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

Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Are You Anybody? Pointing to Jesus, Part 1" Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas

Are You Anybody? Pointing to Jesus, Part 1
Christmas 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 31, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.19-34

Jeffrey Tambor is an accomplished actor whose career spans over four decades. Some of you might know him from the TV shows Transparent, Arrested Development, and The Larry Sanders Show. I’ve known his work most recently from The Good Wife. This past May, Tambor published a memoir called, Are You Anybody. It is based on an experience he had leaving the theater after his first Broadway performance, in which he had a meager six lines. As he exited the stage door, he was asked by an autograph collector, “Are you anybody?” When it was obvious Tambor wasn’t, the hound scurried to the next theater. Though I haven’t read all of the book, from what I’ve read and heard, Tambor discusses his insecurity and drive to excel in a difficult profession. Later, when he has “arrived” and signs his first autograph, he describes the emptiness that follows.

“Are you anybody?” is a question that runs throughout our text for today. Last Sunday we began our foray into the Jesus story through the Gospel of John with what is known as the Prologue, that poetic passage that describes the preexistent and incarnate Word. The Word has been present from the very beginning of creation and breaks into human history by becoming flesh. We heard that John the Baptist came to give testimony to the light, but is not himself the light. Today, as that assertion gets unpacked, we see something that will carry throughout the gospel. This story is full of questions and you would do well to pay attention them each week as we go along. The question today is aimed at the Baptist: “Who are you?” or we could say, “Are you anybody?” It seems that the Baptizer has stirred up a lot of interest with the baptisms and his message of preparation. For some, these are acts that herald the end of time and consummation of all things.

The question “Are you anybody” points to a need that people have had for a savior or deliverer throughout history. Joseph Campbell calls it the quest for “the hero” and finds a recurring pattern in societies. The hero was often born in obscurity and unaware of his or her identity until a crisis arises. For you JRR Tolkien fans, think of Strider/Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The Jews of the first century were certainly looking for a hero Messiah to deliver them from the Roman oppression. Though there were diverse opinions of whom this might be, many thought it would be a warrior king in the vein of King David. But, the Baptizer catches them off guard by saying, “I’m not anybody” and then, “He’s not what you think.”

NT scholar Thomas Slater agrees with Campbell that Jesus fits the hero quest motif, but changes the term to “secret savior.” He does so to highlight the fact that the one who delivers us from a crisis is not the one we’d expect to do so. When the Baptizer calls Jesus the Lamb of God, he confuses those looking for the Messiah; this was not a term previously applied to the Messiah. In effect, John says, “I’m not anybody except for the fact that I’m pointing to the ‘Somebody.’” This “Somebody” is going to do far more than you hope for and in a totally unexpected way. With the image of the Lamb, the Baptizer is alluding to the Passover and intimates that Jesus will deliver humanity from estrangement.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, Slater goes on to say that unfortunately instead of the secret savior who comes unexpectedly, we tend to seek an “obvious operator” who is “large and in charge.” We do so with a huge set of expectations that must be met, but which ultimately lead to disappointment. We look for saviors in all the wrong places, not the least of which is in our elected officials, regardless of political affiliation.

As we hear the Baptizer’s testimony today, pointing us to Jesus, we would do well to remember that Jesus regularly breaks our expectations of him and saves us in ways we can’t imagine. So I invite you, sisters and brothers in Christ, to prepare for the unexpected arrival of Jesus by making a straight path in your hearts. For through God’s grace anybody can receive him. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Walk toward the Light" - Sermon for Christmas Eve

Walk toward the Light
Christmas Eve – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 24, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Luke 2.1-20

When I was in college at Gustavus Adolphus College decades ago, I pledged a fraternity, Epsilon Pi Alpha, or “Eppies” as we were called. Back then, fraternities got away with a lot more. Some of the hazing was tame, but some was brutal. On the milder end of the hazing spectrum were the kidnappings. We’d be captured by our fraternity brothers in the dead of night, blindfolded and dumped unceremoniously miles away and have to find our way back. Remember, this was before cell phones. On one such night, I and others were dropped off and pointed toward some radio towers with beacons on the top and told that was the edge of St. Peter and if we walked toward the light we’d be home. So, we walked toward the light.

It was a dark night when God in human flesh entered this world, in more ways than one. The Roman Empire had beaten and subjugated the Jewish people for years while occupying Israel and the surrounding area. Their own leaders, religious or secular, were either powerless to do anything about it or in collaboration with Rome. Yet, in the midst of that coercive power, God came to earth as a vulnerable baby, born to middle class family in a small out of the way town and announcing the fact to working class shepherds. When the sky lit up with the heavenly chorus they needed no convincing to walk toward the light.

