but related features of Luke’s version. One, the crowd is described as “the whole multitude of disciples” and two, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about the “shouting stones.” First, the disciples. Who were these people, for surely they must have been more than the 12? Theologian Barbara Lundblad asserts that they must be those whom Jesus has encountered on this long journey to Jerusalem. Certainly, Zacchaeus must have been there because Jesus has just come from Jericho where he stayed at Zacchaeus’ house. And Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James must have been there because they will be at Jesus’ cross and empty tomb.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that anyone who had seen Jesus’ deeds of power and even transformed by them would be in the crowd, for John the Baptist predicted such at Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3. Here’s where the stones come in: when the religious leaders back then claimed their special religious status as children of Abraham, John told them that God could raise up children to Abraham from “these very stones.” Indeed, these in the multitude of disciples, whom Jesus touched, are stones that have come to life.

This is what it looks like for people who have been touched by Jesus: they can’t be stopped. Even before Easter, Jesus has changed people so much that the religious leaders are concerned about what is going to happen. We’ve heard one such transformation story from Dick Osborne today on our need to give. These stories show that once we have encountered the Living, Giving God there is no holding back in our response.

There are as many stories as there are people here today, all of us who have been touched by Jesus, living stones. My sisters and brothers, as you walk the road with Jesus this week, be mindful of every step because it is in this journey that we encounter Christ, are transformed by him and invited to live in radical new ways. There’s no holding back. Amen.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"The Great Divide" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Great Divide
Lent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 3
March 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 16.19-31

During summers while attending college I was fortunate to be a mailman in the St. Paul postal system. In doing so, I worked mostly from first the Uptown and later the West Seventh branches, which included the Summit and Grand Hill areas. For a white boy from suburban Richfield who didn’t have much, it was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. I was astounded to see mansions on Summit Avenue give way to decaying buildings in a mere block or two. Obvious wealth and abject poverty existed side by side.

It was a pattern I’d see repeated elsewhere. In Washington DC, the capitol area would contain both expensive town-homes and decrepit apartment buildings. And in Pike County among the hills of Eastern Kentucky, the heart of coal mining country, has the highest per capita rate of millionaires, you’ll find tar paper shacks around the bend from ornate mansions. Frankly, it was—and still is—confusing to me. How could some people have so much and others so little?

Someone has joked that the world is divided into two types of people: those who divide the world into two groups and those that don’t. Like many sayings of this sort, we find that there is some truth in it. The parable that Jesus tells, with its gaping chasm and stark contrasts, provoked me to thinking about our divisions. But, before I say more, it’s important to remember that parables are not meant to be systematic theology. Rather, parables are meant to help us enter the mystery of God’s kingdom and stretch our thinking about what that kingdom is like. As such, although they use a picture of how things are, parables are intended to prod us to imagine what might be.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus uses a common situation (rich and poor) with a familiar folktale (Abraham and Sheol) to debunk a common idea. It’s an idea that many still hold today, that the rich are rich because they’re morally good and therefore blessed by God and the poor are poor for the opposite reason. The stark contrasts between them in “this life” and the chasm in the afterlife got me thinking about the great divides in our own.

What was particularly disturbing to me is the seemingly hopeless nature of the divisions, both in the parable and in our world. As in Jesus’ time, we still have division between the haves and the have nots. In addition, there are political divides (red vs. blue); gender divides (male vs. female); racial divides (black vs. white); psychological divides (mentally ill vs. “sane”); ethnic divides (you name it); and religious divides (Muslim vs. Christian). I know there are others, and even these divisions are more complex than I’ve stated them.

What is even more disturbing is the realization that these divides are almost entirely of our own making. It seems to me that we make our own hells every time we draw some kind of line, when we say, “I’m this and not that.” We somehow need to fully embrace that fact the differences are not divisions. But what can we do in the face of chasms that seem insurmountable to overcome? The answer, of course, is Jesus, but not in the way you think. The answer isn’t that “everyone needs Jesus.” That’s true in its own way, but not helpful because it just creates another chasm or division. I think that the way forward is repentance, which in this case means embracing Jesus’ vision of what matters in this world.

As David Lose reminds us, this is a parable, not a prediction. That distinction is important because it means that the ending can be rewritten. How? Because indeed someone has been raised from the dead and in so doing is able to bridge the divides in the world. Through Jesus’ death, the greatest divide of all between God and humanity, has been crossed.

It’s the breaching of the divide that spurs us at Grace to continually ask how we live out the vision God has for humanity in this parable. It’s why we welcome everyone to Holy Communion, open up our building for community groups, and will be renovating it to serve our community even better than we are now. You see, our faith tells us that there really is only one kind of people in the world: those who are beloved of God. As you go through your week, I pray that your imaginations would be stirred so that we may begin to live into the reality promised by Christ. Amen.