If our world isn’t as dark or bleak it is certainly quite dusky. I’m guessing many of us suffer the dusk of disillusionment, despairing of all hope that our leaders are capable of bringing light to our lives or the world. I know that some of you are experiencing darkness in other ways, many of which I can only imagine. Pastor David Lose reminds us that this is precisely what this story was made for: “God comes at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives.” Though the world is dark it is not forsaken. God loves the world and will not give up on it.

We are not here tonight to curse the darkness, rather to be reminded to walk toward the light. The joy we experience in the midst of darkness comes in seeing the light of Christ that burns deeply inside each of us. It comes by finding the path God lays before us even when the ways seems unclear. And it comes from bearing witness to that light. We sing with the angels this night and every night to remember that the light that shined in the darkness 2,000 years ago continues to burn brightly, bringing a peace and joy only God can give. Merry Christmas, my sisters and brothers. Continue walking toward the light, now and always. Amen.

"Take Hold of Love" - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Take Hold of Love
Advent 4 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 24, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
John 1.1-18

A mother had no sooner put her young daughter to bed when the little girl called out to her. It seems that the little girl was afraid of the dark and all sorts of imaginary things that go bump in the night. Thinking she could assure her daughter and give her a lesson in practical theology at the same time, the harried mother assured the little girl that Jesus was with her and she would be just fine. The girl, a budding theologian herself, claimed she could not see Jesus. Not to be outdone, mom told the girl that Jesus was indeed there but in her heart. Even so the girl exclaimed, “But mom, I want Jesus with skin on.”

 “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of a Father’s only son.” John’s nativity story is unlike Matthew and Luke, but it is no more lacking in theological themes. Whether or not the little girl knew the text or not, she has instinctively cut right to the heart of it. Today is not the day for deconstructing biblical texts or constructing systematic theologies. Rather, today is a day for acknowledging the wonder that God comes to us “with skin on.”

John’s text resonates with us so deeply because we are fleshly creatures who need to touch. We long for “skin”: human contact, warm embraces, friendly handshakes, and cuddles and snuggles. So much so that when we can’t touch or touch goes bad we find ourselves crushed and broken. A number of years ago a study was done of an understaffed Russian orphanage whose workers were unable to hold and touch all of the babies. It was found that those babies who were held periodically thrived, but those who were not held atrophied and even died. And as we know all too well, there is no lack of news these days about “bad touches” with often devastating consequences.

Of course, that little budding theologian wanted the warm, gentle assurance and presence of her mom. For her mother was “Jesus with skin on,” one way she could connect with a loving God. John’s nativity is not just some lofty doctrine but the cornerstone that touches all we say and do. God knows that we need concrete expressions of his love, which is why he continues to give himself in, with and through Holy Communion.

And when later theologians work this out they will talk about you and me as the Body of Christ. I have seen your fleshiness, my sisters in brothers, in powerful ways: feeding the hungry through Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, Echo Food Shelf, Backpack Food Program, and the Salvation Army. Giving shelter to the homeless through Connections Ministry; giving warmth to the cold through our quilting and knitting ministry; and so many other ways

The Word became flesh so that you could grab a hold of God and never let go, knowing his love. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Take a Breath" - Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Take a Breath
Advent 2 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 10, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 20.19-22

I think one of the worst feelings in the world is being cut off in a relationship, especially an important one. Something happened a number of years ago with a former parishioner that still bothers me to this day. A relationship that was deep and mutually encouraging ended abruptly and I don’t know why. All attempts I made to try to communicate were met with silence and I’ve been left hanging since. I ask myself, “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you talk to me?” Frankly, the situation left me devastated and I didn’t know what to do.

So it is that my singular experience may help give us some insight into what the Jewish exiles felt in our reading from Ezekiel. It’s about 600 years before Jesus comes on the scene and the Jews are in Babylon (modern day Iraq). Ezekiel was carried there during the First Deportation when the king, princes and some others were taken after being defeated. Since then the Jews have tried to rebel again. The Babylonians crushed them, destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, and force marched nearly everyone into exile. Initially a laborer in Babylon, Ezekiel is called by God as a prophet to speak to their hopelessness and despair.

A big chunk of Ezekiel’s message doesn’t seem helpful. He utters words of judgment against the exiles. It’s the prophet’s “forth-telling,” the naming of sin and brokenness that led to their situation. His message may seem akin to bayoneting the wounded on the field of battle, but it’s necessary to be honest about how they ended up there. At the precise time when the exiles felt utterly cut off from God, even wondering if God exists, Ezekiel speaks about a vision of restoration what will breathe new life into their relationship.

600 years later, a motley group of men and women will find themselves cut off, dried up, and hopeless as well. This time the Jewish people are exiles in their own land under that heel of the Roman Empire. Some, like his disciples, thought Jesus was the Messiah, the one who would save them from oppression. He would turn out to be the Messiah and save them, just not in the way they anticipated. Meanwhile, Jesus appears to them, breathes new life into them and pronounces peace upon them.

It’s doubtful that new life will be breathed into the relationship with the former parishioner, though one should never put restraints upon what God can and cannot do. Even so, it’s helpful to recognize that the new life foretold by Ezekiel and present with Jesus doesn’t mean going back to the way things were or changing what is. Rather, the breath of God brings a new way of being. The Jews will go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, but both will be quite different. And Jesus’ disciples, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, will be sent out on God’s mission to love and bless the world.

Advent is a time to anticipate the presence and peace of God through Jesus Christ and today we are told we are no longer cut off from God, that God is as close as our next breath. That promised presence gives hope to all of our relationships and peace for our spirits. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Hoping for the Best" - Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Hoping for the Best
Advent 1 – Narrative Lectionary 4
December 3, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Daniel 3.1, 8-30

If you knew that you had a limited time left to live, what would you hope for? What would you want to do before you died? Many of us might wish for a favorable afterlife or heaven. Some of you might want to have a painless exit from this world. With more thought, we would also add we’d hope to have time to say good bye to loved ones or to get our affairs in order. But is that it? Is there nothing else that you would hope for after leaving this earth? Is there anything outside of yourself that you’d want to have happen?

I wonder what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were hoping for as they faced the fiery furnace of fatality. They were coming to terms with their disobedience to the command of the king and the end of their lives and doing so in quick order. It’s possible they saw this end coming, or at least its possibility, but even so they did not have much time to prepare for it. But what were they hoping for? Being saved? Doubtful. Heaven? Not in their religion; there was no theology of an afterlife in Judaism of that time.

Last Wednesday evening Vicar John asked us to define hope and it was very difficult. I was reminded me of former US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s remark regarding obscenity. He could not define but famously said, “I know it when I see it.” I think that most of us know hope when we see it. But what we noticed at our table was that most people talked about hope in terms of faith, trust or belief (which are the same things). I recalled reading that faith is the foundation on which hope rests and even from which it springs. But in turn, hope nourishes the faith on which it rests.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were forced exiles in a foreign land, Babylon. They are cut off from their homeland, the temple and, some of them think, from their God. They have no reasonable chance of survival from the fiery furnace and no belief in heaven to cling to, yet they still trust in God. Perhaps they hope others will be encouraged by their example or that God will eventually free the Jews. We’ll never know because the text doesn’t tell us. Even so, they had hope because of who they believed God to be.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time of preparation for celebrating Jesus’ coming to earth through the taking on of human flesh. The theme of this Sunday is hope, and we usually thinking about hoping for Jesus’ coming again at the end of the ages. But I want you to think about hope beyond Christmas and even beyond your own death.

Specifically, what is your hope for Grace Lutheran Church, either the near future or beyond? Please take out the blank piece of paper you were given and write the phrase, “My hope for Grace Lutheran Church is…” Then I want you to finish the sentence any way you think and place it in the offering plate or the prayer bowl. Please be as concrete and specific as possible. We’ll use your responses to help us think about what God might be up to in this place. I’ll give you a minute or two before we sing the sermon hymn. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"When You Can’t Get Out of It…" - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

When You Can’t Get Out of It…
Christ the King – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 26, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Jeremiah 29.1, 4-14; John 14.27

Theologian, writer and speaker Parker Palmer tells of an experience he had visiting Outward Bound. The mission of Outward Bound is to “change lives through challenge and discovery.” Though this challenge and discovery can take place anywhere, it is often in a wilderness setting, where Palmer found himself. He was to rappel down a rock face and after gearing up he began just fine making it down one leap. But that first rappel something happened to him that he had never experienced: he froze. No amount of instruction or encouragement helped. He could move. That is, until one of works down below said something he never forgot: “We have a saying at Outward Bound, Parker: ‘If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’” That simple phrase unlocked something inside him and he was able to complete the exercise.

The Jewish people from the Southern Kingdom of Judah find themselves in a paralyzing situation. Formerly a vassal state of the Assyrians, who have obliterated the Northern Kingdom of Israel, they foolishly rebelled against the Assyrians against the advice of Jeremiah only to be conquered by the Babylonians. Many of them have been exiled to Babylon, known as the First Deportation, and they are getting bad advice to continue their rebellion. Jeremiah, still in Jerusalem, sends them a letter telling them these are false prophets, that God intends for them to remain in exile for quite some time, and they are to get on with their lives.

Like Palmer and the Jewish people, we all experience dislocations in our lives, both small and great. Dislocation happens when we encounter an unfamiliar situation and don’t know what to do about it. Dislocations often follow loss, such as loss of job, home, loved ones, marriage, and health. But there can be other disruptions in our lives as well, leading to a sense of “What do I do now?” Though it sounds simplistic, Jeremiah’s answer is, “When you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

Yet, Jeremiah’s encouragement is more than just some self-help, psycho-babble, “get up and get on with your lives” kind of advice. In a promise that is counter-intuitive to the exiles, Jeremiah says “You’re not getting out of this anytime soon, but remember that God is in it.” And that promise will unlock something in them, allowing them to flourish. Until their dislocating exile, they never dreamed that God could be anywhere other than Jerusalem because middle easterners believed that their gods were tied to their particular country. But now Jeremiah is telling them that can not only can God be with but God is with them wherever they go.

That’s important for us to remember as we go through our times of dislocation and disruption. Today is Christ the King Sunday and we tend to think of the Kingdom of God as some future event. Indeed, there is that dimension, but Jesus is pretty clear the Kingdom of God comes with his presence. In Christ, the future breaks into the now, into our dislocations, to unlock our paralysis, so that we are able to live in hope. The reign of Christ says death has been defeated and new life is coming, even if you can’t see it right now. So, my sisters and brothers in Christ, when you encounter those times “when you can’t get out of it” remember that God is in it, bringing the peace only God can bring. Amen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"You Give Them Something to Eat" - Reflection for Thanksgiving

You Give Them Something to Eat
Community Thanksgiving Service
November 22, 2017
First Congregational UCC, Mankato, MN
Matthew 14.15-20

You may be familiar with a TV show called “MacGyver.” It’s a reboot of the original 1985 version starring Richard Dean Anderson, which aired when both of us were young men. “MacGyver” is about a young man who works for a secret government agency working to save lives by “relying on his unconventional problem solving skills.” (IMDB) Essentially, “Mac” is a genius at using whatever is lying around to make awesome gadgets, including copious amounts of duct tape. It’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy” meets “Mission Impossible.” In MacGyver’s hands, seemingly useless items become unbelievable gizmos.

I thought of MacGyver when I read through the text from Matthew 14, especially the whiny response of his followers: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It’s been a long day for all of them, and they must be every bit as tired as Jesus is from helping bring healing to the crowds. They’ve been overwhelmed by the physical needs of the people and the situation looks hopeless. In an exchange that is more than a bit cheeky, the disciples tell Jesus he needs to send them away. But, as Jesus often does, he turns the tables on his followers saying, “You give them something to eat.”

Now, I don’t want to trivialize this wonderful story by calling Jesus a “MacGyver,” but I do know that where we see scarcity, Jesus sees abundance. Like MacGyver, something little in the hands of Jesus becomes a lot. When the early church heard that the setting was in a “deserted place,” they would have been reminded of another wilderness experience their ancestors experienced. They would make the connection between God daily providing manna to the wandering Israelites for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land and what Jesus is doing here. There’s a reason why this is the only miracle story in all four gospels, and twice in Matthew and Mark. The same God who provided for them will provide for us.

When Connections Ministry was formed to respond to needs in the downtown area, it was hard to see that housing, especially shelter, would be so pressing. When this need became clear it would have been easy to say, “We have nothing here …” Actually, it’s true that no one church or agency had enough to take care of the problem. Yet built on multiple $20 donations for bedding, scores of volunteers giving a few hours, and a passion for the homeless, together and in Jesus’ hands scarcity has turned into abundance.

I have seen firsthand the generosity of this community and the gratitude of those we’ve served in the shelter. Even so, I look forward to the day when we won’t need shelters because we have affordable housing where anyone who wants can live in a clean and safe environment. But until then, thank you for your support and generosity as “You give them something to eat.” Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

"It’s How We Roll" - Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

It’s How We Roll
Pentecost 23 – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 12, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Amos 1.1-2; 5.14-15, 21-24

On the way to our annual theological conference last Sunday received a notice in the news feed on my phone about the shooting at a Texas church. (No, I wasn’t driving at the time.) The news brought predictable responses of lament, grief and anger, but also some helplessness. These responses mirrored a conversation I had with someone recently about the thousands of children dying of hunger each and every day in our world. Then at breakfast with some pastors on Tuesday our conversation included our dysfunctional political system. With these events and others in the back of my mind, and Amos as context, I was prompted to ask, “So, what do we do as pastors? What is our role and what is the role of the church?”

The prophet, Amos, has some very definite things to say to a time shockingly similar to our own. It’s about 100 years since the prophet Elijah roamed the north. Amos is farmer in the southern kingdom of Judah, south of Jerusalem. A time of great prosperity and peace, God calls and sends him to the northern kingdom of Israel because something is terribly wrong. The rich are becoming wealthier at the expense of others who can’t fight back. Even worse, while the wealthy pay lip service to God on the Sabbath, they can’t wait to get back to exploiting the vulnerable the other six days.

So, when Amos says that God rejects “worship and solemn assemblies,” it’s not because worship is wrong or bad. It’s because worship of God without justice is hollow and meaningless. It’s also important to recognize that biblical justice doesn’t mean punishing people doing wrong, though that may be included. Justice is more akin to our concepts of social and economic justice whereby everyone has their basic medical needs met, can make a living wage, and have access to affordable housing and food.

It’s also important to say that these concepts are not those of partisan politics. Social and economic justice does not belong to one political party. Nor is it helpful to label justice and righteousness as “socialism” or “communism.” Justice and righteousness are biblical values found in both Old Testament and the New Testament. Even more so, justice and righteousness are found in the essence and nature of both God and Jesus. Because of that, justice and righteousness become gifts bestowed upon us that require a response from us. In the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. using this Amos text he says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Tonight, Grace takes its first turn hosting the temporary emergency shelter. To say that I’m proud of your response and grateful for your passion to help is an understatement. This is one more example about how you consistently answer the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide radial hospitality. In addition to serving the homeless, I’m hoping that this effort will also bring visibility to the lack of affordable housing and other economic and social injustice in our community and that it will spur some of us to advocate for change with our local leaders and elected officials. We won’t earn our salvation because Jesus has already taken care of that on the cross, but it will be our response to that amazing gift. Thank you for hearts that are open to God’s working, because that’s “how we roll.” Amen.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Saintly Courage" - Sermon for All Saints Sunday

Saintly Courage
All Saints – Narrative Lectionary 4
November 5, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1 Kings 19.1-18

Something is wrong with Elijah and it sure looks like depression, but we don’t know for sure. He’s just come off of his most stunning display of God’s power and here he is wishing for death. A lot has happened since last week’s story about the dedication of the temple built under Solomon. Solomon’s son Rehoboam has taken some bad advice and refused to ease the peoples’ burden imposed by his father during his ambitious building program.

As a result, the nation has split into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Israel and the Southern kingdom of Judah. Thus follows a succession of mostly evil kings punctuated by the occasional good king. One of the most notably bad kings is Ahab, and his wickeder foreign wife Jezebel. With Jezebel comes her god, Baal, which Ahab and the Israelites embrace enthusiastically.

In a fiery contest just before today’s text, Elijah proves this god to be impotent, resulting in a bloodbath that kills all of Baal’s prophets. It was an impressive victory, one of many times God’s power has been shown through Elijah. Yet, at Jezebel’s threat, Elijah flees to the wilderness, going as far away as possible. In doing so, he feels cut off from God. We don’t know exactly what’s wrong with Elijah, but we know that his story isn’t unusual.

Shortly after Mother Teresa of Calcutta passed away, a book containing copies of letters she had written to spiritual guides and mentors revealed a long history of feeling cut off from God. After hearing Christ’s call to work among the poor of India, Teresa never heard his voice again. It was a long dark night of the soul for her. In one such letter from September 1979 she writes, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me—The silence and the emptiness is so great—that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear.”

Contrary to what many commentators say, I see in both Elijah and Mother Teresa not whininess but rather the willingness to open their hearts and be vulnerable. Sociologist BrenĂ© Brown reminds us that courage literally means to share one’s heart with another. Wholehearted living comes from being vulnerable with another, experiencing compassion, both for others and for ourselves. Elijah has the courage to pour out his heart to God and Mother Teresa likewise through her confessors. God in his boundless compassion meets Elijah in the wilderness of his life providing strength for the journey, not with trumpets blaring a fanfare but simple bread and drink. In ways we may not see or understand, God did the same for Teresa.

Today is All Saints Sunday, when we remember those who have died in the past year. We think of saints as those who are exceptionally good people or those who have given their lives for their faith, but I want to add another dimension. I think that saints are people like you and me who have experienced the wilderness of faith, who have felt cut off from God, yet have opened our hearts and received strength for the journey in some way.

As we take Holy Communion today, we’ll be joined by saints past, present and future. All of us will be testifying to a God who also risked himself by taking on human flesh, walking with us on our journeys, and giving himself to us. Our newest saint through baptism, Aria, will be surrounded by and encouraged by her family and community of faith who stand testimony to God’s compassion, just like Ss Elijah and Teresa. In the wildernesses of your lives, may you know God’s presence and strength for the time ahead. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

"Looking Back, Looking Forward" - Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Reformation Sunday, Narrative Lectionary 4
October 29, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
1Kings 5.1-5; 8.1-13 & John 2.13-22

 “If you build it, they will come,” is a well-known line from the 1989 film, Field of Dreams. The film stars Kevin Costner as an “Iowa corn farmer, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his fields; he does, and the 1919 Chicago White Sox come.” (IMDB) Thus appear the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other seven White Sox players banned from the game for throwing the 1919 World Series. It was an event that caused great angst among White Sox fans everywhere. There’s much more to the story, but that ball field built in an Iowa cornfield for the movie is still drawing crowds from all over the country and the world. “If you build it, they will come.”

Buildings and building play a prominent role in our readings and themes of the day. Solomon, King David’s son, ascends the throne after some nifty palace intrigue with his mother, Bathsheba. Solomon isn’t David’s first born, but takes the throne anyway. (Where has that happened before in the Old Testament?) It turns out that Solomon is an administrative genius, uniting the tribes into a formidable empire. He further consolidates his power by building a temple at Jerusalem, the new capital city, something his father was prevented from doing.

Five hundred years ago, the Reformation was largely sparked in resistance to the sale of indulgences that were being sold to unknowing German peasants to fund the St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Indulgences were an ecclesiastical “get out of purgatory free card” that claimed to buy favor with God. It’s the sale of God’s grace that enflamed Luther.

And as you well know, we are in the midst of a building renovation program here at Grace. But today we are focusing on building the next generation as we lift up the first of our Stewardship initiatives, “Raising up Future Leaders.” Through this initiative we hope to support our ministry partners Crossroads Lutheran Campus Ministry, Gustavus Adolphus College, and the ELCA’s Fund for Leaders in Mission, which has helped Vicar John attend seminary.

There is a curious mixture of looking back and looking forward today as there is in Field of Dreams. In 1 Kings we remember God’s presence among the people of Israel, bringing them out of Egypt into the Promised Land, giving them rest from their enemies and providing a place to meet them in worship. Regarding the Reformation, we remember how God’s Spirit blew through people such as Luther to revitalize the church, and how we trust that same Spirit to continue to blow through the church today. Furthermore, our stewardship initiative of “Raising up Future Leaders” reminds us that we do so looking toward God’s promised future.

Yet, lest we get too caught up in the grandeur and celebration, today also provides cautionary tales. You see, the building of the temple came at great cost, with Solomon using conscripted forced labor that is reminiscent of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt. Solomon’ son, Rehoboam, will take some bad advice and make the peoples’ burden even greater. Because of that decision the empire would split into civil war and suffer successive corrupt kings. Today will be the highpoint of the Jewish people.

As we know all too well, the work of Luther and other reformers has not guaranteed a faithful church. It is not hard to find brokenness and corruption, not to mention divisiveness and a large assortment of sinfulness. One of the hardest things for my family when I entered full-time ministry has been to see the dark underside of the church.

Even so, we don’t stop building, either structures or for the future. Why not? We build for the future because of Jesus Christ. As our reading from John indicates, we have shifted from focusing on a place to centering our life on a person. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are set free from sin, death and the evil powers that threaten to overwhelm us. We make places to gather and we invest in raising up future leaders because of Jesus’ promise that we have a future. We dare to dream and plan for the future because Jesus promises that he will come and be with us. It’s because of Jesus and what I see him doing in, with and through you, God’s people, that I have hope for this place, for the church and for our world. Amen.

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

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.